With four employees in the store at once, Odd & Ends quickly became overcrowded not merely in terms of space, but also in terms of work to be done. Sure, if the shop were busy Donovan could be managing the books while Karessa swept, Nestor helped a customer, and Linda restocked the displays. But the shop was never busy. Even three workers could often feel unnecessary.
So, for the first time since arriving in Skymoore, Donovan took an entire day off. He hardly knew what to do with himself. In the morning he walked about the city, casually familiarizing himself with it in a way he hadn’t yet had time to do properly. He discovered a library, an aquarium, and a place that sold something called “pizza,” all of which he made a note to check out when he had the time.
His afternoon was spent in the Sunlit Market, the assortment of stalls that appeared weekly in the town square. There he bought a cross stitch portrait of Erah, the Last Mammoth (by which he was deeply disturbed upon learning that the artwork had been crafted using the dyed hairs of the tragic creature), a dryad’s fruit covered in caramel (delicious!), and a necklace with a locket carved from cerulean wood. (He was once again unsettled when he opened the locket to find a small painting of none other than Nestor Pinkly peeling a banana and winking whimsically, with the words “STOCK PHOTO” written across it. He disposed of the photo.)
He spent his evening with Hega, who introduced him to a small-but-notable neighborhood called Old Seamoore, where things were more-or-less the way they were before Skymoore separated itself from Solkin. Donovan was surprised to learn that Hega actually lived in the neighborhood, and it occurred to him that he knew very little about the dwarf despite their time together. He didn’t even know how she’d lost an arm and an eye, or how she’d learned to speak Eldritch.
Along with Barry the Sky Giant, they attended a show at The Brass Section, a concert hall with a color palette befitting its name. There a trio of lycanthropes known as Wolf Gang (individually called Ven, Von, and Bayto) performed a symphony that had been written hundreds of years ago by a mediocre scarf salesman and aspiring poet from Seamoore. Donovan had actually heard it performed once before at an arts festival in Dol Belvargamar. It was much more beautiful then, but for a brief time he could just sit in a balcony seat, enjoy a show, and not have to face the full strangeness of Skymoore. No spontaneous holes in the ground, no jelly cube bankers, no puritanical Sol-worshippers kicking him out of taverns. Just Donovan, his two friends, and some adequately-pleasing music.
On the whole, his first day off was wonderful. Almost.
“You’re thinking about work again,” Hega said as they walked the streets that moonless night, with only the oil lamps to light their way. “You don’t hear a word I’m saying.”
“I most certainly do,” Donovan insisted. “You were talking about. Well, it was. Okay, yes, I was thinking about work.”
Barry the Sky Giant smiled assuredly. “Fear not, Mr. Allman!” he boomed, his voice echoing and summoning an accompanying breeze.” “Your shop will be just fine without your governance. After all, it is only one day!”
“You must not know Nestor Pinkly,” Donovan said. “The gnome’s a fine business partner in some respects, but his practices are…unusual. It wouldn’t be wholly unexpected for him to spend half of our month’s budget on balloon animals with messages written on them with invisible ink, and the other half hiring people to release them into the city. He once suggested we make everything in the store free for a week as a special promotion. My only hope is that Karessa and Linda are sensible enough to stop him.”
“Oh come on, Donovan,” Hega said. “You’re being a real bore. Who wants drinks?”
“Alas, I must be getting home,” Barry lamented. “The missus and I have a ten-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle to get back to.”
“Pah, everyone’s a bore. At least you’re a married bore. Goodnight, Barry.”
“A wonderful evening to you as well, Hega! And you, Mr. Allman!”
The giant took to the skies, and left the other two alone in the dark, quiet streets of Skymoore. “I’ll let you choose the activity next time,” Donovan said. “I didn’t realize you disliked concerts.”
Hega’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“You were clearly bored and annoyed throughout the performance. What is it you’d like to do instead?”
“You’re more astute than I give you credit for. No, it’s not that at all, it’s-”
“Is it about last time?”
Hega crossed her arm across her chest. “What about last time?”
“Well, you know. How I, well.”
“I’m not some foolish little girl, Donovan. I’m not distraught that you chose not to sleep with me.”
“I didn’t mean to imply, I just meant. Well. Look, I just want to move past all that.”
“I thought we already had.”
A sickening chill rippled across Donovan’s skin. Goosebumps raised. Hairs stood. Stomach churned. No, he thought suddenly. No. No. No.
“Hega, I have to go.” Donovan said.
The dwarf was clearly taken aback. “What? Donovan, you’re being childish. We need to talk about this if that bothered you this much.”
“No, it isn’t about that. It’s the shop. I just can’t bare to think what Nestor’s doing to it.”
“Donovan, come on, we need to talk.”
“You can choose the venue next time!” Donovan called as he began to run down the street. Hega cursed at him as he ran down the street, and Donovan wondered briefly if he had ruined his friendship with the dwarf. Only briefly, though. He was much more concerned with what he believed to be the imminent destruction of Skymoore.
Many years ago, Donovan was nearly killed by a powerful sorcerer. The details are unimportant, but this individual was unbelievably powerful, bending the laws of nature – gravity, time, space – to their will. When Donovan was restored to health after being reduced to an inch of his life, he awoke with a strange silvery glyph on his left palm. It was typically invisible, but it revealed itself whenever magic was being used nearby. When this happened, Donovan became immediately aware of a number of vague details of the spell being cast.
You see, magic is a very personal art. The essence of the caster is imbued in every spell. For example, if someone bubbly and joyful like Nestor cast a spell to conjure a random illusion, it’s very likely that an illusory flower would bloom, or a puppy would appear and begin chasing its tail. If someone with a wicked heart cast the same spell, they might wind up with a hideous ghost or a swarm of vile insects.
It was this essence that Donovan felt. Not the type of spell, nor the identity of its caster, only its location, its power, and its intent.
That chill that struck Donovan just then, that sickening sensation, was accompanied by the presence of this glyph and the knowledge of a spell. This was peculiar enough on its own, as Donovan almost never detected magic outside of Odd & Ends these days, but he was much more struck by the details. This spell was powerful, for one. Immense power the likes of which Donovan had only felt a few times in his life. But it was also dark. The caster of this spell held hate and destruction in their heart, and wished nothing short of Skymoore’s utter destruction.
As he ran toward the spell, Donovan could not shake an image from his head: that of a great fire swallowing all the city, accompanied by a roaring cacophony of fear and death. But in contrast to the noise and heat of his mind, the night was atypically quiet and still. It was a disorienting incongruence.
The tugging sensation in his palm brought him to Glamour and Anvil, an old stone smithy that had been repurposed into a clothing shop. A note on its pastel-painted door insisted it was closed for the week, but the silvery glyph, now bright and burning on Donovan’s palm (plainly visible, despite the illusion which typically suppressed it), insisted that it was very much in use.
Peering through a dusty window, Donovan witnessed a gathering inside. Darkly cloaked figures with obscured faces huddled around a glowing red circle with complex geometrical patterns in the center. One figure, which stood tall above the others, stepped into the center of the circle. The others looked upon them with reverence, and bowed. A searing red light flooded the room, burning so intensely that Donovan could feel its warmth through the stone walls, completely obscuring the former smithy.
When the light cleared, the revered figure was gone and the warmth was replaced by an unnaturally dry cold. Despite himself, Donovan’s teeth chattered lightly. He gasped. The figures turned to face him and then scattered quickly, moving through the dim room like shadows on the periphery of vision.
The door swung open with a slam! and one of the figures bolted past Donovan. Their reflexes were little match for his, however, and the hero grabbed their sleeve and spun them around to face him, revealing a multi-colored stained-glass face. It smiled impassively, its expressionless eyes glimmering in the lantern light. It drew a knife from its robes and stabbed at Donovan, grazing his cheek gently.
Donovan made a move to disarm the glass-faced individual, but they twisted easily out of his grip, delivering a shallow slash across his chest in the motion. Donovan hissed in pain, clutching his abdomen as he watched his foe flee. It had been some time since he had last received a proper wound. Pain greeted the Suntouched as a delightful old friend, its presence stirring up the past and inciting forward motion. He pursued.
While the cultist – what better word for them than that? – climbed a ladder leaning against a half-painted home, Donovan leapt halfway up the building and used the timber frame as a means to scale the rest. He greeted the cultist at the top of the ladder and threw him to the roof of the building. Donovan made a move to stomp his foe’s chest, but they rolled easily out of the way and regained their footing.
The few exchanged a flurry of blows (and stabs), none of which connected with the other until the blunt of the knife struck Donovan between the eyes. For a moment he saw stars and cursed his lack of practice. Though in truth, he knew there were more troubling reasons for his incompetence. Still, he had to try.
The cultist fled across the rustic rooftops of Old Seamoore, struggling with some of the longer gaps between building. Donovan, being much more accustomed to this sort of thing, was able to keep up with ease. More than easy, it was thrilling. Nostalgia weaved its way into his mind, conjuring memories of chasing crooks across the four-story buildings of Castiron by starlight. He felt alive.
As they raced along the roof of an active tavern, alive with the sounds of a jaunty classical tune, Donovan caught up to the fleeing cultist and grabbed him once more by the sleeve. As he spun his foe around, the cultist used Donovan’s momentum against him, spinning around so that Donovan’s back was to the edge of the building. The cultist held him by the collar.
Euphoria ceded ground to doubt and fear.
“May your heinous impurity be met with an icy eternity,” the cultist said, placing something in Donovan’s jacket pocket and pushing him off the building.
Donovan’s preternatural reflexes kicked in. During his brief fall, he produced a small iron sphere with a tiny wick attached. A bomb. Donovan hurled the explosive as high in the air as he could. Or rather, he tried to, but his aim was off and the bomb hit the corner of a sign reading “The Ale Moon.”
He didn’t hear the explosion. He only felt it, as heat washed across his body and propelled him harshly into the ground. Blood trickled into his eyes and mouth as he watched the hole in the bar smolder, numbly enraptured by the crackling of the yellow flames.
About a dozen people fled the bar in terror. A handful were injured. One was dead. Donovan pulled himself to his feet and insisted he was fine. He wasn’t.
He hobbled after the cultist, but there was no sign of him. That night Donovan toppled into bed aching, defeated, and ashamed.