Alex appeared in the stadium just before Baelin and the rest of the group shimmered back into being. An exhausted, but triumphant cry rose from all around.
Theresa raced up and caught him in a tight hug, actually lifting him off his feet and spinning with him. Khalik surged in next, turning it into the start of a group hug. Isolde merely smiled warmly beside them.
…until Thundar came roaring in and tackled her into the hug.
“Ah! Release us you big brute!” she cried, though it was clear she didn’t mind so much. “Agh! You stink! Your fur stinks! You are going to kill us!”
Thundar roared with laughter as he pounded his friends on their shoulders. “I’ve got the better nose, Isolde and trust me, you stink too, but I don’t care!”
Alex heard her gasp above their shared laughter from somewhere in the pile. “I surely do not!”
All around pure joy and self-satisfaction fueled other celebrations.
Hogarth and Svenia were hand in hand, facing each other and doing a jig in circles. Eyvinder was helping Malcolm to his feet and exchanging grins and a nod with the young man. Rayne and Shiani were helping each other up, while Shiani was saying something to him with a tired smile. Caramiyus and Angelar were supporting each other while uttering a series of excited, canine yips.
Grimloch was actually tossing a laughing Nua-Oge up and down in the air like she was a small child.
Beyond them all, Baelin was watching with the pride of a well-pleased grandfather. “Well done, welldone. You deserve to celebrate. Xyrthaks are considered one of the mid-level threats in The Barrens, and have taken the lives of many wizards over the years. And yet, here you are—first and second year students—who have killed one in combat. And of course, you also recovered the prize you were tasked with.”
Eyvinder opened his bag, revealing several large xyrthak eggs, all unbroken and unspoiled. “It was the first thing we did.”
“More than one! Well done, well done. In truth, the reason I said that you needed to obtain an egg was so that you did not simply stand at the farthest range you could and blast the entire nest from afar.” He laughed as he recalled a memory. “I once had a class of students who did just that: they came upon a xyrthak while it was asleep and simply used their spells to blow it apart—nest and all. Without question, that was…alearning opportunity, and one not to be discounted simply because they chose minimal effort and a safer experience, I might add. But, it was not as rich an experience as I would have liked for them. Yours was far richer. Might I have the eggs now?”
As the chancellor took them from Eyvinder, Malcolm groaned. “I wouldn’t have minded a sleeping xyrthak.” Laughter passed through the group.
“And how is Rhea?” Shiani asked.
“Good,” Baelin said. “She received a wound but my magics took her away before it could prove vicious. She currently recovers in the infirmary…if anything, her pride and temper is far more wounded than her body. But, speaking of wounds, some of you have had your mana disrupted.”
He gestured to the side and Alex noticed several folks dressed in the uniforms of infirmary staff standing there, bearing satchels with the symbol of two snakes curling around a tower. They quickly went to those that had been affected by the xyrthak and gave mana-soothing potions to them.
The potions helped to re-balance the disrupted mana, and their sickly pallor began to fade.
“I shall speak with Rhea after we have debriefed on how the group did today,” Baelin said. “But first, my formal congratulations to you all. It was quite the challenge. Now, let us begin with the positives and speak on how you have grown over the course of the months we have spent together.”
He gestured to Rayne.
“Rayne, when we first began this course, I will not lie: you were a liability to yourself, and others. Easily led-”
Several members of the class winced as they remembered who had led Rayne: Minervus.
“-and not very tactical in your efforts to preserve your safety. You could not contribute to yourself, or others in combat. Over time, though, that has utterly changed. Look at you today. You engaged in a strategy that was self-initiated and helped your peers, but put yourself at risk for the sake of the rest of the group. Were it not for the distraction you created, I believe this battle would have gone far differently.”
He clapped his hands. “Well done, Rayne, well done.”
Rayne flushed with embarrassment as several class members murmured positively and joined in with Baelin’s applause. Alex gave him a sincere thumbs-up.
“Malcolm, you were able to use a utility spell to great effect to help carry the day. Were it not for your teleportation magic, likely the xyrthak’s speed would’ve placed you all at a permanent disadvantage. Well done, to you as well!”
Malcolm smiled weakly as the healer administered to him.
Baelin went on to compliment the others, mentioning growth—both great and subtle—that Alex had not noticed. Judging by the looks on the faces of those praised, many of them hadn’t seen those aspects of their own progress either.
It spoke to the chancellor’s powers of observation, and his dedication to teaching.
“Alex,” he said. “Your…unorthodox modification of a potion that could be used in an indirect manner.” A twinkle entered Baelin’s eye. “Speaks to your ingenuity and skill in alchemy. It robbed the xyrthak of much of its power of flight and energy, and made it wound itself significantly. Your companions were then able to work together to finish the second task, terminating it. Your distractions, along with the occasions where you took initiative and leadership, provided your team with advantage over the beast. And now to the point of leadership-”
Baelin looked at Khalik. “My young friend, you grow more and more comfortable taking point and command when needed. You are often able to see the bigger picture, which you demonstrated today by quickly recognizing that the xyrthak would not be first to touch the nest. You have also shown significant growth in your connection and coordination with your familiar. Congratulations. It is clear that you are building a strong foundation not only in wizardry, but also in leadership...if that is where your path takes you.” His eyes twinkled as he smiled at the prince, and Khalik bowed his head and returned the smile.
“Well done, Thundar.”Baelin nodded to the minotaur. “When you began this course your focus was mostly on your great physical prowess, and enhancing it with your spells: now, you have grown immensely in your versatility and how you contribute to battle, and how you also empower your team members.”
“Well done. Isolde-” He looked at the young woman. “-you have the makings of a truly viciousstorm mage. Your modifications to the ‘Arc of Lightning’ spell proved to be absolutely brutal, and I doubt the day would have been won without it. If you choose to become a mage in the Rhinean Empire’s army, I am sure that your eastern neighbours will tremble: they will have far more than the elemental knights and the rune-marked to keep them on their toes.”
Alex’s ears perked up at the term ‘rune-marked’.
“Finally, I wish to give special mention to the entourages. Svenia and Hogarth, you proved your experience as veterans today, and I have no doubt that Isolde is well pleased having you both as part of her guard. Your ability to work well among wizards will be invaluable to whomever you work with.”
“Eyvinder, your natural talents proved not only incredible, but how you used them to single-handedly complete the first part of the task, was an invaluable contribution to the overall success of the mission. And finally, Grimloch and Theresa: you two have the makings of terrifying warriors.”
He gave a chuckle. “There is a bias among wizards and those that wield divinity. When one is used to calling upon the powers of the gods or twisting the laws of the universe to their unbreakable will-”
Alex blinked. Didn’t Hobb use an almost identical expression?
“-it is often tempting to dismiss warriors—even those that enhance their life-force—as nothing more than brainless brutes that wield sharpened metal clubs. Sometimes that is true, but oftentimes such arrogance has led to a smug wizard choking on their own blood as a barbarian or knight’s weapon cleaves through their force armour and rib cage. Or perhaps, they’ve awoken in shock to find an assassin who had just planted a dagger in their throat crouched above their bed. You two have the makings of those warriors that any wizard or monster would be wise to fear.”
He gave a knowing look to Nua-Oge and Alex. “And even wiser to have on their side. But enough from me. Let us bring it to you. What did you do wrong?”
The class came together as one, whispering to each other and discussing what happened.
Finally, Malcolm raised his hand. “We didn’t account for the xyrthak’s cry affecting Eyvinder when he was under the ground below it. We also didn’t think of finding a way to make sure that Eyvinder could confirm the target before using his magic.”
“Very, very true,” Baelin said. “Had Eyvinder, perhaps, left a small hole in the rock to see if what was landing was his quarry, and not just relied on his ability to sense tremors in the earth, then likely the fight might have ended with his first attack. Who else?”
Shiani raised her hand. “Rhea and I should have baited the xyrthak then blasted it at a point when it couldn’t swerve out of the way of our spells. We needed to let it get closer—not too close—before we used our big magics. Also, now that I think about it, I wonder if this choice might have been a mistake. Rhea and I decided that she would wait to drink her flight potion so the two of us could hit the xyrthak with a united volley of fire first. She was going to drink the potion after we’d wounded it and then chase it. She didn’t get the chance before she fell, though.”
“Very good analysis,” Baelin said. “And agreed. It is often tempting, and sometimes necessary for a wizard to strike from as far a distance as possible, especially against something like a mana vampire, dragon or xyrthak. However, sometimes such ranges only lead to wasted mana if an opponent is quick enough: a Proper Wizard can rain destruction from close or far, and is able to adjust as needed. And indeed, if Rhea had drunk her potion, then she could have taken another position. A united volley is good, but not when resources might be wasted. What else?”
Alex raised a hand. “I think I should have worked out a way to feed it my booby-trapped potion early on, and kept that plan in mind. If I’d thought of Malcolm’s teleportation spell earlier, then I could have fed it the potion earlier and we could’ve been able to bring it down while we still had more of us left to fight it.”
“Indeed,” Baelin said. “When your and your companions’ spells, knowledge, and resources expand, it can sometimes be easy to forget the exact capabilities of every single option that you have. Especially when it comes to applying them creatively. And we do not often have pauses in the heat of battle where we can consult each other, or go over our own spell books to find just the right spell for the right moment. It can often be helpful to consult with companions and know as many capabilities as you can when entering battle. And also, experience helps.”
He took a few more answers, which he either agreed with or found flaws in, depending on what was said.
“I shall also put forth that while stealth and traps are incredibly useful, an alpha strike can often be the most important one. Let us say for a moment that you had been a little bolder in your approach. You readied spells and as soon as the xyrthak was set to land, you struck it with everything you had at the same time that Eyvinder triggered his trap. Instead of it being able to simply dodge the earth spikes and commence attack, it would have been forced to try and dodge a wall of spells and arrows from two sides. I can guarantee that it would have taken some serious damage by being caught off-guard. Be bolder, I would say. Caution is the friend of every Proper Wizard, but battle often favours whoever strikes the first telling blow. If you can help it, do not grant initiative to the enemy.”
The class murmured in acknowledgement of his final points. He gave them a final nod in turn, and then grinned and spread his arms. His beard clasps tinkled. “But with that aside, I want to say that I am proud of your growth. I am proud of every last one of you. As such, when the xyrthak eggs are sold to alchemists who are in the market for them, I will donate the funds to a very important fund: all of your coffers. Including, of course, to those that are part of the entourage. It will be a fine sum, even split among every member of the group.”
Excited whispers spread through the class.
“And I would also like to suggest something.” He grew serious. “Normally this is announced at the end of the second semester, but you have slain a xyrthak early. And so I will suggest this to you now: do consider the act of monster hunting to be something not so…daunting to you anymore. You are not the green-as-grass first year students that were troubled by muupkaras. If you are clever, and show the aggression, caution, power and ingenuity that you have shown today, then the act of harvesting monsters for profit in terms of bounties, materials or even for practice and sport, should not send you shivering under your beds in fright.”
He conjured a map of The Barrens and pointed to a wide area that included the former territory of the xyrthak, and the tower which they had originally fought to reach during their initial test. He traced a line around it, and Alex noticed that those areas were relatively close to the wall separating the countryside and The Barrens.
“You may hunt creatures in the countryside or even proceed as deep into The Barrens as the former xyrthak’s territory and expect to be able to handle most of what you could encounter in those areas. As long as you are ready and show the same sort of expertise you have so far, then you should be able to defeat what those areas can throw at you. This is the privilege of those who have stepped firmly onto the path of being a Proper Wizard. In time, even demons and dragons will tremble at your coming.”
A twinkle entered Baelin’s eye. “So I think you shouldn’t fear a few muupkaras.”
The class chuckled.
Malcolm laughed hard. “Ah, you sound like some of the jarls from back home. Next thing you’ll be saying is that we should go hunt down that mana vampire.”
The rest of the class burst out laughing, but Baelin did not join them. Instead, the goatman was deep in thought.
“I would not suggest hunting for it solo and unprepared…” he said. “But, under the right circumstances and with enough preparation and reinforcements…” He stroked his beard. “Some of you might be able to bring one down in open combat. I am not suggesting that you should risk hunting it down, but you are growing: and mana vampires are as vulnerable to steel and might, as any other creature.”
He glanced at Svenia, Hogarth, Theresa and Grimloch, then to the rest of the class.
“I dare say that if it finds many of you together in one place and hopes for an easy meal…then it would be in for a rude awakening.”
He paused. “I should add that any choice to hunt monsters is by your own will. You are adults, and assume any dangers therein. The University of Generasi does not own The Barrens of Kravernus just as it does not coddle you. I might also suggest telling others if you are going to mount a monster hunt, but such things are your own choices.”
Alex nodded along with the rest of the group. Honestly, he half-believed Baelin’s words. He had managed to briefly resist the mana vent’s destruction, his will was stronger, and he was gaining weapons to fight with. If he had to face that starving mana vampire he’d fought on The Red Sirennow, he doubted—even with The Mark—that it would be able to defeat him.
A booby-trapped Potion of Flight, or even a quick grab and toss—preferably overboard before The Mark could interfere, sounded like they could work. Still, against one of the creatures who had their hunger regularly satisfied—and who was as experienced as the one in Generasi—he still didn’t like his chances.
One thing he did want to start trying though…
The time would soon be coming when first years would receive a special permission: limited access to a few chosen second-tier spells so that they might try advancing to the next tier of wizardry. By the end of the semester, they were all expected to have learned some second-tier spells. Since they were advancing in Magic Lore and other classes, they would be given the opportunity to start practicing early in preparation for advancement.
He glanced over at Malcolm.
He knew exactly which second-tier spell he wanted to try first.