The beastarium had been a good idea.
It was a soaring, round complex of forest and field—that most of Alric could fit within—surrounded by circular stone walls capped by a massive dome of magically enhanced supporting crossed brass bars.
To one side, there was a sitting area with tables and benches throughout for folk to sit, study or contemplate. They could also picnic in the field or treed area. The sheer number of unique animals and trained monsters were mind boggling.
Dog breeds of all sizes chased balls, sticks and each other across the grass, while ravens, owls—awake in the day, surprisingly—falcons and brightly coloured birds flew above, filling the air with both their songs and their cries.
Some didn’t make typical bird sounds. Instead, they were communicating using what sounded like words strung together. At times, they roared with laughter like they were sharing a joke. Alex watched all of this dumbstruck, wondering if it was just his imagination running away with him. But then he remembered talking, moving benches—among other things—were normal here, so why not laughing, chatting birds?
Orthri—large, two-headed hounds—bounded around with other breeds with long black fur and puffs of smoke spouting from their nostrils. Massive wolves ran with them and Brutus—frisky as a pup—had joined in with the pack as they raced each other around the field and forest.
Here and there, long lizards or giant toads sunned themselves beside their masters.
Alex’s group had finished an early picnic lunch. Selina had scooted off and was building a small model of the main castle—with all five towers—out of sticks dropped from above by well-tended trees.
Her brother looked at her while taking a short break from his forceball experiments. He’d have to see if he could get her some more bricks like Mr. Lu had carved for her, and some clay for her to sculpt people with.
Well, that would be a ‘later’ task.
Theresa’s eyes were scanning the reptiles, as she shook her head. “You know, in all of this, I really thought someone would have a dragon.”
“Yeah, you’d think.” Alex said with his noteback on his lap.
“Hah! Forty before the end of the month!” someone shouted from nearby.
A bald man with tattoos covering his scalp pulled out a small scroll, unrolled it and drew a line across it with his index finger. “Bloody knew it.”
“What’s that?” Theresa called at him.
The man chuckled, golden buttons on his uniform shaking with his laughter. “The other warden and I have a running bet. How many times in a month will someone ask: ‘Why isn’t there a dragon?’. Well, you’re the fortieth and he owes me all the pitchers of stout I can drink!”
As the warden, still laughing, stepped away to continue his rounds, Alex and Theresa looked at each other.
“There really should be a dragon,” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed.
Sighing, he returned to recording the latest results of his forceball experiments.
Spell Formation: Nineish heartbeats
Dissipation: Six heartbeats
Result of acting in opposition of ‘flicker’ failure: No improvements.
This morning he’d been focusing on a Mark-dredged up memory of when he made a spell array incorrectly a year ago that resulted in magic circuitry that was too—for lack of a better way to put it—narrow. It was like having a pump well with too small a pipe: the mana had only trickled through, starving the forceball, and it flickered and wobbled like a candle flame in the wind.
He’d thought that if he did the opposite of what he’d done during the mistake, he’d be able to make the magic circuitry more robust and better able to channel mana quicker, strengthening the spell. The theory seemed sound, but he couldn’t be sure since the experiment didn’t really work; he didn’t have enough mana to make a difference. He compared it to a bucket of water being able to overflow a cup, but a cup of water wouldn’t fill a bucket.
Still, continuing to practice the spell—sometimes to completion and sometimes only part way before killing the magic circuit—was helping him get more used to steering his mind through The Mark’s interference to focus on specific memories. He wasn’t able to tune out the interference, but he was beginning to get faster.
He glanced over at the forcedisk spell guide, tempted to try it instead.
‘No. Not ready,’ he thought, leaving the book alone as he remembered the explosion that had ripped through The Cells.
He wondered what to do next: he could dive into the spell again, but he’d already done it dozens of times that morning. His mind was starting to feel fried: maybe it was time to switch to something else. He made a quick note before moving on to skills training.
Training Day 8
Push-ups: Rest Day
Experimentation Day 3: BEGIN. FINISHED. Result: Increasing speed. No improvement of forceball
Skills: Writing (Other), Reading, Running
Maybe it was time to switch to reading.
He pulled out Dexter’s General Alchemy of Potions, flipping to the introduction, which he’d already read twice. His eyes focused on the familiar words while he concentrated on The Mark and focused on the skill of reading.
Memories of all the books he’d read appeared, showing him which words to focus on to understand a sentence’s meaning fast. It pointed out which words could be skipped as “noise”: words such as the ‘howevers’, the ‘therefores’ and definitely the ‘insomuchs’. His speed had already begun improving and—with The Mark aiding him in picking up key details on the page—he was quickly gathering the most important content from each page.
This way of reading used the same skills as those he’d used when The Mark ‘learned’ the surface of the walls in The Cave of The Traveller: so each time he read a page, he was gaining more and more subtle detail about the content. It meant that the information he was able to recall improved each time he went over it.
But he wasn’t only reading the same passage over and over. With each read, he’d go a little further in the book, adding more pages each time. After several passes, he started doing the little quizzes at the end of each section, testing how much of the new material he’d absorbed. The results were exciting: as The Mark improved his reading skills, he was beginning to pick out more details—even from new material—quickly and more comprehensively after just a single read-through.
He was also finding that he was learning some really interesting things: it said that potion-brewing and other forms of alchemy were based on combining unique magical and mundane substances in ‘recipes’. A wizard could then use a special apparatus—such as a magic cauldron or flask—to inject their own mana into the mixture to transform it and guide the reaction. This meant that a wizard could create substances that had strong, specific magical effects without having to use spell-arrays.
A problem, from what it said in Dexter, was that since mana-manipulation was difficult and the substances needed for the process were often rare or expensive, potion-brewing and alchemy weren’t nearly as wide-spread of a practice as simple spellcraft.
Reading that caught Alex’s interest and led him to wonder if past Fools had followed the path of potions before: since The Mark didn’t seem to interfere with basic mana manipulation, it seemed like a perfect way for a Fool to prove useful by accessing magic. It wouldn’t have been a simple thing to do, though: mana manipulation wasn’t an easy skill to train. Also, if someone didn’t already have experience with it before getting marked, it would’ve taken a while to get the basics down. They definitely would have needed some level of experience, since The Fool worked faster with more successful memories to take from. Even then, trying to practice would’ve been really hard to do while constantly on the road with the other Heroes, dodging monsters and dungeon cores.
He frowned, thinking about his situation and considering what the odds were that in all the centuries of Thameland facing the Ravener, he would be the only mage ever to have gotten The Mark of the Fool. Not for the first time, he wished he could have talked to some of his predecessors.
If some of them had escaped Thameland…
He shook off the thought. Later problems for later. Now problems for now.
Losing himself back in the book, he became so absorbed in it that Selina had time to switch to several different games, get bored, repeatedly ask, “what are you reading about?”—he teased her, reminding her that he’d predicted she’d be bored—and then for her to stomp off back to the trees in annoyed silence.
Theresa watched Brutus run for a while, then got up and began running with him when he separated from the other canines. She’d clap and rush around with him, they’d chase each other, and she’d rub his belly when he rolled onto his back. No fetch, though. She really was wasting an opportunity.
Eventually, Alex finished and shut the book, preparing to note his progress as Theresa returned, leaving Brutus with his new canine friends.
“Najyah!” another voice shouted. “Najyah!”
After which came more words in another language Alex hadn’t heard before, spoken rapidly in annoyed tones. Crossing the field was their neighbour, the young man from the southern insula who had the eagle.
The emphasis was on had.
His eyes were scanning the skies above, and he looked worried. “Najyah!”
The man looked toward the trees and spied Alex’s group. He paused for a moment, then started making his way over to them, waving slightly.
Alex and Theresa waved back, while Selina only glanced up, before double-taking and focusing on the newcomer.
“Eh, hello,” the stranger said—his common tongue thick with an accent. “Sorry to interrupt you.”
“It’s alright, neighbour.” Alex shrugged, closing the book. “You need something…?”
“Khalik,” their neighbour introduced himself with a dignified dip of his head.
“I’m Alex, this is Theresa, and that’s my sister, Selina.”
“Hello,” the little girl said in a small voice and Khalik responded with another nod.
“Good meeting you,” he said. “Erm, yes, you have seen my eagle, Najyah, yes?”
‘I think you could see it from ten miles off,’ was what Alex wanted to say, but responded instead with: “Not recently. What about you, Theresa and Selina?”
They both shook their heads and Theresa said. “Not since we got here. Did you lose it?”
Khalik sighed. “She is my familiar, but em, sometimes she can…” he searched for the word. “...go away? Mischievous thing. I feel that she is somewhere close, but she is not letting me search her out. I had hoped someone had seen her.”
He sighed, placing his large hands on his hips. “No help, I must search the woods. Er, thank you for your time.”
“Hold on a second.” Alex climbed to his feet. “Last time I checked, four eyes were better than two—just ask those two headed dogs or Brutus over there, though he’s got six—if you want some help? It’s the neighbourly thing to do.”
Besides, this would be a nice break before he did his notes.
The other man paused for a moment. “Very well, I accept your help.” He waved Alex over. “Walk with me.”
“I’ll be right back, keep the spot warm while I’m gone?” Alex asked Theresa.
“Already on it,” she said lazily, stretching out on their blanket.
The two young men entered the well-kept forest side by side. Alex glanced at Khalik, noting the man’s broad shoulders and barrel-like chest. He wondered how many push-ups he’d need to do to look like that. And how did Cedric look like Cedric? Was that all Mark of the Chosen, or was he always like that?
“Najyah!” Khalik cupped his hands over his mouth. “Najyah! I hope she is alright. There are many beasts here, and I do not know if all are friendly. Do you know this place well? Are the creatures safe?”
Alex shrugged, scanning the trees for any sign of giant eagles. “We got to the university about a week ago. I think you might know more about this place than we do.”
“I only arrived a week earlier.” Khalik stepped beneath some branches and looked up, but only a pair of hawks and some of the colourful birds perched there, laughing. “I have not explored much.”
“Then we both know nothing,” Alex said lightly. “I see you’re in the apartments, did you bring an entourage too? Will they be auditing courses?”
Khalik paused for a moment. “The…journey from my kingdom was difficult. There were dangers. Only Najyah and I made it.”
Alex froze. “Oh…I’m sorry.”
“Hm, for what?”
“Well, uh, your friends and family. Well, they died.”
‘Oh wow, good job, Alex,’ he chided himself.
“Hm? Oh no! Excuse me, I did not use the words of the Common tongue correctly. My companions did not die. Some were injured and needed to rest. Others said that we should turn back and return home.” His eyes hardened. “But that was not a choice for me, so I continued alone with Najyah.”
“Oh…” Alex winced, thinking of having left the Lu family behind to escape Thameland. He thought about what would have happened if Selina or Theresa had been hurt on the way to Generasi. What would he have done? Even with people to take care of them, could he have gone on by himself?
Would he have wanted to, even if The Heroes weren’t after him?
He was thankful he hadn’t had to answer those questions, like this young man had to.
“It’s hard to go on alone, can’t imagine what it must have been like,” he said.
Khalik glanced at him. “It took will,” was all he said.
“No wonder you’re so worried about her. Your Najyah.” Alex turned in place, glancing up through the canopy. “She’s the one that stuck with you.”
“Hah, you sound-Wait.”
Khalik squinted through the bushes only to suddenly cry out and start crashing through them. Alex followed and winced at what they found.
The magnificent eagle was collapsed on the ground, with its wings splayed in the dirt and its neck at an unnatural angle. She didn’t look like she was breathing.
Alex ran up beside Khalik as the man shouted something in his mother tongue. Tension rose in Alex. Had something killed her? Was there something dangerous loose in the beastarium? Was it another mana vampire? Did familiars have mana?
For a moment, he was sure some monster sent by the Ravener had-
A sudden screech split the air.
As the two young men reached the eagle and bent over her, she suddenly shot into the air and screeched at the top of her lungs, spreading her beak and wings wide. Khalik and Alex screamed, stumbling back and tripping over tree roots to land on the forest floor.
The pair groaned and looked up to find Najyah—very much alive and looking very proud of herself—standing in front of them. A twinkle lay in her sharp eyes as she spread her wings and shot up through the trees, leaving a series of short cries behind.
They almost sounded like laughter.
Khalik shook his fist at her, yelling something in his mother tongue, before grumbling and jumping to his feet. He held out a hand to Alex and dragged him up. “I am so sorry, Alex, as I said, she has a mischievous spirit, though this is too far even for her!”
“Well, I guess better mischievous than ‘unbelievably evil and vicious’.” Alex groaned, rubbing his back. “Still…ow.”
The other young man shook his head. “I shall need to scold her later.” He glanced at Alex then helped brush dirt off of the young man’s clothes.
Together, they started out of the forest.
Khalik said something under his breath. “And I must buy you a meal. For you and yours. I wasted your time.”
“No, no, you’re fine.” Alex waved him off. “Now, your bird might have taken ten years off my life but hey, what’s life without a little terror, right?”
The beginning of a smile began to form on Khalik’s face through his beard. “Agreed, danger is to life as salt is to food. Too much ruins all. Too little makes meals bland and unpleasant. But just enough? Makes a feast.”
“Well, I guess I like my food bland, usually,” Alex said as the two young men made their way toward the edge of the forest. “I say that, but then I go and enroll in COMB-1000 like a genius.”
Khalik raised an eyebrow in interest. “You too? How fortuitous! I had thought I wouldn’t meet anyone taking that course until it started, I think-
Another scream tore through the air ahead.
Alex’s heart stopped.
He knew that scream well.
“Selina? Selina!” he started sprinting through the trees.