The first masked figure to reach them slashed at Donovan with a stained-glass claw, grazing the front of his tunic and leaving razor-thin tears. Donovan took a few steps back, and Hega barreled forward, slamming her shoulder into the figure’s knees and toppling them over. She smashed the glass claw beneath her foot, crushing the human hand beneath, and drew a heavy baton from her hip, daring the next attacker to come. And come they did.
Donovan hung back. He was certain now that everything going wrong with his day was the result of his curse interfering with his life yet again. He thought that by opposing the Cabal in this passive way, through the Heart’s Desire sale, he had found a loophole in the curse. But the rodom thieves and now this proved it; there was no loophole, there was only the curse.
Fortunately, Hega wasn’t exactly in need of backup. Donovan had faced off against these cultists before, and their combat prowess was impressive, but lacking in comparison to someone with the training of – whatever it was Hega had done in the past. She was tripping and knocking aside her comparatively clumsy foes, who were clearly unsure how to go about hurting someone nearly half their size.
While she handled them, Donovan set about piecing together what in the infinite hells was going on here. He’d never been able to ascertain the cult’s true intentions in the past, so what they wanted with all the rodoms was anyone’s guess. How were they planning on moving them, or claiming them? Unless the rodoms weren’t their aim at all…
Donovan’s stomach lurched suddenly, as if looking over a precipice, and a familiar heat etched itself into his left hand, that of the silver glyph which made itself visible when noteworthy spells were cast in the vicinity. He clamped his hand over the rune and looked about in confusion – the feeling was drawing him several yards to his left, to some point just over the edge of this plateau.
As Hega put the fear of Sol into these cultists, they were backing closer and closer to this mysterious point, as if in defense of it, giving Donovan an idea. He reached down to pick up the purple bonnet, in what felt suddenly a grisly return policy, and hurled it like a discus just over the heads of the cultists, who jumped up in vain to catch it. The hat vanished as soon as it went over the edge of the cliff.
Donovan grinned, imagining the look on his foes’ faces, and rushed toward one with preternatural speed, tackling him through the invisible door between realms and out of the Gap, back into Skymoore. Specifically, Donovan found himself in a closed vault he did not recognize, presumably within the bank.
Perhaps a dozen more of the cultists occupied this room, which was filled with stack upon stack of boxes labeled “shickles.” From the looks of things, the cultists had just been filling bags and wagons full of the small, glowing currency. Now, however, they were all paused dead in their tracks, their attention turned to Donovan Allman.
“Wh-“ one of them began to ask, when another cultist came staggering through the solid wall behind them, which rippled like water as they passed. They were followed by a baton, which was followed by Hega. The cultist quickly ran back to rejoin his fellows.
“They came in through the other end!” the cultist explained pleadingly, in a voice that was thaumaturgically deepened. “I don’t know how they knew we were here.”
“You’re robbing the bank…” Hega began, “…and you hit up the vault where they keep the shickles?”
“Sinners such as yourselves will never understand our intentions!” cried another cultist, also putting on a voice, before being smacked upside the head by a companion.
Donovan meanwhile eyed the room for the source of whatever spell he’d detected. It was hard to get a read on the species makeup of the attackers, as they were all about human, elf, or half-elf sized (save one individual, who must have been a giant), and nothing about them seemed especially magical from where he stood. Yet the presence was overwhelming now, so much so that it was difficult to ascertain a specific location. Perhaps the spell was on the room?
“It appears the escape route has been compromised,” said another cultist. “We’ll have to leave the way we came. A pity.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Hega.
Someone laughed. “And who’s going to stop us? We have the will of Sol on our side.”
“I’ve beat up plenty of clerics, buddy.”
The cultist snorted. “Not like that.” Every one of the cultists turned toward the giant, only it was not a giant, Donovan realized. The height was right, but their build was too slender. “This is our leader. Sol incarnate.”
Hega picked her baton up off the floor. “Yeah, and I’m the caretaker of Sir Perry Pumpkin’s fu-” The so-called Sol raised an outstretched palm toward the door. A sudden burst of heat flooded the room, igniting many of the shickle crates, sizzling the very air around them, and causing the vault door to melt. The reinforced metal ran down to the floor slowly at first, like raindrops on a window, then gathered speed until several square feet at a time were running and falling, sizzling the stone floor as they made contact.
A scintillating, guttural voice filled the room, echoing against the walls and originating from no particular point. “Heretics, nonbelievers, and sinners are nothing to me,” they said. “Less than insects. Remember that if lives are lost in the coming moments, it was your interference and their own incomprehensible inconsequence that brought about their demise.”
Hega and Donovan watched on as the figure lifted their arms, raising themselves, their wagons, and their followers off of the floor. They levitated over the pond of molten metal, leaving Donovan and Hega alone in the room.
Using empty shickle crates as steppingstones, Donovan and Hega pursued the cultists, but it slowed them significantly. The vault exited into a brief hallway, which exited into a brief stairwell, which exited onto a brief bridge over lava, which exited into Jerun Pollin’s excessive office.
It took the pair four minutes to cross the length of the office to Jerun’s desk, behind which hung a massive, diamond-framed portrait of the gelatinous cube. Jerun sat at his desk before it, bound by luminescent eldritch chains.
“What’s happening here?” Donovan asked breathlessly.
“I’m being robbed,” said Jerun in their monotone voice which came seemingly from nowhere. After nobody responded for several seconds, they continued. “They said they struck today because the Cabal, which I would urge you not to remember I mentioned, was distracted by the sale at Odd & Ends, which is the magic store run by yourself, Donovan Allman, and the gnome Nestor Pinkly.” Hega shot Donovan a pointed look, which he ignored. “I think you will find that, because you are in some way responsible for my current predicament, you are legally obligated to assist me in its resolution.”
“I wasn’t going to just leave you here. How did they get in?”
“They teleported in via the magic circle, “ they said, referencing the impressive set of geometric runes which took up a significant portion of the office, “the location and shape of which I advertise to important clients who may need to teleport in one or more rodoms. You see, by knowing the shape and location of my teleportation circle, a spellcaster could –”
“Yes, we all know how they work, Pollin,” Hega said. She placed a small card on the table. “This is my business card. I freelance as a security consultant. You need my help in more ways than one.”
While Pollin delivered a slow-winded answer, Donovan’s gaze shifted to a door he hadn’t noticed on the way over, just across from the door leading out into the lobby. It was an incongruous stone door, weathered by age – by centuries of going unnoticed. There was a door just like it in the back room of Odd & Ends.
“What are you looking at?” Hega asked, tugging on Donovan’s wrist. “Let’s move.” He stared at the door pensively even as he followed her into the lobby. How could that door be here?
The bank’s marble lobby was a scene of complete chaos and disarray, but it was exactly the scene they were looking for. Counters and chairs were ablaze, charred papers littered the floor, and terrified customers hid beneath unburnt furniture. The front wall was blown open, and cultists were pouring out onto the lawn with their wagons and bags full of shickles. Wounded guards lie smoldering on the floor. It looked as though any opposition to the cultists had been handled by “Sol,” who was now expelling a jet of flame onto the bank’s magnificent lawn, burning a magic circle into it. An escape hatch, presumably.
More guards were running up the walkway to the bank with clear trepidation, uncertain how to handle the situation. Hega yelled at them to fall back, and Donovan’s mind reeled. Sol laughed. “Phase one of our plan is complete,” he told his followers as the guards obeyed. “And it has gone even better than I planned, despite our interruption. Truly there is none in Skymoore who can oppose the will of the one, true god of Solkin.”
So Donovan opposed. He took a stapler from the burning counter and hurled it across the lobby with expert precision, hitting the oversized figure on the back of the head. Sol turned. Donovan sprinted for him without a plan beyond disruption.
“Your persistence is admirable,” Sol said. “Futile, but admirable.” Without the stained-glass gauntlets he wore before, Donovan could see the figure’s hands appeared to be wreathed in pure flame, or composed of it. He whipped his hand forward, expelling a quick lash of fire at Donovan, who did not bother to duck out of the way. Flame, after all, was nothing to him. His tunic was singed but his skin was entirely unharmed.
This, as it turned out, was the wrong move. As Donovan leapt toward Sol, the person or creature or god grabbed him by the throat in midair, and held him there. Hega watched on in horror as she escorted civilians out of the bank, while the cultists were utterly captivated by their master.
“Look here, children,” said Sol. “I have seen the face of the true enemy at last. And he is pitiful.” Then Donovan was tossed like a doll. A doll fired out of a canon.
He hurtled through the air at remarkable speed, but the world seemed to move in slow motion. Out in the distance, through the hole in the wall, Donovan could see the city of Skymoore. Most notably he could see, out on the horizon, an enormous beam of destructive energy ripping into the sky out by the docks. Even from so far away, he knew without question it came from Odd & Ends.
He managed to wonder for just one instant how everything had gone so wrong, before he flew through the door of Jerun’s office and into the stone door to the Soul of Skymoore.
Then all he knew was pain.
Donovan landed in a soft patch of orange moss just beyond the threshold, but that did nothing to lessen the bone-cracking pain of bursting through the door. His entire world went white for a moment as his regeneration painfully kicked into gear, slowed by the constant magical effort of his glamour. When his vision returned, Donavan gritted his teeth and pulled himself upright.
The area around him had to be the Soul of Skymoore, no doubt, but it was so much different than any part he’d seen. Whereas the rest was low-ceilinged caves mixed with seemingly man-made walkways, this area was much more open, sloping downward into what seemed to be a swamp. It made sense, he supposed. Odd & Ends was out on the edge of Skymoore, where the underbelly of the city was much thinner. Closer to the center, there was a lot more space to hide something like this.
Off in the distance he saw pink puffs of smoke, their origin lost among the lanky trees and thick brush that lived here. As he was debating whether to press on or go back, he felt a rush of magical energy behind him. Sol had abandoned his cloak and his mask, and surged toward Donovan as a serpentine stream of flame. He was too hurt and weary to avoid the blow that hit him square in the chest. The fire may not have hurt Donovan, but the impact was enough to send him tumbling down the mossy path, tearing up his tunic and his skin.
He landed on his back in a pool of lukewarm swamp water. Given his battered state, it was more soothing than it had any right to be. In fact, as he lay there staring up at the swamp canopy, dimly lit by nothing in particular, the idea of sleeping right there in the mud sounded downright delightful.
“What was that?” a bodiless voice asked. It wasn’t Sol’s. Donovan had heard this before; it was the whispers of the world above – the thoughts and words of the people of Skymoore. “I don’t know,” another replied, “but we’ve had a unit watching Odd & Ends all day. They should be converging soon; nobody will remember a thing.” A third voice chimed in: “And that means no repeat customers. What did I tell you? Put Allman and Pinkly to their own devices, they’d make a mess big enough for us to clean up.”
Donovan was on his feet before he’d even thought about it, hurriedly limping his way in the direction of the pink smoke. He could hear the crackling of an open flame somewhere up above the foliage, growing at times closer and further from his location. It appeared his attacker had lost him.
“You can run, Suntouched,” Sol roared, his voice echoing everywhere around Donovan. “but you cannot hide from me. I am everything you want, everything you seek. I am the darkness that lurks within your heart and the power that courses through your veins. You seek to deny me by burying yourself in this new, false destiny, this so-called Soul of Skymoore, but it is a fool’s errand. You will bring ruin to this demi-realm, as you have brought ruin to Dera.”
A tree to Donovan’s left burst into flame, and several fist-sized spheres of flame rained down in his vicinity without ever making contact. They exploded harmlessly and noisily around him, washing the surrounding area in orange and yellow flame. The damp swamp plants were no match for this pseudo-Sol’s flame, and the fire spread rapidly. Donovan couldn’t begin to say what doing this kind of damage to the Soul would do to Skymoore proper, but he certainly didn’t want to find out.
Picking up the pace as best he could, Donovan endured a few more fiery volleys before pushing through a particularly dense thicket, and finding himself in a wide clearing containing a dome-roofed wooden shack. Pink smoke came through its brick chimney. Outside it was a familiar, oblong hot spring framed by green and purple stones – Donovan recognized them from a bath house in Castiron, where he’d gone on more than one occasion to rejuvenate after a particularly grueling quest. It even had the same strange flaw: a single instance of two purple stones in a row, while the rest alternated.
There was a thick padlock on the cabin’s back door, but there was nothing stopping him from walking around the home and heading up front, as though it were still in construction and nobody had bothered to put up a fence. From the cabin’s porch, train tracks were visible in the distance, among the sparse trees where swamp began to give way to a lush orchard.
Donovan closed his eyes a moment and focused on his well-trained senses. There was the faint chugging of an engine in the distance; how far exactly, he could not say. Also of note was the smell from within the cabin, which was unmistakably familiar. It smelled of the air in summer in the Penscarop countryside – sweaty and thick, with a hint of sweet, and accompanied by a floral smell so subtle it seemed to be hiding. It smelled like Linda.
The door was unlocked.
The interior was as modest and rustic as one would expect from Linda Arterford. Donovan hung his damp cloak on the coat rack as he entered, and even in his current situation he had to smile as he realized the source of the pink smoke. Burning in her fireplace was the black wood of the Bittersweet Willows of Meriston Meadow, which grew only in soil nourished by the bodies of the dead, and whose bark and leaves were used in the only perfume Donovan had ever seen Linda wear. She loved the smell, and would burn the wood at their campfires, even though a strong enough wind caused the fire to produce an unseemly and thick volume of smoke.
On the mantle of her fireplace was a snow globe, depicting the city of Openhearth. Donovan gasped. He’d bought this for her years ago, when they were traveling through the Frostlands in search of a temple to a forgotten, nameless giant deity. Donovan had forgotten her birthday, and bought her this snow globe at the last minute. Linda joked that she treasured it, because it distilled Donovan’s essence – foolish, but eager to do the right thing. He was touched that it had a place in this very private domain.
As he eyed the globe, the snow of which stirred all on its own, a second source of crackling flame was heard in the cabin’s doorway, and a second source of heat was felt. Standing there was a very tall, spindly humanoid creature made of barely-contained flame that was struggling to maintain its form. He ducked under the considerably sized threshold into Linda’s cabin, sparks jumping and blackening the wood around him with abandon.
“You’re a primal, then,” Donovan said. “I should have known.”
“I am so much more than that, Suntouched,” said Sol. “I am your first ally, and I will be your final enemy. I am your heart’s desire. The source of your power. And I am here to reclaim it from my failed chosen.”
Donovan could not deny the kinship he felt with this creature, especially this close. A strange mix of longing and fear for this creature sat deep in his chest. Sol or not, the words rang true. “Why?” he asked, subtly eyeing the great axe which hung over Linda’s desk, just above the mannequin head containing one of Gwen’s wigs. “Have I not been made to suffer enough?”
“You’re an embarrassment,” Sol explained. “A wrong that I will not rest until I right.” The sparks continued to leap from his body to the cabin, and the wood began to catch fire.
The words stung, but Donovan wasn’t in the mood for therapy. Pushing his wounded legs to their limit, he crossed the room in the blink of an eye, and claimed the axe in one smooth motion. Sol was there, too, in an instant, and Donovan brought the axe down on the primal with all his strength. The axe thudded harmlessly against the body, which solidified into a magma-like substance when the blade made contact. The blade had embedded there, and he could not withdraw it. Sol yanked backward, knocking Donovan off balance and sending the axe spiraling across the room, knocking the snow globe, bellows, and fire poker off the mantle in a loud shattering and clattering that broke the tense silence.
“I don’t think you’re Sol,” Donovan said. “Regardless, I was chosen to be the hero that fends off the darkness coming for Penscarop. You are not the first thing to stand in my way, and you won’t be the last, but I am going to fend off that darkness, whether it’s the Cabal, or a cult, or a primal who thinks it’s a god.”
“How can you say that?” asked Sol. “All you do is fail. All you do is create more problems. Your store is in ruins right now, because of you. The city watch lie dead in that bank right now, because of you. The Cabal is heading to arrest your friends right now, because of you.”
“That’s not me,” said Donovan. “That’s the curse. And I’m going to overcome it, somehow. Like I’ve overcome everything else.”
“There is no curse,” said Sol, “there is only you.” As he spoke, Donovan heard the words echo in his mind, in a voice he couldn’t quite place. A memory just out of reach. Donovan closed his eyes, trying to recall something important…and then he heard it. The train.
Donovan pushed off the wall behind him, diving through Sol before his body could solidify. The fire washed over Donovan harmlessly. He stepped down on the bellows on his way out, sending a gust of wind into the fireplace, filling the room with a debilitatingly thick pink smoke. Sol roared a lion’s roar, and the building began to quickly burn around him.
Donovan had hardly put five yards between himself and the cabin when the roof collapsed, and a fountain of flame erupted, spilling embers into the surrounding brush. Donovan didn’t look back; after all, he had a train to catch.
The sleek, colorful, twenty-car train seemed to be made of orichalcum, judging by its shiny and vaguely translucent surface, which by Donovan’s estimate made it the most expensive item in all of Penscarop. Right now, however, it was far more valuable to him. As it rushed through the beginnings of the orchard, Donovan used what strength remained in his legs to leap for the vehicle, slamming into its surface and gripping the side of a window. Quickly as he could go without losing his grip, Donovan made his way into the space between cars, and pulled himself inside.
The interior was sparse compared to its lush exterior, but the seats of this car were lined with velvet. He practically dragged himself to the nearest compartment and collapsed into it. He closed his eyes, and for a moment, he felt as though he were sitting down for a play at the Luminous, and he could practically hear the sound of the curtain rising, the crowd chattering, and the crew shifting backstage. It seemed, then, that this was Gwendolyn’s contribution to the Soul, though it was perhaps a work in progress. It wasn’t nearly decadent enough.
He was snapped from this illusion by the roar and crackling of the flames he was leaving behind. He watched from his window as a colorful inferno claimed the swamp, and made its way toward the orchard.
“That’s not me,” whispered Donovan. “That’s the curse. And I’m going to overcome it. Like I’ve overcome everything else.”
The train quickly outpaced the fire. Feeling safe for just a moment, Donovan closed his eyes and returned to the imaginary theater, where he remained even in the dreams that followed.