“Are you sure there’s no way I can help?” Theresa asked.
They’d already taken Selina to school and now were back at their apartment. She had a shift at the Beastarium soon—Brutus was already excitedly eyeing the door. “This is important, if I’ve got to say I’m sick for a shift to come and help you, I will. You know I will.”
“I thought about that,” Alex said, pacing back and forth. “But there’s nothing you could do. Or Selina or Khalik. In the end, I’ve got to do this alone—and do it while acting as naturally as possible—so people don’t think I’m doing something sneaky. I go to class and to work with professor’s Jules and her grad students in The Cells alone. If I suddenly start bringing people, that’ll invite attention.”
Theresa bit her lip. “I really, really wish there was something I could do.”
Alex sighed and touched her shoulder. “Best thing, I think, is to just act normal. That’ll make things easier for me, and then we can talk about whatever I find out…if I find out anything useful.” He chewed his lip. “It’s probably going to take me several sessions analysing it to learn as much as I can, anyway.”
“Several means more chances for you to get caught.” Theresa shook her head. “I wish we could just tell the professors about it, but that’ll raise so many questions.”
“Yeah, like ‘how did you get that’, and ‘who are you that you have that’,” he said. “Even if Jules knew, since she’s so by-procedure, I don’t think she’d even let me analyze the stuff, especially alone. Then we’d also run the risk of others finding out about me and The Fool. And I think that’d be pretty risky right now, especially with what the dungeon core actually is, and what it means.”
“Yeah,” Theresa said. “Considering what’s happened, now would be a bad time to tell people that you have dungeon core remains."
His memory went back to the demon.
It had attacked the priest of Uldar—who he’d completely avoided since he’d gotten here. Not in a hostile way, but he’d never joined with Carey London or gone to their temple. He was present during the demon attack, and his skills in every class except for force magic were rising abnormally fast.
If he went and told a professor and those things were to come out, what would they say?
He could well imagine what would happen next.
‘Oh by the way,’ he could hear himself saying. ‘I’ve had this dust that’s the remains of what’s basically a monster-birthing orb the entire time. A monster-birthing orb that only occurs in the lands of Uldar’s people and is the enemy of Uldar’s church—and why yes, I do believe that a conjured demon did in fact attack a rally created by an organization dedicated to him. Why no, that doesn’t make me Prime Suspect Number 1. Wait… stop, why are you putting me in chains?’
Not to mention the fact that—if the demon summoner, whoever it was, was in fact targeting Uldar or priests in general—since he was actually a divinely chosen Hero, that could lead them to target him if that information about him got out.
The only other being that he might consider telling was Baelin, but could he really expect the chancellor not to look at him with even a little bit of suspicion in light of what happened during that rally? He had to consider all of this carefully, because if he said something at the wrong time and things went badly, he couldn’t take it back.
Better he should try and analyze the substance safely on his own before looking for outside help. Besides, a small part of him wanted to see how the stuff worked before he considered telling anyone else about it anyway: perhaps it had properties that could help him in alchemy. It certainly was rare.
In the end, he’d likely have a far stronger case if he went to Baelin with the analysis of the core complete: he could then show him that he was working against The Ravener, which would at least place him on the same side as the priests, and not looking like some agent of evil. If it turned out his analysis showed that any part of the dungeon core’s substance was similar to anything used for summoning demons—like elements he’d learned about in Jules work with her grad students—then at least he’d be the only one to know.
When the time was right, he figured he'd be comfortable with approaching someone like Bealin who was neutral to the plight of Thameland and Raveners, Fools and Dungeon Cores, to share his story and results of his analysis with. After that, he could start working on getting the information to someone he could trust back in Thameland, or even better, get it to them anonymously.
“We just have to be careful like we have been up until now,” Alex said. “And we’ll be okay.”
She frowned. “Ugh, I wish this was a problem my sword could solve. Since it can’t…”
Theresa gave him a worried look, stepped forward and gave him a tight hug. Her warm forehead rested against his chest. “Just be careful, okay.”
Alex quickly wrapped the huntress in his arms. “I will be,” he said, keeping his voice steady. “I’ll be fine.”
‘I’m not fine!’ his mind screamed, going completely renegade as he approached The Cells. ‘I’m going to get caught! I’m going to get caauuught! They’re gonna grab me and throw me in wizard jail. Oh, by The Traveller, what the hell is wizard jail even like? Are there rats? Magic rats? Demonic magic rats?!’
He took a deep, meditative breath, attempting to calm himself, and came to a halt on the path. It had been a long time since he’d been nervous about a lab.
He stood in front of The Cells, using The Mark to help himself look as inconspicuous as possible. He still couldn’t help but glance around a little too often, though, noting the two Watchers of Roal now flanking the entrance to The Cells. They’d been assigned to that doorway since the demon’s attack—just in case someone used demonology in The Cells to conjure another attacker—and Alex had usually found their presence comforting.
Today, though, he felt that their hard gazes were firmly on him—judging him, seeing his secrets and preparing to haul him off. He told himself it was his imagination running wild, and that was how they normally looked, but he still adjusted the small sack of dungeon core remains on his belt before he reached the door.
“Student identification,” one of them said.
“Here it is,” Alex offered quickly, afraid that his voice was going to crack.
The Watcher stared at the circular wooden card for what seemed like forever, but eventually nodded grimly and passed the card back without a word.
They exchanged silent nods and Alex entered The Cells.
Inside, were more Watchers, placed at equidistant points in the hallway. Alex quickly, but casually made his way upstairs, trying to nonchalantly meet their gazes: look away too fast, and he’d look suspicious, but stare too much, and he’d also look suspicious.
The remains of the dungeon core felt like a massive weight pulling on his belt, and he kept imagining some magical ward sensing it and immediately alerting The Watchers to his secret stash. No alarm went up though, and rationally, he knew he was being irrational. Recently he’d started to understand many of the glyphs that warded The Cells, thanks to his Magic Lore class—such as those surrounding the front doors that prevented them from opening unless one had valid identification.
No glyphs that he’d encountered so far seemed to be for the purpose of analyzing contraband materials and sending up alarms. Then again, if that sort of magical know-how existed and was so easy to craft, then material analysis in alchemy would be a lot quicker and easier.
He thought about what Professor Jules had told him about how magical devices advanced as the ambient mana in Generasi rose. In a way, he wished it were a hundred years into the future: perhaps by that time—when The Ravener was reborn—it’d be easier to analyze then. Then again, if he was wishing to be born in a different time, he might as well wish to be born in between The Ravener’s returns.
Or born during a time when they’d permanently beaten the damn thing into dust.
As he approached the door to Cell-301—his assigned Cell for the semester during the same two hours every other week—he paused, shaking his thoughts away. When he was worried, his mind had a tendency to focus on well…his worries and other unrelated thoughts.
And he would need all of his focus for what was next.
Taking a deep breath, he wrapped his hand around the door handle and pulled.
“Hng!” he grunted.
It didn’t budge.
He tried it again. It didn’t budge.
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Alex groaned.
The room was locked and there wasn’t a single sound coming from it. Unless he’d passed out in there, it likely meant the grad student who was supposed to open the room and supervise him hadn't arrived yet.
Which meant, he was stuck out here.
He glanced to the side.
One of the Watchers of Roal—seated down the hall—was looking at him. The grizzled man gave him a nod, then went back to systematically scanning the hall and ceiling.
Of course. Of course his supervisor would be late and leave him to stand out in the hall all by himself while he was as nervous as a flea on a scratching dog and wanting nothing more than to get his scheme over with.
Alex turned around and leaned against the wall, cursing internally and exhaling loudly. He glanced at The Watcher. Maybe he could use this. If he could get into the lab before his supervisor arrived, he’d have a lot more freedom to perform some tests.
“Hey,” he said quietly to The Watcher. “Excuse me.”
“Hrm?” The Watcher looked up at him again. “Something the matter?”
“Yeah, a bit.” Alex jerked his thumb toward the door behind him. “I got this project and I’m supposed to get started, but the grad student that’s supposed to supervise me isn’t here yet. Think you could let me in?”
The Watcher shook his head. “Sorry, never seen you before. Can’t do that. Besides, if they’re supervising you then they should be here first.”
“Ah, okay,” Alex said. “Thanks anyway.”
Long uncomfortable minutes passed as Alex waited in the hall, eventually starting to pace back and forth in front of the door. Finally, he heard footsteps rapidly ascending the stairs.
“Sorry, sorry!” a voice shouted and a man wearing a tall, black, cone cap burst into the hall. At the noise, Alex noticed The Watcher giving the other young man a look of disapproval.
“Are you Alex Roth?” the man stopped, scratching the stubble on his face.
“Yeah.” Alex extended his hand to shake the other man’s. “Are you my supervisor?”
“I am.” The man nodded, trying to catch his breath. “Amir Abu Saleh at your service. And you?” He paused. “Agh, no wait, I just asked that. Sorry, sorry.”
“That’s alright.” Alex looked at the grad student’s sweat-drenched features. The young man looked like he’d sprinted a mile. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes.” He continued to pant, trying to catch his breath. “Last tutorial went long. Ran here not to waste…too much of your time. Here, let’s get you started.”
Amir fumbled with a few keys on a ring and slipped one into the lock.
The door to The Cell opened.
Alex stepped inside and whistled in wonder.
His very own laboratory…or at least, his laboratory for the next two hours. Well, what was left of the next two hours. The Cell was very well equipped—not quite the size of Cell-207 where his class had done the practicum in the first semester—but the stations were much larger than those in 207.
Each station was made up of a wide, freestanding desk, with plenty of room for cauldrons, flasks, titration devices and mana vacuums. Suspended above each was a mana waste container that was much larger and more robust than those in the general classroom.
He smiled when he saw the big, beautiful mana waste container.
Even beyond being able to analyze the dungeon core, having access to such a space would allow for far more in depth experiments and for more powerful potions to be crafted. There was room here for much more intricate equipment and the larger mana vacuum meant he could create greater magical reactions without fear of, well, blowing off his own face.
There was only one small immediate issue.
None of the equipment he needed was ready and—for the potion Jules assigned him to craft—he needed a fair amount of intricate apparatuses. Was he supposed to get them himself?
“Um, should I get everything set up?”
“No, no, again, my apologies.” Amir set his bag down on one end of The Cell. He scratched the closely cropped hair on his scalp. “There are a few things you can set up, but there’re some apparatuses that we’ll have to bring from the supply closet. The good news is once we set them up, we can leave most of them at your station for the semester since they’re the sort of devices you’ll be using for multiple reactions. So, what do you say we go fetch them now?”
He gave a weak smile and started heading for the door.
Alex fought the urge to shake his head...and his supervisor.
He was given access to this lab every other week. That was roughly six times during the semester, unless he could get an extra booking in and—with how busy The Cells were—that wasn’t likely. He had a limited amount of time to do his analysis.
And now, the first of his sessions was being eaten away because his supervisor was late and hadn’t set up.
He took a deep breath as he followed Amir to get the equipment, keeping the sample of dungeon core remains close. Today, he would need to craft the potion that Jules had set for him safely, but as quickly as possible and—somewhere during the process—try and analyze an aspect of the dungeon core’s remains.
He couldn’t rush the potion and it was one that would be very useful for him.
A Potion of Haste, which doubled running speed, reaction time, reflexes and speed of thought. It would be his first third-tier potion.
Alex hoped he’d have enough time for everything he needed to do.