Most days, there was a lot of downtime in Odd & Ends, which meant there was a lot of time for Donovan Allman to worry about how much downtime there was in Odd & Ends. Like most cycles, it was unpleasant.
He didn’t mind the quiet. No matter how he missed his time as the Suntouched, Donovan treasured his moments of silent respite after a lifetime of chaotic action.
And it wasn’t that he feared for his financial well-being. One or two customers every few weeks coming in and buying one of the more valuable items – like the Light Step Boots sitting on display by the register – would keep him housed and fed for months to come. Even if he did go out of business, he’d manage.
No, it was the shop’s other caretakers that had him concerned. It was Nestor, who had put his own finances at stake in this venture. It was Karessa, who supported her mother at home. It was Linda, who did not depend on Donovan in the least but to whom he could not bear to admit his failings; she knew quite enough of them as it stood.
But paying them, on top of rent, on top of the price of suppressing the shops’ magic emissions…it was getting unmanageable. He needed a new strategy, a new –
A tiny wooden ship carried by a propeller buzzed across Donovan’s unfocused vision, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“Nestor?” he said, plucking the toy boat out of the air. “What is this?”
“A boat,” the gnome said, poking his head out from the open backroom door. “It flies.”
Donovan wasn’t amused. “Yes, I know that. I thought you were working on a new product.”
“That is a new product! We’ve never sold a flying boat before.”
“Is it magic?” Donovan twisted the propeller methodically, listening as tiny mechanical parts clicked beneath the wooden hull. It just seemed like clockwork.
“The propeller only stops when the arcane energy runs out,” Nestor explained. “Or when a sourpuss takes it out of the air.”
“Since when do we sell toys?” Donovan spun the propeller and tossed it into the air, but it merely fell onto the other side of the counter and clattered against the floor. It sounded broken. “Oh, er. Apologies, Nestor. My question does stand, however.”
“It was Karessa’s idea! She thinks we need more children shopping here.”
Donovan grimaced. “Children don’t have money.”
Nestor tugged at his beard as he considered this. “Well. She’s head of marketing.”
“True.” And it was, though job titles had never meant a lot for Odd & Ends. Donovan and Nestor were technically coexecutive managers, but Donovan mostly maintained numbers and told people what to do, and Nestor mostly made the products. It was an uneven relationship that Donovan felt a little guilty about, but Nestor seemed to sincerely enjoy his craft (though admittedly, Nestor seemed to sincerely enjoy everything).
“Very well then, we’ll sell toys. But just a few.” Nestor beamed. “Don’t waste too much time or too many materials on it, though. And can you keep the shop for a bit? I need to lie down for a bit.”
Nestor’s gaze flitted toward the backroom and then returned to Donovan. “Oh. Yes, I suppose I can stay up front.”
“Thank you, Nestor. I hardly slept last night. A local orchestra started playing very loudly just outside to annoy a merchant from the surface who was peddling his wares on the corner.”
Donovan nearly always looked tired, so the lie sold. It wasn’t even a complete lie, the orchestra thing did happen; but Donovan wasn’t going to sleep.
With help from Braghnagan Gone Again, a local magician who specialized in impossible escapes, Donovan had installed a secret door in his room, utterly seamless until pushed, that led into the backroom of Odd & Ends. It was there for those days he just couldn’t wait until the shop closed, where he just had to slip away and into that door in the back room that he warned the others to never open, the incongruous ancient wooden door that led to the Soul of Skymoore.
When he’d first explored the Soul more than ten weeks ago, it was a nebulous, unshapen thing out of time and space, but there was a physicality to it now. There was a ceiling, for starters, and the stairs down weren’t so long. The labyrinth now felt as though it could actually exist, situated beneath the city.
It was also less a labyrinth and more a system of caves. It frequently widened into openings that vaguely mirrored the streets and neighborhoods and plazas of Skymoore. Doors were rare, and those that existed continued to follow that pattern he’d noticed on his first journey: they led to rooms reflecting the desires of people he’d helped in town.
Most recently, he’d found a quaint library conjured by Durant Norris, an elderly halfling whose life had been improved by a bookshelf that sorted its content automatically when books are added or replaced. It was connected to the café of Agnes Pollinsworth, which marked the first adjoining rooms, but there were no real similarities or connections between Norris and Pollinsworth that Donovan could think of.
Far be it from this place to start making sense now.
Donovan found his trips to the Soul becoming increasingly brief as time went on, and its purpose became decreasingly clear. Brilliance the unicorn said that he could do some good here, but refused to elaborate on what exactly here was or how he might achieve some good.
He had a hunch where he might find it, though, and every time he visited Donovan made sure to stop by the electric and steel laboratory of Boundless Imagination. Or rather, he passed through it, for just beyond it lay one part of the Soul that had still not yet been formed, a vast empty space among which floated a stained-glass painting of a man standing above a crowd of people, holding aloft a sword and repelling a cloud of darkness. It was the same window he found in the temple atop Mount Paylor, where his life as a mortal ended and his life as the Suntouched began.
Today, however, the door in the lab did not open into an endless void, but into a small stone room, perhaps wide enough to accommodate two people if one of them was Nestor. The stained-glass window was there, imbedded in the wall, completely opaque.
Donovan shivered before it.
He ran his hand along its ridges cautiously, as though afraid to break it. Then, for a moment, he wondered what would happen if he did. What would be beyond it? Would breaking it restore him to who he was? Was this the real window, or a duplication? He had so many questions, and nothing resembling an answer.
The room containing the window was less of a room and more like the top of a stairwell, which spiraled downward. Of course, Donovan descended. He walked maybe twenty seconds before hitting a brick wall. Donovan sighed and smiled wryly at the symbolism.
“A brick wall?” Garland asked. “Out here? Someone must’a started a building and got bored.”
The wall was just sitting amongst the shrubbery in the middle of nowhere, like someone forgot where they placed it. A massive oak lingered among and above it, its roots cracking the ground all around.
“Who would build something out here in Dera?” asked Dundren. “No one comes to Dera.”
“There’s that dwarf,” Garland countered, looking proud of herself. “Hunson…Hunson…Piecemeal. He’s building a shop in the town proper. Selling magic.”
“You can’t sell magic,” Dundren said.
“Yeah huh. I seen it.”
Donovan, who was trying to read sitting on top of the brick wall (feeling rather kingly above his friends like this), very much doubted Garland had seen magic at all. No one in Dera had. Garland was the smartest of their triumvirate, no doubt, but she had a habit for spinning tall tales. He said nothing, however, for he had a crush on Garland, the kind of innocent crush that eleven-year-olds get, and thought that inviting them out to the shrubs with the unfinished brick wall only to be too busy reading a book made him look smart and serious. Whether that worked was anyone’s guess.
“Besides,” Garland went on, “I bet someone builded this long ago. When Druidlona lived here.”
This, finally, urged Donovan toward conversation. “Druidlona didn’t live here. No one important ever came to Dera.”
“Did, too! Or, I bet they will,” Dundren said. “Maybe it’ll be me! But Garland’s still stupid. Can’t sell magic, no matter what Mincemeat said.”
“Well, that’s just what he said. ‘Sides why are you so smart about magic? I’m the smart one.”
Dundren punched Garland on the arm and she tried not to wince.
“Leave her alone!” Donovan said.
“Jump down here and make me!” Dundren said, and punched Garland on the arm again.
“Stop that!” Donovan said.
Dundren pushed Garland down and she shrieked. He wouldn’t really hurt her, they were all friends, but Dundren knew Donovan fancied Garland. He wasn’t hurting her so much as challenging him.
Donovan hurled the book he was reading at his friend, but it soared right past him. Dundren stood over Garland threateningly. “Come and get me!” he cried.
Donovan flung himself from the wall, falling at least fifteen feet, and hit the ground with a painful shock. He took advantage of the momentum to tumble into Dundren, knocking them both into the ground. Donovan’s friend cried out as his back hit an exposed root. “Ow! Ow! Okay, okay! You win.”
Garland stood up and kicked Dundren in the side. “I said you win!”
“Actually, I win,” she declared. “Because I didn’t do nothing stupid.”
Neither of them could argue with that. It was almost a two-hour walk back to Dera, and Donovan’s leg was probably broken.
“Why didn’t you climb down the wall first?” Dundren asked as the trio made their way back, the two others offering their bodies as crutches for the hobbling Donovan.
Donovan was almost offended. “Haven’t you read the stories? The hero doesn’t wait. He throws himself against whatever threatens the innocent, and he wins!”
“Yeah, I know that,” Dundren said, like Donovan had questioned his ability to count. “But you’re not a hero.”
Donovan forcefully removed himself from his friends’ assistance, and put his hands on his hips triumphantly, gritting his teeth through the sharp, hot pain in his leg. “Am, too. When I said no one important ever came to Dera, you didn’t let me finish. No one important ever came here. But someone important was from here. And that’s me.”
“How are you gonna be important?” Garland asked.
“I’m gonna throw myself against whatever threatens the innocent, and I’m gonna win!”
A sudden knock interrupted Donovan’s trance, drawing him back into reality. He fell nearly limp, forced to use the walls of the stairwell as a crutch as his mind reeled.
That memory just then – it was new to him. Garland and Dundren, he had forgotten them until now. How had he forgotten his best friends?
How had he remembered them? What in the infinite hells was this place?
There was a knock again, and as Donovan looked to its source he discovered a familiar wooden door where there had previously been none. Energetically, he threw himself through it, startling a tinkering Nestor who had just been recovering from being startled by a knock at the door.
Donovan was standing in Odd & Ends, having just emerged from the backroom. “I’ll get it,” he said breathlessly. His head was a bit dizzy from the sudden teleportation. The Soul had a habit of letting him out at the right time, but it normally wasn’t so forceful about it.
“I thought you were in your room?” said Nestor.
“Slipped in the back because I couldn’t find my blanket. Thought I might’ve left it back there. You were busy with your work.”
Nestor stroked his beard quizzically but Donovan had opened the door before questions were raised. Standing outside were two identical dwarven men dressed in matching sharp suits and wearing similar pairs of dark-lensed glasses. One of them held up a badge depicting a bag of money on fire.
“Good evening. Donovan Allman, I presume?” Donovan nodded. “My name is Cheek E. Littlebuger and this is my brother Kraft T. Littlebugger. We represent that Skymoore Department of Taxation, Relaxation, and Other Activities Which Frequently Result In Losing More Money Than You Might Think. Some people call us DOT.”
“I’ve heard of you.”
“We’re here to inquire about some illegal birdkeeping activities and –”
“Wrong script, Kraf,” Cheek said, elbowing his brother.
Kraf tapped the one of the lenses on his glasses and nodded. “Ah, there we are. Yes, DOT. We’re here to inquire about some questionable dancing practices performed in your establishment and –”
“That’s DOWT, the Dancing on Weekdays Tribunal.”
Kraf tapped his glasses again. “Okay, here we go.”
“So sorry, Mr. Allman.”
“We’re here to inquire about the dress code of your work and how it has offended the ocular sensibilities of your guests and neighbors.”
“Kraf! That’s the Dots, Polka Troubleshooting Association. Mr. Allman, we’re here to discuss your recent Autumn sale –”
“That was weeks ago,” Donovan said. Even for Skymoore beuorcracy, that was belated.
Cheek adjusted his glasses, embarrassed but remaining stoic. “Yes, well, Autumn is a busy time for our department. Plenty of birthdays and holidays and mandatory vacations pile up and limit our capacity to operate. May I go on?
“We’d like to discuss your recent Autumn sale and the resultant influx of visitors to our fair city of Skymoore. As you may have noticed from our lack of inns, tourist attractions, year-round immigration facilities, or rentable homes, Skymoore can be quite burdened by outsiders.”
“Nestor and I held a press conference and offered a public apology.”
“I’m afraid our tabulations have determined that apology won’t be enough, Mr. Allman.”
“The city incurs a lot of debt when people visit, you see.”
“That elevator ain’t cheap to operate.”
“The guards have to double up on their patrols.”
“Workers are afraid to leaves her home and we lose hundreds of hours of productivity.”
“People have to offer their food and shelter to strangers.”
“They stayed in my shop and ate my food,” Donovan interjected.
Cheek held up a hand. “Laws are laws, Donovan Allman. Don’t get upset, we are merely messengers. Now, in addition to the previously-discussed infraction, there’s also the intermittent attraction of strangers incurred through your shop’s regular operations, is that not so?”
“I…suppose it is. People come from all over to see my wares, I am proud to confess.”
“And are not you and Linda Arterford outsiders yourself?”
“We were at first but this is our home now, Mr. and Mr. Littlebugger.”
“It takes one-thousand business days for the Office of Immigration to make any newcomers official citizens of Skymoore. Due to their irregular operating schedules in addition to birthdays, holidays, and frequent mandatory vacations, the process typically takes between twenty and six-hundred years.”
Donovan blanched. “I was told my paperwork was being processed!”
“I’m sure it is, Mr. Allman. I’m sure it is. Now, we’re very busy.”
“Lots of messages to deliver, lots of scripts to get wrong.”
“So we’re just going to hand you the bill for this week’s tourism tax. You can pay off the tax from Autumn in installments over the course of the next year or so, depending on your finances.”
Donovan unfolded the bill, and blanched anew.
“Is everything okay, Mr. Allman? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s the bill, Cheek.”
“The bill? Is it a ghost duck? They do have haunting –”
“Let’s get going, Cheek. Mr. Allman, I thank you for your time and I apologize for your loss. Of funds. And potential resultant losses of sleep.”
Kraf closed the door politely, and Donovan stared at it for some time before turning the “open” sign around.
“Is everything alright?” Nestor asked from the counter. “We’re closing early?”
“Just tired, Nestor. Just tired.”
As Donovan lay awake that night, staring up at the Warm Moon, his eyes burning in its orange light, Donovan was uncertain of many things. He was unsure what to do about the tax, he was unsure why the strange labyrinth beneath his shop was restoring lost memories, and he was unsure what he’d just eaten for dinner a mere half hour ago because he was so sick with worry about the future.
But there was one thing about which he was certain. The Cabal was threatening Odd & Ends. They wanted it shut down, crushed beneath an avalanche of unnecessary taxes. So he would push back, without hesitation. The next sale would bring more people to Skymoore than the last. People would come from across Penscarop by foot to see his wares.
He was gonna throw himself against whoever threatened the innocent, and he was gonna win.