“Something’s coming! We have to get to the portal! Now!” Alex screamed.
Theresa tensed. “We won’t make it down there in time!” She scanned closer doorways, but all lead to inhospitable lands or death traps. The huntress pointed toward the archway to the stairs. “Let’s go back! We can-”
Her words died.
A massive, scythe-like blade had bitten into the stone wall below. It was large enough to cut any two of their group in half with one snip, including Brutus. Before they could decide where to run to, the creature partially rose into view.
All three screamed, and Brutus barked frantically.
Alex expected to see a spider.
But the emerging monster’s—the hive-queen’s—upper half had little resemblance to her soldiers and workers.
A chitinous, human-like torso rose into view: covered in carapace like knight’s armour. Five sets of dead, black orbs filled its armoured forehead above a long jaw filled with needle-like fangs. Four plated arms had humanlike hands, the fingers of each ending in claws that curved like daggers. In one, it gripped the end of the web-line. In another, it held an orb the size of Alex’s head.
He, Theresa and Selina were terrified.
The orb was grey, but its tone flickered and changed, sporadically plunging into complete darkness. It looked like the black sphere painted in the mural across the Lu’s common room wall.
Alex began to tremble. ‘Was this the same thing?’
It came closer and he felt a new mana in the air, one that clashed with the Traveller’s mana.
Hers was peaceful and cool, but this was alive. It pulsated, seeming to stick to his senses and leaving a feeling of pure dread behind. The orb had to be from the Ravener’s spawn, the maker of the monsters in this dungeon.
The dungeon core.
The queen’s maw opened wide, and her cry was silent. Something in the dark orb shifted. Alex could feel the pulsating mana twist with the mana of The Traveller, and the two struggled in the air.
The Hive-queen emerged, revealing her full form.
Her human-mimicry ended at the waist.
Instead of two legs, her lower body was that of an enormous centipede—with each of her hundred legs ending in a blade. Protruding from chitinous plates below her torso were two colossal arms with massive blades. She slowly ascended like a snake, her sinewy body weaving between the portals to avoid The Traveller’s power.
Alex’s eyes focused on the portals.
“Alex! Aleeex!” Selina wailed, grabbing onto him and crying in terror.
As she sobbed, the darkness in the dungeon core began to deepen.
Theresa was scrambling to draw her bow while trying to shove the Roth siblings toward the stairs. Her face was stark white. “We-w-we-we-”
His own terror threatened to overwhelm him, but he clamped down on it. If they ran to the staircase, she would chase them, and he doubted they could outrun her with all those legs. With thoughts racing, he shot a look down the path toward the portal to the Rhinean Empire.
Portals hung throughout the air in the chasm; some were near the path or even hovered over the path itself.
Then he remembered that the portals hurt the monsters.
That was the key.
“She can’t touch the portals!” Alex shouted, taking hold of Selina’s hand and Theresa’s arm. He pulled them down the path. “Run! We can use the portals as cover!”
Theresa shook away her fright. “Take my hand!” She grabbed the little girl’s other hand.
The three of them tore down the path—avoiding the rubble and debris—while Brutus followed, barking and snarling at the queen, trying to make her back off.
The monster kept coming. “Hu...mansssss.” She broke her silence, hissing words in the common tongue. “Humanssss…must…feaaaaaaar…”
Alex’s mind worked to smother his terror as he ran.
His heart slammed in his chest, speeding up with their footsteps on the stone. The hive-queen silently chased them.
She shot another webline into the ceiling and pulled herself toward her prey, weaving between the portals with grace. Her body slipped by a portal that led to the middle of the ocean. No seawater poured through it. She ducked through the stream of water pouring from the river portal above and weaved below a portal leading to a secluded mountain crevice.
Another webline drove into the ceiling above.
Selina sobbed as Theresa and Alex pulled her as fast as she could manage. A portal lay in the middle of the path ahead, leading to a lake that boiled and smelled of sulphur.
The hive-queen silently opened her jaw and lowered her arm toward them. Alex saw her aiming through a small gap in the chasm’s floating doorways.
“Stop! Back here.” Alex cried. They abruptly ducked behind the portal.
The webline struck where they would have been, slamming into the stone and spreading a line across the path.
“Stay here!” he shouted. “She won’t be able to hold it tight if she chases us!”
Alex peered from behind the portal with Selina hiding behind him. Theresa peered out too while Brutus snarled.
The hive-queen didn’t chase them. She waited, watching the grey orb in her hand. It was flickering more now. Growing darker. He didn’t like the look of that.
“We have to move, the core’s doing something!”
Theresa’s eyes hardened. She started running.
Back up the path.
“Theresa! What’re you doi-”
The hive-queen’s head quickly swivelled after her. The monster only had one free arm: two held weblines tensed while the last held the dungeon core. The fourth aimed at Theresa.
As she did, Theresa dove down to the stone.
The webline struck the wall above her, and she instantly jumped to her feet and ran back down the path.
“Go! Below her line!” Theresa shouted. “She’s out of hands!”
“Selina, c’mon!” Alex pushed his sister beneath the webline that blocked the pathway down. He rolled under it, and Brutus leapt over. Theresa sprinted to them and ducked under, joining them on the other side.
The hive-queen silently screeched and tore the webs away as she began to weave between the portals in pursuit.
The distance between them and her was growing.
Hope rose in Alex’s chest. They were close to the Rhinean gateway, and shortly beyond that lay The Traveller’s body, shining with its blue light. They were close. So close.
Yet not close enough.
The hive-queen let out an audible screech that shook the cavern and nearly sent Selina into fits of screaming. The little girl struggled to keep her legs moving as fast as she could, while Alex and Theresa pulled her along.
As Selina screamed, the darkness in the dungeon core deepened.
The hive-queen raised it high.
Something shifted in the darkness, and the orb’s mana pulsed.
A rock wall erupted in the path in front of them, stopping them dead.
“No!” Alex cried.
The hive-queen’s jaw clicked.
“Back up the path!” Theresa shouted. “If we can-
Something shifted in the orb again.
His Mark shuddered, and he could feel that pulsating mana flow from the core and toward the path leading back up.
Another wall of stone arose, blocking the only other avenue of escape.
The darkness in the orb faded to a lighter grey as it used its power.
The hive-queen’s clicking jaw quickened. It almost sounded like laughter. Leisurely, she weaved between the portals toward them.
Theresa screamed and loosed an arrow at the monster, but it bounced uselessly off her armoured body. In response, the hive-queen bared her fangs and looked like she was hissing, but her voice had creepily returned to silence.
She continued to close on them, her sinewy body snaking between the portals. The spot they were trapped in only had a few of The Traveller’s doorways nearby, with more than enough room for the monster to maneuver if she got close.
They were going to die. When she reached them, they were going to die.
Alex’s mind raced and he shot his forceball at one of her hands.
Right at the dungeon core.
The Mark blocked combat when attacking creatures, but it hadn’t interfered when he’d struck objects with his spell. If he could knock the dungeon core from her grip, then maybe-
Memories poured into his head.
Fire. Fear. Spiders. Death.
His aim spoiled, and his forceball ineffectively slammed into the queen’s armoured body. A swipe from one of her claws shattered it.
His only weapon was gone.
No! His mind screamed. Don’t give up! We are not going to die down here! Think! Adapt!
The hive-queen snaked above a portal where stones floated in a grey sky. She was getting closer. She raised the dungeon core. “Humanssssss…feaaaaar…Ravener.”
Once more, the dark faded toward grey.
The closest of the walls she’d made shimmered.
Egg sacs formed on its surface, swelling rapidly until they burst apart one by one, unleashing worker silence-spiders onto the path. They started to skitter forward, and Brutus snarled and lunged at them with his fangs ready.
His jaws shattered their chitin, ripping into the little beasts. Their knife-like legs scratched at his snouts and he yelped, but he didn’t stop.
“Die! Die!” Theresa fired arrow after arrow toward the queen, aiming for joints, eyes and anything else vulnerable. They bounced off the chitin as she closed. Selina scream’s heightened in pitch and—for a moment—the fear was just as raw as it had been four years ago.
When the Roths’ lives burned.
The queen let out a satisfied clicking sound. The dungeon core’s mana began to grow thicker in the air. The orb’s darkness deepened, and Alex noticed the change: each time the core used its power, the dark lessened.
Each time their fear surged or his sister screamed, the darkness grew deeper.
A memory from when they were in the temple returned to him.
“You’d die terrified,” Theresa had said about the death-trap the spiders had created.
The temple chamber had been right over the dungeon core’s lair. Its victims would be terrorized to the height of fear just as the hive-queen was doing to them now.
And as their terror grew, so did the dungeon core’s mana.
The core must have been feeding on it.
And now the queen could take her time, slowly and carefully weaving between the portals, letting the core recharge as she came close enough to pluck her harvest.
Think! Adapt! His mind pushed. Think! Adapt! Think! Adapt!
Theresa’s arrows hadn’t worked. With no effort, the monster had ended his forceball. He wouldn’t be able to channel another one in time—not with The Mark interfering—and even if he could, it would do nothing against the queen’s armour.
The hive-queen was close now. She drove a final webline into the stone and swung around another portal. Now only two more lay between them: one near the pathway that led to an endless night sky, and one farther into the chasm that led to the fire mountains and the river of lava beneath.
Another of Theresa’s arrows flew straight, shooting right for one of the hive-queen’s insectile eyes.
The monster raised her hand and the arrow bounced uselessly off her armour.
They couldn’t hurt her. And she knew it. Slowly and lazily, she ducked beneath the portal to the fire mountains—giving it lots of room—and began drifting her torso toward them.
Only the night sky-portal lay between them and her claws.
“Alex!” Theresa was shoving a waterskin at him. It was partially slit.
The stench of wormwood drifted out.
Theresa nocked a broad-headed arrow onto her bowstring.
“Throw the bag at her when I tell you!” she screamed.
Alex drew himself out of his thoughts.
With a final crunch of Brutus’ jaws, he killed the last of the workers. This was it. There would be no more hesitation from the queen now.
“Wait,” Theresa said.
The monster drew closer.
He focused on the bag using The Mark. He’d only get one chance at this.
Memories of tossing coins flowed into him. Images of tossing empty flour sacks away at McHarris’ bakery. Memories of tossing dough to make flatbread.
Mundane times coming to help him in crisis.
Then a final memory:
Him knocking down the old, shaky shelf that the baker had been too cheap to have repaired. Watching the flour bags burst open, covering everything in a powdery mess. The stale eggs rolling off and bursting, exposing his employer’s rotten secret.
Strange. That last memory hadn’t been called up by The Mark. He’d remembered it on his own.
Still, it made sense that it would come back now. That moment had changed his life.
This would too.
Trusting his own experience, Alex Roth hoisted the bag of wormwood, letting The Mark of the Fool guide his aim: not at the monster. Just in front of her.
The hive-queen weaved her body around the left of the night sky-portal.
Her centipede half drifted back, as her sword-legs poised, ready to strike them.
The portal was almost behind her.
“Now!” Theresa roared.
He threw the waterskin.
It whirled toward the queen, trailing stinkweed.
The monster casually raised an arm to bat it aside.
Theresa’s broad arrow shot forward.
It struck the skin mid-flight, piercing it and slamming it into the hive-queen’s arm.
The bag tore open, splashing the thick juice over her forearm and monstrous, surprised face. She let out a silent chitter and recoiled.
Part of her body brushed against the portal.
In a flash of blue light, a section of her body—all that touched The Traveller’s power—simply vanished. The creature screeched out loud as insectile blood poured from her wound and she clawed at the mess in her eyes.
“She’ll bleed now!” Theresa snarled in triumph. “We can esc…a…”
Even as the monster scraped wormwood from her face with one hand, another claw raised the dungeon core. Its darkness shifted. Mana poured into her, and her wound began to close rapidly. The bleeding slowed. The orb was quickly losing its darkness but the wound had almost completely healed.
“No! No!” Theresa fired again, aiming for her open mouth.
The arrow glanced off an armoured hand.
A grim look entered the young woman’s eyes.
She took Alex’s hand and started to pull him toward the wall between them and the Rhinean Empire’s portal. “Get to the wall up there!” Resolve burned in her voice. “I’ll boost you and Selina over, then go! Brutus and I will hold her off!”
“No!” Selina screamed. “Theresa no! You can’t!”
Alex was nearly sick with horror.
Was this it? Was he supposed to leave his best friend and poor Brutus to die in the dark?
“No!” he snapped at her. “No one is dying!”
The flames of the Roth alehouse roared in his mind.
What did he have? His spells were useless. Their weapons were useless.
The queen continued to swipe away the insect repellant. The wound continued to heal, even as the core faded to grey.
He glanced past her and the portal to the fire-mountains behind her, and saw the staircase leading up to the temple.
No, they wouldn’t work. The beams were powerful magic, but he didn’t know how to use them. If he messed up—if The Mark interfered—he might break them or cause a mana reversal, which would…which would…
He hardened his resolve. It was either this or die.
Ripping open his pack, he dumped the contents on the floor and grabbed the first gem that rolled out.
Its magic circuitry touched his mana.
The Mark flooded him with failures in spellcraft, but he had counted on this.
He only needed to see two memories in detail. The image of him nearly blowing off his own face in the woods, and the time he’d nearly caused a mana reversal in himself. He followed every foolish error, reversing the mana and pouring in too much to overload the circuit.
He felt something crack in the gem.
Its warmth built to such a searing heat that he needed to clench his teeth to continue to hold it.
The image of the forceball in the woods seemed to overlap the gem in his mind.
How it had shaken.
How it had exploded.