Venturing into the rows of trees that formed the forest I was more than a little miffed since the hand where I got whipped was starting to swell and throb. I couldn’t heal it with magic since I wasn’t too good at Amelioration-type spells. They just never clicked for me so Kowl gave me something that I could use just in case. Too bad it was in my bag, which was still inside Magister Flourish’s office.
That meant I had no choice but to use my off-hand if I wanted to cast a spell since going back wasn’t an option the further I went in. Not to mention I didn’t have anything on me but my wand, Invidia’s wand, a bottle that was supposed to be used for collecting sap, and the very clothes on my back.
“Just great,” I muttered as I continued onwards, rattling through my brain to recall what we learned about the snatchers since there would probably be more ahead.
For starters, the Majus trees disliked them because when they caught prey inside their bells they would begin to secrete some kinda acidic mucus substance that often spilled out and damaged the trees. But since it took a while to dissolve whatever got trapped inside it, and they couldn’t move while in that state, they waited until they suffocated their prey. The frosty gal probably had an hour tops if she didn’t panic….
Make that half-an-hour with how she was screaming. But as long as they didn’t drag her too far in I should find her soon enough. There was also something about a monster that they all were born from, but I couldn’t recall what it was since I got distracted at the time and didn’t ask for the magister to repeat the lecture.
Looking around, I was partly impressed by the forest itself. At this point I was farther in than what was normally allowed with supervision. While the students closer to graduating may have had fewer restrictions when going around, even they could only go so far without a magister.
Unlike the thin gathering of living trees before these weren’t alive in the same sense. But they were bigger and more robust. They were rich in vitality, soaking in the ambient mana that the world gave off as its breath and rising high into the sky, forming a canopy that blocked the rays of the sun from touching down. That made it somewhat darker and mysterious.
Signs of a previous civilization were abound with the various ruins that lingered. The carved stone structures were being eaten away by the green as it continued to reclaim its domain even now. It was really beautiful in a way….
I really hoped I didn’t have to burn it all down to get the gal back.
As I passed under a stone outcropping beneath a cavern, I noticed that the plant life was getting bigger. Far bigger than what it should be able to grow to. Something was wrong. I stopped when I came across some kinda weird fluid that was drizzling from the rocks and onto a giant rose big enough I could take a nap on it. Was this fluid leaking from the cavern above causing everything to be so big?
I didn’t know why, but it felt…natural, yet unnatural. Like it was too pure for it to even exist in this state, so thick that it warped nature just by touching it. And there was something else about, something like…hatred or fear, if I had to put it into words. It was like I could feel strong emotions wafting off it in waves.
I used the bottle I was supposed to gather sap in and capped it when it was half-full of the stuff. While I didn’t know if it was poison or something else, it seemed like something right up Kowl’s alley. He might know what it was if he had time to study it.
No sooner than the bottle was in my pocket I felt the ground shake as the rose began to move. That couldn’t be a good sign. I hopped off and took a couple of steps back as dirt began to rise in small clouds as the rose uprooted itself.
Beneath the blossom were sharp pincers and needle-like insect legs, beady-red eyes opened and fixated on me. It looked hungry, considering dribble ran from a clenched jaw with pinpoint-razor teeth. Fight or flight kicked in that instant.
I bolted, not willing to waste too much energy in fighting whatever it was with my off-hand.
The wind howled as it passed my ears. Within the maze of uneven land, with trees scattered about and rocks from ages passed sticking out of the dirt, I ran as fast as I could. Even with my legs aching and my lungs burning, I was in good shape so you could bet I wasn’t going to be easy to catch.
Yet, somehow the blasted critter could keep up with me. It matched my pace with strong leaps that threatened to cut off my escape if I slowed down even a little bit. There was no way it would let me get away if it could help itself, hunger driving it for a meal that had wandered into its grasp. The thing was a hunter and I was its prey.
When I was forced to cross a small brook it took advantage of the water slowing me down. In a single bound it leapt over my head and cut me off with a mighty spray of water. The posture it took and the way it snapped it pincers left no doubt in my mind that it wasn’t planning on letting me go. The chase must’ve only made it extra hungry from working hard.
I breathed deep the scent of running water as the beating of my heart grew faster. Even though I stood at the brook’s edge, I knew I couldn’t get away. The moment I turned my back to run it would skewer me. I had to drive it away before I could do anything else.
I brandished the foci in my left hand. I wasn’t as good a shot with it, so it took me a second longer to aim and cast the Fire Spout spell than I liked. I missed. Even though fire spouted from beneath the place it stood, there was no charred critter there since it was gone by the time the spell went off. “Shoot!”
I leapt back when its shadow gave it away as it tried to land on top of me. It snapped at me with its pincers as I ducked, dipped, and side-stepped away from it. Staggering back and regretting that my socks were getting wet, I gathered my magic and summoned a flaming whip.
Fire danced roughly in lashing arcs as I drove it back this time. With a snap, I kept it out of range and then switched back to incinerate it again with another burst of flames from below. It dodged again, avoiding my gout of flames with a side-bound. I had to bite back another string of unladylike words in frustration.
The critter moved too quickly and erratically with those legs for me to use the Fire Spout spell again. Not to mention controlling the Flame Whip spell with my off-hand wasn’t any better, and I would botch it eventually. So that left a spraying spell or tracking spell if I wanted to hit it. I had just the thing in that case, but it was a drain so I didn’t rely on it a lot.
I unleashed the Gatling Burner spell, calling forth a flaring star at the tip of my wand. From it emerged dozens flaming darts that were like deadly fireworks, capable of limited tracking before they burned out. They went from orange, to red, and lastly blue as they bombarded the area.
The critter zigzagged, slippery enough in its moves that, even as the bolts softly arched and curved to follow the critter, it didn’t get hit once as the spell ran its course. In the end, all that happened was that I had set several patches of dead wood and leaves ablaze as the last dart vacated the wand. Then the star at the end of the wand fired itself off for an explosive finish, but even then only the force succeeded in knocking it off the path it was on as it made a beeline for me, staggering it for a few seconds.
At this point my wand felt heavy as I looked at all the trembling flames in the aftermath of my last spell. It was such a waste of magic and stamina, on top of the fact that if I left it alone it would burn the forest down. It gave me an idea with the lessons from yesterday’s class and I ran with it.
With a flourish, the flames were harvested to the front of my wand before they spiraled out of control. Using the spell to configure the shape, all the fire swirled into four blazing birds that fluttered above me. Easily large enough combined to swallow my figure and then some, embers danced as they fell like snow with each beat of their wings. Pointing them to my enemy with my wand, I gave them a simple command: “Get ‘em!”
The critter finally decided to cut its losses and run for it. Too bad for it I didn’t take nearly being lunch very well. Not to mention the time and effort put on me. It was going to burn, and my birds threw themselves at the thing en masse to make sure that it did.
It was a sight to behold as they caught up with it and the magic holding them together was released, unleashing all the flames at once and reducing it to cinders as the flare illuminated the shady area. Only a single tip of a petal floating on the wind remained, smoldering until it touched down. I crushed it under my foot, grinding it into the dirt. “Good riddance.”
I manipulated the water in the brook to extinguish the remaining flames. Magister Atra made me practice doing that after I missed the lesson for a detention, so I managed not to do a sloppy job. But the effort left me slightly winded and feeling tired. The only silver-lining of the whole thing was that I spotted a Bell Snatcher filled with water further down the brook, waddling off.
Following it led to a clearing that had a break in the canopy. It was only accessible through a deep slope between two steep rock cliffs, thus making it a somewhat safe place for them to grow considering I came across dozens of the critters hanging from a number of entwining branches. All of them were filled with water or prey, docile for the most part since they were too busy savoring what they had to try and capture me.
It explained the lack of most other critters in this section of the forest to this point, and why that rose thing was so desperate. With this many snatchers being so large, they could prey on just about anything without running into something capable of doing the same to them. There was no way this could be good for the ecosystem at all.
“Over here!” said a distorted, muffled voice that grabbed my attention. It was Invidia, looking distraught and all.
“So here’s where they holed ya up. I’m sure ya can put two and two together, but I came to save ya.”
“Then get me out of here!” she said, banging against the bell-shaped walls that were too durable to break by hand. “The air is getting thinner!!”
“Stop yer yammering,” I told the white-haired blabbermouth. “I need to concentrate on not cookin’ ya by accident!”
Taking aim, I focused and sent forth a flaming bolt that soared like an angry comet until it ruptured against the branch that held up the snatcher holding her captive. It fell down, aggravated to say the least, but I separated its top from the rest of it with a Fire Whip spell and freed the gal. Recalling I still had her wand, I plucked it from my pocket and tossed it to her. “Ya dropped that.”
Invidia caught it delicately, taking in its shape and the magics that dwelled inside of it. To a wand-user, losing their wand was like having a hand cut off. “Why are you helping me?”
“Ya mean despite being a pain in the rear with yer friends?” I asked, not expecting an answer. “It’s ‘cause, despite as much as I hate ya, leaving ya to die is going too far. Now come on, before something else goes wrong.”
“Thank you,” Invidia said honestly, turning away to avoid looking at me… and then she threw me to the ground as something passed overhead of us and slammed into a tree, breaking it. The broken half fell down and shook the ground as it landed. Whatever it was, it reeled itself back and swung above us once more.
It was big and heavy enough to break a thick tree from the impact, leaving the snatchers to rock back and forth like bells on their branches. It was then, standing up and staring at the creature that was five times our height at least, that I remembered why so many Bell Snatchers in one place was bad. They fused together to create a Candelabrum which, using ivy to hang from the canopy like a chandelier, could crush things below it and release its offspring.
“We hafta go, now!” I barked as I pulled her along, until I saw that the exit had been sealed by the top of the large tree that was snapped in half during little swing about. Of course, it purposely sealed the only exit reachable right as the snatchers began to rain down in numbers. We were sitting ducks here.
Cripes, I hated today.
With no way out for the moment I went on the offensive first and sent burning pellets of heat spraying out in a wide arch to hits as many as I could. Many were set ablaze with a furious flame, frantically scurrying and spreading the fire as they rolled around to seek relief from the pain—
“Ah…” The continuous shots ceased as the exhaustion hit me. I’d fought too much and used too much magic today without a chance to rest. Now it caught up to me at the worst possible time. Taking advantage of my moment of weakness, the gathering in front of me speared their ivy limbs forward at a speed that I wouldn’t make it in time to defend myself from.
“I think not!” cried that annoying gal’s voice, before she announced the spell of Winter Winds and an arctic squall suddenly bypassed me. The white veil consumed the incoming ivy whips, coating them in ice and then crumbling into glittering shards. I turned to see Invidia brandishing her wand. “I’m not saying we should get along, but how about we work together to survive this?”
“…Fair enough,” I settled on. How many more spells could I cast? Four, if I were lucky, since I was still in a better condition than the time with the trolls. Better for me to focus on the bigger target then. “I’ll leave the small fry for ya then.”
She nodded and then cast the Coffin of Ice spell, which was unleashed from below the targeted area like my Fire Spout spell. All the moisture near the ground froze to encase a lot of them in a block of ice. She followed up with a string of magic bolts that were fired in repetition from her wand, mercilessly shattering each entombed enemy.
I looked at the Candelabrum and then the burning remnants of my enemies, before flourishing my wand again. All the loose and wavering flames gathered before me a second time, my magic and imagination weaving them into one. Too big to be considered a bird, the newborn phoenix came to life and I gave it a single command: “Fly!”
The phoenix rose with a massive flap of its wings. A gust filled with glowing embers scattered as it ascended to meet the Candelabrum above, trilling as if singing a victorious melody. Yet, that song ended abruptly and was replaced with a roar as the flames swallowed the critter on impact and ate through the ivy supporting it, causing the Candelabrum to descend like a meteor towards us…while on fire.
Oops. “I do believe I didn’t think that through thoroughly.”
“No, you did not!” Invidia huffed before she began to chant for a higher-tier spell. The Glacier Blossom spell made ice emerge in a flower of frozen spikes that used the Candelabrum’s own speed and weight against it. The frost dealt with the heat that came and the flames died, leaving the critter impaled on a mound of jagged petals and groaning pitifully in pain.
At that, all the snatchers that had been hanging above and content with digesting their food or hibernating awoke. They began to swing back and forth, dropping down at a steady rate. They were going to swarm us and there was no way the two of us could put down that many of them.
“This will not end well…” Invidia muttered as she witnessed the sheer numbers. “I never thought I would say this, but I think you need to use a bigger fire. Like now!”
“Can’t without running the risk of barbequing ya as well,” I said, blowing a lock hair out of my uncovered eye and wiping sweat from my brow. Then I aimed my wand at the blockade, using the reprieve to target the fallen tree blocking the exit.
I put as much power as I could into a Blasting spell and fired. It cleared out enough of the tree to create a path to freedom. With that done, I turned to the gal and said, “Get outta here while I finish this. Keep running if ya don’t wanna die, and don’t look back if ya wanna keep yer eyesight.”
“Normally I would be all for that, but even I can’t just leave you here when you came here to save me. Honor demands I stay until either we both retreat or our enemies are vanquished.”
“Well, seeing as our lil’ tussle just riled up the rest of the snatchers, I’m thinking that unless ya want to be locked up again or cooked in a fire, ya better get going,” I warned her before I began channeling my magic into the next and final spell.
She scoffed and followed up with the Iced Shell spell. The air around me chilled as a hollowed shell of frost became one of translucent ice, embracing me in a cold field of protection. With that done, the gal cast some kinda body-enhancing spell and tore out of there.
Now I was unhindered and could use my last resort, a spell that had no name and no need for an incantation. It was only an overwhelming presence, a burden and blessing all in one. It saved me and hurt me.
I let it all out, the ravenous flames unleashed. One moment they took the form of predators, lunging for every living thing in their surroundings, and the next they were tendrils that ensnared and dragged prey into the infernal vortex of the aureate blaze. After swallowing everything in the clearing the flames rose and breached the canopy, as if trying to reach up and devour the sky.
And somewhere within that blaze, I felt myself being taken away with it.