“And you’re sure you have the strength to work today?” Donovan asked uncertainly. After the incident with the aftermaj hole, Karessa had insisted she was fine. She even offered to walk Donovan to the blacksmith when he brought it up.
“Are you kidding me?” Karessa replied. “After that adrenaline rush, you think I’m just gonna have a lie down?”
“If you’re sure…” Karessa assured him that she was. “…then I appreciate the commitment. Think you can find your way to the store? I’m sure Nestor could use a hand.”
“Boring building by the docks. Got it.”
And that was that. Donovan now had both a business partner and an employee. And with any luck, soon he would have a doorknob as well.
Unlike most businesses in Skymoore, which were situated in the denser parts of town, Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks was located on the outskirts in the agriculture district. Also unlike most businesses in Skymoore, its pink edifice was modern and pristine. Its name hung neatly above the door, printed as if by a typewriter, and its welcome mat fit tastefully with its exterior.
A tring greeted Donovan as he pushed open the door, accompanied immediately by an exasperated young woman within: “wipe your feet, please!”
The front room of Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks looked less like a smithy and more like a traditional store. One wall contained weapons (training gear only), one contained tools, and the middle of the store was filled with various items of metal and stone, from home fountains to ornate lamps.
Behind a counter was a young woman who looked mostly human, but with foliage for hair. Perhaps half-dryad. She was engaged in the vigorous shining of a brass bell that looked to Donovan as though it were perfectly shiny. “Sorry for yelling,” she said as Donovan entered. “It’s just-” she cringed for a moment as she finally laid eyes on him. “I just washed the floor for the second time today and I’m hoping to leave it that way. Is it possible we could conduct business without you coming any closer? Oh, uh, by the way welcome to Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks. If you need iron we’ll be happy to work…on it…no, that’s not right.”
“Are you Ingrid?” Donovan asked, standing uncomfortable and still in the open doorway.
“Huh? Oh, no. Sorry. My name is Tabitha Darkholm. I’m Ingrid’s apprentice. Third one this year.” She punctuated the sentence with a heavy sigh, deflating her high-strung demeanor. It came back immediately, as she unwrapped a brand new feather duster and began to clean the surface of the counter. “So how can we help you today at Ingrid’s? Need a sword. You look like the kind who could use a sword.”
“No… actually, I.”
“Oh good. We don’t make swords.”
“Is Ingrid here? May I speak with her? I need to have some door knobs custom made. Getting started now, if possible.”
Tabitha’s face fell. “Oh, you want Ingrid? I can…I can fill out the order. Get started right away.”
“I’d just feel better talking to the owner. This is of immediate importance.”
“You want to talk to Ingrid?”
Tabitha’s eyes darted back and forth across the surface of the counter before she took a deep breath and entered a door leading into what Donovan assumed was the forge. After a moment she emerged, accompanied by a human woman who looked a little older than Donovan. She had long, flat brown hair, and brilliant purple eyes. Her clothes were simple, but entirely without wrinkle, stain, or blemish of any kind. Everything about her was tight, prim, and proper, with the arguable exception of a number of gold and silver bangles on each of her wrists.
“Hello, customer. I am Ingrid Nittlepick,” she said absentmindedly, her eyes focused at once on the counter. She ran a finger along it and nodded approvingly. Tabitha let out a breath. “Tabitha sneezed earlier,” she explained. Only then did she make eye contact with Donovan.
“Get. Out,” she said.
“I’m…sorry?” Donovan said, not moving at all.
“Look at yourself!” Ingrid snapped, as if Donovan had just passed gas or called her favorite child fat. “You dress like a vagabond! A slob! Your boots could be carrying all manner of disease. Is that horse shit?”
Donovan’s boots had, at best, a fine layer of dirt around the toes.
“Who knows what kind of plague those things are carrying. You know dryads have very poor immune systems, don’t you? As is, Tabitha could be vomiting blood and falling comatose any moment now. Apologize to her and leave us at once.”
Tabitha began to protest, but Ingrid cut her off. “And on top of that, you have to clean the door frame again. Maybe the whole front section of the store, given how long that door has been open! Imagine the risk.”
“I can close the door if you’ll just let me come in,” Donovan said. “I can pay you very well for your trouble.”
“Out!” Ingrid barked, and returned to her forge with a dramatic slam!
“I’ve actually got my father’s immune system,” Tabitha said quietly. “I’ll be fine.”
A moment passed.
“You should probably go, though.”
“Right. Lovely store you have here.”’
And he left.
Tabitha sighed with relief when Donovan was gone. She lifted the register and took out that month’s issue of The Dark Arts and Me from beneath it, figuring she could put off cleaning for at least another ten minutes.
Just as she’d started reading an article on DIY hypnosis solutions, the door opened again, and Donovan entered. She quickly slid the magazine beneath the register.
“Welcome to Ingrid’s Immaculate…oh. Um. I’m really sorry but can you please leave? I really don’t want to get fired.”
“Is there another blacksmith in town?”
The Dusty Hammer was easy to find. The building itself looked like any other smithy, but the enormous stone tablet leaning against it helped it stand out. It had to have been thirty feet tall, and half as wide, utterly dwarfing the building that supported it. There seemed to be sentences carved into it, in a script Donovan did not recognize, without any regard for organization or paragraph structure.
“Huh,” Donovan said.
The smithy’s door looked newer than the rest of the building. It was black with red trimming, and its knocker was held by an obsidian rendering of a many-eyed demon which seemed to be excreting actual foam from its mouth. The brass doorknob was in the center of an etched pentagram.
“Huh,” Donovan said again.
Upon pushing the door open, Donovan was greeted by a faint moaning sound coming from within. The walls and floors of The Dusty Hammer were of the same black-and-red palette as the door, and just about every tool in the smithy was adorned with carvings of bats, crows, serpents, or demons. The weapons for sale contained hilts and sheaths of animal skins and leathers, with the poor creatures’ eyes still intact. And to top it all off, the fire of the furnace, which was shaped like the maw of some sharp-toothed beast, sporadically flared up and added a piercing scream to the chorus of moans.
“Don’t mind the sounds,” a young dwarven man said lackadaisically. He sported a goatee and thick-rimmed glasses, and whatever hair he had was hidden beneath a beret. “It’s just the souls of the damned.” Donovan’s eyes widened at this. “Oh don’t worry about it. I’m not really a cultist. It’s ironic.”
“Oh,” Donovan said. He’d never been very good at keeping up with trends.
“But those souls are actually damned. At least they better be for what my dad paid for it.”
“I’m Unfinished Portrait, by the way. Welcome to The Dusty Hammer, or whatever. Anything I can help you with today? Or whatever.”
“‘Unfinished Portrait?’ Your parents are the unconventional naming sort, I see.”
Unfinished Portrait looked disgusted. “My parents didn’t give me name; they gave me shackles from which I have been trying to break free for thirty-five years. Gulf Stonesoul is a prison. Unfinished Portrait is what I am. It’s who I am.”
Donovan was beginning to think the blacksmiths on Skymoore may have spent too many years inhaling fumes all day. But that wasn’t going to stop him from opening his shop. He explained his doorknob situation to Unfinished Portrait, who assured him that he could have the doors fixed up before they opened in three hours.
“And make them…normal, please,” Donovan said.
“Of course, of course,” Unfinished Portrait replied.
The furnace screamed in agony.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Unfinished Portrait said when he saw Donovan reaching for his coin purse. “Currency is way too mainstream for The Dusty Hammer. What I want for you is a little intimate self-discovery.”
Donovan took a step back.
“Nothing scary, man. Just two words. Sum up who you are. The very essence of your being. In just two words. It’ll change you, dude.”
Donovan just said the first thing that came to mind: “Retired Wanderer.”
Unfinished Portrait smiled – ironically, of course – and shook Donovan’s hand. “Alright, Retired Wanderer. Transaction complete! I’ll draw you up a receipt.”
The receipt, printed on squirrel skin, was written in the same unfamiliar script as the tablet outside.
“It’s a language of my own invention,” Unfinished Portrait explained. “Clear communication is so mainstream.”
Donovan threw it away on his way out.