The others had departed a couple of hours ago, and Alex had spent time with Selina afterward, just talking and relaxing and playing with clay until her eyes started to close.
As she got sleepier, he helped her get ready for bed and tucked her in. He’d stayed for a little while longer, making sure she wasn’t having nightmares.
“I think she’ll be fine,” Theresa said from the doorway. She was running a brush through her deep, black hair—which had grown quite a bit longer during their months in Generasi—and leaning against the frame. “She looked pretty happy with you after supper.”
“She was quiet,” Alex said worriedly.
“It’s okay, I’ll watch her during the night,” she said, then jerked her head toward the apartment door. “You going to wash up first?”
“No, I…” Alex paused. “I…I think I want to tell Khalik.”
Theresa’s brush paused. “About?”
He sighed. “The Mark.”
A startled silence filled the apartment.
“That…” she whistled. “That’s a big one.”
“Yeah, but like…hold on, don’t want to wake Selina up.”
They quietly stepped out of Selina and Theresa’s room and shut the door.
Alex and Theresa faced each other over the dining room table. The normally brave huntress was fidgeting in the moonlight. It poured through the curtains framing the balcony, and through it, glowed a flickering light set in one of Khalik’s windows.
Despite Alex spending time to make sure Selina was alright, the prince was waiting.
“Are…” Theresa paused. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I thought about it,” Alex said. “And…”
He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders slightly, then went into the explanation for why he wanted to tell Khalik—including all of his thought processes, fears, and what made him comfortable with the idea.
Theresa listened carefully—her expression resting in her normal ‘death stalker face’—and her eyes were watching Alex very, very closely.
“And that’s why,” Alex finally finished. “…what do you think?”
“I think…” she paused. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”
She sighed. “It’s…I like Khalik…and I trust him, I guess. He really comes through for all of us during your combat class: he has honour, but…” Theresa shook her head. “I just get a bit scared when I think about you telling anyone.”
“You think I shouldn’t do it?”
“No, no,” she shook her head. “Honestly…you’re the one that’s got The Mark, and you know Khalik better than I do. If you want to tell someone, you can…and if I had to pick anyone for you to tell, it would be him.”
She shook her head. “I’m just…scared, Alex, is all. This is…this is a big step.”
Alex touched her shoulder gently. “I know, Theresa, I know.”
“But…you’re right. ‘Boy Who Refused to Cry Wolf’,” she said. “If this is anything like any of the other old stories, then you’ll keep it a secret until it somehow comes out at the worst possible moment…if you trust him, tell him. And with this cabal thing you all have…it’s not fair if you’re all going to protect each other while you’re sitting on something like this.”
She looked at him and her eyes seemed to shine in the moonlight. Her gleaming black hair blew around her shoulders from a gentle breeze through the balcony. “Just…call for me if anything happens, okay?”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Alex said.
“I know…but if it does…call for me.”
“Come in,” Khalik said, as he opened the door for Alex. The bearded young man hid a yawn behind his hand. Then he gestured to a seat at his table, which they’d moved back to his apartment earlier. A pitcher and two glasses sat on the table.
“Thanks,” Alex said, slowly dropping into his seat.
He heard a rustle and his eyes darted toward the window. Najyah was there, the great bird of prey had tucked her head forward against her body. Her breaths were quiet, and if Alex didn’t know better, he would have thought that she was merely a life-like ornament.
Nerves gnawed at his belly, and he tried to stop that voice that was screaming at him to just make an excuse and leave.
“Here,” Khalik said, dropping into the chair opposite him and then pouring a couple of drinks into the glasses. He slid one toward Alex, who glanced inside. “Wine?”
“Indeed,” Khalik said. “It is what we drank when I shared my secret with you, so it shall be what we drink when you share yours with me.”
He paused. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yeah.” Alex took a deep breath and squared his shoulders slightly. He paused: now that the movement had been pointed out to him, he’d never be able to un-notice it. “I’m sure.”
He took another deep breath and a long sip of wine.
This was it.
Khalik raised an eyebrow. “With how tense you look, I almost feel like you are about to tell me that you did something horrible.”
Alex looked at him gravely. “I did.”
Khalik froze. “What…what are you about to tell me?”
“I’m a monster. A shapeshifter that-”
He paused; Khalik was holding up his hand with an unamused expression.
“No,” the prince said.
“What?” Alex said. “I was telling you the tru-”
“You were not.” Khalik shook his head. “You were about to try the same trick on me that I played on you, which I was waiting for.”
Alex cursed internally.
That was one chance for revenge spoiled.
It was alright, though: he was patient and there would be other opportunities.
“Alright, seriously this time.” Alex drew himself up, his voice quieting. “Have you ever heard of The Heroes of Thameland?”
Khalik frowned. “Only in passing. I think I heard you speak of them to your friend from potions class, Carey. And I have heard it mentioned in passing by some professors and a few students, but that is all.”
“Okay…” Alex took a deep breath and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Well…I’m one of them.”
A long silence followed, then Khalik burst out laughing. “You are persistent! You got me this time!”
“Shhhh!” Alex glanced at the door and balcony. “Not so loud!”
The prince’s laughter continued to roll through the apartment until he noticed Alex’s face. Both his mirth and his smile vanished. “By my gods…you are serious, aren’t you?”
“Yeah…so there are these Heroes, right? Five of them, all marked.” He spread his hands. “There’s The Chosen: their leader. The Champion: their warrior. The Sage: their spell caster. And The Saint: their healer and miracle worker.”
He sighed. “And lastly, there’s The Fool: their…servant. And that’s me.”
Khalik blinked at him for a moment, then took a long sip from his cup. “If…I think, I remember Carey saying something about this ‘Fool’-” He paused, glancing at Alex. “-being missing. And that’s because…he, or you are here.”
“And…how are you here?” Khalik asked.
Alex sighed. “That, my friend…is kind of a long story.”
As it turned out, it was a long story.
Having never told it before, he didn’t realize quite how long. He started with a background on The Ravener and The Heroes. He continued into the history of The Heroes and mentioned the patron saint of Alric: The Traveller.
He then talked about the day he’d gotten The Mark—the plans he’d had, the journey he’d wanted to make, and the life he’d wanted for himself—and how The Mark had changed all that.
“Wait.” Khalik held up a hand at that point in the story. “So it hinders combat, divinity and magic?”
“Spellcraft,” Alex corrected. “While making you learn just about anything else a lot faster.”
“And you have been taking Baelin’s combat course and other courses revolving around spellcraft while dealing with this?”
“It uh…yeah, it hasn’t been easy.”
“And what was that part about priests being able to sense you?”
“Apparently it’s from really close, I wouldn’t have gotten out of Alric otherwise.”
“But how did you escape your realm?”
“Well…remember The Traveller?”
“That’s where her cave comes in.”
Alex continued through their trials in The Cave of the Traveller, about their struggle against the hive-queen. He was brief with his discussion of the dungeon core and humans being able to use it. Khalik didn’t have the background context for why that was such a big deal, so he simply nodded with that part of the story, though his eyebrows did rise.
Finally, Alex finished with how he’d been struggling and finding loopholes in The Mark’s interference, which he’d been using to successfully get through his classes.
“And that’s basically it,” Alex finally said. He glanced at the balcony, noticing that the moon had shifted its position a fair bit. “That’s my big secret. I’m just hoping to look into this stuff with the dungeon core and pass my courses. Maybe I can get the information to someone that I can trust. Someone with power. And yeah…” He thought it over for a moment. “That’s it.”
Alex closely watched Khalik’s face.
The southern prince was silent for a long time, Alex knew it must have been only for a dozen seconds or so, but to him, it felt like hours. Prince Khalik stared into his wine for a long time, his brow furrowed and his fine features highlighted by the moonlight.
In that moment, he looked older—like a wise king pondering some great question instead of simply his peer and friend.
“That…” Khalik paused. “First, I should say that I thank you for telling me this. I deeply thank you. I can see now why it was so difficult for you to share. …wow.”
Alex swallowed. “What…what do you think?”
“What do I think?” Khalik blinked. “What is there for me to say?”
“I mean, the whole thing,” Alex said.
“Well, I have to say that the title suits you: you are a fool. A mad, brave fool,” Khalik said in disbelief. “A baker’s assistant sneaking through a cave of silent scorpions-”
“-yes, silence-spiders. Sneaking through their cave, blowing up a swarm and the magic statues that guarded your patron saint’s sanctum, blowing a giant monster to kingdom come, and then jumping into an unknown portal that delivered you hundreds of leagues away. It is madness. Sheer and utter madness.”
Khalik shook his head. “And I thought my journey had peril, and it did, but I was surrounded by my finest guards, I had Najyah and I have had training in combat with spell and blade. You? You had a magical mark that made you more vulnerable than most and you still tried it. And then-”
He gestured to the south. “You come to the chancellor’s class to learn more about combat. More danger.”
“Hey, wouldn’t have figured out as many loopholes as I have without that class,” Alex said. “Plus, I got to meet you, and Baelin and Thundar and Isolde…and Shiani and Grimloch…Angelar…a lot of people.”
“Even this whole thing. All of this.” The prince gestured to their surroundings. “Coming to a university for wizardry while hindered against spellcraft as you are, but trying anyway. I think most would run, or try to, but perhaps merely hide in a village. Or they would go to a town somewhere on the continent and use their skills to enrich themselves.”
“I think that’s what some of my predecessors did. History’s spotty, though.”
“And I am surprised you did not do so yourself. To be branded a servant, and hindered from defending oneself against danger. But you chose a hard path instead of going off to enrich yourself.”
“I just really want to be a wizard,” Alex said.
“I can see that,” Khalik said. “Well…I have a question.”
“What is it?”
“…can I see this Mark?”
Alex paused. “Yeah.”
The two young men closed the curtains, and Alex took off his shirt, showing the prince the golden glowing jester’s face. The prince squinted at it. “It has an evil look…though I suppose it could be uglier.”
“You…” Alex blinked.
“What’s wrong?” Khalik looked up.
“I dunno, just…I didn’t expect you to react like this,” he said.
Khalik shrugged. “I have met powerful folk. I have met men and women that my kingdom’s generals call ‘hero’. I have met those that claimed to hear our gods. And here I have seen wizards and monsters. I am a prince of Tekezash: I will take my friend’s secret and cherish it, but I will not gawk at you, worship you and judge you.”
The prince rose to his full height, and—for a brief instant—he almost seemed taller than Alex. “You are branded by your god and you chose another fate. You still seek to help your people, and you protect your family. You put your trust in me, as I have in you: you remain Alex Roth, my first friend at Generasi and my closest here. We are in a cabal together, and we shall protect each other and aid each other.”
He paused; his voice filled with royal dignity. “You may call upon me while we are in the cabal…just as, someday, I may call upon you. And that is all there is to that. That is what I think, Alex.”
For a moment, Alex thought he might cry from relief. All of the bad scenarios disappeared from his mind. He had shared his secret and, in the end, he had kept his friend.
No, if anything, he felt closer to this young man than before.
“T-thanks man,” Alex said.
“Think nothing of it,” Khalik said, gripping Alex’s unmarked shoulder. “Now, who else knows?”
“Just my sister, Theresa and her parents. Literally no one else.”
“Good…do you think you will tell Thundar and Isolde?”
“Yeah,” Alex nodded. “When I get to know them a little better. If I can trust them, I will.”
“And anyone else? A professor?”
Alex paused. “Baelin, I think.”
“Mmmm.” Khalik thought it over for a while, and then paused to yawn. It was very, very late. “That is a good choice. The chancellor is powerful and has no love for gods, if he is on your side, then you will be safe.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “Yeah…”
Khalik yawned again. “And besides, if you tell one of the professors, then someone can understand you if you struggle…ah, so that is why you struggle with force missile?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, putting his shirt back on. “The Mark’s got its benefits, but it’s frustrating. Let me tell you.”
“I can imagine,” Khalik said. “I might have tried to cut if off by now.”
Alex shrugged. “It crossed my mind in those first few days, but someone else probably thought of that too in previous generations. All I have to do now is just keep going. Things are going well, and I’m making the best of it. I think Jules might give me more freedom soon, maybe next semester. It’s been alright so far.”
“Well…I hope it stays that way,” Khalik said. “And again…thanks for trusting me.”
The two young men bid each other good night after gripping each other’s hands in farewell. As Alex started down the hall, his step was light and the world felt a little more friendly.
He was glad he had done it.
His mind returned to what Khalik said about professors not knowing that The Mark might make him struggle. That was a good point.
Hopefully, that wouldn’t come to bite him any time soon.
“Why are you not trying in my class, Mr. Roth?” Professor Ram demanded.
Alex gulped as his imposing professor of force magic watched him pointedly, his face hardened by anger.