Khalik ran ahead, weaving through the crowd.
“Move aside! Move, I tell you!” he roared, drawing his short sword. As he shouted—in his panic—he switched back and forth between Tekish, his mother tongue, and the common tongue.
Thundar and Alex were right behind him, with the minotaur casting a body enhancement spell on himself and drawing his mace. “Mana vampire!” Thundar roared. “The mana vampire’s close! Help!”
“No wait-” Alex started.
But it was too late.
It was just like when his parents’ house started to burn.
At that time, people had run around, screaming ‘fire! fire!’ which mostly caused panic instead of helping.
It was even worse here. The crowd’s fear of the mana vampire had been simmering beneath the surface: it erupted all at once. People looked around, suspicious of everyone else and began screaming and pushing others away. They fled in all directions.
‘That’s right,’ Alex thought. ‘It’s a bloody shapeshifter. Without knowing where it is, people are going to get panicked and paranoid that it could be anyone.’
Yet Khalik was charging ahead as though he knew exactly where the creature was, no doubt following his connection to Najyah.
The prince weaved through the panicking crowd, even shoving them aside using the weight of his earth-armour. Alex looked around for the city-guards and saw some approaching, but they were far down the block trying to get the crowd controlled.
“Shit!” Alex cursed as Khalik turned and rushed into an alleyway.
His mind whirled, trying to come up with strategies. His hand dipped into his bag—carried by a forceball—and grasped the flask of one of his last booby-trapped flight potions. In a tight alleyway, it might be enough to seriously damage the mana vampire—since it would smash itself against the walls—unless it absorbed the mana of the potion instead.
He cursed inwardly.
Too many unknowns.
Too many risks.
Not enough time to account for them, and nothing they could do except go on.
He and Thundar tore into the alleyway as the minotaur slapped Alex with a body enhancement spell. Their speed quickened and they rapidly began catching up to the prince as he turned into another narrow alley.
“No!” Khalik cried.
Alex and Thundar skidded to a halt right behind him. They gasped.
Ahead was the tall figure of a thin, pale man. His clothes were of rich fabrics and perfectly tailored. Had he been casually walking along the street, Alex would have taken him for no more than a wealthy merchant or Patrizia out for the evening.
The corpses at his feet shattered that illusion.
A pair of hunters lay on the ground, their skin washed out and as dry as sun-baked paper. Their flesh had withered so that the dried-out skin looked to be covering thin strips of jerky, and their eyeballs had collapsed in their sockets.
Beside them was one of those tracking cats with glowing eyes; its body had been crushed as well and drained dry
Maybe an ambush gone wrong. Very wrong.
Najyah was in the creature’s grip, clawing and biting at him with all the strength and savagery she had. Deep wounds were opening on his face, but were healing as he drained her.
She was clearly weakening by the instant as the mana vampire’s fingers—lengthened and full of suckers like a squid’s tentacles—closed their grip around her.
“Let her go!” Khalik snarled and charged, his sword swinging out.
It was bad terrain. Lots of things to trip on, and the space was so narrow that they could only face it two at a time.
“Help! Mana vampire!” Alex cried, hoping the guard would come as he pulled off his cloak and wrapped it around one arm. He charged after Thundar and the Prince. They needed to flank it just as the skeletons had flanked them beneath The Barrens.
One of Khalik’s spells began to form around Najyah as the prince transferred his mana to her, but the magic withered and died as the creature abruptly drained it. He cursed and conjured a swarm of sharpened stones, blasting them at the mana vampire.
The creature looked up, snarled, and leapt to the side.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
The conjured stones shot through the air, going wide and shattering on cobblestones or the alley’s walls.
It hissed, still refusing to let go of the prince’s familiar; then its eyes began widening, swelling until they bulged from its head.
Mana shifted in the air.
The urge to sleep slammed into Alex like an enraged bonedrinker, forcing him to use every ounce of his will, his meditation techniques, and his experiences resisting The Mark, to withstand this creature’s power of sleep. This induced exhaustion hit a lot harder than on The Red Siren.
Khalik growled and stumbled, dropping to his knees as he struggled against its power, and Thundar’s mace clattered to the ground. The minotaur toppled over like a speared pig, snoring as he hit the cobblestones.
Alex frowned. If he used his booby-trapped Flight Potion, there was a good chance it would kill Najyah. He needed to get her free of the creature first. If he shot his forceball at it, it would just drain the spell, plus that would separate him from his potions.
Time for the hard way.
He charged at the mana vampire, catching it by surprise since it could see that he was able to resist its sleep magic. The creature’s mouth twisted, turning sideways. Its teeth fell away, exploding into mist as they touched the ground; a sucker-covered tongue shot from its mouth.
The young wizard kept running toward the wall opposite the mana vampire and jumped. His feet touched the wall for three quick steps—running across it—then he pushed off, turning and spinning his body to face the mana vampire.
As it turned toward him in surprise, Alex darted forward, shoving his covered arm into the space between its arms where it held Najyah.
His arm twisted in a rapid Cleansing Movement move, and he applied all his body enhanced strength to break the monster’s grip.
The monster’s hold broke, and Najyah was freed, wasting no time in flying to her master, screeching.
Khalik shook his head as his familiar nuzzled him. “Go,” he groaned. “Wake up…Thundar then go…go get help.”
The eagle moved away from Khalik and hopped over to the fallen minotaur.
The mana vampire hissed at Alex and began a transformation. Its eyes bulged from their sockets even further, its mouth turned sideways, and all exposed skin grew spongy and porous.
This creature was nothing like the one he’d fought on Fan-Dor’s ship, this one was healthy: it was well proportioned, and it was powerful, and moved with the grace of a predator.
It stood motionless for a heartbeat, like it was measuring him, then suddenly rushed straight at Alex—far faster than the creature on Fan-Dor’s ship—and out of reflex, the young wizard fell into a stance from the Spear-and-Oar Dance. His hands rose into practiced positions of the Cleansing Movements, with his cloaked-arm pointed toward it.
Alex stepped aside from its lunge: his reflexes far sharper than before. It reached for him, and he brushed its arm away like he was brushing a fly away, but winced from the impact. The creature was very strong. He would need to focus on something Ram had been teaching this semester: redirection.
“Help! Mana vampire!” he yelled as the creature lunged at him again, and again.
The monster was quick, but it seemed to attack by instinct rather than practiced skill. Alex weaved around the attacks—almost with ease—lightly guiding its limbs around himself to dodge the deadly suckers on its hands and tongue.
He leaned back as the tongue shot out, striking the air just where his face had been.
“You there!” Someone cried from the end of the alley.
The mana vampire froze for an instant. Another wave of exhaustion slammed into Alex—but he resisted it—then he heard the sound of a grunt as someone dropped to the stones at the end of the alleyway. He cursed.
“Run! Get away!” he roared at the beast, desperately trying to get it to leave. “The guards are coming!”
It cocked its head.
“You have seen me, as I have seen you,” it gurgled. “You have vexed me. Now you will feed me.”
There was a note of pure malice in its voice, one that Alex had heard in the voices of irritated hunters after a missed shot. He was its food, but now he was also a challenge.
Its shoes scraped across the stone, and it leapt.
Alex moved to guide its arm aside.
The arm turned to mist.
He froze in shock as the mist passed through his defences and solidified past his guard. He remembered something a little too late: ‘healthy mana vampires have expanded powers.’
Those terrible fingers wrapped around his throat.
A debilitating sensation washed through him and he felt his mana pool begin to drain in the creature’s hungry grip. Its other hand seized his arm when he tried to pull it away, then its tongue wrapped around his skull.
First, Thundar’s body enhancement spell faded, then his mana began to flow out while he choked in the monster’s grip. Alex struggled with all that he had, reaching deep, using the most advanced mana regeneration techniques he knew.
As he struggled, he caught movement behind the mana vampire and his eyes grew wide. The creature seemed to grow smug and emitted a gurgling cackle.
‘That’s it…’ his thoughts raced desperately. ‘That’s it, focus on me, pay attention to me, you piece of shit!’
The monster screamed.
Khalik had recovered enough to surprise the feeding creature with a thrust of his short sword into its back. Strange, blue glowing blood poured from its body as Khalik’s face twisted in anger.
It hissed, tossing Alex aside to land heavily on the stones. Whirling on the prince, its stab-wound—deep enough to kill anything natural—was already healing.
The prince drove his short sword into the monster’s belly this time, and his earth covered fist into its face.
It was a blow hard enough to shatter teeth, if it had any.
Its head snapped to the side, but its tongue instantly shot out and wrapped around Khalik’s arm. Mana drained from his earth armour, making it crumble away; the prince cried out as his mana also began to drain.
He pulled the short sword from its gut as Alex reached into his bag and gripped a potion flask.
The prince stabbed at its tongue. It shrieked, releasing him and reeling back.
“Khalik!” Alex cried. “Get back!”
He raised the booby-trapped Potion of Flight and cocked an arm back. Khalik stumbled back, holding his arm and panting.
The mana vampire let out a terrifying screech and leveled an open hand at Khalik. Alex felt an enormous amount of mana pour into the air.
“Khalik, watch ou-”
A wave of unseen mana blasted from the creature’s hand like a telekinetic battering ram, slamming into the prince. Earth armour shattered, completely overwhelmed by the force, and Khalik was hurled away in a groaning heap.
“Damn you, you bastard!” Alex tossed the Potion of Flight at the monster’s feet.
The gas shot up into the air, enveloping the mana vampire. Alex felt mana shift as the creature’s sucker-covered hands and tongue rapidly absorbed the potion.
“Fool!” it hissed. “You are only feedi-Aaaaaargh!”
Its hideous words collapsed into a scream as it was suddenly catapulted to the left by the booby-trapped Potion of Flight.
It screamed as what sounded like bone shattered from the impact.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Again and again it shot left, right, up and down in the alleyway, slamming into walls and cobblestones.
Alex snarled in victory. “Yeah, suck on that you sucker-tongued-”
His words died when it suddenly fell to the ground in a heap, the magic of the potion having lasted only seconds.
‘It must have absorbed the mana: ended the effect early,’ he thought as he searched his bag for another potion. He swore internally.
That had been his last one.
The mana vampire looked brutalized. One of its arms was bent at an unnatural angle and it was covered in bruising. A bulging eyeball had burst. That strange glowing blood poured from its wounds, although it was clear that they were already healing.
Behind it, Alex saw Thundar stand and pick up his mace. He looked absolutely enraged.
Alex shouted. “Finish it! Finish it while it’s wounde-”
It moved too fast.
The mana vampire leapt at Alex partway through his sentence, screeching in rage. The young wizard jumped to the side, but the monster was becoming used to his movements, and he was slower without the body enhancement spell.
One of those sucker-covered hands wrapped his wrist.
Again Alex felt the mana drain as the creature’s wounds began to heal.
Its other hand curled back
It drove its fist into Alex’s stomach, knocking the breath from him. It drew its fist back again.
Then Thundar was there, his mace swinging.
The monster released Alex, letting him collapse into a heap and whirled on Thundar, dodging to the side. Thundar pivoted, altering his swing: the creature was still wounded, and the minotaur was faster than he looked.
All of his spell-enhanced strength drove the mace into the creature’s side, launching it straight into one of the alley walls.
The breath was knocked from it.
Thundar rushed at it, the mace cocked back to finish what he’d started.
The creature raised both hands.
The full force of a telekinetic blast ripped into Thundar as the mana vampire used its stolen mana, fighting to stay alive.
The mighty Thundar was blasted from his feet and slammed with full force into the wall behind him. Alex’s heart froze as he heard a crack.
The minotaur slumped down in a heap.
“No,” Alex moaned.
The monster staggered to its feet and dropped onto Thundar’s barely moving body, wrapping one of its hands and its tongue around his throat.
“No!” Alex cried, as he watched the mana vampire begin to drain his defenceless friend.