“Shit! Rayne, help Thundar!” Alex cried. “Blast them! Thundar, hold the line, I’ll help Brutus!”
“I’ve got this!” the minotaur roared, raising his mace.
The sound of metal crushing bone filled the tunnel behind them as Thundar slammed his mace into one of the creatures. Alex cursed. Thundar was big enough to fill most of the narrow tunnel, and Alex couldn’t really see how many were behind them; not without pausing to try and crane his neck around the minotaur’s bulk. And the skeletons in front were not about to give him time for that.
As Rayne wheeled around and started blasting magical bolts behind them, Alex turned back to the troop of undead in front.
He cursed again.
More skeletons came surging from ahead to reinforce their fallen troop mates. He eyed the narrow tunnel. There was an opportunity there.
Gritting his teeth, he drove both his forceball and Wizard’s Hand among skeletons. He willed Wizard’s Hand to curl into a massive fist of force magic. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and with so many assailants filling the tunnel—even if The Mark interfered with his aim—it’d be impossible for him to missthem in such close quarters.
Growling as The Mark began to flood his mind with failures, he grit his teeth and blindly swung the ball and fist hard into the skeletal horde.
Clatter! Clatter! Crunch!
He was rewarded with sounds of scattering and crunching bone as his force spells swept through them. His will guided both spells to stay well in front of Brutus and he used every meditation technique he’d ever practiced to fight to keep his mind focused through The Mark’s screaming. And it was screaming loud and clear.
Alex dropped to his knees, mentally pushing against The Mark while pushing his will into his spells. He squeezed his eyes shut and his mind was pounded with failure after failure, but his breath came slow and loud.
Soon, the sounds of clattering bone eased from the front and he raised both spells into the air. He took deep breaths as his vision cleared of The Mark’s onslaught.
Between his desperate efforts and Brutus’ savagery, the undead attackers from the front were decimated. Only two muupkara skeletons remained in motion, one was between the teeth of one of Brutus’ mouths. The other was latched onto the cerberus’ body, trying to bite into his flesh with its massive, unhinged jaws, but it was failing against both the force armour and his tough hide.
Growling, Alex shot Wizard’s Hand over and dragged the creature off, holding it down while Brutus lunged on it and snapped its jaws with two sets of his jaws.
As the cerberus worked to finish it off, Alex immediately whirled around to see what was going on behind them. His breath caught.
The skeletons were all over Thundar, swarming him like ants.
While Brutus, like the minotaur, had a lot of mass, he was on all fours and had three sets of jaws to fight with. Thundar—on the other hand—was tall, had very little room to maneuver, and only had his mace to smash their adversaries with. The number of broken bones in front of his hooves showed that he’d hit them hard, but he was now struggling to throw them off as they climbed up his legs and pounced on him.
He was bleeding, but the force armour and force shield were keeping the oncoming horde from completely overwhelming him.
Rayne curved his magic bolts around the minotaur, striking the onrushing skeletons and blasting them apart.
Alex joined him. He willed Wizard’s Hand to start pulling skeletons off of Thundar while he shot his forceball into the space between the minotaur’s legs. He hovered it between the skeletons and his friend, trying to block them as much as he could.
“Here you go!” he shouted, pulling the skeletons down to the minotaur’s feet.
Thundar’s hooves smashed down, crushing skeletons and sending the ominous mana from their shattered bones spraying through the air. As more were eliminated, the minotaur had more room to maneuver and soon his mace was smashing one after the other. Alex and Rayne kept up their attacks, blocking, blasting, or shoving them aside, and Thundar was finally able to really lay into them. The air filled with the snapping of dry bones, crackle of magic bolts, rattle of skeletons tossed by Wizard’s Hand, and the crunching of muupkara bones between Brutus’ jaws.
By the time it was all done, the minotaur was panting with effort, Rayne was gasping—trying to calm himself—and Alex was leaning against a wall, trying to fight off a Mark-induced splitting headache.
At least the skeletons lay dead, though.
Or double dead.
‘Destroyed,’ Alex finally settled on.
“That,” Thundar panted. “That was close. Damned close. I thought Baelin’s spell was going to activate at any second, or that one of them would bite my head off before the spell got the chance.”
Alex froze, imagining something happening that just killed them instantly before the spell could activate.
He shuddered, suddenly very thankful for all the practice he’d put in to adapt to combat situations, and for the fact that he was surrounded by good companions. He hoped Theresa, Khalik and Isolde were okay.
Then he thought about Grimloch.
Thundar was having trouble maneuvering properly and he was half Grimloch’s bulk. How would the seemingly invincible shark man do against a swarm of the little monsters without room to position, dodge, strike or grab and shove them into his mouth?
He had to put the thought out of his mind, for now.
Hopefully, one of them ended up with Eyvinder: the green elf-like being’s natural earth magic would be very useful in a place like this.
“You’re bleeding. How bad are you hurt?” Alex asked Thundar.
“Scratches mostly,” Thundar grunted, touching some of his matted fur. “The shield took a bunch of the attacks, and the force armour took a lot of the rest.”
He grunted and snorted in disgust. “If we’d come here at the beginning of school there’s no way I’d have made it: not without the spells I’ve learned and what I’ve learned from Baelin and all of you.”
“We’re safe for now, at least,” Rayne dug into his bag and offered Thundar a small earthenware bottle, it was stoppered with a cork. “Here: it’s not a healing potion, but it’s a herbal tonic that will stop bleeding, dull pain and help wounds heal faster. The recipe’s my father’s.”
“Thank you kindly.” Thundar took the bottle and threw it back. “Ugh, tastes kinda foul, like rotten oranges!”
Rayne smiled weakly. “He never could do anything about the taste.”
“If it does what you said it will, then I can live with the taste.”
While they recovered, Alex examined Brutus and found that the cerberus didn’t have a single wound. Alex was thankful for that tough hide and force spells, but he still petted and rubbed the spot where the skeleton had bitten him. Using The Mark, he stroked his fur gently, again using memories of all the times he’d pet Brutus and other animals.
The cerberus whined and nuzzled into Alex’s hand.
“Goood boy. Best boy, even. Better than all the other boys,” he said. “Alright, let’s move on before more show up and corner us again.”
The group started down the tunnel once more, heading deeper into the complex.
As they went further, they began to get an idea of what the area might have been used for before it became the lair of the undead. In between the tunnels and crossroads, were larger chambers with stone weapon-racks built into the walls.
“Guard-posts, you think?” Thundar guessed as he eyed one of the racks. No weapons remained within. “Maybe the whole top part of this place is built like a maze to make things tough for invaders. Armies would have a hell of a time trying to move around in here.”
“Yeah, you might be right,” Alex said.
He imagined an invading army coming through the entrance above, then having to split their forces among the maze of confusing tunnels. If they had superior numbers compared to the defenders, the tight quarters would make that meaningless and they’d end up being funnelled right into waiting guard posts. It was typical fortress and tunnel-fighting tactics right out of the dwarven fighting manuals.
Dwarves were from the far north, though, as far as he knew. He wasn’t sure who or what this place had belonged to when it was still populated. Hopefully, Baelin would say.
“It’d be lonely work,” Rayne said, as they peered into a side-room off of one of the chambers that looked like it might have been a small barracks for housing troops or guards. Brutus sniffed at the stone beds and dried, straw mattresses and began sneezing. Clouds of dust rose in the air. The place was almost as dry as aboveground, but thankfully, cooler.
“Imagine it,” Rayne continued. “Keeping watch and staying underground all day and night in the dark, waiting for something to invade.”
“Oh nooooo thank you. None of that for me,” Alex said as he imagined it. He glanced at the spell-mark on his hand. It was turning greener and greener as they advanced. It looked like they were getting closer to the teleportation circle, and he couldn’t have been happier. The darkness, low ceilings, ominous silence and constant threat of skeletons, had him on edge. “And whatever it was they were guarding, the only thing left down here now is bones-”
“Well, would you look at that.”
He brought his forceball toward one of the beds.
Carved into its side were different sets of graffiti, all in different hands and all running down the line of the stone. He couldn’t recognize the glyphs on the far left, nor the next few sets of letters written closer to the middle, but those on the right were carved in the common tongue.
Each was a name carved in a different hand, with ‘COMB-1000’ and the year written beneath each name, leading all the way up to last year.
“Well would ya look at that is right!” Thundar said. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a tradition.”
Rayne swallowed. “You don’t think that carving our names there would anger whatever rules this place even more, do you?”
“Well, they’re already trying to kill us, so what else could they throw at us?” Alex said. “And besides, who’re we to go against tradition?” he said, pulling out a sharp knife.
Rayne outright refused, but Alex and Thundar carved their names, the year, and ‘COMB-1000’ into the side of the stone bed before departing the chamber. Brutus paused, giving the barracks one final sniff and a long look before padding in front of them back into the guard post and the tunnel beyond.
Two hallways later, they were attacked by more skeletons.
“They’re after us for despoiling their tomb!” Rayne cried as they were swarmed from both front and back.
“Oh, that’s bullshit!” Thundar shouted. “They’re just attacking us like before!”
“They’re leaving me alone!” Rayne insisted as though he were submitting irrefutable evidence. “They’re just focusing on you!”
“That’s because you’re in the middle!” Alex shouted, as he threw around skeletons with Wizard’s Hand to make things easier on Brutus. “They can’t reach you!”
He told himself that it was only his imagination that the muupkaras seemed to be trying to crawl past Brutus to get to him.
Only his imagination, he assured himself.
“Everyone okay?” he asked as he checked over Brutus once the skeletons had been smashed.
“Yeah,” Thundar growled, picking bone-bits out of his fur. “Now that I was expecting they’d come from behind, it was easier. Hey, Rayne, thanks for the support.”
“It’s nothing,” Rayne said, squinting at the bones. “He flipped through his book and closed it back. “Strange. Usually animated skeletons are created by necromancers. Sometimes they rise on their own, but more often they’re created as tools and aren’t naturally occurring.”
Alex scratched his head as he looked at the shattered muupkara skeletons. He imagined it would be similar to finding a golem in the wild. He supposed it would be possible to find a golem that had escaped its master, developed its own will or was fulfilling some long-ranging instruction, but it would still be a rare thing.
“Yeah, it is kind of strange,” he murmured.
“You don’t think Baelin made them, do you? Maybe he put them together just to challenge us,” Thundar suggested.
“I don’t know if that’s his sty-” Alex paused, thinking about how Baelin had kept the skulls of his enemies sitting on a shelf in his office. Okay, so maybe it would be exactly his style. “It might be…it’d be kind of a relief, actually: if they were his, they’d probably stop attacking us if one of us got really hurt.”
He squinted down the passage, feeling the ominous mana that filled the place. The further they went into this underground complex, the thicker the air was with it. He wasn’t exactly sensitive enough to tell individual wizards’ mana apart—yet—but he could say that, like The Traveller’s mana, this mana was very distinctive.
Baelin’s mana didn’t feel like this.
“All that mana in the air? It’s the same as the stuff that’s coming out of the bones when we break them. Why would the chancellor fill this place with creepy-ass mana if he was just making some skeletons for us to fight? Something’s off. Besides, I don’t think things he made himself would be ‘challenging’ enough for him. Look at all the other practical combat tests in our class: they’re all against real monsters looking to hurt us.”
“Y-yeah, that’s true,” Rayne said nervously. “What’s even stranger is why would so many muupkara skeletons be down here anyway? What reason would they have for coming down here to explore this dusty, empty tomb. There’s no food or anything.”
“Maybe there’s some kind of calling effect.” Thundar crouched down, examining the bones even as Brutus chewed some apart, spitting them out when he found no marrow within them to eat. “We learned in first year illusions that not all illusions are some kind of image or sound to trick you. Some illusions are smells, some are a combination of senses and some are kind of just a feeling…it’s an illusion that something is calling to you or telling you to go away. Maybe it’s something that lures monsters from The Barrens to keep turning them into skeletons.”
“Hm? ‘It’?” Rayne asked. “What do you think ‘it’ is?”
Thundar shrugged. “The complex or whatever controls it? Who knows.”
Alex glanced down to his spell-mark. “Well, let’s keep going and hope we don’t have to find out. Our spell-marks are getting pretty green. Maybe we’ll be out of here soon.”
“Yeah, without running into any of those ‘mechanical traps’ Baelin talked about back in class.” The minotaur stood up.
Alex gave him a long look. “I swear to Uldar, if you jinx us and we fall into some trap, then I’m going to hate you.”
They continued down the path, feeling tenser. Their spell-marks were glowing greener but they proceeded cautiously. No more skeletons appeared.
Brutus was padding up ahead.
The cerberus stepped on a hidden pressure plate.
The ground opened beneath them.
The stones in the entire section of hall they were in suddenly tilted down, exposing a steep slide that shot into the downward. Brutus yelped, his paws scrabbling on the stone as he disappeared down the slide.
Rayne spat out a quick incantation, which activated his spell of flight, saving him from the fall.
Alex screamed, barely managing to grab his nearby Wizard’s Hand and a bit of stone protruding from the left hand wall.
His fingers strained and his legs dangled; leaving him hanging from the edge of the underground cliff.
“Brutus!” he cried after the disappeared cerberus.
His mind raced, trying to think of a safe way to go after Brutu-
The sound of hooves, screaming, and a heavy body sliding on stone came from above him. He looked up to see a panicked minotaur sliding down the stones, right toward his face.
“Thundar!” Alex shouted. “I bloody hate you-oooof!”
Thundar crashed into him, sending both young wizards tumbling over each other and sliding downhill in a tangle of limbs.