The city of Skymoore was dark and snowy in the fortnight following Odd & Ends’ Heart’s Desire sale. Proper, natural snow that came from clouds rather than Aftermaj storms. Donovan typically took pleasure in observing the changing of Seasons, but the beginning of Winter was the last thing on the shop keep’s mind as the final Season of the year announced its presence.
The first thing on his mind, he was surprised to find, was that Hega had not bothered to check on him after their encounter at the bank. When he stopped by her home to make sure she was okay, she explained that she stopped by the day after, but Odd & Ends was full of people following up on the second day of their sale, and she didn’t get a chance to say hello. She cut their visit very short, as she was busy helping Jerun Pollin revise his security protocols.
He occupied much of his time after hours talking with Nestor, both about what to do with their newfound success, and about the fact Donovan was actually the Suntouched. He told Nestor much of his story, though not as much as he had told Karessa. Nestor was more interested in the fun bits, anyway.
Speaking of Karessa, the girl seemed more distracted than ever. She was constantly complaining about the cold, despite her oversized coat, and she rarely talked about anything outside of work. The Mish Mash was still closed to the public, so Donovan could not easily check on her, and she wouldn’t talk about the recovery process.
When he wasn’t talking with Nestor, Donovan’s evenings were spent out with Gwendolyn, who was clearly lonely in Linda’s absence, and Malleus, who was staying in town with Donovan’s friend and local children’s book writer Barry the Sky Giant. The four of them would grab a drink, watch a show, or listen to Gwendolyn’s endless font of gossip.
All the distraction was appreciated, as it helped take Donovan’s mind off the most pressing matter of all. While his sale may have been of a success within Skymoore, his plan to attract outsiders was tragically neutered by the Army of Below’s mass kidnapping the evening of the sale. As Malleus told it, they had teleported dozens of people away, undoubtedly into whatever occult headquarters lay underneath the crater beneath Skymoore. Donovan couldn’t help but feel responsible for the attack, both because he carelessly invited so many people, and because in all his years fighting the Army of Below, despite taking the life of his dear friend Asylum, the Below persisted in their villainy.
On an evening when Donovan truly found himself alone – because Gwendolyn had to work on a show and Nestor had convinced Karessa and Malleus to go bowling, prompting Donovan to offer to close up shop – distancing himself from dark thoughts became increasingly difficult. He hadn’t the energy or the interest in meticulously tidying the shop to perfection, and calculating their expenses to determine whether he could afford hiring temporary replacements for Linda and Dovetail was too boring a task to occupy him, sending him sliding backward and downward into his thoughts.
Any time he tried to channel his obsession with the past somewhere positive, it always ended in pain. Emelthea Crimsonfir had been his closest friend. He loved her dearly. There were so many moments of joy and wonder that they shared, from riding skip turtles across the southern sea to seeing the celestial lights in the hidden sky beneath Barlagtelen, but it always led to their relationship’s end, which he kept only to himself. He could dwell on the simple pleasures of strolling across the land with Linda, offering their aid wherever they rested for the night, but that would only remind him of the current strains on their friendship. And Asylum was right out, of course.
The only other prominent companion in his past was the only person he’d ever loved romantically, Thalialdera. He could happily think on their time together all day, but it only led him to the frustrating limitations of his fractured memory. Whatever curse that creature from the Void Lands placed upon him had taken more than just his youth and heroism. He struggled to remember his name, his family, and many details of the years he spent with Thalialdera, among other things.
“There is no curse,” her voice echoed in the back of his mind, “there’s only you.”
The door! How could he have forgotten about the door? It was down there in the Soul of Skymoore, waiting for him. His battle with the primal and his revelations with Nestor had completely overshadowed the fact that Donovan had briefly encountered a door that resembled the door to Thalia’s office.
Almost unconsciously, Donovan gathered the mundane longsword he kept beneath his bed and journeyed into the labyrinth beneath Skymoore. Locating the square that contained the bakery, the library, the Imaginatorium, and now a nursery was a simple task at this point, but he traveled with caution in case the creature which called itself Sol still wandered the tunnels.
They alleyway behind the Imaginatorium, which had been a straightforward brick tunnel in the past, was now an exit more befitting the gnome from which it spawned. A neon passageway which seemed to be constructed of luminescent paint spiderwebbed out into a number of scintillating directions. Whatever it was made of, it felt like air to walk upon, like nothing at all lied beneath your feet. It was disorienting at first, but Donovan had walked on literal bridges of air in the past, and he quickly adjusted.
He followed in the direction where he’d seen the door in the past and found that it now led to an extensive park reminiscent of Trista, who tended to many of Skymoore’s gardens. The space around the park felt like glass and looked like the night sky. In the center, there was a jungle gym so expansive that children could colonize and live in it if they so desired. Just beyond, there was a long, paved road that seemed to be made of more natural stone, albeit stone that housed bioluminescent mushrooms that changed color as he passed them. It seemed intended to be a main thoroughfare, lined with doorless, unmarked buildings. The one exception was a building made of solid gold, with a door made of diamond. Beyond that, it was clearly incomplete, but it did smell vaguely of gelatin.
At the end of the street, quite some ways away, was a gray stone tower with a pointed orange roof, which brushed up against the ceiling of the Soul. As he approached the building, he made out a very familiar stained-glass window near the top, depicting a man wielding a sword above his head which emitted a light that vanquished an encroaching darkness. Up close, he saw the building’s stones were aged and covered with moss, and the wooden door had a chunk missing from it. Fortuitous, since the door was locked. He reached through and unlocked it from within.
The living room within was dark, dusty, and dingy. What furniture lay within had decayed with time, and the map of Penscarop on the wall looked rotted and burned in places. There was an open book on the table, but its words were blank. The walls bore childlike drawings of doors, but no actual means of leaving the room, except one. The white and gold door from Kimavikka, the College of Culture and History. Donovan’s stomach tightened and churned as he approached, almost fearful of what memory it might unlock, or what decaying room could wait beyond.
With a deep breath and a rush of courage, Donovan opened the door and entered gently into an office which was not quite small, but was so full of shelves, cabinets, and neatly labeled boxes as to feel claustrophobic when the window’s curtain was drawn. Or perhaps it was because of the dark-skinned half-elf woman with the wild curls and the beautiful green dress who filled every room she occupied.
Thalialdera was turned away from him, her attention fixed on the globe of Solkin that sat atop her bookshelf. “Dol elves hail from the forests,” she explained to nobody, “and they have an inherent connection to druidic magic even without practice; with practice, they can accomplish unimaginable feats, like convincing trees to bear houses the way they typically bear fruit. The Del are frost elves, whose bodies are naturally immune to the cold; they have a greater tendency toward nomadic lives than other elves, and it’s said the very first Delish lived on an ice block drifting through a distant sea. The Dil are the only elves native to Penscarop, having originated in the O’grofkala Mountains ages and ages ago; they have little proclivity for magic but their bodies are known to endure extreme conditions of many kinds, and their physical strength matches that of the minotaur and dragonkin who live among them. Dal prefer an open plain and a simple, agrarian society; they tend to congregate in small villages and are most commonly found living among non-elven cultures. Finally there are the Dul elves, who live in and around the sea because they possess the gift of breathing in water, and they cannot live long without it; they typically live the most sedentary lives of all, and value excellence in scholarship and athleticism in equal measure.”
Thalialdera took a deep breath and prepared to continue, when the Suntouched cut her off. “And which clans produce elves so beautiful as you?”
She gasped and glared at the Suntouched over her shoulder. “How long have you been here?” she asked.
“Long enough to know you’re going to do just fine educating a few human children about elves. But now we’re practicing the question and answer portion.”
Thalialdera smiled and wrapped her arms delicately around the Suntouched. “If you must know,” she said, “I am clanless because of something one of my ancestors did centuries before I was born. So far as I can tell, they were probably Dal. But only the village of Dera can claim credit for me.”
“And only they can take the blame when you try to tutor in the O’grofkala Mountains and spark the next great war in Penscarop.”
“At least it’ll be an educated decision,” Thalialdera said, tucking her head beneath the Suntouched’s chin. “I’m going to miss you when I leave for Castle Belmov, Nayihr.”
“It’s only for a few days, my love,” the Suntouched replied, kissing her softly on the head. “The work you do is so generous, so magnificent. With your words you do as much good for the world as I’ve ever done with a sword, and more. Every day you make me so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
Then Thalialdera shifted suddenly, as she often did, and released the Suntouched. Her orange eyes were alight with passion. “I haven’t told you, have I, Nayhir?” The Suntouched raised an eyebrow. “Do you know the word ‘Douieal?’ It was an elven leader, from back when the clans were spread across many continents. An elf who had forsaken their clan so that they may be a member of all clans. They acted as a representative of all elven tribes and lands, building a unified people. As Penscarop became the last safe place and the elves became more insular, the desire for unity waned, and the concept of a Douieal faded out of favor. I was talking to some colleagues and we think that it’s time there was someone like that again. Governor dul Karamak’s emphasis on the Dul and their education is obviously wonderful, but we need a leader who can cater to all the elves.”
The Suntouched nodded. “That certainly sounds like a fine idea,” he agreed. “Do you have a plan to make that happen? Do you have a candidate in mind?”
Thalialdera looked bashful suddenly, a rare occasion. “Hyut Gaphmadel, the treasurer of the Joomegador district, she thinks…she thinks it should be me. They think that they could groom me.”
“Of course!” the Suntouched said, putting his hands on her shoulder. “There’s no grooming necessary, Thalia. We’ve always known that you’re destined for this kind of greatness. The fact that you’re half human might accelerate the efforts to become closer with Grandia, and the fact that you’re clanless makes the whole idea perfect. You’ll do wonderful.”
He pulled Thalialdera to him, and they kissed for a long moment. The room filled with the pressure and intensity of their affection, dilating time and spinning space around them. Until the pressure popped.
“Does this mean we’re staying here?” the Suntouched asked her. “What about Windlesss Dale?”
Thalialdera took his hand in her own. “We can visit Windless Dale. But I need to stay here if I’m going to make this work, yes. You don’t go from clerical work in a school and an apprenticeship with a policy maker to governess of the biggest city in the remaining world overnight. This will take years of work, work that I have to do here, in Dol Belvargamar. But that’s okay, right? Windless Dale was a maybe.” She rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb. His hand had gone rigid and tense. “Nayihr?”
“I have news, too,” he said stolidly. “The Chastened have resurfaced. They were seen in southern Penscarop, near the Isle of Origin. If Dulcificus is back, the Void Lands could spread.”
“And the armies of the world will stop them, my love.”
“How can they?” the Suntouched asked. “A common soldier is no match for an army that eluded Emelthea and I for years. I need to get in touch with her, to come up with a plan.”
She dropped his hand. “I thought you were giving that lifestyle up.”
“That was before. When I thought that the Chastened were gone. This is not something I can take lightly. Fending off the Void Lands, that’s my destiny, Thalialdera.”
“There is no destiny. It’s just a word the privileged use to justify their unearned success. You’re better than that, love. You’re wise, when you want to be, and charming. We can work together, and build the last continent on Solkin into something we can be proud of. Something that doesn’t tear itself apart every time its people get afraid.”
The Suntouched looked up at the globe of Solkin, which sat upon Thalialdera’s bookshelf. Seven-eighths of it was greyed out, where the Void Lands had taken hold. “What about my curse?” he asked. “If I ever stray from the path of the righteous hero, no heroic deed will ever succeed again. The righteous hero does not hide from his enemies when they threaten the world.”
“Living your life isn’t hiding. There are other ways to be a hero.”
“I don’t think that’s what the curse has in mind.”
“There is no curse,” said Thalialdera, “there is only you.”
The Suntouched took a step back. “I would not lie to you.”
“I’m not doubting the authenticity of the curse, only its relevance in your decision making. If you are finished with heroism, then the curse does not matter. I recognize the man who spoke to me just then. That was the man you were two years ago; the reckless, hungry man I fell in love with. And I still love that man even as he stands before me. But you’ve told me yourself that your old lifestyle was not compatible with the kind of love we have.”
The Suntouched grit his teeth. He couldn’t deny the truth of what she’d said. “I’ve never loved anybody like you,” he said softly.
“You’ve never had the chance.”
“It’s just until I stop the Chastened.”
“And if you appear to stop them and they resurface again, you’ll remain by my side?” The Suntouched faltered. “You’re making excuses. We both have a lot to think about, and neither of us has to make a decision now. I do need to practice my lecture, however.”
The Suntouched nodded, but he did not move. The ground felt fragile, like it would crumble beneath him If he took a step. He was quiet for a long time. “I love you so much, Thalialdera.”
“I love you, too, Nayhir.”
This gave him some modicum of comfort, and he left Thalialdera in peace.
Donovan found himself in the dark, dusty, and dingy room once again. He felt uneasy, and stumbled his way into a rickety chair. It was a disorienting experience to remember in perfect detail a crucial moment that had been lost. Of course that was why his relationship with Thalia came to an end. Of course it was. He wanted to reach back into that moment, to say something else…and then he didn’t. His decision to leave saved too many lives. For all the mistakes he’d made, both personal and professional, he could never forget that it was he and Linda and Asylum who had stopped the spreading of the Void Lands.
Wiping lukewarm tears from his eyes, Donovan stood to his feet, and saw that a wooden door had materialized in place of one of the drawings. It had a sign hanging from the door: “CLOSED.” But it wasn’t locked.
It opened up into an incongruously well-kept bar, lit dimly by a green-flamed candle atop each of the tables. There was a table off to the side covered in green felt, with a plethora of colored balls that were clearly used in a game Donovan did not recognize. One of the walls was labeled “Dozen Drink Heroes!” and had beautiful watercolors of various patrons of the bar, several of which were those peculiar species found only in Skymoore, like slime people, cactus men, and levitating rocks. Above the main counter was a long painting of a stormy sea, with a brilliant lighthouse and a cloudless sky waiting on the horizon. It all felt very welcoming and lived-in, except for the complete lack of people.
Donovan did some snooping behind the main counter, where a variety of drinks both familiar and peculiar waited to be mixed and served. There were blue and green aprons hanging on a rack in a back room, where a small but well-stocked kitchen hid. It looked like they had once bore some kind of writing in white, but it was now smeared across the front. He finally found the scrap of evidence he was looking for, in a receipt book behind the counter, in a hidden compartment on the ceiling of a drawer; the same spot Donovan kept his own.
It was innocuous in all ways, with the names of drinks or beverages or songs accompanied by monetary values. But what Donovan sought was the name signed at the bottom: Pulldrid Absinthe. This was Always Open, the Seamoore bar owned by a man now called Pulldrid the Riser, who lifted Seamoore off the ground in its greatest hour of need. Donovan felt a deep reverence holding that receipt book, and he tucked it gently back into its hiding place when he was satisfied it held no more clues.
He didn’t learn anything else that day, but he did leave with a certainty that this tower was not for him after all. It was something bigger. The notion filled him with equal parts disappointment and excitement.
For the rest of the evening Donovan explored this subterranean world until he was overwhelmed and weary, and the Soul guided him home.