Thundar slowly crept forward, and they followed cautiously as he led them away from the canyon.
The minotaur sniffed the air while pointing his snout down toward the earth. Alex kept his forceball close and had unslung a staff—it was just a broomstick with its head off; he was taking no chances with The Mark’s interference—from the top of his pack. He held it in first guard and was ready to drop into second at any moment.
Both movements were feeling quite natural to him now.
Khalik had drawn a short sword from a sheath at his side and had called Najyah to circle low overhead, ready to swoop down on any attackers that might suddenly appear. He had one hand raised, prepared to direct a spell.
Isolde was silent. One of her hands was raised to cast spells while the other held a needle-pointed stiletto knife. From the comfortable way she gripped it, it looked like she’d been trained in its use.
Soon, a foul smell hit them. Alex couldn’t recognize the smell of blood like Thundar could, but there was a familiarness to the bad odor. It reminded him of when McHarris had left out ground meat for his pies for too long.
Thundar stopped, tilting his head so that one eye looked at a dust pile in front of him. It was so low that Alex hadn’t noticed it in the distance. “Smell’s coming from this pile.”
They scraped the dust away and drew back from what they uncovered.
The corpse of some kind of animal was covered in dust, half-buried in a hole in the dry, blasted earth. Its flesh had been mostly stripped away, leaving sun-bleached bones connected to rotting tissue. It might have been some kind of big, two-legged lizard. Its face looked similar to the frostdrake from the beasterium, but the head was thinner, hornless and had less teeth.
It was also a lot smaller than the frostdrake—maybe the size of an average dog. Definitely a lot smaller than Brutus, but then, most dogs were.
“Ugh, this has been here awhile.” Khalik held his nostrils shut. “It's hard to know how it died, but it doesn’t look like it died well.”
Alex followed Khalik’s eyes and noticed that several of the bones had been broken open. Rocks the size of fists were lying nearby covered in the dark stain of dried blood. The bulk of the flesh around its head and long neck had been stripped off. Cleanly. Though there appeared to be tooth marks on the bones, it looked like the meat had been peeled.
It reminded Alex of how Theresa had shown him how to clean a rabbit by peeling the flesh and skin from the bones, like pulling off a pair of pants.
This kill looked a lot messier and more gruesome.
“It looks like a vent-drinker,” Isolde said.
“A what?” Alex and Thundar asked at the same time.
“A vent-drinker. It’s one of the few creatures that can process ambient mana in the air well enough to survive absorbing it from wild mana vents directly: they don’t need anything more than mana and some water to survive. They’re peaceful creatures: it’s too bad they can’t live outside of the Barrens. Even the city doesn’t have enough mana in the air for them to survive for long.”
“It seems this one had trouble surviving even in the Barrens” Thundar knelt down beside the corpse and eyed the broken bones. “More meat left. Either whatever got this is on a diet, or they left it behind to come back to later.”
“Muupkaras I think.” Isolde held her nose. “Mazlow said their hunting parties will bury a kill if they plan to return to a region later.” She pursed her lips. “Hmmm, I wanted to save mana, but I think we might need some protection. If you gather around me, I can cast Lesser Force Armour on all of us. It will blunt attacks and protect us from blows to the head. I have enough mana for it to last roughly five hours which will be more than enough time for us to complete the test.”
From Alric and its peaceful nature, to having two spells cast on him in the space of what felt like minutes. Alex’s life kept changing more and more.
Isolde spread her hands—reminding him of a sorceress that might lock a princess in a tower in one of his favourite childhood books—and spoke an incantation with her palms raised. Alex felt mana pour through a magic circuit that surrounded him, which weaved a latticework of white force magic over his head, chest, trunk and groin.
As the magic solidified, the glowing force disappeared, leaving only a slight distortion in the light to hint that it was there. In curiosity, he reached down and prodded at the distortion. It was solid: harder than his forceball.
He blinked. “It’s invisible?”
“Yes,” Isolde tested the point of her stiletto against the invisible armour over her. “Some spells from the school of force are just an invisible magical force. Not all of them glow.”
He glanced at his forceball. An invisible version might be useful. Through his experiments, he’d figured out what part of the spell array was responsible for how much light the spell shed. If he could tweak that, it might cause the spell to basically disappear. His eyes narrowed in thought.
The hive queen couldn’t have struck his forceball down if she couldn’t see it.
Something to work on later.
“Thank you, Isolde,” Khalik said. “It will be much safer with these on us.”
Isolde nodded. “It takes a fair portion of mana, though, so my casting endurance will suffer down the line.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here,” Alex said, tapping his forceball with his staff. “We’ll pull our weight as you get tired.”
He looked back down to the dead animal’s corpse.
He wished Theresa was with them for a lot of reasons; for one, from her experience, she might have had a better idea of what a buried kill meant in terms of where the burying predators might have gone. He had a vague memory of her talking about bears burying their kills. He focused on The Mark, concentrating on predator’s habits and avoiding predators.
An array of memories arose of little snippets of conversation with Theresa or other hunters on what to do if you found bear droppings, or a kill left behind. Unfortunately, nothing specific and helpful came up: all of the advice just amounted to ‘leave their terrority quickly’.
He nodded: ‘leaving this place’ was definitely on the urgent to-do list.
He thought of using his forceball to smash the bones and splatter the meat. That would kick up the smell in the air and maybe send these ‘muupkaras’ looking to see what happened to their food, instead of directly following the tracks the four of them were leaving in the dust. Glancing back, he took the forceball and tried wiping away their path, but that left long, curved edged trenches behind.
He considered pressing the forceball close to the ground and spinning it to spray dust over the path behind them, but that wouldn’t mask their smell.
He looked at the corpse. It really didn’t make sense to try anything that might make things worse. The last thing they needed was for him to draw the monsters closer because of the smell, and then have them ignore their kill and come after their trail.
“We should keep moving.” Khalik squinted up at the sun. “Three hours to complete our task means we will likely not be able to stop for rest. In this heat, that will be difficult enough. So, now that we have seen where the smell is coming from and have protected ourselves, we should move.”
“I’ll take up the front,” Thundar offered. “I can smell most things coming from up ahead and I have no magic that strikes from range.”
“I shall hold the rear,” Khalik said.
“You and I in the center, then.” Isolde nodded to Alex.
“Like the filling in a juicy pie for hungry monsters,” he said.
“Why are you like this?” Khalik asked.
“I’ve been asking myself the same question for years.”
The group fell back into silence as they made their way back to the canyon. Sunlight shone hard onto the Barrens, making the air shimmer in the distance, and by the time they reached it, Alex was starting to sweat. He took a long drink from his waterskin and shook it. Still nearly full.
The path down into the canyon was narrow and covered in dust. The group slowed, carefully watching their footing, and Thundar stretched out his arms for balance.
Loose rocks crumbled away from the path beneath the minotaur’s hooves—causing them to freeze—thankfully, nothing gave way. Cautiously they kept moving and finally reached the bottom, sighing with relief.
Thunder’s nostrils flared. “There’s a musk in the air from a beast I’ve never smelled before. It’s old.”
“Hopefully that means it’s long gone.” Alex used The Mark to scan the ground in case there were any hidden tracks. Unfortunately, a few passes of his eyes didn’t yield any information—the dust storm had likely covered any trails. “Khalik, how far ahead did Najyah see those tracks?”
“Some distance ahead.” His gaze followed his familiar’s flight-path over the canyon. “There. Do you see where she stops and flutters? That is where the tracks are. The path up to the other side of the canyon is further ahead.”
“Then we’d better keep moving.”
They continued through the heat with boots, shoes and hooves scraping through the dust. Their footsteps echoed from the canyon walls, and their eyes scanned the path ahead and the stone to the sides. They circled the rocky formations rising from the canyon floor, making sure nothing was hiding around them.
As the silence grew—broken only by the odd, low gust of wind and their own footfalls—tension began to rise in Alex.
He glanced down at the symbol on his hand for reassurance.
If things became too rough, he could always leave. That was what the safety net was for, but leaving now wouldn’t help him get experience for further dangers when it came to delving into magic or the mystery of The Ravener. And one day, there would be no safety net.
“Smell’s getting stronger,” Thundar sniffed the air. “Newer too, but whatever it was, wasn’t just here.”
“Najyah has not seen anything. But the tracks are close.”
Passing another stone-rise, they saw footprints ahead. They were small—maybe the size of young children’s—but were human-shaped except for the toes, which were long like fingers. From the points in front of the tracks, they ended in claws like a bear’s or wild cat’s.
“More blood and rot.” Thundar said, his nostrils flaring. “Another buried kill is close.”
“Then this is part of their hunting grounds too…look there.” Isolde pointed at a dark stain splattered on the canyon wall to their left. Beneath it, broken bones lay, half-buried by the dust. “I read that muupkaras will chase prey—like vent-drinkers—across the Barrens. They surround them with numbers and herd them toward the edge of a canyon wall. Then, the prey falls to the ground and the muupkaras go down and feast.”
“Well I guess we’re safer being at the bottom of the canyon,” Alex said. “...unless they start throwing rocks from up above. At least since we’re already down here, they can’t herd us to fall to the bottom.” A light wind blew toward them, not strong enough to kick up much dust.
Thundar went into a sneezing fit.
“You okay?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, fine, I just…” he trailed off, sniffing the wind. “New smell. The beast smell from before. But a lot newer. Close too.”
The group froze, looking toward the ramp that led up the other canyon wall. It was maybe one to two hundred yards ahead.
“How new is new?” Alex asked.
Isolde stiffened. “Could creatures be hiding somewhere ahead?”
“It’s better if we find out now, than when they are close.” Khalik said.
Alex’s mind began to work. Where could they be? There was one of those little natural stone-rises in front of them, but there were no more ahead, only the dust-covered, flat canyon floor.
No cover to hide behind.
Then Alex remembered the silence-spiders.
The workers had hidden beneath the hallway floor. These ‘muupkara’ things buried their prey. They were diggers.
His eyes narrowed.
“I think I’ll use my forceball to see if anything’s hiding over there.”
“Good idea. I can check in my own way too.” Khalik raised a hand and pressed his fingers together. “Ready.”
“I’ll guard the front,” Thundar said, squaring his shoulders.
Isolde watched them, then moved to the side toward the closest stone tower for cover. As soon as they were tucked behind the stones, Alex willed his forceball over the dust ahead. Khalik watched carefully, with fingers ready to snap.
Then Alex willed the ball to spin.
Then he willed it down.
It struck the earth.
Khalik snapped his fingers.
Sound burst ahead like an explosion going off.
Screeching filled the air.
Monsters burst up from beneath the dust. More than a dozen.
Each was about three feet tall with short, stubby limbs. Grey fur covered their bodies and round faces, but their hands and feet were bare. Their fingers and toes ended in long, vicious looking claws. They had enormous, coal black eyes protruding from their heads, and their noses were small and black like a canine’s. Massive, bat-like ears rose from their heads, and their little paws clutched them from the pain of Khalik’s sound-clap.
They almost looked like little upright fluffy shepherd dogs from Alric. ‘Look at their big, brown eyes!’ Alex thought. ‘How could…’
Then they opened their mouths.
And he screamed.
Their jaws unfolded, spreading wide apart—far wider than it seemed physically possible. He’d seen garden snakes unhinge their jaws to swallow a fat mouse. These creatures' jaws reminded him of that, but much, much worse.
Teeth unfolded from all sides of their mouths: hundreds of hooked, sharp fangs that jutted from the insides of their cheeks, the roofs of their mouths, their gums…just teeth everywhere. They had no tongues and the back of their unnaturally wide mouths—big enough to swallow someone up to the shoulders—pulsated, making hideous sucking sounds.
Alex was suddenly reminded of Mr. Lu sucking meat off chicken bones.
“Oh shit!” he screamed.
He commanded the spinning forceball to shoot forward.