Aftermaj storms were a matter of serious concern in Skymoore, but they were rarely so disastrous as they could be. Sure, things blew in the wind, caught fire, and collapsed, but the random acts of magic – disappearing floor, randomly-summoned spirits, people suddenly existing in several places simultaneously – only affected those who weren’t careful. Because, you see, magic had a way of respecting boundaries both natural and constructed.
So, if you were to cast a spell the parameters of which were “the entire city of Codenshire is covered in cotton candy,” you would not only be an extremely powerful wizard and a hero to dentists everywhere, you would also be coating only the surfaces on the exterior of Codenshire. This is because, according to magical principles, Codenshire is an entirely different place than The Nine Delights, Codenshire’s famous ice cream shop, so the inside of The Nine Delights would be spared the effects of the spell. This would actually disappoint Randall Nindlefin, the owner of said shop, because he is very cheap and that would have made his famous Cotton Candy Cream a lot less expensive to produce.
All of this is to say, the ancient magic which spontaneously affected Skymoore in annoying and unpredictable ways wasn’t really an issue so long as you stayed inside your home (except sometimes it was, because magic is magic and even the best of us only have a so-so understanding of its underlying mechanics).
So why, one might be wondering, would Nestor Pinkly willingly walk outside while the sky was thundering and the wind was howling and sleet was sleeting?
Because it was time for work, and Nestor Pinkly was never late for anything if he could help it, least of all on their big First Day of Autumn Sale. So there he was, walking the streets of Skymoore, which were rearranging themselves and growing and tilting as an effect of the storm, carrying nothing but an umbrella which was being torn apart by the storm and a grapefruit sandwich he had sealed in a bag of his own design, all the while humming to himself a tune that was inaudible over the weather.
The gnome was in the middle of fighting with his umbrella, which was blowing in the opposite direction, when he noticed a figure running toward him. He could not discern the figure through the storm, other than that they were a bit taller than him, and moving very quickly. The wind successfully yanked the umbrella from Nestor’s hands, and sent it straight into the face of the oncoming person. She swore, and Nestor knew who it was at once.
“Hello, Karessa! What brings you out here in this weather?” he shouted. Karessa had been rude to him recently, and it hurt him a good deal, so the gnome had been talking to her less than usual. Still, it was always nice to see a friendly face, especially in a storm.
“Long story,” she said, “but I need your help and –”
“Really? Before I even tell you-”
“Yes, yes, now come back to my home so we can get dry.”
Nestor cast a sphere of protection around them to keep them dry (though it was far too late for Karessa), and she caught him up on the way.
When the spell faded, Kelsie got to work organizing her lackeys and cohorts to minimize losses where they could. Karessa had tied her mother to a tree with a rope from one of the orchestra cellist’s carrying case, and that seemed to work well enough. Soon there were twenty, thirty, fifty trees in Premonition Park with dazed civilians tied to them, uselessly trying to escape their bonds.
Kelsie was reluctantly finishing the knot on the tree holding sluglike businessman Glen Cringle when Podrick Boyland, a former weapon’s smuggler and current people-organizer, approached her. “Bronze Street is blockaded, ma’am.” She nodded. “We got everyone out of the sewers like you ordered. They’re finding and binding stragglers.”
“Good. And the mages?” Boyland looked at her blankly. “What are they doing?”
“Maintaining their disinterest charms? To…keep The Cabal out? Is that, er, the wrong answer, ma’am?”
“Yes, Boyland. Very wrong. Forget The Cabal, we’ll deal with them. There won’t be a Mish Mash to protect if we don’t mobilize everyone we’ve got. I know Tegan and Bianca are just illusionists but if they can help at all, it’s worth it. So let the freaks in. If they offer you any tea, spit it out. Discretely.”
“Yes ma’am,” Boyland said, and he was off.
Kelsie observed the dismaying scene at the park, and wondered what avayla tasted like. Then, a particularly burly person broke their bonds, and it was back to work.
Nestor Pinkly’s home was small, like the gnome, and it was well-kept, like the gnome. Unlike the gnome, it lacked a certain…eccentricity. It was too normal. A kitchen, a bedroom, both furnished with mundane pots, pans, pillows, and so on.
Then there was his closet.
From the outside, it was just a wooden door with a paper sign reading: “BORING CLOSET NO NEED TO OPEN!!!” Inside, it was less of a closet and more of a shallow indentation in the wall containing three levers – one wooden, one metal, one papier-mâché.
When Nestor pulled them in a specific order, the levers retracted into the wall and it slid open, revealing alphabetized boxes with labels like “Good Luck Charms,” “Secret Formulas,” and “Cute Duck Drawings.”
“Unless you’re a druid, it’s nearly impossible to simply undo a spell,” Nestor explained as he rummaged through a box labeled “The Good Bad Old Days.” “But in the case of enchantments or illusions you can come up with a spell that counteracts the existing spell. For instance, if I made you think everything smelled like cotton candy, you could drink a potion that disables your sense of smell. Or, you could eat some cotton candy and satiate those cravings! Actually, hold on, do you want me to make us some cotton candy?”
“Focus,” Karessa said.
“Of course! So, as I was saying, back when I was part of the Luminous Company, Ms. Bottlehelm had me make this perfume that cleared her head after she drank too much. If I spray this on the people in the Mish Mash, they should be cured!”
“But that’s just a tiny bottle.”
Nestor stepped out of the closet and it reverted to its original state. “Not for long! Wait out here, Karessa. I’ll be back faster than a Wintsoan wallaby can recite the eldritch alphabet. I have some tea in the kitchen, if you feel so inclined.” He pulled the three levers in a different combination this time, and the floor of the closet lowered itself beneath the ground, taking Nestor with it. The door shut behind him.
All things considered, Kelsie was pleased with how her people had handled things. The brainwashed at the park were getting a bit rabid, but many of their bonds were being replaced with chains, and hardly anybody was breaking free. No new people were showing up, either. The situation, awful as it was, was under control.
As for Kelsie, she was sitting in a lawn chair covered by a tent of sorts, overseeing the situation. She probably looked a little fluffy now that she’d toweled off, but better fluffy than drenched, she supposed. It’s not like anyone would dare make fun of her or question her authority at this point. She’d saved the Mish Mash. And she’d done it practically without Karessa’s help, too. Who needed her?
Definitely not me, she told herself. Not one bit.
She was dwelling on just how little she needed Karessa when a sectum – a four-armed humanoid insect – in blue and yellow robes approached her tent.
“You’re the criminal known as The Claw,” the sectum clicked.
“And you’re the secret shadow government known as The Cabal,” Kelsie said. “You know, normally greetings happen the other way around.”
The sectum’s reflective eyes blinked a two-lidded blink. “Are you responsible for this?”
Kelsie was suddenly aware of ten more hooded figures in Premonition Park. Maybe more. “No,” Kelsie said. “Just the ropes. The culprit’s gone.”
“Give us a name,” the sectum hissed slowly.
“No. Now are you going to help these people?”
“We are going to detain them until the spell fades, or until one of our druids can remove them.”
Kelsie stood. “I won’t let you do that. People who leave with you freaks don’t tend to come back.”
“Do you have another suggestion?” Kelsie hadn’t seen the other members of the Cabal move, but she found her tent surrounded now. “No? Well then why not let us handle things from here? After all, we’re sure you want what’s best for the Mish Mash.”
“You want to detain them? I’ve already done that. Unless you have something more useful to suggest, I request that you leave us alone, and let me handle my city.”
“This is Skymoore. Skymoore is our city.”
Kelsie stepped toward the sectum, preparing for things to get violent, when a booming voice cut across the park.
“Hello, everyone!” the voice cried. Tension fled from the tent as Kelsie, her attendants, and The Cabal each turned their attention to the edge of the park, where Karessa Plunderton stood beside a foppish gnome, the voice’s source. “We’ve come bearing gifts for the people of this park!”
They had tanks of liquid strapped to their backs, with a flashing blue-and-orange hose attached. Nestor pointed the hose at a random townsfolk and released a spray of pink mist. In moments, the young woman went from gnawing at her bindings to looking about, intelligence restored to her eyes, and asking “wh-where am I?”
“Safe,” Karessa said. The woman looked at her like she was insane.
The pair made their way across the park, spraying everyone along the way. The Cabal almost made a move to stop them but, seeing that this was clearly working, they let Karessa and Nestor continue their work.
When they neared the black mass at the center of the park, Karessa stopped. Alice Plunderton was yanking at a chain tied to a tree, trying to uproot the plant from the ground. She looked breathless. Sore. Half asleep. Desperate. Karessa took a deep breath, squeezed the hose’s trigger, and brought her nightmare come to a close.
One moment, Alice Plunderton was in her home. She was scared, and she was helpless, and she was angry. The next moment, she was chained to a tree and her daughter was pointing a flashing hose at her. She was scared, and she was angry, and she was confused. But mostly, she was relieved.
“Mom,” Karessa said, and her arms were like a vice around her mother. She gave in, then, and allowed herself to cry. To sob into her mother’s sleeve. To feel the weight of it all. Lawrence, Teyla, the state of the Mish Mash, and her role in it. “I’m so sorry, mom.”
“My baby,” Alice responded, running a hand through her daughter’s hair. “It’s okay. It’s all okay. I’m here. You’re safe now.” Alice took in the scene. People were being freed from their bonds, and wandering bewildered through the park. “We’re all safe now. Because of you.”
Karessa separated herself long enough to shrug off the tank and hand it to one of Kelsie’s people, so they might continue to her work.
But her work wasn’t over. It felt like it might never be. The woman she and Nestor first set free sprinted right for the blackness, and dived in. Karessa only stared, mouth agape.
And that woman wasn’t the only one. People of all sorts continued for the portal. Some ran. Some looked almost mournful. But each of them was determined.
“Wait, stop!” Karessa shouted before anyone else could jump in. A young man paused beside her, and looked at her. She recognized him as Doug Laughtery, from Doug’s Doughey Donuts. “Doug, what are you doing?”
“What the song said to do. Didn’t you hear it?”
“It was so…warm,” Mrs. Albison, one of Karessa’s elementary school teachers, added. “Nothing like this storm. Don’t you want to go somewhere warm?”
A skinny dragonkin Karessa didn’t recognize emerged from the crowd that was forming at the portal’s edge. “The Mish Mash is a miserable place,” he said. “Gangs and drugs. Poverty. Hideous houses stacked on top of each other.”
“And we don’t even matter here,” a teen boy added. “There’s so many people in this tiny garbage pile of a neighborhood…but there, the song, it said…it said I was special. It wanted me. It said I have purpose.”
“You do have a purpose,” Karessa said. “We all do. In our own way.”
“I’ve been a teacher for a hundred and eighty years,” Mrs. Albison said. “Doing everything I could to impart joy and wisdom unto the youth of this troubled place. I put my soul into those children. Half of them clean up after the homeless. The other half fight and die for wealthy criminals who don’t give a damn about them. It’s worthless. But through there…”
“And look at me,” Doug said. “I sell donuts. In a cart, in a square where a hundred other people sell things in carts. What’s my purpose, Karessa? I would love to know. Really I would.”
“You – you sell donuts! That’s a purpose! Sometimes when I was late for school, and I had to take the fast route, your donuts were my only chance at breakfast. Sometimes you gave them for free, when I had nothing. And if you don’t like that, well, you’re kind, and you’re a salesman. You could open, what do you like? You could open a comic book store.
“You, dragon kid, what’s your name?”
“Okay Elkind. What do you like to do? What are you good at?”
He glanced at the writhing darkness, beckoning him closer. “Nothing. I’m, I’m not good at anything. I stopped going to school because I was too dumb to keep up. I dropped out of band. I couldn’t even take care of a dunkfish.”
“No, I don’t buy it. Everyone has something. Forget good, what do you love?”
“I don’t know, I play ritzleague three times a week.”
“Perfect, you’re an athlete! You could be a coach, or, or, a personal trainer. Maybe even try your hand at the city guard – trust me, they’re slow, they could use some runners.”
The crowd murmured among itself. Elkind kicked at the dirt pensively.
“Look everyone, I get it. I do. Sometimes you feel like nobody. A replaceable face in the crowd. Sometimes somebody comes along and tells you they’ll give you a purpose, or they twist your beliefs or whatever, and give you an easy way out. But that’s not right. Sometimes it’s easier to hide under your sheets or jump into a portal of nothingness – we all have those days! But that’s quitting, and that’s stupid.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, being part of a giant whole, working together as one, it isn’t the death of individuality or purpose. Think of the Mish Mash like a body. We’re all cells, or organs, or – I don’t know, I dropped out of school, too. Point is, we’re all different, even though some of us are kind of similar. Sure, maybe you have two kidneys, but they work a whole lot better with two than with one.
“So maybe, just maybe, if we all do our part, and we all work together, we become more than ourselves. Maybe that’s meaning.”
Karessa realized she was blushing. Everyone was staring at her, but no one was reacting. The only sound was the sound of rain…then…she felt it. She felt…them. They were a force like gravity, holding her to the ground. It was Assembly, without the drugs. It lasted but a moment, and in that moment, she could feel their decision. Their decision to stay. And she could feel them feeling her, and her desperation, and her conviction, and her belief.
And she felt something else, something bigger. Beneath the ground. Beneath Skymoore. A mile down and further, into the core of Solkin. A bear so big it can crush cities beneath its feet was snoring. She heard it. She felt it like a fire in her core, and the sound tore through her veins and she buckled over. Fell on all fours, and went limp.
Above the Mish Mash, the storm subsided. In Premonition Park, the portal faded. Nobody could quite say how, but every person standing in that park knew Karessa Plunderton had done that.
She stood up. When she walked toward Kelsie’s tent, she felt powerful. Like she could crush a city beneath her feet.
“You see?” Kelsie asked exasperatedly. “Everything’s fine now. We did this all without you. Now have some decency, and leave us alone.”
“I can’t do that,” the sectum said.
“You can,” Karessa said. Her voice was tinged with something. Not quite magic. More than that. “You will.”
The sectum looked at Karessa, and Karessa saw herself in its reflective eyes. Her hair’d gotten long and wild from lack of maintance. She looked taller. She felt taller. And fierce.
The sectum could feel Karessa’s story in her voice. And the story of everyone in the Mish Mash. The story of a girl who brought herself to the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion to save her people; a people who brought themselves to the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion every day, struggling together just to get by within a city that pretended they didn’t exist.
“Very well,” the sectum ceded. “We will go. But the next time this region plunges into chaos, it will submit to the will of The Cabal. See to it that day does not come.”
Kelsie nodded. Karessa stared. The sectum left.
All around the park, agents of The Cabal were handing tea to citizens who drank eagerly. Karessa didn’t even bother fighting it. She was done with fighting for the day.
“Kelsie?” Karessa said. Her voice was back to normal. “I’m sorry. I don’t expect you to forgive me. You shouldn’t forgive me. But I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” Kelsie said. “I’m sorry, too. For what happened to you.”
Karessa shrugged. “I think it was good?”
“I think so, too.”
“Good luck ruling your kingdom. Or whatever.”
“Good luck acting. Or whatever.”
“You’re still cooking dinner?” Karessa asked, hanging her father’s drenched fishing coat on the doorknob of their room in one of Skymoore’s below-ground emergency housing units. They had a tiny wood stove in the corner, where an exhausted Alice Plunderton boiled something that smelled like garlic. “Haven’t you earned some sleep?”
“Haven’t you earned your favorite stew?”
Karessa found that difficult to argue, and collapsed on their bed. Sleep almost found her immediately, but the sound of her mother’s sniffing kept her awake.
“Mom?” she asked without opening her eyes.
Her mother continued to cry.
Karessa sat up. Alice pulled herself up on the to-tall bed, clearly made with humans in mind.
“I’ve been so terrible to you, Karessa. It’s true, I – I meant some of what I said. Maybe all of it. I’ve never understood your fascination with that theater, but…Karessa, I’ve been so awful.”
“Mom, where’s this coming from?”
Alice took her daughter’s hand in her own, and she kissed it. Hot tears rolled down Karessa’s fingers. “I remember everything,” she said. “I remember. Clint, he’s…” she choked back a sob. “You’ve been so brave, Karessa. So strong. So grown up. And I’ve been just terrible.”
“You were sad.”
“I was a coward.”
Karessa said nothing.
“And now we have no home. I have no husband, you have no father, and neither of us has a way to get through this.”
Karessa took a deep breath. “You’re wrong,” she said. “We have something very important. The most important. The only thing any of us ever needs to get by.”
A charged silence filled their garlic-scented room for the rest of the evening.
When sleep found Karessa at last, she did something she did not typically do: she snored. And down beneath Skymoore, a mile down and more, the Great Bear snored along with her.