“Haven’t you had enough for tonight?” the minotaur bartender asked. She wore patchwork hide and chain armor, like she was some wild barbarian ready to charge into battle, and over that she wore an apron fitted for a human – that is to say, about five sizes too small.
“Who does she think she is?” a rugged dwarven patron asked. When nobody responded, he directed his question directly to the minotaur, climbing up on his stool so they were at eye level. “Who are ya? Tellin’ him what to do! After what he just did for Durmagangan!”
“That’s quite alright,” The Suntouched said, holding up his hand. The silvery scar that ran from the back of his hand down his forearm glistened in the dim candlelight. “Linda’s lookin’ for me. Out for me. See? She’s got a point. Besides, I’m quite competent at defending my own honor.”
“It’s not hard when he’s got so little,” Linda joked. The dwarf looked awed by her jab. And a little nervous.
“One more,” The Suntouched said.
The Suntouched stumbled across the tavern, and even then he looked elegant. With his long dark hair framing his handsome, sunburned features, and his slim, red, adamantine armor, it was not uncommon for people to say The Suntouched looked like a demon from afar. But up close, even when he’d had a bit too much to drink, even when he was sweating from the heat of battle, he was more often called celestial.
He hurled himself at a lively table. Men and women were laughing uproariously at something The Suntouched had just missed. They quieted when he sat. “Five finger fillet?” he asked, noting the cutlery stabbed into the table.
“Six,” a gnome said, holding up her hands to confirm that this was true. Her proud smile revealed many missing teeth.
“Mind if I have a go?”
“Wager agains’ you? Think we’re mad?”
“No wager,” The Suntouched said. He took the knife closest to him and quickly stabbed it between each of the fingers on his right hand. To the people watching, what should have been five movements looked more like three, but sure enough there were five pockmarks on the table. He repeated the impossibly quick maneuver with his other hand, this time punctuating the motion by throwing the knife across the room, tearing through the bullseye of a cheap dartboard.
“Bloody…how d’ya do that?” a dragonkin asked. “You’re drunk, too! What’s your secret?”
“Practice,” The Suntouched lied.
The sound of shattering glass accompanied a young man’s shriek as three of the tavern’s windows exploded inward. Red, green, and blue creatures with wrinkled skin began climbing through. “Goblins!” Linda shouted.
“Everybody out!” The Suntouched said. He reached for another knife, but found it stuck in the wooden table. He yanked again. It remained stuck. The hero began to panic.
This time he used two hands, to no avail. He began to sweat. His hands were slipping off the handle and he began to ponder the unlikelihood of fighting off a horde of goblins with just a kitchen knife. Even for him those were long odds. But still he pulled, and he pulled, and the mob closed in around him. He pulled, and they grew nearer. He pulled, and they constricted. He pulled, and they smothered him, left him drowning in a sea of goblins.
“Linda!” Donovan called out to his empty room early one morning. He’d fallen asleep in his chair again, looking out at the stars. His sapphire ring had fallen off at some point, exposing his sunburnt skin to the world. Donovan replaced it in a minor panic, breathing easy when the glamour masked his identity once more. The magic felt tight against his skin, like a snake ready to shed, but it was a small price to pay for privacy.
Fortunately, the Warm Moon was full, bathing his unimpressive lodgings in orange light. If someone had passed by his window in the night, they may not have thought too hard about his skin. Unfortunately, the Warm Moon’s presence meant there were still several hours until dawn. Rather than deluding himself with the notion that sleep might come once more, Donovan walked downstairs to tend to his shop.
“Morning,” Donovan said as the day’s first customer – a dark-skinned, white-haired elf named Keel – crossed Odd & Ends’ threshold. “You’re early.”
“Likewise,” Keel said. “I pass this way most mornings on my way to church, but this is the first time I’ve seen your door open. Oh, but I forget myself. Good morning, Donovan. Blessings of Sol be upon you.”
“You as well.” Donovan reached into a drawer beneath the register and produced an amulet that Keel had ordered. “You know, for just a few gold…er…scales, Nestor could make an amulet that doesn’t run out of magic.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Keel said. “I’m trying to get over my fear of walking the streets at night. If I had an amulet that lasts forever, that would be too much of a crutch. And I enjoy coming to your shop, Mr. Allman. It has a very…homely atmosphere. Is this what shops are like on the surface?”
Donovan shrugged. “Some. The surface is big.”
“I can imagine. But I’d rather not find out for myself. I quite like it up here, closer to Sol. How do you like Skymoore compared to the surface?”
“Skymoore is very pleasant. It’s nice to be somewhere…self-contained. Don’t have to worry that the decisions of someone hundreds of miles from you is going to suddenly affect your life. But I’m a bit homesick, to be completely honest.” It was the closest to completely honest Donovan had been in weeks.
“Don’t you have an amulet for that?”
Donovan grinned. “That would be too much of a crutch.”
The elf smiled. “So it would.”
When Keel left, Donovan logged the transaction on a notepad he kept beneath the register. His stomach churned when he looked upon the store’s finances. It was an utterly absurd notion, when considered logically. Donovan had once stepped foot in the Void Lands, in which it was believed no mortal could survive for more than a moment, with only confidence and determination in his heart. The whole world depended on him and there wasn’t even a single moment of doubt. Now, minor financial woes with only two dependents on the line nearly sent him into a panic attack. It was senseless.
On the bright side, things were improving at Odd & Ends, however slightly. Donovan followed the advice of Armin Delugance and made an effort to involve himself in the community. He’d attended the annual Hot Sauce Contest, sold goods in the Sunlit Market, and taken part in a citywide search for Mayor Dew, who had been misplaced by one of his assistants. Skymoore’s communal nature reminded him of a time that felt ancient. A time long before the name “Donovan Allman” escaped his lips. A time even before he’d been touched by the sun. It wasn’t a time for which he’d had much reverence.
For the last week they’d received a handful of customers every day, and given that they sold specialty wares, he knew it was unreasonable to expect much more than that. But even now, on his twelfth day in Skymoore, funds were looking dire. His bank account was inaccessible, nobody would offer this new stranger a loan, and rent would be due in just two and a half more weeks.
Frankly, Donovan missed the Void Lands.
It was Armin’s advice that brought Donovan to the lush green fields behind the Church of Sol that afternoon, selling bottles of water that would automatically refill themselves four times. It was the first game of the Polardogm Youth League Playoffs between the Soothsayers and the Goblins. Like any gathering in Skymoore, the event was remarkably jovial, despite the intense rivalry between the teams. While seating was more-or-less arranged by social class, people of all stripes were singing team songs, sharing homemade food, and waving flags emphatically.
Donovan stood off to the side, and tended his cart. He didn’t mind this, terribly. In fact, he quite liked it that way. He didn’t know the songs, he didn’t understand the rivalries, and he didn’t much care for complex social orders. But he did care for a good game of polardogm, so he focused on that.
Yet even polardogm was off here. The rules were different. What was the Soothsayer’s Point Defender doing making an illegal steal from the Goblin’s Sphere Trotter? How could the Keepers score a four-point goal? And why were fans shouting something about a five-point pass? There was no such thing! The game was every bit as confusing as it was enjoyable, which, come to think of it, was a fair summation of Donovan’s entire Skymoore experience thus far.
During the game’s Three-Fifths Break, the half-elf Kooey Man, the dwarf Unfinished Portrait, and the half-dryad Tabitha Darkholm took to the concrete court to perform in their band, Culture Counter. Tabitha played guitar and sang a folksy tune, Kooey played an enormous tub of jam as a drum in what sounded like an entirely different song, and Unfinished Portrait accompanied each of them by shaking two different mason jars filled with bees to each distinct rhythm.
Honestly, in all his years stopping in countless taverns occupied by countless bands, Donovan had heard worse.
During the break, Donovan sold a handful of water bottles and handed out a handful of business cards that Karessa put together. Many people were still skeptical about the magic shop, afraid that exposure to magically-enhanced scented candles might cause them to wake up with an extra nose, or that a self-sweeping broom will lead them down a path of sin. But they were warming up to the idea.
One customer in particular stood out to Donovan. Not because her presence in his life would one day cause a destiny-altering shift that changes who he is as a person in a deep, meaningful way, (although it would), but because she was the kind of person who stood out. She was a dwarven woman with sharp features who wore her blonde hair in a bun (that wasn’t the part that stood out). She was also missing one arm and one eye, which was covered by an eyepatch (that is).
“Welcome to Odd & Ends…well, uh, welcome to my stand, anyway. I’m Donovan, the co-owner.”
“Co-owning a stand ain’t much to brag about,” she said. “Delia, who runs the muffin cart? She owns the whole thing! A bakery tycoon, I tell you.” Donovan cracked a smile. “Name’s Lucky, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Lucky.”
“That was a joke.”
“Call me Hega. That one’s for real.”
“Nice to meet you, Hega.”
She bought a water. “So, enjoying your time in Skymoore?”
“That’s all anyone wants to talk about,” Donovan said, wanting it to sound lighter than it did.
Hega took a long drink. “Well,” she said, setting it down on the cart. “It’s all we’ve – oh, shit!”
Donovan caught her water bottle and replaced the cap before it had the chance to spill a drop. “There are children here,” he said.
Hega blushed. “I…yes. How’d you get so fast?”
“Practice,” Donovan lied.
Suddenly, Hega was a hundred yards away from him. His cart was in front of him, the bottle of water was there, but Hega – and the rest of the attendees – were very far from him, scattered throughout a field which now seemed to have become miles long. Donovan felt an unpleasant prickling along the surface of his skin, the telltale sign of a magic he’d felt once before. Aftermaj, Karessa had called it. The reality-warping remnants of the spell that lifted Skymoore into the air.
The field snapped back to its original size like a rubber band that had been stretched back and released. Donovan whipped over the front of his cart and landed face first in the grass.
“Aftermaj surge,” Hega confirmed. “It’s a bad one.”
The sight of the bleachers was effectively indescribable. They had become a mass of metal and wood, twisted into a geometrically impossible shape. People were left sitting upside-down, side-ways, and in more than one place at a time. People attempted to flee, only to find themselves trapped within the labyrinthine anomaly.
“What do we do?” Donovan asked as he pulled himself up. “Are they going to be okay?”
“It’ll pass. Just be prepared for whatever happens next.”
“Whatever happens next” turned out to be the concrete polardogm court tearing itself from the ground, folding up into a sphere (trapping Culture Counter inside), and sprouting arms, legs, and a pair of pitch black eyes. It looked angry.
“A golem,” Donovan said dumbly.
“A golem,” Hega agreed sharply.
In his mind, Donovan surged toward the golem. He called out to it in different languages – Common, Dwarvish, Human – in order to determine its origin. When he caught the golem’s attention, he would speak a word which would circumvent its magical programming, and refocus its aggression on Donovan. He’d deftly jump to the side as its fist collided into the ground with a satisfying crunch, giving Donovan an opportunity to hang onto its arm as the golem retracted its fist. From here, Donovan could leap onto its head and climb onto its back, where he would find a glyph, written in some arcane script. He’d press his hand to the warm stone, and a similar glyph would reveal itself on his left palm. Both would begin to glow for a few moments before exploding into a scintillating flash, and when the light faded, the golem would be inanimate once more.
In reality, Donovan stood stock-still, his body trembling despite his best efforts.
With replenishing water bottle in hand, Hega ran past him and toward the concrete monstrosity. “To me, fool!” she barked at it in Eldritch – a ghostly, breathy tongue. The golem, which had been eyeing the terrified Youth League with troubling intent, turned to face the dwarf.
Hega squeezed her bottle firmly, and its contents splashed against the construct’s leg ineffectually. A deep, rumbling bass reverberated from within its body – either a laugh, or the band’s impressive attempts to continue their show. It lifted the mildly damp leg with intent to stomp. Hega, obviously scared, was unflinching.
She raised the bottle of water above her head, and released another spurt onto the bottom of the golem’s foot. Something rumbled within it, and it recoiled a bit. Hega stepped back. She spoke once more in Eldritch. “That’s right, you blundering puppet! I am a sorcerer, all right. I am no fan of violence, yet nor am I a stranger to it. Unbind yourself now, and your unexistence can be peaceful instead of miserable.”
It is difficult for a sphere with solid black eyes to emote. Yet it was entirely clear to all observers that the golem standing before Hega was terrified. It sank toward the ground as its legs receded. Its arms followed suit. Finally, it unfolded, and became a court once more.
Shortly after, the bleachers returned to normal and the band, shaken by recent events, finished their song regardless. They were met with perhaps lighter applause than they might normally be, which is saying something.
Donovan had a hundred questions for Hega, but by the time he collected himself enough to think them through, she was walking up and down the bleachers, checking up on those affected by the spell. He observed her in bewilderment as he began to pack up his cart.
(The game went on as scheduled, and the Goblins won. When pressed for comment regarding the Aftermaj and their tragic defeat, one of the players said, “nobody could have seen any of this coming,” seemingly without noticing the inherent humor in his remark. Shame.)
“So, you and Hega, huh?” Karessa said, standing up on her toes to remove the “open” sign from outside Odd & Ends.
“What about me and Hega?” Donovan asked as he swept behind the counter.
“The whole town is talking about how you two were flirting at the polardogm game.”
“That’s the sort of thing you talk about here?”
“You’re the mysterious newcomer. That practically makes you a celebrity.”
“Well we weren’t flirting. I don’t even know her.”
“Who is she?”
Karessa grinned. “I don’t know her very well. She coordinates the citywide Aftermaj safety drills. Sometimes she does them at my school.”
“So are you gonna ask her out?”
“Oh come on! You’ve been here for two weeks and the only people you talk to are a teenage girl, one of those creepy True Believers, and Nestor, the weirdest person in town.”
“See you in the morning, Karessa.”
The halfling sighed and put her nametag beside the register. “You’re no fun. Also, I need the next few days off, remember? Theater stuff.”
“See you at the premiere.”
Donovan just swept in silence.
“Donovan? Donovan? That spot is thoroughly swept.”
“Huh? Yes, of course. See you at the premiere, Karessa.”
After Karessa left, Donovan finished sweeping. He closed the blinds. He emptied the register. He walked up to his room and gathered his small cloth bag containing the few possessions he’d brought into the city but had yet to so much as even look at. He returned downstairs, dusted a bit, then walked outside. He locked the door behind him. The chrysanthemums looked very nice. Nestor really had done a nice job with this place, even if he did ruin the name.
Odd & Ends was only a minute’s walk from the port. No time to rethink things, just the way Donovan wanted it. He was done with thinking. He missed action.
Skymoore’s elevator was a large metal cage supported by a mile-long steel frame filled with gears and chains. It was situated beside a wooden dock that stretched out into the open sky. It was a rickety trip, and it made Donovan nervous, particularly when passing through clouds, but there had never been a fatal accident (at least, according to a travel brochure he’d read).
It was attended by a human guard dressed in leather armor. She held a metal-tipped spear, which led Donovan to wonder if there were ever violent elevator-based crimes. “Going down?” she asked. He was. “That’ll be ten scales,” she said.
Donovan felt foolish. “Oh yes. Right. Excuse me, I’ll be just a moment.”
When he turned to leave, he noticed a unicorn standing on the dock. It hadn’t been there a moment ago, and Donovan didn’t hear it approach, but it was certainly there now. It was magnificent and looked as though it were carved straight from the Pale Moon. Its intelligent, violet eyes met Donovan’s for just a moment, and he knew implicitly that they wanted to speak with him.
He joined them. It was warm next to the unicorn. An inner warmth, though. A feeling more than a temperature. Donovan had never seen a unicorn before. It was divine.
“You’re leaving,” they said.
“Yes,” Donovan said.
“I’m sorry. Do you know me?”
“Right. Bipeds and their formalities. I am Brilliance. You are Donovan Allman. And you are leaving. Why?”
“I’m restless here. I don’t belong.”
“A commonality. I was just passing through Seamoore when it became Skymoore. I have been here ever since.”
Brilliance was silent for an entire minute. The blue-grey clouds of the nigh moved slowly beneath them. Mount Paylor looked ominous in the distance. “You haven’t answered my question yet,” Brilliance said. “Why?”
“I’m meant for greater things. To help people.”
“Didn’t you come here to run away from all that?”
Now it was Donovan’s turn to be silent.
“You shouldn’t, by the way.”
“So you’re saying I should leave?”
Brilliance made a motion that looked like a sigh. “There is greatness in small gestures. There is beauty in a simple life.”
“I haven’t seen it.”
“You haven’t looked.”
Donovan was getting frustrated with the unicorn. Mostly because they spoke the truth.
“Stay, Donovan Allman. Destiny is a false concept. Heroism is a disease. But if you stay here you will find what some might call your destiny. If you stay here, you will learn a new way to be a hero.”
Donovan was doubtful. But whenever Brilliance spoke, Donovan knew implicitly, in a way that he had never known anything, that Brilliance spoke the truth. “So is this what’s kept you here for three hundred years?” he asked. “The beauty of a simple life? The greatness of small gestures?”
“No,” Brilliance said. “I dislike elevators.”
Donovan blinked. Brilliance was gone. In a few moments, the warmth faded. But their conversation lingered. He stood there on the dock for some time, thinking about it. He found it difficult to accept that he could find anything like heroism here on Skymoore. But he also knew that he could not find anything like heroism down on Solkin, either. So, he concluded, he might as well not find heroism somewhere where people depended on him.
Mildly satisfied with his conclusion, Donovan returned to Odd & Ends, wrote a letter, and went to sleep.