To any stray observers, the Suntouched and his companion would have stood out like the stars in the night sky as they trekked exhaustedly through the Frostlands. The Suntouched’s ever-sunburned skin and the devil’s rust coloration were among the only drops of color in the seemingly endless void of snow surrounding them, giving them a fiery appearance. The devil’s orange coat lined with the fur of the Ogrit Yellow Fox (which granted its wearer immunity to the cold) only illuminated this effect.
But of course, there were no stray observers. Not this far out in the frost, where temperatures got so low at times that breath was known not only to become mist as it left your mouth, but freeze and fall to the snow. There were legends of stranded dying in a cocoon of ice as their own tears of pain froze around them.
And that, the Suntouched supposed, was the point. The Cylgin worshipped the moons in what some would call direct defiance of Sol’s will, so the more traditional members of the order tended to hide their temples in fairly dramatic places. Built into a natural stone column out among the snow was a door that was only visible in the light of the full Warm Moon. If you already knew where it was, however…
The devil stepped up the stone and traced a rune into the rock with her finger. She was bald and, like all devils, bore horns upon her head. There were three, positioned much like a scorpion’s tail and stinger. She stood taller than the Suntouched, but with a build even slighter than his slender frame. The Suntouched had only met a few devils in his time, each with the same generally intense presence and similar basic features, though they each resembled whatever species they were before their transformation. Asylum might have been a human, elf, or somewhere in between.
Soundlessly, stone receded and granted the pair passage into the column. Spiral stairs led the two to the open air at the very top, where the temple of the Cylgin awaited them. The temple was painted with Chromasque, a pigment that allowed a structure to blend in with the environment around it. Only an uncommon light source, such as the Warm Moon’s orange glow, could reveal the temple’s location. Again, however, if one knows what they are looking for, they can see through the pigment’s illusion. A wide translucent stair led up to a door marked by two crescent moons facing outward.
“You’re shivering,” the devil noted hoarsely as the pair approached the temple. “When you gave me your coat, you said you didn’t get cold.”
“What?” the Suntouched asked, cool as he could be through chattering teeth, “you’re the only one who’s allowed to lie?”
The devil had to smile at that.
As the two walked carefully up the translucent steps, something shifted just beside the door. There was a brief shimmer in the air, and then without any sound or showmanship, an androgynous purple-haired elf was standing at the top of the stairs. A moment later, a white-haired female elf appeared at the other side of the door.
“Halt,” the first elf said. They did not draw a weapon, or move at all, yet their voice still carried authority. “I know you, chosen of Sol, though not why you approach.”
“With a devil of all things,” the other added. Her partner gave her a disapproving glance without moving their head.
“I am sure you are not fans of me here,” the Suntouched said, struggling to compose his words. “They say I am the chosen of Sol, yes, and I know the Cylgin have no love for the sun. But my companion is ill, and we seek shelter. We were given this location by the elf Emelthea Crimsonfir, who –”
The first elf gracefully lifted their hand, and the Suntouched fell quiet. “Come,” they said, “and be warm.” The Suntouched and the devil finished their ascent, and the pair of elves helped them into the temple. The first room was wide, and a glowing representation of the Warm Moon on the floor seemed to heat the air around them. The Suntouched sighed with pleasure as his body rippled with relief. A few hooded acolytes ceased their milling about to watch the newcomers with interest.
Only the first elf followed them within, and they addressed the pair once more. “Emelthea’s name would carry you in if your own reputation did not. You misunderstand our creed. We do not hate the sun, but we have been rejected by Him and His. Your deeds are no less admirable because He has supposedly chosen to anoint you.” They turned their attention to the devil specifically. “It is not often we see your kind here, devil. What are you called?”
The Suntouched eyed his companion uncertainly.
“Asylum,” they offered softly.
The elf smiled lightly. “Asylum is just what we offer.”
“Thank you,” the Suntouched said, inclining his head. “We were just on our way from –” Asylum cried out suddenly, buckling and leaning into the Suntouched. He wrapped his arms around her. “Do you have somewhere she can lie down?”
The acolytes escorted Asylum to the Garden of Rejuvenation, an indoor meadow that functioned as an infirmary of sorts, while the Suntouched was invited into the private chambers of the purple haired elf, who was named Pom del Ennington. He spoke to them a spell about his business in the region, and about the Cylgin. Eventually they left, only to return a few minutes later with news of Asylum.
“She will live,” Pom reported, “if she is tended to. One of our acolytes has seen this before, up north in the forest of the Dol elves. He called it Virtue Strain. In short, it is the result of a devil rejecting their fiendish nature for a long period of time. Her body is at odds with her soul.”
The Suntouched frowned. “How can that be treated without giving in?”
“There is a healer to the east, in a remote village among the O’grofkala Mountains. Trusted confidants tell me she cures all ailments of the spirit. You are welcome to stay here until she regains her strength – or as long as you’d like, as a matter of fact. But I’d recommend heading east as soon as possible.” She walked over to her bed and pulled a small jewelry box from beneath her pillow. A tiny mechanical doll dressed in silks danced to a somber tune when she opened it. Pom produced a ring with an impressively sized, crudely cut sapphire from within and gave it to the Suntouched. “The elves and dragonkin of O’grofkala are rarely open-minded where possible threats are concerned. With this ring, she can appear to others however she pleases.”
The Suntouched took the ring graciously. “Thank you, Pom. Whatever you need – however I can repay you, I will do it.”
“I only ask that you continue to increase the stock of peace and happiness in Solkin. And that you guide your friend to safety.” The Suntouched told her that so long as he drew breath, his life would be dedicated to these causes.
Some four decades later, Donovan Allman stood in his room in the back of Odd & Ends, and observed himself in the mirror as he placed the sapphire ring on his finger. His sunburned skin returned to that he was born with. It occurred to him now that he no longer looked like the Suntouched much at all. The Suntouched was angular and muscular, with flowing black hair and eyes that glimmered with determination. Nobody would mistake Donovan Allman for the legendary hero, with his short mop of hair, soft face, and weary eyes. This, he supposed, was the point. It still saddened him.
He had failed to keep Asylum safe. He’d killed her, in fact, in his last act as Suntouched, fighting her Army of Below. But he still fought to increase the stock of happiness and peace every day, however he could. This morning, he had gotten up long before the sun to do just that. So early that it made the sudden thunk at his window not only jarring, but unbelievably rude.
Outside, the moons’ lights were obscured by a cloudy morning, and Donovan couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. When his eyes adjusted, he saw an unmistakably dwarven silhouette with long, straightened hair. As she cleared up more and he could make out her dark eyepatch , Donovan realized who it was.
“Hega?” he asked, pushing his window open gently. The dwarf stepped forward, revealing that it was in fact, Hega Perdugal, Donovan’s one-eyed, one-armed dwarven friend whose hair was let down from its usual professional bun. She looked nice, dressed in a slim black dress. But Hega always looked nice. “What are you doing at my window? And so early?”
Hega pulled the window the rest of the way open and leaned forward, putting her face as close to Donovan’s as she could, given the height difference. “I wouldn’t be much of a midnight caller if I came through the front door during the day, would I?”
Donovan must have looked flushed because Hega looked quite pleased with herself. “Did you dress like this and wear your hair down just because you think it’s funny when I’m bothered?”
“Oh?” Hega asked softly. “Am I bothering you, Donovan?”
Donovan backed up and crossed his arms. “Hega, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not interested in…that…right now.”
“Right now? Is this a rain check, then?” Hega cackled to herself a moment. “Oh, come on, Donovan, I’m messing with you. I know you’re boring. I was out drinking with friends – I do have other friends, you know – and I wanted to say hello.”
“And bother me?”
“Always. Now may I come in? Just because we’re not romantic, it doesn’t mean you can let a lady freeze in the cold.”
Donovan hurried to help the dwarf up and through his window, muttering excuses about how he’s used to hairier friends. She took a seat in his rocking chair. “Would you like some tea, Ms. Perdugal?”
“Using formalities to distance yourself and avoid intimacy, are we, Mr. Allman?”
“Only spending too much time with Nestor,” Donovan countered.
Hega smiled. “I would love tea.” When Donovan returned to her a minute later, she had tied her hair back into its usual bun. “So. You’ve got this big…Heart’s Desire sale tomorrow, right? Did I get that right?”
Donovan nodded and took a seat opposite her, on his bed. “Have you come to wish me luck?”
“Oh, now who’s flirting?” She smirked. “Frosty damnation, Donovan. It’s so easy to get a rise out of you.” Hega seemed to remember her purpose, then, because her face suddenly grew more serious. “Word’s gotten out that you’re inviting lords from all over Penscarop to come to your shop.”
“That’s not…quite true.” Donovan raised an eyebrow. “People are talking, are they? We’re advertising on the surface, yes, but nothing so grandiose as that. If it’s caught the attention of a lord or two, well, that’s better for us, I suppose.”
“And you haven’t notified the Dark Keepers of Tourism and External Commerce?” Donovan began to answer, but he faltered. “You’ve lived here long enough to know how the people here feel about outsiders.”
Donovan’s jaw set. “And I’ve lived long enough to know that such prejudices are folly.”
“Of course they’re a load of hogwash!” Hega agreed. “But is inviting – do you even know how many strangers are on their way here? Is inviting this many outsiders all at once going to mend bridges, or burn them down?”
“Back when Skymoore was Seamoore, it was built upon people immigrating from elsewhere.”
“Yes, Donovan, but that was three hundred years ago, and the world was ending and they were refugees. Don’t compare them to your shopping excursion. Our city doesn’t even have inns, Donovan! All you’re going to do is incite chaos.”
“I can handle a little chaos,” Donovan said. “I thought you’d be behind this plan.”
“You’re going to make enemies that you don’t want to make, Donovan. I just don’t want to watch you hurt yourself.”
“I can handle the Cabal.”
Hega winced. “I – Donovan, you know I don’t encourage caution and modesty lightly,” she said soberly. “Please, be careful. I know there is a lot about this city that needs fixing, and I’m trying to fix it, too, believe me. Skymoore is a delicate ecosystem, and a frenetic one. Some of the things that seem nonsensical, or unfair, there’s a rhyme and a reason to them. There are unintended consequences when you step outside the norms too much”
Donovan’s jaw clenched. “I appreciate you telling me all this, but I am set on this, Hega. I founded Odd & Ends so that I could help the people of Skymoore live happier and more peaceful lives. This defeatist thinking leads, at best, to pacifism in the face of evil and at worst to the kind of self-centered, backwards thinking that led to the Useless War.”
“How dare you.”
“Well!” Donovan threw up his hands. “You’re right, Hega, this isn’t the same as Seamoore of old, but it could be. The Suntouched is gone but the world is still full of villainy and hate. This is a strange, insular city, but it’s a kind one; why not be a welcoming one? Somewhere people can lay their head when they’re weary.”
“And the fact that your big plan to create this utopian Skymoore just so happens to be centered around your store and stands to make you wealthy is just a coincidence?”
“It’s all the influence I have, Hega.”
“It is, I know. I’m not here to stop you, I’m only looking out for you. You know I’m fond of you, and I admire your instincts” Hega looked down at her lap a moment, then back up at Donovan. “I think what I really wanted to say is that we both want the same things for Skymoore, I just wish you hadn’t been so reckless. Next time you hatch a plan to save the city from itself, maybe run it by someone who’s lived her whole life here.”
The sincerity of her words dampened Donovan’s anger. “I see the wisdom there,” he admitted. “I’m sorry, I – I admire you, too, Hega. I only have trouble opening up to you, because…because…”
Hega held up a hand. “It’s okay, Donovan, you don’t need to explain yourself. I’m just asking you to reach out to me, we don’t even have to cuddle while you do it.” Just outside the room, the tea kettle began to whistle. “I should take that to go. You’ve got a sale to get back to, and I’ve got a bed calling me halfway across the city.”
Donovan dipped his head. “Thank you for stopping by. I haven’t had a midnight caller in quite some time.”
Hega grinned. “If you play your cards, right, you won’t even have to recklessly oppose a shadowy organization the next time.”
“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Donovan poured Hega her tea and walked her to the door. Afterward, he stood alone on Odd & Ends’ patio, wondering if he was doing the right thing. He twisted the sapphire ring on his finger thoughtfully and decided that he was. One never knew what tomorrow held, after all, and there was no plan too reckless in the name of finding peace and happiness wherever one could.
At least, that was how the Suntouched kept himself going. And that was how Donovan Allman kept himself going.