“I think we’re getting close to something,” Alex whispered, shining the forceball across the ceiling and walls. Murals had been etched into the stone, but many were now ruined by the silence-spiders’ claws.
It was a shame: even through the cuts, it was clear that someone had poured a lot of skill and effort into this place.
“Look.” Selina pointed to one they were passing on their left. “Don’t they look like those scary statues?”
Barely visible through the blade-marks were the snarling faces of the goddesses from the temple above, though all else in the mural had been obliterated. Luckily, these images had no fire-gems for eyes.
“I can’t believe this was so close to our little town.” Theresa gazed at the architecture in awe. “It’s like something out of a fairy tale…or it was. Those spiders are awful.”
Brutus growled as he padded down the stairs, as though agreeing with his master.
“At least there don’t seem to be any more of them. For now.”
There had been holes in the ceiling and walls here and there, but not a single sign of any worker or soldier silence-spider. With so much destruction to its swarm so soon after it awoke, it seemed the dungeon core might have run out of things to throw at them.
Alex held onto a cautious optimism. ‘Two days to regenerate its forces,’ Cedric had said. Hopefully, that meant a straight, safe run to whatever was under the temple. With the way the stairs had turned, it looked like where they were going would be directly below it.
“Wait, listen.” Theresa held up a gloved hand for them to stop. “Do you hear that?”
Alex strained his ears and everyone held their breaths.
From somewhere ahead came a low roar, like a rainstorm or river. It echoed from somewhere in the deep.
“An underground river, you think?” Alex asked.
They continued forward, and lights came next: a glow in multiple colours radiating from down the passage. They were like the lights they’d seen in the ‘portal-crossroads’, but these didn’t move and change nearly as much.
There also seemed to be more of them.
“Maybe more portals,” Alex commented.
The Traveller’s magic had increased in the air; now even stronger than it had been in the portal crossroads. Moving quietly, they crept closer to the lights and came to the end of the stairs. A stone doorway framed the exit.
The light was stronger now, nearly as bright as full daylight. Etched into the stone above—spoiled by the spiders’ claws—was the symbol of a lantern.
The Sigil of The Traveller, Alric’s Patron Saint.
They looked up, amazed that they were standing in a place that she had passed through long ago.
“Are we ready?” Theresa quietly asked.
Alex looked to his little sister.
“Yeah…” She clutched onto his cloak.
Brutus nuzzled his master with one head while the other two pointed forward, ready for what lay ahead. He constantly sniffed the air.
“I’m ready,” Alex said last, calling his forceball close. “If we see anything bad, we run, okay?”
As one, they nodded to each other and stepped out of the stairway, blinking as their eyes adjusted to the unexpected brightness of the light.
“Oh Uldar’s beard,” Alex swore.
An empty hive.
It was like stepping into the heart of a giant wasp nest.
The stairs opened onto a massive, circular chasm—closed up at the top by stone—that reached down into the depths of the earth. A rock pathway spiraled down the sides of the open shaft, passing cells upon cells cut into the wall like the honeycomb pattern in a wasps’ nest. Broken egg sacs were stuck to the stone beside cocoons with deer-antlers, hooves and other parts of snared animals sticking out.
The cocoons looked like they held captives for future meals.
A thick liquid dripped onto the stones below. Some of the eggs had been recently torn open, and a mass of spiders—dead and half-formed—lay in front of the dripping sacs. Maybe the dungeon core had tried to replenish its forces from these egg sacs, but they weren’t ready to hatch and died. Either that, or there was something else down there that had torn them open. Whatever the case, Alex hoped they didn’t run into anything to find out.
He kept an eye on the half-formed spiders in case any were still alive, but his attention was more focused on the portals.
Dozens of them floated through the chasm—some moving and some flickering in and out of different places—spreading a mix of sun and moonlight. Each was like the portal in the temple. They were stable, and what lay inside them was far more than just empty sky.
The four companions gaped, awestruck at the sight: the true remnants of The Traveller’s magic was here, bringing scenes from all over the world into this one cave outside of their hometown.
One portal roared as water poured from a river it had opened into and fell through another portal that opened far below. The second showed a scene of snowy plains from hundreds of feet above with water pouring down and building an ever-spreading hill of ice. Another spread open to a scene of hot fire-mountains burnt by their own eruptions, with a river of lava flowing just beneath the doorway on the other side. Alex noticed the air shimmering around it; he was amazed at how much heat must have been coming from the thing.
Another portal opened to a forest very different from Coille: the trees were larger and covered with vines, while the forest floor was a steaming marsh where something massive and slithery swam along the surface.
They’d be avoiding going near that place.
Some places the portals opened to were completely strange: one opened to a desert of blue sand under a blue sun. Another opened over a range of crimson mountains and above, a flock of bat-winged creatures flew.
While many of the portals hovered in the middle of the chasm, some were close to the pathway. Around them there wasn’t a single sign of spider eggs or spiders. It seemed the portals here didn’t play well with them either.
Broken items lay all along the path: shattered statues, columns and other sculptures that looked like they would have suited the temple and staircase. The damaged objects all bore the spider-claw marks. Yet, despite the scarring and empty nests, this place was amazing, and the best part was that there wasn’t a single spider crawling around.
They weren’t safe yet, but Alex could almost taste freedom.
“It’s so beautiful…” Selina gasped at the portals. “It’s like a big wonderful tower underground with doors that go wherever you want.”
“All over the world…” Theresa added in a dreamy voice.
Even Brutus seemed excited, with his heads swivelling in every direction.
Alex admired the majesty around them. “That’s the legacy of our Saint.” he said. “Remember her sigil on the way in? Maybe this was her sanctum all along, before it became a dungeon. She mustn’t have been too pleased that monsters got in here.” He looked around at the portals and sighed in growing relief. “It looks like we have our way out.”
“We did it!” Selina laughed. “I wish we could take all these pretty doors with us.”
“Yeah, me too, Selina, me too,” her brother agreed.
“Maybe…maybe if I get some clay I can build a littler copy of this place… ” Her eyes narrowed in thought. “After we find where we’re supposed to go.”
“Yeah, we’re going to have a hard time figuring out which portal to choose.”
“Maybe not the one with all the volcanoes?” Theresa suggested.
“Oh come on, where’s your sense of adventure?” he chuckled.
Marveling at the portals, the little party crept down the ramp while looking for their door out of Thameland and toward Generasi. They fell quiet as they went deeper into the cave, eyeing the walls for any signs of threat.
As they went lower, The Saint’s magic filled the air so thickly that Alex wouldn’t have been surprised if it suddenly became visible.
Theresa gasped. “Look. Someone’s lying on the ramp down there...By Uldar’s beard...is it her?”
Alex and Selina turned to the spot where she was looking and gasped in shock.
A few ‘floors’ below them on the opposite side of the chasm, a body lay. It was small and thin, and dressed in a plain brown robe. Its hands were cupped upon its midriff. A blue light covered it, shimmering and brightening the surrounding stone like the sunrise. Across the chest, a symbol of a lantern glowed a deeper blue, and wherever the blue light touched, the spiders’ presence was absent, like they never existed.
“I think you’re right. It’s wearing the lantern symbol.” Alex said in awe, a small part of him hoping The Saint wouldn’t be too angry at him for using her power to escape. Hopefully not…he was only a ‘Fool’ after all.”
“Thank you Ms. Traveller,” Selina said quietly, bowing her head toward the body. “Thank you for fighting the monsters, and thank you for helping me, my brother, Theresa and Brutus go to the big wizard city.”
Alex smiled warmly. “I hope she hears you.”
Theresa bowed her head. “Thank you, Traveller, for your magic that stopped the monsters from leaving this place.”
Alex looked between them. He might as well pay his respects too.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Thank you for your sacrifice, our Patron Saint. May you rest well. And…for what it’s worth, I hope the spiders we killed in your home made you a little happier.”
When he opened his eyes, he was gazing directly toward the chasm’s bottom.
The hair rose on the back of his neck.
The portals ended at a point below, and their light failed to pierce the dark at the bottom.
Shuddering, he stepped away from the edge. “Let’s get going and take a look at the portals.”
The problem was that there were a lot of portals, and many seemed to lead to certain death.
“I’m pretty sure that’s something’s stomach.” Theresa winced at one opening into a fleshy cavern. It was filled with green liquid and dissolving meat.
“Gross.” Selina gagged, looking away.
Brutus snorted and turned all three of his heads.
Theresa looked at more of the portals that were in reach of the stone pathway. “We could step through one that looks safe, look around and step back if it isn’t someplace we want to go?”
Alex thought about that, glancing at some of the doorways. “Problem is, we don’t know if they’ll close on us on the other side, since we don’t know how they work.”
“Um, maybe…maybe we could look and see if there's any with mountains or rivers you know from one of your books?” Selina asked. “Since you read so much. Then we can go there if it’s safe?”
Both Alex and Theresa paused, slowly looking down at the little girl.
“Like I said before, you’re a genius, little goblin.” Alex grinned.
“I am?” Selina blinked.
“Yes you are!” Theresa mussed the young girl’s hair. “You think you can do that, Alex?”
He rotated his marked shoulder. “Watch me.”
He’d already used it to search out details in the caves above. So, why not landmarks?
Looking at the portals, he concentrated on the idea of navigation: in his book, Galloway had said that previous Fools had guided their companions through the wilderness, hadn’t he?
The Mark responded.
Images of books burst into his mind: old geography books, poems and histories that mentioned landmarks. Some he’d only flipped through in passing, but they rose up now as clear as a sunny day. What surprised him, though, were the conversations that appeared: every relevant half-snippet of geographical knowledge he’d ever heard—even if he hadn’t been focusing on it at the time—neatly organized itself in solid detail.
His eyes flicked from portal to portal and The Mark compared the sights to the landmarks he’d heard of. Many he didn’t recognize, but soon, a grin spread across his face.
The views were from far, far above, but he was finding distinct landmarks.
There was Mount Tai, looming from the eastern peaks in the Tarmlung Empire, just as Theresa’s grandfather had described it. An ornate gate sat above the stone staircase that led up its forested slope. Alex could see the mountain as clear as crystal.
The Tree of Knowledge of New Alfheim rose from a green valley in the middle of a snowy wilderness. He’d heard of it in passing from a travelling skald visiting Alric: the only elf he had ever seen.
From far above, there was the Lighthouse of Indlu-Yesibani, far south of Generasi, home to one of the greatest libraries in the world. It had been told of by a griot—a southern storyteller—who had described it in tales while he was in Alric on the way to the capital.
“Yes!” Alex cried.
A secluded bend in a river, and beyond that in the distance, four mountains: one that burned, one lined by hundreds of waterfalls, and one that towered above the others, formed of earth, solid rock and sparkling with gemstones the size of villages. The fourth mountain didn’t touch the ground at all: it floated in the air, high above the others, held up by a constant wind.
He’d found The Peaks of the Elements: the holiest place in all the Rhinean Empire, and one of its most southern landmarks. A short journey would take them from the mountains to Port Mausarr on the River Austrus. From there, it would be a couple days’ voyage to Generasi’s outer islands.
Alex pointed down to the Rhinean portal, which hung near the ramp several floors below where they stood. “That’s where we need to go: right to the southern part of the Rhinean Empire.” He couldn’t help but smile at the irony. “We’re going to get there before your parents.”
He glanced down. “We should be able-”
He froze. Something moved in the dark below.
“Oh shit! Get back!”
They sprang away from the edge.
A line of webbing shot from the darkness, hitting the ceiling and whipping dust from the cave walls. The sound of rock crumbling announced something rising from the depths. The web above flexed like a sail, but made no sound.
From the size of the web, and the loud crunching of stone, Alex’s blood chilled.
If they were in a hive…
…then, the hive would have a queen.