The Mile-High Pub was the first place in Skymoore where Donovan Allman found anything resembling comfort. Its sleek, pastel exterior initially repulsed the former adventurer, but the rustic furnishings within reminded Donovan of the kind of place he might have once celebrated after saving a village from a rampaging direboar.
From D’rek, the four-armed, insect-like bartender, to the rotating cast of classical in-house musicians, to the perpetually unrepaired hole in the ceiling, just above the bar, everything about the place charmed Donovan, but nothing so much as Hega Perdugal, the one-armed, one-eyed dwarf who frequented it. Once or twice a week, she and Donovan would meet up for a drink, and every evening she made Donovan try a different house specialty. This particular evening it was the Thunderbird.
The blue liquid bubbled and fizzed in its ceramic mug, and Donovan examined in skeptically before Hega slapped him encouragingly on the back. He closed his eyes and took a drink, only to sputter and choke in mild pain when the beverage crackled and popped in his mouth and shocked and burned his throat. D’rek chittered lightly in amusement, while Hega snorted with laughter. Donovan flushed with embarrassment.
“That’s everyone’s first time,” Hega said reassuringly. “Next rounds’ on me to make up for it.”
Donovan tried to respond, but his mouth had gone half numb, resulting in an incoherent babble and more laughter from the dwarf. Before he could collect himself, Donovan was startled further by a man who must have been fifteen feet tall floating into the bar through the hole ceiling with the gentle grace of a cloud crossing an empty sky. The man had blue skin, trim white hair, and an incongruously wild beard and mustache. He sat on the barstool beside Hega, a feat which seemed impossible.
“Barry!” Hega said. “Meet Donovan, the new guy. Donovan, this is Barry, the Sky Giant. If you ever see a hole in a ceiling around here, you know that’s one of his usual haunts. Keeping them is easier than fixing the ceiling all the time. ‘Cept when it rains.”
“Why not just build bigger doors?”
“A pleasure to meet you!” Barry said, outstretching an enormous hand. Donovan shook a finger, and the giant bellowed with laughter, emitting a noteworthy breeze which chilled the room and knocked over a handful of glasses. D’rek seemed used to this. “I hear you’re something of an expert on the Suntouched. A historian.”
“Oh, yes. Something like that.”
“I write children’s tales, and I’ve interest in one day writing about the Suntouched. Perhaps you and I will confer about that some day. But enough of that. Now’s the time for revelry, not business! Regale us with a tale about the man. One we might not have heard.”
Donovan was taken aback by this request, but he could see now that all eyes in the bar were on him. Clearly he wasn’t getting away with a refusal. He took another drink, this time bracing himself and allowing the crackling liquid to make its way into his stomach. The pain was oddly pleasant, he supposed, and it certainly packed quite the kick, though not quite as much as the real Thunderbird.
“Very well,” Donovan said. “Everyone sings songs about the big stories. The battles, the monsters, the miracles. So let’s go smaller. The story of how the Suntouched met one of his dearest friends, and most well-known traveling companions.”
The crowd murmured with interest and approval.
“It begins shortly after the Suntouched’s fiery inauguration atop Mt. Paylor. The hero did not yet understand the meaning and consequences of his actions, but there was little doubt that he had been touched by the sun. And so, like any capable young person who believes themselves invincible, the Suntouched worked up a powerful thirst for adventure.
“This desire took him through wetlands that were home to the Dalish elves before being claimed by Grandia, a kingdom with a reputation for expansion at the expense of others. He was in search of some legendary treasure in Origin, and found the wetlands to be remarkably vibrant, uniquely beautiful, and utterly deplorable to traverse. The Suntouched was a man of humble beginnings, you see, having spent his earliest years in a small village without seeing much of the world. When he set out to be a hero, he didn’t put much thought into things like camp and lodgings, so he spent several nights in a damp bedroll or in a cheap, moth-eaten inn. He may have been touched by Sol, but he was living like a wretched vagabond.
“Everything changed for the Suntouched when, on his eighth day in the wetlands, he came upon a massive clay pit. Now, having grown up in relative seclusion, a great many things fascinated the young Suntouched, but to see this massive mining operation would astonish even those of us living in a flying city. What started as a simple mining operation had gone on to become an enormous man-made ravine in which an entire village was situated. The Suntouched was taking in this impressive sight when a woman’s voice surprised him from behind.
“‘Would that I could feel the same about this place,’ she said. The Suntouched nearly jumped into the ravine.
“‘You scared me,’ he said. ‘I didn’t hear so much as a rustle in the grass as you approached.’ As he took the woman in, that made a little more sense. She was of a lithe, elven build, with brown skin, sandy hair, and aloof, stone-colored eyes. She said nothing, but joined in observing the town.
“A series of clay and stone buildings lined an artificial river which ran the length of the ravine. The two sides were bridged by an enormous watermill from which a gentle stream of smoke emitted. Miners were working away at the walls and floor of the ravine, digging deeper, building tunnels, sending boats full of clay downstream.
“‘You don’t like it here?’ The Suntouched asked. ‘It looks pleasant enough.’
“‘Looks can be deceiving,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Particularly from such distance. If you knew them, you would see the despair in the way they work. The hopelessness in their eyes. I see it, even from up here.’
“‘Why so sad?’
“The elf pointed to a mansion overlooking the ravine on the side opposite them. A powerful building of gold and red bricks. ‘Peter Dunderpot owns this land. He is beautiful, but he is cruel, and commands fire like a god. His family preys on newcomers to this land, particularly those who lack human blood. We are offered land in exchange for a few years of service, but our contracts are misleading. Some of us sign on for decades or more. There is a gnome who has been serving here since before the Great Bear’s awakening.’
“‘That’s monstrous,’ the Suntouched said. ‘That’s slavery! Why haven’t you tried to escape? Why hasn’t someone done something?’
“‘You speak from a place of detachment ad privilege, human. Lord Dunderpot is the nephew of King Pondan. If one of us escaped, we would be hunted by Grandia’s army. Even if we could evade them, what foul punishment would befall our fellow prisoners? Somewhere in this village is a secret dungeon, where he keeps those of us too frail to work. If one of us escapes, our friends and loved ones would be burned alive.’
“‘So if you could set them free, you could leave? All of you?’
“‘Or we could die. All of us. You know not of what you speak, human. I would urge you stay away from our troubles before you worsen them.’
“As the Suntouched watched her walk the path down to the village, gears were already spinning in his head. He contemplated how he might liberate the city with only his wits, a cheap iron sword, and a spyglass. He observed as the townsfolk lived their lives – which mostly consisted of mining and shaping clay – for some hours. Eventually it started to rain, and many people went indoors.
“As evening fell and the Suntouched began to shiver intensely, the orange glow coming from the mansion’s window began to look painfully tantalizing. And that gave the fledgling hero an idea. A short time later, he was standing before the impressive building, knocking thunderously on its massive oak door.
“A nicely-dressed servant greeted him. The Suntouched said that he must see Lord Dunderpot at once, and the servant said that the lord was out, and that he should come back another day. This played in the Suntouched’s plans perfectly; servants would be easier to fool than a lord. The hero insisted that he was Thurmod Gramfut, the son of some made up lord, and that he had business with Lord Dunderpot. He sounded just indignant and looked just soaked and desperate enough that the servants had no choice but to believe him and let him in. They didn’t even ask him about his red skin. Within moments the Suntouched was wrapped in a blanket before a warm fire. Few things had ever felt so pleasant.
“From there, he told the servants that his father, Lord Gramfut, was in need of needleworkers and willing to buy a handful of infirm workers from the Dunderpots for an extravagant sum. When one of the servants went to fetch them, the Suntouched asked if he may tour the family library. At the first opportunity, he slipped out of a second-story window, and hurried in pursuit of the servant.
“With the dark of night, the heavy rain, and the hero’s own natural skill, staying hidden as he followed the servant was no challenge at all. The man led him to one of the mining tunnels, which took so many twists and turns that the Suntouched was unsure if he would ever find his way back out. They were rounding just such a turn when the servant jumped back in surprise as an assailant leaped out at him and knocked him unconscious with a single blow.
“It was the elf woman from before. She looked just as astonished to see the Suntouched as he was to see her. ‘What are you doing here?’ they asked in unison.
“‘Get out of here,’ the woman said. ‘I’m setting my people free. I was handling things on my own. You’ll only get me in trouble.’
“‘We’ll be safer in numbers,’ the Suntouched insisted, but the woman would not hear it. ‘No,’ she said. ‘If we fight the guards and fail, they will kill us and the prisoners will suffer for it. The only way to do this is carefully. And the longer I talk to you the more danger I am in.’
“‘Hey!’ a guard called from deeper in the tunnels. She was quickly joined by another. The elf shot the Suntouched a hateful glare before helplessly surrendering. For a moment, he considered drawing his blade, confidant that they could overcome whatever opposition they faced. But he saw that the elf was unarmed, and so he raised his hands as well, suddenly feeling very reckless and foolhardy.
“The two were brought down more twists and turns, during which time the only words exchanged were harsh orders from the guards. The tunnel widened into a cavern as they reached their destination. The room was bisected by bars, behind which were three dozen individuals, including children, sickly adults, and those too old to work.
“As the Suntouched was brought in, he witnessed another pair of guards holding a halfling man down on his knees before a tall, dark-haired man with an elegant moustache and villainous cloak: Lord Peter Dunderpot. He was grinning with the cruel glee of a sadist as he removed his glove and extended an index finger that was alight with red-hot magic.
“The halfling howled with pain as Dunderpot touched his skin and etched his signature onto it. The lord enjoyed every moment of this torturous act, not even bothering to greet his new guests until the halfling had been thrown in the cell. Its occupants stepped back in fear when the door swung open.
“Then his attention was turned to Emelthea. He ordered her thrown in the cell, saying that he’d enjoy showing her what happened to would-be heroes in the morning. First, he wanted to deal with the intruder. Before he could ask the Suntouched his name, the hero spoke first.
“‘Lord Peter Dunderpot. I challenge you to a duel.’
“The lord was taken aback, at first. Then, he was amused. He laughed loudly. Cruelly. Joyously. ‘A duel must have stakes,’ he said, ‘and what could a rain-soaked vagabond have to offer Peter Dunderpot?’
“‘Note the color of my skin,’ the Suntouched replied. ‘Do you know how it got this way? Sol Himself reached down from the cosmos to touch me, branding me His champion. Would He choose a simple peasant for such a deed?’
“Sure enough, the Suntouched’s ploy worked. His skin and confidence made his story difficult to deny – everyone had seen the light of Sol, of course – and Dunderpot’s distaste for the poor made the statement ring true in his ears. He agreed to the terms the Suntouched set: If Peter won, he would take ownership of all the land the Suntouched owned. This was, of course, nothing. If the Suntouched won, the prisoners would go free, and the hero would take ownership of this clay pit. And then the guards backed away. The Suntouched drew his cheap, rusted blade, and Lord Dunderpot drew his fine, dwarven steel.
“The moment their blades touched it was clear that the gap in quality of their swords was indicative of the gap in quality of their swordsmanship. The Suntouched was on the defensive constantly, and within half a minute he was doubting himself. Could he really be the chosen of Sol?
“The guards hollered with enthusiasm as Dunderpot trapped the Suntouched against the wall. The prisoners shouted their desperate encouragement. But when the lord disarmed our journeyman hero, their shouts became gasps, and then silence. Dunderpot sheathed his sword and delivered a powerful blow to the hero’s stomach. He doubled over, took a knee, ae stared up at the lord, sure that he had lost, and braced for his death.”
The sound of a trumpet ripped through the tavern. Loudly. With muted senses and a ringing in his ears, Donovan lazily searched for its source. Sitting in the corner of the bar were two well-dressed figures. One of them, a fishlike creature with stumpy arms and unreasonably long legs, stood and spoke.
“Good afternoon!” she cried. Her voice was gurgling and unpleasant. “I am Farthinger Piddlegriddle, a bishop of the Church of the True Believers. Blessings of Sol be upon you all.”
The other figure, a human child, prepared to blow into the trumpet again, but Bishop Piddlegriddle stopped him.
“As many of you know, we of the True Believers have taken it upon ourselves to save this city and bring it closer to Sol. These establishments, these…bars, they are not in His glorious light. They are distractions from our true mission of betterment and change. And so today it has been put upon me and my squire here to relieve you all of your sins as best we can.”
Hega stood up. “Who gives you the right?” she asked.
“Sol,” the bishop said.
“A warrant have you?” D’rek asked in a quick, loud whisper.
“No. Only a divine mandate from our God. And a trumpet.”
“Wh-“ Hega started to say, but she was cut off by a blast of loud, brassy sound. Donovan tried to speak to the same effect.
“Storytime and drinking time are over,” she announced.
“Guards I will call,” D’rek said.
People started to file out. Not wanting to cause a scene, Donovan joined them.
“You will thank us in the next life, even as you curse us in this one!” Bishop Piddlegriddle assured them.
Most of the disgruntled and drinkless patrons went home in disappointment, but many of them waited for Donovan outside the bar, including Barry and Hega. “They can take away our drinks,” the sky giant said. “But they can’t take away our amusement. We were quite enjoying your tale. Would you mind finishing it, Mr. Allman?” The crowd affirmed their interest.
Donovan was humbled by the request. He would have blushed, were his skin not the product of a glamour. “Not at all,” he said. Some people sat on a nearby bench. A few took to the floor. Most continued to stand. All eyes were on him. He cleared his throat, and went on. “Where was I? Oh, yes.
“With the Suntouched against the wall, Lord Dunderpot outstretched his open hands. His veins were visible through his skin as they surged with orange light, flowing from his heart to his palms. The energy escaped in a powerful stream of fire, which should have granted the Suntouched a very quick but painful death.
“It should have, but it didn’t. Instead the flame washed harmlessly over him, scorching his clothes but leaving his skin entirely untouched. He couldn’t afford the time to be shocked, so he quickly grabbed Dunderpot’s hands and threw him against the wall, drawing the lord’s sword from its sheath in the process. He held it against his throat, and called for the lord’s surrender.
“Face white with fear, and stunned speechless by the Suntouched’s miracle, the lord only nodded rapidly.
“‘I would like to keep your sword, too, if you don’t mind,’ the Suntouched said. ‘Now I suggest you leave, and urge you not to consider breaking a promise made to Sol’s chosen one.’
“Dunderpot sputtered an affirmation and ordered his guards to leave with him. Once again high on heroism, the young man turned to the surprised and overjoyed prisoners, and addressed the elf woman. ‘I believe an apology is in order. Turns out you needed me after all.’
“‘An impressive display,’ she admitted. ‘Perhaps I will allow you to travel with me in the future.’ She muttered a word in Eldritch and touched one of the cage’s steel bars. It was overrun with frost, growing colder and colder by the second. After a few moments, she removed her hand and kicked the bar sharply, causing it to shatter, and exited the cell with her fellow villagers. ‘Make no mistake, however,’ she went on. ‘You were not needed here today. But you were appreciated. Your spirit inspired me to take action I should have taken long ago.
“‘My name is Emelthea Crimsonfir. It has, against all odds, been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’
“The Suntouched would have blushed, had his skin allowed it. ‘Edmund Partridge,’ he lied. ‘If we set your people free without coordinating, imagine the good we will do working side-by-side.’
Emelthea and the Suntouched shook hands, and a partnership was formed between the novice sorcerer and amateur hero. A partnership that would one day inspire legends, songs, and rumors of romance for decades to come. For while they spent the next weeks of their lives ensuring the Dunderpot clay mines were placed in appropriate hands, and the indentured servants were set free, from there the two set off in search of adventure and heroism the likes of which the world has never seen, and unless we are very lucky, may never see again.”
The small crowd applauded gently as the story concluded. Donovan took a jocular bow and thanked everyone for their time and attention. Barry gave him a powerful (and mildly painful) pat on the back before flying off into the city, and the crowd gave their thanks before dispersing. Some even said they would finally make the time to stop by his shop, which made his spirits soar further. It was his first true moment of acceptance in Skymoore.
“Well, it’s been quite the afternoon,” Donovan said to Hega as they walked toward Odd & Ends. “Never a dull one in Skymoore, I suppose. Though I hope those fanatics leave poor D’rek alone.”
“You know,” the dwarf said as they reached the spot where they typically parted ways, taking Donovan’s hand into her own, “it could be quite the evening as well.” She caught herself. “It doesn’t have to be…well it could. But you should come to my place. We could make something to eat. You could amuse me with more exciting stories. It would be fun.”
What’s the opposite of nostalgia? Whatever the word, Donovan felt it in that moment. Maybe it was talking about Emelthea. Maybe it was always there, locked away in his mind, dictating his every action. Either way it seized him then like a terrible chill.
“Thank you,” he said. “But perhaps another time. I really ought to get back to the shop.”
“Oh. Donovan I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“No, Hega, don’t. It’s not you. It’s me. Truly. Let’s do this again in a few days.”
He didn’t await her response as he walked, brisk and alone, back to Odd & Ends.