Alex’s eyes flicked to the map. “Where did the book say the creature was from?”
“Oh, the author had no idea,” Baelin said. “But there was a sighting, which one of my librarians found.” The book hovered in front of Baelin, flipping its pages to a spot in the middle of it. The chancellor made a face. “Ugh, charming.”
“What is it?”
“Some of the library books are cared for with little care by students who use them, and considering where this book is from, it’s no surprise that some feel the need to add their own little…creative vandalisms in the form of doodles in the margins. Three pages before, someone had drawn a rather creative depiction of an emperor and an octopus in a ‘loving embrace’ shall we say.”
Alex shuddered. “Gross.”
“Indeed, ‘very gross’, as you young folk would say. But I digress.” Baelin took hold of the book and spoke something in a strange language: its tones were smooth—almost regal—but its consonants harsh and guttural at times. “That is the High Imperial Tongue of the Irtyshenan Empire. In the common tongue, it translates to: We tracked the rune-marked, and within the Western Borders of Kymiland, with all of its foul and treacherous barbarians and savage monsters, we lost sight of the light of Mount Titarsios and we slipped from the gaze of The Virtuous Gods within the vile trees. For days we wandered, battling the hordes of barbaric elves, savage forest humanity and even the foreign firbolgs. We were tired and our guards were down. Our guide—one of the Bloodwalkers—caught the movement before the rest of us.”
The chancellor turned the page. “The beast was unknown to us: humanoid—as though its form were mocking us—stinger-toothed, and with great claws on its fingers. Its hide was like thousands of scabs and turned away good imperial steel. We lost Agreus, Zevchen and Bolg in the first few seconds. Our Bloodwalker went after it, and thanks to her enhancements, she managed to finish the beast off. She did take a mortal wound, and we had to retreat with her before the trolls came: they always arrive at the scent of blood.”
He looked up at Alex. “And that is the account. The only mention of anything that really seems to match these monsters in all of our books in the library.”
That’s all?” Alex asked. “Anything else in the book?”
“I have yet to comb through it myself,” Baelin grimaced. “But our librarians found no other mention. There has been much to do, much to plan…and that blasted demon summoner still has not been caught.”
“Really?” Alex blinked. In all that had happened recently, the demon attack had pretty much left his mind; he’d even grown used to the increased patrols of the Watchers of Roal. They’d just merged into the new normal. “Maybe they’re gone?”
“Oh no, they are not.” Baelin made a face. “Things have been found, but nothing that would bring us any closer to the villain.”
“…what kind of things?”
The ancient wizard looked at him for a moment. “I have two questions for you: do you know much about demonology? What is often required in such summonings?”
“Yeah, demons usually want some kind of sacrifice. Meat, power, blood…that sort of stuff, before they’ll willingly work with you. Usually.”
“Mhm, and tell me, have you eaten lunch recently?”
“Yeah, wh-Oh. Oh I see.”
“Indeed. Even if I could reveal the results of the investigation, it would be better for your belly if I did not.”
Alex shuddered. “Riiight. So, what about this Irtyshenan Empire? Do you think the creature is from there? I learned about most of the countries that have contact with Thameland when I was younger, but…I don’t know much about the place. Other than it’s enormous.”
“It is not surprising,” Baelin turned to look at the map. “Irtyshenans are somewhat insular. They have their own ways, their own universities—both the mundane and wizardous—and their own practices. They are beset by enemies—since their penchant for conquering tends to create enemies—the rune-marked being foremost of those. As for whether this creature came from those lands? I am unsure. But it is our first lead…though I doubt the empire would welcome investigators from a foreign power.”
Alex sighed. “Is that it, then? When was the account from?”
“Roughly three hundred years ago.”
Three hundred years ago…
Three hundred years ago…
Was there anything special about three hundred years ago that he knew from learning about world history or about Thameland itself? He thought back through past lessons about long-dead kings and foreign wars before an obvious event occurred to him. Three hundred years would have meant three generations of The Ravener’s cycle.
Three generations of Heroes.
And three generations ago…
“The Traveller was one of the Heroes in Thameland three hundred years ago,” Alex said out loud. “And if that’s the only time this monster has been sighted…”
Baelin’s eyes narrowed. “That is a thin connection, interesting to be sure, but a thin connection, if any at all.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I guess.” Alex looked back at the map, eyeing the border between ‘Kymiland’ and the ‘Irtyshenan Empire’. Maybe in the future—when he learned powerful teleportation magic—he’d go there and look into the sighting of the creature. His mind went back to the term ‘rune-marked’. What did that mean exactly?
“What’s a rune-marked?” he asked.
“That…is a bit of an explanation, but suffice it to say they are somewhat similar to your Heroes. Chosen warriors of a god. Red runes appear on their skin, which recount their deeds in battle. Each grants them power.”
“Really?” Alex blinked. “That…that’s huge. Maybe there’s a connection between The Heroes and these rune-marked?”
“Not likely, I’m afraid. Magical markings, divine stigmata, alchemical tattoos and scarification are not uncommon in the world. And the rune-marked are…well, as I said, another time. I did not call you here to speak of the creature alone.”
“Alright,” Alex said, eyeing the book. “May I take a look at the book?”
“Feel free, it is not a book restricted for one at your stage of study.” Baelin handed him the book. “Now, for the important part.”
The ancient wizard snapped his fingers and the map of the continent rolled itself up and vanished in a display of teleportation magic. Alex paused when he saw the map behind it.
It was a map of Thameland, with several points marked: he recognized the capital, as well as a notation for The Cave of the Traveller. Far to the south—in an area where he saw no settlements for miles—was a symbol indicating a tent.
“I have had meetings with the alchemy department, the school administration, and our treasurer,” Baelin said. “And the ink has finally dried upon the paperwork.”
The chancellor was nearly glowing with excitement as he eyed the tent symbol.
“Paperwork for what?” Alex asked, though his mind was rapidly drawing a conclusion.
What Baelin said next confirmed his suspicions: “Why, an expedition to your homeland, of course. The alchemy department is very excited by the results shown by your Claygon, as well as the analysis of the dungeon core’s remains.”
He tapped the map. “The city’s ruling wizard council and I have been in negotiations. They have spoken with witnesses from the patrizia’s party: witnesses that spoke of the power of your golem. I informed them of a discovery that was made using a certain substance from Thameland. They were very eager to learn more about everything I told them. We will work together: they are currently arranging an audience between myself, a delegate from the city, and your king.”
Alex’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
“Indeed. If all goes well, Generasi will aid Thameland in return for allowing the university to purchase or lease a parcel of land to the south. From there, we will be setting up a research camp, complete with a teleportation circle created and maintained by myself, which will connect directly to a laboratory on campus. We will—with your king’s permission—harvest and research dungeon cores. Most of our experiments will be conducted at the lab here at the university, but preliminary analysis will be done at the research camp. …as well as experiments with any live dungeon cores we might capture since they seem not to be able to leave Thameland.”
Baelin looked away from the map. “I would like you…and some of my other students to be part of this expedition.”
Alex blinked. “Seriously?”
“Indeed.” The chancellor looked at Alex carefully. “Your Mark, growing skill, and personal experience with dungeon cores would be a great asset to our work. You could simply aid with the part of the research that takes place on campus, if you wish, though I will be working to ensure priests are barred from approaching our encampment. If we are going to do our work unbothered, I will not have the servants of any god coming in to possibly muck up our plans. I would understand if you did not wish to take part, but I hope you will consider it.”
Alex swallowed, thinking about it.
He knew he’d be returning to Thameland one day, at the very least, once The Ravener was gone. A part of him had even imagined sneaking back if he could to do more research on the dungeon cores. That had been even before he’d gotten the support of Baelin, Jules and his cabal-mates.
This wouldn’t be how he imagined his return might be, but was he ever excited just thinking about it!
As long as he could avoid detection by Thameland’s priests, he could continue his studies, advance his academic career, and unlock more of the mystery of The Ravener all at the same time.
There would be danger involved, but he was no stranger at overcoming danger at this point. Besides, a part of him wondered how he and his friends would manage against a dungeon now that he was better trained, experienced and more powerful.
“Yeah, If the priests won’t be around, wild horses couldn’t keep me away, Baelin. I want to see where this goes.”
Baelin grinned. “Excellent! You are the second to accept, right after Professor Jules. I will be approaching others soon, but I’m particularly pleased that you’re on board, m’boy.”
His goat-like eyes twinkled, then he snapped his fingers. “Now, there’s some paperwork I need to go through quickly, then I’ll need to get some signatures from you. If I do not, then I am fairly sure Hobb will kill me.”
Alex snorted. “Like Hobb could kill you.”
Baelin paused. “Let us just say that it is a good thing for the city that we have no reason to fight.”
A chill went down Alex’s spine as he imagined an apocalyptic battle between the ancient wizard and devil. To erase the thought from his mind, he flipped open the book from the Irtyshenan Empire as Baelin leafed through the paperwork, marking certain places.
Excitement surged through Alex at the thought of the expedition and all the things that might be discovered through it. If it was successful, it would help both wizardry and Thameland. By being part of it, his future prospects would soar.
Thinking of a bright future, he idly flipped through the book. The language was one Alex could not understand, so he focused on the doodles and messages instead. Three hundred years of students insulting the empire, making notations, writing things in other languages he didn’t know, and even writing notes to each other.
He continued to flip through the pages, amused.
Then he froze.
Alex Roth blinked and then squinted at writing nestled in the corner of a page.
It was a short message, one he’d nearly missed. “Sweet saint of Alric!” He cursed out loud. “B-Baelin.” He murmured, quickly going to the chancellor with the book held out in front of him. “Baelin, look at this!”
“Hm?” the chancellor looked up. “What’s the matter, you look like you’ve seen-” He glanced at the book.
His words died. “…oh.”
There, nestled within the pages of the book was a short message that neither could understand. It was in handwriting they’d never seen before.
But they both knew the symbols used to write it.
It was the same language that lay within the pages of The Book of The Traveller.
END OF BOOK 1 OF MARK OF THE FOOL
(BOOK 2 STARTS TOMORROW)