“What do you mean, a big problem?” Khalik asked.
“You’ll understand when I finish. Mmmm…any of you landbound people ever heard the story of Bowar-Og?” Grimloch rumbled, picking his teeth with a bone.
“No, I cannot say I have,” Khalik said.
“Naw,” Thundar said.
“No,” Theresa and Alex echoed.
Isolde shook her head.
“Right.” Grimloch licked the last of the meat juices from his fingers. “Bowar-Og was a folk hero. Both above and below the waters,” he growled. “There were a lot of songs about him.
“Were?” Khalik asked.
“Were. They’re not sung anymore. He used to go around with his harpoon fighting sharks, sea serpents and even some of my people, because back then, some of us were at war with some of the selachar. He made his living with his trident, spearing all kinds of monsters. But he really specialised in bandit hunting. It’d always be the same: bandits would come to an area, people would send out a call for help, and the bandits would kill a bunch of knights and wandering warriors. But, Bowar-og would always defeat them. Some would die by his spear and the rest would run. Then, a rival of his started asking questions. She’d noticed that he fought a lot of bandit bands: they’d always have their faces covered, they’d have different names, different weapons, different armour…but they’d always be the same races with the same stocky shapes. So she followed him one tide and…”
He growled. “She saw him meeting up with the bandits.”
“Oh…” Khalik’s eyes grew. “Oh no.”
“What? Were they bribing him?” Isolde suggested.
“No. He was their leader,” Grimloch snarled. “Got an idea in his head that they’d make more money if they faked bandit attacks then had him stop them instead of robbing travellers and raiding villages. It was always the same set up. Bandits would swim into some remote village, attack some sea cows, crush coral houses and maybe kill a guard or two. The village would send out a cry for help, and Bowar-Og would answer. He’d fight them singlehandedly, he’d kill any new recruits his band had picked up, and let his crooked buddies run away. Then the villagers would heap all kinds of wealth on him, which he’d take and share with the other crooks.”
“Oh shit,” Alex said. “They wouldn’t get as much wealth in the short term as if they raided villages, but in the long term they’re hunted by less people, and they get rewards from ‘bandit subjugation’ over and over again. They’d make a lot more over time if they were smart about it.”
“How’d it resolve?” Theresa asked. “I doubt anyone would’ve believed their Hero was a bad guy…especially if it was one of his rivals who was pointing it out.”
“That’s exactly right. People didn’t believe her at first,” Grimloch growled. “So she kept quiet and got a group of people together from villages Bowar-Og had saved and took them into the deep. They went to a bandit camp in an ocean trench, and who’d they find? ...Bowar-Og, sitting with them: laughing, and drinking. They didn’t like that too much, so they set a trap. Next time those bandits swam into a town and Bowar-Og appeared promising he’d stop them, a bunch of mercenaries—paid for by all the towns he’d “saved”—surrounded and captured every last bandit. Didn’t take them long to start squealing on their silent partner. So, the townsfolk took Mr. Hero, gave him twenty shallow cuts and left him in megalodon waters with the rest of his bandit band. They told him that he’d have no problem fighting his way out if he was half the monster hunter he said he was.”
Grimloch grinned. “He wasn’t.”
“Oh dear,” Isolde said.
“Yeah, that’s the fun part of the story. So anyway, maybe it’s like that here. These dungeon cores are supposed to be like golems, from what I hear, right ?” He jerked his thumb toward Claygon. “Maybe some old wizard made ‘em so they could ‘solve problems for money’ and now here they are, still causing trouble.”
‘Some old wizard…or someone else…’ Alex thought, considering a very grim possibility.
From the look Theresa threw him, she’d thought the same thing.
Silence hung over the group for a while.
“Reminds me a of a story from my tribe,” Thundar said. “They say that in our early days, one of the gods we used to worship sent down a bunch of golden bulls to protect us. Well, he didn’t bother telling us about it, so we just saw a bunch of great, big mammoth sized monsters on our lands, grazing on grass, and before the bulls could do anything, our warriors attacked ‘em. Well, the bulls got pretty testy that those they were trying to protect attacked ‘em, so they swore revenge on us. It finally came out that they were there to help us, but not until long after we’d killed every last one of ‘em.”
He shrugged. “Maybe Uldar, or some ancient wizard or something made dungeon cores to help the people and I dunno, there was some kinda misunderstanding and now everyone’s attacking them.”
“Right…” Alex said. “Well, it’s hard to tell either way. I’m starting to think our history’s so incomplete that anything could be right. But ya have to wonder if it’s incomplete on purpose.”
“Ya, I’d love to get into the church archives in the capital,” Theresa said. “Maybe there’s hidden stuff there that we could dig out.”
“Yeah, me too,” Alex said. “And I—”
Teleportation magic was coming from near the aeld tree.
“Let’s leave this for later. We have company. Baelin’s back with the Heroes.”
The air shimmered and four forms materialised beside the aeld: Baelin, Cedric, Hart and Drestra.
“Welcome back,” Baelin said to the Heroes who were looking a little wild eyed.
“If this were a regular day I would offer you a place to sit and have a proper meal before we proceed, but I fear this is too important to let lie for long. Perhaps a quick beverage will suffice for now?”
Cedric chuckled nervously. “Heh, you’re talkin’ like all o’ you’ve just stumbled on the end o’ the world or somethi—”
He paused, spying Alex’s group by the wall. “Well, hello to you, Isolde an’ the rest o’ yous! Pleasure to see you all again…” He frowned as the cabal and their companions strode over. “…is normally what I’d say if all o’ yous didn’t look like y’were walkin’ to your own funerals. What’s happened? Y’get attacked?”
The three Heroes looked around, and Drestra gasped as she saw the aeld tree. Her slit-like pupils grew as she took in the beautiful sapling.
“An aeld tree!” her voice filled with warmth. “We had one protecting the main square of our village. I can’t believe you have one? How did you manage to get it?”
“That’s a long story,” Alex and Baelin said at the same time, then looked at each other.
The chancellor cleared his throat. “And one that will need to be explained at a later date. I have already informed professor Jules of our arrival and Alex will take you down to see her in our new research building. She’ll be waiting for you and I’ll see you all there shortly.”
Without another word, the ancient wizard vanished in another pulse of teleportation magic.
Hart shifted his helmet and scratched his head. “The atmosphere around here’s pretty tense. Reminds me of when my band found out we were on the losing side of a war we were hired for in Rhinea.”
“It’s not that bad…probably,” Alex said.
None of the Heroes looked reassured.
“That was fast, I’m glad you’re here,” Professor Jules said, meeting Alex and the three Heroes just outside the research building. She looked around. “Baelin’s not with you?”
“He’s getting Carey,” Alex said. “He told us to come see you and wait for him.”
“I see. It appears that Carey won’t have much time to herself after all,” she said, as the Chosen, Sage and Champion exchanged puzzled glances. “Well, welcome back to the three of you, if only these were more relaxed circumstances.”
“Okay, now all o’ yous are startin’ to scare me, and that’s not an easy thing ta’ do, so what’s this all about?” Cedric said. “First, we gotta get her fast, so fast that Baelin’s gotta meet us at the closest place he could teleport to. Now we’re here and no one’s tellin’ us anythin’—” He looked at Alex. “Your friends all slink off with hardly a word. S’been bloody spooky is what it’s been.”
“Forgive us. We’re not trying to be clandestine for effect, Cedric,” Professor Jules said. “It’s just that the quicker, and smoother this all goes, the better. Now, walk with me.”
With a billow of her cloak, she turned and led the group into the research building and down a steep flight of stairs.
They reached the vault, and Hart whistled when he saw how many Watchers were standing before the doors, guarding them.
“What’ve you got in there, the Ravener?” he laughed.
Jules and Alex didn’t say anything.
“Look, I was just making a joke, what in the hells have you got in there?” he asked.
“You’ll see,” Professor Jules said, approaching the vault doors.
She whispered something Alex couldn’t hear, and abruptly, a pulse of magic flashed. With a creak, one of the doors to the chamber swung open, revealing a pedestal with a familiar orb on it.
“S’that a dungeon core?” Hart cried, his hand falling on the hilt of his sword. “A living one?”
“Why do you have a living dungeon core?” Drestra demanded.
“All locked up in here like s’the king’s jewels, why in Uldar’s name?” Cedric asked. His morphic weapon slid off his arm, turning into a spear in his hand.
The Watchers tensed.
“We were experimenting on it,” Professor Jules said calmly. “And we found something that you need to see.”
“See? Can’t you just tell us?” Drestra asked.
“No,” Professor Jules said. “It’s better if you see it first hand.”
“You can relax,” Alex jumped in. “There’s no Ravener-spawn around to control it, and even if there were, the dungeon core’s really low on mana right now…”
He took a close look at it.
The orb was still a shade of grey, but definitely darker than the last time he’d seen it. Anxiety. Fear. Power for the enemy. All intertwined.
‘I wonder how they’ll react?’ he thought.
Luckily, he didn’t have long to wait.
There was a rise of teleportation magic.
Then Baelin and Carey appeared from thin air.
“Gah, y’took a few years off me lifetime,” Cedric said to Baelin before talking to Carey. “Good t’see ya again, y’been holdin’ up alright?”
Carey definitely did not look like she’d been holding up alright. Not at all.
“Oh dear.” Jules whispered, watching her.
Her face was pale and puffy, her nose and eyelids were red and swollen, like she’d been crying.
She probably had been.
Clearing her throat, she lowered her head to the Heroes. “I…I’m alive.”
Silence hung in the air.
“Alright, no sense in wasting any more time,” Baelin said, heading to the pedestal and picking up the grey orb. “We have one more teleport to make, but before that. Anyone object to a flight spell being cast on them?”
Only Hart had concerns.
“You’re not going to teleport us into the middle of the sky, are you?” he asked the wizard.
“Of course not, I would warn you if I were. It is just that…the ground is not exactly stable where we are going. But you shall see soon enough.”
With a surge of teleportation magic, they appeared above the ravine. Below them, the land still looked like it had been ravaged by titans, and a cold wind swept the air.
No Ravener-spawn walked below, but hordes of animals did. Birds and insects crawled and flew through the valley, feasting on the mangled corpses of Skinless Ones.
Drestra gasped. “What happened to this dungeon?”
“I did,” Baelin said simply. “One does not need a god’s power to wreak terrible wrath.”
“Ugh, well that’s a rank smell,” Cedric waved his hand in front of his nose.
Carey took a mouthful of her stomach potion.
“What is this place?” The Chosen continued.
“A dungeon reported to us by your military,” Baelin said. “And one that’s still active.”
“Still?” Hart asked, scanning the ruins below them. “With it all gutted? Oh yeah, because the dungeon core’s still intact, I guess.”
“But why bring us back ta’ the dungeon?” Cedric asked. “If we’re here ta’ pick through them ruins, that’s goin’ t’be a bit of a nasty affair.”
“No, that will not be required,” Baelin said, holding the orb out to Alex and Carey. “Now, let’s proceed.”
Carey looked at Alex. “You go first. I…I don’t think I can, yet.”
“Okay,” the young man said softly, taking the core.
He took a deep breath and turned to his fellow Heroes.
The last couple of visits, they’d spent time together, and he felt he’d gotten a good feel for them, at least to some extent. These three weren’t fanatics. They were young, thinking folk who wanted to help others and destroy the Ravener.
Depending on how they reacted…everything could change.