Linda Arterford hated sweeping, something she was presently doing, and found herself doing often in recent days. One of the few things she hated more than sweeping was being angry at her dearest friend, something she was presently doing, and found herself doing often in recent days.
Donovan had abruptly taken the night off for the second day in a row, an action she was certain meant he was chasing imaginary cults. This left the shop entirely in Linda’s care for the evening. She could have sent for Nestor, but she valued her sanity too much for that. Besides, selling a few Amulets of Calm and a single Flask of Replenishing Water wasn’t too much trouble. Just the cleaning.
Linda was ruminating on her distaste for the evening when a distant shout caught her attention. She thought it odd that she even noticed at first. The shop was situated next to the docks, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear the cheers and cries of Skymoore’s youth, traders, and the unemployed at this time.
But then there was another shout. And another. Either this was yet another Skymoore custom Linda was unfamiliar with, or something was up. She decided to check it out and took the broom with her, just in case.
A gnome nearly ran into Linda as she stepped out onto the welcome mat. “Run!” he warned her. “There’s some kinda – some kinda monster!” The minotaur looked in the direction he came, and saw nothing. Then a moment later, two humans ran from around a corner down the street, looking similarly panicked. Then a dwarf. Then an avayla.
Linda stopped the avayla. “Excuse me, sir. What’s going on? Something about a monster?”
“A demon!” the man said, flapping his wings and flying over Linda. She huffed, gripped her broom tighter, and approached the ruckus.
A gorilla with a body of magma and stone-plated joints was thrashing about a street that was barely wider than the creature itself, setting many of the less-resilient buildings ablaze. It was shaking wildly and trying to reach something on its back. When the primal spun about in frustration, Linda realized that something was Donovan Allman, whose skin was very much on fire and who appeared to have stabbed over a dozen forks and knives into the beast.
“Donovan, get off that thing!” Linda barked. Then in a harsh whisper she added, “people will see you!”
“It wants Odd & Ends,” Donovan said. “It eats magical –” The primal slammed its back into a stone pottery shop with enough force to crack the facade. Linda winced as Donovan hit the ground in a heap. He staggered to his feet, swaying a little as he pointed in the direction of the shop. “Don’t let it…”
“No kidding,” Linda said as the primal turned to face her, its stone eyes and nostrils flared with excitement. It bared its stone teeth and raised its arms in an attempt to intimidate. “Want dinner?” she asked, holding the broom like a polearm. “Earn it!”
The primal kicked its back leg like a bull preparing to charge, and then it did. Linda feinted with the broom and moved aside at the last second, spinning around so that the creature now stood between Linda and the edge of Skymoore.
Realizing that the beast could now easily make a break for the shop, Linda bellowed and hit the ground forcefully with the broom, splintering it a little. The primal was clearly torn between dinner and battle, so Linda swung at it with the broom, hitting it on the arm with all her might. The primal gurgled and withdrew its arm in pain. The hairs of the broom melted a bit.
“Linda, there’s an unbinding circle in the agricultural district,” Donovan said from behind. “There are people there waiting to eliminate this primal’s physical form.”
“Well now it’s definitely not going,” Linda said. She caught a blow from the primal in the center of the broom, snapping it in two. She alternated jabs from each splintered half, shouting and taking a step forward each time. The ape took a step back in kind, unable to find an opening of its own. “Besides,” Linda added, dropping the broom and kicking her feet like a bull preparing to charge, “you know I’m old fashioned.”
The minotaur slammed into the primal horns-first, tearing a hole in its flaming gelatinous form. It roared in pain and anger as it stumbled back several feet. Linda just kept pushing, easily outmatching the much larger beast. She shoved with both hands, removing the creature from her horn, and sent it toppling over the edge of Skymoore. The fiery mass plummeted down to Solkin like a falling star. Linda watched her work with pride as she patted out a small fire that had started on her cheek.
“See?” she said, turning to face Donovan, who was limping his way toward her. He wore only singed trousers. “Dead.”
“Only its physical form,” Donovan said. “Primals do not die. They only return to their home plane.”
Linda frowned. “Really? So all those primals we’ve killed…”
Donovan nodded. “We merely sent them home. But with an unbinding circle, you can subdue them for decades.”
“Well. We solved the problem, anyways.”
“Indeed. Excellent work as always, Linda.”
“Wish I could say the same. How did this one beast give you so much trouble? You aren’t exactly keeping a low profile.”
Donovan shrugged. “Rusty. Weaponless. I was more focused on keeping it away from innocents. Hopefully people were too panicked to think much about my skin.”
Someone behind them cleared their throat. It was a serious, bearded halfling wearing blue and yellow robes. Behind him, several people wearing matching clothes were cleaning up debris and dragging away an unconscious person in the street. The halfling spoke.
“Have either of you seen a flaming gorilla?”
Linda pointed over the edge of Skymoore. “Went that way.”
The halfling peered over the edge and nodded his approval. “Excellent.”
“Who are you?” Donovan asked. “What are you doing with those people?”
“Seeing that they receive proper medical attention. We are crap.”
“CRAP,” the halfling repeated. “Correction, Restoration, And Protection. We clean up scenes of disaster on behalf of The Cabal.”
Donovan’s eyes narrowed. “And who are The Cabal?”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Ah yes, the newcomers. The Cabal is the highest level of government in Skymoore. We run the show, so to speak.”
“What about Mayor Dew?”
“Works for us.”
“Why haven’t I heard of you?” Donovan asked.
“It isn’t strictly-speaking legal to mention our existence, though most people are aware of us.”
“It’s illegal to mention you? So, if I were to acknowledge right now that you’re standing-”
The halfling held up a hand. “I wouldn’t recommend that, Mr. Allman. Now, the primal. That’s the gorilla creature. We’ve been considering what exactly it might have been after in this district and we believe –”
“My shop,” Donovan said. “It eats enchanted items.”
“The Cabal will be making the declarations here, Mr. Allman,” the halfling said. “And we believe that the creature is after your shop, for it feeds on enchanted items. Would you mind showing me inside? We need to talk about security and sanitation measures to limit magical emissions.” Donovan nodded uncertainly. “Oh, Cliffhouse. Debrief the minotaur.”
As Donovan led the halfling to the shop, a silver-haired female centaur that was apparently called Cliffhouse trotted toward Linda. “Good evening, miss…” she began, and produced a small teacup from a pouch at her side.
Linda didn’t like this Cabal business one bit. But, observing the routine and efficiency with which the agents cleaned up the mess, she decided that they were probably telling the truth. Not that that made her like it more. “Arterford. Lofgun’t’gundrmgr Arterford.”
Cliffhouse asked Linda to explain everything that had happened with the primal, as well as everything that she knew about those types of creatures. It was clear that Cliffhouse knew who she was, and what Linda had been up to since moving to Skymoore. She even asked if Donovan had found his cult.
As they conversed, the centaur opened a small vial of blue liquid and poured it into the teacup. Over time it heated in her hand until it began to boil, then it cooled. She handed it to Linda. “Drink it,” she said, “It’s tea. Hibiscus and mandrake hair. Helps calm the nerves.”
“I insist. You’re probably in shock. Most people in shock don’t know that they are. Please? It’s protocol, and I really need to get back to cleaning up.”
Linda frowned and took the drink. She swished it around in her mouth a few times and pretended to swallow, which was enough to send Cliffhouse away. When the coast was clear, she spit it over the edge of the city. Linda’s first girlfriend was a lamia, and she would recognize the taste of their saliva anywhere. A useful trait, since lamia saliva has powerful amnesia-inducing properties (beneficial for oppressive governments, less so when you’re trying to deduce whether your girlfriend is cheating on you).
So, The Cabal wanted her to forget that a primal had tried to eat her shop. Where in the hells had Donovan invited her?
Donovan was spitting his tea into their chrysanthemum when she made her way to Odd & Ends. The Cabal had just vacated the street. It was unusually quiet, since everyone had recently run for their lives.
“Nice people,” Linda said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Donovan said, wiping his mouth. “We have a monthly magic-suppression bill now.”
Linda pat her friend on the back. “On the bright side, you were right about your cult, huh?” Donovan looked at her blankly. “They summoned a primal, we stopped it? Crisis averted? You were right, Linda was wrong? For once.”
Donovan shook his head. “No. Linda was right. As usual.” He recapped the events of the evening, from tailing Tabitha, to the fake cult, to his role in the primal’s summoning.
Linda sighed. Donovan was a fine fellow, but his ambition could be a plague on himself and those around him. “At least you have nothing to worry about. Right?” Donovan furrowed his brow and stared at the street. “There is no more Chastened. Dulcificus is dead. You made a mess, but we cleaned it up. Everything is fine.”
“Dulcificus is not dead,” Donovan said.
“What do you mean? You killed him.”
A few minutes later, Linda sat uncomfortably on the stool behind the register. The lights in the store were out, save for a single candle on the counter. Donovan emerged from his bedroom with a small cloth bag, and stood across the counter from Linda.
He took from it a small, jagged stone, and placed it between them. The rock was colorless, and could not quite touch the table; it just floated very close it, like two magnets of the same polarity. “This is from the Void Lands,” he said.
Linda just nodded.
“The story I told you, the story I told everyone, is true. I journeyed into the Void Lands, where the laws of space and time and gravity are merely suggestions. I pursued Dulcificus for two weeks across geometrically and biometrically impossible terrain. When I found the fiend, we fought, and I won. My only lies were those of omission. But after the last week, I owe you the truth.
“The creature you and I and the rest of the world called Dulcificus was not the entity worshipped by The Chastened. It was a demon – or rather, an Eldritch Bioconstruct – called a Pacifier, merely enacting the will of its master. Dulcificus was unkillable, it said. Dulcificus was immortal. Dulcificus was…the Void Lands themselves. A living emptiness, swallowing and warping the world for millennia.
“I killed the Pacifier because it seemed the right thing to do, but it brought me no closer to killing Dulcificus or repelling the Void Lands. For days I wandered the Lands feeling hopeless an unaccomplished. And then, I found her. Or rather, she found me. Asylum.”
“Asylum was there? In the Void Lands? How did she survive?”
Donovan shook his head. “I only have guesses. She spoke to me telepathically – no sound, remember – and said she had learned much about the Void Lands, and that they were unstoppable. But we could delay them. We traveled together for two more weeks, until we came upon the ruins of some ancient city.
“It was massive, bigger than Castiron, but not quite as large as Dol Belvargamar. Its inhabitants must have been giants, and the buildings were made from materials I’d never seen before. Large swaths were covered in crystals. I didn’t understand everything Asylum was saying, but from what I could gather, The Chastened performed some kind of ritual there to rapidly expand the Void Lands in a single moment. She also pointed out that there were markings all around the city, and when we looked at it from the tallest tower, it was plain that the entire city had been made into an enormous ritual circle.
“At its center, floating above the remnants of a stone fountain, was a perfectly smooth stone the size of a melon. Asylum called it an Anchor. Together we were able to shatter it. This here is a piece of it.
“Asylum was disappointed. Frustrated. She thought that the city would revert back to its former self. But the crystals remained. The buildings were warped. No color. No sound. She was in a depression all the way back to Penscarop. I thought maybe I could bring her back, but she remained more convinced than ever that The Below was a good idea. She thought we would never be safe from Dulcificus.”
“But The Void Lands stopped spreading,” Linda said.
Donovan nodded. “But they haven’t receded. I saw Asylum once more after that…that hasn’t changed her mind.”
“There’s nothing you could have done for her. Asylum chose her path long before you met.”
He put the stone back in his bag. “With all due respect, Linda, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I would if you opened up about her.”
Donovan shook his head. “Her story is not mine to tell. But Asylum is my responsibility. My mistake. So is The Below. Just look at this primal tonight, Linda. I create all my own problems. I’m saving the world from myself as much as I’m saving it from others.”
Linda knew he was beyond comfort. Not least because he spoke the truth. “Is that why you came here?”
“Something like that.”
“Commit to it, then. You won’t find trouble if you stop looking. Life doesn’t have to be recursive. You just have to let go of the past.”
“How can I? I’ve invited part of it to live with me.”
Linda reached across the counter and took her friend’s hand. It always felt comically small in her own. “I can be your future, too. The Suntouched can’t. The Chastened can’t. Not if you want to stop running in circles. But I can. We’ll move forward. Together.”
“What if the world still needs The Suntouched?”
“There will be others, di’ghir.” Donovan smiled. Linda had not called him that in a long time. In her people’s tongue, di’ghir was what they called children. Literally, it meant ‘one who has much to learn.’ “Now give me the stone.”
Donovan looked skeptical.
“I will keep it safe, I promise. I fear it does your mind more harm than good.” He didn’t move. “I came all the way here for you. All I ask for in return is that stone.”
He nodded, and did as she asked.
“Lofgun’t’gundrmgr,” he said a few minutes later, when the minotaur was on her way out. “I’m lucky to have you as a friend. Thank you for tolerating me.”
“And I am lucky to have you, di’ghir. Who else could make me feel so wise?”
They shared a laugh. For the first time since Linda arrived in Skymoore, they parted with friendship in the air.
That evening, Donovan sat cross-legged on his bed, reflecting on what Linda had said. Moving forward…it was what he came to Skymoore to do, right? Yet the notion felt as alien to him as it ever had. He emptied his cloth bag onto his sheets, and stared pensively at its contents.
If he was being honest with himself, Donovan did not come to Skymoore to move forward. Not deep down. He did it in a desperate hope that separating himself from the world would allow him to heal, to be whole again. A therapy of sorts.
After all, how could he quit being The Suntouched forever, when there was so much work to be done?
He passed the night assembling the remaining shards of the Anchor like a jigsaw puzzle.