“Ooooh this is a great bloody idea!” Alex said excitedly. “Thundar, you’re a genius.”
“Hey.” The minotaur tapped his thick skull. “This head isn’t only for ramming things.”
“I don’t understand,” Theresa said, frowning. “How is this different from coming together and just studying?”
“Well, it goes like this,” Alex said, recalling lessons of wizard history from his magic lore class and something Baelin had said. “Sometimes wizards form cabals, councils and other organizations to basically share power and for safety. There’s a few in Thameland, like the Witches of Crymlyn Swamp. Imagine it like a guild or a hunting lodge, except for wizards.”
“There are many on campus,” Khalik added. “Brotherhoods, sisterhoods…siblinghoods, societies and others. Some are like the General Student Association: they represent students and their interests to the school and in Generasi. My brother was a member. They organize events, support each other academically, and in other ways as well.”
“Cabals of wizards also share discoveries in their research into magic, and so each member progresses more quickly with their own discoveries,” Isolde added. “Some of the great old unions of the past, gained political favour as well, rising to become court wizards to kings and even emperors.”
“Oh, so it’s like a hunting party when you need to hunt, a study group when you need to study, and a council when you need to make decisions?” Theresa asked.
“Damn right,” Thundar said. “And we’re the baddest bastards in all of COMB-1000…if you don’t count a probably invincible shark man.”
“Yeah, we did kick some ass, didn’t we?” Alex agreed. He thought on The Heroes of Thameland—a group chosen and provided with the power to defeat the greatest of enemies. This…wouldn’t be like that. Instead, they would be their own group dedicated to backing each other up in times of trouble and supporting each other in times of peace. “I don’t think we should commit to this for life, though.”
The minotaur snorted. “Yeah, I’m not some little kid, proposing marriage just because I picked someone a flower. I’m thinking we support each other until the end of the year, and if we hate each other then, we shake hands—or punch faces—and away we go. But.” Thundar looked at Isolde. “You’re a second year. You probably have a lot less to gain from this than we do?”
“On the contrary.” Isolde shook her head. “You all are a year beneath me, that is true, but most of you are taking courses that are outside my chosen expertise. And, even if you are taking similar courses as I…”
She paused, and spoke a quick incantation, instantly casting forceball.
Alex’s eyes widened. She was about as quick as he used to be before The Mark: even if she was in a more advanced year, being able to cast the spell the way she had took talent, practice and skill. He’d only gotten to be as fast as he was after years of practice with one, single spell.
“I have cast a perfect example of the spell, right out of the spell-guide,” she said. “As such, it is a useful utility spell that sheds light and can support some weight. Yours, though, Alex—is monstrous—I had thought to duplicate your version, but your modifications must be extensive.”
Alex shrugged. “I made it work for me.”
“And so, we should make this.” She gestured to the group. “Work for all of us. You can teach me how you modified your forceball Alex, and I think that will be well worth uniting our efforts.”
“Yeah, and hey,” Alex said. “Next semester, if I’m in your class for mana manipulation. Then we can help each other.”
Something flashed through her eyes. A spark of determination.
“Well, then.” She smiled. “We shall aid each other. We all shall, and then grow together because of it. But…what do we call our little siblinghood?”
“The Herd of Thunder.” Thundar grinned.
Silence spread through the clearing.
Alex coughed awkwardly.
“Um, perhaps we don’t need to name ourselves quite yet,” Khalik said quickly. “We could take the time to think of a suitable name that we all will be pleased with.”
“Fine, but no matter how long you think, you’ll come back to my idea. It’s great,” Thundar said.
“Then we are adjoined,” Isolde said. “Until the end of the semester, we wizards shall work in union to overcome challenges both within our studies, and from without.”
The four wizards shook hands while Theresa witnessed it with a smile.
When Isolde took Alex’s hand, her grip tightened.
“We are adjoined, but to let you know, I shall be making all efforts to crush youwhen you enter second year mana manipulation,” she said with a challenge in her voice.
Alex grinned. “Sorry, it’s gonna be hard to crush me when you’re pinned firmly beneath the bottom of my boot.”
Isolde’s eyes flashed and her grip tightened further. “Challenge accepted.”
Alex’s smile faded slightly.
There was an edge to Isolde’s voice.
“Alex,” Theresa said as the two of them made their way back to the insula. “I think Isolde’s jealous of you.”
The group had finished their drinks, chatted, planned and set a date and time for their first meeting to share knowledge and help each other study as one group.
Isolde had then gone to find her friends, while Thundar and Khalik went on their way, discussing one of the courses they shared.
Alex had been feeling good after the meeting, but kept thinking back to the edge in Isolde’s voice.
“You noticed something too?” Alex asked. “I was thinking that maybe that was what was going on…but why would she be jealous of me?”
“Well, she said it herself, she strives to be the best and hates to lose. Then you come along and have accomplishments at least as good as hers, and better. Remember, you said that the graduate student who watched over your test knew of her and her accomplishments—and now she said they’re talking about you. For someone that’s striving to be the very best, that’d be kind of tough to take…especially if you’re trying to make up for an ex-partner ruining one of your accomplishments in the previous year.”
“Yeah, when you put it like that…” Alex muttered.
Already—in only a few months—Alex’s skill with mana manipulation had become a major point of pride for him. It was something he’d worked hard at even before The Mark—just from practicing forceball so many times—and The Mark had only made him better at it. When he got frustrated at his slow progress with spellcraft or his limits in other areas, he’d return to mana manipulation as something he could be truly proud of.
How would he have felt if next year someone showed up and was clearly as good as he was, if not better? Well, he might feel jealous, but then again, one can’t excel at everything. FORC–1550 was a perfect example.
“Do you think…you don’t think that it’s going to be a problem, do you?” Alex asked. He imagined Isolde going crazy with jealousy one day and then blasting him with lightning or something. She did seem pretty intense at times.
“I don’t think so.” Theresa thought out loud. “Isolde seems pretty reasonable. And…let’s see…folk called me the best hunter in Alric, but if someone moved into town who was obviously a lot better than I was, then I’d feel a little jealous, sure, but I’d also be happy if we could help each other out. Maybe it’ll be the same now that you’re all pooling your resources.”
“Then again,” Theresa said. “We still don’t know her very well.”
“Yeah, true, but I guess we’ll find out now that we’re going to be officially helping each other out and all.”
“Mhm.” Theresa nodded.
Their footsteps crunched on the path, and Alex looked down to see dried grape leaves littering the stones. He glanced up and noticed the side of a nearby building decorated with wreaths made up of dried grape vines. They were similar to the ones he’d seen in town, and the wreathes surrounded paintings of snarling monsters.
He nodded in the direction of the wreathes. “What do you think that’s all about?” he asked. “Some kind of festival?”
Theresa shook her head. “I have no idea, but if it is, I think it’s going to be a spooky one.”
“Yeah, definitely. Maybe we can ask Khalik when he gets back to the insula. He seems to know a lot about what goes on here thanks to his brother.”
Alex frowned as the image of the smiling prince crossed his mind.
They were entering into an official partnership—the four of them—and wizard unions shared knowledge. And sometimes secrets. Khalik had continued to come by the apartment to study, and had invited them over several times for meals. He had come to Selina’s affinity test and had jumped in to help her when she started screaming, just as he had.
Khalik also had his own secret, which he’d trusted Alex with.
The young man’s frown deepened and his shoulder seemed to itch.
Isolde had shared her feelings with the group and the result was a strengthening of relations between the four of them. What would have happened if she hadn’t voiced her thoughts? What would have happened had they just festered in silence for months? Maybe a year or more?
Again, that mad image of lightning being hurled by Isolde entered his mind.
Secrets could turn rotten if left to fester too long, and at this point, he was comfortable in saying that he and the prince were becoming good friends. And now they were going to work together both for advancement and protection.
Perhaps it was time to tell The Prince of Tekezash about The Mark.
Not necessarily Isolde and Thundar—not yet—but he thought his neighbour could be trusted, especially when Alex held one of his secrets too. Anxious thoughts returned: of Khalik calling him a coward or telling someone else.
The hair on the back of his neck raised as he thought back to Derek—how the slimy young man had earned Isolde’s trust only to ruin something that was really important to her.
He shook the thought away.
Khalik really had nothing to gain from doing anything like that to him, and his gut told him he could be trusted. He liked Khalik, and that was that. Besides, he was strongly beginning to consider telling Baelin as well: what the chancellor had done to help Selina had really helped solidify Alex’s trust in the ancient wizard.
So, he would tell Khalik first, and soon.
Then a little later, once he was a little closer to Baelin, he might tell him as well. He’d tell Theresa what he was thinking, just to get a second opinion, and then he’d think on the when and how to tell Khalik.
Even as he decided that, it felt like a weight had lifted off his body, and he rotated his shoulders. Secrets were heavy things, as were lies.
His mind turned toward something else.
Lies and dishonesty didn’t seem to bother him very much.
His frown deepened. In less than a week, Carey London’s rally to get priests onto campus was occurring.
Alex planned to observe it from a safe distance.
If something was happening with the priests and campus, he wanted to be the first to know.
“We need the presence of the divine on campus!” a student shouted from inside the Gates of Generasi, his voice amplified by a spell. It boomed over the grass, drawing the attention of passersby.
Campus for Uldar and others who had come out for the rally had gathered just within the school gates. The crowd wasn’t as large as Alex had feared it would be, but definitely larger than he’d hoped. More than fifty students milled about in the crowd, many of them holding signs that bore symbols of their deities.
Alex had climbed a tree a good hundred yards away—practice and increased strength had made it easy—and lifted a spyglass to his eye. It was a tool he’d borrowed from the Campus’ Astronomy Society—and spied the familiar form of Carey London holding a sign that bore the white hand of Uldar. In the crowd, he could see Derek going around, shaking hands and holding a sign with the four elements of the Rhinean Empire on it.
The rally was a spirited one: many students with musical talents had brought instruments and were sitting on the grass nearby, singing songs to their deities and chanting along with the rally’s slogans.
What Alex saw outside the campus gates made him very, very glad he hadn’t allowed himself to be bullied into attending. No amount of bullying would have made that happen.
Priests had gathered on the other side.
He recognized a white robed servant of Uldar along with clerics of other religions—some he recognized and some he didn’t—all standing beside each other. There weren’t many of them: less than ten in total, and they looked as nervous as mice at a cat convention.
Above them, floated the silent, terrifying Watchers of Roal. Three of them patrolled the rally on their stone disks, with weapons close at hand. The aura of disapproval rising off them was palpable, but they hadn’t said a word.
“We do not agree with the chancellor’s policy!” Carey shouted next, her magically enhanced voice booming as loud as a bear’s roar. “We are wizards! We are part of the world, as are the gods, and we cannot afford to let people suffer while we do not ally!”
Cheers went up from the rally.
“My homeland, Thameland, suffers beneath the yoke of a monster!” She cried. “The good that my people could receive from Generasi forming a union with the gods, would be incredible! We study magic, and are the deities not the most magical entities in all of creation?”
Alex had to admit, Carey was good at projecting her voice: her tone was clear and she sounded like someone who wielded authority. Her passion came through her words and—though most students were clearly uninterested, or only stopped for a few seconds out of curiosity—some had paused and were showing a clear interest in the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Alex’s interest was waning.
The rally was looking like it wasn’t going to result in anything too problematic for him. The priests looked terrified just being so near the school, and the protesting students—while they had voiced their objections—weren’t taking any actions beyond simple calls to action.
Meanwhile, he had cooking to do: the next day Thundar, Isolde and Khalik were coming to his apartment for their first meeting, and then afterward, Shiani, Angelar and Grimloch were going to join them for a picnic. There was no way the entire group would fit in his apartment, especially with Thundar and Grimloch present. He hadn’t invited Nua-Oge—the selachar wizard whose entourage Grimloch was a part of—because he didn’t actually know her, but he hoped that wasn’t some sort of rude oversight in terms of wizarding social rules.
Afterward, he and Shiani would talk to Selina. It was going to be a big evening.
He was about to slide down from the tree when something made him pause.
His mana senses were tingling.
His heart began to beat fast.
A strong wind began blowing through the treetops, and the air grew colder. There seemed to be a sinister whispering hidden in the gust. From somewhere close, he felt a similar magic to Baelin and Sinbrok’s spell being cast. It was almost teleportation magic, but slightly different.
Then a familiar, creeping feeling crossed his skin.
His eyes went wide.
It was similar to what he’d felt around the lesser shoggoth in Jules’ lab.
“Oh shit,” Alex whispered. “Something’s coming.”
And that’s when the screams began.