Even with the Pale Moon full and the stars bright, the forest within Dol Belvargamar’s walls was thick with darkness. The trees were still, the beasts slept, and Karessa Plunderton was terrified.
She was bound by rope to a tree at the edge of a clearing. Standing guard of her was Karessa’s captor, a well-armed human with a blade to her throat. Karessa closed her eyes and allowed the fear to flow through her, to rack her body and show on her face, propelling her toward what happened next.
And then The Suntouched stepped into the clearing wielding the fabled spear, Mordon’s Tail. Karessa’s stomach lurched and her heart soared. The hero’s light-red skin seemed to reflect the dim moonlight, illuminating the clearing and causing Karessa’s captor to avert his eyes.
Now the moment was upon her. Everything was riding on the next second of her life. Fear rose in her throat. Good, fear. She could use that. Before she had time to think it over, the words escaped her lips: “Save me, Suntouched!”
Her delivery was perfect. She nailed it. She had to fight back a smile.
From there she watched the fight unfold, feigning interest. The Suntouched’s fight against Brendon Missingtooth was the most impressive part of the play for sure, but she’d seen it a hundred times and no quality of choreography was going to make the Suntouched’s makeup less splotchy, or make Missingtooth’s throwing axes look any less cheap.
But she nailed her line. So it wasn’t all bad.
Delia Findlesmith awaited Karessa backstage. If it was possible for your typical, teenage halfling to have something so grand as an arch-nemesis, Delia was Karessa’s. And, unfortunately for Karessa, Delia was everything you do not want your arch-nemesis to be: well-liked, talented, and arguably the most beautiful person in Skymoore. It certainly didn’t help that she was an elf. Everyone loved elves.
“Thanks for filling in for me,” Delia said with a level of faux-friendliness that takes years to master. “I had a thing with my family. Synchronic Meditation. It’s an elven thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
This was a lie, Karessa knew (not the Synchronic Meditation thing. She really wouldn’t understand). Delia just had her lines memorized already and didn’t want to spend ten minutes tied to a tree while Devin Potterby delivered a monologue about the economic circumstances that drove Brendon Missingtooth to kidnap Lady Erelith Hatchet. In reality, Delia was probably off sucking face with a set designer or writing a song about how great it was to live for six-hundred years.
“And you were so great, too,” Delia said. Karessa felt her face getting hot as she looked at the floorboards. She was terrible, she knew. “Give it a few months and you might even be understudy material. Maybe even my understudy. Oh don’t look like that. I know you’re a halfling and all but they’re very progressive here.”
“Thanks,” Karessa murmured, and walked out to the seats where she could watch the rest of the rehearsal and feel shitty about herself in peace.
Gwendolyn Bottlehelm, the human director of most plays at The Luminous, gestured for Karessa to sit beside her. “Your inflection wasn’t bad,” she whispered as the show continued before them. “I might be able to set you up with a small speaking role if you’d be interested.”
Karessa told her that she was very interested, and the idea of finally getting a role made her spirit soar. But the knowledge that she wasn’t actually any good and that Gwendolyn was just being nice brought her back down to earth (or the Skymoore equivalent). She stewed in Delia’s comment for the remaining twenty minutes of rehearsal, and when the lights came up and Gwendolyn told some people that they’d performed adequately and others that they’d performed terribly, Karessa had decided that she was going to decline Gwendolyn’s offer now to spare herself any further embarrassment.
Being a halfling, it was easy for Karessa to get lost among the tide of those rushing to clean up the theater and those flowing out of the building. In her search for the director, she walked headfirst into the lower torso of a man she didn’t recognize. Karessa was a poor judge of human years, but he looked to be nearly thirty. His black hair was trimmed short and combed neatly, but from worn boots to a tattered cloak, his once-nice clothes told the tale of a man who didn’t often bother about his appearance. But most of all, Karessa was struck by his eyes, which were locked uncomfortably with her own. They were clearly green by birth, but for a moment a variety of colors seemed to dance just beneath the surface of his irises. When Karessa blinked, they were a solid color once more.
“Excuse me,” he said awkwardly. “Have I come at a bad time?”
“Well, I’m not sure how you got in here. Wasn’t the door locked?” The man cleared his throat and shook his head. He looked embarrassed. “Doesn’t matter. Rehearsal just finished.”
The man stared at the stage for a few moments, nodding distantly. Then, suddenly, he seemed to remember why he was there. “I was told the theater would be a fine place to find people in search of gainful employment. Is this true?”
Karessa laughed bitterly. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s true.”
“Well I’ve just opened a store here and –”
“Say no more. Whatever it is, I want it.”
Karessa nodded. Social circles were a big deal in Skymoore. Who you were friends with determined what kind of jobs, education, and reputation one could obtain. Karessa’s circles were lacking in the employer department. Or even the employee department. “Really.”
The man looked relieved. “Well then,” he said, leaning down a bit and offering his hand. “Donovan Allman. I’ll be your boss, and you’ll be my clerk.”
Donovan’s attention returned to the stage, where the remnants of the cast and crew cleaned up the set. He seemed interested in Lesol, the lead actor. “What’s this production?”
“The Red Moon’s Shadow. It’s from a local writer. It’s about the Suntouched and-”
“I’m surprised you’re familiar with him all the way up here. Has he ever been in town?”
Now Karessa was surprised. “Well, no. He hasn’t been here. But who doesn’t know about the Suntouched? If you slay an undead dragon or personally prevent the planet from literally falling apart – twice – people are going to know about you. Even up here.”
Donovan nodded, smiling as if he’d heard an inside joke. “I should have known you haven’t seen him. You got the skin tone all wrong. He’s got a permanent sunburn, not a mishap with his mother’s vanity.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“From atop the walls of Castiron, yes. And from the ramparts of castle Belmov as he did battle against the Army of Below. I was something of a nomad down on Solkin, and our paths would cross from time to time.” He looked sheepish as he fiddled with a sapphire ring on his right hand. The jewel was engraved with a rune in a script Karessa didn’t recognize. “If I’m being honest, I may have been a bit of a fan, in the boyish sense. I would interview people who fought beside him, and those who spoke with him. I never met him personally, but sometimes it feels like I have. I’ve even written a book…”
“You should talk with the director,” Karessa said. “You could probably help her with her historical accuracy or whatever.”
“Another time,” Donovan said. “The store I’ve told you about…where you’re working…it’s opening today.” Karessa stared at him blankly. “Come along. There’s still much to do.”
“So you’ll be a clerk,” Donovan was saying as he walked Karessa to his shop. They were walking through a narrow neighborhood where dwarven children were running around and playing a game called polardogm which Karessa had never been taught, nor ever bothered to understand. “I don’t know what the education is like here, but you look like you’re a teenager so you must know basic mathematics, yes? That reminds me, I’ll have to interview you. If you fail, do you know anyone else who’d be interested?”
Karessa quickly reached for Donovan’s cloak to stop him in his tracts. He stopped, startled, and turned to her quizzically. “Did I offend you?”
“Watch your step,” she said, pointing to a melon-sized hole at Donovan’s feet. A faint rushing sound could be heard as air was pulled through it, and a cautious look would reveal only clouds beyond it. “Aftermaj.” Donovan remained quizzical. “You really aren’t from here. They’re like…holes in reality. Leftover magic from the spell that lifted the city off the ground. It does all sorts of stuff. Sometimes it’s fun, like fireworks. Sometimes it’s less fun, like a six-minute fall to your agonizingly-long death during which you are forced to face the reality that no one you love will ever find the pasty smear that was once your body.”
“Oh.” Donovan stepped gingerly around the hole, and continued walking.
“So what’s this place called again?” Karessa asked.
“Odds & Ends. Odd & Ends, I mean. There was an error with…well, it doesn’t matter.”
As they neared the end of the street, something in the air felt off to Karessa. The dwarf children were still shouting, but the patter of feet was gone. It occurred to her that their shouts were no longer playful, but fearful.
Behind her, at the other end of the street, a plump dwarven child was paralyzed with fear. All around her, aftermaj holes had opened up, and the only way she was going anywhere was with a daring leap. Before Karessa could shout for his attention, Donovan was already foolishly running straight for her.
Surface folk, Karessa thought.
She ran for the porch of the nearest house, where a small crate labeled “Aftermaj Survival Kit” sat. Then, in smaller letters, it read: “In case of emergency, speak a private memory which you have placed on file with the Office of Public Privacy.”
“Two-years-ago-I-made-out-with-Bobby-Wolfbane-even-though-he-had-a-girlfriend.” The crate opened, and Karessa grabbed a coil of rope.
Down the street, Donovan leapt over the gap, landing next to the little girl. But his landing was off and he twisted his ankle, sending himself and the girl tumbling through one of the holes. He managed to grab onto the ledge as the girl clutched at his faded boots, but it was clear the situation would not last.
Karessa tied the rope around herself and broke into a sprint, tossing the other end to one of the children. “Tie it to something strong,” she shouted as she neared the holes. She stopped as she prepared to jump, looked over her shoulder and added, “and hang onto it!”
Or she would have, if reality hadn’t shifted once more, fusing the four holes into one giant hole. The ground disappeared beneath her feet, and her words were lost in the thunderous yawning of the white void beneath her. She could hear nothing, see nothing, and until the rope yanked against her as it went taught, she could feel nothing.
The rope she’d grabbed was long, and she hung suspended about ten feet below Donovan. Over fifteen feet below Skymoore. Clouds misted over her, curling her hair and chilling her bones. Donovan looked from the dwarven child to Karessa in unfiltered horror.
Seeing nothing else to do, Karessa began to swing. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Slowly, surely, she gained momentum.
Donovan’s boot began to slip. The girl’s screams became audible, even over the rushing air. She let go.
Karessa couldn’t believe the timing worked out. That fate handed her this victory. The dwarven girl was in her arms, but a dwarven child was almost as tall as a teenage halfling, and Karessa didn’t know how long she could maintain this.
Donovan stared at her with intense fascination. Not with attraction, but just…interest. Like an apathetic halfling teenager was something he’d just seen for the first time.
She shouted at him.
He just stared.
“PULL ME UP!” Karessa roared, using all the air in her lungs and all the energy in her body. She thought she might faint.
But her shout was like a splash of cold water, and Donovan was spurred into action. He pulled himself back up to the surface, and as she waited for him to help her, she thought about what it would be like to fall for those six minutes.
It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
Back firmly on Skymoore, Karessa gasped for air like she’d been held underwater. Some seconds later, she could feel the ground returning to normal. The dwarven girl clutched Donovan’s leg tightly. He looked down at Karessa.
“You passed the interview,” he said, astonished.
Karessa almost laughed at his joke, but instead she just passed out.