Alex shot his forceball back—willing it to stop just before the spider swarm—then commanded it to rapidly circle the end of the passage just above the walls, ceiling and floor. He didn’t hit any of the spiders, but he wasn’t aiming for them. The Mark didn’t interfere, not registering what he was doing as combat.
The spiders also ignored the spell, and tensed to leap on their prey.
The goddesses fired.
Four beams shot across the temple—spitting heat—and slammed into the walls of the passage. All four chased after the ball as it rapidly circled, lancing into the stone of the tunnel.
The passage filled with columns of flame.
Alex, Theresa and Selina screamed as they flattened themselves into the tile while a wall of heat whipped around the passage.
Then came the pops.
The worker spiders screeched as their insides fried, exploding inside the tunnel like boiling eggs bursting in a pot. Heat built as the beams chased the forceball, racing along the sides of the tunnel. Alex’s eyes stung from it.
His mind flashed back to watching his home burn; heat stinging his eyes as he fought to slip Mr. Lu’s grasp and try to reach his parents. He shoved it from his mind, forcing his concentration into the spell until, at last, the goddess’ eyes fell silent.
After that, their own quiet breaths filled the temple, and the only heat was the warmth of his trembling sister between him and Theresa. His arms were around them both, while Theresa clutched him and Selina so tightly, they could barely breathe.
The passage had burned black and many of the tiles crumbled into the hidden spider tunnels from the blasts of flame-magic. The stone of the walls had cracked. Sizzling ash—all that remained of the swarm—coated the floor and pieces of bladed legs folded over themselves in death. The stench of seared arachnids filled the air.
Aside from the twitch of burnt claw and the whine of steam escaping from burst shells, no sign of movement came from the passage. Alex drew his forceball back over the trap-tile, ready to blast again if anything moved. Heartbeats passed with no sign of any creatures emerging. Either they were all dead, or the blast had scared them off. He hoped for the former, but he’d take anything that wasn’t ‘swarming them en masse to open their insides.’
“I think…” he slowly raised himself up. “I think they’re gone.”
Despite him rising to his knees, Selina was still pressed against him like a baby bird to its mother. Theresa rose with him too, their arms clutching each other harder than before. All three trembled.
A low whine made him turn: Brutus was shaking and had pressed himself to the tile, burying all three of his heads beneath his paws. Not for the first time, Alex was glad that the big dog was so smart.
‘I guess it helps to have three heads and three brains,’ he thought. ‘Three really smart dog brains.’
“It’s okay, boy,” Theresa said quietly, turning her face from being buried in Alex’s side. “You’re okay. We’re okay.”
She almost seemed to be telling herself that as she finally disentangled from Alex and Selina, reaching out to the cerberus. Brutus crawled to their tile on his belly and stuck his leftmost head beneath his mistress’ hand. She sighed as she slowly pet him, and Alex felt Selina shift, peeking at Brutus. She slowly crawled to the edge of the tile and reached her little hand out to pet his rightmost head.
“Good boy, Brutus.” She stroked him.
Alex, without thinking, put his palm on Brutus’ middle head, then froze as he thought the dog would snap at him. The cerberus remained quiet and even pressed his head into Alex’s palm. Eager to act before Brutus remembered he didn’t like him, he pet him while focusing on getting as much as he could.
The Mark flooded his mind with all the times he’d pet his neighbours’ animals, reminding him of which movements made them happiest and which spots made their eyes close in delight.
Guided by The Mark, he found scritches on a particular spot behind the ears the best, and he gave the cerberus the best damn scritches he could, smiling as his head pushed and rubbed against his hand.
He supposed that was another advantage to three heads: three sets of head-pats at the same time. Cerberi really had it all figured out, hadn’t they?
“Good boy, Brutus,” Alex echoed his sister and best friend. “Goood boy. Best boy, even. Better than all the other boys.”
Theresa burst into low laughter that turned into a snort. “You’re such a dork, Alex.”
“Says the one who just snorted.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“You’re both dorks,” Selina said without pausing petting Brutus.
“Yeah…yeah, you’re probably right. Agh!” Alex grunted.
Theresa looked to him sharply. “What’s wrong?”
The adrenaline draining from his body made the searing pain rise up in his leg. “One of them got me,” he grimaced.
The colour drained from her face.
“Alex?!” Selina started to spin around but Theresa caught her arm. The huntress pointed to the trap tiles around them.
“Stay still, Selina, we don’t want to set off the statues,” she said, patting the girl’s shoulder. “Where is it?”
“My right leg.”
She turned slowly—careful not to touch the surrounding tiles—and peered at the cut in his leg. He winced as she gently examined his wound.
She let out a sigh of relief. “It’s shallow. No worse than that shaving cut you gave yourself last Sigmus Eve. I’m gonna have to ruin your pants.”
“Better ruined pants than a ruined leg.” He hoisted himself to his feet, flinching as he did, and called the forceball back.
Carefully heading back into the tunnel, the group paused while Theresa cut off the lower part of his pant-leg and tied a dressing to the wound. He grimaced when she used a small bottle of spirits to clean it, but knew things could have been worse.
He glanced at the arachnid corpses scattered around.
A lot worse.
He and Theresa carefully checked each floor-tunnel to make sure they were empty. For now, at least, they found no silence-spiders lurking anywhere.
“Ummm,” Selina said. “I can see light through these cracks.”
The small girl was peering into a crack in the blackened wall.
“Light? Are you sure?” Alex and Theresa glanced at each other. The huntress crouched beside the young girl.
“She’s right.” She scraped away some of the ash, peering through the crevice. “There’s some sort of light, like a-oh!”
They jumped back as the wall crumbled into thin fragments, revealing a wide tunnel. It appeared to be some sort of natural crossroads with branching passages connecting to it. In the depths of each passage, dim lights shone, shifting in colour and shade.
“Look.” Theresa pointed to the floor with the tip of her sword, indicating a few chips and holes in the rough ground. “There're some tracks in the floor that look like those spiders’ tracks, but there's a lot less than back in the temple.”
Alex glanced between the floor of this new passage and the walls and ceiling of the temple. “You’re right. Maybe they don’t come in here often.”
“Do you think it’s safer in there?” Selina asked hopefully.
Alex shone his forceball down into the tunnel, looking for any threats.
“Maybe, and if this place was hidden—especially if the spiders don’t come in here often—we should find out why.”
The little group stepped through the rubble and into the hidden passage. Alex drew on The Mark to guide his steps stealthily: the memories of him sneaking into the cave entrance rose up. He adjusted his movements, picking the best ones from how he’d moved then, and proceeded cautiously.
It was getting a little easier, he noticed.
Brutus sniffed the air, looking at the side-tunnels. Alex moved his spell’s light all around. No spiders were hidden. The passage was wide, but completely empty.
As they walked deeper, he could feel something different in the air. An abundance of mana, he realized. There was so much of it, that even he—a self-taught mage—felt its edges.
A powerful magic surrounded them, and it felt distant and cold.
“There’s a lot of mana around,” he said, thinking back to the tales of the cave. “It might be The Traveller’s.”
He glanced at the changing lights shining from the surrounding tunnels. “Maybe her portals are close.”
He stepped toward the nearest.
“Wait.” Theresa put a hand on his chest. “Look up there.”
Another tunnel had been carved into the ceiling, with the spiders’ blade-marks apparent in the rock.
Brutus and Theresa took up flanking positions on either side—ready to strike anything that dropped down—while he shone his forceball toward the dark.
The spell illuminated what was within.
A dead end appeared after a mere ten feet.
He frowned. “Why would they start digging a tunnel here, just to give up after ten feet?”
Theresa’s eyes narrowed. “I wonder…” She glanced back to the remnants of the thin wall with the opening they had stepped through. “The thin stone back there looks similar to the dead end up top.”
“What’re you thinking?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know yet.” Her eyes turned to one of the closest tunnels where the multi-coloured lights shone from. “Let’s check there.”
Creeping forward, they slipped into that tunnel, looking around in case anything was another death trap. Coming closer to the light source, they started to feel the same shifts in temperature they’d felt when they first entered The Cave of the Traveller. Brutus sniffed, and all three heads growled. Scents shifted constantly and sounds crashed over each other.
They came to a bend in the passage. The light was close.
“Selina, stay back with Brutus.” Alex put a hand on her shoulder. “Just in case, okay?”
Selina nodded and held onto the cerberus, while he and Theresa glanced silently to each other then peered around the corner.
A portal floated in the middle of the tunnel, knee height from the ground.
It shook and shimmered in the air, and the images that appeared through it melted over each other in chaos. One moment it was filled with huge swaths of the ocean. In another it was deserts of white sand. Another showed a darkness so deep that Alex had no idea of what he was looking at.
In that instant, the air turned very cold before the portal shifted again.
It paused. For several breaths, it held the image of another cave opening up to a meadow dotted with fireflies at night. Alex frowned. It had been morning when they’d entered and they hadn’t been in here for that long.
“Did it just stabilize?” he asked. “Maybe we shou-”
The portal slammed shut.
Alex and Theresa recoiled.
“What happened?” Selina gasped.
He blinked. “I don’t kno-”
They all screamed and Brutus yelped.
With a boom like thunder, the portal reopened farther down the tunnel, and the image within was of a rocky shore overlooking a lake.
It disappeared again.
It reopened far closer to them.
The images swirled too quickly to track.
“Get back!” Theresa cried.
Alex ran, grabbing Selina’s hand and rushing toward the main tunnel. He kept looking back, imagining the unstable portal reappearing close by or worse, on top of them.
Reaching the crossroads and skidding to a stop; they stood panting in a mixture of relief and fear. Alex looked back to the tunnel, where he could still hear the booms of the portal appearing and reappearing. It stayed around the bend, never appearing where they’d stopped.
‘I wonder if that’s what happened to people who entered the cave,’ he thought. ‘One minute they’re walking along minding their own business. Next, they find one of the portals that suddenly vanishes, then opens up right on top of them. Next they’re through the opening, plunging into the middle of the ocean, or falling from the sky, or appearing in some other deadly place.’ He shuddered at the thought. ‘Or maybe if they were lucky, in a nice meadow with fireflies.’
“What was that?” Selina gasped.
“I think…that’s The Traveller’s magic.”
There was no way they were going through that.
Theresa was looking down the other tunnels. “We should check those other lights.” She glanced to the ceiling tunnel again before leading the way down the next passage.
Each passage held much the same as the first: portals chaotically popping in and out of existence, leading mostly to certain death. Some had items strewn beneath them. Pine cones. Fallen leaves. Stones. Shells of strange animals.
Alex wondered if they’d been pulled in from other places.
The last tunnel they explored revealed a far more gruesome sight.
Soldier spiders lay beneath a portal, and they looked even more devastated than those Cedric had destroyed. One was cleanly split in half. Another looked like it had been turned inside out. The others were in various states of ‘ripped apart with extreme prejudice’.
“Hah, I guess the magic of Alric’s patron saint doesn’t play well with The Ravener’s monsters,” he said with some satisfaction. “The Traveller’s fighting the fight even in death.”
“Good for her,” Theresa said. “And if I’m right…let’s look at the tunnel that had no light.”
The final tunnel held no portal, abruptly stopping at a blank wall of stone.
“Dead end,” Alex grunted. “That’s strange.”
“Maybe not.” Theresa stepped up to the wall, pressed her ear against it and knocked.
Her eyebrows rose. “Come listen to this.”
After Alex had pressed an ear to the wall, she knocked on it again.
The tap seemed to echo, as though-
“It’s hollow!” He stepped back. “Another secret chamber, you think?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She tapped her chin in thought. “When we first reached The Traveller’s Cave, we went straight into the hill. Then turned left at the temple, left again at the secret passage here, then left again to reach this dead end. If I’m guessing the distance right, I think this leads back to the tunnel we came through on our way in.”
“So… this ‘portal-crossroads’ has two ways in,” he added it up. “Each blocked by thin stone and a ceiling tunnel, also blocked by stone. It’s like…”
She nodded. “It’s like the spiders got in here, found out what the portals could do to them, then closed it off with those thin walls. Alex…do you think something in here can build walls?”