When morning came, the storm remained as virulent as ever. The sky was bright, for aftermaj storms did not require clouds, but the hail still rattled and the wind whistled along. Odd & Ends’ patrons had become restless, and as Donovan and Hega reentered the shop (to some curious whispers), the shopkeep was inundated with all manner of complaints.
“Settle down,” Donovan grumbled sleepily. “I’m not keeping anyone. If you want to drown in the storm, that is your right. I might advise against it, though.”
“Second that,” Hega said. “These things don’t normally last this long, though. We can work on systems of getting you all to separate lodgings now that morning’s come, but nobody is using that elevator.”
“I have to be in Castiron in less than two weeks,” a dragonkin woman snapped.
“Better late than never,” Hega said.
“What she means to say,” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm said through a yawn, “is that you will die.”
“This is why I hate coming to this accursed town,” the dragonkin said.
“And ingrates like yourself are the reason we don’t much care for visitors,” Sharla Darkholm replied. “Donovan has done you all a service, trusting you to spend the night in a shop filled with expensive goods. He even left you alone while he dallied with Ms. Perdugal.”
Donovan cleared his throat. “Thank you, Sharla.”
“We didn’t, though,” Hega said, adding, with a grin, “I only dally with tall men.”
“Thank you,” the dragonkin said. “Now, I’ll be going.”
“Could I bother you for a minute more?” an elderly man said, rising to his feet. It was he who suggested telling stories the night prior. “The elevator isn’t going anywhere despite your tantrums, and I’ve one more story to tell, if you don’t mind. I think you’d all be interested to hear it.”
“And who are you?” she sneered.
“I am the Story Keeper,” he said. “I see that name means nothing to you, but it’s as literal as it sounds. I keep stories. Sometimes, when I feel so inclined, I also give them away.
“You’ve all made my stay in this shop more than worthwhile, and for that I thank you. Lives were saved, unlikely friendships were formed, and automatons were cute.” Dovetail beamed. “Certainly, with some artistic license, I can one day spin a yarn of tonight’s events.
“My intention was to let you all do the entertaining for the evening, and you certainly proved a charming lot. Even when you did get a bit…passionate.” (In the corner, Keel’s face got hot. Elma giggled.) “But I’ve woken up in a generous mood, and I’ve one more story for us all. After that, I have a feeling we will all be on our way. Does that sound agreeable?”
The woman crossed her arms, and sat on a gardenware display.
“Wonderful. I’ll give you all a moment to collect yourselves and wake up, and then I will begin.”
The Story Keeper hummed happily to himself as the room shuffled around him. Nothing invigorated him quite like a night around the fire, so to speak. The literal stories were valuable, yes, but so were the personal, living stories that formed around them. The True Believer and the Cylgin girl, for instance, now that was an unexpected turn. Even this angry dragonkin might have an arc, if things went very well.
Before he could begin, Elma gasped with glee as yet another story reached its conclusion.
“Bagel!” she said, leaning over the small creature and kissing him gently, very gently, on the head. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
“Yeah, me too…uh, what happened, exactly? And where am I?”
“In a magic shop, an old man is telling a story, and the storm almost killed you.”
“Okay,” he groaned, both from the pain and, it seemed, from years of Elma explaining strange situations as if she were explaining her breakfast that morning.
“How good of you to join us, Bagel,” said the Story Keeper. “I was just waiting for you to wake before I begin. Do you mind?”
The pixie shrugged helplessly. Elma fed him a small piece of cheese.
“This story concerns events of which I am sure most of you are aware. It is about the city of Skymoore, and the events which marked its unprecedented and likely unrepeatable ascent from the surface of Solkin. But it also concerns a great number of things of which I am confident you are unaware, so I ask only that you bear with me through some repetition.”
The Story Keeper cleared his throat.
“Seamoore was a town, as the name informs, located near the sea of Penscarop. It was a large town, and a prosperous town, and in these ways it was much like its cousin Castiron, that metal behemoth on this land’s opposing coast. But if you looked closely, especially back then, the differences became evident at once.
“In Castiron, you find mostly those species who are native to this continent. The dwarves, the dragonkin, the halflings, elves, gnomes, humans, and minotaur. King Bottlehelm and those who came before him did not look favorably upon the nonhuman species, but they looked far less favorably on those from distant lands.
“To the many ill-lotted folks who came to this land they called Remainia, seeking refuge from the encroaching Void Lands, there was nary a choice to be made between the harsh port of Castiron and the welcoming shores of Seamoore. The town was as diverse and peculiar then as the one we find ourselves in now.
“This influx of immigrants made the paranoid fools of Grandia nervous, and hungry for land. There were whispers, likely apocryphal, that Seamoore wished to become a nation all its own, and Grandia steeled itself for this eventuality. Their military displays scared the elves and dwarves, and the territorial inhabitants of the O’grafkala Mountains, always feeling as though the world teetered on the edge of war, were all too eager to add clouds to the oncoming storm.
“The Useless War was long, as you know, and violent, and worthless. The continent was consumed by war in a desperate lunge for resources, each land wishing to be the one who survived the coming of the Void Lands.
“In the end, of course, all of us mortals were punished for our foolishness when the Great Bear Orso woke up, clawing her way from the heart of Solkin like a bird hatching from an egg, with little abandon or concern for the shell. Villages fell beneath her feet, castles between her claws.
“Naturally, panic spread like plague throughout Penscarop. Doomsday cults, anarchy, and all manner of foul things followed. But in the city of Skymoore, one dwarf had a better idea: why not just leave it all behind?
“Pulldrid Absinthe was the humble owner of Always Open, a tavern that was, as the name suggested, always available to townsfolk and travelers in need of ale to drink or a warm fire to sleep beside. It was nestled beside the docks, welcoming all who moored there. Besides himself, the cozy establishment was staffed entirely by refugees who were down on their luck. Its welcoming environment made it possibly the most beloved building in town.
He was a quiet dwarf, always listening to the stories and problems of others. If you had a broken wagon or a shattered heart, he would do his best to patch you up before sending you on your way. When he wasn’t tending bar, Pulldrid was an active member of the community, always fighting for the common man, and protesting unfair shipping and labor laws that hurt the poorest citizens of Seamoore.
“It was no mystery or secret that the man was well-liked, and when the city grew terrified of Orso’s impending threat, the city council who did not much care for him was willing to hear him out. He outlined a plan to wrest the city from the earth, and bring it into the sky; he included not only the details of the spell, but on which parts of the city should be included, and how the economy might function.
“Details were discussed for twenty-three consecutive hours. When it was agreed that this was their best bet for survival, Pulldrid’s plan was approved.
“When Pulldrid Abstinthe spoke, Seamoore listened. Everyone quickly set about preparing. The mages helped Pulldrid prepare the largest magic circle in history, while the townsfolk set about preparing food and building the chain that would keep it from floating too far.
“The city’s diversity was key to its success here. Avayla flew far and wide in search of usable food, recruiting additional townsfolk from nearby villages as they did. Kamenclo and their kin mined faster than one would think possible, delivering the materials necessary for the chain, while fire and ice elementals strengthened forges and cooled metal all around the city to expedite its creation.
“When the preparations were finished, Pulldrid stood in the gazebo at the center of town, at a park in what is now the government district, and ignited the spell. The brilliant green light that lit the town could have been seen by someone standing on the Pale Moon that night. To this Story Keeper’s knowledge, so much magical energy had not ever been unleashed before, and has never been since.
“But this circle, which had been painstakingly plotted with unusually precise language, was not enough to dictate the effects of the spell. The energy broke the bindings of the circle and unleashed chaos in the town, creating the phenomena that would come to be called aftermaj. Its initial manifestation was a storm, not unlike this one.
“Pulldrid was quick to offer shelter within the walls of Always Open, which was soon filled to the brim with disappointed, frustrated, and scared townsfolk. They were quick to turn on the dwarf, even as he housed them. ‘How could you do this to our town?’ they demanded. ‘Our crops will be ruined. You’ve doomed us.’ ‘If Orso doesn’t kill us, you will.’
“Among the sheltered, only one remained calm.
“Brilliance the unicorn, like all their majestic kind, hailed from a land far to the north of Penscarop. One of the last to succumb to the Void Lands. They reached our continent on foot, having walked across the sea for hundreds of years, finding new lands in which to seek refuge, until they ran out of choices.
“Unicorns are a curious lot for all sorts of reasons, one being the external nature of their magic. Whereas a druid, artificer, or necromancer draws their magic from within, unicorns used the essence of those around them to cast spells. Because of this, their kind always traveled together in one large herd, maintaining the spell that grants them endless life. But where they came from, unicorns were the only living things to speak of, save for the plants, so their magical talents were severely limited and unimaginative.
“But there, in Always Open, on their first day in Skymoore – for they had only come after their interest was piqued by the flock of avayla – Brilliance felt a stirring around them, born from the fears and hopes of people from more lands than any of us can imagination, all brought by life and circumstance into one tavern on this magically-charged evening. The sensation discharged with a static boom that knocked over everything and everyone in the tavern, snuffing out the fire and winding the unicorn.
“Everyone stood and stared at Brilliance, who was themselves going weakly to their feet. Regaining poise, remaining silent, Brilliance crossed the room to Pulldrid, was behind the bar, and whispered ‘I’d like to show you something.’
“Nobody was more devastated by the unwanted outcome of the night’s events than the fabled sorcerer. For once in his life, Pulldrid was not sure he wanted to confront the problem. There was a part of Pulldrid, larger than he would like to admit, that wanted to hide behind his bar, and drink. But when this strange unicorn did this strange thing, and approached him suddenly, he would have been remiss to decline.
“In the backroom of Always Open, where Pulldrid kept his ale and his food and his silverware, there was a strange door he did not recognize, just beside his napkin closet. It looked ancient, as though its presence predated Seamoore itself, and his tavern had merely been built around it. Saying nothing, Brilliance led him through. They, too, were curious about the purpose of this spell they’d cast.
“They led Pulldrid down a flight of stairs, which assembled itself before them, so that each step felt like a lurch toward death before they were safely caught by the spell. It led into a system of tunnels, composed of everything from stone, to chocolate, to substances you’ve never heard of, nor could easily imagine or describe in this common tongue.
“‘This is the Soul of Seamoore,’ Brilliance told Pulldrid, though they had not known that seconds before. ‘The breath of life in this city has provided the bricks, and your unity has bound them together.’
“‘Unity?’ Pulldrid asked. ‘Were you not in that tavern? What unity?’
“The unicorn hummed pensively. ‘Unity is a fickle thing,’ she agreed, ‘so easily consumed by discord. But not in Always Open. There, I think, unity is made of sterner stuff.’
“Bewildered and emboldened by the unicorn’s words and actions, Pulldrid led the pair through the perplexing web of passages with a leader’s instinct.
“All around them, they heard the voices of the people of Seamoore. Panicked voices, seeking shelter, cursing Pulldrid, fearing Orso.
“‘You focus on all the wrong things,’ Brilliance told Pulldrid. ‘Listen to this.’
“A kamenleda woman spoke, and she said: ‘maybe we’ve been too hard on Pulldrid. He’s put us in a predicament, yes, and a serious one, but he was only trying to save us. We could have stopped him, but no, we followed, without even putting forth ideas of our own.’
“‘I suppose you’re right,’ a Far One admitted. ‘We only blame him because he’s the one who tried to take action.’ The rest of Always Open confessed their agreement, and wished to apologize to Pulldrid.
“Then, in the Soul of Seamoore, the tunnels rearranged themselves. They were a maze no more, appearing instead as a straight passage, made of a thousand materials and more. At the end of it, the Soul was laid bare before Pulldrid, and the true nature of Seamoore was revealed to him.
“Wordlessly, the Soul made a compact with him: it would lend Pulldrid the power of Seamoore if he could save the city, and transform it into a beacon for all of Solkin to look upon with admiration.
“I don’t need to tell you what happened next. That the city broke free from the shackles of the earth. That it ascended one mile into the sky. That when the Great Bear pulled upon the chain, to pluck the town from its place upon the clouds, it found the city too heavy, and retreated into the earth, exhausted, so that it might slumber once more.
“I don’t need to tell you that that was the beginning of the city in which we all stand. ‘Skymoore,’ Pulldrid called it. ‘The City of Heroes.’”
A contemplative silence filled Odd & Ends as the Story Keeper leaned forward on his walking stick, eyeing the sheltered people expectantly. His gaze lingered on Donovan the longest.
“Is that true?” Tabitha Darkholm asked. “Skymoore’s subtitle? City of Heroes? I’ve never heard that before.”
“Doesn’t really fit,” Gwendolyn said. “We’re not really a hero kind of city.”
The Story Keeper only smiled.
“And the unicorn?” Elma asked. “I’ve never heard the story with a unicorn before. I’d definitely have remembered a unicorn.”
“What was the moral of that story?” Dovetail asked.
“I have a lot of questions,” Donovan said.
“I prefer that my stories speak for themselves,” the Story Keeper said. He examined a pocket watch for a moment. “Mostly because I’ve got a tight schedule to keep. I’m needed at Castle Belmov.”
Donovan followed after the old man as he hobbled for the door. “Wait,” he said. “Please, I have something I need to ask you.”
“Thank you all for your time,” the Story Keeper said. He closed the door tightly behind him without another word.
“The storm!” Donovan called after him. But when he opened the door, he found the docks dry, cloudless, and crisp.
The Story Keeper was nowhere to be found.