They ran out of the forest to see a reptilian monster rushing toward Selina from across the field.
It was huge—the size of a half-grown brown bear—and was covered in white scales. All four claws churned the earth. Horns rose from its head and steam burst from between its jaws and nostrils. A massive tail whipped back and forth as it sped through the field.
At its back Alex could see someone running after the beast—frantically calling and waving a hand—but the only thing he could hear was his sister screaming. She was near the picnic area, running as the monster rushed toward her. Theresa ran up beside her, drawing her hunting knife and facing the monster. Alex ran as hard as he could, his mind working to find a way to stop whatever was about to happen.
And then Brutus was there.
He jumped between Selina, his master and the beast, lowering his heads and growling at the monster. It skidded to an abrupt halt. The reptile shifted its gaze from Selina to Brutus, staring at him and arching its back like an enraged cat. It snarled and hissed, trying to intimidate him.
Two of the cerberus’ heads growled back while his hackles rose. His third head barked at the monster, warning it to back away.
Then they lunged at each other.
“Get away from him!” Theresa screamed as Alex pulled up beside Selina and her, wrapping his arms around the two of them.
“No!” his little sister cried. “Leave Brutus alone!”
The two beasts snapped and fought each other, sending most of the smaller beasts into a panic. The larger ones simply watched, while students stared in shock. The massive red-eyed reptile had the weight advantage, and kept snapping and trying to tackle Brutus. As it snapped, more white smoke poured from its mouth and nostrils; the air began to grow cold.
Frost started to cake the grass beneath it and touch the cerberus’ fur.
But Brutus wasn’t backing down.
The big cerberus was faster than the reptile.
He darted at it, snapping with all three heads to make it retreat before jumping out of the way when it tried to bite back. His charges were driving the beast further into a frenzy, and the differences in their experience became clear. The beast was strong and obviously magical, but it fought with only instinct. Brutus was a trained hunting dog who had not only instinct, but also experience in taking down large animals and—recently—silence-spiders.
The monster roared, then jerked its head forward, but Brutus darted past its long neck. It swiped at him with its claws but he dodged back, then leapt forward as its leg came down.
All three of his jaws closed on the reptile’s hind leg as its master shouted in panic.
Though his teeth didn’t pierce its scales, Brutus tugged while the monster struggled and lost balance, tipping onto its side. The cerberus jumped on it then, seizing its neck in his jaws. The reptile froze.
Brutus looked up at Theresa, waiting for her command.
She said not a word, glaring at the creature’s owner. If looks could kill, the student would have been dead andburied.
“Get away! Get away from Glacius, you brute!” the beast’s master rushed toward Brutus and his pet, reaching into one of his pouches and pulling out a dagger with a blue glowing blade.
“Have you lost your Uldar-damned mind?” Alex roared. “Your piece of shit lizard was charging my little sister! It would have crushedher if it wasn’t for Brutus! Step. Back!”
“If you touch a hair on my dog,” Theresa snarled. “I am going to break your jaw so badly that you’ll be eating broth for a year.”
“Your monster is killing my Glacius!”
“He’s not you, idiot!” The huntress took a step forward, pointing her knife at the reptile. “Brutus is trained, unlike your wild beast. He’s not going to make a kill now that your pet’s not trying to rip him open, unless I tell him to! Train your beast, or keep him away from people!”
Khalik stood off to the side, folding his arms over his chest and watching the argument silently. A fierce cry signalled that Najyah was circling overhead.
The reptile’s owner was turning red in the face, but he took one look at the knife in Theresa’s hand and didn’t move any further. “It’s your monster that overreacted! My Glacius wouldn’t hurt a fly!”
“Then why was he charging my sister?” Alex ground his teeth.
His hands balled into fists and he shook with anger.
“I…” the other young man stammered. “I don’t know! He’s never done this before! He probably wanted to check her out, and then your savage monster-”
“And that is enough of that!” a new voice shouted.
There was a crack in the air.
Iron chains sprung up from the grass and shot over both Brutus and Glacius, wrapping around them both. The chains clinked as they flexed, pulling them away from each other and dragging them to the ground. The lizard screeched and Brutus growled.
“Who did that?” the reptile’s owner screamed. “Unhand Glacius!”
“Get that off of him!” Theresa pulled away from Alex, starting toward Brutus.
The warden of the beastarium stalked toward them, his face like a thundercloud. “Stay where you are. I’ll not have violence in my sanctuary. You put those weapons away right now, both of you, or I’m calling the Watchers.”
The reptile’s owner’s mouth opened and closed like a gasping fish, but he reluctantly sheathed the glowing dagger. With a glare, Theresa put her knife away.
“That’s better. Civil-like, even.” The warden glowered at everyone involved. “Now, better someone explain to me what happenedhere.”
“Their beast attacked my Glacius!” the reptile’s owner said quickly, stepping toward the warden. “He’s a peaceful frostdrake, well-behaved and used to children! Their monster tried to kill him!”
“Our monster? Your monster charged my little sister! It would have killed her!” Alex took an aggressive step toward him, even though The Mark would have made such a threat pointless. He silently cursed it.
“Your filthy lizard tried to hurt Selina,” Theresa growled, holding onto Selina tightly. “It attacked Brutus-”
“Glacius was defending himself!”
“-after he tried to attack a ten-year old girl?” Theresa snapped. “Are you listening to yourself?”
Brutus growled, struggling against his chains while Glacius remained still.
“Alright, that’s enough! Enough!” The warden held up his hands. “Everyone’s saying their own story, and everyone that’s talking is involved.”
“Then what of my story?” Khalik’s deep voice cut in. He stepped forward, eyeing both beasts. His arms remained crossed. “I saw the frostdrake's approach. I do not know if it was aggressive or not, but I can say it looked like the charge of a lion. The reptile might look docile now, but to me—and I think anyone with eyes—it looked like it was about to attack the child.”
He looked around to the gathered students. “Did anyone else see? What did its intentions look like?”
Silence followed, and then someone raised a hand. “Um, it looked like it was about to attack the little girl.”
A few other murmurs spread through the crowd.
The warden watched them all carefully, then looked down to Brutus’ struggles and Glacius’ quiet acceptance of its restraint. He looked to Alex’s group. “Someone tell that cerberus to calm himself. I’m going to check for injuries and I don’t want him taking my arms off.”
Theresa looked at the warden for a long time before sighing. “Brutus, lie down. Stay.”
One of his heads cocked at her, but the fight immediately went out of him. He laid down on the grass by his own will, no longer fighting against the chains.
“That man is going to look at you, okay?” Theresa’s voice was gentle and soothing. “He’s a friend. Friend.” She repeated.
The warden watched as Brutus whined, then looked at him with caution but no threat in his eyes.
“Well trained,” the warden commented as he bent by Brutus’ side.
The other young man looked like he wanted to say something, but seemed to decide against it.
The warden clucked his tongue while examining the cerberus, then shifted over to the frostdrake. “A little bit of frost on the cerberus’ fur and a few scratches on the frostdrake’s scales. No harm done.”
Finally calming enough to think straight, Alex looked down to Selina. “Are you okay?”
She nodded quietly. “Yeah.” She looked at the frostdrake with more curiosity than fear now, though her breath still shook.
Glacius was watching her very closely.
Studying her with his burning red eyes.
The lizard sniffed the air in her direction, then turned its long neck back toward its master.
“Right, this could have been a lot worse.” The warden stood. “Cerberus teeth can tear through frostdrake scale if they get a good grip, and this frostdrake didn’t use its ice breath at all. It seems that neither was going for the kill in this little scrap.”
He paused. “I’m going to let ‘em up now. Call your pets when I release them.”
The chains melted into a rusty powder that disappeared. The beasts’ masters quickly called their companions back to their sides. Brutus gave the frostdrake a final look before padding over to Theresa, while the reptile looked not at the cerberus, but at Selina, before rejoining his master.
Both creatures sat beside their owners, as calm as though the fight had never happened. They seemed to have completely lost interest in each other. The warden watched them carefully.
“Alright. They both look quiet now.” He glanced at Selina. “Are you alright, child?”
Selina nodded silently.
“Okay, then. The way I see it: the frostdrake went to the child out of curiosity, but came off a little aggressive. Frostdrakes aren’t known for looking ‘gentle and friendly’. Cerberi are pack beasts: of course when a big predator is charging one of their own, they’re going to protect. He made a threat, and the frostdrake responded: fight got out of hand, but both beasts are trained enough to not have made it as bad as it could’ve been. No ice breath and no scales torn away to deal real damage. So, since no damage was done, and the child wasn’t hurt, I’ll be lenient. I’m going to ban both of your pets from the beastarium for a week. Any argument makes it two weeks. When they’re back, I expect proper behaviour from both of ‘em. Understood?”
Glacius’ master paused, then eventually sighed. “As you say warden, sorry for the trouble.” He gave Alex’s group a confused look. “I…as I said, Glacius never acts like this.”
Tapping the reptile on its side, he led the frostdrake toward the gate to the beastarium.
Alex glanced from the monster to Selina, who was nearly calm now. He looked around the beastarium; it was full of beasts and people, but the monster had not bothered with any of them.
Why Selina? Was it because she was a child? He didn’t see any other children around so he couldn’t come to any conclusions.
“Well.” Khalik sauntered over to them. “That could have been a lot worse and I’m glad you are unharmed, little Selina. And that your beast is as well, Theresa. You have trained him well and he might have prevented a catastrophe.”
“Thanks, he means a lot to me.” She smiled, rubbing Brutus and making sure the warden hadn’t missed any injuries.
Khalik smiled. “Maybe you can work your magic with my Najyah: she can be a little willful sometimes. But for now, who’s hungry? I still owe you a meal. Walk with me. I’ll show you somewhere a little better than the regular eatery; it even has a separate place for familiars and pets to have a meal too.”
The food at Generasi was good and—more importantly—its cost was included with tuition; raw ingredients and fine foods could be fetched from the central student market with a simple flash of Alex’s student card. For those with a little extra coin, though, there were other options.
One was the Titan’s Lens.
It was a restaurant located at the top of a tower deep within campus—high enough so that there was a view of the sea from it, over Generasi’s walls. Its walls were mostly glass and its roof was left open to the sky, but the interior was protected by a massive wind-and-rain shield. The room slowly revolved atop the tower, allowing diners to have a panoramic view of campus, city, ocean and inland vineyards.
The food itself was incredible: the menu had maybe twenty times more items than McHarris could ever dream of making.
Alex, Theresa and Selina had stared at it in choice paralysis, until Khalik made some suggestions. Alex ended up with a spicy chicken dish on skewers, with pickles, turnips and a heavy helping of creamy garlic sauce. It was delicious, even if he wasn’t sure he could handle such rich food everyday.
Khalik watched them all tear into their food with an amused look as he bit into a spiced beef rib dish. Theresa had a venison steak in wild mushroom sauce with baby sweet potatoes, while Selina had a smokey bacon steak with glazed apples that was rapidly disappearing from her plate.
“I need to steal some recipes,” Alex said in approval.
“Good luck with that.” Khalik finished swallowing a chunk of meat. “I was told the chefs guard their recipes more carefully than the books are guarded in the library. I am glad it is to your liking, though.”
“How couldn’t it be?” Theresa cut another piece of steak. “Do kings eat like this? This is how I imagine kings eat.”
Khalik merely smiled.
“But,” she continued. “Is this okay? I saw those prices. They’re not cheap.”
“Please, do not worry for that.” The young man shrugged as though it were of no concern. “When we finish eating, we shall simply get up and run for the door. They cannot catch all of us.”
The table went dead.
“I joke! I joke!” Khalik laughed. “I shall be paying, of course. It is a matter of recompense, fellowship and hospitality.”
Suddenly, Najyah’s sense of humour started to make sense.
Alex couldn’t help but feel a little jealous, considering their own financial situation. He and Theresa had been thinking of ways to start generating an income, but nothing had come up yet.
“Alright, Khalik, this is worth way more than me walking a few minutes to help you find your bird.” Alex spread more garlic sauce on his chicken. “I assisted a baker for years: sometime soon, I’m going to bake a couple of pies in the insula’s kitchen. You should come over for a slice or two.”
“Or more.” Theresa added. “Alex always bakes them too big.”
“That’s not what your brothers say.”
“My brothers are at least half pig. But what was this about your bird?”
Alex and Khalik recounted the story about Najyah, and Theresa burst out laughing when they got to the part about them falling over in fear.
“When you come over, you should bring her, she sounds incredible,” she said.
“I want to see her too, she’s so pretty.” Selina swallowed her last bite of bacon steak.
Khalik raised his hands as though in surrender. “Alright, it seems you have left me no choice. I shall attend your residence…with Najyah, though I will make sure she is on her best behaviour. No frights. No playing dead. ”
“Right, I thought of something.” Alex put his fork down. A clever thought had occurred to him earlier: one he hadn’t needed The Mark to come up with. He was fairly proud of it too. “That act she put on? I know it scared us, but it's a great way for meeting people. Especially women. Imagine it: someone comes with you looking for her, she plays dead. You get scared, then Najyah scares you both! You fall into each other’s arms, laugh about it, exchange names and…uh…and…”
Khalik was listening with a look of curiosity.
Theresa was also listening. With her full ‘deathstalker’ face on.
“How very clever,” she said, with a politeness so sharp it could have cut steel. “Do you regularly think of things like that?”
“Well,” he stammered. “Well uh-”
“I am sure Alex was only giving advice to me, since he knows I am alone and have neither friends or sisters to keep me company,” Khalik cut in, as brave as one of Thameland’s Heroes. He gave Alex a pointed look. “A simple suggestion to meet people, and not one for himself. I am surprised he even had time to think of it earlier, with how quickly he jumped to protect you and young Selina.”
Theresa paused, and Khalik continued. “Truly, I have seen few people move so quickly. In my homeland, our warriors wrestle crocodiles—after years of training—but your friend jumped to protect you both from that great reptile with the same ferocity. A fine companion you have: he gives friendly advice on meeting people—since he knows that I came to Generasi alone—and he rushes to protect his friends and loved ones.”
‘Deathstalker’ face shifted a little. “Yeah…he’s a good friend.” She gave both of them a sidelong look.
As she looked away and Selina watched her, Khalik threw Alex a quick wink.
Alex blinked. Of all the people he’d met in Generasi—including the chancellor that walked out of thin air—Khalik might have been the most deserving of the title of ‘wizard’.
He had a feeling they’d get along.
An idea occurred to him. “Say, Khalik, since we’re both in that spicy COMB-1000 course. What do you say we do some training together before it starts?”