Every room in Skymoore’s Below-Ground Emergency Homes had a painting featuring an approximation of what its view might be like if its occupant were living above-ground and their home hadn’t been destroyed in a terrible accident. Government-appointed art thieves would sneak into the room at specifically scheduled times and replace one painting with another, depicting dawn, morning, sunset, night, etc. The art thieves weren’t nearly as quiet as they thought they were and none of the paintings were especially high quality or effective, but everyone living in a below-ground emergency home had bigger things to worry about, so they pretended that the service was useful, or at the very least, did not vocalize its worthlessness.
Karessa Plunderton was considering filing a complaint, however, when she realized one morning that not only had the expected art heist failed to occur, but the clock in her room had ceased functioning. She had lost track of time pacing the room, reciting lines for an upcoming one-act play that slipped from her mind as soon as she spoke them, until her mother returned from a fruitless job hunt and asked her why she hadn’t started her day. What she thought had been pre-dawn had transformed into early morning while she wasn’t looking.
Naturally the one time Karessa woke up early, she was punished for it. And the day’s inconveniences were only beginning.
Exiting her unit in the B-GEH, standing up on her tippy-toes to reach the handle of a door that didn’t have halflings in mind, Karessa was greeted with a slate, sterile hallway that led to a slate, sterile reception hall. It was empty save for a bored-looking elven intern from a government agency that Karessa was forbidden from acknowledging. He was flipping through a comic book at his desk behind green-tinted, magic-resistant glass. The intern donned a pair of triangular spectacles to observe Karessa as she approached.
“Good morning, Ms. Plunderton,” said the intern, whose name she’d never bothered to learn despite cheating off him in Theoretical Linguistics for the entire previous school year. “Getting a late start today, are we?”
“There’s nothing that makes someone who’s late for work feel better than pointing out that they’re late for work. Do you want me to point out your shortcomings in the form of a greeting? Hello, Intern, looking a little fascist this morning, are we?”
“Don’t be mad that our benevolent overseers see potential in me and not you, pipsqueak.”
“I legally can’t respond.”
The intern smiled. “ID, please.”
Karessa groaned. “I don’t have it. You know it’s me, just let me through.”
“What do you even need our IDs for? These are our homes, not prison. Right, intern? That’s what Mayor Dew said when he gave us the tour. ‘Definitely not a prison, even though we use the same floorplan Skymoore would use if it had a secret underground prison, which it does not and would not’ was the exact quote, I believe.”
“It’s a precautionary measure for as long as you remain in our care,” the intern explained. “What if you were replaced by some sort of shape-shifting murderer?” He reached underneath his desk and fumbled through a drawer for several minutes, finally producing a hefty stack of paperwork. “If you could just fill these out, you should be able to get a new ID. It only takes about an hour to fill out on average, then it should take our trained mouse couriers another hour or two to navigate the labyrinth in the government district, after which your request should be processed in 24 hours or less. And, because the forces that be are not cruel as you seem to believe, your employer will be notified that you are owed a mandatory excused absence and a day’s wages.”
“Okay, but that’s not good enough,” Karessa said. “My boss needs me today! There’s this sale coming up, and I need to get to a nearby rooftop soon because these birds are migrating and –”
The intern smirked like he was suppressing a laugh. “Tough, Ms. Plunderton,” he said. “The machinations of Skymoore’s government do not cease because your little curio shop is offering discounted magic bobbleheads or whatever.”
“Wouldn’t it reflect really poorly on you if there was a shape-shifting murderer down here?” Karessa asked. “I mean, just thinking about this logically, if you were doing your job of keeping us secure, and monitoring who comes in and out, and you were truly thorough about it, there would be no shape-shifting murderers, right? So if you were doing a standup job of running this place, which I’m sure you are, my ID doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Ah,” the intern retorted, “but what if the shapeshifter had stolen your ID to get in?”
Karessa tilted her head. “Well then it really wouldn’t matter, would it? Because then just any rando shape-shifting murderer could come in and out as they please. And anyway, wouldn’t you rather this doppelganger be on their way than living with my poor mother?”
The intern stared at Karessa, not really sure how to respond. Karessa waved goodbye.
She made her way to one of the many doors along the back wall of the reception room, each of which led to a winding road of stairs and ladders leading to various entryways on the surface. The intern made a noise to stop her before she could be on her way.
“You know that isn’t your assigned door. That is for individuals without surnames. That,” he said, gesturing to a door on the other side of his desk, far from Karessa’s destination, “is the door for people whose surnames rhyme with Dundertin.”
“Who cares?” Karessa asked, for she could not legally surmise who might. “It’s not even busy right now. Everybody already went to work.”
“And if my employers rewarded tardiness, Skymoore would lose its productivity and we’d only delay the morning traffic until noon. You will use the door with people who rhyme with Dundertin, Ms. Plunderton, or you will use the door to your room.”
“What happened to worrying about Skymoore’s ‘productivity?’” she asked. “Do you really care which door I use, or if I have my ID, or do you just not want me to do my job?” Based on the intern’s furrowed reaction, it seemed Karessa’s hunch was correct. “What’s this really about? Have you got something against Odd & Ends?”
Behind his triangular spectacles, the intern’s gears turned as an incriminating silence filled the air. His demeanor changed, then, from smarmy to cold. “Your mother, Alice. She’s looking for work right now, isn’t she? It can be a real chore to find a good job these days, since the Mish Mash has been in lockdown while my employers investigate the disappearances. If you’d like, you can make her search even harder, and extend your stay here in the B-GEH. Or, you can enter the door for people whose surnames rhyme with Dundertin, and we can both get on with our morning.”
On any other day, or any other month, Karessa Plunderton would not stand for this. She would yell, she would stomp her feet, or she would come up with some ruse to subvert this pompous peon of authority. But she was too tired and in too much of a hurry now. Those birds wouldn’t wait for her, and she had spent all her free moments between rehearsals working on a banner…
Wordlessly, she went through the proper door, and gave the intern a brief rush of satisfaction in his otherwise empty life. The intern, meanwhile, composed a letter to Chief Lord Internius Targon, overseer of the Unpaid Legion, informing them that he had succeeded in his duties. Unbeknownst to him, however, he had not succeeded. Karessa Plunderton might give in, but she does not give up.
On a normal weekday, the interlocking, overlapping, crisscrossing, corkscrewing network of stairs leading up to the surface was full of slow-moving traffic as people trudged from their unwanted lives belowground to their unfulfilling jobs on the surface. But Karessa was late, the stairs were empty, and her body was built for climbing. With practiced hands and daring leaps, the halfling made her way from staircase to staircase, up the emergency ladders, sidling along signs indicating which paths exited where, until she made her way through the confusing and dangerous jungle gym, and carefully opened and climbed through a manhole leading to the surface.
This particular exit led to a courtyard of sorts; a square with a few adolescent trees nestled between apartments and niche businesses – or rather, their remnants. Scorch marks and holes and dust robbed the wood and clay buildings of any life. For almost all of Karessa’s life, this little square had been her home. She learned to read under the awning of Mr. Boelgind’s shoe shop; she had her first kiss among those trees on her way home from school three years ago; she said goodbye to her father for the last time as he left to work ten years ago, right there in front of the scented stationary store.
Now it was an inconvenient way to work, where she could not afford to dawdle for long. If she understood the cipher she’d received from the Ornithologist Society correctly (which wasn’t a sure thing at all, as the code was written in three languages and revolved around various cultures’ regional names for the Green-Crested McCaw), she had less than an hour to get where she was going and set up her banner. She’d planned for three.
The Mish Mash, as these poorer neighborhoods of Skymoore were often called (named after its incoherent city planning and tendency for building new structures on top of old ones, giving the impression of a mismatched garbage pile from afar), were crawling with government officers that Karessa could not legally acknowledge these days, ever since a significant chunk of the population was hypnotized and led through a portal to Sol-Knows-Where. The recovery process was made painfully slow by everyone constantly averting their gaze and taking the long way to work. Everything just stagnated, remaining burned and dirty and creepy.
Karessa never had trouble making it out of the Mish Mash quickly, avoiding the many government-mandated security checkpoints. Often she thought they caught her wearing a fake mustache to get through the Express Lane for Mustachioed Gentlemen or sneaking through by speaking the right passwords and presenting the right breakfast foods to get her through the false brick walls and hidden tunnels that the less scrupulous used to move about. Maybe they let her through because of her role in mitigating the portal disaster, or maybe she was simply sneakier than she gave herself credit for.
Today, things were more stringent than usual. Karessa’s usual shortcuts were patrolled by alley cats, known spies for their mysterious visitors, and the contacts she made in her criminal days were nowhere to be found. Curiously, it seemed specifically that all of her old haunts – the Breakfast Bar, the alley beside Good Gill’s Good Gills, and the empty dumpsters behind Ingot the Trash Collector’s place, where a pack of druids live permanently as raccoons and weasels – were entirely inaccessible. On top of that, people were watching her as she moved throughout the sub-city; Tony Two-Toes eyed her from within Pettigrew’s Pedicures, the Door-to-Door Survey Squadron kept ending up on the same streets as her as they asked citizens what their favorite flavor of sugar water was, and all the occupants of Henson, the enormous turtle-man who rented out the excess space in his shell to desperate renters, seemed to watch her as she passed.
The thing about the Cabal is that while some people, like Karessa, simply refused to acknowledge their existence out of self-preservation, most of Skymoore’s citizens were truly unaware of their presence. So some unsuspecting do-gooder like Two-Toes might have been asked by a friend of his to keep an eye out for Karessa Plunderton, because they’re worried about how she’s been adjusting to life in the B-GEH, and Two-Toes follows up because he’s a concerned citizen and neighbor, totally unaware that his friend is some kind of turncoat narc like the Intern. Where the Cabal was concerned, even the people you could trust were untrustworthy.
After wasting far too much of the time she didn’t have poking around for a safe way into Skymoore proper, Karessa finally swallowed her pride. After all, her destination was practically across the street from the Mish Mash’s western checkpoint. Maybe the adult thing to do was get in line like everyone else, wait to be processed by the Cabal, and then make her way to the meeting for which she was far too late.
After the incident, a red steel fence had been erected around the Mish Mash practically overnight in a perfect square around the community. Each of the four cardinal directions was marked with a gate, where the Skymoore town guard made a note of who came and went, assuring everyone that somehow this would allow them to apprehend the culprit. Karessa knew who the culprit was – the avayla cultist Teyla Eastwind – but nobody seemed to care. Tired of fighting, tired of hiding, and tired of not sleeping, a breathless Karessa got in line with the rest of the workforce and waited her turn.
Despite her lateness, the line was easily two-dozen people long. Standing beside the gate were Constable Plemuntine, a slug-like man with eight extendable eye stalks, and his human partner Sergeant Uncle, who were checking papers, writing slips excusing tardiness for work or school, and idly chatting with familiar faces.
Taunting her from just outside the fence was Flerkus Beetle’s Notary and Nosery, a three-story stone office building and Karessa’s destination. She had fifteen minutes to get there, and intercept a very precisely timed migration of the Six-Eyed Midigaridini, but by the time she got everything set up…
As she tapped her foot impatiently, Karessa made eye contact with Constable Plemuntine and one of his eyes widened with interest. While he maintained conversation with an exasperated milkman, that single eye stalk slithered through the air over to Karessa, appraised her, and retracted just before she could work up the nerve to poke it. It returned moments later, joined this time by a pair of elongated lips, which promptly spoke in a distant voice, traveling several yards from Plemuntine’s vocal cords to his unsettling mouth.
“Good morning, Karessa Plunderton! We did not expect to see you today.”
Karessa raised an eyebrow. “Why not? You see me all the time.”
At the front of the line, one of Plemuntide’s eyes turned pleadingly to Sergeant Uncle, who didn’t seem to notice. “There was just, a…rumor…of sorts…” he began, scarcely hiding the fact he was lying through his teeth, “a concern…going around, that you were…ill.”
“Nope,” Karessa deadpanned. “Healthy as a clam or whatever. Can I go?”
“Perhaps…you should go to…the…infirmary tent? By Roscoe’s Bologna and Band-Aids?”
“But I’m not sick. What is going on here, Plemuntide? You can tell me, right? Remember that time I taught your niece how to braid her hair-tendrils? Am I in trouble for something?”
Slowly, uncertainly, the Constable’s mouth and eye retreated, as Sergeant Uncle made his way to Karessa’s place in line. “Forgive my partner, Ms. Plunderton, he’s got slime where his brain sac should be. There aren’t rumors about your illness, exactly; the report came from our horoscopy division. There was a rather worrisome arrangement of tarot cards drawn this morning. The Horned Moose was beneath the Popped Balloon or some such, or was it the inversed Buttered Toast? Never matter, that’s all beyond my schooling and pay; the fact of the matter is, we’ve been instructed to keep an eye out for you so that we might insist on you reporting to the infirmary tent.”
Karessa crossed her arms and bit her tongue. She really wasn’t looking to get disappeared by a shadow organization this morning, but her frustration was reaching a tipping point. As she stared wistfully past Uncle at the rooftop across the street, however, she wondered if it was even worth the fight. If she even had time.
She saw something, then, on the roof. A humanoid figure with pitch black skin and a smooth, featureless face. They seemed to be tying something to the newly painted birdhouse sitting on the corner of the building. It was her friend, classmate, and fellow theater-employee, Roland.
Karessa’s heart soared.
“Whoa!” she said, interrupting Uncle’s explanation of why listening to the health warnings of an expert horoscopist was paramount. “Did you see that? Somebody just slipped between the bars of the fence.”
Uncle paused, puzzled, and looked at Plemuntide, who looked helplessly at him. “I didn’t see anything.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Karessa pressed on, “he’s got slime where his brain sac should be. But I know I saw a gnome dart through those bars. Looked like a pretty shady character to me.”
A handful of other line occupants murmured their agreement.
“Anyone who would skip a line like that has gotta be bad news,” Karessa said.
Sergeant Uncle stroked his chin, wearing the expression of a man who suspects he’s being deceived, but unwilling to face the consequences if he’s not. “That certainly does sound like criminal behavior,” he admitted. “Alright, you’ve made your point. Everyone is allowed through so we might spread out and look for this ne’er-do-well together! But, Karessa Plunderton, you must report to the infirmary tent at your earliest convenience.”
Karessa agreed to these terms, then slipped away in the search for this nonexistent individual. One of the former line-standers stopped Karessa as she went, and her heart stopped. It was a stocky half-dwarf woman, who looked like she had a mission on her mind.
“I know you must be in a hurry,” she whispered quickly, “but I just wanted to thank you. Some of us, a lot of us actually, know what you did the day that…the day that everyone disappeared. I was one of the hypnotized and I just…I can’t thank you enough.”
Karessa felt herself tearing up a little bit as she gave the woman a quick hug. “This was the first good thing to happen to me all day. Maybe all week. Thank you, too. And stay safe. We Mashers gotta stay together.”
The woman grinned. “Mashers? Like potatoes?”
“It’s a new thing I’m trying out okaygottagobye!”
Atop the notary’s roof, Roland was finishing up the work Karessa had intended to do. A large banner sat face down, a rope connecting each side of the banner to the perch on each of the four bird feeders up there. The Far One waved as Karessa climbed her way up the side of the old building.
I’m glad you made it, Roland projected into her mind. I sensed…this is peculiar to speak about. You know that I possess limited telepathic abilities? I have found of late that they are…less limited. At times the essence of Skymoore reveals itself to me. I may detect trends of interest – the week’s gossip might make itself known in my mind before I leave my home on Monday.
I sensed that you would be delayed in your morning commute, and took it upon myself to aid you in your quest, as you described it to me after rehearsal next week. I hope you’re not bothered by my actions.
“Not bothered,” she said breathlessly, having climbed the building at a reckless pace, “only perplexed. This was a lot of work. Aren’t you missing class?”
Karessa didn’t require telepathy to know that Roland would be blushing, were such a thing possible. You were in need, Karessa Plunderton, and more importantly, you are my friend. Furthermore I am curious; why did the city guard so badly want to prevent you from being here?
She shook her head. “Got me there, Roland.”
Roland touched a hand to his face ponderously. There are great changes coming to Skymoore soon, I feel. Or perhaps they are already here, judging from my increased sensitivity.
“Change is a process,” Karessa said. “Change is already here, and it is coming.”
As if on cue, the shrill caw of the Six-Eyed Midigaridini cut through the air, and the pair watched as a flock of autumn-colored birds descended on the rooftops. As the first four landed on their perch, pecking at the houses and the bird feed that lay within, the ropes untied themselves, guided by enchantments woven into the hemp, and wrapped themselves around the ankles of the Midigaridini, who Karessa was assured multiple times by a mute kamenlada man would not mind the extra burden.
As the flock continued their migration eastward and north, away from the floating city of Skymoore, and toward the grand city of Dol Belvargavar, they carried with them a bright yellow banner, with foil lettering that changed color in the sunlight, always catching the attention of those who glanced toward it. Over the next fifteen days, they would be seen by thousands of people across the continent of Penscarop, powerless but to observe its words:
“COME ONE, COME ALL TO ODD & ENDS, AND FIND YOUR HEART’S DESIRE. SKYMOORE EAGERLY AWAITS YOUR VISIT.”