“No, that’s suicide.” Theresa grabbed his hand.
“Not if our Chosen friend cleared the forest as well as he said he did,” Alex insisted. “Think about it: you take Selina the safe way, while I slip in there before the core can make more monsters. I don’t need to fight anything, I just need to sneak through until I come out somewhere. The Mark can help me sneak, at least it can do that.”
“Somewhere?” Theresa shook her head. Her grip tightened. “That’s your plan: somewhere? Alex, that could be on the continent, or somewhere in the northern seas, or in a cave to the west, or another dungeon, or the capital, or right in front of The Ravener for all you know. Besides, one of those spiders would kill you if you’re alone.”
“I’ve got no choice and I’m not taking Selina in there. So that’s why you need to take her, Theresa. Please.”
“Alex.” She shook her head. “You’re not thinking this through. What do you think she’s going to say when you wake up tomorrow morning and run into the cave with all the horrible monsters?”
“I’ll leave tonight.”
“You can barely stand.” Her grip on his hand was so tight that it hurt. "Your eyes are closing as I’m talking to you. I couldn’t find my way through the forest in the dark even when I’m fresh. You wouldn’t stand a chance. And besides, Selina’ll wake up and find her brother missing: what am I supposed to tell her?”
His jaw hardened. “That you’ll meet me in Generasi City.”
“You’re the only family she has left. She’ll try and follow you. She’ll kick and scream. She’ll try to sneak away. I know I would if I was her. ”
The young man frowned as Theresa’s merciless reasoning piled on.
“And,” she pushed. “Suppose I get to port without you and run into someone from Alric, maybe even my family. People know you and they’re going to wonder what happened to you. They’ll talk and then it’ll spread around that someone who turned eighteen the day The Heroes were revealed just disappeared. You’ll put them on your scent.”
He grimaced. She was right, leaving his sister behind didn’t mean keeping her safe. That monster had taken Theresa, Brutus’ strength and his magic to defeat it; if another one came along, he needed to be sure that Selina had every bit of protection, including from himself.
“So what do you suggest?” he asked.
She glanced down to the sleeping girl. “We make for the cave together. All of us. I’ll search for some herbs in the morning; I might be able come up with something for those spiders.”
His lips tightened. “Bringing Selina there…if something were to happen to her-”
Her other hand clasped around his. “I won’t let it happen, Alex, I swear. She’s the closest I’ve ever had to a sister, and together, we won’t let anything happen to her.”
He paused, staring into her eyes. “…alright. We’ll all go to the cave together and check it out. If it seems dangerous, then we’ll think of something else.” He drew a deep breath. “Now let’s try and get some sleep. I’m dead, and it’ll be a long day tomorrow.”
Coille woods gave no sign that there was anything amiss.
Sunlight fell between lush tree branches and onto a healthy undergrowth of ferns and wild herbs. Birds trilled above, and a cicada let off a loud, grinding call in the distance. The air was fresh and clean…though Alex thought he detected the scent of blood beneath the forest smells. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not.
Brutus padded ahead of him, swivelling his three heads and sniffing the air; he seemed determined to make up for his failure to detect the enemy the night before. Selina was quiet. Her tiny hand gripped his tightly.
“Are you sure it’s safe this way?” she asked for the tenth time.
“Of course,” he told her. “The Chosen made all the monsters go away, so it should be safer this way.”
“But…wouldn’t going by the road be faster?” Her head swivelled almost as constantly as Brutus’. She drifted closer to her brother’s side.
“Maybe, but we don’t know if there’re more monsters coming out on the road. So we’ll just go through the forest and then come out further down. Okay?”
She gave him a long look, and nodded silently. In truth, she probably suspected something was wrong, but he’d deal with that later. For now, he just needed to keep her safe. In the distance, Theresa scouted ahead with an arrow nocked on her bowstring. Sometimes she’d stoop and quickly cut some sort of herb from the undergrowth. Her movements were so practiced that even these pauses took only moments.
As the day wore on, the undergrowth thinned and she took no more plants. Rocks began to dot the forest floor, and Alex could feel the ground start to slope upward. Through the trees, he spied a massive hill rising from the earth and reasoned that they might be getting close.
Theresa raised a hand, calling them to a halt. She crouched in the undergrowth and crawled forward, peering up the hill. Eventually, she waved them toward her.
“We’re here,” she said as they drew up beside her.
Alex peered through the trees.
‘Here’, as it turned out, was the bottom of a lonely hill in the middle of the woods. It was ancient—like most hills were—and covered in sparse patches of undergrowth like a balding man’s last few hairs. From its centre, a massive cave-mouth yawned wide.
Both Roth siblings gasped.
This had been a place of recent violence.
Animal bones were scattered across the sandy rise just below the cave. The bones had been picked clean. Even from their distance, he could see the impressions of massive tooth marks etched into many.
The owners of those teeth were shattered all over the sand.
Cedric had obviously passed through here on his rampage. Silence-spiders lay everywhere; some had carapaces crushed by massive blows, others had heads pierced through by stabbing weapons. Others had been blackened by massive fire-blasts, and the earth had been scorched with them.
“Look at the size of that one.” He pointed to a massive beast. The headless corpse dwarfed the others, and he doubted that his own head would even have reached its shoulder. Its claws looked able to snip a small tree trunk in half.
“At least they’re all dead.” Theresa squinted at the cavern.
It was difficult to believe that this place had become a spawning ground for the Ravener; without the bodies, it looked to be no more than a common forest cave.
“There’s lots of tracks all over the place,” she continued. “But…it doesn’t look like there’s fresh ones. Look at the blood and ash; there’s no prints in them. Nothing’s walked there that I can see. Brutus?”
The cerberus sniffed the air, pointing his three snouts in different directions. He gave no sign that he smelled anything out of place. Then again, what had dwelled here were creatures that gave no sound or scent while they lived, so one couldn’t be sure. Not completely.
“W-why are we here?” Selina had pressed herself so tightly to her brother’s side that it was like she was trying to hide beneath his cloak. “I don’t like this place. Where are we?”
Her wide green eyes searched his for answers. He paused, considering what he should do. On the one hand, he wasn’t sure how she would react if he told her now: not only did he have the worst of The Heroes’ Marks, but he was also fleeing the kingdom. Some would charitably call it ‘deserting his duty’. Would she think that? Would she grab his hand so that he could join the other Heroes, excited that her big brother was one of the people she made figures of?
Or would she be disappointed that he had ended up with The Fool? Would she sulk?
He steeled himself. It was time to tell her, no way around it. Before, when it looked like they could slip quietly onto a ship, it would have been fine to wait until they were out of Thameland altogether. Even though she might still have reacted badly, at least they would have already been in the clear.
Now, on the doorstep of an active dungeon, it would be too dangerous and unfair to keep her in the dark. Growing suspicions had a habit of making people act in unpredictable ways, and she needed to be close and safe.
“Selina,” he began, dropping down to one knee and facing her at eye level.
“Y-yes, Alex?” Her grip tightened on his cloak.
Again, he paused. This time he tried to focus The Mark on ‘telling little girls bad news’. Unfortunately, nothing came back; even if that was a skill, he had no successful memories to draw from. Typical.
“You know my birthday was yesterday, right?”
“Well.” He took a deep breath. “You know how we left early, before the rest of Theresa’s family?”
“It’s because.” He searched for the right words. “Well, it’s because your big brother discovered something on the night before last that’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Her lips quivered. “You’re not going away are you?”
“No, but some people might want me to go away from you. And I’d be going somewhere dangerous…” His words trailed off.
Selina’s head had lowered more and more and her entire body trembled. Though her mop of brown hair had fallen to hide her chubby face, he knew she was fighting back tears.
“Y-You,” she stammered. “Did you get The Fool’s Mark?”
He bit the inside of his cheek. “Yeah, that’s right.”
They fell silent, though he could hear Theresa’s breathing and Brutus’ panting behind him.
“I thought something was funny,” Selina said slowly. “You were acting weird when we were walking on the road. And…when you were talking to Cedric your hands started shaking.”
Alex blinked in surprise. He hadn’t even noticed.
“And then you and Theresa were whispering last night.”
His eyebrows rose. “You were awake?”
She nodded silently. “But…how can you be The Fool?” Her face shot up; her chubby cheeks had washed red while tears and snot ran from her eyes and nose. “You can use magic! I saw it! You can’t be The Fool!” She started to sob. “M-my teacher said The Fool can’t use magic! S-she said that The Fool dies most of the time!”
“Hey, hey,” Theresa scooted up beside Alex. “Remember what Mr. Cedric said? Did he think The Fool was useless?”
“N-no,” Selina sniffed. “But he said he has to protect The Fool or he’ll get hurt! Alex, don’t go!” She jumped into his chest suddenly, clinging to his shirt. “Don’t go, don’t go away, please. It…I don’t want it to be like mum and dad.”
Alex grimaced. That stung.
“I’m not leaving you, Selina.” He wrapped her in a tight hug. “We’re going to the big wizard city together, and I’m going to buy us someplace to live, and you’re going to go to the best school, and see all the sights there, and nobody is dying. Okay?”
She sniffed. “Promise?”
Selina sobbed quietly against his chest.
“Good. Now, if we’re going to go together you have to be very brave, okay?” He pointed to the cave. “Do you remember ‘The Cave of the Traveller’ from school?”
She nodded. “P-people go in and then come out in different places.”
“That’s right.” He patted her back. “We’re going to use that to get out of the kingdom, and we’re only going because Mr. Cedric got rid of all the monsters that were in the forest. But, we’ll only go in if you want to. If you can’t, or if you don’t want to, then we’ll turn right around and find another way. How’s that?”
Selina swallowed, pulling away from Alex and giving the cave a long, fearful look. She gave a silent nod. “L-let’s go.”
Theresa smiled at her and her entire face softened. “That’s a brave, brave, brave girl.” She reached past Alex’s shoulder to pat Selina on the head. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect us. And Brutus will too.”
The cerberus looked over with one of his heads. Theresa smiled and scratched him behind an ear. Alex chuckled: she was taming both beasts and children at once.
“And I can pull my own weight.” He flexed his skinny muscles and posed in front of Selina. “I’m a mighty magic-user, after all!”
Despite herself, a small smile started to form on the little girl’s lips.
“Alright, here’s the plan.” Theresa opened her sack of herbs and drew out a strange plant with leaves that were silvery underneath. “Wormwood.”
“Bug repellant?” Alex raised an eyebrow. “You think it’ll work on those monsters?”
She shrugged. “They looked like bugs…I think it’s worth a try, and they’re going to smell us anyway. So, we might as well use what we can.”
“Wait...isn’t that also called stinkweed?”
“Isn’t it called stinkweed for a reason? Y’know...because it stinks?”
Theresa gave him a look. “How much do you think the inside of those spiders’ bellies stink?”
He winced. “...yeah, okay, bring on the stinkweed.”
She drew out a mortar and pestle. “I’ll crush the leaves and add water to make a juice that we can rub over our skin and clothes.” She drew an empty water-skin from her pack. “We’ll put the rest in here: and we’ll need to reapply it every hour or so.” Her eyes flicked back toward the cave mouth.
The opening was quiet and unassuming, but the darkness ran deep.
“Hopefully, we won’t be in there very long.”
Alex gave the cave a long look. “With the traveller’s magic in it? Who knows? I just hope that it’s empty.”
They stood in silence for a few breaths.
“Right, let’s get started. I’ll help grind the herbs; we’ll need all the juice we can get.” He stood up. “After that, let’s hope our luck holds out.”
Wormwood stank, Alex confirmed. A lot. ‘Stinkweed’ was a perfect name for it.
As he wrinkled his nose, he wondered if that was the reason insects stayed away from it. Brutus had sneezed from all three snouts too many times to count as Theresa had coated him in it, while Selina’s face had scrunched up like a tiny, miserable dried cranberry.
Even his forceball seemed to be shying away from him, though he was sure that impression was all in his imagination.
“Done.” Theresa said as she finished rubbing the smelly stuff over herself. She put the rest of the juice into a small spouted pot and poured it into the empty water-skin. Alex had used the forceball and memories from The Mark’s guidance to help crush the plants into a juicy paste before they’d combined it with water.
Theresa checked herself over, making sure that her arrows were straight and that her great-grandfather’s sword was loose in its sheath.
“Your parents aren’t going to like that you took that.” Alex noted.
“If it keeps me alive, and I tell them that’s what great-grandfather would have wanted, I’m sure they’ll let me live. You ready?”
He adjusted his pack and checked over the magic circuit one final time. It was strong and stable; it had only taken him a couple of tries to form the circuit this time. Good. He was starting to get used to The Mark’s interference. Starting to. Hopefully, he would get even better with time.
“Ready.” He nodded, then glanced down to Selina. “And you, little goblin?”
Selina raised her scrunched up little face and eyed the cave ahead as though it were a live beast ready to gobble her up. “I-I’m ready.”
Wow. He doubted he’d been half as brave at that age.
He carefully took her hand in his own. “Then, no sense giving the core more time…let’s see what we’ll see.”
Together, with Brutus taking the lead, they stepped toward the darkness awaiting inside the Cave of the Traveller.