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Ru spotted Laz and Mereb returning from far down the tunnel. He and Illyoten got to their feet as they approached.
“We’ve got a problem,” Laz said without preamble. Ru whistled and waved the rest of the team to join them. When they were all gathered Lazarus explained.
“About a half mile ahead the tunnel splits. Both paths meander a bit and both are chock-full of demons. We didn’t dare get too close to the demons without a mirage to hide us but I was able to feel out the path ahead. After another half mile the tunnels converge into one tunnel again. That was the limit of my range though, I couldn’t feel much beyond that. I get the vague impression there’s a large cavern and there’s definitely a demonic presence in it but I can’t tell what or how many from this distance. We’ll have to get closer.”
“So which tunnel do we take?” Tophus asked at once.
“If we choose one then the demons in the other could flank us,” Ru said.
“Or run us in circles,” Laz added.
“Or just escape back the way we came in,” Illyoten pointed out.
“We’ll have to split up,” Ru said. “Each group takes a tunnel.”
“Is that wise?” Toph asked, “There’s only a dozen of us. Splitting up our team will reduce our firepower.”
“If they decide to try anything we may have to split anyway to deal with the threat. We don’t want them flanking us and we can’t risk these demons escaping and holing up somewhere else. It’s our job to eliminate the threat.”
Tophus nodded concession to the point. Ru glanced at Lazarus, “Can you tell us how wide the split tunnels are?”
“Small,” Laz said. “Not as tall nor as wide as it is here. You could fit two people across but there would be no elbow room. The tunnels open up into caves at various points. That’s where the demons are. Living spaces for eating and sleeping would be my guess.”
Ru nodded, “Okay so it sounds like we can face them one or two at a time if we hold position in the corridors. That’s helpful at least.”
“One problem I can see immediately,” Cryan said. “Roots for power. Laz can only go with one group or the other.”
Ru frowned at that. It was indeed a problem. Lazarus was a source mage. Like the other five branches of magic, there were many different specializations that he could have chosen. Lucky for them, Laz preferred a more traditional role, what was known as a boon mage. He was the team’s power source.
The power that fueled their spells came from a system of magical and spiritual roots spread throughout the world and connected to every living thing. Every mage had to seek out the right kind of roots and stand in the vicinity of the root in order to draw power from it. Source mages didn’t have that handicap. They were the only ones who could reach out and tap any root from nearly anywhere within their range. But where a source mage’s true usefulness in battle came was that he could funnel power to his companions, enabling them to stand wherever strategy dictated and still be able to cast spells.
As a boon mage, Lazarus specialized in this aspect. His range to tap a root was a little over a mile but he still had to be within fifty yards of his allies in order to feed the power to them. He wouldn’t be able to fuel both teams.
“It’s a problem but not too serious of one,” Laz said. “One of the corridors has a powerful root running parallel with it. Mereb is no boon mage but his abilities should be enough to power one group through most of it.”
“It’s not a role I’m comfortable with,” Mereb said. “But I’m game to try it. I can only power two people though and I won’t be able to shoot if I’m doing it.”
“Then your group should have an extra person for more damage instead of splitting us up evenly. We should also make sure the people in your group have the most magical artifacts to lean on just in case you reach spots where they can’t touch the root themselves,” Lazarus said. They all nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” Ru said. “I’ll go with Laz down the rootless tunnel. Illyoten you’d better come with me since you don’t have many artifacts yet.”
Illyoten nodded and moved to stand next to him.
“Tophus you take Shannon and Mereb down the rooted tunnel. That gives each group a life mage and source mage.”
“I’ll go with Toph too,” Leetah chimed in. “I’ve probably got more artifacts than the lot of you.” They all chuckled at that. Leetah was bedecked from head to toe in jewelry of every kind causing her to jingle with every step. All of it was inscribed with spells and laced with millwax. Nearly every visible inch of skin was also covered in henna and tattoos, the ink of which held power just like millwax did. And it didn’t stop there. She wore leathers that she had tattooed as well.
Yes, Ru thought. She likely had more independently-powered spells on her person than all of us combined.
“Cryan with me then. And Krolis,” Ru said. “Everyone else with Toph.”
“Wait,” Shannon said. “I haven’t shown Illyoten how to move Krol’s hallucinogen through the enemy yet.”
“It’s fine,” Illyoten said. “There wasn’t much healing that needed doing in the last fight so I watched you. I think I can duplicate what you did.”
Shannon blinked in surprise then smiled, “You’re a quick study!”
She turned back to Ru and said, “Never mind!”
“Anything else?” Ru asked, looking around at them all. No one spoke up. “Okay, have Laz recharge your gear then we’ll get to it.”
Laz sat down on a flat-topped boulder and the team gathered around him. He started examining their magical gear and artifacts, touching some of the runes and murmuring under his breath. Another useful advantage to having a boon mage like Laz on the team. He could recharge their magical gear, saving them the expense of using up a lot of millwax. The millwax was still burned up when used but the burn rate was greatly reduced.
Exposure to open air degraded the millwax, eventually sucking out the magical energy stored in the wax within a day or two, making it useless. That’s why it was kept in tightly-lidded, tin containers. But millwax did them no good if it was in the containers. It had to be rubbed into the carved runes and grooves of their gear, giving the imbedded spells the power they’d need to activate. As the hours went on, any unspent millwax would begin losing its potency. The spells would burn up more and more wax to get the same amount of power required. But with Laz on the team, he could regularly recharge the millwax, bringing it back to full potency.
Ru waited until everyone else was finished before he approached Laz himself.
“Charge me up, would you?” He asked, passing Laz a tin of millwax. Laz took a dab of wax then passed the tin back to Ru. Ru tucked it away in a pouch. Laz then passed his other hand over Ru’s armor, feeling out the runes, recharging them with a touch, and applying millwax where needed.
It took only a few minutes then Laz straightened and said, “All done!”
“Thanks man,” Ru said then he turned to team. “Alright let’s move out.”
They trooped down the tunnel, two by two. Although Laz had not mentioned any more demons up ahead until they reached the split, Ru took no chances. He stayed alert, his eyes roaming the tunnel as it bent and twisted this way and that. Sometimes it opened up a little, other times they had to walk single file and his armor occasionally scraped against the walls.
Upon reaching the point where the tunnel split, they halted a moment. Ru stuck out gauntleted fist to Tophus who clanked his own against it.
“See you on the other side,” Ru said.
Tophus nodded and the group split up.
Illyoten had to admit that he was nervous. This was his first assignment and it was an important mission too. He wasn’t too worried before because Shannon was there to back him up, or rather he was there to back her up. She was an impressive healer and made him feel a little redundant at times. But now, it was all on him.
Never for a moment did he doubt his own abilities. He knew his spells well and he was very experienced with healing during the pressure of combat. True, all those fights had had other healers there too and he had never faced demons before. But that did not mean he was incapable. No, he knew he had the ability. He was just nervous to be going solo. And he wanted to make a good impression on his new guild.
As they progressed through the tunnel, treading as quietly as they could, he reached out with his senses, searching for the roots of his team. This is what he loved about his magic. The ability to sense and touch the very lives of those around him. All living things had roots and it was from the roots that power was created, channeled, and used. Most roots couldn’t be tapped for magical purposes but they were all part of the cycle. Like the rain, the oceans, the sun and the clouds.
From us to them, from them to us, He thought. All a circle, all in harmony.
By reaching out with his mind and touching a root, he could feel the barest traces of what their lives had been like whether it was a bird, a plant or a person; such emotions that could make a person burst with the joy and sorrow of it all if you did not tread carefully.
One by one, he familiarized himself with the roots of his team members. It was not necessary for him to do this to be able to heal them. He could heal just as quickly and more efficiently by physical touch but this method was helpful in the chaos of a fight. Knowing exactly what he was looking for spiritually helped him to send healing more quickly, even if he didn’t know where they were physically. Plus it was more practical. He could stay out of the fighting and stay focused on healing instead of trying to run from one person to another.
There was strength, courage and a thirst for adventure in Rugaba’s roots. He practically glowed with a fierce loyalty and determination to overcome all obstacles. There was also grief and pain, hidden in the depths. Not the kind of pain Illyoten could soothe away, unfortunately. The battle mage was young but had already experienced the harsher lessons of life.
Cryan’s roots were complex and it took Illyoten a few minutes to get a good enough picture of the man to feel confident that he could come back to him quickly. He was a serious man but he was also a joker. He was a brother, uncle, son and friend. He was sorrowful but also strove to find happiness wherever he could. He was brave and foolish, outgoing and reserved, raging and patient. Illyoten let himself smile. Cryan was definitely going to be an interesting person to get to know.
Lazarus’ roots were brimming with curiosity. Here was the kind of man that would try anything once, usually twice and then if he decided he liked it he would devour everything there was to know about it in order to master the subject. And while he might know all there was to know, he was ever humble with the knowledge that someone else out there might still know more than him. That’s as far as Illyoten got in exploring Laz’s roots for there was suddenly an impassable wall before him. It appeared so suddenly in his mind he ran right into it. It hurt. A lot.
Illyoten jerked in reaction, suddenly halting and gasping but the pain was gone as soon as his mind was disengaged from Lazarus’ roots. Lazarus looked sideways at him then his eyes widened.
“Oh!” He said, “Terribly sorry, I didn’t realize that was you.”
Rugaba glanced over his shoulder. “Everything alright?” He asked quietly.
Illyoten felt his face flush in embarrassment but Lazarus answered before he could.
“I accidently shocked Illyoten while he was connecting to my roots. No damage, we’re good.”
Rugaba nodded and continued forward. Lazarus leaned over and spoke to Illyoten in hushed tones. “One of the demons here, possibly two, has some magery. I’ve been poking at him, trying to discern a location but so far I haven’t gotten a poke back. That means he’s a source or life mage or we haven’t gotten in his range yet. When I felt you my first reaction was to think he was finally responding to my prods.”
“I should have warned you I was going to connect with you,” Illyoten said apologetically.
“Quite all right,” Lazarus said with a wave of his hand. “You are very good you know. I’ve never had anyone get so close without my noticing.”
Illyoten smiled, pleased, then asked, “Shouldn’t you tell Rugaba about the demon mage?”
Lazarus shook his head, “No need to worry him until I can get a fix on the demon’s location.”
Illyoten shrugged and they lapsed back into silence. He now had enough of a picture of everyone’s roots in his mind so he settled for exploring the roots of the world around him. It was just as Lazarus had said. There were no usable roots nearby. He could just barely sense one off in the distance that he might have been able to reach but it was the wrong kind for his purposes. He would have to rely heavily on Lazarus to feed him the magic he needed.
That meant Lazarus had to be his top priority for healing if the older man was in danger. Rugaba was a fighter and would be able to take a few blows if Illyoten’s attention had to be split. He decided on a triage order and set it firmly in his mind if it should be needed.
They came around a bend in the tunnel and it opened up into a good sized cavern. Lazarus suddenly hissed, “Three above, twelve ahead!”
The demons were all scattered about the room engaged in various activities from cooking over a large fire to sleeping in makeshift beds on the floor. One demon spotted them almost immediately and screeched. In an instant the other demons were scrambling for weapons and swarming toward them. Rugaba stepped calmly into the room, clearing the entrance and team’s line of fire. Illyoten spotted movement among the stalactites on the dimly lit ceiling.
“They’re hiding in the pillars above,” He warned.
“Cryan, focus on those first please,” Rugaba said then raised his shield to meet the first oncoming demon. Despite being outnumbered, they made quick work of the demons. Rugaba effectively kept them engaged just in front of the tunnel opening, allowing the rest of the group to take them down. They moved on and came upon three more caverns within fifty yards of each other. They were just like the first; full of enemies that went down in a heap before them.
Illyoten worked his magic more slowly than he would have liked at first. Every fighting team had a rhythm and he felt like he was off beat. The others worked well together; knowing what, where and how they each liked to fight and maneuver. There was no quick and easy replacement for the time invested to acquire that level of synergy but Illyoten tried his best. Eventually, he began to get used to their style and he got faster.
Lazarus helped a lot. Illyoten wasn’t sure what he’d have done without him there to feed him the magic he needed. It enabled him to focus exclusively on learning the group’s rhythm instead of also needing to find roots to draw power from and be careful with how much he took from them. Fully draining roots of their power could cause them to wither and whatever life was attached to them would die away.
In the final cavern they ran into their first enemy mage. He was a battle mage like Rugaba and it was the most difficult fight they had encountered yet. Dodging and weaving away from a maddened demonling while mending an artery slash in Cryan’s leg and keeping Rugaba from bleeding out from half a dozen small wounds was not easy. Krolis came to his rescue with one of those illusion enhancing darts of his and Illyoten strained to divide his attention further as he reached out to encourage the poison to spread through the demonling’s body.
He could not inflict direct harm upon a living creature unless he was in physical contact with them. He could, however, make much worse any damage that was already done. In this case, increasing the demonling’s heart rate, encouraging the blood vessels to relax and not constrict, and suppressing it’s immune system’s response to the poison. A simple task really but made much more difficult by his divided attention. At least he could stop moving since Krolis had already cast his illusion spell and the demonling charged off after a former ally.
By the time the fight ended, none of them were without minor wounds. When the demon battle mage collapsed to the ground, dead, they all collapsed too. Illyoten sat immediately, exhausted.
“Give me a moment,” He said, breathing hard. “Then I’ll tend the rest.”
“Take your time,” Rugaba said, “We’re safe for the moment.”
Illyoten gratefully laid his head on his knees. He hadn’t ever been so stretched in his life. But he did it. And he did well. They were all still wounded from the battle, but he felt through their roots that he had impressed the group. A warm glow of pride started up in his chest. Pride and satisfaction in a job well done; a difficult fight survived.
For a few minutes, he let his mind go blank. It seemed like he had been multitasking forever. It felt good to just sit and think of nothing. Like the witch woman used to teach him. Allowing himself to relax so the world’s energies could renew and refresh him. While in this state of meditation, he felt the flicker of something pass through his awareness. It danced at the edges of his blank mind and his raised his head, eyes unfocused, searching for what it was. But as soon as he got close to it it danced away again. Then, as suddenly as it was there, it was gone.
Frowning, he searched for it, but there was no trace. He shrugged it off. Probably the trick of an overly strained mind, he told himself. After a few more minutes of meditation he finally reached out again to the others, soothing their pain and mending the damage done to their bodies.
“Food and rest,” Illyoten insisted. Rugaba was about to protest but Cryan coughed loudly, drawing their eyes to him. Then pointedly sat back against a wall and pulled his hood down over his eyes. He folded his arms and began to snore loudly. Rugaba rolled his eyes and Illyoten smothered a chuckle.
“Tunnel is clear ahead, possibly until the merge,” Lazarus said. “It’s probably safe to rest a while.”
To Be Continued on 12/01/2014
Read Part One