Chapter 2: A Day Out

Xeno and Kiren tidy their affairs. Chalcis city hums along, but Xeno must leave.
They watched the workmen pull the marquee down from the front. The Demporium: Where the deals don’t rain down - they pour. The sign clattered down onto the cobblestones near their feet. Xeno and Kiren stood in reverence. “Thirty years, me and Dem grew this store. I remember our first run, a single Ken, that old rickety wagon bouncing up through Mycoll. We found some rare mushrooms too, just off the trail. Introduced her to your uncle. He was a fine man, too.” “Did you and Demeter ever..?” “It wasn’t like that. I’m an old man, but I have no regrets. Have you seen my place out west of Chalcis? Maybe it’s time to finally do some serious gardening. You’ll land on your feet. Mmmm, I suppose we should get on with it then.” Xeno and Kiren walked towards the center of the business district of Chalcis. Foot traffic passed them both ways as they ambled along, looking at the signs of their former competitors and former partners lining the street. Sounds of metal hammering on leather pounded out from the Ken farrier on their left. Across the street, customers at the Tongued Dragon Tavern people-watched, sipping spiced tea and qishr coffee. Further down, the bustling of the large and well-known stores of Chalcis hummed: the throatfire distillery, Chalcis Royal Exchange, Galleon Market, and the Point. Xeno watched small winged creatures fluttering in and out of the spiraling tower far above. They passed under the entrance archway, lined with a brass plaque, shined and inked recently: The Color Dancer Nexus Point. Kiren led them inside up to the front counter. “Ah, Kiren, and young Xeno. I am sorry to hear about your aunt. The Fame Keepers report just came in this morning.” The man behind the counter was a large, bald Northman. His tunic was emblazoned with a color dancer. “Xeno, there is a message for you. Please follow our keeper.” The keeper appeared from the hallway, wearing the same tunic, carrying an iron keyring filled with dozens of spidery keys. Her face had the ashen blotches of a full Raian, and her hair grew outward in curls of black and grey. She led the kobold deep into the Point’s hallways, turning through stone corridors and passing citizens and other keepers holding covered cages. She unlocked a door to a small room covered in grey monochrome tapestry hangings. “Let me know if you need anything. There’s a decoder in the corner. The door will lock as you leave.” As she left the room, the iron-banded door clanged close. The Color Dancer keepers were very strict about privacy. In the corner, Xeno removed the thick cloth covering a bronze cage. Inside was a color dancer, its message pulsing across its wings. Xeno looked at the well-worn book on the table beside the cage, but he would not need it; the message was unencrypted. He waited until the three red flashes to signal the end/beginning of a message, and read the colored wings:
Chalcis-Point: Xeno-Aremet-the-trader-in-Chalcis: The Dark Star comes to cover us all. Seal the rifts, like before. Ask Ferrin-Tham-the-scholar-in-Innsmouth. Please, Xeno. Do this.
Xeno leaned back against the wall. Aunt Demeter’s dying wish…but the Dark Star wasn’t growing in the sky. And what rifts? Xeno had heard of Ferrin, though; in school, Delen and Xeno had been forced to study his boring tomes on ancient, speculative history.
The Dark Star had appeared in the southern sky fifty years ago. A soft purple circle above the horizon, fixed in position through day and night. Since it appeared, the nodes across all of Aoeth were less reliable. The calendars had to be recalculated, and High Node Days would sometimes come and go without any change. People had adjusted to the new normal, until just a few months ago, the Dark Star had moved directly overhead. Some said it was the end times, and others took it as a sign of prosperity. Most just continued living their lives.
“Innsmouth, eh? Quite a trek, through the mushroom forest, but the season is good for trade. I have a few things I could move up there, if you are thinking of heading that way,” Kiren said. He and Xeno walked towards the entertainment quarter, having paid the color dancer message fee. “It could set you up nicely. Or, we’ll see -- I’m meeting a friend who works with the city council. She’ll be at the races. How’s your luck?” “Very bad these days, Kiren. I can’t believe she’s gone. She’s always just been there. And even when she wasn’t, she kinda was, you know?” They approached the Chalcis Hippodrome from the main entrance. Stone walls arched up forty feet and encompassed the entire stadium. The hippodrome was the second largest structure in Chalcis, after the Council Building. Statues lined the alcoves: the regal Raian Wizard-Kings, monsters from far Nordak, famous citizens of Chalcis, and Ken in poses pulling massive chariots. At the booth next to the entrance, bettors and bookies exchanged coins for colored stubs. On the wall behind, the names and odds of the chariots were represented with colored ceramic tiles. Workers on ladders replaced the tiles with others of a different glaze and hue as the bookies shouted out new bets in a cacophony. “A silver each on Xylodont and The Mad Millisnake,” Kiren said to the closest bookie. They met the city council aide in the stands high up in the hippodrome in the area reserved for low-level government officials. She was a gnome with round ears, freckles, and tufts of red hair bunched against the back of her head. She wore the green of the Localist faction in Chalcis, but was well-connected among the Royalist Party as well. “I’ve got three gold on Dark Star’s Chariot. People say the rider is courting doom with that name, but I’ve dealt with enough chaos in the Council due to that cursed circle, I figure I’m owed a little compensation. Cosmically, I mean. Did you know there’s talk of expanding? The Kingdom, I mean.” “Izmi, thanks for meeting us. It’s been a rough day. You know, we might be owed some, too?” Kiren brandished the two racing stubs hopefully. “This is Demeter’s nephew, Xeno -- a promising young trader.” “Ah, ah, sorry to hear about Dem. Terrible loss. Yeah. I couldn’t do anything about that contract. It was ironclad, it covered everything, house, shop, and inventory. But there was something left out. A trading chaise with Ken, halter, wagon and all. Not much, but it came up after this whole thing was settled. I guess it goes to you, Xeno. Congratulations. Or, condolences, I mean.” “Thank you. Her shop is gone, but maybe...well, maybe I can rebuild something.” Xeno looked thoughtful, stroking his whiskers, and twitching his green ears. All three watched the field below as the announcer stepped off the center podium. Chariots lined up at a corner of the oval track. Kobold and gnome jockeys stood in wooden, two-wheeled chariots carved with their team namesakes: dragons, boarhounds, tree-monsters, many-footed snakes, and even a carving of the dark star. High above the hippodrome, the star itself emitted a soft purple light in the blue afternoon sky. The announcer lit the signal firework in his slingshot and catapulted it upwards. The bomb trailed red sparks until exploding at the zenith in a shower of green. The chariots raced forward. The fans shouted their enthusiasm from the stands and waved colored banners of their favorite teams. The audience was a cross-section of all citizens of Chalcis; over half gnomes and kobolds, but also the tall, grey Raians and Cellates, the sturdy folk from Nordak, and the many colored peoples from the Ring Countries. In the official section near the finish line, dwarven traders from the Republic and sylvan ambassadors from Ys-Faut stood out, even amongst the diverse crowd. Chalcis, and many other cities around Aoeth, hosted a variety of races, and the mixing of peoples increased as communication and trade between the regions grew. The chariots on the field below rolled onto the field, pulled by Ken, boarhounds, or teams of oryx. The riders leaned forward, reins tight, and maneuvered for position on the first straight. Wheels ground against each other, the sounds of straining and creaking lost to the shouts from the crowd. A smaller chariot carved with the intertwining many-legged millisnakes caught in between two larger vehicles. The smaller wheels buckled, and the axle underneath the body rattled and snapped under the strain. The kobold driver leaped off the splintered chariot, and the Ken in front heaved forward with a cry halfway between a moo and a neigh. The race handlers rushed from the inner field to grab Ken and rider before they were trampled by the oncoming chariots. In the lead were the Xylodont, decorated with a titan with trees as legs, and the Dark Star’s Chariot splashed with glowing purple paint. The Xylodont’s Ken pulled forward, urged on by the cheers from the crowd. Its woolly face showed tusks jutting forward in determination, and the Ken recognized the green banners near the finish bearing its own team sigil. Pulling the Dark Star’s Chariot were a team of boarhounds, their leathery skin slick with sweat and dust. They showed no signs of even partial intelligence, and their mad grunting reached a fever pitch as the driver screamed from behind. The boarhounds jerked the chariot ahead in great lunges across the finish line. “Yes! Dark Star!” Izmi the gnome held her ticket stub high against the sky in triumph. “It’s my lucky….did you see that? The Dark Star, I mean, the real one, kind of...flash?” “Don’t be superstitious. Well, good for you,” Kiren said. Xeno sat quietly, wondering about his changing world, shop, sky, and all.
Next -- Chapter 3: The Secret Mission