“My, my, well aren’t you all prepared.” Baelin said admiringly.
And he was not exaggerating.
His class had come looking like they were ready to go to war.
The entourages of every student were bristling with weapons.
Hogarth, Svenia and Eyvinder all had longbows and javelins with heavy, barbed-tipped arrows. They gripped long spears and kept their usual side-armaments at the ready. They wore no armour: chainmail or other metal armour would have done little good against the force-lances of the xyrthak, and would not only have slowed them down, but also made them overheat.
Theresa carried a spear as well as a thick, composite bow that Alex—even after all of his strength training—struggled to pull to its full draw. She had left Brutus with Selina for this challenge: there would be little the cerberus could do against a powerful airborne opponent. She also had her sword and hunting knife readied.
Grimloch—still new to the path of life enforcement—looked as powerful and vicious as ever, and he’d added to his natural deadliness with a crossbow the size of a ballista, an enormous spear, and several javelins. He looked more than ready for the hunt.
The battle magic students all had extra weapons: crossbows were common. Rayne had two crossbows slung over his back, both cocked and ready.
“We are here to fight for our lives,” Khalik answered Baelin. On his arm, Najyah ruffled her feathers with a fierce gleam in her eyes. “Or to treat this as such. I am sure this xyrthak will not go easy on us, so why should we not do what we can to make its day difficult.”
“Spoken like a Proper Wizard,” Baelin congratulated him. “And the rest of you…if this were the early days of this class, I think—and do correct me if I am wrong—but most of you would be going into this trial with only your magic readied and tactics focusing solely on spellcraft. Now, look.”
He gestured at them. “Non-wizard companions. Mundane weapons. Formations. Potions.” He nodded to Alex, whose bags were filled with various potions. “Well done, you are already being transformed by the rigours of combat and adapting. Now…before we begin, I will show you exactlywhere you will be teleported to. Then I shall answer any questions you might have. After, you will have ten minutes to plan out your initial tactics, and then, you will be sent into battle.”
He turned and conjured an illusion of a map showing an area of The Barrens near the xyrthak’s stone tower. Alex grimly noted the wild mana vent close by.
“You will be dropped here.” Baelin pointed to an area south of the xyrthak’s nest and away from the mana vent. “It is far enough from its home that you should have time before the creature attacks. Or, if it comes immediately, at least some time before it reaches you. Now, did any of your preparations these past weeks yield any questions?”
Isolde’s hand shot up immediately. “One of my peers recently informed me that a xyrthak mates for life. Since there is a nest, does that mean we shall face two of them?”
That had been a startling revelation they’d only heard about a few days before. Alex looked up at Baelin nervously, waiting for the answer.
Baelin nodded. “This one was indeed part of a mated pair, but the female killed the male early in their nesting: he seemed to have become weakened by a wasting sickness peculiar to the species, and xyrthaks do not tolerate weakness in mates, or offspring. For our purposes, this nest was the best choice for this exercise. Keep in mind, however, having to safeguard her eggs alone, might make her more dangerous. What next?”
Many in the group seemed to be caught between feelings of relief at not having to fight two of them, and uneasiness at having to fight a more dangerous egg protecting mother-to-be xyrthak.
Malcolm put up his hand next. “How long until the eggs hatch…can you give us a rough idea?”
“I would estimate not for a good month or so,” Baelin said. “So you will only have to contend with getting an egg and defeating the mother, and not with live, hungry xyrthak chicks. Who’s next?”
Thundar raised his hand. “Is that big lizard gonna be in its nest, or is it off hunting?”
A twinkle entered Baelin’s eye. “Now that is intelligence I think you should secure for yourself, young Thundar.”
“Mm,” the minotaur grunted.
“Is there anything else?” Baelin asked, looking around the class.
Alex raised his hand. “What if we suddenly realize that we’re actually super crazy for doing this and want to go back home?”
Several snickers passed through the class, though some of his peers only threw him nervous looks. Anxiety hung heavily over the students and their entourages.
“I see you are calm enough to joke, Alex,” Baelin said.
“No, no, I’m actually terrified, that’s why I’m joking.”
“Ah, then I shall say this. Anyone who wishes not to participate can certainly step aside, but know that it will affect your classmates’ chances at success, your own grade, as well as any future chances you might have against a threat such as this when I am not close by to protect you in case of emergencies. Think on it. Danger combined with safety now, or the cold hand of chance later. I trust you all to make the wisest decision.”
“Right,” Alex said as the class huddled together. “I’m thinking we’d better hit the ground as soon as we teleport in. Stay quiet and low first. If it’s in the nest, it’s probably not going to take long to see us. As long as we stay low and it’s not looking in our direction when we appear, we’ll have some time to decide and plan what we do.”
“We could even lie down before we’re teleported, so that we’re low to the ground when we appear,” Shiani suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” Theresa agreed. “Less noise and movement that way. Then how do we get our information?”
“Leave that to me,” Khalik said. “I shall send Najyah up and high. The vent is close to the nest, which might mean vent-drinkers close by. If it feeds on them, then a single eagle will likely be beneath its notice, unless it is very hungry.” He paused, his eyes narrowing in thought. “I could cast a sound burst spell from Najyah as she flies over the vent, targeting it at the rim. If there are vent-drinkers present, it will spot them instead.”
“Creating a distraction,” Angelar nodded. “I approve.”
“Something’s bugging me, though,” Rayne said. “One second. Baelin?”
“Yes, Rayne?” the chancellor answered.
“Can xyrthaks tolerate wild mana vents like vent drinkers can?”
“No.” Baelin shook his head. “They do have some resistance, but they will eventually be hindered by them like any other creature with mana. Keep in mind that even you young wizards are now stronger and experienced enough to tolerate being in close proximity to them for a short period of time.”
“Yeah, I don’t really wanna put that to the test,” Alex whispered.
“Okay.” Rayne frowned. “How high is the stone tower that it makes its nest on?”
“Roughly five-hundred feet,” Baelin said.
“Ah, that explains something,” Malcolm said. “That nest is probably a good hundred feet from the vent. And with how high up it is and the beastie’s resistance to the vent, it should be safe when it's nesting.”
Theresa frowned. “If we could somehow make it fly over the vent and shoot it down…”
“That would be the end of that,” Alex said.
“One thing I wanted to add,” Eyvinder jumped in. “I can move up through the stone tower. I might be able to ambush it from below its nest and get this whole thing finished.”
“Or at least wound it,” Malcolm added.
“Right, then how about this?” Alex said. “We come in low and see where it is. Najyah goes up and scouts out what she can see while Eyvinder comes at it through the ground. Meanwhile, we spread out.”
Alex reached into a bag. “These are Potions of Flight.” He held them in his hand. “We won’t be able to fly as fast as the xyrthak, but we’ll have better maneuvering ability than it does. Maybe a few of us could be flying, while the rest spread out on the ground. That should divide its attention and stop it from just lance-blasting us to death if we’re in a single group.”
“Good idea,” Khalik said. “I shall take one of those potions.”
“Me too,” Grimloch said.
Rhea, Isolde and Caramiyus also took one.
Alex kept the last one for himself and set the ones he’d turned into ‘bombs’ aside.
“Time is up,” Baelin said. “I hope you are all ready. And do not be nervous. After all, you are Proper Wizards with very capable companions, are you not? I am sure that victory will be yours.”
The group nodded at each other, signalling their readiness and laid flat on the ground.
With that, Baelin waved his hand and the teleportation magic carried them off and into The Barrens.
Alex, as usual, appeared first.
Lying on the ground as he was, he couldn’t help but feel extremely vulnerable prostrated in the dust all by himself. He squinted at the nest, and saw that it was a jagged construction of…fuzzy stuff, and what looked to be shattered bones.
Slowly, he drew a potion from his bag that enhanced his senses and drank it down. His vision sharpened and he now saw that the entire nest was constructed of what looked to be the broken remains of bone drinkers, muupkara fur, and the remnants of other creatures he wasn’t familiar with.
He paused, recognizing a skull that had a tell-tale lance protruding from it.
The xyrthak’s mate: its bones had been used to reinforce the nest.
“Ugh, gruesome,” Alex muttered as the others teleported all around him in prone positions. “But, waste not want not, I guess.”
He turned and quietly shared what he’d seen with them, getting grim and nervous nods in return. Nua-Oge, who had been fairly quiet, glanced over at Grimloch and exchanged a nod.
“Did you see it?” Khalik asked. “Did you see the xyrthak herself?”
Alex squinted, looking for any signs of scales or leathery wings. “Well if it’s home, it’s lying down or taking a nap.”
“Good for us if it is,” Rayne said.
“No sense in wasting time, then,” Eyvinder said. “When I’m almost at the top of the tower, I’ll stick out an arm and wave my blade so that it catches the sun. That’ll let you know I’m almost there. I’ll flash once if I can hear it above and twice if I can’t. If it’s not in its nest, I’ll lay a trap for it.”
“A trap?” Khalik asked. “How will you know if it arrives if you are buried in the earth?”
“I will feel the vibrations as it lands; then I’ll spike it.”
“Hey,” Malcolm caught Eyvinder by the shoulder. “Be careful.”
“Always am,” the green, pointed-eared man said. “I only get one life.”
Taking a breath like a diver before leaping into a lake, Eyvinder sank into the stone, disappearing just as an earth elemental would.
“Then we should not wait too long either,” Khalik said, then whispered to Najyah. “You be careful too.”
The bird of prey looked down at her master with intelligent eyes, nuzzled him once with her beak and then took off, beating massive wings before catching an air current and circling high into the air.
“And now we wait,” the prince said.
“That’s always the longest part of hunting,” Theresa added. “The waiting.”
“Well I don’t mind it,” Alex said. “More waiting equals less horrible flying lizard that uses force magic to blast faces off.”
They hardly breathed as they lay in the dust, watching Najyah fade into a small dot above, and then soar toward the mana vent and stone tower.
After what seemed like hours, Alex saw two flashes of metal coming from near the top of the stone tower.
“Nothing there,” Malcolm said. “Maybe it’s out hunting.”
“More waiting,” Grimloch growled.
“But it’s a good thing,” Theresa said. “Now we’ll have the advantage.”
“What should we do now, then?” Alex asked. “Start spreading out?”
“I think some of us should spread out,” Rhea jumped in. “Some of us should move to get a view from a different angle and set up another line of attack.”
Murmurs of agreement came from the group. “We just won’t go so far that we cannot support you. One hundred feet perhaps—well within bow and spell range—and no more.” She finished.
“A fine idea,” Isolde agreed. “Hogarth, Svenia, go with them, make sure they have your crossbows and spears to give them extra support.”
Hogarth balked. “But lady-”
“‘Buts’ are not for public conversation,” she said, startling Alex, Thundar and Khalik. “I shall be quite fine with the rest here.”
Rhea, Shiani and Malcolm—with Isolde’s entourage—slowly got up and began to move to the left.
“The rest of us should spread some dust on ourselves,” Alex said. “Try to make ourselves as hard to see as we can.”
He conjured two Wizard’s Hands as he and the others began covering themselves in the fine dust.
“What is it?” Isolde said, looking at Khalik who was eyeing her with a puzzled look.
“I, uh, did not pick you for one to make ‘butt’ references, Isolde,” Khalik said.
“Perhaps we can all be a little out of our nature when waiting for death to come from above. Where is this thing?” she snapped under her breath. “I doubt we would be so fortunate to avoid it completely—it has eggs, so it cannot leave them for long—so let us just begin this death march.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Theresa said, and there was a note in her voice that made everyone freeze. “Khalik,” she whispered.” Where’s Najyah?”
The prince concentrated for a moment. “Over the vent. Why?”
“Because I think we’re about to get into a fight. Look up at the sky to the east.”
As one, the remaining group members turned toward where Theresa was cautiously pointing.
Alex’s enhanced eyes caught it: a long, sinewy shape with massive wings like the sails of a small ship.
The xyrthak was coming.