Baelin had not been exaggerating about the impact the mana vents would have.
The moment Alex stepped through the portal, it felt like he’d walked into a wall of thorns that pricked at his mana instead of his skin. It didn’t feel as deadly as the mana vampire sapping his mana through his forceball, but there was a pain and invasiveness to it.
He squinted against the blast of light that suddenly hit his eyes.
Baelin had teleported himself and the group a short distance from the mana vent, and being so close was blinding. The light coming off of it burned intensely, and squinting gave little relief from a glare that blazed like the noonday sun.
The other students groaned, holding up their hands—trying to block the blinding radiance—while Najyah shrieked, burying her head under a wing.
“Ugh, that’s bright!” Theresa grunted. “I-Alex, are you okay?”
The stinging feeling in his mana was driving him crazy. It was like having an itch deep beneath the skin, somewhere completely impossible to scratch. Khalik, Thundar and Isolde were groaning—cringing against the wild mana—while Svenia and Hogarth rushed to their lady’s side to support her.
“Do you feel that?” Baelin’s deep voice said from somewhere above. “That is the world’s blood and the blood of Generasi, flowing up in all its glory. It’s like a tiger raging through the wild: untamable, unharnessed and deadly.”
Through the stinging irritation, Alex couldn’t help but wonder what the hell a tiger was.
“We will move back a bit now,” Baelin said.
Alex felt the rush of his transportation magic as it pulled them away from the mana vent. He wasn’t sure if it was his mana manipulation training or the fact that this was the fourth time Baelin had cast the magic on him, but it felt more comfortable, like he was growing used to it. The ground where they set down was uneven, but Alex shifted his body very naturally, assuming proper footing and balance. The stinging had faded to a slight itch.
He opened his eyes slowly, noting the light had receded and that the chasm was now at least a hundred feet away. From this distance, the light no longer assaulted his eyes, instead, it was quite beautiful in its own way.
He noticed figures walking around the edges of the glowing vent.
They were about as large as medium size dogs, but walked upright on two legs, and resembled a cross between a massive lizard and a bird. Back in Alric he’d seen chickens walking with the same gait as these creatures: with strange head bobbing motions followed by sudden, quick bursts of speed. Their necks were long snake-like things, and their tails waved behind them like whips.
From where he stood, he couldn’t be sure if they were covered in tiny scales or leathery flesh. Either way, their skin shimmered with colours that shifted to all the hues of the rainbow. There were several groups herded together, moving in numbers of roughly twenty to thirty. The heads of those closest suddenly rose and turned toward the young wizards. Their eyes flashed with an inner light that matched their shimmering hides.
And then they ran.
Their clawed feet tore across The Barrens, kicking up dust and receding around the vent. Farther away, other groups simply looked up, then dipped their heads into the vents like beasts at a watering hole. Their shifting colours brightened as they drank in the ambient mana.
Baelin stood at the front of the group, looking at the mana vents with his hands clasped behind his back. His beard clasps clinked.
“Take note of your opponents there.” He gestured to the vent-drinkers. “While we can only endure this environment, or perhaps even be forced to retreat from it, they are no worse for wear. They are thriving.”
He waved a hand over the dust in front of them, which instantly began to shudder and rise into the air. The tiny particles came together, solidifying into long, lean threads that vibrated in the air before coiling around each other in long, fibrous braids.
Once the transformation had ended, twenty coils of rope dropped to the ground before them.
“You will have to discover how to make your captures while your surroundings are hostile to you, yet beneficial to your opponent,” he instructed them. “Use what you can, test your limits, beware of dangers, and keep in mind the resourcefulness you exhibited during the test. Potential threats this close to the vents include muupkaras, bonedrinkers and the occasional xyrthak, but I will ensure that nothing beyond what I see as your limits accosts you. And with that, I wish you all good luck.”
With a nod, he stepped back into the shimmering air and vanished, reappearing high above them as a distant figure floating in the sky. As Alex looked up, he found himself being very thankful that the chancellor wore pants beneath his impressive robes. He shook his head at the thought.
‘Only someone who had issues would be having thoughts like that at a time like this’, he told himself.
“We need a perimeter and a plan,” Khalik said as soon as they were left alone. “Baelin said he would keep things away that would be beyond our limits, but that does not mean he will drive away every threat.
“If anything, it’ll most likely be the opposite,” Alex added.
“I’ll watch our east flank,” Theresa volunteered.
She stepped out of the group and moved to the east of them, nocking an arrow onto her bowstring and eyeing the empty wasteland. Massive rock formations rose far to the east, blocking their lines of sight past a certain point. Alex wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but one part of the formation looked like the open jaws of a beast.
Small, black winged silhouettes soared over the rocks and fluttered down on the other side. Vultures. Something was dead over there. He hoped that if something had killed whatever it was, that it would stay with its meal.
Khalik looked at Minervus, who was still shaking off some of the effects of the mana vent. “Minervus, would you mind having your entourage form a perimeter to the north and west of us? There are many with you and they could cover much of our flanks.”
Minervus paused, looking from his entourage to Khalik before nodding at the five he’d brought along. They too paused for a moment, blinking as though they’d just woken up, then proceeded to go flank the north and west.
Eyvinder and the massive shark man volunteered to help form the protective circle to the south, leaving only Hogarth and Svenia standing beside Isolde as if they were glued to her sides.
“It’s alright ,” she said, rising to her full height. “Help to protect all here.”
The two halberdiers looked at each other. “As you command.”
They joined the others in forming a protective wall of flesh and metal.
Alex glanced at their surroundings and snorted, slightly amused when he looked north. There—far away—was the escarpment that had served as their goal during Baelin’s test. From this distance, it might have taken them twice as long if they had to reach it from here, so it was good that they weren’t heading back there. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any sign of muupkaras or bonedrinkers this time, though the former could be hidden under the dust.
“So, uh,” Angelar—one of the two doberman beast folk—grunted from his canine snout. He sniffed the air toward the chasm. “I don’t smell any threats, does anyone have any ideas on how to do this?”
Alex blinked in surprise when he—as well as most of the rest of the class—looked toward his group as if expecting them to speak first. Then again, it made sense: they had been the only group to pass the test unscathed, despite being made up of more first years than seconds.
He also noted several students throwing cutting looks at Minervus and Rayne. Some even edged away from Minervus’ entourage positioned in the encirclement, even though they were supposed to be part of their protection.
His brow furrowed. That shouldn’t really be a big surprise all considered. Even if today’s task wasn’t a test—and the stakes were lower—no one wanted to chance their safety to the two who’d abandoned their group members. The memory of them flying off to the goal by themselves was still very fresh.
If there was already distrust, what would happen when it came time for cooperation? Or when trouble actually showed up?
“Before we generate ideas, we should go over what we know and make sure that all understand the threats around us, and the capabilities of our prey,” Isolde stepped forward, appearing every inch like some sort of military general. “To review, we have seen muupkaras and a bonedrinker, but does anyone know much about vent-drinkers or what a xyrthak is?”
Alex looked over the other students, watching for certain tell-tale signs. When a teacher would ask, “did everyone understand that?” they’d usually get a range of responses.
There would be the blank stares or distracted looks from students who knew, and didn’t want to respond. Blank looks would also come from students that didn’t understand and didn’t really care to; they tended to be the ones who complained the loudest about a teacher ‘not explaining things properly’ when they did poorly on a test.
There’d also be those who’d nod openly, wanting the teacher to know that they understood. Then there'd be those who wouldn’t know what the teacher was talking about, and would quickly look away. They were usually the ones who hadn’t grasped something and were too embarrassed to admit it; Rayne and Caramiyus—the other doberman beastfolk—quickly looked away at Isolde’s question.
“Isolde, you might want to explain,” Alex suggested, stepping beside her like he was some vizier to a ruler. He rose up to his full height and placed his hands behind his back. For some reason he felt like looking impressive.
“We should make sure that we’re all working with the same knowledge here.” He smiled, using The Mark of the Fool to help mould the smile into something a commander would give. Past smiles from him heading class projects in Alric came back, along with memories of Fan-Dor’s, Cedric’s and even Khalik’s grins. “And, if there’s anything anyone wants to add after Isolde, then they can feel free to share it.”
The raven-haired woman paused, looking at him sidelong for a moment, and something seemed to pass across her face. Before he could begin to consider what it might have been, she launched into an explanation:
“Xyrthaks are higher predators in The Barrens: something bonedrinkers and muupkaras avoid,” she recited. “They are flying creatures with long beaks that are filled with teeth like those of a giant reptile: they are very large, as well. A full grown xyrthak can carry off an adult man with ease. Their wings are roughly thirty feet wide and they can race the fastest falcon. Their most dangerous aspect, however, are their cries and their lances.”
She made a grasping gesture. “A xyrthak’s cry comes from a mana-rich organ deep within its chest between its lungs. This organ laces its voice with magical energy. Their cry can hit a frequency that resonates with the mana inside all creatures within approximately a fifty-foot radius. Depending on what the xyrthak wishes to do, or how vigorous its victims are, the cry can stun, knocking a creature unconscious, or even cause full mana reversals which can be lethal.”
Murmurs swept through the class and a number of nervous faces looked to the sky.
“Vent-drinkers on the other hand are thankfully, relatively harmless,” Isolde said. “They might deliver a nasty bite if cornered, but they rely on their speed and ability to tolerate the wild energies of a mana vent longer than almost anything else in The Barrens to keep themselves safe.”
“Do they have to move away eventually?” Thundar asked.
“Technically yes, but a vent-drinker is still able to stay near a vent for days at a time: far longer than we can afford to.”
She wiped her forehead, glaring up at the merciless sun. “Other than that, they simply rely on their senses and high speed to flee from enemies. Their endurance, however, is not the best: packs of muupkaras can chase down a herd if they pursue them long enough.”
“So, here’s a thought then,” Nua-Oge spoke up, turning to the massive shark man. “Grimloch, did you feel anything near the mana vents?”
“No,” the shark man’s voice was deep. It sounded like he gnashed his words.
‘So cool,’ Alex thought.
“I didn’t feel anything either,” Theresa offered.
“I did. Like a low, burning pain,” Eyvinder, the green elf-like man said. “But I have mana.”
“Ek-u-Dari be praised, I think I have an idea,” Nua-Oge said. “When killer whales hunt narwhals, they herd the creatures toward shallow water where they can’t swim away. What if everyone with low mana drive the vent-drinkers toward the wizards, while the spellcasters spread out like a net. The vent-drinkers will either run at us or scatter, and then we can capture them using our spells.”
“That’s a good plan,” Theresa immediately jumped in. “That’s how wolf packs work to separate prey from the rest of a deer herd, or how hunters flush out a fox.”
“That won’t work,” Minervus cut them off.
The class went silent.
“At least, I’m not sending my entourage over there while I’m here all by myself,” he said flatly.
The silence continued.
“Oh boy,” Alex muttered. “Heeeere we go.”