Mr. Lu and Alex leaned against a nearby tree, both men watching their loved ones, friends, and friends of friends enjoying each other’s company as they watched Selina running around, playing with the messenger construct.
Alex could have sworn that Najyah—perched in a nearby tree—was glaring at the falcon with a look of…something.
“Do you mind?” Mr. Lu asked.
The younger man looked over as Theresa’s father held up a familiar box of dried herbs and his walnut pipe.
“Oh yeah, go right ahead,” Alex said.
“Thank you.” Mr. Lu used a small wooden scoop to measure a portion of the herbs, then he dumped the mixture into the pipe’s bowl and tamped it down. “I had to change my recipe. They don’t have as much skullcap in the Rhinean Empire, so I have to use more mullein. Not as relaxing, ah well, at least the mint’s cheaper there.”
He took out a small burning glass and held it up to the sunlight, focusing the light on the dried herbs until they began to smoke. He drew on the pipe until the smoke became orange embers, then, he took a puff.
“Ugh, not as relaxing without the skullcap.” He shook his head as the smoke drifted in the air. “Can you believe that Theresa’s mother still doesn’t let me smoke around the house?”
Alex swallowed. “I reaaaally don’t think I want to comment on what Mrs. Lu decides.”
Mr. Lu chuckled. “Smart boy…ah well, smart man, really.” His eyes turned distant. “Damned shame. We never even got a chance to celebrate you coming to manhood before…” He looked around to make sure no one was in ear shot, then dropped his voice low. “…you got that damn Mark. Your father would never forgive me.”
“I think he’d just be happy for all you’ve done for Selina and me, Mr. Lu,” Alex said. “Mom would be too.”
“Ah, every young person needs to mark their coming to adulthood properly, otherwise it doesn’t end up meaning all that much,” Mr. Lu said. “You remember the party we had for Theresa.”
“Oh yeah,” Alex chuckled.
“And now here we are again…” Mr. Lu puffed on his pipe and a stream of white smoke drifted from his mouth. “Tell me, do you intend to stay here?”
Alex blinked. “Pardon? You mean in Generasi?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Lu said. “It’s a beautiful place. The air’s warm. It doesn’t stink like most cities, the food’s grand…but it’s also a place where there’s demons and monsters and Uldar knows what. All this time, I thought you three…and Brutus would be running to safety, not to more danger.”
“Look…I know this might not sound…look, your first day here isn’t what Generasi’s really like,” Alex said. “Most days are like today, where you get to go to a shining tower and see rainbows dancing through the air inside. Today’s more what Generasi’s like.”
“…but it’s also got demons and monsters.”
Alex paused. Wizardry was dangerous, and wizards tended to surround themselves with dangerous things. He couldn’t really see himself lying about that to Mr. Lu.
Maybe to someone he didn’t know, but not to Mr. Lu.
“It’s dangerous.” Alex nodded. “But we’ve got tools to defend ourselves with. There’s magic and…by The Traveller, you should see Theresa fight now. It’s crazy.”
“She did invite us to some sort of…watcher of rollo thing,” Mr. Lu said. “…what are your intentions for Theresa, Alex?”
Alex felt his heart jump into his throat.
“I’m sorry?” he asked.
Mr. Lu turned toward him, puffing on his pipe. His expression was as serious as a priest presiding over a funeral. “I have to ask. I have to see if you’ve given it any thought.”
“Uh…” Alex swallowed. “I…well…I love her, Mr. Lu. I have for a long, long time. I uh-” He touched his hair awkwardly. It had grown well past his ears. “-I don’t see that changing any time soon. I want to stay with her. M-marry her, if she’ll have me.”
“Mhm,” Mr. Lu puffed. “And children? What’ll you do when you have little ones, and you’re dealing with magic and monsters and demons and such.” He glanced over at Selina who had picked up her messenger construct and was examining it carefully while surrounded by her friends…and Isolde. “And what about Selina?”
“She loves it here,” Alex said.
“I can see that,” Mr. Lu gave a sad smile. “You know what she told me the other day?”
“She said: ‘I’m going to learn to be a wizard next year and I’m going to use my magic to make all the bad monsters go away.’”
Did his sister want to be a battle mage?
“She sounds like she wants to be a fighter,” Mr. Lu continued. “I used to say things like that around her age, but it was going to be with my grandfather’s swords, not with magic. You know, I told him that one day.”
His face grimaced. “He told me to ‘never even think about that ever again’, and I’m going to tell you Alex…the look on his face…well I won’t say that the thought didn’t cross my mind from time to time after that, but it was a lot less fun to think about. My point is that Alric was a safe place for you all to grow up in. I don’t know if this is a safe place for Selina to grow up in…and if you intend to build a life with Theresa…”
Alex’s mind whirled.
It felt like his perspective had to unlock from his brain for a bit and then slide back into place at a different angle. For months he’d been surrounded by wizards—some of them pretty bloodthirsty—and all the wonder of Generasi. He was currently learning a spell that pulled a small insect-like creature from a plane beyond the material world and made it bend to his will.
But Mr. Lu ran a tavern with his wife. Their life wasn’t complicated.
And it sounded like—he once had Theresa’s spirit for wanting to travel and take the path of Twinblade Lu—but, he’d let it go long ago.
To him, all of this danger and wonder must have been frightening.
“You know, there’s this professor, I have. His name’s Baelin. You’d love hiiiiii-” Alex remembered the skulls in Baelin’s office. “-iiis caring for his students. One of the things he talks about all the time is how dangerous the world is. And it is true…Generasi is dangerous, but so’s Thameland. The Rhinean Empire apparently had elementals rise up from their mountains and attack the people there. Wizardry might be dangerous, but I think it’ll arm me and Selina against a lot of the world’s dangers. I mean, you and Mrs. Lu gave her a knife, right?”
Mr. Lu nodded. “We did.”
“Another thing that Baelin teaches us is how to defend ourselves from dangers that come after you because you’re a wizard, or maybe they just want to hurt you even if you’re not a wizard. He talks about how to keep loved ones safe, Mr. Lu.” He turned toward the older man. “I want you to know—that no matter what happens with me and Theresa—I don’t plan to put her in any more danger than that she’d choose for herself. I respect her too much to be like ‘oh Theresa, you have to stay home where it’s safe’.”
Mr. Lu snorted. “True, she’ll always find another forest to hunt in.”
“Yeah, so we’ll be a team. That’s the way I see it. We’ll do things right and…sometimes there might be risks, sometimes not. I dunno if that’s what you want to hear, but-”
“It’s not,” Mr. Lu said. He shook his head. “Honestly, Alex, what I’d love for you and Theresa to say is that you’ll come back with us to the Rhinean Empire. I’d love it if you found a safer school to go to. …but as I said, you two are adults now. I couldn’t stop you from choosing your own path even if I wanted to.”
He glanced over at Theresa and sighed. “Just…be careful. Both of you. She’s our only daughter…and in every way, you and Selina are like two of my own children. Man to man, Alex, just remember that sometimes home and hearth are worth a lot. They were enough to make ‘Twinblade Lu’ put down his swords.”
“I’ll…keep that in mind, Mr. Lu,” Alex said.
“But, I get it. You’re young and you need to carve your own way. …but we had to bury your mother and father. And with that Mark, you can’t even protect yourself properly. Don’t make us have to bury you…or…” He looked at Theresa. “Oh, listen to me now. This is a birthday party. C’mon, let’s go back to the celebration.” He put his arm around Alex’s shoulder.
“Right…” Alex said.
He’d have a lot to think about.
‘You can’t even protect yourself properly.’
Maybe…but maybe if Mr. and Mrs. Lu saw how he and their daughter conducted themselves in battle…saw their strength…then maybe even if he still worried, maybe that worry would be a little less.
Luckily, there was a way to show them coming up soon.
“The Grand Battle is going to be the event that we will have to prepare for the most,” Khalik said, standing over the table and looking at everyone gathered there.
A bunch of dangerous looking people were seated around it.
Thundar, Grimoch, Theresa, Isolde, Svenia and Hovarth all sat—on the floor in Grimloch’s case—with serious expressions on their faces, while Claygon loomed ominously over them all. Brutus lay at Theresa’s feet, while Najyah perched—on lookout—at a distance.
In all of their classes in The Barrens—or in their battles outside of Baelin’s class—this was quite the formidable fighting force.
And they weren’t going unnoticed.
It was the third day they’d met on this particular part of the campus green, far away from others and away from the cover of trees or bushes or anything else for someone to hide in. Claygon was constantly surveying their surroundings for anyone approaching.
In the distance, they noticed students going by would often crane their necks to check them out, while certain Watchers of Roal patrolling the area waved at Theresa when they spotted her.
“Wait, Khalik,” Theresa held up her hand. “There’s someone hanging around over there.”
A student had been walking along and suddenly stopped as though looking for something.
“Whoever that is, they’re watching us,” Theresa said. “And look at the blue shirt. I bet you it’s one of the Hydra Companions.”
“Then we simply have to let him know that we are also watching,” Khalik waved at the distant student with a wide grin, and refused to keep speaking.
Eventually, their watcher got moving again.
“Well well, we are the belles of the ball, as they say,” Isolde said. “How many does that make who were loitering about our meetings?”
“Seven,” Thundar grunted.
“And they certainly will not be the last,” Khalik said. “I have been told by friends that people have been asking questions about me and all of you. Things like what happened at Patrizia DePaolo’s ball, or what occurred with the mana vampire.”
“Should’ve expected it, really,” Alex said. “We’ve been beating the shit out of monsters in Baelin’s class and outside. People would be taking us seriously, I’m guessing.”
“Hrm, then we’ll take them seriously too,” Grimloch grunted. “What are you saying, Khalik?”
“We have to prepare for it,” Khalik said. “We…are a unique team. We have a good number of members, but far from the limit of fifteen. We have magical power in the form of Claygon and Isolde with her third-tier spells, but no fourth-tier casters.”
“Do we wanna see if anyone would be willing to join up with us?” Alex asked. “Some third year who might want some prize money? Kind of like a mercenary thing.”
Khalik shook his head. “That is a common practice, but we have coordination on our side. We know each other, and have fought beside each other. We have trust, and we know our strengths and weaknesses. New blood at this stage could cost us in mistakes...unless there were a lot of people or they were overwhelmingly powerfu;. And we do not have forever to achieve balance with a new team.”
It was true. The Games of Roal were due to start in only a couple of weeks. It would take time to get to know, and learn the abilities of a new team member.
“So, I propose that we anticipate what challenges we might face and prepare accordingly.” He gestured to Isolde. “You have done some research, if you would be so kind.”
The young woman slammed an armful of books down on the table along with loose sheets of paper she’d made notes on.
“I have made a list of troublesome spells and potential rivals that we will face in The Grand Battle,” she said. Her blue eyes flashed.
“Our enemies will be preparing for us. Let us prepare for them accordingly.”