“Shit,” Alex swore. “Do the others see it?”
He squinted, searching for the other group until he finally spotted them. He didn’t know if they’d seen the xyrthak and gone to ground, or if they'd already been lying flat, but they were pressed to the dusty earth, moving slowly.
They were looking up, but hadn’t-
No, now Rhea was pointing in the xyrthak’s direction and the others were no longer moving.
“Do you think it’ll see us?” Thundar grunted. “With eyes as good from a distance as Baelin says they have, no way it didn’t see some of us, especially with those guys moving.”
Khalik swore. “I cannot tell. It could either be soaring, gliding back to its nest, or hunting.” He frowned. “Let us give it something else to think about.”
The prince’s face tightened in concentration as he looked in the direction of the stone tower and the mana vent beyond. Alex heard the whispered incantation of a spell being cast and then-
A stuttering, cracking boom echoed from the mana vent, and just afterward, the panicked cries of vent-drinkers. Khalik’s spell of sound was doing its work.
Alex turned his attention back to the xyrthak, noticing that its flight path had shifted toward the mana vents. “Good, good,” he said. “I think it’s going over to investigate.”
The sinewy shape grew in Alex’s vision as the xyrthak slowly descended toward the land below. He saw its head shifting. Turning. Searching. Scanning the plane with those razor sharp eyes.
As it got closer, he noticed something gripped in its giant talons: something humanoid, bulky and limp.
“It’s got something in its claws,” Alex said, describing the shape as best as he could.
“A gorger, from the sound of it.” Isolde squinted, trying to get a better look, but eventually shaking her head. “I cannot see clearly, but either way, does it look like it has spotted us?”
“No,” he said. “I think Khalik’s distraction worked for now.”
“Then we are fortunate,” the prince said. “Perhaps with food in hand it has less interest in its surroundings.”
“What do you mean?” Rayne asked.
“It is in the nature of apex predators,” he said. “Whether that be the eagle, the lion, the griffon, or even we of the mortal races. When we think we have nothing to fear, and when we have what we desire, attention can slip. That is why small birds do not fear being near eagles when they are landed, or already have a kill. The eagle has nothing to fear from them and there is nothing it wants at that moment, and so they feel safe.” He chuckled bitterly. “That is why we of the mortal races are so dangerous: we always want something.”
“Very philosophical,” Thundar said. “But do you think now is really the right ti-”
“Shh!” Alex hissed. “It’s coming back this way.”
The group went as quiet as corpses, watching the xyrthak soaring back from over the vent. For a tense moment, Alex wondered if Khalik had been wrong and it was coming to blast them.
But it began circling its nest, slowly descending.
“Jeez, that’s a damn big beast,” Thundar grunted as it grew clearer in everyone’s vision.
Alex wasn’t sure if it was because Baelin’s xyrthak skeleton was only bones, but this one seemed a fair bit bigger. Maybe it was a bigger creature, in which case, not so lucky for them. Scars—both old and new—traced its scales, and its beak looked absolutely deadly even from their distance.
He hoped that whatever Eyvinder had planned would be enough to kill it.
The entire group held their breaths.
“Come on,” Alex whispered. “Land, damn you, land.”
Leathery wings beat a handful of times as the xyrthak prepared to land.
“Oh hell,” Khalik suddenly swore. “Get ready for battle!”
The prince tensed, readying himself to spring to his feet.
“What?” Isolde asked. “Why? The trap hasn’t sprung.”
“The gorger. Before the xyrthak lands, the corpse it holds will touch the earth first. When Eyvinder feels that-”
“He’ll trigger the trap too early,” Theresa finished. “Dammit!” She scrambled to sling her bow.
Alex began to conjure his Wizard’s Hands. He hadn’t even bothered with Shield or Lesser Force Armour. The xyrthak’s blast or force-magic wrapped lance, would tear through those like they were parchment. They would’ve just been a waste of mana.
The creature finished its descent. The gorger’s corpse touched the top of the stone tower.
There was the sound of ripping earth, as half a dozen stone spikes burst up from the rock, striking the nest. A spike exploded an egg, raining pieces down to the ground. The rest tore through the body of the gorger, impaling it and almost impaling the xyrthak. But she was just a bit too fast, and reacted.
A single beat of its wings launched it into the air again, but Alex could see blood staining its legs. Whether that was from the gorger, or from Eyvinder’s trap wounding it, he couldn’t be sure.
“Raaaaaaargh!” She screamed, and the air around her shimmered. Abruptly, the spikes—which had kept blasting toward her—shuddered, then crumbled.
“Shit,” Caramiyus swore, taking out his Potion of Flight. “Its cry must have hit Eyvinder through the stone!”
The xyrthak continued to shriek in rage, its attention focused on the threat below. It hesitated though, likely worried about its nest and eggs.
That’s when the students sprang into action. All of them threw back their potions and quickly cast spells or began to move. Rhea and Shiani’s chanting joined, sweeping into the air, and two beads of orange power floated up and combined into a twitching ball of flame. The fireball shot forth, arcing like a comet, and exploding just before the xyrthak’s tower.
It transformed into a roaring tornado of fire that swirled toward the beast.
Malcolm shouted his own spell, conjuring three bolts of ice magic. Nua-Oge also conjured solid balls of ice and they shot forth.
The xyrthak screeched again, and its cry disrupted the mana in the spells flying toward it, slowing the flaming tornado.
Alex heard a humming sound as power was gathered in the air, and the lance on the xyrthak’s brow began to shimmer with force magic.
The air tore apart as the force lance blasted through the tornado, scattering its flame. A beat of her wings carried her out of the way of Malcolm’s spells, though one of Nua-Oge’s struck true, icing part of her scales.
The creature shrieked in fury looking toward both groups of wizards.
“Make your shots count!” Thundar roared, casting Blows of Lead on Grimloch and Theresa’s quivers and spears.
“Drink your flight potions!” Khalik cried. “We need as many individual targets as we can get!”
He drank back his potion, his face took on an expression of deep concentration, then he shot into the air as the magic of flight activated. Alex, Isolde, Grimloch, and Caramiyus followed, then Rayne cast his flight spell.
“Be careful, Grimloch!” Nua-Oge shouted, then cast Shield of Darkwater upon him and herself to keep them from drying out.
“Tell that to my supper!” Grimloch roared, hefting his crossbow onto his shoulder.
The other flyers shot into the air after the prince.
Thundar stayed on the ground with Nua-Oge, Theresa and Angelar, and began hurling bolts of magic at the xyrthak together with Caramiyus and Angelar.
The deadly reptile glared down at all of them before shooting high into the air with a single beat of its wings. It climbed fast, shrinking in the sky.
“It is preparing for a dive!” Khalik shouted, readying to cast a spell. “All of you, be ready to move!”
Seconds later, the xyrthak tucked its wings at its sides and dropped.
Its speed was terrifying.
The force-enhanced lance split the air in front of it—cutting down air resistance as Ram had described it—to let it accelerate at a horrifying rate.
The airborne group scattered, but it turned, using its lance and long neck to guide it directly toward Grimloch, the largest and most dangerous looking target.
“Prepare to attack it!” Khalik roared, then shouted an incantation.
An explosion sounded just above the xyrthak and the creature startled and veered sideways, spreading its wings.
“Stay out of range of its cry, and blast it!” Alex shouted.
A volley of bolts of magic, fire and ice together with arrows from Theresa’s bow, erupted from the flyers and the combatants on the ground, but the xyrthak’s speed let it shoot past most of the projectiles.
Only two arrows, one fired by Hogarth and one by Theresa, struck it, and both bounced off of its heavy chest scales.
“Filthy flying crocodile!” Khalik shouted. “We have to slow it. I thought it might have paused, but-Look out!”
Alex had glanced at Khalik, and was about to reply when he whirled back toward the beast.
With its natural flying skills, the xyrthak had pulled a wingover—looping up into the air until it had reversed course—then flipping so that it was right side up again.
It shot directly at them.
The hum of force magic began to rise.
“Shit! Scatter! Scatter!” Alex cried.
The force lance tore through the air, nearly striking Isolde and Caramiyus as they swept out of the way. Without the Potion of Flight giving them such maneuverability, Alex shuddered to think what could have happened.
It sailed through their ranks again, but they fired spell after spell at it. This time, they were better prepared for its speed, and more of their magic and arrows struck it as it passed.
Its tough scales deflected the projectiles with only one of the arrows getting through to deliver a shallow wound. However, as it glided through their positions, a bolt of cold magic shot out and clipped its wing. The xyrthak shrieked as frost spread through part of the leathery membrane, impairing it. Still, it started to turn, aiming for Shiani’s group.
“Hit it now!” Alex shouted. “It has to slow when it turns!”
“Right, give it a volley!” Khalik roared. “All of us!”
A cloud of spells, bolts and arrows hurtled toward the xyrthak from many directions as it turned. The beast parried some with her force-enhanced lance, but others struck her. She was farther away by now, so many of the arrows failed to penetrate her armour.
One of Khalik’s spells produced a glob of clay that splashed across its back, quickly hardening. Alex wished a few globs had hit its wings to send it plummeting to the ground.
But, instead, it kept coming, swooping at Shiani’s group. Both she and Rhea shot fireballs at it, but it blasted one apart with its force beam, then soared past the other, leaving it to explode in its wake. Crossbow bolts from Svenia and Hogarth glanced off of its chest.
Malcolm sprayed a line of icy magic at it, but it only clipped the creature.
Scrambling, Rhea and Shiani barked out quick spells and both unleashed massive, rising smoke clouds between it and their group.
The creature suddenly folded its wings and shot down at an even steeper angle, catching the young wizards by surprise.
It plummeted straight toward Malcolm as the ice mage tried to scramble away through the smoke.
Her bulk hit the ground, shaking it from the impact and she abruptly unleashed her cry. The air shimmered around her, as Malcolm, Shiani and Rhea screamed. Two of the wizards fell, with only the tall fiery-haired elf remaining on her feet. It was clear that doing so was taking everything Rhea had.
Which did not leave her much room to defend herself.
The xyrthak’s fanged beak shot forward like a serpent, and its jaws snapped so quickly that it sounded like the cracking of a whip.
Rhea gave a strangled cry then vanished just as the fangs bit down on her.
As she disappeared, the xyrthak paused for a moment, surprised. Just for a moment, though.
But that was enough
One of Theresa’s arrows and a massive crossbow bolt from Grimloch shot forward and slammed into the creature’s side.
Its shriek blasted through their ears, slowing the multitude of spells shooting at it from Alex’s group in the air, and Nua-Oge’s on the ground.
Hogarth and Svenia charged in with their spears, jabbing its scaly underbelly and punching shallow holes in its hide.
Then a single beat of its wings carried it skyward.
The bolt and arrow had struck deep and it was bleeding, but the monster still had a lot of vigour left.
“Damn it all!” Khalik swore. “It will not be so careless again!”
Alex’s eyes narrowed, looking at one of his Wizard’s Hands.
He had placed one of his boobytrapped potions—an altered Potion of Flight—in one of his Wizard’s Hands, but quickly realized that it wouldn’t work. The creature’s cry slowed spells, and with its natural speed, there was no way he’d be able to maneuver the potion bottle in front of it fast enough to break the glass and gas it before it could speed away.
They needed to slow it down or stop it.
His eyes narrowed.
What resources did they have? He watched the xyrthak turn in the air, and his eyes flicked around him. He saw Najyah approaching from above. He also saw the green form of Eyvinder slowly emerge from the stone of the tower, shaking his head, appearing to be still woozy from the creature’s cry.
Wait…that might be it.
He looked at Malcolm, who was being violently ill.
He needed to get to the ice wizard.
“Khalik! Isolde! Thundar! Theresa! Everyone!” he shouted. “I need to get to Malcolm. If I can, I think I might be able to screw up this thing’s flight!”
“Let’s do it!” Khalik barked. “Go!”
Glancing at the turning xyrthak, Alex shot toward the fallen ice wizard.