With Bagel successfully stabilized, the atmosphere of Odd & Ends followed suit.
After some more arguing, complaining, threatening, and more than one person storming out into the storm, rendered invisible by dense precipitation before they made it twenty feet from the shop, the store began to quiet some. Beds were placed, displays were moved, food was arranged, and angry discomfort gave way to bored discomfort.
As Linda returned from outside, carrying the now-drenched chrysanthemum that hung on the porch, it was clear to her that they needed to liven up the place before the twenty-plus inhabitants got truly restless.
“We could play a board game!” Dovetail suggested as she dried the flower with an enchanted pinwheel. “Like Fungeon Crawler, or Duopoly, or Don’t Wake the Slumbering Creature That Slumbers Within Four-Dimensional Space.”
“Do you have any board games, Donovan?” Gwendolyn asked. The shop keeper was pacing anxiously about the room, nervously checking the back room every other minute to make sure nobody was up to anything criminal. “Donovan?”
“What? Oh, board games? No, not really. That would be more of a Nestor thing.”
“Because Nestor isn’t boring?”
“Well, what do you recommend, Gwendolyn? Why don’t you put on a play for us?”
“I don’t work when I’m not at work.”
“I think Mr. Allman is on the right track,” someone else said. An elderly human man, leaning on a walking stick, who lingered near the counter. “Sorry for eavesdropping. The mechanical one just fascinates me so. Reminds me of home. But I believe the proprietor here is on to something. We don’t have to put on a production, but everyone can enjoy a good story.”
“A fine idea,” Linda said. “Dovetail, finish delivering the sandwiches to our patrons. Donovan, come here. I have a story idea.”
Shortly thereafter, the traders and customers of Odd & Ends were gathered in the middle of the store, which had been cleared out as much as possible. They wore magically-warmed blankets, ate sandwiches of whatever foods Donovan and Nestor had lying around, and awaited the story with a unanimous sense of resigned boredom.
Linda and Donovan stood in the middle of the circle until everyone got situated. The minotaur cleared her throat, and began. “Since Donovan is something of a Suntouched historian, and I traveled with the man for many years, we’re going to share a lesser-known story of our exploits.”
“Everyone knows about the siege of Barlagtelen, the time-traveling jewel thief of Del Vezzeth, and the undead hoards of the Eastroads,” Donovan went on.
“But not a lot of people know how we met in the first place.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No! No. Do you want to start, or…”
“Why don’t you go ahead?”
Donovan tapped his foot thoughtfully. “Let’s see here. Where to start. How about the beginning?
“It begins a few months after Linda Arterford had become the hero of Castiron, and been dubbed One With Strength of Twenty.” Linda flexed dramatically, and the audience laughed. Gwendolyn wooed. “She wandered Penscarop, aiding villages along the way and making herself a hero to commoners everywhere. These travels eventually took her to Shellshore, a small fishing village to the south.”
“The people there were sheltered,” Linda added, “and they had never seen a minotaur. They worshipped a merfolk demigod who had long ago warned them of ‘the devil with horns,’ so when they saw me, you can imagine what they thought. But I hadn’t seen a comfortable bed in four weeks, and a room was sounding mighty tempting, so I insisted that they let me lend a hand around town and prove I meant them no harm. They accepted.”
“For you see the town of Shellshore had a problem that simple fishermen weren’t fit to handle. A kraken-sized problem.”
“What was it?” someone asked. “A giant shark? Cockatrice? Dragon?”
“A kraken,” Donovan said.
“Oh. Oh right. Yeah, that makes sense.”
“The sea beast had plagued Shellshore for months, eating the fish and attacking their boats, and now they were desperate and hungry enough to ally themselves with someone they feared.”
“It lived on an island just off the coast, so I rowed there straightaway. A quaint little thing, home to palm trees, pigs, and what might have passed for a small jungle, if you were being generous. There was no immediate sign of the kraken, which was strange for such a massive creature. The jungle was the only obvious hiding place, and it was there that I found The Suntouched.
“Evening was drawing near, and he was setting up camp for the evening. I knew who he was, of course. Human. Red skin. Camping alone in the middle of nowhere. Who else? It was strange to see him attempting something so mundane as starting a fire. I half expected fire to appear at his command. But there he was, rubbing two sticks together, and getting flustered.
“‘Need a hand with that?’ I asked him. He jumped, and shrieked like a child –”
“No he did not,” Donovan interjected.
“You weren’t there,” Linda said. Donovan scowled. “Okay, maybe he didn’t shriek, but he definitely jumped and drew his sword, Expanse. A glittery black thing, like the night sky.
“I assured him I meant him no harm, and I asked him if he was here to slay the kraken, too, and he said he was. I thought it odd that the people of Shellshore failed to mention they’d sent the both of us this way, and he said they were just odd people. True enough. He introduced himself as though introduction was necessary. He was overly formal, like someone accustomed to speaking in the courts of nobles and kings. I said I was just Linda, and he relaxed.
“He welcomed me into his camp without hesitation, in part because it meant we could take turns watching while the other slept. On my shift, I didn’t see anything interesting, but he insisted something was watching us all night, explaining that he ‘just knew.’ He loves to say things like that.”
“So do you,” Donovan said.
“So do I,” Linda agreed.
“The Suntouched thought they were being stalked by savages hiding on the island, so they got on the move as soon as Sol rose above the horizon. They saw no sign of their pursuers, unless they were being hunted by the winged frogs that made their home there. But they did find what they were looking for.
“A clearing at the heart of the jungle was home to a crumbling stone dome. An ancient coliseum, from some culture long lost, it seemed. Linda was skeptical, but The Suntouched was certain this was the place. Krakens keep treasure hoards the way dragons are often rumored to, he explained. That seemed as fine a place as any to keep it.”
“Just one problem,” Linda said. “There was no entrance. Unless we were willing to break the structure, or climb the smooth dome face hoping for a skylight, we weren’t getting in.”
“Of course, they both knew that this didn’t make any sense,” Donovan continued. “They figured that there must be another way in, and Linda remembered that the people of Shellshore worshipped a merfolk demigod. The Suntouched posited there might be some underwater passage, and spent the remainder of the day searching for it.
“His fight with a dragon turtle earlier that year granted him the ability to breathe underwater, so he searched beneath the sea until he found the entrance to an underwater cavern, marked clearly by a round crystal door.”
“Meanwhile, I was starting to suspect that something was wrong, that the pieces weren’t lining up, but The Suntouched, he was too eager to find the kraken to consider them. He dived down before I could even explain myself, leaving me little choice but to follow after him.”
“It’s worth noting that Linda here had expressed a great dislike for the people of Shellshore, and was clearly offended by their mistrust of her. That’s why I…why I think the Suntouched may have thought she was overthinking things.”
“Uh huh. Regardless, my suspicions were confirmed the moment we passed through the threshold into the cavern, and the crystal door closed behind us with the unmistakable click of a lock. Lacking the Suntouched’s abilities, I panicked then, but the tunnel quickly turned upward, and brought us into a cave lit by glowing fungi.
“When I had a moment to think, the truth became clear. We were being followed by the people of Shellshore, who were using this opportunity to trap me in combat with this kraken. Whoever bested the other in combat, the villagers won in their eyes – either they rid themselves of the kraken, or they rid themselves of the horned devil.
“But one thing still puzzled me – why did they want to kill the Suntouched? And why had he so foolishly entered the cave?”
“Don’t let her calm storyteller demeanor fool you,” Donovan said. “The way the Suntouched tells it, Linda did not ask so nicely.”
“The fool nearly killed the both of us! After what he revealed next, he’s lucky I didn’t break him in two. For you see, the Suntouched had never even been to Shellshore. His reasons for pursuing the kraken were not altruistic at all.
“He had heard legend of a magic gauntlet which had gone missing in the region a few years back, and believed it to be a part of the treasure hoard.”
“In his experience, legends were true more often than not,” Donovan explained.
Linda went on. “Regardless, his desire for this treasure clouded his thinking, nearly killing the both of us. His honesty was appreciated, but it came too late to be of any practical use.” Linda grinned. “When I asked him why it was so important to him, he told me ‘I’m nothing without my artifacts and magical gifts. I’m not strong like you, they’re the only things that make me worth a damn.’”
“I – he, I don’t think he ever said that.”
“How would you know? You weren’t there.”
“That doesn’t really sound like him.”
“All due respect, I think that sounds exactly like him.”
“Anyway, the Suntouched wasn’t the only one who made an ass of themselves in that cave. As soon as she collected herself, Linda made a move to leave the way she came, leaving Shellshore to deal with its own kraken problem, if there truly even was one.
“But the Suntouched talked her out of it, saying: ‘I know I’m not in the perfect moral position for this suggestion, but we wouldn’t be heroes if we only helped people we liked, would we? If these people are truly in peril, what would we be if we let them die for their ignorance? My motives here may not be as pure as yours, but the moral high ground means nothing if you abandon it when it no longer suits you,’”
“I was…humbled, by this. I’d always seen myself as a servant of the common man, but I let my anger get the better of me. With a newfound sense of unity, we pressed on.
“The coliseum awaited at the end of the cave, a wide, open room with a massive pool of water in the middle. Sure enough, the kraken waited for us there. All krakens are alike in their aquatic nature and numerous tentacles, but similarities stop there. This one was a hideous, bulbous creature with over a dozen appendages, half as many eyes, a pointed beak, and teeth sharper than any blade. The beast guarded a much larger cave entrance beneath it, likely its hoard and its way off of the island.
“The fight was long. Hours of smashing and stabbing and cutting. We retreated three times before it was done, licking our wounds back with the glowing fungus. The creature was sturdier than all the steel and stone in Penscarop. My hammer couldn’t crush it, the Suntouched’s blade couldn’t scratch it. It could breathe frost like a dragon breathes fire, and the Suntouched nearly lost a leg to frostbite.
“I tease him for the way he relies on magical trinkets and fancy tactics to win the day, but the Suntouched’s methods certainly had their merit. After downing a potion that made me less affected by changes in temperature, I held the monster’s beak open and endured its biting breath. The Suntouched stabbed Expanse into its throat one, twice, thrice, and the deed was done.
“We were dead tired, aching everywhere, and coated in the kraken’s inky blood, but we were victorious. The Suntouched found his glove, and I chopped up a kraken. We brought back what we could carry in the Suntouched’s Satchel of Bounty, and the people of Shellshore would not be hungry for some time.
“And that, I suppose, is that.”
After an uncertain silence, some of the people of Odd & Ends clapped awkwardly.
“What was the moral?” Dovetail asked. “Nestor’s stories always have morals.”
“The moral? Hm. The moral is…a true hero fights for others because it’s right, not because they want to.”
“And not because they want a new glove,” Linda added.
“And not because they want a new glove,” Donovan agreed.
“But the Suntouched is no true hero,” Keel said, approaching the pair. A few bored merchants now sat up with interest in the sudden drama.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Donovan asked.
“Take a seat, Mr. Allman, and I will tell you.”