A problem came about an hour into the journey. An intersection had come about, with five paths heading out. The problem is, I clearly remembered the road having no intersection at this part. My captors seemed confused for a different reason, looking not at random places.
It’s magic. I thought. That’s usually how it is in the end.
“It’s gone.” Zai finally said something. “Or not. It got moved. There are traces, but it’s not human or animal.”
“So, a monster.” Quentin said, “I didn’t know monsters can do that.”
“They don’t, at least in the books I’ve read.” Wesson said, “Can we look for another one?”
“Blind? We’ll be dead before the day’s over.” Dorn shook his head.
“Guys, what’re you talking about?” I tried to chime in.
“I can sense it a bit, but only if we’re close,” Wesson said.
“How close?” Zai asked.
“This close.” Wesson spread out his arms. “From fingertip to fingertip.”
“That’s not useful,” Quentin said, sighing. “For all we know, it could be underground and we’ll pass right through it.”
“It never shows up underground-” Zai’s words became muffled as I lost all interest in the conversation. With boredom being my only enemy, I looked around for something or anything to mess around with. But aside from the dirt under my feet and the air in my lungs, nothing seemed benign enough to play around with. Another snake-snail could be hiding downwind, or an ankle-biter, or ghosts. Like the ones hanging clinging to me and the others, with faces of women giggling in the middle of their mass.
Tendrils stroked and probed and crept, the feeling akin to mist clinging to the skin. It did not fail to make me sweat in fear, and for good reason. You can kill monsters and humans, but how do you kill something already dead?.
“You think too much.” One of them currently stuck to me whispered. “You don’t even know what you’re running away from anymore. Let us help you get a purpose.”
“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” The others agreed.
“Aren’t you tired of aimless wandering? Don’t you yearn for meaning in your dull life? Are you content with being forgotten so readily?” The seeming leader of the spirits said, “I have so much to offer you, so much.”
“Lots.” “Plenty” “Overflowing.”
“Ah, but I see you’re reluctant to speak, for fear of what we seem to be.” The leader continued. "Maybe a gesture of good faith will put us in your good graces.”
“Helpful.” ”Helping.” “Helper.”
Before I could protest or refuse such a suspect offer, I felt my eyes grow cold with a chill like a winter's air but not as dry. My vision blurred, making me stumble. As I was about to curse my luck, I found my sights sharpening to an alarming degree. I could pick out highlighting details I didn’t even know existed before.
One of them was "trails" that clung to everything. It was on me, on my captors, and even on the dreadful specters hanging about. Each trail was different from one another, and yet I have no words to describe a single one in a way that makes sense. I reached out to one and it seemed to respond, shivering as I touched it. We connect and I saw it for what it was; an imprint of magic I was familiar with but knew not a single thing about. Then it hit me.
There was a doorway here. The shortcuts to end all shortcuts. The backways Alan-Nala---a legendary trickster---uses to escape after his pranks on the gods. Whole empires rose or fell by them. To control them all was akin to laying claim upon the world itself. And so on the tales goes anyway. It gets very grandiose once you’ve heard people retell them again and again. But doorways are much simpler and easier to understand, with no fuss.
Its workings are as such:
1. Sense something coming.
2. Open a door to the Other dimension.
And I suppose I could add “3. Close door.”, but that never seems to be the case constantly. Sometimes you could walk right back out, or it could take days or weeks until you can get out, or it’s never closed at all. Whatever common sense used is neither common nor makes sense. It’s convenient and inconvenient with how sometimes monsters can come out of it. I mean, without monsters, you can’t get all the fantastic stuff that makes civilized life possible. So it balances things out after a while.
“Mr. Knight, please come over here for a bit.” Dorn waved me over from the edge of my sight. “It concerns the matter of your delivery.”
“Well, this is the first time the delivery is asked for its opinion,” I said, taking a few steps closer to the foursome. “I say we take the most left path and then take the first right and so on.”
“That’d be my guess as well, Mr. Knight,” Quentin said, somewhat pleased at having a like-minded fellow. “But this isn’t about the paths.”
“Well, how else are we going to get to my beloved hometown? By flying there?” I flapped my arms mockingly.
“All chickens are for war-time use right now," Dorn said mournfully. "Those damned warlords. They never learn."
“Quit the act of a fool, Knight. It doesn’t suit you.” Zai said with his arms crossed. “The doorway we used to get here is missing.”
“That happens.” I shrugged, trying not to laugh as the translucent tendril tried to tickle my nose. “I-It could be one of those days when doorways close. No one knows how they work.”
“True that.” Wesson stroked his beard. “But we had a feeling you might know where it went.”
“It’s not like there was any other path to that remote village,” Quentin said.
There is, but I haven’t found a doorway that bypasses this whole godforsaken region, so I had to go here by foot. I grumbled as I recalled the endless days of walking. I wondered aloud if my captors noticed the ghosts yet. Then I saw Zai glare at the ghost wrapped around his head. After that small revelation, I realized that the trolls were stiffer than usual.
Ah, so they can see them. A small smile came and went on my face. It’s rather annoying not being able to talk about the annoying shits directly, but rules are rules.
“I suppose. I did go through this way.” I lied seamlessly. “Follow me.”
And as though it was the most natural thing in the world, they did. With me in the lead and them at my back, I felt like the tip of a battering ram. Or a sacrificial virgin for some sea monster. It warmed my heart and steeled my nerves at the same time.
The trail proved to be slicker than a wet eel. Sometimes branching off or going underground. It goes into trees or going straight up through the canopy above, to everyone’s exasperation. The fool’s search ended half an hour later. About time too, as I was starting to feel the first signs of dying from thirst.
When I told Zai about this, he rolled his eyes and looked at Quentin. He in turn rolled his eyes and looked at Dorn. Exasperated, he rolled his eyes and looked at Wesson. Finally, Wesson relented to giving me mouthfuls from his waterskin. The water was warm.
“Ah, I live!” I shouted, licking my lips. “I can wander around and get lost some more.”
“Lost? You mean you got us lost?!” Quentin asked, alarmed.
“I’m joking.” I lied again, making sure the trolls and Zai couldn’t see the look on my face. “The gateway is inside that cave.”
The place I pointed to seemed another facade of moss on some random piece of upturned earth. But a closer touch revealed it to be some kind of veil of greenery, hiding the way to a mouth of rock. Parting enough of it made for enough light to shine upon some aged remains scatted here and there. Bones of all types were present, including human ones. The skeletons were bare, with no visible gear rotting away nearby.
“This looks suspicious.” Quentin stroked his beard
“That’s a lot of bones.” Wesson nodded to himself.
“This is a trap.” Zai frowned.
Of course, it’s a trap, what do you expect from a ghost’s gift? I sighed, regretting the sight of the ominous trail leading onto the darkness ahead.
“Any of you know light magic?” Zai asked.
“Uh, no,” Wesson said.
“Not me. My magic’s in cooking.” Dorn said, beaming with complete uselessness.
“Let’s see. Nope, got nothing.” Quentin threw up his hands.
“Can’t we just use a torch?” I said, pointing at the soggy torch residing in a ribcage.
“In an unexplored cave? You’ll suffocate to death.” Quentin replied.
“Or blow something up.” Wesson continued.
“Or have it go out while inside and get completely lost,” Dorn concluded.
“Alright, those are pretty good reasons it seems to not get into this cave,” I said whilst looking at Zai. “Why can’t we, I don’t know, walk our way home like normal people?”
“Too risky.” Zai shook his head. “I wouldn’t suppose you know or care, but there’s not a lot of places where we can move freely. Our enemies are legion.”
Because you guys kept poking your noses in people’s business! I shouted inwardly at the obvious cause of the Order’s many plights. You want too many things! First, it was a monopoly over contracts, then the clients, and so on. They want the entire pantry when everyone still needs to eat. It’s madness.
“We can help you with your paltry obstacle.” The ghosts’ leader spoke up. “The payment is simply a spoonful of hope, fresh-borne, and unmarred by reality.”
“Hope.” “Hope?” “Hope!” I sensed a slight conflict in the voices as it spoke, but they were still united in that off way of speaking.
How the fuck are we supposed to get that from this band of thieves?! I threw my hands up mentally at the ghosts’ idiotic demands. Why can’t it be something normal for once, like money or goods? No, it has to be some abstract bullshit like hope or despair or misery. Does everyone become a philosopher when they die?!!
“No worries, dear child. We will collect when the time comes.” The ghost leader said in a way that made me cry in tears at how generous she was.
“We.” “Collect.” “Time.” The others made a complete sentence for once.
True to their words, I felt something small intrude through my scalp. It entered my thoughts with no manners, settling into memory like a parasite. Grabbing onto this newfound knowledge, I let my body do the rest, culminating in a small orb of light the size of my fist. My light show didn’t go unnoticed, as the trolls’ eyes went wide and Zai’s glare grew fiercer.
Oh yeah, I can do magic now. Better be careful. I smirked at Zai as I stepped into the cave.