“Do you know where your father is?” Mrs. Plunderton asked.
“Out shopping,” Karessa replied automatically as she tied the laces of her boots. In truth, Karessa had not seen her father in four years. Nobody had. “You know how the Mish Mash is. You get all the best deals this time of day.”
“Doing anything after school?”
“Theater. I’ll be home late.”
“Oh, for the love of – are you still wasting your time there? Do you know where we’d be if your father and I wasted our childhoods playing pretend instead of working?”
Maybe not in the Mish Mash, Karessa almost said. Instead, she chose to endure her mother’s rant and try not to take it personality. It wasn’t easy. Never was.
“You’re smarter than this,” Mr. Urstout, Karessa’s gnomish biology teacher, said with resignation. He fidgeted thoughtfully with his globe. “I’ve seen significant improvement this last month; you’re answering questions in class, turning in your work on time…but this essay…it’s troubling. You claim that there are such things as sunflowers several times in your argument, even though the great scientist and philosopher Skip Snotbottom definitively proved that they exist only in legend. We at Pulldrid’s don’t tolerate such fanciful behavior and I have no choice but to fail you on this paper and frankly, I don’t know if you can recover from that.”
Karessa knew with relative certainty that there were such things as sunflowers. Donovan said as much, and why would he lie about something like that? She’d started to read Snotbottom’s Treatise on the Existence of Sunflowers, Goats, and Other Photosynthetic Falsities once before, though it was a little dense for her, but his premise seemed to be that he couldn’t find any evidence that they existed outside of novels and fairytales. Only outsiders spoke of them with anything like authority, and outsiders were, of course, not to be trusted. But Donovan seemed alright.
Anyway, she didn’t feel like fighting Urstout on this, mostly because when she looked at him her eyes were drawn to the boil on his nose which pushed his glasses up a bit and it really grossed her out. She just said she didn’t care enough to give a real answer. Urstout said he couldn’t help her with an attitude like that. Everyone left the room a little queasy and disappointed.
“Out shopping,” Karessa sighed the following morning. Her mother was laying into her about a late-night visit from her Theoretical Anthropology teacher and asking how Karessa could live with herself for failing a class when her mother got average grades while working two jobs. She said her father had worked three for a time, before asking the dreaded question. “You know how the Mish Mash is. You get all the best deals this time of day.”
“I have a job,” Karessa added. “I’m headed there right now.” Odd & Ends.” “The magic shop.” “Yes, it’s new.” “No, I’m not making it up.” “Yes, I actually make money there.” “How do you think we paid rent last week?” “Right, right. Dad. I know.” “Love you mom. See you tonight.” “Visiting friends.”
“No!” Karessa cried as the vase fell its shelf onto the wooden floor of Odd & Ends. Its enchantment could make it change colors based on the temperature, but it couldn’t save it from a four-foot fall. Pieces of ceramic scattered and changed color as the halfling stared in horror.
“I am so sorry,” she told Keel, a dark-skinned half-elf and Odd & Ends’ only regular. “I – uh, well, can you wait here while I – I’m sorry.”
Keel put up a hand and spoke, but the sound of Karessa’s heart beating in her ears drowned him out. What was wrong with her this week? Was Donovan going to be mad? Was Keel? “Just a moment, I have to get –”
Karessa ran into Linda as she turned around, winding up face-first in the minotaur’s hairy stomach. Linda’s face was often difficult to read, and Karessa couldn’t tell if she was angry or disinterested. “I’ll get the broom,” Karessa stammered. “But I don’t think we have another vase and I’m really sorry.”
“It’s quite alright, Ms. Plunderton,” Keel said softly. “It’s just a vase.”
Karessa took a deep breath and the air that filled her lungs pushed out the panic. As her heartbeat slowed and the edges of her vision ceased to blur, she suddenly felt very foolish. It’s just a vase, she thought.
“You seem bothered, Karessa,” Linda said, placing a hand gently atop the halfling’s head. “I’ll help Mr. Everwind here, you take the day off. Between your work, play, school, and teenage body, you probably just need a break.” When Karessa began to protest, Linda gestured to the otherwise empty store. “Go.”
Even though she needed whatever money she could get, Karessa saw the wisdom in what Linda was saying. Ever since Karessa had started making her money in a strictly legal fashion, she was making less money and working more hours. Between that and theater, she’d lost almost all time for school. It wasn’t until the vase fell that Karessa realized how stressed it was making her.
She needed a day to herself. Well, not to herself. She needed Assembly.
In Skymoore’s agricultural district, there was a tree of unremarkable height and girth, and which had crisp, black bark, as though it were once the victim of some terrible fire. But still it lived on. When autumn came, it appeared barren and dead, but when spring came around its branches flourished with leaves the color of freshly-fallen snow. Everyone called it King Dundermoat, though Karessa couldn’t say why.
King Dundermoat was a lonely tree, because it drained the life of all which tried to grow near it. The dirt around it had grown black and fallow. The clouds kept away from the park where it dwelled, and so, too, did the people of Skymoore. Those not put off by Dundermoat’s vampiric nature were put off by the thick, gnarled fence, made of the tree’s ever-growing roots, which had grown taller, denser, and more ominous around it in the centuries since its planting.
They called the place where it dwelled Dewknot Gohere Park, after Skymoore’s ugliest and least popular mayor. The only entrance was a small gate made from the bones of an ancient druidic order. Some say in life the druids planted the tree, whereas others said they merely protected the King until he could protect himself. Whatever the truth, the gate didn’t get much use.
Despite this, Karessa always traveled to Assembly with caution. She was always looking over her shoulder, and if she had even the slightest inclination she was being followed, she took a long route through the Mish Mash, where she knew she could lose anybody in Skymoore.
Today, though, she just wanted to be with her people, so Karessa made her way to Dewknot Gohere Park with haste. In its barren field, about thirty yards behind the King, Karessa reached into the faded dirt and grabbed hold of a small silver ring. After checking once more that she was alone in the park, she pulled up, revealing a trap door hidden beneath the dirt.
The spiral staircase beneath had an ancient and weathered look about it, but Karessa never felt unsafe walking down. In fact, in the darkness of the narrow stairwell, lit only by her small oil lantern, surrounded by cracked stone and the blackened roots of King Dundermoat, Karessa felt more comfortable than in her own bed.
At the base of the stair was a stone tunnel, which widened into a lightly-decorated chamber. Painted on the stone floor was a great brown bear surrounded by green flames, curled up in peaceful hibernation. Along the walls were a number of dark green cloaks and accompanying animal masks. Embedded in the wall across from the entrance was a seamless red stone rectangle.
Karessa found a cloak in her size and knocked on the red stone. A voice came from the other side. “For how long does the Great Bear slumber?”
“Until we no longer do our duty.”
“For long do we do our duty?”
“Until the Great Bear no longer slumbers.”
Stone groaned against stone as the red rectangle sunk into the ground, providing passage to the much larger room beyond. A human-sized figure wearing robe and mask bowed before Karessa as she entered. “Welcome to Assembly, Ms. Plunderton.”
“We are all one within the Great Bear’s hall,” Karessa reminded them. This greeter was new, it seemed.
Assembly stood in great contrast to the tunnels before and the park above. Grass grew atop the stone floor, saplings flourished all throughout, grapes grew on vines along the walls, all safe from the hungry tendrils of King Dundermoat.
Karessa had arrived in the midst of a sermon being led by a masked man. He stood in the center of a perfectly circular patch of posies. A cloaked crowd sat outside the circle, looking up at him with interest. Some masked, some not; some new, some not. Karessa joined them.
“Those who worship in the sun suffer from great hubris,” the man in the center was saying, his voice hanging in the air just a moment longer than was natural. His painted porcelain mask depicted an angry bear. “They say our world is called Solkin because we are Sol’s children. His kin. That is most apocryphal. What of the birds and the deer? The chickens and wolves they slaughter for sustenance? Who can say we are any more worthy of Sol’s light than they?
“We who worship in secret know the truth. We who were forced here by the ignorant and arrogant. Sol’s true Kin lies far beneath us. Slumbering at the heart of the world. Orso, the Great Bear. Our world is but her resting place. Her domicile. We, the Orsonists, exist only to better it. To respect Her will and maintain peace and beauty in this world, so that if she so chooses, we may rest beside her in our own eternal slumber.
“I welcome each of the new faces I see here today to Assembly, a place where all are one.” He took off his mask, revealing the sharp face of Lawrence Dufton (no, we are all one here, Karessa reminded herself. She still struggled with the faith at times), a sandy-haired human just a little older than Karessa. Outside of Assembly, he was relaxed to the point being slobbish, but standing in that circle, he was severe, passionate, and, frankly, very attractive. The spark in his eyes, the tightness of his features, the booming power of his voice, it made Karessa feel…young…in a way she didn’t often feel.
“The masks make us feel safe. They make us feel closer to Orso. But they are only an artifice. Such falsity is fine for those of you just joining us – it is the first step – but true unity, true Assembly, requires us to reveal and sacrifice the Self. To end the One and join the Whole.
“Those among us who are ready, remove your masks now.”
Nearly a dozen did, revealing a variety of faces at once apprehensive and eager. One young man was crying, dark makeup drizzling down his pale face. Karessa remembered the feeling. The way Lawrence spoke made the action feel so real. So grand. And it was, if you truly meant it. But the rewards were worth it. Assembly was worth it.
Those who remained masked moved to the back of the circle, while those who were revealed shifted closer together. Lawrence began distributing small orange tablets throughout the crowd. Cositium. Karessa swallowed the drug eagerly, washing it down with a rush of saliva and anticipation. She took the hands of those on either side of her – a feeling so warm and pleasurable and intimate that she would blush to speak of it in pubic – and they joined. Soon all were joined.
“And now we who shield the world from Her Awakening join together for our divine reward: Assembly,” they all said. Even the newcomers. They weren’t newcomers anymore. They were Assembly.
Karessa’s skin melted away as her nervous system joined with the whole. She could feel the grass brushing against the legs of every body in the circle, taste the air on every tongue. The feeling was…massive…there was no other word for it. Yet, paradoxically, it made Karessa feel incredibly small. Smaller than normal. A good small. Like nothing she did truly mattered so long as she left the world a little better than she found it, and so long as she helped the Great Bear stay asleep. Up here, so far from the surface…it wasn’t much to ask.
But soon those ideas faded. Relief was tied to stress, and there was no stress in Assembly. No shame or fear or love. Nothing so selfish or human. Just pure, unfiltered unity. And bliss.
The world grew brighter and more saturated until the bodies around her were only blobs of color floating in green infinity, physical forms broken down until only light remains. Light, and Assembly.
After a short time, or perhaps a very long one, something shifted in infinity. A brown form, far off in the distance. It drew near and became more defined, until Karessa could see its eyes. Vast, sapphire eyes set in a sharp, hairy face. A big bear. A Great Bear. The only physical object on a metaphysical plane.
It locked eyes with Karessa. Not the whole. Her. Though they looked to be half a mile away, they were all Karessa could see. They grabbed hold of her and drilled into her soul. She felt hot, suddenly. Flushed. Her stomach fluttered. She was…full. Her entire body shuddered with undiluted, perfect joy.
When her breath and faculties returned to her, the luminescent stalactites which provided Assembly with light had dimmed considerably. Karessa was lying in the grass, alone. No, not alone. Lawrence remained, standing there in the circle, looking down at her. His eyes were vast. His face was sharp. Wordlessly, he took Karessa by the hand and brought her into the circle. She knew that this meant something. Orso was working through him. The drugs were wearing off, but she still felt the same. A natural Assembly.
As he leaned forward to kiss her, something inside of Karessa surged.
She was whole.