“My learning?” Alex asked.
“To be blunt: I think if I were to help you power it now, then that would rob you of some very, very valuable learning.” Baelin flipped the pages of the golem-crafting notebook to Alex’s diagrams. “See this? This is advanced work. I am sure that this Mark helped guide you on the path to create this construction-plan—from how you described it—but there is some real creativity here. You made certain rather creative choices for the construction of this construct, and were able to come up with a plan to bring that vision into reality. That implies interest, passion and talent. I would like you to see this through to the end.”
“Oh, uh…I haven’t found a way to power it yet,” Alex said.
“I can think of several ways, though they are unconventional, so I do believe you will. Whatever means you find and utilize, you will be able to carry that learning with you for all your years. Continue walking the path you are on, and I have no doubt you will find success.”
Alex sighed, a little disappointed, yet also a little proud of the progress he’d already made. “Alright, I’ll do my best.”
“It is all that anyone can ask. Now, might I see the dungeon core remains?” the chancellor asked.
“Yes, absolutely!” Alex handed them over, watching as the goatman opened the sack carefully and examined the contents. “Before you use any of this for anything, we will re-conduct these analyses and see where they lead us. If we confirm your results, then I think that if you construct a golem with the substance, it will provide another excellent opportunity for more data.”
“Awesome, that’s awesome,” Alex said.
“Hmmm, there is also the matter of your Mark…you do realize that some individuals would say that its use would constitute cheating, do you not?”
Alex felt his blood run cold.
“Fortunately for you, I am not one of them,” Baelin chuckled. “The Mark was placed on you, and you had no choice in the matter. You had already proven you had quite the necessary proficiency for study at Generasi before you received this Mark, and lastly, there are many different peoples with many different talents and natural abilities that attend here. This Mark gives you certain advantages, but then again your sister—if she chooses to walk the path of wizardry—will have incredible advantages over other students in Fire Magic courses due to her inborn affinity. Should that be considered cheating? I think not. But in spite of that, I think you should keep this information between you, I and those you trust dearly.”
Alex nodded. “I’m going to tell my cabal-mates too.”
“Very good. Very much like a Proper Wizard would.” Baelin nodded. “Alright, so with that in mind, I do believe it is time for both of us to retire for the evening.”
Suddenly, he paused and chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Alex asked, smiling nervously.
“Your revelations are somewhat of a surprise,” Baelin said, his tone unreadable. “I had thought there was something going on with you, Alex, but I must admit, this was the least likely of my guesses, and one that I had quite nearly ruled out.”
“Wh-what did you guess?” Alex asked.
“My first theory was that you had received some sort of spell from an ancient relation from a bygone era: some intergenerational magic that imparts their knowledge into one of their descendants. It is not unheard of. I had also considered that you might have encountered some magical phenomenon you did not understand that had left its imprint on you, or that you had an affinity that perhaps we did not understand as yet. I had briefly considered The Mark of the Fool since they had gone missing, but I had dismissed the very notion because of your skill with spell casting.”
His chuckle burst into a full deep laugh. “Perhaps I am the one that should be called The Fool!”
“Uh,” Alex said. “I’m pretty sure that everyone would be too scared to say that to you. I know I am. Also, anyone that was stupid enough to say that to you would probably be very, very, very, super, unbelievably-extra dead with a side of potatoes.”
Baelin snorted. “Perhaps five hundred years ago, yes. Now, I am far more mellow in my dotage.”
Alex swallowed, shuddering at even thinking about being that old. That was nearly thirty times his age, and it didn’t even sound like Baelin was referring to five hundred years ago as a time when he’d been young. “Uh…how old are you, Baelin?”
“That’s not a very polite question to ask the elderly, Alex. It makes us feel old,” Baelin said. “Also, I am afraid I cannot give you an answer. When I was born, ‘writing’ was not really much of a thing, and things like the exact march of days, months and years were not so important. The only thing that mattered was whether the snows would drive south into our hunting grounds or not. As such, I do not know.”
“I…I’m not even sure if I know what that means,” Alex said.
“I do not expect you to. Suffice it to say, I am unnaturally old. That is all that matters, in the end.”
“Right, oh just one final thing…did you want to see The Mark?” Alex asked.
“Would it require that you remove your shirt?”
Alex paused. “Uh, kinda…yeah.”
“Then not now. I would, however, like to examine it at a later time and see exactly what I can make of…your god’s ‘gift’ to you.”
“Okay, then!” Alex rose, feeling relief wash through him.
He’d done it. After all this time, he'd actually done it.
“So? How was that? As you imagined?” the chancellor asked as he stood up from behind his desk.
“Uh, no, I kept imagining all kinds of bad stuff happening. I thought it’d be a lot worse,” he said honestly.
“Well, then there’s some weight off of you. I will call you to my office again soon,” Baelin said. “Then we’ll get this more organized. In the meanwhile, I’ll search the library and see what I can find on The Marks and anything about The Ravener, Uldar, and Thameland that might be recorded there. I do fear that with the death of Minervus, though, it will be some time before I can do this. You understand.”
“I’m just thankful we can do this at all, Baelin,” Alex said.
“Of course, of course, now…” he paused, looking at the firelight for a moment. The light of the flame flickered across his eyes and shining, golden beard-clasps. “In light of The Mark…are you still comfortable participating in the xyrthak combat class?”
“Absolutely,” Alex said. “I want to take a crack at it: if I run away from it now, that’s just going to leave me less prepared if I have to face something like that in the future.”
“Spoken like a Proper Wizard.” Baelin opened the door to the hall. “Very well. I shall see you in class, then. I look forward to seeing what this research will generate. The door will shut itself after you exit.”
“Thanks a lot, Baelin,” Alex said.
As the door was slowly closing, he found that the chancellor had already conjured an illusion of a map that he was examining.
It took Alex a few moments to realize that it was a map of Thameland.
He was still wondering about that as the door closed.
As his footsteps echoed through the hall, he thought about what had just happened and also what lay ahead.
In a single conversation, his life had changed again. Now—more than just emotional support—and friendship, he actually had an ally against The Ravener. A powerful one too.
Then again, he supposed it wasn’t really an ally against The Ravener, per se.
Baelin had never talked about wanting to help Thameland or defeat The Ravener: he’d only talked about the potential advancement to magic that could come from their research into dungeon cores. He’d offered to help Alex specifically, but he’d also said that if Alex had come to him without the results, that his reaction might have been different.
In a sense, they were allies because of the potential for a new road to open for wizardry, as opposed to any great moral cause. To Alex, that was good enough: it would have been a bit too much to hope that Baelin would suddenly get up and lead a one-wizard campaign of destruction against The Ravener. If he could even fight it one-on-one.
‘I wonder who would win in a fight between Baelin and the Heroes?’ Alex wondered. ‘He’s really powerful, but so are The Heroes. Cedric singlehandedly demolished all those silence-spiders with no problem, and he’s probably even stronger now that he’s had more experience fighting The Ravener’s monsters. Plus, there’s four of them…’
He pushed aside all daydreams of immortal wizards locked in a death battle against divinely-marked Heroes.
Now, it was time to tell his allies his secrets.
Alex swallowed. He hoped it would go well: he really liked his cabal-mates and it would be awful if they thought less of him.
In any case, he was sure that Thundar and Isolde would at least find it a big deal.
“What’s the big deal?” Thundar asked, sipping some milk out of a green coconut with the top cut off. “That sucks, I guess?”
He and the minotaur were sitting in a copse of trees away from prying eyes and ears. Alex had just unloaded all of his secrets and was prepared for the minotaur’s judgement.
“I-it is a big deal!” He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and prepared to launch into an explanation: “The history of The Heroes is a huge-”
Alex re-explained the role of The Heroes in Thameland, and everything he had discovered.
Thundar nodded along.
“Look…so it’s like a tattoo?” The minotaur scratched his fur. “It’s a tattoo that makes you good at some stuff and bad at others?”
“No it’s-” Alex started.
“No, you see, the thing about that is-” He tried to continue.
He stopped again, sighing.
“Okay so maybe that’s exactly what it is!” Alex cried, a bit frustrated. “But like…with danger and priests and monsters and…stuff! It’s a big deal!”
Thundar shrugged. “Look, I get it. It sounds real tough and I’m glad you told me, but if monsters come, then we kill ‘em. If priests come, we’ll beat ‘em up. That’s what a cabal is, right? It’s simple. Only thing this tells me is that I’ll be going to you for all tutoring from now on.”
“Look, I got this uncle, right?” Thundar held up a hand and made a swiping motion across his wrist. “Deadliest guy with a bow in the entire tribe. Horrifying. Then one day, a forest drake bites his hand off. So he gored it to death with his horns, then had the crafters make him a hook out of its bones. Wasn’t as good with a longbow anymore—but he could still hit a bullseye well enough from close—so he got it into his head to train with the war-axe, and strap a shield to the hook-hand instead. Now, he’s the deadliest guy with an axe in the entire tribe. You kick ass in combat class, and that’s the most important part to me…”
Thundar leaned in. “Now…about that tutoring.”
Alex gaped at the minotaur.
‘Okay, okay so…that’s different, I guess he doesn’t care but uh…he doesn’t understand the full context! That’s all!’ Alex nodded to himself while Thundar looked at him like he was crazy. ‘Isolde…now she’s going to find it a big deal. She’s so proper that I’ll need to be careful with her. She won’t see it the same way Thundar does.’
“I see,” Isolde said, nodding in a proper manner.
They were seated on a bench on a hill overlooking the sea. As with Thundar, they were all alone: from the gazebo they were seated under, they saw not a soul.
Silence grew between them as he watched her.
There was no hint of shock or disappointment. Just a thoughtful arch to one sculpted eyebrow.
“That’s all!?” Alex demanded.
She frowned. “Are you…angry?”
“N-no,” Alex said. “It’s just…I had built up this whoooole thing in my head and it was a big deal…really? ‘I see.’ That’s it?”
“No,” she said. “I have a few questions.”
“Oh thank The Traveller, what’s up?”
“What are the limitations to your spellcraft exactly, what can and can you not do? Will you be defenceless in a time of combat?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I’ve learned ways to hinder opponents and even do some damage to them if I’m clever about it. I’ve learned ways to defend myself just fine. I’ve also got ways to support a group when trouble comes.”
“I see, that is perfect, then,” she sighed, seeming to relax somewhat. “I should say that it…irritates me a little that this Mark has aided you so much in your studies…it almost makes me wish I had such a boon: at least the part that helps, not the part that hinders. Look how it will allow you to work closely with Baelin.” Her jaw clenched for a moment. “You said this Mark uses your own memories to enhance your learning, not impart knowledge to you?”
“Yeah, it points out what I did right so I can focus on that, but I have to actually practice and study for that to help me.”
“I see, so you still need to put in work. That, in a sense, is also a relief: now I know that your performance is due to your efforts and intelligence, but also has been aided by this Mark. Just as I have been aided by my grandfather’s teaching and my upbringing. It means you didn’t just trounce me on pure talent, and that is a relief.”
‘Thaaaaat’s what you’re focused on?’ Alex thought.
“But what about the death and horrible monsters…and…stuff?” he demanded.
“If I feared such things I would make for a poor court wizard in the empire. When we agreed to form a cabal we agreed to join together for mutual protection. I do not recall our oaths ending at: ‘if one of us actually encounters trouble’. I am no coward, Alex. I would not be in Baelin’s class if I were.”
She gave him a pointed look. “And besides, we have agreed to extend our cabal to the end of the school year, and so I shall watch and see how things are. Also, I expect that when I encounter danger, that you shall aid me as well, then?”
“Yeah, of course,” Alex said.
She gave a rare smile. “Then there is no issue. Thank you for trusting me with this secret, and for not waiting until some horrible circumstance revealed it and utterly destroyed any trust between all of us.”
‘Well it was a horrible circumstance for Minervus,’ his mind dryly noted.
“I do wish you told me of this information earlier, as there could be potential dangers, but your homeland is far, as are those dangers. Again, I see little reason to panic like a frightened child. Admittedly, had you told me earlier in the year, I might have judged you more harshly, as I would not have had the opportunity to see your capability first hand. But, I suppose things worked out for the best.”
Alex was twitching.
On a logical level, he realized that just because things had worked out with telling Baelin and the rest of the cabal now, didn’t mean they would have worked out if he’d told them earlier. They themselves had said that the reason they’d accepted things so readily was because they’d come to know him: if he had opened up with telling them all about The Mark, it seemed it might have gone very differently.
On an emotional level, though, he felt like screaming.
All the secrecy and agonizing, and trouble, just for things to turn out okay? How dare his friends be so supportive?! Where was the disaster he’d been imagining in his mind for the past six months?
Why wasn’t he in chains, being dragged back to Thameland?!
“Er, Alex, are you okay?” Isolde raised an eyebrow. “You have been…twitching, strangely for a while now.” She paused as though in realization, and then leaned in. “Is it because of The Mark? Is it working right now?”
Alex barely resisted the urge to jump up from the bench and throw himself into the sea.
Alex cracked his knuckles as he and Selina stood side by side in their workshop.
In front of them lay the golem parts that they’d completed: the head, the torso, the right leg and pelvis, and its four arms.
Only the left leg wasn’t finished, and that was nearly complete as well. Later, Khalik would come by to help fuse the limbs to the torso.
“Well, little goblin,” Alex said. “This is it. This is when we finally finish putting together the golem’s body.”
“I’m so excited,” Selina said, nearly vibrating with anticipation.
Alex smiled. Soon, they’d be finished with the body, and the next step would be working with Baelin to finish analyzing the dungeon core’s remains. Then—if all turned out well—he would create the golem core. Things were changing.
It was all coming together, but those weren’t the only big events coming up.
The semester was flying by, and soon it would be time for his class to confront the xyrthak in its lair within The Barrens.