Boom. Scrrrrrp. Boom. Scrrrrp.
Stone ground across stone.
Hissing emerged from serpentine mouths.
“Oooooh shit,” Alex swore.
The group was peering out from behind a boulder, looking at what Thundar and Angelar had wanted them to see.
Beside him crouched Angelar, and Thundar peered over their heads. Above and behind all three, Grimloch poked his shark-like snout from behind the corner of the crevice wall.
But even he was dwarfed by what they were looking at.
It was an earth elemental—misshapen, barely humanoid and sand-coloured like the one Alex had seen earlier—but this monster must have been thirteen feet tall. The ground shook every time its massive, rocky legs took a step, and poking out of several holes in its craggy ‘flesh’ were the heads of bright-spitters, hissing and puffing out tiny lines of flame. The crevice it was in was wide—perhaps forty feet across—but the elemental was patrolling back and forth across its width.
From the way it moved, Alex thought it looked agitated, though he wasn’t sure if a giant moving pile of rock could be agitated.
He was sure it could be highly lethal, though.
So, a giant figure made of stone—capable of squashing him into a red paste with a single swing of its arms—served as the home for at least half a dozen creatures that spit searing, blinding fire was pacing the crevice between them and safety.
“We’re so screwed,” he muttered.
“That’s what we were saying,” Angelar said bitterly, continuing to pant with drops of spittle falling to the stones below.
“Let’s back up,” Thundar suggested. “No sense in letting that thing spot us if it hasn’t already.”
The group pulled back from the giant elemental, retreating around the corner until there was at least a good hundred feet between them and the monster.
“Do we call the chancellor?” Angelar suggested, indicating the spell-mark on his hand. “He said to call him if any of those bright-spitters showed up that was too much for us to handle. And I think that thing’s too big for us to handle: I think he’d want us to call him.”
Alex frowned, stepping away from the group, and peered up at the sky. The tiny silhouette of the chancellor was still outlined against the blue above. He noted where the wizard was floating.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Alex said. He pointed to the figure. “He’s floating pretty close by, that crevice is wide as hell and that elemental’s bigger than a lot of trees. I think he’s already seen it.”
Thundar snorted. “That means he thinks we can handle it. Probably.”
“We’re just first and second year students, though” Angelar said, his eyes darting to the bend in the path. “I don’t think we could take something like that.”
“We killed the bonedrinker,” Thundar grunted. “But there were a lot more of us then and we had a cliff to drop it off of.” He drew his mace and frowned at it. “It’d dent the hell out of my mace before I even cracked it.”
“Maybe he’s not waiting for us to defeat or break it.” Alex glanced up at Baelin. “If we don’t have the power to break it, maybe we just need to get past it. He has said that sometimes it’s about avoiding conflict, right?”
“Yeah…yeah…I think I follow.” Thundar’s eyes squinted in thought. “If we ran into a big fire breathing snake that could fly, we’d need to run, die or get real lucky. But that elemental looks slow, and there’s a lot of ground around it. We could get past it if we moved quick enough.”
“What about those fire snakes?” Angelar said. “What if they fly at us while we’re trying to get around them? I’m not saying we can’t do it, but we’ll all be screwed if they start burning and blinding us, giving that thing a chance to grab us.”
“We eat them,” Grimloch said.
They paused, all slowly looking at him.
“Right, not Alex’s: he said I get his share.” The shark man nodded to him appreciatively.
They continued to stare at him.
“You…can have my share too,” Thundar said.
“Mine too,” Angelar added.
Grimloch stared at them for a moment with his dull, black eyes. “More for me. No wonder you’re all so short: you don’t eat your meat.”
“I’m actually pretty tall compared to-” Alex paused. “Ah, nevermind. But Grimloch’s half-right: if we can blast them away, kill them if they get too aggressive, or distract them, we should be able to get around the elemental fast enough.”
Thundar thought it over. “Your force spells, my Illusory Duplicate, Angelar’s magic bolts and Grimloch’s…” He paused, craning his neck to look up at the colossal beastman. “...existenceshould distract them. By the time it follows us, we should be at the extraction point”
“What about going overland instead of through the crevices?” Alex asked, “Did you try that?”
“We climbed up and peeked over the edge.” Angelar glanced to the top of the wall. “The bright-spitters are still swarming. If we went up there, they’d be on us.”
“Right, nowhere but through, then,” Alex looked at both Grimloch and Thundar. “How agile are you feeling?”
“Agile enough to live,” Thundar snorted.
“I’m quick when I have to be,” Grimloch growled.
“Okay, then here’s what we do.” Alex crouched and began to draw in the dust. “That's the elemental in the middle. We watch until it’s in the middle of the crevice, then we rush it and spread out on either side. I’ll go on the right with Thundar. Grimloch, you can go on the left with Angelar. Thundar, Grimloch, you’ll be closer in the middle of the formation, because I think you could duck the thing and outrun it—you both have longer legs. Meanwhile, Angelar and I—on the outside—will blast and distract the snakes and make it easier for all of us. How’s that?”
“Good plan to me,” Thundar said. “As long as we all move fast.”
“Hrm.” Grimloch looked at the diagram. “We could take it. Throw it off its feet. Butcher it like a beached whale.”
“Let’s uh…maybe that’s the back up plan,” Angelar said. “Let’s try and get around it first.”
The four companions slipped back to the corner of the crevice, peering around again. Alex removed his bag from his forceball and slung it over his shoulder. Carrying it would make him a bit slower, but he’d rather have the forceball available for distraction and whatever else came up.
They watched the rocky monster patrol back and forth, counting its steps and how long it took for it to make a full circle. Then, when it had stepped in the middle…
“Now!” Alex shouted.
They tore around the corner, sprinting hard toward the elemental.
The giant rock figure paused, stone grinding against stone as it turned toward them. The fire-spitters hissed and rattled in warning.
But they didn’t stop.
Thundar spat out a quick incantation, and his image split into two as his Duplicate manifested. Grimloch simply ran forward, his long strides letting him quickly outpace the others. As the elemental turned toward him, the bright-spitters hissed and took to the air.
That’s when Angelar fired.
Blue bolts of mana shot at the flying serpents, scattering them while Alex’s Wizard’s Hand flew among them, pulling at wings and tails or patting their snouts to confuse and throw them off balance.
They sprayed fire in all directions, and the four companions turned away from the blinding flames. The elemental made a terrible grinding sound and began stomping toward Thundar.
One of the two minotaurs rushed toward the creature, seeming to prepare to dive between its legs, but the elemental ignored that one and swung its arm down at the second image of Thundar.
With a cry of surprise, the second minotaur dove to the side.
The elemental’s fist smashed deep into the rock, kicking a cloud of stone and dust up from the crevice floor. Thundar stumbled through the cloud, coughing while his illusory duplicate disappeared. Alex balked: it looked like the creature could detect which was the real Thundar.
Which meant it had more capabilities than they thought, making it even more dangerous.
It was a good thing Thundar was quick on his hooves, otherwise—Baelin’s spell or not—there probably wouldn’t have been much left of him.
Angelar yipped and redoubled his pace, continuing to fire bolts at the swarm of snakes. One of the snakes broke free from the swarm, and swooped toward the canine beastman, firing its blinding breath.
The beastman yelped, shielding his eyes but continuing to run forward, all the while firing his spells. Alex’s Wizard’s Hand shot after the bright-spitter, grabbing its wing and shaking it off balance until it spun out of its flight path and spiralled toward the ground.
His forceball shot at the rest, looping around and through them to agitate and distract them. The snakes hissed and tried to bite it, but it was far too agile for their teeth to reach.
They were over halfway through the wide part of the crevice. The extraction point would be close, just a little farther and-
Rock tore from rock.
Alex glanced over his shoulder and gasped.
Like the small elemental that had attacked him earlier, this monster tore a massive stone from the earth like it was drawing it out of a pool of water.
The elemental’s arm swung back and it turned its body toward the half-blind doberman beastman.
“Angelar!” Thundar shouted. “Duck!”
Angelar’s ears perked up.
The boulder shot through the air just as Angelar ducked down.
It missed him by a hair, crashing into the wall and exploding into a shower of shards.
A yelping scream tore through the air
Stones the size of fists had sprayed the young wizard along his side, and a large one had struck his knee. A smaller one had hit the back of his head.
Angelar tumbled from his feet, dazed, and crashed to the ground groaning and holding his leg.
“Oh, shit!” Alex shouted, skidding to a halt along with Thundar and Grimloch.
This was a tricky scenario. The flying stone had injured Angelar enough to stun him and knock him down, but not enough to automatically activate Baelin’s spell.
The elemental stomped toward the fallen young wizard.
“Use the spell-mark!” Thundar roared. “Get out of there, Angelar!”
The beastman shook his head as though he was being swarmed by insects, showing no sign of knowing what was going on.
Alex’s mind began to race.
He looked at his two force spells, then at Thundar and Grimloch.
“I’ll distract it!” he shouted, looking at the shark man. “Throw it off balance like you said you could!”
“Yessss!” Grimloch roared, bearing his teeth and rushing up behind the elemental.
Cursing, Thundar followed, spitting an incantation and slapping a hand on the back of the shark man. Silver-grey mana materialized around him, flowing into Grimloch and swelling his enormous muscles further. Thundar then cast the spell again as he ran, strengthening his own body.
Alex shot Wizard’s Hand forward and around the elemental just as it was closing in on Angelar, pressing it to the thing’s ‘face’. For a moment, it didn’t even seem to notice. Then it stopped, made a grinding noise and reached up to swipe it away. Alex made the force Hand spring onto its fingers like a spider and begin harassing the elemental’s rocky body.
It swiped at its own form, then paused for a moment.
Grimloch and Thundar were almost on it.
Then Alex remembered how it had seemed to know to ignore the illusionary copy of Thundar.
The minotaur realized the danger at the last second.
“Back! Back!” he shouted. “It knows we’re coming!”
The elemental turned, swinging for the two beastmen, but while Thundar jumped back, Grimloch kept going, raising both hands with a growl as the armour of water and shadow swirled around him.
Alex’s jaw fell open.
The shark man had caught the blow.
The watery armour had cushioned his form from the impact and Thundar’s warning let him brace for it. With his colossal strength further enhanced by the minotaur’s magic, he could stop a blow that would have shattered a boulder.
“Mistake,” he snarled at the creature.
Then—still holding its arm—he pulled backward. Hard.
The elemental was dragged forward, stumbling as its feet tore away from the ground. Thundar didn’t hesitate. With it off balance, the minotaur raced into its guard and wrapped both arms around one of its massive legs.
With a roar of effort that made Alex wince, Thundar lifted the creature’s leg, throwing off its centre of balance.
It crashed to the earth.
“Thundar!” Alex shouted. “Get Angelar!”
The minotaur raced toward the fallen beastman.
Grimloch suddenly growled in surprise. The earth elemental had begun to sink into the stone…and was taking the shark man with it. Rock shimmered around its entire body as though it were water, which shimmered around Grimloch’s legs as well. The shark man was already halfway up to his calves in stone.
Mana was surging, and Alex detected a rush of magic flowing from the elemental’s body and down to the earth at Grimloch’s feet. Almost like a mana conductor…
“Grimloch!” Alex shouted. “Let go of his arm! That’s how he’s pulling you down!”
The shark man grunted and let go, his legs remained stuck in the path. He strained against it. Alex shot his forceball toward the ground at Grimloch’s feet.
A crack appeared in the newly warped stone.
He drove it down again.
A deeper crack formed. With a grunt, Grimloch tore his right leg free, but the elemental was rising upright—now halfway out of the stone—and Alex drove Wizard’s Hand at it, harassing it to buy a few more heartbeats.
With another couple of impacts from the forceball, Grimloch pulled his left leg out. But having to move both force spells had left the bright-spitters unchecked, rattling and hissing, they swarmed at the shark man as he tried to sprint away from the earth elemental.
Alex shot both spells at them, but a pair surged forward, spraying their fire breaths over Grimloch’s back.
Some of the watery armour boiled away beneath the flame, scalding his flesh, but rather than scream, the shark man whirled with horrifying speed.
His jaws spread open.
The two snakes went limp, protruding halfway from his reddening teeth.
“Let’s go!” Alex shouted as Grimloch and Thundar--carrying Angelar-- caught up and they bolted around the corner and out of the pass.
Behind them, they heard rattling, hissing and the flapping of bright-spitter wings, and the crushing footfalls of the elemental.
They were after them.