Alex, Selina, and Theresa crouched in the tunnel some ten paces back from the entrance to the temple. Brutus sat on his haunches beside them; two of his heads pointed toward either end of the passage.
“I think it’s some sort of trap.” Alex said. “I don’t know if it came from the dungeon or from wherever the temple was-”
“Wherever the temple was?” Selina asked.
“Yeah,” her brother pointed to the statues. “They don’t look like they’re from Thameland to me—not with that writing on the bases—and we’ve heard of people walking into the Cave of the Traveller and coming out other places right? Well, what if that worked both ways? What if it pulled things in as well? This temple could be something made by the dungeon core, or something that got pulled in and integrated. I don’t know. Either way, I think something happens if you walk on those tiles.”
“Something like what?” Theresa peered ahead, thumbing the pommel of her great-grandfather’s sword.
“I’m not sure, but we’re about to find out.” Alex willed the forceball to float through the air and hover above the burn-stained tile in the temple. “Get ready to run if…well, if we’re about to get blasted into teeny, tiny pieces.”
“Alex,” Theresa whispered harshly, slapping his shoulder. “That’s not funny.”
“I know.” He slapped her shoulder back. “That’s why we’ll be running.”
“It’s still not funny, you’re scaring your sister.” She slapped his shoulder again.
“It’s a little hilarious, and you’re scaring me.” He slapped her shoulder again.
“If you keep doing that, those big spiders will come.” Selina stared at them.
Alex and Theresa immediately shut up.
Concentrating, the young mage glanced from the burnt tile and up to the statues’ eyes. He had a bad feeling he knew what might be coming. “Alright, get ready.”
Both Theresa and Selina tensed.
His will grasped the forceball and drove it into the tile below.
They yelped, expecting the world to explode. The sound echoed through the tunnel.
“Let me try again.” Concentrating, he raised the forceball into the air until it was halfway to the temple’s ceiling, and held it there for a breath. Then, he accelerated it toward the floor, crashing it onto the tile like a stomping footfall.
The tile echoed from impact.
The goddess’ eyes flared bright red.
“Oh shit! Ru-”
Before he could finish, they fired.
Red beams blasted from the rubies and struck the floor near the base of each statue.
Where each ray touched the temple tile, a massive column of flame crackled into the air. The beams traced across the floor—leaving massive lines of fire as they went—and blasted into the forceball above the tile.
It snuffed out.
Selina screamed, pushing her face into Alex’s side. He felt like there was a brick of ice in his chest as he watched the flame. When the beams died, fire crackled before winking out and lines of sorcerous smoke rose in their wake.
Silence filled the passage.
“If…we had stepped out there…” Alex murmured.
“Teeny, tiny pieces,” Theresa gulped, her face very pale.
“I-is it gone?” Selina peeked from behind her brother’s cloak.
“Yeah…it’s gone.” He stroked her back, looking at the goddess' eyes while his mind worked. Crossing the floor would mean instant death…or would it? Noting that some of the stones had less dark marks than others, he started to re-cast his forceball.
Theresa began to creep forward. “That made a lot of noise: I’ll go check and see if anything comes out of those wall tunnels to investigate.”
He paused nervously. “Maybe going over there alone isn't a good idea.”
“It’s only ten paces, Alex.” She gave him a quick, reassuring look. “If I see anything, I’ll be back before they know I was ever there.”
He winced. In every story he’d ever heard travelling bards tell, anyone who said something like that was soon torn to shreds and in some monster’s stomach.
He shook the thought away as Theresa told Brutus to stay, and moved to the opening of the temple. She crouched down, scanning the walls.
All he could do was finish his experiment quickly. His mind had already started conjuring sounds of spider legs creeping up behind them. Of course, the terrifying part was that—if they came—they wouldn’t make a single noise. He shuddered and looked back to Theresa, at the mouth of the passage by herself.
He needed to get on with it.
Unfortunately, The Mark seemed to have other ideas.
It ruined his first casting by bringing up a memory of misaligning a magic circuit a few years earlier, nearly causing the mana to reverse. The backward flow could have made him explode, had he not cut the circuit. His second try fell apart at an image of practicing in the woods, when he’d put too much mana into the circuit. The forceball had exploded—nearly ripping his face off—while the magic circuit had overloaded and sent mana rampaging through his body. It’d left him on the ground covered in his own tears and bruises; he’d had to explain to Mrs. Lu by telling her he’d taken a bad fall while running through the woods.
He grimaced, fighting panic as mana surged up in the same way now, and he cut the flow in time. He was panting as it dissipated, while Selina watched him with eyes as wide as saucers.
“Alex? A-are you okay?”
“Yeah…” he tried to catch his breath and ignore the cold sweat covering his skin. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just…give me a second. ”
His mind began to work.
He was scared—he could feel it in his chest—and that made anything harder, let alone spellcasting. Understandable, since he was in a monster den, trying to work magic. But when nerves combined with The Mark’s interference…well, shit, it was lucky he hadn’t blown his own head off.
Closing his eyes, he slowed his thoughts.
Taking a deep breath, he acknowledged his nerves but disengaged from them, letting go of any images of danger.
Slow and steady. Slow and steady. Slow and Steady.
The best he could do for Theresa was do this properly, and he and Selina had Brutus for protection. Fear finally released his mind and he began to recast the spell. As expected, The Mark shoved the memory of the forceball exploding into his mind again, and this time, he noted the exact details of that particular failure and avoided them.
A new forceball winked into life.
“Yay, you did it,” Selina whispered.
“I did.” He smiled, wiping the sweat from his brow. He maybe had two more forceballs in him for the day before his mana would drain and his lifeforce would start to weaken.
He’d best make this one count.
Sending the crimson orb forward, he gently tapped Theresa on the back with it to get her attention.
“Are you ready?” she whispered across the passage, taking care not to shift her eyes from the wall-tunnels.
“Yeah, come back.”
She quickly rose and backed her way to the “safe” spot through the tunnel. As she crouched close again, relief washed over him. Alex aimed his forceball at one of the first temple-tiles at the mouth of the temple—it didn’t bear any burn marks.
The sphere wouldn’t trigger the stone goddess’ wrath no matter how hard he drove it into the floor. He shifted the spell deeper into the room, holding it above the tile in front of the first he’d just tested. It didn’t have that slightly burnt, discoloured look from what he could see.
He shifted the spell again until it hovered above the tile he’d struck earlier. The one that triggered the trap.
“What’re you doing?” Theresa asked.
“I’m going to test if the beams aim at the tiles, or at whatever triggered them. If we’re going to cross that floor, we’d better know everything we can. We’re only going to get one try at this.”
“...alright.” Theresa continued to thumb the pommel of her great-grandfather’s sword. “Do what you need to, but do it fast. …I didn’t see anything come out of those tunnels in the temple, so either everything in here’s dead, busy or…” She glanced nervously back along the passage. “...flanking us like wolves.”
Alex imagined hundreds of little spiders silently creeping up behind them on tiny, dagger-legs. He tried to remain calm. “Okay, I’ll hurry.”
He raised the forceball above the trap-tile, this time measuring the distance between it and the portal hovering in the centre of the room. He slammed the spell into the floor-
-and immediately shot the ball behind the portal.
Fire-beams lanced from the goddesses’ ruby eyes, directly toward the forceball. Their rays dove into the portal and disappeared, leaving the hidden sphere unharmed. For a count of ten they poured through the portal in the spell’s direction until they finally flickered and faded to a silent glow.
Alex hoped there weren’t any birds flying on the other side of the portal.
“Okay, here’s the plan.” He turned; Theresa and Selina tore their eyes away from the statues. “I’ll use the forceball to feel out a safe path across the tiles. Once we have one, we can cross-”
Tile struck stone just behind them.
A fox-sized silence-spider had partially emerged from a tunnel hidden beneath one of the passage tiles. It was just behind Alex, and out of Brutus’ line of sight.
Its dagger-like claws were poised to hamstring him, but the monster recoiled as it got close; maybe the stink of wormwood had repelled it. The tile it crawled from had fallen over, clattering to the floor as it jerked back.
Alex scrambled away. The spider recovered and struck out, drawing a gash through the side of his calf.
“Argh!” He cried. Hot pain lanced through his leg.
Theresa sprang at the monster, slamming the pommel of her great-grandfather’s sword into its back. Crack. Its shell crunched like a boiled crayfish, spilling insect innards over the floor. A raw stench escaped its body. She shifted her attention, focusing on its head and repeatedly smashed the sword’s pommel into its skull. The spider collapsed, twitching.
It spasmed, screeching on the floor.
Dozens of small spiders surfaced—scrambling from beneath tiles around them—like they were heeding a call.
“Shit!” Theresa swore. “Run! Back down the tunnel!”
Alex looked as a horde of spiders emerged from the tiles down the passage, blocking their escape.
“No! Into the temple!” He scrambled up, ignoring the pain in his calf and the wetness against his pant leg. “Maybe they won’t chance the floor there!”
With a thunderous bark, Brutus charged ahead. The worker-spiders’ legs flailed silently as he shoved them aside, but their glancing cuts couldn’t pierce the cerberus’s tough hide. Theresa swept with her sword, knocking them away, and Alex scooped up the screaming Selina.
They rushed through the spider swarm, running to the temple as more emerged from the tiles.
“Brutus! Go to the second tile the red ball hit and stay! Stay there!” Theresa shouted, pointing.
The cerberus barked and bounded onto the first tile, then over to the second, waiting for them and growling as they leapt after him. Alex landed, struggling to regain his footing as he clung to Selina. Theresa followed and both of them tried to balance on the first tile.
“They’ll follow us!” Theresa shouted, whirling toward the passage “They’ll see this one is safe!”
Alex’s blood ran cold.
She was right. He glanced into the rest of the temple, but there would be no way to figure out what tiles were safe before they were overrun. Then there was the locked door at the back of the temple…
He forced down his panic. He couldn’t afford it now.
Think. Adapt. Think. Adapt.
He glanced to the forceball
He looked at the goddess’ glowing eyes.
“Theresa, Brutus!” he shouted, moving his spell over the trap-tile. “Get down!”
He pulled her down and held Selina close.
He drove the forceball downward.
The spiders scuttled toward the end of the passage, prepared to leap on the intruders.
The goddess’ eyes flared.