As the days passed, the group of friends kept visiting Thundar as his health steadily got better. Meanwhile, Alex continued to improve his dancing skills. He’d actually gotten to the point where he was pretty good at a number of popular dance moves, and he and Theresa would practice together.
He was getting more excited as the evening of the party drew near, even though that excitement had soured a bit when he had to fork out more coin than he’d planned on for a suitable doublet and hose for the occasion. Apparently, the fashionable rich enjoyed bright colours: brighter dyes were more expensive and showed off the wealth of the wearer, so naturally, all the dressy party clothes Alex had found were made from brighter fabrics.
He’d chosen an outfit that was both richly coloured, yet somewhat muted: forest green for the doublet and a deep wine for the pants. He’d even bought himself a domino mask, painted gold with silver lines that looked like vines scrolling throughout: Alex figured Isolde would never approve of him wearing his scary dragon mask from the festival of ghosts to her cousin’s party. Even though the idea was more than a little tempting.
Still, all things considered, he wasn’t going to complain too much.
Midterms were about to start and he was up to his eyeballs in studying, so the upcoming celebration was nice to think about and gave him a mental break. As the date for the party drew closer, Thundar was well enough to be discharged from the infirmary, but under orders to continue a regime of light exercise, a clean, softer diet, and lots of rest.
Before his discharge, he’d even received a surprise visit from a certain fox-tailed Cleansing Movement instructor who’d heard about him being attacked by the mana vampire. Alex and Khalik had been visiting him when she’d arrived and watched as their friend went from his usually boisterous self, to a silent, wide-eyed lamb. Khalik didn’t know what was going on, but Alex had a grin on his face that stretched from one ear to the next as he watched the minotaur trying not to look like a flustered mess. Before she left, she showed Thundar some Cleansing Movements he could practice daily to help strengthen himself, and then she left, telling him she hoped to see him back in the class soon. After she’d been gone for a few minutes, he got out of bed, snuck to the door and peeked out to make sure she was gone: then he let out an elated shout that brought staff running to see what was going on.
He was definitely feeling better.
Then—in what felt like a blink—the day arrived.
Alex looked over his fine clothes and mask, then took a deep breath and glanced out of his bedroom window.
He’d made a decision in the past week.
When Minervus had died, he said he would wait until the time was right to tell Theresa his feelings.
Well—after all they’d been through—he could think of no better time than an evening in wine country where there would be feasting, dancing and all around good feelings.
And so, he’d made a decision: no matter what happened, he would confess his feelings to his childhood friend that very night.
In some ways, he’d been less nervous about fighting the mana vampire or the xyrthak. He kept telling himself it wasn’t the end of the world: he wouldn’t drop dead if things weren’t exactly perfect, and he wouldn’t die if she didn’t return his feelings.
But, it would still hurt if she didn’t.
Alex remembered one of Theresa’s brothers confessing his feelings to the daughter of a local miller, only for her to explain that she had a fancy for someone else. The young man had been inconsolable…for about a week.
Then he started talking about his undying love for the coopers’ daughters—all three of them—shortly after. Her brother could be a little flaky at times.
Alex shook his head. All the thinking and ruminating about it in the world wouldn't change anything. In the end, he would pick his moment, tell her the truth and wait for her reaction. There was nothing for it other than that.
The least he could do was look his best.
He checked the mirror, eyeing himself in his fancy clothing. The clothes looked good, and they'd been tailored to fit his now statuesque build. His shoulders were broad, his arms thick and his waist and hips slender.
All of the weightlifting had actually given his legs and even er…his behind, a surprising amount of muscular bulk. The hose almost seemed too tight in places now. He fixed his hair: now quite a bit longer than it had been when he’d first gotten to the city.
He had to admit, he sort of liked the way it looked. He’d been used to keeping his hair well barbered to look proper for his job at the bakery. McHarris' mantra was that all his assistants must look like: ‘good, decent men and women: not brigands.’ Toraka Shale, on the other hand, didn’t much care what sort of beard or hair styles her workers wore, as long as their hair was tied back and they kept themselves covered for safety so the work carried on without avoidable problems.
Now that his hair was growing out though, it gave him a bit of a roguish look, especially with his fancy masquerade ball mask.
“Well, this is as good as it’s gonna get,” Alex said, turning in the mirror a final time. “It’s showtime.”
He picked up his bag.
In it were a series of freshly brewed potions that he’d made in his lab time with Amir. He had two Potions of Haste in there, along with Potions of Sensory Enhancement, Flight and his booby-trapped versions of flight spells. He also had a new potion in the bag, the last one he’d brewed during his lab time: a mana-soothing potion.
In the textbook, there was a recipe for a version of a potion that one could brew that disrupted mana, but he figured that The Mark would see that as an attack weapon. So he’d been working on a more extreme version of the mana- soothing potion instead.
He gotten the idea from a time when he’d been meditating and had become so relaxed, that he’d fallen sound asleep: if he could brew a version of the mana-soothing potion that could relax one’s mana pool so much that they’d have trouble getting their mana to actually move for a while, then he’d have an excellent weapon against mana-rich creatures like xyrthaks.
The formula wasn’t finished quite yet, but if it worked, it could be a promising non-obvious ‘weapon’ when it was done.
He put the thoughts of potions out of his mind when he emerged from his room and found no one there, which wasn’t surprising. Theresa had taken Brutus, and she and Selina had gone over to Isolde’s so that the three of them could get ready together. They were all going to meet up by the sky-pier on campus, so he decided to go around the insula to fetch Khalik…only to find the prince already making his way to his place.
“Khalik!” Alex spread his arms out when he saw his friend. “You look great!”
The Prince of Tekezash was still hiding his royal heritage, but that had not stopped him from using his royal wealth. He wore a long fine robe of crimson silk, trimmed with gold lettering. Filigree in magnificent designs covered the robe, which stretched around his broad shoulders. As much as Alex had undergone a heroic physical transformation, the prince too had grown more defined and muscular from their training. He wore a pair of rings on each hand, and sashed at his waist, was a long, curved sword.
“Haha!” Khalik grinned through his freshly trimmed beard and golden-painted mask, which resembled the upper part of a wolf's head complete with the top half of its snout. “Funny you should say that, I was going to say the same to you!”
They clapped each other on the shoulder and excitedly talked as they made their way out of the insula and through the grounds. Waiting outside of the complex was Claygon, standing with all four arms folded across his chest like a permanent guard at the entrance to the insula.
A single mental command called the golem to Alex and he followed closely behind the two young men. A cry from above signalled Najyah had left her perch in the insula and was flying after them.
The two young wizards' grins widened as they drew appraising looks from the other students on campus. Khalik chuckled like an excited child. “This is the first time I have ever gone to a formal event without at least twenty warriors to guard me. It is so funny…a little dangerous feeling, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not really,” Alex said, smiling warmly at Claygon. “Not with Claygon the Unstoppable behind us.”
Was it his imagination or was he getting a feeling that the golem was also proud of itself?
“Indeed. It must not seem strange to you,” Khalik said. “But to go to any social event without an honour guard is…it is unheard of for most…” He glanced around and dropped his voice to a whisper. “…royalty in all places in the world. We usually must be under guard or have servants. But here.” He grinned. “I am merely Khalik: a young man about to have fun with friends.”
“Yeah, your life is so different from mine, man,” Alex chuckled. “Did your parents decide not to send you more guards?”
The prince took on a naughty grin. “I wrote to my brother and he interceded for me: telling them that he would take care of sending my replacement entourage.”
Alex blinked. “Did he lie?”
“No, no,” Khalik said. “But he might have shifted the truth on how long it would take to send this entourage: his aim and mine is to buy me as much freedom as possible, and even when he eventually sends guards, they will not only be men and women who can hold secrets, but far fewer than the entourage they sent with him when he came here to study.”
“He sounds like a good understanding man to have for a brother.”
“I would say so, but I am biased, of course. But enough about me. You have never attended such a gathering before, correct?”
Alex laughed. “The most formal events I ever went to were festivals and weddings, and there wasn’t much pomp to them: put on your nicest clothes and go with your family. Oh, and make sure to drag back your older relatives when they had too much cider.”
“I see, I see,” Khalik chuckled. “Then we are both having new experiences tonight…and speaking of new things, I am definitely going to dance with one of the dryads: a prince of Tekezash might arrive alone to a party, but to spend the night alone would be shameful. And what about you and our friend, Theresa?”
Alex swallowed. “Well, I’m gonna tell her how I feel.”
“Well, good for you, good for you!” the prince clapped him on the shoulder. “I am sure things will go well. If you need any aid, then I stand ready to assist.” He bowed playfully.
“Right, right, and if you need help talking to any of those dryads, I’ll do what I can.”
Khalik’s eyes sparkled. “I knew there was a reason I liked you. Between the two of us and Thunda-Ah, speak of the devil!”
Alex startled. “Hobb’s around?!”
“No, no! Look!” the prince nodded ahead.
“Heeeeey!” Thundar was waving at them from up ahead.
He was dressed in a fine tunic that fell to the knee, it was bleached white and stood out in the evening light. A massive leather belt was wrapped around his waist, complete with an enormous silvery buckle with a bull’s head designed on it. His wooden mask was painted green and was cleverly designed to cover his horns, making them appear like the antlers on a stag.
“Well, well boys, aren’t you lookin’ sharp,” Thundar grinned. He had distinctive bronze bracers around his wrists. “Looks like I won’t get all the attention, after all.”
Alex snorted. “The only attention you’re going to get is from all the healers when they have to drag your drunk ass out of the hall.”
“Seriously, though man, how are you? You feeling alright? You sure you’re up to this?”
“Alex, Alex, you’re acting like my grandmother. I’m more than fine, man, I’m ready to go!”
“Ah, you do look healthy,” Khalik said. “And your magic?”
The minotaur snorted. “The healer said it’s a few more days until I can use it properly, so to hold off for now or I’ll damage my mana pool. But, the only magic I’ll be working is on the dance floor, anyway!”
Alex burst out laughing. “Try not to step on anyone’s feet with those massive hooves of yours.”
“I am all grace.”
“You’re the size of a small bear.”
“A small, graceful bear.”
Laughing and ribbing each other, the trio made their way to the sky-pier and waited for Isolde, Theresa and Selina. Claygon stood beside them, two arms crossed and two by his sides.
They did not have to wait long.
Alex actually gasped when he saw them making their way toward the sky-pier with Brutus.
Isolde was all decorum and elegance in a regal black gown that emphasized her height and grace. Her black hair was piled atop her head and inter-woven with pearls. A black domino mask traced with white lines obscured her face and she held a short walking stick in her hand that had a silver pommel stylized like the head of a wizard’s staff.
If Alex knew Isolde, then that stick probably served as a sheath for a thin sword or long knife.
Selina looked adorable, like she was a princess out of a fairy tale. Her calf length dress was a soft blue and puffy in ways that made her look like a little doll. Covering the top of her face—flaming red from embarrassment—was a blue mask whose sides were like butterfly wings. Her hair was twisted together in a thick braid hanging down her back.
But it was Theresa that made Alex’s breath catch.
She was wearing a forest green velvet gown woven in with emerald green silk in designs that looked like ivy crawling over the dress. Her black hair was swept to the side, a mass of soft curls were piled high like Isolde’s, and held in place by what looked to be a laurel of leaves. The lower part of the long gown was a half skirt, open in the front from the waist to the ankles to show deep green leggings and soft knee high boots. Sheathed at her waist was her ancestral sword, and the simple mask that covered her eyes was of the same green velvet as her dress.
“Wow,” Alex murmured. “You all…look great.” His eyes took in Theresa. “You really look great.”
A blush went through her cheeks. “Thanks…you too. You really do.”
“How do I look? How do I look?” Selina asked the three young men excitedly.
“Like a fairy,” Thundar said.
“Like a princess.” Khalik smiled.
“Like a goblin princess-Aargh!” Alex cried out as Selina punched him in the arm. “You little rat! Who taught you to do that!”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
He stuck his out right back.
“Oh by the elements, this was a mistake,” Isolde groaned. “This was a mistake. We are going to get there, you are going to humiliate all of us, and then I am going to have to beg for my cousin’s forgiveness. By the elements.”
“Yeah, Selina, don’t ruin Isolde’s night,” Alex said.
“I was referring to you.”
“What did I do?”
“Instigated everything. As usual.”
“Oooh bah,” Alex said. “I’ll behave, grandmother.”
Before Isolde could fire back, Thundar pointed up to the sky. “Look, there’s our ride.” He whistled. “Would you look at that.”
For the evening, Isolde had taken care of their transportation, renting out a sky-yacht for the round trip. It was beautiful, with every inch of its hull carved with scenes of spirits and cherubs frolicking and dancing together. The figurehead was that of a swan’s head, and the vessel was long enough to match a small sailing ship, but narrower.
“Our chariot awaits,” Isolde said. “Let us make this evening one to remember…and…I am glad we all get to be together. Perhaps this shall make up for our mana vampire-ruined dinner.”
The first hunter yipped to the little furry creatures, urging them to flood out of the hole faster. Small monsters poured from the tunnel, then scattered in all directions to make room for the larger humanoids.
At last, one of the bone creatures crawled from the burrow. It rattled its jaw at the other monsters, but the scarred hunter kept it in line with a threatening rattle.
The lean hunter looked to the others.
It too had sensed movement from their quarry. Their prey had begun moving away from the city, coming closer….but seemed to somehow be moving high above the ground. It suggested that it should quickly and quietly investigate on its own.
The other two agreed, watching as their sibling melted into the trees and loped away through the countryside by the evening light. It would gather information and then return to them with knowledge of their prey’s whereabouts. Then, it would lead them and their horde to the place where their quarry was.
Then, they would make their kill.