The plan was simple, or it would be once Karessa got inside the Dufton’s mansion. Their estate was protected by an invisible magic field which produced an alarm if anyone not on the family’s guest list stepped through it. The only other way in was to be granted entrance by the pair of stone-faced guards (literally, they were golems) which stood watch over the gate leading into the estate’s extensive courtyard.
Unfortunately, Karessa was no longer on that list. The news stung.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Quite,” the first golem, with skin made of red and green crystalline rock, responded in its posh voice. “Young Mr. Dufton was very clear on the matter. Said something about breaking and entering, even. Fortunately for you, he did not wish to press charges.”
Karessa’s breath hitched as she fought for a response.
“Now scram,” the gravelly blue and brown golem said.
“I have business inside. I left some belongings here before – before he…before…”
“Tough. We can’t just let in every woman the kid has a fling with. Now seriously, scram. There’s a fundraiser going on inside.”
“I, uh. I’d like to make a donation.”
“Then why didn’t you just say so?” the posh one asked. “Do not take us for fools.”
“How about this. You guys are like, magical guardians, right? I’ve read books. If I ask you a riddle and you solve it, I’ll leave, how about that?”
“This is the real world, my dear. And besides, I believe it is the other way around.”
The gravelly golem held up a hand, its stone joints rumbling with the gesture. “No, no, let her try. I’m great at riddles.”
Posh sighed a creaky, dusty sigh. “Very well.”
Karessa cleared her throat and produced a small metal triangle from her pocket. It had on it a small ruler, a ridged end, three differently-shaped corners, and a number of shapes cut out onto the face. She also produced a pen, and used both the tool and the back end of the pen to draw on the dirt road outside the gate.
“There’s a town called Duskdale – remember that, that’s important – in the middle of a valley on the Pale Moon. The town is very densely populated, and people only ever move on very distinct roads on very distinct schedules. The roads look like this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. Okay, so because of the schedules, people in Duskdale live very routine lives, and mostly only ever interact with the same few people from day to day. It’s very rare to meet someone new. On this end of town here, in the blue house, is a woman named Kate. Here in the red house is a man named Bob. Here, on the eighth floor of the green-and-purple buildings – remember these colors when coming to an answer, by the way – is Alex. Every day at sunrise, Bob walks this route for an hour, stops here for three hours, and then walks this route for thirty minutes. Kate goes here for fifteen minutes, stops for an hour, then walks this route for twenty minutes before stopping here for an hour and forty-eight minutes and walking ten minutes home. Alex is a homebody, but he takes a walk along these paths for ninety minutes beginning at sunrise on Sundays, and starting his walk fifty-six minutes later each progressive day of the week. Kate and takes these shortcuts here and here on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Bob stops here for lunch on Thursdays. On what days does Alex intercept with both Kate and Bob, and where at?”
Posh and Gravelly stared at the complex, meticulously labeled map in the dirt before them, each processing the information that had been given to them. Okay so if Kate traveled here at this time, and Alex walked here at this time on a Friday, then surely…no, no. Okay, but if Bob, wait okay, so how does the color play into this? And do we even know what time sunrise is in Duskdale? Ah ha!
“Got it,” Gravelly said. “It’s a trick question because it’s always Dusk in-”
By the time the pair tore their eyes from the map, Karessa Plunderton was long gone. The alarm had been sounding for nearly two minutes.
Inside the manor’s ballroom, a great many people had assembled for music and food and an impressive magic display involving the manipulation of water and light, and to give money to the Dufton family’s endeavors to provide more nutritious food to Skymoore’s orphanages. Now, they were looking unnerved, despite Emma Dufton’s insistence that everything was fine, and that sometimes the alarm was triggered by large rodents, or former staff who had not yet been told they were let go. Some guests were looking out the window, some were pretending to have undisturbed conversations, and a few hid under the tables.
None noticed Karessa Plunderton, dressed as best as she could manage (which was considerably less than anyone else in the room could manage), when she walked through the ballroom, glancing nervously over her shoulder, and walking practically on eggshells. She blended in well.
Too well. As she was eyeing the guard at the doors going further into the mansion, a young human man with a soothing smile placed a hand on her shoulder. “You alright, miss? You look nervous.”
“Oh, it’s just the alarm. Annoying sound, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. But there’s no need to be worried. The Dufton’s guards are from my father’s sellswords, and they’re the best in the world. Thomas Steelbone.”
“Alice Plunderton,” Karessa blurted out.
“Plunderton?” Karessa’s heart stopped. “I haven’t heard of your family. What do they do?”
“It’s not very interesting. Would you like to dance?”
Thomas blushed lightly. “I would love to.”
Karessa was not an especially talented dancer, and she got the feeling Thomas didn’t interact with women a whole lot, judging from the way he trembled. On top of that, the repetitive drone of the alarm muffled the music, making it hard to follow a rhythm. In short, it was a bit of a disaster. Especially when Thomas took a cursory glance at his partner’s wrist.
“Lost your bracelet?” he asked. “You know the guards are being awfully thorough about who is and isn’t allowed inside. I guess someone broke into Lawrence Dufton’s room a little while back, and the family is wary of potential break-ins. Can you imagine, breaking into the house of such a lovely family?”
“Never. But yes, I must’ve lost it somewhere. I tug at my jewelry when I get nervous and – is someone ever going to shut off the alarm? Are we safe here?”
“Of course, of course. Steelbone men are the best in the world, I promise you. So really, what does your family do? No need to be shy. I can see that your dress isn’t quite – well, how do I say this politely – erm.”
“You can’t,” Karessa murmured.
She saw it then, a flash of recognition in Thomas’s eyes. A moment of realization. A hint of alarm. She kicked him in the shin, hard. He grunted in pain, hopping on one leg for a moment, buying Karessa a precious second before he called for the guards.
The Steelbone guards certainly looked impressive – lean, strong-looking men and women armed with small crossbows and steel spears. They wore flexible metal armor that seemed to be of elvish make, granting them impressive speed for being so protective.
Fortunately, despite her size, Karessa was much faster. The ballroom erupted into pointing and shouting and running as Karessa ducked underneath a guard’s legs and moved further into the manner.
She’d only been there twice, but she found Lawrence’s room quickly enough. Up the stairs, to the left, second right. Bingo. The door opened.
She had to be quick. Glancing at her reference only briefly, she used the triangular tool to quickly draw a rune on Lawrence’s wooden floor. It was complex, but she had deft hands. It was a little sloppy but she got the job done. She placed Lawrence’s rug over it, and hopped onto his bed.
“Karessa, what do you think you’re-”
As soon as Lawrence stepped through the door, the rune beneath his began to glow and hum. The blue light was so bright that it shone through the rug, and he could feel its warmth – no, its heat – through his boot. He pulled away instinctively, but it was too late. The hum rose in pitch until it reached a shrieking crescendo and then exploded in a blinding surge.
The light functioned like a curtain in a play – keeping the viewers from seeing the seams as reality shifted. When it cleared, things were different. Black goo bound Lawrence to his wall like something between tar and a spider’s web. His walls were covered in a viscous grey substance that resembled gelatin, forming a barrier between them and the guards pounding in vain against it.
“Karessa, what did you – this is insane! Let me down!”
“No,” she said, getting to her feet. “You’re going to listen to me. I have spent the last weeks-”
“No! I get to talk now,” Lawrence said. “Look, Karessa, I’m sorry I hurt you. But if you’re going to tell me how miserable you’ve been in some kind of sob story to make yourself feel better or make me feel bad, you’re wasting your breath.”
“That’s not it. I mean, that’s kind of it. But it’s more than you cheating on me. You betrayed everything I thought you believed in. Assembly, the Heart, everything you ever said to me…was it all just an excuse to, what, sleep around? Are you that low?”
“No. No. It wasn’t. What I said and did to you isn’t in defiance of Orsonism. It’s the ultimate embrace of it. You’ve said it before – if our only purpose is to protect Solkin, then we have no purpose at all here in Skymoore. We’re not even attached to Orso’s home. Everything is meaningless…and that’s great.
“My family has made their lives caring for the homeless, the disabled, the infirm. All those who cannot care for themselves. They are giving, they are kind. But they cannot even begin to quell the suffering in the city, let alone the world. My mom still snorts Cane when she’s feeling down. Dad still hits Lizzie when he’s drunk. Homeless people still starve. Sick people still die in pain.
“But deep beneath us, there is a divine being. A beautiful being. And she sleeps in peace, and we maintain the peace, and that’s all that matters. Everything else…it’s just a raindrop in the ocean. Only Orso is forever.
“So, I suppose what I’m saying is…stop hurting. What I did to you doesn’t matter. This pain won’t make you stronger, it’ll only hurt. So just stop. Find someone else. Drink a lot. Whatever it takes, just get through it.”
Karessa opened her mouth to respond, then she closed it. She didn’t have a retort. If anything, she found herself agreeing. After all, isn’t that why she came here today? Anything to dull the hurt.
“You know I’m right. I can see it. Now stop this silliness and-”
The outside world was muffled by the gelatinous bubble, but they heard the clap of thunder and the howl of wind like it was in the room with them. Lawrence’s fancy windows shook.
“Aftermaj storm,” Karessa said. “There was some fortune teller yelling on the streets earlier today about how there might be one this evening.” Aftermaj storms were like regular storms, only there were no clouds, they were very dangerous, and they amplified the power of all magic and the likeliness of strange magical phenomena. They actually weren’t that much like regular storms.
What followed was silence of the type that can come only after something quite loud. In it, Karessa realized that the pounding at the barrier had ceased. The guards put down their weapons and began to walk away. But their movements were unnatural, like they were sleepwalking. Faint music wafted in from somewhere in the mansion.
Karessa went to check it out.
“Wait, let me down!” came Lawrence’s muffled cry from beyond the barrier. She did not.
“Where are we going?” Karessa asked the guards. “Everything alright?” They kept walking. She tugged on the back of a shirt. They kept walking.
Okay, she thought, this seems…spooky. Spooky like Teyla! Stupid, Karessa. Stupid, stupid.
The music was loud, and coming from the ballroom. It was the same as before, but now it was tinged with magic, giving it a sharper, synthetic sound. She abandoned the guards and headed toward it.
Most of the guests at the fundraiser were heading for the front door. Some had already left through it. Some were simply milling about in a daze. The band played on, eyes glazed over, instruments tinged with dark purple light. An ethereal gaseous substance emanated like physical soundwaves, and drifted out with the guests. She’d learned from Donovan and Nestor that some magic could be channeled and amplified through music. So, what, her rune cast a spell and these guys were amplifying it?
I am going to defeather a bird.
First, there was the matter at hand. She shut the ballroom doors and barricaded them with spears taken from braindead guards. The guests were shambling slowly enough that only two more got out in the time it took to manage that. But before she could even breathe a sigh of relief, over a dozen people were at the windows, pounding their fists and canes and purses languidly against them.
Karessa’s mind raced. She ran back upstairs, forced to unlock one of the doors in the process. In Lawrence’s room, she scrubbed furiously at the rune she’d drawn. But even with the ink gone, its magical glow remained imprinted on the floor.
“What is going on out there?” Lawrence demanded.
“It’s like everyone is sleepwalking! And I mean everyone. And they’re trying to get outside. They could walk right off the city and –”
“Slow down. What? Are my parents okay?”
“Yes, they’re inside for now, and Lizzie, but I need to know how to keep everyone inside. Some kind of security measure, or a-”
“Let me down and I’ll help you.”
“I can’t. I don’t know how.”
“Come on, come on, come on. We don’t have time.”
“F-okay, fine. Go outside and talk to the golems. Say ‘candylion’ three times and they will listen to anything you say. Tell them to put up the barrier.”
Karessa nodded, and she ran.
“Guess I’ll just, okay, bye,” Lawrence said.
Guests were now milling about the manor, tripping over stairs and throwing things through windows in an effort to escape. None of them paid her any mind except to walk around her, and she repaid them in kind.
Outside, rain and sleet cascaded from a prematurely darkened sky. The wind howled, completely drowning out the music, but still everyone remained under the spell’s influence.
The two golems were right where Karessa left them. “Good evening, riddlemaster,” Posh said. “Come back for another round of intellectual fisticuffs?”
“Candylion candylion candylion.”
Both golems stood perfectly erect, and saluted Karessa dutifully.
“Awaiting your orders, ma’am,” they said in unison.
“Put up the barrier. Make sure nobody leaves. But wait until I’m outside of it first.”
“As you wish, ma’am!”
They clapped their hands and immediately a clear yellow dome surrounded the Dufton Estate, encompassing everything within its walls.
“Thanks. You guys deserve a raise.”
“As you wish, ma’am! Updating salary of all estate staff members!”
Karessa ran after those who had already made it outside. Fortunately, everyone was headed further into the Mish Mash, following the glowing purple stuff rather than walking off the edge of Skymoore. Unfortunately, nothing Karessa attempted impeded their progress. If she stood in front of them, they walked around her. If she held onto them, they brushed her off. Even when she could overpower someone, she was only slowing down one person, while the others got further away.
Fortunately, this was the Mish Mash, and Karessa always had an advantage in the Mish Mash. Three rope ladders, two daring jumps, and a secret stairwell later, she was standing on a slippery walkway high above most of the other buildings. There, through the darkness and the whipping rain, she found some semblance of a clearer picture.
Near the center of the Mish Mash, in Premonition Park, there was a perfect disc of darkness, darker even than the darkness of the darkened sky. A blackness so pure it was visible through the storm. A beacon of dark. The purple stream was visible, too, and it was headed right for the park. To Karessa’s horror, she could just make out a second stream in the distance. There was no way she could barricade that many people.
Already exhausted from the running and climbing, Karessa made her way toward the park. The storm flickered in and out, as aftermaj storms do, but she was still watching her footing constantly. During the gaps in the storm, she could hear music coming from the park. This, too, was tinged with magic, but it sounded much grander, like a synthetic symphony.
Premonition Park looked fine at first, but further in the landscape had folded in on itself as it was pulled into the bubbling, frothing black void in its center. On a stage not far from that, the orchestra that was to put on the First Falling Leaves concert was playing away. They were bound to their seats by shadowy tendrils. Their faces were frozen in glazed expressions that had once been fear. The purple mist flowed from their instruments and out into the city.
The mindless people of the Mish Mash wandered into the park carelessly, headed straight for the center. The first of them, Thomas Steelbone, was nearing the darkness. Swallowing her fear, Karessa ran after him, pulling against his trousers, standing in front and pushing against him. But nothing slowed his advances. He seemed stronger now that he neared the portal. More determined.
“Please don’t do this,” Karessa cried uselessly. “You’ll, you’ll.”
And he was gone. Thomas tumbled into the darkness. She saw him fall, growing smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and gone. Karessa fell to her knees in despair, watching with helpless horror as a woman in a poofy dress fell after him. Next, on the opposite side of the void, some street urchin plummeted. Tears fell down Karessa’s face.
Behind her, the beating of wings.
“Karessa? You’re not supposed to be here. Well, you are. But not like this. Casting the spell must have made you immune.”
“Where are they going, Teyla? What have you done?”
“They’re going to mother. They’ll be safe with her.”
“Your mother’s dead, Teyla. Are you killing them? Are you insane?”
“Not my mom,” Teyla said, like Karessa was an idiot. “Mother.”
Two more people fell.
“I’m not killing anyone, Karessa. I’m saving them. This portal will take them somewhere safe.”
“Safe from what?”
“Life. Its pain. Isn’t that what you want?”
“No! Make it stop, Teyla. I don’t want any of this.”
“Lucky for them, I don’t actually care.”
Seeing that words were useless, Karessa ran at Teyla with a cry of desperation, swinging a clenched fist at the avayla. Before the blow landed, Karessa’s vision went dark-purple, and she felt a sensation like falling in her stomach. When her vision cleared, Teyla was gone, and her fist hit only open air.
Also, she was somewhere new. A red bridge, looking over all the Mish Mash. Just outside Kelsie’s house. The downpour had ceased. The air was damp and still.
“Look at it, Karessa,” Teyla said from right behind her. “The spell is nearing completion.”
Beneath them, all throughout the streets of the city, bright purple lines formed an intricate pattern nearly identical to the one Karessa drew on Lawrence’s floor. At the heart of it all, the dark portal. All along the lines, people marched to their doom.
“No,” Karessa breathed.
“Soon it will be everyone. All the Mish Mash, in perfect unison, finding sanctuary. It’s…wonderful.”
Karessa tackled Teyla. Or, she tried. As she slammed into her stomach, Teyla stood strong. As the two struggled to throw the other off the bridge, nature intervened as the sleet storm resumed and a gust of wind knocked them off their feet.
Karessa caught herself, holding onto the rattling bridge with what dwindling energy remained. Teyla had no such luck, and flapped her wings fearfully to slow her descent. Karessa tried to pull herself up over the bridge, but the ice in her face and between her fingers weakened her grip, and even as the wind subsided she found herself slipping.
Then she wasn’t. A furry hand clasped her own, and pulled Karessa up onto the bridge. Kelsie was wearing a beanie with glowing metal pieces on the side, presumably to cancel out the effects of the spell.
“Thank you,” Karessa gasped.
“I don’t forgive you,” Kelsie shouted over the storm. “Not even close. But I’m not letting you die on my property.”
“Teyla’s gone crazy.”
“Yeah, I know. Bird’s gonna get a cage, trust me. We just need a plan.”
Karessa grasped Kelsie’s arm tightly. “Mom!” she said. “No. I have to get home.”
“Okay. Okay. Yes, we can work with this.” She handed Karessa an umbrella. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s not for the storm. Open it and jump, you’ll float. Quickly before the wind comes back. Check on Alice, then we search for Teyla. Oh and take this.” It was a cup. Karessa recognized it from Odd & Ends. You could talk into it, and your voice would come out of its twin. “Now get going.”
Karessa took a blind leap off of the tower. The umbrella worked like Kelsie said it would, and she drifted gently over with Mish Mash, in the general direction of her house. Beneath her, dozens of people heard the siren’s call, and shambled toward their doom. She fought back the knowledge that this was all her fault.
The street was quiet outside her apartment. They were quiet everywhere, both because of the storm and the spell, but the quiet was much more noticeable here. There should have been people buying shoes from Mr. Boelgind. There should have been children running on the bridge from the toy store to the gymnasium. Her upstairs neighbors should have been fighting about who last had the butter knife.
Instead, quiet. She hoped she wasn’t too late.
“Like a moth to a flame,” Teyla said. She was perched on the safety railing, like she had been earlier in the day. “Don’t worry, the spell hasn’t reached here yet.”
“But it will,” Teyla continued, from behind Karessa. Had she teleported? No…there were two?
“And neither you nor Kelsie is going to change that,” a third Teyla said.
The first Teyla glided gently to the ground. “Now make a choice. You can come with me, and be safe…”
“…or you can stay here and watch as everyone you know and love abandons you.”
Karessa ran toward the Teyla in front of her and jabbed at her with the umbrella. It passed right through her, and she disappeared.
“Wrong choice,” the Teyla behind her said. A streak of black and purple hit Karessa in the back. She cried out in pain as she was knocked into the wall of Boelgind’s shoe shop. “Pity.” Another streak. It soared through and shattered the window of the shop before exploding. Karessa blacked out.