“Well this here’s a mighty fine mess we gots,” Cedric of Clan Duncan stepped through the fire-blackened tunnel, over the bodies of burnt spiders. “Damn little buggers’re all over the place, and here I was thinkin’ I’d killed the whole lot. Well, it don’t matter now: place’s emptier than an ale barrel after a clan chief’s weddin’.”
He looked through the hole broken in the tunnel wall.
“Oi, Hart, you see any more of them beasties over there?”
“Just dead ones,” a deep voice rumbled back.
“Oh, an’ don’t get too close to them portals: remember what them guards back in Alric told us about the whole business of portals poppin’ folks around the continent or into the bloody sky, and such.”
“Only place they threw the spiders is in the grave,” the voice came back. “Almost done.”
“Chosen, I really should insist that we continue on to the capital,” murmured one of the two priests that had accompanied them into the cave. The other simply bowed his head before his hands, praying constantly into his holy symbol of Uldar.
“Oh bah, put your spine back in, friend!” Cedric clapped the first priest on the back with a grin. “We gots three Heroes here, an’ Alric’s right on this bloody place’s doorstep. This dungeon needs puttin’ down, and there ain’t no way around it. I think we can handle one that I already mostly cleared out. Then we can pop off to the capital to do bloody ceremonies and all that sort o’ thing, don’t ya think? Am I not right, Drestra?”
He glanced back to The Sage.
A lean woman stayed at the back of the group with her hands buried within her earth-toned cloak. On the side of her neck glowed a symbol that looked like a staff: The Mark of the Sage. A veil hid her face from the nose down, and her eyes…
They were golden in color, and their pupils were slitted like a snake’s.
“We are enough.” Drestra of Crymlyn Swamp said, and her voice was low and crackled like fire. Golden eyes slid over to one of the priests, who shuddered under her inhuman gaze. “Even these ones are enough. I sense none of The Ravener’s mana: only that colder mana that we sensed in Coille. It is strong in this room. Stronger below.”
“Aye, I sense that too.” Cedric looked back to the temple chamber ahead, noting the sheer destruction that had occurred. “But the core might still be as weak as freshly hatched hens: with its mana so low, so we might not be pickin’ it up from far off. Oi, Hart, you alright in there?”
A giant of a man stooped through the tunnel, the top of his helmet nearly scraping the stone. From beneath the steel, Hart Redfletcher looked back at Cedric with large, dark eyes. He bristled with weapons over his breastplate and chain armour, and a massive bow was strapped to his back.
A quiver of arrows with red fletching bobbed at his waist and he gripped an inhumanly large warhammer in both hands.
The symbol of The Champion lay on his bicep beneath his armour, as he told Cedric when they’d met on the road the night before.
“I only saw strange portals, which I stayed away from. Like a smart person.” His voice was deep and would have suited a far older man. “The portals looked like they killed those spiders you talked about. No sign of a fight there.”
“So then just here, eh?” Cedric put his hands on his hips, looking between the shattered statues and the burnt spider horde. “An’ what do you suppose happened in here? Maybe somethin’ with them statues? Almost feel bad when rock’s doin’ my damn duty for me.”
“My father used to say that the best battles are ones won before they are fought.” Drestra said.
“Used to say?” Hart glanced at her with interest. Cedric had noticed the big man’s gaze lingering on the witch’s eyes. With curiosity, not distaste. “Where is he now?”
“He died in battle.”
“Ah, pity. Happens to the best.”
Drestra raised an eyebrow. “I understood that it is victory that belongs to the best in battle.”
Hart shrugged, and the wooden mercenary-badge of the Ash Crows bounced on his tabard. “Sometimes it does. If they’re lucky.”
“And speakin’ of victory, if’n there’s nothin’ to worry about, then I says we finish clearin’ out the place.” Cedric jerked his head toward the fragments of doors on the opposite end of the temple that had been blasted apart. “C’mon, ‘brave Heroes’ let’s go.”
“Well if that ain’t the most amazin’ sight you’ve ever seen in your life.” Cedric gawked at the floating portals as The Heroes and priests trudged down the path into the chasm. His eyes lingered on a portal that led to the sky where sinewy, reptilian forms flew on bat-like wings. Figures rode on their backs, though none seemed to notice the portal.
“Real bloody ‘story by the bonfire stuff’. Did any o’ yous priests know anythin’ about this?”
“I…I…no, Chosen, we have no details of this place.” The first priest gaped. “The Cave of The Traveller should…this is an incredible discovery!”
“It is.” Drestra stared at the portals. “A unique magic. The Witches of Crymlyn would give much to study this place.”
Hart scanned the portals and darkness below for any sign of threats, with his giant bow readied. “Do you feel any of the dungeon core’s mana?” he asked the two spellcasters.
“Not a bit,” Cedric shrugged as Drestra shook her head. “Either the bloody thing went an’ hid on us, or it’s dead.”
“Perhaps The Traveller intervened,” Drestra offered.
Cedric glanced to the body far below, in its shimmering blue light. “Let’s check that theory, shall we?”
They passed through the dead hive, stepping over egg sacs and fallen weblines connected to the wall. They took care to avoid stepping into any portals closeby.
When they approached two walls raised in their path to The Traveller’s body, Hart drew his hammer with one meaty hand. He limbered up his shoulders and cracked his neck.
“Stand back.” He swung at the wall.
A single blow shattered a giant hole in it.
Another smashed it entirely.
As he crossed the rubble, he looked down. “All clear here. But, the stone’s blackened. Some sort of fire happened here.”
Drestra looked at a nearby portal. “Fire Mountains are through there. Perhaps an eruption?”
Hart looked from Drestra to the fire mountains. His eyes narrowed, not trusting the stability of the volcanoes.
“Well, that’s bloody terrific, even faraway mountains’re killin’ our enemies for us.” Cedric threw up his hands in pretend frustration. “Guess we might be out of a job, eh friends? Maybe we’ll all go after the next core an’ find a big old tree’s taken it out, or some titan of a mole’s dug it up and moved in with her kin.”
Hart knocked a gauntleted fist against a giant claw half-buried in the earth. “Hm, good strong material. Can we use materials from monsters? Or do they get all corrupt?”
He glanced at the priests.
“Er, previous Heroes have.” The first cleared his throat, while the second continued to pray. “Though it is not proper. Our enemies’ materials should be destroyed, but there is no law stopping others from using what they find.”
“I’ll be not ‘proper’ then. Looting is half a mercenary’s pay. Maybe more.” Hart tapped it one more time. “Claw’s bit right into the rock without bending: one would make for a hell of a blade.”
With a grunt, The Champion took hold of the monster’s claw and tore it from the stone with ease, sending up a shower of rock. The priests jumped back from the flying dust and pebbles.
Hart tested the edge that had been buried in the stone. “Cut rock and not even dulled.” He set the claws on the ground. “I’ll be taking those.”
His hammer swung at the opposite wall.
“If it’s all this easy, we’ll have The Ravener dead by Sigmus.” He stepped back over the rubble. “Fire mountains or not, something’s done our work for us.”
“Ahhh, or maybe someone.” Cedric bounded past The Champion and peered at the body of The Traveller, giving her a short bow of respect. “Ahhh, would ya look at that?” He gestured to the shining sand in her hands with his spear. “If I were a bettin’ man—which I am, we’ll get the cards out later—I’d say our old predecessor here did our work for us. Oi, holy ones, would yous say that this stuff here’s what’s left o’ the dungeon core? Or did some beastie happen to drop a bunch o’ glass into The Traveller’s hands?”
One of the priests drew a small, leatherbound book from his robes and flipped through the pages quickly, peering at little descriptions, illustrations and diagrams within.
“According to The Bestiary of The Ravener and Its Foul Spawn, a dungeon core shall crumble into fine glass-like dust after destruction.”
“Does this here look like that stuff?”
As the priest approached The Traveller, his holy symbol began to sing like a heavenly choir had been tied to his neck. He looked between an illustration in the book and the sand. “It matches.”
“It would appear her magic destroyed the core,” Drestra said. “But after some sort of battle, perhaps?”
“Maybe something came out of one of those portals.” Hart shrugged. “Could be anything. More magic in here than I’ve ever seen, and that’s not nothing: the Ash Crows have killed a fair share of wizards.”
“Charming.” Drestra gave him a look.
“What? We were paid for it. Nothing personal.”
“It was no doubt personal to the wizards.”
“Yeah, and that boar you put away three steaks from last night?” Hart grinned. “It was pretty personal to him when I shot him, but I didn’t hear you complaining about that while you were stuffing your cheeks like a baby squirrel.”
There was a light playfulness to his tone, but the only reaction he got back from Drestra was a silent stare. Her eyes were unreadable.
“Now, now, let’s let aside matter’s of wizards and piggies.” Cedric chuckled, raising his hands. He’d been measuring both of his new companions and so far, he’d been pleased. Both clearly knew their jobs well, though he did wonder how they’d get along.
A hermit witch from the western swamps, and a hardened warrior who’d grown up among mercenaries, didn’t exactly speak of ‘fellowship’, ‘teamwork’ and ‘sociable nature’. Well, maybe they’d warm up in time.
“Praise be to Uldar and to his Saint, The Traveller, for she is the first to defeat a core during this cycle,” the second priest said into his symbol. “Praise be to you, oh past Saint.”
Cedric nodded quietly, while looking down at the particles of the core with regret.
In truth, he was a bit disappointed in not having a nice little scrap ready and waiting in the dungeon. The fight against the spiders outside had made the old blood of Clan Duncan sing in him, even if the battle had been a little easy.
But he kept his disappointment to himself.
Probably wouldn’t do for The Chosen to complain that the fight against the land’s ancient evil wasn’t hard enough.
“Can material from the core itself be used?” Drestra’s reptilian eyes were fixed on the shining sand.
“Er, yes,” the Priest said. “It is a strong mana conduit. If the proper apparti are used, there is a history of crafting powerful potions or pressing them into weapons.”
“We take that too, then.” Hart rubbed his hands together. “Loot and no fighting. Best job I’ve ever had.”
“Aye, agreed. No sense in leavin’ resources lyin’ about to gather dust.” Cedric bowed his head to The Traveller. “Thank you kindly, Saint o’ times past, you did the people about the land near a fine service.”
A thought occurred to him, and he turned to the portals appraisingly.
“Say…speakin’ o’ using things. Ya think we could get some wizards down here to take a look at this place?” Cedric willed his spear to melt down and pour over his arm. No need for it, most likely. “I’m thinkin’, if we can put sense to how this place and all its fancy doors work, then we gots ourselves a way to get all the folks that need out of Thameland away real fast. Lot less death and a lot less ‘not affordin’ a bloody boat’.”
He smiled in anticipation.
“Aaaand, if we see any portals that lead to places here on the island, then we gots ourselves a way to pop around quick and stomp out a bunch o’ dungeons before they get too fighty.”
Well, hopefully they’d be a little fighty. His Da didn’t raise a warrior that knocked around opponents who couldn’t fight back.
“As you say, Chosen.” The first priest bowed. “We will send for wizards and inform the priesthood and nobility about this find. Once your support team is ready and you have been joined by The Saint in the capital, you may use this place as you wish when its safety is confirmed. I will have the local garrison fortify this location in the meanwhile.”
“Good, good stuff. Fine, then, let’s get to the capital and get things truly started. Hopefully, we’ll have The Fool by then.” He looked to The Traveller. “We can’t have the dead doin’ all the work.”
“Meh, The Fool’s not with us and we’ve already got a dead dungeon,” Hart said. “Let them hide if they’re hiding. Either way, we’ll have this all fixed by Sigmus.”
“Aye.” Cedric glanced one more time to the dungeon core’s remains. “Let’s hope that’s so.”
A titanic orb of darkness floated somewhere deep beneath the earth.
The cavern surrounding it was large enough to fit an entire castle, and it teemed with monsters. Hive-Queens of Silence. Hulking scaled behemoths that breathed brimstone and poison. Humanoid giants that had no skin.
Other monsters crawled and flew through the cavern—the Ravener’s direct spawn. The dark teemed with their cries and their eyes were filled with death.
The Ravener floated silently above them all, over a pool of black, stagnant water. Shadows stirred in its depths. Something had destroyed one of its cores. No, more than that.
Something else had happened. Something that had not occurred in many cycles of its reincarnation. Something that could not be tolerated.
An ancient commandment was renewed within.
The darkness of its surface swam, and its monsters went silent, quickly bowing towards it. Its darkness swirled faster until it finally spit out five creatures into the black pool below.
They were human-like in shape, though covered in skin that was like thousands of scabs joined together. Their eyes had no pupils and their humanoid skulls had no nose or lips, revealing “teeth” like scorpions’ stingers. Claws the size of short swords dripped poison and the webbing between their fingers and toes let them bob in the dark waters with ease.
They listened closely as The Ravener instructed them:
One of the creatures swam to shore and stepped onto land. The other monsters, its older siblings, parted to let it pass as it stepped into a passageway that would lead it to the surface. Thameland would be its area of search.
The other four creatures dived into the dark water.
Swimming deep into the earth, they followed underwater tunnels deep beneath Thameland. Eventually, the water changed from fresh to salt, and they emerged into the ocean far below where light touched, and far beneath where the priests had erected their barrier.
Only they, of all The Ravener’s children, could survive the horrible pressures of this deep. Only they, its assassins, could seek what it had told them to find.
They broke apart, each swimming in different directions. They let out long range pulses of mana, which echoed back to them like a bat guiding itself in the dark. Each would pass into the world quietly, until one of their ‘pings’ found a marked one.
One who had usurped a core.
One who needed to die.