Alex was using every ounce of will to try and get himself to his feet; his breath was laboured and his body felt like it weighed a thousand tons. The mana drain was still hitting him.
His head swam, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of Thundar and the creature draining his precious mana.
Panic surged through his thoughts.
Khalik was showing no sign of movement: his mana had been drained twice, first through Najyah, then as he defended them. When the creature had grabbed the prince, he’d been awake and able to resist it, but Thundar had been unconscious when it began draining him.
Alex watched the magic of the body-enhancement spell vanish from the minotaur and knew he had to do something before his friend was out of time.
Growling, he surged to his feet and stumbled toward the mana-leeching monster. “Get off of him! Get off of him, or I’ll…I’ll kill you, I swear to all the gods!”
He could hear commotion growing near the alley. Voices were getting closer, but if the mana vampire put everyone to sleep…
Alex cursed The Mark. If only he could do something; if only he could just kill the thing that was killing his friend. His mind flashed back with bitter irony to what Selina had said about him protecting them.
Protect who? The Mark didn’t even let him protect himself.
He had no more altered Potions of Flight to…
An idea hit him.
Akex snarled—drawing a Potion of Sensory Enhancement from his bag— and focused on The Mark, letting it guide his face from a snarl, to a look of seething rage, hatred, and intimidation.
“Prepare to go on another little trip, you piece of garbage!” He roared, drawing back his arm.
Alex knew well that the potion was harmless.
But the monster didn’t.
It whirled, spotting the container in his hand and recoiled, jumping away from Thundar.
Hissing and holding its broken arm, it glared at him uneasily. Its wounds were still healing, but much slower: all of the magic it had used on each of them must have drained some of its stolen mana.
Alex advanced, stepping between it and Thundar.
“Back!” he roared. “Get back!”
As his voice boomed through the air, he heard the sound of armoured forms enter the alley behind him; more burst in on the opposite end.
The mana vampire glanced all around, then down at the fallen minotaur. It looked back at Alex, and if looks could drain mana, he would be dead. The creature scrambled aside and began climbing up the side of a wall. It favoured its broken arm, while the suckers on its other limbs and tongue gripped the rough stone, making sucking sounds as it crept up a building wall.
It was transforming as it fled: quickly shapeshifting into someone new, then it disappeared over a rooftop.
“Hey you there! Stop!” One of the guardsmen shouted in vain. Pointing to two of his companions, he gave them an order. “Go and circle the building: cut it off before it gets away again!”
With a groan, Khalik was slowly getting to his feet as several guards surrounded him to help him up.
Alex went to his other friend.
“Thundar!” he cried, crouching beside the minotaur.
The beastman’s breathing was laboured and his body was completely limp. Alex winced, touching Thundar’s brow; his body was cool.
“Oh, by Uldar! Help!” He cried, turning to the guards. “My friend’s been drained! He needs help!”
Alex looked at Khalik, whose lips were trembling through his beard.
The guards scrambled to Thundar, drawing mana soothing potions from satchels. “We need to get him to the infirmary!” One of them shouted.
A woman—with a shining badge that had the symbol of a book—began to cast a type of force disk large enough to carry Thundar’s body.
“We’ll need you to move away,” a guard said to Alex.
“He’s my frie-” Alex began, then stopped, realizing that getting in the way would only hurt Thundar’s chances. There was nothing he could do for him now.
So, he rose and backed away from the injured minotaur, fighting to keep from hyperventilating.
Alex’s body was cold, yet sweat dripped from him.
His mind was whirling at what had just happened.
It was like with Minervus: random, cruel, out of nowhere and—in their case—almost deadly.
One moment they were on their way to a celebration with friends at a restaurant. The next, they were fighting for their lives and poor Thundar…now lay in an alleyway drained of enough mana to cripple him for life, or even kill him.
What was going to happen to him? Would he be able to use magic anymore? Would his mana pool be crippled to the point he’d have to leave Generasi?
Alex remembered Lucia.
Would that be Thundar? Doing some job that obviously made him miserable because some piece of shit monster had decided to steal his future?
His mind filled with a sickening image of the mana vampire full of their stolen mana: scampering away, changing into someone else to get close to more unsuspecting victims to do to them, what it had done to Thundar, Minervus, him, Khalik, Najyah, and Uldar knows who else.
His teeth ground between his jaws, hard.
“M…f…” Khalik muttered, then continued in Tekish, his mother tongue. His eyes almost looked blank as he stared at Thundar as their friend was placed on the forcedisk. “My…my fault.”
“What?” Alex asked.
“It is my fault,” Khalik said softly. “If I hadn’t given him hell about his assignment, we would not have been late. If I had kept more of a watch on Najyah, she would not have been grabbed by that abomination.” He looked at Alex with eyes filled with horror. “Alex, I nearly killed our friend over an assignment.”
“Don’t do that,” Alex said. “It’s not your fault. It had nothing to do with you.”
“It did. The ripples of our actions always have consequences,” Khalik’s voice dropped. “Especially for those born to rulership.”
“No, you listen to me.” Alex pointed at Thundar through the knot of workers around him. Just looking at his weakened body made Alex want to punch a wall. “This happened because a piece of shit mana vampire attacked Najyah and us. We did nothing wrong. You did nothing wrong.”
He glared at the wall that the mana vampire had climbed. “I hope to all that’s holy they catch that thing and kill it before it stops leaking mana,” he said, remembering that the creatures were trackable only for a short time after they fed.
“Yes. There is truth in what you say,” Khalik’s expression darkened. “I was not myself…between the mana and the blow, I am not myself. I almost feel like…” he paused. “Najyah is getting close, but-”
Several guards interrupted them, offering them mana soothing potions to drink. A feeling of relaxation washed through Alex’s mana pool as he drank his, spreading through the rest of his body. It would take time for the potions to stabilize their mana.
“So, what happened here-” one of the guards asked.
“By the elements!” Alex heard Isolde’s voice.
He looked toward the end of the alley.
The guards were keeping people from entering, and beyond, Alex could see Isolde, Theresa, the hulking form of Grimloch, Nua-Oge and others. Najyah was screeching overhead.
“Alex!” he heard Selina scream. “Alex!”
“I’m okay, Selina! Stay with Theresa, I’ll be there soon!”
What followed was an absolute whirlwind that left Alex’s mind reeling. He and Khalik answered what felt like a thousand questions, then had to reassure the guards and medic that they had recovered enough before they could go.
All during their questioning Khalik had been tense and deep in thought, muttering in Tekish. Recounting the story of the attack had made Alex angrier and angrier as he remembered what that thing had done to them.
Finally, when all the guards’ questions were answered to their satisfaction, they were allowed to leave the alley.
Hugs and tears flowed as Selina flew on him, and Theresa’s face was pale. Her eyes hardened when he and Khalik described what had happened.
Everyone kept asking questions until Thundar’s body was taken from the alleyway. The group followed silently, stopping in the street—the guards wouldn’t let anyone approach Thundar since none of them were family—and waited. Something was said about a special sky-gondola coming to transport their friend for care.
In between the guards’ ranks, Alex could see Thundar: the minotaur looked no better than he had earlier, but his breathing at least, appeared more even.
Theresa’s eyes grew even harder; Brutus nuzzled her side with two of his snouts and whimpered. Selina clung tightly to Alex’s hand, and Khalik stood quietly with Najyah perched on his arm, nuzzling his face.
Isolde glowered at thin air. “If that wretch were in front of me.” She thumbed the hilt of her stiletto knife. “I would stab its eyes out.”
Nua-Oge was sombre, as were Rhea, Malcolm and their other classmates. Grimloch was looking over at Thundar’s body, his expression like a stormcloud.
All around, guards bustled through the area, moving past onlookers and searching everywhere. It seemed the mana vampire had escaped.
As they waited, Alex’s mana calmed, but he knew he was far from alright emotionally.
Pure, unadulterated rage was coursing through him, clashing with maddening worry over his friend. A feeling of helplessness lay beneath all of his emotions: he couldn’t do anything to help make Thundar better, and he had no idea where the mana vampire had gone.
His jaw tightened.
It was the story of his life: helpless against the fire that claimed his parents, helpless against Uldar’s will, and now helpless against a hungry mana leech.
“I want to hunt it,” Theresa said quietly. The rest of the group suddenly looked at her.
“Are…are you sure that’s a good idea?” Nua-Oge said, even as Grimloch was already nodding beside her.
“Yes. I do. I’m not a wizard: I’m a hunter. I have no mana to drain and I want it dead for what it’s done. Baelin even said we could take it under the right circumstances, and he looked at me, Svenia, Hogarth and Grimloch when he said it.”
Brutus whined at his master’s anger.
“Yeah, I want it dead too,” Alex agreed. “Baelin said we could take it if we had the right group. I want nothing more than to break its ugly, filthy face.”
“No.” Selina shook her head. “No, it’ll hurt you!”
Alex looked down at her. “It saw my fa-”
He paused. The truth was, the mana vampire had glared at him with absolute hatred before it took off, and he had the feeling it wasn’t done with him. It could shapeshift and look like anyone. Once it processed the mana it had stolen, it would be impossible to track, and if it wasn’t stopped now, it could hunt him whenever it wanted. It could find Selina. It would always be a threat to many of them unless...it was dead.
Life had been working out for him. Baelin was supporting him, and his cabal knew his secret…the last thing he wanted now was to be constantly looking over his shoulder for a vengeful, shapeshifting monster.
But he couldn’t tell Selina that; she was already scared for him, and she was a very brave little girl. But in the end, she was still only eleven years old.
“Trust me, Selina, I have to go. Otherwise Theresa’ll have to go by herself.”
“No!” Selina screamed desperately. “I don’t want either of you to go! I don’t!”
He took a deep breath.
The mana-soothing potion was doing its work and he almost felt normal. He’d be able to act soon. His mana pool was still drained, but it was calm enough that he didn’t feel like collapsing at any moment.
“I think we should go after it,” Khalik suddenly said. “Honour, blood, our cabal…and our survival demands that we do-”
“No!” Selina cried. “I don’t want you to go either! I-”
She looked up as a sky-gondola—painted white, with the symbol of two snakes curling around a tower on the side—landed beside Thundar. Several healers clambered out and checked the minotaur before loading him into the gondola. It took off at speed, shooting off into the sky.
Alex prayed silently for his friend’s recovery, and the rest of the group fell into an angry and sad silence.
“We must go, Selina. At least, I must,” Khalik said. “It tried to hurt Najyah. It tried to hurt me, and your brother...and look what it did to Thundar. No more. I will see it broke-”
He paused suddenly, looking at Najyah in surprise. Then he looked at Alex. “Alex…do you...?”
The prince paused again, turning in the middle of the street before his eyes went wide. “Oh by my ancestors…”
“What is it?” Nua-Oge asked.
“I thought I was imagining it because of the mana drain…but now that the potion has done its work,” he paused. “I think I know where the creature is.”
The entire group looked at him.
“What? How?” Alex asked.
“I think…it’s still leaking mana…including my own, and Najyah’s,” he said.
“It got my mana too,” Alex said. “But I don’t feel anything.”
“My connection with Najyah and her mana is heightened…I focused on being able to sense it so she could not pull her tricks on me anymore and I feel it now, still leaking from that bastard. I am used to sensing my own mana within Najyah from great distances, perhaps that is why I can feel it.”
“Where is it?” Theresa demanded.
He closed his eyes. “It will not be with pinpoint accuracy the way my connection directly to Najyah would be, and it grows weaker...but I think I could find the general location if I move quickly.” He gripped his sword. “We should go and finish it.”
“Yes,” Theresa said, also gripping her blades. “It needs to be finished off.”
“We should tell the guards,” Nua-Oge said.
“We should do both,” Alex said.
His mind was working now.
The mana vampire was wounded and if they could track it, then it wouldn’t have the element of surprise on its side. They would. Then, they could kill it. Khalik could tell the guards its whereabouts, and then they could go after it themselves.
“You know what?” Theresa said, looking at Grimloch first. “You want to go on a hunt?”
“Always,” the shark man said.
“Good.” She went to Khalik. “Tell me where it is: maybe even guide us there. Grimloch, Brutus and I can move fast. Very fast. If we make a team with as few wizards as possible on it, it’ll have less mana to drain. That’ll be a bad match-up for it, and a good one for us.”
“No way I’m not coming with you!” Alex said. “I’m not letting you go after it by yourselves.”
“Alex, no!” Selina cried. “Not you either, Theresa!”
“Selina, I-” he started.
“Selina’s right, Alex,” Theresa said quietly. “That’s not a good idea. Less wizards means less people to stuff it full of mana-”
His mind caught on her last words.
“-and feed it. And think about Selina.”
He paused, thinking about Selina. She was right. If the two of them went after this thing together—and things went horribly—they could both die. Then what would happen to Selina? Mr. and Mrs. Lu would come for her, but that could mean months where she would be all alone. Months where she’d be alone and sent off to Uldar knows where while grieving more deaths of the people closest to her. It would devastate her.
His emotions had been driving him and he wasn’t in his best frame of mind right now, considering everything that had happened. He’d already been in one fight with the thing he was considering going after, and it had already drained his mana. He shook his head and took a deep breath to clear his thoughts. What he needed to be doing was thinking clearly and getting his sister to safety. A plan for the mana vampire was beginning to form in his mind, but he could think more about that later.
“You’re both right, I should get you home, Selina.”
“Yeah, Alex!” Selina said. “I don’t want you to go! Don’t go either, Theresa! You don’t even have the go-”
She paused, catching herself before she said ‘golem.’
The golem. Mana. His mind began to work faster.
“A fox hunt goes best when you have as many hunters as possible to corner your quarry. Like how we chased xyrthak near the mana vent,” Theresa was saying. “We’re not helpless and we’ll be careful, Selina. I saw its blood in the alley. If it bleeds, we can take it.”
Mana-vent. Wild mana. Powerful. Intense. Deadly if unprocessed, and every few things could properly.
His mind continued to work.
“Then we had better move quickly,” Khalik said. “Come, let us get to a sky-gondola and see this little one to safety. Afterwards, Theresa, Grimloch, Brutus and I will need to get after it before it finishes processing our mana completely.”
Alex’s mind froze.
An idea unfolded.
A deliciously cruel idea.
One that would ensure that this thing suffered for what it had done, while also taking care of something he’d been working on for too long.
“There’s no time to waste, then,” Alex said, looking down at Selina. “Let’s get you back home.”
He looked at Theresa, walked up to her and gave her a hug. “Be careful and come back safe and sound.”
“I will,” she said, her voice like iron.
“Then I shall join the hunt too,” Isolde said.
“Actually, Isolde, sky-gondolas can fly in The Barrens, right? There’s enough ambient mana there to let them fly, right?”
“Why yes, why not?” Isolde said. “But the gondolier would have to be desperate to bring one there.”
“Even if it was only going close to the wall and not directly into The Barrens? Close to a wall where we knew the most dangerous thing living there had been cleared out?” Alex asked, smiling.
Isolde’s eyes widened. “Alex, why-”
“I’ll explain everything in a bit. But first, let’s get to the closest sky-pier: I need to look for a gondolier named Lucia. If she agrees to my proposal, I’ll hire her for a sack of gold coins if she meets us at the sky-pier near Shale’s workshop with the biggest sky-gondola she can get her hands on.”
“What…what are you thinking, Alex?” Khalik asked.
“If we do this right and we get to the mana vampire first, not only will this thing feel exactly what it did to Thundar, Najyah, us, Minervus, and all of its other victims,” Alex growled. “But, I’ll have a fully powered golem by the end of the night.” His face took on a wicked grin.
Khalik’s eyes widened. “I want to know more about this, but tell me as we walk.” He glanced at the thinning crowds around them. “My connection to the creature weakens: the longer we take, the less chance to hunt it. And the more chance it has to hide again...and hunt us.”