Lynk held the Terroculus in his left hand and waved his bone staff with his right, mumbling and shaking his head elatedly. It was actually impossible for him to use two magic media at the same time. He was just using the Terroculus, which sufficed just as well. It was simply a long-lasting habit to wave the bone as a symbol of the headman.
The quiet water near the cave started to spin, forming a whirling vortex. As the vortex grew, the waves on the water turned roguish, hammering and crashing against the rocks on the shore. It was mudding magic, a kind of water magic. Any living thing hiding in the pool would not be able to withstand this stirring.
As an answer, a howl arose from beneath the water near the cliff. Four big ugly heads emerged from the water. Enormous bloody maws gaped open, their flashes of long sharp teeth were enough to show that they were ready to swallow half a man into their stomachs. One of the big heads sank back into the water after seeing Metatro, which might probably have been the one whose claw was cut off last time.
Metatro was on full alert with his sword in hand. Suddenly, a long and huge gilded whip slipped out of the water near the shore, silently swinging towards Metatro and Lynk.
It was an Ironback’s tail, thinner and longer than the big ones’. It was glossy, black with golden speckles. It was swift and it came without the slightest warning, curving around Metatro and hitting towards Lynk with the tip.
Lynk was about to be cleaved in two when Metatro bellowed and swung the sword upwards. The sword glowed as an invisible force seemed to capture the tail, paralyzing it in preparation to be cut.
He was using magic along with his martial skills, making it much more powerful. The sword did not directly hit the tail, but with a loud clank, the shine stopped the tail. The force from the tail was so enormous that Metatro’s boots sank deep into the mud. There was also an earth magic effect on the tail, making it heavier.
However, a tail was not solid like a sword. Metatro stopped the middle part from descending, but the tip of the tail was still whistling towards Lynk. But Lynk also reacted rapidly. He performed an earth magic on the tail, trying to slow it down. However, since the heavy tail, which should belong to the king, was already descending, the earth magic didn’t produce much effect.
There was no time for him to hide, so Lynk was summoning all his potential to build a shield. A cloud of dust and mud was summoned over his head but was immediately smashed to pieces by the tail along with a brown light. The end of the tail crashed down on his wrist. With a coarse sound, Lynk’s forearm snapped and the Terroculus flew out onto the cliff. Metatro had given Lynk a moment to lean back or else his head would have split apart.
At the same time, they heard Amon scream, “Run!!!”
Along with a series of clacks, a huge beast broke the water’s surface and leapt towards the two, but an ice wave from the shore froze it.
It was the king Ironback. Slightly smaller but much slimmer than the big ones, it had a disproportionately long tail, about two-thirds of its body length. Its glossy black shell, like its tail, was also black covered in gold specks.
Amon had felt it when it was about to ambush the two from under the water. He sensed a disturbance of earth elements around the pool. At least one of the Ironbacks knew how to use earth magic to detect the intruders on the bank. Amon had used similar skills to sense and find Maqi.
The king Ironback was smarter than they thought, knowing to make a detour and attack the caster directly. Now it had scored!
Lynk made a mistake to use earth magic against the king Ironback. The latter was also good at earth magic, with far more magic power than him, so Lynk’s magic had little effect. Amon then realized that Lynk’s information was wrong the moment he saw the strength and speed of the king Ironback’s sweeping tail.
The king Ironback was significantly stronger than Metatro. It was even stronger than an advanced warrior and far more proficient in earth magic. Even the two combined would hardly counter it. It was no surprise that it could break Lynk’s arm in a single swift strike. In order to save their lives, Amon also tried his best to summon a wave to freeze the king Ironback, before it jumped on them.
The king Ironback struggled, shredding the ice as it did so. Knowing that the situation was spiralling, Metatro spun, grabbed Lynk and sprinted towards the woods. The speed of a fleeing fourth-level warrior was remarkable, even while burdened with the weight of another man when it was a matter of life and death. Amon’s magic was crucial to snatch them the time to get into the woods. But the king Ironback went right after them.
The bits of ice transformed into crystal blades, shooting at the king Ironback’s eyes along with a gust of wind. The king was forced to close its eyes. The blades caused no damage to its rough scale shell. They only staggered the king Ironback for a second before it continued its fearsome charge. When it was about to step into the woods, a wall of flame appeared at the edge of the woods, burning up two fallen trees.
This was not Amon’s magic. Metatro had cut down two trees when they went into the woods, and Lynk managed to perform a fire magic with his good hand. This time, the flame was even stronger than the one that had burned his house. The two fallen trees were burned into embers in next to no time. But he had also used up his magic force.
The king Ironback was completely blocked by the burning trees. It roared angrily, took a few steps back, sprinted and jumped. Using its long tail, it managed to vault clean across the flames. But the moment it landed, the moist mud under its feet turned into a marsh. Most of its huge body sank into the slurry. Then the marsh turned to a tough earth wall, burying its head and forepaws under the ground.
It was Amon who performed this earth magic. He had no better means to stop the king Ironback. The king in the soil roared again, a vague layer of yellow light appearing on its shell. It struggled, managing to pull itself from the trap by breaking apart the solid earth. Without pausing, it shot towards the distant two, its tail inscribing a long arc in the thin air as it vanished into the thick woods.
Amon had performed three magics to block the king, trying to steal enough time for Metatro and Lynk. Now he could only wish them good luck since he was now in trouble too. Right after the king disappeared into the woods, the strongest of the big ones climbed up the cliff and pounced at him with a gaping maw, baring its sharp teeth. Amon was no taller than an adult dwarf and he held a rod which appeared less dangerous than the sword. However, the big one received a serious rebuff from this seemingly defenceless figure.
The ‘rod’ in Amon’s hand was made of refined iron. It was much heavier than a sword when used as a melee weapon, which was perfect for fighting against heavily armoured beasts such as Ironbacks. Amon struck the beast on its shoulder using all his strength, raising a gale to blow it off the cliff.
The staff struck the beast with an incredible force, which most warriors and mages in the continent couldn’t withstand, let alone an Ironback. Amon knocked it off the cliff in a single blow. The Ironback fell into the pool, impacting hard on the surface. Indeed, cracks had appeared on the surface of the pool.
Why cracks? Because the area near the mouth of the cave was frozen into thick ice. The surface was skewed since Amon had frozen it along with the wave to block the king. The ice extended into the cave, creating a solid path from shore.
The Terroculus that had been swept away dropped onto the icy surface and had rolled into the cave. Amon had to get it back since the messages from Crazy’Ole were all sealed in it. So he drove a lot of magic force to freeze the entire area in order to prevent it from sinking into the water.
Even the falling Ironback did not break the ice. With another loud crunch, a second big one fell on the first. Finding that the two passed out below in a mess, the third Ironback stopped climbing and turned around towards the cave. The last one that had a missing claw did not even attempt to climb.
Amon was able to bring the two down because he occupied a superior position and performed magic smartly. He shouted and waved the staff again, sending a biting cold fog towards the four big ones. Shocked by Amon’s magic, they turned around and fled into the woods as well, abandoning the cave.
Amon had accumulated more magic force than Lynk. He was also using a stronger staff. Most importantly, he used the right magic to counteract them. Amon knew the Ironbacks. Normally hibernating during winter, the cold would slow down their reaction times and speed, probing their instinct to fall asleep. The big ones were stronger than ordinary Ironbacks, but the instinct remained the same. They were subconsciously fleeing from the cold.
Amon did not dare scale the cliff to search for the Terroculus. He didn’t know whether the big ones had gone far enough into the woods. It would not be fun to be cornered below the cliff. Moreover, the king might return at any moment. No one would be standing on the cliff to save him this time.
He suddenly reminded himself that he had an accomplice in his bag. Schrodinger was evidently clever enough to understand his questions. So he patted the bag and cried, “Schrodinger! Go down and take the Terroculus back! I’ll protect you!… Don’t make me throw you down!”
A ball of fur dashed out of the bag and swiftly ran down the cliff, moving far more deftly than the Ironbacks. It disappeared below the cliff for a short while and then ran back with an ashy rod in its mouth.
Amon shouted in fury, “I said the Terroculus! The black stone! Not this bone!”
Schrodinger unwillingly put down the bone, and ran down the cliff again. A short while after, it bounced on the cliff and spat out the Terroculus. Amon quickly pick it up and put it carefully into his bag in the chest, “Let’s go, Schrodinger!”
He could still hear the king growling in the woods below, along with shrubs or small trees being cracked down or swept away. It sounded that the beast was enraged. Amon turned back and left the top of the cliff. Schrodinger still picked up the bone before jumping back to Amon’s bag.
In a small path in the thick forest in the mountains covered by clouds, pale-faced, Lynk was arguing anxiously and fiercely with Metatro, “That beast was so damn strong! Chasing us all the way here. Thank goodness it ran slower on the steep roads. Now that it’s out of its territory, it should have gone back……Lord Amon was still there. What should we do? Should I get my men together to get him back?”
“You can get together your men, in time? And are you sure your men can survive that sweeping tail? We have drawn away the king. Amon could deal with the four big ones and get himself away. He is more powerful than we are.”
“You are right. Lord Amon has no problem dealing with those beasts. But I’m afraid that he might encounter the king on his way back. ”
Metatro spat at him, “You think Amon is as stupid as you are? That beast ran growling all its way. Even a deaf can hear it from distance and get out of its way.”
“Why do you say I’m stupid?” Lynk was ill-affected.
Metatro grabbed his deerskin col fiercely, “Come on, you stupid ass! Who was telling me that the king was as strong as the four big ones added up? We together cannot even bear one strike from it! If it wasn’t Amon, we would’ve been two dead bodies in that pool now!”
Lynk’s back touched a rock beside the path, “Easy, easy! I’m injured!……I was told by an old man in my tribe. I didn’t know that the king was so strong either!”
“Old man? How old is he? He’s fought with the king before? That’s bullshit, and you stupid ass bought it. It almost cost our lives! I’m gonna ask this man myself. Let’s hear what he will say!”
Lynk’s face screwed up, “That’s not possible. That man died last year… Let’s stop talking about this. Amon was still there. Should we go back and help him? I feel that we lost because we didn’t know well about that beast. Actually, you can hold it for a while with your sword.”
“If you’re prepared and in good condition, you can defend it for a while. But after that you still have to run, fast, otherwise you’ll be killed!……Where did you get all that information about the king?” Amon’s voice suddenly arose from behind the rock. He turned around the rock and came in front of the two.
“You are back! I knew that you’ll be fine!” The two cried in surprise. Lynk added, “My dear emissary, oh no, God Amon! I‘ve just explained. The man who told me about the king Ironback died last year!”
The expedition to the pool was supposed to be a muscle-flexing, but turned out to be a fiasco. Lynk broke an arm. Fortunately Metatro knew some treatment and fixed it with some twigs and boards. The rest was long resting.
After returning to the tribe, Lynk fell sick. He was groaning and moaning all day, whining not only about his broken arm, but everywhere in his body. Amon had just started to learn primary curing magic, so he was helping curing Lynk as a practice. After several days, he found Lynk’s symptoms unusual. The curing magic could only relieve his pain but was not able to heal it. Lynk was suffering pain from different parts every day, as if being cursed. This reminded Amon of his experience in Duc. There was a period when he suffered from pain like this too. Even Crazy’Ole could not heal him.
It was not an injured or a disease. Lynk was facing his second test after awakening the power of two sides. He was about to ascend to the second level. It had came fast because Lynk was playing with first-level-like earth magic since childhood. He had a good basis in magic.
But Lynk was not as prepared as Amon in another aspect: he was not as strong as Amon. Amon was strong not only because of the training for the technique of Duc, but also because of the cold spring. The cavemen lived in a very bad condition. Most of them had had many wounds. Some recovered well, some recovered badly with hidden damage left, breaking out during the test. Fortunately, being the son of the former headman, Lynk was less wounded than his tribe fellows, otherwise he could hardly pass the test.
Knowing the reason, Amon told Lynk about the test to the next level and how to overcome it with a firm will. The training of body arts must go on.
Lynk was worried before Amon told him about this. He was thinking if the kin Ironback’s tail was poisonous or carried some curse. Amon’s explanation set his mind to peace. Though he was still groaning all day, Lynk kept practicing the body arts. He even often asked Metatro for advice.
Metatro was not comfortable these days either. He caught a cold and fell sick, feeling uncomfortable all over the body and lacking energy. He became the completely opposite of what he used to be before the pool expedition. Amon was asked for help. He examined Metatron for a good while and formed the same conjecture: Metatro was facing the second test as well.
Metatro was a fourth-level warrior, he had passed this test once without noticing it. After awakening the power of two sides, he had to face the test again. But the test was much easier for him than for Lynk, with just a small while of discomfort. Amon told the same explanation to Metatron, encouraging him that he would be a second-level mage after the test. Metatro was very happy.
It was a surprise to Amon that the second test came so fast for the two. But he managed to have an explanation for it: They had been practicing uncomplete magic and normal body arts for years. It was not hard for them to accumulate to the top of the first level once awakened the power of two sides.
Seeing the two “students” achieving the same level as himself, Amon the “teacher” was frustrated too. The disaster that Crazy’Ole had told him did not appear. He could not read the message in the Terroculus. He had achieved the peak of the second-level magic and body arts, but the third test: “faith’s confirmation” was still not coming.
What if Crazy’Ole was wrong? Amon was not sure anymore. He could no longer enter the serene state when meditating. Neither his magic power not his strength was increasing. It seemed that he was completely stuck.
Schrodinger, on the contrary, was quite happy these days. In daytime, it was always
wandering in the tribe. People respected it, regarding it as god’s attendant. This gluttonous lazy fat cat now was having its days. Even its fur became clean and sleek.
Schrodinger had a trophy from the expedition: the “bone” from the cave. It put it in its hay shelter, pressing it with paw even in sleeping. Amon had taken a look at it. It was an ashy, curved rod, round in one point and sharp in the other, reminding him the boats carved on the walls in the shrine.
Unconsciously, Amon rubbed his ribs: It’s a rib! But its texture was not like a bone at all. It was as light as a plume, but much harder than refined iron. Even Amon’s dagger couldn’t leave a mark on it. It looked like a polished piece of marble. A normal bone should have rotted over time.
Amon had no idea what it was. It was Schrodinger’s trophy so let it keep it. He would have spent more time and energy studying it before, but he was in the blues these days, absent-minded all the time, easily irritated and hard to focus on anything. Even a bird flying by would drag various things into his mind, bringing his thoughts to nowhere.
He couldn’t meditate in this state. Would it be that the failure from the king Ironback blew away his confidence? One night, Amon was trying to meditate in his house, but failed again. All kinds of thoughts swarming into his mind, he couldn’t help thinking about the life in Duc.
How was his father? Was he still drinking a lot? What was the disaster that Crazy’Ole was talking about? What would the town be in this disaster? He could of course not get any peace like this and enter deep meditation. Realizing this, Amon sighed when he heard Schrodinger gave a sigh as the same time, lying in the hay.
Schrodinger’s sigh reminded Amon of something. An instant idea marked in his head, “I’m so stupid! This is the test! The peace of soul only comes when the faith is confirmed! The faith in myself!”