When Keel vanished into the backroom, the rhythm of Odd & Ends settled into a steady awkwardness. Most folks stayed quiet. Some murmured softly to their friends. One or two whined that they were about to brave the storm, but nobody acted on these claims.
Sharla Darkholm was only sort of paying attention when the drama unfolded, so she wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but she wasn’t worried. A little yelling was good for the soul. Far too many people kept their feelings bottled up, and it kept them miserable. Worse still, it made them boring. Life was too short for boring.
To that end, she was actually excited to be caring for this injured pixie. That was awful to say, but the truth often is. Sharla didn’t want the poor man to be injured, not exactly, but a tearful woman bursting in from the storm, asking someone to heal her hurt friend made for a much more interesting Thursday than taking Tabitha shopping for half-off talismans and magic boots.
And besides, Bagel was fine, now. Unconscious, yes, but fine. The dryad magic had done its thing, cleaning his wound and repairing his damaged organs. Judging from the splinters, the wind had knocked him into some jagged piece of exposed wood. Now that he was safe, Sharla was back to being bored.
“Tabitha,” she said. Her daughter looked up from Using Your Adolescent Fascination in the Dark Arts to Build a Better World. “I think Donovan had the right idea; let’s tell a story. Something fun, no drama, loathe as I am to suggest such a thing.”
“Nah,” Tabitha said, and looked back to her book.
“What else are you going to do? You’re almost finished.”
“Attention everyone,” Sharla said. People continued to sleep, to read, to chatter, to play with the wind-up toy pegasus that left a trail of glitter in its wake. “Attention everyone,” the dryad repeated, louder. A few people looked up with mild interest. One of them told her to sod off. Whatever respect she had once commanded faded behind increasing frustration and discomfort.
Tabitha brought a small glass orb to her lips, and whispered to it gently. It filled with a green smoke, then shattered with a single piercing note, so loud it could probably be heard on the surface.
(“What was that?” Donovan asked, down in the mysterious metal room in the impossible labyrinth beneath Odd & Ends.
Keel and Elma were wincing, their elven ears more capable at picking up sound, for better and for worse.
“I don’t know,” Elma shouted, covering her ears. “But I hope it stops soon.”)
“Thanks, darling,” Sharla said. “Now that I have your attention, I would like to announce that the pixie is fine.”
“I thought we already knew that,” someone said.
“We’re also going to tell a story, because it’s weird and tense in here.”
“The last story is the reason everything is weird and tense,” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm said.
“Well, this one won’t be about how much anyone’s friends suck,” Tabitha said. “Sounds good?”
“Nah,” someone said.
“Come on. What else are you going to do?”
Tabitha clapped her hands. “Great! This story is called The Least Likeable Man Who Ever Lived.”
“You’ve met my father?” Gwendolyn asked.
“No heckling! You should know better.”
“Sorry,” Gwendolyn said. She looked genuinely embarrassed.
Sharla cleared her throat. “The Least Likable Man Who Ever Lived was named Matthew Olson. He was the son of an aristocrat living in Castle Belmov, and acquired an impressive education, tutored by scholars from all over the world in mathematics, literature, history, and science.
“One day his father, a devout birdwatcher, was killed when a passing Roc shit directly on him. Most people agreed he deserved it, and got on with their lives.”
Tabitha continued. “With his newfound inheritance, Matthew purchased a lovely mansion on a hill a few miles from town.”
“Similar to our mansion, but smaller, less impressive, and filled with far less likable people,” Sharla added.
“So right away, he did just what any other young man would do, finding themselves in possession of a large home and larger sums of money: he threw a very big party. And he invited every young person of note from all across Grandia.”
“The party was extravagant. There were talented circus performers, famous musicians, powerful drugs, and enough food to feed the homeless of Penscarop for a year. It lasted for six days, and everybody had a great time.
“Everyone, that is, except those that had the misfortune of spending time with the party’s host.
“Mathew Olson was the kind of man who, despite knowing a good many things, felt the need to invent knowledge in fields he’d never studied. Who could not stand to listen to a word anyone had to say, but will regale you with tales of how far he vomited that one time when he drank too much. One who found wealth and a happy, healthy life so unsatisfactory that he needed to one-up everyone in everything, quizzing others on their own fields of expertise, explaining the basics of arcana to a practiced wizard like they were some snot-nosed apprentice. A conversation with the man was an exercise in frustration, despair, and a distinct sense of futility not unlike trying to suss out the meaning of life with a brick wall.
“All of us have met a Matthew Olson, I am sure, and they all seem to us The Least Likeable Man Who Ever Lived. A person with so little to offer but only too willing to give.
“But Matthew Olson was actually the worst, as demonstrated by the weeks and seasons and years following the fabled party.”
“It was the talk of the town throughout Grandia in the days to come. Many buzzed about what a great time it was, and how they ought to seek out this-or-that musician, or this-or-that illegal substance, again sometime, and keep in touch with the people they met there.
“Matthew caught wind of his popularity and, naturally, his ego demanded to be fed. Ten days later, he sent out invitations for a second party, this one with more guests than the first.
“But unbeknownst to Matthew, a quieter sentiment had spread as well, one regarding his reputation. No matter how extravagant the party, it simply wasn’t worth the risk of being in the same room as Matthew Olson.
“When the day came, even the caterers and acrobats and ice-sculptors he had paid to be there ducked out early, giving him a full refund out of pity.
“Time passed, and Matthew grew lonelier, and lonelier, and lonelier. His trips to town weren’t met without outright scorn, but people tried to escape conversation with him as quickly as they began. Being the Least Likeable Man Who Ever Lived, this gave him no cause for introspection, and instead resulted in a hermitage that he would claim was self-imposed, in order to rid himself of society’s imbeciles.”
“It must be, he concluded, that there was simply no one worthy of the company and intellect of Matthew Olson. Nobody, except Porcia Lane.
“One morning, while Matthew was preparing himself a breakfast of bacon cereal, and pouring himself a cup of tea, Matthew noticed something about his teapot. If looked at with a certain amount of imagination and desperation, the porcelain drinkware vaguely resembled the vivacious curves of a voluptuous woman.” Sharla gestured to herself as she said this, and Tabitha mock-gagged.
“The idea hit him then,” Sharla went on, “if he could not meet someone capable of appreciating what he had to offer, Matthew could simply make a person.”
“Creating a homunculus is a powerful, and often frowned-upon, expression of artficery,” Tabitha explained, “and to imbue one with a personality to the extent Matthew intended was almost unheard of. With his money, obtaining the know-how was a breeze, but mastering the craft took years.
“Olson had never worked harder at anything in his life than he had at learning the ins-and-outs of homunculi. All the while, he imagined her: Porcia Lane, his perfect, sentient teapot. She would be intelligent, of course. Independent, but loving. Intelligent, but friendly. Wise, but still fun. The ideal woman in every respect. Except the whole teapot thing, but I’m editorializing.”
“Matthew added two violet eyes and thin black lips to Porcia, and when his spell was at last complete, he imbued her with a soul. She awoke on the table in his extravagant dining room, in awe of her newfound existence.
“‘What is this place?’ she asked. Her voice was beautiful. Her eyes were bright and curious. Matthew grinned, for she was everything he had intended, and more. ‘I’ve never seen so many colors. I’ve never seen anything at all. It’s, it’s –’ She could find no words to describe the miracle of being.
“‘Well it’s a good thing your first sight is hot stuff, huh?’ Matthew asked.
“Porcia Lane took a thoughtful look at her creator and would-be lover. She considered him for just a moment, looked into his eyes, and saw in them his true nature. She cast herself off the table, and shattered.”
(Down below, the labyrinth had changed. Some of the passages had taken more of a shape, becoming cavernous tunnels or the wooden hallways of a home as opposed to exposed walkways surrounded by infinite darkness.
After some exploration and, of course, some more bickering between Donovan and Keel, the three explorers found themselves back in the bakery that felt like Agnes Pollinsworth. Tired from what felt like hours of walking, the trio paused for food, and for rest.
When Elma reached for a kettle behind the counter, wishing to pour some tea, the kettle spoke – “Hello!” – and Elma jumped.
“Talking tea!” she cried. Whether from fear or excitement, Donovan could not be sure.
Keel, having spent more time in Skymoore than the other two, was the least fazed. “Hello,” he replied. “We’re sorry to intrude, er…”
“Porcia. Porcia Lane. And it’s quite alright! I don’t get company…ever. I don’t actually know how long ever is. You lose track of time in a place like this.”
“And what place is this, exactly?” Donovan asked, examining some silverware to see if it lived.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I mean, this place is a bakery, but I presume you mean what’s outside it. I’ve got no clue.”
“We can’t get very far,” a knife in Donovan’s hand said. He dropped it, then caught it quickly. “Easy there!” The knife jumped out of his hand and back onto the counter, where it stood tall.
“Who created you?” Donovan asked.
“Nobody created us,” a plate said. “We just are.”
“Came to that conclusion after much theological discussion, mind you,” a towel said. “For a while there, ol’ Grifton thought that the fire in the corner might’ve been a portal to some heavenly realm.”
“Were you here last time we came through?” Donovan asked.
“Never seen you before in my life,” the knife said.
“But enough questions, dears,” Porcia said. “We’ve never had an excuse to prepare a meal before. Please, have a seat.”
In no mood to argue with kitchenware, the three complied.)
“Feeling shattered himself, Matthew eventually pulled himself back into his work,” Sharla continued. “Porcia was just the first iteration; next time, he would get it right. And she wouldn’t be a teapot now, as he had seen past the absurdity of that particular fixation.”
“Instead, he used a tree,” Tabitha said.
The comment was met with some laughter.
“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it, dear,” Sharla said to an unsuspecting young woman, punctuated with a wink. Her face went bright red.
“It wasn’t exactly a tree,” Tabitha continued. “It was a dummy he carved from one, and dressed up with a wig and clothing. He was a crap artist, though, and her face ended up looking like something a child might draw. But still, Matthew was crazy, and lonely, so he thought her very beautiful.
“This time, he wouldn’t make the same mistakes. If a personality wasn’t enough to make Terra Wood – that was the dummy’s name – if that wasn’t enough to make her love him, he would add memories. Memories of their childhood friendship, their romantic courtship, and their eventual decision to marry and live away from society, to revel in each other’s company as long as they lived.
“At first, this worked. Their first day together was as amorous and upsetting as you’d imagine. Terra listened to his ravings about his favorite craft ales with genuine interest, and when he interrupted her train of thought to submit a fact she either knew or did not care to know, she didn’t even get mad.”
“But she did go mad,” Sharla said. “The next morning, Matthew awoke to find Terra had thrown herself out the window, meeting the same fractured fate as his first love. She left behind a note, explaining that she’d had a sudden crisis, realizing that she was no longer the woman who could have loved Matthew all those years. In fact, she found him utterly repulsive. Faced with the sudden horror of her inability to reclaim her wasted youth, the poor thing took the only action she could think of. Tragic, really.
“Now Matthew was truly desperate. And greedy. His ambitions were now even more perverse and more…spacious. His third spell was to enchant an object to become obsessed with him, to love him with no regard for free will. Disgusting to be sure, but almost as disturbing was his target: the mansion in which he lived, and the surrounding land.
“His appetite for love had grown insatiable, and the simple love of another individual wasn’t enough. He needed a hivemind. Every table, chair, bookshelf, and flower, they would spring to life in complete, unrelenting adoration of Matthew Olson. The way he saw it, for becoming such an impressive artificer, he deserved not only a harem, but the perfect caretaker, and what better choice than the very home in which he lived?
“In his imagination, the spell would prevent him from ever needing to move again. His bed could walk him about the house. His meals would prepare themselves. Baths would come to him, and so would books. Life, he thought, would be perfect.
“Reality was a bit different, though. His spell was a success; arguably the most powerful spell ever cast. The results were immediate, and overzealous. Every table, every chair, every bookshelf and flower and tree, even the earth itself lunged at Matthew in unrestrained lurch, and his estate become a compressed ball of matter, with Matthew Olson crushed to death at its center.”
A few laughs, and the crowd grew silent.
“What…what was the moral of that story?” Dovetail asked, and the crowd laughed louder. Dovetail looked embarrassed.
“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” Sharla said. “The moral is: never try and shag a teapot. And never, ever be Matthew Olson.”
“Oh. Okay! I think I can do that.”
“Hm, shagging a teapot seems appropriate for that one,” one of the traders muttered, and the laughing continued.
“Alright, settle down,” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm said, stepping into the center of the room. “Now that we’ve had our fun, it’s my turn to tell a story. Anyone else feeling blocked after that stale food theyhanded out? Because I’ve got a story that’s going to scare the shit out of you.”