Dingleob Boelgind spent two nights a week with his grandmother, Ponifka. When kamenclo grow old, the magic that keeps their stone bodies in a humanoid form weakens and becomes erratic. One might grow additional limbs, crumble to the floor, or become a tasteful vase. Ponifka Boelgind mostly became a stone wall separating her living room into two halves. This would sometimes last for hours. It was challenging, and Dingleob’s time and support meant the world to her. Sometimes he read to her, sometimes they just talked. Sometimes the said nothing at all. Every time, it was pleasant.
When he returned to the Mish Mash (for his grandmother lived in Skymoore proper), Dingleob passed through one of the designated security checkpoints where the town guard would search your bags for illegal goods. Everyone knew this was a bit of a fool’s game in the Mish Mash, which was already filled to the brim with illegal goods, but it made people feel a little safer, so it had its worth.
This knowledge did nothing to satisfy a tired Dingleob one morning as a loud-mouthed gnome held up the checkpoint line. The gnome, who brought with him a donkey-drawn cart stuffed to the brim with various goods, was repeatedly insisting that there was no point in inspecting his perfectly legitimate goods.
“It’s just protocol, sir,” a guard droned.
“Yes, but it will take forever, and there are people in line! This is pointless!”
“We’re very fast at our job. If there’s nothing suspect in here, there’s nothing to fear.”
“It’s just, look at all this junk! Going to examine this mirror, here? What about this locket? Is this necklace going to be a problem, ma’am? Want to cut open ol’ Buston here, make sure he’s not got any candy inside?”
Dingleob cut forward in line. “The only one wasting time here is you,” he grumbled. The gnome angrily examined Dingleob’s imposing stone figure and stuttered a non-response. “Get out of line, or get in a cell, I don’t care. I have places to be.”
“I’m not carrying anything illegal!” the gnome squeaked.
Dingleob grunted and stomped through the checkpoint, carrying nothing. The guards scrambled out of his way, and returned their attentions to the gnome.
Sol was only just rising over Skymoore, meaning Dingleob had a bit of time to spare before opening his shop. He took the long way, not because he particularly liked the sights or the people, but because it gave him more time away from home. He didn’t especially like being home alone these days, nor did he much care for the presence of others. Mostly, Dingleob cared for his grandmother, and his work.
As he passed through Slapdash Square, where shops, clubs, and street performers came and went like vultures at a funeral home, a garish green book caught his eye. It wasn’t just any book, it was Old Tails by Eleanor Parker, one of his grandmother’s favorite writers. The book was resting atop a cart promising Doug’s Doughy Donuts, while a young man (Doug, he presumed) tapped his fingers against it anxiously.
“I’ll take a donut,” Dingleob said. “Got any quartz?”
“Wha? Oh, yes, sir. But, er. That’s all I have, actually, Minerals and sprinkles. Chaz Leerman, one of the folks in charge of incoming packages, he thinks I’ve been fooling around with his sister which, okay, I have, but so what? Anyway, he’s been blocking shipments of dough and frosting to me and everyone I buy from. Made it clear that if anyone helps me out, he’ll shut them down, too.”
Dingleob chuckled. “Chaz Leerman is a punk. I’ll tell him off for ya.” He didn’t much care for people, but he cared even less for bullies.
“R-really? You’re the cobbler, right? What if he shuts you down?”
“He won’t. He’s all talk, really. Scared of me. For now, head to Aimless Alley. There’s another kamenclo, like me, he’s got a bakery. A few years back, we was in a gang. Scared the life out of little Chaz Leerman. He won’t touch a single kamenclo in this town. He’ll give you your dough.”
Doug was speechless.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s not for you. I just don’t like Chaz Leerman. Now before I get outta here I got just one question for you. Where did you get that book? They only printed a few copies of Old Tails. Parker hates it. Tried to stop it from seeing the light of day.”
“Oh? Oh, this. Oh. I hadn’t even started reading it yet. I helped my neighbor clean out her attic the other day and we found this there. She gave it to me for my help. Sweet old woman. Do you know Mrs. Pezkin?”
“Okay. Well. Do you want it?”
“Just make sure to talk to Chaz.”
Dingleob decided to take the book to his grandmother that evening. Gave him an excuse to get out of the house again.
Work was boring that day. He didn’t like cobbling that much. Well, it wasn’t so much the cobbling. It was the selling shoes. Talking to people. He inherited the store from his grandfather, who died only a month back. He didn’t have the heart to give up on it yet. Too soon.
As Dingleob was closing up shop, the aftermaj storm began. It was a fierce one. Bits of floors disappearing. Streets rearranging on you if you weren’t careful. Not to mention the wind, sleet, and thunder that shook the cheap buildings of the Mish Mash. No, he wasn’t going outside this evening.
Instead, he decided to sit down and read Old Tails for himself. It occurred to him that Eleanor Parker could be right. Maybe this book was terrible. He couldn’t waste what time his grandmother had left on terrible books, could he?
He had just gotten through the first chapter, which was about a group of alley cats who discover an ancient spell that turns one of them humanoid, when his home was destroyed.
The best part about knowing everything about the Mish Mash was that you knew everything about the Mish Mash. Nothing hid from Kelsie’s eyes for long, no matter how hard it tried.
One day, when Teyla was being just a bit too dodgy about where she was living these days, Kelsie asked one of her spies to find out. It wasn’t even hard. She knew by that evening. She didn’t stop by, or want to, she just wanted to know. Besides, who knew if that information could be useful one day?
Funny how things work out.
The art gallery she called home was an unmarked single-story building wedged between two stacks of apartments. Now that she thought about it, she could remember the sign out front, embedded in the dusty road, labeling this as “Uncle Nompton’s Aerilgla” (“aerilgla” was Draegich for “gallery”). It wasn’t a fancy place, but it had a themed show a few times a year, and showed off the work of the young, up-and-coming (read: still bad) artists from the area.
There was no lightning inside, but Kelsie’s feline eyes adjusted immediately. If she had to guess, she’d say the gallery was cleaner now than it had ever been. The floors looked freshly polished. Frames were dust-free. Even the single spider web was placed neatly in a corner as though it were intentional. Ingrid Nittlepick would have been jealous, but to Kelsie it was more haunted than beautiful.
Stranger still was the artwork. The paintings were varied, from Natural to Cubist to Surreal. There were models and statues, even a framed poem. But they all depicted one event. It was the annual Allwind gathering of the tribes, where the avayla from the Eastwind, Northwind, Westwind, and Southwind tribes gathered either in Skymoore or down on the surface, and had a giant family reunion.
This particular gathering happened a decade ago, when Teyla was only four years old. Kelsie hadn’t been there, but she felt like she had. Teyla described it in such perfect detail – the cakes, the frisbee, the songs. And to top it all off, it was the first time Teyla ever flew. The occasion was the centerpiece of much of the artwork, the young avayla daringly leaping off the hillside and soaring, astounding everybody there.
It was also the last time Teyla ever attended an Allwind event. Old age took every other member of the Skymoore Eastwind tribe the very same year. It was impossible, standing in this room, not to feel a pang of sorrow.
But Kelsie didn’t have time for sorrow. She was a king, and her kingdom was at stake.
Karessa was shaken awake to an unpleasant heat. Blue and purple flames hissed around her. Leaning over her, the rocky form of Dingleob Boelgind looked relieved. Then, remembering their situation, his face fell once more.
Mr. Boelgind’s home and shoe shop was in claustrophobic ruin. The roof was collapsed, leaving everything but his kitchen buried in rubble and unused furniture from the floor above. His cabinets and countertops burned, the flames expanding ever-so-slowly. It was a good thing an abandoned shack lay between this apartment and Karessa’s, otherwise her home would be unsalvageable.
“How long was I out?”
“Maybe thirty minutes.”
Karessa’s stomach sank. That’s a lot of people…gone.
“You…saved me,” she managed. “Thank you.”
“Lotta good that’s gonna do you. Don’t try to move. Pulled your legs out from beneath the mess. Looking rough. And I can’t move any of this junk without bringing more in on us. We’re playing the waiting game now.”
“Why even wake me up if that’s the attitude you’re gonna have?”
Boelgind shrugged. “Seemed like the thing to do. Let you make peace with it and all that. Guess I coulda let you rest.” Karessa eyed the fire warily. “Don’t bother askin’ ‘bout it cuz it don’t go out.”
Fed up with the fatalism, Karessa tried to stand. A screaming pain begged her to stop.
“Told you not to do that. Just sit tight. That fire’s not going anywhere fast. Someone will come for us.”
“But I have to get out of here now. There’s this spell going on out there that’s making everyone crazy and they’re jumping into this…nothing. And if you go out there you’ll just get put under the spell, too, but I’m immune because I helped cast it and – and oh Sol, my mom.” Karessa swore, loudly. Screamed it, even.
Karessa had always struck Boelgind as an odd girl. A troublemaker, too. But she was old for her age, and a good neighbor. And she had no reason to lie, as crazy as her words sounded. With a resigned sigh, he opened the Mr. Freezy chest he’d bought from Odd & Ends, and produced a bottle of dirty-looking liquid.
“Sit up,” he said. “It’s disgusting, but drink.” Even his grandmother, who could hardly taste anymore, had trouble getting it down. Normally he reserved the Get Well Prune tonics for her, and her alone. But he supposed he could spare this one.
Karessa sputtered and gagged, but she got it down.
She’d been under the effects of healing magic thrice before, and each time it unsettled her. She could feel her bones shifting in her legs, and became revoltingly aware of the reality of her body and its various parts. How the bones and muscles and tissues connected and supported one another and allowed her to function.
After five minutes – five long minutes, in which at least a dozen more were lost to the void – Karessa rose to her feet.
“Thank you, Mr. Boelgind. Your grandfather was always kind to me, too. Now come.”
“What are you doing down there?” Dingleob asked. Karessa was rummaging through a cabinet beneath the sink in his kitchen. She pressed her palm against the back wall, which depressed, and slid it aside, revealing a tunnel. “How did you know about that?”
“Um. Don’t be mad. But you know how sometimes I’d say I had to use the bathroom so bad I couldn’t climb up the ladder to my place? Sometimes that was true, sometimes I was using this tunnel to smuggle weapons or whatever.”
Dingleob just stared at her.
“And since I’m probably saving our lives right now, you can’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Am I even going to fit in there?”
“Uh, we’re definitely going to have to break the cabinet, but…” Karessa gestured to the remnants of his home. “Forest, trees, et cetera.”
“You’re using the wrong expression,” he grumbled. Then, somberly, he added, “my grandfather loved this place.”
“Teyla – the person who did this – she’s going to pay. For this, and for everything.”
“I thought you said you helped cast the spell that’s causing all the trouble.”
“Maybe I’m gonna pay, too,” she said, hardly able to imagine what more she could give.
They didn’t speak as they pulled apart the cabinet and made their way into the tunnel leading below the Mish Mash. Behind them, Mr. Boelgind’s home, and the home of his grandfather, slowly burned, until there was nothing left.
Teyla’s attic looked more like it ought to have looked. The floor was dirty, the bookshelves were dusty, the bed was unkempt, and the single desk was cluttered to an alarming degree. Here, the cobwebs were both more fitting and less welcome.
Kelsie stopped for a moment, and only a moment, to look at Teyla’s bookshelf, and consider what had become of her friend. Teyla had always been a strange one, and a dark one – once, Teyla, Kelsie, and Karessa were forced to take a hostage in a desperate escape from a gang of dragonkin, and as they agonized over what to do with him, Teyla never strayed from her opinion that they ought to do the grim and pragmatic thing – but what Kelsie saw now on Teyla’s bookshelves truly frightened her. Necromancy. Demonic summoning. Mental dominion. Blood magic. All this – for what? To bring her family back? To cheat death herself?
The handwritten journals and scrolls on the desk primarily contained two sets of handwriting. They were instructions for spells, mostly, but at a glance a few seemed more personal. Teyla’s writing frequently said things like “Mother said” or “according to the Scarlet Somebody.” A mentor, perhaps? Or had she actually raised her mother from the dead?
She pressed on, and soon enough she found what she was looking for. A spell called “Siren Song.” There were several variations. “Targeted Song,” “Permanent Song,” “Deadly Song,” and, at last, “Elsewhere Song.” In this entry was scrawled a map of the city, with those purple lines forming that massive rune, with the mass of black at the heart. It was a portal, according to Teyla’s notes. To where, it didn’t say.
On the bright side, there was a countermeasure. All one needed was a solution made from the blood of the caster and a dissolving reagent. There was plenty of reagent around, it was the blood she was missing. Surely Teyla had the solution on her, though.
Kelsie put a cheap-looking cup to her ear. “Karessa, you there?”
“I’m here,” Karessa replied. Her voice was faint and echoing.
“How’s Alice? Any luck finding Teyla?”
Karessa filled her in.
“Yeah. Checking on mom now. Then we’ll figure out a plan. Stay safe out there. Storm sounds nasty.”
“Okay. We need a solution to dissolve one of the runes. Teyla should have it on her. If not, all we need is her blood.”
“Perfect. Get back to you soon.”
Kelsie killed some time with snooping. And just a smidge of stealing.
The tunnels beneath the Mish Mash led many places. Warehouses, gang hideouts, and even outside the subcity entirely. Most days, they were only lightly occupied. People guarding this or that passage, running from someone they had wronged, or simply taking the fastest route to the comic book shop. Today, any sense of order and territory was forgotten as the tunnels were filled to the brim with people seeking shelter from the storm.
Karessa explained the situation to a few respectable figures in the underground, and told them they could organize teams to bring more people down here if they were careful to stay away from music. They were going to need risk takers if they were going to survive this.
They exited the sewers only a block away from the building they called home. The front was collapsed, and the building between Dingleob’s and Karessa’s was three-and-a-half walls surrounding a husk. Her home looked largely intact from the outside, but a bunch of junk from the old kitchen upstairs had fallen in front of their doorway.
They went in through Karessa’s window, which took some breaking. Stone fists made for good window-breakers. Bits of wood from the ceiling had fallen on the floor, and her walls were cracked, but was salvageable.
Her door opened to a wall of broken stone and mangled ovens.
“Who’s there?” Karessa’s mother called from their living room.
“Mom it’s me,” Karessa called. “I’m okay. I’m with Mr. Boelgind.”
“Oh, thanks goodness, baby. I was terrified, I – I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Mr. Boelgind’s going to get through the rubble now if that’s okay. Do you think you’ll be safe?”
She affirmed that she would, and they got through in a few minutes’ time. Karessa and her mother embraced immediately.
“There’s people out there…they’re just marching. And in this weather, I…and then the explosion, and I had no idea where you were and – oh, Karessa.” Alice Plunderton kissed her daughter on the head. “I’m just glad you’re safe now.”
Karessa shrugged out of her mother’s arm. “A-about that. Mr. Boelgind is going to protect you, but I have to go out there.”
Her mother’s eyes widened, and then narrowed. “What? You most certainly do not.”
“I do, mom. This spell that’s making everybody go crazy…I’m immune to it. I have to save them.”
“No. You don’t. And you won’t.” Her mother stood between Karessa and her door. “This isn’t some story, Karessa. This isn’t one of my books. The hero doesn’t storm out and save the day. If you’re immune; great! You’re safe. And you’re staying that way.”
Karessa’s responsibility pained her. She hadn’t seen her mother like this in some kind. Coherent. Protective. Stern. She looked down at her sleet-soaked boots and mumbled. “Mr. Boelgind. Please.”
The towering klamenclo put his arms on Mrs. Plunderton’s shoulders. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Karessa, no, what do you think you’re doing? Karessa, baby, please, no! Get back here! Karessa, please!”
Karessa was almost glad for the storm. Teyla would probably be less intimidated if she knew Karessa’s face was wet with tears.