Baelin’s spell was different from The Traveller’s magic.
When he had passed through The Saint of Alric’s portal, Alex had seen scenes of many places—it had seemed like he was speeding through different realms and worlds with every blink—but with this spell, he only saw swirls of light.
A rushing feeling filled his gut, and the magic felt somehow familiar.
With a pop, suddenly he stood alone in the Barrens of Kravernus.
Blasted rock crunched beneath his feet as his weight settled on the ground, and a strong, hot wind whirled dust into his face. He began to cough, shielding his eyes as he looked toward the sun through the churning dust. It was hot here. A lot hotter than it had been at the university. The mana in the air was so thick that it felt like he was wading through a magical pea soup; the ambient mana seemed to vibrate with its own energy.
Near to him was a large rise of rock, and beyond that, a slope that led down to a canyon. In the distance, rose the escarpment that served as the goal of their test.
“Alex?” Khalik’s voice asked behind him.
“Khalik!” he turned around, thankful to see his friend.
Two other figures appeared.
Khalik was closest, with Najyah perched on the leather gauntlet on his arm. She had tucked her head beneath her wing, shielding herself from the dust. Behind them were the last two members of their group.
The first was the massive minotaur that he had noticed standing with the class—a foot or more taller than Alex—now shielded his eyes with a thick arm holding an iron mace. Standing near him was the coughing form of a tall young woman.
“We have to get out of the dust,” Khalik coughed. “Quick, behind that rock!”
The powerful young man, covering his eyes, leaned into the dust storm and strode toward the rise with the others following him with their eyes half-shut. Coughing and sputtering, the four students reached the stone and pressed against it.
“Holy shit, this is a hell of a test.” Alex coughed, wiping dust from his hair and face.
“Well, we were warned.” Khalik grimaced as Najyah shook herself, ruffling her feathers. “It was not a windy day at the school so I hope this is just a short gust. But for now, dampen whatever cloth you have and tie it around your nose and mouth: the wind is howling like a desert sandstorm. Try not to talk for now: it will just bring more dust into your chest.”
The other three students quickly took their cloaks from their packs to tie around their faces. Alex was glad he’d packed his as he moistened a corner with his waterskin and wrapped it around his face and head. The wind couldn’t have blown for more than a few minutes, but it felt like hours while they waited—pressed against the rise of rock as the dust hissed against it.
Eventually, the wind lessened, beginning to grow quiet and the dust began to settle.
Soon, the four students were able to remove the cloaks from their faces—or snout in the case of the minotaur, as the dusty air settled.
“Well, that was terrible,” Alex said, wiping his hair. “Anyone having regrets yet? Maybe they still have openings in ‘Summoning Fairies and Unicorns I’.”
That wasn’t a real class, but it would have been amazing if it were.
Khalik’s lips crooked up a bit, but the other two didn’t laugh.
“If we’re going to be working together as a team, then we should learn about each other and our capabilities before we start our journey,” Isolde said, rising to her full height and shaking off her cloak.” “I am Isolde Von Anmut, and I am in my second year. A pleasure to meet you all.” She nodded to them, but did not smile. Her eyes were already flicking toward their destination, as though she were trying to measure time and distance between them and the escarpment.
“Khalik, I am in my first year, and this is Najyah.” Khalik wiped the dust out of his familiar’s feathers.
“Alex, first year, first class, first time in a horrible dust storm. Lots of firsts.” Alex conjured his forceball by the side of his head, and peered around the rock-rise. The dry earth was flat as far as he could see, with the occasional stone-rise breaking up from the ground, and canyon cutting through the stone. The stone-rises almost look like crooked, branchless trees made of sun-baked rock.
“Thundar, first year,” the minotaur’s voice rumbled. His ears flicked off the excess dust.
Isolde paused. “All first years?” a note of disappointment lay in her voice. “You’re all brave. Most students who try this course wait until at least their second year.”
“Perhaps we are brave. Or perhaps we are just fools.” Khalik said, then paused, looking at Alex, who was trying to control his laughter. “What is so funny?”
“It’s a bit mad, isn’t it? That we’re actually here in a horrible wasteland? Ah well, we’re already here, so we may as well see what we’re made of. So, have any of you had experience in a fight before?” He raised his own hand quickly. “I have.”
As soon as he’d heard that disappointed note in Isolde’s voice, he knew he’d likely be considered nothing more than ‘deadweight’ once she and Thundar heard the only spells he knew were forceball and forcedisk. Better to control how and what information came out before they started asking a bunch of questions and making a bunch of assumptions.
“I have been in combat as well,” Khalik confirmed.
“I’ve brawled among my generation and undergone rites of passage in my clan.” Thundar clapped his mace in his hand. Alex eyed the brutal looking thing: its head was bigger than his forceball, and its flanges ended in vicious looking points. Thundar’s arms were as big as Khalik’s thighs; one swing from that weapon looked like it could cave in half of Alex’s body.
And Thundar was going to be a wizard? He looked like he should’ve been pulling silence-spiders in half with his bare hands. Still, best not to judge, Alex thought. He himself was trying to be a wizard after all, and he had a magic Mark that actively tried to make sure he could never cast a spell. So, who was he to question anyone else being there.
“I have not seen real battle, though,” the minotaur finished, looking to Isolde. “What about you?”
“I have partaken in a number of wizard duels…but have never engaged in a fight with monsters.” Isolde grimaced. “I took the first year of battle-magic and learned lightning spells from ELEC-1400. Now, I can cast up to third tier spells.”
Her tone was quick and serious.
“I know a body strengthening spell and an Illusory Duplicate spell,” Thundar said. “Both are first-tier.”
“I can cast second-tier spells,” Khalik quickly said. “And Najyah, my familiar can scout, attack and serve as an origin point for my spells.”
“I’ve killed monsters before,” Alex said, partly to let them know of his competence, and partly to reassure himself. “I think we’ve got a good group here. Brains, magic, brawn, experience. We’re bringing different things to the table. As long as we bring ‘cooperation’ too, we’ll have just about everything the chancellor wants. We can do this.”
He emphasized the word cooperation, and saw the others nod in agreement. Good. The last thing they needed was an argument over who would be leader.
“So, what’s our plan?” Alex continued, pointing to the canyon. “That big canyon is between us and where we need to go…can any of you fly? Like those floating disks at the school?”
“Thanks,” Alex said dryly.
Isolde shook her head. “Flight is a third-tier spell, but I haven’t learned it.”
Khalik eyed the canyon. “I am serious, Alex. I will send up Najyah to survey what’s around us. That could help us find a path. I cannot imagine the chancellor would place us somewhere where we cannot even try to pass the test.”
He thrust his gauntleted arm into the air and sent Najyah flapping into the cloudless sky. “She will circle for a time, then tell me if there is any path ahead, and if there are any threats nearby.”
They waited, watching Najyah soar as her massive wings caught a hot air current which sent her high into the blue sky. As they watched, Alex noticed more specks in the distance: tiny wisps of cloud shooting up into the sky. Further in the distance, he noticed a bat-winged shape fly up as well.
“Are those going to be problems?” he pointed to them.
Isolde peered toward where his finger indicated. “No…those are summoned air elementals and the last looks like a summoned greater imp. Other parties must also be scouting by way of…huh. Look at that.”
A pair of figures—humanoid shaped—had risen into the air and floated toward the escarpment. They crossed the sky at speed for about thirty seconds, then paused and flew back to where they had taken off from.
“Flight magic,” Isolde said. “But it looks like they’re not able to go all the way before their will mana runs out. Not good.”
“What is it?” Thundar asked.
“Unless they were scouting, they played their hand too early. They probably thought they could cross the distance to the escarpment before their mana ran out, then realized just how far it was. Now, they are weakened and have to go back to whatever teammates they left behind. And that’s a bad position to be in.”
“That’ll cost them trust,” Khalik said. “An unwise strategy.”
Isolde’s eyes narrowed. “Trust doesn’t matter to many at Generasi. Sometimes, it’s all about who can get ahead the quickest…no matter what method they use.”
Alex had a feeling he knew who she was referring to.
A cry signalled Najyah’s return, and she landed on top of the stone-rise. She met Khalik’s eyes and something silently passed between her and her master.
“Good news and bad news.” Khalik turned to the rest of them and pointed along the canyon. “There’s a path down to the canyon floor ahead and another that leads up and to the other side farther down. We can cross…but the bad news is that she saw tracks at the bottom of the canyon. Something moves through there a lot. She thinks it is small though.”
“Muupkaras,” Isolde said. “Little monsters covered in fur who walk upright like us. About three feet tall. They are smart enough to use rocks as weapons but they haven’t learned the use of fire.”
“Dangerous?” Thundar’s grip tightened on his mace.
“Yes,” Isolde said. “Monsters in the Barrens are aggressive, especially if there’s a lot of them. Muupkaras are no exception…but four wizards of Generasi should be able to deal with them, and escape—they’ve got short legs, they’re not that fast, but they have excellent endurance. We’ll likely only have a problem if they’re in a very large troop.”
“How large can those groups be?”
“Most of the time? Between forty to fifty, but hunting groups are smaller, only about three to ten or so, according to Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Monsters Volume I.”
“Ten would be trouble, but three to five we can handle.” Khalik said. He looked to Rajyah, who flew off the rock-rise. “She will scout ahead of us, and tell me if the canyon is safe.”
“We should get going. The dust has settled and we don’t have all the time in the world,” Thundar said.
Alex eyed the canyon, looking at the rough walls. “Just a second.”
He willed the forceball up and slammed it full force into the stone-rise they were standing beside.
Stone cracked from the impact, and a few more blows dislodged large chunks of rock which landed heavily on the other side. Good, it looked like the stones in The Barrens weren’t unbreakable, and his powered up forceball could shatter them if they were hit enough or just right.
“What are you doing?” Isolde frowned.
“Testing how stable the rock is.” He centered his pack on his back. “Shall we?”
The group moved from the rock-rise and began making their way toward the edge of the canyon. Najyah fluttered ahead of them, diving toward the canyon and swooping along its length. Alex peered over the side of the canyon wall. He was glad he wasn’t afraid of heights. It was a long drop. At least a hundred feet. Maybe more.
He eyed the canyon’s sides. The stone looked like limestone, the same as the rock-rise—layered and flaking, while the floor of the canyon was covered in dust: two resources for him to use. More rock-rises seemed to grow out of the canyon floor like miniature trees, and many of them didn’t look stable.
Isolde was muttering beneath her breath nearby, and now he heard what she was repeating: facts about the Barrens as well as spell formulae. Her back was straight and her arms stiff. Her eyes darted around constantly.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes I am,” she said stiffly. “I should be asking you that, being your senior.”
He shrugged. “Today we’re all on the same ship. The same rapidly sinking ship.”
Again, not a laugh. Ah well, at least he thought he was funny, and humour was helping to keep him calm.
“I’d prefer if the ship were sound,” Khalik said.
“I’d like not to be on a ship at all,” Thundar added.
Isolde paused. “...I’d at least take a sky-gondola. That would make this entire test elementary.”
Alex snorted. “We should’ve brought one, if it’d work outside the city.”
He glanced up ahead and saw a pathway leading down into the canyon.
There. That was step one done. Easy enough so far.
Thundar stopped, his nostrils flaring. “Wait…” he sniffed the air. “I smell blood. Blood and rot. Coming from close by.”