The wind whipped through their hair as Lucia drove the sky-gondola at its maximum safe speed. Alex hadn’t known that the boats could fly that fast, but was glad that they could since time was a factor tonight.
He looked at the mana vampire in the front end of the sky-gondola. Theresa had hog-tied the thing—wrenching its damaged limbs as she did—then wrapped the rope around its knees for extra security. The creature could only moan in its unconscious state, and did not wake up.
Grimloch sat behind it, watching it intently. Theresa sat on the other side of it—nearer to the front—with her sword close to its neck.
Brutus was lying in the bottom of the boat, whimpering at the speed of the magical, flying vessel. The cerberus, shark man, and huntress formed a fine barrier of non-wizards between the mana vampire and potential food for it to drain.
Behind Brutus sat the rest of their group, then Lucia in the back, who’d pointedly made sure that they put as much distance between her and the monster as possible.
“Is it moving?” she asked for what seemed like the tenth time.
“No,” Grimloch rumbled.
Still, she urged a little more speed from the sky-boat.
Khalik glared at the creature as they soared over the countryside with Najyah high above them until eventually, the green grass became sparser and sparser the closer they got to the wall and The Barrens themselves.
Taking into account the speed of the sky-gondola and from the map that Baelin had shown them, it wouldn’t be long before they reached the xyrthak’s former territory, and the mana vent awaiting there.
The rest of the group hardly said a word as they looked out over the moon-lit dusty wastes.
Alex shivered. “Cold,” he muttered in surprise.
“Mmm,” Khalik said. “That is the way of any desert of sand or dust or rock. They are hotter than a devil’s spit during the day, but at night, they are as cold as a mountain top.”
“Charming place,” Alex said, his attention being drawn to a light up ahead with ever shifting colours. “We’re getting close.”
“Mm,” Khalik said in anticipation.
Alex turned and looked back at Nua-Oge. “Thanks for being here, Nua-Oge, but you didn’t have to come to The Barrens with us, you know? I mean, I appreciate the extra back-up, but you didn’t have to be here for this part. You’ve done a lot already.”
“Well, Grimloch wanted to see his prey finished off,” the selachar said, her sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight. “And I want it gone too. Besides, I wouldn’t let my little brother come out here alone.”
Alex froze. “What?”
Khalik blinked. “Little…brother?”
“Adopted,” Grimloch grunted. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Alex said, dying to know what Grimloch’s birth parents looked like.
“Well, you live and learn,” Khalik murmured, then looked at Alex . “Do you think it is going to work? Dumping the mana vampire into the mana vent?”
“In theory, it should,” Alex said. “Mana vampires feed off of and process mana from a bunch of different people then convert it into their own to use, right? They even convert the mana from spells into raw power for themselves.”
He glanced at the creature. “So this thing has the ability to convert mana within itself to be usable, but there’s a limit to it, like Isolde confirmed. If it could absorb a mana vent’s wild mana—with all the power that a vent could provide—then mana vampires wouldn’t have to attack people and bring attention to themselves. They’d just skip the city and go right to The Barrens and absorb whatever they needed to live. Or they could just absorb the stuff out of the air. That’s what I’m thinking, at least.”
His eyes hardened. “But with those suckers, the mana from the mana vent will get sucked into it and wreak complete havoc inside of it, just like with us.”
Khalik raised an eyebrow. “And then what happens? From the sound of it, that would likely kill it.”
“In time, yes. That’s what this is for.” Alex raised the mana conductor. “I learned how to guide mana reactions from working with some pretty wild stuff at work and in class. So, I’m gonna jab the mana vampire with this conductor and keep it stable until we get back to campus. If it starts to get out of control, I’ll try to adjust the mana, but I’m hoping it doesn’t.”
“Heh, how fitting,” the prince said. “All this trouble it has been giving to drain others of mana, and now it will get its fill and more…which will prove to be its undoing.”
Lucia set the boat down far from the mana vent. Khalik, Brutus and Nua-Oge stayed with her while Alex, Theresa and Grimloch dragged the beast toward the vent.
“We should do this fast,” Theresa said. “You won't be able to tolerate that vent for long.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Alex said. “We’ll do it quick, like dumping a teabag.”
“Like hanging a fish up to dry,” Grimloch echoed.
“Like draping a skin on a drying rack,” Theresa added.
The mana vampire stirred, groaning slightly.
The mana in the air was getting thicker and rougher, but Alex clenched his teeth and kept going. He squinted as a group of vent-drinkers—sleeping near the vent—woke up and ran screeching into The Barrens, kicking up dust as they went.
Before landing, everyone in the sky-gondola had checked the area from above, then again when they’d landed. There was no sign of monsters nearby. No doubt some bold creature would eventually realize there was no longer a xyrthak around to protect its territory and would move in, but for now, things were clear.
Suddenly, the mana vampire started screeching and jerking as though in pain.
It awoke abruptly—jolted into consciousness by the intensity of the wild mana—shrieking and struggling against the ropes. Pain filled its cries, but Alex felt no sympathy for it. He wondered how many people it had heard scream when it was draining them.
The group reached the side of the mana vent and Alex grimaced. Its power slammed against him, making him feel like he was walking through clay. Clay that scratched and burned. He paused for a moment, watching the creature and letting his eyes adjust to the blazing light of the vent.
With its open suckers, the wild mana was hitting it much harder than it was him. It showed no sign of powering back up or absorbing the mana though, and seemed more like it was squirming to get away.
“Dunk it,” Alex said to Grimloch and Theresa.
“Haha, drink up, asshole,” the shark man grinned as he and the huntress tossed the screaming creature over the side.
The screech that erupted from the mana vent was horrifying. Again, he found no sympathy for it.
He watched its silhouette writhing in the vent—dangling on its rope—as wild mana blasted it, blistering patches of its bruised skin like a sunburn.
Then the creature started to swell.
More and more, its lean frame filled out, looking increasingly like a bloating, sunburnt corpse. Alex gritted his teeth as discomfort built from being so close to the mana vent, but he stayed, watching the creature continue to swell and writhe in pain.
At last, he felt energy surging from the mana vampire.
“Hoist it up quick and let’s move back, ” he said, through clenched teeth.
Theresa and Grimloch brought it up, moved back, and threw it on the ground.
The swollen monster writhed like a slug in a bed of salt, trembling at the wild mana coursing through it. Its body seemed to be fighting to process it, but failing. A patch of reddened skin would knit together, then immediately split and blister. From the sheer number of burns coursing across its body, it was clearly not having much luck.
To confirm its mana status, Alex took the new mana conductor and pressed it to the core of the monster.
The mana was wreaking havoc through the creature: he could feel it. It blasted through its flesh and all the mana pathways running within its body. Alex could feel the monster trying to process the mana and—while there was a small amount being processed—the wild mana was overwhelming it and was too powerful. Its mana pool was already straining and leaking through the rest of its body.
The wild mana had already caused some of its internal structures to rupture: only the small amount it could process was what was barely managing to keep it alive.
The wild mana was burning it out far faster than it could repair itself.
“Okay.” He nodded, grimacing as the oppressive weight of the wild mana increased. He’d been near the vent long enough. “Let’s get out of here. It’ll hold up for a little while longer without stabilization, but we’ve gotta move.”
“Let’s go”, Grimloch said, grabbing the mana vampire’s bonds and jogging away from the vent. Theresa kept pace and Alex followed, and they didn’t stop until they were near the sky-gondola.
Khalik, Nua-Oge and Lucia looked tense as they watched them approaching.
“By the sapphire sea,” the prince said. “Look at it. It looks like it’s dying.”
“It is dying,” Alex said. “Give me a second.”
He crouched down beside the mana vampire and pressed the mana conductor to it again. Searching around, he found a pulsating distended organ in its core that processed the mana the creature absorbed. He noticed something going on around that organ: there were multiple mana pathways throughout the creature’s body, with valves that would open and close automatically. Its body had shut all of the pathways to the organ to stop it from being completely overwhelmed.
In spite of this, the wild mana was so intense that some still seeped through the tiny valves and was reaching the processing organ anyway. It was processing some of what leaked through, but was burning out as it did.
Alex concentrated, using mana manipulation and The Mark to guide the reactions going on in the mana vampire’s body. He grimaced, as it was hard to manage it. Wild mana was well, wild, and he knew he couldn’t settle it. The only thing he could do was guide it around the mana vampire’s body, shifting it from place to place in order to stop the mana from destroying too much of any section of its body.
The wild mana wanted to move, so letting it circulate in a controlled manner was a lot easier than trying to get it to settle or calm down. It was like redirecting force: often that was far easier than stopping it.
Still, this could only be a temporary measure, because all he was doing by circulating the mana through the creature was prolonging its inevitable end. He needed to get it to the lab quickly to transform the wild mana into usable mana for other things.
“Let’s move with all that speed you said this boat has, Lucia,” Alex said. “I can keep this thing stable, but I’d like to get it to campus as soon as we can.”
Selina and Shiani were waiting for them on the grounds when they arrived and rushed to meet them.
“Alex!” Selina cried.
“I couldn’t pull her away,” Shiani told him. “She would not move until she saw you were back safely.”
Alex smiled, tousling his sister’s hair. Theresa patted her on the back and Brutus licked her face.
“I’ll be taking my downpayment now,” Lucia said quickly. “And I’ll be seeing you for the rest tomorrow.”
Alex and Khalik paid her and watched her lift-off…after counting the coins.
She was actually smiling, almost laughing.
With a final nod of acknowledgement, she raced away through the sky; Alex hoped that the coin would give her the start to a better life for herself.
He reached into his pocket and took out the key that Baelin had given him to the lab. Alex wished Baelin and Jules were there, but it was the middle of the night and not only did he not know where Jules lived, but showing up at the chancellor’s mansion, or her home uninvited would probably not be a very welcomed idea.
“Any sign of Isolde?” he asked.
“No,” Shiani said.
He bit his lip. The faster he got this done, the safer it would be and the quicker he could go and see how Thundar was.
Khalik let Najyah go free to hunt rabbits since she hadn’t had anything to eat because of the mana vampire attacking her. As a matter of fact, neither had Alex or Khalik.
“Tell Najyah to bring us back some rabbit stew,” Alex joked. “We didn’t even get anything to eat because of this mana sucking piece of garbage, and I’m starving.”
Theresa jumped in, “Yeah, I’m hungry too.”
“So, am I,” said Selina, Nua-Oge, Khalik and Shiani at the same time.
“I wonder how mana vampire tastes?” Grimloch wondered aloud.
Everyone went completely silent for what felt like minutes before Theresa finally said, “Hey, Selina, why don’t we go and get something from the campus cafe? They’re open late. And we can bring stuff back for everyone else?”
As she said it, she caught Alex’s eye, then glanced briefly at Selina, then back at Alex. He nodded once, understanding what she meant, then said to Selina, “That’s a good idea Selina, that way you can choose exactly what you want and help Theresa bring food back for the rest of us. What’d you think?”
Selina hesitated, “But, I wanted to watch what you’re going to do.”
“Oh that’s ok. The most important part’ll be getting the mana into the golem core, and we won’t be doing that until tomorrow. So it’s fine if you go and get something to eat, and you can bring me back something too.” Alex said.
“Are you sure you won’t start the golem when we’re gone?” She asked.
“Even if I could, I’d never power it up without you being there. You and I worked on him together, so we’ll power him up together, okay?”
“Okay, as long as you don’t start him without me then I’ll go with Theresa. I am pretty hungry.” Her stomach grumbled as if to confirm that.
Alex mouthed ‘Thanks’ to Theresa.
“Good choice, Selina,” Theresa said to the little girl.
“Here, take my student disk so you can get into the building when you’re ready,” Alex said, handing Theresa the disk. “We can use Khalik’s to open the door.”
Pocketing the disk she said, “How do sandwiches, pastries and cider sound to you guys?” She asked the rest of the group. No one had any complaints, so she, Selina and Brutus headed off on the food run.
Khalik and Grimloch then wrapped the gurgling monster in a cloak while Alex kept the mana circulating, then the shark man carried the bound, bloated form to the castle doors. Khalik used his student disk to open them and they headed through the towers to the lab where Alex then used the key from Baelin to unlock it.
He was the first to enter and as he stepped in; glowing force balls that shed a silvery light sprang to life, illuminating the space.
“Put it over there,” he said to Grimloch, pointing to the massive mana vacuum in the corner. The shark man was carrying the monster by the ropes, while Khalik held his blade on it.
Everyone froze and stepped back as the Unseen Aids materialized.
“It’s okay!” Alex assured them. “You’re with me, and I have a key. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure they’d be attacking all of us right now.”
“Comforting,” Khalik said sarcastically.
Nua-Oge and Shiani were gawking at the massive golem standing silently at one end of the room. Grimloch nodded at it with approval. “Good style,” he said as he dropped the mana vampire beside the vacuum.
Alex got busy then, getting protective gear for everyone except Grimloch since everything was too small for the shark man’s massive head and body. Nua-Oge came to the rescue, and cast a watershield over him to protect him from any mishaps. With that problem solved, Alex then moved around the lab, preparing the necessary tools. He removed the cloak from the creature, pressed his mana conductor to the middle of its torso, and took up a stylus. He drew an ‘X’ on the bound mana vampire, just above where its mana processing organ was located.
He glanced to the mana vaccuum; Jules’ words came back to him: “...you would need to stab yourself in the core of your body, and activate the vacuum for it to even be a threat. And even then, your mana is so safely tucked into you, that such a device wouldn’t work at all unless you recently had a conduit opened to transfer mana directly in or out of your body. So, unless you were attacked by a mana vampire in the previous hour, donated to one, or somehow convinced one to donate its mana to you, then you would be safe. In such an event, though, I think you would have greater problems.”
Well, the mana vampire was about to have greater problems.
Alex pressed the conductor onto the gurgling, convulsing mana vampire. “Alright, Khalik, I need you to do something for me. You’ll be sending this creature to the afterlife, if there is an afterlife for mana vampires.”
The prince’s eyes lit up in excitement. “What do you need?”
“I need you to make an incision with this scalpel on that ‘X’,” he said. “Keep cutting until I say stop. Then put the mana vacuum’s wand into the hole you made. Then, you turn on the mana vacuum, and we drain this pile of garbage for everything it’s worth.”
Shiani—whose magic burnt monsters to death—made a face. “Gruesome, but poetic in a way.”
“Ironic.” Khalik took the instrument and looked down at the monster. “You fed yourself by draining the mana of others. Now you shall serve others by having the mana drained from you.”
“Do it, Khalik.”
The prince stabbed down.
The creature’s choking grew more frantic.
Blood that glowed only slightly poured out.
“Okay, that’s deep enough,” Alex said. “Now the vacuum.”
There was a sickening squelch as Khalik pushed the wand into the creature’s body until it touched the mana processing organ.
Alex looked down at the monster.
“Pull the switch,” he said.
The creature’s gurgle became a sharp intake of breath as Alex’s mana manipulation guided the wild mana to the closed valves until they were forced open by the pressure.
Alex watched as the wild mana was driven—by his manipulation, its own intensity, and the mana vacuum’s suction—right through the processing organ. The organ went into high activity, processing the mana rapidly; what came out still had strong intensity, but was actually usable.
Molten power flowed up through the vacuum and into the mana waste container.
As Alex guided some of the processed mana back into the organ—letting the mana vampire’s healing processes keep the organ from burning out too early—he thought back to something else Jules had told.
She had been right: he was doing horrifying things.
He hoped Baelin would appreciate the report.