Theresa’s jaw dropped. “Holy…Alex, this is big. This is a big, big, big decision you’re talking about here.”
“I know,” he said emphatically. “I know, I know, I know. But you know what keeps going through my head?”
“What?” she whispered.
“What happens if-”
“Wait, lower your voice,” she said quickly, glancing around.
He paused, realizing that his volume had risen and he hadn’t even noticed. “Thanks. This situation’s got me rattled.”
“Yeah, I can see why,” she said. “So, what were you saying?”
“Right, right,” he grunted, getting back on track. “All I keep thinking about is what happens if that’s me next time? What if that golem had gotten me when it went berserk? Or what if I come across the mana vampire-”
“Alex,” she said quickly. “I’m worried about it too, but just because it killed Minervus, doesn’t mean it’s going to get you. If it got him in the countryside, that means there’s probably no connection between it and you.” She grimaced. “The poor bastard just got unlucky.”
“-true, true and I thought that too,” he said. “But just…say for a moment that it does happen.”
Her jaw tightened. “I’d make it wish it never crawled into this world.”
“And, I’m sure I’d appreciate that,” he said with a weak smile. “I’d be cheering you on from the afterlife, chanting ‘bloody vengeance!’ the entire time. Hell, I might even become a ghost just so I could have a front row seat, but that’s beside the point.” He paused searching through his rushing thoughts. “Anything could happen, and then what? What if my secret comes out? After hiding it from everyone I know, what if it comes out I was The Fool anyway?”
“Okay.” She nodded. “So you’re worried something might happen to you—Uldar forbid it—and then you never would have told Baelin, who’s someone you wanted to eventually tell. All that would be left unfinished once you…” she grimaced. “…died. So, what would be the consequences if you didn’t tell him?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well.” She glanced up at the tree again. “My professor says that sometimes our minds can sort of…build realities for us. If we think the world is shit, then it will be shit to us. That kind of thing: we have to clear our minds and try to see the world as it is when we’re engaging in life enforcement or we could slow down, or completely mess up our cultivation. So, what we’re supposed to do is see the world for what it is and what it might be, according to her.”
He blinked. The Theresa from six months ago would have had some advice for him in any important situation, but here she was quoting her professor like a philosophy student. As much as he’d changed, she’d changed in all kinds of ways too.
“Right,” he said slowly. “So you’re saying because I’m kind of panicked I could be seeing things like it’ll be the end of the world unless I do something drastic?”
“Right,” she said. “And I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just think we should think through what happens if you don’t tell him and then one of those scenarios does happen to you.”
“Well, for one thing, Thameland’s history books sure won’t look too fondly on a dead Fool who ran from his ‘holy duties’ with dungeon core remains in his possession. That’s going to look real bad, and it might even come back on you and Selina and ruin your lives.”
He shook his head. “But I’m also scared that if I tell Baelin, then that could happen anyway. Listen, Professor Jules once told me that the reason I was getting so much attention and help from her was because I was excelling in her class. I know that Baelin and I do get along, but how far is that going to extend? What would be in it for him if he went against Thameland if they sent a bunch of soldiers here to come and take me? Being a Hero of Thameland means I’m already a target of monsters. Now that things are so bad back home, I’m pretty sure some people basically consider me to be a deserter.”
“Yeah,” she grunted. “I guess being branded by our god kind of counts as being conscripted into the fight.”
“Exactly, which basically makes me a criminal. Would Baelin stop a criminal from being arrested?” Alex thought about the chancellor’s idiosyncrasies, and his focus on advancing students and wizardry. “I dunno, maybe he might? Maybe not if I was a murderer though, but, I dunno…Baelin’s from a different time. Anyway, my point is he might keep me safe here if he still thinks I’ve got potential. But, my spellcraft could give him doubts since my Mark makes it so that I’m slower with some parts of it since The Fool tries to interfere so much.”
“Really? What about all that spell…modification…stuff you talk about?” she said.
“Isolde can do that too, but I should be faster...but, I’m not, thanks to you know what.” he said. “Look, Baelin might continue to see value in me or he might not. I just don’t know. At this point…well, I don’t think he’s going to tell the church, but maybe a lot of the help I’m getting goes up in smoke. Or he might even accuse me of putting other students in danger, you know, since I’m a target of the church, The Ravener and whoever else is involved with this whole thing.”
“Right,” she nodded. “And you saw what he did to that demon that put students in danger.”
He winced. “Well, he probably wouldn’t freeze my limbs and shatter them.” Alex paused, remembering the skulls on Baelin’s shelves. “…probably.”
“Probably,” she said, frowning as she thought about all of it. “Probably…probably…probably. ‘Probablys and ‘Mights.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, everything you’re thinking about is based on what might happen. What happens if Baelin thinks you’re a danger? What happens if the mana vampire gets you? You didn’t want to tell Baelin before because you didn’t want him to think that maybe you were the one who summoned the demon because you had reasons for not wanting priests on campus. That’s a ‘maybe’. Maybe, maybe, maybe. There’s a lot of possibilities to consider.” She paused. “Do you trust me?”
“With my life,” the words left his mouth without a moment of hesitation.
“Do you trust Selina?”
“Absolutely. She’s smart and brave and…hell, she’s going to be an incredible woman when she grows up. She’s not one to go around telling tales if you ask her not to.”
“Do you trust my parents?”
“Again, with my life.”
“And you trust Khalik?”
“Yes,” he said. “Khalik’s got honour and he’s brave and…”
‘And I know his secret too,’ he added silently. He hoped one day that the prince would trust Theresa enough to tell her, or at least the other cabal members. He really wanted someone to talk about how crazy it was that he was actually hanging out with a prince.
“But what’s your point?” Alex asked.
“My point is that sometimes you live in your head.” She reached over and gently cupped the side of his head with her hand. He could feel the callouses from her swordplay. “You try to think of every factor and every angle…and that’s good. It’s what makes you, you. But what do we all have in common? I just named everyone that knows you’re the Fool. Put aside every thought and plan and think about why you told me.”
He froze. “Because I trust all of you.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what it comes down to: I hunt alone with Brutus not because he’s a cerberus or is deadly or anything like that. That’s all true, but what’s important is that I trust him. He trusts me too. He likes you more now, because he trusts you. I follow Professor Kabbot-Xin’s instructions because I trust her. It’s trust, Alex. So, what I have to ask you is this.”
She looked at him closely.
“Do you trust Baelin?”
Alex paused, thinking about it deeply. “Do you trust him?”
“No, no don’t ask me, it has to be you that trusts him.”
“And I value your opinion, Theresa. I want to know what you think too,” he said.
She paused, deep in thought. “…I don’t know what he’ll do with this information, I mean neither of us can know. But, honestly?” she paused. “Look at Rayne from class. You said that he was basically useless during your test, right? Him and…” She winced. “Minervus. And Baelin is still giving him a chance in class. He keeps us safe during tests, and always watches over us. Like I said, I don’t know what that means in terms of him supporting you or not, but I’d trust him with a lot of things, and we already trust him with our lives every time we go into The Barrens.”
“…right,” Alex said, recalling some of his and the chancellors’ interactions.
He thought about when Baelin had supported him when he’d told the ancient wizard about his parents. He could be terrifying…but almost grandfatherly at times. He had no love for the gods and-
Alex paused, shaking his head.
He was doing it again: thinking, supposing, trying to logic his way through the situation. He took a deep breath and cleared his thoughts, looking not into his mind alone, but into his heart. ‘Do I trust Baelin?’
Alex thought on that question for a time, and then…he remembered Baelin’s reaction to Selina and her fire affinity.
“Yeah, I think I do trust him,” He said while acknowledging that he was still afraid. But then, he’d been afraid when he was about to tell Khalik too. “For better or for worse, I do trust him.”
“Then we agree. Alright.” Theresa stood up.
“Wait, now?” Alex balked, looking up at the moon. “You mean, go and tell him right now?”
“No, because he’s probably asleep,” she said, preparing to make her way down the hill. “…if he does sleep, that is. But, first thing in the morning, since you’re serious about telling him as soon as you can. Which means that you’re going to need your sleep. It’ll be a big day, and we might have to make a lot of decisions, after you tell him.”
“Yeah, right,” Alex said, getting up after her. “Hey, um, Theresa?”
“Yeah?” She turned and looked back at him, and in that moment he was struck by how the moonlight fell on her dark hair.
“Um…thanks for getting me...and thanks for having my back. Seriously.” He looked at her, realizing that if Minervus suddenly dying had led him to decide to stop delaying talking to Baelin, then telling Theresa how much she meant to him was also something he wouldn’t delay much longer. But, tonight was about Minervus’ death, his own fears and Baelin. It had to be about him and herwhen he told her. And he’d tell her soon. He reached out and took her hand. “Seriously, this means…like, a lot.”
“Hey, we’re here for each other, right?” Her smile lit up her face. “Now, come on, let’s get back before we fall asleep under this tree.”
Holding her hand, Alex didn’t think he would have minded that at all.
Sleep had come surprisingly fast when he went to bed. He’d thought that—since his body was used to being awake and at work at that time of night— he’d have trouble falling asleep, but he’d been so emotionally exhausted that he’d passed right out as soon as he hit his bed.
It was early when Alex woke up, determined to get his day started. As he washed up and got ready, he mentally checked himself.
His heart was beating fast. He could hear it pounding in his ears.
He was sweating.
He felt cold.
Either he was getting a freak cold out of nowhere—which would be just the way: getting sick, bedridden and not able to tell Baelin—or he was anxious. He swallowed and began moving faster.
Alex was already so nervous that he knew he’d better get to the chancellor’s office before he talked himself out of going.
He finished getting ready, and gathered all the notes from his analysis. He also gathered the rest of the dungeon core’s remains and the book The Traveller was holding in her cave. In his time in Generasi, he still hadn’t found a single reference to her language. Alex packed everything up then took one last look around his apartment. Brutus, Selina and Theresa were still deep in sleep.
He gave them all a silent wave before stepping out the door.
“What…meetings all day?” Alex asked in shock, staring at a sign on Baelin’s door.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said a voice.
Alex startled and turned to find a grad student he hadn’t met before carrying papers. The elvish woman’s hands were full and more stacks of papers were supported on a force disk behind her.
“Do…do you know when he’ll be back?” He asked nervously. “Or is he teaching classes today?”
Alex thought he might be able to try and catch him at the end of a class.
“I don’t know the chancellor’s exact schedule,” she said. “But he doesn’t teach many classes. And…if he does come back, it won’t likely be to see students. He has a lot to do today.”
She winced. “A lot.”
That was right. Minervus.
The school, no doubt, had received news that one of their students had been killed. Of course, there’d be a lot for the chancellor to do today.
“But you say he might be back?” he asked.
She shrugged. “When he gets this busy, sometimes he returns to his office to do some extra work. You could try again later, if you want?”
“Right,” he said, sitting down against the wall by the office doors. “Thanks a lot for that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re really going to wait there?”
“This is important,” he said. “I’ll wait as long as I can.”
She gave him an odd look. “Good luck, I guess.”
He watched her walk down the hall, and settled in for the wait.
The day passed at a crawl, which to Alex, felt like weeks. Professors and graduate students passed him, sometimes ignoring him, sometimes asking how he was.
Several of them told him to come back tomorrow, but he refused, thanking them for their concern and determinedly continuing his wait. His stomach growled loudly in the empty hallway and he soon began to regret not packing a lunch, snacks or maybe even supper.
Maybe he could just run down to one of the eateries and grab a quarter of a quail or some bread real quick? He stood up and stretched, thinking about going to the lav too. But, how would he know if Baelin showed up and then left if he was gone?
‘No, I’ll have to tough it out. I can’t take that chance. I don’t want to walk away from here,’ he thought. ‘And next thing you know a bunch of stupid bullshit comes up, and then I don’t get the chance to tell him, or I lose the nerve, or something really bad happens.’
And so, he sat back down and continued to wait, watching the sun slowly drift across the sky through some of the nearby windows until it was the orange of evening. Professors were starting to pack up for the day and head to the stairs to make for home.
Yet, Alex still continued waiting.
‘Ah shit,’ he thought. ‘I never got the chance to tell Selina what I was doing. I guess Theresa’ll tell her where I am and that I’m okay. Maybe-’
Alex felt a surge of mana.
He nearly flew up as the door beside him suddenly swung open. He looked up to see the towering, horned form of Baelin looking down at him with his piercing, goat-like eyes from the doorway.
“Alex?” Baelin glanced up at the evening sky. “How long have you been here?”
“Uh, all day.” He quickly scrambled to his feet.
Relief and disappointment went through him at the same time. Relief at finally seeing the chancellor, but disappointment at…well, finally seeing the chancellor. A part of him had been wavering between hoping that Baelin wouldn’t show up today, and wanting him to.
“Truly?” Baelin said. “Truly. Well, I can’t say I’m too surprised…you worked with young Minervus, did you not? Here, come in, come in.”
Again, the door seemed to click with finality when it closed behind Alex.
“Uh yeah, actually,” he said. “But uh…” He glanced around nervously. He was starting to sweat again. “But uh…uh…that’s not exactly what I wanted to talk about. I know it’s late, and I’m sorry to take up more of your time, but I really, really needed to tell you something as soon as possible.”
Baelin paused in silence for a few moments, then looked at the massive stacks of paperwork covering his desk. He waved his hand over them, spoke a single word and Alex felt the magic circuits for the teleportation magic form, sweeping the papers away.
The chancellor then leaned back against the now free desk. “Normally, I would say it would be best for both of us if it waited until morning but, I can see a desperation in you. It appears that something urgent is bothering you. So, tell me, what is it that has you so troubled tonight?”
Alex froze, as panic surged through his body.
This was it. No going back now.
Gulping, he pulled his notebooks from his bag with shaking hands.
“Baelin I…in Thameland…we have,” he paused, taking a deep breath. “If I don’t just spit it out now I never will, even if I have to explain it all later: I...I received something called…The Mark of the Fool,” he forced the words from his lips even as his gaze dropped to his feet.
“I’m one of Uldar’s five marked Heroes, meant to defend Thameland against The Ravener. And I uh…came to Generasi instead.”
Alex waited, taking a deep shaky breath, then slowly looked up to see the chancellor’s reaction.