Mr. Lu winced.
Theresa looked at her mother as though she’d just slapped her.
Alex grimaced: he’d kind of expected this might be coming, with how worried she’d been.
“I don’t want to go!” Selina cried. “I don’t want to run away again because of some dumb monsters and demons! I like it here! My friends are here!”
Her brother looked at her in surprise: she’d been pretty ready to leave Alric with him and Theresa, and hadn’t said a word about leaving her friends from back home.
“I’m not running away, mother,” Theresa said. “You saw what I can do now. I’m not afraid.”
“Mrs. Lu,” he said. “No disrespect, but I gotta agree with my sister and Theresa here. Like, I can’t just throw everything away until-”
“I don’t mean for you all to leave forever.” Mrs. Lu shook her head. “You can come away with us until this criminal is caught, then you can come back and finish your studies, and if Selina and Theresa want to come back, they can come too.”
“Mother!” Theresa said. “We’re all okay, the demon summoner hasn’t hurt any of us!”
“But you don’t know how long that’s going to last,” Mrs. Lu said. “You don’t know how many times you’re going to get lucky. What if we had been in the centre of the city when the attack happened? And now Alex is being treated like a criminal.”
“They…were just asking me some questions, Mrs. Lu,” he insisted, trying not to worry her. But he knew that those questions had been some pretty pointed ones.
And, if he was honest…
Having to deal with those questions in that cold, anxiety-inducing room when he hadn’t done anything wrong—hell, he’d been one of the people that had helped stop the demons during the summoner’s first attack—bothered him a little.
Actually, more than a little.
He began to grind his teeth, but used The Mark to bring his expression back to a calm one.
For the first time in a while, he found himself wishing that he didn’t have this Mark on his shoulder, so that if he ever got his hands on the demon summoner, he could punch them in their stupid, demon summoning face.
What they were doing was evil. They were forcing innocent people to have to defend themselves, and now they were directly affecting the expedition. This expedition was important for a lot of reasons. It was an opportunity for him, for all of wizardry, and for Thameland. With Baelin and his team of researchers going to his homeland, maybe they might uncover something that could lead to ending the Ravener forever, not to mention all the advances that could come from dungeon cores.
The integrity of everyone on the research team was being questioned.
“I’m surprised you’re so calm about this, Alex,” Mrs. Lu said.
“I’m just glad I’m not in wizard jail,” he said, hiding how he really felt.
“It’s only a matter of time with the way they’re treating you.” Mrs. Lu gestured in the direction of the jail.
Again, anger surged in him and he took a deep breath, calming himself.
“Yutong, I think…if the kids want to stay, they should stay,” Mr. Lu said quietly.
Alex looked at him as though he were Uldar himself, descending from on high to save the day. Both Theresa and Mrs Lu looked at him like they’d misheard what he’d said.
“Zimo, really?” His wife blinked. “Look at all that’s happened here.”
“I have,” Mr. Lu said gently. “And we both saw something remarkable yesterday-” He gestured to Theresa. “-we saw our daughter fight a ten foot monster to a standstill like she was Twinblade Lu himself. Selina is also learning so much, you heard the things she talks about. I saw Alex do things that I’ve only heard about in fairy stories.”
Alex felt a rush of heat to his cheeks from a mix of embarrassment and pride. He’d shown Theresa’s parents some of the magic he’d learned, but hadn’t realised how much of an impression it had left on Mr. Lu.
“That won’t matter if they’re caught up in some kind of criminal scandal,” Mrs Lu protested.
“But it would look even worse if they ran away now,” Mr. Lu countered. “If we all just up and left right after Alex was questioned, don’t you think that’d really make him look guilty to the authorities?”
“And he, Theresa and Selina would be safe.” Mrs. Lu crossed her arms on her chest. “And then when they caught the real culprit, they could come back.”
“Maybe. Or maybe not.” He crossed his arms too, and Alex felt the air tense. Theresa took a step back and Selina moved, putting Alex between herself and Theresa’s parents.
“They might just put all their focus on him since he ran away,” he pushed. “And then he’d be seen as someone suspicious, someone not to be trusted. And you, me, Selina and our daughter, would be known as people who helped a suspect run away.”
“They’ll think badly about him anyway if he’s arrested, we need to get away from here just until they catch this summoner thing.”
“Not a word, Theresa.”
Theresa’s mouth quickly closed.
Alex winced, glancing back at the river: the barge and hippocampus were gone, but other boats were passing by now. His hand rose and gripped the stone railing on the bridge, his knuckles tightening on it.
He took a deep breath to calm himself.
Anger was useful. It could be very useful, but overwhelming anger only caused harm. Still, in that moment of anger, he sort of got why the demon summoner would want to target temples.
He was getting awfully sick of Uldar and every problem that had fallen on him because he'd gotten The Mark. Standing there, he let himself examine his life.
If it weren’t for The Mark, his journey to Generasi would have been a normal one since he would’ve simply made the entire trip by boat like most other people. There would have been no Cave of The Traveller, no dungeon core, no mana vampire aboard ship since he would have been on a later ship, no expedition, and he’d be living a life where he wasn’t…what?
A person of interest?
A potential scapegoat for demon summoning scum?
He wouldn’t have fought a bunch of monsters, which meant that Theresa and Selina would have been in less danger, and Theresa wouldn’t have had to hide stuff from her parents.
He acknowledged that his life would have been a lot easier without all of those things.
Then he let his mind shift to the benefits: without The Mark, Selina wouldn’t have gotten her birthday present. Without it there would be no Claygon. He probably wouldn’t know Professor Jules, Val’Rok or Chancellor Baelin so well. He wouldn’t have taken The Art of the Wizard in Combat, so he never would have met Isolde or Thundar or Grimloch or Malcolm or any of his other friends from Baelin’s class. He probably wouldn’t have gotten to be such good friends with Khalik either.
As he felt his anger decrease, he realized that he wasn’t so much angry at The Mark.
He was angry at the barriers and constraints it brought.
The Fool didn’t let him practice wizardry freely, or even defend himself from threats freely. He was discovering that he actually liked combat—the challenges and spoils of it—but he couldn’t be as aggressive with his spells and other abilities because of The Mark’s constraints. More and more he was getting tired of having to hide it, and he was tired of worrying about being found out, whether it was by priests, other students, professors, investigators or whomever. From the very beginning he’d had to make his choices based on having to hide The Mark, and not drawing suspicion, or the wrong kind of attention to himself. So, just because he was innocent of being the demon summoner, he still had his own secrets that needed to be kept hidden.
Twice now he’d been questioned by the authorities and been scared shitless each time, worried that his secret would come out—and he was getting reeeeal tired of it.
“-just want to see her pick up your childhood dreams,” Mrs. Lu said to her husband. “You saw her fight and you think that she can become what you decided not to be.”
Alex realized he’d tuned out of the conversation.
Mr. Lu winced as though he’d been struck. “That’s…unkind. Look, our daughter is an adult and so is Alex. I can see maybe asking for Selina to come with us-”
“No!” Selina said.
“-but we want them to make their own choices. We can’t hold their hands forever, especially when they’re getting closer to dreams that they have, Yutong.”
“Mother, father,” Theresa said, stepping forward.
“I said not now, Theresa.” Her mother glanced at her.
“Yes, now. Like father said, I’m an adult and I’m not going to stand here while you two debate my life like I’m a little girl. I want to stay here.”
“And so do I,” Alex said, standing beside her. “Mrs. Lu, thank you. Seriously, thank you. I dunno what I was thinking earlier, but yeah, you’re right. I didn’t do anything wrong. And the way I see it, is that I shouldn’t have to run away from here since I did nothing wrong. I get it, you just want all of us to be safe and this stuff is scary, but like…we all left Thameland with the goal of eventually going back when The Heroes defeat The Ravener.”
“And I’m saying we should leave here with the goal of you eventually coming back when this person is caught, Alex,” Mrs. Lu pushed.
“Right, and it worked for Thameland’s situation. But…when we all leave there because of The Ravener, we all leave together. But if you, Theresa, Selina, Mr. Lu and I left now, we’d be some of the few to leave.Classes are still being held. The games are still going to happen. Mrs. Lu, you should see how these people deal with stuff like this: monsters and demon summoners and all kinds of bad, bad stuff comes along, and they just deal with it, and then get on with their lives. It’s admirable. That’s the way I want to be. I’m not going to force that on Selina-”
“I want to stay too, how many times do I have to say that?” she growled.
“-thanks, Selina,” he said. “But yeah. When we run away from Thameland it’s for a purpose, to come back when our Heroes win. But, the army and knights stay and fight.”
Mrs. Lu raised an eyebrow. “You’re not saying you’re going to try and track down this criminal, are you?”
“Oh by The Traveller, no.” He shook his head. “I mean, if they were right in front of me and I got the opportunity to stop them, then yeah I’d do it if I could. Especially with Claygon around, but I’m not going to go sticking my nose into something that’s about as explosive as dragon breath. But I dunno…there’s times when you have to be clever and take a role, and times when you just have to dig your heels in. So that’s me.”
Mrs. Lu looked at him for a long time, then glanced at her daughter, Selina and her husband. She sighed. “I guess I’m outnumbered here. …but will you withdraw from these silly games?”
“No way.” Alex shook his head. “If anything, I think I’m going to work harder to place as high as I can. If people want to be suspicious of me, then they can be suspicious of someone that excelled at The Games of Roal.”
He stepped toward her. “Don’t worry Mrs. Lu…or like, I guess I can’t tell you to not worry, but trust Theresa and me. We know how to handle ourselves, and we won’t let ourselves get swept up in some crap that the demon summoner’s doing. Okay?”
Mrs. Lu looked at him thoughtfully, then at Theresa. “I take it you think the same way?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “We’ll show them what we can do. And that we’re not guilty of anything.”
Alex nodded. “We’re not.”
Mrs. Lu nodded. “I see I can’t change your minds or force you to leave because it is true, you are adults, but I’ll always worry about you and want the best for you, no matter how old you are. She looked at Selina. “Remember, you are responsible for Selina. Just…”
She wrapped them both in a hug. “Please promise you will keep yourselves safe.”
As Alex and Theresa made their promises, he thought about the investigation.
At no time did any of the investigators talk to Baelin or ask him any questions that Alex saw. The ancient wizard had both the power and motivation to summon demons against priests or anyone else. It would be a way to drive all of them out of Generasi. But, that idea was ridiculous, just as ridiculous as putting it on him.
Of course, who would accuse Baelin?
He certainly wouldn’t, even if for some insane reason he believed the chancellor was behind the whole affair. After all, Baelin had a lot of power and influence in the city. One look at his lab told anyone that he had a lot of coin. Then there was his personal power.
He remembered the time when Baelin had wondered out loud what it would take to stop him if he were to rampage through the city. Even if the chancellor was a criminal, then how many people would die trying to bring him in?
It’d likely be a situation where the authorities would just turn a blind eye and hope his mood would improve, even if Baelin was doing some real dark shit.
Alex considered the idea of being in that kind of position of power…he kinda liked it.
Gaining enough power socially, magically and maybe even with enough wealth that even if Thameland found out he was The Fool, or people tried to move against his cabal, he and his friends could be like little Baelins: too strong to move against.
And setting himself a goal of placing high in The Games of Roal, would be an excellent next step. And the time for that was running short. Let Baelin and The Watchers focus on the demon summoner. If they came his way, Claygon’s fist would be waiting for them.
“Cretins! Wretches!” Isolde growled as she paced back and forth on the balcony. She, Khalik, Alex and Theresa had met up on a balcony of the main castle. “I had no hand in this, and yet they brought me to one of their icy rooms like a slab of beef to be preserved! Then they peppered me with questions like I was a common thief, me of the von Anmut family!”
“I feel the same way,” Alex said. “Baelin’s the only one who looks like he’s immune to their shenanigans.”
“Actually, professor Jules might just share that immunity, because after a few strong words with their leader, they left her alone.” Isolde added.
“Yeah, I can’t see her calmly letting anyone accuse her of crap. But that’s sort of what I was about to say. This questioning made me realize that the more our reputation grows in the city, the less people are going to be quick to throw around accusations against us, or try to take us down.”
“Predators do always go for the weakest members of a herd,” Theresa echoed.
“And rebels often kill their neighbours long before their kings.” Khalik leaned against the balustrade, his arms crossed.
Isolde sniffed. “At times, being more successful makes one the target of ill-intentions and jealousy. Take the Hydra Companions for example…and speaking of them, in all this disaster, I had nearly forgotten them. We should talk to them soon.”
“Agreed,” Alex said. “I’m thinking no, we don’t join them, but maybe something like a nonaggression pact?”
Khalik thought about that. “So, are you saying we agree to not attack each other?”
“Not until the Ursa-Lupine Brotherhood’s taken down. If we beat them, that’ll look really good for us, plus we’ll get a little revenge. Especially Isolde. They’re a big team too, so eliminating them would be worth a lot of points, right?”
“True,” Khalik said. “We would definitely place higher, and it would look better if our team overcame our opponents on our own.”
“Right,” Isolde said. “I…”
“...like this plan.”