“It will sense us soon,” Khalik said, nodding to Najyah and sending her into the sky—above the range of the worm’s sensory abilities—to act as another pair of eyes. “It likely already felt the earth’s vibration when we were teleported in: our collective weight would have suddenly displaced this area we are standing on.”
“Then let's get off the ground as fast as we can,” Alex said quickly, pulling out his potions of flight and passing them to Isolde, Theresa, Thundar, and Khalik.
He also handed some to Isolde’s entourage: Svenia and Hogarth took the two potions while gripping their harpoons. Lengths of heavy braided rope were attached to rings on the butt ends of the weapons. The two warriors threw uncertain looks toward the direction of the dune worm, watching it swim beneath the earth.
“Right, cheers,” Hogarth said, clacking his potion bottle to Svenia’s and then draining it. He made a face. “Not exactly a good vintage.” His eyes turned toward the swell of the earth again. “…can’t believe I’m about to harpoon a big, dirty whale-worm.
“Stranger and stranger things we fight,” Svenia echoed his sentiment.
“Can’t argue with that,” Alex said, then passed out a second batch of potions to everyone. “The magic in the potions will keep you airborne for a while, but if you feel yourself begin to drift down like a feather, that means the magic is fading. Drink the second dose right away: the last thing we need is to start floating to the ground while that worm is trying to smash us with rocks or impale us with stone spikes.”
Everyone nodded and the rest of the group swallowed their potions, waiting for the magic to wash through them.
Alex watched Isolde cast her flight spell on Claygon; the golem reacted to it a little—he could feel the slight reaction through their connection—as its core adjusted to the new mana passing through it.
‘It’s alright,’ Alex found himself telling the construct through their bond. ‘The magic will keep you in the air, you just need to direct yourself like if you were moving in your regular way. Walking and stuff, except you don’t need to take steps. Just aim yourself where you need to go.’
He paused. Was he trying to reassure his golem? Apparently he was.
“Let us begin then,” Khalik said, interrupting Alex’s thoughts and shooting into the air.
The group followed, with Claygon bringing up the rear. They flew toward the moving swell in the earth, but had to squint and cover their noses against the dust caught on the light wind.
Alex noted that. “Hold on, we don’t want to be going in blinded or in a coughing fit mid-fight.”
Alex began working through The Mark’s interference to cast Orb of Air for each of them, which surrounded their heads in a globe of fresh air that filtered out all contaminants. He then followed up by casting other defensive spells on himself, while the other wizards also began casting protective spells. The group took a long, spiralling route around the worm, which let them observe the creature while slowly closing the distance, and giving them time to get their spells up.
Alex’s spellcasting was still slow compared to his friends’, though he’d made a lot of progress in speed: four forceballs appeared in a fraction of the time that they used to. He cast force shield and lesser force armour next, and finally ‘protective crooked rectangle’.
The others had gotten faster too. Khalik in particular stood out: incantations poured from his mouth, and he had both his earth armour and a forceshield up in the time it took the rest of them to have one spell readied.
Once Alex’s defensive array was complete, he looked at Theresa, cast a lesser force armour spell on her and—after a moment’s thought—on Claygon as well. The golem’s own magically enhanced body was sturdier than the spell, but extra protection never hurt.
Alex cocked his head slightly at Claygon’s style of ‘flying’.
They were all flying parallel to the ground, almost like they were swimming through the air. But, the golem remained in an upright position the entire time, with his feet set as though he was standing on thin air.
‘Huh. I never did tell you to shift position, did I?’ he thought. ‘Maybe a good thing I didn’t…that looks pretty badass.’
He willed Claygon to cross his four arms: his upper pair folded in front of him, and the lower pair behind his back.
Now it looked really badass.
‘Maybe I should try flying like that,’ he thought.
“Are you playing with Claygon?” Theresa asked.
“N-no…” he said quickly. “…yes.”
Her words froze and she looked down startled.
The earth rumbled so powerfully that even the air around them seemed to vibrate. That swell in the ground surged upward.
The dune worm breached like a whale jumping out of the sea.
Its armour plates glistened like quartz in the sun, and its body drew a graceful arc before diving back into the earth.
“Wow,” Alex murmured. “That…that’s kinda beautiful.”
“Indeed,” Isolde agreed.
“It’s-wow is right,” Theresa said. “I almost feel bad hunting i-“
Her eyes went wide.
“Watch out!” she roared.
A massive tower of earth burst from the ground—its tip spiked like a barbed spearhead—and blasted straight toward the middle of the group.
With a cry, they scattered in all directions.
The immense stone tower struck where’d they’d been a second earlier. If it weren’t for Theresa’s warning, some of them would have been ripped apart by the barbs protruding from the spiked head.
For another of the many times during one of Baelin’s practical classes, Alex glanced down at the spell-mark on his hand, hoping that their professor’s spell would activate and teleport them to safety fast enough if they got struck.
He remembered Baelin speaking of students suffering great injuries in past classes…
The worm rose halfway out of the ground and roared at them.
Alex’s blood chilled.
Its mouth had dozens of ‘teeth’ lining the inside, some were hook-shaped, some pointed and others flat, looking like they were meant to grind up any prey it hooked. Mangled body parts, some beast parts—some looking suspiciously humanoid—were rotting, stuck between its teeth.
“Nevermind!” Theresa shouted. “Let’s hunt this thing!”
She steadied her bow as they all spread out, circling around the worm. The creature continued to swim beneath the earth, the ground swelled above it, marking its position. The four wizards separated, shooting toward opposite directions, trying to corral the creature.
The ground began to ripple.
Alex could feel mana shift below like a tidal wave.
“Earth magic!” Khalik roared. “Concentrating beneath us! Dodge!”
More spikes shot from the earth, kicking up massive clouds of dust as they snaked through the air with pinpoint accuracy, bending, seeking to impale the flying wizards.
They dove around the spikes. Khalik shouted an incantation, working to counter the earth magic heading for him, but the monster proved to be too powerful; the prince had to dive out of the way, cursing as he flew through the dust.
“It has excellent aim even from beneath the earth!” Isolde cried.
“Yeah, just like that damn earth elemental we fought,” Thundar shouted. He glanced up. “Its senses are sharp: it won’t give us a chance to fight back! We gotta climb above its sensory range! That’ll force it to surface!”
“It will be out of spell range for most of our spells!” Isolde responded.
Thundar looked at Theresa. “Will it be out of range of your arrows?”
“Not when I’m shooting from right above it!” The huntress was already ascending.
Everyone shot after her, climbing into the sky so quickly, that the wind swelled to a dull roar in their ears. Towers of spiked earth continued to rise below them, chasing them through the sky like giant serpents trying to catch birds.
Alex trembled under the sheer weight of the power being thrown around. The mana he was sensing was enough to make his head ache. It wasn’t that it was the most mana he’d ever felt, after all he’d been around mana vents…and Baelin. But this stuff was so raw…so ‘angry,’ that he was caught off guard by the force.
It was all he could do to keep himself and Claygon from being pierced. He used his agility to sweep through and past forests of spikes, while simultaneously guiding his golem’s movements.
Eventually, the rising spears of earth began to slow, and then stop. The group looked down to see the earthen towers straining to chase them like dogs struggling against chains.
They were getting out of range of both its senses, and its earth magic.
Alex let out a sigh of relief. “Looks like-”
“Look out!” he and Khalik cried at the same time.
The barbs at the end of the towers shuddered.
They fired in all directions like a hail storm of spears.
Alex yelled as he weaved—in a midair dance—around the spikes. Theresa’s enhanced agility let her dodge around them, while Thundar shot in front of Isolde, spitting an incantation. The minotaur gripped his mace tightly with all the strength improved by his body enhancement spell, while a second mace made entirely of magically conjured mana appeared beside him.
With a roar of effort, Thundar swung his weapon into a stone spear while the conjured mace struck it at the same time, shattering the rock completely.
As he’d bought Isolde a few precious moments, the young woman then barked an incantation that summoned a golem-sized whirlwind in front of her and Thundar. It only appeared for a few moments, but it turned aside every stone spear that was shooting toward them.
However, with Alex’s attention being split-
-a spike hit Claygon, scraping along his side, sending the golem spinning through the air from the ‘buoyancy’ of the flight spell.
“No!” Alex shouted.
When the wave of spikes finally stopped, Alex flew to his golem’s side.
He examined him closely.
The lesser force armour had completely shattered, but there wasn’t even a scratch on Claygon’s body. “Ooooh, good good, nothing bad happened to you.”
He pat Claygon’s side “Let’s get out of here.”
Alex, his golem, and the rest of the group continued to ascend out of range of the spears; once they were far enough away and saw that nothing pursued them, they stopped.
The group—as one—looked down toward their opponent. The stone towers hadn’t moved toward them. He could see the creature swimming beneath the earth again, circling the area where they’d been.
“It appears that we are out of range of its senses,” Khalik said. “If it wishes to find us, it will have to surface.”
“Especially if we bait it,” Alex said, moving his four force balls beside him. “This thing senses vibrations on the ground and in the air above, within its range: it should react to my force balls suddenly diving toward it.”
His mind was working quickly now.
“If I dart them in and out of its range, that’ll confuse it. It might surface eventually.”
“It does not have eyes, though,” Isolde pointed out. “It should not need to surface.”
“True, but when it breaches, it jumps higher into the air, which means that—for a brief moment—its senses and the range of its attacks will extend up by the same distance it jumped. If we can bait it into doing that—and it’ll need to do something eventually if we keep wasting its mana—Theresa can fire an arrow with a soothing potion right down its throat while it’s in the air.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Khalik said. “My burst of sound can also create vibrations to trigger its senses.”
“Teamwork makes the dream work,” Thundar said. “I’ll send my mana weapon down there too. Really give it something to chase. Let’s get to it!”
Theresa readied her bow as Alex and Thundar shot their spells downward. After they’d descended to a point, the warping ground suddenly switched directions, and the earth began to shake.
More stone towers shot into the air, but the young wizards darted their spells away just before the spikes impaled them.
Khalik quickly followed up with his burst of sound, causing the stone towers to swerve in that direction, but then pause as Thundar’s and Alex’s spells shot down from another angle. For several minutes they kept up their dip-and-run tactics, luring the worm to breach.
“This might be it,” Alex said, watching a wide area of earth swell up.
He drew a pair of potions—his second flight potion and his trapped mana-soothing potion—and readied to cast Call through Ice. When it breached he would-
It didn’t breach.
The earth suddenly rose up.
The largest of its stone towers—at least thirty feet across—shot toward them like an immense fist rising into the sky.