Odd & Ends’ patrons looked dubious of Gwendolyn’s claims.
“When you’ve been a traveling merchant for two-hundred years,” a gruff dwarf woman said, “it takes a lot more ‘n a fairytale to empty m’ bowels.”
“What I’m about to tell you is no fiction,” Gwen said. “It’s a true tale, starring yours truly.
“It stars the Luminous Company, which, for those not from here, was a traveling theater company made up of myself, fellow actors Desdemona and Paddick, and Nestor Pinkly, our technician and co-owner of this store in which we are presently huddled. And last, but far from least, there was Lord Undercooked as well; a pig, larger than a horse, who pulled our small, garish caravan.
“One crisp and moonless autumn evening, perhaps the precise opposite of the one we find ourselves in, about twenty years ago now, our little troupe was putting on a performance of Patty Alulana’s Overturned Carriage. The turnout was noteworthy, and the reception was quite positive; the audience especially loved the thunder and lightning effects Nestor arranged – laymen go wild for the flashy stuff.
“Everyone was in a great mood after the show. For once, nobody even complained about the work of packing up the stage and righting our prostrate carriage, and even I found myself unusually receptive to Nestor’s saccharine enthusiasm and inscrutable jokes. Big shows meant good word of mouth, and good word of mouth meant more big shows, and more big shows meant we could eat more than one meal a day.
“Inside our carriage, which resided for the evening near the cornfields of Goldsoil Farms, Paddick, a wild-haired halfling, prepared toasted sandwiches while Desdemona amused us with stories of life among the pretentious elite of Dol Belvargamar. A jovial evening all around
“Until the carriage door slammed shut.
“‘Paddick initially dismissed our startled responses. ‘Just the wind,’ he said.
“‘Paddick, listen,’ Desdemona said.” Gwendolyn paused for a dramatic beat. “‘There’s no wind.’ She tried the door, but it wouldn’t open. She threw herself against it; even when I helped her, it wouldn’t budge.
“We were suggesting theories – aftermaj, or the malicious spell of a detractor? – when the twin lanterns that lit the carriage went out soundlessly. They had hardly been giving any heat, but there was a notable dip in temperature now. The only light came from the small flame upon which bread and turkey were toasting.
“Something moved pass us then. We couldn’t feel it, but the blur of a passing shadow was unmistakable, and when my attention turned to the flame once more, the food was gone.
“The cool air escaped from the room through a newly-opened window. Paddick, Nestor, and I set about locking it while the whatever-it-was was outside, while Desdemona relit the lanterns. Our elven mentor screamed in terror, a sound I’ve only heard the one time. To hear someone so reserved, so authoritative, suddenly break composure entirely. Well, you can imagine that was stressful for me, only being a young woman at the time. Frankly, I lost my shit.
“Desdemona was pointing at one of the windows, her mouth agape and forehead wrinkled with fear. She was trembling. ‘Eyes,’ she stuttered. ‘And scales. I think. I don’t, I don’t –’
“Thump! The carriage was rocked by a sudden motion on the roof of the wagon. Nestor dove beneath a table. Desdemona wielded a spatula defensively. I jumped atop my shitty bed. None of that did us any good, for the next thing any of us knew, Paddick was screaming and thrashing about…on the ceiling.
“His face had gone red, and he was clawing at his throat as if being strangled by some unseen attacker. Nestor, thinking quick, climbed atop my shoulders while Paddick sputtered and choked, his eyes bulging and veins popping. Nestor jumped off of me and grabbed onto Paddick’s clothes, hoping to pull him down, but the little gnome was too light.
“Desdemona and I pulled at Nestor, but the unseen force pulled back. Until it didn’t. The four of us collapsed on the floor in a ridiculous heap, our momentary relief interrupted by a morbid realization: Paddick wasn’t moving.”
(Down in the labyrinth, Donovan, Elma, and Keel were being followed.
“Are you sure you heard something?” Keel asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Donovan said impatiently, his pace quickening.
“I don’t mean to offend or question your judgement –” “Why stop now?” “– but my kind possess a sensitivity to sound that yours does not. Elma, did you hear anything?”
Elma shrugged dismissively, for in truth, she hadn’t heard the question. These two men and their constant bickering had long since begun to bore her. She had taken to counting the number of blue bricks in the wall – she was at 847 when they interrupted her.
“Well, I’m certain that I did,” Donovan said. “Did you hear it just then? Something scraping against the brick.”
“It’s just your imagination.”
“Ohmylord, shut up you two,” Elma whined. “Do you need me to check your bed for monsters, Donovan? Here I am, peeking around the corner, assuring you that nothing…” Her pale face went nearly translucent as her voice trailed off. “Run,” she whispered.)
The dwarf woman in the audience chuckled.
“Excuse me,” said Gwendolyn.
“Sorry,” she replied. “It’s just. This isn’t scary.”
“It was certainly scary to me.”
“Yeah, sure,” the woman said, “and I’ll bet you’re a fine actress. But you’re a bit crap at oral storytelling, is all.”
“Oh, don’t take it personally, it’s just, I’m not fearing for anyone’s safety. I don’t really know any of these characters, you just dove right in.”
“Characters? These are real people!”
“Hardly an excuse for lazy storytelling.”
“What – what do you know about storytelling?”
“Oh, real mature, snap at the critic. Really shows you feel confident in your art.”
Gwendolyn, now profoundly crimson and taught, took a deep breath.
“I thought it was scary,” Dovetail murmured from the back of the room.
“Thank you, Dovetail,” Gwendolyn said. “Now, where was I?
(Keel’s lungs and legs ached from running. Elma had not described the creature she saw, but her fear was enough to get everyone’s adrenaline surging. No one dared look behind them, but they could hear the sounds of its claws brushing against the floor. At least four legs, Keel thought.
Donovan stopped, suddenly, and Keel did, too, giving him a look that asked him if he was crazy, for he was too breathless to speak. Donovan cupped his ear, and the other two listened, and realized that it was silent. They doubled over, they heaved, and just for a moment, they rejoiced.
The shopkeep composed himself quicker than the other two, and examined their surroundings. They were in a narrow, brick corridor with a low, stone ceiling, with a left turn behind them and a right turn ahead of them. More importantly, he had no idea where he was. He had been attempting to retrace his path from the bakery to the staircase, but in the mad dash for safety, he had abandoned any notion of proper navigation.
“In the Earliest Texts,” Keel managed to say, “in the Book of Exiles, when the path to Solaria is first alluded to, there is tell of a guardian. It seeks the unfaithful, and destroys them to prevent corruption of the holy realm.”
“Okay,” Donovan said, “let’s say that is what that thing is. Any mention of how to kill it?”
Keel made a wheezing sound intended as a laugh. “Sol would not give a fallible guardian such an important purpose.”
“Well, thanks for the insightful tip.”
“What I am saying,” Keel said, “is that as long as we are worthy, we have nothing to fear.” The elf eyed Elma nervously.
“No,” she said. “No no no. Three more minutes.”
Donovan heard it, too, and so did Keel. From up ahead of them, the whatever-it-was approached. Its steps were slow, and calculated. Perhaps it didn’t know where they were. Or perhaps it knew they were too tired to flee properly.
“I will go to it,” Keel said. “It will not harm me.”
As he rounded the corner, a blur of motion slammed into him, pinning him to the wall. Even looking directly at it, Donovan and Elma would have been hard-pressed to describe the creature they saw; it was like they only ever saw it in their periphery.
Donovan rushed the hulking mass of motion only to be knocked flat on his back immediately. He jumped back up to his feet effortlessly, only for the creature to throw Keel at him, knocking them both in a tangled heap. When Donovan righted himself, he saw Elma engaging with the creature. He couldn’t make out the detail, but he heard the sound of metal on stone followed swiftly by a cry of pain, before the creature scurried back into the maze.
Keel’s shoulder, Elma’s leg, and the knife were all coated in blood. The whatever-it-was bled yellow.
“Everyone okay?” Donovan asked.
“Had worse,” Elma said.
“It’s shallow,” Keel agreed.
“Good. Great work, Elma. Now we need to get moving.”
“Should we split up?” asked Elma.
“No. That would be suicide.”)
“Ah, right, Paddick was still, but breathing. We split up after that. The door had swung open now, so while Desdemona resuscitated our friend, Nestor and I headed outside to confront the monster. If anyone had a chance at dealing with this thing, it was our little artificer, and he was afraid to go alone.
“It hadn’t even been cloudy before, but Goldsoil Farms was now covered in a dense fog. The creature was nowhere to be seen, but a quick survey told us exactly where to find it; a trail of felled and snapped cornstalks led deep into the field. Whatever had made the path had been very large, and frenzied.
“‘Stay close,’ I told Nestor as we walked, hand-in-hand, into what was certainly a very bad idea. A few seconds later, I heard the crunch, and I – do you have something else to say, ma’am?”
The dwarf woman in the front row was almost visibly biting her tongue. She shook her head, and waved for Gwendolyn to carry on.
“No, go on. Out with it.”
The woman sighed. “It’s just, look, do you want feedback, or not?” Gwen simply stared. “This isn’t how you tell a horror story. The tension hasn’t built properly, and I’m losing interest.”
“The tension hasn’t built properly because you keep interrupting,” Gwendolyn snapped.
“Oh, sure, blame me if you like.”
“I’m sorry, who are you, exactly? I don’t think you’re from around here, but I’m a very successful theater director. I think I know a thing or two more about storytelling than some common merchant.”
“Going on to the personal attacks again, are we? I’m nobody, your highness. Just a bored woman trapped in an awful storm, looking to be entertained.”
“The monster pulled me away from Nestor, kicking and screaming into the corn. I never saw what it looked like and it was only separating us so it could get back in and steal all our food. To this day, it haunts the streets of Skymoore so anytime you think you’ve misplaced your food, watch your back. The end. Happy now?”
“Hm. A shame. Showed promise there at the end.”
Gwendolyn growled, and huffed, and made an unpleasant gesture, and walked away.
“Sharla had it all wrong,” Gwendolyn said as she rejoined Linda and Dovetail behind the counter. “The worst person who ever lived is very much still kicking.”
“Aw, I’m sorry, Gwendolyn,” Dovetail said. “That woman was just a meanie.” Linda nodded in agreement.
“And where were you?” Gwendolyn accused her girlfriend. “You’ve no problem getting into a shouting match over the Suntouched’s honor, but you’re stoic as ever over mine?”
“You’re cute when you’re angry,” Linda said with a grin. Gwendolyn crossed her arms and turned away. “Oh, come on, honey. I just thought we’d had enough shouting for one evening.”
Gwendolyn remained uncomforted.
“Was that a real story, then?” Linda asked. “Did you really encounter that…thing?”
Now the proud woman was red with embarrassment rather than anger. “No,” she murmured, with a self-deprecating laugh. She leaned into her much larger partner. “That night, a bear snuck into our cabin while we weren’t looking and ate some of our dinner.”
Now Linda laughed, and laughed loudly, and Gwendolyn turned even redder, and Linda kissed her on the head. “Well it was a great story, then. You had me completely fooled.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Gwendolyn said. “Actually, never mind. I’m not above fake compliments.”
Linda laughed again, and showered her girlfriend with kisses and praise.
The door closed with the click of a well-made door as Donovan, Elma, and Keel threw their weight against it. The effect of this new room, whatever it was, was immediate. Donovan could not claim to begin to understand the rules of this strange realm, but he knew now that he was safe, an instinct as primal as the danger he’d felt just moments before.
They were in a concert hall, now. An extravagant one, all black velvet and gold. The seats circled the lowered stage, where an orchestra of enchanted instruments played a reassuring symphony of their own accord. It was a soft tune, with an undercurrent of wonder, as if to say: Yes, this place certainly is a marvel, isn’t it?
As the three took their red, cushioned seats nearest the stage, letting the comforting music soothe them as they caught their breath, several things clicked at once.
Firstly, Donovan knew why the bakery felt like Agnes Pollinsworth. It was his ability to detect magic, and to feel the essence of its caster. Meaning that somehow, through methods beyond his imagination, the kind old woman had willed that room into existence.
This room, he knew at once, was the work of Hega Perdugal. It was larger than life, tasteful, and dark (read: mysterious) in all the same ways as she was. If this was her essence, however, it revealed a side of her he had not seen, and perhaps should not have seen. The woman had a gruff exterior, but this space, this music, it belied a nurturing nature that he was unaware of.
Furthermore, he recognized one of the instruments. Leading the string section was an unusual violin, shaped similarly to an anchor. He recognized his own handiwork, and he felt himself drawn to it, like it was the core of this room – the glue holding it together, not unlike the orb of electricity in the strange metal place.
Donovan was not a man above his ego, and maybe his pride was getting the best of him, but he could not help but wonder if giving Hega that violin was in some way responsible for this room’s creation. If so, it would follow that the magic cookbook he gave Agnes Pollinsworth spawned her bakery.
And if this was true, if these items were in fact responsible, Donovan had two burning questions. What in all the infinite hells had he created? And what did it mean?