“Have you heard anything more about the demon?” Khalik asked Alex. He asked the question slowly, almost like a child asking a parent about something they shouldn’t know.
“No, have you?” Alex grunted, adjusting the weight of Khalik’s table as they carried it down the hall of the insula.
“Not a word. Nothing beside rumours and fears,” Khalik frowned.
Other students pressed themselves against the hall’s walls, letting them pass. Alex had cast two Wizard’s Hand spells to support the table, and Khalik had cast a spell that conjured a small floating disc of stone to lift and steady it. Once they’d gotten down the hall, the two young men eased it into Alex’s apartment.
It was empty, except for Brutus sleeping and dreaming on the balcony floor.
Theresa and Selina were downstairs keeping an eye on the soufflés, hot bread and roasted meat that Alex had prepared for their evening supper after the first meeting of the little cabal.
Alex and Khalik pressed two tables against each other. The plan was to picnic after their meeting, but—in case anyone wanted to come back and relax, Khalik had proposed they bring his table to Alex’s place.
The young man leaned against the table for a moment.
“So…has anything like this happened before?” Alex asked. “Anything your brother told you about?”
Khalik sighed. “I remember once he told a story of someone from the city who raided Generasi’s graveyards and raised the dead. They used magic to pierce the city’s wards that protect the graveyards from necromancy and then cloaked them in illusions powerful enough to foil The Watchers of Roal.”
He spread his hands. “And then they unleashed them on the campus.”
“Oh shit,” Alex said. “Why?”
Khalik frowned. “If I remember correctly, some wizard wanted some other wizard’s daughter dead, and they decided to use a mass attack on the school to hide the evidence of their target. It all came out in the end, but a few people died.”
Alex winced. “Can’t believe anyone would do that. You should’ve seen what Baelin did to that demon. Like…I would never, ever, ever want to piss him off.”
“I think they picked a time when he was away.”
“Wow, that’s rough.” Alex shook his head. “I guess there’s more dangers around here than accidents, carelessness and mana vampires.”
“That there is,” Khalik said darkly. “And did you hear about the mana vampire attacks?”
Alex remembered overhearing talk of a mana vampire in the countryside, but that had been a couple of months ago. “I heard there was one in the countryside awhile back. Didn’t they get it yet?”
“No,” Khalik said. “There’ve been attacks in the countryside, and some monster hunters reported they sighted it in a swamp close to the sea, but no one’s been able to catch it. Most of the attacks have been in the countryside, but last night, there was an attack within the city itself.”
Alex’s blood chilled. He’d had a few shifts in Shale’s Workshop while Lagor was training him and the other assistants…he imagined what might have happened if one of those creatures—powerful and healthy, not starving like the one he’d fought—leapt out of the dark while he was on his way home.
What he would give to know one of Baelin’s powerful teleportation spells.
“How’d you hear about it?” Alex asked.
“A couple of students were talking about it in earth magic this morning. Most people didn’t notice it…what with everyone’s mind solely focused on the demon.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. He made note to keep more alert going to and from work. “Well, maybe we can talk about defending ourselves in the meeting today. Like it could be one of the first things we need to talk about.”
“A fine suggestion,” Khalik smiled. “Since we’ll be together, we should talk about what we can do to defend ourselves and each other if we’re together, or apart.” He gave Alex a piercing look. “Have you learned an attack spell yet? In your force class?”
Alex paused. “Started working on it, but haven’t gotten it down yet.”
Khalik scoffed, arranging Alex’s chairs around both tables before the two of them began making their way back to his apartment to get his chairs. “Can’t believe ‘Mr. Golden Lettered Name’ hasn’t completed the whole course yet.”
“Yeaaaah, not yet,” Alex said.
But that hadn’t been for lack of trying.
The first thing he’d done after the demon summoning incident was switch from slowly learning Orb of Air, to going right to trying his hand at force missile.
As he had feared, it had not gone well.
The Mark had pulled double duty in going against combat spells. The flood of failures, distractions and disruption in his mind was twice as hard and twice as vivid. Not only did his every failure in spell casting slam into his mind, but they were coupled with every single failed combat maneuver, clumsy movement, or badly dodged blow he’d ever experienced in his life.
He nearly caused a mana reversal when—about 5% through force missile’s spell array—he suddenly felt like he was falling down the stairs all over again like during his fight with the mana vampire.
Progress had been slow, and every step he’d taken was honestly terrifying. He was incredibly thankful that he hadn’t attempted any combat spells before he learned the meditation techniques from Theresa.
His work with Orb of Air had brought a lot more success. It was a harder task than learning force shield—since the spell arrays for air magic were largely unfamiliar to him—but he’d gained enough experience with other first tier spells that he was getting a good grasp of it fairly quickly.
That had been a relief: if he could apply his analysis of spell arrays to help learn magic from other schools besides the school of force, then that would be a good indicator that he’d be able to really expand his magical stock of spells despite The Mark’s interference.
There were still two things that he had to worry about:
The first was how he would pass the FORC-1550 assignment for force missile. Right now, the class was still working on force shield, but he wouldn’t have forever to perfect force missile. The assignment would come due, and if he couldn’t even cast it, that would be a pretty bad blow to his average in the course.
Another strange thing he’d noticed was that Professor Ram had been paying a lot more attention to him lately. Whenever Alex practiced his force magic in class, he’d look up now and catch the instructor watching him closely.
Ram’s face was almost always grim beneath his thick black beard, but it seemed even grimmer lately whenever he looked at Alex.
He wondered if it had something to do with his performance in class: Ram of course didn’t know that he had a divinely branded Mark that hindered his magic, so to him, Alex’s slow speed at casting spells could only look like lack of skill, lack of practice or laziness.
Alex’s eyes followed Khalik’s back as the broad-shouldered young man led the way back to his apartment.
And that was the second thing he was worrying about.
The more time went on, especially after the demon attack and with their little cabal forming, the more Alex wanted to tell Khalik about The Mark.
A thought had occurred to him after the attack: what if the demon had been summoned to attack him. The history books hadn’t told of any times The Ravener had summoned demons to attack Thameland, but the history books also hadn’t talked about humans being able to control a dungeon core.
Anything was possible, so, there was a possibility that someone or something had sent the demon to attack him. The more he thought about it though, the less likely it seemed: if something had been sent to attack him directly, then why wouldn’t it have targeted him specifically?
But even if it was unlikely, that didn’t mean that someday something wouldn’t come for him. He’d been preparing as best as he could, but now he had close friends that would work with him. What would happen if a demon, other monster or some sort of church official leapt out from behind a bush and screamed: “Ahaaaa! I finally foooouuund yoooouuuu!”
The demon attack—whatever the reason behind it—had resulted in a lot of students getting some terrible wounds, and if a monster or something else came after him, he couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t get caught up in the conflict.
His mind conjured a scenario where he, Khalik, Thundar and Isolde were casually walking through campus one day and silence spiders jumped out and ambushed them from a tree or top of a building.
What would he do if they—unprepared—had an insectile blade pierce through their hearts. If he survived, would he ever be able to live down the fact that he’d never even tried to warn them?
At the very least, Khalik had trusted him with his secret, Alex could share his too. Out of all the people he’d met on campus, he and Khalik were the closest. At least he could start with just him.
Now, if only he could find the best way to say it.
“Huh, wha-?” Alex blinked, shaking his head. “What’s up?”
Khalik was shaking his head with a rueful smile. “You were daydreaming like some kind of sun-blinded fool.” He chuckled.
His floating stone carried one of the chairs.
Najyah—sitting on her perch—made a quiet chirping noise as she watched the two young men closely.
“A lot on your mind?” Khalik asked. “Something from the attack?”
“…Khalik,” Alex said suddenly. “Can…can I tell you something, after the meeting?”
“Hm?” Khalik cocked his head, his face turning grave. “What is the matter? You can tell me now.”
“No…better we get that done first and then…yeah it’s going to take awhile to talk about.”
“Hmmm,” Khalik frowned in worry. “It sounds serious…”
Quietly, the prince crossed the room and carefully shut the door. He turned back to Alex; his face full of concern. “You are not sick, are you?”
“No, no.” Alex waved away the concern as his two Wizard’s Hands picked up the chairs. Baelin’s display with…whatever that hand spell was had encouraged Alex to really focus his spell customization on that spell.
Wizard’s Hand had a lot more versatility than forceball or force disk, so if he could just get his power and control over it up to the same level as the other two-
“Alex.” Khalik squinted at him. “Come back.”
Alex shook his head again. He mentally checked himself, noticing an icy feeling in his belly. Nerves. Strong nerves. A large part of him was screaming to not tell Khalik.
To not tell anybody.
So, his mind was distracting him. Trying to stall him until it could convince him to not go through with it.
“It is serious…but I’m healthy. But I only want to tell you.” He leaned closer to Khalik. “You trusted me with your secret, and as we’re going into this whole cabal thing together, I think it’s only fair that I trust you with mine, just…” He winced, imagining the brave prince’s reaction to his desertion of the battle in Thameland. “…just…just hear me out, okay? It’s nothing that’ll affect you badly or negatively or anything like that, it’s just…”
Khalik raised an eyebrow. The muscular young man leaned against his dresser. Between Alex, Selena and Theresa things sometimes got a little messy, but Khalik’s apartment was cleaned immaculately.
That part of his mind—the part that was entirely averse to risk—continued to focus on other details and try to distract him. It brought up all the disasters that might occur:
‘Khalik might judge you and cut all contact with you!’ it cried. ‘He might tell everyone in the cabal, or he might decide to get you out of it. Who wants to be in a cabal with someone called ‘The Fool’ anyway? The Mark hinders magic! How will he ever see you as an equal again if you tell him? You already kept the secret for so long, he might feel betrayed that you didn’t tell him before?’
Even as that part of his mind put words to his insecurities, it also brought up solutions. ‘Telling anyone would be stupid and risky. You’ve got a good thing going with just Theresa and Selina knowing. All you need to do is keep it to yourself until you graduate. No one else will know, and that’s the only way to guarantee your safety and security while you’re here at Generasi. You can go through all four years in anonymity, with no risk at all. It’s the only logical thing-’
He shook those thoughts away. There was some logic to them, but they only worked as long as everything went well. His mind returned to the demon.
If any monster or hunter or even one of The Heroes came for him, then keeping quiet would be infinitely worse for the people that had gotten close to him than it would be if he told them before anything happened. They would be unprepared if he didn’t tell them, and be at higher risk, and what would happen if they asked questions after there were any sort of bad consequences?
Alex thought of an old story that he’d heard as a child.
It was one his mother had told him.
One that warned of the consequences of dangerous secrets.