Some days Erin woke up with a smile on her face. She yawned, sat up, and felt the quiet of the morning wash over her.
It wasn’t like how she lived back on Earth, back home. There Erin needed alarm clocks to get up, and the instant she was awake she had a phone to check, things to do. But in this world things weren’t as pressing. Or maybe it was just that Erin took the time to appreciate what she hadn’t before.
The cold of winter still had not let up and Erin shivered a bit as she threw off the thick wool blanket. It was scratchy, and there was no central heating in the inn. But she slept soundly each night, from being tired as much as anything else.
Yes, in some ways this world was better for her. In others—Erin touched her chest and remembered all she’d left behind.
Some days she would cry. Others she would laugh, or just try to forget. But Erin couldn’t forget what she’d lost. She still remembered a house in Michigan, her mother and father, neither of whom could play chess well.
Some days she imagined her mom would wake her up because Erin had slept in till eleven or twelve. She’d be upset because Erin missed the breakfast she’d made and tell Erin not to stay up looking at chess games online, especially because it was bad for her eyes. Then her father would grow serious and talk about how Erin was pursuing her passion and how they should support her—
Erin dressed and went downstairs, caught in the memory. She only came out of it when she found herself in the kitchen and realized she had to cook.
What to make today? Erin was used to cooking for many people by now and she moved on autopilot. Biscuits and gravy, yes, that would be good. She could make a thick sauce with the remains of the meat she’d used for last night’s dinner. Thick and full of energy from all the fat and stuff. That would be good. And eggs. Everyone always liked to eat good eggs.
That was how Erin spent around thirty minutes, cooking before everyone else woke up. She was brisk, efficient, and inhumanly quick in the kitchen now. Erin wondered if a professional chef would be able to make a meal faster than her.
“If I go back home, I’m definitely going on Iron Chef and kicking everyone’s butts.”
She smiled to herself as she looked at the large pot of meaty gravy and the biscuits she’d taken out of the stone oven. They were hot and steaming. She took a bowl out, filled it with gravy, and dipped the biscuit in it.
It was good. Erin ate it, and then another biscuit while she listened to people waking up above her head. Miss Agnes would be down soon, slightly annoying and cheerful as always. Erin…didn’t feel like dealing with her today.
She’d done what needed doing, anyways. The pot of gravy could serve a small army, which is pretty much what descended on the inn for breakfast most mornings anyways. And the biscuits were easy enough to make that even Miss Agnes had a hard time messing it up. Unless she let them burn in the oven, that was.
And if she did, too bad! Erin filled a basket with thirty of the biscuits she’d made and found a smaller pot and a lid for the gravy. As an afterthought she looked around for a drink as well, but there was nothing portable. She wasn’t about to carry a keg.
That was what this world lacked, Erin reflected. She left the inn and walked down the snowy cobblestones, out of the inn before anyone came in or went downstairs. It was still very early, so Erin made good time through Celum’s streets.
This world lacked…certain things. Good containers, for one thing. Oh, sure, you could transport in bulk pretty well with barrels and so on, and they were remarkably waterproof, but what about water bottles, or…or covered pitchers? Then again, who would need it that badly?
“Globalization? Or is it industrialization? Modernization? Convenience?”
Probably all of the above. When you had the time to think to yourself that a mid-sized container built specifically to hold liquids was a valuable time investment, you probably had too much time on your hands. But it was convenient.
Erin sighed, and took another bite of one of the biscuits. It tasted good. But—it was sort of flat.
“Needs baking powder.”
How could a world live without baking powder? Erin was sure there was a substitute the people of this world used, but she hadn’t found it yet. In the meantime, she had to live without vital necessities like cake. Or delicacies like cake. Or what Erin considered essential for mental health: cake.
It really was a shame. Erin sighed and watched her breath trail upwards, the vapor dissipating over her head. No cake. She could make cookies, though. But wait—didn’t that need baking soda or something?
Erin glared at the ground, but without any real anger. She still felt pretty good.
Baking soda, baking powder. What was the difference between the two? One made things rise and the other…did the same thing. But there was a difference!
If only Ryoka was here. She might know how to make it. Then again, Ryoka had told Erin flat-out that she couldn’t replicate half of the things from their world for lack of funding, resources, or interest. Or all of the above. But baking soda was critical! If Erin could sell cookies she’d rule the world.
Who could help her in her quest to create more unhealthy things to eat? Erin passed by a few people walking down the street, smiling at them but saying nothing, and then turned down another street. She’d gone this way so many times she didn’t need to think about it.
Who made baking powder in her world? That was a really good question now that Erin thought about it. Baking powder…companies? But who invented baking powder to begin with?
Erin hazarded a guess. She knew it had some weird stuff in the powder, which is why she couldn’t just grind up a rock or something to make it. But if she needed this world’s equivalent of a chemist, then—
For a few seconds Erin blinked. Then she slapped herself lightly in the head and nearly dropped the basket of biscuits and pot full of hot gravy. She caught herself and kicked open the door of the shop she’d arrived at.
Some people were morning people. Other people were not. Erin saw a comatose form draped over one of the tables jerk at her loud voice. Octavia raised her head and glared at Erin.
“Go melt yourself.”
“Don’t be grumpy. Wake up! It’s morning. I’ve got food.”
Erin looked around. Octavia’s alchemy shop was the usual clutter of magical potions and mess it normally was. She went into the kitchen and came out with a mostly clean bowl. Carefully, she poured some gravy into it and put some biscuits on the table in front of Octavia.
“Do you have any water? I wanted to bring something to drink, but there was nothing I could take back at the inn.”
Octavia blinked slowly at the food in front of her, still not quite focusing on the world. She took a biscuit and stared at it as if it was foreign to her.
“Water? I’ve got some…I think. Do you need to drink it? What’s for breakfast?”
Erin took that as a sign she shouldn’t drink anything in Octavia’s shop at the moment. She pushed the bowl towards Octavia.
“Gravy and biscuits. Eat. Also, I’ve got a job for you.”
That made Octavia sit up.
“Really? How much does it pay? Do you want potions or alchemical items? If you need to defer payment I can give you extremely reasonable—”
“Shut up and eat. I want baking powder. And soda. I’ll tell you what it is—you be quiet.”
Erin scowled at Octavia, but this too was part of her day. She was used to Octavia and she liked the other girl, although neither she nor Octavia would ever admit that out loud. Some people Erin just couldn’t quite gel with. Especially if they kept trying to sell her stuff like Octavia.
That was what Octavia said as she finished the biscuits. She wiped her finger in the bowl of gravy and licked it—Erin winced a bit because Octavia hadn’t washed her hands. Then again, the [Alchemist] was scrupulously careful about washing ingredients that got on her hands off before she ate, so she was probably fine.
“I’ll take your offer up. Business is slow thanks to all those damn Goblins out and about and if you’re right about people buying this baking powder from me, I’ll gladly let you finance me.”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“Good. I’ll give you two gold coins to start with. And why is business slow? Wouldn’t tons of people be buying your potions if they’re fighting Goblins?”
“Five. If they were fighting, I’d be selling everything on my shelves. But the cities are waiting, not sending out armies, Erin. Fighting Goblins is a lot easier when you’re on top of a wall and Esthelm falling scared everyone. Once this Goblin Lord’s main army and smaller ones are located, everyone will breathe easier. Until then…”
“Three gold coins. And eight silver ones. And no arguing!”
Octavia chewed on her lip, but nodded in the end.
“I can survive on that, I suppose. Barely. But I’ll need you to make dough for me and tell me if it’s rising right.”
“You’ll be able to tell. And making the dough is easy. I’ll teach you the recipe. Stop complaining—it’s just like alchemy!”
In the end, Erin paid Octavia and felt good about it. She wandered over to one side of Octavia’s shop, where the usual clutter had been cleared aside and the potions on the wall had been stored somewhere else.
“Anyone come by last night? I mean, after I left?”
Octavia shook her head.
“Nope. And no one’s come by—not after I started charging people for lingering in the store.”
“Well, if anyone does come by—”
“I get to sell them stuff if they won’t wait for you in the Frenzied Hare. Got it.”
Octavia was already poring over her ingredients, searching for the things that might work as leavening agents. She barely turned, but she did glance out of the corner of her eye as Erin walked over to the innocuous wooden door that had been set into the wall.
It was just a door, and it couldn’t possibly lead anywhere given that behind it was solid stone. And yet—Erin swung the door open, and suddenly she was staring up into the sky. She blinked a few times and tried to get her brain to understand that she was looking up at the sky because the door this one was connected to was lying on the back of a wagon. Then she took a deep breath and stepped through and up and—
The door closed behind Erin. Octavia shook her head, blinking a few times to regain her own sense of balance. The [Alchemist] had a very strong stomach due to all the things she had to handle and smell. But that sight made her stomach lurch a bit. And yet, it was still incredible to her.
“What a door.”
That was all she said. Then Octavia got to work. And Erin travelled many miles to a bumpy wagon travelling down a snowy, empty road towards Liscor. And the best part was that she didn’t spill the gravy.
Some things in this world were slow and wonderful. But the fast, magical moments were just as great too. As Erin stepped through the magical doorway in Octavia’s shop, she stepped upwards, into the sky. That was disconcerting, but Erin knew what to expect and didn’t stumble as the world twisted around her and she was suddenly walking the right way onto the back of the wagon.
It still made Erin want to puke a bit every time she did it. But the experience of it—walking through a portal made by magic—was still novel.
And it was so convenient. Erin looked around the wagon and saw several people who’d been huddled in their cloaks or with a blanket and pillow look up hopefully at her arrival. She smiled brightly and raised the pot and basket.
“Good morning! Anyone want breakfast?”
“Good morning, Miss Solstice.”
“Food! Oh. Morning, Erin.”
Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr, and Ceria all sat up and smiled or stared at the food Erin had brought—or did both. Pisces and Ceria both seemed especially keen for breakfast, but Yvlon and Ksmvr both eagerly accepted the food Erin had brought. The adventurers who were now the new Horns of Hammerad clustered around the pot and began sharing out the biscuits.
“Good morning, Mister Termin! Would you like some biscuits and gravy? They’re hot—I just baked them!”
The wagon driver gave Erin a gap-toothed grin as he accepted some of the food she’d brought.
“Thank you kindly, Miss Solstice. This is the finest journey I’ve ever had, riding along with you serving such good food morning, noon, and night.”
“My pleasure. I’ll bring you all lunch too, if you’re not planning on stopping and eating at a village or something.”
“No fear of fhat.”
Pisces mumbled around a mouth full of food as he ate appreciatively. He gulped, and went on, ignoring the disgusted look Yvlon was giving him. Ceria was eating just as fast.
“Why should we stop? With a constant supply of food, we need not rest—”
“Except to give the horses a break.”
Yvlon leaned towards Ksmvr as Ceria tried to cram a biscuit covered in gravy into her mouth. The Antinium was the only person who ate with good manners on the wagon. Two hands delicately held a biscuit up for him to nibble while a third hand held the gravy pot out for the others to dip into.
“Don’t you worry about that, Miss Byres. My Skills will keep these two old plodders moving all day. A good night’s sleep and rubdown is all they need, don’t fret.”
Termin smiled as he pointed to the two older horses that were pulling the wagon this early in the morning. Erin eyed them as she found a place to sit with the other adventurers in the back. The horses, Erma and Fox, looked old, but they both had feedbags on and seemed happy enough to eat and walk along. Besides, the wagon wasn’t going that fast.
She smiled and sat with her friends. They ate and she leaned back. It was colder outside the city, where the wind could blow right at you. But the air felt fresher here, and the sun helped warm her through the layers of clothing she wore. There was no smell of poo that sometimes came with people living in a medieval city and using chamber pots. The scents of crowded living were gone, and there was just the empty smell of winter on the breeze.
It was a good day, and Erin was happy to be alive. She was in a good mood, although the Horns of Hammerad were decidedly less well-rested.
Ceria yawned as she finally stopped eating and stretched out. She rubbed at her back as Erin apologized for not bringing anything to drink.
“No worries. We can get water easily enough. We just need some mugs. I think we brought some with us…there they are. Now, some snow—”
“Allow me, Captain Ceria.”
“Oh, thanks, Ksmvr.”
The half-Elf let Ksmvr take the mugs, hop out of the wagon, and briskly fill them with freshly fallen snow. Erin watched appreciatively as Ceria handed Pisces half of the mugs. Both mages concentrated briefly, and in moments the snow was melting as they warmed the cups. Ceria handed the steaming mugs around and Erin passed one to Termin in the front.
“Careful, it’s hot.”
“Too hot. Springwalker, did you have to boil this water?”
“It beats drinking something nasty, Pisces. Warm isn’t good enough, even with fresh snow.”
Ceria bickered with Pisces as the two mages sipped from their drink. Erin declined her mug—she’d already drunk enough. She smiled again.
“That’s so cool you can do that. It’s so easy—what spell did you use?”
Pisces scratched one ear, looking pleased, haughty, and somewhat embarrassed for the genuine enthusiasm Erin had.
“No spell. It is hardly necessary—true, most magics require spells, but the most basic of cantrips require no spells to utilize. True, if we wanted to increase the heat emitted we would have to learn a spell, but any [Mage] with a basic understanding of the theorems of spellcastings could do the same.”
A somber silence followed Pisces’ pronouncement. Ceria rolled her eyes as everyone else deciphered his statement.
That was all Erin said. She sat back as the others sipped at their drinks. After a moment, Erin felt moved to speak again.
“Did you sleep well? I can bring more blankets or pillows if you need it.”
“We’re fine, I think.”
Yvlon nodded and so did the others, although Pisces closed his mouth so suddenly Erin wondered if he had been about to ask for another pillow or three. The woman with perfect blonde hair, beautiful features, and metal fused into her arms stretched slowly, looking as if she had some back pains of her own.
“Too bad we couldn’t sleep in the inn.”
“I’ll say. A covered wagon is hardly appropriate for—”
Ceria kicked Pisces and he scowled and continued.
“—Adventurers of our caliber. Why we had to stay—”
This time Yvlon raised her foot and Pisces shut up. She glanced at Termin, but the wagon driver affected not to have heard Pisces’ comment.
“Just because we have a magic door that doesn’t mean we can waltz off whenever we feel like it, Pisces.”
“But if we remained in the inn, could we not—”
Ceria scowled at Pisces.
“We made a deal, Pisces. Sleeping in a bed in an inn over thirty miles away from here is not the same as staying with the wagon. If there’s an attack, every second counts. The same goes for the road. We have to stay with the wagon in case of trouble.”
“We could rotate a member of the group out to relax while the other three—”
Ceria and Yvlon chorused as one. Ksmvr looked between the members of his group and nodded obediently along with them. Pisces sighed and threw up his hands. Erin had to smile—again—and Ceria grinned too. The half-Elf glanced at Erin sideways.
“Besides, there’s no inn to sleep in now. You moved the door, right, Erin?”
“It’s in Octavia’s shop now. Nowhere to sleep Pisces, unless you fancy sleeping under one of her tables.”
The [Necromancer] opened his mouth—probably to say that was more comfortable than sleeping in a wagon in the open—and closed it. Pisces could tell when arguing was pointless. Well, sometimes.
“And have more individuals approached you about requisitioning the door for their use? I hardly feel that a lone [Alchemist] can adequately protect such a valuable means of transport.”
“I think Octavia’s pretty good at it, actually. She’s started charging people who wait around in her shop. And you know her—if anyone comes in they’ll either buy half a dozen potions or have their face explode before they go.”
Everyone smiled at that. It turned out that Yvlon and Ceria knew of Octavia by reputation, although neither adventurer had bought directly from her. Yvlon drained her mug and tossed the rest over the side of the wagon.
“She’s probably better at selling potions than she is at making them. There’s no better watchdog you could ask for.”
“Really? I thought Octavia was a really good [Alchemist]. She’s one of three.”
“In a city like Celum? Erin, that’s a lot of [Alchemists]!”
Ceria laughed at her friend. She shook her head.
“Octavia’s good at making potions for cheap. And—I guess she can make some high quality ones, but she stints too much on her ingredients, or so I’ve heard. Then again, it’s expensive to be an [Alchemist].”
“She’s naturally thrifty. Too much so. But I’ve never heard of her making a defective potion—only overselling some to gullible people.”
That made Erin feel better. She nodded as she tugged a blanket over. She’d taken them from Miss Agnes’ inn after a bit of persuasion.
“Well, she tried to charge me a fee for putting the door there, but I talked her out of it. I think she sees how valuable it is.”
“And it will be safe in her shop?”
Ksmvr looked dubious, but Ceria snorted.
“Who’s going to steal a door, let alone one attached to the wall? Besides, that’s just the anchor point. The real artifact is here.”
She rapped a fist on the plain wooden door sitting in the wagon. Everyone else nodded, and Erin patted the door appreciatively.
“Ow! Hey, does this thing have splinters?”
“Not as of such. It’s too well enchanted to break. It’s a hundred times stronger than you are…so in the worst case scenario you could rip your flesh off on a rough patch of it.”
The door. Erin’s door. She rubbed at the sore palm of her hand as she stared at it.
Yes, magic was a curious thing. Some spells seemed very mundane and just like things Erin had in her world, like Ceria’s trick with warming the mugs. But some things couldn’t be copied, and were just as amazing in this world as they would be in Erin’s.
Like the door. The magical, awesome, incredible, stupendous, phantasmagorical—
Erin frowned. Was phantasmagorical the right word? Anyways, the cool door. It was Erin’s now, and that was wonderful. It meant she could go anywhere with it, conveniently and easily. At least, in theory.
It was only the second day since the door’s incredible useful properties had been harnessed by Pisces and Ceria, but it was already the center of a minor power struggle in Celum. Of course, when Erin and the Horns of Hammerad had first stepped back through it into the Frenzied Hare in Celum, everyone had been dumbstruck. News of the artifact the Horns of Hammerad had recovered had spread like lighting.
You’d think everyone would be happy a magical teleportation-portal door had been created. But the first visitor Erin had received as she and the Horns of Hammerad were having a great dinner that very night in the inn had been a man, a wealthy [Trader] who told Erin he saw big possibilities in her door. He wanted to buy it for a hundred gold coins.
She refused. He upped it to two hundred, and then six hundred coins when she kept refusing. In the end he had to leave, disappointed. That was the start.
The next person to arrive was a rather more influential [Merchant] who told Erin he represented the Merchant’s Guild in the city. He offered her six thousand gold coins for the door immediately, and when she refused he tried to strike a deal with her.
The merchants and traders and indeed, shopkeepers and craftspeople of Celum wanted to use the door as, well, a door into Liscor. If it could be kept open they would reap huge profits that they would share with Erin, all assured her. But just as Erin was considering this, a Runner had come to her inn demanding to speak with her.
Fals, the nice Runner guy that Ryoka had told Erin about came with Garia to plead their case with Erin. They did not want her to let the merchants use the door for anything. After all, it would totally destroy the Runners Guild’s traffic between Celum and Liscor. The last thing Erin wanted was to put anyone out of work, but then the Mage’s Guild had come by to tell Erin that if she wanted to gain a monopoly on messages between Liscor and Celum, she had another thing coming. And then—
And then Erin had clocked one of the merchants and everyone had sort of backed up a bit. But the issue over the door was clear: it was a valuable object and everyone wanted to use it. So that night Erin had had to fend off multiple people wanting to talk to her, people she had never met before except for Garia and Fals.
Fals was nice, and the [Merchants] and envoy from the city’s council had been sickeningly fawning. The [Mage] was full of himself until he realized Pisces and Ceria might actually have more levels than him—plus they were Wistram graduates and he was not. Then he was so obsequious Erin wanted to throw up.
Relief had come from Pisces of all people. Undeterred by the argument, he’d managed to affix the anchoring spell or whatever it was to an actual door and harness the teleportation spell to create a portal rather than just transport people. Apparently it wasn’t that hard, or Pisces was just as smart as he said. According to Ceria, it was a bit of both.
But what Pisces had discovered was that powerful the door might be, but it drank more mana than a sponge. It could teleport someone back and forth many times, and even a group of people. But eventually it would run out, and when it did it would take a long time to recharge.
Not only that, but the amount of mana required to activate the spell was understandably high. Both Pisces and Ceria had tried to recharge the door and only managed to juice it up enough for the Horns of Hammerad to make a one-way trip to the wagon to guard it overnight. And they’d still had to use a few mana potions.
So what was the conclusion? Well, the Merchant’s Guild still wanted to use the door as a faster way of transport, the Runner’s Guild and Mage’s Guild were afraid Erin would bulk transport things like letters which didn’t have much mass and could be teleported easily, and Erin realized she didn’t trust Miss Agnes with the door in her inn.
So she’d told everyone to go away and put the door in Octavia’s shop. As for the rest…
“I promised Fals and Garia—Runner’s Guild—that I wouldn’t transport any letters or deliveries. Only personal stuff I’m using. I said the same thing to the Mage’s Guild so they’re happy. But the city council wanted to use my door for emergencies, they said.”
“The city council? Is Celum ruled by a council? I thought they were like Remendia and Ocre and had elected leaders.”
“Nope. Council. And guess who’s on it?”
“A lot of [Merchants] and guild leaders?”
Erin nodded miserably. Pisces snorted and Ceria rolled her eyes.
“So they want to use your door?”
“They want me to pay fees for using it. Or…I could let them use the door if they need it to, I dunno, transport supplies or do something really important. They’d be able to use it in case of emergencies, they said.”
Pisces looked as if he was ready to spit. He pursed his lips and sniffed before wiping his nose on his robe.
“Hah. If you agreed to that, then no doubt every day the city would face a crisis of unprecedented severity that required usage of the door.”
Erin nodded sadly. She had to be selfish or the door would be useless.
“I told them it’s mine and they can’t charge me because I’m not going through the gates.”
Yvlon’s eyebrows rose.
“Really? And what did they say?”
The [Innkeeper] fidgeted on the cart, avoiding anyone’s eyes.
“I uh, hinted that you, the Horns of Hammerad, would be really upset if they did. So they backed down.”
Silence. And then Ceria laughed.
Pisces and Termin guffawed and Yvlon smiled. Ksmvr just looked around, confused.
“I do not understand the joke. Pisces, please explain it to me.”
Ceria shook her head, and Erin blinked as her hair caught the light. She was still beautiful, too much so for this world. Otherworldly.
“Well, that settles that. I guess the only thing you’ve got to worry about is it being stolen, although Pisces is right. Anyone with a brain will see that the door’s useless if they steal the anchor. People without a brain are the ones you should be worried about, though.”
Erin looked away as Ceria smiled at her.
“I don’t think that’s a problem. I talked with Wesle and the captain of the Watch and they told me they’d keep an eye on Octavia’ shop. Plus, no one likes to try and rob an [Alchemist] because all kinds of things can happen with all those potions lying around.”
“That’s true. Good thing you’ve got a [Guardsman] for a friend. In Celum, I mean.”
“Excuse me, but I still do not understand the joke. Pisces, will you explain it to me?”
“Former [Guardsman], actually. He quit his job.”
Erin smiled as the Horns of Hammerad exclaimed.
“Yeah. He says he’s earning a ton more than he ever did as a [Guardsman] and he likes acting better. He wants to form a troupe—a group that goes from city to city to perform. They’re stuck in Celum now, but since I can go back whenever, I’ll teach them more plays and they’ll keep practicing.”
“That’s wonderful it sounds like you’ve really had an impact on the city, Erin.”
“Yeah! And with this door I’m gonna get a lot of customers when I get back. I have big plans—but you were saying it might be useful in other ways, right?”
“Comrade Pisces. I do not understand the j—”
Pisces shouted at Ksmvr. The Antinium fell silent for a second.
“If I am silent, will you explain the joke?”
He got along well with Pisces, in the sense that he was the only person who annoyed Pisces and not the other way around. Erin waited patiently, grinning as Pisces laboriously explained the joke to Ksmvr who had a weak grasp of humor at best.
“Ah. I see. This is more humor to raise morale. I will remember it. Thank you.”
Pisces somewhat huffily adjusted his position as he lounged on a few pillows.
“You’re welcome. Now, as I was saying, this door is useful. I have no idea if it has an upper range, but I suspect with a modicum of effort on my and Springwalker’s part we could form multiple anchoring points for usage.”
“What? You mean I could go to all kinds of cities?”
Erin was enthralled by the idea. But Pisces raised a cautionary hand.
“A few. Very few, I believe. Connecting to multiple points risks entanglement, and that could result in a tangled web of magic that could have any number of effects. I would hesitate to create more than four focal points. But I suggest that if you link the door to two more cities for very sporadic usage, you might consider giving one anchoring point to our group.”
“Remember how Pisces said the door could be used as an emergency getaway, Erin? Well, if he can make something easy to carry, we could use the door to get away if we’re ever in trouble, in a dungeon, say.”
Erin paused. She looked over at Ceria and her eye caught on the half-Elf’s skeletal hand. Erin couldn’t help it. She knew it was rude to stare, but sometimes she did stare at Ceria. Her hand, and her friend. Erin didn’t have many friends and she’d been overjoyed to see Ceria—and Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr again. When she thought of the dungeon, of Skinner—
“Of course I’ll let you have one. If it works. I mean, would it work for multiple people and if you’re far away or underground?”
Pisces sniffed all-importantly as eyes turned towards him.
“Of course there will be necessary experimentation. And yes, such a fallback would have limitations. But better to have it than not, agreed?”
Everyone nodded. Erin felt happy at the idea—not only could she go to more cities, she might be able to help her friends! But she’d have to be careful with the door, definitely. Maybe she could put it upstairs, so people didn’t use it by accident? Or—could she build a basement in the inn? Surely Klbkch could help her with that, right? She had the money to pay the Antinium now too.
And then it happened. Erin was sitting up in the wagon, about to ask Pisces whether the anchor stones would work if she’d exhausted the door’s power for the day, or whether she’d need to always keep a reserve—when she felt the world explode.
Erin had been in a fire drill, countless fire drills and earthquake drills in school. Even when she knew one was scheduled, she hated the moment of fear and panic that occurred when every single bell started ringing as loudly as possible. But that was only external sound, loud and frightening but only that. Bells in your head were a different matter.
It was as if every alarm clock, siren, fire alarm and noisemaker suddenly went off in Erin’s head at once. She doubled over, clutching her head and crying out in surprise and fear. Dimly, Erin heard Ceria and Termin doing the same.
“Miss Solstice? Erin, is something wrong? Are we in danger?”
Ksmvr was shaking Erin by the shoulder. She tried to explain, tried to speak past the terrible fear in her head.
And then she saw someone standing in the cart’s way. Instantly, Ksmvr let go of Erin and reached for the blades at his side. The Horns of Hammerad leapt off the wagon, the genial atmosphere of moments ago forgotten. There was danger, and here was someone who had not been standing there a moment ago.
“Teleportation? Ceria, how bad—”
“Bad! It’s—we have to retreat.”
“I will attack first. Please, withdraw if I am slain.”
“What’s happening? My [Dangersense]—wait, is it coming from him?”
A confused babble of voices broke through the ringing in Erin’s head. She managed to make the sound lessen, and stood up on the cart as the horses neighed, sensing the alarm around them.
A man was standing in the middle of the snowy road. He shouldn’t have been there. The roads were practically deserted in the wake of the Goblin armies roaming about, and what travelers there were didn’t dare move alone unless they were Runners.
And this man—was no runner. Erin’s eyes widened when she saw him. He stood over six feet tall, a giant. He was powerfully built, imposing, with the body that every man probably dreamed of having. He looked like a superhuman athlete, and yet he was old. He had a white beard, white robes that were brilliant, made of some incredibly rich fabric that seemed brighter and cleaner than the snow itself—
And two eyes of mismatched color. Cerulean and heliotrope. Blue and violet, shimmering colors like celestial bodies shining forth from his pupils. Erin hesitated because she thought they looked so familiar…
But he had not been on the road a moment ago. He had appeared and that was terrifying in itself. One second the road was empty, and in the moment between looking elsewhere and turning back, he was there, as if he’d been there all along or he’d been in the peripherals of your vision and you hadn’t noticed until now.
And on the [Dangersense] in Erin’s head blared. It was telling her of danger, immediate and pressing. She stared at the man as he stood silently in front of the wagon. Danger. Danger. Danger. It was a cacophony of ringing alarms.
The message was clear: do not fight this man. Run away. Do not fight.
You will die.
And yet the Horns of Hammerad formed a semicircle around the cart, weapons raised. Yvlon had no armor, Pisces and Ceria had only the magic that shimmered around their palms. Ksmvr held weapons in the three arms she possessed. They were shouting.
“Get through the door, Erin! You too, wagon driver!”
“You there. Identify yourself.”
“Don’t attack! Not yet! Pisces—”
“Through the door, Erin! Now!”
Erin wanted to move, but she wanted to stay as well. It was just an old man. True, one that looked like—well, looked like no actual Human being she’d ever seen but—was he dangerous? How could he be?
The old man was just staring at her. Her, out of all the others. He was looking up at the blue sky, around at the snowy landscape, the empty road, at the wagon, and then at Erin. As if he was taking in the sights. But he seemed to be annoyed by all the shouting. He raised one hand.
And there was. Because everyone was waiting to see what he was going to do next. Erin saw Termin trying to soothe his horses. She looked at the door, and knew she could seize the handle and be in Octavia’s shop in a moment. But what about her friends? And couldn’t he follow them?
Ksmvr spoke in the silence, ignoring the annoyed look the man gave him. He lowered the short sword and daggers in his hands as he nodded to the old man.
“We are Silver-ranked adventurers. The Horns of Hammerad. May I ask why you have blocked our path?”
“I wish to speak with her.”
Erin felt a jolt as his finger pointed straight at her. The reaction of her friends was immediate. They closed ranks in front of the wagon.
“May I ask why?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?”
Ksmvr seemed to freeze up as the multi-colored stare swung towards him. And then Erin saw another aspect of the old man. He stared down at Ksmvr as if he was, well, a bug. He looked at Ceria, Yvlon, Pisces, all clearly adventurers, with the same casual disdain for their existence. Only Erin he looked at with…
“Move aside, adventurers. Or I will move you.”
That was a threat. Erin felt herself shiver. Ceria’s voice was very serious as she held a hand up.
“We don’t want…to fight. But unless you tell us why you want to speak with Erin—and we’re sure you don’t intend her harm—we can’t let you do anything, Human.”
“I intend to explain nothing to you, half-Elf.”
There was no compromise in his voice. Erin saw Ceria tense.
“You don’t have a choice here. Tell us why you want Erin.”
The question caught everyone off guard. The old man looked at Ceria. She hesitated.
“What—do you mean?”
“Otherwise, what? If I refuse, what will you do? Will you prevent me from speaking with this girl?”
“If necessary. If you refuse to cooperate, we will have no choice but to fight.”
Yvlon called that out. She was holding the sword in her hands without a sign that the metal in her arms was bothering her. And her gaze was intent on the old man’s face. She sensed it too, Erin realized. Whoever this old man was, he wasn’t—normal.
For a moment the old man sighed. He looked impatient, annoyed—but not the least bit intimidated. He cast his gaze towards the sky, thought for a moment, and then…nodded.
“That would be the quickest way. Very well.”
What happened next was too fast for Erin to follow. In the moments afterwards as she ducked and Termin yelled in fright beside her, Erin realized what had happened.
The instant the old man had said that, Ceria had acted first. She’d raised her skeletal hand and fired a spike of ice straight at his midriff. It was a killing attack, but it hadn’t touched him.
Instead, the spear of ice had shattered midflight, filling the air with shards of ice that bounced off the wagon. Erin dared to peek her head up and saw the Horns of Hammerad staring at the old man.
He hadn’t moved from that spot. He’d only raised his hand. Erin saw three fingers pointed at the spot where the [Ice Spike] had been shattered by something.
“[Stone Dart]. A low level spell, but all I am capable of here. However, it seems only ah, Tier 2 spells will be necessary here at any rate.”
That was all he said. Erin felt the Horns of Hammerad pause—and then Ceria raised her hand and attacked and the battle began.
Erin had never seen Ceria fire so many ice darts so quickly. They flew at the old man like a rain of missiles—and he blocked them. His hand moved up, caught and shattered a piece of ice flying towards his face, one towards his chest—
So quick! How was he doing it? Erin saw the old man step backwards casually among the hail of missiles. Then he raised his other hand and spoke.
A splash of dark brown liquid spattered across the distance between him and Ceria. Erin saw her friend cry out, but it was just mud. In her eyes. But it made the rain of darts stop and then Erin saw what the old man had been blocking them with.
A rock. Just a flat stone. The old man tossed it on the ground.
“[Call Object]. Next?”
He had only a moment to say that. From his left and right Ksmvr and Yvlon came charging at him, blades swinging. The old man nodded, swept his hands out. A flurry of snow blew at both warriors.
They ran through it, half-blinded, but still ready to strike. But then something happened. Erin saw Yvlon and Ksmvr both go down, crashing to the ground but she didn’t see how. And then Pisces—
He was raising the dead. Termin cried out and his horses tried to drag the wagon around as eight skeletons burst out of the ground. Pisces grinned as they tore themselves out of the earth—
“[Stone Dart]. Bludgeoning type.”
The old man pointed and eight stones appeared and struck each skeleton. Not in the head or ribs, but at their spines as they attempted to form themselves. The stones shattered bone and broke the delicate assembly process. Each skeleton collapsed onto the ground, the animation spell failing in an instant.
Another bit of stone struck Ceria in the head as she wiped the last of the mud from her eyes. She crumbled, and the old man sighed.
“Do modern mages not know any protective spells? Or are you truly untrained amateurs?”
He turned to point at Yvlon who was getting to her feet—
And leaned backwards as a burning sword nearly ran him through. Pisces drew back the rapier in his hands as magical flames danced along its length. Erin gasped—she hadn’t seen him move, but he’d covered the distance between him and the old man in an instant!
“[Flash Step]. And a variation of [Flame Rapier]. Well, interesting.”
The old man commented as he stepped backwards. Pisces thrust, but the old man raised his hands and ten [Stone Darts] flew from every finger. Erin heard a curse and Pisces seemed to appear several steps away. His robe and the arm beneath it were cut, but he was uninjured.
Pisces took a step to run the old man through—
This time Erin saw what had happened. As he moved and his form vanished, a tiny, twisting loop of grass had sprung up in the snow. It snagged his foot as he moved forwards at lightning speed. The grass strands broke, but it sent Pisces crashing and tumbling to the ground.
The old man said it belatedly, as if announcing the spell was an afterthought. The old man walked over to Pisces. The young [Necromancer] snarled and raised his hands—
And the old [Mage] kicked him in the head. Erin shouted, but Pisces just fell back unconscious. Not…dead. He couldn’t be.
The old man turned towards Erin. Then he glanced to one side.
Yvlon and Ksmvr charged towards him, the Antinium throwing one of the daggers in his hands. Again, a precise strike from the [Stone Dart] easily deflected the dagger. But they were closing in. Yvlon raised her sword with a cry, and the man clapped his hands together.
This time Erin went blind. She clapped a hand to her eyes and tried to blink to see. She heard shouting, and then a choking sound. When she could see past the spots in her eyes she looked again and saw Yvlon on the ground. The woman was choking. Choking on—snow?
“[Snowball]. Or is it [Create Snow]? Ah, either one works.”
The old man had hit Yvlon in her open mouth with snow. It was filling her throat and she was trying to throw up, get it out. Ksmvr was the only one left on his feet.
He swung his blade towards the old mage’s head. Flames engulfed him.
The old man’s voice came from the center of the flames. Ksmvr scythed forwards, but the flames hadn’t just burned him. They’d screened the old man and he walked past Ksmvr on the left, raising his hands again. As the Antinium turned, ten shards of ice pierced his chest. Not deep, but they sent him staggering back.
“Throw down your weapon, insect.”
Ksmvr raised his blade and then a blast of water struck him in the face. It made him overbalance and stumble back again. And a stone was right behind his left foot, hovering there. Ksmvr fell backwards. He tried to roll over—
And couldn’t. Erin saw grass growing all around him, looping around his arms, pulling him to the ground and holding him there. Each blade of grass was weak, but together it enmeshed him so thoroughly he couldn’t move.
The old man walked over to Ksmvr. The Antinium spoke to him, lying flat on his back.
“If you let me live I will not cease until you or I lie dead.”
“Yes, your kind is like that.”
The old man pointed down at Ksmvr. He opened his mouth and then tilted his head sideways. The dagger flashed past his head, missing completely.
Erin gaped. The old man flicked his attention to Ksmvr, and then stepped away from the Antinium. He nodded at the dagger which was now buried in the snow.
“Hm. You have a Skill, don’t you? But perfect aim is meaningless if you allow me time to dodge. Without more Skills you would not be able to strike even a cat with such a throw.”
He sounded so nonchalant. He’d taken apart her friends with basic spells in an instant and—
On the wagon, Erin hesitated. Part of her told her to run, to get away and be safe. Her sensible self rationalized it. He wanted her for some reason. If she ran, the old man might let her friends live.
But not Ksmvr. So Erin clenched her fists. She leapt from the wagon with a yell—
And tripped as something snagged her leg going over the side. Erin had only a moment to yelp before she smacked into the ground hard. She groaned—she hadn’t landed in the snow, only on frozen ground. And falling from a wagon headfirst hurt. If she hadn’t managed to catch the fall on her arms she might have broken her skull, but she felt like her arms were broken instead.
Erin had to get up. She pushed herself up groggily and saw the old man looming over her. She yelped, threw a punch with all her strength.
He caught it. It was a [Minotaur Punch] and he caught it. Erin blinked at the incredible strength in the man’s body. True, he looked like he was strong enough for it, but—
He released her, and Erin stumbled back. She stared at him, fists half-raised. She felt like she had long ago, in front of Gazi. As if anything she did would be useless. The old man stared around, and then at Termin. The wagon driver was sitting white-faced in his driver’s seat.
“Will you try to fight as well?”
Termin stared back, paralyzed by fear. The white-bearded stranger nodded, and turned to Erin. She tensed—
And he held up an iPhone.
“You are Erin Solstice, aren’t you? Explain this to me.”
Erin stopped. All processes went on immediate halt. She lowered her hands. Her mind went blank. She stared at the small, metallic object in the old man’s hands. Its screen was glowing, and it looked so familiar to her. But—
She stared at the old man. At the iPhone.
“That’s an iPhone.”
“Yes. It is. And it seems to be malfunctioning, although I copied it completely.”
“That’s Ryoka’s iPhone.”
The world had stopped making sense. Erin stared at the old man while she waited for someone to wake her up from the dream she was having. He nodded to her, impatient.
“A copy. See—this.”
The old man pointed to the small, glowing screen. Erin peered down at the app his finger was pointing at.
“Oh. Safari. That’s an…that’s the internet app.”
The old man frowned at Erin. He tapped the app and a screen popped up, glowing, white, before the typical ‘no internet’ page flashed on screen.
“You see? I am missing something for it to work. What connection do I need to obtain?”
Erin stared blankly at the screen, and then at the frowning face in front of her. She felt like her brain was trying to work a million miles a second while crawling along at a snail’s pace. She answered automatically as best she could.
“Well, you need internet. But uh, you don’t have internet here. No one in this…this world does. So…it’s not gonna work.”
“I see. That is inconvenient. Well then, am I to assume these other functions do not work for the same reason?”
The old man clicked a button and the iPhone went back to the menu screen. Erin peered at the iPhone, nodding her head.
“Youtube? Oh—that’s for watching videos. Yeah, it needs internet too.”
“But there are videos on this device.”
“Oh—those are downloaded. Uh, they’re part of it. Youtube needs…the internet.”
“Ah. And the store? This one?”
“Spotify? Yeah. Same problem.”
“I see. How tedious. Is there any other function I may have missed?”
“I have listened to every song and watched every ‘video’ on this device. I have solved the riddle of this particular function—”
“You mean the app? 2048? The game?”
“Ah, that’s what they’re called? App. Hm. And yes, it was a quite entertaining game, or rather, logic puzzle. But is there anything else I can do with this device?”
“Well, you could—hold on.”
Erin raised her hand and stared at it. Then she slapped herself as hard as she could. Her head rang a bit.
“That looked painful.”
“It was. Sorry. Well…you can take notes with the iPhone. See here?”
“Ah yes. And record what is spoken. A useful function, no doubt.”
“And—oh, Ryoka had Triple Town. See—”
Erin found the iPhone nearly snatched out of her hands. The old man stared down at the screen, eyes bulging.
“How did you do that? I couldn’t fathom how I did it once. But you’ve changed the screen!”
“Hm? You didn’t know? You can change the screen since there are more apps. See? You swipe left. Like this…”
“Swipe left. Fascinating.”
Erin stared at the old man as he clumsily moved his fingers across the screen. She felt compelled to reach for the one straw of rationality she had in this moment.
“I’m surprised…Ryoka didn’t tell you how the iPhone worked. Because this is totally something she gave you, right?”
“Hm? Candy Crush? Intriguing. Oh yes, I received this from her.”
The young woman nodded a few times. The old man was mumbling to himself, mostly along the lines of ‘fascinating’, or ‘yes, this certainly deserves closer study’. Erin stared at him.
“What’s your name?”
“Teriarch. Mm. I can see there is much I have yet to explore. Tell me, I encountered a terrible problem when I went here. To settings, see? And I pressed—”
“Ooh, yeah. Reset. Don’t do that. It gets rid of everything.”
“So I had noticed. But why does it exist?”
“Um. So you can put other things on the device? If you had the internet I mean.”
Erin stared at Teriarch. She stared into his multicolored eyes and wondered if today was a good day or not.
“Uh, well, you can’t here. It’s impossible.”
“Ah. Well then, I shall make do with these new…apps. Thank you for your help, Erin Solstice.”
“Oh. No problem…have we met before?”
Teriarch paused. He raised his head from the screen he’d been staring at obsessively and looked at Erin. For the first time he looked into her face, rather than just at her as an object to be interacted with. And he frowned.
“You do look…familiar. How odd. I should know anyone I have encountered. But I…hrm. I think we have met.”
Erin nodded slowly. He seemed familiar. But from where?
“Well…you’re a friend of Ryoka? Or she knows you?”
“She has performed tasks for me before, yes.”
“Oh. I see. You’re her…mysterious client?”
Teriarch frowned, and Erin realized she might have violated Ryoka’s contract of silence or whatever. But Ryoka had never told her who Teriarch was, just that she’d met with someone who was powerful and could cast magic. Teriarch studied Erin slowly and nodded.
“Yes. I am a…mage. Of quite significant ability.”
“I can tell. Um. Are my friends going to be alright?”
Teriarch looked dismissively at the Horns of Hammerad. Erin saw Yvlon was on her knees, still coughing. She thought Pisces had one eye open, but both were closed when she looked again. Ceria was still out and Ksmvr was watching them silently.
What should she do now? Teriarch was clearly absorbed in the iPhone. He kept asking Erin what various apps Ryoka had downloaded did. Ryoka had quite a few games on her iPhone. More than one Erin was tickled to know Ryoka played, or had played in the past.
It was surreal. Teriarch was just…interested. He kept harrumphing importantly, but he was keenly fascinated with the iPhone. He had just beaten up her friends, but he’d left them alive. He didn’t seem evil. More like…odd? And Erin kept staring at him, feeling that tickling in her memory.
But something prompted Erin to break off from her explanation of how to play Angry Birds and frown. The warning bells in her head hadn’t died away. Rather, it was as if they had faded during the fight to let her think and act without being overwhelmed, but now that it was over they were still blaring loudly, telling her—
“Are you um, going to kill us?”
Teriarch paused and stared at Erin with a mixture of indignation and confusion.
“Me? Why would I kill you?”
“Well, you attacked us.”
That came from behind Teriarch and Erin. She turned and saw Ceria was standing upright, supported by Pisces on one side and Yvlon on the other. Ksmvr was still tied to the ground, calling out for aid now that the danger had passed.
“Help. I am stuck to the ground.”
“Ah. See, Erin Solstice? Your friends are alive and mostly unharmed.”
Teriarch gestured as Ksmvr sat up. Ceria blinked a few times at him, eyes partially unfocused. Erin hoped she didn’t have a concussion—Ceria just looked woozy.
“You attacked us. Why?”
“You were in my way.”
The sky was blue. The grass was green. It was a matter-of-fact statement that made Yvlon grit her teeth angrily. Erin just stared at Teriarch, feeling that same disconnect. He went on, arrogant, trying to score three stars in a level of Angry Birds.
“Explaining would have been a waste of my time. And this was entertaining, however easy it was.”
The Horns of Hammerad stared at Teriarch. He frowned as one of the pigs escaped destruction.
“How did you do it?”
Pisces was next to speak. He stared at Teriarch wide-eyed, with more respect than Erin had ever seen in him in his life.
“You—all you were using were Tier 2 spells at best. But the style of your spellcasting—”
“Elementary. Any competent mage should be able to do as much, if not so quickly or with the same mana supply. You should be ashamed of yourselves not to have any counters against such low level spells.”
Teriarch shrugged. He nodded at Ceria.
“You should go to Wistram, half-Elf. With a decade of studying you may become a powerful mage yet.”
“We did go to Wistram.”
Teriarch’s eyebrows rose in disbelief. He stared at Pisces but seemed to ascertain that the mage was not lying. Teriarch snorted angrily.
“Standards have fallen greatly, then. Your spellcasting was beyond inferior. That was a decent attack with a sword I suppose, but unless you are a [Spellsword] or some other mage-warrior hybrid, I suggest you focus on magic.”
Erin raised her hand. She just felt like it was the thing to do. All eyes focused on her. Erin tapped her head.
“My [Dangersense] is still going off. Are you really not going to kill us, Teriarch?”
“Me? No. But…hrm.”
Teriarch stared off into the distance. His lips moved soundlessly, then he nodded.
“Ah. That explains much of your hostility. Your senses were alerted by a nearby Goblin Army. It is passing this way.”
The Horns of Hammerad went pale. Erin felt a jolt of fear in her chest, but she looked at the wagon. It was Termin of all people who wailed and clutched at his hair.
“Goblins! What will I do? Fox and Erma will be eaten for sure!”
Fox and Erma? Erin remembered those were Termin’s horses. She stared at the animals, feeling a jolt in her chest. Could they push the animals through the door? But if they did—what if the Goblins opened the door? Could they seal it off, then? But how would they get back?
Teriarch raised one eyebrow as Yvlon tried to convince Termin they had to leave his mounts behind. Pisces already had the door up and was yelling at Ksmvr to help him find a spot to hide it from the Goblins. Erin saw Teriarch tap Ceria on the head when no one was watching. Ceria frowned, blinked, and seemed to regain focus.
“Um, Mister Teriarch.”
He glanced at her, still holding the iPhone in one hand.
“Can you help us? I dunno, somehow evade the Goblins?”
“You should be able to do it yourselves without my help. Unless—are you really planning to flee?”
“What would you do?”
Ceria stared at Teriarch. He looked incredulous.
“This is winter. The Goblin army is marching this way, but they are hardly filled with adept trackers and they do not know you are here. Conjure a snowstorm and evade them.”
The half-Elf shook her head instantly.
“We can’t do that. Pisces and I—neither of us know [Snowstorm] as a spell, and we’re not nearly high-level enough to cast it, let alone to affect such a large—”
“What are you talking about?”
Teriarch looked impatient. He began to lecture Ceria, much to Erin’s incredulity.
“[Snowstorm]? Why do you need to create snow? If you were standing in a jungle I could see the need, but you have an ample supply of snow right here. Use that. Even a Tier…1 spell should do.”
Ceria’s ears drooped slightly, as Teriarch’s glare pierced her in place.
“Are you really Wistram mages? Here. Like this. You—[Necromancer]! Come over here and help your friend!”
Pisces ran over as Teriarch walked over to a large expanse of snow and began ordering Ceria about. Erin stared at him as Yvlon and Ksmvr and Termin all stopped what they were doing to watch.
There wasn’t too much happening. Teriarch was just pointing to the ground at something the two mages could see and berating them. They kept flinching as he grew more and more impatient with them.
“There. Anchor the spell there and cast multiple incarnations of it—no, not like that! Why are you using your mana so poorly? A proper spell is efficient! And you—half-Elf! You’re wasting the energy of your spell with uncontrolled winds. The two of you cast in tandem like—well, that is barely acceptable.”
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew up, carrying a huge amount of snow with it. Teriarch nodded as Erin and the others gasped. The wind began to blow, and as he lent his power to the wind spells, it began to blow down the road. Erin turned to Termin, and pointed to the wagon.
“Um. Let’s get out of the way?”
He stared at her, face pale as the snow whipping into the air. Then he scrambled towards the driver’s seat with the others.
The Goblin army was a massive force, thousands strong. Black-armored warriors marched with the undead, grim, sullen because they hadn’t been able to find any easy prey to kill and eat. Marching in the winter was bad enough with armor, but the stench of the undead made the Goblin warriors upset.
And what was worse, they’d run into a snowstorm. The Goblins grumbled and their scouts withdrew to form a tight perimeter around their army. If they ran into anything in the storm they’d kill it. But they could still follow the road so they pressed onwards until they reached the other side. It was a brief snowstorm, the Goblins reflected. But they took no more notice of it; they had Humans to kill, and other Goblins too for that matter.
Far away, the wagon Termin was driving rumbled to a stop as Erma and Fox panted in the snow. Erin hopped off the wagon and slowly walked up to the small ridge to see the last of the Goblin army disappearing in the distance.
That was all she said. She turned back and saw Teriarch, sitting austerely on top of the wagon with an iPhone in hand, looking more out of place than anything she’d ever seen as Ceria and Pisces tried to ask him ten thousand questions at once.
“How did you learn to use magic like that? I’ve never seen spellcasting so—refined! And the way you do it…”
“It is one method of practicing magic. I consider it to be the most efficient. It is certainly superior to your…attempts. How have you not been taught the various schools of magic if you studied at Wistram?”
“We were expelled. We studied for years but…we never fully graduated.”
“We came close. I daresay we were as good as most mages, but Spingwalker is right. Yet we were allowed to claim the name. We are recognized Wistram mages still.”
That was Ceria and Pisces’ guilty confession, but it was hardly as surprising to Erin as the revelation that Teriarch was some kind of super-mage. Or an Archmage. Apparently magic, which Erin understood to be like math in some respects, was all about understanding spells. And Teriarch had shown Pisces and Ceria some shortcuts in magic, or things which he considered basic and they considered miraculous.
“Hmf. Even then. Any first-year student would have had such things drilled into them. At least, if Wistram is acting as a proper institution for education. What happened to Archmage Zelkyr? He would never have let mages sink so low.”
“Archmage…he’s dead. He died over a century ago. Two centuries, I think.”
Both Pisces and Ceria had that huge-eyed, slaw jawed expression of disbelief Erin was used to getting from time to time. She supposed she should be behaving the same way. Did that mean Teriarch was really old?
“Well, refine yourselves with what I have shown you. Your Skills and…classes should do the rest. You, half-Elf, study the spell I marked in that spellbook. It should compliment your ice magic skills. And you, [Necromancer]…”
He somehow knew what magic both Ceria and Pisces used at a glance. Teriarch sighed.
“We hardly need more necromancers. But I suppose your control of magic is quite good for one so young. Keep practicing.”
He stepped off the wagon. Ksmvr and Yvlon stared at him. Teriarch nodded to Erin. She hesitated.
“Oh. You’re gonna go? Um. Thanks?”
Was that the appropriate response? Teriarch nodded regally to her.
“And thanks to you as well for showing me how this device works. Farewell, Erin Solstice. We shall not meet again.”
That sounded sort of weird. And ominous. Teriarch began to stride through the snow, but Pisces leapt off the wagon and chased after him.
“Master Teriarch! Sir!”
Pisces flung himself at the snow at Teriarch’s feet. The old man looked more annoyed than anything else.
“What is it?”
“Please take me on as your apprentice! To learn from someone who lived during the time of Archmage Zelkyr—I would do anything for such an honor!”
Teriarch stared down at Pisces as the young man looked up hopefully at him. Erin’s jaw was open. Ceria looked like she was considering doing the same thing. Teriarch stared down at Pisces.
Then he turned and walked away. Pisces ran after him, but it was as if Teriarch was suddenly walking at a different speed than Pisces. He strolled along, but then his form grew further and further away, until he was a speck in the distance. Then he was gone, and Pisces and the others were left alone in the snow.
In the silence that followed Erin wondered whether this was all a dream. She pinched herself.
She turned to Ceria, who was pale-faced, clutching the burned spellbook in her hands. At Ksmvr, who was scratching at one of his antennae. At Yvlon, who was staring at where Teriarch had been, and at Pisces, standing forlornly in the snow.
In the end it was Termin who spoke. The older man sucked in his lips, and then shouted as loudly as he could.
“Who the hell was that?”
In his cave, Teriarch released the spell controlling his Human form at range and settled back into his cave. He created another image of the old man with the white beard and had it pick up the iPhone. The dragon hummed to himself as he flicked through the screens, staring at all the lovely new apps. He muttered to himself as he did.
“Is this what adventurers have sunk to? Ah, well. Perhaps they lied about being Silver-rank adventurers. And it was quite enjoyable to be out, although the outside was so busy…and the light was far too bright. Hmf.”
He paused as a thought came to him. Erin Solstice. He’d only gone to her because Ryoka had been at Reinhart’s estate and hard to reach without dealing with her at length. But she had recognized him and he, her. Where?
The Dragon’s eyes widened.
For a brief second he considered sending himself out into the world again, to ask the girl how she’d found him. But then Teriarch hesitated, and stared at the iPhone.
The outside was…the outside. He preferred his cave. And he had so much to entertain himself with now. Teriarch put Erin out of his thoughts and went back to tapping buttons on the iPhone.
“Now what’s this? Cookie Clicker?”
The Dragon stared at the screen as it changed colors. He frowned, pondered, and then began to tap.