Jagged rock bit into Alex’s hands as he scrambled back down.
Pebbles rattled down the wall as rubble and dust were disturbed in his rush to reach the crevice floor. He imagined the flying serpents catching him ,and had to fight a desperate urge to just jump the rest of the way.
But a broken neck would likely be the only thing he’d reach if he did that.
Using his two spells, he was able to balance himself enough to make it to the crevice floor, but from above, he could hear the crackle and rush of flame coming closer.
“Fire,” he growled. “It just had to be fire.”
For a brief, irrational moment, he imagined himself climbing back up, using his forceball, some rocks, or even his two fists to smash those fire-breathing bastards to pulp. For the first time in a long while, he actively cursed the day that jester’s face had been branded on his shoulder.
He needed to act. So, he channeled his anger into action: quickly drawing the Potion of Running Enhancement from his bag and chugging it back.
He felt power surge through his body, spreading, and centering heavily on his legs. Balling his hands into fists, he dug the balls of his feet into the dusty ground and started to sprint.
His body shot forward like an arrow
“Oh shi-!” he cried, regaining his balance.
If he hadn’t trained his running technique so well, he would have lost footing and tripped, smashing headlong into the rock. It felt like The Potion had doubled his speed; he would need to quickly adjust to keep his footing. He paced his breathing.
The rocky walls whipped by as he listened for the sound of flaring fire breath. He leapt over rocks, and steered his body along the curving pathway. His two spells followed in tandem.
In the far distance, the sound of exploding fireballs and crackling lightning sounded. He wondered what had become of the bright-spitters that went after Baelin and—more importantly—he wondered how Khalik, Isolde, Thundar, Theresa and the rest were doing.
Losing anyone else to fire was too unbearable to even think about.
Pumping his arms, he sprinted around another bend in the path.
He cocked his head, listening toward the sky and heard the sound of fire breath fading into the distance behind him.
But, he also heard fire growing louder, approaching from up ahead.
He skidded to a halt, noting a part of the path where one side was covered by a rocky overhang. Alex ducked down and rolled beneath it, pressing himself flat to the dusty floor.
The sound of a swarm of beating wings appeared overhead, accompanied by roaring fire and the hiss of flying serpents. There was also an ominous rattling sound.
He stayed hidden until the sounds of the bright-spitters had receded in the distance, then rolled out from under the outcropping. Alex looked cautiously about the crevice, saw nothing around, and began running again.
He raced along the path until The Potion of Running Enhancement faded a short while later. He’d made good progress despite stopping and now all he needed to do was pace himself.
A rock the size of his orb crashed into the wall, hitting where his skull had been a moment before.
“What the hell?” Alex startled and looked up at the crevice wall.
A creature was half-emerged from the stone, like a torso rising from a stream. It was malformed with an uneven, misshapen trunk and arms and a jagged head shaped like a blacksmith’s anvil—the thing was formed entirely of craggy rock. It was a sand coloured earth elemental. Alex stared in shock as it dug a three fingered hand into the surface of the wall like it was water, and ripped out another stone the size of his head.
It began to spin in place, gathering speed and whipped the rock at him.
“Oh shit!” Alex dived forward.
It hit the wall, shattering, as he covered his head from rock fragments. Sharp pebbles flew, striking him and he yelled in pain. Gritting his teeth he quickly checked to see where the monster was, then on a whim, shot his forcedisk toward it.
Since it was made of stone, then maybe The Mark wouldn’t-
Images of failed spells and misthrown objects slammed into his mind.
“Oh, by Uldar!” he cursed, inwardly glaring at his shoulder as he scrambled to his feet and began to run. “Seriously! Go. To. Hell!”
He pushed away the images The Mark was still showing him and took off down the path as fast as he could move, dodging left and right as the creature lobbed rocks like falling rain. He skidded around another corner as a stone smashed against the wall behind him. He kept moving for a while before glancing back to make sure it wasn’t following him.
Luckily, it didn’t seem to be.
Annoyance began to grow as he headed along the pathway thinking about things.
He thought about how long it had taken to learn Wizard’s Hand. If he’d learned it a bit faster, he might have a force shield ready to cast now. What he wouldn’t give for some extra protection while he was alone.
His anger grew as he ran.
No, he didn’t just want extra protection
He wanted a way to fight back.
His rational mind told him that was why he was working so hard to prepare himself to be able to build a golem, but what his emotions wanted was to have an ice spell like Malcolm’s so he could freeze those damned flying fire snakes and shatter them like icicles.
Or some bolts of magic to blast that earth elemental into rock dust.
Just something to fight back with.
Not with a mop. Not with distraction. Not with dancing or utility spells. A regular way to fight back without The Mark screaming at him. The fire from the night his parents died returned to his mind, along with the sparks of flame the sprites who’d landed on his little sister made, and the fire blasted by those bright-spitters.
But of course, he didn’t have a regular way to fight.
Uldar had seen to it that he never could.
In that moment, if the bearded, smiling face of Uldar had appeared before him, he might have tried driving his fist into it, Mark or no Mark.
He thought about pausing to check the map, but decided to call on The Mark instead, focusing on the idea of navigating his way to the orb. A mental image of the map, along with other images flowed into his mind, with focus on the path along the crevice floor as well as the section that represented his crevice.
He noted the shape of the path around him and focused on where it was on the map’s image. His mind examined the circled section the orb was supposed to be in.
He was almost at the circle.
Alex entered a part of the crevice that stretched out twice as wide and stopped, taking some deep meditative breaths. Alright. He was angry. He acknowledged that. He stood still, catching his breath and breathing slowly, acknowledging his anger, then letting it go. Even though the anger was still there, the emotion wasn’t as sharp, and at least for now, he felt like punching Udar a little less.
He could rage later. For now, he’d made it to the area where he was supposed to find the orb. That was already half of his challenge over with.
‘You’re not going to be much help to yourself or anyone else, if you get your face knocked off trying to punch a god or a rock man ,’ he told himself, reaching into the basket suspended on his forceball and pulling out his Potion of Sense Enhancement.
Swallowing it down, Alex cringed as the magic raced through him, spreading to his skin, ears, eyes, nose and mouth. For a disorienting moment, none of his senses seemed to be his own.
The scent of his own sweat—mixed with the scented soap he’d used to wash clothes—slammed into his nostrils. His breathing sounded like a bullhorn in his ears, and beyond the crevice, he could hear the distant sounds of battle far more clearly.
For a moment, the sun suddenly seemed overwhelmingly bright before his eyes adjusted to the light. A myriad of tiny details on the surrounding rock jumped out at him, like when he’d used The Mark on the wall in The Cave of the Traveller.
He began looking around for signs of disturbed stone or hidden caches. He also activated The Mark, to ‘learn’ the stone. His eyes scrutinized the surfaces, looking for variations.
They paused on a dusty protrusion, one with a barely visible hole in it—just large enough to slip something into.
It was around ten feet above the crevice floor, necessitating a climb...unless. Concentrating, he dismissed his forcedisk and concentrated on casting Wizard’s Hand. He’d worked out how to simplify the parts of the spell array he didn’t need, making casting it much faster and more reliable.
The glowing Hand appeared before him, and he gave it an experimental finger wiggle before sending it toward the hole. He flattened it and watched it float inside. The spell gave him ‘tactile’ feedback he could feel by way of his mana, but of course, he couldn’t see where the Hand was going. He slowly edged it forward, feeling through the dark, his eyes fixed on the hole above.
Inside, it felt like a fairly deep, but narrow tunnel: hopefully, that meant it was where Baelin had placed the or-
An aggressive rattling noise sounded from inside the hole.
Alex dragged his spell back.
Wizard’s Hand flew out of the hole as a gush of fire filled it and flared outward. The bright light flashed, stinging his now extra sensitive eyes. He cried out, stumbling back while trying to blink away dancing sparks of light, then glanced up in time to see a creature emerge.
The bright-spitter looked something like the black adders found around waterways close to Alric, but it had a much longer snout and feathered wings spreading at its sides. Its scales were striped, varying between orange and black—like fire and ash—and its eyes glowed like coals.
It hissed, rattling its tail menacingly, then surged toward Alex with jaws spreading wide. A blinding gush of flame blasted near him as he leapt to the side, slamming his eyes shut. The scorching heat was dampened by the potion coursing through him, but if it ever hit him full on, he’d be baked.
He fell into his dance, dodging away from the serpent while his mind worked through what he could do to stop it. No allies. No offensive spells. He had the fire-gems in his pack, but he didn’t want to waste one on a snake. Especially since the flame-magic might not even hurt a creature of fire.
No solutions were coming to him.
The bright-spitter paused its fire breath and stilled in mid-air, watching him with burning eyes. Its beating wings held it suspended. Suddenly, it shot forward like an arrow. Alex slipped out of the way using his enhanced senses, but the creature was fast, agile and airborne—and maneuvered in ways his past opponents couldn’t.
While he was limited to using the three parts of the dance he’d learned, its superior maneuvering allowed it to quickly close the distance.
Its jaws snapped open.
“Aaargh!” Alex shouted in pain as its teeth sank into his arm. It began to coil around his trunk. Panic gripped him. Its elongated form was well over nine feet long and fairly lightweight, but strong for its size. It held him motionless, his arms pinned to his sides, and he could feel it squeezing, coiling tighter, seeking to crush the air from his lungs. He flexed his torso, trying to break free, but the coils tensed, constraining him further.
A part of his mind was suddenly aware that The Mark wasn’t reacting to him trying to get free, but the thought was quickly shoved aside as the snake spread its jaws readying to spout flames.
Instinctively, Alex shot his forceball between himself and the bright-spitter’s face, trying to block it. It reared back, biting at the orb. He’d bought himself moments. Wizard’s Hand dove into the basket, grabbing the Potion of Strength Enhancement, flicked the cork off with its thumb, and poured it down Alex's throat.
Power surged into his muscles as the magic spread through him and—with a roar—he began forcing his arms away from his body, pushing at the coils. Again, The Mark did not protest.
His mind flashed to when he’d jumped on the vent-drinker and tackled it to hold it in place, The Mark hadn’t reacted. When he’d swept his forceball in front of the mana vampire, it hadn’t reacted either.
He hadn’t been attempting to injure either, hadn’t used a weapon, or any technique designed for combat.
He sent Wizard’s Hand to the serpent’s head and grabbed its neck —not to injure it—but to pull it away. Like a mother cat moving her kitten. He focused his mind on ‘just moving it’.
The Mark did not react.
Wizard’s Hand began turning the snake’s head—pulling its fire breathing jaws away—and the leverage gave him the chance to weaken its hold and push free of its constricting grip. As its sinewy body whipped around under Wizard Hand’s grasp, he reached for it, grabbing its upper body and rattling tail, and simply held it in place, making use of his enhanced strength.
The Mark did not react and—though the bright-spitter flapped and struggled—he was able to stop it from burning or coiling around him again.
He considered the creature he was holding and was stunned by what he’d just been able to do.
It seemed a new loophole had presented itself.