There were eight emergency exits built into the baseboards of the shelter. Readers were free to leave through them, as long as they understood that if they left the shelter of their own volition, Rivet was no longer responsible for their health or well-being. They were always welcome back, as well – the circular tunnels through the wall opened both ways, monitored by passive magic. When she woke the deer monster would know someone had left through one of the exits, but she wouldn’t know who or why, and you were fine with that.
You rushed across the main room of the shelter, not stopping to see if your masterpieces had truly been destroyed by the neurotically-neat deer. If you didn’t see the freshly-cleaned blank spaces, you could pretend they were still there. The midnight darkness of the room helped.
The doors to the exit tunnels were slightly raised circles built into the wood of the baseboard, appearing nothing but decorative to the untrained eye. You stopped at the one nearest the front door, which was the easiest to open since it was the most used. Many of the more adventurous Readers would go on miniature journeys around the building, irking their caregiver but almost always returning unharmed. You dug your fingers into the raised edge of wood and gave a sharp tug. The circle swung open easily, revealing a small, round tunnel that led to yet another wooden circle. The tunnel was lit by a small string of fairy lights hanging from the ceiling, left over from the last Gyftmas holiday. Some Handy Reader must have set them up for the Adventurers.
You shut the door firmly behind yourself and escaped through the second, into the flower bed that lined the front of the building. The branches of the hedge bush caught on your backpack as you crawled beneath them, but the felt came loose with a quick tug. Outside of the bush was a massive sidewalk – as wide as a football field! – and beyond that a road. You weren’t dumb enough to try and venture across the asphalt to the trees beyond – a car wouldn’t be able to see you, and roadkill was not artistic in the least. Instead, you turned to the right and, sticking close to where the sidewalk met the buildings, began your escape into a far more art-appreciative world.
Monsters. Were. Big.
You’d been walking for at least an hour and were still able to see the bushes at the shelter lingering at the end of the street. It was late enough you hadn’t had to hide from any passing monsters, meaning either you were slow, or had seriously underestimated the height of the dominant race. You needed a break.
The building in front of you was brightly lit, and the sound of laughter and chatter flowed easily through the front door, which was cracked open. For a second you were tempted to slip through the crack and enjoy the warmth, but the fear of getting caught quickly squashed that idea. You were running away to make a point, and only escaping for an hour wouldn’t prove anything except stupidity. Instead, you slipped into the alley between the bright building and what looked like some kind of bakery. The alley was surprisingly clean, and it didn’t take you long to find a trash can to settle down against. Slipping off your backpack, you slid to your rear and rested your head on the bin.
You’d barely settled when a door banged open at the front of the building, followed by rapid footsteps. Frantically you shuffled to the side, hiding in the deep shadow of the bin. A monster rushed into the alley, one boney hand clapped over his mouth. His face was white and round, a skull that looked like it was made out of white modeling clay stained with black on one cheek. Large pupils – one shaped like a swirl, the other a star that was tilting this way and that – darted about the alley for a moment, completely passing you over in favor of the bin. As soon as he saw the silver can, the skeleton latched onto it. He threw off the lid with a quick flick of his wrist and doubled over, emptying his non-existent stomach. Something black and gooey splattered over the edge, landing scant feet from your hiding spot.
“Hey Ink, y’okay?”
A second, similar-looking skeleton moseyed into the alley, a large grin plastered on his teeth. He had on a blue hoodie and pink slippers, but his eyes were simple white dots in his skull. The other skeleton – Ink? – groaned long and loud, shaking the bin and, in return, you. The new skeleton chuckled and shuffled over to pat his back.
“Glad to hear it. So, I dunno if you noticed but you lost the bet, so the tab is on you tonight.”
A second groan, this one more annoyed than anything, echoed out of the bin as Ink straightened, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I noticed,” he ground out, shaking the black stuff off his hand. You had to shuffle back a few steps to avoid getting splattered with the – was that paint? Or ink? “Let me…” The skeleton trailed off as he reached into the back pocket of his brown and black pants. “Shoot.”
The slippered skeleton raised a brow and rocked back on his heels, looking faintly amused. “What’s wrong?”
“I left my wallet at home,” Ink groused, pushing away from the bin. He was a bit unsteady on his feet, black and tan scarf flapping about his shoulders as he regained his balance.
“That’s convenient,” Slippers snorted, teeth curving down a bit in a frown. “This isn’t one of your jokes, is it?”
“I don’t welsh on my bets,” Ink retorted sharply, reaching out to pull at the long, thin rod slung over his back. You had to lean forward and crane your neck a bit to see it properly, and was surprised when a fluffy end was revealed. It was a ridiculously large paintbrush, at least as tall as the skeleton, maybe a bit longer. His grip wavered a bit, then he brought up the brush and swung it down. The end of the brush rippled, and the air around it responded in kind. Ink pulled the brush down and the ripple followed, colors exploding from the trembling air like a rainbow ink pen exploding. The ripple expanded, creating an oval of surging colors pulsing in the air, standing as tall as the skeleton himself.
It was the most amazing bit of painting you’d ever seen.
“Why don’t you just draw some gold from your reserves?” Slippers asked, though his eyes were captured by the odd horizontal ink-puddle. The ink dripped from the surface, but vanished before it could stain the alley floor.
“I can’t just make things appear,” Ink huffed, reaching out to touch the puddle. It shuddered, then split in half, the ink retreating to form a frame about a hole in the air – no, in the world. On the other side of the hole was not the rest of the alley, but a completely different landscape. Floating islands dotted a sky of stars, each holding one or more doors. “It could disturb the order of this AU.”
“Isn’t this a – what did you call it? – a Hub AU? What could mess it up more than every possible AU being able to travel here?” Slippers leaned closer to the portal, examining it with a critical eye, gaze skating over the various doors and their unique paint jobs.
“I don’t want to know,” Ink huffed. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Kay.” Slippers took a step back, giving his – friend? Companion? Drinking-Buddy? – room to step through the portal. “If you’re late I’m sending Error after you.”
Ink shot him a glare that made even you recoil against the bin, his pupils changing to sharp, jerky shapes. Slippers put his hands up and took another step back.
“Fine, fine,” he conceded, before his grin grew even wider than before, “I’ll send Fresh instead.” He vanished before the smack Ink aimed at his head could reach him. The lone skeleton huffed and muttered something that sounded rather unflattering beneath his breath before turning back to his portal.
“Should leave ‘em high and dry,” he snarled to himself, stepping through the ink and into the other world, “but he’d send those two and worse if I did.” The rest of his muttering was cut off as he disappeared amongst the trees, leaving the tantalizing portal sitting there, floating in mid-air, completely unguarded.
Did you? Did you dare?
You crept closer, clutching your backpack of art supplies close. This – this was what you wanted, wasn’t it? This was a monster that obviously appreciated art! He wore a giant freakin’ paint brush on his back, not to mention all those point vials on the belt hanging around his chest! You stopped at the edge of the portal and reached towards the ink, which was still throbbing and shifting with magic. Hesitating only a moment, you plunged a few of your fingers into the mass.
It was warm. The ink was pure magic, warm and tickling and setting your nerves on end like an electric shock. You withdrew your hand, taking none of the ink with you. There was a light hue of yellow and purple about your fingers, but it faded the longer you stared at it. Taking several steps over, to where the portal part was lowest, you paused and reached, tentatively, towards the other world. You hand passed through another pulse of magic, then arrived safely in the foreign land. The cobblestone path that led from the portal was rough beneath your hand, and without thinking you slung your backpack over your shoulder and plunged your other arm in. In only moments you had pulled yourself through into this new place, leaving the alley standing empty on the other side of the ink-ringed portal.
The skeleton that had created the portal, Ink, was nowhere to be seen, but he had to be coming back. He had promised Slippers he’d return, after all, which meant you needed to find a place to hide for now. Despite being an artist at heart, you didn’t want to risk imposing or scaring Ink and getting yourself kicked out of this place. There were bushes lining each side of the path, which curved forward through a small thicket of trees to a large, round meadow. There was a pond with some kind of miniature waterfall made of tumbled rocks, and a huge willow tree leaning over it, stroking the swelling water with its leaves. Beyond the pond the land vanished, ending abruptly to a star-spackled expanse of sky. Other small islands floated beyond, each having one or more doors, each door painted with its own unique pattern. They all seemed smaller than this one.
Footsteps pulled you from your thoughts, and without pause you threw yourself into the bushes beside the cobblestone. Ink appeared at the end of the path, clutching a leather wallet in one hand and massaging his temple with the other. He was cursing someone named Horror for challenging him to a drinking game, and cursing someone else named Sans for goading him into the wager. Without giving the bushes a second look he vanished through the portal, which closed behind him with a zipper-like movement.
You waited, tense beneath the tangle of branches, for several minutes, but Ink didn’t return. With a heavy sigh, you rolled out to the cobblestones once again and stood, adjusting your backpack over both shoulders and brushing off your paint-stained sweater and jeans. The path stretched out in front of you, just waiting for someone to travel the stones and explore this new, vast, odd world.
Grinning so hard it hurt, you obliged.