Thursday, Spring 51, 1677 was a rather ordinary day in most respects. The sun shone brightly in Skymoore, as it often did. The birds were chirping loudly, communicating the secret messages of a vast network of organized crime, as they often were. And Odd & Ends was empty, as it often was.
Empty, that is, except for Donovan Allman, who tapped his fingers in rhythm with the birds outside (in flagrant violation of Skymoorian Law), and Nestor Pinkly, who hummed an accompanying tune (this was fine) as he alphabetized a shelf of enchanted toys based on the unofficial names he’d given them that day (Spinny Doodad, Bouncing Thingamajig, Flashing Whosawhatsit). The latter was enjoying himself, the former was not.
“It’s like the Void Lands in here today,” Donovan noted dryly.
“What’s that?” someone from outside asked as they entered the shop. Donovan’s heart jumped for a moment until he realized that it was only Karessa Plunderton.
“Don’t you have the day off today?”
The halfling shrugged. “Just bored. Besides, you never know when you’re actually going to show up these days.”
“That’s very brave of you,” Donovan observed, “speaking to your boss in such a way.” Karessa’s cheeks darkened. “Did you really just ask what the Void Lands are?” Karessa stared at him. “How can you not know what the Void Lands are?”
“I don’t know either, if it helps,” Nestor said.
Donovan thought he was done being surprised by cultural differences in Skymoore, but he was very, very far from that it seemed. “Have you heard of Dulcificus? The Chastened? What do they even teach you in schools?”
The shopkeeper took a deep breath. “There was a demon called Dulcificus that terrorized the surface for centuries. Its actions were typically far-and-few-between, and nobody was certain what it wanted, but one thing was clear: Dulcificus was closely connected to the Void Lands, an ever-growing region where neither sound nor color exists, and where few living creatures can survive for long. Over the last hundred or so years, its spread has brought countless refugees to Pensacrop as their homes are swallowed by the Lands. A few years ago The Suntouched journeyed into the Lands and killed Dulcificus, and while the Void no longer spreads, it has not retreated either.”
“Just another reason the surface is awful,” Karessa said.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Nestor said. “I once rode a camel on the surface.”
Nobody responded to the gnome; they were all far too surprised by movement at the door. Donovan half expected it to be Linda, but no, it wasn’t an employee, it was an actual customer: a stout human woman with black hair, twinkling emerald eyes, and a dark red birthmark crawling up her neck. She removed a comically large sunhat as she entered.
“Oh, Karessa Plunderton, yes?” she asked. “Do you work here?”
“Not today,” Karessa replied. “You’ll want to talk to these two. Donovan, this is Trista. She tends to the garden outside Luminous.”
“And many others,” Trista confirmed. “I’m a field agent for the office of Parks and Condemnation.”
“A government woman,” Donovan said. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance. What brings you to Odd & Ends?”
“Armin Delugance, the community organizer from the church, speaks highly of you and this shop. Of course, Brother Graugh is always saying how it’s a festering pit of sin and how magic is a tool of the impious, and that the Parks department should formally Condemn the place, but I trust Armin’s judgement and thought I would see it for myself.”
“Oh,” Donovan said.
“Splendid!” Nestor exclaimed. “Is there anything we can help you with?”
Trista shook her head. “I’ll just have a look around.”
Nestor watched with excitement as Trista walked about. Karessa mostly looked bored. Donovan’s stomach churned with nervous uncertainty.
Telmark Graugh had been waging a war on Odd & Ends since Donovan arrived in Skymoore, and it was a completely one-sided battle. The people of Skymoore were so invested in their church that the idea of vocally opposing a priest was lunacy. On top of that, despite being a magically-floating city, the people of Skymoore weren’t accustomed to using magic in their day-to-day lives. He relied entirely on the hope that people would see for themselves that his shop was perfectly harmless. A government examination certainly wouldn’t help with that.
“Looks okay to me,” Trista eventually said. Donovan exhaled. “A little weird, but…okay. Except, does this pinwheel really open a portal to another realm?”
“Yes!” Nestor replied. “We used it once to send the Minitoa back t-”
Donovan held up a hand. “Consider it gone.”
Trista waved him off. “I’m not the Public Safety Specter, don’t stress about it. They may haunt you one of these days, though. If you wake up one morning and find a to-do list scrawled on the walls of your shop, you’ll know Ol’ Lemaign paid you a visit. And don’t worry, it’s just strawberry juice from the butcher. Officially.”
Donovan laughed courteously.
“Now I suppose it would be rude to waste your time without putting a few feathers in your coffers. My schedule’s had me working before sunrise recently, and I feel nervous lighting a torch in a garden. Do you have something for that?”
“Our amulets are popular. Perhaps one to let you see in the dark?”
Trista shook her head. “I’d go to Al’s for something like that. External, preferably.”
“Try a Glowbe!” Nestor said, prancing across the store with a head-sized glass orb. “Just speak the magic word of your choice and it will float next to you and brighten your day! They come in silent and friendly.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Friendly has twelve pre-recorded stories that can be read to you by yours truly! That way you don’t feel so lonely. It can even answer basic questions like ‘How are you?’ and ‘When you look into the night sky and contemplate how little we know about the universe in which we live, do you ever think it’s possible that everything we’ve worked for is meaningless, and everything we believe is but a small fragment of the larger picture?’ To which it will reply ‘Fantastic!’ and ‘No, I am a Glowbe!’”
“Silent is fine,” Trista said. “But that’s a thoughtful offer.”
“What did she mean by Al’s?” Donovan asked once Trista had left.
“Probably Al’s Chemy,” Nestor replied. He now sat on a stool behind the counter, drawing a basic smiley face on one of the Friend Glowbes. This, he was certain, would ensure the sale next time.
“Is that like an alchemist?”
“It’s exactly like an alchemist,” Karessa replied. (“Oh! I just got the pun!” Nestor exclaimed.) “How do you not know about Al’s?”
“You’ve never heard of the Void Lands,” Donovan said.
“He’s our number one competitor!” Karessa said defensively.
“It’s swallowed nearly the entire world.”
“I should pay this Al a visit,” Donovan decided. “If he can stay in business selling potions and the like, surely we can stay in business selling magic objects. Nestor, you have the shop. Karessa, go do whatever it is teenagers do for fun here. I’ll be scoping out the competition.”
“Isn’t this normally the kind of thing you do before you start a business?” Karessa asked.
Donovan ignored her on his way out.
“I can’t thank you enough for making the move up here,” Donovan said to Linda as they made their way to Al’s Chemy. He’d hardly spent any time with her in the month since she’d moved to Skymoore, and thought this would be a nice opportunity to catch up. “You didn’t have to come, but I never doubted you would.”
“You’re right, I didn’t. But it hardly crossed my mind to refuse. Don’t get too flattered; that lifestyle was boring. Felling your own trees, cooking your own food, forging your own steel…it’s satisfying the first time. Maybe the first hundred times. But like everything else, it gets old.”
“So why,” Linda continued after a pregnant moment. “Have you insisted on hermitage after calling me up here?”
He could always count on Linda to be direct. The question didn’t surprise him, only how long she took to ask it. “It’s nothing personal, of course,” he said, slowing his walk. “I’ve been, well. Just a moment.” A few yards away, people were enjoying their meals outside an upscale restaurant. Donovan found a more remote path, venturing off the town’s roads to find some peace.
“Something has come up,” Donovan said. “Something serious. I hadn’t told you before because I thought it inappropriate to invite you to domestic life and then throw you back into our old ways, but perhaps it’s time to bring someone else into the fold.”
“There’s a cult,” Donovan began. Linda nodded; there was often a cult. “I don’t know what they’re planning, but I felt their presence one night and it’s…troubling. Very troubling. I’ve spent the last month investigating them, but that’s no simple task. This town is riddled with cults. Bird watchers, offbeat religions, ironic teenagers, something called The Cabal. I’ve snooped, I’ve bought information in the Mish Mash, I’ve followed strangely-dressed people in the government district, and I don’t think I’ve gotten any leads on the group I’m searching for. They have these glass masks and bombs, and nobody seems to know anything about that.”
“I knew it,” Linda replied. “But I did not want to.”
“Knew what?” Donovan asked. “Have you heard something about the cult?”
Linda stopped and shook her head. “I knew you couldn’t leave that life behind.”
“I can, but Linda, you didn’t feel what I felt. Skymoore is in great danger.”
“So tell the authorities like regular folk. Being a hero…taking the world into our hands, that’s not something you can dip in and out of. I came here to help you run a shop, and I will do that gladly for as long as it suits us, but I will not be The One With Strength of Twenty, and you will not be The Suntouched. Now stop this foolishness, it isn’t fair of you to drag me into your fantasies, seeing mysteries and catastrophes when there need not be one.”
Donovan was silent.
“Tell me one more thing.” Donovan nodded. “It’s clear you’re not used to this new life. You don’t want it. So why?”
“I got lonely,” Donovan lied. Or perhaps half-lied. “Asylum is…gone. You’ve retired. You know how I get without someone to ground me. After Castle Belmov, it just felt like time. A good end to The Suntouched’s story.”
“And the beginning of Donovan Allman’s,” Linda said. She grinned. “Maybe I should get a new name, too.”
“Too late for that,” Donovan said. “Besides, Linda Arterford is suited well for this life. You’ve always been better at balance than me. You’ll have to teach me. Let’s start with the last few years; how has the simple life been?”
“Quiet,” Linda said. “Too quiet. It’s nice to be in a city again. Even if it is an…odd one.” As if to punctuate her comment, a gnome hoisting a large jar of jam above his head sprinted past them in the direction of the Mish Mash, which looked like a twisted, wooden jungle from a distance. Shortly after, two dwarves wearing blue cloaks and dark glasses rode past them on a single Mastiff. “It’s good to have some excitement again.”
“I suppose that’s one way to see it.”
Al’s Chemy was a narrow green building that looked squeezed between two other buildings as an afterthought. Like whomever designed the street realized halfway through construction that they needed to fit one more. It narrowed awkwardly in the middle and then expanded again near the top, fitting like a puzzle piece between its neighbors.
A chalkboard nailed into the shop’s door read: “My guard dog falls asleep so I’m getting a guard potato. Their eyes are always peeled!” Linda snorted in acknowledgement. Donovan rolled his eyes and went inside.
Like most places in Skymoore, Al’s Chemy was more modern than Odd & Ends. The floor was tiled, many of the displays were in locked glass cases, and the square counter in the center of the store was fine, polished stone. Standing behind the counter was a bespectacled gnome wearing a dress suit, an incongruous straw hat, and an exuberant smile.
“Howdy howdy!” the gnome greeted. “If it isn’t the mysterious newcomer, and the furry newercomer! Moocomer? Minotaur jokes! No offense, meant, ma’am.”
“My name’s Al Fonz and this is my chemy. Is there something I can help you with today?”
“Just taking a look,” Linda replied.
“Sorry, we don’t sell looks here,” Al replied, grinning proudly. Linda smiled for a moment. Donovan did not. “Only joking, feel free!”
The first thing Donovan noticed about Al’s Chemy was its variety. Whereas Odd & Ends only sold magic items, Al’s Chemy sold potions, medicines, ingredients, books on alchemy, and even a small selection of food from Al’s home garden. He was also surprised that the people of Skymoore were trusting of potions and not magic, as the only way potions really differed from herbal remedies was that their ingredients had magical properties.
“The health potions won them over,” Al explained when Donovan asked about it. “People gave them a try in their hour of need and when it worked out, they kept coming back.” This explained the large quantity of health potions, which had an entire wall of shelves dedicated to various flavors (Feeling Pine, An Apple A Day, and Mint Condition to name a few).
“I’ll take one,” Donovan said, drawing his coin purse.
Al held up a hand. “Oh, we don’t take money,” he said. “Don’t believe in it. Built my own house, built my own store. I do extensive community service to make up for the lack of taxes. The Fonz family has been bartering since the dawn of civilization, and we’re not gonna stop now.”
So that was it, then. Maybe there was no good way to run a shop like this in Skymoore. Not if you expected to make any money. Donovan’s first instinct was to wallow in despair. His second was to argue about the absurdities of a bartering system in a modern society. But he didn’t have time to do either, because his skin began to tingle, and the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end.
“Sorry I’m late!” a young woman said as she threw open the shop’s door. “The town guard was arresting some guy and there was jam all over the street and – oh, hello, Mr. Allman, right?” She looked mostly like a human teenager except with cornea-less eyes the color of a great oak’s bark and foliage for hair. Her name was Tabitha Darkholm, and Donovan met her several weeks ago, when Odd & Ends was just opening.
“That’s right. Nice to see you again, Tabitha.”
But Tabitha wasn’t a mage, was she? Last time he saw her, she was panicking about the cleanliness of Ingrid Nittlepick’s smithy. Why wouldn’t she have used magic to clean. He tuned out the world around him as he focused on the source of the spell.
“Sorry about last time. Ingrid was just, oh you know.” Her voice was distorted and muted as though Donovan were in a fish tank. Submerged in his thoughts. “So I’m Al’s apprentice now. He’s a lot less intense. He never gets mad at me for things like being late, right Al?”
There was something in her bag. A cursed object. It felt like voodoo. But more than that, it felt familiar. A new spell, a weaker spell, but with the same handwriting. The same signature. The cult’s signature.
“We have to get going,” Donovan announced suddenly, only then realizing he was interrupting something Al was saying. “Sorry. It’s just that Nestor is manning the shop and…and…” Everyone was staring at him. Or perhaps glaring.
“Excuse him,” Linda said firmly. “He’s had a lot on his mind today.”
The two apologized once again, and made their leave.
“What was that about?” Linda asked once they were a safe distance from the shop.
“You know me,” Donovan said. “I’m terrible at small talk.”
“This is about the cult.”
“I just never know what to say,” Donovan went on. “I thought I’d get better about that, running a shop and all, but not everything comes as naturally to me as I’d like.”
Linda put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Not forcefully enough to stop him from walking, but forcefully enough to remind him that she could. “Promise me this isn’t about the cult.”
“No more cults,” Donovan said. “I promise.”
He stared into Linda’s blue, beady, bovine eyes as they bore into his. After moments of searching, she released him and looked away. A second later, Donovan allowed the gears in his head to turn, as he devised a plan to investigate Tabitha Darkholm.