“Watch yourself. Seriously,” Alex said to Theresa. “There’s all kinds of nasty things that live out here, and we don’t know what might be hiding where. The moment you see anything funny, you-”
“Kill it?” Theresea asked, raising her great-grandfather’s sword.
“…I was going to say ‘run away’, but if you can kill it, then sure: do it,” Alex shrugged. “But be safe, seriously.”
“I’ll be fine, Alex,” Theresa said, patting him on the shoulder. “And I’m not going to be alone.”
She glanced toward where Isolde was instructing Hogarth and Svenia in exactly how they were to proceed. Nua-Oge only wished Grimloch good luck: the massive monster looked very confident in what he had to do. The giant shark man stretched and limbered up; Alex wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but he looked like he was salivating as he readied for the chase.
“Yeah, I guess,” Alex admitted. “I think that guy could take on a bonedrinker all by himself. …I hope one doesn’t appear, though.”
“Actually, I hope one does.”
Alex looked at her sharply. “Are you serious? You remember what I told you about that thing, right? You don’t want that anywhere near you, trust me.”
She shrugged, pointing up to where Baelin was floating high above Rayne and Najyah’s circling passes around the group. “This is about getting experience against opponents while we’re being watched over by a probably-immortal wizard, right? Hoping nothing goes wrong is like hoping for an apprenticeship with a blacksmith that never gets a tough job: sure you’ll get through helping out your master easily enough, but what’s going to happen when that tough job comes when you’re all by yourself?”
He winced. “Yeah, okay, well, you’re right, but I guarantee that if a bonedrinker shows up, you’re going to hate it and wish you never saw it.”
She gave an ironic smile. “You’re probably right. Anyway, looks like the others are ready. Wish me luck.”
The chasers split into two groups: one made up of Theresa and Grimloch, and the other of Svenia and Hogarth. As they began to walk toward the mana vent away from the vent-drinkers, the group of wizards turned to each other.
“Right, let’s make our net,” Khalik said. “Before the vent-drinkers run away and catch us off-guard.”
The students split up, spreading out and forming a wide line across The Barrens. Alex’s group was in the middle, flanked by the battle mages and the selachar and beastfolk. They had taken five of the fifteen ropes, leaving four to the chasers and three each to the outside groups.
They watched quietly as the chasers made it to vent.
A herd of around thirty vent-drinkers—lapping mana on the near side of the chasm—raised their heads to look at the strange creatures taking up positions by the vent. The chasers were far enough away that the vent-drinkers weren’t spooked yet, but they looked alert and ready to run.
Alex glanced toward their rear, making sure no predators were stalking them from behind. His eyes swept the terrain, scanning both the rocky rise in the distance and the sky for danger from above.
He was becoming more efficient at visually sweeping his surroundings for threats. Recent experiences had helped him become very aware of where his blind spots were, and where attackers tended to approach from.
“Najyah hasn’t seen anything yet, Alex,” Khalik assured him from his right. Beyond Khalik, Thundar stood with his arms crossed, and on Alex’s left, Isolde was watching her entourage while muttering beneath her breath.
“I know, but it doesn’t hurt to be too careful, y’know,” Alex said, conjuring up his forcedisk. Eyeing the field ahead, he slipped the disk down onto the ground between himself and Khalik, and then scooped dust onto it, covering the spell. Then, he took a deep breath and tried something he’d only been able to start doing a few days before.
Falling into himself, he spoke the incantation for forcedisk again, using his growing meditative skills to observe and let the memories go that The Mark bombarded him with. He carefully formed the spell array and constructed a second 1st-tier magic circuit within his mana pool.
The magic circuit formed—fitting neatly in his pool alongside the first—and a second forcedisk formed beside him. He smiled.
His mana pool had expanded enough to fit two magic circuits within it.
As he buried the second forcedisk, Isolde made an impressed sound. “Well, well, you can cast and maintain two 1st-tier spells at once now. Well done, you’ll likely be able to cast a 2nd-tier spell once you practice one.”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. Of course, that could wait until he’d laid a better foundation of practice with 1st-tier spells. With The Mark interfering, he wanted to make sure he was as ready as possible.
He buried the second forcedisk in the space between him and her. He dusted off his hands, then paused, looking closely at the fine, sun-baked dust.
“Laying traps?” Isolde asked.
“Yep,” Alex grinned. “It won’t hurt them much, but it should stop a vent-drinker if one tries to get between us.”
Khalik shook his head. “Who would have thought about using a forcedisk to make a trap. What a devious thing. You’re really going to be a terror when you start learning actual combat spells.”
Alex shrugged. “Or I might be a terror with any spell I got. I mean, that’s kinda the goal of the class, am I right?”
Isolde shook her head. “You have a strange way of doing things, Alex. Not a bad way, but a strange one.”
“I get that a lot.” He glanced back down at the dust. “Hey…this stuff that’s all over The Barrens. It must get baked by mana all the time, right?”
“Indeed.” Isolde looked down. “Being bathed both by wild mana and the sun’s rays so constantly is what dries out the earth and makes The Barrens so dusty.”
“Huh. So it takes in a lot of mana.” His eyes narrowed. Thinking back to his textbook for potions; substances that usually encountered a lot of mana often had multiple uses in alchemy. “Do you know if it can be used for anything in alchemy?”
“Multiple things,” she said. “Though I don’t know all of them off-hand.”
“What about golems?” he pushed.
She glanced at him. “That’s an advanced subject that we’re only going to touch on part way through the second year of potion-craft.”
“But you’ve already read the textbook for that, right?”
Isolde paused. “...yes.”
“Yeah, I thought you would. I do the same thing. Did it say if it can be used in golem craft?”
“Er, yes: it can often be mixed into the clay for a golem body: it makes it so that the body absorbs mana produced in the core more easily, but in turn, it requires more mana from the core in order to power the construct.”
“Look,” Thundar pointed. “Minervus is making his move.”
Alex followed the minotaur’s gaze, spotting the lone student ordering his entourage forward. The five individuals advanced and raised their bows, firing near a herd on the opposite side of the chasm. The arrows went wide at first, but the archers kept drawing and firing with practiced, fluid motions, until eventually, the herd bounded away.
Unfortunately for Minervus, the vent-drinkers ran alongside the chasm, staying close to it. Oddly, instead of rushing the creatures, the five archers continued trying to fire arrows in front of them from a distance, piercing some at the front of the herd. The animals screeched, sending every vent-drinker around the chasm into high-alert.
The herd that Minervus was hunting started scattering from the wild mana vent, and his entourage spread out and began to chase them. Minervus flew above the fray, pointing and blasting the ground near the herd with spells to drive them in the directions he wanted them to go.
“Damn him, he’s spooked every animal at the chasm and unnecessarily harmed some!” Khalik swore.
The vent-drinkers rushed every which way, with groups breaking off and running into The Barrens. The chasers sprang into action.
Yelling and whooping, they brandished their weapons above their heads, frightening the herd and making them pause in indecision: running along the chasm would make them go toward one of the groups of two, while running away would bring them to the line of young wizards awaiting them.
Then Grimloch snapped his jaws: a sound so loud it sounded like the crack of a whip.
That got them moving.
The vent-drinkers rushed from the chasm and toward the waiting line of students.
“Here they come!” Khalik shouted, spitting out an incantation.
The dust shifted, flowing up his body and forming a hardened shell of earth around his torso and limbs. He took a deep breath and waited.
Thundar cast his body strengthening spell on himself and crouched low, like a runner preparing to sprint in a race at a county festival. Isolde simply watched the oncoming vent-drinkers, while muttering under her breath.
The creatures scattered, some trying to rush around their encirclement, while others sprinted toward the wide spaces the students had left between them.
As they closed in, Thundar chanted another spell and his illusionary duplicate shimmered into being. With a roar, it rushed the vent-drinkers and sent them scrabbling to the side, one bounded toward the real minotaur.
He sprang at it. Enhanced by his spell—and with it off balance—he rushed it, grabbing it up in his massive arms like a farmer catching a chicken.
Khalik whistled and spread his hands, stalking toward the vent-drinkers as they tried to dodge around him.
Then Najyah shot down.
Coiling her talons like fists, she slammed into one’s side, knocking it to the ground and stunning it for a moment. By the time it started to regain its senses, Khalik pounced on it. He pressed his weight—now made much heavier by the coating of earth armour—onto the creature so it was pinned, then started to coil the rope around its legs.
Isolde spoke an incantation and a tiny ball of electricity appeared, crackling in the palm of her hand. She threw it forward like a rock, where it homed in on one of the vent-drinkers, shocking it. It froze as the electricity coursed through it, and then slumped to the ground, alive but stunned.
She chanted another spell while throwing her rope in the air, and the coils sprang to life like a flying snake. It shot forward and wrapped itself around the vent-drinker’s legs.
Another tried to duck between Khalik and Alex.
Alex waited, watching the creature get closer…and closer…and closer.
Until it was nearly on top of his disk.
Then he willed the forcedisk to rise and spin.
The spell shot into the air—whirling and kicking up a massive cloud of dust—blinding the creature temporarily. Alex was already sprinting for it when he shot his forcedisk down in front of it.
At its leg level.
It crashed into the utility spell, popping it, but also entangling its legs. The vent-drinker shrieked and fell to the ground; it was trying to get back on its feet when Alex tackled it. The creature squirmed and wiggled, trying to escape, but it was only the size of a medium-sized dog. Meanwhile, Alex had the advantage of size and strength.
The vent-drinker continued to struggle, while he fought to wrap the rope around its legs while trying to keep away from its snapping jaws.
“Ah shit,” he cursed. “Could I get some help? From anyone?!”
The sound of heavy hooves signaled Thundar approaching, and soon the minotaur was helping him hold down and bind the struggling creature.
“That was easier than I thought it would be,” Thundar chuckled as the two dust covered young wizards stood to look over their handiwork.
Each of Alex’s group had managed to capture a vent-drinker, bringing their total to four. Others had done well too, even though their positions on the edges of the line weren’t ideal and allowed the skittish creatures an easier time getting past them.
The group on the left had captured two, using Nua-Oge’s ice spells and Angelar’s and Caramiyus’ magic bolts.
The battle mages had spread a smoke screen around their prey and used flashes of light to stun them. Then, they’d encased their legs in short columns of ice, quite literally freezing them in place.
Unfortunately, as the smoke cleared, it looked like two had actually died as the ice had reached too far up their bodies and frozen their cores. Nua-Oge had sprinted to them and was bent over the two dead vent-drinkers’ bodies, dissipating the ice from them. Shiani looked on with remorse on her face.
Eyvinder charged another vent-drinker as it tried to duck past him. As the creature rushed away, there was a powerful shift of mana that Alex could feel even from his distance.
A wall of stone rose up in front of the fleeing creature. It collided with the wall, stunning itself, and then the pointed eared man was upon it, binding its limbs. In total, the line of wizards had managed to capture eight of the creatures alive.
And they weren’t done yet.
Several members of the herd skidded to a halt, trying to run back toward the chasm and away from the line of wizards. The chasers were looking for just such an opportunity. Hogarth and Svenia had spread out, shouting and swinging their halberds in wide arcs to drive the beasts toward the center where Theresa and Grimloch waited.
Theresa had her rope tied into a short lasso and was swinging it above her head in wide circles. As a vent-drinker passed close, she tossed the lasso with precision, wrapping the creature’s neck and chest, and then she pulled hard. The line went taught and the reptile was pulled from its feet. She leapt on it, coiling the rope around its limbs while tightening it.
That only left one more to catch.
Grimloch lowered himself and rushed at one close to him, his massive strides propelled him with frightening speed. The vent-drinker shrieked as he closed in and grabbed it by the neck with one massive hand.
In his grip, the little creature had no hope of escape and soon it had become their tenth.
“We did it!” Alex shouted, but paused before letting himself get too excited. He glanced around at their surroundings, making sure there were no signs of predators around.
He checked the rock rise again and then turned his eyes to the sky. He paused. The vultures were gone. There were none anywhere to be seen.
Instead, he spotted a large form flying high in the distance, one with broad wings and a long neck. It looked to be flying toward them.
“So you’ve noticed it.”
Alex nearly jumped out of his skin as Baelin’s voice came from right beside him. The chancellor had either teleported or silently flown down while he and the others were busy wrangling the vent-drinkers.
Baelin gazed over their work. “Well done, well done.” His tone was obviously pleased. “I must admit, you all have performed far better than I anticipated. …well, almost all of you.”
He looked over to the opposite side of the chasm, toward where Minervus’ entourage was still chasing vent-drinkers.
A stern look crossed his face. “Come, let’s be away from here before the xyrthak arrives, and we shall discuss what happened today.”
He waved a hand over the captured vent-drinkers, causing their ropes to turn back into dust. As the little creatures sprang up and started to speed off in all directions, Baelin waved his hand over the class and Alex felt the teleportation magic take him once more.