Screams echoed from the west, and Alex could see a patch of ground near the campus gates swelling like an overfilled waterskin.
The grass singed as students scrambled away.
The swelling ruptured suddenly, bleeding a glowing orange light.
A mass of dirt and rock erupted, sending a column of flame roaring into the air—at least thirty feet high—with horrifying silhouettes dancing within. Shadowy skeletons. Bat-winged things.
Open mouths filled with teeth. Horned figures that reminded Alex of Hobb.
That last thought made him freeze.
“Oh…no…” he murmured.
A massive, clawed hand reached out of the earth—completely unbothered by the raging fire—and slammed into the ground.
Another hand emerged. Clawed fingers scraped trenches into the soil. Alex gasped when two more hands reached up and—together—slammed into the ground. Four powerful arms—thicker around than Alex’s body—flexed beneath blue-black flesh, hoisting the creature from the pit of the earth.
Its body was a mountain of demonic muscle, and its head looked like a cross between that of a boar and a hell-spawned crocodile. It must have stood thirty feet tall with massive bat-like wings that flared out more than twice that in width.
Its mouth was filled with broad, jagged teeth and—as Alex watched—its stomach tore open sideways to reveal a vertically slit mouth large enough to swallow Thundar whole.
Inside, the mouth was a void of utter darkness. The only other time Alex remembered seeing a darkness so deep was when he’d walked through the doorway of The Traveller—and was met by a scene of impenetrable darkness lurking between stars.
Although he’d never encountered a demon, tales from Magical Lore and his screaming instincts warned him that was what this creature was. Even from his distance, every sense could feel its aura of fear and malice. It wormed its way into his mind, trying to grasp his emotions and overwhelm him in terror.
Alex braced against the intrusion, calling up memories of experiences where his thoughts had been assaulted by The Mark, or the mana vampire, or proximity to the shoggoth, and fought away the onslaught.
He was able to, but he could see the other students weren’t.
All began screaming.
The rally disintegrated in an instant, with students scattering as the monster’s unnatural aura swept over them in a wave. They fled in droves, trampling each other to get away. Many of the priests ran, scrambling away from the gates and rushing toward the city. Some, including the priest of Uldar, remained.
Then the creature roared.
An icy wind blasted out in a cone from both mouths, dousing the column of flame from which it had emerged and freezing the grass. One of the escaping students was caught in its path and shrieked as her arm froze, struck by its breath.
The young wizard collapsed to the ground, wailing in terror and pain.
The Watchers of Roal sprang into action, waving staffs above their heads and drawing their swords. Spears of magic fired from the staves, lancing into the demon and piercing its hide. The creature bellowed in rage. One of The Watchers hung back, chanting an incantation and Alex felt mana build, similar to what he’d felt before the demon appeared.
The lone priest of Uldar ran to the fence and gripped the bars, turning his palm toward the demon, and shouted a prayer to his god. His hand glowed, beams of light shot out encircling the demon like serpents forming three floating rings of light. It roared, spraying icy breath from its mouths, but could no longer advance when it hit the rings.
With black narrowing eyes, it pushed against the bonds of light. One shattered, leaving two more, and The Watchers of Roal flew around the monster like swarming wasps. One fired spears of mana from his staff. While another cast longer, more involved spells. His staff began to glow as it built up power.
But the demon didn’t remain idle.
While the circles of light bound its body, they hadn’t wrapped around its wings. It snapped them open to their full wingspan.
Then, they began to shimmer.
A swarm of monsters that looked like imps emerged, bursting from the wings as though they were freed through open gates.
The imps—the size of large rats—shot into the air, swarming The Watchers and priests outside the gates. While the priests screamed, ducking from slashing claws and gnashing teeth, the imps bounced off invisible shields surrounding The Watchers.
The first Watcher of Roal kept firing mana spears into the massive demon, while the second switched his attention, uttering a short incantation.
What blasted from his staff was a spell like Isolde’s more powerful lightning spells, but far more intense. Bolts of lightning as thick around as Alex’s arm tore through the imps, sending them from shuddering, to bursting into flames.
Some showed no fear and still swarmed The Watchers or flew after the fleeing students.
Then more demons emerged.
Large hound-like creatures sprang from the demon’s giant wings to land on the ground outside the rings. They didn’t have Brutus’ bulk, but they rivaled a wolf in size. Their bodies were covered in massive spikes of ice instead of the fur of a hound, and their breaths misted into the air.
With howls that crackled like the coldest winter day, the monsters sprang, bounding toward their prey. Cursing loudly, the third Watcher aborted her spell and whirled, firing a blast of flame at the ice hounds. Screams filled the air as icy bodies evaporated in fire, but some dodged and charged the young wizards.
Alex—meanwhile—hadn’t been idle.
While watching the attack, he’d cast two spells: the first was forceshield, which conjured a glowing circular, crimson shield. The second was Wizard’s Hand. He was ready. Alex jumped from the tree, rolling as he hit the ground.
As he came up from the ground, he leaned out from beside the tree and took in the situation. Some of the students being attacked by the frozen hounds had begun to fight back with their own spells, but were far less experienced than The Watchers, or even the students in COMB-1000.
Many of them panicked under pressure, spoiling incantations or choosing the wrong spells for the situation—magic that either took too long to cast, or that wasn’t effective on the canine demons’ frozen hide.
The priest’s robe had turned bloody, but he’d chanted a prayer to Uldar that erected a glowing aura around him, and then began to fight using his glowing fists. Where his blows struck, the imps broke like shattered glass against the god’s power he was channeling.
One of The Watchers had broken from the battle with the great demon and cast a spell, erecting a wall of fire between some of the students and the charging ice demons.
Alex looked at a pair of hounds running in his direction, directly toward some students. He stepped out from behind the tree and snapped out Wizard’s Hand. It grabbed and twisted one of the ice hound’s legs as it leapt at a student.
His spell tugged the leg to the side and pulled, causing the demon to lose balance and fall near its partner. Alex cracked his neck as the creatures looked at him. A glance toward the sky revealed more of The Watchers on their way. Just like with the mana vampire, he didn’t have to try to defeat these things, only hold them up until they could be finished off.
Unlike with the mana vampire, though, he was much better prepared now.
He fell into the first stance of the Spear-and-Oar Dance.
“Hey, you frosty shits!” he shouted at the demons. “Come bite something that can bite back!”
Of course, he couldn’t bite anything back, but the demons didn’t need to know that.
With crackling howls, they charged, their breaths hissing as he stepped confidently into the dance. The demon-hounds snapped and snarled, but he’d already incorporated the new steps and motions he’d learned from Fan-Dor into the dance, vastly increasing his mobility.
Like during his battles in The Barrens, his heartbeat quickened, but those experiences had taught him the need to remain steady and use deep, meditative breaths to help counter his fear. He remained focused.
The beasts’ breath was like the wind on the coldest winter day, but he dodged around their snouts.
The bright-spitters had been faster and maneuvered better. That gave him an edge.
Wizard’s Hand shot out, quickly grabbing at their legs and tugging their spikes, sending them careening off balance. Force shield spontaneously moved between him and the demons, keeping them at bay.
The heat of battle blended with their icy breath until it almost felt refreshing, but Alex kept a close watch on the demons and his confidence. He needed to hold both in check since he had no idea what these things were capable of, and if he underestimated them-
Suddenly, they paused their attack and stopped, opening their mouths in unison. The coldness of their breaths abruptly deepened.
“Oh shit!” Alex swore, remembering the giant demon’s icy breath from earlier.
He dodged to one side.
Cones of icicles like glass shards blasted out, striking where he’d just been and—though he’d danced away—several hit his force shield, shattering against the glowing, crimson magic.
Alex’s eyes narrowed as an idea came to him. “Try that again and you’ll regret it!”
One of the beasts charged, while the other’s mouth opened.
The cold deepened further.
Alex dodged, avoiding the one that leapt, while he shot Wizard’s Hand at the other whose jaws were spreading. The crimson Hand reached out and held the creature’s snout and jaw, clamping them shut. Shudders passed through it as it squirmed, trying to break free, but-
Icicles abruptly burst through its jaws, tearing its mouth apart as Wizard’s Hand shot away.
Spraying freezing, black blood, the canine demon shuddered and fell to the ground. The other paused, glancing back at the fallen one, then charged Alex, howling in rage. Its attacks became careless, and Alex danced and dodged away. When he’d fought the starving mana vampire, even his most desperate moves and use of cover had barely managed to keep it away.
Now, as he used more of the dance in different ways, the frost hound wasn’t even coming close to catching him.
Suddenly, his crimson shield spun to a position behind, and he heard a heavy impact on it. Surprised, he leapt to the side, and using the dance’s first spin, whirled to see both the frost hound and whatever it was that forceshield had blocked.
Three flying imps had dived at him while he was dealing with the hounds. The first one had aimed for his head, but met his shield instead.
That impact would have popped any of his other force spells; there was a big difference in the strength of his modified forceball and forcedisk compared to the spell designed specifically for defence.
Now the imps were swooping around, trying to surround him, while the demonic frost hound paced in a circle, stalking him. Alex’s eyes scanned his opponents, sizing them up. His first priority had to be the frost hound, the most dangerous of the four.
His forceshield could block the imps—though he wouldn’t want them piling on at once—and that freed Wizard’s Hand to mess up their movements.
Wizard’s Hand shot at one of them, grabbing a wing and dragging it into the path of the frost hound just as it leapt.
The two demons collided, sending the imp flopping to the ground with a shriek, and the frost hound stumbling sideways. Wings snapped back as the other two imps swooped at him.
Alex danced around one while Wizard’s Hand grabbed the other’s head, yanking it backward. The imp went into a screaming, flailing spiral until-
-it slammed into a tree and slid down the bark, stopping in a twitching heap.
He took a deep breath, and fell into another stance.
His attackers were gathering themselves for another charge when he felt a massive surge of mana.
The air cracked like it was tearing apart.
Alex and the demons froze, and slowly looked up until they found the source of the sound.
There, floating high above where those at the gates of Generasi were fallen upon—shining in a nimbus of mana and power—towered the enraged figure of Baelin, the Chancellor of Generasi. Even from his distance, Alex could feel his dangerous gaze.
“Demon,” Baelin’s voice cracked through the air. “What do you think you are doing to my students?”