The others would be here soon. Just the thought made tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up. But they weren’t here, not yet, and Rose was bored.
She ran her fingers over the enormous door in front of her, feeling cold stone suck the heat from her hands. No, that wasn’t quite right. The stone was the same temperature as the cool night air, maybe even a little warmer; it just had higher thermal conductivity. It felt cold because the heat was leaving her body faster.
Precision, that was the key, always. Her mother had told her that. When dealing with magic, one had to be painfully, exactingly precise. The most powerful of wizards could dismiss problems with a wave of their hands, but until then, she would have to be meticulous.
“Rose!” called a voice from behind her.
Her fingers found the small cracks between the door and the mountain it was embedded in. She couldn’t even slip in a nail. How had they gotten the tolerances so fine on something so large? Precision, again.
“Rose,” the voice said again, closer than before.
There were no hinges on the door; they must be on the inside. Or maybe it slid. Or maybe it didn’t open at all. Never assume anything, that was the other thing her mother had told her. She slowly moved her fingertips from the edge of the door to the grids of steel buttons embedded in the center.
Before she reached them, however, she felt a meaty hand clap down on her shoulder. The hand turned her around, and instead of the diagram, she found herself looking up into her father’s beard. His brow was knit above it, and he was frowning.
“Don’t touch it, Rose,” he said. “You don’t know what it does.”
She rolled her eyes. It said right above the buttons what it did. Nevertheless, she pressed forward and gave her dad a hug. After a moment, he returned the hug, and she let herself enjoy the warmth and pressure for a moment.
“I, uh,” he said, swallowing. She gave him a moment. He let go, and she took a step back so that she could see his face. “I know you have to do this,” he said, his voice a little gruff. “But at least wait for the others. You promised me you’d be careful.”
Everyone thought that Rose was bad with people, but that wasn’t quite true. Other people were puzzling to her, but like a good puzzle, she could eventually figure them out, given enough time and motivation. She just didn’t have the patience, usually.
She’d spent so long with her dad it was easy. The gruffness in his voice, the hesitance, the way his hand still rested on her shoulder, all the pieces of her father that she’d put together over the years came together and practically shouted how he was feeling. She moved close again, standing up on her tip toes and placing a kiss on his neck. His beard tickled her face a little.
“OK, Dad,” she said. “I’ll wait. But you have to leave when the others get here, OK? It’s the rules.”
Her dad sniffed, rubbing the back of his hand against his nose. OK,” he said, more than a little anger in his voice. “Damn it.”
She pulled on his shoulders, and he dutifully lowered his head until she could reach it. She looked around, pretending to be furtive, and whispered in his ear. “I’ll come back,” she said.
He straightened immediately, glaring at her. He was a big man, and his glare was terrifying to anyone that wasn’t her, but she understood him. He looked around as well, but instead of pretending, he seemed genuinely concerned someone might have appeared out of nowhere to overhear. He pulled her away from the door, along the bank of the river that flowed through the mountain, and toward the tree line that backed up onto it. When they were a good twenty feet away he knelt down and stared into her eyes.
“Don’t say that, Rose.” he said quietly. “Not even as a joke. Not to anyone.”
“I wouldn’t,” she said. “I know.”
“You can’t come back. It isn’t right, but it’s how it is.”
“Mom came back,” she said, dropping her voice even lower.
She felt her dad’s fingers tightening on her shoulder, and she cast her eyes down. He relaxed after a moment.
“Don’t say that either,” he said sternly. “Never. Not a word.”
“OK,” she murmured, still staring at the ground. She wrapped her cloak in her hands, feeling the rough cloth, and counted: one, two, three–
Her father relaxed his grip, and everything was fine again. They waited together, watching the water flow by under the light of a full moon. Rose worked over what she’d seen on the door in her head, leaving her father to his thoughts.
Finally, a speck came into view far up the river, a dark splotch on the silvery water with a tiny flame suspended above it. “There they are,” her father said, his voice sounding far away. He pulled Rose in for one final hug.
“I love you, Dad,” she whispered into his chest.
“I love you too.”
After a long moment, her father broke away. “Are you going to be alright on your own?” he asked. “I could come with you while you meet them.”
She straightened her cloak, smoothing it out and running her hands over the pockets, making sure everything was in its place. “I’ll figure it out,” she said.
Her father nodded, giving her shoulder a squeeze, then turned and plodded away down the path, his back straight and his eyes dry. Rose watched him go until he’d faded into the dark. He didn’t turn around, which gave her some peace of mind. He’d be OK.
She turned back to the river, watching the inky blot on the water grow closer. She would meet them at the door.
Rose stood before the door, fiddling to keep the anxiety away. She hated meeting new people. She clenched her cloak in her hands, squeezing and feeling the tendons press agains the cloth, then released it. Clench, release.
The dark spot on the river had drawn closer now, and she could see it was a large raft, with a single torch held aloft to light the way. A figure stood at the front, pole in hand, keeping the raft on course. The others were bunched on the ground, giant lumps indistinguishable from their luggage in the poor light.
Luggage. She hadn’t brought much. She had rations and rope, charcoal and paper, her tools and her treasures. And a knife. It would be enough. She felt through the pockets of her cloak, checking that everything was in its place. She finished with the pocket that held her secret riverstone. She ran her thumb over it, back and forth like she had since she’d been a child.
She had four treasures that nobody but her had ever seen. Stone, wood, iron and glass. They helped her with herself. Mostly.
She really hated meeting new people.
The river that flowed through the mountain plunged underground mere feet from the great door. The man with the pole wisely pushed them to the riverbank well before the cave entrance. His passengers disembarked slowly, in fits and starts, and then the man led them to Rose.
Rose made them out one by one as they drew close, stone still clenched in her fingers.
The man who’d brought them was old, older than she’d been expecting. His face was hidden by hooded gray robes, but his beard was pure white, and he stooped as he walked.
He seemed unconcerned to see Rose standing by the door. “Rose of Summervale?” he said as he drew close. She nodded, then in deference to the poor light spoke up: “Yes,” she replied.
Holding the torch was a boy only slightly older than her, maybe sixteen, but almost as large as her father. He let out a booming laugh when he heard her name, and the old man turned to look at him. “First Dexter of Melan, now Rose of Summervale,” he said in a deep gruff voice. “We really are in the sticks, aren’t we.”
“Borodin, be nice.” Beside him was a girl, smaller but with a similar accent. From the same town? She approched Rose, smiling, and held out her hand. “My name is Alexandria Kastchoff, and this is my brother Borodin. A pleasure.”
Rose hesitated, then finally released the riverstone in her pocket and reached forward to shake the girl’s hand. Up close she could make out more details about the pair. They were both blonde, the brother with close-cropped hair and a wild beard, the sister with long locks that seemed to wrap around her shoulders. The girl’s skin was soft.
“A pleasure,” Rose replied, aping the other girl’s custom, and her voice came out squeaky. She bit down on her lip. Why did her voice do that?
Borodin came forward as well, almost barreling his sister out of the way. “Of course, of course, a pleasure,” he said. “I meant no offense, Rose of Summervale. Borodin Kastchoff, at your service.” Rose shook his hand as well, and it was so large it wrapped around hers up to the wrist.
“Another stormtouched, then?” asked a new voice.
Rose’s cheeks flushed, and she peered past the siblings to see two more newcomers standing at a respectful distance. At least they weren’t all so aggressively social. The speaker was a tall girl, thin and dressed in white, with a blindfold on for some reason. The girl was staring in no particular direction, but had a pleasant smile on her face.
“You’re stormtouched?” Rose squeaked. She’d never met another one.
“Not me,” the girl said with a gentle smile. “I am but a humble linguist. But Dexter here is.” She gestured beside her, where nobody was standing. Rose waited for a laugh or something, but the girl didn’t even chuckle. What?
Alexandria leaned in. “She’s blind,” the girl whispered. “And a little kooky. Dexter is the surly one on the other side of her.”
“Er,” Rose said. She jammed her hand back into her cloak, fumbling for her stone. When she found it, she felt her footing return, at least a little. She glanced back and forth, torn between two pressing questions. Ultimately, though, one was more pressing than the other.
“How did you know I’m stormtouched?”
“Your name, my dear,” the tall girl replied airily. “Names have such power, after all. Our esteemed navigator referred to you as Rose of Summervale, and in the western polities that nomenclature implies that you come from a town so sparsely populated that you need only a single name. Almost all students hail from more urban centers–except, of course, for those like you who are compelled to attend.”
Rose took a second to process that. She opened her mouth to respond, but the girl interrupted her before she could. “Oh! How rude of me. Names have power, yes, and I have not shared. My name is Esper Aura Neveta Belletrist, third daughter of the fourth court linguist of Asante.”
Rose took another second to process that. She opened her mouth again, but just as she did the girl turned away, humming a happy tune. Rose closed her mouth slowly.
She instead turned to Dexter. He was skinny, with unkempt hair and a slouch. He stood staring off into space with his face screwed up, chewing absentmindedly on the first knuckle of his pointer finger.
Dexter of Melan, the other boy had called him? She wanted to approach him, to talk about…well, everything. But he seemed distant, or upset, although it was hard to tell in the moonlight. She rubbed her stone, back and forth, feeling the smooth surface under her thumb. It couldn’t hurt to just go over and–
A huge hand clapped her on the back, almost knocking her over. “Well!” boomed the voice behind her. “I guess you’ve met everyone, then. Welcome to the party, Rose. You’re going to find that you lucked out with us.”
“Not quite everyone, Borodin,” Alexandria replied. “Robin’s still wrestling with that huge trunk.”
“I did offer to help him. Should I go back and grab the little runt?”
“Don’t be rude, Borodin. And no, He doesn’t seem to want any help.”
Borodin snorted. “We wait then?”
Rose closed her eyes for a moment. This whole interaction was getting away from her. That tended to happen, with new people: too many things to process at once, and by the time she’d caught up the group had moved on. She was going to be with these people for a long time, she couldn’t let that be the dynamic that settled in.
She slipped her hand out of the pocket with the stone, gliding it over the inside of her cloak until it found a tiny chunk of iron bloom. “I’ll go help him,” she said, no squeak in her voice, and she set off before anyone could comment.
Rose strode past the group with purpose in her step, Dexter moving far to the side as she passed, and headed toward the raft.
Sure enough, near the raft was a tiny figure in oversized robes, almost as short as her. She assumed that must be Robin. He was wrestling with a trunk as big as he was. The wheels were lodged in wet dirt near the river.
“Do you want any help?” Rose asked. Robin jumped, turning around. “No,” he said, his voice high-pitched and annoyed. “Don’t touch it.”
Rose approached anyway, walking a circle around the trunk. It was huge, made of some sort of dark laquered wood joined very neatly. It had small wheels on the back, oddly enough, and they’d gotten stuck in the damp ground. “You need wheels with a larger radius,” she said.
“I realize that now,” he replied, surly. “This trunk works fine anywhere civilized.”
Rose thought for a moment, tapping her chin. “Skis,” she said finally, smacking a fist into her hand.
“You need skis for it. Like a sled? Small surface area, low friction, but wide enough they don’t sink into the ground and get stuck like those wheels.
“I said I don’t need any help.”
“I won’t touch it.”
Robin snorted, but he didn’t object again. Rose eased her grip on the iron in her cloak, and began looking around. There were lots of branches, too thin. A fallen pine, but nothing to chop it with…
Before she could really get to work, though, Borodin came back and simply hefted the trunk off the ground.
“Hey!” Robin yelped. “Stop.”
“You’re holding everyone up,” Borodin replied with a grunt. Apparently the trunk was heavy even for him. He began waddling back toward the door.
“That’s my property,” Robin said, scampering after him.
“Yes, it is.”
“Then put it down.”
“You can’t just do that!”
“Realpolitik, my friend.”
Borodin didn’t bother to respond, clearly straining under the exertion. When he reached the group, he put down the trunk with an audible thump, and Robin let out a strangled gurgle. The smaller boy rushed over to his luggage and popped the latch, checking through it frantically.
Rose sidled up behind him, curiosity getting the better of her, and her eyes went wide.
The trunk was absolutely packed with books. More than a hundred. Her mother had kept a small library, with thirteen volumes and one encyclopedia, and she had seen perhaps two dozen books in her lifetime.
“Wow,” she said softly.
The boy’s head whipped back to her, his eyes narrowed, and he slammed the lid shut.
“I will be pressing charges,” he said to her, sniffing.
Borodin laughed. “Against her?” he asked.
“Against you as well. Against all of you.”
Borodin laughed even harder, and after a moment, his voice was joined by Esper’s. Her laugh was high and wild, and continued long after Borodin’s had trailed off, until everyone was staring at her.
“Aha! Ahahaha. An excellent joke, quite excellent. Yes. I almost missed it.”
“What?” Alexandria asked.
“It was an etymology joke, my dear. Your word ‘charge’ comes from the old Gaullian ‘charger’, which means ‘to load’, and which itself comes from the old Latium word ‘carrus’, which refers to any wheeled vehicle. And, of course, the object of contention is an overloaded wheeled vehicle. Quite abstruse, but very funny.”
There was a brief moment of silence. Robin was still glaring daggers at Borodin. Borodin and Alexandria were sharing some sort of look. Rose was staring at Esper with her mouth open, trying to figure out if she was serious or not. And Dexter was still gazing off into space, gnawing on his finger.
The old man who’d guided them there cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Now that you’ve all gathered, I have a small speech.”
The old man took the torch, holding it above his head so they could see him clearly. He threw back his hood, and beneath it Rose saw a face every bit as old as she’d suspected. The only part of him which didn’t seem half-gone was his eyes, which sparkled brightly in the torchlight.
“Behind this door,” the man said, tapping the torch against it dramatically. “Lies death.”
He paused, looking at each of them in turn. Dexter broke the silence with a tiny cough, and the man glared at him, annoyed.
“Death for the unworthy,” he continued, “and for the rest, exile. For once you pass through this door, your life belongs to the tower, and the tower guards its posessions jealously.
“You will face several challenges, as you pass through the mountain to the tower’s foot. Some you will meet together, some, perhaps, on your own. If you make it through, you will be given the honor of studying at the tower’s foot. Those of you who have doubts, I encourage you to turn back now.”
Dexter stopped chewing on his finger to raise his hand.
The old man turned to look at him, seeming slightly flummoxed.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I have doubts and would like to turn back,” Dexter said.
“You’re the stormtouched boy?”
“Then I’m afraid attendance is mandatory.”
“BEHOLD!” the old man spoke over his objection. “The first of your challenges.”
He stood to the side, sweeping the torch over his head to light the door.
Rose had already seen it, but she took the opportunity to study it in the better light.
Set in the door were two grids of steel buttons, clearly set apart from each other. The buttons looked like they could be pressed. One grid was 8x8, the other 9x9. Above the two grids was a face carved in relief, like someone had pressed their head into wax. It produced an eerie effect where the eyes seemed to follow her.
Above the head was an inscription, carved so large she’d been able to read it even in the moonlight.
I am Acheron, the boundary, here bound forever to this game. You must choose a board to play on. Once you have chosen, select one of the buttons to depress. I will depress a button adjacent to the one you selected, in one of the four cardinal directions. Then you will depress a button adjacent to mine, and so on ad infinitum, until one of us cannot continue. If I cannot continue, you may pass.
“Boundary, bound, very good,” Esper murmered to herself. “The rest of the prose is so lifeless, though.”
“So, wait,” Alexandria said to the old man. “If we fail this we die, somehow?”
“No, this first challenge is meant to discourage the unworthy. If you fail, the game will reset tomorrow, and you may try again.”
“Really seems like that should have been on the inscription,” Alexandria muttered under her breath.
“I don’t understand,” Borodin said. “Can’t you simply alternate buttons forever?”
“They stay depressed, obviously,” Alexandria replied. “You can’t depress the same button twice.”
“Obvious she says! Now that should have been on the inscription.”
“I agree. It seems like if we’re risking our lives, we at least deserve clear instructions.”
The old man leaned to the side and spat on the ground.
“My task here is done,” he said. “I will stay with the raft until morning, if any of you wish to return with me.”
“Alright,” Alexandria said. “Let’s split this up. We can play this game in the dirt with sticks, get some practice before we have to do it for real.”
Rose opened her mouth to speak, but Alexandria just kept talking.
“We can break into pairs. I’ll gather some sticks. We’ll do a round-robin bracket, find the best two players and have them go against each other until they have a feel for the game.”
“But–” Rose said.
“Perfect,” Borodin interrupted her. “We should find the best players, then have the rest work on something else. Finding constraints, coming up with end-game tables…”
Rose puffed out her cheeks. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise with these two, they only seemed to stop talking to let the other one go.
“Clearly Borodin and I should pair up,” Alexandria said. “Who wants to pair with Esper?”
Dexter stopped chewing on his finger and raised his hand again.
“Yes! Dexter, I like the initiative,” Borodin said.
“Actually,” Dexter said, and for some reason they didn’t interrupt him. Instead of continuing to speak, though, he pointed the finger of his raised hand at Rose.
Everyone turned to her, and Rose froze up a little. She cleared her throat, fumbling through her cloak to grasp her riverstone.
“I, uh,” she said. “I actually already solved it. While I was waiting for you. I used to play games with my Mom a lot. She really liked chess, and, um, I liked dominoes. So it was pretty easy.”
She looked down and scuffed her foot in the dirt, trying to pretend that everyone wasn’t staring at her.