“Are you all enjoying your evening?” Giuseppe strolled up to Theresa and Alex, smiling behind a mask that looked like the face of a regal hound. “I was very intrigued by your dancing earlier and have to compliment your uhm…vigour.” He laughed. “I was telling Isolde during your…uhm display, that she certainly has some rather…exciting friends. It isn’t often that one group draws so much attention at one of my little parties.”
“Oh, we’ve been having a fantastic time.” Theresa smiled warmly. “I don’t think I’ve had this much fun at a party for a long time.”
“Oh yeah,” Alex said. “You know how to throw a feast, Your Excellency.” He made sure to use the proper term of address for Isolde’s cousin out of respect.
“I should hope so with all of the practice I’ve had over the years,” Giuseppe laughed. “But, I hear that congratulations are in order since Isolde tells me that you were partly responsible for slaying the mana vampire. We had no idea who had finally caught and killed it, so you can imagine my surprise when Isolde informed me that it was she and your group of very capable friends who had.” He shook his head as if in amazement. “There was a very loud sigh of relief from society when the threat ended and we owe each of you our deepest gratitude.”
“Well, I’m not sure if it was as loud as my sigh of relief,” Alex chuckled. “I’m just glad that the thing is dead…actually I wanted to ask, did-” He paused.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly.
…Khalik and his new ‘friend’ were approaching.
“Aaaah, Master Behr-Medr, a pleasure to see you again,” Giuseppe said.
“The pleasure is all mine on this enchanting night…y-Patrizia dePaolo,” Khalik said, stumbling over the honorific for a moment. Though from different countries, the patrizia was of a lower aristocratic rank than the prince and it seemed to take Khalik a moment to think of the correct way to address him. “Your illusionary lights are incredible, and the entertainment provided for the young ones was inspired.”
Alex glanced toward a peal of laughter.
The children were surrounding a group of jesters in a half circle, laughing and clapping as one of the performers hopped onto the shoulders of two others, forming a comical, swaying pyramid.
“It is always important to have something for them to do, of course. Bored children are terrors.” Giuseppe winced. “I once had a winter party with only an ice sculpture and no entertainment for children…it did not go well and I learned from that disaster. The sculpture was toppled and quickly reduced to ice projectiles.” He shuddered.
Alex fought back a laugh.
Khalik raised an eyebrow. “I must admit, I am surprised to see young ones welcome. In noble society, it is customary for young ones not to join events such as these until their debuts at early teenage years, is it not?”
“Ah, that practice remains common in other high societies, but it became an issue in Generasi.”
“Oh? How so?” Khalik asked.
“Well, keeping children at home during functions works well for many in high society because of the number of servants available to them,” Giuseppe said. “It makes for-”
“Something wrong?” Theresa asked.
“No, I just thought I saw something,” he said, squinting at a tree beyond the estate’s walls.
Theresa looked in that direction.
“Perhaps a bit too much wine,” Giuseppe continued. “But yes, even a small country manor needs dozens of servants to function each day. Hauling water, cooking, tending fires, cleaning…there’s no end to tasks, and consequently, no end to the help you need. With wizards, however, they take care of much of their mundane household affairs using magic. It means that a single, wealthy wizard might have a manor as large as this and only have their family living there. No one else is needed for the day to day maintenance and function of the place. So when they receive guests, their children must either be included and have entertainment provided, sent away, or hired help must be brought in to care for the children during the function. The latter two choices often ended in chaotic situations since wizards’ young children can pose…challenges for non-wizards. So, since Generasi is primarily a wizard city, some nobility have adapted to their way of doing things. Like me.”
“Your celebration is most pleasing,” the dryad said. “I am happy you invited my sisters and me.”
“Oh, Theresa and Alex, this is Sinope,” Khalik said, his eyes sparkling. “We met earlier by-”
“Hm, patrizia, might I steal you from Alex and Theresa for a moment?” Khalik asked Guiseppe. “There is a lovely painting in your main hall, and I was curious to know who the artist was.”
“Oh, which one?” Giuseppe asked.
“If you have a moment in your busy role as host, I can show you,” Khalik smiled.
“Ah, then I shall leave you for now, my young friends,” the patrizia said before leaving with the prince and Sinope.
Khalik turned and winked at Alex and Theresa as he walked away.
“…if I ever become very wealthy,” the huntress said. “I’m going to have a statue made of him. It’s going to be one hundred feet tall and made of solid gold. No, platinum.”
Alex laughed. “See, this is why I l-”
He paused, looking at the bench.
“Yes?” Theresa asked.
“I mean, come, let’s go have that conversation,” he said.
“Good, I really want to hea-” She stopped, squinting at the wall. “Wait.”
Alex froze as he saw the look on her face and followed her gaze. His eyes were nowhere near as keen as hers, and that was even before she had started life enforcement, but he still squinted to see if he could see anything.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
His mind suddenly flitted back to those old tales: of noble knights who were just preparing to confess their undying love to the one who had stolen their heart, only to be killed in some battle or tragedy before they could speak up.
‘No way,’ Alex said. ‘No way we’d be that unlucky.’
Alex reached out to Claygon, feeling comfort in the magical threads connecting his mind with the information processor in the golem.
“Hold on for a moment,” Theresa said. “I want to see something.”
This time Alex’s mind went to all those other stories where the person who said, ‘let’s go see what that spooky noise is!’ was immediately killed.
“I’m coming with you, but what is it?” he asked, following her as she walked deeper into the garden.
“I might be crazy…but I think I saw something odd.”
“What?” Alex blinked. “Something odd?”
“Yes…” She looked at Alex. “Something came over the wall there. I think. I caught sight of ears, big pointed ones. It moved fast enough that I couldn’t really say for sure what it was.”
Alex froze. “Was it child sized?”
He glanced back, noting the guards standing around the party. None of them seemed to be showing any concern.
“Yes,” she said, looking at him. “Why, does that sound familiar? Like a monster from the countryside?”
Alex frowned. “No…it sounded like a muupkara from what you described, but they’re not really supposed to be outside The Barrens. Not normally, anyway.”
“Right.” She frowned, and approached one of the guards.
As far as Alex remembered, muupkaras rarely left The Barrens, if they even could get past the wall. He’d heard there were odd times where a lone creature—maybe from sickness—or a small pack slipped into the countryside and caused trouble, but between the wall and being adapted to the dry heat, they rarely ventured outside of their dusty home.
“Excuse me,” Theresa said to the guard. “Did you…did you see or hear anything earlier? Near the hedge maze?”
“Not so much as a peep, my lady,” the guard said in a highly respectful tone. “Not to worry, the hedge maze is patrolled. You are safe within the patrizia’s walls.”
“Right,” Theresa said. “Can I trouble one of you to come with us into the garden? I want to see something, and you guards would know your way through the maze better than we would.”
“Of course, my lady, I think we can spare someone. Marco, go and guide His Excellency’s guests through the maze.”
A baby-faced guard scratched the peach fuzz on his cheeks. “Right, right.”
Alex was paying attention to everything around them.
The garden loomed ahead, empty and dark. Hedges reached high into the night, forming a maze capable of hiding a host of threats. Something twisted in his belly.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go out there,” Alex said slowly.
If there was going to be an attack, then leaving the crowd and the firelight to step into the darkness of the garden would be an excellent way to get themselves killed if there actually was something going on.
“You know what? Maybe you’re right,” Theresa said.
Alex caught a brief look of annoyance crossing Marco’s face. “That’ll be all then?”
“What Marco meant to ask is if he can be of any further service, isn’t that right?” the first guard glared at the younger man.
Theresa didn’t reply.
Instead, she cocked one ear toward their surroundings. Her eyes were fixed on the maze.
“That’s strange…” she said.
“My lady?” the guard asked.
“Yes?” Alex asked.
“Suddenly there’re no more sounds out here,” she said. “No crickets. No animals. Nothing…I don’t like this.”
Alex felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
He remembered the silence-spiders attack back in Coille forest.
The wildlife had fallen silent then too.
“Did you see that?” she said suddenly, pointing at the hedge maze. This time Alex did see something. A small, shadowy form darting by the entrance of the hedge maze.
“We should tell somebody,” Alex said. “Now.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” the older guard said, but he was suddenly looking at the hedges nervously. “Marco, would you go and tell the patrizia that there might be an animal in the gardens?” He squinted at the hedge. “I’m sure the patrol would have caught something slipping over the wall. Do you see them out there, Luigi?”
One of the other guards—tall and sporting a thick moustache—shook his head. “No, sir. Not for a time.”
Alex’s eyes looked for his sister. She was still near the jesters. He began to walk toward her; Theresa followed, as did Marco the guard.
Alex frowned, thinking about muupkaras in The Barrens and how they had hidden beneath the dust, waiting for him and his group to walk into their ambush.
“We’re being baited, I think,” Alex said. “If it’s muupkaras, I think they’re trying to lure us out there.”
“Muupkaras?” Marco looked at him. “This isn’t The Barrens, my lord.”
“Just…bear with me here-Selina!” he called.
‘Act natural,’ he told himself. ‘Let as many people know as you can, but just act natural.’
Selina turned around, smiling at her brother.
“Alex, you have to see what the jesters are doing!” she said excitedly.
He walked up beside her and took her hand, looking at the other children. They needed to get inside. Now.
Alex looked for Najyah, still perched on the fountain. Her eyes were far better than anyone’s there, but she…
‘By The Traveller, she’s asleep!’ Alex thought.
The giant eagle had her head tucked beneath her wing.
“Najyah!” he cried. “Najyah!”
She shook herself, startled and squawked at him indignantly.
“Najyah, I know I’m not Khalik, but I think you can understand me, right?” he said quickly, still glancing at the bushes. “Do you see anything out there in the gardens?”
She continued squawking at him, but followed his gaze into the gardens.
Then she fell silent.
A screech rose from her, shattering the night and drawing all eyes.
Somewhere within the manor, he heard Khalik’s voice roar out.
Theresa swore under her breath. “There!”
Her sword swept from its scabbard. Several guests gasped at the sight of the bared blade.
Alex looked at where she was pointing.
Movement. A lot of movement. The hedges rustled as if coming to life.
A pair of eyes shone in the dark. Tiny, malicious eyes.
Then another pair. Then many, many more.
“We’re under attack!” he heard Luigi shout. “Monsters!”
His roar seemed to signal the violence to begin.
A pack of monsters boiled out of the hedges, with eyes shining and claws dark with blood. They snarled and screeched, charging at the surprised guests, as their jaws opened wide, unhinging a vast spread of mouth and sharp teeth.
Guards began shouting commands, and levelling their pole-arms.
Guests ran screaming, while some drew their swords.
The guards levelled their pole-arms with trained discipline and stepped forward. Najyah took off from her perch just as Thundar came tearing out of the ballroom.
“By my ancestors!” he cried.
Alex froze for an instant.
This could not be happening.
Guards slammed into the muupkaras with pole-arms lowered, slashing and cutting into the little creatures. In the distance, a roar cut through the night and a hulking form clambered over the wall with a swarm of muupkaras close behind.
A lean humanoid figure slipped over with them.
The battle swelled as more monsters flooded the garden.
It was happening; nothing for it but to adapt. Alex reached out with his thoughts: no time for a field test now. This would be a real test.
‘Claygon!’ he called out mentally. ‘We’re under attack by monsters! Come to me, protect us and stop them!”
His golem’s mana responded through their mental link.
“Alex!” Selina cried.
“Behind me!” Theresa stood between the Roth siblings and the threat. The guards were holding them off for now, as more guards rushed in to join them. They looked well organized and prepared.
“Alex, wha-” Thundar stumbled over to them.
“Thundar, can you get Selina inside?” Alex said as parents rushed over to grab their children. “Get to someplace inside where guards are; where you can keep her safe!”
“I can figh-”' The minotaur caught himself. “My mana! Dammit! I can’t cast yet. I’d be almost dead weight!”
Swearing, he reached down and scooped up Selina, who was reaching for Alex, calling to him under her mask.
“Hey,” Alex said. “I’ll be okay. You’ll be safe with Thundar and I’ll be back for you, I promise.”
The young girl called to him. “Keep your promise!”
“Stomp those monsters, you two!” Thundar barked, carrying Selina back into the manor as parents pulled their children inside with them. There was one youngster who was alone and crying, and the minotaur paused to pick him up too.
“I’m going to go help,” Theresa said, looking back at Alex. “I-”
“Listen,” he said quickly. “I love you, Theresa. I have for a long time. Don’t. Die.”
She froze. Her eyes shone in her mask and her jaw trembled. “Really? Now?” She swallowed. “Fine, if this is how it is. I love you too, Alex. And if you die right after you said that, I swear I’ll find a way to bring you back to life and kill you again.”
Theresa stepped up to him, kissed him on the lips, then quickly rushed toward the attack with a war-cry as Najyah swooped away. Mages had joined in and were blasting magic bolts into the monsters.
Alex concentrated as he used the precious moments he had to cast spells and head toward the manor. He’d need the bag with his potions.
The incantations tumbled from his mouth and he used his meditative techniques to guide his way through The Mark’s interference. He had no time for old failures to parade through his head now.
Lesser Force Armour flashed into being around him and then went invisible. Next, Forceshield materialized in front of him.
Dryads rushed past toward the fight, pulling wooden blades from their leafy tunics as they went.
He felt Claygon getting closer, coming at full speed toward the building and he told him to go around and not through obstructions in his path, just in case he didn’t slow down.
Spells continued materializing around Alex as he headed for the sunroom.
Protective Force Crooked Long Rectangle—his version of Protective Force Weapon—materialized. Then Wizard’s Hand.
Finally, his trusty forceball.
Alex paused, swearing as he looked through the glass walls of the ballroom. More monsters were flooding the estate grounds from other parts of the wall.
He knew he didn’t have time to run around inside getting his bag from wherever it had been placed.
Nothing for it then.
Alex concentrated hard on the last spell he planned to cast.
One he’d recently been finally able to learn.
His mind constructed the complex spell array, and he guided it around The Mark’s bombardment; the magic circuit eagerly forged itself, almost as though it wanted to be created.
Then, it was complete.
He felt somewhere distant and cold reach out to him
A gateway of ice formed in the air then cracked apart.
His bag dropped into his hand as—for the second time ever—Alex had cast the second tier spell he’d worked on for so long. The first time had been the day before while he’d been practicing it:
Call Through Ice.
Alexander Roth turned toward the battle, clad in his full array of defensive spells.
He reached into his bag and grabbed one of his booby-trapped flight potions and stepped toward the battlefield. Moving quickly, he swallowed a Potion of Sensory Enhancement.
“Alright, you filthy monsters,” He said, “Prepare to have a bad night.”