Alex fought to keep his face straight as Baelin stared at him from across his desk. In that moment, Alex was reminded of just how intimidating the chancellor was: towering, ancient and with a gaze that just seemed to cut through flesh, magic, stone and deception.
Could he detect The Mark? Was it because he had touched The Traveller’s mana? Was it some residue of the dungeon core’s remains?
“No, not that I’m aware of…why?” Alex asked, fighting to keep his face still. He didn’t dare use The Mark to help him with that.
The chancellor’s eyes narrowed. “Now and then there is…” He continued to stare at Alex. “You know, nevermind, that was a foolish question to ask. And a frightening one.”
“Oh that’s, uh, that’s no problem…why did you ask?” Alex pushed.
“Sometimes…” Baelin paused. “When I cast my teleportation magic on you…well, how do I say this. There are certain levels of difficulty when one teleports objects. Small things are easier to teleport than large ones, the inanimate is easier to teleport than the living, and the willing are much easier to teleport than those who resist the spell.”
His eyes lingered on Alex. “But you…you’re very easy to teleport, Alex. Quite frankly, I feel like I’m transporting something a quarter of your size. It made me curious as to whether or not you’ve ever been subjected to…unusual circumstances.”
‘Unusual circumstances? Take your pick,’ Alex thought.
For a long moment, he considered telling the chancellor everything right there. Considering Baelin’s dislike for gods and the priesthood—as well as Khalik’s story of how that foreign noble was punished by the school anyway, for his ‘prank’ no matter whose son he was—he doubted that the chancellor would feel obligated by some sort of divine duty to place him in the custody of the priests.
Then again, that very opposition to the gods could be the very thing that might make him boot Alex off campus. After all, he bore a divine brand and was directly chosen by a deity. Perhaps Baelin would consider him too connected to the gods to have a place in Generasi.
He hadn’t told Khalik, who he trusted, and he hardly knew much about the chancellor, aside from the fact that he was ancient and terrifying.
Better to be cautious.
If anything, having a conversation with him about Selina might help decide how much the ancient wizard could be trusted.
Alex shrugged. “Wizards go through ‘unusual circumstances’ all the time, don’t they?”
“Hrm, that they do at that,” Baelin nodded. “So.” He rose from his desk. “What can I do for you?” He stepped toward one of the windows on the opposite end of the office.
Now that he had a moment where his mind wasn’t threatening to race out of control, Alex decided to take in the chancellor’s office. It was enormous—larger than Alex’s entire apartment in the insula—and filled with furniture and ornaments he imagined would be right at home in a king’s private chambers.
Khalik would know better than him.
The desk was carved with a multitude of glyphs, runes, hieroglyphs and scenes of wizards practicing magic or in battle with terrible creatures: demons, shoggoths and things Alex didn’t recognize. The ceiling of the circular office must have been thirty feet high, and the room was separated into three floors by a winding staircase and balconies along the walls, all brimming with shelves that mostly contained books. Just below the ceiling floated the shimmering image of a globe, except far more lifelike; Alex thought he could see waves moving through the oceans in the image. Orbiting the globe was the pock-marked face of the moon, which actually shed a low pale light as it passed the small gargoyles mounted on the sides of a balcony.
Some shelves held strange objects, and whether they were magical materials, trophies or both, Alex had no idea.
On one shelf he saw the stone bright-spitter that Baelin had petrified in The Barrens. Beside it was a tiny model of a castle and below-
The shelf was filled entirely with skulls.
Some were those of small and medium sized beasts, but several definitely looked to be or from a similar race. They had been cleaned, bleached and inscribed with writing in an ancient language. Alex was becoming fairly adept in a number of languages: Rhinean and the language of the Selachar being the ones he was progressing fastest with. But he’d never seen any writing like that etched into those skulls.
“Ah, I see you have found my foes,” Baelin said with some satisfaction, following Alex’s gaze. “What you see there are the remains of the enemies that came closest to taking my life: assassins, monsters, enemy wizards…priests.”
He chuckled. “Try to guess which one belonged to a king.”
“Wh-what?” Alex startled, his eyes darting between the chancellor and the skulls.
“You can’t, can you?” Baelin’s chuckle grew heartier, yet darker at the same time. “That’s the funny thing about kings, queens, emperors and empresses: once the crown’s off their head, their skull could belong to a peasant, couldn’t it? Now, come now, join me by the window.”
Alex glanced at the skulls again, wondering if he should make an excuse and run from the office. Instead, he forced himself forward until he was beside Baelin at the window.
“So, what can I do for you…hm.” Baelin’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps…would this be about your sister?”
He blinked, wondering if Baelin had somehow read his mind.
‘No, no, Professor Jules said that was illegal here…which I’m sure matters a lot to the ancient wizard who keeps a collection of his enemies’ skulls in his office,’ Alex’s mind screamed. ‘If you can hear this Baelin, then know that I’m currently imagining an oak in a red dress dancing on a hill on its roots!’
The chancellor’s expression didn’t change. Okay. So probably not mind reading.
“Y-yeah how did you know?” Alex asked.
“Mr. Powell informed me,” Baelin said. “I receive reports on all those tested for mana within the junior school. It’s good policy for me to know what the next generation of wizards might look like, and any sort of elemental affinity stands out.” The ancient wizard cocked his head slightly. “I was told—though not the details—that your sister had a…negative reaction to the revelation of her magic.”
He frowned. “I find myself coming back to the same question: were you ever subject to a major magical event? A trauma, perhaps? …it is not uncommon.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked.
Baelin sighed. “All those tales of wicked witches, sacrificing warlocks and maniacal lich lords come from somewhere, Alex. Magic is power, and power can be a horror. Here at Generasi, we are dedicated to the advancement of wizardry and—to a lesser extent—magic in all its forms. Our students take an oath of responsibility that they do not damage the cause of magic upon their graduation, but…that is a very broad generalization. I have known of several students who decided that the best way to apply their gifts was to use their power to become petty tyrants…and in one particular case, a not so petty tyrant.” ”
His eyes turned to the window, watching as rain ran down the glass. A winged beast—easily the size of a horse—flew past the tower below, but it was too quick and the rain too heavy on the glass for Alex to make out its full shape.
“And that is not accounting for the many wizards that dot the world, all engaged in their own studies, experiments and conquests.” Baelin looked back to Alex. “So yes. It is not uncommon to find those that have been scarred by magic, which is how traumas and superstitions are birthed. Is that way with your sister?”
Alex shook his head. “No, it’s…” He grimaced.
It had been many years since he had told the full story of his parents’ deaths to anyone; he’d recently had to share with Shiani. It was starting to make him relive things he had gotten over.
Whether Baelin sensed this or not, he didn’t know, but he did raise a hand.
“Hold now, perhaps…” He glanced at the skulls on his shelf. “...we should speak of this in more pleasant surroundings.”
Placing a hand on Alex’s shoulder, he focused for a moment.
Then they weren’t in the office anymore.
Alex blinked, his eyes darting around.
Their surroundings had changed to the top of a tower. It was open to the air and surrounded by a parapet, but a wind-and-rain shield kept the wet weather off of them both. A round, stone table stood in the middle of the tower…no, ‘stood’ was not the right word.
Neither the table nor chairs had any legs—they floated in stillness above the stones as though supported by invisible thread.
On the table were several copper platters that were absolutely bursting with food.
A giant cornucopia erupted with fresh fruit: grapes, apples, strawberries and many other fruits Alex couldn’t name spilled onto the platter beneath it. A four layer cake stand was crowded with mini cakes and pies of half a hundred varieties, and several copper pots stood side by side, with steaming rising from their spouts. They were surrounded by small—well, they were suited to Baelin’s size, so not so small—cups.
“And now you see where I take my lunches when I’m working. I’ve entertained many a student and professor here, just as the previous chancellor entertained me.” His voice took on a wistful note. “Now, tea? Coffee? Hot cider? Something else? Nothing too strong, I’m afraid, it’s still working hours for me.”
“Uh, I’ll take hot cider, thanks.”
Baelin waved a hand over the table, and one of the steaming pots floated into the air then poured a golden, rich-smelling drink into one of the cups. Two chairs floated away from the table, and he and Baelin took a seat.
“Here, have a mango.” Baelin handed Alex a deep orange piece of fruit on a plate and—with a peeling and slicing motion of his hand—split it into spear-like pieces. “Have a bite, have a sip and then tell me what happened with your sister…and you I suppose.”
Alex nodded, and took a sip, letting the sweetness and warmth of the cider fill him before taking a bite of the juicy ‘mango’. The sweet, fresh tangy flavour of the soft, fruit filled his mouth, and he found four more bites disappeared down his throat before he could begin the story.
“So…my-no, uh our parents,” he said. Then—with a deep breath—he launched into the story for a second time. Strangely enough, it was harder than it had been with Shiani.
Maybe that was because he had less on his mind now. When talking to Shiani, he’d been surrounded by other students and trying to think of how to ask her to help him. Now, though, it was just him, Baelin, a cup of hot cider and the rain.
He fought to not choke up, and managed to finish the story with only a slight tremble in his voice. As for Baelin, he listened quietly, only nodding along at certain points to show that he was taking in every word. The ancient wizard winced at certain sections of the story and then gave a final sigh at the end.
“I see,” Baelin said. “I can see why a fire affinity would be…undesired.” He shook his head. “Magic can be fickle. Magic can be fickle.”
“Have you ever had anything like this come up before?” Alex asked.
“Oh my, yes,” the chancellor said. “It is not affinity, but I do recall one student who was deathly afraid of heights, who had one of the greatest natural talents for flight magic I have ever seen. It was incredible, truly: most mages float around like kites, but this fellow could zoom about like a shooting star. Just incredible…this is a bit different, however. If true love existed, it would be like learning that one’s greatest enemy is destined to be their lover. Star-crossed indeed.”
“What do I do? I’ve been spending time with her, making her feel comfortable…” Alex shook his head. “I…ah, jeez, I’m bothering the chancellor of the greatest university of wizardry in the world with this.”
Baelin cocked his head. “You mean, that you—my student—have come to me during my office hours—which I have set aside to help my students with—with a problem that involves both academia, another student, and wizardry?”
He gave a deep chuckle that sounded like it echoed from a mountain cave. “Were I to complain about this, then it might be time for me to find another profession. Or perhaps take my not-inconsiderable gifts, knowledge and power and go live in luxury somewhere. It is no trouble. There is no problem-” He paused. “Alex…hmmm…but I think that might be your issue, here. A common one among wizards.”
Alex startled. “What do you mean?”
“You are looking at this as a problem to solve: a spell to cast, a puzzle to crack. But, this is no puzzle: your little sister is a young human being with her own hopes, desires, willpower—and yes—disappointments. You cannot make her not despise herself or accept this gift. You cannot make her comfortable with it, anymore than you could bring your parents back to life.”
“Is that even possi-” Alex began to ask.
“Don’t.” Baelin said, all his comforting kindness evaporating in an instant.
“You were about to go down a very dangerous line of thought. Let that go.”
“W-what line of thought?”
“Resurrection,” Baelin said pointedly. “Every wizard, every priest and every alchemist has thought of it, or dreamed of it or imagined it. There are ways to make ourselves immortal, and there are even more ways to make ourselves long-lived. So why not bring back the dead? And make no mistake, I don’t mean the potions, spells or miracles that can resuscitate someone if their heart has stopped beating for a time, and I don’t mean the necromantic raising of corpses or binding of spirits. I mean truly defeating death: and that is not currently possible. Even gods—thankfully—can die, and they have not found ways of reversing that.”
“What…what happens if someone tries?”
“Let us just say that if the gods are greedy for our worship and souls, then Death makes them look like the most generous of spirits. Once Death gets a good, tight grip on our souls, it gets them ready for its great work. And it does not take being cheated well. Again. Save yourself the trouble: look for ways to defeat death in this world. A Proper Wizard remains in this world, they do not try to crawl back—their soul scarred, damaged and half-mad from Death’s chastisement—to flop around in an attempt to unbreak what has already been broken. Perhaps, someday, we might uncover the magic to defeat death and…avoid the tragedies that have plagued you, your sister, myself and others. But for now, a Proper Wizard must know what they can and cannot do, and adapt within those limits.”
He gave Alex a look. “It is the same with your sister: if you want her to come to a healthy relationship with magic, you are already doing the right things: you said you are spending time with her, which means you are supporting her. You are a wizard yourself, which means you are normalizing magic to her. And…hmmm.”
His eyes glanced at the steam rising from the pot. “Normally, I might suggest one of our professors of fire magic who could speak to her, but…no, someone young and friendly, like your classmate Shiani, is probably far less intimidating for a young child. Though, if you would like someone with experience to speak to her, I could have a chat with her after one of the lectures for COMB-1000. See if there is anything I could say.”
“Oh that sounds good, professor!” Alex said. “I’ll see if I can get her to come with me one day.”
Baelin grinned. “I’ll try to make the lecture fun, at least. Well, I hope that your sister comes to terms with what has been granted to her. Remember, you can only control what support you give her, not how she thinks and feels about magic and herself.”
“I’ll try and keep that in mind, Baelin,” Alex said, standing. “Listen…we students. Not sure if it’s my place to say, but…I’m glad you’re chancellor of the school. I think we’re in good hands.”
Baelin chuckled. “Trying to make me blush are you, Alex? Well, it won’t work: flatter me after you’ve fed meinstead of me feeding you.”
A twinkle entered Alex’s eye. “I just might do that.” He waved his papers in front of him. “Anyway, thanks for the talk. I’m going to deliver this to Professor Val’Rok.”
“Oh? An admirer’s letter?”
Alex burst out laughing. “No, I actually just finished passing the exam for credit for first year mana manipulation. I just have to bring my answer sheet for him to stamp.
Baelin paused for a long moment, his eyes boring into Alex.
A new interest had entered them.
“Really,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me a little more about that.”