There is a small subset of people within Skymoore which most people suspect the existence of, but about whom few have the confidence to talk about openly. Their signs are visible to the skilled observer – esoteric characters carved into the leaves of trees, the handles of tankards, and the heads of unsuspecting bald people – but their purpose is shrouded in mystery. Their members are secretive. You might see one from a distance, standing atop the old lighthouse, scanning the city with binoculars or merely their expertly trained eyes. Always watching. Always listening. Always waiting. And although many know they exist, few are willing to speak their names out loud.
Those who speak of them do so in secret. Rumors in back alleys of the Mish Mash, information exchanged in hushed tones near the docks, a peculiar name scrawled on a napkin in The Fog Horn.
Karessa pocketed the napkin and paid for the blind dragonkin’s drink.
The individual in question was standing at an easel in the Sunlit Market, which was not in use that day. He was painting the vacant stalls, the gazebo in its center, and the statue of Pulldrid the Riser which towered over everything. He added quick strokes to capture the ephemeral presence of those who passed through his subject as they walked about town. It was only an okay painting.
“You Knot Threenomes?” Karessa asked.
The artist was very tall, especially from Karessa’s perspective. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, a green trench coat, and had a bandana over the lower half of his face. Despite this, his eyes were friendly. He nodded.
“I brought you this.” She produced a small brass spyglass from within her jacket. She lifted it from the back room Odd & Ends, which was a crime, sure. But free Stickystone would make up for it, right? Besides, what Donovan didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. “Sees through wood if you twist the lens. Very valuable.”
Knot’s eyes widened. He leaned forward awkwardly, as if his torso was segmented from his head, and took the gift. Karessa eyed his mid-section curiously, but said nothing.
“Now,” she said. “I need help finding a bird.”
“The Skymoorian Chomper, sometimes just called The Toothed Bird, is in many ways similar to the pigeon. They are of a similar build, they share the same basic color scheme (though Chompers are more beautiful), and most peoples’ primary experience with them involves feces. The key differences between the species are that Chompers of course have teeth, there are only handful of them in the world, and they live forever.”
Dovetail, Nestor’s mostly-humanoid automaton, friend, and personal assistant, was reciting that paragraph in a loop as they walked throughout Skymoore in search of the bird, having malfunctioned in response to Nestor asking if they’d ever heard of it. Today Dovetail was dressed as a wealthy gentleman, wearing attire very similar to Nestor’s own, and the duo drew a lot of interest and suspicion as they walked the streets.
“He really likes birds,” Nestor explained.
It was a lovely day out, as it typically was in Skymoore, and Nestor would have been content to walk the streets all day in search of the Chomper. But he didn’t have to. On the eastern edge of Skymoore, out in the expansive fields which comprised Goldsoil Farm, there was an apple tree which was unusually barren for midsummer. It grew thicker higher up the tree, but the lower branches were nearly bare.
On one of these bare branches was the Skymoorian Chomper. Its grey, green, and purple feathers popped splendidly against the brown of the tree, and as it gnawed away at the branch above it, the bird’s silver tooth glistened in the sun.
“Okay, Dovetail,” Nestor whispered. “Go ahead and introduce yourself. Carefully.”
Dovetail nodded and approached the tree, perhaps too cautiously, moving like a burglar in fear of a creaky floorboard. When the automaton finally reached the tree, his mouth fell open and his jaw went slack, and chirping sounds emitted from its throat.
The startled Chomper turned to face the automaton, and tilted its head curiously. It chirped back. Dovetail chirped some more, and the Chomper responded with higher-pitched chirps. Dovetail turned to Nestor, looking disappointed.
“I think I said I said something wrong,” he said. “It seems off handed. Offended.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Nestor said. “You’ve only just started studying animal communication. Let’s see if it’s hungry.”
As the gnome removed his top hat to fetch some birdseed, a halfling dropped from one of the branches above the Chomper and landed directly next to the bird, which flew away in fear. The halfling reached out to catch it, but the terrified creature evaded her grasp.
“Karessa!” Nestor cried. “What did you do that for?”
The halfling slid down the tree and dusted the bark off her jacket. “I have to get it. For the blacksmith. Also what is that thing?”
“Oh! Karessa, meet Dovetail! He’s my automaton and best friend.”
Karessa examined Dovetail for a moment and shook her head. “I don’t have time for this.”
Nestor frowned, walking after the halfling. “No need to be rude, Ms. Plunderton. If you allow me to join you, I’m sure the bird could be persuaded to-”
“What? No! I’m just gonna catch it and I don’t need any help. I’m getting that bonus.”
“That’s fine! But I really think it would be best if we-”
Karessa ran off in pursuit of the bird.
Nestor frowned and looked up at Dovetail. “Well, it’s time for my backup plan. Onward, to the petting zoo!”
Karessa had learned a lot of life lessons growing up in the Mish Mash, and one of the most important ones was this: when there can only be one winner, partnership only ends in betrayal. Another was: when the person stabbing you in the back is stabbing you with magic, they’re probably gonna get away with it. All of which is to say that although Nestor was a nice little gnome, Karessa wasn’t going to take her chances working together to catch the bird.
Another lesson of the Mish Mash: favors are sacred. Fortunately, Karessa was owed one by just the right person. She lived in a brick building of her own design – a perfect black rectangle, four stories high, with two windows that looked like eyes at the top. There were always torches lit in the windows, causing them to glow brightly at night, and to shimmer strangely in the day. The only door was just beneath the windows, a nose, which was only accessible via a red, carpeted bridge, the tongue.
To get to the bridge, one had go through the barbershop which was located above Porter Potter’s Pottery. “How’s your day going?” Porter asked. “Not great. Had a meat smoothie,” Karessa replied, “and it wasn’t even well done.” Porter nodded and opened the trapdoor on his ceiling, raining dust down upon his tiny shop. A ladder slid from the floor above.
The barbershop, which was nameless, was very dim, with all of its windows heavily boarded up. It was lit only by a faintly glowing off-white crystal shoved away in one of the room’s corners. Behind a desk with a pile of currency atop it was Dever, a Far One. His face was black and featureless. His hands were sharply-bladed razors. His head did not face Karessa when she entered, but she could feel his eyeless stare all the same.
“I’ll take a bearded dragon cut. No beard. Extra claw.”
Dever walked up to a black stone door with half a dozen locks on it. He placed a key in one, touched his finger to another, wrote down a password in expired milk, solved a puzzle cube, and turned a combination lock which used the Draconic numeral system which had far more characters and made far less sense than the Common one.
On the other side of the door was the red, carpeted bridge. It was softer and more narrow than the other Mish Mash bridges, and it made Karessa uncomfortable to walk upon it. But money was money.
She knocked on the door to the tune of the chorus of the old Seamoore citywide anthem, which nobody really knew the words to anymore. It took forty-five uncomfortably-long seconds to get through.
The door opened partially. On the other side of it was half a catlike face covered by a thin layer of white fur. Her eye narrowed sharply. “Leave.”
Karessa stuck her foot in the door, and yelped in pain when it slammed anyways. She retracted her foot, and the door closed with a click. “Come on!” Karessa said. “You owe me.” A single, loud, cruel laugh came from inside. “You really do! Remember the cockatrice stingers? Who smuggled them in her bra during the security sweep? I had a rash for three weeks after that.”
Silence. And then, “it was only two.”
“Come on, Kelsie. I just need your net gun. And your zipline. I promise I’ll have them back to you by the end of the day.”
Even more silence.
Eventually, the silence went on too long for a proper dramatic moment. And then it went on so long, it wasn’t like Kelsie was just rummaging through her closet or anything, she was definitely ignoring her. Finally, Karessa turned around and left. Nestor probably already had the bird, anyways.
The door opened and closed quickly. When Karessa turned around, the net gun and zipline were sitting right there on the ‘welcome’ mat which read “go away.” Karessa smiled.
The Skymoore petting zoo was one of Nestor’s very favorite places in all of Solkin. It was where children could see and play with animals that weren’t native to Skymoore, like dogs, goldfish, pseudodragons, and basilisks. Even from half a mile away, you could always hear the screams of joy, laughter, and, occasionally, terror, of the children enjoying themselves there. It warmed the gnome’s heart.
Sitting on a bench near the direwolves was a young human woman who had pulled down the hood of her forest-green druid robes to reveal dark skin, serious purple eyes, and a sharp blue pixie cut. She waved when she saw Nestor and Dovetail approaching.
“Good afternoon, Vanessa!” Nestor said. “This is my friend Dovetail.”
“Sail mutations!” the automaton said. “Undulations…small elations…salutations!”
She looked Dovetail up and down, but did not comment. “Hello, Nestor. Come to see the dachshunds again?”
“Not this time,” he said, taking a seat next to her. “I just haven’t seen you around and wanted to visit my favorite translator druid in all of Skymoore!”
“Uh huh,” she said. “Well, I’ve been busy.”
“No doubt. Which is why I brought you a gift.” Nestor tapped on Dovetail’s chest with his cane. The automaton moved aside his vest and opened a hatch on his chest. He reached in and produced a piece of fresh grapple pie.
“My favorite,” Vanessa said as she took it. “How did you know that?”
Nestor made a note in his Smile Log. This was only his second entry for Vanessa, and that was very exciting. “I know everyone at church’s favorite food! And color! And their birthday! It’s what friends are for.”
Vanessa took a fork from Dovetail and began to enjoy her pie. “So really, is there anything I can help you with?”
“Wellll,” Nestor said. “Now that you mention it…what’s the Druid Circle’s stance on apprenticeship?”
In exchange for the spyglass, Knot Threenomes had given Karessa a map of all the popular bird hangouts in Skymoore and his third-favorite pair of binoculars. After ruling out the lighthouse, the fish park, and the back alley where woodshop teachers disposed of their students’ birdhouses, Karessa’s journey at last took her to the old boathouse.
More specifically, it took her to the roof of the souvenir shop across the road from it. There she had been lying prone for some time, peering into the window of the boathouse and scaring away potential customers. She paid the owner a scale for the trouble, but they said it was no trouble at all, because you didn’t set up a souvenir shop in a floating city and expect to make any money.
For something that hadn’t been used in three centuries, the boathouse was nicer than it could have been. It was dusty and plain, sure, but the stone looked as good now as it likely did the day it was built. It was still inside, and Karessa didn’t see a single bird. After a quarter of an hour, it occurred to Karessa that there wasn’t even any good reason for birds to show up there, and prepared to leave.
But then, someone entered. A young human man with a mop of dirty blonde hair. He was carrying a small paper bag, with “Dug” written on it, and he was looking downtrodden. Karessa watched as he walked up to the gap that ran through the center of the building, where boats used to pass through and moor, and sat down, letting his feet dangle off the edge of Skymoore.
The moment the young man produced a sandwich from within his bag, three dozen birds flooded the boathouse. Some entered through the window, some from beneath the city, some through the side. For several minutes, Karessa watched as the birds sat silently beside him, waiting patiently for the moment that he shared a piece of bread. Finally he did, and in the ensuing chaos, Karessa finally saw it – the Skymoorian Chomper.
Karessa picked up the long yellow tube beside her and aimed it at the building. It had a spearhead sticking out the front, and a detachable hook on the side. Karessa removed the hook, aimed, and pressed a button on the side of the tube. With a whoomph, the zipline fired through the open window of the boathouse and stabbed into the wall opposite her. Realizing it would weigh her down, Karessa neatly folded up her father’s jacket and placed it gently on the souvenir shop. Then she picked up the fat, cylindrical, net gun, attached the hook to the line, and slid down.
A wave of nostalgia washed over Karessa as the wind whipped through her hair. A wave that carried Karessa back a year or two, into a time when she got into all sorts of trouble for fun and profit. She was wondering whether she missed that life, or just thought she did, when she suddenly entered the fluttering flurry of flapping wings and hungry beaks. Before Karessa could even begin to line up a shot, a dove flew directly into her face, causing her to inhale some feathers and lose her grip on both the net gun and the zipline.
Fortunately, Karessa landed safely away from the gap in the room. Unfortunately, the net gun could not say the same, and plummeted to its certain end down on Solkin.
But Karessa was less immediately concerned with that, and more concerned with the very flustered young man and perturbed-looking birds which were contemplating flying away in fear. “I, uh. I can explain,” she said.
“Huzzah!” Nestor cried from the entrance of the boathouse. “I was hoping to see you here, Dug! And Karessa, I did not expect to see you here, but I am always hoping to see my friends, so I suppose I was hoping to see you, too!”
Karessa opted to stay quiet and wave.
Dug looked back and forth between the halfling and gnome. “What’s happening.”
“Well, I think Karessa is here to kidnap that Skymoorian Chomper, which I do not really approve of. I’m here to ask you nicely to let me hold it for a moment in exchange for a favor. Well, actually the favor is already done, but I would really appreciate if you could let me hold the little Chomper. I promise I won’t hurt it.”
Dug still looked lost. “Favor?”
“Ah, yes! You’ve mentioned you’re fond of birds, and I have a friend who works as a translator druid, so I’ve set you up with an apprenticeship if you’re interested.”
Dug’s eyes widened. “Are you serious? Nestor, I hardly even know you and that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me! I’ve been freaking out all day about what I’m gonna do without that job.”
Nestor just smiled, and Karessa continued to be a little dumbstruck by the whole situation as Dug got the Chomper to sit on his finger. Nestor picked up the bird gingerly, and muttered a word which caused it to fall asleep.
“Don’t worry,” Nestor said, producing a fake tooth from within his coat. “I spent two years as an aviary dentist.”
He seemed to be telling the truth, because within a few minutes the operation was complete, and Nestor had in his possession the silver tooth of a Skymoorian Chomper.
“So you won,” Karessa said as they left the boathouse together. “And you did it using your weird obsessive compulsion to make everyone happy. I feel like I probably learned a lesson or something.”
“There’s only one lesson to learn,” Nestor said, holding out an open palm containing the tooth. “I’m just happy to help!”
“Nestor!” Karessa said. “You can’t just give this away. You won fair and square.”
“I know that. And you know that. But Donovan doesn’t have to know that. Odd & Ends gets its Stickystone either way, and this way you get a bonus. I know you love theater, and you want to put as much time in it as you can. And you don’t love working at Odd & Ends, but you do it anyway, because it pays more than theater, right? So I figure, even as a child, you must have something important you need money for, so you certainly need it more than I do.”
“I…I don’t think I’ve ever told you any of that.”
The gnome produced his Smile Log. “All in here,” he said. “So what do you say? Still weird?”
“Extremely,” Karessa replied. “But thank you very much. You’re the nicest, weirdest friend a girl could ask for.” She gave the gnome a brief hug, and he looked so happy Karessa thought he might have cried.
Karessa took the Smile Log, turned to a new page called “Nestor,” and made the first entry. Now he actually did cry.
Later that evening, on her way home, Karessa stopped by Kelsie’s tower to return the zipline. Nailed to the door was a note, which read in thin, quick strokes:
keep it. don’t knock.
It’s a start, she thought. Up above the rest of the city, with nobody to document or interpret it, Karessa smiled.