“Does…anyone know about this?” Alex asked, dispelling Force Armour and Orb of Air as he checked out Kybas’ underground garden.
“Just you now,” Kybas said with a little cough. “Well you and Harmless! …but Harmless only talks to me so that’s okay. …you won’t tell anyone about this will you?”
“I…it doesn’t look like you’re growing monstrous world-ending plants down here or anything, and you’re not summoning demons to attack City Hall or campus.” Alex looked around. “So, I don’t see why I should…wait. Why are you down here in a cave growing mushrooms?”
“Because potion ingredients cost many coins.” Kybas frowned. “And I don’t have many coins, but Harmless needs many body enhancement potions if he’s going to grow and be his biggest and strongest.”
“Yeah, so this is the solution you found.”
Kybas reached down to pet Harmless. “It’s not a bad solution. There are garden beds that students can rent to grow their own ingredients, but I don’t have the coin to rent one. So I did what me and my family did back home: found a place where no animals or big people came too much, and dug a nice big den. It took a long time and a lot of casting of Move Dirt, but I did it.”
“Yeah, you did alright.” Alex couldn't help but admire the little fellow’s ingenuity. The secret garden was well crafted and very well stocked, and from how healthy the mushrooms looked, it was obvious that Kybas had spent a lot of time and effort caring for them. “What do you do for water?”
“I use Conjure Water mostly.” Kybas padded over to a stone bucket he’d set beside one of the mushroom beds. “And sometimes I bring more water through one of the tunnels-Oop!”
Alex paused in the middle of examining two large mushrooms: one that was green with white dots, and a red one with white dots. Two black marks on their stalks made them look like they had little faces. “Wait, you have more tunnels?”
Kybas squinted at him. “You’re sure you won’t tell anyone? ‘Cause if you do...I might have to kill you.” Kybas started to giggle.
Alex stared at him.
“I’m only joking, Alex!” The goblin-wizard’s giggling became full laughter.
“I figured as much, but seriously, man, I know what it’s like to keep a secret…” Alex said. “Unless you want me to tell somebody, I’m not going to say a word. But…maybe we should talk about that later.”
“Hrm.” Kybas snorted in suspicion. “I have two tunnels that go to other exits. In case someone sneaks in…you’re quiet, though. I’m surprised I didn’t hear you.”
“I’ve had practice…” Alex said. “Where did you get the spores for the mushrooms?”
Kybas shrugged. “Cut little bits off mushrooms in Magical Botany and brought them down here. They’re easy to grow if you know what to do, especially with good compost and stuff to grow them in.” He wrinkled his nose. “If the conditions were better at home we would have had fuller bellies, I think.”
Alex thought back to the time shortly after his parents died, when he was feeling awful every day and wondering why something so terrible had happened to his family. Those times were dark…but he’d never gone hungry.
Mr. and Mrs. Lu had seen to that.
The urge to share some of his multi-course meals with Kybas quickly grew.
“These aren’t the best ingredients for body enhancement,” Kybas said. “But they’re better than nothing, and they don’t cost anything. They aren’t missed if you just take a piece of mushroom here and piece there to grow your own.”
He crouched down beside Harmless, rubbing the crocodile’s snout. The reptile’s eyes closed and he leaned into Kybas’ touch. “It’ll all be worth it when Harmless is thirty or forty feet long and can eat sharks!”
‘Grimloch probably wouldn’t appreciate that idea,’ Alex thought.
“Well, it looks like you’re doing a lot for the little guy…and jeez, this is some pretty great work,” Alex said, scratching his head. “You know, this would probably impress my sister a lot: she likes building things, and I can tell this place is…really well built…it’s just that, Kybas, this is really dangerous.”
“No danger for me, maybe danger to the moles that come in here sometimes.” He grinned wickedly, patting the scales on Harmless’ side. "Or for anyone that comes down here without me saying they can!”
“No I mean like…” Alex winced. “I think this probably breaks a bunch of rules. And like… Thundar and I heard you—I think it was you—a couple of times when we were walking along the path. And Khalik and I just heard you.”
“Mhm!” The goblin-wizard nodded. “Sometimes I hear people go by and sometimes they stop, but lots of plants in here rustle and move and try to eat you if you let your guard down, so there’s lots of noise. Most keep walking most of the time. You’re the first to come down, and I’m glad it was a friend that found my garden, and double glad that you had a spell around you so Harmless didn’t eat your leg!”
“Not half as glad as I am about that last part…” Alex said. “But uh…listen, maybe this…maybe this isn’t such a good idea now, Kybas. I mean. Look, The Watchers of Roal are really on the lookout for that demon summoner, they’re flying around and I’m pretty sure the only reason they haven’t started cutting down plants and rooting around in here is because these plants have value to a lot of people. And also because the demon summoner only attacked the school once and Baelin took care of it really easily.”
He gestured at the ceiling. “Look, you’re a grown-ass ma-er, goblin. Goblin man. You can make your own decisions, but I bet you they’re going to get desperate enough to send teams searching through the brush around here. You’re going to be in so much trouble if you get caught, and with how jumpy everyone is on account of the demon summoner, I don’t…if the Watchers come down here and Harmless attacks them...”
“It’s okay,” Kybas said, confidently bringing up his little chin. “That’s what the extra tunnels are for. The elders in my village taught us young ones how to escape from monsters and fight evil beast-goblins. I just need to do this for a little while longer.”
Alex swallowed, thinking back to when he’d been secretly analyzing the dungeon core remains, and how that could have completely blown up in his face.
They were like monsters clawing at peoples’ backs.
“Kybas.” Alex pushed one more time. “There’s gotta be another way. Like…even if you can’t afford to rent one of the plant beds, I mean…you’re training to be a wizard, right? When you get out of the university you’ll have people trying to throw heaps of gold at you to get you to work for them. You could play it safe now and then give Harmless all the potions he wants later. Or you could get a job…maybe there’s a scholarship or something-”
“I have two jobs,” the goblin-wizard grunted, his expression darkening.
“Oh shit, uh sorry-” Alex said.
“I make enough to pay for my room,” Kybas said. “Not much more than that. Tried for scholarships, but they’re soooo competitive. Didn’t get any. Maybe I can get a research position with Professor Salinger if I keep doing well. But…these are precious years of growth for Harmless. Crocodiles do most of their growing before they’re ten years old and a lot of that is in the first two years. If I don’t give him everything he needs now, it’ll be too late. So I’ve got to try.”
He knew what it felt like to take risks when he was trying to do something for someone he cared about. It might not have been a little crocodile, but he knew what it felt like all the same.
In the end, this was Kybas’ decision. They didn’t even really know each other that well, though Alex was becoming pretty intent on changing that. He liked the little wizard, and he’d served as an anti-Derek barrier for an entire semester. That alone was worth a lot.
“Just…be careful, okay?” Alex said. “Like, I’m not going to tell anyone. But…I heard you, so others might. Listen, next week, I’m going to have a dinner. You should come.”
Alex looked around the secret garden one more time. “And uh…be careful you don’t inhale weird fumes.”
“Tooo late,” the goblin grinned. “Some of the mushrooms here have very fun side-effects.”
Alex decided not to ask too many more questions.
“So that is who was down there,” Khalik mused as they left the botanical gardens.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Alex said nervously, looking back over his shoulder. Claygon followed dutifully. “I’m kinda breaking trust by even telling you. But it’d be pretty weird if I came back and said, ‘nothing happened’.”
“I appreciate that, and I am no gossiping rooster ready to crow out everything I hear come the dawn,” the prince said. “Still, I am glad that it did not turn out to be the demon summoner. In a sense.”
“Yeah, if we’d caught them off guard…”
“Ah, no matter,” Khalik said. “This demon summoner is already at a height of power, while we are growing further into our own strength. Time is on our side.”
“Yeah, you’re right…” Alex murmured. “It would give Theresa’s parents some peace if the summoner was gone, though. Speaking of that, I’m going to try and find her. We should probably talk.”
It took Alex some time to find Theresa. She wasn’t at home, she wasn’t at the beastarium, or at her parents’ place. On a hunch, he decided to go to The Watchers of Roal to see if she was practicing there. Luckily, he’d called it right.
The Watcher he’d talked to seemed really tense, and the entire organization seemed to be on high alert. Patrols mounted on their flying disks were constantly coming and going from their headquarters.
After promising to stay out of the way and getting permission, he was allowed to enter their stadium. It was smaller than the arena the students used, and the air was filled with the sounds of battle. Members of The Watchers—along with what looked like new recruits—were practicing below. Theresa was down there, pressing a young woman hard with a series of fierce sword and knife strikes.
She’d gotten faster.
While the Watcher trainee put up a good fight using body enhancement spells, quick illusions and force blasts to keep Theresa at bay, the young huntress’ physical ability, experience and skill with her blade proved to be too much and she soon overwhelmed the woman.
She gave her opponent a final sweep of the leg that dropped her to the sand. The young woman raised her hands in surrender just as Theresa levelled her curved sword at her neck.
After she helped her opponent up, they bowed to each other, touched swords, and then she startled when she noticed Alex waving at her from the stands.
She jogged over to where Alex stood waiting.
“I’m glad you came looking for me,” she said. “Let’s find someplace quiet to talk.”
“Yeah, you weren’t at home so I thought you might be here,” he said, giving her a hug. “You okay? Talk with your folks yet?”
Her lips tightened. “Yeah. Earlier this morning. After I finished walking Brutus.”
Alex winced. “I’m guessing it didn’t go well?”
“It could’ve gone better.” She frowned. “They’re still mad that I didn’t tell them about the monsters and stuff in my letters. They didn’t get into it as much as I think they wanted to because Selina was there, but they were still mad.”
“…do you think they were mad about us?” Alex asked, concern filled his voice.
“No, no, I asked. They said no.” Her frown deepened. “They just kept going on about how I should’ve told them everything before they got here.” She made a disgusted noise. “What do you think? Do you think they’re right?”
“Naw, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think I would have told my family I was fighting monsters in a bunch of letters. I’d rather them find out more about my life in person. You can’t really explain all this stuff in a letter. You’d need like a book.”
He paused. “A really long book.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” she sighed. “I think Generasi’s scaring them. I remember how overwhelming it was for me, and that was after-” She paused, making sure no one was close. “All that stuff in The Cave of the Traveller.”
“Maybe…maybe we could try and show them another side?” he said. “Look…Selina’s birthday party’s coming up. You know how I wanted to take us all to the Rainbow Tower for it, right?”
“Maybe that’ll show them another side of the city.”
“Maybe…if you can get them to go back into it.”
“Don’t underestimate your parents.” He smiled. “They’re brave. Hells, your dad has the blood of Twinblade Lu flowing through his veins just like you…and he listens to your mom, so that says something about how strong she is. We’ll turn things around. They’ve seen some of the horror of magic. Let’s show them how wonderful it can be.”