“Dead?” Alex blinked, his brain slowing down until it felt like he was trying to think through tar. “Are you serious?”
“I wouldn’t joke about something like that,” Carmen said. “The investigators arrived about half an hour ago and have been asking all of us questions.”
“Did it have something to do with the sabotage?” He glanced around, wondering if would-be attackers would suddenly jump out of the shadows.
“No. It was the mana vampire.”
“What?” he gasped.
“It seems he’d gone out to the countryside,” she continued, her eyes dropping. “He was with his golems and…all that mana must have attracted it. The investigators said that the golems must have wounded the creature because two of them had blood on their clothes, but it still got past them and…you know.” She inhaled deeply. “Apparently they found him because his flesh golems were rampaging through the area after he...died. ” She shook her head. “By the gods, can you believe it? We were just working together. We fought the rampaging golem together. And now he’s just gone.”
‘And now he’s just gone.’
Something about those words struck a terror in Alex that went right into his bones. ‘Just gone’. One moment he’d been walking to the workshop—everything normal—and the next, he finds out that Minervus was just gone.
No climactic finish that he saw, no hints, no nothing. Just dead out there in the countryside, because a mana vampire got hungry.
That could have been any of them.
“Did…did they catch it?” Alex asked.
“No,” she said. “Lagor asked and they told him that they’d hoped to use the golems to find it, but it was too late.”
“Huh? How would they do that?” Alex asked.
“The golems would’ve had a slight connection to Minervus’ mana while the mana vampire was…” she shuddered. “…digesting it since the filthy creatures leak mana for a bit after they feed. But by the time they could be subdued, it was too late. The connection was gone.”
Alex remembered first learning that when he’d fought the starving mana vampire on The Red Siren. His mind then shifted to the times Minervus had participated in COMB-1000 with his class.
“Jeez, that seems like a lifetime ago,” he muttered.
“What was that?” Carmen asked.
“Nothing, just…remembering stuff about Minervus,” he said.
“Were you two close? I know you were both students.”
“No. I mean not, it’s just…” He paused. He had actively disliked Minervus: seeing him get fired or booted from the university would have put a nice, big smile on Alex’s face. But dead? Drained by an overgrown magic-hungry parasite? He winced at the thought.
There was also another feeling there, a feeling of relief.
He’d never have to worry about Minervus trying to ruin things for him at Shale’s ever again. With a deep breath, he acknowledged that thought and then pushed past it. The situation was complex. He couldn’t say he’d mourn Minervus at all, and his position was safer now that the young man…wouldn’t be around anymore. But that didn’t mean he celebrated his death, only that he was thankful that he was safer at work.
A complex situation.
Minervus had gone out to the countryside for some special food, from what he’d told him. Hadn’t he said something about his family being into gourmet foods? Well, his family had lost a son. Alex didn’t know what his mother or father were like, or if he had siblings or anything, but the family had just lost a son. One who’d managed to make it to his second year in the greatest University of Wizardry in the world.
And now his spirit was in death’s grip and his body was just…
Alex shook his head. Yet, none of that really changed how he personally felt about Minervus in life, and he didn’t really know how to contextualize all of that.
“I understand,” Carmen said suddenly. “You don’t want to talk about it. It’s hard when someone—even an acquaintance—dies.”
“Yeah….yeah,” he said, realizing he’d just trailed off and never answered her question. “Alright, uh, so what now?” he asked.
“Right now,” Lagor’s gruff voice came from close by.
Alex started in surprise: the orc-crafter and the investigators had approached them from the side, getting close without him realizing it.
They’d hadn’t been trying to be stealthy, or anything. He’d just missed them.
He was clearly rattled and had been deep in thought.
Lagor seemed to read it on his face in a heartbeat. “Right, here’s the deal,” his voice sounded tinged with strain and a bit more gruff than usual. “These investigators want to ask you a few questions, then, you’re both taking the week off. I’m taking the night myself, and don’t worry about the orders: Toraka and Sim themselves are coming to take care of our share. And you’ll receive your pay for the week. Use the time to do what you need to do: this work is finicky enough without the weight and shock of a colleague’s death so heavy on your shoulders.”
Alex could only nod blankly as the investigators came to talk to him.
An anxious feeling was growing in his belly.
It was only when he was walking back down the street to catch a sky-gondola that he realized what he was feeling. His emotions about the death were also mixed with a great, big helping of fear. He’d known the mana vampire was stalking the city and countryside for a while now, but it hadn’t hit so close to home until now.
Alex Roth wasn’t the type to just fold up in terror at the thought of death. He wasn’t going to let Minervus’ death suddenly make him quit his job and seal himself up in his apartment until the mana vampire was caught. He was cautious by nature, but if he were the kind of person that utterly halted their life when death brushed past them, he would have completely given up when the fire took his parents.
If he were that kind of person, then—at the first sign of a silence-spider—he would have turned around and ran back to try and find safety in Thameland until The Ravener was destroyed.
But this death…
Alex nearly jumped three feet in the air, and when his feet touched the cobblestones, his body tensed, ready to spring into action. He spun toward the source of the noise, but only saw a group of monster hunters emerging from an alleyway with lanterns in hand. They—oddly enough—were following a cat with glowing blue eyes that padded along the stones, searching around like a bloodhound. It paused, looking at Alex for a moment, then started off down the increasingly emptying street. The party of monster hunters continued following behind it.
He calmed his thundering heart, then paused. In the quietness, a familiar voice drifted to him from above.
Alex glanced up and saw a sky-gondola floating just above the rooftops. It was at such an angle, he could see who was inside from where he stood in the street, and the familiar form of Lucia the sky-gondolier met his eyes.
She still had the same half-dead tone of voice, and he caught snippets of the routine speech that she seemed to give each time she got a client. Just an endless cycle…
He thought back to the scar she’d shown them.
Did she have a warning when she’d been injured? Was there anything she or anyone could have done to prevent it? Or was it one of life’s sad accidents that people then had to spend their years cleaning up after.
Caution was good, but sometimes—even if you had five flesh golems protecting you, and made clever, opportunistic decisions to advance yourself in life—none of that would matter when you ran into a mana vampire by chance on your way to get some food.
He felt himself drifting closer and closer to a certain decision, one that his more cautious nature railed against.
He felt the same as when he’d told Khalik he was The Fool…only this time, his decision could carry far greater consequences.
He sighed. “I need to talk to someone about this before I do anything.”
Quickening his pace, he made for the sky-pier.
He needed to get back to campus.
When he arrived at the insula, he found the apartment door locked. Tiptoeing inside revealed Brutus asleep on the floor, and a glance into Theresa and Selina’s room revealed the small form of his little sister sound asleep.
But no Theresa yet.
He glanced over across the insula and saw that things were dark in Khalik’s apartment as well. Nothing for it but to wait, then.
Silently locking the apartment door, he crept back down stairs and took a seat at a stone table in the courtyard. Only a few others were there: a young couple who looked like they were finishing a very late supper lit by candles and the starlight above, and a studious young man muttering to himself as he squinted at a textbook.
His table was lit by a far less romantic light source: a forceball.
Alex watched them for a few heartbeats, just going about their normal lives. Could they be the next Minervus? He shook away the dark thoughts.
He sat alone—far from either table—and waited for his best friend to return from The Watchers. Eventually, impatience built and his foot started tapping the ground, then his fingers the tabletop, and so he pulled out his notes on both his golem and the dungeon core.
Conjuring his forceball for light, he flipped through the notebooks, taking in all the work he’d already done on both projects and contemplating all the work that was left to do.
“Dammit,” he muttered, imagining what would happen if he were suddenly killed. What would happen to all this work and where would it go? What would happen to Selina?
With a sour feeling, he was reminded of the night he’d received The Mark and was faced with that sense of being doomed. He realized that part of that feeling was a falsehood: just because someone he knew had died at the hands of the mana vampire, didn’t mean he was going to be its next victim, or that he was even in any more danger than he had been before he’d learned about the death.
But, it had put things into perspective, just like the demon’s attack had.
“Alex?” he heard Theresa’s voice from just outside the courtyard.
“Hey.” He waved at her, quickly putting his notebooks away and crossing the stones to meet her. She was flushed and had a look of elation in her eyes mixed with confusion when she saw the look on his face.
Her training and life enforcement was paying off, she was definitely more muscular than when she’d arrived in Generasi: the transformation wasn’t as drastic as his, but then again, she’d already been in greatcondition when they arrived.
He shook his head. He was distracting himself again.
“Did something go wrong?” she asked.
“Theresa, can we go somewhere for a bit?” he asked. “I need to talk to you about something.”
She paused, watching his face. “Okay, we can talk, sure. Is this uh…a private conversation?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I don’t wanna wake Selina up.”
“Okay, come on, then, we can go to this spot I know.”
Theresa led him from the insula and toward the university’s main castle. Soon, he saw a hill ahead, with a single immense tree rising from the hilltop. It looked ancient, and beautiful in its own way.
He and Theresa sat down beneath it, and he glanced around: seeing no sign of students or teachers close by at the late hour... In the far distance, he saw a patrol of Watchers of Roal floating along on their stone disks.
“We won’t be overheard here,” she said, looking up fondly at the tree. “This is where most of our life enforcement classes are held…and there’s always something soothing about this place. At least, to me.”
She looked at Alex. “What’s happening? Anything with the priests?”
“No, not that…but, remember how Minervus tried to get me fired?”
Her expression soured. “Yeah. What’d he do this time? Wait, don’t tell me that’s why your here-”
“No,” he said quickly. “I still have my job, it’s just that Lagor gave me and Carmen the week off…cuz, well…Minervus is dead...the mana vampire killed him.”
She froze, her eyes going wide. “By the Traveller. I can’t believe that, when?”
“This morning,” he said. “Gone, just like that…so that got me thinking about something I wanted to talk over with you…just to make sure my head is straight.”
“What is it?”
He took a deep breath.
“I’m thinking about telling Baelin. As in, no more waiting. No more preparing. As in, as soon as his office opens in the morning, I want to march up there with my notebooks.
His jaw clenched. “You never know what’s going to happen, Theresa. So I’m thinking about telling him about me being The Fool, about the Dungeon Core’s remains…I’m thinking about telling him everything.”