chapter 5

enter a strange smell

It was the end of October, and the summer that seemed determined to linger through to Christmas gave up the fight and fled with a breath-frosting suddenness. The air became chilled overnight, the trees quickly turned golden, and the light shining on the white drunks of the silver birch took on the icy clarity of winter.

On the first of these truly cold mornings, Kate woke to find that she couldn't move her legs.

Schrödinger, her sort-of-cat, was lying on them. Possibly purring, if you could call the subliminal rumbling emanating from her 33 kg body purring.

What was she to do? The flowers had lasted a week before finally dying off. The spots began to fade, only to be replaced by large, spine-covered creepers that made Schrödinger look really scary,.

She'd read about untransformations in Poultice Wonders: A Compendium, Volume Two. It was advanced stuff but she thought she'd try it.

Well, it hadn't been a complete failure. The creepers had fallen off and instantly started emitting a glowing green smoke which enveloped not just the house but a lot of the neighborhood.

Mrs Rhinonasty at number 12 (three doors down if you would believe) called the fire department.

The fire department thought it was some sort of terrorist attack and next thing you know, men in black suits, sunglasses and gas masks appeared in evil-looking black vans.

Finally, Kate had run out with a bucket of the slimy stinking stuff and a peg on her nose.

"Snory, Snory!" she shouted ( it's very hard to say anything with a peg on your nose). “Failed chemistry experiment.”  

Her mother, suffice it to say, was not happy.

Anyway now her tabby was glossy black and about the size of a small mountain lion. His eyes were a deep auburn, with slightly glowing white pupils that were shaped like a cross. Seriously,, a cross.

Worse, there were large bony bumps growing on his sides behind his front legs and when he purred, all the plates started to rattle in the kitchen. Kate couldn't imagine what would happen if he actually meowed, but she wasn't really sure he could any more.

Pff, she'd think about it later. He looked seriously cool anyway. She couldn’t wait to take him to school to show the other kids.

She extracted herself from under Schrödinger's legs and rubbed life back into her own.

Schrödinger wasn't her only problem anyway. Nearly two months into her year at Jasper's, Kate began to feel strange.

She couldn't put her finger on it at first, but she saw signs of it everywhere. For one, she constantly heard voices in the wind. She would hear strange phrases, almost whispered, like "the joining is coming" and “air walker”, though she had no inkling of the meaning.

Sometimes, she heard people who seemed to be talking about her, and not in a very nice way. One time a deep male voice said, "Filthy Fae lovers, this will fix them!", and then another, a boy and a girl: “I'm telling you, she's Fae, you can't trust her.” The voices were always indistinct, like they were carried by the wind. She couldn't tell who they were, and she had no idea if she was simply hearing things, or if they were real. It's a very odd thing, feeling sane but believing you must be going mad.

She considered talking to someone about it, but it's not easy to tell people that you're hearing voices, and the upcoming visit of the Faeries and the Baron were taking all her attention.

On the plus side, she appeared to have a natural ability with potions. She knew that if it was hot and humid she needed extra ground dragonfly wings for Edison's flotation potion. She could sense at exactly what point in the colour change to extract the emulsion to make hog snot (a key inimmicable).

Her mum would say, "that a good chef doesn’t just follow a recipe, they know when altering it slightly gives better results". Yeah, parents could be dull even if they had blue skin and weird hands and feet. Anyway Kate had that knack.

For this reason, the other students had started asking to work with her, and she'd built up a small but lively group of friends who studied with her at the library.

The library was not exactly typical.

A normal library had a few tables hidden among rows of dusty books, but the library at Jasper’s was the magical equivalent, and undeniably more interesting. Yes, there were the requisite rows of books, but facing each row of books were shelves of ingredients and apparatus.

Rather than tables to read at, there were benches to work at, with large industrial-looking extractor hoods decorated in metallic scenes of storms and rough seas. The hoods would whisk away noxious odours from the many attempts to make potions that ended in catastrophe.

Kate had to be careful working at the benches with the others. She knew that hot steam affected her makeup, and so she wore long blue gloves, explaining that potion-making was giving her dry skin.

The problem was that the gloves could become slippery, and it was because of this that she discovered a new friend.

Gemima Poltegem, Jonny Pendragon, Glinda and Kate were working together on a homework assignment to make Dr Doug Thorley's Rudimentary Insect Dispersal potion, or RID for short.

Thorley was an eccentric Australian magician who had become obsessed with finding something to repel mosquitoes. After many months of research he invented a potion which formed an invisible barrier against biting insects, and subsequently made his fortune.

Making RID was tricky, involving three distinct constructs, each producing one part of the whole. A final fourth construct fused the three ingredients together to form the potion. The quartet of magicians were just at this final stage when catastrophe struck. Kate, who was suffering with a filthy head cold, sneezed.

Not an everyday minor sneeze, but an enormous great goo-fest of a sneeze, spraying snot everywhere and complete with huge chunks of the sandwich that she'd been snacking on (of course eating in the library was strictly forbidden).

The sneeze was so sudden and powerful that she dropped the potion bottle she was holding into the dish of newly rehydrated, preserved hogs droppings (which was sadly, a key ingredient of RID).

Pandemonium followed.

"Oh my god, that's disgusting!" shrieked Gemima, jumping back and knocking a stool over with a crash.

"Argh, that went in my mouth," shouted Jonny, spitting chunks of disgusting brown goo.

"Oh no, look at the book," said Glinda, pointing to the rare copy of Thorley's Potions Insectus that they'd been working with, which was now covered in brown mess.

Almost immediately Mrs Jasper's acidic voice accosted them via their work table. "Right! You cantankerous caterpillars, you mewling maggots, what's the meaning of this? Who's been eating sandwiches in the library, and who is responsible for this unholy mess? Well? Was it you, Kate Stein? Oh, how I just love to bring the top-dogs down!"

Kate was surveying the results of her unexpected explosion, and was about to confess when Jonny stepped forward, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, and said, "Actually it was me Miss, I-I'm ever so sorry.  I've got this cold and I missed lunch on account of fixing the light in headmaster Snowmaine's office and..."

"Silence! Pendragon, I'll be raising this with the headmaster you can be sure. Expect something terrible and quite possibly terminal!"

And with this sinister (if somewhat nutty) retort she was gone; the inquisitional table was once again just a normal piece of furniture.

"Why?" Kate was incredulous. Jonny had just taken a big hit for her.

"Ah, my dad's been off my back for weeks since you started helping me, and he's top dog in the Popebear's parents group, well thinks he is anyway. They won't do anything to me, but dude, you owe me big time for filling my mouth with hog excrement."

To say thanks, Kate spent a toad and bought them all a lemonade.

Experiment 6 - Insect repellent

Luckily for Jonny, the incident was soon forgotten and repercussions avoided, because the whole school had entered into a crazy whirlwind of activity.

Everywhere Kate looked she could see people putting up banners, then taking them down to be replaced with similar ones of different colours. 

Statues and paintings featuring faeries appeared along the halls of the school. There were builders, painters and maintenance people, all in a frenzy of cleaning up or hiding unfinished structures.

The gardens were magnificent! The Fae were famously emotional about the "wilds. Vildegelief", their word for wilderness, which translated loosely as 'wildly-beloved' (too melodramatic or what?” thought Kate), and so the head gardeners, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, were asked to throw out convention and 'go wild'.

They needed a way to feed a huge variety of plants, and in solving that problem discovered a new process that would go on to revolutionise food production (naturally it was called the Haber-Bosch process).

The results were truely beautiful. With a little help from the professors who created the necessary micro-climates, they'd transformed the fields surrounding the school into a series of wonderful habitats, spanning rainforest to desert, complete with a splendid array of flowers, creepers and trees, set around pools of water and accessible by a maze of paths and bridges.

While the gardeners worked outside, inside, the students busied themselves helping out with the arrangements. The best part was that Fluttersquawk had asked them to create rockets for a fireworks display. Sadly, the fun didn't last long...

Kate was working next to Gilda, although her friend was being somewhat distant.  

A couple of days before, they'd started a game of cache-cache with the other kids. Of course, Kate kept winning. She was faster than full humans. The first couple of times had been fine, but after that they got frustrated, saying she must be cheating. She realised her mistake and started letting the others win, but the mood was gone and the others were sullen. Gilda had clearly been in a mood with her since. 

Kate put her rocket mixture together and was on the verge of finishing, when something went horribly wrong.

The mixture in the beaker started to bubble and fizz, then emitted the most foul-smelling odour she’d ever encountered. Like skunk oil or a garbage bin that hadn't been cleaned in months, it made her eyes water and her nose twitch.

Fluttersquawk strolled over. "So Kate, how are we do— Oh my goodness gracious, what is that stench?"

"I-I don't know how it did that." cried Kate. But the kids to their left and right all beat a hasty retreat from the room, holding their hands and their handkerchiefs over their noses. Fluttersquawk followed suit, hauling Kate along with her.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Nathan smirking, and another boy leaning over to whisper into his ear. Kate's keen ears picked up something like: "...got her good," and immediately the blood rushed to her face. They’d slipped something into her mixture while she wasn't looking. She knew she hadn't got it wrong.

Experiment 7 - Stink bomb

Fluttersquawk peered down her nose at Kate. "Well, what a pity, I've not had such a promising student for some time. You were doing so well..."

"I...", Kate started, but she was just as quickly silenced by the professor, who addressed the class.

"Well we won't get any work done now, not with that miasma lingering in the room." She turned to Kate. “Professor Brahms is an expert on dispelling evil stenches and miasmas. Please go down to the basement and speak with him for some advice.”

"M-must I?" Kate remembered when Fluttersquawk was threatening Mathylda with that name. Professor Brahms. If his name alone could cow a proud and stubborn dragon, then he must be hair-raising indeed.

"Well," said Fluttersquawk, “if you would rather go back in there to rescue the Martian fly-traps and rattle shrooms, and write up the report for any damages done...”

Kate gulped, and with some trepidation, made her way to the spiral staircase leading down into bowels of the Academy. She was going to the dungeons.

The atmosphere here was different as night was to day. It felt imprisoned, and brooding. If the air were to suddenly coalesce and take a form then surely it would be as a giant black cloud, spider-shaped, with fangs of lightning, angry and menacing. The thought was even more scary than going to meet Brahms, and Kate hurried on.

Torches and braziers lit the dark, dank passageway and soon she found a great oaken door, which stood ajar. She felt a tiny bit reassured to hear faint music coming from inside the room. With a gulp she pushed the door open and stepped inside.

"Hello?"

No answer, she hesitated by the door for a minute, but was soon distracted by the contents of the room. She had never seen so many books and baubles collected in one place. Maps and tapestries from different countries adorned the walls. Telescopes, globes, astrolabes, and several other instruments she'd never seen before were scattered on a long table in the centre.

To the left, a battered turntable played a vintage and unfamiliar song, like something from an old black and white movie. In one corner stood a chemistry set of beakers and looping tubes. In another, a portrait of a beautiful elven woman stood half-finished on an easel.

And everywhere she looked, books. Volumes stood on shelves that bent beneath their weight. Towards the back of the room a virtual avalanche of books of all shapes and sizes tumbled from an open bookcase, like the reader had voraciously consumed them then thrown them in the general direction of a shelf, hoping they’d find a home as he (Kate assumed it was Brahms) snatched up the next book.

Kate's interest was drawn to something even more intriguing: off to the side of the table, a large round pot held what appeared to be a golden, glowing sapling.

As she approached to look at it more closely, her ears caught a clinking noise, and a voice behind her said, "Do you like it?"

She nearly jumped out of her skin. Whirling about, she found herself face to face with a tall figure clad in brown, monkish robes.

The man smiled down at her. "I'm sorry to startle you." There was a slight Germanic accent to his voice. “I just saw you admiring my latest project, and wanted to satisfy your curiosity about it.”

"Oh, y-yes," said Kate, “it's very beautiful.” Strange, she thought to herself. How did I not hear him approach?

"It should be. It's a sapling from the Arbor Adronus, one of the mythical versions of the Tree of Life." He approached the tree, and though Kate didn't hear his footsteps, a strange jingling came from his feet. The man inspected one of its leaves. "It doesn't really require sunlight or water, like most other trees. It requires music, hence it survived for millennia on bird-song. Beautiful, and quite unique."

"Now then, what may I do for you, young lady?"

"I was sent here by Professor Fluttersquawk to find Professor Brahms, sir."

"Then you've found him," and he smiled at her again. "What does the good Professor need from me?"

Kate was surprised, to say the least. This did not seem like a man whose name alone could tame a dragon. He did not seem imposing at all, just tall, pale, reedy, and with fine, birdlike features and platinum hair. Something glittered in his sleeves, and Kate caught a flash of silver manacles around his wrists. Now that she thought about it, he seemed to be dragging silver chains around his ankles as well.

Was he some kind of prisoner? In a school? But that made no sense.

Professor Brahms was watching her patiently, and she realised she was staring. Recovering her manners, she introduced herself and ran through a summary of what happened upstairs, leaving out her suspicions about sabotage. He nodded as he listened without interruption.

When she finished, he asked, "And your project was to make rockets?"

"Yes, sir."

He rubbed his chin. "None of the ingredients for that project would create the stench you described. Unless someone slipped brimstone into your cauldron, that is. Do you think that's possible, Kate?"

Kate fidgeted where she stood. Part of her wanted to tell Professor Brahms about her suspicions, but another part of her knew she should stay quiet, else she would have to explain how she had heard the boys whispering on the other side of the classroom. Then she'd have to go into her powers, and then her sylph lineage, and then her mother...

When she didn't answer, Professor Brahms merely shrugged and said, "Well, why don't we deal with the emergency for now." He strolled over to his chemistry table, then turned back to Kate. “You seem to be experienced in potion-making, Kate. Would you care to assist me?”

"Me? Oh sure." She came to stand beside him. “What can I do?”

Professor Brahms opened his cabinets and began pulling out ingredients. "One of the primary components of your project is saleratus, or ‘aerated salt'," he said. “Salt is a powerful anti-curse agent and a traditional ward against bad luck. I think it's an appropriate cure for our little stink problem. So let's proceed with our solution.”

Brahms started to talk about the history of perfumes while they worked quietly together..

Experiment 8 - Making perfume

Professor Brahms held up the bottle and sprayed a fine mist of the potion into the air. The atmosphere of his room changed immediately, carrying a wonderful fresh scent of wild places.  She could smell exotic flowers, fresh rain in the forest, and a hint of citrus.

"Well done, Kate. You've created a perfect antidote. I would expect no less from a student of Fluttersquawk."

She felt her cheeks warm. "Thanks Professor, so I just spray it around the classroom?"

"It will take care of the miasma, without a doubt."

Kate felt relief wash over her. "You rock, sir! Ah, if I can put it that way."

Brahms inclined his head. "I should send you on your way then. But before you go, Kate, may I ask a question?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Do you find it difficult, hiding your true nature?"

Kate froze. Suddenly she didn't feel so safe anymore. "H-how do you mean, sir?"

"I'm no expert, but I caught the scent of concealer make-up on your hands and face." He peered at her. “Tell me, are you, how shall I put this, all human?”

By now, Kate had lowered her eyes so much that her face was hidden by her hair. The directness of the question shocked her and she felt almost compelled to tell the truth. "My mother is a sylph, sir. Please, don't tell anyone."

He smiled that strange smile again. "Your secret is safe with me, I promise. But given that some of your classmates have taken an inordinate interest in you, you may not keep your secret for long."

"I can take care of myself, please don't worry."

"I'm sure you can. I just thought it may be easier with friends on your side." He put his hand on her shoulder. “Nil desperandum, Kate. If they are trying to bring you down, it only means you are above them.”

"Th-thank you, sir."

"You'd better go. I'm sure Professor Fluttersquawk must be wondering where you are." He held out the spray bottle to her.

Kate nodded and tried to smile, then took the bottle and left the way she came. On her way out the door, she stole a look behind her. Professor Brahms sat by the table, his grey eyes focused thoughtfully on his glowing tree.

Experiment 6 - insect repellent

This is a bit different, we're going to explore scientific method and ethics. That may seem dull, but actually it’s really interesting. We’re told sooooooo many things, but how often do you question if they’re true? How can we verify what we’re told?

The origins of chemistry started with the processing of metal, recipes in the kitchen (particularly brewing), production of pots and with early medicine.  

People started trying things out (e.g. mixing different metals together when making a sword), recording the results (is the new sword stronger and does it stay sharper), making measurements and improving things (if we add this other metal does it get better?).

This is the basis of scientific method. I.e. Come up with a theory, try it, record the results.

With medicine, people observed that some plants and minerals had positive benefits and so "home remedies" became common.  

As chemistry advanced, we saw the creation of pharmaceutical companies, that use science to create remedies to a wide range of illnesses.

In this experiment, we’re going to look at why we need to be healthily sceptical of claims made by companies and people relating to remedies.

For example, with pharmaceutical companies, it's essential to remember, that companies are driven by profit, and NOT your health.

You can argue that these companies make money by ensuring their products improve health, but that is overly simplistic (you can do your own research on "drug company ethics" on google).

This means that we must be skeptical about health claims for any commercial products because companies will generally say whatever they legally can to increase sales.  If a company has spent 500 million dollars bringing a new drug to market, they will do whatever it takes to ensure people buy that drug. This includes lobbying governments and doctors, suppressing negative results, and making misleading advertising claims.

There are important issues with this conflict of interest that affect many companies and how they communicate the science behind their products. For example, drug companies always conduct research to prove that their products are beneficial, however they are not required to publish research that shows negative results they are also not required to prove that a new product is better than existing products.

Therefore even doctors may not know that a product was found to have a negative impact on health in certain situations.  The only way to have confidence about health claims for products is if independent research (that is research that is NOT paid for by the company making the product) has proved it effective.  We therefore recommend that you always conduct your own research when a doctor you are seeing prescribes drugs.

Equally, we must also be skeptical of home remedies, because, when researched many are shown to have little effect.  Homeopathy is one such widely used treatment that studies have shown is ineffective.

Another tale that you will often hear is that you are more likely to catch cold if you become cold. Of course this is not true. A cold is transmitted by a virus and our bodies immune response does not fail because we get cold (indeed swimming in cold water has been shown to have many good effects).

Colds are slightly more common in winter because the cold virus develops a thicker protective layer when exposed to cold temperatures which allows it to survive ex vitro (that is out of the body) longer than when the weather is hot. This means you have slightly more chance of being exposed to it.

So how do we know what's effective, what claims are true?

Scientific method

To help with our understanding of scientific method and communication, we've included a recipe for homemade mosquito repellent below.  We're asking you to make this natural insect repellent, use it, and then record it's effectiveness.

Take a look at the end of this experiment for a sheet which you will use to setup and document the effectiveness of the repellent.  You can mail your completed sheet to Mrs Jaspers and we'll be publishing the results.

This recipe is provided courtesy of wellnessmama.com (we're not endorsing it in any way - remember this exercise is about scientific method - we have no opinion regarding the effectiveness of this remedy).

We've copied the recipe exactly as it appears on wellnessmama.com.

Notice that the language is positive about the effectiveness of the preparation in preventing insect bites, however read through the comments (click the link above to see them on wellnessmama.com) and you will find people who find this preparation ineffective.

The way to prove if it’s effective is through trial.

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Natural insect repellent (courtesy wellnessmama.com)

This recipes uses essential oils, which are highly effective, but there are some concerns about putting these directly on the skin, especially on children. I prefer to use this recipe on clothing or gear instead of directly on the skin.

Homemade Bug Spray Ingredients

Homemade Bug Spray Instructions

How to Make Bug Spray From Dried or Fresh Herbs

Ingredients

Fresh or Dried Herbs Bug Spray Instructions

Boil 1 cup of water and add 3-4 TBSP of dried herbs total in any combination from the above. I use 1 TBSP each of peppermint, spearmint, catnip and lavender, and also throw in a couple of dried cloves.

Mix well, cover and let cool (covering is important to keep the volatile oils in!)

Strain herbs out and mix water with 1 cup of witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Store in a spray bottle in a cool place (fridge is great because then it's nice and cool).

Use as needed. Added bonus: it smells great and is very refreshing to the skin.

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Clinical trial - insect spray (print this sheet)

What spray type did you make?  Essential oils,       Fresh herbs,        Dried herbs,

What commercial insect spray did you test against?

There are two options, 

  1. you spray one arm with a commercial deet based spray and the other with the homemade spray, or

  2. spray one arm with the homemade spray and the other with nothing.

Then sit outside with flies and mosquitoes and either count bites (NOTE: Yes it’s true, scientists sometimes suffer for their work.) or landings (bites for mosquitoes and landings for flies).

Number of landings or bites (deet based commercial product)

Number of landings or bites (homemade spray)

Experiment 7 - homemade stink bomb

Homemade stink bomb (Adult supervision is recommended.)

Ingredients

Make the Stink Bomb

Use scissors or a knife to carefully cut the heads off of the matches.

Place the match heads inside the empty jar. Add about 2 tablespoons of household ammonia.

Seal the jar and swirl the contents around.

Now Wait 3-4 days before uncapping the bottle.

After this time your stink bomb will be ready to be opened.

Remember, store the jar somewhere outside and well ventilated.

Uncap the bottle when you're ready to release the stink.

Stink Bomb Facts and Safety

This stink bomb forms ammonium sulfide, (NH4)2S, which is the same chemical used in commercial prank or trick stink bombs. The ammonium sulfide is produced as a result of a reaction between hydrogen sulfide and ammonia:

H2S + 2 NH3 → (NH4)2S

WARNING The vapor is flammable and associated with hydrogen sulfide gas (rotten egg smell that is toxic in high concentrations), so only make/use the stink bomb in a well-ventilated area (preferably outside), away from heat and flames.

Adult supervision is recommended and hold your nose.

Experiment 8 - making perfume

Homemade perfume

Of course potions are used to please our sense of smell as well. For thousands of years, people have collected the aromatic oils of plants and seeds in order to make sweet-smelling waters and perfumes. But they had to squeeze great quantities of them to get just a few drops of oil, and the scent of the oil did not last very long.

Perfume making is one of the older forms of chemistry. Perfume makers soon realized that, by adding other ingredients to a plant's essential oils, not only could less oil be used, but the essential oil's scent would last longer.

You will need:

Procedure

Press as many plant and flower samples into 30 ml or 1/8th cup vessel as you can. Place each sample in its own jar.

Except for the cloves, crush the samples as finely as you can with the popsicle stick.

Add 2 teaspoons (10 ml) of rubbing alcohol and continue crushing.

Add about 10 cloves to one of the jars and then add alcohol.

Puts lids on all the jars, and allow them to sit on a warm place for about a week.

After a week, open one of the jars and dip in the cotton swab. Lift the swab towards your face, and fan the air around the moist tip so that the odor reaches your nose.

Dab the moist tip against the back of your wrist, then allow the spot to dry. Smell it.

Use the tweezers to remove a sample of the plant material, and let it dry on the paper towel. Smell it.

What should you notice?

The moist cotton swab had a strong alcohol scent mixed with the plant scent.

After you allowed the liquid to dry on your skin, your skin had only the plant scent and no alcohol odor.

The sample of dried plant has little or no scent.

What's going on.

Alcohol dissolves the aromatic oils in plants so that the oils are removed from the plant tissue, suspended in the alcohol, and preserved. Alcohol also evaporates very quickly when exposed to air. When you placed a sample of homemade perfume on your wrist and exposed it to the air, the alcohol dried quickly, leaving behind only the aromatic oil.

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