There was something both beautiful and hideous about the creature.
Its wings flashed in the night, shimmering like diamonds as they buzzed through the air. And that’s where all beauty ended. The monster attached to those wings was almost humanoid, with four arms and two legs that were disproportionately thin and long. Its body was lean and maybe eight or nine feet, thanks to strikingly long legs.
Angry-looking black and yellow bands covered a body topped by a head that was a cross between a wasp’s and a person’s, with eyes that faced forward like a wolf’s.
Or a human’s.
A predator’s eyes.
It hovered, taking in the scene below.
Alex pulled his hand away from the wizard’s face. “Call off your pet! If you try spellcasting, I’ll choke you out and make sure you have a nasty little mana reversal to deal with when you wake up!” He snarled at the man, knowing his words were an idle threat thanks to The Mark. But this wizard didn’t know that.
Too bad the only answer Alex got involved screaming.
The wizard’s hearing had been cranked up and Alex realized that his voice must have felt like a hammer slamming into the man’s ear drums.
Swearing, he clapped his hand back over the wizard’s mouth. Then his eyes went wide. Theresa was emerging from the trees, holding the second sentry under her arm like she weighed nothing. The woman kicked, screamed and cursed.
“Theresa, look ou-”
The vespara shot toward her, howling with rage. It had chosen its target and its stinger protruded like a shortsword. The huntress leapt back, drawing her great-grandfather’s sword in one smooth motion, and turning to position the screaming sentry between her and the monster. Her sword flashed out, striking the creature’s thorax, cutting its chitin.
It screeched, recoiling as Theresa coiled like a spring then leapt into the cloud of potion-mist. Her struggling prisoner gasped when they hit the vapour and her senses were overwhelmed.
Alex saw the woman drop as Theresa whirled on the vespara. It veered away from the cloud—cautiously—then circled. Its buzzing was loud enough to hurt Alex’s ears, and while he only grimaced, the wizard’s company tried to block their ears, screaming.
Agitated, the monster jabbed at Theresa with the long, dagger-like stinger, but she slashed its thorax again, spilling foul green-white blood. Alex’s breath caught as it aimed for Brutus’ hulking form in the mist, but Theresa was too quick, and another slash stopped it.
Her quick blade and the cover of the mist kept it from reaching its targets, saving them from a sting that would release a flood of venom. The poison’s effects on its victims was gruesome. Alex could still see the images from the monsternomicon.
The vespara shuddered with rage, then began an awful screeching.
An infernal buzzing roared from all directions like a raging wind—growing louder—but the violent crashing from Claygon grew closer too. As gas lessened around them; the vespara became more aggressive.
Alex cursed. They needed to stop it.
“Theresa!” He released the writhing man and pulled out the last booby-trapped sensory enhancement potion. “Catch! Throw it when I say!”
“Got it!” she shouted as he tossed it to her.
The vespara buzzed around them, looking for openings.
He was seeing a pattern in its movements. It was slowly getting closer. Growing bolder.
He glanced at his forceball.
‘That’s right,’ he thought. ‘Come at me, niiice and quick.’
He drove the forceball out from the swarm of wasps.
It shot toward him.
And right into the path of the vespara’s face.
Its head slammed into the orb at full speed, whipping back.
“Now!” he roared.
Theresa tossed the potion bottle into the creature’s face with vicious accuracy.
It exploded against its stinger and the contents escaped into the air.
The intense light from the forceball glared in its face. A shriek rang through the woods as it reared back, its eyes burning.
Whish! Whish! Whish!
Theresa threw her knife straight into its face. The vespara froze, the thick blade quivered in an eye socket as a strange, gurgling buzz escaped its throat. It dropped to the ground with a clacking noise.
Claygon burst from the trees, surrounded and pursued by clouds of wasps.
They poured into the crater from all directions, answering the vespara’s death cries.
“Blast ‘em, Claygon! Not the woods, but burn the wasps!” Alex shouted.
Theresa hit the ground, and their prisoners screamed.
Light built in all three fire gems as the golem raised his hands.
Three red beams of fire-magic blasted through the air, crackling and pulsing into the clouds of angry wasps, decimating the swarms. The night seemed to change from darkness to broad daylight and the pleasant warmth of the summer night turned to sweltering heat.
The buzzing of wings died in crackling flame as Claygon walked forward ominously, sweeping through the clouds of wasps with his forehead and hand beams. Bigger wasp bodies hissed then blew apart, sounding like chestnuts cracking from an open fire. Alex wondered what the air around them smelled like.
Some of the swarm that escaped the beams just dropped from heat radiating off the fiery explosions. Others zipped around confused, flying into the flames. Claygon blasted the swarm in front of the cave, cooking the remaining over-sized wasps, then picked up the writhing vespara with a lower arm.
He whipped the creature's body back for a throw.
“We need the head!” Alex shouted.
The golem paused, then gently plucked off the dying monster’s head between two fingers like he was picking dandelion petals for a round of, ‘loves me, loves me not.’
Instantly, the monster’s gurgling cries stopped; the wasps abruptly lost cohesion. They shuddered as the vespara’s magic left them, and began flying aimlessly in all directions, suddenly without direction.
Claygon’s beams swept the air around the crater until the only wasps left were a few tiny, twitching forms on the ground.
He could hear buzzing coming from the cave, but the angry growl of the swarm outside had ceased.
Alex breathed a sigh of relief then turned his attention to the wizard.
Looking down at the curled up man, he spoke to him in a low voice. “So, you’ll be getting your senses back in a little bit, okay? But before you do, I’m going to bind and gag you, since I figure any spellcaster who’s hiding out in the woods with a vespera shouldn't be trusted. Then, we’re all going to have a nice friendly chat, and just so you know, I’m a wizard too.” He paused, letting the weight of the man’s situation sink in before continuing. “You saw what my golem can do, right? Keep that in mind, in case you get any stupid ideas.”
The wizard gave a loud painful groan as Alex’s lowered voice still slammed into his hyper-sensitive ears.
“…oh right,” he said. “Uh….just keep doing that, I guess.”
The four…vespara-tamers were tied up in the center of the crater as Claygon finished clearing out the cavern. A bunch of giant wasp hives were tucked into the vespara’s lair, so Claygon went about the task of removing and burning them and their queens. That was another reason Alex was glad he had his golem. He, Theresa, and Brutus could safely watch the process from beside their captives without having to risk being stung to death clearing out the cave. There were ten nests inside, each the size of a calf, plus a bunch of wasps still left to defend them, but Claygon easily moved them out to be burned on the crater’s rocky bottom.
A few swishes of Alex’s massive ‘wasp-swatters,’ and a few blasts of flame later, and the wasps were just a bad memory.
Alex’s heart was hammering in his chest and his body felt like it was drenched in cold sweat, but he held his face in a confident mask that The Mark was helping him with. It worked well with Theresa’s natural ‘death-stalker’ face.
Their four captives were coming around, but they still had to squint in the moonlight. At least the potions’ effects were beginning to wear off enough so they could soon answer some questions.
“Alright, I don’t hear any more buzzing coming from the cave.” Theresa squinted toward the cave mouth, looking for any straggler wasps. “Let’s check it out. Brutus, bite their heads off if they move.”
The wizard gave a muffled whimper behind his gag.
The others just groaned.
“Claygon, you burn the bodies,” Alex said.
All four whimpered.
Alex and Theresa quickly went by them and entered the cave. As he’d done in The Cave of the Traveller, he swept his forceball along the walls and floor, looking for any hidden dangers, or anything valuable.
The cavern was a mess of partially-organized supplies, soil, and a massive nest made from leaves, bones, wood, and pieces of what looked like honeycomb.
Midway down the chamber lay a rough writing desk with a dried stump for a seat. Papers were scattered across the top. Alex was looking around when a stone disk leaning against the wall caught his attention. It looked similar to the flying disks folks used to get around campus.
Actually, it was identical to those disks. How did those four come by it? Did they steal it?
“Look,” Theresa said, pointing at the papers on the desk. She picked one atop the pile. It was a letter. “Hmmm…”
“What’s it say?” Alex walked over to look over her shoulder.
“Looks like it’s from their ‘client’.”
He called his forceball close and quickly scanned the page.
The nobildonna’s activities go poorly and I have not heard of any talk aside from these attacks being the work of a wild monster. As promised, you have performed good and discrete work.
I am very satisfied with the service you have provided so far. Keep up the good work, and I am sure she will fall on hard times, at least for a time.
Friend Stewart, I have told you of the vile spurning she gave me, but mere words cannot give voice to the cruelty of her words. A partnership between our domains-
“Oh by The Traveller,” Theresa said. “Is this person really explaining why they’re mad?”
“Sometimes people just want someone to talk to,” Alex shrugged. “Even if it’s someone they’ve hired. Maybe whoever this is just wanted to be heard.”
“Too bad for him, this looks pretty incriminating,” she said.
-would provide excellent benefits for both our vineyards. Her wine—to put it bluntly—is absolute pig’s swill! Pig’s swill! I’m half-convinced that her lack of invitation to Patrizia dePaolo’s last ball was due to her having the winemaking ability of an angry pig soaked in vinegar. Though, her honey-mead is, I must grudgingly admit, delicious. Her gamble on the bees and her experimentations with the recipe have most definitely yielded fruit. Or I should say yielded honey hahahaha!
“…they sound like you,” Theresa said.
"They do not!” Alex complained.
In either case, sufficient ruination should have her reconsidering my offer. My capital and her recipe shall bring about a new age in the night life of Generasi. Should you continue to perform your task as well as you have thus far, I shall consider offering you a bonus if a contract between her and I is secured. And—if your beast—is still under your command, I will certainly seek your services again for anything so delicate!
- Yours Truly, ‘The Midnight Sparrow’
“Well at least he knew enough not to sign his name or press his seal into it,” Alex said. “Or she, or they, I guess. I dunno.”
He looked down at the desk noting a sheath of papers that did have a seal.
Four dragons like the four statues above City Hall—surrounding the symbol for mana.
There was another seal on some of the other papers: one of a tall figure holding a staff and a curved sword.
“That’s Roal’s symbol,” Theresa said, picking up the sheath of papers to examine them.
Congratulations on your registration in the ‘Duel of Proxies’ event within The Games of Roal. Please present this registration certificate at the beginning of The Games so the gamesters might properly establish the groupings for the tournament.
Best of luck and may your tamed beast perform well!
“Huh,” Alex said. “I guess it won’t be performing well…cuz, you know…it’s headless.”
“And you hunt and skin things for fun and profit. You’re gross.”
They went through the rest of the papers, finding more letters from this ‘Midnight Sparrow’ that asked for updates on the plan.
“Well, it looks like someone hired our friends out there to ruin the nobildonna’s crop,” Alex said. “I guess they were getting the coin from this job and hoping for whatever prize they might get from the ‘Duel by Proxy’ event at The Games. ...which reminds me...I still need to find out what the events are for that. Anyway, I wonder who this ‘sparrow’ person is. …even though it’s not our problem anymore. We got the monster and didn’t burn down the forest: now we can turn the folks out there over to the city guard and be done with this.”
Theresa yawned. “Right, they should be able to figure out who hired these guys. Whew, long day…so?”
“So what?” Alex asked.
“How’d you like your first hunt outside of class?”
“Well, it was freaky sometimes and exciting other times…not gonna lie, there being a wizard here made me kinda nervous.”
She smiled. “My heart’s still pounding, but I think Baelin’s class helped us handle this. Soon the world’s going to have to fear us!”
“I like the sound of that…hey, Theresa?”
She paused as she was about to start collecting the papers they’d found. “What’s up?”
“It worked out this time, I mean we caught everybody and neither of us got hurt…but would you have…” he paused, unsure of how to ask.
“Would I have what?”
“Would you have been…okay with killing them?” he finally got the words out. “I dunno, I know it’s a weird question but…I’m just wondering.”
Theresa paused, thinking over his words for a long moment. “…do you really want me to answer?”
“Only if you want to.”
“…yeah, I think I would have,” she said. “That woman would have put an arrow in your chest if you didn’t have your magic up to protect us. I was moving fast and it was dark…but I wasn’t aiming to just wing her, Alex.”
“…oh. Okay. Well, I was wondering because well…if we stay on this path of me learning to be a wizard and you learning to be a badass, this is probably going to happen again.”
She nodded. “That’s too bad…but it’s a bloody world, I guess. And if something is trying to hurt us…”
There was a pause.
“Can we talk about something else?”
“Oh yeah, sure thing,” he said. “I just-Yeah. Let’s just get this stuff out of here.”
She smiled at him, then kissed him on the lips. “This was fun. I’m glad we did it.”
“Yeah…” he paused, giving thought to all that had happened. “I’m glad we did too.”
His eyes drifted back to that disk laying against the wall. For the first time, they’d fought people. For the first time, they’d fought another wizard.
…he kind of wanted to talk to Baelin about that.
Thmp. Thmp. Thmp.
Alex knocked quietly on the office doorframe, watching from the hall as the chancellor wrote on a piece of parchment. His massive desk was filled with paperwork stacked in neat piles and on the floor lay…bags?
“Welcome, Alex, why don’t you come in?” Baelin didn’t bother looking up from his paperwork.
“Uh, is this a bad time?” Alex asked.
“Yes and no, I would say.” The chancellor finished writing a sentence. “On the one hand, it seems my enemies are trying to kill me…by crushing me with paperwork. On the other, I have some news for you.”
He finally looked up at his young student.
“I will be seeing your king tomorrow morning.”