Alex concentrated on moving his force shield in time with slow, force-directing motions of the Cleansing Movements.
As he did, he kept some of his concentration on the movements and meditative practice, but split the rest of his mind to focus on his surroundings and where imaginary opponents might strike from. The force shield spell was a powerful defence in that it swivelled automatically toward incoming attacks, but it was limited in that it blocked those attacks head on.
If he could learn to angle it so that—instead of simply protecting him—it also moved in time with him, it could reinforce the motions he was practicing to block and redirect.
The tricky part would be modifying the spell array so that the shield didn’t automatically interpose itself directly between him and opponents, but could also pivot in midair and slope itself according to his will.
That could come later, though: for now, he could simply focus on bringing the shield inline with his movements. The rest of the group had given him curious looks at first, but they quickly returned their focus to their own practice.
One of the philosophies of the group was non-judgement while in session, and so, Alex could continue to try different things as long as he didn’t disturb the others. That was the reason he had picked a spot at the back, to not be a distraction to the others. He could almost feel Thundar vibrating as the minotaur fought the urge to say something, though.
As the class ended, Thundar lost the battle.
“What in hell are you doing, Alex?” the minotaur asked. “I thought you were gonna clobber me with your spell.”
“Just trying to get better at the motions,” Alex said, dismissing his force shield and conjuring a forceball to carry his bags. “Ram said something about redirecting force magic, so I’m just combining the Cleansing Movements with spellcasting. I’m hoping that it’ll help.”
“Well, it’s helping me nearly get a concussion,” Thundar said, pausing as the group leader left the clearing in a hurry. His eyes followed her tails for a moment before returning to Alex, who was now grinning.
“Not a word,” the minotaur warned in a tone that made it very clear what would happen to Alex if he even snickered.
For once, Alex kept his mouth shut. “You think Khalik’s out of class by now?” he asked. “I could use some food.”
“Probably, let’s go find him,” Thundar said. “It might be one of our last meals.”
The two of them went through the botanical gardens together, passing a patrol of Watchers. The demon summoning culprit was still at large, and if there were any signs of coming closer to catching them, then the administration wasn’t saying a word.
In some ways, campus had calmed again. The first day back from break had been fairly tense, as many anticipated another attack coming at any time. As the days went on, though, the wizards on Generasi’s campus slowly grew more comfortable as the incident continued to grow more distant.
After all, it wasn’t the first time that a renegade demon had attacked the campus.
It likely wouldn’t be the last, either, even after the conjuring culprit was caught.
“You that worried about Baelin’s class?” Alex asked his friend.
“A little,” Thundar said. “That last trip into The Barrens was real…easy. Makes me nervous now, like if the other hoof is about to drop on us.”
“Baelin’s there to keep us safe, and we have his protective spells,” Alex said, though he was starting to feel nervous about the next class too. Baelin had promised a challenge, and Alex’s powerful imagination was already conjuring up all kinds of horrors that they might face.
“Yeah, I know,” Thundar said. “Just can’t help feeling that things are gonna be tough. I just hope we get to group up with who we want. Would love it if we had the cabal together, complete with entourage members. And if we could get Grimloch in there, that’d be great.”
“Ideal scenario,” Alex agreed. “Unfortunately, ideal scenarios don’t often happen in li-”
Both he and the minotaur paused. Something had moved in the nearby brush, and the two young wizards glanced at each other before swinging around so they were back to back. They eyed the thick, wild-looking area of the garden they were in.
Plenty of cover around.
Alex remembered their encounter with the dryads and what they had said about the mana vampire and that other creature that had killed two of them. He bit the inside of this cheek, just in case a sudden wave of drowsiness came over him.
“You smell anything?” Alex whispered, glancing over his shoulder.
“Lot of things: flowers, herbs, funguses. It feels like I’m in a perfume shop in here. Can’t smell anything else,” Thundar grunted.
The two wizards waited for maybe thirty heartbeats before finally beginning to relax.
“Ugh, we’re getting jumpier than an old cat in an alley full of dogs,” Thundar grunted.
“Hey,” Alex said. “Remember that first time we did the Cleansing Movements together? Didn’t we hear a strange sound around this part of the path then too?”
Thundar squinted. “You know, I think you’re right. We did, didn’t we?” He eyed the bushes with suspicion. “Probably just an animal. Some little beast or something. Maybe something’s made its little den around here.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Alex said. “Let’s just get the hell out of here. I feel like one of those guys that always dies first in the bards’ horror stories-”
He mimed putting on a dumb expression.
“Duuuh, what was that noise? We should go investigate.”
Thundar snorted in laughter. “Yeah, but the guys in those stories are usually rich nobles at their summer cottages with a belly full of wine, and their heads full of lust. We’re wizards trained in combat. We’d probably last longer.”
“Unless it’s a mana vampire,” Alex pointed out.
“Yeah, then maybe the drunk noble’d have a better time than us,” Thundar said. “You know what? You’re right, this place is creeping me out, let’s keep moving.”
Alex followed the minotaur’s long strides as his hooves clacked across the cobblestones. They didn’t speak until they were out of the botanical gardens.
They might’ve been imagining it, but it felt like they’d avoided the heart of danger.
“Sometimes, one cannot avoid the heart of danger,” Baelin said from in front of the class.
Thundar and Alex gave each other long looks at his statement.
“By that I mean not only is it impossible at certain times to flee from danger, but I also mean that sometimes terrain prevents us from making full use of our mobility, our allies, and even sometimes resources such as larger, more powerful companions.”
His eyes fell to Grimloch, who paused mid-bite. The shark man had arrived with Nua-Oge, finishing his lunch that looked to be an entire roasted deer haunch.
“When one enters the dark places of the world, this will involve entering tunnels, caves and other spaces where one’s ability to move is constrained. It cuts down on options of attack and escape.
I am told that we have a member of the Delvers’ Guild in attendance,” Baelin said, glancing about. “Might they identify themselves.”
Alex looked surprised when one of Isolde’s entourage raised his meaty hand.
“Hogarth of Stokham,” he said. “I was a member of the Delvers’ Guild before I joined the service of the von Anmut family.”
“I see, then we are privileged to have a veteran within our ranks,” Baelin gestured to the squat, powerfully built man. “Would you be kind enough to do the class a favour and enlighten us as to what the Delvers’ Guild does?”
“Professional Danger Spelunkers is what we call ourselves,” Hogarth said. “There’s a lot of dark places beneath the dearth: old ruins, abandoned monster dens, pathways into the deep, leftovers from lost wizards and civilizations. People want these explored, cleared out and made safe. At the same time, other people want to raid these places for lost treasure, information, monster parts and a lot of other things.”
Alex listened closely, glancing at Theresa, who glanced back.
He’d remembered the tattered remains of the human hand Brutus had found in the cave mouth of The Traveller. The index finger had been wrapped by a plain iron ring with a symbol of two crossed pick-axes.
He’d heard of the Delvers’ Guild but hadn’t known much about them before.
“We also delve into wastelands, borderlands and dangerous wildernesses,” Hogarth continued. “We work with the Cartographers’ Guilds as well for protection and joint mapmaking. Sometimes, we help as escorts for wizards looking for ingredients and so on. Sometimes, we also just explore for the sake of it.”
“Right, and do you often work with wizards?” Baelin asked, though from his tone it was clear he knew the answer.
“We recruit wizards into the guild, but I’ve never heard of one from the guild who was educated at a big place like this. Most of our wizard guild members are self-taught and the like,” Hogarth said. “But like I said, we do get hired to escort wizards into places like ruins and caverns.”
“Exactly,” Baelin said. “That’s the answer I was looking for.” He turned to the rest of the class. “Often—even if you are in a peaceful time in your wizardry career—you may need to seek out an ingredient, explore a ruin for a piece of forgotten lore, or simply be hired by some city official looking for someone knowledgeable and capable to delve into a local cavern for purposes of their own.”
He looked upon all of them. “And the deep places of the world can be unforgiving places. Rayne, one of your favourite spells is the spell of flight, I do believe.”
“Uh, yes,” Rayne said nervously. “But it’s not much help in a cave, right?”
“No it is not,” Baelin said. “Being able to float above a floor that might be trapped or maneuver within a three-dimensional space can help to a certain degree, but one’s options are definitely limited underground. Spells that use great amounts of fire are also dangerous, as they can burn away the air in an enclosed space, potentially suffocating you.”
Alex winced, remembering the Goddess Statues in the temple of The Traveller. They would have been much deadlier if that portal hadn’t been open in the room, providing the space with more air from wherever that blue sky was.
Maybe that’s why that stable portal had been left there in the first place: to continue to pump air into the complex even if the fire-gems burned away all the air blasting intruders. It wouldn’t do, he thought, for the fire-gems to destroy intruders just to leave the cave empty of air for its owner to breathe when she returned to it.
He noticed Rhea and Shiani look at each other: the two often used fire spells.
“My point being, that a delve into an underground complex is something you will likely engage in at least once in your lives-”
Alex fought to keep a straight face.
“-and tactical experience in such places will be invaluable. That is why our last lesson focused on the dwarven war manuals on tunnel fighting. In The Barrens, there are a few ancient complexes, labyrinths and ruins spread throughout the blasted landscapes: leftovers from fallen empires or ancient wizards, now left to gather dust. Today, we will be visiting a place colloquially known around Generasi as: ‘The Bone Tunnels’. It was a massive underground sanctum owned by a wizard when The Barrens were still fertile. So, within, the opponents you will expect to find are undead: skeletons of creatures that die near the complex are reanimated by its residual protective magics and become guardians of the place. You can also expect haunts: ectoplasmic echoes of fallen spirits. Not quite ghosts, they are simply clots of memory left behind by those that fell while in danger.”
He raised his hand above him. “The average ceiling in this complex is merely eight feet high. And can go as low as six feet in some parts. Thundar and Grimloch, you might have trouble in these areas.” The pair looked at each other and nodded.
“These are my instructions for this challenge. You will be split into four groups and sent through the labyrinth from four separate entrances. Your task will be to navigate your way to four different teleportation circles I have left within the labyrinth. I expect you to navigate your way through the complex, avoiding its mechanical traps and either defeat, or escape from any undead creatures that you might encounter within.”
Alex gulped and exchanged a look with Theresa, who nodded at him and placed a hand on one of Brutus’ heads. Their previous time spelunking was terrifying and had introduced them to horrors they’d never known before.
Then again, they were a lot tougher now. Theresa had been engaging in life enforcement and learning from the Watchers of Roal.
Alex was stronger, faster, more knowledgeable and had far more magical power. They could do this.
They could handle a few skeletons.
Hopefully, they’d end up together.
The whole cabal acting as one would be perfect.
“When you materialize at the entrances,” Baelin said. “Look at the spell-marks left by my spell. I have modified them to react, gradually turning red the farther you go away from my teleportation circles, and turning green the closer you get to them. This will help you to avoid becoming too lost. And with that?”
He waved his hand.
Alex felt the teleportation magic come over him.
The world shimmered around him as he appeared in The Barrens before his unknown group members.
He waited for a bit, looking around his surroundings before three figures shimmered in the air and appeared in front of him.
First was the skinny figure of Rayne, blinking rapidly in the heat and dust of The Barrens. Next was the towering form of Thundar, who grinned when he saw Alex.
Alex looked at the last shimmering figure, hoping for Theresa, Khalik or Isolde.
The shimmering crystallized and the last figure appeared: a massive, three headed dog sniffing the air and looking around for his master.
Alex looked in surprise at Brutus.
“H-huh,” was all he could say.