"And that is how I seduced the doge's wife right out from under him. Of course, he caught us in bed together right after that, necessitating that I perform some self-defenestration. Thank the Templin the canal ran right under that window, otherwise I would have cracked my skull open leaping from three stories up."
"Sir Rorik, do you believe this is an appropriate story to be telling me?"
"Is there a reason it shouldn't be?"
In truth, Rorik told Nokorin the tale only to pass the time. The twisting trail up to the Thorn's summit wound higher and more circuitous than he first believed. After his battle with the Montoon, the sorcerer prepared himself for the dragon's next test to appear soon after. But though they climbed further up the slope, the second trial had yet to manifest. He examined the sky. Judging by the harsh light of the sun, the time was late in the afternoon.
They would not reach the summit before dark, tests or no.
He looked to his young androgynous companion. Nokorin refused to be carried any further, despite their bare feet. Rorik appreciated the gesture, not wanting the burden with his broken right arm, but still worried about the youth's condition. They assured him they would be fine.
As the pair walked, Rorik's thoughts wandered away from the secrets he sought and any tests ahead. Instead, he pondered the reason why he’d stumbled upon his traveling partner on this high mountain pass.
The silver-haired youth turned to him.
"If you don't mind, would you tell me more about your father?"
They raised an eyebrow and contemplated the question. Rorik recognized the expression by now. Information being processed through mental machinery like grain through a mill.
"There is not much to tell in truth," said Nokorin, "He is a man much like yourself. A spellcaster come seeking the dragon's secrets. Though of less lustrous a reputation than you, sir Rorik."
"Fair enough, but why? What compels your father to seek Rainheart?"
"What compels you?"
Though his scarf hid his mouth, Rorik's smirk showed in his eyes.
During their conversation, the road beneath their feet leveled out. Ahead the path turned, hiding what lay up the way, but Rorik had an inkling. He held Nokorin back with his uninjured left arm.
"Careful. I believe we've come to Rainheart's second test."
The youth nodded and with caution, the two went around the corner.
No monster waited for them this time, only a broad flat circle with high walls at its back. A fissure opened up in the mountain there, barred by an enormous set of iron doors. Rorik spotted no immediate sign of danger.
"I'm certain this is our next challenge, Nokorin. But what kind of challenge I am unsure."
The sorcerer's attention turned to the closed passageway.
"Come my young friend. What we seek must be beyond this barrier. I think if you stand on my shoulders, you could just peek over the top."
He knelt and his companion followed his suggestion. The sorcerer thanked the Templin the Montoon hadn't dislocated his shoulder too.
"Do you see anything?"
"Yes, you were correct," said Nokorin. "The path continues up past this door. It trails up through the fissure, though it's quite narrow."
"Not a problem. Let's deal with this door now."
The youth clambered down and the two scrutinized the twin iron gates more closely. There were no handles or knobs, no visible means of opening them. Rorik pushed against the doors, but to neither's surprise they didn't budge. He took another tactic. Keeping his hand flat against the metal, he closed his eyes and reached out through the ether. The faint tingle and buzz of enchantment, ancient and strong, tickled his arcane aura. Just as he suspected.
"Well, these are definitely enchanted. Which means some kind of spell is required to make them open. A rather simple test, really."
"Sir Rorik, look!"
Nokorin pointed up at the sealed doorway. Sparks flew across their face as a message wrote itself out in arcing lines of fire, like trails of gunpowder being lit. It read:
ONCE FILLED, I CANNOT BE EMPTIED
ONCE I SEE, I CANNOT BE BLINDED
IF YOU HAVE ME, YOU WON'T KNOW UNTIL YOU LOSE ME
WHAT AM I?
"Ah, I understand now," Rorik said. "It is a test of knowledge then. To open these gates, we must answer the dragon's riddle."
"Could it be so straightforward?"
"A riddle within a riddle? I doubt even Rainheart is that labyrinthine in his challenges, Nokorin. Now then..."
He contemplated the puzzle etched into the iron. It seemed simple enough. Being the educated man he was, Rorik felt certain they would pass through this test with no trouble. He stroked his chin through his scarf as he pondered the words.
"Cannot be emptied... Won't know until you lose me... Hmm..."
Taking one glance at the sorcerer, Nokorin sat at the circle's edge with their knees drawn up, the same as they had during Rorik's battle with the Montoon. The youth yawned and waited for their appointed chaperone to solve the doors' riddle. They still refused to look impressed.
Rorik thought out loud. "Drunkenness, maybe? Something to do with bottles? Strawberry jam? No, Stormcoast, no. You're focusing too much on the first line. Take the whole thing in."
He peered at the doors in more detail, as though getting closer would yield answers. All it provided him was a brilliant view of the iron's rust pattern. The magic student in him admired the way the riddle burned itself into the metal. In principle, the spell was rather simple, but he had never seen it executed in such a way before, or without the spellcaster present. And to make the message appear and disappear with each new potential acolyte only added to its complexity. And...
Rorik shook his head to restore his focus. He was letting his mind stray away from Rainheart's riddle. Stepping back, he studied the enchanted inscription again to filter its verses through his thoughts. Glancing over at his companion, he waggled his eyebrows, assuring Nokorin he still had the situation in hand. But unlike the youth's silent and speedy mental machinery, Rorik's was grinding to a halt. Puzzles were never one of his strengths.
Again, he had to admit some admiration for Nokorin's father. The man may have confounded him as much the dragon's puzzle, but he was not the dilettante Rorik initially took him for. Though he still had to admonish his unseen rival for abandoning his child as he did. He resolved to probe Nokorin more deeply on the matter.
He sighed, his concentration again abandoned. Sitting down cross-legged at the circle's center, he rested his chin on his hand and read the riddle once more.
"Cannot be emptied, cannot be blinded. What do those two things have to do with each other? And how does losing it enter the equation? Hmmm..."
"Would you like some assistance, sir Rorik?" Nokorin asked from the sidelines.
"No my young friend. I shall divine the answer. It is simply... trickier than I first thought."
"Well, it is a riddle."
The sorcerer glared at the youth. "Indeed, Nokorin. Indeed."
Overhead, the sun drew ever closer to the horizon as he pondered. No matter how Rorik wracked his brain, no solution came to him. He paced the wide circle, attempted to meditate on his conundrum, and even scratched notes into the rock with a bit of slate. At his most desperate, he considered just blowing the doors away with a spell, but knew they were certainly guarded against such a brute force approach.
Finally, Rorik surrendered and flopped onto his back. The mechanisms of his mind had sputtered to a stop from the strain. But as he resolved to make camp in front of the huge passageway, one last flash of inspiration came to him.
"Ah!" He sprang up, enthused anew. "I have it! The answer is so obvious, I can't believe it didn't occur to me sooner."
The sudden outburst drew Nokorin's attention. All throughout Rorik's brooding, his companion said not a word, merely sat there indifferently. But now, as Rorik strode up to the shuttered passage full of vim and vigor, they watched him, intrigued by what might happen.
Clearing his throat, the sorcerer placed his uninjured left hand on his hip, and addressed the heavy, immobile gates.
"The answer... is debt. Once paid off, or filled, the debt disappears. Once you have debt, it is all you can focus on. You cannot be blinded to it. And if you are in debt, you won't know freedom until it's paid off. See?"
He turned to Nokorin. Instead of confirmation, the youth gave him an ambivalent shrug. He continued regardless.
"So, the answer is debt!"
The iron doors remained in place.
With his mental exhaustion, Rorik needed a moment to process this result. When he did, all his frustration flooded out. He screamed in rage and pounded on the old rusted barrier.
"Open! Open, damn you!"
"Sir Rorik!" Nokorin pulled him back with surprisingly strong arms. "Get a hold of yourself man! What would Rainheart think if he saw you acting this way?"
Rorik took a breath and calmed down. "Forgive me, my young friend. These doors vex me," he said shaking an impotent fist at his inanimate foe.
"Perhaps the riddle has no answer. Wouldn't that fit a dragon's test? Banking on you realizing there is no answer?"
"No, there must be an answer. Otherwise, your father would still be here, wouldn't he? If he passed through, then this riddle must have an answer."
Nokorin said nothing at the mention of their father, only releasing Rorik and returning to the circle's edge. The sorcerer noted his companion's odd behavior, but was too preoccupied by the dragon's puzzle to dwell on it.
Again, for more times than he could keep track of, he read Rainheart's riddle. The embers of the etched words seemed to mock him. Rorik worked the clues over and over, but in his musing he remembered what Nokorin told him during the previous challenge. How exactly was the dragon testing him? That first test had appeared simple and straightforward as well, and yet he still missed the obvious answer.
Could Rainheart be doing the same thing here?
That in mind, Rorik decided to take a gamble. What he was about to do hurt his pride, more than bowing to the Montoon, but no other way presented itself.
He sighed and said with no ego, "I don't know. I cannot solve this riddle."
His words hung in the air like a poorly flown kite. But then, the fiery message vanished and the heavy iron doors dragged themselves open. The path to the summit was clear.
Chuckling, Rorik shook his hanging head. "Of course. The answer was ignorance all along."
Nokorin appeared at his elbow. "I can tell that was difficult for you."
"Yes, well, nothing harder than getting an educated man to admit he doesn't know everything. Sunset will be upon us soon. We should be on our way."
As they passed through the threshold, the gates shut behind them, the sound echoing off the high mountain crags. Within the fissure, the road grew narrower the higher it rose. Rorik sensed things would not get easier from here.