Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Choice; or, Two Doors Stood in the Desert

Two doors stood in the desert, side by side. Pale sand had drifted and mounded on the thresholds and settled gently on the hinges.

Not doors to anywhere; just doors, plain and of average door height, standing upright in the sand, equal parts bizarre and unassuming.

Harden stood before the two doors, looking from one to the other. Something cicada-like and unseen buzzed in the air. His exhausted body throbbed with the heat inside his armor.

He sighed, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his equally sweaty hand, and muttered to himself, “Really?”

Always riddles. He didn’t join up with the Guild to solve riddles. See, this is why you always travel in a well-balanced group – someone to solve the riddles, someone to slap poultices on wounds, someone to swing a sword, etcetera. Everyone in their place. And Harden’s place was to swing the sword – honest bloody steel. Nothing mystical about a blade, most of the time, anyway.

But things don’t always work out to be ideal.

Lenzo, the silver-tongue with a creepy penchant for sneaking around in the shadows sniping folks with poisoned crossbow bolts, had been incapacitated just two weeks into their journey. Sneaking around in the shadows with no armor on isn’t such a great plan when fighting a pack of werewolves, who, it turns out, can see in the dark, and are, it turns out, immune to most poisons.

The dwarven cleric, hilariously enough, had found a new calling at the White Crane, the best bordello this side of the Winders: “ministering to the young ladies,” he’d said, glassy-eyed. Ministering, indeed. It would have been nice to have Curolo around last week when Harden’s knee had taken a head-butt from a particularly short and nasty goblin. The twinging was almost unbearable when it rained.

Thankfully, the insufferable elven mage had stormed off several days ago, arcane jewelry rattling furiously, insisting she was far, far too talented for this kind of pissant work. Even her – ahem – considerable assets and the fact that she wore only what appeared to be a few carefully-arranged rhinestones were not enough to make up for her godsawful attitude. Also, she had a face you could chop wood with and a mouth like a cat’s bottom.

So now Harden traveled alone. He went carefully, hoarding health poultices and information as he went; every night before he slept, he pulled out a many-folded piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, read his orders a few times, then re-folded the paper and replaced it in his pack. He spoke to innkeepers and merchants, who always seemed to be in the know; he was slowly learning how to suppress his natural awkwardness, and it was amazing how much people told you if you weren’t awkward. He supposed that was what “charisma” was all about. He’d never had to worry about that kind of thing before; a large, sharp weapon had always had its own special kind of charisma.

But charisma couldn’t help you solve riddles, he’d discovered. It may help you solve the one who asked the riddle… but not all riddles were actually asked; some, like the doors, simply were.

The desert had been a welcome respite from dealing with people, but desert creatures were hard to kill, and this journey was really starting to wear.

Keep going for Cass, he would repeat to himself after every exhausting battle, when he was sitting on a rock panting and spitting blood, exploring his wounds with a non-broken finger. Keep going for the baby. It was his thin mantra, the driftwood that buoyed him up just enough. So he’d bind his broken fingers together, swig a foul-tasting tincture, hammer the largest dents out of his armor and check the bodies for anything of value before moving on, on to the next town, the next fight, the next bloody gods-damned riddle.

Knowing what he would see, but unable to stop himself, he looked around to the back of the doors.

Yep. Doors from nowhere to nowhere. That’s lovely.

And where… ah, yes, there it is. The inscription. I hope it doesn’t rhyme. I can’t stand any more bad poetry.

It didn’t rhyme. It read: “Traveler, be it known: choose one door, and only one. What lies beyond the other, you will never know; that alone is the price of passage.”

Harden was rather taken aback. Was that all? Choose one, go through, that’s it? No enormous, angry gelatinous cubes? No pits of spikes and alligators? The only unpleasant thing that could happen to you is that you’d never get to know what was beyond the other door? Wasn’t that what people did every day, essentially, if you wanted to get philosophical about it?

He shrugged, shouldered his pack, and reached for the nearest door’s handle.

He hesitated.

There was nothing in the inscription about certain doom, true, and usually these things made themselves known (why go to the trouble, after all, and not advertise?), but… who was to say what, exactly, was through the doors? He hadn’t gotten this far without being careful.

After a moment’s thought, he pulled out the well-read set of orders and scanned them again. No help there. He frowned, stifled the suspicion that his employer was a creepy sadistic bastard who hadn’t stepped foot out of doors in fifty years, and pushed his blonde hair back off his forehead.

Right, well, let’s see what we can see.

He scanned both of the doors with care, running his hands over every surface, looking for the smallest hint as to what lay beyond. Both were completely, frustratingly smooth wood, carved with decorative squares; the handles were iron or some similar metal, a bit tarnished, but otherwise unremarkable.

There were no keyholes of course, but Harden did get down on his hands and knees and scoop the sand away from the thresholds, trying to get a glimpse underneath. His squinting eyes were met only with darkness.

A little embarrassed, and not sure why, he put his nose to the gap and sniffed. He pulled back, coughing. Just sand. Stings when you breathe it in.

He sat back on his heels, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Nothing.

Let’s think about this.

Say I pick a door. The door on the right, for argument’s sake, and through that door lies, say, a beach that borders a lagoon wherein lives something with lots of rage and too many tentacles for its own good. That’s all fine and good. What if, then, though the other door, there was a path through a pleasant wood leading, after a nice little jog, directly to the tower containing the particular artifact after which his employer was lusting.

But I would never know, having chosen the other door. The one with the tentacle monster.

He wondered if there was some way to cheat the system. Probably not. He could try to open both doors at exactly the same time… nope, of course not. Just too far apart for both handles to be reached by someone standing in the middle and reaching both arms out as far as they could go.

Harden’s arms dropped sheepishly to his sides, discomfited by the silly show they’d just taken part in, and he stood there, sweat dripping into his underpants.

What if I open one door, but don’t go through it? Ah… I know. Then the other one will open to show only the sand behind it. That’s how these things go. Putting a hand on the knob and turning it will signify that the choice was made – there can be no opening and closing.

Well then, what the hell does it matter which door I choose? Harden shrugged for his own benefit, and that of his cresting frustration. If there’s no way to know where either door leads, and I can only choose one, why does it bloody matter? I mean, there may as well be only one door. Why does the choice even exist? Simply to drive someone like me completely bonkers? If an obnoxious enchanted riddle door falls in the desert because an angry, tired swordsman has kicked it over, does anyone give a small turd? And does said swordsman still get paid?

It’s not a riddle, it’s a bloody menace, Harden thought to himself darkly, glaring. He crossed his arms, pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and scoured his memory for anything that may be useful.

His brain settled on a conversation he’d had with his companions at a filthy black-kettle tavern a few weeks ago, shortly before the werewolf incident. He’d just found a new sword, enchanted steel, a definite step up from his Guild-issue butter knife which bent when it was yelled at, and he had bought several rounds to celebrate. Everyone aside from Cat-Bum Axe-Face was well into it. 

“Have you ever thought… that we might be going about this all wrong?” slurred Lenzo from the far side of his mug.

Harden and Curolo had glanced at each other, then at the thief. “What are you even talking about?” giggled the dwarf, his bald head shiny with sweat in the lanternlight.

“Right, I mean, like, right… hang on. I mean. Well, there’s a certain way things are done, isn’t there?” Lenzo said, pushing his greasy black hair out of his eyes and weaving through unfamiliar territory. “I mean, it’s like… someone tells us to do something, and we do it.”

“That’s how the Guild works, you moron,” snapped Cat-Bum, doing her damnedest not to let her skin come into contact with any surfaces, a difficult thing given the amount of skin that was exposed. Her real name was Zalthea Star-Eye or some nonsense, but to Harden she would always be Cat-Bum. “People approach the Guild with a contract, we accept. We get paid.”

“Yes, thank you so much, I did know that, in fact,” retorted Lenzo unsteadily. “I meant… I meant. Ah. I meant that we follow the directions to a letter. Riddle this and outsmart that and battle this and hack-and-slash that. It’s all a bit of a show, isn’t it? I mean. Couldn’t we just ignore all those damned fire-fountains and owlbears and sphynxes and just, you know…”

“… Go get it?” finished Harden thoughtfully.

“Yes! ‘It’ being the prize, the inevitable object at the end of the long and wind-y road. It’s what I call the Third Choice.”

Curolo shook his head, the braids in his beard bristling. “You’ve been thinking about this a lot, then?”

Lenzo shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I, well, yeah. It’s always ‘kill this troll’ or ‘help this troll.’ It’s never ‘swing it wide to the East to avoid the troll completely and incidentally try this great curry place that’s down that way.’ I mean, what are they going to do? Come find us and say we’re not doing it right?”

“The Third Choice. Just get the shit done,” said Harden, with a touch of awe.

“But. But! But then what about the treasure?” insisted Curolo, hugging his stein to his chest, his face creased in inebriated concern.

The thief waved his hand. “Pah! What treasure? It’s all random, anyway. Who can say for sure there will be treasure? I’ll tell you where the treasure is – it’s in the purses of those merchants who travel up and down the safe highways, in the chests in the tax collectors’ offices in the city square, in the fat bags of the innkeepers who… er, well, you know.” He coughed to avoid the sharp glance of the innkeeper, just within earshot.

There was a malty silence as they all digested the thief’s words.

“But what about the glory?” said Harden suddenly. He wasn’t sure what had made him say that – drink, probably.

Lenzo laughed raucously. “Glory! My muscle-bound friend, there is no greater glory than to be alive to tell your employer to kiss your sweaty arse, and that of the horse you rode back on.”

The Third Choice. Harden had scoffed at Lenzo for that. What was the Quest if not a journey, an experience, a chance to hone one’s skills and see the world?

Gods, just a few short weeks ago, and he had been such a boy. If he had known… well, he wouldn’t be here now, that was for certain.

Harden regarded the doors before him, their shadows stretching over him in the dusty and increasingly purple light of the desert. The sun was starting its lazy descent towards the horizon.

A locust fluttered erratically across the sand and settled on his left pauldron, where it rocked back and forth a few times, regarding him with large, fractal eyes and twitchy mandibles. He stared back at it. It defecated on him unceremoniously, then jumped back into the breeze, disappearing over the dunes in a flurry of glassy wings.

“Bugger this for a lark,” Harden muttered, and made the Fourth Choice.

Home was far away, but every step took him closer to Cass, closer to the baby, closer to rainy evenings by the fire, mornings on the farm, closer to the smell of fresh hay and the sound of scythes swishing again and again across the fields… and further away from the desert and its infernal doors, and thus every step became just a tiny, tiny bit lighter.

He passed through the White Crane, where Curolo was minus his trousers in the kitchen and so addled with ruby ale that he didn’t recognize his own hand in front of his face. Harden relieved him of his dusty alchemical supplies, selling them for better boots in the nearby village, though he did leave behind the packets of medicinal salve that he assumed the dwarf would be needing.

 He passed the spot in the woods where they had buried Lenzo, and found the shallow grave no longer occupied. After the initial panic, he reasoned that scavengers were most likely to blame, but jogged out of the woods at a healthy pace just in case, listening hard for anything vaguely wolfish, leaving behind him at the grave seven gold coins: six to settle a debt, and one to help pay the ferryman, the way his Gran had taught him.

He went to the Guild in the capital, where he saw Cat-Bum arguing with another mage about something arcane and no doubt beyond the ken of mortal man while trying to surreptitiously hike up her flimsy jeweled bra. She did not deign to notice him. He marched up the stairs to his contract manager, and asked politely but firmly for an address. He made his way across town to a small, dark house, beat on the door until it cracked open, and thrust the map and directions at the slice of pale, underdone face that appeared, followed by some advice to get a dog, a girlfriend, and a different hobby, preferably one out in the fresh air.

Harden then went home, hung his sword and shield on the wall, and held his wife and daughter for a long time. That’s where his story really begins, he would always tell people, and it was true – Harden had many adventures over his many long years, exactly none of them involving mysterious doors in the desert.  

Because that’s the thing about life: the choices are all around you. You make them, they make you, round and round, passing through door after door… and in the end, may we all be so fortunate as to make the Fourth Choice, and arrive back home in good time, with good boots on our feet and good tales in our mouths, and hang our swords and shields on the wall to gather dust.