It was no use.
Alex had stopped thinking.
“Selina.” Mr. Lu smiled sweetly at the little girl. “Why don’t you tell us aaaaaall about it.”
The young girl looked up, then saw the expressions on Theresa’s parents’ faces. Her eyes went wide, and she leaned forward past her frozen, ice statue-like brother to look at Theresa.
“Oh…wasn’t I supposed to say that?” she asked in a sweet voice filled with child-like innocence.
‘You did this on purpose!’ the irrational part of Alex’s mind screamed. His eyes flicked to the door.
Khalik had said he’d drop by and bring some treats to welcome Theresa’s parents out of respect. When he finally got there, Alex would be having a long talk with him about telling little sisters about any ‘late nights’ her brother was having.
He heard a grumble from nearby as Brutus pushed a head into both his and Theresa’s laps, begging them for table scraps.
Mr. Lu eyed the two of them. “So…this is how you repay us, Alex? We send you off to safety, and then you seduce our daughter?” Not a trace of humour touched his voice.
“No!” Alex cried, waving his hands defensively. “No, no it’s not like that!”
Theresa’s cheeks started to go from sheet white to bright red.
“Oh, stop it, Zimo.” Mrs. Lu looked at him. “Don’t tease them about that…that’s something we’ll be talking about soon enough. But, what’s this about ‘monsters’?
She looked at Theresa. “You didn’t say anything about monsters in your letters? You told us all about taking up your great-grandfather’s practices and learning geography and all these nice, peaceful sounding things. You never said a word about monsters. What’s this about monsters, Theresa?”
Silence filled the room.
“I…well,” Theresa stuttered. “Well, there’s some things that happened while we were here…somethings that I maybe…didn’t want to worry you about.”
Mr. Lu stared at his daughter and Alex. “You know, we sent you away from Thameland to keep Alex and Selina out of danger, and because you wanted to go with them, Theresa. We let you become a hunter…we let you do a lot of things that most families would not. We trust you, the least you could have done was to be honest with us.”
“I didn’t want you to hear about those things through letters,” Theresa said quickly. “There’s so many nice things here. So many wonderful, wonderful things, but if I’d told you about monsters, that would’ve been the only thing you’d think about.”
Mrs. Lu shook her head. “Of course we would have worried about the both of you, but you could have at least been open with us.”
“But what purpose would that have served?” Theresa met their gazes. “You have enough to worry about. We had to leave our home. Monsters are roaming our homeland. You have to take care of my brothers, and uncle, and everyone else…I thought it’d be better if you got letters that were about all the good things that were happening, not about more things for you to worry about. I just don’t want you to worry. I mean, I didn’t want you to worry, I mean I don’t want you to worry.”
“But that’s our choice and our right,” Mrs. Lu said. “I’d rather worry about you than not know if anything happened to you. Theresa…if there are dangers here, what would have happened if something…well-” The older woman winced. “-happened to you. We’d know nothing, we would have been thinking that you, Alex and Selina were safely away at school, and then your letters would have just stopped.”
“That would have happened anyway…if anything at all went wrong,” Theresa said. “Which it wouldn’t. Mother, father I’m so strong now, you wouldn’t believe it. I’m so, so strong, and I’m not going to let anything happen to me or Alex or Brutus or Selina.”
“And I’m pretty str-” Alex started.
“Stay out of it for now, Alex,” Mr. Lu warned.
“Right, staying out of it,” he quickly said.
“Then why didn’t you tell us?” Mrs. Lu’s jaw hardened. “We’ve given you so much freedom and so much trust…why do you feel the need to hide such things from us?”
“Mother, you’re not listening to me.” Theresa’s jaw hardened in a similar way. “Because I didn’t want you to worry! I was going to tell you in person, after you’d seen some of the wonderful things here. After you’d seen what Alex and I could do. You’d understand so much more, instead of just sending you a stupid letter that could only-”
The door handle turned and a smiling Khalik stepped into Alex’s apartment, bearing a bottle of honey wine and a basket of mandazi doughnuts.
He hadn’t said a word before he froze, his smile fading quickly and his eyes widening as though he were witnessing a wildfire spreading through the entire apartment.
The courageous prince of Tekezash bravely took a step backward, ready to run back into the hall.
“Hello! You must be Theresa and Alex’s friend, Khalik!” Mrs. Lu rose from her seat, suddenly all smiles. Every sign of her earlier irritation was completely gone.
Her eyes flashed toward Theresa and Alex, seeming to say with one single glance, ‘We’ll discuss this later.’
“Theresa’s told us so much about you,” Mr. Lu said, rising as well and welcoming the young man as though he were his own son. Alex could almost hear the ‘so much about you’, followed by an implied, ‘and nothing else’ in his voice.
“Khalik, my friend, you have no idea how glad I am to see you, my good, good, good friend!” Alex said, with a mixture of relief and irritation.
Theresa nodded vigorously in agreement, Brutus bounded over to greet the prince and get at the doughnuts he was holding, while Selina was cheerfully waving at him.
Their friend’s eyes darted back and forth across the room.
“O-okay then,” he said, knowing better than to ask any questions.
“And that’s what happened,” Alex said as he placed his specimen on the sanitized sheet of paper.
He and his classmates in Magical Botany were learning how to collect and preserve specimens in the field for later study. After the first part of the lesson, Professor Salinger had the students remove their things from off of their desks, then—with a quick, barked order—he sent the writing desks scurrying off to the side.
Long tables—tall enough for one to work at while standing—lumbered into the clearing, ready for everyone to take their places before them. The professor then introduced the samples he wanted them to work on: simple four-leaf clover plants: small, easy to harvest, and good to practice on. He had each student meticulously go over the same safety procedures that Alex had learned during Professor Jules’ lab before he’d let anyone even consider putting on their aprons, masks and gloves. It was clear that Salinger was as militant about lab safety as Jules was. In the next part of the lesson, they’d learned how to use small spades to carefully dig up the tiny plants they’d be using to practice the preservation process on.
“Oof,” Khalik groaned, brushing his sheet with distilled water. The morning sun glinted on the wet paper. “Poor Theresa…I feel for her, let us just say that I do not tell my parents everything that goes on here either. It would…present a poor image, I think.”
“Yeah…I guess it would,” Alex said. “If…mom and dad were alive, I don’t know how much I’d tell them.”
Khalik nodded. “It is difficult…I see now, why you kept me so late last night... though it was clear that things were a little uncomfortable when I first arrived. No wonder you and Theresa kept insisting that I stay longer.”
“Yeah, we needed a buffer,” Alex said, folding another sheet of paper over his specimen. “We have to figure out how to talk to them-”
“Clover is largely a fodder plant,” Professor Salinger said as he paced between the rows of tables set up for the practical portion of the class. “But four- leafed clovers are a symbol of luck in many places, and also provide a good base for a number of different potions, or charm-wreaths. It’s truly a fine plant for any hedge wizard. Please, make sure your sheets are properly moistened before you place them on the drying rack: a magical drying rack will dry a specimen to dust if the sheets aren’t moist enough. Oh, and remember to mind the roots! The leaves of the plant are the part we see, but the roots are going to be what you’ll need to study the most.”
The professor suddenly spun around on the spot—blinking behind his protective mask—as though he was trying to catch someone doing anything they shouldn’t. “And if anyone lifts their mask, you’re outta here. That’s a bad, bad, bad, habit to get into. A fatal one.”
Alex looked at his clover, imagining it as some sort of horrible fire spewing plant. He wouldn’t be touching his mask any time soon.
“So, did you figure out how to talk to them?” Khalik whispered.
“Not yet,” Alex shook his head. “Poor Selina felt pretty bad about saying stuff in front of them, and Theresa and I talked for a bit this morning until she left to walk Brutus and clear her head. We’re going to meet up after class and strategize, then go see them.”
“Another thing,” the professor said. “When you-”
Shadows suddenly passed over the class. Students gasped, looking up in fear. The professor winced, while Alex and Khalik instinctively dropped into combat-ready stances.
Alex reached down to grab his potions, and swore, realizing they were in his bag at the front of the class; he looked up, expecting to see demons ready to drop down on them from above.
Sounds of relief were sweeping through the class.
A group of Watchers floated above the glass dome of the botanical gardens, carefully eyeing the students. Their swords were belted at their waists, but their staffs were gripped in-hand, ready to unleash spells if they needed to.
Alex’s eyes were drawn to the staffs. A thought began to percolate in his brain.
Most staffs and other magical items used magic circuitry and pre-built spell-arrays to power their effects. That was how Claygon’s magic gems worked. But some magic items—though they were harder to make and more expensive—could be operated by pure mana manipulation, which meant a one-time outlay of coin. Potions, on the other hand, had to be brewed whenever they were needed, which meant the cost of always having to buy expensive materials would add up over time, but something like a mana-manipulation operated staff, could just be used forever.
From what he’d been told, staff-making was something that students only attempted in their fourth and final year. And even then, they had to be the most advanced alchemy students.
Then again, Alex had already made a golem...so, maybe he could talk to Professor Jules about getting into higher forms of alchemy a little faster.
Khalik meanwhile shook his head and spoke, bringing Alex out of his thoughts. “Look at this. Back to the fear. Just as before. If only I could get my hands on this demon summoner. I tire of all of this discomfort.”
“Yeah,” Alex’s jaw hardened. “I’m getting pretty tired of it too. And hey, we might not be able to face whatever they summon, but I think if we found a way to catch them by surprise…”
It was something to think about, if they ever got the chance.
Chance came sooner than he ever imagined it might.
He and Khalik were walking through the botanical gardens on their way back to the insula after class, when they heard the sound of something scrambling in the foliage nearby.
Alex paused. “Shh…shh…” he hissed.
“What was that?” Khalik whispered.
“I don’t know…Thundar and I heard something around here when we were leaving his Cleansing Movements group.”
They wheeled on the spot, putting their backs to Claygon while the golem stood stone-still in the middle of the path, scanning the surrounding foliage for any sign of movement.
“I think whatever it was went right,” Khalik said. “Some sort of small animal perhaps?”
“Maybe…” Alex frowned. “Or maybe some nasty summoner that’s been hiding here for months.”
They looked at each other.
Alex’s heart quickened.
When he and Thundar had heard the strange noises, he’d been pretty nervous. Now, though?
Well, he was still nervous…but he felt more steady. And a lot more curious.
“I wanna find out what that is,” Alex said, pulling a Potion of Sensory Enhancement from his bag along with booby-trapped versions of Sensory Enhancement, and Mana Soothing.
“What if it’s this summoner?” Khalik asked.
“If it is, then they’ll be unprepared,” the young wizard stepped to the side of the path. “I don’t feel any summoning magic.”
“…fine, then I am coming with you.”
“No no, I’m stealthier than you,” Alex said. “Stay here with Claygon. Follow him if he starts moving, or if you hear trouble...or if you hear me screaming.”
“Fair enough.” Khalik’s hand fell to the hilt of his short sword. “Move with care.”
“Will do,” Alex said, keeping his voice low as he stepped into the foliage.
He moved as quietly as he could, hardly breathing as he slipped by the trees, herbs and brush. Technically, he was breaking the rules by stepping off the path, but he figured that whatever was in here, was likely breaking the rules too. His enhanced senses combed through the foliage, looking for signs of tracks or anything that had disturbed the brush. He used The Mark to learn the terrain—picking up more and more detail with each visual sweep—processing it and searching for anything that…stood…out.
His eyes paused on a section of brush that seemed higher off the ground than the rest of the plants surrounding it. Crouching, he silently lifted a bush.
‘Oh hell.’ Alex muttered.
A tunnel lay beneath it.
One that looked like it had been recently used.