“Wait…” Alex started to take a step back. “You’re a what?” His words dropped to a whisper.
“A devil, boy!” Hobb’s voice boomed. “And no need to whisper, it’s not a secret. Not one worth keeping, at any rate. You know? Bargains for horrifying power for the price of your immortal soul? Become a king in return for the death of a loved one? Curse a farmer’s wife in return for one year of the lifespan of your firstborn? Come now, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of a devil.”
“Y-yeah,” Alex muttered.
Today had been a day and it wasn’t even close to over yet.
“Well, glad to see that the old ways are still being taught, or at least ways to avoid the old ways,” the registrar said. “But don’t dwell on it. You people live under a monarch your whole life, don’t you? They’re much more powerful than you—they could have you killed on a whim and stolen all your cows and sheep and coins and other mortal things—and yet I assume you do not live in constant abject terror that the king will ride down to your town and strip you of all your worldly possessions and loved ones, do you?”
Alex had actually never thought of the King of Thameland being able to annihilate Alric on a whim, and that revelation did not make him feel better about cosmic entities.
“You have to live, despite the dangers hanging above your head do you not?” Hobb said seriously. “After all, your lives are so, so, so dreadfully short in terms of your natural lifespan. And that’s not taking into account disease, or natural disaster, or food poisoning or such. Haha, and that’s just those who live quietly on their little…vegetable growing patches-Farms, I mean! That’s the term.”
Hobb placed his chin in his hand and looked despondent for a moment. “It’s a shame, really; time was that I could offer you a contract to extend your lifespan ten times over or more…at a bargain, I tell you, a true bargain! But alas, my current contract with the first chancellor prevents me from further deals with mortals until my time of serving here is done. So, you’ll have to find some other way of seeking immortality, my young friend. Don’t go making any deals with devils, though.”
He grinned. “Most of my crowd don’t find you mortals nearly so…cute as I do.”
Alex simply stared at Hobb, with his mouth agape.
“Now, now, I have paperwork to do and you have your list of accommodations to go through. It’s time for you to take your leave. Off you go.” He said pleasantly.
“Um,” Alex muttered. “Uh, right.”
He turned away from the desk.
“Oh!” Hobb said. “And do say hello to that little…siiiister, your other companion and cerberus for me, would you?”
Alex startled, looking back over his shoulder. “I, I thought you didn’t remember me?”
“Did I say that?” Hobb grinned like he was sharing a very, very old joke. “I do remember that I said: ‘I meet a lot of students. Many, many, many students every day.’ At no point did I say I didn’t remember you.”
He paused, and chuckled.
“You should try to pay more attention, Mr. Alex Roth. You are a student, after all.”
Khalik blinked as he lowered the glass from his lips. “A devil, you say?”
“Yeah.” Alex shook his head in amazement. “Not sitting in some summoning circle or on a throne of skulls or anything like that. Just right there. Behind a desk…” He paused. “Convincing students to go for extra perks from the school. Huh.”
“A devil as the registrar,” Khalik mouthed the words again, as though he couldn’t believe them. “I can’t fathom that my brother never told me about this.”
“Well, everyone else seemed to know.” Alex threw up his hands and slammed them back down on the table. “Ah, sorry, sorry!” He said quickly, when others at surrounding tables turned toward him at the noise.
He’d picked up Khalik from the insula right after his interaction with Hobb, and the two of them had made their way to The Brass Grapes: the closest wine bar to the southern insula. Considering that the City of Generasi was right in the middle of some of the finest wine country in the world, it was unsurprising that it was not the only wine bar on campus.
With it still being afternoon, the bar was not overly filled with students, but some—along with some staff—were passing the afternoon over glasses of wine, books, and light meals of fresh bread served with butter, cured meats and olive paste. Desserts of fresh fruit stood on many of the tables.
A light breeze blew through the open windows to the terrace and a bard sat on a stage on the far end of the wine bar from Alex and Khalik. She strummed her lute, singing an ancient song from a fallen empire where those with mana enough to practice were enslaved to a long fallen tyrant.
She sang of spellcasters uniting in bonds of blood. Of melting chains with flame magic, and freezing the hearts of their masters still. The song’s tone was triumphant and melancholic, but it didn’t raise Alex’s spirits in the least.
“Jeez, will you listen to that?” He took a long sip of his drink. It was smooth and delicious. “How the hell does someone enslave wizards?”
“Mmm.” Khalik cocked his ear toward the song. “I believe it was a time when those with enough mana to bewizards were rare in the extreme. So they were outnumbered. That meant less teachers and less opportunity to learn, and so they could be taken advantage of. Also, there are other powers, right? Divinity, for instance: that could be used to threaten wizards.”
Alex shuddered, thinking back on Hobb and the lesser shoggoth. There were always other powers. Greater powers.
“Can’t believe it. People who could build all this.” He gestured to their surroundings, meaning the entirety of the university. “Could be made so small. Domesticated like chickens.”
He remembered how Hobb had described mortals: ‘cute’. Like if Hobb was a giant looking down on a baby rabbit. Just like with that shoggoth thing, he had felt small. Tiny, even.
“Hrmph, for you—who barely blinked at a bonedrinker—to be like this? This shoggoth must have been a frightening thing to shake someone as brave as you.”
Alex blinked. “What? Brave? Me?” He glanced down at Khalik’s glass. “They put funny mushrooms in there?”
“Not in this drink.” Khalik grinned. “And yes. Brave.”
“Pfffft, I’m not brave,” Alex snorted.
The idea was ridiculous.
People who knew about his situation…his true situation, would probably outright call him a coward: chosen as a Hero by his god to help save the land, but then choosing to run away instead? That played right into the narrative that Galloway had created of previous Fools: Useless. Untrustworthy. Cowardly.
Of course, he didn’t really care about that: he had gotten a bad hand and folded. In gambling, that would be called: ‘reasonable’. But not brave.
Khalik raised an eyebrow. “You are not foolhardy, and I would not say you have the heart of a lion or such, but you are braver than most.”
Alex cocked his head. “How?”
“Now you’re just fishing for compliments,” Khalik chuckled. “But for one, you’re here? And you’re focused. Wizardry is not the safest path in the world, and yet you are here. As I said, you barely blinked at the bonedrinker and Muupkaras-”
“I was screaming when the muupkaras opened their jaws,” Alex said.
“Oh?” Khalik looked puzzled. “Those were not your battlecries?”
There was silence for a moment then both young men burst out laughing.
“No, not my battlecries,” Alex said, taking another sip of his drink.
“Well, seriously, you screamed, but then you attacked.” Khalik made a punching gesture. “And even signing up for COMB-1000 speaks of bravery. Oh, and when that frostdrake charged your sister and your love-”
“-your friend. For now.” Khalik smiled. “You jumped in their path, despite the fact that Theresa probably could have gutted the thing, if she can use that knife half as well as I think she can. You are braver than most, is my point.”
Alex felt his face grow warm. “Uh, thanks.” He scratched the back of his head, a little embarrassed. “For what it’s worth, you’re brave too.”
“I know,” Khalik said simply, taking another sip of his drink.
“But like…doesn’t this stuff freak you out at all? Devils and otherworldly monsters? How are you so calm about it?” Alex looked to Khalik.
The young man shrugged and adjusted his long plaits. “I have heard of devils before in my homeland. Our stories of them are not always ones of terror, blood, death and evil. And Hobb has not harmed anyone…” He paused. “…that I know of. And as for this shoggoth? What Hobb says is true: there are horrifying powers out in the universe.”
“No, no you wouldn’t be saying that so flippantly if you’d been near it, Khalik,” Alex insisted. “It just felt…wrong. When it made noise, you could feel its cries. Smell them. Taste them. And Jules and a bunch of her graduate students needed this super-cauldron and themselves all working together to keep it contained. And that thing was called lesser! I’d hate to ever be anywhere near a greater one!”
“Ah, I see.” Khalik nodded. “It got into your head.”
Alex gave him a look. “No, no, don’t go on with that kind of ‘I let it get into my head’ bullshit, Khalik-”
“I didn’t say you let it get into your head.” He looked at him pointedly. “I’m saying it got into your head.” Khalik’s eyes turned distant, and he tapped the table with a thick finger. “Have you ever seen a dragon before, Alex? I have. When I was a boy.”
Alex blinked. “No, uh…what, a dragon? You’ve seen an actual dragon?”
“That I have, that I have.” Khalik seemed rather proud. “It was from a distance, but I did see it in the Udan Desert, which lies between the Kingdom of Ibesti and my country of Tekezash to the southeast.”
He spread his hands.
“It was like a serpent as long as a city wall, with wings that could have shaded an entire forest. As it flew overhead, it swooped low and breathed fire against the sand. Turned it all to glass; a mile distant and I could still feel the heat. But that’s not all I felt.”
He chuckled, as though mocking himself.
“It flew overhead—over our caravan—not more than a hundred feet above us, and Alex.” He shook his head. “The fear, man. As soon as it got close to us, the fear penetrated my heart like a dagger, and I fell off the back of my horse. I hadn’t fallen off my horse for years and I tumbled to the sand like I had never mounted before.”
Khalik held up a hand. “Let me finish. I was not the only one. The warriors—who I would say have the hearts of lions—fell off their horses. My elder brother, who studied here and who I know has summoned demons to consult with for their knowledge of certain spells; he fell off his horse too. My uncle as well. Just everyone, on the sand whimpering like we were frightened babies. I was so humiliated that I did not want to show my face at home again…and then I found out what dragonfear is.”
He placed his glass on the table and drew a large, imaginary circle around it. “Dragons have an aura around them of supernatural fear, and the older they get, the stronger it grows. The fear penetrates the mind and infests the heart. Not fear from within-” He pointed to his own chest. “-but fear from outside.” He gestured around. “It is magical, and it digs into the mind like a pickaxe. I bet you that when you learn more of these shoggoths, you will find that this is true of them as well. I will bet you a good sum of coins on that.”
“Oh,” Alex said. “If that’s true…that makes sense, I guess.”
Warping of the senses? Reality not working the way it should? Sounded like something that would affect the mind. And didn’t one of the grad students say that—if whatever the lesser shoggoths worshipped—showed up, that its presence would turn the mind inside out? Maybe lesser shoggoths had that kind of effect on the mind. Maybe he wasn’t exaggerating just to scare him.
He should’ve asked.
If he thought about it too, it was similar to how The Mark affected his mind, or how the mana vampire’s magic had put others into an unnatural sleep. They were effects that came from outside power. If his senses weren’t being so twisted, then he might have noticed that about the lesser shoggoth as well.
“I guess it did,” he said.
“And think of this,” Khalik continued. “Hobb is bound by a contract, and so cannot do us harm. And this lesser shoggoth was bound and brought to heel by your professor and her students, even if they had to use a magic cauldron to do so. Terrifying things are out there, but we are arming ourselves against them. Think of it this way: who is better off? The person wandering through the forest in bliss, while having no idea that it is filled with bandits and killers? Or is it the one walking through the forest with fear in their heart, but they are cautious because they know of the danger, and they have elected to bring a spear and sword to protect themselves?”
“Yeah, yeah when you put it that way…knowing about it and being prepared is better,” Alex said.
In the end, it was similar to what he experienced in the Cave of the Traveller. The revelation that humans could control a dungeon core had freaked him out, but once he knew about it, it became a problem he could research and plan for. It should be the same with the revelation that horrifying cosmic entities existed.
Better he know about them and be able to arm himself with knowledge and magic, instead of being completely vulnerable and ignorant. Besides—just like with the dungeon core and The Ravener—it wasn’t something he needed to dwell on all the time.
“Has anyone ever told you’re like, super wise?” Alex said emphatically to Khalik.
“Haha, I try,” he said with a smile
“But, hey, it doesn’t change that part about kings and queens, though.” Alex took another drink. He gave a crooked grin, trying to lighten the mood, “About them being able to come down to the people whenever they want and do whatever they want.” He rose in his seat and put on a haughty expression like he was a queen. “What is that? I—the queen—am not the fairest of the land? Then off with the heads of everyone more beautiful than me! Poison their apples! Make them sleep forever…with the fishes!”
He laughed at his own joke, until he realized he was laughing alone.
Khalik’s smile had faded.
His eyes had turned hard.