The elemental’s footfalls thundered through the crevice and the serpents’ flapping wings filled the air behind them.
They were still outpacing the massive rock monster, but the bright-spitters were gaining.
They needed a diversion.
Alex called his forceball, spinning it along the ground, kicking up a dust cloud in their wake. He glanced back as the dust rose and obscured the passage. Good. Any cover was good cover.
The path wound around several corners and bends, eventually becoming another straightaway about a hundred and fifty paces long.
They were almost at their extraction point.
Alex pushed harder, glancing back now and then when, suddenly, a slew of serpents billowed over the side of the crevice, rattling in rage. They flew straight for the fleeing classmates. Alex focused, sending his spells swirling into their wings and throwing them off balance. Some careened into each other and smashed into the walls.
More heartbeats bought.
Every second the flame breathing snakes were delayed was a second they had to make it to the extraction point. As long as there weren’t anymore snakes or elementa-
His thought paused.
‘Wait,’ he concentrated on his hearing.
“Guys, where the hell’s the elemental?” He shouted.
He couldn’t hear its grinding, pounding footfalls anymore...at all.
Where could it hav-
It suddenly burst through the cliff like something emerging from a waterfall.
The elemental had shadowed them, gliding through the stone instead of following the path. In each hand, it clutched a massive boulder ready to launch. A roar sounded, like the earth raging and breaking in half.
“Oh, hell! Incoming boulders!” Alex screamed.
“Zigzag!” Thundar shouted. “Don’t give it a clear line to fire in!”
Grimloch, Thundar and Alex zigzagged across the crevice floor in tandem.
They ducked, stumbling forward as the boulders sailed past them, crashing into the earth and stirring up more dust clouds. Alex’s legs burned as he glanced behind.
His forceball was skidding back and forth along the parched ground and he caught glimpses through the dust cloud. The elemental was tearing up boulders to hurl while bright-spitters were set to swoop at them. With only Wizard’s Hand to slow them, it pulled one off-balance by the wing, but more were coming fast.
“Bright-spitters! Right behind us!” he yelled.
“Their mistake!” Grimloch snarled, skidding to a halt beside one of the boulders and driving a leg into the ground. He reached down to grab the rock. His enhanced muscles bulged as he heaved it from the earth, spun on his back leg, and hurled the boulder at their pursuers.
The rock flew, crashing through the flying snakes, scattering them and soaring through the air until it collided with the top of the elemental’s ‘chest.’ It went reeling against the cliff face in an explosion of stone shards and dust.
Grimloch rushed the scattered snakes. Some tried to right themselves, but Wizard’s Handgrabbed their wings, plucking them from the air. The shark man’s massive hands closed around two of them and his jaws caught another two.
Four bright-spitters met their end.
Grimloch’s chest heaved as he dumped the pair into his thoroughly bloody jaws. His red gills seemed to pulse with every breath as he looked at Alex while loudly chewing and pointing at the elemental.
“They’re sunk, let’s finish it!” he snapped.
Alex blinked, surprised at again being thrust into the position of leader. He glanced at Angelar, who—though still recovering his senses in Thundar’s grip—bared his teeth and snarled at the elemental.
“Angelar, you up for this?” Alex asked.
The beastman growled. “That thing nearly killed me. I want some payback.”
The minotaur’s nostrils were flaring, blowing dust from his fur and snout.
“How much longer’s your body strengthening going to last?” Alex asked.
“More than enough time,” Thundar said, his gaze levelled at the elemental.
Alex took a deep, steadying breath. His mind worked quickly. On the one hand, the extraction point was close. On the other they might have the advantage now and knowing Baelin, he’d expect them to press any advantage they had.
Plus, others might have to use the extraction point they were heading to.
“Forward, then.” He cracked his neck. “Let’s break this thing. If it starts to look like it’s overwhelming us, we retreat. Angelar, you blast it from back here where you’ll be safer. Thundar, you and Grimloch are on rock smashing duty. I’ll give you as much cover as I can. Fair?”
“Let’s do it.” Thundar set Angelar down and snorted, drawing his mace.
“Feeeeeeding freeeeenzy!” Grimloch roared without a moment’s hesitation. He grabbed another boulder and heaved it at the elemental before charging with Alex and Thundar close behind.
The large stone smashed the elemental further against the cliff, and a crack split along its torso. Angelar shouted his incantation and shot a flurry of small mana bolts at the rock monster, hammering the crack.
Alex drove his forceball forward, and sent Wizard’s Hand toward the wall above the creature. Together, the spells smashed the wall in a flurry of blows, cracking the stone and dislodging rock and debris to pour down on it, obstructing its vision.
It swiped at the stone shower with rocky arms, and those few moments bought Grimloch the time to close the distance. He dropped his shoulder and drove it into the elemental’s core, smashing it harder against the wall. Then, he scooped up a massive slab of rock, and—using it like a club—began hammering its chest.
Then Thundar was there, driving his mace repeatedly into its torso.
It roared in its grinding voice and raised its arms to batter them, but Grimloch smashed the limbs away while Thundar kept pounding at it.
The flanges of his mace dented with each shot as cracks began spreading throughout the monster’s trunk. It shuddered at every blow, then suddenly roared, and abruptly sank into the stone. The companions froze.
A stone fist burst from the wall, driving into Grimloch’s face and sending the shark man stumbling back, spitting blood and teeth. The elemental’s other fist ruptured the wall, catching the minotaur on the chest and throwing him off his hooves. The two scrambled away, but the elemental’s limbs had retreated, disappearing back into the stone.
All four paused, searching for any sign of it.
Silence was all that met them.
A rocky fist burst up through the ground, smashing into Grimloch’s leg and sending the shark man sprawling. He roared, snapping at the air. “Sneaky little seal!”
“Do you see it?” Thundar looked at Angelar and Alex, who both shook their heads. Alex’s mind was working.
He glanced at the ground.
Mana had coursed through Grimloch and the elemental when it was trying to drag him into the ground. Alex couldn’t feel any magic when it was going through the earth by itself, but that could mean that he hadn’t been listening well enough.
He took a deep, meditative breath and closed his eyes, sensing. The Mark honed his meditation techniques and decreased his other senses to focus on his ability to feel active mana. He felt the spells coursing through Thundar and both of the beastmen…but there was another mana below them, swimming through the earth like a fish.
It took him a few heartbeats to sense its precise location.
“Thundar! Strike down to your right!” he shouted.
“Wha-?” he heard Thundar say.
The sound of the iron mace striking stone echoed. The elemental rumbled.
“Grimloch!” Alex shouted as he felt it move. “To your right! Now!”
He heard rock shatter, and this time, the elemental roared.
Now the mana was rising up fast.
“It’s coming up below you, Thundar! Look out!”
Alex opened his eyes to see the minotaur leap aside as the elemental surged up from beneath the earth like a fish jumping from a lake. Its arms grabbed for Thundar, but he was already gone.
And Grimloch was already charging it.
The shark man tackled it to the ground and pushed his fingers into the large jagged crack in its body. His arms flexed as he began wrenching it wider and wider—until it was broader than a man’s head. Angelar’s mana bolts slammed into the crack, breaking it apart.
The elemental tried sinking back into the earth.
“Oh no you don’t!” Alex shouted, focusing on his forceball.
He gently slid the spell into the widening gap. “Hit it!” he shouted. “Use it as a wedge!”
Thundar raised his mace and Grimloch his slab of rock and slammed them onto the forceball. The force burst the spell, but not before shoving it deep into the rock, splitting it.
The earth elemental roared as the crack fanned out, spreading wider and wider until it’s trunk ruptured.
With a shudder, the massive stone creature collapsed, trickling into mounds of dust.
The four young men looked down at the remains of their enemy, then up at each other.
As one, four roars of victory rose into the air.
They materialized onto Baelin’s escarpment to find they weren’t the first ones there. More than half the class had already arrived, looking much worse for the wear.
“Thundar! Alex!” Isolde called, approaching them with quick steps. One of her shirt sleeves had been burned away, revealing a reddened raw area on her arm and shoulder. “You’re safe, thank goodness!”
“Angelar!” Caramiyus rushed toward them. A bandage had been wrapped around one of his forearms and Alex could smell some sort of ointment. The canine beastmen began communicating rapidly in a language that sounded like a series of yips, barks and whines.
Caramiyus raised Angelar’s arm over his shoulders and supported him in limping to one of the benches. Angelar paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder at Thundar.
“You saved my life,” he said, then turned his gaze to the rest of the group. “All of you did. Thank you. One day, I’ll return the favour, if I can.”
With a final nod to each other, he and Caramiyus limped away.
Svenia came to stand beside Isolde, wincing as she moved.
The rest of the class looked like they’d been put through a gauntlet: most had bruises, cuts, burns or bite marks. Out of all of them, only Malcolm and his companion, Eyvinder, looked to be unscathed. Alex remembered that the green-skinned man could control the earth using mana. This task would have been well-suited to his skills and powers.
He glanced at Grimloch, then grimaced at the gaps between some of his teeth. “Hey, buddy, I noticed you lost some teeth there. Sorry, that’s rough.”
“Why?” The shark man looked at him. “They’ll grow back in a few days.”
“They’ll…grow back? Why you looking at me like I got jellyfish on my face?”
“Your teeth grow back?”
“Yeah, don’t yours?”
Alex blinked. “N-no.”
Grimloch looked stunned. “Selachar teeth and those of my people grow back. …how do you people even live?”
“You know, I’m starting to wonder that myself,” Alex grumbled.
Sharkfolk were cheating at life. Utterly cheating.
“Nua-Oge’s not here,” Grimloch growled, his black eyes going back to scanning the crowd.
“No,” Isolde said. “And neither are Hogarth, Khalik and Theresa. There is no sign of the chancellor yet, either.”
Alex’s stomach dropped.
“I hope they found each other.” He murmured.
If they hadn’t returned yet, it was likely they were having even more trouble than he and his group had. He thought back to the elemental, considering what his chances of getting past it alive would’ve been without Grimloch’s physical power, Thundar’s might and strengthening magic, and Angelar’s ranged support. They would’ve been slim to none.
He’d barely been able to handle a single bright-spitter. Granted, Khalik, Theresa, and Hogarth didn’t have a magical mark that stopped them from attacking directly, but one of those elementals would still be devastating to face all alone.
He paused, his mana senses sparking.
A familiar magic was coming.
The air shimmered in the middle of the group and they stopped their conversations and watched. Soon, the water and darkness encased form of Nua-Oge stumbled out of thin air, and immediately fell panting to her hands and knees. “Thank…thank Ek-u-Dari.”
“Nua-Oge!” Grimloch rushed to her side, helping her to her feet.
“Good for them, glad they’re both safe,” Thundar said.
“Mhm,” Alex said, trying to hide the stab of disappointment he felt at not seeing Theresa or Khalik. He turned toward the south, peering at the horizon, but the crevices were too far for him to see anything from his distance.
The air shifted again and he felt the familiar magic once more. It held far greater force this time.
Four spots shimmered in the air, eventually revealing the forms of Baelin and the three missing students. Theresa and Khalik were supporting Hogarth, who had burns along his torso. Thankfully, they were alive.
Isolde, Alex, Thundar and Svenia gave cries of relief and rushed to them.
Svenia took the burden of Hogarth from the huntress and the prince, while Alex nearly tackle-hugged Theresa and Khalik. Theresa hugged him back while Khalik simply gave an exhausted laugh. Thundar’s large hands clapped them on their shoulders.
Off to the side, Baelin wiped some ash from his robes. In one hand, he gripped the still form of a bright-spitter. Its body was frozen in a pose of attack, and its jaws were parted as though it were poised to bite or breathe fire.
Alex blinked at it for a moment.
It had been turned to solid stone.
Baelin cheerfully waved the now-rock bright-spitter at the class. “A souvenir.” He looked at the group on the escarpment. “But I will not be the only one bearing a souvenir today. Well done!” he said enthusiastically. “In most years of teaching this course, this challenge usually sees one or two students injured gravely enough to activate the spell to bring them to safety. Though we have had some injuries this year, there have not been any that a few alchemical poultices and a trip to the infirmary shouldn’t easily resolve. Now, then…”
He snapped his fingers.
Alex startled as his bag began to shudder, and the orb with the number “11” floated out. His classmates’ orbs emerged from bags and pouches to float in front of each of them as well.
They began to shine.
The gleaming orbs cracked in the centre and opened like blossoms. Small pendants floated from within each one: shaped like half-moons carved from a hard white material. A symbol was etched into each pendant, but it looked incomplete, as if split in two.
The orbs vanished while the half-pendants drifted in front of each student, hanging in the air until they grasped them.
Baelin looked at his class with a look of immense pride. “These are charm-pendants of apprenticeship: an ancient practice where master wizards would craft pendants for their apprentices to indicate they had passed their trials and tests, and were associated with their teachers. A fun fact for the historians among you: they were among one of the precursors to your student cards.” His goat-like eyes twinkled as he drew a bone necklace from deep within his robes.
Several charms and pendants hung from the chain: some were carved jewels, some were tiny metal figures, some were etched bone, and others simple stones. He fingered through them like keys on a chain, and drew up a circular bone pendant similar to their own.
The symbol upon it looked like a drawing of a figure with bat-like wings. “This is the charm-pendant given to me by my own master when I was even younger than you…which was, quite frankly, an embarrassingly long time ago. Nonetheless, it is a practice I do not like to see die out. What you currently hold is half of a charm associated with me: I provide them to all who progress this far in my class. Should you reach the end of COMB-1000, I shall present each of you with the other half.”
He chuckled. “A Proper Wizard walks a dangerous road, and often takes paths that prove unpleasant at the time: much like the crevices. But rewards can await those who undergo trials. At least, as long as you keep your wits about you, and have the tenacity, endurance and tactics to survive, even when alone. It is my hope that you will foster an association with each other, much as graduates of my classes have in the past. It is difficult to be alone on the path of wizardry, and a Proper Wizard can live a very long time. Make and cleave to your connections now, though at times you may have to walk alone, for even the strongest tower is nothing without the ground beneath to support it.”
Alex listened to Baelin’s words.
Not being alone.
He glanced at Shiani who was holding her pendant while chatting excitedly with Rhea.
Hopefully, he could show Selina that she wasn’t alone, despite what life or the gods had granted her.