The story his mother had told him was about a shepherd boy who had snuck into the woods one evening to meet his friends past his parents’ curfew. Becoming lost, the boy came across a wolf in the middle of the forest—one who growled and bit him on the shoulder. A tribe that lived peacefully in the woods—a group of wolf beastmen—found the shepherd boy and guided him out of the trees, and he was able to sneak back to his home before his parents ever discovered what he had done.
The bite was not a bad one, thankfully, because the boy knew that if he showed it to his parents, then they would know that he had disobeyed them. So, he hid the bite and did not tell a soul.
It healed well and quickly, and soon; the boy stopped thinking about it—only regretting that he could not tell his friends.
Then the night of the full moon came, and the boy changed, turning into a monster—part wolf and part human—that looked similar to a wolf beastman, but he was of far greater size, strength and viciousness. While transformed, the boy ate the neighbour’s sheep and—frightened and ashamed—continued to keep the secret to himself.
He kept the secret for full moon after full moon until some villagers spotted him one night attacking their cattle. Thinking he was one of the wolf beastmen, the villagers organized themselves and went into the woods and killed the entire tribe of wolf beastmen, deciding that they were a cult of thieves and killers.
The boy mourned the lives of those that had helped him, but—too frightened for his own safety—he continued to keep the secret.
One hunter, though, remained suspicious.
During the next full moon, the hunter waited in the woods and when the transformed boy appeared, he ambushed him. Man and beast fought a terrible battle, until the hunter finally slayed the boy with a blow from his silver pommel, before succumbing to his own wounds.
The boy and the hunter were found the next morning, and the village witch found the mark of the beast on the boy. The witch grieved, for she had a poultice that would have cured the boy of the curse of—lycanthropy—if only she had known about it before the full moon rose.
And so ended the fable of The Boy Who Refused to Cry Wolf. It was a warning against secrets, and how a secret—left long enough—could not only harm oneself, but also, many, many others.
Alex didn’t want to be known as The Fool Who Refused to Cry Ravener to anyone. He could imagine a younger sibling of Khalik’s telling a story to his friends in the library about how his older brother died because a young man kept a secret to himself.
He pulled out of his wandering thoughts again, and this time, Khalik hadn’t interrupted him. The young prince had only watched him closely.
“Jeez.” Alex shook his head. “Here I am, zoning out again.”
“...it’s not easy for you to tell, is it?” Khalik said, watching Alex closely. “You feel like your secret might change things, but you fear what would happen if you continue to keep it.”
Alex blinked. “H-how did you know?”
“It was what crossed my mind when I was thinking of telling you my secret,” Khalik said. “It…it was something that I debated for a time, but…I know this is a strange question, but have you ever been to a noble court? Or a royal one?”
Alex burst out laughing. “Khalik, I was a baker’s assistant to a baker in a small town. I lived in an inn: the most important person I’d ever talked to before I came here was the local magistrate…and I think that was all of twice.”
Once, when his parents had died and he was told his inheritance was held in trust, and the second time when he’d gone to claim that inheritance. “Like, I come here and suddenly I’m hanging out with a prince and a noble who’s a court wizard’s granddaughter, and I’m talking to a super wizard who calls out the gods, and who I’m half-convinced might be able to take one. But like, I used to get excited when I ran into a merchant that came from two towns over. I’m a yokel, Khalik. A true bloody yokel.”
“Fine, fine I get it!” Khalik held up his hands, looking amused. “I knew it was the wrong question when you took that big breath you always take before you start launching into one of your big speeches.”
“Wait, hold up,” Alex said defensively. “I do not take a deep breath whenever I launch into a ‘big speech’.”
“You do. I’ve known you for a handful of months and I noticed.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “I’m gonna ask Theresa if I do that.”
“And she will tell you that you do.” Khalik shrugged. “But enough of that. The point is that when one is in court, one wades through a swamp of secrets. No one says their true intentions—at least, not in my realm—and hides their intention behind poetry and metaphor. Intention can be interpreted three different ways for every sentence, so if one offends another, one has ways of denying that anything was intended.”
He shook his head. “All keep their true intent behind a mask, and you never know what secrets are being hidden from you. Secrets are power, and to grant a secret to someone, is to give them power over you.”
“Jeez, that sounds hard,” Alex said. He couldn’t imagine having to live his entire life trying to phrase things so that no one could figure out his intentions unless he wanted them to. The Mark would allow him to build the skill, but he’d go crazy living like that. Besides, his mouth had a tendency to go renegade anyway and then he’d be completely done.
“It is hard, which is why it is refreshing to come to Generasi in anonymity,” Khalik said. “An anonymity that I might have lost had you decided to share with anyone. This is why I was able to guess your thinking. I gave you power over me when I shared my secret. And you—realizing that you would be granting me power over you—would also be nervous to share. It makes sense.”
The prince clapped Alex on the shoulder. “Fear not. If you do not wish to share at this moment, I will take no offence. You can tell me when you’re ready.”
“Holy shit,” Alex said. “Do you like…use that line when you’re trying to court someone?”
“Yes,” Khalik said with a straight face.
“But,” the prince continued. “I only say it as the truth.”
“…you’re a good friend, man,” Alex said slowly.
“Hah, and no one can ask for higher praise. Now, come! You say you shall tell me later and so let’s get things ready for our first meeting, and for our food. We can discuss this afterward.”
“Yeah, man. Thanks…no, really. Thanks.”
Alex took a deep breath.
He felt a lot more confident about sharing the secret now.
…also, he really needed to ask Theresa if he took a deep breath before he launched into big speeches.
“You do,” Theresa said seriously.
“What? No I don’t!”
“You do,” she insisted. “If you’re about to really get into something.” She stood up straighter. “You always take a deep breath, square your shoulders a little then pause for a heartbeat. Then you launch into it.”
“H-how long have I done that?” Alex demanded.
Theresa’s brow furrowed. “For as long as I’ve known you?”
She’d known him for literally his entire life.
Alex shook his head at himself.
The meeting had gone very well.
Thundar and Isolde arrived shortly after Khalik and Alex had set up the tables and chairs, and the four students had gotten right to it.
They began by talking about what each was working on, and what they might have wanted help with.
Alex brought up his struggles with force missile, which Isolde had studied before. Khalik noted that he was gaining an interest in body enhancement magic, in which Thundar was very skilled and Thundar, of course, brought up his struggles with battle magic. Khalik offered to help with some of that, as he’d learned the basics of the subject from his studies before arriving in Generasi.
Isolde had pretty much insisted on Alex’s help with spell customization, starting specifically with forceball.
From there, they broke into pairs and discussed each other’s subjects of interest. Isolde was not an expert in force magic, but even her general knowledge of magical theory as a second year was helpful, and that helped Alex with parts that were more difficult.
“Some of my friends said they found trouble with the top left circle of the array, which is responsible for forming the shape of the missile.” She leaned over him, tapping the section of the array she was referring to. “They said this was a fairly straight-forward method for simplifying it.”
Isolde was thankfully a good teacher—or at least he found so. In truth, she spoke quickly and often didn’t break down concepts completely, seemingly expecting he would know what she was talking about.
Thankfully, in most cases, he did.
In turn, he used The Mark when teaching her, which aided him by pointing out when he’d explained concepts to others in the past. It broke down how he’d phrased his explanations of complex issues and pointed out which tactics conveyed understanding best.
By the time he was finished teaching her, he felt like he’d learned almost as much as she had. As a bonus, he conducted part of the conversation in Rhinean, which allowed him to practice the language.
They finished off the meeting by talking about successful strategies they’d used in COMB-1000 when they were in separate teams, and how they might apply those if they were all together.
The only sticking point was when it came to a ‘leader’ of their little cabal.
“As the founder-” Thundar began.
“One of the founders,” Alex said.
“I came up with the idea first.”
“Yes, and then we founded the group together,” Isolde quickly jumped in.
“I dunno, there would’ve been no ‘founding the group together’ if I didn’t come up with the idea.” Thundar rose up, his chest puffing with pride.
“Hold now, what would a ‘leader’ do?” Khalik asked. “There are only four of us and we all decide things in agreement.”
“Well, uh…I dunno.”
“Then why do you want to be leader?”
“Well, having you all call me ‘Master Thundar’ or something would be pretty cool.”
The minotaur was universally booed by the other three wizards.
Alex even threw a spoon at him.
As the meeting wound down, things became more relaxed, and they were soon laughing and joking together. Even Isolde was smiling along.
Soon, it was time for the evening picnic. Time for Shiani to speak to Selina.
Then after? He would tell Khalik about The Mark.
Alex could only shake his head at himself.
‘Really piled it all into one day, didn’t you?’ he thought.
“You need to cook for me all the time,” Grimloch said as he stuffed another roasted chicken into his mouth.
Not a piece of chicken, a whole one, bones and all.
Alex shook his head, gaping at the shark man. “I think there’d need to be three of me to cook for you.” He shook his head. “For anyone else that doesn’t eat like a dragon, everyone good?”
A series of muffled affirmations and chewing was all that followed.
Alex grinned in satisfaction. His cooking had really exceeded even his own high standards. The picnic was a fine affair, only marred by the sense of caution that hung over the group. There definitely was a glance at the ground around them from some of his guests every once in a while, in case it started swelling and vomiting horrible demons right where they were picnicking.
No demons showed up, though, and the meal went nicely.
The group had picked a spot on the grass near the insula by a copse of trees that shielded them from the wind. Fall was well underway: the leaves had turned from green to bright reds and deep purples, but the temperatures had stayed comfortable.
Alex, Grimloch, Thundar, Khalik, Theresa, Shishi, Isolde, Shiani, Selina and Angelar sat together on the grass. Food disappeared from the spread Alex had prepared as though ants were swarming it.
He was glad he’d made a lot, and had gotten a lot faster in the kitchen.
After supper came time for Selina, he and Shiani to talk.
He had seated Selina between Theresa and Shiani—and directly across from Khalik—so that the young girl could get comfortable with the fire wielder. He was nervous about how it would go, but Shiani’s gentle nature worked well with Selina’s personality, and the two of them hit it off like they’d known each other for a long while.
After supper was all finished, the three of them left the others and talked.
At first, they spoke about things that Selina liked, then eased into a general conversation about magic, and finally shifted the conversation to the subject of fire.
The young girl went quiet during that last topic.
Shiani seemed a little nervous as she talked about how—in her homeland—fire was worshipped, and it healed as often as it harmed. She spoke of how much fire gave to people, letting them cook their food, and combat monsters of the forest and sea. Helping to keep people warm in cold weather, and lighting up the dark nights. She talked about how fire sometimes healed the land.
Alex listened with interest—both for himself and for Selina’s benefit—and the entire time, nobody brought up her affinity. Over time, she started to ask questions.
Probing questions in a soft voice.
Whether she was actually curious or if she was being polite, Alex didn’t know, but she asked them anyway. The questions were mostly about how fire could be good if it destroyed so much.
“Fire can heal,” Shiani insisted. “And fire can protect. It’s like a sword, or like Brutus or even a hand: they can hurt and they can help. Fire is like a child with no mind: it hurts when it runs free. It cannot help itself, but if it is directed, fire can heal and protect like no other thing in this world. That’s why it’s beautiful.”
Selina’s frown went so deep for a moment that Alex thought she might start to cry, but instead she asked: “You think fire is beautiful?”
“I do,” Shiani said. “My people do.”
The conversation ended shortly after that, and Selina was quiet for the rest of the night. He could tell she was thinking and that her spirits were down.
“Do you think it helped?” Shiani asked Alex worriedly. “Ooooh I hope I didn’t make things worse.”
Alex watched Selina carefully. “She’s a strong kid. And I’ll help her with all the support I can. I don’t think it fixed everything forever, but I hope it gave her stuff to think about.” He watched her quietly petting Najyah. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
His eyes turned to Khalik.
The time was coming.