The group pushed as hard as they could, trying to scramble over broken rocks and ground. Dust scattered. Stones and pebbles shifted. The heat blazed mercilessly and their goal seemed to not get any closer.
The Barrens were starting to come alive with sound.
The flying students who had abandoned their companions had reached the top of the escarpment and disappeared out of view.
Now that they were getting closer, Alex could see a narrow circular flight of steps cut into the side of the escarpment leading up to the top. He swore. He’d hoped that reaching the foot of the escarpment would mean the test was over, but since there was no sign of the chancellor, he realised their ordeal wasn’t over. It did make more sense for Baelin to be on top of the escarpment using his magic to observe them during the test.
“Najyah has checked the escarpment! She says that the ‘horned one’ is at the top!” Khalik called as he scrambled to the next crevice over a massive stone. “The chancellor waits up there!”
Hope had entered his voice.
The noises around them continued to build.
Explosions sounded from the other side of the escarpment. More battle. Shouts were coming from the south, mixed with some sort of hideous clicking.
Like rheumatic bones rolling against each other.
Meanwhile, behind them, the muupkaras continued to gain. Alex glanced over his shoulder. He could see them clearly now, and there were a lot of them. Fifty, perhaps more. They loped along on all fours like a pack of feral dogs, crying and shrieking to each other. Alex remembered how easily their claws had sunk into the rock, allowing them to scale the canyon wall. If they reached the broken area, they would quickly overtake them.
Thundar grunted. “Dammit, I was saving this for a big fight!”
An incantation flew from his lips.
Silver-grey mana materialized around him, emerging from his mana pool and seeping into his physical form. For an instant, he was outlined in his mana before it completely vanished. His muscles tensed and swelled, and his fur bristled.
“Hang on to me!” He reached out and grabbed Alex and Isolde, tucking each beneath an arm feet first. The smell wasn’t pleasant, but Alex had no time to dwell on that.
Thundar’s hooves slammed against the stone as he jumped effortlessly from the edge and over the nearby crevice, despite carrying two fully grown humans.
“This won’t last forever,” he grunted to Khalik. “Keep up.”
“Yes!” Khalik cheered.
Alex hung on to Thundar and kept his eyes on the troop approaching the crevices.
As Thundar and Khalik jumped from stone to stone, Alex and Isolde bounced against the minotaur’s sides. Alex kept his mouth shut to avoid biting his own tongue. More screeching and battle noises echoed from all around, sounding like the other groups had dragged a horde of enraged muupkaras with them.
Soon, only a handful of crevices lay between them and their goal.
Then, a human sounding scream rang out from the south.
It seemed to last forever before abruptly disappearing and reappearing at the top of the escarpment. An instant later, it disappeared again. The bonedrinker’s prey must have been teleported to Baelin, and then to Generasi.
“I can see other students now! And a lot of muupkaras,” Thundar shouted.
Alex craned his neck, but couldn’t see much around the minotaur’s bulk. He exchanged a look with Isolde, who appeared more tense than a cat around Brutus. She was muttering beneath her breath again.
He glanced up, noticing their little pursuers reaching the edge of the broken rock area. They streamed over the stones, climbing through the crevices like ants swarming a fallen piece of meat.
“Shit guys, they’re getting close!”
“So are we,” Thundar grunted.
They landed hard after one last jump, and he set Alex and Isolde down. They’d finally reached the bottom of the escarpment, now only the stairs lay between them and their goal.
Snorting, the minotaur glanced to the south. “We’d better keep moving.”
Alex followed his gaze and gasped.
Approaching them at frightening speed, the bonedrinker crawled over the crevices. It was huge—at least as big as a carriage—and twisted. Its body was massive and ill-shapen, like a giant shelled creature that was deformed. Spikes and calcified protrusions rose from its back and limbs. Its head was crowned in misshapen horns. A long tail that looked like vertebrae swung behind it, capped by a needle the size of a longsword. The creature was humanoid in shape, but it crawled, moving with the same sinuous movements as a lizard.
From what Alex could see of its head, its massive crowned skull was also humanoid, with endless rows of fangs and bony protrusions sticking from its cheeks. Its mouth gaped open, glistening with slimy, white, pulsating flesh. Its eyes sat on a pair of long tentacles like the eye-stalks of a snail. Bone shifted and shimmered along its form as it moved, and more protrusions appeared on its back.
“Oh hell no!” Alex shouted. “Run! Holy shit! Run!”
They didn’t need to be told twice and everyone sprinted for the narrow staircase on the side of the escarpment. They climbed, running as fast as they could over the rough, rocky stairs. The steps were ancient, but stable. As they rounded the side, they looked down and saw other students—a group of three—running from a troop of muupkaras toward the stairs.
The selachar woman and the two doberman-like beastmen scrambled over the stones, firing behind them with bolts of blue and green light that tore rock apart or blasted muupkaras in their chests. The selachar student shimmered as though she were coated in armour made of liquid and shadow, and when she cast spells at their pursuers, blasts of water emerged which froze on impact. Ice coated some of the muupkaras and the ground beneath their feet, sending them slipping and falling into the crevices.
Another exhausted looking group of students appeared, tearing across the landscape. Nothing pursued the foursome. Behind, they had left a trail of blackened craters and the twitching bodies of burnt monsters.
“Get back!” one of the group of four shouted. Roaring an incantation, fire danced around his hands and then a glowing orange orb shot toward the back of the muupkaras chasing the other three students.
Half the pursuing troop was swallowed by fire, reducing them to burning corpses in instants. The rest of the group shrieked and scattered.
“I’m out of mana!” the fireball slinger shouted, exchanging nods with the other group of students as they came together and all seven raced up the stairs. The troop of muupkaras that had followed Alex’s group started to swarm toward the escarpment, then froze, pulling back as they saw the bonedrinker. They didn’t flee, but stayed back, watching from a distance.
The students were a quarter way up the escarpment when the massive bonedrinker reached the bottom of the rise. It was too large for the steps, so it paused and let out a gurgle from deep within its chest like it was choking on liquid, then flexed its clawed hands.
It slammed the claws into the stone—biting deep into the rock—and started climbing up the escarpment walls after the fleeing students.
“Run!” Alex shouted. “It’s coming!”
It climbed at a frightening rate, much faster than the running wizards scaling the ridge.
“Back beast!” another of the group of four shouted.
He screamed another incantation and launched a glowing orange ball down. The bonedrinker gurgled again, withdrawing its slimy tentacles into its eye sockets and slamming its bony face into the stone for protection.
Only its bone carapace was exposed when the fireball went off.
The spell tore along the side of the rocky elevation, bathing the creature in flame magic. There was a hiss and whine as its flesh heated in its bony covering, and it let out a scream that was like the hiss of steam escaping a pot lid.
The monster raised its head and gurgled at them. Some of its bones were blackened, but it started to climb again, undeterred. The fireball wizards raced up the stairs, but the bonedrinker pulled itself up even faster.
One student was falling behind, winded by the sprint. The bonedrinker’s tentacles flailed wildly and it surged toward him.
Its tail whipped back then lashed out.
Alex knew he’d never forget those sounds until the day he died.
The student wailed, falling backward, impaled through the arm as the bone drinker’s tail held steady. The young man’s arm began to collapse as his bone liquified. His scream intensified.
Then he shimmered, and was gone.
The creature paused, then bolted up the wall after the other students. Its carapace shifted and another protrusion formed on its back. It had absorbed the bone of the injured wizard.
Alex’s stomach churned.
“Dammit!” Khalik swore. “We won’t be able to outrun it!”
Isolde glared down at the creature, she trembled but her eyes were set and dangerous. “Get back from me!”
She raised her hands and began to chant an incantation. Lightning shot between her fingers, then creeped down her hands and arms. Thunder rumbled as she shot her hands down.
With a crack, a lightning bolt flew from between her arms.
The electricity magic crackled as it struck the bonedrinker—as it again pressed its head into the wall—and blue and white light flashed over the stone. The creature groaned—stiffening—then fell.
It hit the stone with a colossal impact, snapping many of the protrusions on its back. It lay still, and for a moment, Alex’s heart jumped. The other students caught up with his group and he grinned, happy to see them.
“You see that?” he laughed. “One boiled bonedrinker courtesy of our resident thunderstorm, Isolde Von Anmut! We…are…oh shit!”
With a gurgle, the bonedrinker rolled off its back and climbed back to its hands and feet, shaking itself like a wet dog.
“Do you uh…” He glanced at Isolde. “You got another one of those in you?”
“Not without drawing on my lifeforce; not a spell that grand. I can cast one of the lesser electricity bolts, but then I’ll be done.” She gritted her teeth. “Infernal creature.”
Alex grimaced, watching the monster shake itself. It definitely wasn’t unharmed. It wasn’t dead or badly wounded, but it definitely wasn’t unharmed.
“Hey.” He glanced at the other students on the steps. “That fall did not do that thing any favours, but it’s gonna keep coming. If we can get higher and drive it off the wall again, it might not get back up.”
“Good idea! Plan as we run!” Khalik shouted, and the other students tore up the stairs after him.
Alex kept glancing down to the bonedrinker as its tentacles emerged from its eye sockets. He watched them turn and twist in the air, then focus on the fleeing students above.
So that was how it saw…
He called his forceball close to him.
They climbed as fast as they could, making it halfway up the escarpment before Thundar glanced down. “It’s getting closer!” he warned.
Alex whirled. “I’ll distract it! When it’s distracted, everyone do whatever you can to get it off the wall!”
“Can you really divert its attention without getting killed?” the selachar woman asked from her armour of sea-water.
“He can; you should’ve seen him do his tricks with the muupkaras!” Thundar said.
“I’ll open up the road,” Alex said. “All of you just have to run it!”
As the creature closed on them, he shot his forceball down.
The glowing crimson orb shot between the bonedrinker’s eye-tentacles. They twitched. The monster hesitated. He shot the forceball back at it, skimming around its tentacles to the right. Then he swung it back around, swinging to the left.
The monster paused, unsure about this new threat. That’s when Alex started to get complex. As he’d done in training, he shot the forceball all around the creature’s eyes, making it swirl in figure-eights, zig-zags and other confusing patterns. The bonedrinker gurgled as its tentacles tried to follow the object that kept threatening to smash into them.
It tore a claw away from the wall and swung at the forceball with surprising speed. If his spell had been at the same level as when he and Theresa had fought the hive-queen, then the bonedrinker could have easily crushed it. Now, though, he danced the orb rapidly around the creature.
Then the others acted.
With a screech, Najyah dived at the bonedrinker’s left eye-tentacle. Distracted, it wasn’t able to react in time.
Her talons tore away the bulbous ‘eye’ at the end of the tentacle. As she swooped past the second, Khalik’s magic shimmered around her, launching sharp rocks that drove into the creature’s other eye tentacle, wounding it.
It gurgled in agony, slamming its head into the wall to protect the soft eyeball.
Bolts of magic slammed into its bony hide, but it was too tough to crack.
“It will not drop!” Khalik snapped.
With a roar, Thundar pulled back his mace and threw it down toward the creature’s head. It wasn’t the most masterful throw in the history of battle, but the monster was large and not moving. It made for the perfect target.
The mace’s flanges smashed into the skull, cracking it.
The bonedrinker wrenched its face away from the rockface gurgling—half blind—and rushed along the wall toward them.
The selachar wizard shot a bolt of water into the creature’s open mouth as it clung to the rock. The bolt froze solid. Isolde aimed her twinned rays of electricity into the ice. It conducted through the frozen water and into the creature’s soft flesh. It stiffened and shuddered, its teeth clenching so hard, they cracked.
Then Alex moved his spell.
Slow enough not to trigger The Mark.
As the electricity passed, the monster opened its mouth.
Remembering the first silence-spider they’d fought outside Coille forest, he guided his spell gently into the creature’s mouth. Then he sent it rampaging. The Mark threw every failure in combat at him, but he let them come, confident that he couldn’t miss with his forceball solidly in the creature’s maw.
He slammed it into the soft, wounded flesh, battering it further. The monster swiped at its mouth, and lost balance.
Its claws ripped away from the rock.
Gurgling, it plummeted toward the escarpment.
It slammed into the stones. Bone exploded and flesh burst. The creature screeched and writhed, convulsing in the dirt. Then, the muupkaras attacked. They charged the now helpless predator and spread their monstrous jaws. Leaping into its cracked shell, they began sucking the soft flesh into their toothy mouths.
The bonedrinker writhed as more swarmed over it like ants on a fallen fly. They clawed at the soft nourishing body parts, until the massive monster finally shuddered, and went still.
Spellbound, the students looked down in silence at...
They all drew a breath.
“Yeeeeeeeeeah!” Khalik shouted, raising his fists like the victor in an arena challenge. He roared something in his mother tongue.
“Yeeeeeeeah!” Thundar raised his head and roared, punching the air.
The canine beastmen howled.
“Ek-u-Dari be praised!” the selachar wizard cried.
Pride filled Alex’s chest, and he mouthed off at the defeated bonedrinker. “That’s what you get! That’s what you get!”
On the ancient stairs overlooking the Barrens of Kravernus, the students of the University of Generasi roared out their victory like gladiators from a lost age.
“Are you finished with your celebration?” Baelin asked, his tone amused as—panting—they climbed up the rest of the way to meet him.
The chancellor was seated on a large boulder, and the two students who had flown to the top of the escarpment were sitting nearby. They didn’t meet their classmates’ eyes.
Baelin rose from his seat, his beard clasps swaying in the hot breeze. “Congratulations, you have passed the first test of The Art of the Wizard in Combat. Where twenty of you started, now there are twelve. An admirable performance.”
He took a deep breath.
“I must say, I am pleased…but there are things for you to learn.”