Baelin often said that a wizard’s greatest enemy was another wizard.
They came with a number of abilities that one would prefer an enemy not have.
Not only would they attack other wizards…well, way more than they should, but in combat, much of what gave a wizard the advantage didn’t matter as much when their opponent was another wizard.
If they had lots of spells to call on, they were harder to predict, so fighting one meant fighting an unpredictable enemy who had as many, or even more options as you that they could use against you. Wizards were also sapient—often well-educated, and might be trained in battle tactics, unlike beasts or typical monsters.
And in Alex’s particular situation, facing another wizard presented other problems: The Mark made him slower at spell casting, so even if this wizard was at a similar skill level, he’d be able cast much faster than Alex could. He looked over at the bag with his potions tucked safely inside with some relief. Thankfully, they could help even things out.
Theresa was swearing quietly as she looked at the wizard. “That’s a problem. A big problem…and there’s more. Do you hear that?”
“No,” Alex looked at her sharply. “What is it?”
“In the cave, there’s a lot of buzzing coming from it: they don’t sound agitated, but there’s a lot of wide awake wasps in there.”
“Then I bet that’s where the vespara is,” Alex said.
“What’d we do?” She turned back toward him, her face a mixture of concern and determination. Her hand rested on Brutus' back to keep him quiet. With years of training well-ingrained in him, he didn’t make a sound. “I’m out of my element now. Wizards are your thing.”
“Hold on, let’s listen to them for a bit and see what we can figure out. It’ll give us an idea of what’s going on,” he said. “Even though I doubt things’ll be so convenient that they’ll loudly explain their own plan to each other for us to hear.”
They tucked themselves low to the ground and listened carefully to the two men in the crater.
“-hours-” the pudgy man said, gesturing with his piece of fowl. “-to get registered. I tell you, for all the taxes we pay, they could organize themselves better.”
“Yeah,” the boarman grunted. “You shoulda seen how much I gave the taxman last year. Felt like I was cutting off an arm.”
“Tell me about it,” the human agreed, ripping the last piece of meat from the bone and tossing it behind him.
The boarman gave him a look. “I don’t want the camp stinking ‘cause you’re too lazy to clean up after yourself.”
“The wasps’ll get it in the morning.” The other man waved a hand dismissively. “If anything, I’m feeding them, so, I’m doing them a favour.”
The boarman snorted, letting his point drop. “If you say so.” He glanced at the moon. “You want to turn in? We have a long walk waiting for us in the morning.”
“Not yet,” the human said.
Alex felt a slight surge of mana and the man’s forceball moved closer to a bag beside him which he searched, then pulled a waterskin from.
‘Shit, definitely a wizard,’ Alex thought.
The question now was just how powerful was he?
Alex obviously couldn’t tell just by looking at the man…but there were some clues. For one, a more powerful wizard would’ve had more than one spell going since they were in an area where he and his companions needed to be cautious.
He should’ve had things like magical wards to protect their camp, summoned guardians to keep watch, and so on. This wizard seemed to only have his forceball activated, which meant he was either being very stingy with his mana, or he wasn’t very powerful.
Less powerful wizards—like Alex currently was—tended to be more conservative with spells to conserve mana and not waste it powering spells that were always active, especially if they didn’t have good mana control to make use of proper mana regeneration techniques.
More powerful wizards also tended to be well-off, and could afford more magical items, especially here in Generasi. This fellow didn't seem to have any items with glyphs on them for the binding of enchantments. He’d also walked here, judging from the footprints they’d found in the woods.
Those things seemed to say that he wasn’t a very powerful wizard.
So what did that mean for them?
Alex thought back to Baelin’s class. This year they hadn’t gone into much detail about how to directly battle another wizard—that would be covered next year—but he should be able to come up with some strategies to use by considering what he’d do in a conflict with someone with his, or his friends’ abilities.
One big advantage that he and Theresa had was the element of surprise. A wizard without active protective spells who was caught off-guard, was just as vulnerable as anyone else.
If they moved fast, they could take him down before he could do much.
Then, that left the vespara.
The clearing and lack of foliage meant fire-magic was back on the menu, as long as they kept the fight here around the crater. But they’d need Claygon to get here fast.
A plan formed in his mind.
“I think if we move fast, we might be able to take him,” he whispered to Theresa. “What I’m thinking is this. We wait until they go to sleep. Then we grab them and take them down. I’ll call Claygon, then toss a booby-trapped potion into the cave. The wasps in there'll have to fly through the gas to get out.”
She thought about it. “Sounds like a good plan. But what about the sentry? We’ll need to get him-if it is a he-too or he'll just start shouting when we breach the camp.”
“Right…didn’t think about that one.”
“It’s okay, I can go,” she said. “It didn’t look like there were any wasps on his tree, so I should be able to just grab him and bring him down. You and Brutus can take care of the wizard and his friend.”
“Sounds perfect,” Alex said.
“Oh by Uldar, will you two just go the hells to sleep!” Alex seethed, while the wizard and boarman continued talking about random crap through the night. Even Brutus looked irritated.
“Paaaaatiiience,” Theresa whispered. “That’s the first thing every hunter has to learn, Alex. Patience. Patience. Patience. Your kills never come to you on schedule, you have to just wait until the right moment.”
A smile curled across her lips. “Theeeere we are. Look. Good things come to hunters who wait.”
Finally, the pair in the crater got ready to break off their conversation when the boarman said, “I guess I’d better go relieve Will before he starts thinking we forgot him up in that tree.” Grunting he stood up, stretched his arms above his head then marched off into the woods while the wizard pulled out a bedroll and prepared to turn in for what was left of the night.
A short while later, a thin vicious-looking man came from the tree line, spitting on the ground.
“Did you see anything?” the wizard asked.
“Not a thing except trees and darkness,” he said. “Beautiful night. The kind you could write poetry about.”
Alex did a double take.
The man looked more like a bandit than a poet.
An old expression came to mind, something about ‘books’ and ‘covers’ and ‘judging things’.
“No sign of whatever was crashing around the brush earlier?” the wizard asked.
“No sign,” the ‘poet’ said, reaching for his bedroll. “Don’t you worry. It’s not the first time some monster or beast came sniffing around, saw the wasps, and decided to find an easier lunch in some other forest.”
“Good, nothing to sweat about then. I was telling Jacques that we might want to leave a day earlier than we planned.”
“Really? I don’t want to slip out on our obligations and upset the client if the job’s not done right.”
‘Client?’ Alex wondered.
“His note said he was happy so far, and from what I heard yesterday, the job’s almost going too well. The honey harvest’ll be good and ruined in another day or two, but if we stay here any longer, someone tougher than that nobildonna’s old hunt master’s going to come poking around. We’ve got our champion all registered now too, so there’s not much reason to take more risks. Besides, there’s that bonus to think about: I’d like to be free to enjoy it.”
“Fair enough,” the sentry yawned, laying out his bedroll. “I’ll trust your judgement, and I’ll bid you a good night, then.”
As time passed, the two men finally tucked themselves into their bedrolls and were asleep within minutes.
“Alright, I’m going to get ‘Jacques’,” Theresa said, referring to the boarman. She laid her pack down and drew a long length of rope from it.
“How’ll I know when you get him?” Alex asked her.
She drew her knife, and it glinted in the moonlight. “I’ll shine this at you from the trees. You’ll know when to move as soon as you see the flash. Love you. Be careful.”
“Love you too.”
“Brutus, don’t make a sound and listen to what Alex says. Alex, if you get Brutus hurt, I’ll kill you.”
“…I’m, uh, kinda getting mixed signals here.”
She didn’t respond as she slipped silently into the dark.
He glanced over at Brutus. “Your mom’s mean.”
The cerberus just looked at him—in a way Alex was sure was judging him—and then licked his face.
“Thanks,” he said dryly.
The two of them waited in silence. Alex gritted his teeth, waiting for sounds of a struggle or cries of pain. His worry built as heartbeats turned to minutes without a single sound. He was starting to consider going after her when the flash of her knife gleamed briefly through the tree’s canopy.
‘Not even a sound,’ Alex thought. ‘Note to self, never piss the silent and deadly Theresa off.’
Slowly and quietly, he removed his cloak and held it up, then whispered the incantation for his forceball. With this version of the spell, he’d changed the array so he could alter its brightness with mana manipulation.
It would be dim at first, but he could make it glow a lot brighter.
The forceball materialized under the cloak, and none of its low light leaked from beneath the fabric. Then he slipped silently from the trees, with Brutus at his side.
In the crater below were two sleeping men who could wake at any moment if he made one wrong move. But, neither stirred as he and Brutus crept closer.
‘Easy,’ Alex told himself, cautiously sneaking forward. ‘Eaaaasy.’
They were halfway to the sleeping pair when it happened.
“Hey!” a voice cried through the night. “Who’s there?”
It was a woman’s voice, coming from the opposite direction of where the sentry had been. Tension surged through him. They’d seen three sets of tracks heading into the vespara’s territory and assumed there were only three people around.
But if the wizard could fly, then he wouldn’t have left any tracks.
Just how powerful was he then?!
Both men stirred up ahead.
He had to act. Now.
“Brutus, sic’ ‘im!” He pointed at the skinny man while drawing back his booby-trapped sensory enhancement potion.
‘Claygon! Come to me! Fast!’ he roared in his mind as he threw the potion.
The cerberus growled, leaping forward as the two shouting, cursing men struggled to free themselves from their sleeping rolls.
The bottle flipped through the air end over end as Alex was reaching for another one while rushing toward the pair.
The glass smashed and gas spread in a cloud, enveloping both men. There was a shrill cry as Brutus grabbed one of them. Alex quickly pulled the cloak from his forceball and shielding his eyes, drove his mana into the orb while willing it forward.
It shot it into the mist as the cerberus grappled with the thin man. “Close your eyes, Brutus!”
The cascading light flared, then a scream rose from the wizard.
‘Good.’ Alex thought. The brightness that exploded in front of the man as the booby-trapped Potion of Sensory Enhancement overloaded his senses, was enough to blind, and panic anyone.
The clamor arising as Claygon crashed through the trees toward the battle, echoed through the forest.
But, an unnerving, angry buzzing droned from the cave.
Aex cocked back the arm holding the second potion.
Theresa rushed from the trees, her bow in hand.
An arrow cut through the air.
But it wasn’t Theresa’s.
It had flown from the forest where the female sentry had appeared and slammed into Alex’s force armour, skidding across the spell, throwing his aim off.
The potion landed just short of the cave, exploding into gas, but was far enough from the cave mouth that some of the wasps could fly around it.
He crouched, hiding in the mist, as Theresa drew her bowstring back and returned a shot in the direction the woman’s arrow had come from. She continued running forward, ducking an arrow, then diving into the woods.
Suddenly, Alex heard muted muttering nearby.
His heart stopped.
The wizard was struggling to stand and he was casting.
Alex threw himself on the portly wizard, wrapping his arms around him, while clapping his hand over the man’s mouth. Teeth sank into the meat of his hand. Alex yelped, but held on, shifting his grip and flexing his arms, holding the man’s jaw shut as he struggled to escape.
He wrapped his legs around the disoriented wizard’s back and locked his grip tighter. It wasn’t a fancy hold, but he was much stronger than the older man. He wouldn’t be getting free anytime soon.
Then he heard the swarm and glanced up through the potion-mist.
A cloud of deadly wasps poured from the cave mouth, most flying through the mist, not realizing what awaited them. Their buzzing suddenly changed, sounding erratic as the insects flew every which way. They zig-zagged up through the air, spiralled toward the ground, or flew in confused circles as their senses went nuts.
Alex shot his forceball toward them, giving them something to track. With completely overwhelmed senses, some chased the light, futilely stinging the only thing they could see.
Then, the big ones emerged.
Alex gasped. There were only about ten or so of them, but they were at least as big as house cats, and from his distance—with his eyesight enhanced—he could see needle sharp stingers the length of a pinky finger.
“Scraaaaaaaaaaaeeeeaaaaaa!” a hideous shriek erupted from the cave.
The vespara’s call echoed through the night.
“Alex!” he heard Theresa’s voice. “The swarms in the forest! I can hear them, they’re coming!”
“Shit!” he cried. “Get back here! Take cover in the potion mist!”
The sound of Claygon crashing through the trees was drawing closer.
Good. He’d be here soon, and the vespara couldn’t leave the cave without going through the potion mist.
He heard a loud deep buzzing growing closer to the cave mouth. Then, it suddenly stopped.
A heartbeat passed, then the buzzing abruptly receded.
It sounded like it was moving fast.
A strange scratching noise began. Somewhere deep in the cave something was digging. The digging got louder, seemingly travelling upward.
Alex's eyes went wide.
“Theresa! I think it’s tunnelling another way out of the cave! You-”
Another screech ripped through the night as a dark shape shot into the air. The vespara launched itself into the moonlight.