That night, Erin had a nightmare.
It started, as nightmares sometimes do, happily. Erin was dreaming she was back in her inn, with Mrsha and Selys and even Lyonette. She was watching Ryoka put on a play of Hamlet and chasing Lyonette around with a sword, trying to kill her because she was a [Princess].
Generally speaking that would have given the dream away, but Erin was in the dream and only yelled at Lyonette to hurry and get stabbed so she could go offstage and get water. Mrsha was wiggling around in Erin’s lap when she heard the knocking at the door.
Someone knocking? Even in her dream, the idea of someone coming to her inn was unexpected. And Erin didn’t want to have a guest. She wanted to watch Lyonette duel Ryoka with poisoned swords! Bemused and half-annoyed, Erin stood up. She walked over to the door—or rather found herself there without moving her feet, and opened it.
A skeleton stood in the doorway. Toren. Erin opened her mouth to order him, but she stopped.
There was no flame in his eyes. No purple fire—or even the original blue fire of his eyes. Nothing.
She stared into empty sockets. Dead sockets. He was dead.
Erin took a step back. Behind her, the inn vanished. The people in it disappeared. And Toren stood in the doorway.
His eyes began to bleed. Red liquid trickled out of the gaping holes in his head. Erin looked around. She had to clean up the blood. But then she looked down and she saw she was holding a bloody blade in her hands.
“Out, darn spot.”
Only that wasn’t the right line, was it? Was it damn spot? Erin stared down at her hands. Now she was on stage, only she was quoting from Macbeth instead of Hamlet! The crowd in the inn jeered at her and began to throw things. Miss Agnes stood to Erin’s left.
“I told you we didn’t have time to cook, dear. Look—they’re running out of food to throw.”
Erin looked, and Toren was standing in front of her.
He was dead.
He reached out for her. Erin backed away, dropping the knife, her hands still crimson. The blood dripped to the ground and began a stream. A river. It washed her away and she reached out for help, but Toren was dead.
And she fell, fell as the blood washed her down and suddenly she was falling into Toren’s eye socket. And the blackness was all around her and he reached for her—
Erin sat up with a gasp, sheets covered in sweat. It was still dark. She could hear movement downstairs—she realized she was in Agnes’ inn at the same time she remembered to breathe. She was frightened, upset, still half-asleep. And deeply sad.
She’d killed him. Toren. A skeleton, yes, but her skeleton. Something…someone who could think.
Just like that. But she had to do it. She had to. He’d killed people. Erin just wished she could have stopped him, could have…
“Why didn’t I realize it sooner?”
She put her head in her hands. She’d just thought he was a mindless thing, that was all. That his quirks were just…that. How could she have dreamed he’d ever learn to think? When she’d first met him, so long ago, he’d been so simple. But when she looked back, it all made sense.
He had learned to think. He’d found a soul, even if it was one that let him kill people. And she’d killed him. Just like that. In a second. With a few words.
And the worst part was, he might not be dead. Wouldn’t it be just like a movie, or a book to have him come back? If he was still alive—
Somehow, Erin got up. She couldn’t stay in bed, anyways. She had a job. Making food for her guests. She didn’t want to do it, but that was the thing about jobs. You had to do them, and there was a bit of relief in having to do something right now.
“Hey, Erin. Good m—”
Ceria Springwalker froze with the greeting on her lips as Erin walked down the stairs. Erin pretended not to hear and moved slowly into the kitchen. Part of her felt bad, but—what would she say to Ceria? It wasn’t a good morning at all.
Erin was in no mood to smile that day. She made food mechanically, but she had no desire to talk with anyone or deal with a crowd. And so the rest of the Horns of Hammerad, waking up to the smell of good food—noticed that the inn was oddly empty that morning.
Surprisingly so, given the popularity of last night and the quality of the food. It had to be Erin’s new Skill, but no one dared suggest to the girl that she might be using it unconsciously. Even the supposed actual innkeeper, Miss Agnes, walked wide of Erin as she sat at a table with the others and picked at her plate.
“This is your fault.”
Ceria told Pisces that over breakfast. He nodded, uncharacteristically humble.
“I regret the necessity of what occurred last night. But I must point out that Erin’s decision was the most correct one she could have made.”
“That doesn’t change how she feels. She likes Goblins. How do you think she feels about killing her pet skeleton?”
No one answered the rhetorical question. Ceria drummed her fingers on the table and looked at Pisces sideways. She hesitated, then asked anyways.
“I’m not asking you to, but…can you make another one?”
Across the table, Yvlon sat up straight in her chair and looked hard at Ceria. She hadn’t said a word to Pisces all morning, not even to greet him. Ceria ignored the look and stared at Pisces. He ran a hand through his hair, shrugging and then shaking his head.
“Theoretically? Of course. I did it once and I am a higher level than I was. But practically? The creation of Toren was a culmination of years of work. I had to do much…groundwork and the materials I used in his animation were exceedingly rare. Practically unique.”
He looked at Ceria and then away. With a jolt she realized there could only be one thing he was referring to. He’d used those? On Toren?
Surely not all of them? It explained how Toren was able to regenerate. But how many had Pisces used? She opened her mouth to ask for more details and saw Yvlon staring at her. Ceria closed her mouth. Pisces went on.
“However, even if I did attempt to mimic my original design…I believe the product would not be something Miss Solstice desires. As you so adroitly pointed out, the theorems Cognita passed on to me were incomplete. True sentience is a byproduct of the spell matrices animating Golems and in this case, the undead.”
Ceria nodded, although she saw Yvlon’s eyes quickly glaze over. That’s what happened when Pisces began to pontificate. Ksmvr was still listening intently, though.
“For all Cognita was Archmage Zelkyr’s greatest creation, even she admits her existence is an accident. The same goes for my creation of a new skeleton. Either the same issue will arise again, or I will create a truly mindless slave. Irregardless, it will not be Toren.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
Ceria nodded tiredly and looked at Erin. The girl was just staring down into her plate of bacon and rearranging them. Not into a face—she was stacking them up and then spearing as many bits as she could with her fork.
“We should do something for her.”
“I wish you the best of luck.”
Pisces nodded. Ceria turned to him, frowning.
“What’s that supposed to mean. If you think you’re going to run off while we—”
He raised his hands.
“Please, Springwalker. Credit me with some—well, that is part of the reason. But I believe you will agree with my reasoning when I explain myself.”
“Hurry up, then.”
Pisces nodded. He was clearly trying to make an effort to be sociable today.
“I would like to hire a horse—or perhaps wagon—and visit Albez to recover an artifact our expedition left behind.”
The other Horns of Hammerad stared at him. Ceria frowned.
“What artifact? We couldn’t have possible left anyt—oh.”
Her eyes widened as she realized what Pisces was talking about. She glanced around as he nodded, keeping his face smooth and calm. No one was sitting close to them, for which Ceria was suddenly grateful.
“It slipped my mind as well, but I believe it would be an egregious waste to leave it there. With luck, any scavengers will have overlooked it if they even found our dig site.”
Ceria nodded. She ignored Yvlon and Ksmvr’s confused looks as she pondered the issue.
“Yeah, going now would be best. We don’t have much coin—”
“We could borrow it.”
Dismayed, Ceria looked at Erin. But they had no choice, did they?
“Alright, I’ll ask Erin. Pisces, are you intending to go alone? Albez attracts monsters and more could have popped up by now.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I am adept at using the [Invisibility] spell, you know.”
She hadn’t forgotten. Ceria frowned at Pisces.
“Monsters have noses. Some of them do, at any rate.”
Ksmvr raised his hand.
“I shall go with comrade Pisces. Although what is it that we are seeking?”
Pisces smiled knowingly.
“Simply recall our journey through the dungeon and you will come to the natural conclusion, Ksmvr.”
The Antinium paused. Yvlon looked at Ceria. The half-Elf just shrugged.
“Probably best if we don’t say it out loud. You never know.”
The woman frowned. Ceria looked at Erin and sighed.
“I’m going to stay with Erin. But if Ksmvr goes with you, Pisces, I’ll feel a lot better. Yvlon—”
“I’ll stay here.”
Yvlon said that almost too quickly. Ceria looked at her and nodded slowly.
“Then I’ll talk to Erin.”
The girl was staring at a fork loaded with greasy bacon when Ceria walked over.
“Hey, ah, Erin.”
The girl didn’t look at her. Ceria coughed, looked around once, and then bent over to talk with her.
“I’m really, really embarrassed to ask this, but Pisces thinks there’s something else we could recover from Albez. Could you—”
Erin unhooked her money pouch from her belt and thrust it at Ceria.
The half-Elf blinked at the pouch. She took it, extracted a few coins, and then gave the pouch back to Erin. She tossed the coins at Pisces who magically caught them in the air. He nodded to her and walked purposefully out of the inn with Ksmvr following. Ceria caught the Antinium asking Pisces again as they left.
“What is the artifact? I do not understand.”
Yvlon came over and smiled at Erin.
“Hey, Erin. How are you doing?”
It was probably a reply. Ceria stared at Erin, and then took the plate away from her. And the fork. It clearly wasn’t helping matters.
“Why don’t we go around the city? Come on.”
Ceria and Yvlon practically dragged Erin out of the inn, whereupon both did all they could to cheer Erin up. It worked, a bit. But the main reason Erin snapped out of her fugue was when the [Actors] came calling.
“Another huge success. I was on patrol and I was talking nonstop about the play last night. Barely got down the street before my shift was over.”
Wesle was talking excitedly with the others, stroking his non-existent mustache excitedly. Beside him, Jasi was all aglow with happiness, as she had been every day. Grev was already running about, his rucksack bulging with props, changes of costumes, and scripts.
Wesle and Jasi weren’t the only two [Actors] of course. But they were certainly the stars. The other men and women – a surprising number being from the Watch – were all eager, expectantly waiting on Erin to help them learn another play in their spare time.
Faced with such enthusiasm, Erin couldn’t help but respond in kind. They’d just finished learning Hamlet, and while they might perform that now and then, she had to get them working on another play.
She hesitated. In truth, Erin hadn’t gone to that many plays over the course of her life. She now wished she’d seen musicals like Wicked, or at least watched it on Youtube. She knew Phantom of the Opera of course, but she didn’t actually like that play so much. The Phantom was a jerk when you got down to it.
What else could she perform? Macbeth? Erin shuddered. No. Not that. And she didn’t want to do Shakespeare at the moment for much the same reason.
Pygmalion? But it would be so hard to do the accents…Erin frowned. What about A Doll’s House? But then…that was too modern, wasn’t it?
Ceria and Yvlon stood to the side of the inn, cleared out to give the [Actors] some room, talking intently. Excusing herself from the [Actors] who seemed only too happy to compare stories about the accolades they’d received, Erin wandered over. Would they like to act? Ceria probably wouldn’t, but then again…and Yvlon could probably play a great knight, right?
“I don’t know what you’re thinking of doing, but don’t.”
Erin paused as she got within earshot. Ceria was talking in a serious tone of voice, staring at the other adventurer. Yvlon looked…tense.
“He’s a danger. You heard what he can do!”
“I know. And I’ve known how talented he is. He might be arrogant and stupid and thoughtless, but Pisces doesn’t deserve to be killed just for creating one undead.”
“And the people that thing killed? What if he makes another one?”
“If he does, I’ll make sure he keeps it on a leash.”
Yvlon folded her arms and winced. Ceria scowled, not able to answer.
“The fact that he hasn’t made another one tells you he’s thought of the dangers as well.”
“Or that he’s waiting to gain enough levels to control them completely. And then what? Do we have a second Necromancer walking about?”
“I’m telling you, it won’t come to that.”
The two women stopped when they realized Erin was standing next to them. Ceria turned, trying to smile. Yvlon didn’t even bother trying.
“Erin. Um, is something wrong?”
“Don’t kill Pisces just because he made Toren. Please.”
Erin said that to Yvlon. The woman crossed her arms defensively, looking grim.
“I know he’s your friend. But I can’t just ignore what I’ve heard.”
“Pisces isn’t a bad person.”
Yvlon stared at Erin incredulously. Ceria had a similar look on her face as well. Erin shook her head.
“He’s not. I know he’s really, really, really annoying, but he’s actually sort of a good guy inside. He’s saved my life at least twice. One time he froze a swarm of Acid Flies that were about to melt me, and the other—he sent a bunch of undead to protect me when Skinner attacked.”
“Really? I didn’t hear about that.”
“I never told anyone. But I saw them—ghouls and zombies and skeletons. They helped protect me when the undead were attacking my inn. Only Pisces could have sent them, but he never mentioned it.”
Yvlon hesitated, but she still looked unconvinced.
“You’re on his team. You can watch him better than if you scare him away.”
Ceria reminded Yvlon. The woman grimaced and sighed.
“Fine. He’s my teammate too, Ceria. Silver and steel, why can’t anything ever be simple? My brother never mentioned having trouble with his group, and one of them is a Dwarf.”
“A Dwarf? Really?”
Erin was fascinated. Yvlon nodded, smiling a bit.
“They’re rare enough on Terandria, never mind the other parts of the world. Ylawes said it was pure luck he ran into him in a tavern.”
“He’s your brother, right? He came all this way to look for you?”
That sounded like a great brother to Erin, who’d never had siblings. Yvlon grimaced, though. She spoke reluctantly.
“He’s…overprotective. And a far better adventurer than I.”
That was clearly all she wanted to say on the topic. After a second Yvlon changed the subject. She glanced behind Erin at the [Actors].
“I thought they came here to learn a new play.”
“They did. I just don’t know what I should teach them.”
Erin confessed to her friends. Ceria just shrugged. She liked the play she’d seen, but she couldn’t imagine practicing with the enthusiasm the others seemed to have.
“Let us know if we can help. I’m not going to memorize any lines, but I could always do a few spells if the performance needs more action.”
She flicked a few sparks of electricity from her fingers, making Yvlon swear. Ceria looked abashed—Erin saw the electricity trying to jump onto the metal on Yvlon’s arms.
“You can do that? Well of course!”
Erin slapped her forehead as she realized how stupid she’d been. Special effects! Any [Mage] could add so much to a performance! Especially someone like Ceria. At the very least, she could help cool down the inn when it was so full of people. Even on a winter night, so many bodies were stiflingly hot. But Ceria could probably lower the temperature enough to…
Erin’s thoughts slowed down. She stared at Ceria. The half-Elf just blinked at her.
She had lovely blonde hair. Well—in point of fact Ceria had dirty blonde hair. But Yvlon, now, she looked beautiful, and blonde as could be. Both women made Erin jealous—she didn’t think she had a bad face or hair, but compared to Yvlon’s beauty and Ceria’s otherworldly appearance, she felt plain. And Ceria could use frost magic.
And it was winter…
“Erin? Are you okay?”
Winter plus frost magic equaled…what? It had to do with plays, and it was on the tip of her tongue! Erin screwed up her face as Ceria looked at her.
“Erin, do you need to sit—”
The word exploded out of Erin’s mouth. Ceria blinked, wiped a bit of spit off her face, and stared at Yvlon. The other woman looked just as confused.
“You want Ceria to freeze the actors? The audience?”
The young woman waved excitedly at the other two, mind suddenly ablaze with ideas. She looked at Ceria, and then began waving at the [Actors]. They were already congregating around her, sensing the impending drama.
“Hey you guys, come on over! I just had the greatest idea for the next performance we can do! It has singing!”
Ceria raised her eyebrows, intrigued. She looked at Erin as the girl beamed at her.
“I like songs. Are there any good ones?”
There was no piano accompaniment. Pianos did exist in this world, but no one was going to lug one over to the Frenzied Hare. Instead, a few [Musicians] with string instruments provided a decent melody. That had been the hardest part.
The singing was not. On stage, Jasi, playing as the [Ice Queen] named Elsa sang a song so famous that it needed no introduction. Nor, it seemed, any plot. The play was over, but the song was being sung once more to a crowd who cheered as Jasi raised her hand to raise her castle of ice out of the wooden stage.
From behind the curtains backstage, Ceria cast weak frost spells, making snow and cold winds blow across the cheering audience. Concentrating hard, she made snow appear and fall over the fake little castle that they’d built. The snow melted almost instantly in the sweltering room, but the crowd didn’t care. They cheered wildly as the song reached its thrilling conclusion.
Again. The [Mage] scowled at Yvlon and whispered to her as the song finished.
“This is the third encore performance!”
The other woman was sitting on a stool behind the stage, smiling as she ate tonight’s meal, fish and chips, which was to say, fish and fried pieces of potato that Erin insisted were in some way ‘french’.
“Bear with it. It’s cheering Erin up.”
Indeed, the other girl was clearly enjoying herself. Even though she was in the kitchen, Ceria could see her poking her head out every now and then to beam at the audience.
“Catchy song, though.”
“It loses its charm fast, especially when you’ve got to do the effects.”
“At least we’re being paid.”
“What’s with ‘we’?”
The half-Elf groused, but she had to smile. They were indeed being paid, and quite handsomely because the entire acting cast took a cut of the profits. And judging by the way the bag Grev carried around had to be emptied now and then, even a small cut would be a lot.
“You have to wonder though…where does Erin get all these stories from?”
Yvlon frowned as Jasi bowed and declined another performance. The audience called out in disappointment, but then rushed forwards to shake hands with the bowing [Actors] and buy them drinks.
Carefully, the half-Elf sat back on her haunches and didn’t quite look at Yvlon.
“They come from her nation, I guess. She’s from far off.”
“Really? What continent?”
“Erin’s never said. I think it’s private. Ryoka’s from the same place, though.”
“Really? That makes sense.”
The two sat behind the curtains, looking through it at the room full of life and a different kind of magic. After a while, Ceria sighed.
“It really is better than adventuring, isn’t it?”
Yvlon nodded, seeing Wesle surrounded by admiring young women—and older women—and males, come to it, but mostly young women—and the other [Actors], just as adored. It was like how they’d been treated in Remendia, but somehow more intimate and even more reverential at the same time. The citizens had hailed the Horns of Hammerad as people, but these [Actors] had brought another world to life in front of the people here.
“No monsters to fight, good food if you’ve got the right inn…”
“Admiring crowds, if you like sweaty Humans. Lots of coin…”
The two sat in silence. After a while, Yvlon shook her head.
“Not for me.”
“Me neither. I guess we’re doomed fools, aren’t we?”
The woman laughed.
“Maybe not if Pisces gets back with that invincible artifact of his.”
“Oh? You figured it out?”
“It wasn’t hard, and he’s right. It might be useful. Do you think he’ll be back tomorrow?”
“Early, hopefully. They’ll camp out in a safe place, or maybe just stay in Ocre. He says with a wagon driver who has a movement Skill they can be back very soon.”
The next day, Erin woke up feeling better. A lot better. She was still sad though, when she remembered why she should be. But she was better.
And now she knew what to do. She greeted Ceria and Yvlon cheerfully over breakfast—spiced porridge—and didn’t beat about the bush.
“It’s time to go back to Liscor.”
Yvlon only raised her eyebrows and Ceria smiled, but Miss Agnes, who’d joined them for breakfast, choked.
“What? But Miss Erin, surely you should wait. There are Goblins on the road and I don’t know what we’ll do without you. Why, there are all these fine [Actors] depending on you now…”
Sitting at a table next to theirs, Jasi, Wesle, and Grev looked up and gave Miss Agnes a flat look the woman failed to notice. It was their custom to eat together each day, especially since Jasi and Grev were staying at the inn.
“I really don’t know what we’ll do without you, Miss Erin. I’m sure we could tour other cities doing the plays you taught us. But I’d love to learn the rest…”
“I know. I know, and I’m sorry.”
Erin smiled ruefully at Jasi and ruffled Grev’s hair. He looked upset. But Erin’s mind was made up.
“I need to go back. Liscor is my…home. Mrsha’s there and she’s all by herself. And Lyon’s there too—I nearly forgot about her, but Selys say she’s managing the inn. Somehow. But I need to get back before it falls apart or burns down or something.”
The others had objections of course. Sensible ones, selfish ones…Erin ignored them all. She looked at Ceria and Yvlon.
“When Pisces and Ksmvr get back, how long until we can go?”
“Within the hour, if we get transport set up. We’ll have to take a wagon, but we can get good horses and maybe even a driver.”
Ceria nodded to Yvlon, already thinking of their route. The older woman nodded, biting her lip.
“Esthelm being retaken works for us. We can plan to stop there if we can avoid Goblin raiding parties. I’m not sure how safe it is—it’s reportedly still a ruin, but better that than camping by ourselves. And if we run into my brother’s group…”
“You think we can get them to help us escort Erin?”
Yvlon nodded slowly.
“My brother will help anyone in need. The real problem might be afterwards. He’ll try to take me north. But we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.”
Ceria nodded silently. She didn’t want to pry too much, but perhaps she should ask Yvlon why she didn’t want to go home so badly. Erin thought of what she had to do.
“I should say goodbye to Octavia.”
All things considered, Erin thought Octavia took the news well. There weren’t even any tears. Or hugs. Or even a trace of sadness, really.
The dark-skinned [Alchemist] grinned happily and practically leapt off her stool in delight.
“You’re going? Well, I won’t say I’m not relieved—I’ve never met anyone so insane as you. When I count the times I nearly died—of course, I’m glad you came by before you left. I’d hate to have to charge interest on what you owe me when Ryoka gets back.”
“Hold on. What fees? Ryoka paid you already.”
Erin frowned at Octavia. The stitch-girl’s dreadlocks swung as she shook her head condescendingly.
“That was for a few days. You’ve been here far longer—I’ll admit she paid interest now and then, but if you factor in the number of discoveries you’ve made under my watchful supervision—not to mention hazard pay and having me participate in that play—”
“I’m gonna hit you.”
In the end, Erin didn’t hit Octavia and the girl didn’t get any more money, much to both girls’ disappointment. But to her surprise, Octavia hugged Erin before she left.
“You take care, alright? If you ever need a potion, I’m sure Ryoka can run it down to Liscor for me. Who knows? We might meet again! And if we do, you’re banned from ever mixing potions in my shop again.”
Erin laughed and hugged Octavia back. She’d miss her, she was surprised to realize. She’d miss Octavia’s fast-talking ways. She’d miss the horrible smells in her shop—
She’d miss the entire city, if it came to that. Celum was…it wasn’t as nice as Liscor, in some ways. It wasn’t as exciting, and the people were just people. But it had its own charm, and it had taken Erin in when she was lost.
She’d miss it. But she had to go. So Erin went back to the Frenzied Hare and caught up with Ceria who’d found someone willing to make the relatively dangerous journey to Liscor, provided a Silver-rank team was going with him. Yvlon had brought provisions for the journey and asked about the roads—no Goblin armies had been sighted close to any cities, although raiding groups had torched a few villages.
All they had to do was wait for Pisces and Ksmvr. And as it happened, the two were already close to the city. And they had the artifact in tow.
Earlier that day, Pisces had been willing to fight an entire Goblin army if it meant shutting Ksmvr up.
“What is the artifact? I still do not understand. Please enlighten me, comrade Pisces.”
It was the 38th time the Antinium had asked Pisces the question. Pisces knew that because he’d counted. Each time. They were sitting on a bumping wagon as it drove towards the Ruins of Albez. The mage blinked wearily as the dawn’s light hit his face.
It was far too early for this. But they had to move quickly, if they wanted to be back in Celum before evening. Ksmvr poked Pisces and the [Mage] snarled at him.
“I will if you answer my question. What is the artifact?”
“I told you to figure it out yourself!”
Part of Pisces dearly wanted to tell Ksmvr just to get it over with, but the young [Mage] was too stubborn for that.
“All the clues should be obvious. You were there! Just…think!”
“I have thought. I do not know what it could be. I wish for you to tell me.”
“Dead gods. It’s the door, the door. Okay!?”
That didn’t come from Pisces. It came from the wagon driver. She turned around, glaring, her eyes red and bloodshot. She was the same wagon driver who’d taken them from Remendia. She was the only one willing to risk her neck going so close to Albez, and clearly, she was unhappy with her decision.
Both [Mage] and Antinium stared at her. The wagon driver glared at them. After a moment, Pisces spoke.
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
“You explained it to the Ant about a half-dozen times. It was obvious. The door’s the only thing you lot didn’t take, apart from the ashes and the dungeon itself!”
The woman snapped at the two of them. Pisces turned to Ksmvr.
The Antinium only cocked his head sideways.
“Why is the door important? I do not understand. Please explain it to me, comrade Pisces.”
“First, call me comrade one more time and I will blast your mandibles off your face. Second—”
Pisces hesitated. But now that the secret was revealed, he had a deep urge to explain everything.
“The door is important because it cannot be destroyed. And it has a potent teleportation spell worked into its makeup.”
Pisces nodded. He sat back in the wagon and stared up at the grey sky. It was far too cold, he felt, even with the warming spells that allowed him to wander around in nothing but his dirty robes. He gestured at Ksmvr to relax; the Antinium stayed sitting perfectly upright. Pisces made a face, but began to explain.
“Do consider it, dear Ksmvr. In our haste to acquire our spoils and flee the area, we had neglected to consider the magnitude of enchantment that must have been laid on this door. Not only did it survive a magical fire that damaged every artifact it touched—but it actually destroyed part of the fire construct when we used it as an impromptu weapon.”
“Ah yes. It was quite useful.”
“And yet, we, in our rush to escape, completely neglected to remember it. A vast oversight. Then again, I do not believe we could have carried it away as exhausted as we were. Fortuitously, my adept memory seized upon our neglect and led me to—”
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up and go get it already, would you?”
The wagon jerked to a halt, making Pisces bite his tongue. He glared at the woman driving the wagon, but she just stared back.
“Hurry up. If you want to be back in Celum, get moving. I’m not waiting around in this place forever. Even if it’s winter, monsters could still be about.”
That was true, and so Pisces and Ksmvr cautiously descended into Albez. They were quite willing to retreat at the first sight of any monsters, door or no door, but it seemed the ruins were still quite deserted.
“Let us go then, Ksmvr. Your strength should be invaluable in carrying the door.”
“Yes, Pisces. I shall lead the way in case monsters have retaken the dungeon.”
“Good point. I’ll stay…this far behind you. Lead on!”
There were no monsters, although there was a good deal of ash. Pisces and Ksmvr found the door lying in a pile of it. The [Mage] sneezed when Ksmvr pulled the door out. The Antinium nodded as he lifted it upright with all three of his arms.
“I can carry my end of it quite easily. If you will assist me—”
“Not so fast. We must descend into the pit.”
The Antinium paused and turned to Pisces in surprise.
Pisces nodded at the door.
“The door is only half of the spell. The other half, if you recall, teleports us to a set location. Into the pit in this case. A small object—usually a stone, perhaps some other mundane object—acts as the anchor for the teleportation spell. We must recover it or I’ll be teleported here if I should make a mistake with the door.”
“But is it not extremely dangerous? Captain Ceria covered the [Insanity] spell with mud, but it may have been removed in the time since we were gone.”
Pisces smiled confidently.
“Have no fear, Ksmvr. I am well-prepared for this eventuality.”
As it turned out, his solution was much the same as Ceria’s. After Pisces built a staircase out of bone, he cast a spell which filled the pit with billowing yellow smoke. Coughing and swearing, the mage descended into the pit and shot clinging mud in every direction. After he’d released the spell and Ksmvr had come down, the Antinium saw the pit was covered, with no sign of the [Insanity] symbols on the walls.
“That was quite admirable, Pisces.”
He complimented the wheezing mage. Pisces coughed, and waved a hand.
“Think nothing of it. This is a simple trap to bypass, if the correct precautions are taken.”
Ksmvr nodded at the plain truth of that statement. He looked around.
“And where is this anchoring stone?”
“It shouldn’t be too big. It could even be the size of my hand—smaller. I can find it ah…if I trace the magic link…here!”
Pisces frowned and then pointed to a spot directly in the center of the pit. It turned out what he was looking for was a round stone small enough to fit into his palm, embedded into the stone bottom of the pit. This proved to be very difficult to extract. Ksmvr still had the Goblin’s enchanted short sword, but even with all his strength he could barely chip at the stone floor of the pit.
“Of course it is designed to be a trap.”
Pisces groused as he began blasting the area around the stone with flames. Both he and Ksmvr knew that stone when heated was far more vulnerable to cracking. After about ten minutes of sustained fire blasting the ground, it was weakened enough for Ksmvr’s blade to crack the stone.
“It is very hot, Pisces.”
So saying, Ksmvr handed the magical stone—which showed no damage despite the heat—to Pisces. The [Mage] swore and dropped it the moment he touched the black rock.
“That is what I said.”
“Then don’t—allow me to choose a far more sensible solution.”
The wagon driver, whose name was Adelynn, although no one had bothered to ask it, was dozing in her driver’s seat when her horses took fright. She looked up and blanched as she saw the six skeletons carrying the enchanted door and anchoring stone over their heads. Pisces and Ksmvr sat on the door like a seat. They waved at the wagon driver. Only when they got close did she throw a bit of snow at them.
“Call your damn undead away, [Necromancer]! You’ll spook my horses! I swear, if they wrench an ankle you’ll all walk home!”
“Calm down, good Mis—”
A bit of snow hit Pisces it the face.
“Get them away, I said!”
A few minutes later, the cart rumbled back towards the road and Celum, bereft of any skeletons. But it did have one new passenger: the door lay between Pisces and Ksmvr as the [Mage] pored over it and Ksmvr stared at the small stone in his hands. To the Antinium the rock appeared totally ordinary, which he supposed was the point.
“Now that we have the door, what do you propose we do with it, Pisces?”
“That my friend…is a very good question. I have no idea.”
Pisces looked up for a moment before he went back to staring at the door. Ksmvr noticed the mage’s eyes unfocused as he stared at what the Antinium could only assume was the magic enchantment making up the door. Pisces seemed to be tracing the spell while simultaneously attempting to avoid triggering the door’s automatic teleportation effect.
Every now and then he failed, and would appear on Ksmvr’s lap. The Antinium watched as this happened now. Pisces yelped, popped out of existence on his side of the wagon, and appeared a little bit above Ksmvr. In the ensuing tangle, Pisces fought his way clear.
“Dead gods—give me that!”
He snatched the stone back from the Antinium and placed it on his side of the wagon. A bit of snow flew from the front and hit him on the head.
“Stop doing that! You’re scaring the horses!”
“Shall I reanimate them for you? I’m sure undead horses would be a lot faster than these slow nags.”
Pisces smiled nastily. His reply came in another bit of snow which struck him on the shoulder. Grumbling, Pisces went back to the door.
After a few moments, Ksmvr nodded and spoke up.
“We could make a shield out of it. I could hold it up with comrade Yvlon when fighting spellcasters.”
The young man’s head rose and he stared at Ksmvr.
“Really? That’s your idea?”
Ksmvr nodded, appreciating Pisces’ enthusiasm.
“A shield seems to be the most appropriate use of the door. We could make a harness so Comrade Yvlon could use it in place of her armor. It would protect her back so she would have no need of armor. If an enemy attacked all she would have to do would be to turn around.”
The Antinium paused, waiting for feedback. Pisces just stared at him. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
“I should like to see that. But I believe using the door as any form of personal armament should be employed only as a matter of last resort. Even if you were to block a spell with this door, [Fireball], for instance, the explosion would still affect those hiding behind the door. Any neophyte mage could easily burn you with a low-Tier flame spell were you to use it as cover.”
“Oh. I see.”
Ksmvr felt disappointed. Seeing this, Pisces felt moved to offer him a bone.
“The true value in the door might not be in its practical use at all, but rather as a tool of study for me. I can learn a lot from the enchantments woven into it.”
The Antinium perked up. What helped Pisces was a boon for The Horns of Hammerad.
“Really? Can you copy the spells on the door?”
Pisces coughed, and then laughed. He shook his head.
“That is far beyond my capabilities.”
“Why? Is it not simply a matter of reproducing the spell? That should be doable with time, should it not?”
“Yeah, [Mage]. What’s wrong? Is it too complex for you?”
Pisces ignored that comment from the front. Sniffing archly, he sat back. He took on the tone Ksmvr had associated with a lecture as he spoke out loud.
“The issue, Ksmvr, is that the nature of magic is not so linear as the philistines might have you think.”
Again, Pisces ignored the wagon driver’s comment. Ksmvr nodded at him encouragingly. Magic was fascinating to him.
“Oh yes. You see, if this door—or should I say, this impressively enchanted self-activating portal device—were simply one enchantment, I dare say even Springwalker would be able to ascertain its nature quite quickly. But it is clearly not one enchantment. And the true exponential difficulty of a spell occurs when multiple layers exist.”
Ksmvr considered Pisces’ explanation and nodded.
“I see. So multiple spells cast on the same object increase the difficulty of analyzing and copying it?”
Pisces deflated somewhat at the Antinium’s calm response.
He turned back to the door, frowning at it.
“If it were just something like reinforcement, well, I could do that to a piece of wood, although not with the finesse or force of a true [Enchanter]. They could turn a piece of parchment into something as strong as steel…but as I’ve said magic changes when you layer another spell on top. It truly is quite incredible how many spells are worked into this wood.”
“That is why mages study so continuously?”
“To master the nuance of each spell and understand how magic can change, broadly speaking, yes. Even memorizing spells takes time, and comprehending concepts like spatial travel, well…”
“Can you [Teleport]?”
Pisces ignored that question. He gestured grandly at the door sitting on the back of the wagon.
“This wonder of magical engineering is clearly the work of a master [Mage]. Perhaps even an [Archmage]? Ah, probably not.”
“But studying it will surely raise my level, and it will be a far greater challenge than simply reading from a book of spells. When Springwalker sees this…”
“So you cannot copy the spell?”
Pisces paused, but then he nodded with a rueful smile.
“I wouldn’t even dare try. The spells are so tangled up that reproduction is impossible. I’d have to unravel each layer of spells and if that didn’t destroy the entire weaving…no, no, I only intend to study what parts are visible.”
He sighed, losing some of his posturing. Ksmvr nodded.
“I see. Are there some parts which are easier?”
Pisces shrugged, irritated by his moment of genuine expression. He scowled as he bent back over the door, poking at the brass handle.
“The entire thing is a mess. Let me concentrate. It’s hard enough to sit on this bumpy wagon—”
“Watch it, [Mage].”
The wagon driver snapped back at Pisces. He made a face. Ksmvr sat forwards too. The door was just plain, solid wood of course, but now he was very invested in Pisces’ discoveries.
“Surely there are some aspects which are simplest to understand. The triggering mechanism for the spell was analyzing it, was it not?”
“Relatively simple, yes. Of course the part of the spell that detects people investigating it is fiendishly complex. But the trigger component I identified straight off.”
Pisces dismissed that with a wave of the hand. Ksmvr nodded eagerly.
“In that case, would it not be easiest to focus on that part of the spell, knowing the method to activation and outcome?”
In his multi-faceted eyes, the Antinium saw the young man pause. Pisces stared at Ksmvr, and then down at the door. He cleared his throat.
“Uh. Yes. That would be…well, it’s a good place to start as any, I suppose.”
“It is a shame you cannot reverse the effect. That would have been very convenient in the pit.”
Ksmvr meant this only as a segue into asking whether Pisces could teleport him a few times, just so Ksmvr could see what it was like when he wasn’t about to die. But Pisces’ face froze and after a second he burst into a huge and uncharacteristic grin.
Somewhat unnerved, Ksmvr paused as Pisces turned to him. The [Mage] gingerly clapped a hand on Ksmvr’s shoulder. The Antinium stared at the hand. After a moment Pisces let go.
“You, Ksmvr, are clearly a natural-born scholar, as perhaps befits your advanced standing among the Antinium.”
“Reversing the spell. What a novel idea! And of course the actual binding spell on the stone is ludicrously simple compared to the door. Why, it wouldn’t be hard to reverse—that is to say, to create a trigger to activate the teleportation spell and bring whomever was there to the door! In fact…”
“Does this mean you can teleport me?”
“More than that, my dear Ksmvr. If this means what I think it does—here…you hold this and I shall…”
The Antinium and Human excitedly rocked back and forth on the wagon, jabbering on about ‘possible sequential instances of anchorage’ and ‘activation mechanisms’ and so on. At the head of the wagon, the Adelynn tried not to listen. After a while, she tried to plug her ears with both fingers, but it was hard to do that and guide the wagon. She sighed.
Ceria scowled at Pisces as he and Ksmvr lugged the door over to the front of the Frenzied Hare. The two had attracted quite a lot of attention as they’d dragged and carried it down the street. Now Ksmvr laid the door against the wall of the inn as Pisces panted for breath.
“Don’t blame me. If I could have conjured a few undead we wouldn’t have taken so long! Why no one appreciates the untapped potential of such labor—”
Ceria sighed, but she stared at the door, mildly impressed Pisces had managed to support his end of it. It was as heavy as it looked, she knew, and it looked heavy.
“Is that the door? The magic door?”
Erin stared dubiously at the heavy wood door. It looked as plain as plain could be. She wondered if Pisces and Ceria were playing a prank on everyone else, but Yvlon nodded.
“That’s the door. It doesn’t look like much but—if you could make armor out of it I’d wear it. I saw it take damage that would have shredded my plate armor.”
No matter how hard Erin stared at it, she just couldn’t see it. But Pisces was clearly excited by the door. He waved his hands at Ceria, talking quickly.
“You won’t believe what I—and Ksmvr I suppose—have discovered! It’s a revolutionary—nay, unprecedented loophole in the spell matrix! I can’t believe it wasn’t covered!”
“Oh yeah? What’s so incredible?”
Ceria looked skeptical. Pisces pointed to the door, grinning broadly, one of the few times Erin had ever seen him happy.
“I managed to isolate the location aspect of the spell. Not only that—I figured out how to trigger it independently of the detection trap.”
Erin’s head swiveled with Yvlon’s towards Ceria. The half-Elf gasped.
“You don’t mean—seriously? And you did it on the ride back? Impossible!”
Pisces was smug. He gestured to the door.
“It all came down to a loophole. If you look around the doorknob—perhaps they didn’t have an adept mastery of enchantments? Or maybe the handle was added too late—either way I forced my way into the bindings from there and…”
He began talking gibberish, or perhaps Erin’s ears just shut down. She gathered that something important had happened by the way Ceria was reacting, but she couldn’t figure out what.
“Are we going to go?”
They had the wagon all ready, and a somewhat surly wagon driver ready to take them to Liscor. Ceria had said they’d be leaving soon. Yvlon shrugged, looking resigned.
“Mages. Give them a minute and then we’ll interrupt.”
Erin nodded. She looked around and frowned.
“Hey, where’s Ksmvr?”
The Antinium was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t gone inside—had he run off? Erin wanted to ask Pisces—she didn’t want to go have to find Ksmvr as well!—when she heard a pop. Ksmvr appeared in front of the door, holding a small stone in his hands.
Yvlon gasped. Erin jumped and people on the street shouted in surprise. Ksmvr looked around proudly and Pisces broke off from chattering with Ceria to point at him gleefully.
“There, you see?”
“You can teleport to the door?”
In an instant Erin was next to Ksmvr. She stared down at the stone in his hands and then at Pisces.
“How? Where? What?”
“It’s very simple. Actually, it’s not, but I’ll give you a simple explanation. The long and short of it is that we can take advantage of the door’s teleportation spell to teleport to the anchoring stone connected to it—or vice versa.”
Erin pointed at the stone in Ksmvr’s hands.
“You can teleport to that? And teleport back?”
“That’s what I said.”
“How many times?”
Yvlon’s eyes were wide with amazement. Pisces stroked at his chin, shrugging, speaking out loud.
“Any number of times. In time of course the enchantment will lose magic—it requires a huge amount to activate. But here’s the wonderful part—the magic will replenish itself over time!”
Erin was so excited her heart was beating out of her chest. Pisces nodded proudly.
“Quite extraordinary, really. It absorbs the natural mana in the environment—like any acceptably constructed artifact, I suppose—but it allows for practically unlimited uses of the teleportation magic!”
“This is incredible. That changes everything. This thing is—it’s actually useful.”
Ceria murmured as Ksmvr tried to keep people from crowding around the door. She tapped at the wood.
“How much could we sell it for? If you think of it as—as a way to travel, you could get from one end of the city to the other in seconds! Any [Lord] would want it, if only as a novelty.”
“A bit plain for a [Lord]’s door.”
Yvlon put that in, although she looked no less impressed. She ran a hand over the wood surface.
“But paint it and—could we get a hundred gold coins for it, do you suppose?”
“Hundreds? Try thousands. As I was saying, this is incredible! But we need not sell it yet—just imagine the utility of it in a dungeon! We could retreat at any time.”
Pisces was talking faster as he waved his arms about. Ksmvr was proudly showing the stone to people and resisting all attempts of people trying to take it from him. Erin stared down at the door, and an idea seized in her mind. She looked up and spoke loudly.
“I want it.”
Everyone stopped talking. The Horns of Hammerad stared at her. Erin stared back. She pointed at the door.
“I want it. Can I have it?”
Pisces was the first to speak. He looked incredulous.
“This door is—as much of a treasure as anything we recovered from Albez. It’s far more useful than a bag of holding. And you want—”
“Yes. I want it.”
Erin didn’t say out loud that the Horns of Hammerad owed her, but they had promised, hadn’t they? They’d said a treasure, and she could think of nothing she would want more than this door. She saw Ceria exchange a glance with the others. Pisces was spluttering.
“You can’t just demand—this is far too sudden to—”
Ceria nodded. She smiled at Erin, and looked at the door.
“For you, Erin? Yes, you can have this…door.”
Yvlon nodded as well.
“We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if it weren’t for you. And you lent us your gold—twice, now. Of course you can have it.”
Ksmvr nodded as well.
“This seems to be an acceptable form of remuneration. Here is your teleportation stone.”
He handed it to Erin. She held it gingerly. Pisces kept spluttering.
“But—I just got—it was my discovery and—”
“And you did well. Thank you.”
Erin smiled widely at Pisces. He blinked at her and threw his hands up in exasperation.
“Fine. I am outnumbered and overruled by the imposition of what some might call honor or common decency. Take the damned door!”
The young woman patted the door.
Pisces sniffed, clearly upset. Ceria laughed, and slung an arm around his shoulder. He froze up for a second and stared at her. She seemed surprised by the action as well, and released him quickly.
“Cheer up. Erin made a lot of food—and lunch for you two since you missed it. Although I suppose it would be dinner, now.”
Instantly he brightened up.
“Ah, well, I suppose that—”
“—But you’ll have to eat it on the wagon. We’ve got to go now if we want to get to any sort of settlement by nightfall.”
Ceria dragged Pisces back as he headed towards the inn. He complained, but soon he was helping drag the door onto the back of the wagon. Erin turned to help push it further in, and stopped.
A group of people were standing behind her. Miss Agnes, Maran, Safry, Jasi, Grev, Wesle, the [Actors], a number of regular patrons from her inn, Octavia…they stood, smiling at her.
Slowly, Erin stepped towards them. She felt…quite empty inside, really. As if there weren’t any tears to cry. And there weren’t.
There was only a smile. She smiled at them, and went to each one, hugging and kissing Wesle on the cheek and Grev on a dirty forehead, talking and saying goodbye.
But not forever. And so the emptiness in her filled, and when the wagon started to move, Erin could shed a tear. But not a sad tear. She was just so full of memories and happiness that a bit came out anyways.
She sat on the wagon as it rolled out of the city. The Horns of Hammerad sat around her. Friends. Yvlon and Ceria talked animatedly about the play they’d been a part of, recounting the good bits to Ksmvr while Pisces devoured the packed lunch Erin had made for him and Ksmvr.
Erin sat back, and as the cold evening breeze blew past her face, she smiled. A bit sadly.
It was time to go. Celum was…a lovely place. But it wasn’t home. She had to go back to Liscor.
She whispered it to the wind. Not sadly—in her heart she promised to return some day. There was more to this world besides Liscor. And some day she would explore it.
Some day. But for now she was going back. To Mrsha and Selys and even annoying Lyonette. She wanted to go back so desperately it hurt Erin’s chest. But she wouldn’t forget what she’d experienced here.
They rolled out of the city and Erin finally left Celum behind.
It was a quiet wagon that slowly rode down the trampled road, slowly moving south. The wagon driver didn’t have a movement Skill, but he was used to the uncertain road and he was skilled and Skilled enough to detect danger. It would take a day – or two or even three – to get to Liscor, but they’d get there, and hopefully without running into any danger.
Erin sat next to the other Horns of Hammerad, not saying anything. At first she’d chatted, but the cold and wind had a way of silencing even the most spirited conversation. And she felt a bit selfish, but she wished—she wished she was back in the Frenzied Hare right now rather than moving around in the cold winter.
If she ever got home, Erin would never complain about an airplane again. That was what she decided.
“Anyone want dinner?”
Pisces grumbled as he lay sprawled out on the wagon. Ceria, sitting next to his foot, shifted it aside irritably.
“I could warm it up with magic. So could you.”
“I would much rather have stayed the night in the inn in the city. If we had left the next day—”
“If we had, we’d be that much behind. I want to get moving while the roads are clear.”
Ceria pointed that out acerbically. But from the way she glanced back at Celum, still visible in the distance, Erin knew she felt the same.
“After all my hard work with the door, I am resigned to this. A cold meal on wagon back. Truly, gratitude is a foreign concept among even the staunchest of comrades.”
Pisces sat up, grumbling. Erin wanted to grumble back at him, but she was grateful for the door, really. He really was a genius, just like Ceria sometimes said. So she’d let him grumble a bit more.
“What are you going to do with the door, Erin?”
Yvlon asked that, wrapped up in her coat. Erin had to think.
“I’ll probably put the door somewhere in the city! It’ll be so cool! I can pop in and visit Selys all the time, and I’ll get so many visitors since it’ll be easy to get to my inn!”
“Not to mention it’ll be safer since you can get away if there’s a monster attack.”
The woman nodded approvingly. Pisces just sniffed.
“What a waste.”
“What would you do with it, then?”
“Certainly not use it to for a simple walk of a few minutes. Why, with a door so useful I’d link it to a safe space—perhaps far underground. Or perhaps as a trap to deter unwelcome visitors. I could fix it so that at your command anyone unsavory was transported deep underground—”
“You can send people that far?”
Erin was surprised. All the Horns of Hammerad nodded, looking grim. Ceria kicked the door and cursed as she winced in pain.
“The door teleported us to a pit trap when we first found it. And like Pisces said, it recovers magic. So it won’t run out. It’s a great tool for you, Erin. I’m glad we can give it to you.”
Erin nodded, but her heart had suddenly jolted in her chest. She took a breath, trying to contain the excitement trying to explode out of her body in case she was wrong.
“Well, if this door is so powerful, it can probably teleport people a long way away, right?”
“Any [Teleport] spell can do that.”
Pisces murmured as he tried to get himself comfortable in his spot in the wagon. He pointed at Erin.
“You were there when that objectionable Gazi teleported away, were you not? Her spell took her far away. Across the ocean, I’ll wager. Thousands of miles. True, that was with a customized spell for long-distance, but a normal [Teleportation] spell can still cover many miles, albeit at increased mana cost.”
“So this door—”
“—Is clearly a relic of a past pinnacle of magical achievement. Indeed, that entire room—the private hidden store room of a powerful mage—was filled with wonders. Putting aside the mediocre traps preceding the door, the pit trap was truly a death sentence even for a Named Adventurer. If all the [Insanity] runes had been active, I cannot imagine any Skill or spell short of…Tier 7 that would have saved you from an untimely end.”
Erin shivered a bit, realizing how dangerous it had been. But she pressed forwards anyways.
“So this door is incredible because it can teleport people really far. And it recovers magic. So…”
Ceria looked at Erin blankly. The girl paused, and then pointed to the stone in Ksmvr’s hand.
“Why didn’t we just leave that in Celum? If we made another door or something, couldn’t we travel back and forth to the wagon? And once it gets to Liscor, I mean, I don’t know if it’s too far, but could I use it as a door to…”
Her voice trailed off. Everyone on the wagon—including the wagon driver—was staring at Erin with an open mouth. Pisces closed his.
“Remarkable. And of course it would work. The charge might not last for more than one or two mass teleportations per day but if you found a way to recover mana—”
Ksmvr shot to his feet.
“I will go to the city.”
“Hold on! Let me tune the stone. I had it so you would teleport with it. But clearly we need to…hm…”
Pisces and Ceria clustered around the stone, arguing with each other as Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Erin watched with bated breath. In a few moments Ksmvr was jumping off the wagon and running quite quickly back towards the city in the distance.
The others settled back in the wagon to wait. They didn’t speak much—just watched Ksmvr’s shape slowly disappear. The minutes felt like hours, and after an interminable number of them had passed, Yvlon coughed.
“Been a while. Ksmvr should have made it to the city by now. Do you think it didn’t—”
Pop. Ksmvr appeared back on the wagon. Everyone shouted, but he raised his hands.
“The stone is at the Frenzied Hare. I have explained to Miss Agnes but she does not quite understand. Shall we attempt to return now?”
“Yes. All we have to do is—”
From his seat on the wagon, the driver half-turned to look. He caught only a glimpse of the five people clustered around the door lying on his wagon when he heard a quiet pop of air and they vanished.
The horses, pulling the wagon, snorted in surprise when they felt the sudden change in weight. For his part, the wagon driver stared at the spot in dismay.
What was he supposed to do? Keep driving? While these adventurers feasted in the inn? That wasn’t fair!
But it was what he was paid for, so after a moment the wagon driver urged his horses on, scowling. He drew his scarf tightly around his face as the night grew closer around him.
The poor wagon driver sat miserably hunched over in the cart as the horses plodded onwards through the cold night. After a few moments, the door opened on the wagon. The wagon driver gaped as from out of the wagon a girl stepped out with a sudden outpouring of noise—and heat!
She stepped up, since the door was lying on its back, but somehow was facing the right way when she stood upright on the wagon.
“Woog. That’s trippy.”
She muttered as she held something in her hands. The wagon driver stared at her. The girl—was her name Erin?—smiled at him. She held out what was in her hands. The man looked and saw a steaming bowl of soup.
“It’s fresh! Sorry about the wait—Pisces said he could actually make the door connect! Don’t ask me how—he put the stone, you know, the anchor-thingy? He put it in another door and he and Ceria did some magic to it and look! Portal door!”
The man just stared at her. Slowly, he took the bowl of soup. It did indeed smell fresh, and the hot liquid warmed his cold hands and soul in the winter night.
“I’m making popcorn as well. I’ll bring you some when I’m done! Do you want something to drink with that?”
The man brightened up. The girl opened the door, stepped down and into the inn and the door closed. After a few more minutes, the door opened and popcorn was handed over in a bowl along with a big mug of ale. The man stared down at the white, fluffy kernels seasoned with butter, salt, and yeast—which was the only way to eat popcorn, or so Erin claimed. He tried some, and cheered up even more.
And so the wagon plodded onwards, bearing its curious load. It traveled down the silent, winter roads, slowly heading south. To a city claimed by Drakes, Gnolls, and the strange Antinium. To Liscor. To a place known as The Wandering Inn.