“Theresa!” Alex raised the gem.
Crimson light swelled within.
Cracks split its surface as the mana reversal tore apart its magic circuitry. Flame-magic began to run rampant.
Theresa’s eyes went wide.
“What’s happening!?” Selina jumped away from the gem.
“Throw it at that piece of shit!” He pointed at the hive-queen. “It’s going to explode!”
His best friend looked at the fire-gem. Then at the bleeding queen.
Confusion and fear flowed out of her expression.
It was with her ‘deathstalker face’ that Theresa took the stone in her gloved hand. “Get down!” she shouted.
She drew her arm back.
Selina dived behind the night-sky portal and Alex threw himself over her like a shield.
Theresa’s eyes briefly locked on the hive-queen’s face, then quickly shifted.
In a blur of motion, she whipped the jewel through the air.
The fire-gem burned like a miniature sun. Alex could feel its heat swell as it flew past the hive-queen…and through the portal hovering behind her.
“No!” Alex cried.
“Stay down!” Theresa dove by his side.
Her hand grasped his, squeezing it as Brutus threw himself down, pressing into his master’s side.
Alex looked up as the queen reared in rage, letting her voice fill the cavern with a sharp screech. How had Theresa missed?
She couldn’t have, not from this distanc-
The answer suddenly hit him as he realized what was happening behind the monster. The gem’s light burned from the portal to the fire mountains. The flame-magic struck the river of lava just inside the doorway.
It flashed once.
The hive-queen paused as red light poured into the cavern. She half-turned and froze.
The gem shattered.
“Holy shi-” Alex murmured.
A blast of flame-magic rocked the other side of the portal, filling the doorway with leaping fire. The explosion ripped over the lava field, blasting into the bubbling pool.
It erupted in a geyser, and boiling rock poured through the portal in a wave.
Onto the hive-queen’s face and body.
Screeching echoed through the chasm as a whirling mix of inferno and lava slammed into her, blasting her forward.
Her long body writhed in the air, then dropped, narrowly missing the sky-portal and slamming into the pathway, cracking it. Her screeches went silent as she convulsed; tremors shook the cave. Flame-magic and molten rock burned the humanoid torso and twisting, centipede lower body. Her armoured chitin fractured.
The creature tried to raise the greying dungeon core. Mana trickled into her as the wounds tried to close, but the orb’s power was too low to heal her. The queen’s weakening hand slipped from the dungeon core.
Its darkness faded to sickly grey; Alex could hardly feel its mana.
The healing had snuffed some of the flame, but she remained a smouldering, writhing wreck.
He shivered, realizing he’d underestimated the sheer amount of mana in one of those gems. Even hiding behind the portal, they would’ve been blown to bits if the gem had exploded in the cave instead of inside the fire-mountain portal. Most of the force was directed to wherever the portal came out.
If Theresa had listened to him and thrown it at the queen-
The hive-queen continued to spasm. She was weakening, but still wouldn’t die. The lava was beginning to cool on her.
Suddenly Theresa was on her feet, drawing her great-grandfather’s sword and charging at the smouldering monster.
“Theresa! No!” he shouted.
But she didn’t stop.
She reached the hive-queen as the creature raised one of her twitching foreclaws. She dove, sliding under the upraised pincer just before the queen slammed the claw down, impaling it deep in the stone.
“Theresa! Theresaaaa!” Selina screamed, trying to get up, but Alex gripped her tightly, just as Mr. Lu had gripped him in front of his parents’ burning alehouse. The little girl could not turn her eyes away.
The hive-queen’s movements slowed.
Flinching against the heat, Theresa shot up to the monster’s head and drove the sword down.
The blade bounced off the chitin.
“Damn!” She dropped her sword and bent to grab something unseen. She hefted it.
The huntress’ ‘deathstalker face’ met the queen’s half-melted gaze.
“Humans fear?” She raised the dungeon core above her head.
Theresa drove it into the queen’s lava damaged skull, bursting it with a single strike.
The creature stiffened, her hundred sword-legs twitching and slashing the air. Then, the massive body slumped, collapsing to the stone. Her bulky form began to slide from the ramp.
The giant foreclaw ripped from her ravaged torso as she slid. The web-line burnt, and what was left of the hive-queen slipped from the pathway and plunged toward one of The Traveller’s portals.
Another flash of light. The insectile monster was pulled into the portal, its chitin crunching as it was contorted and forced to fit through the door. Light flashed. The hive- queen’s remains blasted back through the door, returning in dozens of pieces. They tumbled down, falling toward the bottom of the deep, dark chasm.
And hit rock far below.
Theresa rose up, ripping off her steaming glove and panting in the multi-hued light from the portals. Her lean, strong form heaved with each breath, and sweat poured over her brow as she basked in their survival.
She stood triumphant like a warrior from a lost age, and Alex couldn’t tear his eyes off of her.
In the back of his mind, a small voice assured him: he did not have issues.
“Theresaaaaa!” Selina escaped Alex and rushed at their friend, throwing her arms around her waist. “You’re alright! You’re alright!”
With three loud barks, Brutus tackled them both to the ground.
“Ah Brutus! Brutus, no!” Theresa laughed as he licked her face with all three tongues. His tail wagged so fast that it looked like it was about to shoot off. Alex stumbled over and flopped down cross-legged on the stone close by.
“You know,” he said. “That was the most amazing thi-Agh!”
Her ungloved hand grabbed him, dragging him down beside her, Selina and Brutus.
“Alex! We did it! We did it!” Theresa’s eyes were filled with tears of joy; she pulled him close, weeping softly into his shoulder.
“Yeah…” he sniffled, relief washing through him. “Yeah, we’re alive. Can’t believe it, but we’re alive.”
For a time, the little group just lay on the stones and held each other in a mixture of ugly-crying, laughter and relief.
“That…that was smart, Alex. That thing you did with the stone.” Theresa turned to him.
“Yeah…but what you did was genius, throwing it in the lava portal like that. You saved us.” He smiled at her.
“Yeah…you did too.” The grin she returned was brilliant. “For a second there, you looked a bit like a Hero of Thameland.”
Alex felt his face grow hot, and could imagine the blush spreading across his cheeks.
A tiny hand grabbed his shirt; Selina was looking up at him. “A...are you okay, Alex?”
He laughed and patted her shoulder. “Of course I’m okay, I’m your big brother, aren’t I? Are you okay? The fire-”
“I’m okay,” she said quickly and looked away. “...I’m okay.”
The beginning of a frown touched Alex’s forehead. They would need to talk about this later. He glanced toward the portal to the Rhinean Empire, past the wall the hive-queen had raised.
“We’re going to have to get over the wall,” Alex groaned. “But maybe after we lie here for, y’know…a few days? Maybe weeks? Maybe forget Generasi altogether,” he joked wearily. “We’ll just hide here fore-”
His eyes fell on the grey orb.
The dungeon core lay on the stones just past them, still covered in hive-queen brains. Even though it was weak, its pulsating mana was active.
“Hey, where are you going?” Theresa asked as he climbed to his feet. She watched him approach the sphere. “Ugh, don’t touch that. It’s covered in bug juice.”
“Theresa…you just used it to cave a giant monster’s head in. What do you mean don’t touch it?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t have bug on it then.”
“And whose fault is that?”
She looked at him side-long. “...never mind. Is that what I think it is?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the dungeon core.”
She sat bolt upright.
Selina gasped, scrambling back. “Is...is that the thing that makes a dungeon spit out monsters?”
The darkness deepened as they shrank back.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” he said quickly. “I know, that's hard to do because it’s terrifying, but I think it gets stronger when you’re afraid.”
Theresa’s jaw hardened and she glared at the sphere, taking Selina’s hand. The little girl took a deep breath, and tried to match the young woman’s glare. The dungeon core’s darkness lessened. He wasn’t sure if it was the ‘just survived certain death’ speaking to him, but he was reminded of just how much he loved the two of them.
His attention went back to the core.
And this thing had nearly killed all of them.
Alex Roth protected his own, repaid debts and tried to treat others how they treated him. He had no interest in nearly dying in battle alongside The Heroes, but he wasn’t about to just walk off and let this thing regenerate to make more monsters.
He was also a revenge enthusiast…as McHarris had found out.
“I’m gonna break the hell out of this thing!” His hands balled into fists.
Theresa climbed to her feet. “It deserves it, but how? The Traveller did it with her magic, didn’t she?”
“It’s too bad she’s not around to tell us what she did.”
“Maybe...maybe your Mark will tell you?” Selina offered.
“Hmmm, it is still a Hero’s Mark.” He rolled the core on the ground to try to clean it off, then grunted as he slowly took it up in both hands. He concentrated on The Mark.
No helpful images arose. No rush of power or divine revelation.
Fine, hard way it was then.
What did he have available? He looked to the portals. The Traveller’s magic had destroyed the spiders: it might do the same with the dungeon core itself. Should he toss it through a portal? He dismissed that idea pretty quickly. If it landed somewhere and could start spawning monsters...
Maybe it was time to go to the expert.
He looked toward The Traveller’s body and the blue light shining around her. If the magic in her portals worked on the monsters, then what about the magic still in her body?
“Theresa, could I get that boost over the wall now? I think it’s time we introduced this thing to Alric’s Patron Saint. Properly.”
The group gathered up their supplies, with Alex collecting the three remaining fire gems; it was a shame he’d had to destroy one, but their lives were definitely more valuable. To them, at least.
They took some of the rubble created by the hive queen’s convulsions and built a mound against the wall. Brutus used it as a boost to bound over the top, and avoiding the wreckage of the eggs, the rest followed, with Theresa lifting Selina up to Alex, then scaling the wall last.
On the other side, the portal to freedom and The Traveller’s body lay.
With quiet reverence they approached the body of their patron Saint.
Her form was mummified, and her features were preserved. In death, The Traveller looked timeworn, like an ancient village elder ready to tell stories at the harvest festival.
Her hands lay against her belly with palms raised. In one hand was a faded golden glow in the shape of Uldar’s hand: The Mark of the Saint. Beside her lay a thick book, bound with iron.
Her mana was so strong that it felt like it was physically touching Alex. The remaining darkness in the core shuddered, and drew away from her light.
Alex bowed his head to her. “Thank you. If it weren’t for your power, we’d all be dead. I know you probably wouldn’t like what I’m trying to do—running away from the fight an all—but…I hope you’d at least approve of this.”
Crouching beside her, he placed the dungeon core in her hands.
The sphere shuddered, and the darkness shot to the top of the orb, away from The Traveller’s hands.
“Oh, you really want to slither around, don’t you?” He glared at the thing.
He remembered when the hive-queen had used the core: its mana shifted in the air at the same time as the darkness shifted within.
Hopefully, it worked by way of mana and will. If it did, since it was so weak now, even he might be able to force the dungeon core’s mana to touch The Traveller’s. His mind went to his Mark. This would be a task that wouldn’t involve spellcraft, unless he’d really misread what the hive-queen had done. It wasn’t combat, and he hoped it wouldn’t count as divinity.
If he focused on the task of ‘breaking the dungeon core’, then memories should build up that would eventually let him get there. Taking a deep breath, he focused his mana and placed his palms on the sphere, pushing into the core. It was a bit similar to how he used will and mana to control his forceball after it had been cast.
His mana bounced off as though slapped away. Alright, one failure.
Now for the moment of truth.
He concentrated on The Mark.
A single image rose in his head: it was of himself pushing his mana toward the core, trying to break it. It pointed out what he had done right. He grinned. Now it would be a matter of repeating the task.
“This could take awhile,” he warned his companions. “You might want to have a seat.”
Again and again he threw his mana at the core, at first to no effect. With each try, though, he attempted something different with his mana. Minor successes built up and—guided by The Mark—he began to make some headway.
The dungeon core fought for its existence, trying to push him away. Sweat poured from his brow. If it still had even a little more of its strength, he doubted he could have made any headway with it. He didn’t know how long they battled—it could have been minutes or hours—but he was able to get a little deeper into the core each time.
His mana weaved through the maze of its defences.
The weakened darkness began to slide lower in the sphere, approaching contact with The Traveller.
He threw his mana harder at it to push deep this time and keep building on his successes.
His mana chased the core, ready for the next failure or success to guide him.
But the attempt did something he didn’t expect.
Something slid into place, like a key sliding into a lock within the soul.
The pulsating mana shuddered.
In an instant, his senses stopped being lucid. He was everywhere in the cave at once. The pulsating mana overlapped with his mind, fighting him viciously. Images poured into his thoughts. Dark spheres. Blasted landscapes. Monsters in the dark.
He screamed and thought only about escape.
Just before he was pushed out by the core, his mana moved with the thought of escaping.
The dark in the sphere moved with it.
The key slid out of the lock.
A small wall rose in front of the portal to the Rhinean Empire, high enough to serve as a stepping stone to the door.
High enough to help them escape.
Then he was back in his body, and the last of the dungeon core’s power faded.
Left defenceless, The Traveller’s magic poured in eagerly. It flooded the sphere with blue light and rushed in so strongly, that it flashed through Alex as well.
For an instant, her mana touched his.
Then it was gone.
With a scream like scraping glass, the dungeon core crumbled into shining sand.
Selina clutched her brother’s clothes. “Are you okay? You were screaming!”
“Alex?” Theresa grabbed his shoulder. “Alex, did the core do something? That wall appeared!”
He stared at them, uncomprehending.
The magnitude of what he’d just done melted every thought from his head, except for one.
It was only for a moment, and only because it was so weak:
But he had controlled one of The Ravener’s copies and built a wall. It was impossible. It had to be. Dungeon cores were for The Ravener’s monsters, humans couldn’t manipulate them. Could they?
Then something occurred to him.
He concentrated on The Mark again, focusing on the idea of control.
What happened turned his blood cold.
The Mark of the Fool brought up the proper memories, neatly organized, pointing out everything he had done right. Like if it was just another skill to be learned. A skill that let one control one of the enemy’s most precious resources.
No legend mentioned this, nor had it been written in Galloway’s book.
But yet, he’d done it. The core had been weak, but he’d controlled it.
He thought back on all the cases where Fools had disappeared or ‘betrayed’ The Heroes. If it was something to never be done, there should have been a warning to future Fools or to anyone. Why wasn’t something about this written anywhere. Was it a secret? And…and if a Fool could learn to control the enemy’s greatest weapons, then how was that useless? And, if humans—or maybe other races—could take control of the enemy’s cores…what did that mean about The Ravener itself?
He shook his head. Either he was the first to figure this out, and the most clever Fool to ever bear The Mark—which he sincerely doubted—or…
“Theresa, Selina.” He finally said. “Our legends…what’s recorded…there’s something’s wrong with them. Something. Is. Wrong.”