“Before I speak on that,” Baelin leaned forward in his chair, watching Alex closely. “Who else knows of this?”
“Um, just Khalik, Theresa—her parents—and my sister, Selina,” he said. “No one else has found out, and the only other person I’ve told is you."
“Good, very good,” the chancellor said. “Sharing secrets with those you know—and those that you have invested your trust in—is good, but each time you share a secret, you greatly increase the risk that it will be shared again. Do you wish to tell anyone else?”
“Um, Isolde and Thundar are in a cabal with me.”
“Yes, they would deserve to know. I would advise you not to share it beyond that.”
“I…” Alex paused. “Okay but, am I going to be kicked out?”
“Oh my, no,” Baelin said. “Absolutely not. You are not going to be ‘kicked out’, I am not going to return you to Thameland against your will, and I am not going to sanction you.”
“But…what about danger because of my Mark?” Alex asked.
“I will be blunt, if I had discovered this after some dire consequence had occurred—such as an attack on the school—we would be partaking in a very different conversation, Alex. But, you came to me with this by your own will. It is, in a sense, unfortunate that you did not feel that you could trust me or other members of the staff with this knowledge earlier, but it is also understandable. You are also not the first to study at Generasi with secrets chasing them.”
“Oh?” Alex asked.
“Absolutely not,” Baelin said with a wistful note in his voice. “I have had students who have come here after fleeing bad marriages. I have had students that were considered criminals in their homeland for unnatural acts in their pursuit of magic. There obviously will always be those attending who have secrets that they will never divulge; everyone’s life is not an open book. I have also had students that were refugees from different planes of existence.” He broke into a nostalgic chuckle. “Three hundred years ago, there was one student who was actually a young dragon that decided to take the form of a human in order to learn about their own natural magic.”
“Oooh man, I wish I had gone to school with them,” Alex said.
“Those were interesting times, but most times are, depending on where you look. The point is, you are far from the first to study at Generasi with dire secrets following in your wake. Besides, wizardry is dangerous: if I sought to make the university completely safe, I would need to board it up, or perhaps dedicate it to the study of gardening….but then again, one can even injure oneself when hauling dirt.” He shrugged. “Now, what might be grounds for punishment would be your smuggling this dungeon core substance into a school lab and experimenting on it without permission.”
Baelin pointed to Alex’s notebook. “As a matter of fact, the only reason why I am not writing a note to myself to call Vernia-”
It took Alex a moment to remember that was Professor Jules’ first name.
“-first thing in the morning is because I see from your notes that you were methodical, used safety equipment and did not engage in any analysis that would likely trigger dangerous reactions. You did break procedures, but you did so—oddly enough—in a safe manner. But let me be clear, Alex.”
A note of iron entered his voice.
“You did, in fact, betray your Professor’s trust: you earned her trust through your responsible actions, and then you betrayed it by going behind her back.”
Alex winced. “Y-yeah.”
Guilt tore at him. He liked Professor Jules. A lot. He still didn’t trust her on the same level as he trusted Baelin—though she was in second place out of all of the professors he’d had—but he hadn’t quite contextualized what he’d done in her lab as going against her trust until now. He’d just been utterly focused on trying to uncover the dungeon core’s secrets in a way that didn’t risk exposing himself or his loved ones.
“Ugh, now I feel a bit gross,” he said, looking down.
Baelin continued to look at him pointedly. “I can understand the desperation that lay in those actions, and I also understand that—while you are a grown adult—you are a young adult. You also have had quite the responsibility placed upon you by your…deity, and have tried to do what you could. I think that—in that light—I can understand why you did what you did.”
He sighed. “And I will admit, a lot of advances in wizardry are the result of a researcher flaunting safety and assuming risk. Especially in the past. And let us just say that when one produces results, others are less likely to find fault with them as long as the data they have generated can be trusted. In many places in the world, wizards still raid each other’s towers with small armies of summoned minions, constructs, and mercenaries to kill a rival and take their research or discoveries.”
He shook his head. “If the conqueror then expands on those discoveries and shares them with other wizards, there usually are not many crying for them to face justice. They’re actually often looked upon as heroes.”
A note of steel entered his voice. “We wizards can be terrible sometimes, but...let us return to you. Let me be quite clear: all of your sneaking around laboratories ends. Immediately. You will swear to me here and now that you will never again use school equipment and lab-space to engage in such activities without permission. Free research is for when you have demonstrated skill and sense, or for when you possess your own laboratory to potentially blow yourself up in. Preferably away from others. If I so much as catch a whiffthat you are acting on your own in my school, then the punishment will be dire. Am I understood?”
The chancellor hadn’t raised his voice or made a single aggressive movement, but Alex squirmed in his chair. “Yeah, I won’t. And um…I’m sorry, I was just…well I was trying to do my best.”
“You were. And now you have been shown your mistakes. And now you will do better.”
“Yeah, got it,” Alex said, though part of him was a little disappointed he couldn’t complete his analysis. “Does that mean you want the notes and the dungeon core remains?”
“What?” Baelin blinked. “Oh my, no, I am no thief…anymore.” He laughed. “Ah, I come from very different times. The dungeon core remains and this research are—as far as I can tell—your private property. I could ask for reimbursement for the tiny amount of solvent and the moss you used in your analysis, but those few gold pieces the school would receive would just be petty for me to demand them. Keep what you have. If anything…”
He took up Alex’s notebook again, flipping through it. “...make sure you do not lose it. Are you surethese are the correct results from your analysis?” He squinted. “I see all the calculations are correct, but is this truly what you discovered about the dungeon core? No lies? No attempting to inflate results?”
“No,” Alex said. “I might have done it secretly, but I did do it properly.”
“Then you might be on the cusp of a very, very important discovery, one definitely not seen in previous research,” Baelin said. “Most of the devices you used for your analysis simply did not exist the last time dungeon cores were examined here in Generasi. Are you curious as to what those studies found?”
“Absolutely,” Alex’s eyes lit up as he leaned forward.
“The research indicated that the dungeon core was composed of several different mana compounds and had high mana conductivity—though not anywhere near as precisely indicated here. The researchers of the time suffered due to the equipment available in their day. There is a book deep in the library—one of the floors that contain sixth-tier spells—on the topic of how magical items can be crafted from dungeon core remains...but the aspect of the dungeon core that is similar to chaos essence was undiscovered, nor was the sheer level of mana conductivity it is capable of.”
He shook his head. “Vernia would be salivating over this: it could catapult golemcraft forward by two hundred years or more. Not to mention the other items that could be made from this substance,” he said, stroking his beard. “Rather than simply infusing the substance to create items that hold magic, if it was used for more complex devices, my goodness. It seems to me that alchemy in general could advance greatly with this material, and other disciplines of wizardry would most certainly follow.”
A note of excitement had entered his voice, one that Alex found contagious.
“And the fact that few know of this substance is…fortuitous. Your Heroes have been battling The Ravener for some time: it would not be far-fetched to say that dungeon core remains could have made their way to Generasi by any number of means…”
He tapped his fingers on the notebook. “This…this will require further investigation, perhaps even…”
His eyes shot to Alex.
“I will admit, if you had come to me with this six months ago, I likely would have taken this far less seriously. But you know what you’re doing, and your Mark of the Fool—how poorly named, my goodness, Uldar—seemed to have helped you gain the skill to complete this analysis. We get half-cocked students claiming that they have discovered ‘the next leap forward in magic’ too often to count, but this is backed by good, hard work.”
“Um, thank you.” Alex said with sincerity.
“You’re welcome. Now.” Baelin leaned forward. “Do you want to continue down this road of discovery? You could leave the remains with me, and be compensated for them. What you have generated is interesting enough for me to pursue myself, or even if I chose to step away, I could think of at least three professors who would be interested in pursuing the potentials in this discovery. You could be free of this, and continue studying in anonymity. …but I shall argue that it would be in your best interest to go with another option.”
He tapped the book. “I propose that I take point on the research and you and I work together. Depending on what is discovered in the future—if you choose to disregard anonymity—then you could place your name on any resulting paper that is published. This could lead to scholarships, research grants and more. If this yields the sort of fruit I anticipate it will, then you will have a guaranteed future at Generasi, provided that you continue performing as you do…and no longer go renegade with school materials.”
Alex froze, considering his options for a moment.
In a way, the first option was tempting. He could at last get what he’d first wanted when he’d received The Mark: complete anonymity and the ability to study as just another student of wizardry at Generasi.
Yet, he realized he was finding the very idea of that distasteful. He wanted to continue along the path he had started down—especially if Baelin would be accompanying him on that path and greatly increasing his own safety. Ignoring the dungeon cores’ mysteries now would not solve his other problems.
There was still the question of previous Fools to consider—why there had been no record of them being useful—and if he walked away from research into the dungeon cores, The Ravener, and the past, then he’d be forgoing potential information that could help him figure out what was going on with his Mark.
Besides, he was still one of Thameland’s Heroes: even if he hid away from all research into his kingdom’s great enemy, that didn’t mean he would be out of danger. It just meant that he might have less information to see it coming.
“I’d like to walk with you on this, Baelin,” Alex said. “I want to finish this...it’s just…I just want to make sure my sister and my friend are safe.” He paused. “And my cabal too.”
Baelin laughed darkly. “I cannot guarantee safety, Alex. No one can. If I could, then there would never be any unwanted incidents at Generasi ever again. But, I do believe you will be safer working with me.”
“Then, I’m all in,” Alex said enthusiastically. “If this is going to help my kingdom, me, my family and Generasi, then I want to walk the walk.”
“Eeeexcellent!” Baelin grinned widely. “Ah, here I was thinking that this conversation would be one more issue to deal with, and instead, I find you come with a new path of wizardry to explore. How good it is that I came back to my office!”
He waved a hand in the air, conjuring a key made of shining silver metal. “I keep a few laboratories, including some on campus for students under my…personal guidance. I propose we use one to continue this work together and—when I am needed elsewhere—for you to continue to work on the project. I shall give you a key of your own later: on the express condition that you report to me everything that you will be using that laboratory for, and make detailed reports—as detailed as in these—” He indicated Alex’s two notebooks. “—about your activities. I have magical aids in the Cell that can provide both you and myself with safety and aid if needed.”
“What? Really?” Alex asked.
“Indeed,” Baelin said. “We will walk this road together, but again: I am no supervising grad student that you can slip past: if you go beyond what I have given permission for? I will know.”
“Y-yeah,” Alex said. “I’m sure you will…and uh, for what it’s worth, things are a bit different now. Like, a lot less desperate. I don’t think I’ll go behind your back and behind Professor Jules’ back again…I know those words might not mean much considering what I did, but…I won’t. Not again.”
Baelin stared at him for a time, seeming again to look right through him—Alex might get used to that gaze eventually, but this would not be the day. “Hm, I believe you are sincere. I will tell Professor Jules that we shall be working together on a project in alchemy. It might help you in her class as well.”
A stab of guilt went through Alex. “Will you tell her that I was analyzing the dungeon core?”
Baelin shook his head. “Nothing ill came of it, so I will leave that decision to you. It is your act, and you are an adult. If you choose to share one day you can…but know that she will likely be very displeased with you.”
Alex gulped. “I understand.”
He filed the secret away, storing it deep in his mind like the memory of the time he’d gotten away with stealing cookies from his mother’s kitchen when she’d thought that his father had simply taken a few.
Still, he might tell professor Jules later. A lot later.
Like maybe when he was forty or fifty years old.
For now, he’d just have to focus on making it up to her by being really, really dedicated to procedure for the rest of the time he was with her. Maybe do something for her and the grad students by the end of the year as well.
He shook those thoughts from his mind.
Something else was occurring to him. The golem. He’d been looking for a way to power it and now the most powerful wizard in Generasi was going to work with him.
“Baelin, um, that golem design,” Alex said. “Would it be possible if you might…y’know, kinda help me power it up for the first time. I figure the mana it would take would be something like…five minutes of mana production for someone like you.”
“Hm,” Baelin flipped open Alex’s notes on the golem once more. “Hm, hm, hm. I am afraid I shall not help you in that regard.”
Alex gulped. Would he stop him from building the golem? Was he going to say it would be too dangerous? Too beyond his ability? Would he make him take the substance out of his calculations? He wouldn’t need to use all of it for the golem core…so now what?
Baelin held up a hand as though to calm Alex’s thoughts. “Fear not, I do not refuse in order to stop you. I refuse in order to aid your learning.”