Except for the death of his parents, Alex’s life had been a fairly safe one, generally speaking.
Until their escape from Thameland and his encounter with the mana vampire, he’d never been in any situation where he’d had to struggle for his life. Baelin’s test was the latest time where his life had truly been in danger, and in general those events were all new to him.
But—in each of those instances—he’d been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people he could trust, or at least ones that made good decisions and weren’t shifty.
But he’d also been part of plenty of groups at the church school that had gone down like a flock of dead birds at a wedding ceremony.
He remembered projects where he’d had to do all the work because of procrastinating group members, and ones where the group made a bunch of excuses for not doing their part. There’d also been projects where someone stopped showing up and their part of the work would end up having to be re-distributed. Some projects had even devolved into arguments when certain members decided they had to be the leader.
Then there were the worst ones.
The worst ones were what he called: “discussion soup.” Things would start off innocent enough: the group would look good and it seemed that everyone was engaged with the project and wanted it to succeed. Then the first ‘issue’ would arise: there wouldn’t really be an argument, but someone would want to alter the plan after the work was well on its way, or wanted their part changed.
Even then, things still often ended well enough if that person was either convinced to cooperate, or got their way. If not? Then the discussion would start. There would be discussions about alternate plans. Then that would turn into a discussion of the group process. Then into a discussion about the discussion, which would rapidly turn snarky, becoming loaded with thinly disguised personal attacks.
And the entire time all that was going on?
Only one or two people would be doing their part, and Uldar help them since their work required that the others’ tasks be completed by a deadline.
But thankfully, in those situations, they had only been dealing with trying to get good marks at the church school, not possible life, maiming or death...like now, in The Barrens.
Alex had a bad feeling that the ‘discussion soup’ had just started boiling.
“Funny for you to say that you don’t trust us.” Malcolm stared at Minervus. “Funny, all things considered.”
“What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense,” Rhea added. “There’s no competition here, just us working together to capture some vent-drinkers. Why would anyone do anything to you?”
“It doesn’t matter if you do anything to me or not, you heard what the professor said: you’ll be less likely to trust me and Rayne after that test. And worst, you’ll be looking forward to seeing me and Rayne fail. And since I don’t know who you all know, you could be friends with our previous group members and maybe you’re looking to get revenge for them.”
“That’s illogical.” Isolde frowned at him. “Even if that were true, then why would we do anything to you while we all need to work together to accomplish one task?”
“People are illogical,” Minervus pushed. “I don’t know how you’re going to act, and that’s only the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is similar to what happened with my first team: you all don’t trust me and we fall apart as a group. I say we just separate now into the same groups we were in for the test.”
And this was what Alex had feared: an argument right out of the gate. One that wasn’t even about the important stuff like how to work together to get the vent-drinkers. Instead, it was about breaking into groups.
Nua-Oge frowned. “It’ll be much harder to herd those creatures anywhere with only five…or even four, if Eyvinder has too much mana to stand being near the vent for too long. You’ll also only have six bodies to herd the vent-drinkers.”
“My entourage moves as one,” Minervus pushed. “We’ll be fine as long as you all do your part. We’ll come together at the end.”
“Oh yeah, that’s a real good way to earn your classmates’ trust,” Malcolm scoffed.
“Were you going to trust me anyway?” Minervus fired back.
“Hey, hey, we don’t have to fight like this,” the battle-mage student named Shiani cut in. She wore an elaborate necklace of pearls and seashells. “We could combine strategies as a compromise. We separate and then come at a herd from different directions: we are technically acting on our own, but by flanking the vent-drinkers, we make them have to run where we want them to run. Everyone wins!”
Alex frowned, looking carefully at Minvervus’ five companions. None of them had said anything during the discussion. They’d moved very little, and only watched the perimeter.
They glanced over whenever Minervus’ voice grew stressed, but other than that, they didn’t seem to be reacting to anyone else. It was as though no one else mattered, or were even there.
Odd people. Probably.
“That won’t work.” Minervus shook his head. “I don’t want my people anywhere near the vent.”
Isolde’s frown deepened. “You don’t want to work with the group because you feel you can’t trust us—evaporating any good will you might have built with us, I might add—and now, what? You sit back while the rest of us fulfil Baelin’s task?”
“I’ll do things my own way, with Rayne.” Minervus’s face hardened.
Rayne glanced at him nervously. “I…I don’t know, maybe we should stick with the group.”
“Like they’re going to trust you either,” Minervus said. “They’ll be waiting to jump us like a troll under a bridge.”
“We’re wasting time,” Thundar grunted. “You want to take yours and go do whatever? Fine. This isn’t even being marked.”
The other students looked at each other.
“Come on, Rayne,” Minervus said. “Let’s go grab some vent-drinkers. We’ll pull our own weight.”
“Hold on.” Isolde stepped forward. “If you’re not planning on getting close to the vent, then how do you propose to catch your share of vent-drinkers? And please don’t do anything that would interfere with ourhandling of the task.”
“We’ve got bows.” Minervus pointed to the bows on the backs of his five companions. “We’ll use those to flush them.”
“We’re to capture them alive, and you’re going to shoot them?” she asked incredulously.
“No, we’re going to drive them with arrows,” he said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Fine, then,” she said. “Know that your selfish decisions hurt all of us.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be talking if I were you. You’re the one who helped that filthy cheater in our year,” Minervus snapped, looking at Isolde with anger. “You’re the top of three classes?” He snorted dismissively. “Who knows what you’ve been doing to help your grades stay high.”
Isolde turned bright red.
Suddenly Hogarth was beside her, his hand on his halberd. “Boy, you’ve got three heartbeats to apologize to the lady before I leave you lying unconscious here in the dust.”
“Oh, really?” Minervus cocked his head. His entourage all turned as one, their hands reaching for their weapons. “You’re a little outnumbered.”
“Alright, I think that’s enough of that!” Alex shouted, stepping between them.
All eyes turned to him, but he kept his gaze levelled on Minervus.
“You want to go and act all solo? Sure. Go do that. Take some ropes, and go shoot arrows or fly at the vent-drinkers or yell at them, but go and do that. Over there.” Alex pointed outside of the group. “I don’t want to stand around all day, debating who goes where or throwing around personal insults or any other garbage. We’ll be as separate as you want, as long as you do whatever it is you want to do far away from us.”
He looked at the rest of the group. “Let’s go that way.” He pointed to the east. “And we can act separately. And let’s do it fast. Baelin’s watching us argue like little kids demanding the same toy.”
No one disputed that.
Minervus glared at Alex, but didn’t say another word. The rest of the students took fifteen of Baelin’s ropes and moved away from Minervus and his entourage. Within moments, Rayne looked back and forth between Alex's group as they walked away and Minervus standing alone. He joined Alex’s group.
Briefly, Minervus watched them before picking up the five remaining ropes and walking in the other direction.
“And there goes a quarter of us,” Angelar said. “And over half of the folk that can tolerate the mana vent.”
Alex glanced back at Minervus. “You remember what Baelin said? How we shouldn’t abandon resources unless we know they’re not going to help us? He’s not going to help us. He hindered his first group and he’s making bad decisions again. Better that we’re down someone, than have someone that makes what we’re trying to do harder.”
‘Maybe that was one reason The Fool was so dismissed back home,’ he thought.
He was trying his best in life, and even if he wasn’t helping The Heroes directly, he hoped that any research he did on the dungeon core would help against The Ravener in the long run. But what about previous Fools? As much as he sympathized with his predecessors, what if some of them had been…well, kind of shitty?
He knew that if he’d been one of the other Heroes and saw that The Fool of the party was someone like Minervus, he’d be hard pressed to have any sympathy for them.
He glanced at Isolde who stood muttering to herself with her arms crossed over her chest. “You okay?”
She scoffed. “I am angry, but fine. It takes more than insults from someone like him to cause me dismay.”
“Good,” Khalik said. “It’s good, channel that anger into our task. But do not hold on to his words: you have nothing to prove. Not to me, at least.” He turned toward the vent-drinkers. “Now, we have to come up with a plan using less than we thought we had.”
Theresa frowned. “This would be much simpler if we were culling part of the herd. It’s a lot more difficult to trap animals alive and unharmed. Ugh, now I almost wish I’d brought Brutus…”
She’d left the cerberus behind so she could see what The Barrens were like before risking bringing him there.
Shiani gave a startled look toward the huntress. “Easier to kill them? That’s a little cold, isn’t it?”
“I don’t mean slaughtering animals for no reason,” Theresa said. “Sometimes, the deer population in a forest becomes too big, and if there’s not enough predators around to hunt them and reduce their numbers, they’ll eat all the food in an area. When there’s not enough food, many of them get weak or sickly and starve to death. The ones that survive move away looking for more food. Then it becomes like a chain reaction and other animals that feed on the deer starve, and the hunters have nothing to hunt. That’s why you need to control herd size to keep a forest healthy. I don’t want to kill any vent-drinkers right now but the fact is, catching animals isharder than killing them, especially when they don’t want to be caught.”
“...I guess that makes sense.” Shiani frowned. “Never thought about it that way.”
“We will manage, and make do with our task as it is,” Khalik said, gazing at the vent-drinkers. “And we will need to do it fairly quickly: it would not do for predators to arrive and scare off the herd, and the longer we wait, the stronger that possibility.”
“Right,” Thundar said. “I still like the herding plan, but we’ll need more bodies to make them go where we want.”
A low growl sounded from Grimloch’s throat, one that seemed to shake the earth. “I’ll be enough.”
Alex believed him. “Yeah, big guy, I think you’d be enough to scare a dragon, but I-Oh Uldar.”
The shark man had ‘smiled’ at his words, but the effect was terrifying: his jaw seemed to shift in place, revealing row upon row of jagged teeth. “Thanks.”
“Uh…” Alex tried to regain his train of thought. “Yeah, you’re enough but…” He looked at Theresa. “What would happen if like…two wolves tried to chase a herd of deer?”
She thought about it. “Probably the biggest buck of the herd would gore them until they got the hint or bled out.”
Alex winced. “Let’s say the deer just ran.”
“Well, the deer would run and scatter, then they’d scent each other to come back together again.”
“Right.” He turned back to Grimloch. “So if it’s just you, big guy, then the herd will scatter in all directions, which wouldn’t be so bad if we only had to capture one. But ten? That’s tough.”
“Hmm,” Khalik mused. “Perhaps we are thinking of this backwards. We are looking for many hunters to drive the prey in one direction, but we don’t have many to drive the vent-drinkers anymore.” He gestured around. “But we do have twelve wizards. That allows us to cover a large area to drive them toward. Even if they scatter, we’ll scoop them up like fish in a net.”
“That’s a solid idea,” Alex agreed. “Maybe we spread out in groups of two, make a wide net, and then drive them back together when they scatter.”
“What do you mean?” Caramiyus asked.
“Okay, so.” He pointed toward the vent. “We split the people with low mana up—let’s call them ‘chasers’—into two groups and give each of them ropes. They spread out and come at a herd along the vent. So-” He pointed at the closest herd. “-one pair comes from the left along the chasm and the other pair from the right. That means the vent-drinkers have to run away from the edge and into The Barrens, where we’ll be waiting. Then, they either scatter and try to get through us and we catch them, or they turn around and run away from us and back toward our chasers. Then we circle them—just like in our tactics book—and trap them.”
He glanced around at the wizards. “We should probably stay close to the people we worked with on the test: we’ll do better if each of us knows each other’s capabilities.”
“Ah yeah, that’s good. Let’s try that,” Caramiyus said. “And if we don’t get all ten from one herd, we can try with another one.”
“Good, good,” Khalik lifted his gauntlet on which Najyah was perched. “And I’ll send Najyah up to scout for us. She is my familiar—she has too much mana to be near the vents for long—but if they are driven away from the vents, she can stun any that try to scatter.”
“Heeeey, look at us, all planning and strategizing and removing the advantage of terrain from the enemy!” Alex cheered. “Almost as if we’re wizards practicing the art of combat or something.”
He laughed, and a few other students joined in.
“Right,” Khalik said, sending Najyah up into the sky. “She will watch for threats from around us as well.”
“And uh,” Rayne raised a hand. “I can uh, fly up and do that too.”
“Aaaah, two scouts, perfect.” Khalik smiled before anyone could say anything to him. “Excellent. Let’s begin then, the sooner we have these creatures tied up, the faster we can be back on campus with a cool drink of something fun.”
Both Najyah and Rayne took to the air simultaneously, and as they made their ascent, Alex watched the skies for any sign of broad-winged, predatory reptiles.
The faster they got this done, the safer they’d be.