In the darkness, Digdoug had complicated thoughts–dreams, perhaps. They made a pretty pattern, a wonderful webwork of meaning and sense.
But those sensible thoughts of unconsciousness broke up and collapsed as he awoke, leaving him in a disjointed wreckage of confusion and fear.
Light from an orange lantern flickered feebly. He was lying in a bed, an unfamiliar one. By habit, he swung a bare foot out from under the sheets and made contact with the floor, trying to feel the ground below him before he made sense of anything else. But the floor was wooden, with a wool rug upon it. This whole room was raised above ground level. He would have to use his eyes, although his sight seemed dim and hazy. Unreliable.
He looked up. Brown eyes were looking back down on him. He knew those eyes. He knew the cards in her hat.
“You‘re not allied...” he muttered to Dove, the words coming out gluey. It was the first thing about her that he noticed. And there was another face there, just behind her. Wilder eyes. He didn‘t know those eyes, or the white overcoat.
“Digdoug? Hon?” said Dove. She took his hand and held it between both of hers.
He tried to raise his head and sit up, but the room felt unsteady. He struggled, managing only to pull his hand away and flop over on his side, facing the two people by his bedside. Dove was sitting close. The man in white was standing, staring at him with those bulging eyes. His white hair was sticking out in all directions.
There was an odor in here, something eggy, and something else flowery. Not the smells of home. The walls seemed very close.
“Where are we?”
Dove‘s face was about the only thing he felt he could clearly focus on. The lantern light made her gray skin seem orange, and those big brown eyes were leaking tears. “Digdoug, something bad happened,” she said. “Something real bad.”
Only once in his life had Digdoug heard himself scream: during the lightning storm at Weatherbug, when King Posbrake had ordered him home to the capital. That time it had been brief, just a lone cry of frustration into the heedless chaos of wind and water, after which he‘d had to hurry up and spend his juice on the trap before his mount arrived.
Screaming at Dove and the Healomancer wasn‘t like that.
For one thing, he didn‘t stop. He kept on screaming and ranting, even after they had left him alone in the...wagon-house or whatever this thing was. Just a wooden box on wheels, it shifted on its crude wooden suspension as he stomped from one end of it to the other.
“And I don‘t believe you! You unholy, Titans-cursed witch! Daemon! I don‘t believe anything you say!”
Even as the words blasted and bellowed out of his mouth, he had trouble recognizing them as the sound of his own voice. He didn‘t feel like himself. This was more like he was listening to some brain-lashed, berserk enemy warlord screaming threats on the battlefield, or watching a court jester acting out for attention. His head didn‘t feel right, either; it was coming apart. And he was still injured. It hurt to move so much. What had that Healomancer done to him?
But it was exactly that unreality which kept him shouting and cursing. This had to all be one of Dove‘s “shows,” that was all. It didn‘t feel real because it wasn‘t real.
He almost laughed. “I‘m not a barbarian, you...tramp! You lying, scheming user!” he bellowed triumphantly. “I still have a side! You just broke the rules to fool me! That‘s all you did, right? You‘re Lady Cheater! That‘s what you do! You just cheat everybody! Right?! Well not me!”
The shutters on the wagon‘s only window were closed, but they couldn‘t possibly be holding in the sound of his voice. He could hear lots of other voices coming from outside, and some complicated-sounding music made by...flutes or something. He heard jingling bells, and what might have been the roaring of a large beast or two.
“You‘re lying, Lady Liar! And I can prove it.” His muddled brain suddenly pounced on a great new idea. “No, I‘ll prove it!”
The interior of the wagon was hung with curtains and crammed with trunks, shelves and drawers, with just a single narrow aisle leading down its length. A lantern with a tiny orange Foolamancy flame hung on a peg above a little washbasin and mirror at one end of the place, opposite to the lone door at the other end.
Digdoug stomped over to that door and tugged on the knob. It stuck at first, then made him lurch unsteadily on his feet as it jerked opened inward. Outside, it was nighttime. The sky was black, swirled with red streaks.
“I will!” he shouted down at Dove. She was standing there in the grass, barefoot, in a pumpkin-colored dressing gown. Her arms were folded over her chest. She was still crying, still putting on a show, even though Digdoug had already said he didn‘t believe her! The Healomancer stood there too, holding a square bottle of dark green glass and gawking up at him. “Where‘s the portal? You take me to Homekey‘s portal, I‘m going home now!”
Digdoug stumbled down the little wooden steps and ended up on his hands and knees in the grass. He was wearing only his cotton tunic and a braies underneath, and the grass was wet on his legs. He paused a moment to sense the ground, down to the diamond-hard bedrock, so that he knew for certain he was in the Magic Kingdom. She could be lying about anything, really.
Then he pushed himself up and hobbled off purposefully in an unknown direction, turning his back to her. “I‘ll show you!” he said through his teeth. “Where is it?”
He paused and glared back at her. She was pointing at the road, in the opposite direction from the way he‘d been heading. “That way,” she said, shaking her head, “but it isn‘t there.”
“Oh, it‘s there,” he said, turning somewhat unsteadily and limping away in the direction she had indicated. “I‘ll find it if I have to hire a Findamancer. I‘m going through it, and I‘m going home. Goodbye!”
The road Dove had indicated was paved only with dirt, rutted with wagon tracks, but it seemed to be the main thoroughfare through a large, permanent encampment of casters. The grassy hillocks all around were dotted with little campfires and tents. Wagons like the one he had just escaped from were parked alongside the road, some of them much larger and more elaborate than Dove‘s.
Despite the darkness of night, people came and went, carrying lanterns or magical torches (some fool was juggling three of them over there). Music and singing could be heard from somewhere nearby. People sat on bales of hay, around metal barrels with Foolamancy fires flickering inside.
Digdoug pushed through everybody, keeping his head down to watch and sense the ground in front of him. Walking wasn‘t easy for him, and his head was a still a raging storm hex.
Before he‘d taken too many painful, limping strides, he could see dark woods ahead. There was a lot less light up there, and far fewer people, but he could still spot a lantern or two among the tree trunks, swinging and bobbing in some pedestrian‘s hand. If he kept sensing the ground ahead, he shouldn‘t need a light to find his way. He kept going.
As he entered the darkness beneath the trees, Digdoug noticed a shadow of himself looming on the ground in front of him. He glanced back to see Dove trailing him, holding a little orange torch in her hand.
“What are you doing?” he snapped. “Go away.”
“You need someone with you,” she said dismally, “to find your way there and back.”
“Not coming back,” he spat, and turned to continue his lurching, unsteady trek into the woods. The orange light from behind him continued to follow. “I‘m not coming back here ever again!” he yelled into the forest. He hoped the entire Magic Kingdom could hear him, but the trees offered no reply to his declaration.
Digdoug pushed himself forward and followed the road, often stumbling and occasionally falling down in the dirt. The more busted of his two legs always seemed to be the one that found a loose rock to kick, or an awkward wheel rut to step into. Didn‘t matter. He‘d be healed at dawn. His own bed was only a few dozen steps away, once he got through Homekey‘s portal.
He focused on mastering his steps and avoiding hidden obstacles. After a while, he began to get the hang of it, and picked up his pace. The orange torchlight matched his progress silently.
Dove‘s story was bunk. But he couldn‘t help going over it in his head as he lumbered forward. She claimed that he and Posbrake and Creen had all been incapacitated in the fall, but that only His Majesty was left conscious. Creen was captured, and the King told Dove to take Digdoug into the Magic Kingdom to get him healed. While they were here, somehow the side fell. And that was all she knew.
It wasn‘t even remotely plausible, and he didn‘t see how she expected him to believe it. The Prince had just been bragging about how King Minus didn‘t throw away his sons. So if Creen was captured, then Delkey would have called off the attack and negotiated. The Archons alone couldn‘t have taken the city. It was a ridiculous lie!
So Dove was just playing some kind of Carny game with him, to convince him he was barbarian now. Some sneaky scheme to cheat him, or to cheat Posbrake or something. Maybe she was ransoming him. He didn‘t know and he couldn‘t guess. His mind didn‘t work like that.
He almost yelled something unkind back at her, to get her to stop following him. But then he stumbled again, and fell forward into his own shadow. This time he planted his chest squarely into the dirt, and his wind was completely knocked out.
As he gasped on the ground in agony, the torchlight brightened. Dove leaned down in her nightgown, offering him a hand. He lay there on his stomach and took a few moments to learn to breathe again. Then he forced himself up by his own power, shunning her help.
“I‘m sorry,” said the Carnymancer. “I shoulda had Doc Sassafras heal you better‘n this. But you know,” she shrugged guiltily, “he charges. Things cost money.”
Digdoug scowled and turned back down the road. Unless he was mistaken, he could see colored lights through the trees way up ahead. “I‘ll be fine,” he muttered. “Go home.”
“How, Digdoug?” she said. “How are ya gonna be fine?” Instead of walking behind him, she now held out the torch and kept pace beside him. He just wanted to grab her and shove her off the road, but he had someplace to be right now. “You got anything in your purse?”
His what...? Oh, that.
All his life, his commander‘s purse had been this meaningless zero stat he never thought about. Never once had a Ruler assigned him any Shmuckers to personally carry. Why would they?
But now when he considered it, the awareness that he didn‘t have a single Shmucker to his name suddenly came into his head as an alarm, a fat red zero instead of a meaningless black one. He was also aware that his upkeep was 160 Shmuckers, due at dawn, unless he mitigated that amount by eating something. He‘d never seen that stat before.
All part of the show, though. More lies. He hadn‘t noticed it until she called his attention to it, so she must be trying to fool him with this, too.
“If you can make a Moneymancer see fake numbers,” he said bitterly, “then you can certainly do it to me,” But he threw a quick glance up at the red and black sky. When was dawn here, anyway?
The lights up ahead were definitely the portals. He pushed his pace even harder. “Go away, Dove,” he growled. “I‘ll be fine at start of turn.”
“No, hon. You‘ll disband,” she said wearily. “That‘s what I‘m saying. You need your upkeep.”
“No, I don‘t. I have a side!”
“Homekey‘s gone, Digdoug.”
“I wish I were!” She gestured with the torch, and the shadows of the tree branches crossed and swayed wildly. “Do you feel like you have a side? Can you feel your portal up there?”
He couldn‘t. There was no gravitational tug toward his home portal like he‘d felt before. But again, it was something she had specifically called to his attention. “You‘re doing that to me,” he accused. “You‘re prob‘ly only...here to make sure I won‘t find my portal.”
She made a frustrated scoffing noise.
They walked on in silence until they emerged from the trees into the vast field of shining rectangles. At this point, he stopped for a rest. He put his hands on his hips and looked around.
Purple. He could remember the shade of purple it had been. And it was sort of towards the center of the park. Or...at least not too close to an edge.
Not many people were around, but maybe one of them could help him. A Findamancer or a Signamancer or something. He‘d ask someone later.
For now, he lurched forward into the maze of light, determined to feel his way around every purple portal he could find. There couldn‘t be more than a dozen of the right shade. Was he allowed to go through them and look around? Somehow he didn‘t think so.
“It wasn‘t that way,” said Dove. “It was over there. Green, blue, blue, pink, red, purple from the Carnyvale road.”
He ignored her and kept on going the way he‘d been walking. There was a purple one up ahead that he wanted to look at.
When he got closer to it, he could see it was too pinkish in color to be Homekey‘s. And too close to the treeline. He stared into it, and felt nothing. Oh, well. Lots more to look at.
He limped deeper into the cluster of portals and found the next purple one, but that was wrong as well. So were the next two. Three. Four.
By then, he wasn‘t quite sure where he was in relation to anything, and he couldn‘t even be certain he hadn‘t looked at the same portal twice. He‘d need to find some help, or at least a better system.
But for some reason, he just felt like plodding onward and looking at more of them. Dove was nowhere to be seen. He quickly lost count of how many purple portals he had stared into, and it had ceased to matter. He was getting numb, getting sleepy. Each portal he looked at had a vantage to another purple one nearby, and this gave him a singularity of purpose. There was nothing to think about except making it over to the next one and having a look at it.
Although, he did think a little about the fact that the sky was now gray and red on one end. East, it must be.
He tried to make it matter, but it did not. If Dove was lying and Homekey still existed, then he had nothing to worry about except King Posbrake‘s wrath at his tardiness in returning home. And maybe the cognac, if His Majesty had discovered that yet. Oh, if he could only find his way home, he would pay back that bottle somehow. He‘d build the King a new vineyard! That would do it.
And if Homekey had fallen...then he simply had no reason to continue to live. No point in mourning them. Join them. He belonged with the units of Homekey, wherever they were. Even with the Titans. Simple enough.
The portals were clustered in random constellations, with groups and gaps. For the most part he ignored the gaps, until he noticed a figure sitting alone in the grass in the middle of one.
By now, there was enough light in the sky to see that she was wearing pumpkin orange. Her brown eyes were locked at him from far across the grass.
“It was here, Digdoug!” she shouted.
He was so tired, so hurt from his wounds and all of this pointless walking. He wanted to turn away, but instead he found himself shuffling toward her, feeling through the ground with his Dirtamancy senses.
There was a column underground, just below where Dove was sitting. This was territory that he remembered, the same sandy dirt he‘d felt before. The rocks were right, the shape of the column...
He had a very good memory for certain things. He hoped his memories of Lady Chains, of Bucky, of Hunt and Peck and The Space, of the grand and ambitious architecture of Posbrake‘s capital, and of His Majesty himself would stay so true and clear as his memory of the rocks in this soil. Because he knew; that was the only place they lived now.
He dropped on his face, weeping into the grass. Dove was there in seconds.
“It‘s okay,” she said into his ear. Her arms were wrapped over his back. “I‘ll pay your upkeep, hon. Just this once, okay? I never do that. But you gotta pay me back, okay? It‘ll be all right. Shhh. It‘ll be okay. We‘ll work something out.”