The hair on the back of Alex’s neck rose, and his heartbeat pounded like a blacksmith’s hammer in his chest.
Darkness filled the tunnel ahead. Only the red glow of his forceball lit the way. Brutus padded in front, sniffing and scanning the dark with all six eyes. One of his heads turned back, making sure his companions were close and safe. His canine eyes flashed, and Alex was reminded of the old folk stories of cerberi being born from the netherworld long ago. He was glad Brutus was on their side.
He and Selina marched in the middle of their little formation, while Theresa took up the rear with a small lantern burning at her belt. It cast less light than his forceball, but if anything ‘popped’ the magical sphere, then at least they wouldn’t be left blind and without a back up. Alex swept his spell through the cave. Its crimson light shone over the walls, ceiling and sloping, rocky floor. After their encounter with that silent monster, he wanted there to be no risk of them walking below one while it clung to the stone above their heads.
Each of the group crept as quietly as they could, with The Mark feeding him a constant stream of memories. To his dismay, it kept focusing on two memories from when he was little: one where he’d covertly searched for his father’s paring knife and another where he’d tried to find a batch of cookies that his mother had hidden from her “greedy son”.
The Mark had made both memories crystal clear: it had been a long time since he’d seen his parents so clearly. Forcing himself away from those thoughts, his legs matched the same stealthy movements he’d made then. Theresa and Brutus stalked with the grace of predators while Selina tried her best; she was so small that the only sound coming from was her frightened breath. His sister’s hand gripped his, and he made sure to keep her close. If they were attacked, then he’d do everything to protect her.
He just hoped it wouldn’t come down to a fight.
If silence-spiders were anything like ants—and they seemed to move in a group like ants, judging by the small army outside—then workers should have already cleaned up their dead swarm-mates from last night. Hopefully, that meant that Cedric had guessed right, and the dungeon’s core would need time to replenish its fighters.
If it were him, though, he would have held some fighters in reserve, waiting quietly for the attack to pass while also guarding the core. Then—when the threat seemed to have passed—he’d release them into the tunnel. He shuddered at the thought. Hopefully, they’d find whatever magic transported people out of the cave quickly, and never have to find out.
“Wait,” he whispered to Theresa, pointing up.
She followed his gaze and frowned.
His forceball was illuminating a tunnel in the ceiling about ten or twelve feet above their heads. It was nearly hidden in the natural bends and formations of the rock, but the bright light from his spell had revealed it.
Theresa stepped up beside him, drew back her bowstring, and pointed an arrow at the tunnel overhead. Alex floated the forceball up higher, illuminating the darkness. Crimson light receded into the passage, shining on ‘sword’ and fang marks where the spiders had cut through the stone. None of the creatures lay in wait, but he noticed that the ceiling tunnel turned in a different direction.
They watched for a few moments—in case one suddenly appeared and attacked the forceball from the side—but nothing emerged. Theresa and Alex exchanged a look, and sighed with relief.
“Let’s hope it stays this way,” she whispered, relaxing her bowstring. “Maybe we can-wait, Brutus. What do you have there? Drop it.”
The cerberus had dipped one of his heads and chomped on something from the cave floor, but obeyed and dropped it.
It made a noise like a bundle of cracking sticks. While Alex watched both ends of the passage, Theresa bent down to pick it up.
“Uldar’s beard,” she swore, drawing back as if a snake had bitten her.
“What? What is it? Is it-” Selina whimpered.
“Shhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay, stay over there Selina.” Theresa moved beside the small girl. “Close your eyes for a little bit, okay?”
“...okay.” Selina shut her eyes tight.
Theresa looked to Alex. “Go take a look.”
Steeling himself, he bent over what she had been looking at, and gasped.
It was a hand.
Brutus had found a human hand on the cave floor. Most of the flesh had been stripped away, leaving mainly bone behind. Enwrapping the tattered remains of the index finger was a plain iron ring with a symbol of two crossed pick-axes.
“Delvers’ Guild. Ugh, poor bugger.” Alex shook his head. “Right below that ceiling-tunnel.” He brought his forceball lower to shine across the rough floor. It illuminated a large, dark stain. “I think it got him from above.”
“What got what?” Selina whispered.
“Brutus found something, but it’s nothing for you to worry about, little goblin,” he reassured her, shining the light closer to the finger bones. He noted tiny chips gouged from their surface. “Theresa, look at this. What do you think of these marks?”
The huntress covered Selina’s ears then peered over Alex's shoulder. “Teeth. Small ones. They were probably fairly sharp and strong…hmmm, then again, none of the bones are broken…so, maybe the jaws might not be too strong.”
They looked at each other. Alex knew the same thought was passing between them: whatever had stripped the flesh from this hand was too small to have been one of the silence-spiders.
There must have been some other creatures lurking in the dungeon.
He thought back on ants, remembering seeing two different sizes of them when he’d watched an ant hill as a child. Workers and soldiers, his teacher had called them. Maybe the big spiders that swarmed outside were soldiers, while the workers stayed behind in the cave somewhere.
‘Either way: here, there be monsters, and that’s not good,’ he thought, then shared his theory with Theresa.
“We go a little bit farther,” he proposed. “If we see anything, we leave.”
She glanced down to Selina, removing her hands from the little girl's ears, and nodded. “You can open your eyes now.”
Moving along, the group ranged further into the dark.
The minutes passed as they trekked deeper beneath the earth, and—though they found more tunnels in the ceiling and walls—they saw no more body parts nor signs of any ‘workers’.
One thing they noticed was that the temperature began to swing wildly.
Near some of the side tunnels, it would be as hot as a peak summer’s day at noon. From another tunnel, a wind blew as cold as mid-winter. Sometimes the air smelled stale. Other times, clean and fresh, or there’d be a tang of salt to it.
Sounds echoed through the walls. High wind. Bird song. The deep rumble of water moving in a tide. He and Theresa exchanged a glance. Selina grasped his hand tighter.
And then Brutus stopped.
The cerberus bent two heads toward the ground, sniffing, while the third eyed the tunnel ahead.
“What th-” Alex brought his forceball down toward the floor.
Just ahead of Brutus’ feet, the rough cave floor abruptly ended. Instead, chipped and worn marble tile reached as far as his light extended and beyond.
“Alex, there’s another light up there,” Theresa said.
He glanced up. In the distance, he could see some of the stone more clearly: it was dim, but there was definitely a light source ahead. He tried to quiet his pounding heart.
“Right,” he said, sounding calmer than he actually felt. “I’ll send the forceball up. If it pops, then we get the hell out of here, alright?”
“Sounds good to me.” Theresa agreed, scanning the tunnel behind them with her lantern.
Willing his spell forward, Alex watched the crimson light glide down the tunnel until it reached the brighter area. He saw it bump into a corner then head toward a slight bend to the left in the passage. It glided along for a count of ten, with its magic circuit still firing within him.
“Nothing’s happened to it.” He started calling it back.
“Forward march.” Theresa swept her lantern up toward the ceiling, just in case. In the flickering light, she still wore her ‘deathstalker face,’ but Alex could see the fear buried in her eyes. At least he wasn’t the only one; he remembered Cedric and wondered how The Chosen had seemed so calm knowing he’d be doing things like this every day.
He looked down to Selina who was trembling next to him. Well, if little girls were brave enough to keep going, then he supposed he could manage too. Even if there might be a big, horrible spider waiting for them with some sort of tricky magic light.
Of all the things he’d expected, a temple wasn’t one of them.
The passage walls had turned smooth as they rounded the bend, and the floor had changed from rough and chipped smaller tiles, to far larger, unmarred ones. Some twenty paces around the corner, the tunnel opened into a massive chamber.
They stopped at the entrance and stared inside, awestruck.
Large tiles spread across the entire floor of the temple like a colossal chessboard, with each broad enough for Brutus to stand on comfortably. They extended to the opposite end of the chamber where two statues rose, maybe twenty feet high. Each was carved in the likeness of some sort of snarling goddess, their mouths bristling with pointed teeth. Or maybe they were demons; they looked an awful lot like demons.
The statues’ eyes were red rubies that glowed with an inner light, sending a chill down Alex’s spine. He could swear before Uldar himself that they were watching him. Strange writing marked the statues’ bases, but Alex had no clue as to what it might say.
A pair of massive doors stood between the goddesses on the far wall, stretching up to a soaring ceiling. An equally massive lock sealed them shut.
His eyes were drawn to the light source they had seen from the tunnel: about twenty feet in the air, a doorway floated in the middle of the room. Through it, the sun shone brightly, surrounded by blue and nothing else.
The sky. It was a portal to the sky, and the first true sign of The Traveller’s magic that they had found.
“Awesome,” he couldn’t help but murmur. “So that explains why we kept hearing wind, and why it kept getting hot and cold. You see that, Selina, Theresa?” He scanned the temple one more time. “Maybe that’s how this whole temple got here: maybe it came from somewhere far away and melded into the dungeon. I doubt the spiders built it.”
“Wooow,” his little sister muttered, her eyes growing in wonder at the portal. “It’s so pretty.”
“It is…” Theresa agreed, but the little smile touching her lips quickly faded as her eyes flicked to the side. “Look at that.” She pointed to the walls.
Puncturing and chipping marred the stone, as though blades had bitten into it. It must’ve been from the spiders’ bladed legs, coming out from multiple tunnels lining the ceiling and walls. Alex grimaced: there were so many passages that it felt like an insectile town square. He shuddered at how many monsters must have regularly passed through this place. Just the thought of a mass of silence-spiders crawling over each other across the ceiling and walls, made his skin creep.
His eyes narrowed.
“Wait a minute.” He looked at the tracks above, then glanced to the floor tiles.
“What’s wrong?” Theresa asked, while Selina stiffened with a quiet whimper.
He brought his forceball out to the tunnel, and noted that the spider’s tracks extended behind them into the passage. When he brought it down to the floor, he saw that more of the bladed ‘prints’ marked those floor tiles. They were chipped. Yet, when he looked back into the ‘temple’ chamber…
“Look at the floor in there,” he pointed. “It doesn’t look like the spiders walk across it. There’s tracks all through the walls and ceiling, but I don’t see any sign of them touching the floor tiles. There’s no chipping.”
Theresa’s eyes narrowed. “But why wouldn’t they walk on that floor?”
He studied the temple tiles: the ones just comfortably large enough for two or so people to stand on. He glanced back up to the goddess’ ruby eyes. That spine-tingling feeling swept through him again.
A thought began to form in his mind, and he closely scrutinized each tile. Each one was nearly perfectly square and symmetrical, and some looked faded from the passage of time. They were a whitish-grey, varying in shade.
He leaned forward, very careful not to step into the room, and peered at one with a faded black mark staining it, lightened enough to almost blend with the stone’s color. His teeth ground. He knew the sight well from the wreckage of his parent’s alehouse:
The stone had been burned.
Alex called his forceball forward. “Selina, Theresa, Brutus. C’mon, there’s something I need to try.”