“A dune worm is a very dangerous opponent for the unprepared or…anyone,” Baelin said. “Partly because of its size. It grows to the size of a whale. Not the greatest of whale-kind, but certainly large enough.”
He waved his hand, and an illusion of a map appeared.
“Their territory lies deeper in The Barrens, and—thankfully—they cannot survive close to the edges. These creatures require a great deal of ambient mana to sustain them, or put another way, to prevent their entire system of organs from collapsing onto each other, which means they must dwell deep within The Barrens where mana is thickest. This also means—that while they are viciously gifted burrowers and can spew magma-”
“Did he just bloody say ‘spew magma’?” Alex whispered.
“Yeeeep,” Thundar grunted.
“Uhuh,” Theresa murmured, staring up at the writhing illusion with a look of dull shock.
“-they cannot use those abilities to travel to the edge of The Barrens and dive beneath the wall. Still, they are very territorial and dangerous to any who enter their domain on foot…or even those that can fly, if they are low enough in altitude. You faced something that came at you from above in the xyrthak, now you shall face something that will come at you from below. As an opponent, the dune worm is a formidable one that will use magic against you as adeptly as you shall use magic against it.”
Rhea raised her hand. “Baelin, are you saying that big worm’s a wizard?”
“Oh my, no.” Baelin shook his head. “They may have the sapience and cruelty for wizardry, but they are not gifted with vast intellect. They also have no need for spells: they can wield earth magic with the ease that you or I might move one of our own hands.”
His look turned stern. “Which is why it will be the perfect next step in an opponent for all of you. Do you know what the most common enemy a wizard faces in their lifetime is?”
“Assassins?” Nua-Oge guessed.
“Mana vampires,” Thundar grunted.
“Dragons?” Rhea added.
“Peasants with torches and pitchforks,” Malcolm said with a note of cynicism in his voice.
Baelin chuckled. “At one time—during some inquisitorial periods in the history of certain realms—you would have been one hundred percent correct, Malcolm. But no, the answer to that question is the same as it has always been: other wizards. And so, it will be good for you to cut your teeth on a magic-wielding adversary. The dune worm will be a good introduction: powerful physically and magically, but unable to match your versatility.”
“Did he imply that this ‘doom worm’ will be a starting place for us?” Khalik whispered.
“Dune worm,” Isolde corrected him idly. She was pale.
“I know what I said.”
Shiani raised her hand. “Baelin, do you really think we can handle such a creature in only small groups of four?”
“Quite frankly? Yes and no,” Baelin said. “In both physical strength and magical capability, it is your better. You will not be able to trump it in a show of brute force. Collectively? Absolutely: you could crush it like you did the xyrthak. But you will not always have the benefit of a small army of wizards at your side as you face the dangers of the world.”
He looked up toward the ceiling.
Alex felt a surge of teleportation magic.
Above Baelin, the air rippled until the illusion of a starry sky filled the upper part of the room.
‘No wait,’ he thought. ‘I felt the teleportation magic…he’s actually opened a point between here and wherever that sky is.’
He gulped, trying to swallow his nervousness, but a part of him was excited at the idea of such a vast gulf of distance being crossed with hardly a thought. Now that he’d learned Call Through Ice, it had already given him a taste of teleportation magic, and he was definitely planning to register for a course on the subject next year.
“A Proper Wizard is indeed a mighty, terrifying being when at the height of their power,” Baelin said, his voice taking on an ancient and terrible quality. “But only a fool looks up at a stone ceiling and thinks that there is nothing above them. No matter how powerful you grow, there will be many times when you will face an enemy far greater than yourself. So, I am introducing you to what that might look like now so that you have a better footing when the time comes for you to grapple demon lords.”
Baelin paused, looking at them as grim silence filled the room. “Or indeed be ready for…other opportunities that might soon arise. For now, I advise you to focus on your other finals. Then try to relax between the end of those exams and our practical in The Barrens. After all, you are finishing your first year at the University of Generasi. That is cause to celebrate.”
Alex and Theresa glanced at each other, exchanging quick smiles.
That was indeed cause to celebrate.
It was days after Baelin’s in class announcement, and a few days after Alex’s other exams, including the written one for The Art of the Wizard in Combat II. Baelin’s exam had covered all that they’d learned from the beginning of the year.
There were questions about everything from tactics, to monsters, to the allocation of resources, to terrain and essay questions on possible combat scenarios. It was as comprehensive as one might expect an exam from Baelin would be, and Alex had loved it. Writing the exam with his cabal members meant that afterward, they could all go to The Brass Grapes to celebrate, unwind and compare their answers on the exam.
For the most part, their responses matched one another’s, so Alex figured there’d be high marks all around. For now, they decided to take Baelin’s advice and forget about his upcoming practical exam, marks, and everything else, and simply celebrate the soon-to-be close of their first year. For a little bit, at least. They toasted anything they could think of, ordered trays of finger foods and laughed the time away. It turned out to be a great evening.
The next day Alex had something else to look forward to.
On the green, well-maintained grounds of Generasi, five figures made their way toward a hill on campus. It was a high one with a gazebo that wrapped around an over-sized apple tree and overlooked the sea.
Brutus was running ahead of the group, barking excitedly under the late spring sun. Selina followed, trying to race the cerberus up the hill.
Behind them came Alex and Theresa. Each held a picnic basket in one hand and each other’s hand in the other. Alex had that same stupid smile on his face that he got whenever Theresa’s warm, sword-calloused hand was in his. He glanced over and saw that her face bore a very similar expression.
Bringing up the rear was the mighty Claygon, his footsteps pressing into the earth. More and more Alex was starting to think of his golem as a ‘he’. Claygon’s head swivelled this way and that, tracking distant figures with the fire-gem set in his forehead.
Together, the couple crested the hill then rolled out a huge blanket to spread out on. Alex took out plates, cutlery and cups from one of the picnic baskets and laid out his spread of fine coney pies. The pies were still steaming from when they’d come out of the oven earlier, and he’d used his Lesser Heat spell to keep them warm. Being a wizard definitely had its benefits.
Claygon stood beside the tree: a titanic guardian that continued to keep watch while they enjoyed the afternoon.
“This is so good,” Selina said as she greedily gulped down a meat pie.
“Of course it is,” Alex said, puffing out his chest. “I made it, after all.”
She nodded. “I like eating your food.”
“Me too,” Theresa said. “I could eat it for years, and years and years to come.”
She looked at him meaningfully and he had to look away from Selina in case she caught that foolish smile of his. She would never let him hear the end of it. The little goblin had already started making fun of him and Theresa for being ‘gross and mushy’.
To that all he’d said was: “You’ll get it when you’re older.”
She’d replied: “Grownups always say that. But, you guys are still gross and mushy!”
When they finished lunch, they’d played with Brutus for a long while, rubbing his belly, playing fetch, and just romping around together.
Finally, when the cerberus was tired out—and Selina was too—they returned to the blanket and shade of the apple tree. The big canine was soon napping and the young girl—though she fought sleep like a champion—was soon snoring against the dog.
Theresa sighed wistfully.
She and Alex were in a sleepy embrace, with Alex sitting against the trunk and the huntress sitting in his lap. She had taken her boots off and was lightly kicking her legs up and down through the grass in front of her.
“Why such a big sigh?” Alex asked her gently.
“Did I ever tell you I was a little jealous of you?” she asked.
He snorted. “Nooo, what’s this? Was it my good looks? My charm and debonair-ness? My big muscles?”
“Oh by Uldar, don’t make me regret going out with you,” she chuckled. “And I do appreciate those things…even if the charm is kind of imaginary and I’m not even sure what ‘debonair’ means. I really appreciate the muscles though.”
She gave his large bicep an appreciative squeeze. “Like really appreciate them. No, I’m jealous because you’ve got a cute little sister while I have older brothers. I always wanted a cute little sister.”
“Theresa, in the Lu family you’re the cute little sister. You just grew up and became a death-machine.”
“Hmph, and you don’t like me being a death machine?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s one of the best parts. One of the many, many best parts.”
“Jeez.” Theresa snuggled against him. “Shishi was making fun of me for ‘losing my edge’. ‘Ooooh what happened to the scary-face, Theresa? You look like a puppy all the time’. Glad to hear she’s wrong.”
“Well, maybe you’re just a very dangerous puppy. Like Brutus. And before you say that ‘complimenting a girl by calling her a cerberus’ isn’t great, I know you’d like it.”
She sighed. “Well, maybe I just have issues like-What? What?”
Alex had burst out laughing halfway through her sentence.
As soon as she’d said that she might have issues, his mind had immediately gone back to all the times he’d thought that about himself, and he couldn’t hold back his laughter.
He only stopped when Theresa lightly punched him in the arm a few times. She glared at him, then a mischievous light entered her eyes. “Hey, Alex, do you remember the time you said that I had terrible taste?”
She grinned at him.
“Eh? When was this?” he asked.
“When you were being all mysterious and analyzing the dungeon core, you talked about calling yourself ‘robbing fool’. I said it was a terrible name and you said I have terrible taste.”
“Oh yeah, right. Well I was right back then, that name was great and you do have terrible taste.”
Her eyes twinkled and her grin widened. “Do I really have terrible taste? Do I really?” she giggled. Do I really have terrible taste, Alex?”
She nudged him in the belly, fighting back an absolute tidal wave of giggles.
He blinked. “Yeah, you do have terrible-” His eyes widened as he finally got it. “Oh, by the Traveller!”
Theresa clamped her hand over her mouth to stop from laughing so loud that she’d wake up Brutus and Selina.
Alex, meanwhile, sat with his jaw hanging open.
“How…how did I walk into that? Oh my god, Uldar was right. I am a fool.”
Alex started to laugh as Theresa shook from laughter against him.
“Ahhh, I’m so glad I came with you to this place.” She turned her head, accidentally batting his face with her ponytail, and kissed him. “Smartest decision I’ve ever made.”
“Give it a few months,” he said, giving her a kiss back. “You’ll curse the day you followed me from Alric and be asking yourself ‘why in the name of Uldar didn’t I just go with my parents?’”
Her smile faded slightly as her laughter did too.
His died as well. “What’s wrong?”
She sighed, scrambling out of his lap, much to his disappointment. Theresa dug into one of her bags and took out a letter. “This came yesterday evening.”
Alex blinked. “…is it from your parents?”
“Yes,” she said. “They’re coming to visit next month.”
He started to grin. “That’s great…why are you looking like you don’t think it’s such great news?”
She shook her head. “I’m excited, but how do…by The Traveller, how do I even begin to explain any of this? They don’t know anything about magic and monsters and danger and…us being together. So much has happened. I think when they were sending us off they probably thought it was just some big school where, I dunno, people rode brooms, I guess. We left Thameland to escape danger and monsters, and here we are up to our necks in danger and monsters.”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It is a lot to explain, isn’t it? But I’ll be there to explain it with you. I’ll be right there."
Theresa’s smile lit up her face and she scooted back into his lap, wrapping his arms around her waist. “And that’s why I love you, Alex.”
“I love you too.” He kissed her cheek and then leaned back against the tree. Beginning to doze, and in his sleepiness, he almost thought that the tree was the same one they’d made camp under when they were fleeing Alric.
So much had changed since then.
‘Ah, well.’ He glanced over at Claygon. ‘You’ll protect us if danger comes, won’t you, you ten-foot golem made of solid badass.’
Slipping deeper into drowsiness, he could have sworn Claygon stood just a little bit taller at the mental praise. He must have been imagining it. Wasn’t he?
That was a worry for another day.
...for another day.
Alex knew something big was happening when he stepped into Baelin’s office. A floating block of obsidian hovered in the centre of the room, and pieces of paper and parchment were attached to it. Much of what was written was numbers, figures, calculations and logistics. In the centre was a map— which looked like it overlaid another map—of the north eastern region of the continent.
He wondered what it was for.
“Ah good, you’re here a little early.” The chancellor glanced at the doors to his office. “I have two things to tell you about.”
He held up a book, written in a language Alex didn’t understand. “I think I might have found a lead on your mysterious attackers.”
“Really?” Alex quickly walked over, staring at the book. “Is it Thameish?”
“No.” Baelin shook his head. “If this is the same monster, then the creature did not come from Thameland at all. Not at all.”