Alex’s mind raced, trying to think of a thousand lies while feeling his hopes crumble. Why? How had The Chosen found him?! He’d been on the road for one day! What were the odds?!
Theresa had frozen by her pack, and everything seemed to move at a crawl.
The Chosen stepped toward him, glancing to the red orb floating near Alex.
“Spellcraft’s a mighty gift, friend; something I’ve laid eyes on only once or twice in all my years. Glad you was here to help these folk out: silence spiders’re no bloody joke. You some sort of magician?”
“It’s The Chosen! We’re safe!” someone in the gathering crowd cried before he could respond.
The rest began to murmur.
The stranger smiled again and—now that he was closer to the light—Alex could see that one of his teeth was made of gold.
“Aye, I’s The Chosen, that’s so,” he dropped the spider head with a heavy thump and jerked his head toward Alex. “But it’s this friend right here who’ve you got to thank for all your lives.”
He offered him a big, calloused hand. “Little help up, eh?”
Alex hesitated; it seemed he wasn’t suspected, but who could know what would happen if they touched. There was no way out of it. Holding his breath and praying for luck, he grasped the other Hero’s hand and was hoisted to his feet by a strength that should’ve belonged to a bull.
A big one.
Thankfully, The Chosen gave no sign he recognized his fellow Hero.
“There ya go, there ya go.” He dusted off Alex’s dark shirt. “That’s the way: man o’ the hour has no business being all mussed up with dirt.” He glanced at Selina. “You alright there, wee one?”
The tiny girl was looking up at the red-haired Hero with eyes the size of plates.
“Aaaah, you’re fine.” He turned and took a step toward Brutus. “But this beastie here’s hurt, isn’t he?”
“What’re you doing?” Theresa shot to her feet.
“Just taking care o’ this brave boy.” He held up his hands.
The crowd gasped as his shining spear shimmered like quicksilver; it warped, collapsing on itself, and poured over the young man’s arm until the limb was sheathed in a metallic sleeve.
The uncovered hand began to shed a blueish-white light. “Thaaaat’s it brave boy, I ain’t going to hurt you.”
He crouched before the growling Brutus and began to pray: “Oh, Mighty Uldar, I ask you hear the call of your servant and share your divinity with the stout-hearted soul before me.”
The light around his hand swelled to a bright incandescence and—when it touched Brutus’ wound—the cerberus’ flesh quickly began to shine in the same way. It healed over in mere heartbeats.
“Thaaat’s it, as good as when you were a pup.” The Chosen stood with his hands on his hips as the light faded. Brutus gave him a long look, followed by a dismissive snort before he padded back to Theresa’s side.
Alex felt just a little smug about that.
“Thank you.” Theresa nodded as she checked the cerberus’ side.
“Oh bah, no thanks needed: I’d be a pretty shit Chosen if I didn't do this much of my duty. Now’s all he needs is a good night’s rest and it’ll be like the fight never happened. And speaking of rest…”
The tattooed man turned and spread his hands to the crowd. “Right, that’s enough of the gawking.” He kicked the dead silence-spider. “I just wiped out a swarm o’ the beasties coming south from the caves up there: the dungeon’s active again.”
The crowd gasped.
“Yeah, that’s right, but I cut up the first wave all nice n’ neat, and it’ll take awhile for it to make more of the crawlies. So I’m thinkin’ you leave these poor folk be and get some sleep: you’ll want to be off quick: if the priests’ talk of how dungeon cores work holds up, you should have a couple days before it gets enough juice to make more. I’d use ‘em to get far from here.”
Silence fell on the clearing.
“Well, what’re you waiting for?” He frowned. “Winter festival? Go, go, off you go!”
Startling, the travellers quickly thanked the young man and shuffled out of the clearing, throwing nervous glances at the trees. After the last of them left, he looked to Alex’s group, raising an eyebrow. “And you lot?”
“You said that you wiped out the spiders?” Theresa stepped over to the corpse of the creature, peering at it clinically.
“Aye, though this bugger got away. They’ve got…” He scratched his hair. “...ach, the priests I’m with called ‘em something.”
Alex’s ears perked up at the word ‘priests’.
“Ah, they’ve got a kinda organ in them…don’t remember the exact name they said, but it makes it so they don’t give off either sound or smell: when they get up in the trees, it makes them devilishly hard to track. That said, this one here’s the last. Why d’you ask?”
“Then we should stay in the trees,” Theresa said. “I know Coille forest, and if you cleansed it, then we know there’s no monsters here anymore. We don’t know that about the fields: here is safer than whatever might be lurking out there.”
“Hah!” The Chosen threw his head back and laughed. “Well, there’s a smart and brave one. S’too bad they already found The Champion and Sage.” He peered hard at Alex and Theresa. “You two’re about the right age and I know you’ve got good heads and hearts.”
Theresa and Alex exchanged a quick glance.
Alex’s mind raced: every instinct was screaming at him to try and get away from this man, but another part of his mind clamped down on his emotions. If he could keep a straight face, this would be a rare opportunity to gain information.
“Likewise.” Alex rose, hoisting up Selina with him. He focused on keeping his face straight, and avoiding using The Mark. He had no idea if using it around another Hero would call their attention.
“Ach, before we go on, I must’ve left my manners behind in my village: my name’s Cedric of Clan Duncan. What about you, my friends?”
Alex paused. Should he lie? ...No. If it were just he and Theresa maybe, but Selina would get confused. If she asked him why he was lying, it’d all go to hell.
Nothing for it. He didn’t want to give his name, but he had no choice. To get evasive now would just make him look suspicious.
“Alex Roth,” he said, projecting every single bit of cheer he did not feel. “And this is my sister Selina.”
“Theresa Lu,” the huntress introduced herself cautiously.
“Aye.” Cedric grinned. “Fine to meet you all. Now, you was saying, Alex?”
“Where are the priests?” Alex asked, fighting the urge to check the trees and hoping they weren’t about to come crashing into the clearing.
Cedric paused, then coughed awkwardly. “I, ah, sorta ditched ‘em for a time. Fine men and women, all of ‘em, but they wanted to drag me to the capital straightaway, even though the Cave of the Traveller is so close to the folk in Alric. It was near our route anyway, so I thought I’d slip away for a bit, hunt anything that already jumped outta the cave, and be back with ‘em by sunrise.”
Alex frowned. “I thought the whole point of the Heroes was to fight monsters, why didn’t they want to let you go?”
“‘Cause of weak spines, most like.” Cedric rolled his eyes. “Said something about ‘a Ravener dungeon being too dangerous for one Hero’, but we got a duty, don’t we? Least I could do is take a night to clear the forest, then we could come back and finish the dungeon off. Besides, they’re taking forever with all that searching under every rock in every town.”
“Searching? For the Heroes?” Alex asked carefully.
“Ah, yeah, but don’t you worry.” Cedric threw himself down on the corpse and picked his teeth. “They got most of us now: only one left to find’s The Fool.”
Alex fought to keep his expression neutral. Theresa’s face stiffened—might not have noticed it if they didn’t know her well—but luckily Cedric wasn’t facing her.
“Well, at least it’s just The Fool.” Alex shrugged. “I mean, the legends say The Heroes don’t really even need one, right?”
The Chosen’s eyes narrowed. “Oi, no matter the Mark, a Hero’s a Hero. Whether it’s Champion or Fool, each has got a role, duty and purpose. I say we find ‘em all.” He frowned. “I know The Fool’s Mark hasn’t got the best history, but I’d protect ‘em. Hope to Uldar they’re not hiding.”
“I’m sure the priests would find them easily enough.” Alex probed a little. “Wouldn’t they?”
Cedric snorted. “I wish. I was nearly on top of them myself before their holy symbols started singing.”
Alex blinked. “...singing?”
“Oh yeah!” The Chosen’s laugh rumbled through the clearing. His voice was like warm thunder. “Actual singing if you’d believe it. The damn things sounded like half a choir shoved down their bloody shirts! But they don't work so well unless you’re close; The Saint’s different, they can pick us out from a lot farther off than the priests can, so they said. Anyway, we’ll be nipping over to the capital to do all the ceremonies and such, and then—if we don’t have all of us by then—we’ll need to find wherever The Fool got scared off to and bring ‘em with us. All the priesthood’s out in force, searching. Same with my priests: half-escorts, half-hunters.”
Alex’s heart pounded so loudly he was sure it was echoing through the clearing, yet he still kept his face and voice neutral.
“That’s too bad,” he said carefully. “You’d be better off getting The Saint into the hunt as fast as you can. If it were me, I’d just bring whatever Heroes together that I’d found and send them hunting with The Saint for any that were missing.” Alex pushed a little further. “Meantime, I’d leave the priests at all the ports; since we’re an island, if you cover most of the docks, you’d probably get The Fool easy enough.”
“That’s what I said!” Cedric slammed his armoured hand onto the silence spider’s corpse. “Ah friend, good to meet someone with sense. But, at least they thought of that last part: they’ve got priests at outposts all over the coasts. They’ll form a ring of Divinity to link aaaaall their holy symbols to make a kinda circle:” He formed a circle with his large hands. “It keeps the Ravener’s beasts from flying over the waters and picks up if any of The Heroes cross the circle.”
Alex’s blood ran cold, but he kept the smile fixed on his face. “Well, at least you’ll find them eventually: they can’t sneak away from that.”
He definitely couldn’t, he added bitterly in his head.
“Well, there’s that, yeah. But better to have all of us together earlier than later, I say.” Cedric finally rose to his feet. “You want me to put a word in with my escort? Could see if they’d spare one or two to help your party to a ship. Might get ‘em to pay for your passage too: killing a monster with your wee sister at your side’s a deed that deserves reward, I say.”
“No, no.” Alex held up a hand. “I can’t ask that: duty comes first, right?” He used Cedric’s own words. People tended to listen more when one used their own words. “You need all your priests if you have any hope of finding The Fool.”
Cedric looked a little wounded at the refusal.
“Ach, you’re right. Still feels a little poor to leave you off with nothing, though. But you probably want to be on your way: your wee sister’s been through a lot.”
With a grunt, Cedric rose to his feet and grabbed the severed head of the massive silence-spider. “Right, friends! I’d better go find those priests before they think of burning down the forest to search me out. You all sure you’ll be fine here?”
“There’s no need to worry yourself,” Theresa said.
“Right…” Cedric gave them a long look. “Night then, and safe journey.”
With a long, languid stretch, The Chosen swept from the clearing and disappeared into the trees. Soon, even the shine of his strange, morphic weapon faded into the night.
They moved camp to another part of the forest immediately. It took a long time and a lot of comfort to get Selina to go back to sleep. Alex, meanwhile, was exhausted: the fight had drained him, the forceball had sapped most of his mana, and the encounter with The Chosen had frayed his nerves.
He and Theresa crouched in front of each other in the dark of the new clearing. Brutus was on his haunches, watching the trees with six eyes, while Selina snored only a few paces away.
“We’re in trouble, Alex,” Theresa whispered. “A lot of trouble.”
“I know.” Alex glanced around the forest. After the night’s work and the mana drain, he could barely keep his eyes open.
“What do you think we should do.”
“Well, I know what I want you to do: take Selina and go to the ships.”
“What? Why?” she asked. “They’ll catch us.”
“No, they’d catch me.” He tapped his shoulder. “This is what their circle searched for, not anyone else: you and Selina would just be two more people from Alric getting on a ship.”
“Wait, so you’re going to stay?” Theresa stiffened. “Alex, if it weren’t for Brutus holding that thing down, it would have killed us. Did you hear what Cedric said? He fought a swarm of those things, and that’s what you’ll be expected to do with the rest of them.” Her lips trembled. “You’ll die.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He held up a hand. “Nobody’s staying here to go fight swarms of blade-monsters with Cedric or anyone else. At least, I’m not.”
She paused. “Then you plan on hiding all alone in some wilderness?”
“Not a chance.” He looked at her seriously. “I need a way to get to the continent that doesn’t cross their circle, right?”
“And Cedric said he cleared the forest of that swarm and that it’d take awhile for the dungeon to spit out new monsters?”
“Ri-” Her eyes went wide. “Alex, no.”
“Alex, yes,” he said. “I’ve thought about it, Theresa: the only way I’m getting out of Thameland is if I head north-”
He clenched his fist.
“-and find a way through The Cave of the Traveller.”