“Well,” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm said, to break the silence, “glad that’s over.”
A nervous chuckle rippled throughout the shop, and its patrons scattered once more. Story time was finished, it seemed.
“What was the moral of that story?” Dovetail asked, at Donovan and company’s safe haven behind the counter. “It was very…Idon’tknowtheword. Pomegranate.”
“Passionate?” Donovan suggested. Dovetail nodded. “Yes, it was. Not every story needs a moral, Dovetail. Sometimes its purpose is to express an idea, or a feeling. To share a point of view. There are no rules of storytelling that cannot be broken. Keel’s story was…troubling. But effective.”
The automaton pondered this a moment. “Winter testing. I’ll have to discuss this with Nestor at a future time.”
Donovan grinned, amused by the idea of Nestor and Dovetail debating the purpose of literature.
“You should go after him,” Linda said.
“He’ll be back soon enough.”
“You know he only went after the elf girl to get away from you,” Gwendolyn said.
“I’m not so sure I’m interested in repairing that friendship.”
“Oh, because he insulted your boyhood crush? I know petty, and that’s petty.”
Donovan frowned, and looked at the ceiling. “It’s more complicated than that, babe,” Linda said. “But it’s not my business to get into.
“Still, if you don’t do it for friendship, do it for this store. He’s one of our most frequent customers, and we can’t afford to lose him. Especially not if we have to start paying Dovetail.”
“Oh, I don’t need money,” Dovetail said. “Nestor maintains me, nourishes me, and swelters me, so I can’t imagine what I’d need money for. I just like to work for people.”
“Interested in working at a theater?” Gwendolyn asked, and Linda hit her playfully.
“We have to pay you for your work, Dovetail,” Linda explained. “Otherwise, that’s slavery and, well, I really don’t feel like getting into that right now.
“Seriously, Donovan, you should go.”
“Alright, alright, I’m going. But if he doesn’t listen to reason, remember which of us just had a meltdown in front of everyone.”
“You’re the crystalline picture of rationality, dear,” Gwendolyn said dryly. Donovan ignored her.
The backroom of Odd & Ends was a loosely-organized collection of boxes and tables. There were no windows, no other doors, and yet, somehow, no Keel. Or Elma.
Scratch that. There actually was another door.
There oughtn’t have been.
But it was. Right there, between a pile of boxes containing to-be-enchanted clothes, and a pile of boxes containing jam from Goldsoil Farms. It might have looked like it belonged – most of the wood was the same honey coloring as the rest of the store – if it weren’t so clearly ancient. The surfaces were varnished, cracks had been filled in with resin that wasn’t quite the right color, most notably around the grey stone doorknob.
Donovan could sense the presence of magic, and he certainly sensed it from this door. It felt like…anticipation. Like the moments before a first kiss from a loved one, or the lead-in to a big moment in a book or a play. It felt like a threshold he could not walk back through.
He opened it. A flight of wooden stairs descended into the dark.
“Keel?” No response.
Odd & Ends had no door in its backroom, and it had no basement, either, nor any reasonable means of treading below the ground, but that’s precisely where these stairs led. Obviously, Donovan walked down them.
They quickly went much further down than should have been possible without meeting the open sky, but Donovan expected that at this point. The wooden steps gave way to stone, and by then there was only darkness above. There were no walls, either, this far down. Or maybe the surrounding darkness was a wall. He opted not to find out.
At the end of their descent, the stairs became luminescent bricks, which changed colors in a checkered pattern that gave the illusion of movement. When Donovan stepped on them, walls emerged on either side of him, with the same many-colored makeup, the optical illusion urging him forward into the darkness on a neon rainbow walkway. Above him, oblivion.
Of course, Donovan followed.
The road was long. Some ways down, it came to a fork, branching into three paths, each of their own solid colors. Rusty, pink bricks one way, white bricks another, and a pale blue straight ahead.
“Keel?” Donovan called again. No response.
He took the pink route. These bricks did not glow, but the passage was lit by countless green lights, floating downward like falling leaves, then fizzling out like autumn snow.
The path turned. And turned again. Then it branched and forked and twisted. He was in a labyrinth, then, and with no way to mark his passage.
“Keel?” he called uncertainly, and then pressed on.
The path widened into a square stone room. Or perhaps a courtyard, for there was naught but darkness and drifting lights above. The floor felt more…tactile, here. More real. It was dirt, but with a paved road bisecting it. He recognized the smell of rain, accompanied by a sharp drop in temperature reminiscent of when Elma threw open the door upstairs.
A scuff in the dirt behind him. “Look out!” someone called.
Donovan tensed, but a quick survey of his surroundings told him that he was very much alone.
“We need to get somewhere dry, quick,” a young man said faintly, as though there were a wall between Donovan and him.
“Mom’s gonna kill me,” a woman replied.
“Glad we found this gazebo,” a gruff voice said.
“Ooh, maybe we can have some hot cocoa when this passes.”
Donovan recognized that last one as Andre Geldsman, a regular patron of the Mile High Pub. These were…the voices of Skymoore? Nothing was making much sense, but when had Skymoore ever bothered with sense?
At the opposite end of the courtyard, a painted wooden door was built into the stone. A cardboard sign in its window informed Donovan that it was open.
The atmosphere within was completely divorced from the freezing courtyard. It was warm. Cozy, even, with a roof and everything. It was a bakery, complete with a massive wood stove, a handful of furnished tables, a glass display of the available goods, and an old map of Seamoore.
It was difficult to explain, and Donovan felt strange to even have noticed this, but to be standing in this building felt like standing in the presence of Agnes Pollinsworth, the old lady to whom he’d sold a magic cookbook. Behind the sweet scent of baked bread and frosting, it even smelled like her.
Everything was so dreamlike, so impossible, even for Skymoore, and yet, especially in here, it was undeniably real. As he walked across the bakery, the wood floor felt like wood. His footsteps sounded natural. And it was all so detailed. There were even kitschy porcelain statuettes on each table, depicting winged cats and smiling frogs, which seemed to have been painted by Pollinsworth herself.
Donovan was examining a scaly bird with a toothy grin when he heard the smacking of lips from behind the counter.
A woman yelped and jumped up from behind the counter, eyes wide with surprise. It was Elma, the white-haired half-elf. She had something blue smeared around her lips. “Oh, hi.”
“What are you doing here?” Donovan asked.
She held up an empty dish. “Blueberry pie. It’s delicious, and there’s a lot more! Here, I’ll get you some.”
“That’s…no, it’s fine. What is this place?”
She shrugged. “Beats me. It’s amazing, though, isn’t it? I mean, that rainbow bridge? The lights? I’ve never seen anything so…wonderful. I almost cried. It reminded me of my first time when, oh – never mind, sorry, I overshare a lot. Pie?”
Donovan held up a hand dismissively. “Have you seen Keel?”
“Can’t say that I have. I came here to change into something dry, had a bit of a freak, then I found this place and started pigging out.”
“We should probably get looking for him.”
“How can you be so serious when you’re in a magic bakery? I think there’s endless food in here and I just put more in the oven.”
“This place is…remarkable. But I am a little concerned regarding its sudden appearance beneath my shop.”
“Not normally here, huh?”
“I think I’d have noticed.”
“That is weird,” Elma said, peeling the wrapping off a cupcake. “I guess we should get out of here, then. Could be dangerous.”
Elma winked and pointed a finger at Donovan as she took an unseemly bite from the pastry.
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” she groaned when they were back in the courtyard. Donovan caught her as she clutched her stomach and nearly fell to her knees. “I…something came over me when I was in there. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can go to town on some baked goods, but I was thinking about Bagel and hoping he was alright one moment, and obsessing over a scone the next.”
“It altered your mind?”
“Maybe?” She shrugged. “I still felt like me. That was…” she laughed half-heartedly. “That was me, when I’m myself. That room just made me feel safe. Happy. Forgot about Bagel for a bit.”
“I’m sure Bagel’s fine,” Donovan said. “In fact, I would sooner bet on his safety than ours.”
“You think this place is dangerous?”
“I don’t know what to think of this place. So, yes, I will presume danger for now. Now come, we need to find Keel.”
“Lead the way, boss man. You seem like the kind of guy who leads the way.”
Donovan did just that, and the pair ventured back into the maze.
“What closet?” Donovan had asked, when Keel made mention of the door which led to this place. His surprise was genuine. This place was new, Keel was certain.
And for this door to appear before Keel, leading into an impossible and beautiful realm, on the day he was feeling down on his luck, feeling frustrated about his inability to spread the virtues of humility and restraint? Keel knew Sol sent His followers signs, but he did not know the god was so blatant about it. What more obvious reward for his faith than a journey into the impossible? Could it be that this was the road to Solaria, as outlined in the Earliest Texts?
The thought gave Keel goosebumps, and set his heart ablaze. But before he could look for Sol’s kingdom, he needed to find Elma Del Ennington, for clearly that woman was a part of all this.
The labyrinth opened up into a patch of grass, open to the endless expanse on all sides. Keel picked a blade and examined it.
It was indistinguishable from any ordinary blade of grass, devoid entirely of magical properties. Through a moment of elvish synchronic meditation, Keel glanced into the grass’s history, and found that it lived only a very short while, a few days at most. But there was still something familiar about it. It reminded him of the grass in the northern part of Skymoore, where the heart of the city gave way to the agricultural district.
The Earliest Texts did say that the path to Solaria was a penumbra where the spiritual world met the earthly one.
Emboldened, Keel let the grass fall and focused on what lay beyond it: a door. A stone one, in a metal frame, attached to nothing. But Keel had faith that opening it would reveal more than the darkness that lay beyond, and his faith was rewarded.
Inside was, well, Keel didn’t know what to call it. He could take in the individual parts – the steel and stone architecture; the solar system model hanging from the ceiling, denoting celestial bodies the elf had never heard of; the great glass orb in the center of it all, pulsating with lightning, connected to the walls and floor by springy tubing; lights along the walls, lit with no visible fire, too bright to be sustained by any magic he’d ever seen – but what purpose they might serve, he could not say.
The room had a dull hum to it, emanating from the orb, leading Keel to realize that in this realm he had heard no sound but those of his footsteps, his breath, and the rustle of grass underfoot.
Further down in the strange room, tables were lined up against the wall, containing strange, sleek machinery unlike anything Keel had ever seen and glass vials containing liquids and powders of various consistencies and colors. He was puzzled; the Earliest Texts referred to trials of faith along the road to Solaria, so one might prove they are true to Sol, but what did this have to do with faith and servitude?
“Called it,” Elma said. She was standing in a doorway Keel had not yet examined, which seemed to lead to some kind of garden. “He’s in here, Donovan.”
Keel rose and fell like a long breath as he took in each of his visitors. “I’m pleased to see you safe, Elma. I suspect this place has divine purpose, but that doesn’t mean it’s without danger.”
“Is there anything that doesn’t have divine purpose to you people?” Donovan muttered. “Everything’s a sign. In the college of lore, they called that confirmation bias.”
“Your education does not impress me, Mr. Allman. Can you really deny this realm its divinity? The Earliest Texts describe a connection between Solkin and Sol, a bridge both physical and divine – ”
“I don’t think this place is connected to all of Solkin,” Donovan said. “If my understanding is correct, the atmosphere here changes in response to Skymoore’s mood and climate.”
“That would make sense, too, as Skymoore is closest to Sol. But perhaps we’ve only explored a fragment of this place. For all we know, it is as large as all of Solkin, or larger.”
“If this place is truly the work of Sol, why would the entrance be in my shop? I have no interest in any of this.”
“Sol tests all of us, even the faithless,” Keel said. “But you may be an interloper in a greater plan. It was I who discovered this place.”
“Oh, so this is your grand destiny? It was Elma who found it first.”
“Can you two quit it?” Elma asked. “Who cares what it’s for? You’re ruining it. This place is, it’s incredible. Impossible. There might be nothing else like it in all creation, and you’re here squabbling about what it might be, instead of appreciating it for what it is.
“All I know is, if want to learn anything more, sitting in a room and yelling about it isn’t going to make that happen. So come on, let’s see what’s through this door here and whoa!” Elma stepped through another door and lost her footing immediately, for emptiness lay beyond.
With unnatural reflex, Donovan caught the back of her coat, and pulled her back onto solid land.
“Whoa,” she said again as she caught her breath. Directly ahead of her, hanging motionless in the strange void, was a round, stained glass window. Donovan knew it well; he may have been the only person who knew it at all.
In it, a man standing among a crowd of people held a sword aloft, projecting a stream of light which repelled an oncoming darkness. Donovan had sat beneath this window once before, as Sol hung directly overhead, anointing him with its light.
To Donovan, its presence confirmed that this realm was meant for him, part of his destiny, and his continued role as the Suntouched.
To Keel, its presence confirmed that this realm was part of something bigger, the place from which he would make his mark and expel evil from the world.
To Elma, its presence confirmed that this place was magnificent, and its meaning was less important than the fact that it existed at all.
None of them was correct, but each of them understood a piece of this strange puzzle in a way the other two did not. They were all right about one thing, though – they had stumbled onto something unlike anything else, and their presence there will one day leave this world, and many others, forever changed.