“I…I don’t know if there’s anything that can build walls,” Alex said. “But dungeon cores are supposed to make ‘nests’ for their monsters, right? Maybe it’s the dungeon core here making and moving walls for its spiders.”
He thought back on all the stories he’d heard about the cave.
“I don’t remember anything about The Cave of the Traveller having a temple in it,” he said. “Or anything about horrible, fiery death-beams.”
“Yes, I think that’s something the whole town would have remembered.” Theresa shuddered. “You know, I once thought about exploring this place when I was younger. …by myself!”
He grimaced. “At least there weren’t any silence-spiders then.”
“Just statues that burn you to ash!”
“Hrm.” He looked to the hollow wall. “…I’m not sure you would have found the temple back then.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think you can find where this wall is in the front passage?”
She glanced at it. “I think so. Come on.”
They looped out of the ‘portal-crossroads’ and back into the entrance tunnel, watching closely for more silence-spiders. None came.
After a time, Theresa started pausing and rapping on the stone on the side of the passage every few steps until-
“Found it.” She tapped the wall again. “It’s hollow, and it’s about the right distance.”
“Okay.” He peered at the tunnel’s walls. “So let’s look around the stone here and see if we find anything strange.”
The three of them examined the walls—while Brutus stood guard—and Alex activated the Mark, focusing on thoughts of finding. Memories of the stone arose as he studied it: detailing its contours, bumps and grooves. As he inspected the passage, more memories were added with even more details emphasized: he was learning the exact shape and structure of this one passage with every pass of his eyes until…
He noticed it.
“Something’s messed with the tunnel. Look.” He pointed to the wall just near the hollow section. “It looks natural, but the stone’s a bit smoother from here-” He traced his finger from the hollow section along to where the tiles began in the passage. “-all the way to here: I think the pathway to the temple used to be hidden. The stone seems to have been moved out of the way by whatever raised the walls. Or maybe the worker spiders chiselled this tunnel and then the wall…mover…thing smoothed the stone back.”
Theresa followed his gaze. “The portals we’ve seen so far look a lot more like what the tales say about the cave leading to all kinds of random places. Maybe they sealed off what the cave led to before.”
“Yeah, but then they opened the temple instead, and gave themselves a straight path in and out of the dungeon…and a path right to Cedric. Too bad for them.” He looked back down the passage. “The legends didn’t say anything about any temple, so I thought it probably got pulled in from a portal, but now I’m wondering if I was just plain wrong there.”
“But you said the scary statues didn’t look like they were from here.” Selina looked up, trying to follow along.
“They still might not be: The Traveller was supposed to have come from somewhere really far away right? Before she settled in Alric? What if those statues and that writing are from wherever she came from? Maybe the temple was the hidden part of the cave—her hidden part—until the spiders opened it up.”
“Um, is that why the portal back in the temple didn’t look like the ones that were all weird and moving?” Selina asked.
Alex and Theresa froze.
He slowly turned toward his little sister like a door on rusty hinges. “Selina, you’re a genius.”
She blinked. “I am?”
“Yeah! Come on!” He waved them back toward the temple.
When they got back to the entrance, he took a long look at the portal in the middle of the room. It was stable. It didn’t flicker. It didn’t change or pop in and out of existence.
It was silent, peaceful, and simply fixed open onto that endless blue sky.
The Traveller’s magic was different here.
“Hey…” Theresa looked over the room again. “This is a death-trap.”
“I know.” He considered the sky-portal. “No way we’re going in there, even if we could reach-”
“No, I mean this room.”
He blinked, confused. “I uh, know that too…”
“No, listen, I mean it's a death-trap created by the spiders.” She pointed to the floor-tunnels. “Think about it: someone is walking along, when the little ones come up behind them from under the floor like they did with us. Then they herd their prey into the temple. If the prey runs onto the trap-tiles, they burn to ash. If the prey knows the right tiles to step on, then the spiders can just follow: their victims are trapped.” She pointed at the large wall-tunnels. “And those big spiders can just come out of the walls and ceiling and surround anyone that survives.”
Alex imagined it: running from the passage while being chased by silence-spiders. One step onto the floor while panicking and then being obliterated. Or—if they’d forced them onto the safe tiles where they’d be trapped—little silence-spiders filling the tunnel and big ones on the ceilings and walls.
He shuddered. “That’s a nasty way to go.”
“You’d die terrified.” Theresa gave the tunnels a disgusted look. “It’s lucky Cedric killed the swarm of big ones when he did.”
“And that we managed to get rid of the little ones.” Alex added. None had come for them since that ambush. He wondered if the dungeon core was nearly out of forces now.
He looked to the keyhole in the massive doors.
“Let’s have a look at what’s on the other side of those doors: if the Traveller’s magic here is stable, then what’s behind them might hold the answer to what we’re looking for. I think we need to get across that floor.”
Backing into the tunnel, Alex began testing the tiles again with the forceball, using any burn marks on the stone as a guide. He made a few mistakes: the statues’ eyes drew lines of fire along the floor on the way to the targeted tiles, leaving many of them scorched. It became a practice of trial and error: trying one with the forceball, then shooting it back behind the sky-portal to protect it in case the fire-beams activated.
He discovered that some of the tiles in the back of the room were trapped, and that the goddesses pivoted on their pedestals to blast at his fleeing forceball.
He found there were several paths across the temple floor that weren’t trapped, but most led to deadends against the walls. He kept experimenting, and was finally able to pick out a safe path across the temple floor. It led directly to the doorway. He wasn’t about to take any chances, so he kept checking the floor tiles until he’d tested every last one in the temple.
“There, that’s all of them,” he said when he finished the last.
“We still have a problem.” Theresa pointed to the lock on the massive door in the temple’s far wall. “I don’t see any place to find a key around here, and it doesn’t look like the spiders use the doors.”
“Give me a second.” He scanned the room. “Stay here, I think I might be able to find it.”
The Mark of the Fool focused on memory and its details, and he had just used it to ‘learn’ the cave wall. It had focused on the ‘successes’ in his searching to reveal differences in its structure. The same principle might apply here.
Concentrating on his Mark, he cautiously stepped onto the safe paths and slowly let his eyes take in every detail of the room, focusing on thoughts of searching and memorization.
The Mark responded as it had in the front passage: raising memories of every detail his eyes caught and comparing them as he searched for anything that stood out. He carefully paced the paths, repeatedly looking over the same tiles and stone, and letting the memories pile up, with sharper details being added with each repetition.
Then he stopped.
The Mark had focused on an image of a section of one of the temple walls. Every time he’d looked at it, The Mark had sharpened the details in the image. He’d learned every contour just as he had in the cave.
He also learned the average shade of the stone in this chamber.
In the daylight shining through the sky-portal, he saw that the section of stone was lighter in the image. He carefully crossed the room along one of the safe paths. Kneeling beside the slightly discoloured area, he looked through the sea of blade marks carved by silence-spider tracks.
There. A slight indentation, nearly hidden by claw marks.
Warily, he pressed his finger into it.
The indentation sunk further—and a hidden panel in the stone swung open with the creak of ancient hinges. Within lay a single, wooden box.
His smile of triumph quickly faded.
“Oh no.” He slid the box out of the compartment, grunting at its weight.
Its entire surface was gouged and shredded by the silence-spiders’ blades.
He gingerly pushed aside the remnants of the lid and cursed.
What was left of a massive key lay within—large enough for the temple doors. It had been destroyed. Silence-spiders claws had clipped and bent the metal until it was nothing but useless junk.
“They wrecked the key.” He pushed the ruined box back in disgust.
He was really starting to hate these knife-legged bastards.
Theresa’s lips pressed together.
Selina looked between them. “What do we do now?”
“Let me try something.” He went to the temple doors across one of the safe pathways and concentrated on the lock, activating The Mark.
He focused on lockpicking.
No images arose.
It made sense. The only experience he had with ‘locks’ was ‘turning a key and opening them’. No memories for The Mark to draw on, not even related ones.
“It means,” he sighed, turning to give them the bad news. As he turned, his eyes caught the statues in front of him.
He looked at the wall destroyed by the flame-magic in the passage, and then toward the temple doors. And then at the statues again.
A wicked grin spread across his face.
“It means, my dear little sister,” he gave an evil chuckle. “That we have four spares.”
He rose and strode toward his companions, already moving his forceball above one of the trap-tiles.
“Alex? What do you-”
“Selina, Brutus, back into the tunnel!” Theresa quickly pulled them back as she saw what he was about to do. She held Selina, telling her to close her eyes.
Once Alex reached a safe distance from the temple chamber, he drove the forceball into the trap-tile.
As soon as the trap triggered, he shot the forceball in front of the locked doors so that it hovered before the lock.
The goddesses slowly turned on their pedestals.
He shot the forceball all around the doors, forcing the flame-magic to chase the glowing orb. The beams blasted the lock apart as they tried to hit the spell.
Cracks spiraled through the blackening doors.
Both doors blew apart. Popping and screeching suddenly rose from behind them.
A mass of worker silence-spiders had been huddled behind the doors. Alex hadn’t expected them, but they hadn’t expected fire-beams.
“Well, so much for that trap.” He smiled in satisfaction as he watched them blaze in the inferno.
As the fire cleared, a massive passage loomed through the doorway, with a stairway leading further into the dark. Grand columns framed the passage running into the distance until the stairs curved out of view.
“By Uldar,” Theresa murmured. “That was clever.” Alex saw that some of her fear was starting to give way to excitement. “Shall we go, Mr. Wizard?”
“Hey, you were the one that figured out the walls moving.” Alex said lightly. “And we’re nooot going yet.” Alex brought his forceball above a trap-tile again. “We just went through hell in that room. We should get something for our trouble.”
As soon as the forceball sprang the trap, he moved it between the statues, hovering it at face-level between their heads.
The statues pivoted, facing each other. Their eyes flared, firing just as he drove the spell downward. Fire-beams blasted the faces and necks of the sculptures, quickly heating the stone, and cracks spiralled through their surfaces. The two fractured statues tremored on their pedestals until-
-they shattered into hundreds of tiny shards. Shining among the rubble, four magical rubies had clattered—unharmed—to the floor.
“Hahah, victory!” He pumped his fists.
Gaping, Theresa, Brutus and Selina followed as Alex ran across the now useless trap floor, and began digging through the rubble to scoop up the fist sized fire-gems, while laughing madly to himself. He could feel the mana coursing through the jewels’ magic circuits. They were quite complex: four individual circuits joined together. From the magic theory he’d learned, that made the gems’ flame-magic the equivalent of a fourth-tier spell.
A full three tiers higher than his humble forceball.
“Do you have any idea how much these are worth?” he grinned.
“Do you?” Theresa asked.
“Nope.” He shrugged. “But it sure as hell won’t be nothing. The gems alone are bigger than any I’ve seen nobles wearing, and there’s powerful magic in all of them.”
“Can…can you make them shoot the nasty spiders?” Selina asked hopefully.
His little sister stood beside a very excited Brutus. She was smiling and—in that moment—seemed not to be afraid.
He looked at the gems, feeling their pleasant warmth in his fingers.
‘It shouldn’t be impossible,’ he thought.
He knew from what he’d learned in his books that there were three major kinds of magical items. Some were just enchanted or naturally magical: anyone who picked them up could use them. The second kind were a bit more complex: each held their own mana which could connect directly with the mana of its wielder. Then—just like how he controlled his forceball through pure mana and will after it had been cast—the wielder could utilize it without any spellcraft. Items like those tended to be rare and needed a lot of skill, time and practice to use.
The third kind were what these gems seemed to be: items built from spell arrays.
A wizard’s staff or wand contained its own mana and magic circuitry that its master could connect to. By pushing their own mana in, a wizard could use the items as though they were their own magic in a form of spellcraft. Judging by the magic circuitry, it seemed these gems functioned similarly, and likely followed commands set into them when they were built into the statues.
But such items were for experienced wizards with magic items they knew well.
Alex—self-taught and inexperienced—didn’t trust himself to not do something catastrophic by trying to interfere with strange, complex gems that spat fire and death. Especially when The Mark would, no doubt, interfere with the spellcraft required.
If his humble forceball exploding had nearly ripped his own face off…
“If I did it wrong, I might blow us up,” he said, stowing the gems in his pack. “Come on, we’d better get moving. Who knows if there’s more spiders around.”
Having Selina stay back with Brutus, Alex and Theresa crept to the ruined temple doors and peered through to the other side. Only burnt spiders greeted them. He took Selina back by his side and the little party crept deeper into the dungeon, with Brutus taking the lead again.
As their footsteps echoed lightly on the stairs, Alex began to feel the same cold and distant mana as he had in the ‘portal-crossroads’. It seemed like they were getting closer to another place thick with The Traveller’s mana.
And it was growing stronger with each step.