Housesitting with Nestor, Prologue

Author’s Note: In the city of Skymoore, as you are likely aware, there is a neighborhood or perhaps a sub-city called The Mish Mash. In the neighborhood or perhaps the sub-city called The Mish Mash, as you likely are not aware, there is a sub-neighborhood or perhaps a regular neighborhood called Easel Street. As you are likely aware at least in part if not in entirety, there is a once-abandoned art museum in the sub-neighborhood or perhaps regular neighborhood called Easel Street. This once-abandoned museum is now occupied by Teyla Eastwind, and as you likely do not know, there is a secret basement in this museum which contains a portal to the Infinite Hells. Specifically the slice of those Infinite Hells reserved for Teyla.

This is all to say, when in the ensuing scene Teyla walks into the basement and something strange happens to the geometry of the museum, that the strange geometry is not the work of the museum’s builder or previous tenants, who are all perfectly fine people who have never created portals to the Infinite Hells. (Not that no perfectly fine person has ever made a portal to the Infinite Hells. Things happen, and life takes all of us to unexpected places.)

Teyla Eastwind was frustrated, afraid, and paranoid. That is true both in the moment in which this story begins, and in the many moments and days and weeks prior. The sources of these emotions are varied and complex and would take many hour-long sessions with a licensed mental health professional to unearth and address, but Teyla did not think it was complicated, as we often do not.

As far as Teyla was concerned, the catalyst for her recent emotional state was her defeat at the hands of Karessa Plunderton and the gnome Nestor Pinkly. Teyla tried to send the people of the Mish Mash to mother, to save them, and Karessa stopped them because she is wicked and stupid, just like she always had been. This defeat left her frustrated (because she had been bested), afraid (because of what Mother would do when she found out), and paranoid (because Karessa had not come after Teyla despite apparently knowing where she lived).

Now, if Teyla were thinking rationally and strategically, she might have solved this last problem by simply leaving. But Teyla did not always think rationally, and certainly not where this museum was concerned. It was the only thing that brought her peace of mind.

The museum was constantly arranged in a gallery exhibit of Teyla’s own making. A tribute to the last gathering of the Allwinds, the larger extended family to which Teyla belonged. Statues of Peryn, Karid, Lorn, and Maryn – the Southwind, Northwind, Eastwind, and Westwind clan founders, respectively – were positioned at their appropriate wall. A diorama of the last great Allwind Race through the Alabaster Gorge in southern Penscarop topped the table in the center. Paintings of the clans, the scenery, the food, the feelings, every last subjective and objective detail was documented here.

However, on some days, and these days were increasing in number, Teyla was not content simply to remember what it was like to be present at this gathering, to live through one of her last good days. Observing and indulging in simulacra ceased to satiate.

On such occasions, Teyla ventured to the wooden door in the back of the gallery. The branches that composed it were merged seamlessly into the wall, as though some druid or elf had sung it into form. It felt pleasant to look upon, and more pleasant to stand near. It felt like nostalgia and home and belonging, all but the first of which Teyla had not come across in some time. To stand in the same room as that door and not pass through it was an act of constant disciplined abstinence.

In the moment we are presently observing Teyla, she is giving into her urges as she has been more and more often of late. She is opening the door which does not belong here, and she is stepping through it, and she is entering the Southern Cliffs where the Allwinds had their final gathering, and she is overlooking the Alabaster Gorge which is sparkling in the afternoon sun, which is hot in the way that makes you feel energized but not quite hot enough to cause significant discomfort. In other words, it is perfect.

On the rims of the gorge there are picnic tables and paper decorations and balloons and weightless rocks tethered to the ground as children wonder at their impossible majesty. Cousins whose names Teyla could not recall dance and laugh and throw frisbees and shoot arrows and do tricks. An uncle whose name she does not remember plays his magic piano, which replicates the sounds of an entire band, and he plays the song of the first Allwinds, and he plays it without flaw.

In other words, it is perfect.

On the edges of the sky there are red and black tendrils which frame this vision and there is cracked green stone which form the walls of this particular space of the Infinite Hells, and if you look wide enough you can see them and if you listen closely enough you can hear the souls of the failed devils who suffer for eternity so that Teyla could relive this memory, but Teyla does not look wide enough and she does not listen closely enough so she does not see or hear that which she would rather forget. In other words, it is perfect.

Standing on the edge of the Alabaster Gorge is a young avayla, only four years old, looking down with wonder. On days as bright as this, the river which flows through it, The Old One’s Vein, is the only visible color other than that brilliant white, which hurts the eyes but gives the fascinating appearance that the river is the only thing there. The girl feels like she is about to fall, but the sudden emergence of the racers in her periphery dispels the illusion and she is grounded once more.

She wonders at them, marvels at them, leans toward them. She wants to see them as close as possible. The way they glide and glitter and whip by her like a fish swimming through a stream. She wonders when she will learn to fly and if she will ever be as good as them. She wasn’t as strong or smart as her siblings, and all Teyla really wanted was to be the best at something. Perhaps this could be it. Yes, she thought. She was sure of it. But she has to be patient, because no avayla is going to fly at age four. Maybe in a year or two.

Then the racers are gone and everything is white and Teyla is leaning too close to the edge now. Equilibrium is lost once more and she tumbles forward, into the gorge. A brother whose name Teyla cannot recall gasps and reaches out for her but she is gone, she’s falling.

The world around her is a pure and solid whiteness, inscrutable and blinding, and she doesn’t know how long she will live before she hits the bottom. She shrieks and flaps and calls for help, and help would have come, but it wasn’t necessary. Her flapping steadies when she realizes she is falling no longer. She is flying! Or, she’s falling slower! But that’s almost like flying! Her kin watch in adoration and awe as Teyla flounders just a bit more, finds her footing (so to speak), and then rises. Teyla beams.

Then the world pulses, and everything goes red. The Teyla watching from the ledge feels a churning in her stomach, but she stays. The next part is the best part, but – no, she sees the borders of the stone chamber now. She resists the urge to look straight up and see the horrors that await her there.

Another pulse, an angrier pulse, a longer pulse.

Teyla gasped for air as she stepped back into the gallery, though she had not realized she was holding her breath. She ran as fast as her feeble legs would carry her up the stairs to the attic, her chest hoarse and raw by the time she arrived.

Across the room, hanging above the desk where she did her rituals and her studies, a mirror with a red-gold frame hung ominously without need of nail nor string nor any natural means of fastening. In her reflection, Teyla saw that some of her feathers had gone black, which should have concerned her, but there were other things which concerned her more.

“I’m sorry, mother,” she heaved.

Teyla’s gaunt, blackened reflection faded and The Scarlet Someone’s visage took its place. She sat on a massive throne of a chair, but their surroundings were otherwise unobservable. Mother had never revealed her location, despite Teyla’s repeated questions.

“Your dependence on that realm displeases me,” The Scarlet Someone said.

“I’m sorry, mother,” Teyla repeated.

“Do you want me to take it away?”

“No!”

“Then focus. Do you have the components I asked for?”

Teyla unfurled a burlap sack on her desk, revealing vials of powders, liquids, small stones, and a recently deceased lizard. “Of course.”

“Good. Though you failed, and failure is unacceptable, your initiative in creating that portal in the Mish Mash fills me with pride, my daughter.”

“I-” Teyla did not know whether to thank the Scarlet Someone or to apologize. “Yes, mother.”

“Now, I’ll walk you through this ritual once more, and this time you are not to fail me, do you understand? Give the mayor what he wants, and he’ll give you what you want, and you’ll give me what I want. Is that right?”

“Yes, mother.”

“If you have to kill the minotaur in the process, you have my permission to do so, dear. Hers would be a…disappointing loss, but the mission matters above all else. If Linda Arterford turns her blade against you, just do what we discussed, and you will be fine.”

“Yes, mother.”

“To work, then. By Winter’s end, we’ll have brought Skymoore and their intolerable Cabal to its knees.”

“Yes, mother.”

The Cutthroat’s Promise, Part Three

When Roland awoke, his world was fuzzy. For a Far One, this meant that the world looked and felt the way a crowded store sounded; a meaningless cacophony of noise. Feelings powerful and weak blurred together to form an incomprehensible soup of raw emotion. It was like a ringing in one’s ear, but everywhere.

Gradually, things came into focus. He could separate feelings into things like impatience, anticipation, boredom, and fear. Eventually he could place the general direction of those emotions – boredom directly in front of him, fear and anticipation far to his left. After nearly a minute he could figure out how many people were around him – six – and which emotions belonged to whom. After that, it was only a moment before a clear picture of his environment formed in Roland’s mind.

He was in a grocery store. From the looks of things, it was abandoned very suddenly, perhaps when whatever happened to the Mish Mash occurred. He was in the produce section, where the bits of fruit left untouched by foraging animals were rotting sweetly. He was also chained to a chair and guarded by the very minotaur who had knocked him out. Specific details were difficult for Roland to make out, especially in close proximity, but he thought he might have a bag over his head, meaning his captors knew woefully little about Far Ones.

“Did the captive just move?” asked the figure far to Roland’s left, a four-eyed, orange skinned humanoid with webbed wings under his arms. He was peeking out a window trepidatiously.

“What?” grunted the minotaur. “No, I don’t think so. You’re just on edge, Leek. Take a laxer.”

“No drugs, Lrant” whined a sharp, nasally voice from some far-off aisle hidden from Roland’s view. “Everyone must be fully cognizant for when Plunderton arrives.”

“What makes you so sure she’ll show up?” asked Lrant. “It’s not like people know where we hide out.” There was no comment for a while. “Right, Tac? Right?”

“I may have told…a few people,” said Tac. Several groans came from throughout the store. “Only the contacts I’m positive Plunderton will talk to, like Old Shelly Pockins, Dennis Bellkpop, Horzap Middleskin…”

“Middleskin!” cried a female voice. “That windbag can’t keep their mouth shut for three consecutive seconds.”

“That’s exactly my – oh, yes, I see your point,” murmured Tac. “No matter! Karessa Plunderton must pay, no matter what the cost. We can always find a new hideout.”

Another collective groan. “Or we could just let the girl take her friend,” said Lrant, “and publicly distance ourselves from you.”

“You can’t do that! I’m the leader, you can’t fire the leader!”

“I thought you said we didn’t have a leader,” said Leek.

Tac fumbled for a moment. “We don’t! But I’m clearly the most useful, what with my knowledge of the eldritch and arcane. Besides –” Leek yelped as an item fell suddenly off one of the shelves. “Calm down, Leek. It must have been placed precarious –” Another item fell further down the aisle. “Okay, everyone on their guard,” said Tac.

“Not that you’re the leader,” mumbled Lrant.

Roland would have been smiling to himself if he could. For when he concentrated he felt a presence in the aisle; a small and familiar one. But at the same time, he worried about what Alph could possibly do here on his own.

Suddenly a guard at the far end of the produce section grunted as something collided with the side of their head. It was a bag of flour, resulting in a fluffy cloud of the stuff, leaving them confused and obscured as a second bag hit them in the ribcage. Lrant looked down at Roland uncertainly, picked up a decaying watermelon, and then charged into the cloud. Moments later, a fit of terrible sneezing broke out from within.

“Lrant’s terribly allergic to flour,” whispered Karessa Plunderton, who was suddenly by Roland’s side, “and terribly stupid to boot.” She produced a pair of bolt cutters from behind her back and set about severing the chain. “Man, I’ll miss this place. You could find everything here.”

Thank you, Karessa. This is most unexpected.

“Don’t thank me,” she muttered as the chain fell to the floor. “You’re in this mess cuz of me, and I’m only in this mess because Alph dragged me into it.”

Roland could feel her sadness, and it chilled him. All the same, your presence now is even more pleasant than usual. He followed Karessa into one of the aisles, but she put a hand out to stop him. A frightened Leek passed by without paying them any heed. Where is Alph now? Did you have a plan beyond distraction? I cannot feel him.

“Damn,” Karessa muttered. “That was the plan. He’s searching for the necklace. I was hoping you could unite us.”

Roland sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the aisle. Keep a lookout, then. I can expand my range of perception, but it requires such mental exertion that it dampens my physical faculties. I may fall over. Karessa stood behind him and put her arms on his shoulders. Her touch was comforting. Thank you.

There were a number of different ways to accomplish Roland’s goal, but with his head still recovering and time being of the essence, he focused on the quickest and least helpful method. He thought about Alph’s essence – what the Minitoan felt liked, sounded like, thought like – and tuned his mind to filter out objects and lifeforms that were too dissimilar. The result was a complete loss of his sense of place; a shelf or a can of corn was so far removed from Alph that it no longer existed in Roland’s current perception. He felt for a moment that he was nowhere, adrift in a sea of emptiness, but Karessa’s touch anchored him to reality.

Initially he could feel the presences of Leek and Lrant and the others, but he filtered through them until the only object in the mindscape was Alph, surrounded by nothing in a location about thirty feet northeast of Roland. Normally this was a desolate, alienating experience, but it wasn’t so when he could feel Alph and Karessa and himself. It felt like home.

With Karessa’s good sense for stealth and Roland’s navigation, the two easily slipped through the store unnoticed by Tac’s nervous and nauseated guards. It seemed that Alph had made his way to the manager’s office. The door was open just a crack, enough for a tiny detective to slip on through.

Karessa led the way, creeping into the office, only to be greeted by a dark purple flash of light. She grunted and fell to her knees.

Karessa! Roland projected into her mind, but there was no response. She stared vacantly at the floor.

The door swung outward to reveal a dilapidated office that had probably never been nice. Atop a wobbly desk within was a pristine golden statue of a wide head with two hands pressed against its cheeks. On its nose were two circles, one nested inside the other, with a slot for a jewel in the center. A necklace with daggers for chains was wrapped around its head, with the amethyst centerpiece placed in the slot.

Standing beside the desk was a smug-looking white-furred man whose features were not unlike a cat. Dangling upside-down from his hand was Alph, trying and failing to loosen some article of clothing that might set him free.

“Found the necklace,” deadpanned Alph through grunts of effort.

“Just as I was hoping you would,” said Tac. “Well, hoping she would, anyway. You were merely convenient.”

What do you want with her? asked Roland.

Karessa stood suddenly and looked at Roland, her purple irises now surrounded by a darker purple cornea. “I’m going to tell everyone in the Mish Mash what I’ve done,” Karessa said, in a tone that was very distinctly not her own. It didn’t feel like her. It felt the way it did when someone lied, only more intense. Roland’s mind churned. “I’ve been such a terrible friend. And person.”

What did you do? Roland asked, before fixing his gaze on Tac. What did she do?

“Why don’t you come to her show?” Tac asked. “She’s about to shout it from the top of the Claw’s tower.”

Stop this. Whatever mistakes she’s made, she’s better now. She’s trying to be better.

“Far too little, far too late, I’m afraid,” said Tac. “If I was really sorry,” he added through Karessa, “I wouldn’t have turned my back on those who trusted me. Now come on and find me at the tower in, say, fifteen minutes? Twenty? I’m sure the Cabal will be really interested in what I have to share!”

Karessa started skipping toward the entrance of the store. When Roland went to pursue her, he found his way was blocked by Leek, Lrant, and the others. Fearful and desperate, Roland did something he would never consider under any other circumstance when he joined their minds together without permission.

They were floating there again, in the vast mindscape. Rather than existing in distinct planes as they did before, their essences ran together like watercolor. Only now Karessa’s blue sea had been replaced by a sickly green, save for a small bubble surrounding her.

Is this you? Roland asked.

Yeah, Karessa replied, and it was.

Tac is controlling your body.

I know. It feels horrible. Like throwing up but instead of puke, words and actions come out. They were both silent for a moment, unsure what to say in this sickening stew. I like your voice here. It sounds more real.

The night sky swirled in delight. Thank you, said Roland, yours does as well.

Really? That’s weird. But in a good way. I like the way you’re weird.

Stars continued to race and flutter impossibly against the darkness, like the world had butterflies in its stomach. That means a lot.

As they floated there, awkwardly taking each other in, the green began to trail around them in wisps, and Karessa’s bubble corroded slightly.

We’re going to need to go deeper into the mindscape again.

When Karessa sighed, a breeze of dread passed through the void, displacing the colors. I figured we might.

We may have to confront whatever it is you’re afraid of.

I figured that, too. Roland could feel her knots in his stomach. They floated there for a beat, waiting for something to happen. I don’t wanna. What happens if I leave my bubble?

Roland paddled over to her and reached seamlessly into the blue, taking her hand in his. Far Ones’ skin was often cold, and Karessa’s warmth was like a cozy fire against his hand. I won’t let anything happen to you. Not here. The only things we have to fear are in the past, where they can’t hurt us.

We’ll see, Karessa said, relenting. The two drifted into the night sky, a trail of ocean following where they went. The sickly green chased them as they moved across the flat expanse, but it seemed unable to reach them.

This is so cool and weird, Karessa said. This is what the world is like for you? Color and feeling?

Sort of. It’s more abstract when shared with another. And more beautiful.

Karessa pointed out a red star in the distance. I think it’s that way. I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but it feels that way.

‘It’ turned out not to be a star, but a circular window with velvet curtains, floating in space. Karessa swore, and it echoed from everywhere at once.

You’re okay, Roland assured her. Whatever is in there already happened, approximately.

But then you’ll see it.

If that’s what you’re afraid of, that’s what needs to happen for us to fully bond.

And if we don’t?

Roland looked to the grimy color poisoning their mindscape. The world pulsed fearfully. Karessa squeezed his hand once, and pushed through the velvet curtains.

She was younger again. Unlike last time, her body remained much the same, but you could see it in her eyes; there was a different light behind them. She descended gently into a room that looked to be a long-forgotten ice cream parlor. There was something mysterious and incongruous about the nicely kept curtains, but Karessa hadn’t even thought about them until after the fact. Whether that was an enchantment or a lack of observation, she couldn’t say.

Kelsie had called this place the most expensive building in all the Mish Mash, and when Karessa stepped into its break room, she understood why. All of the walls, including the other side of the door Karessa walked through, were coated in a heavy, translucent, reddish purple crystal. It looked almost like a natural formation, all bumpy and uneven, as though this ice cream shop just had a mystical cavern sitting within its walls.

Sitting at one of the three tables was Kelsie Rithma, a young white-furred kawatoa woman, working through a book of brain teasers. “Glad you could make it,” she murmured without looking up. “Nice to see you haven’t sold us entirely up the street.”

Karessa’s heart raced and her chest twisted as she took a seat opposite Kelsie. I didn’t sell you up the street at all she replied weakly. Kelsie kept writing in her book. I’m getting us out of here. You, me, Teyla, Tac, Leek…we’re all getting out, Kelsie. Now that we’re square, The Furnace said he’s got three places lined up out in the agricultural district. Rent free for a year, so long as we help out the Darkholms for a bit. We’ll get real jobs, just like I said. We can finally get my mom the help she needs. But they need five of us, so we all need to sign. You have to be with me.

Kelsie didn’t say anything for what seemed like half an hour, but must only have been a few minutes. The crystal walls slowly contracted like an organ around the pair, until there was nothing to the room but themselves and the table. Kelsie completed the page she was working on, smirked for a moment, and closed the book. The smirk died. Karessa shifted fearfully. “Let me be clear. You paid twenty-thousand scales to the Furnace on the condition that we all agree to leave the Mish Mash after I explicitly refused this?”

Yes, because I know that you love your family.

“You mean you know that I love you, and you’re using my feelings against me.”

Karessa and Roland felt that in their heart. Because it was true. She clenched and unclenched her hands on the table. The money is already spent, Kelsie. It’s the only choice now. Kelsie’s jaw tightened and she dug her claws into the wooden table until it cracked. Kelsie?

“I don’t have a choice, Karessa. You took it away from me.” The words sounded like they were pulled forcibly from her throat. “I don’t have a choice. Hardly anyone in the Mish Mash does. Thanks to the Furnace, and the Cabal.” That was the first time Karessa had ever heard anyone say the name out loud; it was like hearing a dirty word for the first time, both shocking and alluring. “We were going to alleviate one of those problems. Twenty thousand scales, Karessa. That’s all it would have cost to make the Furnace disappear forever. The Mish Mash could crawl out from under his thumb and into the light. In the long run we could have made real change, for everyone. You chose immediate change for five of us.”

People that we love, Kelsie. And Tac. We can still create that lasting change from the outside. You’re so smart! You can get into politics or something.

Kelsie closed her eyes. “You like to play at being an adult, Karessa,” she said dismissively, “but you’re still a child. The politics out there don’t matter. That’s The Cabal’s realm. In here, though. We could have made a difference.”

We can! We’re going to! We can tell everyone what it’s like here, we can – we can do something! But first we deserve a better life.

“And you’ve damned Leek and Lrant, too, you realize. The guard knows that they’re the ones who stole from the Windomeres.”

The Furnace is going to make that all go away!

“If you sign his deal, which you won’t. You can’t. It’s impossible, Karessa.” She tried to respond but Kelsie put up a paw, and her words hitched in her throat. Kelsie took a slow breath. “It’s impossible, Karessa, because I cannot leave the Mish Mash.” Kelsie stood. “It’s impossible for the same reason I wear a one-piece at the pool.”

Wh-

Kelsie turned her back to Karessa and removed her top. There was a bald spot in the middle of her back, exposing dark flesh. There was a tattoo there, a dense spiral with lines connecting the various layers at seemingly random points throughout. It was glowing a faint blue. Kelsie replaced her shirt, and took a seat.

“That mark is branded on certain criminals. Those the Cabal deems truly dangerous, or troublesome. Those who wear it are rendered physically incapable of leaving the Mish Mash. Doing so will result in their death. Sharing this information with anyone will result in their death and the death of the person they’ve told. Don’t freak out, the crystals block out horoscopy. This is probably the one safe place in Skymoore to reveal that.

“But yes. It’s true. The Mish Mash really was built when the people of Skymoore put all the undesirable people in one location, and they only stopped doing that publicly. This neighborhood isn’t poor because people don’t want better economic prospects for themselves, it’s poor because The Cabal systemically traps its enemies in one location and does everything in their power to prevent them from physical and economic mobility. If a bunch of poor criminals live in squalor, that seems just and right to people. Nobody bats an eye. A secret prison in plain sight.”

Karessa’s face fell. So the Furnace…

Kelsie pushed her chair away from the table and stood up. “He played you, Karessa. And he won. All because you wouldn’t listen to me. So yes, you did sell me up the street, but not before you stabbed me in the back.”

Karessa jumped up on her chair. But that’s not the end! We can still stop him, we can still –”

“No, we can’t do anything. I’m going to stop him, Karessa. I’m going to rule the whole blasted Mish Mash and he’s going to lick the pads of my feet. And I’m going to do it alone, even though you’ve made my enemy twenty thousand scales richer.”

K, wait!

“You are so beyond having chances, K. I told you what I needed, but you did what you wanted anyway. If you really want to be a grown up, you’re going to have to understand that. And you’re going to have to leave me alone.”

As Karessa went to respond, everything went completely silent. The ceiling of the room opened like a lid and the tight crystal walls around Karessa fell away as the room noiselessly came apart like a box unfolding. The entire world outside of it was white. One moment, Kelsie seemed to blend in with the white, and the next she was gone entirely.

Then Roland and Karessa were two again. Behind them, the sickening green approached. Before them, at the end of the unfolded room, what appeared to be the colorless flap of a tent floated in the air. The shadows of movement were visible beyond the thin fabric. Karessa took a step forward, and Roland caught her arm.

She took his hand off her and held it in her own, but when she continued forward, Roland remained in place.

What’s this all about, Roland? Wait. I’m like, I am you in here or something, right? There’s something you don’t want me to see? What could you not want me to see?

That.

We have to, though, don’t we?

Yes, I merely do not want to. I suppose that’s irrelevant, though. Let us go. Roland barely moved of his own accord, so Karessa pulled him through the tent onto a busy, colorless street of the Mish Mash.

Only Roland emerged, and he was running. He was quite a bit smaller than he was now but, being featureless, looked otherwise the same. He clutched a small wall clock to his chest as he put as much distance between the watchmaker and himself as he could, as quickly as he could. People parted for him immediately, knowing that someone running like that in the Mish Mash was either a robber or being robbed, and nobody wanted any part of it without context.

Three figures pursued him. Each of them wore non-distinct clothes paired with the same featureless cardboard masks with eye and mouth holes. What they lacked in style they made up for with agility, weaving through the chaos with practiced grace.

Roland rifled through the surface thoughts of the bystanders and caught one of them eyeing a pile of crates in a branching alleyway. He scaled them clumsily and jumped to the building across, where a half-descended ladder was now within reach. He caught the ladder with one hand, clutching the wall clock with the other. The sudden weight caused the ladder’s locking mechanism to unlatch and descend the rest of the way. Roland hit the ground hard, sending painful shockwaves through his legs. The thieves were at the end of the alley now and approaching quickly. He put the clock in the waistband of his pants and scurried up the ladder.

Unlike Roland, the thieves were native to the Mish Mash, and therefore practiced climbers. Just as he pulled himself up, one of them grabbed his ankle and dug in with piercing claws, sending him crashing onto the roof. He rolled onto his back to spare the clock. It was a bulging, spoked brass square and would have hurt to fall on, but it was also the birthday gift his parents gave the week before nearly every Far One in Skymoore vanished six years prior. He was trying to get it repaired when he was attacked.

Scrambling up to his feet, he limped across the rooftop. There was a bridge at the end of it leading into a bar full of people. Some of them saw him, none of them helped. If anything, they watched with amused interest. Before he could make it through the door, a thief tackled him from his side and put him on his back. This one was only a little more than half his size, but they were probably twice as strong. They held down one of his wrists with ease as Roland pawed at their face with his free hand. He could have scrambled their brain with his mind if he wanted to, and he wanted to…

“Don’t fight back,” the thief growled, “we’ve got you.” When he heard their voice, Roland felt Karessa’s heart sink.

Roland pushed against the mask, revealing the face underneath. It was a dark-skinned halfling girl, maybe fourteen years old with sad determination in her eyes. Roland let his mind relax; something about those eyes dulled his anger. The rest of the story blurred together as the two other thieves joined their companion and left with the clock.

Roland stared up at the sky for some time, motionless. He might have been dead, but nobody in the bar bothered to check. He’d retreated into his mindscape, an infinite white void, empty as far as the eye could see and the mind could conceive.

Karessa pulled away, and suddenly they were their two, current selves, floating now in a bile-colored sea. They were in a bubble that was equal parts night sky and blue watercolor, struggling to resist the invasion.

I hurt you, Karessa said. Her face was twisted into a mural of grief.

It’s okay, Roland said.

How can you say that? How can you not hate me? I stole that clock from you; I sold it for money for stingers so I could sell them to kids who probably got hooked and ruined by them. I’m a monster, Roland.

There was a time that I did hate you, Karessa. But I did not know you. Eventually, I did. It can be a frustrating thing, being an unwilling empath. Sometimes you want to be angry at someone, but it’s hard to be truly angry at someone once you understand them. Typically it makes me sad, if anything. You needed that money so that you could support your mother.

I could have made money literally any other way.

But you grew up in the Mish Mash, and that is how people find success there. It is not your fault the Mish Mash is the way it is; we know that now more than ever. You only played within the system you were raised in. You’re making money legally now, by acting and working at Odd & Ends, and we both know how thin that is stretching you. I am happy that you have changed your way, but I do not begrudge the girl that was.

In lieu of a response, Karessa just projected a geyser of self-hated and outward rage.

Roland reached out a hand toward her. Join with me, Karessa. See yourself the way that I see you.

A primal growl filled the void. I don’t want to! Do you know how damn frustrating it is to talk to someone who is so…so logical? You’re not a person, Roland, you’re an alien! People get angry! I’m angry! At you, for acting so stoic and cool, and at me, for – for everything! All I am is a series of selfish mistakes. Wait…no, I didn’t mean what I said about you…I don’t…I don’t know where those thoughts came from.

I do.

Oh. Roland…no. That’s not…come here.

They pair joined hands and disappeared. The sphere became opaque, a perfect blend of their essences, and their thoughts became organized and entangled all at once.

Karessa Plunderton is a cisgender halfling girl age eighteen who grew up in the Mish Mash. Her father Clint Plunderton disappeared when she was eleven years old. She supported her grieving mother by turning to a life of crime with her friends Teyla Eastwind and Kelsie Rithma. Her hobbies include acting music and parkour. She is a devout follower of Orso the great bear but she is still figuring out what that means. She recently realized she might have romantic feelings for Kelsie Rithma whom she knows returns those feelings but she also believes that Kelsie deserves better than her. Karessa has a low opinion of herself. She believes that her mistakes make her irredeemable but she thinks that’s okay because in the grand scheme of things she does not matter. She believes that her mistakes come when she believes that she matters too much. What she misses however is that the things she comes to regret often come from a place of protecting those she loves. Her worst crimes come from an incomplete understanding of the situation as most peoples’ mistakes do. Her intent is rarely to harm and while that may not excuse her worst actions it does put them into a new perspective. Roland finds her determination and passion attractive.

Roland is a Far One who identifies as male though his species is sexless age eighteen. When he was eight years old his parents vanished along with most of Skymoore’s Far Ones. For a long time he thought that a clock was a representation of them. Eventually that clock was stolen from him and he thought they were gone. In time he came to realize that his memories of his parents such as the time they all rode skycycles off the edge of Skymoore were their real remnants. Ultimately it meant more for Karessa to feed her mother who is still with her than for Roland to keep a clock that belonged to his parents who are not here with him. Roland’s hobbies include set design baking and reading. In a strange and sad way he thinks that his parents might not be his family anymore in the meaningful way as he has not known them for the majority of his life. This leaves him uncertain who his family is but he thinks that Alph and the other Minitoa might be his family. He believes that his inherent telepathy makes him unapproachable and alien because he understands people better than they understand themselves. What he misses however is that these abilities pair with his own good nature to create a significant capacity for compassion that lead him to make choices that others might not such as taking in tiny aliens from another dimension. Karessa finds his strange way of speech and thought that results from these peculiarities quite charming.

Over time that was at once hours and instantaneous the colors of the bubble in the bile sea bled together until it became an imperfect watery purple with dark and light splotches and twinkling black stars scattered throughout like a magnificent alien sky.

The bubble grew until there was nothing else in the void and the purple starry night was all there was.

Karessa ceased her skipping mid-motion as a heavy tension in the air seemed to dissipate, replaced by a cautious air of uncertainty. Lrant and Leek weren’t sure what to do about Karessa now that the spell had failed, and Roland and Karessa weren’t really sure what to do about Tac now that they had had broken free.

So Alph took the initiative. “Give it up, Rithma!” he suggested from within the man’s hand. “Your doohickey has failed you, your lackeys are useless, and soon everyone in Skymoore is going to know what a creep you are.”

Tac set the Minitoa on the table beside the statue and looked out wild-eyed into the store. “You think I care at all about my reputation? This Far One may have saved Plunderton for now, but I still have the statue. If I can’t exact my revenge the way I wanted, fine, but I’ll never give up on you, Karessa.”

“How can you even hate me for what I did, Tac? You were the one who squandered all our money in the first place, you never even cared about my dreams or your sister’s. Unless…” Reality hit her suddenly.

Oh! Roland said.

“And there’s the final piece,” Alph agreed.

“Unless you never squandered the money! You didn’t spend twenty thousand scales on an expedition, did you? You only stole them to buy the necklace from me. You tricked me.”

All of Tac’s lackeys exchanged uncertain glances.

Tac grimaced. “And you fell for it as easily as you fell for the Furnace. But it was meant to be a victimless plan, you selfish child. If you had just listened to my sister, everyone could have had what they wanted. Well, unlike Kelsie, I have no childish affections to stop me from –umph!” Tac collapsed as Lrant hit him in the back of the head with a shopping basket.

“That felt good,” he said. “That guy has been asking us to do scarier and weirder things by the day for years. Keeps talking about taking over the Mish Mash, using mind slaves to commit crimes, that sort of thing. We don’t want to take over the Mish Mash, we don’t want mind slaves. But we put up with him, because family, you know? But family doesn’t lie to family.”

Roland and Karessa both thought that maybe family did not wait for the first lie as an excuse to punch out family, but what did they know?

“Family doesn’t ignore family either,” Leek said pointedly to Karessa. “We don’t think you deserve…whatever Tac had planned. But don’t think we forgive you, either. We’ll be feeling the effects of what you did for…forever I imagine.”

Karessa’s face slumped as she headed into the manager’s office. Lrant glared at her as she stepped over the unconscious Tac. Alph was standing on his toes on the desk, trying to untie the Cutthtroat’s Promise. Karessa gave him a hand.

“The day is won, Ms. Plunderton!” Alph exclaimed. “I knew we could do this if only the three of us worked together.” She only nodded in response as she took the necklace. “What are you up to there?” he asked as Karessa removed the amethyst from the chain.

“Here,” she said, handing the stone to Lrant. “Go pawn this thing for real. Stop depending on Tac. Use it to bribe Kelsie, buy yourself a crappy house, blow it all on gum, I don’t care. If you guys are…” he chose her words carefully, because of the Cabal, “if you two are in trouble because of my actions, it’s the least I can do.”

“But your mother’s necklace!” called Alph loudly, so his small voice could carry. “That stone matches your eyes! And what about our payment?”

“I’ll pay you, little guy. While Roland was protecting me…I saw some of his memories. You gave up your badge. You know as well as I do, family and home’s about more than things. It’s about people, and trust, and showing that you care.

“Leek, Lrant, I know we aren’t exactly family anymore. Or maybe we’re just estranged, I don’t know. But you guys were by my side during the hardest part of my life…I owe this to you.”

“Well we weren’t about to turn it away,” said Leek. “Thank you, Karessa.”

Lrant echoed the sentiment. After an uncomfortable couple of moments, everybody cleared out of the abandoned store.

That was very noble of you, Karessa, said Roland out on the streets of the Mish Mash.

Karessa sighed. “I guess. I wasn’t trying to be noble. Just wanted to make things square.” Roland could feel that this was true, and that’s what made it noble. Karessa could feel that he thought that, and it made both of them feel fuzzy. “So how long does this mind thing last? It’s kinda weird. I mean I like it…you know I like your weird.”

Roland laughed psychically. An hour, perhaps a few, depending on the strength of the bond.

“Can you get down to my level for a moment?” Roland tilted his head curiously, but crouched down all the same. Karessa leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek, or where his cheek would be if he’d had facial features. “Thank you for everything, Roland.” She looked up at his hat. “You, too, Alph.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately. Life’s a…lot. Let’s hang out one of these days without obligations. No theater, no mysteries, no bird migrations. Let’s like, play mini hockey or whatever it is regular young people do. Rob hospitals?”

Mini hockey sounds wonderful, Roland said with a note of amusement. I was planning to take next Tuesday off…

Karessa smiled an honest smile. “It’s a date.”

***

The remnants of Roland and Karessa’s psychic link lasted for three hours. It could be especially potent the first time, and especially disorienting. The pair experienced flashes of each other’s memories, surroundings, and emotions into the early morning.

As Roland and Alph had finally finished writing a report of the day’s events and Roland got into bed, he experienced a sequence of emotions and images he felt intrusive having witnessed.

He felt a daughter make a confession. He saw her mother look confused, angry, and hurt. He felt the daughter tighten up and release in a rhythmic spasm of sorrow. He felt comfort and guilt battle for dominance as the mother embraced her daughter. The pair fell asleep in a bed of forgiveness and sorrow.

The Cutthroat’s Promise, Part Two

Skymoore’s government district was a maze of false fronts, twisting corridors, and shady organizations. Navigating it and finding something as simple as the post office’s administration department could be a weeklong affair, unless you were willing to pay the price. A few scales here, a piece of your soul there.

The powers that be realized, of course that this could be a problem for public relations. So, they created the government subdistrict, a gated community in the fancy part of Skymoore, where the aristocrats hid from the poor and any signs of those who suffered for their comfort. Roland had never been an especially political soul, but he knew when something was unfair. That the aristocrats could live in mansions while the Mish Mash could exist in squalor, ignored by all, well that would be a crime if the perpetrators weren’t the ones making the rules.

And that is to say nothing of the Shelter for the Unusually Homed. “Unusually homed” is what the powers that be called those who slept on the street, under bridges, and in old warehouses where the leftover Majicite dust caused irreparable damage to eyesight and structural integrity of all your favorite body parts. It was a terrible misnomer. The Minitoa who lived under Roland’s desk while they searched for a way back to their homeworlds were “unusually homed.” The former categories were victims of a societal illness upon which the government was content to place a band-aid. Continue reading “The Cutthroat’s Promise, Part Two”

The Cutthroat’s Promise, Part One

It was a quiet day at Beyond Investigations. The pile of cases on Roland’s desk was empty as a church on Friday night. His office was still, save for the flickering of the lantern that hung just a bit too low in the center. Indeed, Roland was anticipating a slow day today, and that was just fine; you didn’t get a lot of days off as a set designer who moonlights as a private detective and sells baked goods on the side. It’s a hard life, but someone’s gotta do it.

Just as Roland gets up to call it quits for the day, in walks a dame whose every feature is like the night sky – dark, mysterious, but radiant all the same. Roland knows the look of trouble when he sees it, and sits right back down in his seat, ready to hear what she has to say, ready to accept whatever curveball she threw his way.

“Oh, hey Roland. Didn’t know this was your place.” Continue reading “The Cutthroat’s Promise, Part One”

The Soul of Skymoore, Part Two

The city of Skymoore was dark and snowy in the fortnight following Odd & Ends’ Heart’s Desire sale. Proper, natural snow that came from clouds rather than Aftermaj storms. Donovan typically took pleasure in observing the changing of Seasons, but the beginning of Winter was the last thing on the shop keep’s mind as the final Season of the year announced its presence.

The first thing on his mind, he was surprised to find, was that Hega had not bothered to check on him after their encounter at the bank. When he stopped by her home to make sure she was okay, she explained that she stopped by the day after, but Odd & Ends was full of people following up on the second day of their sale, and she didn’t get a chance to say hello. She cut their visit very short, as she was busy helping Jerun Pollin revise his security protocols. Continue reading “The Soul of Skymoore, Part Two”

“We Will Weather the Storm”

“You’re really staying in Skymoore, Malleus?” asked Deyna dil Stillbreeze, a mountain elf whose dark skin looked purple beneath the night sky. “Couldn’t pay me to stick around there.”

“People were right,” agreed her twin brother Majorge, “that place isn’t of this world. Have you ever seen such catastrophe at a market in your life, sir?”

“That isn’t even to mention what happened at the bank! And the holes that open out of nowhere, and the complete lack of inns. Where will you even stay?”

Malleus Silverscale did not look concerned. His draconic eyes were fixed upon their campfire thoughtfully. He and his companions were hidden among a dip in the hills, but all around them, columns of smoke rose in the air as over a dozen separate camps settled in for the night, either planning to return to Skymoore the following day, or readying for the trek home. “There are always hospitable people, I’ve found. The peculiarities and dangers of which you speak are exactly why I’m staying; it’s true what you say, there’s something not right with Skymoore. I’ve grown fond of you over the course of journey, but I understand if you must go.” Continue reading ““We Will Weather the Storm””

Heart’s Desire, Epilogue

When Donovan awoke, it was dark outside. The Pale Moon reflected its dim light upon western Skymoore, but it did little to alleviate the heavy cloak of night. Nestor Pinkly still slept soundly, holding his top hat like a child might hold a teddy bear, and murmured softly to himself about the high cost of pickle juice in the capital of Westergard. This could have been nonsense, or a memory from Nestor’s past on the surface, or maybe The Capital of Westergard was some kind of pickle juice bar in Skymoore with unreasonable prices. It was well and truly anybody’s guess.

It took a moment or two for the memories of the day to really settle in Donovan’s brain, and for him to separate dream from reality. As far as he could tell, it was all reality. It wasn’t often that the Suntouched had a day that stretched the limits of credibility, but it was happening more and more often in his forced retirement. Continue reading “Heart’s Desire, Epilogue”

Heart’s Desire, Part Seven

It couldn’t have been fifteen minutes later that Donovan Allman awakened with a start. How could he have fallen asleep with the Cabal about to invade Odd & Ends? Donovan hadn’t quite assessed how time worked in the Soul, but it was still an awfully foolish thing to do.

The train was now in a tunnel, but it didn’t look like the part of the Soul he knew. The cave was too natural. When it pulled into a station, which seemed to lead further into this tunnel system, Donovan got out for a moment to assess the map of all the stops. A lot of them had meaningless smudges where the names ought to be, and empty space where the map ought to be, but it was still shaped approximately like Skymoore. The next stop would take him closer to Odd & Ends.

While he waited for his destination, Donovan took a quick stroll about the train. Like much of the Soul, it was a work in progress, but the basic shape of the thing was there. Naturally, a large entertainment car was the centerpiece, with a glittering silver stage in the center. Attached to that was a car full of unlocked dressing rooms. Feeling a little chilly after his swamp water mishap, Donovan pulled a green satin cloak around himself. It was one of the first new items of clothing he’d acquired in Skymoore, and the first new cloak he’d worn since Asylum gave him his old traveling cloak two decades ago. Continue reading “Heart’s Desire, Part Seven”

Heart’s Desire, Part Six

The first masked figure to reach them slashed at Donovan with a stained-glass claw, grazing the front of his tunic and leaving razor-thin tears. Donovan took a few steps back, and Hega barreled forward, slamming her shoulder into the figure’s knees and toppling them over. She smashed the glass claw beneath her foot, crushing the human hand beneath, and drew a heavy baton from her hip, daring the next attacker to come. And come they did.

Donovan hung back. He was certain now that everything going wrong with his day was the result of his curse interfering with his life yet again. He thought that by opposing the Cabal in this passive way, through the Heart’s Desire sale, he had found a loophole in the curse. But the rodom thieves and now this proved it; there was no loophole, there was only the curse.

Continue reading “Heart’s Desire, Part Six”

Heart’s Desire, Part Five

The First Bank of Skymoore, Also Called the Last Bank of Seamoore, Formerly Called the Second Bank of Seamoore was easily Skymoore’s longest building, with a walkway as wide as its name and a garden fit for royalty of a particularly decadent nature, containing more unique flowers in its expansive lawn than the bank had customers (and as it was Skymoore’s only legal bank outside the Mish Mash…it had many, many customers).

By the time Donovan and Hega neared its illustrious walkway, half a dozen guards were frantically trying to place a number of flimsy-looking sandbags to obstruct it, lacking both the manpower and the bag quantity to sufficiently stop an excited toddler, let alone a rampaging rodom. Hega told them as much. Continue reading “Heart’s Desire, Part Five”