Dust exploded from the ground.
Muupkaras emerged from the earth around them, screeching, with rocks raised above their heads. There were only eight this time, but now they had the element of surprise. They threw the stones with full force and surprising skill.
“Oof!” Alex groaned as one struck him in the chest and another cracked off his forehead. The lesser force armour absorbed much of the impact, but the weight of the blows were enough to send him stumbling backward and drive a hot burst of pain through his body. The little creatures were surprisingly strong for their size.
Stones struck the others, glancing off their force armour or clipping Khalik’s leather gauntlet. Thundar grunted as one struck him in his powerful thigh, but his tough hide and muscle made the impact little more than annoying.
Then the beasts rushed at them, swarming and dodging past Khalik and Thundar to head for Isolde and Alex: the weakest looking members of the group. Isolde stumbled back in surprise, but Thundar recovered quickly, spitting out a short incantation.
His form shimmered, and he suddenly split into a twin of himself. He and his image quickly went to Isolde, and he swung out with his mace, warding off some of the attackers. The muupakaras skidded to a halt in front of both massive weapons, trying to dart between them. Some stayed focused on Isolde and Thundar.
The others went for Alex, their jaws opening and splitting, ready to grab him and tear at his flesh. He quickly dropped into second stance and shot his forceball down in front of the closest one.
The creature ran into it, falling backward in a heap.
The others swarmed forward as Alex backed away, sweeping the air in front of him with his broomstick. His heart pounded as wet sounds bubbled from their throats, while scores of pointy teeth twitched and throbbed as they advanced.
He called his forceball, dropping it in front of their faces and weaving it rapidly in circles and figure eights around them. The air whooshed around like a swarm of bees. He danced the forceball between them, guiding it close enough to make it look like he was aiming for their faces. They skidded to a halt, dodging out of the way of the spell.
“I have them!” Khalik shouted.
Najyah shrieked out a battlecry.
She swooped over the line of monsters, with her master’s spell shimmering beneath her. Sharp rocks rained down in a line behind her, bombing and striking the creatures through their fur. They howled and stumbled back. Now Alex swept his forceball forward in front of them, spinning grit into their large eyes and mouths. Wounded and now half-blind, they screeched and scampered back.
Alex’s eyes looked for anything he could use against them, anything indirect. But there were no mop buckets of water, no fire-gems in the eyes of goddesses, or rocks to rain down on them. All he had was dust and flat-earth.
Gritting his teeth he swept the forceball back and forth in front of them—slowly moving it closer—driving them backward on their heels. Suddenly, their screeching intensified. Khalik’s sharpened stones were vanishing from their wounds, and blood began to pour over their fur as the deep cuts opened. Panicked from their injuries and fear of the forceball, they were forced into full retreat, leaving behind long trails of red on the dust.
Isolde raised her hands. Sparks danced across her palms and burst into flame-blasts that reached out in a cone, sweeping the air fifteen feet in front of her. The scent of burning filled the air as some of the monsters’ fur caught fire.
One of her attackers leaped around the flames and tried to duck toward her, but a swing from the closest Thundar’s mace stopped it in its tracks. It froze in surprise as the minotaur’s mace passed into the ground where it had just stood, disappearing like a rock dropping into water.
That Thundar had been the illusion.
The real one swung while it was distracted.
The last of the attacking muupkaras was a crushed mess beneath his mace.
Alex watched the others running away. They were bleeding badly. Theresa had told him about animals she’d hunted—bleeding from her broad-headed arrows—these creatures would not get far with that amount of blood loss.
The second Thundar shimmered out of existence and the four wizards panted in the heat. Despite catching them by surprise, their attackers lay dead, dying, or would be dead soon enough.
“Anyone hurt?” Khalik asked.
“Fine,” Thundar grunted.
“Just my pride.” Alex wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Filthy creatures.” Isolde glared at the corpses. “Filthy, filthy creatures.” She glanced to Thundar. “Thank you, if you were not so quick to act, that would have been much worse.”
“Just doing my part for the herd,” Thundar said.
“Khalik, you and Najyah saved me there, too, thanks.” Alex clapped him on the arm.
“Your distraction helped us,” Khalik said. “If you had just started to attack one of them, then the rest would have swarmed you. Keeping them away was good thinking.”
“Y-yeah,” Alex said. “I’m just glad we all got out of that in one piece.”
“Mhm, though my mana reserves are dented,” Khalik said.
“Mine too,” said Isolde.
Alex looked happily at his forceball. Practicing a sustained spell for so many years to up its mana efficiency was paying off quite well. “I still have more juice.” He glanced over his shoulder. “We should get moving. These things had brown fur instead of grey. Maybe they’re from a different troop. If we don’t get going, we might have two groups after us. Oh, and, Isolde, your force armour saved my ass. Thanks.”
She shrugged. “We’re a good group so far. That’s all there is to it.”
They pushed on through the dust, squinting their eyes against the sun. Noon was approaching. They still had time, but the test’s end was getting closer.
It seemed like they’d been walking for days. The sun was high now and the air seemed to burn. Earlier, Alex would have sworn the Barrens couldn’t get any hotter, but the heat had seemed to double with each passing moment.
Najyah had taken breaks from soaring above by flying down and perching on Alex’s forceball. He was glad he’d gotten it to the point where it could carry heavier weights. The group’s steps had slowed as the sun continued to sap their strength, and the movement on the horizon behind had grown more distinct as time went on.
The muupkaras were gaining on them.
“Persistent little demons.’ Alex glanced back over his shoulder. He was sure he was imagining it, but he thought he could already hear their angry screeches carrying on the wind.
“They have a lot of endurance.” Isolde poured sweat, and her raven hair was plastered to her shirt. “They…run prey down for miles.”
“We can’t slow down.” Thundar panted. The minotaur wizard’s breathing sounded as loud as the wind from earlier. His mace hung loosely in a loop on his belt. “If anything, we’ve got to speed up.”
Khalik poured water over his plaits and face. It dripped from his beard. “We are close, but Najyah says there is some kind of change in the terrain ahead. With hope, it will not slow us down.”
“Wish one of us knew ice or water spells,” Alex groaned. “At least we’re not one of those people that showed up wearing some kind of armour.”
He thought of Derek, and noticed Isolde’s jaw harden.
“If someone did, then they had better have taken it off,” she said. “That metal will be as hot as the smithy it was made in by now.”
“Don’t I know it,” Thundar groaned, looking painfully down to the metal mace by his side.
Even with all that shaggy fur covering him, the weapon must have been hot and burning his leg. Alex couldn’t help but feel for him.
“We’re almost there,” he said, trying to keep his voice cheery. “Just a little more of a walk and we’ll be there. We’ve got plenty of water left, or at least I do, and I’m willing to share. I swear I don’t have pox or anything.”
He laughed at his own bad joke, and was surprised to hear all three of his companions chuckle weakly too. The heat must have been getting to them. “Just a little longer. As long as we don’t run into anything else.”
They pushed harder, trying to open distance between them and their pursuers all while keeping their eyes on the goal ahead. The heat had seeped into Alex to the very bone, but—if anything—that just spurred him harder. He’d done well so far in this test, and he’d already learned more about how to use his forceball in new ways just by wielding it in true combat. The class was already proving to have value.
Besides, after coming so far and training so hard for it, he couldn’t help but have a little pride at the thought that he’d succeed. Alex Roth, The Fool of the Heroes of Thameland was close to passing a test of ability given by Generasi’s own chancellor. Proving himself here would strengthen his own confidence, open new opportunities, and help convince anyone who might suspect him of being The Fool that he likely wasn’t.
The challenge was tough, but less dangerous than he’d feared.
He glanced ahead, peering into the horizon through the shimmering air, and took another long sip from his waterskin.
All he had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The ground ahead had broken.
At a point close to the base of the escarpment, the terrain shifted from flat, dust-covered wasteland, to cracked and broken rock that was criss-crossed by narrow canyons and crevices.
“Oh shit,” he groaned, and the others groaned with him.
Some of the rocks were angled and would need to be maneuvered past slowly and carefully. Others had wide gaps between them that needed to be jumped. To make things worse, anything could be hiding in those crevices, waiting to attack as they jumped over them.
And a lot of their party’s strength had already been drained.
Alex glanced back over his shoulder. He was starting to be able to make out their pursuers as they were getting closer--their forms were becoming more apparent.
“This is going to be tough,” Isolde said, eyeing a section of the ground that was angled up like a dagger sticking out of the earth.
“Yeah, and we’re going to lose time and those little demons’ll get closer.” Alex jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
Khalik examined the crevices, then looked to Thundar. “How much strength do you have left, my friend?”
Thundar grunted. “More than I’d hoped, less than I’d like.”
“Okay.” Khalik stood in front of the first crevice, watching Najyah circle above the plain. “We are almost there. If you and I can help Alex and Isolde in making some of the jumps, then we should be able to cross quicker and with no issue.”
“Khalik, if you try to bridal carry me over the canyons…” Alex looked at him.
“I would never.” Khalik grinned. “Now, Thundar might.”
The minotaur grunted at Isolde and Alex. “You’re both getting thrown.”
Najyah landed on a stone ahead as they began crossing the crevices. When the gaps were narrow, the entire group easily stepped over or made the short jumps needed to get from one massive stone to the next. As the gaps widened, the athletic Khalik would make the running jump to the other side, and then wait. Isolde would go next, starting a jog with Thundar behind her—with his arms braced under her armpits—and then she’d jump with the minotaur’s massive arms helping to propel her forward across the gap.
Khalik would catch her on the other side.
Alex felt a little…pathetic, needing to be half-tossed across the gaps like a sack of potatoes, but he consoled himself with the fact that he’d only really been training for a month now. None of the training had involved jumping—something he would correct soon...that is if he survived this place. For now, he’d swallow his pride since missing one of the jumps and plunging fifty feet down one of those crevices was something he’d rather avoid.
Najyah circled around them, eyeing each crevice for any sign of muupkaras or anything else hiding here.
As they closed on the escarpment, their spirits began to rise, but so did their tension. Now they could hear their determined pursuers' cries and shrieks in the distance, and they were growing louder. The muupkaras could climb well, while they needed to pause at the crevices to cross safely.
“Oof,” Alex groaned as he half-jumped half-landed-after-being-thrown into Khalik. “Isolde, what tier is a flight spell again?”
She grunted. “Third.”
“First thing I’m learning when I hit third tier is a flight spell, I swear to The Traveller-” he paused. “Oh hell, look at them!”
He pointed up to the south. Two figures were flying over the landscape—the students that had tried it before. They were at speed—though only about half as fast as Najyah—and kept looking back over their shoulders.
“They must have waited until they were close enough to make the whole journey with their mana,” Thundar grunted in disapproval. “Left the rest of the group behind.”
Khalik’s eyes narrowed. “From their body language they look…scared don’t they? Najyah!”
The eagle swooped to the south, passing the flying wizards. She halted, fluttering in the air, then quickly swooped down and gave a loud cry.
Her master swore in his mother tongue. “We have to move! There’s only one of their group left, and they are being chased.”
Isolde looked at him sharply. “More muupkaras?”
Khalik’s face turned grim. “She said it was much larger. That…it was white and had many spikes.”
The young woman paled. “It’s the bonedrinker! Hurry, we have to reach the escarpment!”