The entire class went quiet at the mention of the word xyrthak. Alex, Thundar, Khalik and Isolde glanced at each other from where they were sitting side by side.
Murmuring could be heard throughout the class.
Since this class rarely had a lot of applicants, the classroom Baelin used for the theory portion of Art of the Wizard in Combat II was definitely on the smaller side compared to Alex’s other classes.
The general look of the room was a cross between a hunting lodge, an anatomy laboratory, and a war room. Maps of distant lands with strategic points highlighted covered the walls: all listed the names of kingdoms and empires that had long fallen. Scores of books sat on bookshelves, each a treatise on battle wizardry or combat in general. From the ceiling hung the skeletal remains of a wyvern with its boney wings extended, and on the walls, skeletons of various monsters were mounted beside precisely drawn illustrations of the anatomy of monsters from The Barrens. Some of the diagrams were of creatures they’d fought, while some Alex had never seen before.
They were seated along long tables and benches like in a hunting lodge, but the seats weren’t made of the hard, roughly hewn woods like in a typical lodge, instead, they were soft and cushioned in something that looked and felt like a cool moss.
There was a far different atmosphere in this classroom compared to the small, plain one they’d occupied during the first semester. This one was a lot similar to the mixture of comfort and eccentricities found within Baelin’s office. Alex wondered if the switch to this room was something of an initiation, similar to the charm-pendants that Baelin had granted them. When considered together with this classroom, it almost made Alex feel like he’d become part of a secret, exclusive hunt club.
Or maybe Baelin had decided to teach them in a regular room first, just so that they wouldn’t be frightened off. Almost like he was laying a trap…
Alex shook his head, pulling himself out of his drifting thoughts.
The xyrthak: he remembered the long, reptilian flying monster that Isolde had described when they’d wrangled the vent-drinkers. Somehow, that seemed like a lifetime ago.
From the way she’d talked about them, it had sounded like facing one would be way beyond their skill set for a long time.
Isolde raised her hand. “Um, chancell-” She caught herself. “Baelin, isn’t this a little…premature? Not that I am questioning your judgement, of course.”
“And why shouldn’t you question my judgement?” Baelin cocked his horned head. “I am your teacher, not your parent, and most of you are grown adults. If you do so respectfully, then of course I should expect to be questioned or even challenged. As for this being premature? The answer would be yes…in some other years.”
He waved his hand over the class. “I shall be blunt, as well as pay you a compliment: in all my years of teaching, your class is one of the most advanced and impressive classes of the Art of the Wizard in Combat I have had the good fortune of teaching.”
He gestured to a map of The Barrens. “Usually by this point in the year, we would have lost several members of the group to the various monsters and hazards you would have faced. Not killed—most of the time—but injured or otherwise unwilling to continue. In one year, I had the misfortune of only having one student remaining by this time, so we were forced to cancel the rest of the course for her safety.”
“Really?” Malcolm asked, glancing at Rhea and Shiani.
“Absolutely,” Baelin said proudly. “In previous years, that one task alone of finding your orbs within the crevices, often led to injuries or students dropping out. The mental damage that a haunt can inflict unnerves many, not to mention the physical injuries both major and minor of an encounter with the undead skeletons, or the traps.”
He paused, looking directly at them, while seeming to look through them. “I remember one student who joined the course in his fourth year: a gifted young man with battle magic who’d heavily specialized in fireballs, explosions and the like. But all of his training had taken a very narrow focus, tailored to fight on an open battlefield as a war mage: when attacked in a corridor, he found his main spells to be utterly useless. Of course, he possessed plenty of other useful magic, but since he’d specialized in none of it, he wasn’t used to that sort of fighting and was pulled down, and sadly, gravely injured.”
He shook his head. “A lot of the fight went out of him then, which was a true shame: a very, very bright young man. In either case, his issue wasn’t power, but rigidity: one can have the sharpest sword in the world, but if it is brittle, it will snap in half the first time it strikes a shield. While you all might not be the most powerful class I have ever taught, you have shown great flexibility. So what am I to do? The next practical lesson in the syllabus would have pitted you against gorgers: eight-foot humanoids that bear the intelligence of muupkaras, but are…well, eight feet tall. But they would not have provided you with much of a challenge.”
“That sounds like it’d be a bloody challenge to me,” Alex muttered beneath his breath.
“No, it would not,” Khalik scoffed.
“I dunno, you haven’t been around when something too-many-feet tall goes on a wild rampage.” He shuddered, remembering the golem.
“A golem is a lot more of a threat than the same sort of creature made out of flesh or bone, Alex. Think about it, Thundar is over seven feet tall, is strong and uses spells. Eight foot creatures that are little smarter than beasts...we would chew through them like Brutus through his breakfast.”
“Grimloch would probably eat half of them all by himself,” Thundar whispered, leaning into the conversation.
“Actually, you’re right,” Alex said. “Damn, now I kinda wanna see that.”
“Shhh!” Isolde shushed them.
“Sorry!” all three of them whispered as one.
“-my point being that gorgers would be no challenge at all to you,” Baelin continued. “It would be a waste of your time, as well as one of the opportunities you have to engage in good, challenging practice while in my class. And so-”
He gestured to the xyrthak’s skeleton. “Instead, you shall battle one of the more dangerous monsters of The Barrens. You will be working together as a single group for this one: xyrthaks are far too dangerous for even well-experienced wizards, and so would be far too dangerous to have you divided into small groups. Your task will not be an easy one, however.”
He made a grasping gesture with his hand, conjuring the image of what looked like a blue egg roughly the size of a human head. “The challenge will be to defeat a nesting xyrthak and obtain an egg from its nest. It does not matter if you kill the xyrthak, drive it away, or incapacitate it, but you must face it and defeat it. While obtaining one of its eggs.”
His large hand spread open and the illusion of the egg hatched in his hand, and out of the image floated a life-like map of an area of The Barrens.”
“Oh by the elements,” Isolde muttered. “That’s a mana vent.”
“Shhh,” Alex shushed her in revenge for earlier, and Khalik and Thundar snickered.
Isolde stiffened and slowly turned toward them.
All three of them were looking away by the time her death glare reached them.
Isolde’s concern was valid, though, his own petty vengeance aside. The mana vent would make things especially difficult for them when it came to approaching the nest: it looked like the nest lay at the top of a crooked tower of natural stone, rising just south of the mana vent.
Approaching from the north would be impossible.
Even approaching from another direction would still make things difficult once they got close to the vent. Granted, they were tougher than they used to be: more experienced. Likely, they could tolerate the vent’s effects better, but it still would be dangerous to get too close.
“Unlike in previous classes,” Baelin continued. “I will teach you many of the xyrthak’s capabilities before you face the creature. I said that you were a gifted class, but even experienced wizards can be devastated by an angered xyrthak if they do not know how to guard themselves. As such, you will go in prepared: heavily armed with knowledge, and whatever preparations you choose to make.”
He turned to the board and paused before turning back to the class. “Above all else, remember this: a xyrthak is an incredibly dangerous beast, and is especially adept at killing creatures that are gifted with strong mana. That includes all of you, and some of your entourages. With that in mind, make sure you go into this with an open mind and caution: just because you have exceeded expectations so many times during this course, does not mean that this will be easy. Be prepared. Be vigilant. And make sure you have your affairs in order. You do not want to be distracted during this class.”
Alex thought about Minervus, about the research he’d done on the dungeon core and the construction of his own golem. There was a lot on his mind.
He’d have to focus and clear it.
“Xyrthaks are reptilian creatures that are very distantly related to dragons, pteranodons and sea serpents. While they are not as ferocious as a dragon of their size, and most definitely not as strong or intelligent, they have abilities that make them more feared by wizards than many dragons are.”
Alex remembered Isolde talking about a xyrthak’s mana-disrupting cries and something about a lance.
Baelin floated up from his place at the front of the class and drew a staff from the air. He tapped the xyrthak’s jagged, teeth-filled beak. “A xyrthak’s bite is deadly: strong enough to tear through leather and flesh, and to crush bone. It can easily break most protective spells that any of you are capable of casting. Unless, of course, some of you aren’t telling me something: like Malcolm’s study of teleportation. In any case, I digress.”
He next tapped the horn of the skeleton. “A xyrthak’s lance is a terrible thing. It is constantly surrounded by a field of force magic which vibrates at an extraordinarily high and disruptive frequency. This not only protects the lance when it strikes something with it, but gives it devastating destructive capabilities. A xyrthak’s lance can tear apart steel with ease, and its force coating allows it to break apart protective force spells like they were water.”
Alex felt his blood run cold, and he looked at Khalik and Thundar. The minotaur was starting to look worried, but the prince was focused: no hint of fear lay in his eyes. He only nodded as Baelin continued to describe how the xyrthak could kill them in all kinds of nasty ways.
“Further, a xyrthak can fire a ray of force from its lance that has a range of roughly fifty to sixty feet.” Baelin conjured another illusion, showing a lifelike xyrthak firing a shimmering line of force that tore apart the illusion of a cliff face as though it were soggy bread.
Alex glanced at Khalik. “I reeeeally think this thing might eat us. Like we could give it a good fight, but that lance’ll turn us into bloody slush.”
Khalik shook his head. “Come now, think of the vent-drinkers. They scatter when they are attacked and cornered, do they not? Perhaps they developed such a response to avoid this very force ray. I know large birds—or a creature with that wingspan—won’t be able to turn quickly, most likely. If we spread out, we can cause it to struggle and hesitate in picking a target.
“Yeah, and then it’ll…wait,” Alex paused. “If I throw in my forceball, or hell, all of us conjure as many magical sustained spells as possible to distract it, then that should make it struggle for targets.”
He raised his hand. “Baelin?”
“Yes, Alex?” the chancellor paused.
“How smart are these things? Are we talking sentient-smart, animal-smart?”
“They are sentient,” Baelin said. “More so than a muupkara, but they are dull-witted and slow of thought. They are also used to being very rarely challenged. There are stronger predators in The Barrens, but the xyrthak’s quick flight—they can outrace trained falcons—and mana-disrupting abilities make them rarely challenged by other creatures. Speaking of which-”
He tapped the rib-cage. “The xyrthak has an organ between its lungs that can lace its cry with a mana-disrupting ability. This can be very dangerous: to an unprepared or weak wizard, it can cause a mana reversal. It can be resisted by measure of will, mana manipulation or by simply having a pool of mana too large for it to disrupt. But, it is best and safest to avoid the attack altogether: it has a radius of approximately fifty feet.”
“Hmmm,” Alex muttered. “A lot of its powers don’t have the greatest range. That means it’d have to swoop low to get us.”
“We could use that,” Isolde whispered. “That’s within-spell range and perhaps other tricks.”
“As for its defensive abilities.” Baelin gestured to its bones, and Alex noticed cracks around the wings and rib cage. “A xyrthak’s scaly hide is tougher than plate armour, but its bones—while thick—are hollow. A strong enough blunt force will greatly harm a xyrthak. Finally, a xyrthak is incredibly far-sighted: it can see for miles when soaring about The Barrens, but within a certain distance-” He tapped the skull’s eye holes. “-objects turn hazy.”
Rubbing his hands together, his staff was suddenly gone. “Now, let us break into a discussion of possible strategies…though many of you are already doing so.” His goat-like eyes twinkled.
Alex, Khalik, Thundar and Isolde startled, and he noticed several other members of the class startle as well; clearly they were also having discussions. He gave a guilty look to his cabal members and then settled in for the discussion.
An uneasy feeling began to grow in him.
This xyrthak…was dangerous. Very dangerous.
It might be the most dangerous opponent Alex had ever faced: even the hive queen didn’t have a cry that could cause mana-reversal by being too close.
He thought about his experiments with the dungeon core, his secrets and his worries. He thought about the golem’s rampage again.
He had wanted to show Baelin he was as competent as possible…but what if he never got the chance? For that matter, there was Isolde and Thundar to think of too. Khalik knew his secret and knew his capabilities…but what if the other members of his cabal wanted him to do something The Mark wouldn’t let him to do?
His jaw twitched uncomfortably. He’d talk about this with Theresa soon…but it would have to be after his shift tonight. Theresa would be spending the evening with The Watchers of Roal and she’d been getting awfully excited about something concerning that lately, though she’d been evasive about it.
He shook his head. He could think about it after his shift. After he dealt with whatever Minervus might throw at him.
Alex knew something was off as soon as he saw the workshop from down the street. For one thing, most of the staff were outside instead of in the building.
Lagor was talking with more of the city’s investigators.
Had there been more sabotage?
His pace quickened as he headed toward the group and slipped through the crowd.
When some of the staff saw him, they elbowed each other. Some grimaced.
Carmen caught his eye—he noticed her face was very pale—and slipped away from where she stood near Lagor, meeting him before he reached the group.
“Hey, Carmen, what’s happening?” he asked worriedly, eyeing the shop. “Is there something wrong? More news about the investigation?”
“No…” she said slowly. “Alex…I, the investigators are probably going to ask you questions.”
“Questions?” Alex asked quickly, both worry and anger surging. Did Minervus try something else? Did he manage to find some way to implicate him in the sabotage? “What sort of questions?”
“It’s about Minervus,” she said.
At first, his anger surged and he immediately anticipated that he was about to find out exactly what Minervus had done. But…something in her tone gave him pause. A strange possibility began to occur to him.
The next words out of Carmen’s mouth shocked his body like ice:
“Alex…Minervus was found dead this morning,” she finished.