To say that Amir Abu Saleh looked bad was an understatement. It wasn’t like he was a guy that always looked good since he always looked stressed, rushed and desperate to get himself organized. So if he looked especially bad, he looked bad.
He’d been a helpful—but usually late—supervisor for Alex’s independent alchemical studies last year, but he always seemed to be playing catch up with his own stuff, the students he was tutoring, and his work with Professor Jules.
Sleep deprivation was kind of the norm for Amir, and whenever Alex saw him around campus, he always had a massive tin jar filled with coffee or tea in his hand.
But, ever since the first meeting for the expedition, he’d gone from merely looking bad, to looking absolutely terrible. He was usually sweating, his tall hat was almost always crooked, and his robes were becoming so wrinkled, that they looked like he slept in them.
There were raccoon-like circles under his eyes, and the bottom of his face was more stubble than skin...today was no different.
“Hey, man, you okay?” Alex asked, before immediately regretting the question. Why did people always ask that of someone who obviously did not look okay?
Next thing you know you, he’d be asking someone who’s leg had been mauled by demon claws and fangs: ‘Hey, you, are you okay? Your leg’s looking a little like ground meat, but are you okay?’
“Oh yeah,” Amir paused, slowing down and smiling weakly at Alex before throwing a nervous glance at the towering Claygon. “I’m okay.”
“No really, I’m not asking you to be polite, I’m asking if you. Are. Okay?” Alex asked again.
That was the other thing about the ‘are you okay?’ question. No matter how badly someone was doing, they were always kind of expected to answer with a, ‘yes’.
Even that imaginary man with the demon-mauled leg in Alex’s mind would probably have said: ‘Oh yeah, I’m fine’ when asked the same inane question.
“Well.” Amir grimaced, shrugging. “You know how it is, there’s a lot to do. A lot to do these days. It can stretch me thin. One responsibility drags into the next, which makes the next thing late, and then you need more time to make up for it…responsibilities…it never ends.”
Alex paused, not knowing quite what to say to that.
Maybe that was why people only wanted others to respond with ‘fine’ and ‘good’ to ‘how are you doing?’
“Plus…” He paused. “…there’re also others that need help too, during these busy times.” Amir gave a delirious chuckle that sounded almost as high-pitched and mildly hysterical as one of Professor Val’Rok’s laughs. “You know, these aren’t even my books. A friend borrowed them from the library and left them in the lab, but now he has a class to teach: so here I am, running the books back to the library before some lower year student gets their hands on them and summons something they…”
Amir’s words trailed off, looking at the beetles crawling over Alex’s clothes. “Ah.”
“Shouldn’t have?” Alex finished for him. “On that subject...Can I ask you a question?”
“Ah.” Amir smiled weakly. “I’ll answer, but could you do me a favour and walk with me?” He lifted the books and shook them a little to emphasize their weight. “I'd really like to get these delivered.”
“Oh yeah, uh sure, sorry. Here, I’ll carry some,” Alex said.
“No need to apologize, I was your supervisor, I’m sort of expected to answer your questions, after all. And thanks for the offer, but if anyone even thought that I put these in your hands, there’d be hell to pay!”
Alex nodded, looking at the books with curiosity. “Yeah, I get that.”
The two young men emerged from The Cells as Alex described what had happened with his summoning.
“Before I summoned these cute little guys, I accidentally summoned something else when I mispronounced a word. It looked like a selachar, but like…also kinda like a crayfish? Do you happen to know what it was?”
“Hmmmm….” the graduate student frowned. “It sounds like a Deep Sea Devil, or at least that’s what we call them. I believe the selachar have their own name for them in their languages. Some of their organs are very handy in the creation of magical items having to do with creating water, making water breathable, and shaping it.”
“Right.” Alex nodded as the beetles crawled over him and Claygon followed behind. He glanced back at Claygon, remembering how his fist had stopped the creature. “They can’t be very powerful, can they?”
“From what you described, it seems you summoned a young one,” Amir said, shifting the books in his grip and sweating under the sunlight. “They grow for much of their immortal lives. The older ones are able to be bargained with fairly easily: the part of the elemental plane of water where they come from is full of higher tier predators if I remember correctly. So, if you can help them in combat against one of their enemies, you’ll likely get their service for a long time. They’re not actually true devils, but they still keep their word like devils do, even without the innate magic in summoning spells. They’re a good choice.”
A good choice.
Alliances in combat.
That brought Alex’s mind back to the deal offered by Roderich. Services exchanged against a common enemy. Then he thought of Fan-Dor and Gel-Dor. They’d saved his life from the mana vampire that’d attacked him on The Red Siren, and—to this day—he was grateful to them.
When he became a better skilled wizard—and with any hope, a hell of a lot richer—he’d like to do something for them beyond just sharing the mana vampire bounty. After all, they’d given him a lot by teaching him the Sword-and-Oar Dance, which had saved his life more than a few times over.
His mind went to thoughts of life and debts.
He paused, turning to Amir.
“Hey, maybe this is a weird question…I probably should be asking Professor Mangal, but what if a summoned creature owes you their life?”
Amir winced. “…their life?’
“Yeah like,” Alex gathered his thoughts. “If you summoned an otherworldly monster or spirit that had to be defending their lives all the time…if you helped them, would they have gratitude for that? I mean, I know it sounds like an odd question, but I was thinking that some of them live a really long time—and some are immortal, but they can still die in battle and such, right? I know they kinda think about things differently from us mortals. So, I was wondering what would happen if someone saved their life, would it be important to them, or would that be like saying, ‘you’re weak’ to them?”
Amir was quiet for a long moment.
“It depends,” he finally said. “To some spirits—just as it is with some humans—a life-debt is the most powerful debt you can carry…for others it doesn’t matter as much. With humans it depends on their culture, and individual values, but with spirits, it depends on their kind and their individual nature. …what about you? How would you deal with a life-debt?”
“Me?” Alex said, even though he was the only one Amir was talking to. “That’s a tricky one.”
In some ways, one could say that Alex might owe his life to McHarris. Not in the literal sense, but the baker’s pay had kept him and his sister fed and clothed, especially when the Lus’ were going through lean times. Theresa’s family was well off now, and their business had become successful, but that wasn’t always the case, and they had a lot of mouths to feed.
But if McHarris ever came to him and said something like: ‘You know, boy, you owe me your life?’, he would immediately have Claygon punch the abusive asshole in his face.
“Professor Mangal talked about needing to develop a healthy reciprocal relationship with creatures when you’re using Relational Contract Summoning.
I guess it would depend on who it was that saved my life, I suppose. Like, if someone saved my life, then just used that to guilt me into doing whatever they wanted, then I have to say, no life-debt’s worth that in my opinion.”
“Hrm, that’s a cynical way to look at it,” Amir sighed as they neared the library. “That’s the thing with life-debts and relationships in general: sometimes for the relationship or honour, you do things that are just for the other person. Especially if they need you. But…that’s it, life-debts mean different things. If I were you, I wouldn’t try to get too in love with the idea. Someone owing you their life…or vice versa, is a very powerful thing. Somethimes there’s a lot of grey in situations like that.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” Alex said. “In any case, you’re right: I guess it’s not something that I’d want to intentionally do. Anyway, thanks for the advice, man. And try to take care of yourself.”
Amir gave a weak smile. “I will.”
After he and Amir reached the library and went their separate ways, Alex met Isolde shortly afterward as he was looking for books about elementals from the plane of water. He saw her coming upstairs and waved to her.
There was a troubled look on her face.
“Let me guess,” he said as she came up to him in the rows of books. “Hydra Companionhood?”
She nodded. “They have approached Khalik and Theresa as well, and the one who spoke with me said they would be approaching all of us.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “I got told the same thing. So…what do you think?”
“No, you first.”
He shrugged. “Like…it’s not the worst idea in the world. I mean, we’d get support from them…it’s not like we’d have a life-debt to them or anything, and we’d be getting support we could use to not only crush the Brotherhood—and Derrick—but we could place closer to the top. Plus, we’d get some coin out of it. So, what about you?”
Isolde shook her head. “I am against it. There would be no honour in it, and the pride of striving and crushing our enemies by our own merits alone would be gone.”
Alex shrugged. “I was a baker’s assistant until last year, the only ‘honour’ I know about is the ‘honours roll’ at school. I’m thinking that it’d be better just to win and get the prize overall…but I get it. I would actually feel better if we did it ourselves.”
“Mhm,” Isolde nodded. “And another thing occurs to me as well.” She glanced around then leaned in close to Alex. “I was thinking…if our team performs well in The Games, then perhaps we could recruit our team members for our expeditionary group to your homeland. Of course, we would naturally include our cabal, but Grimloch for example, would also be a fair addition to our forces. If we have outside help, then we wouldn’t quite see how our team would perform together outside of Generasi.”
“Yeah, I see your point.” He shrugged. “I also see good things about going either way, but we can bring it up with the group.”
“Mhm, and speaking of groups, you’ll probably get a message soon: Baelin wants another meeting of the expeditionary team tomorrow.” She sighed. “So much to juggle: the expedition, The Games of Roal, school…this demon summoner debacle.”
“We’ll get through it. Just don’t run yourself ragged again, okay?” he said.
She gave him a weak smile. “I shall attempt not to, but there are a few spells that I am hoping to master by the time The Games begin. I think everyone is trying to learn a new trick or two.”
“Yeah, Theresa’s trying to get her parents to watch one of our training sessions. Maybe that’ll help make them more comfortable with everything.”
Isolde raised an eyebrow. “Theresa’s parents lack for comfort? Much of the insula’s facilities are designed to suit nobility.”
“Oh no, not that kind of discomfort. Didn’t we tell you?” Alex asked.
She shook her head.
“Oh. Well, when they arrived at the port, that’s just when the demon summoner struck, and of course, Baelin was away at the time.”
“…ah. A poor first impression, I could see being discomforted with that fiend roaming free. I think they can take comfort knowing that The Chancellor has his mind bent toward crushing him, though.”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “You should’ve seen him tear apart the first demon at the rally for the priests last year. I’m sure this summoner’ll think twice about attacking with him around.”
“No…way…” Alex murmured, staring down at the note that had just arrived.
It was the next morning and a messenger construct—one that was actually invisible until it flew into his room and perched on his pillow, scaring approximately three decades off his lifespan—delivered a message to him.
He looked at the message written in Baelin’s handwriting.
Apologies for the last minute notice.
My own cabal called for my aid, and I am afraid that I cannot attend today’s meeting. I booked the day off and our meeting was not urgent so no need to make a fuss, I should be back in Generasi by tomorrow.
- Chancellor Baelin
And on the day that Mr. and Mrs. Lu were supposed to watch them training with their team for the Games of Roal.