The spinning forceball shot over the ground, ploughing through the dust and kicking clouds of grit into the air. Alex guided the spell to shoot in front of each little monster, spraying the dust into their open mouths, eyes and large ears as he whirled it along the ground in between them.
The Mark didn’t react to the indirect effect, much like how it didn’t react to the statues’ eye-beams chasing his forceball and striking the spiders in the Cave of the Traveller. The creatures began coughing and sputtering at the spray in their faces.
The young wizards didn’t waste a moment.
Isolde spat an incantation.
Blue bolts of lightning danced between two of her raised fingers. She shot her hand forward, pointing toward the little monsters as they coughed and hacked on dust.
There was another crackle like snapping branches.
Then lightning shot forward.
Two thin rays of crackling electricity magic fired from her fingertips, hitting two of the little creatures in their chests. They stiffened, shuddering as her power surged through them, conducting into the ground. With raspy, gurgling sounds, they dropped in limp heaps, with their monstrous jaws twitching.
The others screeched as their companions fell, and stumbled forward, picking up large rocks that they’d hidden. Alex shot his forceball in front of them, keeping it skidding and spinning along the ground, whipping more dust into their faces.
Khalik spat another incantation.
Sharp rocks were conjured in front of his hand, and fired like crossbow bolts deep into the chests and frightful mouths of the monsters. As they dropped, a sharp cry signalled Najyah entering the battle.
She shot down on one—talons extended—and with weight and speed, drove it off its feet. Her razor-sharp beak finished it.
Almost half of the creatures went down in seconds. Those still alive screeched louder, throwing their rocks at the wizards’ but then dropping to all fours and sprinting toward the canyon wall. They moved surprisingly fast considering how stubby their legs were, and reached the wall as the wizards burst from cover.
“They were waiting in ambush!” Khalik shouted.
“We shouldn’t let them get away!” Isolde raised fingers. “They might go for help, if their troop hasn’t already heard them!”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. The creatures were running away, but that didn’t mean they were really giving up the fight. He thought back to the silence-spiders, how they hid, scurried and ambushed their prey. These muupkaras had just tried to ambush them: letting them escape now to try again later would be foolish, and probably a good way to get killed.
“Don’t waste your spells, I’ve got this.” Thundar rushed toward the monsters with his giant mace ready. The minotaur’s long strides saw him easily catch them, and with a single swing, one dropped to the ground.
The others had made it to the bottom of the canyon wall and had started climbing the rock face. Their sharp claws bit into the stone.
“I’ve got ‘em,” Alex yelled, eyeing the cliff face above.
He called his forceful up and began smashing it into the cliff face high above the fleeing creature's heads. Searching the stones for cracked areas and protrusions on the rock-rise above, he aimed at them, cleaving the forceball into each at different angles.
With a few precise blows, the rocks cracked, sending pebbles and larger stones raining down on the climbers. The muupkaras screeched as several of them were hammered by falling rock. One lost its grip and dropped to the canyon floor, where Thundar was waiting. Then another fell. Then another.
The last few clung to the cliff, but Najyah dove at them, striking them from behind with her talons extended. Each time her claws connected, they screamed, letting go of the wall and plunging toward the canyon floor. Thundar’s mace swung, finishing each one as they dropped howling and snarling to the ground. When the last one was dispatched, he rose to his full height and wiped his mace. When he turned, he was spattered in red.
“Done,” was all he said.
“I…I thought you never saw battle before?” Alex stared at him.
Thundar shrugged. “Not true battle, but our brawls among the clan are…vigorous.”
Alex looked down at the smashed monsters, noting to himself to never, ever piss him off.
“I am glad we did not walk into that unawares.” Khalik stepped to one of the little creatures’ bodies and knelt down beside it. The fangs in its mouth still twitched slightly. “If they had surprised us with a successful stone attack, we would have been unbalanced, and had they then jumped us with their numbers, things could have been grim.”
“We could have survived with our skills and Isolde’s armour spell in place. Most of us, at least.” Thundar’s hooves scuffed over the dust as he approached. “But, there would have been wounded, which would slow us, or maybe the wounded would have had to drop out calling on the Chancellor’s spell.”
“It is good we found them before they could attack us,” Isolde agreed. “And I am well pleased with what each of us brings. That battle was solved with two spells, a bird and a mace. We are still left with plenty of mana resources.” She looked to Alex. “Your forceball is incredibly versatile; I’ve never seen one that can crack stone and move so quickly.”
“I had a lot of time to practice with it.” Alex shrugged. “If I had a choice, I’d kinda like to shoot freaking lightning from my fingers.”
Isolde’s face softened a little. “ELEC-1400 is not an easy course, but it’s fun if you can get through the initial unit on the history of electrical magic and the unit on conduction. Did you pick it?”
“No,” Alex said. “Maybe later.”
Khalik glanced to the sun. “Let’s hope their troop was not close enough to hear their cries. Either way, we should be moving.”
The four wizards took a final look at the fallen monsters then began climbing the ramp up to the other side. The sun’s heat grew stronger as they reached the top of the canyon.
They abruptly stopped, gaping at the horizon.
Light flashed in the distance followed by a roar, and a massive fireball soared into the air followed by clouds of smoke and dust. Moments later, a crack like stone tearing, and more dust shot up from the ground elsewhere in the distance.
“Looks like the other groups ran into their own troubles.” Khalik sent Najyah into the sky, letting her lead and scout again. “Let’s go. We have a long way yet.”
The group pushed on through the wastelands, wrapping their cloaks around their heads for protection from the sun. There was no wind to blow dust into their faces at the moment, but an unexpected gust could stir it up and sweep away visibility. The cloaks would protect them against both the blazing sun, and dust. As they continued toward the escarpment, the sun rose further into the sky, closing in on noon.
The heat continued to climb.
Alex and Isolde were sweating profusely, and Thundar was starting to pant. Khalik was more used to the heat, but even his broad shoulders had started to sag. Alex took long sips from his waterskin as they trekked through the plain. On the horizon, another flash of light would suddenly appear from time to time, marking signs of more battle.
They watched their surroundings carefully, tensed for another ambush, but none came. For a long time, they were alone in the wastes, left only to the searing heat that had cracked the dry earth, and the thick mana in the air.
Najyah circled above, watching for threats.
Soon she wasn’t alone in the sky. Massive birds with black feathers began soaring above the plains. Many circled the canyon to their backs, just above the spot where they had killed the muupkaras. Others flew over areas ahead of where the battle had taken place. Their wing-span appeared to be about as wide as Najyah’s, but they were thinner, at least from what Alex could see.
“Big crows,” he said.
“Vultures,” Khalik corrected him. “They are birds that feed on the dead.”
“Well, I guess we left them a lot of food back there,” Alex said.
“Hrm.” Thundar watched the vultures behind them. “If the muupkaras’ troop is around and looking for their hunting party, they might go check why vultures are flying over where their hunting party was. If they’re smart enough.”
The students quickened their pace.
As they continued through the wastes, they saw other signs of life.
Large insects burrowed from the earth to bask in the heat as the sun approached midday. Fist-sized beetles shook the dust from their shells then unfolded green, leaf-like wings.
Some flew from the earth—making a loud droning noise— and swooped to the top of rocky rises dotting the plain. There, they would look around and splay their wings wide to take in the sunlight. Despite the heat, Alex shuddered, remembering insectile eyes watching them in the Traveller’s Cave. He pushed the memory of silence-spiders from his mind.
‘They’re just bugs,’ he told himself. ‘They’re just bugs…aren’t they?’
He pointed to the large insects. “Know anything about those, Isolde?”
She nodded. “‘Green Wings’: they take their energy from the sun. They’re harmless…unless you eat them.”
“What happens if you eat them?” Thundar asked.
“It’s a strong poison. Especially to those with a lot of mana in their bodies—that trait helps keep them safe from predation in the Barrens.”
“Oh.” Alex was glad eating bugs, or anything else they found out here, wasn’t part of the test.
He took another long sip of water, mentally cursing the sun. Even the hottest summer days in Alric felt like a cool fall breeze compared to the merciless beating the sun was giving them here.
The heat was sapping his strength—all of their strengths. His feet were hot, and felt like weights were tied to them. Isolde’s straight-backed stride was starting to droop forward and Khalik’s shoulders continued to sag. Thundar’s panting filled the air. Alex was glad he’d trained for endurance over the past month. If he hadn’t, he doubted he could have made it this far.
He looked up to the escarpment. It was getting closer, at least.
“Hold on.” Khalik stopped them. He squinted up as Najyah flew down to land on his gauntlet. “Najyah has seen something.”
He and his familiar locked eyes for a moment, and information passed between them. Khalik quickly looked back over his shoulder.
“Oh damn everything,” he swore. “The muupkara troop pursues us.”
The group whirled around, squinting at the horizon. In the distance through shimmering waves of heat, something moved. It was far enough away that they couldn’t make it out clearly.
“How many?” Alex asked.
“Najyah says many more than we killed. Many more.”
“And we’re on open ground,” Thundar said. “They’ve got short legs, we should keep moving. Keep ahead of them. No need for a fight if we can avoid it. Especially against a lot of them, and in this heat.”
Alex looked up to the escarpment. It seemed deceptively, tauntingly close. They pushed on through the sun, with each of them looking back over their shoulders to look for signs of movement.
Thundar sniffed. “New scents ahead…more of them. And something else. Something strange.”
Cautiously, they removed the capes from their faces and moved forward, with hands raised for spellcasting. They were tensed, ready for an ambush.
But, they didn’t encounter living muupkaras.
They encountered corpses.
On a patch of earth that had been torn up, half a dozen lay scattered on the plains ahead. Each of them was half-collapsed, like waterskins that had been punctured. Their flesh sagged, giving them a strange, soft, deformed look. Because they were so fuzzy, it took Alex a bit to figure out what was wrong.
Their claws were missing.
Their bones were gone.
Gone from each one of them.
Their faces looked like someone had half-flattened clay dolls and left them in the rain to melt. Their features were sunken in and their limbs were crooked and displaced. They looked like shriveled sacks of flesh that were drying in the sun.
Large puncture wounds pierced each of them: some to the chest, some to their arms, and some to the backs of their heads.
“Uldar’s beard,” Alex swore. “What the hell happened to them?” He remembered one of the monsters that Baelin had warned them about. “Oh shit, did one of those bonedrinker things the chancellor mentioned do this?”
Paling, Isolde looked down at the bodies, then quickly scanned the horizon. Still empty. “Yes: they have sharp tails that they use to bore into their prey, then they release a substance that liquifies the skeleton. The skin and flesh is left behind, but the bones and marrow become like a thick soup for them to drink their fill of.” She looked up to the horizon apprehensively. “From the way these muupkaras’ bodies are punctured and how they look deflated, I think we can say that there was a bonedrinker here.”
Khalik grimaced, looking at the ground. “Dammit, the dust storm must have blown away any tracks. Can you smell where it might have gone, friend Thundar?”
The minotaur sniffed. “That way.” He pointed south, away from the escarpment. “The scent is old though. It might be anywhere.”
Khalik frowned, lifting up the hand that had been spell-marked by Baelin. “Remember all, there is no shame if we need to retreat.”
Alex looked at him sharply.
From the way Khalik had said that, he wondered if he meant that for himself too, or if he just meant it for them. After all, he was the one who had persevered in his journey to Generasi with only Najyah after the rest of his entourage couldn’t continue.
“You’re right,” Alex said, his mind working. “But, we’re getting close, though. We should be able to get there before anything gets us. I hope.”
“Yeah, if we keep moving,” Thundar said.
They pushed onward again, scanning every direction. They glanced back toward their pursuers far in the distance, they scanned the horizon for any sign of bone drinking monsters. The wind blew toward their backs, giving them an extra push forward, luckily. Only a light spray of dust kicked up, not enough to hinder their progress.
The wind made their journey easier.
But it also turned out to be a curse.
With it blowing at their backs, Thundar couldn’t smell what was ahead. They continued scanning the horizon for threats, but the dust obscured a lot of the terrain.
They never saw the second ambush until they’d walked right into it.