When Pulldrid the Riser lifted the city of Seamoore into the sky, he made sure to take much of the eastern farmland with it. However as local historian, soothsayer, and political commentator Andrea Greycastle noted in her award-losing book, 49 Things You Didn’t Know About the Past, Present, and Future of Skymoore: Number 18 Will Fill Your Soul With Existential Dread, “Pulldrid the Riser was a socially insensitive jerkwad! Did you know that eighty-percent of the farmland he took with him when he selflessly saved Seamoore from destruction was land belonging to Goldsoil Farm, which is owned by bourgeoisie hags and exploits the common man like you and, to a lesser extent, like me? That’s, like, really unfair! Their low wages and long hours have led to the poor and crime-infested state of the Mish Mash (look it up), and they keep the handful of remaining farms from reaching their full potential by signing exclusivity deals with local restaurants. Uncool, Pulldrid! Very uncool!”
Regardless of your political leanings, it was impossible to deny that Goldsoil Farm was a lovely sight to behold. Set among rolling fields that caught the sun in a warm gradient of greens, the farmlands were full of beauty and activity as far as the eye could see. Blossoming trees bearing fruits of all shapes and colors; people of all stripes plowing, riding horses, and milking psuedodragons; and plots of bright and healthy crops and flowers littered the landscape. But nothing was so striking as Sustenance Manor, situated at the heart of the land.
The golden soil from which the farm derived its name had been used to build the wide, castlelike structure. The compacted dirt was held together by brightly flowered vines which grew around and within the manor’s walls. The whole thing glowed and glistened in the sun, and was a magical marvel that made most people balk when they first lay eyes upon it.
As for Linda Arterford and Donovan Allman, they merely admired the architecture. It was the manor that brought them to Goldsoil Farms one chilly afternoon. (At least, Donovan said it was chilly. To Linda and her thick fur coat, the weather felt just right.) They had business to attend to, and although Linda had hoped to be as rid of business meeting as she was adventuring, it was worth it to see Donovan truly moving on from all the cult business. In the days since their disappointing visit to Al’s Chemy, the shopkeeper focused on nothing but keeping the shop, and Linda knew with certainty that she’d made the right choice in coming to Skymoore after all.
Waiting for them across the moat, which doubled as a source of irrigation, was the dryad who owned Goldsoil Farms. She looked like autumn, with chartreuse skin and red-and-green composing her voluminous hair, which was presently tied into a bun with a small vine containing a single pink flower. To the close observer, her hair denoted her age, as leaves had fallen away to expose some of the branches beneath, but she masked this with a natural voluptuous vitality which was plain in her dress and stance.
“Good morning,” Donovan called as he crossed the bridge over the moat. “I didn’t think you’d respond to my offer so soon. I’m Donovan Allman, and this is my good friend and associate, Linda Arterford.”
Linda nodded. “Nice to meet you, Miss…”
“Please, call me Sharla,” the dryad replied, extending a delicate hand. Linda shook it firmly, surprised by the strength the other woman possessed. Even through her fur, Linda could feel that Sharla’s hand was unusually cold, with a vaguely waxy texture.
“So,” Donovan said. “I was thinking that we would discuss-”
“My, my, all business are we, Mr. Allman?” Sharla asked. “Let’s get to know each other first. I’m having lunch prepared as we speak.”
“Yes. My apologies,” Donovan said. “Lead the way.”
Beyond Sustenance Manor’s mahogany door lay a manmade interior that contrasted strongly with the manor’s natural frame. The high-ceilinged foyer contained a golden marble floor, a crystal chandelier holding a variety of colored candles, and an enormous fountain with a statue depicting a polished grey nymph spouting water from a staff. Along each of the walls was a series of portraits depicting an assortment of figures from a chipper gnome chopping down an enormous tree, to a silver-haired elf sitting stoically in a wooden chair. The last three portraits were of dryads, the final of which was Sharla.
“All the owners of Goldsoil,” she explained as the duo was welcomed in. “My family only inherited it just before Skymoore went up. It’s been mine for almost seven decades now.”
“That’s quite impressive,” Donovan said. “I can’t imagine doing any one thing for that long. Not that I’m likely to have the chance.”
“Then it sounds as though what you truly mean to call it is boring, doesn’t it?” Sharla asked. Donovan stammered a response, but Sharla only laughed deeply. “Only teasing, my dear. Seventy years for me isn’t quite what it is for you. My kind live long lives – as long as the tree we are bound to. Two centuries, perhaps. Or fifty. You never know. But it does keep us guessing, and so we never get stuck doing one thing for more than half a century if we can help it. Oh, but that’s not what you want to hear from a prospective business partner, is it?”
By this time they had been brought to the dining hall, an impossibly long room. Literally impossibly long, by nonmagical laws of space. Whatever spell that had created the manor in the first place seemed to have also created a room that was longer than the manor itself. Sharla explained that the table and room grew longer for every worker that Goldsoil Farms employed, so that if need be they could all sit together at once. A thoughtful gesture, but one that made walking across the miles-long room something of a challenge. Sharla seated her guests at the closest seats to the entrance, and took her seat opposite them.
“Usually people are more impressed,” Sharla said as she sized them up. The dryad sure liked to talk, which was fine with Linda, who did not. “Though I suppose you’ve seen quite a lot down there, haven’t you, Linda? And Donovan, running a magic shop, you must have a few stories yourself.”
“Nestor’s the magic one,” Donovan said. “I just have a good poker face.”
“No games here, I assure you,” Sharla said. “And where is the gnome? I assumed I’d meet both the owners.”
“We prefer to have one of us at the shop at all times. You’ll meet him soon, I’m sure.”
A quartet of servants arrived in the dining hall, carrying plates and bowls and wheeling trays of food. All three of them were presented with a salad, a tray of assorted fruit, a light soup, lightly toasted rolls glazed with butter and honey, and a selection of fruit pastries to choose from.
Sharla thanked the servants and dismissed them. “Dig in,” she said.
“What was that you were saying about me?” Linda asked.
Sharla raised an eyebrow. “You’re the Suntouched’s old…companion, aren’t you? Just something I heard through the vine.”
“Oh,” Linda said. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“And what was that like? What is he like?”
Linda fought the instinct to glance at Donovan. “Well, he’s everything you’ve certainly heard. Noble. Handsome. Unnatural.”
“Yes, I have heard that. Tell me something I haven’t.”
The minotaur shifted uncomfortably. “He loves the heroism too much. He thrives on it. I’m not saying he didn’t want to help people. But I started helping people and developed a taste for heroism later. I get the sense he had a reverse experience.”
Donovan ate in silence.
“A thrill seeker?” Sharla said with interest. “Fascinating. And yet no one has heard from him since Castle Belmov. Have you?”
“You know a lot about the surface,” Donovan interjected. “There’s not a lot of that here.”
Sharla only smiled enigmatically. “And now you’re up here with Donovan Allman, our mysterious not-so-newcomer. You sure have an appetite for strange and handsome men. Though, who doesn’t, I suppose.
“As a surface minotaur, is there any chance you hail from the O’grofkala Mountains?”
“My uncle was a traveling merchant. Made his way there a lot, said he liked the dragonfolk. Pensol Darkholm. Did you know him?”
“Darkholm?” Linda asked. “Are you related to Tabitha Darkholm?” She gave Donovan a look that said I-Know-You’re-Up-To-Something, but he just looked intently at the roll he was cutting in half.
“My daughter,” Sharla said. “She’s a sweet girl. And bright, too. Wants to be a blacksmith. But she’s quite the rebel; I guess all girls her age are. I just want a socialite, a reveler, like dear ol’ mom, you know? Someone I can pass some wisdom onto. But she’s so obsessed with her book club and her apprenticeships, she hardly makes any time for parties.
“Oh, but enough about personal matters. How are you two enjoying the city so far?”
Linda wanted to grab Donovan by the wrist and drag him out of the manor. He set up this meeting the day after they saw Tabitha at Al’s Chemy. He didn’t care about his business proposition at all, this was just part of some scheme to learn more about his imagined cult. The minotaur took a deep breath and a bite from an apple the color of Sharla’s skin, closing her eyes as she chewed. She would have words later. For now, business.
When Sharla Darkholm mentioned her daughter’s book club, Donovan was torn between wishing to smile in satisfaction and grimace in dismay, but he did neither. He had to remain professional. But whatever this club was, Donovan had little doubt it was related to the voodoo spell he’d detected the other day. He was getting closer.
After lunch, Donovan walked Sharla through his proposition. Odd & Ends would carry products from Goldsoil Farms that would be enchanted by Nestor with effects similar to the ones provided by their amulets – love charms, confidence-boosters, energizers, general health spells, and so on. Knowing full well that Sharla’s name would be the primary draw to these products, Donovan offered her eighty-five percent of all profits, which she gladly accepted. In exchange, Sharla would publicly promote Odd & Ends to the people of Skymoore. Her opinion didn’t have as much sway as, say, the church, but she was respected enough to make a difference.
“Could you excuse me?” Donovan asked as their discussion came to a close. “I need to use your…facilities.”
Sharla gave Donovan some labyrinthine instructions, and he was on his way. A rush of guilt flowed through him as he exited in the room; if breaking his promise didn’t make Linda very mad at him, surely leaving her in a room with Sharla Darkholm would do the trick. But he couldn’t help it. Not when he finally had a lead.
Tabitha’s room was easy enough to find. It was the green door on the second floor which read “Tabitha’s Room.” It was locked. Donovan produced a small loop attached to a short, thin metal rod – an unfinished key – that had been enchanted by Nestor to unlock any door, usable only five times. (“I’ve lost my key,” Donovan had told the gnome. “I just need something until I can buy it back from the lost and found. Thank you, Nestor, you’re splendid.”) It worked.
The room was essentially what Donovan had expected given his limited interactions with the young woman: organized, proper, with just a hint of erratic. A pink canopy draped neatly over a four-poster bed with one side thrown sloppily open, a perfectly organized bookshelf with papers strewn about it, a clean writing desk with scratches in the surface from intensive writing. If the curtains over the window had been drawn aside, the room would have been seemed very bright and youthful, but as it was now he felt like he was disturbing a crime scene. And he supposed he was, of his own making.
Donovan’s initial investigation yielded nothing of interest. Nothing to suggest that Tabitha was involved with a cult that sought to drown Skymoore in fire. Homework, apprenticeship schedule, a stuffed pegasus and gryphon. There was a nameless notebook underneath her bed, but at first glance, it only contained random doodles. Shapes and lines with little significance. That is, until he recognized the city docks, where Odd & Ends was located.
Sure enough, the book was filled with crude maps and arcane sigils that Donovan did not recognize. He knew he wouldn’t have the time to piece together its significance without becoming suspicious, but he had made a strong enough start. When he closed the book to return it under the bed, something on its black cover caught Donovan’s eyes. There was a slight change in the shade of black, almost as though it had faded in very specific places. Sure enough, when Donovan cast aside the blinds just enough to let some light into the room, two words revealed themselves on the cover.
Donovan dropped the book.
“Donovan, that’s crazy,” Linda said. When Donovan told Linda what he saw, night had fallen over Skymoore, and Odd & Ends was dark and quiet.
“I wouldn’t make this up.”
“Dulificus is dead. Without him, The Chastened have no purpose. And what use would they have with Skymoore?”
“That’s what I need your help figuring out. Nobody knows why they do the things they do. But if we have a chance to stop them, we have to try.”
“No. You snooped in a child’s bedroom and found some drawings. Now you’re spouting nonsense. This life really is hard on you. She probably just found that book. Or the words meant something else. Or the true title was faded. You don’t know.”
“Or the book contains detailed information on a plot to destroy this city and kill everyone on it.”
“Then tell the authorities.”
“They’ll never believe me!”
“I expect they won’t. Because you’re spouting nonsense.”
Silence fell. The darkness made it heavier than it needed to be.
Though he could hardly make out the look on Linda’s face, Donovan grew frustrated looking at it. When she looked at him like that, he felt like such a child. He was many years her senior, but her size and temperament made her seem so much wiser. But more than foolish, he felt guilty. He brought her all the way up to Skymoore, and now he was lying to her and going behind her back.
And yet, she proved that he was right to do so. If he was to stop The Chastened, and he was, he was going to do it alone.
“Goodnight,” Linda said finally, and left the shop.