It was lucky he’d calmed down.
If he’d tried to kill the bright-spitter like he’d imagined doing earlier, he wouldn’t have come to his realization.
But, standing there holding a live fire breathing snake presented a problem: what in the world was he supposed to do with it now?
The thing writhed and rattled—beating its wings against him—as it started spitting flame again. Alex squinted against the brightness of the fire. He needed to take care of first things first and fast; he didn’t want to find himself still holding it if his Potion of Strength Enhancement suddenly faded.
Alex shifted his grip, grabbing the top of its neck and immobilizing its head. He definitely didn’t want it squirming toward him with its fire breath. Then he sent Wizard’s Hand back into the tunnel to search for the hidden orb. It felt around, examining the ceiling, walls and floor, until it touched something smooth, small and perfectly round: the hidden orb. Wizard’s Hand picked it up, turned upside down and opened up so that the orb nestled in its palm, then backed out of the tunnel.
Alex brought the spell to his basket and dropped the orb in.
Next he had to consider what to do with the snake. Something about trying to strangle it didn’t quite sit right with him now and besides, when The Mark interfered—and there was no doubt it would interfere—he might lose his grip on it.
Then, it would fry him.
He looked around, glancing up at the hole and then back at Wizard’s Hand. An idea was forming. Since he’d modified Wizard’s Hand to take in more mana and get stronger—like he’d done with forceball and forceshield—it should be able to lift the bright-spitter. But, the snake’s beating wings could let it resist being moved.
Maybe if he pressed the forceball against one of its wings, that would throw it off balance and keep it from spreading them. It was worth a try. Wizard’s Hand grabbed the back of its neck as he quickly removed his own hand. Holding it by the tail, he began to spin it to dizzy it, picking up momentum with every swing.
It stopped struggling.
Alex spun, flinging the bright-spitter toward the hole.
It whipped through the air like a limp rope as Wizard’s Hand guided it to the opening and pulled it deep inside. Forceball hovered near the entrance and—when Alex brought Wizard’s Hand out—it immediately moved to block the tunnel. He scanned the crevice floor, searching for a good sized-rock to replace his forceball as a barrier.
Noticing a pile of stones the size of his forceball on the ground below the hole, he sent Wizard’s Hand to pick one up, carry it to the opening and jam it in place. By the time that bright-spitter burned its way out, Alex planned to be long gone.
Sprinting away from the creature’s lair, he ran through the crevice, listening as the sounds of battle grew louder. He was getting close to the others.
He suddenly felt a burning pain radiating from his upper arm and stopped. Looking down, Alex noticed blood covering his shirt sleeve, right where the bright-spitter had bitten him. “Shit! I forgot that thing bit me.” He cursed.
The pain was getting worse.
It was probably hurting so much because of The Sense Enhancement Potion: which was a down side, he supposed. The wound was oval shaped like the snake’s opened mouth and was bleeding through a coating of ash. “That’sdefinitely gonna leave a scar.” He muttered, examining the wound. At least, he didn’t think he’d been poisoned since the bright-spitter hadn’t had any fangs and he wasn’t on the ground, twitching and dying. For now, the best he could do was clean it off until someone at the infirmary could take a look.
Alex poured water from his basket onto the wound and wiped it with his shirt tail. He took a long drink, put the waterskin away, and began running again, reflecting on what had just happened with the bright-spitter.
It seemed he was beginning to get the specifics of The Mark’s reactions toward combat.
They were strongest in two situations: first, when he was involved with weapons or techniques that were made for combat. Secondly, when he engaged in an action that would actively harm another creature or—like during the spell-joust—destroy one of their spells.
The Mark hadn’t interfered when he’d wrangled the vent-drinker, moved the snake, or distracted the mana vampire. He’d also blown dust in creatures’ faces and destroyed objects with no objections from it.
The one thing that wasn’t fitting was when he’d tried to knock the dungeon core away from the hive-queen. His forceball didn’t have enough power to destroy it…so then, why did it react?
Was it because disarming her would have negatively affected her and the core in a battle situation? The dungeon core had been healing her-
The possibility came at him hard, and he nearly stumbled.
“Oh, I am the dumbest thing ever born,” he muttered.
The dungeon core was alive!
Or at the very least, it was sentient and had mana. That was probably why The Mark had interfered with him striking it directly! It had registered it as combat!
He thought back on Gregori’s spell during their spell-joust. It was forceball, an ongoing spell, so it was directly connected with Gregori’s mana. Alex remembered how the mana vampire had harmed him by draining his mana through his forceball.
Maybe that was why it had given him trouble during the spell-joust as well.
His mind returned to the dungeon core, remembering when he’d tried to destroy it. The Mark hadn’t interfered with him then…it had guided him on how to actively connect to it, not how to kill it. His connection to it had then allowed him to bring it in contact with The Traveller’s mana, but that was an indirect effect, like guiding the fire-beams toward the spider horde.
He stopped for a moment, pulling his notebook and pen from the basket and wrote while he walked. The Sense Enhancement Potion wore off and his senses returned to normal. The pain from the bite lessened too.
Active harm triggers? Indirect harm does not? Active harmless actions—including moving things even if they struggle—does not trigger?
Moving things was not necessarily a combat action, now that he thought about it. He’d accidentally kicked Selina off the bed when he was asleep and he hadn’t even known he’d done it. If he was a farmer, he’d have to move cows to milk them, or struggling chickens just to get their eggs. Neither were combat actions. If someone had to engage in true battle against hens every time they wanted eggs, people would need to beware of chicke-
A massive shape lurched out at him from around the path.
He shouted, throwing up his hands defensively.
The monster was enormous: taller than Alex, who came up to the top of the beast’s belly, and it was maybe five times his weight. It was surrounded by an armour of shadow and liquid. Its eyes were black and lifeless like a doll’s and its serrated tee-
Wait a minute.
“Grimloch?” Alex lowered his hands.
Those dolls’ eyes narrowed. “You, I know your face,” the shark man gnashed out. Alex saw blood stains surrounding the giant’s mouth. In one massive hand he clasped a wooden orb.
“And I definitely know yours,” Alex said, nodding at Grimloch’s orb. “I-”
A blue bolt of lightning crackled into the sky in the distance. It must have been Isolde; Alex hoped she was alright.
The shark man grunted, looking in the direction of the lightning bolt. “Name again?”
“Right.” Grimloch held up his orb. “You get yours?”
“Yeah, I just did.” Alex showed it to the shark man. “Good, that means we can team up. …did you, uh, meet anyone else before you got here?”
The shark man grunted. “Just Angelar, but that was before we’d found our orbs. You?”
“No, you’re the first,” Alex said, cocking his ear to the air.
The sounds of spell and flame had faded.
“No point in standing around talking,” the shark man growled, bringing up his map. His extraction point was the same as Alex’s. “Let’s walk.”
The young human and the hulking beastman looked up, noting that they were in a cross-way of four crevices. A glance at the map and Alex’s navigation skill told them they would need the one winding to the east to reach their goal.
They began picking their way along the crevice.
“Where’d you find your orb?” Alex asked.
“Under a boulder,” the shark man said. “Second place I checked, good thing it was easy to lift.”
Alex had trouble imagining a boulder that wouldn’t be easy for Grimloch to lift.
“Well, you’re luckier than I was,” Alex said. “Mine was in a hole in a wall that was ten feet up, and one of those fire-spitters was hiding in it.”
Grimloch was silent for a moment. “Too bad.”
“Well.” Alex shrugged. “I figured it out.”
“Wish I had yours: caught a couple of snakes. Taste good, wouldn’t mind a third.”
Alex’s eyes fell to the red on the shark man’s mouth.
He quickly looked away. “Well, uh, if we run into anymore, you can have them.”
“Really?” the shark man looked down at him. “Your loss. My gain, then. Will return the favour.”
They fell into another silence as they trekked through the crevice. Alex’s mind slowly returned to The Mark. He wished it had come with a book of instructions. If he was right about when it interfered and what it considered combat, then a Fool could still defend themself in battle.
Sidestepping through dance was one thing—he could see how that would be seen as useless or silly when engaged in a life and death battle with The Ravener—but being able to move and hold enemies, opened up his options.
…or did it?
Now that he thought about it, Brutus had a hard time holding down a silence-spider: even a fairly strong man couldn’t have held one down without magic to boost his strength. And even if a Fool could grab and hold a single silence-spider, The Chosen had annihilated an entire horde by himself.
Next to that sheer amount of power, even a Fool who could tackle, hold or move an attacker wouldn’t be much more useful in a fight than one who could juggle or dance or whatever else. If anything, they’d put themselves at more risk then have to be rescued by the other Heroes.
His revelation was still a useful one though.
Later—he’d experiment and see how his hypothesis held out—the information might open up new avenues and possibilities for defence and attack. Spells that moved or trapped enemies would be good ones to go to once his research was done, and when he finished learning the Spear-and-Oar Dance, he could look for another dance or system of movement that focused on redirecting force, rather than applying it.
A darker thought occurred to him.
He flashed back to the student who had choked on quicksilver.
He doubted The Mark would allow him to directly use it on an attacker—though he could try and experiment with that—but maybe an indirect method of applying it could work. Maybe if there was a way to infuse quicksilver with mana and then vapourize it into a cloud of gas: that could be something lethal that could be used in an indirect way.
He’d just need to come up with a way to make the potion vial explode.
The Mark would likely interfere with his aim if he threw it, but if the blast and gas cloud were large enough, then precisely aiming it wouldn’t matter. The danger would be if it interfered with his aim and he dropped it at his own feet.
That would be a…well, foolish way to die.
But, if he used Wizard’s Hand to carry a poison-filled container and drop it, that would be safer for him. There were also potions that were gaseous and didn’t necessarily harm, like sleeping potions. Dropping one of those on bright-spitters would be a pretty good way to subdue them, and—since it wasn’t made to injure them—The Mark might not interfere.
There were spells that affected an entire area instead of a single target: those were called area of effect spells. He would need to find out if The Mark would prevent him from using attack spells that spread over an area instead of attacking an enemy directly.
Alex considered the fireballs that Rhea and Shiani used and the lightning Isolde preferred. Would The Mark stop him from attacking with spells like those? Firing a spell that consumed someone in a blast of flame would cause direct harm so The Mark would definitely interfere if he cast and fired one of them like that.
Area of effect spells that didn’t hurt an opponent might be better, and spells that created barriers might work too. Would The Mark interfere with a spell that bound an opponent to a single location, like the shoggoth?
Every answer brought more questions, but, the more he learned over time, the more questions would be answered
The more he could make The Mark his.
His mind returned to Selina.
Maybe thinking like that would help her too.
If she could see her affinity as her own—by making fire hers, she could turn something unwanted into something that helped, like he had. If she chose to, at least. He’d be perfectly fine with it if she wanted to walk away from magic altogether or learn magic that wasn’t about fire. It was her life, after all.
He just didn’t want her to hate herself.
How would he explain all that to her, though?
Maybe someone who knew more about fire magic could help. His mind drifted to the second year, Shiani. She used fire spells in COMB-1000, but she’d been gentle when they were wrangling the vent-drinkers. Maybe he could ask her for some insights into fire to help him have a conversation with Selina.
He paused, holding up his hand. “I heard something ahead.”
Grimloch snarled. “Me too.”
The shark man’s knuckles popped as his massive hands curled into fists. He nodded to the curve ahead in the path with his pointed snout and bared his teeth. Alex scooped up a ‘handful’ of dust with Wizard’s Hand.
They exchanged nods and started forward.
“Wait!” A familiar voice called from around the bend. “Alex, is that you I smell?”
“Thundar?” Alex paused. “Please tell me that it's you and not me going crazy from the heat.”
The familiar horned head of Thundar poked around the corner. “Real enough for you?”
Alex sighed in relief. Grimloch grunted, and he definitely sounded disappointed.
As the minotaur rounded the corner, the doberman-like form of Angelar emerged behind him, panting from the heat with his tongue lolling out.
Thundar nodded to Alex and Grimloch. “Got your orbs?”
Alex drew his orb up, bouncing it up and down a couple of times on the palm of his hand. One bounce made it go sideways and he had to scramble to catch it. He chuckled embarrassedly.
‘I should learn to juggle,’ he thought. ‘All this time I’ve been using The Mark for serious business like school, and defending myself and stuff. Maybe I should learn something fun with it.’
Grimloch simply raised his orb between two fingertips.
“We have ours too!” Angelar said excitedly. “Thank the elements, now we can work together…” He peered behind them, sniffing the air. “Did you find a way to the extraction point beside this one?”
Alex frowned. “No, the map shows that this is the only way.”
A silence fell.
“Nothing else?” Thundar asked slowly. “Not even something small and secret? A path that wouldn’t be on the map?”
“Nothing,” Grimloch gnashed the word, his teeth snapping the last syllable out.
“No, we didn’t see anything,” Alex said. “The only path is…is where you came from…why are you heading this way?”
Angelar and Thundar looked at each other.
“You’re sure, sure, sure?” Angelar asked again.
“Yeah, why?” Alex said, feeling nerves rising in his stomach.
Thundar sighed. “Then we’re up to our necks in pig shit. Follow us. We’ll show you.”