“You kind of gave me the idea, Thundar,” Alex said. “Remember when that mana vampire got you?”
The minotaur glared at him. “No, Alex. I completely forgot that a monster nearly sucked all the mana out of me like a giant leech.”
“…yeah, okay, stupid question, I admit it,” Alex said sheepishly. “So, when that happened—and when we fought the xyrthak—we were given a mana soothing potion, right?”
“I remember how well it calmed my mana pool and how that made it easier for the pool to regenerate and heal,” Khalik said.
“But in return,” Isolde jumped in. “While under the effects, one’s mana flows slower. It is almost like a…” She paused, searching her thoughts. “…a sleeping draught, but directed entirely toward one’s mana. It makes a disrupted pool heal more swiftly, but while the mana pool is ‘resting and healing,’ it moves sluggishly.”
They looked at Thundar.
“Uh, yeah, that sounds about right from what I felt. Don’t know that much about alchemy, though.”
“You should learn!” Alex said enthusiastically. “It’s so interesting.” He caught himself. “I better stop myself before I start geeking out about it. Anyway, what I wanted to say was about what Isolde was talking about: the soothing. At first, I was thinking I could make a potion that did the opposite. A potion that would disrupt mana by overstimulating it if someone were to drink it. But, I decided against that since I know it’d be considered as doing direct harm, no matter how you look at it. So, then I thought about maybe going in the opposite direction.”
“Oh?” Khalik raised an eyebrow. “To increase the soothing effect?”
“You got it. I thought: what if someone’s mana became so soothed, that it became as lethargic and sluggish as a snail after an all night bender.” Alex tapped the side of the bottle. “It wouldn’t hurt anybody, but it would make their mana slow right down and be hard to use.”
“Hmmm.” Isolde frowned. “Effective, but proper mana manipulation techniques would be able to overcome such a limitation. One could simply massage their mana pool into producing more mana, or manipulate it to increase the flow, despite the potion.”
“You bet, but using mana manipulation during a fight would take up some of an enemy's concentration, which would be kinda rough for them in a conflict situation. But, imagine giving it to something that doesn’t have techniques to use? This stuff could be devastating: they wouldn’t be able to budge their mana at all.”
Alex thought of his own experiences of wrestling with getting past The Mark’s interference to use wizardry. When The Mark was first put on him, even casting forceball: a simple spell that he’d had years of practice with, had become so difficult that he’d wanted to rip out his own hair. Over time, though, he’d learned how to deal with the interference and even gotten used to it enough to learn and cast new spells.
What had really helped him make a lot of progress in spite of The Mark, were the meditation techniques that Theresa had taught him: they’d made it possible for him to get past The Mark and cast spells despite the persistent distraction of it bringing every one of his previous failures in spellcasting into his consciousness.
In the same way, an enemy could overcome the soothing potion with the right techniques…but without them, they’d be as hindered as he’d been when he’d first gotten The Mark. Maybe even more so.
And against a worm, a simple beast who would have no awareness of mana manipulation? It would likely come close to crippling the creature’s earth magic.
Or at least that was the hope.
“Only issue I see,” Alex said. “Is dosage. I don’t know if simply blasting some gas in front of something the size of a whale will be enough to affect it.”
“True, very true,” Isolde nodded. “It would likely require a larger dose, and one delivered deep within the creature.”
“Hrm.” Thundar squinted at the potion bottle. “I got an idea. You think you could find a way to attach small bottles of this stuff to the tip of an arrow? You could attach ‘em to Theresa’s arrows and just have her shoot the stuff down the monster’s throat. Then poof!”
He made an ‘exploding’ gesture with both hands.
“They blow up inside the worm and it’s bye-bye mana.”
“Thundar, you’re a genius! That would totally work.” He picked up the potion bottle and activated The Mark, focusing on the task of attaching a bottle to the tip of an arrow while still having it remain sufficiently aerodynamic.
The Mark immediately fed images of previous experiences of him putting things together: most of the memories came from building and assembling supplies and tools in Shale’s Workshop.
He smiled. “Yeah, I should be able to put something together by the time battle day comes. Then while I’m distracting it with some of my spells, Theresa can fire this stuff right down its throat. I can also use Call Through Ice to transport my trapped mana soothing potions too. The more chances we have to wreck that thing, the better.”
“Great.” Thundar cracked his knuckles. “And while you’re doing that, I’ll see if I can’t use a few of my spells to crack some of that thick shell.”
“Excellent. Most excellent,” Khalik said. “Then it sounds like our plan should be: we will fly above the ground, at near the top of its range for its earth magics. Isolde and I will run interference, I will try to counter its earth magic with my own and disrupt its aim. Thundar can ‘crack some of that thick shell,’ and increase its vulnerability. Isolde can rake its injuries with lightning. Alex can distract and aggravate it, and Theresa will deliver this weaponized soothing potion. Will you be bringing your entourage, Isolde?”
“I shall,” she said. “If they can be given flight as well, they are adept with spears. They can harpoon the creature, which will wound it and reduce its mobility."
“I’ll enhance their weapons.” Thundar rubbed his hands together as a grin spread across his face.
“Fantastic,” Khalik said. “Then it looks like we are near-ready. Let’s do ourselves a favour though, and not get utterly destroyed by an oversized worm at the final chapter of our first year.”
“Ugh,” Alex grimaced. “You say that, and now it’s gonna utterly destroy us. Oh, right. You didn’t mention Claygon in the grand plan.”
The prince looked up at the golem. “I had simply assumed he shall do what he has proven to be so excellent at: smash and burn.”
Alex laughed darkly. “Damn right.”
“You know.” Theresa Lu turned over the arrow, thumbing the glass tube attached to its head. A small, amused smile marked her lips, somewhat softening the vicious, predatory look her face normally fell into: ‘death-stalker face’, as Alex called it. “I never thought the first gift I’d get from you after we got together would be special arrows.”
“You don’t like it?” Alex asked lightly. “I could make some new one-”
He grimaced as a student launched a fireball at a training dummy on the opposite end of the stadium. The combat practice area was largely free of students that day. Final exams had just finished, and rather than slinging spells at targets for practice, most students were elsewhere slinging heaps of wine and food into their bellies in celebration before final marks came out.
Still, there were a few keen ones there continuing to hone their skills. Unfortunately, they seemed intent on practicing their loudest, most distracting spells.
Alex’s eyes narrowed, noticing that they were all wearing finely tailored, emerald green shirts, with the silver symbol of a beast: a two-headed monster with the howling head of a wolf, and the snarling head of a bear.
“The Ursa-Lupine Brotherhood,” he muttered.
“Hm?” Theresa glanced up at him, following his gaze to the group of spellcasters. “Oh, are those the ones you and Khalik duelled once?”
“Yeah, a long time ago,” Alex said. “Well, at least they’re keeping to themselves this time. So, where was I? Oh yeah, if you don’t like that, I couuuuld get you something else.”
“Not on your life, I like arrows. Why wouldn’t I like arrows?” Again, her fingers examined the arrow. “It’s well made too. Surprisingly well-bal-”
She frowned, balancing the arrow on one finger and seeing where its weight naturally fell. “It’s a liiitttle front heavy. If the shaft was a bit longer, then it’d be a little more balanced. That way it wouldn’t drop as quickly when it’s fired. Then again…”
The young huntress picked up her bow—a thick, composite beast of a weapon made from old oak and monster horn—and nocked the arrow against the string. She pointed it down. “It shouldn’t be much of a problem if I’m firing from above. …and our target isn’t exactly small.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I’ve never hunted such a large beast before.”
“Well, don’t get too excited, it might be hunting us.” Alex chuckled, taking the arrow back and writing down Theresa’s feedback in one of his many notebooks. “Excited to try your skill against such a big monster?”
“Mhm.” She lifted her bow with one hand and a brace of three arrows in the other. One after the other, she fired at a training dummy a number of paces away, sinking the arrows into the bullseye. “Grandfather once told us a story about great-grandfather going up against a sea monster. This reminds me of that a bit…though his story was all about steel and skill, while our situation will have a lot more ‘wizard’ in it. It’s still exciting stuff.”
Her smile faded, and the full ‘death stalker face’ returned. “And a worm is similar to a centipede…or a giant bug queen that has way too many blades for her own good.”
Another arrow sank deep into the target. “And if I ever meet another one of those, I plan on bringing it down. Easier than last time.”
Alex smiled, rubbing the small of her back. “I’m sure any big bug’ll be cursing the day it ever met the great-granddaughter of ‘Twinblade Lu’.”
“Mhm,” she mused. “And who knows?” She knocked another arrow. “Maybe by then, I’ll have my own nickname. A ‘Twinblade Lu’ just for me.”
“Deathstalker Lu,” Alex supplied enthusiastically.
“…that’s actually not half-bad. You’re getting better at naming things.”
“I’ve always been good at naming things,” he said quickly.
“Uuuuhuh.” She glanced over at Claygon, who was watching the other practicing students intently. “You’re ‘okay’ at naming things.”
“Pfffft, now I’m gonna make sure people start calling you Deathstalker Lu.”
“You do that and I’ll make sure I think of a nickname for you.”
He leaned in. “Too late, I already got one,” he said, referring to his Hero name of The Fool.
“No no,” she whispered. “That’s the same thing as ‘Twinblade Lu’, it’s special, but it’s not you.”
“I dunno, I’m pretty fine with just being Alex. Though Lord Alex might be pretty cool. Archmage Alex. No, no King Alex. No wait, Evil King Alex-”
“Nevermind, you’re not getting better at naming things.”
“Welcome, my young friends, to our final venture into The Barrens…at least for this course,” Chancellor Baelin said as the students settled in their seats.
Several days had passed and—after a few final preparations—the class of The Art of the Wizard in Combat II was ready to face their final test for the school year.
The towering goat beastman looked at all of them with a twinkle of pride in his eyes. His beard clasps tinkled around the braids in his beard. “I cannot describe how proud I am of all of you. The Art of the Wizard in Combat—in the end—is about transformation. The transformation of excited young student into Proper Wizard. Perhaps, I should say that it is the beginning of that transformation. Today I shall call this test what it is: it is the end of our course, but the true beginning of your path as competent wizards through the duration of your academic career, and beyond.”
He gestured to the sky. “The world is a wild and dangerous place, most of all for those that make it their business to bend the fabric of their reality using spell, knowledge and will. To the unprepared? That is a path of folly, it is like venturing into a dark nest of beast-goblins without proper preparations and sources of light: utterly self-destructive. However, you stepped onto the path of learning, figuring out how to apply your vast resources to defend yourself, your loved ones, and your possessions; as well as learning how to enact your will onto the world. Such a thing is to be commended. In short—and forgive an old goatman for rambling—I am proud.” He paused and seemed to literally beam with pride for a moment before continuing. “Did you bring your charm-pendants today, as I requested?”
The class fished them out, showing them to Baelin.
“Excellent. I am glad you remembered them.” He looked at the members of the wizards’ entourages. “And to those that are here supporting your wizard family members, friends and loved ones: I commend you all as well. This is not an easy course, even for those auditing it, and it is my hope that each of you will walk away with a mind more tactical and more ready for the challenges that you and your companions will face in due time. Should you overcome this challenge today, I will have a little surprise for all of you.”
He smiled. “Good hunting, my young students. Good hunting. I shall see you soon.”
With a single gesture, Baelin activated his teleportation magic, and Alex felt that familiar pull as he was plucked from his seat by the spell and transported to The Barrens.
The dry heat hit him in a wave and he squinted as the dust blew over the wasteland. A few moments later, the others appeared, though Alex was surprised that Claygon arrived slightly before the others.
He looked at his friends. “Ten gold says his surprise is another, more horrible monster for us to fight,” he whispered.
“Even I would not bet against that,” Khalik whispered.
“I say it’ll be two monsters,” Thundar jumped in.
“Or ten,” Isolde added.
“Well.” Theresa lifted her bow, nocking one of Alex’s special arrows on the string. “We’ll have to worry about this one first. And fast. Look.”
The others followed her gaze, squinting through the blowing dust. Theresa’s eyes were by far the sharpest of any of them, but Alex could see movement in the distance.
The ground swelled as something swam just beneath the surface.