Lofgun’t’gundrmgr Arterford, or Linda, as most people called her, awoke one morning keenly aware that she was alone in Gwendolyn Bottlehelm’s extravagantly sized and needlessly soft bed. Even for a minotaur of her stature, lying there in the middle of that pink-and-red mattress was like being lost at sea, uncertain if she would find the strength to reach dry land.
When Gwen was around, the unreasonable opulence in which she lived made sense. Her curtained bed and bejeweled candle holders took a backseat when she was present; Gwendolyn was always the centerpiece of a room. Without her, it all reeked of excess. She was sure her own home seemed a sty in comparison, which led to more and more days at Gwen’s home, as the two grew harder and harder to separate.
With great effort even for her, Linda wrested herself free of the mattress’s pillowy embrace, and searched for her girlfriend. Gwen was in the kitchen, looking fantastical in a wavy green wig billowing out from her angular face that reminded Linda of a mermaid she’d rescued from poachers off the coast of Castiron a decade back. She was chopping up a Dal Pepper, famous for their brief bursts of heat, to go in the omelets she was preparing on her sleek, stone-burning stove; the scent and thought of the meal was the only thing in the home that might rival Gwendolyn’s beauty.
“Something keep you up last night?” Linda asked, startling the human woman.
Gwen looked almost offended. “No? No! I got up early to make you breakfast for once, for your big day. Donovan set me up with this little ring that wakes me up when I ask it to.” She placed the smooth copper band on the counter. “You can give it back, by the way. Waking up before dawn is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing for me.”
Linda was visibly impressed. “You used your one go to make me breakfast?”
Gwendolyn winked. “You do the same for me.”
After a slight protest from Gwen, Linda stepped in to finish preparing breakfast, which was joined by fish bacon and toasted bagels. There was a pleasant warmth in the room as the two shared a meal at the edge of Gwen’s long, marble table. The conversation was light, the eye-contact was frequent, and the food was delicious, despite Gwen’s limited cooking acumen. Linda thought for the first time that it might be true what the village chef said back in the O’grofkala Mountains: the most important ingredient is love.
When they were finished, Linda reached across the table to take Gwen’s soft human hand in her calloused furry palm. “Thank you, Gwen,” said Linda. “Nobody ever does this kind of thing for me.”
“The Suntouched never cooked you a meal, out on the road?”
“That’s different. Feeding your companion is an act of survival, not generosity.”
Gwen smiled at the recognition. Never one to be sincere for long, she added, “You’re dodging the question, Ms. Arterford; did he ever make you breakfast or not?”
Linda grinned. “Only when he knew he’d done something wrong.”
As they cleaned their dishes and Linda prepared to set out for the day, Gwendolyn stopped her. “Before you go,” she said, producing a small box wrapped with frilly paper. “I got you something. Not for an occasion or anything, just…I saw it around.”
Linda raised an eyebrow. “Breakfast and presents? Am I about to find out you’re actually a hired killer or something?”
“It’s called being your girlfriend.”
Linda’s stomach fluttered, a rarity for the One with Strength of Twenty. In her youth, she had been one to dally with women she fancied, sure, but rarely desired they stick around. Now, days without Gwendolyn felt wasted.
She tore open the paper hastily; Gwen, as ever, was amused by her indelicate nature. “What’s wrong?” she asked as Linda’s eyes fell upon the purple stone amulet within. “It’s from the O’grofkala Mountains. The merchant said the symbol means ‘strength,’ but in a romantic way. Is that right?”
Linda dipped her head shallowly. “That’s right.” She considered her next words carefully. “I do not think fondly of home, Gwendolyn.”
Gwendolyn ripped the gift from Linda’s hands and set it aside hastily. “How was I supposed to know that?” she asked. “You never talk about your home, or your adventures, or Castiron – none of it! I was just trying to give you a nice gift.”
“The gesture is appreciated.”
“It doesn’t feel like it, now does it?”
The minotaur clenched her eyes shut, took a breath, and opened them. “Perhaps there is a reason I choose not to talk about it.” Gwen began to defend herself, but Linda raised a hand. “There are two things I like about Skymoore. You, and its significant distance from the places I’ve lived.”
“That’s depressing,” Gwen said.
“That’s life,” Linda replied. “And now that I’ve thoroughly ruined the mood you worked for, I’ll excuse myself to work.”
Gwendolyn crossed her arms and huffed, unsure whether she should feel angry or sorry. “Have a good day. Good luck with everything.”
Linda thanked her, and she left.
Odd & Ends was quite a walk from Gwndolyn’s home, but Linda liked the walk. Especially in the pre-dawn of winter. Maybe it was the fur, maybe she liked the gentle sting of the wind, but Linda was fond of the cold. It certainly helped that this was the only time of day Skymoore wasn’t buzzing with unnecessarily high energy.
As she neared the western edge of Skymoore, she could hear the gears of the massive elevator turning, bringing a shipment of people or goods to the floating city. It was at the gate to that elevator on the edge of Skymoore, just across the street from the shop, that she found Donovan Allman, standing and shivering even in his heavy cloak.
“Good morning, Linda,” he said as she approached, his eyes fixed on the rising elevator.
“How’d you get rid of the guard?”
“Didn’t have to,” said Donovan. “They’re all in the Mish Mash these days. Figure nobody wants to come to Skymoore, or leave it. Which works for us just fine.”
“Works for you,” Linda corrected.
Donovan turned to look at her, his eyes heavy. There was a swirl of color in them briefly, the lingering effects of the many magical gifts that made him a hero of legend, but when that ceased he was just a tired man, overworking himself as he was interminably inclined. “Do you have a problem with all this, Linda?”
“Would it matter if I did?” It was the first time he had bothered to ask her thoughts on much of anything since she moved here.
“Of course, Linda. I invited you to Skymoore because I need you. Because you’re my dearest friend.”
Linda didn’t respond for a time, only listened to the escalating sound of the gears. Donovan said something else, but it was lost beneath the noise as the steel platform reached the city, groaning beneath the weight of its oversized cargo and the elephantine man delivering it.
“Reckon this’ll do ‘er for ya, nah?” asked the pachyoid, as his people were called, with a gentle pat of one of the massive stone wheels he had brought for them. Donovan nodded. “Wasn’t easy to get these, I’ll tell ya tha’much. Those giants in Esmunth’s Canyon are real particula’ about procuring artifacts from their forebears. Didn’t steal ‘em, mind you. Er, most of them. Most giants’ll respec’ ya once you best them at disc golf.”
“Not if you cheat,” said Linda dryly. “Learned that one the hard way.”
“It was for the good of a small mining settlement,” Donovan explained, “not that the rock giants much cared.” He waved a hand; “As for the present matter, thank you, Kallum. I’d say this leaves us more than even.”
“Glad t’ hear it.” Kallum took a long look at the dozen massive wheels. “I know I said I owed you two a favor, no questions asked…but I must admit you’ve piqued my curiosity a fair bit here. What in the infinite hells d’ya need these for?”
“I’m running a magic shop these days,” Donovan said. “And in Skymoore, there’s a peculiar loophole in the traffic and property laws that Linda’s girlfriend often abused in her traveling theater days. It is, quite specifically, illegal to block any pedestrian or vehicular thoroughfare with a large object matching or approximating the width of the road. However, there is also a law implemented in the Dark Year eleven or twelve decades ago, when a guild of surface-dwelling smugglers took over Skymoore’s government, stating that any object which enters the city without the observance or documentation of a city official legally does not exist, and cannot be used as evidence in a crime. The new government did not see fit to remove this law, apparently. By my understanding, changing any law is quite difficult, so they usually just make new laws to void old ones. This one, however, is in the clear, as the same bill introduced a lucrative watermelon tax policy. With the street blocked just so, people will have no choice but to walk by Odd & Ends on the day of the…why are you looking at me like that, Linda?”
“You’re starting to sound like a proper Skymoorian, Suntouched.” Donovan blushed. “That’s the long and short of it, Kallum. My girl used blocks of ice for her purposes, so they melted by the end of the day. Should’ve known you’d be more interested in pillaging ancient civilizations.”
“Y’know what they say about old dogs ‘n new tricks,” Kallum said with a tip of his modest top hat. “Now, shall we get these wheels turning? I have to make it t’ Southdale in ‘alf a fortnight t’ see a man ‘bout a flock of singing pseudodragons.”
Linda, Donovan, and Kallum set about the grueling work of moving the wheels from elevator to road with the combined strength of twenty-one men and one Pachyoid. Each wheel was as tall and as wide as a small building, reminding Linda of the chariots ridden by the titan gods of minotaur folklore, forming valleys and rivers in their wake. Given the things she and Donovan had seen and done, she had no reason to suspect any legend or myth was merely a story; more than likely, those chariots were real, and maybe, just maybe, these were the very wheels that formed the rivers that brought life to the earliest settlements of Penscarop.
And now they were being used to block roads to boost sales.
When Kallum returned to the surface, the remainder of the work fell on Linda’s shoulders. Donovan was skilled, of course, but when it came to lifting things he was hardly more than a man. She lifted and rolled the massive wheels into position, taking pains to avoid bumping into stalls or office buildings or windows on her way through the empty streets.
Her discomfort and dislike for the work must have been plain on her face, for Donovan asked, “what’s wrong, Linda? Doesn’t this bring you back? The two of us, working together, doing something incredible and a little absurd?”
Linda set down the wheel she carried, blocking the path to Cat Beasly’s Pub and Tub, and exhaled loudly. “I am not so eager to be taken back, Donovan, and those deeds you refer to were about helping people. This is about growing Odd & Ends, which I am in favor of because it might take your mind off of the past, but do not mistake this deed for those.”
“They’re not so different, Linda. We’re helping people here, too. Our new service, pairing people to the tools and spells that will make them the best possible versions of themselves, it’s going to change the world.” There was a familiar twinkle in Donovan’s eyes as he spoke, one that worried Linda.
“And how exactly is our little shop going to change the world?” she asked suspiciously.
As Linda continued her labor, Donovan launched into an explanation that would have sounded like madness to anyone else, anywhere else. He told her there was a magic labyrinth beneath Skymoore, possibly larger than the entire city, and its entrance was in the storeroom of Odd & Ends. He told her that there were rooms, formed by the essence of Skymoore’s denizens, and that they seemed to form when they sold useful items to their customers. He said that in traveling there, he recovered a memory of his childhood that he’d long forgotten. Lastly, for good measure, he threw in a conspiracy about The Cabal, and how their needless taxation of Odd & Ends was an effort to keep him from his work there.
It was a lot to process while handling several hundred pounds of stone.
“And the best part is, we’re making it affordable to everyone. We won’t make much, but it’ll be a public good. Helping the people, like you said.”
Linda set a stone in place, completely blocking a four-way intersection. “How are we making it affordable to everyone? Won’t the time and resources required to fill custom orders like that cost us a ton? What about the tourism tax they’ve put on us?”
“We’ll lose a little money, sure.”
“You know I don’t give a damn, but did you run this by Karessa? Nestor? They depend on you.”
“It’ll hardly impact them at all. I might incur a little debt, skip a few meals…but I’ll take the heat for this, don’t you worry.”
“That’s exactly what worries me.”
“The Soul of Skymoore is worth it, Linda. A…a unicorn told me it was.”
Linda put her head in her hands and groaned. “Listen to yourself, Donovan! The moment I think you’re taking a step forward, you start backsliding again. You always have to be a martyr, sacrificing your body to fulfill whatever grand destiny comes your way today, adding whatever powerful magic to your little collection. This isn’t like when you uncovered the mysteries of Belvont the Living Castle and killed it to save those trapped within. This is the time you got yourself struck by lightning, brought within an inch of your life, to enhance your reflexes. You’re drawn to magical destinies like moths to a flame, and any day now you’re going to burn out.”
Donovan didn’t say anything for a long moment, only watched as the sun began to rise over Mt. Paylor in the distant east. “I’m going on vacation in a few days,” Linda said.
“And you’re only just now telling me?” Donovan asked. It wasn’t a challenge, exactly. He sounded hurt.
“You’ve been too busy to speak with properly,” Linda said, though in truth this was a decision she was only now making. “I’ve some business in Castiron and a desire to be alone on a long road.”
Donovan sighed. “You’ve my permission of course, as an employer. As a friend, I wish this wasn’t the way the morning was going.”
“Finally, something we agree on,” Linda said. “Now, let’s finish blocking the roads so we can change the world.” And as the One with Strength of Twenty was so often wont to do, she put all of herself in her present labor, keeping the past and future at a distance until she had need of them again.