Mark of the Fool

Chapter 835: Searching for Old Enemies, Finding Old Allies

“Nothing? Not one trace?” Alex asked, floating high in the Thameish sky.

“No, archwizard,” spoke one of the twelve astral engeli hovering in front of their summoner. “We did not sense a single thread of divine energy in the swamp.”

He gestured to the expanse of Crymlyn below, with its steaming bogs and twisted trees. The other astral engeli shook their heads grimly.

“And you searched all of it?” Alex asked.

“We did, archwizard,” the leader assured him. “Over the past two weeks, I can confidently say that we have covered enough territory that—if a powerful source of divine energy, such as the corpse of a god or his throne had passed here—we would have sensed it. We detected the local spirits from this area and even sensed the stain of demons that you informed us your group slew sometime ago. But we were unable to find what you are looking for, archwizard. Forgive us.”

Alex sighed, keeping frustration from his voice. “There is nothing to forgive: if there was nothing to find, there was nothing to find. Go: I release you to return to the celestial planes.”

The astral engeli bowed, saluting their summoner. “Until you need us again.” Their leader said as they shimmered away to nothingness.

Alex cursed beneath his breath. “What in all the hells are we missing?” he wondered.

Glancing to the east, he saw a familiar winged, sinewy form gliding through the sky with a four-armed silhouette floating beside it.

He waved at Drestra and Claygon, before teleporting beside the dragon and golem.

Hello father…” Claygon greeted him, coming to a stop in the sky. “Did you find…anything?”

The General of Thameland shook his head. “Not a damn thing. How about you? Did the spirits and fae around here see anything, Drestra?”

With a snarl, the Sage of Thameland unleashed streams of smoke from between her fangs as she paused, her great leathery wings beating rhythmically, allowing her to hover. “We found nothing either. The spirits and fae have not seen anything that could be the Ravener, Uldar’s body or his throne.”

Even I…am growing frustrated.” Claygon announced.

“We’ll just have to keep looking,” Alex said, keeping his voice light and positive. The last thing they needed was to begin losing hope. Not now. Not when they were so close. He looked at the Sage. “What about Aenflynn? Did you get that meeting with him yet?”

Drestra made a noise of disgust. “Ever since we made that deal with him, he’s been…distant. I don’t think he likes that we got one over on him, and you killed one of his servants. The Guide had value to him.”

“Well, then, he should've told him not to hunt me,” Alex shook his head, his voice like ice. “Ugh. Anyway, do you think it's still worth it to keep trying to get a meeting with him?”

“I think so,” Drestra’s voice crackled. “As far as we know, he is the only living being that knows of Uldar’s true condition; any information we can get out of him, I think will be valuable.”

“I have half a mind to ask Baelin if he wouldn't mind going and shaking it out of him,” Alex said. “Maybe send Asmaldestre along too. But…fae lords are powerful, and there's no sense in pissing off even a reluctant ally before we actually track down the Ravener.”

“But where could it be?” Drestra growled. “We've explored so much of Thameland and there’s still nothing!”

“I know, trust me, I know,” Alex grumbled. “I'm starting to wonder if it went really deep underground. Maybe miles deep. That would let it hide from the priests and my engeli.” He shook his head. “We’ll try searching through the earth once we finish combing every inch of this land.”

“How long will that take?” Drestra asked. “It could strike at any time.”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take, Drestra, but, we just have to be ready for it when it does.”

“Right,” she said. “And how close do you think Cedric is to mastering those skills he’s been working on?”

Real close.” Alex smiled. “I'm pretty sure his Mark’ll be changing colours soon.”

I hope…yours does too…” Claygon said.

“Me too, buddy, me too,” Alex said. “But, if it does, it does. It's not the only way our forces are growing stronger.”

He thought about what Baelin had finally found.

A place they would be soon visiting together.


The swamp air was so thick one could cut it with a saw.

Yet, the mana within it was thin.

Various scents, rank, foul, and sickeningly sweet, clung to Alex’s nostrils as he walked along the creaking bridge; rotting vegetation filled the water below, while glossy violet flowers floated on its surface.

Each petal looked like a silken ribbon, glistening like the flower had been dipped in honey, giving off an aroma of fresh pineapple juice. They almost begged to be touched, but Alex wasn’t about to…

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…not after catching sight of the hundreds of dead and dying insects, and small frogs stuck to the petals’ surface. Some were twitching, still being absorbed.

The young archwizard shuddered. ‘What an awful place. Hope it doesn’t get worse—”

His thought was cut off by a creature’s dying scream echoing through the trees. Alex looked around sharply, trying to find where the sound had come from, but the foliage and canopy were so thick, that the sunny day had been plunged into a foreboding twilight.

He could hardly see what was around him.

“I miss the Crymlyn; this swamp is terrible,” he muttered, slapping at a mosquito. The damned thing was the size of his pinky, and dozens were swarming around him.

He threw bitter looks at his two travelling companions.

Claygon—floating a few inches above the bridge behind them—was completely free of insects. They did not bother with his ferrous form.

The golem looked down at Alex curiously.

Is…something…wrong…father?’ he asked, with feelings of innocence and concern emanating through their link.

Alex looked away. ‘It’s fine.’

It made no sense to be cross with Claygon, so he turned his wrath on his other travelling companion. Baelin was strolling along the bridge at Alex’s side, his hands folded behind his back while humming a jaunty tune.

Every mosquito coming within a foot of the chancellor froze in mid-air, then exploded in a flash of light and a crackle of lightning. Their smoking remains fluttered down into the algae-choked waters below.

Alex gave Baelin a look of disgust.

The chancellor glanced at him with innocence in his goat-like eyes. “Whatever is the matter?”

“You know what the matter is!” Alex gestured at the trail of dead insects in Baelin’s wake. “You’re walking around with a personal bug-destroyer spell while I’m here slapping at these disease-ridden things like some kind of beast-goblin!”

“And?” the chancellor asked.

“You don’t think sharing would be nice?”

“Oh, Alex, you are a graduate of the greatest university of wizardry in the world, and yet you do not know this fundamental truth?” Baelin’s eyes twinkled. “A Proper Wizard never gives away all of their secrets.”

The younger archwizard groaned, rolling his eyes.

Then his finger twitched.

A swarm of fire elemental beetles burst into being—called by Alex’s magic and the Traveller’s power—setting upon the giant mosquitos, tearing them apart in mid-air. Within moments, a pitched battle between giant insects and beetle-like elementals was waging around Alex.

Baelin glanced at Alex. “See? You found your own solution!”

“Let’s not talk about this,” the young archwizard said stiffly. “Besides, I think we’re here.”

Laughter and song drifted through the foliage ahead, accompanied by a steady drum beat; and through a break in the greenery, Baelin, Alex and Claygon saw what they’d been looking for.

In the middle of a clearing stood a single building.

Roofed in green thatch, with walls of dark wood, it stood on four stilts rising from the water below it where a swarm of boats were moored to a small, old dock. More bridges emerged from different edges of the clearing, all converging near the building’s wooden porch.

The doors were barred, and hanging from chains above the entrance was a large sign with a whetstone engraved upon it.

“The Whetstone Tavern,” Alex said. “It’s been a while. Thank you for finding it again, Baelin.”

“I would say it was no trouble at all…” The ancient mage scowled. “But, in truth, it was harder to find than a freshwater fish in the ocean. This place has an unfortunate habit of being hard to locate when you’re looking for it.”

“And yet it finds those who might need it or the services of its guests?” Alex guessed.

“Precisely,” Baelin grumbled. “As you grow older, you will find that some mystical things have an unfortunate habit of remaining mystical. The more you think you have pinned down the true fundamentals of magic, the more likely you are to find phenomena that defy—somewhat purposefully, I suspect—any attempt to understand them.”

“Well, I’m just glad you had an easier time finding it than we’re having finding the Ravener.” Alex glanced at Claygon. “That wasn’t sarcasm, by the way; better to get our reinforcements now, before things get really bad.”

The golem had a heavy sack slung over his shoulder, tightly sealed with magical, golden thread. Alex carried a similar—but much smaller—bag in his right hand.

“Do you think…” he paused. “Nah, nevermind.”

“What is it?” Baelin peered at him curiously. Another oversized mosquito fried on his invisible barrier. “You would not have started your thought, if it were not worth completing.”

“Well, I dunno about that. I’ve started a lot of thoughts that weren’t worth completing, Baelin.” Alex grimaced, recalling some of the rambling, irrational imaginings he’d had over the years. “And I think this is one of them: I was going to ask how likely it would be to meet people in the tavern that you’d met the last time you were there. But…meh.”

“Why meh?” the chancellor asked.

“Well, think about it: this tavern travels the universe. How many worlds is that?” Alex asked.

“Even I do not know that answer,” the ancient wizard admitted.

“Exactly.” Alex watched smoke rising from the building’s chimney. “Back in Alric, we had an expression: ‘A traveller once met is a traveller once met’, meaning that if you went down to the Lu Family Inn and met a stranger there, you’d likely never see them again after they went on their way. And trust me, I lived there: I saw a lot of strangers pass through. Once and only once. Now imagine if the Lu Family Inn just happened to hop all over the universe?”

“I see your point: probability dictates that—if you were lucky enough to enter Whetstone more than once in your lifetime—you would most likely never see the same group of patrons again.”

“Different worlds, different times…” Alex said. “It’s just not likely.”

Probability dictates that you would never see the same group of patrons, Alex,” Baelin said. “However, the mystic governs the Whetstone Tavern, not probability. Probability is not within the realm of the mystic, and—as I just finished explaining—the mystic has a filthy habit of defying understanding. Remove your preconceived notions and walk through the door, my young friend. The tavern has a habit of providing. Sometimes, not what is wanted. Sometimes, not even what is needed. But, it provides. Walk through the door and see what it will provide for you on this day.”

I do not…understand…” Claygon said.

Baelin smiled up at the golem. “And, by admitting that, you have already shown more understanding about the mystic than many wizards of advanced years.”

“Our friend’s point is that the tavern defies understanding, buddy,” Alex said. “He once said that it’s ‘a crossroads for many and a home for few. Those that find this place are mostly the sort that you need…you just need to have the eye to recognise them.’ Let’s see what our eyes recognise today.”

The young archwizard stepped forward, opening the doors to the tavern.

It was just as he remembered. The floor was rough stone, covered in rugs of bearskin and the hides of both long and short haired beasts. Trophies from various monster hunts—mostly bleached skulls—were displayed on the walls.

Lithe figures clad in gauzy garments danced around a massive fire pit, and the air was thick with the scent of smoke, roasting food, and the rise and fall of voices in a host of languages, mixing with a steady drum beat.

As daylight trickled in, eyes turned, falling on the door. Some were human. Many were not.

Yet one pair of eyes stood out.

Alex’s jaw dropped.

The eyes were large and crimson.

Kyembe the Spirit Killer was hunched over a table, holding a set of cards. Beside him was a tiny woman, but across from him was the former king, Ezerak Kai, vibrant tattoos covering his tanned skin.

They gaped at each other.

Baelin simply smiled. “The tavern has a habit of providing.”

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