“What…” Theresa stared at Alex. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”
“Listen.” He pointed to the wall in front of the gate. “I’m-” He paused, trying to figure out how to explain without sounding like he’d lost his mind. “I…I controlled the core.”
In the silence, Alex noticed that the scratches on Brutus’ noses had a salve on them.
“What’re you talking about?” His best friend looked at him like he had lost his mind. “You were holding that thing for a long time. Do you need to lie down?”
“Alex…?” A worried Selina shuffled from foot to foot. Her little hands clutched his clothes.
“I was trying to break the core…trying to bring its mana together with The Traveller’s…” He slowly tried to get his bearings back. “…and next thing I know, I was sharing its ‘senses’.”
Theresa was looking at him with growing confusion. Brutus had cocked all three of his heads.
“But…are you okay?” Selina asked.
“Yeah, yeah I’m fine. But…listen. The Mark was just showing me how to do it again.”
A stunned silence followed.
“What?” Theresa asked incredulously.
He shrugged helplessly. “It’s…a skill, and it’s not spellcraft, divinity or combat.”
“No.” She shook her head. “That…if that’s true this…this changes the war.”
His hands gripped his head. “Our history should mention this! I mean…look at all the Fools from the past! All the ones that were supposed to have disappeared?”
“D-did that thing tell you to do bad things?” Selina stared at the remains of the orb in fright.
“No,” Alex said. “It fought me, but ran out of energy. The Traveller did the rest.”
“Should we tell somebody?” the young girl asked. “If it’s so important, I mean.”
“I think what your brother just did is something like ‘highest blasphemy,’” Theresa said gently.
“So what do we do?” the girl asked.
Theresa drew a long breath. “Alex…I know you might say, that you-”
“Need to figure this out?”
“-don’t want anything to do with this, but, wait what?” she blinked. “I thought you just wanted to get your own life back?”
“That was before I found out that big parts of our history might be secrets and lies.” He chewed his lip. “Theresa, humans can use The Ravener’s dungeon cores. What does that mean? Can other races? Why is this a secret? Why is this hidden? Who’s hiding it? How are they hiding it? There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Thameland.” He looked to his companions seriously. “And the thing with rot is that it spreads. When we get to Generasi, we’ll have access to one of the greatest libraries in the world and some of the greatest minds to have ever lived: we can look into this discreetly. Then we can figure out who we can trust and maybe give them whatever we find.”
The image of a smiling young man with a golden tooth came to mind.
“...maybe Cedric. Maybe. I don’t know if we can trust him, but-” He gestured to the broken core. “-either way, someone has to look into this. And right now, it seems we’re the only people who know. And besides-”
He gave a tired smile.
“We’re still going to go to a city of wizards. We’re going to have lives, but we’ll just be doing a little service to our country too. On the side.”
“I, I think that’s a good thing to do,” Selina said slowly. “If it’s something dangerous, then we should do something.”
“I agree, but-” Theresa gave a grim look and gestured to the chasm. “-that thing nearly killed us. If Cedric hadn’t destroyed all of her soldiers, if you didn’t think of using the temple eye gems, and if we didn’t have The Traveller’s portals here, then we’d all be dead. Three times over.”
She looked down at her great-grandfather’s sword. “If what you say is right, then something has gone through a lot of trouble to keep this a secret: I don’t imagine the lives of three people and a dog would be spared. This is going to be dangerous, we can’t meet such a challenge as we are now, and just hoping that nothing bad happens would be fatally stupid.”
“There you go, talking sense again.” He smiled weakly. “I agree. We don’t need to be Cedric, but we do need to at least be able to protect ourselves. Generasi is called ‘The City at the Center of Creation’ for a reason: it has knowledge from all over the world. We can learn what we can, get some more money together and buy what we need. I can use The Mark to learn every skill I can, and try to exploit it and learn to be a proper wizard.”
Theresa frowned. “I don’t know anything about magic: I won’t have much of a way to grow in a city of wizards…unless,” she paused, looking up to the portal with Mount Tai. “When you say all over the world…does that mean knowledge from the Tarim-Lung Empire?”
“Where your great-grandfather was from? I’m sure, why?”
Her eyes glinted. “I’ll explain later, but…there’s a reason why Twin-Blade Lu was so feared. And it wasn’t just for his swords.”
Brutus barked with all three heads and brushed against his master, who smiled at him. “And you too, Brutus. We’ll grow together.”
She was giving off that ‘warrior from a lost time’ vibe again, and Alex fought to tear his gaze away. His eyes landed on Selina, who was balling her little hands into fists.
“I-I’ll grow too,” she said with determination.
He smiled warmly and patted her head. “The only ‘growing’ kids have to do is ‘growing up’.”
“Your brother’s right, let him and me handle this,” Theresa said gently. “You just need to focus on going to school.”
Selina looked between her brother and friend. Her chubby little face fell. “Okay.” She briefly looked toward the portal with the fire mountains. “Okay.”
Something lay in her eyes, but it faded quickly.
“Right, then that’s the plan.” Alex rose to his feet. “Now, who's tired of this ‘horrible death hive’?” He glanced at The Traveller’s body. “Uh, no offence.”
“I am,” Selina raised her hand.
“Absolutely,” Theresa agreed.
Brutus barked once.
“Alright.” Alex took a deep breath, looking at their portal to freedom. “Then let’s get out of here.”
He approached The Traveller one more time.
“Listen,” he said quietly, crouching beside the body and touching one of her hands. Her mana brushed against his skin. It felt calming, almost like a grandmother’s hug. Though it was cool, it had its own kind of warmth. “I wish I could repay you for everything you’ve done for us, even in death. I owe you everything, but all I can say is that I’ll honour you, in my own way. Oh, and uh, sorry about breaking your statues.”
He paused. “I ask that you continue to watch over us. And the Lu family. And Peter and Paul, they’re guards in Alric. …maybe not McHarris. Oh, and if you feel like expanding from Alric, Cedric of Clan Duncan...I think he’ll need it.”
He named others he wished her to protect, then scraped up a good portion of the dungeon core’s remains and tied it into a pouch. Hopefully, he could learn something by examining it at the university.
Just as he was about to get up, he stopped. Didn’t Cedric say something about priests’ holy symbols singing when a Hero was close? Wasn’t the Saint’s supposed to from even further away? Judging by the glow of her Mark, it still held some power.
He noticed a chain around her neck hanging to the side. Gingerly, he brought it up into the light.
He burst out laughing.
No hand of Uldar hung from it: her holy symbol was that of two faces. Red-eyed goddesses with snarling mouths and sharp teeth.
“I guess you had your secrets too.” He laid her symbol back down. “Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He looked closer at the book laying beside her. Across the spine was writing in the same language that had been etched into the statues’ bases. Opening it revealed more writing in that language. He closed his eyes for a moment, then took the book and carefully laid it in his pack.
Maybe more of her story was within. Maybe it would be something else. Either way, he wanted to know more about her; he could borrow it and put it back someday.
When he stood, Theresa and Selina came forward and said final thank yous to The Traveller. Brutus whimpered softly. One by one they stepped up onto the little wall in front of the portal to the Rhinean Empire.
Alex eyed the magical doorway and took a deep breath, holding out his hands.
Selina nodded nervously and took his left.
Theresa drew a deep breath and took his right. Her hand shook in his. He was fairly sure his hand was shaking too. Brutus simply barked, nuzzling up to his master to calm her.
She gave him a weak smile and put a hand on his leftmost head. “I’m okay, boy. I’m okay.”
Together—linked tightly to each other—they stepped through the portal.
As they disappeared, the only motion left in the chasm was the shimmering of The Traveller’s light
In that radiance, she almost seemed to be smiling.
Vertigo hit Alex as a whirlwind of scenery flashed before his eyes. A castle that looked to be underwater. A city of silver and steel and glass. A silver chariot that roared past stars.
Then he was stumbling into tall, warm, grass, and falling to his knees with his head spinning. Selina tumbled past on his left, groaning and splaying flat on her back. Brutus landed in a heap of legs and heads.
Only Theresa managed to keep her feet.
She gracefully stepped into the grass and held her hands out to keep her balance.
She steadied and proudly rose to her full height.
Then her face turned green.
“Bleeeergh!” she threw up in the grass.
Slowly rising to his feet, Alex stretched and took a long look around.
The grass was different, and so was the light.
It was late afternoon in the Rhinean Empire, judging by the position of the sun, which might have explained the pale shades of the grasses. Or they just might be different kinds of grasses. Alex had no idea, and this delighted him: so many new things to learn! The air was warmer and a soft breeze carried the hint of fresh water. The trees were shorter and less ominous than the tall trunks of Coille.
To the north were The Peaks of the Elements: one burning, one stony and studded in gem deposits, one covered in waterfalls, and the last floating above the earth. What a sight!
A weight had lifted from his shoulders: one he had carried since being branded two nights before. Joy swelled in his chest so quickly, that he had to choke back tears. Tough times would likely be coming, but he couldn’t ignore life’s joys purely to focus on its worries. As someone who’d met grief at a young age, he knew that path wasn’t the best one to stay on.
With a huge smile, he crouched beside his sister and his best friend; who had finally finished throwing up. He made sure to place himself between Selina and the fire mountain to the north.
“Are you okay, little goblin?” He patted her tummy.
She groaned. “I don’t ever want to do that again.”
His joy had made him absolutely giddy, and he giggled. “I don’t think we’ll be doing that too much. Here.” He helped Selina stand.
He glanced back to the portal, and noticed that it had faded to just a barely noticeable shimmer in the air. He brushed his hand through it. Nothing happened. It looked like this one was one-way only.
Brutus dragged himself up and shook—his jowls flapping on his faces. The cerberus perked up his ears excitedly—with all three of his noses sniffing all the new scents of this strange land—as his huge body bounded through the tall grass.
Alex chuckled to himself as he rubbed Theresa’s back. “He’s having fun.”
“I’m not,” she groaned, holding her head. “It feels like my head was spun around...put on backward...and upside down.”
“Well.” He clasped her shoulder. “I just wanted to say; you’ve started your dream. Look: strange lands, like your great-grandfather saw.”
She slowly looked up, giving a little gasp of amazement. Her eyes looked around in wonder, taking in the new sights, from The Peaks of the Elements, to her own Brutus frolicking through the grass, barking and chasing bird-sized dragonflies.
“Oh, Alex,” she sighed. “If I didn’t stink of puke, I’d hug you right now.”
“I’ll ask for it later,” he chuckled, glancing up to the sun’s position. “Well, let’s get out of sight of all that fire-” he jerked his head to the mountain. “-and see if we can find a town. If not, we can camp. …you have relatives in the Rhinean Empire, do you have any idea if this place is safe?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know much about it. My uncle lives on the northern coast, and my parents say he doesn’t really travel more than a day’s walk from his smithy, except for when he comes to visit us. And when he visits, he talks about the town where he lives, and that’s about it.”
“Well, I guess we’ll find out together. Besides, I’d say we’re safe: we just killed a giant monster! What can threaten us now?”
She gave him a withering look. “What did we just talk about, Alex?”
He sighed, and gave the withering look right back. “I know, Theresa, I was trying to bask in victory: why’re you ruining the mood by being sensible?”
While they weren’t fortunate enough to find a town by sunset, the walk was pleasant. Following the River Austrus, it wasn’t long until they found the closest bridge and the highway it belonged to. The road itself was broad and well-travelled, and they passed several farmers—some humans and some beastfolk—carrying livestock to market by cart.
It was such a strange, peaceful contrast to the tension they’d seen and felt during the mass exodus from Alric. None of the farmers travelled with any weapons, and they waved with broad smiles and greetings in the Rhinean tongue. Theresa responded haltingly with the same words, drawing on parts of the language she’d picked up from her Uncle’s visits.
Alex noted to himself to use The Mark to practice the language when they stopped for the evening. It was time to start finding useful skills wherever he could.
Just before dark, they found a small copse of trees close to the roadside, and with Brutus sniffing for, and not finding any beasts-of-prey or other threats, they made camp.
Brutus had found some wild hares though, so he and Theresa went rabbit hunting for their supper. To Alex’s delight—after he’d cooked up another minor feast—the cerberus actually came to him, looking for his food for the evening. Progress!
His mind sparked at all the new trained-cerberus related possibilities, and he picked up a stick.
“Don’t even think about it.” Theresa said from across the fire. She had her full ‘deathstalker face’ on. “You just started to earn his respect, don’t ruin it now.”
He held up his hands in mock innocence. “It’s not what it looks li-”
“You’re going to try to make him play fetch.”
“Okay, so it’s exactly what it looks like.”
He looked to Brutus, and saw that one of his heads stared directly at him. The big dog did not look impressed.
Alex slowly laid the stick down.
She smiled, letting ‘deathstalker face’ slip. “Remember, it’s all about patience, whether it’s hunting or befriending an animal. Don’t act too quickly just because you think you have the advantage.”
Something passed through her eyes. “When you know the time is right, then you strike.”
He paused. “Right, I think I follow.”
“Good,” she said, before taking Selina’s dinner scraps to dispose of.
Glancing at Brutus, he smiled wickedly to himself.
First, trust and respect.
Then, when the time was right…
The night passed far less eventfully than their previous night, and Alex had time to use The Mark to go over his few memories of the Rhinean tongue while on watch. As soon as it was Theresa’s turn, he slept the sleep of the dead; all the previous days’ excitement had completely exhausted him.
When he woke up in the morning, his muscles felt like McHarris had beaten them for hours.
He forced himself to move through the pain while promising to start strength training soon: he’d need to be physically ready for trouble in the future.
But trouble didn’t come that morning, and they made good time during the rest of the day, especially once Theresa convinced Brutus to carry Selina on his back. By noon, the road had filled with other travellers and soon, they began to hear a roar in the distance.
They looked at one another and took off, racing up a hill toward the distant roar. Surprised travellers watched them go. When they reached the summit, they could only stare.
Before them rose the walls of a city—the largest they had ever seen—and beyond, spread the beautiful blue waters of the Prinean Sea. Port Mausarr: they had come to the last leg of their journey. Now, finding a ship was all that stood between them, and Generasi.
As they stared in contentment, Alex’s eyes drifted to Theresa’s beautiful, excited face. Her dream was coming. His dream was coming. He looked to Selina, ready to begin a new life. He looked at Brutus, happily frolicking through the grass.
He could almost taste the new life ahead of them.
But, whatever was wrong in Thameland could ruin that.
There on the hill in the morning sun, he made a promise.
He’d learn to use The Mark of the Fool’s potential as best he could. He’d gather skills that could help him understand what was happening in Thameland, skills that he could exploit to help his magic, and any other skills that he wanted.
He’d think. He’d adapt.
Then—with any hope—he’d be ready for whatever was coming.