The Church of the True Believers was perhaps Skymoore’s most magnificent building. The humble cathedral, made from pink, yellow, and blue crystal, stood alone in few acres of well-kept grass and flowers, but the light of Sol reflecting off the building seemed to fill the space around it, granting it a presence bigger than its physical form.
It was here that Keel Dal Everwind arrived at sunrise every single morning, and it was here that Keel Dal Everwind spent most of his day. He worked here, he ate here, he socialized here. It was here that Keel met his first love, composed his first song, ate his first pesto sandwich, and did so many other things that gave his life meaning.
He did not sleep at the church, for to claim it as a home would defile its divine significance, but for all intents and purposes, Keel lived there.
Despite having spent so much time there for the last two decades, its divine beauty and comfort never grew old to Keel. It pained him every time he left, the way the reflected heat of Sol on his back grew cooler and cooler until it was gone entirely.
Though of course, the light of Sol was never gone from him entirely. It burned within his soul. It shone through his kindness. It gave life when he cared for the sick and it nourished when he fed the less fortunate. Through Keel Dal Everwind, Sol made His will known to the world, and Keel delighted in the service.
Others…well, they didn’t.
“I’m sorry, Keel, but no,” said Donovan Allman, quietly, in the back corner of Odd & Ends. “I’ve no problems with your faith but I don’t want that kind of atmosphere in here.”
“With all due respect, it sounds like you do have problems, Mr. Allman,” Keel said. “You’ve made it plain before you lack interest in Sol, but your customers may not feel the same way. I will pass out the pamphlets myself – no trouble to you at all.”
Donovan crossed his arms. “Keel, you are a very pleasant man and a loyal customer, and I know you only have the best intentions in mind, but I also know that pushing beliefs on another can lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere and…” Donovan waited for Keel to cut him off, but he didn’t. “And I just don’t want that on the day of this sale. Or any day.”
“Such is your right. But if I may, I believe you are projecting, Donovan. I’m not pushing anything, merely informing. Perhaps inviting.”
“Call it what you will, but I’m not interested. And that’s the end of it. I’ve got enough to worry about today.”
Donovan returned to his shop, which was packed tightly with merchants on their way out of town, stopping by for magic swords and enchanted clothes for safety and comfort on their way home.
Keel was disappointed, but it didn’t get to him. This was merely an obstacle, and an opportunity to spread the truth directly. He stood up straight, cleared his throat, and entered the crowd.
He approached a dragonkin woman examining boots which claimed to be incapable of wear and tear, and promised perfect comfort for even the most adventurous travelers.
“Got a long road ahead?” Keel asked.
The dragonkin grunted an affirmation. “Not sure it’s worth the price, though. I’ve been burned before. Metaphorically.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Merchants can be such untrustworthy people.” Keel noted her stuffed traveler’s sack and added, “Well, not all of them, of course!”
“Right. Linda Arterford works this place. She saved my life one time, so I’m sure I can trust ‘em, but…”
“Yeah. Her and The Suntouched, it was a few years back on the road to-”
“A pair of boots won’t make a difference like the guidance of Sol. That’s all you really need for a comfortable journey.”
“Pah, Sol might keep me warm but it don’t protect my feet.”
“Every comfort you’ve ever felt, that’s Sol rewarding you for your deeds. If you live a pure life–”
“I ain’t never felt no comforts. You calling me a terrible person?”
“Well, no, I-”
The dragonkin laughed and pat Keel on the back. “Just playing, elf. But you can keep your words to yourself. Only gods I pray to are the dragons, and that’s not changing anytime soon.”
“Dragons might be – are – magnificent beasts, don’t get me wrong, but gods? Do they give life to all the world?”
“And who do you think breathed that big ol’ ball of flame from their bellies?”
“Not a dragon, not anything. Sol has always been. Will always be. He is our creator, our father, our judge. Our only purpose is to serve him and your blasphemy will only – I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just get…”
“Lost, I hope. Got it? Get lost.”
She did not buy the boots.
Outside, rain began to fall. It pattered gently on the roof at first, then it pattered quite quickly. Soon, sleet was tapping. Then, hail was hammering. The windows shook with the screeching of the wind.
“Aftermaj storm!” someone shouted unhelpfully.
“No shit,” someone added unhelpfully.
“Worst of it should pass soon,” Donovan Allman called from behind the counter. “Meanwhile, why not pick yourself up an Umbrella of Warmth or perhaps an Amulet of Dryness? Seems like it will come in handy on the way home.”
A nervous murmur made its way through the building, as many of the merchants were planning to be back on the road before sundown, as Skymoore had no inns to speak of.
But Keel was not nervous. Donovan spoke the truth of it – the worst would pass soon enough. Aftermaj storms were an inconvenience, but if you were careful they were never really a danger.
Keel was feeling dejected. He wanted to have a pleasant time in his favorite little shop in Skymoore. He didn’t want to argue with every heathen who had a different outlook, no matter his duty. So he found himself in a corner once more, watching the crowd, disappointed he could not do more for Sol.
“Hello, Mr. Everwind,” said Dovetail, the strange metal creature created by Nestor Pinkly. Today it was working the sale, dressed like a waitress, clearly confused by the details of its newfound occupation. Keel felt that the machine was an affront to the beauty and miracle of life, but he was open to being wrong. “Or Mr. Dal Everwind? Elvish customs debate me. Elate me. Escape me.”
“Keel will do, Dovetail,” he said.
“You look sad, I think. I have not seen your face enough to mesmerize your different expressions, and you usually have a sunny miss position – disposition – but based on my knowledge of humanoid expressions, I think you may be feeling down.”
“Well, thank you for noticing, Dovetail, I actually –”
“Noticing things is an involuntary result of possessing both cognitive and optical inputs, but if you feel grateful, then you are welcome, Mr. Keel! Is there anything I can do to abbreviate your sadness?”
“It’s nothing, Dovetail. But I do wonder.”
“Me, too! I love to wonder. It’s the best, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is, although it is more satisfying to be certain in one’s convictions. Which is where I’m getting.”
“Are you going somewhere? I would love to join! Oh, but I am working. I think. Is this working, Mr. Keel?”
“Do you believe in Sol, Dovetail?”
“What a funny question! I believe in everything I see, Mr. Keel! And I see Sol for twelve-to-fourteen hours a day, on average. Do you think it might be a lie, blister meal?”
Keel smiled. The machine did have its charms. “Of course it’s real. I worded that improperly, forgive me.”
“Do you believe that Sol is a god? The god.”
“Nestor said it is, so yes! I believe everything Nestor says, because Nestor knows everything, I think. I’m pretty sure.”
“What do you know of The Church of the True Believers?”
Dovetail’s face twisted into an imitation of hesitation. “I am unsure how to answer in conjunction with my manners protocol. I do not wish to upend you, Mr. Keel.”
“You may speak your mind. Or Nestor’s, I suppose.”
“The Church of the True Believers share many of the belief with other Sol worshippers, but they also preach a separate agenda predidated on judging others. These rules include items like ‘don’t drink alcohol,’ ‘no kissing boys if you are also a boy,’ ‘repress feelings of love and affection’ and ‘no yelling in the library if you’re very excited about the book you’re reading.’ Failure to ad leer to these rules may result in fraternal damnation, according to True Believers.”
Keel took a deep breath, knowing there was little point in feeling frustration toward a being with no mind or will of its own. Nor even with Nestor, who was a victim of rumors and misconception. “It’s more complicated than that,” he explained. “It comes not from a place of judgement, but of love. Our base urges imprison us. Tempt us. It is only by overcoming them that we achieve true happiness.”
“Well. It’s about morality. By adhering to a moral structure, we appease Sol, who fills us with his light, which brings happiness.”
“But doesn’t kissing who you want to kiss bring organic humanoids happiness?”
“It’s fleeting,” Keel said. “I…I do not know how to explain this to someone like you.”
The conversation was mercifully interrupted by the door swinging open, admitting a rush of frozen air and what appeared to be a freshly-washed pile of clothes in desperate need of some drying. The bundle of cloth collapsed in a heap on the floor, and remained there, motionless, as everyone watched and shivered uncertainly.
“…gull,” came a muffled mumble.
“I’m sorry?” Donovan said. “Are you okay?”
“Close that damn door!” a woman yelled from the back of the shop. Gwendolyn Bottlehelm, Keel believed. They’d never formally met, but she was the kind of person who made themselves known whether you liked it or not.
Linda Arterford slammed the door shut, and Donovan Allman took a knee beside the drenched clothes. They stirred then, and the image became clearer. The pile of clothes was actually a half-elf wearing twice her weight in robes.
“Help Bagel,” she repeated.
Clutched tightly to her chest was a slim figure just shy of a foot tall. A pixie, Keel realized. The half-elf laid the pixie down gently, revealing a deep gash across his abdomen.
“The storm,” she shuddered. “The wind tossed him about, and…”
Keel helped the woman to her feet. “Mr. Allman here will take care of your friend. Let’s get you warmed up.” She nodded quietly. Her face was turning a pale blue, and the moisture around her nostrils was beginning to freeze. “What’s your name, miss?”
“Elma,” she said. “Elma Del Ennington.”
“A frost elf,” Keel noted. “I’d heard your kind was immune to the cold.”
“I guess I take after my mother,” Elma said, managing a smile.
Only then did Keel really take in the sight of the elf. She was a young woman, to be sure, but she had some years behind her. Perhaps fifty. Her hair was white, like his own, a trait more common in her clan than in his. Her clothes indicated some kind of traveler, but nothing about her belied the hardships of the road. If anything, she was frail.
Then he noticed the buckle, located at the neck of her heavy garments. Two crescent moons interlocked. The Church of the True Believers had no true enemies, but if they did, the Cylgin would top that list. Elvish hedonists who lived by night and worshipped the moons.
Sol was out to test Keel, it seemed, and he was presently unsure what it would mean to pass. So, as he often tried to do, Keel chose kindness.
“You need a change of clothes,” he said, pulling a self-fitting coat off a rack. “I’ll pay for it later. Now let’s find you somewhere private.”
Meanwhile, Donovan Allman presided over the unconscious pixie. The wounds didn’t look life-threatening, but he needed attention sooner than later to avoid infection and adverse affections of blood loss. Still, uncertainty stayed Donovan’s hands as he weighed his options.
“What’s the matter?” Linda asked quietly, lowering herself, approximately, to her friend’s level. “The first aid’s under the register.”
“I know,” Donovan said.
“You’re good at this stuff.”
“I know,” Donovan said.
“You’ve done pixies before.”
“I know,” Donovan said.
“I can’t,” Donovan said, his eyes pleading with Linda’s. Pleading for…he didn’t know what. Privacy.
Linda offered him that. She searched the crowd for potential doctors, but most people returned helpless stares or averted her gaze entirely. “Don’t merchants need to know this stuff?” she muttered. “In case they, er, fall or something.”
“Perhaps I can be of some assistance,” said Sharla Darkholm from within the crowd. The dryad businesswoman carried herself in a way that commanded immediate respect, and the visitors parted for her instantly. “I’m far from practiced, but healing magic is inherent to my kind. I should be able to disinfect the wound, and close it. Tabitha, be a dear and give me a hand, will you?”
Sharla’s half-dryad daughter followed her to the pixie, where the pair replaced Donvan and Linda, who went to get the first aid kit. Gwendolyn Bottlehelm was leaning against the counter, observing the scene with detached interest.
“I should visit you at work more often,” she said to Linda. “Didn’t realize it was so interesting.”
“You’re terrible,” Linda said.
“That’s what you keep telling me.” Gwen turned her attention to Donovan. “What did you do to upset her? Oh, don’t look like that, I can tell she’s upset, and it’s not about the pixie. We’ve only been dating for a few weeks and I’m already well-versed in her Annoyed With Donovan look.’”
“It’s nothing,” Linda said. She took the first-aid kit and left.
“I don’t get it,” Gwendolyn said. “You seem like a nice enough man. Intelligent, too. But I don’t understand why she moved here for you.”
Donovan slumped against the wall and sighed. “On that, we align.” Gwendolyn grinned.
Keel emerged from the back room, looking relieved. “She should be okay, at least. I hope you don’t mind her changing in the closet back there.”
“What closet?” Donovan asked.
“Done!” Tabitha called from the front of the store. “Bagel should be fine.”
“Thank Sol,” a trader said. “I need to get back on the road.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Donovan said, pushing his way to the front of the shop. “No one is going out into that storm on my watch. The streets aren’t safe, let alone that elevator.”
“I have to get going,” the trader said.
“I won’t have your blood on my hands. Or yours, for that matter.”
“You can’t keep us here, that’s kidnapping!” another merchant said.
“Oh, don’t be hysterical,” Gwendolyn said. “He’s saving your lives.”
The crowd murmured amongst itself, and calmed.
“Good,” Donovan said. “Now, I will figure out a sleeping arrangement for everyone, but it’s going to be…well, find someone you’re comfortable getting close with, and get cozy. It’s going to be a long night.”