Pulldrid Academy was Skymoore’s finest school for adolescents. The campus was large, vibrant, and littered with important-looking brick buildings. It was the kind of place you sent your children when you wanted to offer them the best education, the fanciest connections, and the lowest risk of being subjected to mandatory psychological experimentation funded by unknown third parties.
Imagine Karessa Plunderton’s guilt, then, at never taking advantage of these benefits, especially factoring in that she couldn’t imagine how her parents managed to send her to a place like this. Some days she wondered if her dad’s disappearance was somehow related, which only enhanced her guilt. But her guilt couldn’t override her disdain.
Each day at Pulldrid’s was more or less the same:
Students gathered in the courtyard for a mandatory assembly at which they gave thanks to Pulldrid the Riser, pledged their lives to the betterment of Skymoore, and talked about how much worse things were on the surface, typically focusing on the smell, the wars, and the literal and metaphysical distance from Sol. Those who were late to Zero Period were publicly mocked by their peers, who all shouted their least favorite quality about the latecomers.
Theoretical Anthropology. Skymoore was uncomfortable with the actual study of other cultures, so they simply imagined other cultures and what studying them might be like. Since nobody wanted to leave Skymoore and become an archeologist, it was agreed that this was a rather pointless field, but the Dark Exarch of Education read in his horoscope that it should be in the curriculum. Karessa didn’t have anything against the class, but she normally slept through it.
She supposed biology could be useful. After all, there could conceivably come a day where it could be useful to know that Wintosan Bee venom was explosive. On the way to class, Karessa would often pass by Lisette Greensmith, who would say something mean about her height or her jacket or her hair. Karessa would not care. Sometimes she would pass by Tyler Kranton who had excellent collarbones and a cute beard, and he would barely acknowledge her and make unsuccessful attempts at jokes. Karessa pretended they were funny, and she looked forward to their encounters. This, she figured, made her a bad girlfriend to Lawrence.
During Dark Period, oftentimes called Study Hall, time did not pass, and it happened to different students at different times of day, based on last name. Students were submerged in the sensory deprivation tanks in the library, and an incorporeal telepath would read to the students out of one of their textbooks. This was one of the most prized benefits of Pulldrid’s academy, and allegedly improved test scores by fifteen percent.
To Karessa, literature epitomized the worthlessness of school as a whole. They only taught it so that people who loved to read could find jobs. How was reading The Ground Also Rises going to prepare Karessa for a job? ‘It teaches empathy,’ Mrs. Delganon would say. Wasn’t she here for an education, not group therapy? It drove her wild. If she wanted to learn about the human condition, she’d learn about it outside.
During lunch, there were always various activates set up in the courtyard for the students’ amusement. One of the mainstays was the dunk tank, in which the last student to arrive at Zero Period that day is dropped into their least-favorite fruit juice and then feathered in front of their crush. Obviously, the effectiveness depended on how sticky your least-favorite juice was. Some days Karessa spent lunch with Lawrence, but he hardly showed up anymore.
Math. Karessa wasn’t bad at math, but it was just so math, you know? At least it was practical, and she shared the class with Grandolin, a dwarf she knew from Assembly. Plus Ms. Zeelog had eyes on the back of her head so she couldn’t see the class while facing them, making it easy to pass notes or just leave.
History was taught by Fluorescence, a feminine, genderless being made of crystal. By this age, most students had learned so much about Skymoore’s history that the PTA took a slightly different approach to this class. Two days a week, it was history, but the rest of the week Fluorescence tapped into the knowledge of her thousands of past lives to teach everything from Home Economics to Multidimensional Linguistic Relativity and Determinism.
By all accounts, Karessa should have hated philosophy even more than literature. At least literature had some relation to theater. But Mr. Lunson made it tolerable. He was a younger teacher, and he was actually funny instead of just pretending to be. Sometimes he was pretentious – he was a philosophy teacher, after all – but it was a geeky kind of pretentious, and that could be cute. But mostly he just didn’t talk down to anyone. He had conversations. He made his students feel valuable and smart, even when they were saying something kind of stupid, which was all the time in philosophy. It wasn’t enough to make Karessa like going to school, but it was enough to make it tolerable. Mr. Lunson and the guilt were the only things that kept her going.
All of this is to say that when Lawrence Dufton said “I need you to steal something from Pulldrid’s” one afternoon on the way to Odd & Ends, the idea wasn’t as alarming as it might have been. Karessa didn’t even respond at first, choosing instead to focus on the way his thumb gently tickled the back of her hand.
“She doesn’t do that anymore,” Teyla Eastwind said. She, along with Grandolin, Lawrence, Karessa, and Tillen – an elf who often dressed like she was attending a gothic funeral – all attended Assembly together, but nobody ever talked about what happened there. Instead they mostly walked aimlessly, sat on park benches and glowered at people, or ironically browsed antique shops to display ironic sincere admiration at the craftsmanship of bygone ages. “Stealing.”
“And she’s probably rusty anyways,” Grandolin added.
“I could do it!” Karessa said, her grip on Lawrence’s hand tightening. “It’s just…well, what do you need?”
“Liquid Mandrake pollen,” he said. Tillen whistled. “It’s valuable. It’s rare. And it’s in the Etcetera Edifice for a class tomorrow.”
“What do you want with that?” Karessa asked.
Lawrence turned Karessa to face him and ran a hand gently across her cheek. They shared direct, intimate eye contact for a moment, and Karessa felt his gaze in her veins. She knew, then. This was about Orso. Her destiny.
“If I get caught, they’ll expel me,” she said.
“So?” Grandolin said. “You hate it there.”
“They don’t teach you anything that matters,” Lawrence said. “They don’t teach you the truth.”
“I know,” Karessa said. “I know…”
“And if you sell that Mandrake pollen, we could all buy a place,” Teyla said. “No more slaving away at magic shops, no more school. Just us, doing the things that matter. We’ll be the only people in Skymoore living a real life.”
None of them knew that she supported her mother, of course. “I know.”
“May I have a moment with Karessa alone?” Lawrence asked. They were on the edge of Skymoore now, by the docks. It was a busy afternoon, and the traffic on and off of Skymoore’s elevator was unusually noisy and dense. “More alone, anyway.”
Tillen departed with a languid wave, and the other two said their goodbyes, leaving Karessa and Lawrence their own island in a sea of merchants.
“You don’t need that so-called education,” he murmured, holding the halfling close. “Orso has bigger plans for you, my dear. For all of Us.”
Karessa’s head spun. It was the first time he’d ever mentioned the Great Bear outside of Assembly. It left her breathless. “Of course. Just…give me a little time to think it over, okay? I want to, I just…”
“No worries,” Lawrence said with a smile. He ran his hand through her hair. It tingled. “I have faith you’ll make the right decision.”
Then the veil of secrecy dropped and his voice raised. “Have a fine day at work, Karessa,” he said. She stood on her toes, and he leaned forward to kiss her. She’d kissed a handful of others in the past, but with Lawrence it was so much different. So divine. It wasn’t two mouths colliding, but two souls. Like a micro Assembly.
“I will,” Karessa said once she collected her wits. “See you tonight. No matter what I choose.”
They held hands for as long as possible, fingertips lingering against one another until the sobering moment of separation as she stepped into the shop.
Sometimes Skymoore went weeks without visitors, and sometimes they came all at once, as was the case today; apparently, word had gotten out that one of the local blacksmiths had gotten their hands on the tooth of a Skymoorian Chomper, and traders wanted to have a look at the results.
So Odd & Ends was far busier than it ever had been, which was both great for business and very overwhelming, as the halfling was the smallest person in the room (except for Nestor, who spent most of the day on the counter, jubilantly displaying the fine products Odd & Ends had to offer). She spent her day nimbly navigating crowds of people, answering questions, and trying not to get stepped on. It left Karessa no time at all to dwell on Lawrence’s proposition, which, frankly, was a relief.
When the chaos subsided, Donovan, Karessa, and Nestor set about tidying up the store’s shelves, which were as barren as any of them had ever seen them.
“Good work, everyone,” Donovan was saying as Karessa and Nestor replaced the banner which hung on the front wall of the store; it depicted a white flower with its petals opened to reveal a city and castle within. Three children on the shoulders of a three-headed half-giant had pulled it down as they rode through the store. “I never imagined we’d have such a successful day. Now the hard part will be replenishing our back stock. Sorry, Nestor.”
“No problem at all, Mr. Allman!” Nestor said with a flourish, nearly toppling off the ladder he was using. “This will be a chance to try new enchantments! I was thinking of a spinning top that shows the future if you stare at it for long enough.”
“Well…maybe we can just stick to the usual ones for now.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Allman!”
“This flag is from your home, right?” Karessa asked. “I don’t recognize it. Not that they teach us much surface history here.”
“Sort of,” Donovan said. “It’s an old flag, belonging to a kingdom that hasn’t existed for centuries. I don’t even know its name. But we flew it in my home village, a surprisingly bold act of treason for a nameless hamlet in the Grandian countryside.”
“Interesting. That’s where Linda said The Suntouched grew up. Did you know him?”
Donovan shook his head. “Those types of villages are to Grandia as needless exclamations are to Nestor’s speech. Unnecessarily frequent and hardly noticeable.”
“Aww! Thank you!” the gnome cried.
“But still, it’s possible. You could be from the same town?”
“Nobody so grand as that ever came from my home, I assure you.”
“Did you have schools there?”
“No. We learned from our elders, certainly, but nothing so formal as a school.”
“What about you, Nestor? Did you go to school?”
“If only!” Nestor said. “But alas, I spent my childhood on the road. My relatives were great teachers, though. How else could I be so smart?”
“Why?” Donovan asked. “You’re not thinking of dropping out, are you? School is important. And valuable.”
“No,” Karessa said. “Just curious. Neither of you really talk about the past.”
“Because the present is so much more interesting,” Nestor said. “That’s why they call it the gift! Or, wait, hold on…”
Karessa spoke the truth, she really didn’t plan on quitting. But if she got kicked out, was that really so bad? If Nestor and Donovan could run a magic shop with no formal education, was it really that valuable? No. It was settled, then. She was stealing the pollen for Lawrence.
Now for the how.
Pulldrid’s Academy, being a private institution, hired its own private security. Mounted on the corners of the campus’s stone wall were statues depicting some of Skymoore’s founders. At night, they animated, and when they spotted you they fired tranquilizer darts from their eyes. Then, one of the strange, shadowy animals that stalked the campus would come to your location and deal with you accordingly.
Initially, Karessa simply planned to scale the wall and sneak about, but her workday gave her a better idea. During the rush, an elixir salesman from the surface was interested an umbrella that changed color to match the ground beneath, offering the user protection from any ducks or avayla who might be spying on them. Karessa, being the sterling employee that she was, told the salesman that it wasn’t available for purchase, and borrowed it for herself.
She walked through the front gate without notice. The shadows preyed on the insects and the mice that prowled the school, and paid her no mind. She slipped into the Etcetera Edifice like she belonged there. It felt kind of badass.
The Etcetera Edifice was where they held the lesser-loved classes like botany, philosophy, and physics, but it had the same sterile, tiled look as the rest of the school. There was no security inside, but Karessa heard footsteps somewhere in the building, so she remained cautious, hiding behind lockers, classroom thresholds, and the occasional trophy display.
“There you are!” someone called, and Karessa’s heart stopped as she quickly rounded a corner. It was Mr. Lunson’s voice. What was he even doing here so late? And on the wrong floor? Chancing everything, Karessa took a quick glance down the hall she’d come from.
To her surprised confusion, Mr. Lunson wasn’t talking to Karessa at all, but to Donovan Allman, who was walking down the hall toward him. The halfling hid quickly.
“Good evening,” Donovan said. “Lead the way.”
“Oh yes, of course, come inside,” Mr. Lunson replied. “I have all the necessary documents written up.”
Though she was curious as to what Donovan could want with her philosophy teacher, Karessa couldn’t afford to find out. She took her chance to slip into the greenhouse where botany classes were held.
The light of the greenhouse was entirely natural, meaning it was too dark to see, but fortunately Nestor went overboard in nearly everything he did, and there was a small magical light built into the handle of the umbrella. In the back corner of the building was a table littered with gardening tools, and behind that a cabinet.
As Karessa made her way and observed the budding flowers, she found herself wondering what exactly Lawrence wanted the pollen for. She’d sold it a few times back when she did that kind of thing, and from what she understood it was used primarily to make poisons or aphrodisiacs. She didn’t see what either of those had to do with Lawrence or Orso, but the more she considered the possibilities, the hotter her face got.
The table only had run-of-the-mill soils, seeds, and things like Wintosan Bee stingers and Yores Tree Frog mucus that had peculiar effects on plants. The mandrake pollen was in the cabinet which was, of course, locked.
The thinned blade of an old knife quickly fixed that, however, and confronted Karessa with yet another problem: height. The pollen was there, clearly labeled in a jar (a whole jar, it’s worth noting, could have set Karessa and her mother for life) which was located in the cabinet’s very highest shelf, nearly seven feet off the ground. And of course, the little people of the world are oft overlook, and there wasn’t a stepstool to be found. So Karessa climbed.
The cabinet wobbled some, but Karessa was no stranger to uncomfortable climbs, and scaled it with ease. Perhaps too much ease, because as the halfling carelessly pulled the jar from the shelf. It toppled over. She dropped and rolled before it collided with the table beneath, flipping it and sending a small box of Wintosan Bee stingers soaring across the room.
A single stinger fell from its container, landing on the leaf of a Scintillating Sumac, which heated to lethal temperatures when disturbed to protect itself from insects. Wintosan stingers, on the other hand, explode violently when exposed to enough heat.
The resulting flash of heat and fire set the other flowers and shrubs ablaze, creating a wall of blue flame in the center of the room, separating Karessa from the door. She quickly grabbed a metal chair and hurled it at the back wall with as much force as she could muster, which isn’t as much as she would have liked. The chair bounced ineffectually off the glass without so much as a scratch. Karessa cursed the high-strength safety glass that the Academy prided itself on.
Think think think.
“Stay calm!” someone called from across the room. Karessa couldn’t see Donovan through the flame but she certainly recognized his voice. “Help is on the way.”
“It’s spreading toward me,” the halfling cried.
Donovan swore under his breath. “Okay,” he said. “Are there any exits over there?”
“Would I be here if there were?”
“Good point – wait, oh my, Karessa? Is that you? I’m coming, just hold on.”
As Donovan ran through the flames to help the halfling, he failed to note the box of Wintosan stingers on the floor not far from the expanding blue flames. He carelessly kicked the box right into the inferno as he passed. The results were immediate. And explosive.
The resulting boom could be heard for miles. The walls cracked. The roof shattered, sending glass and steel poles flying and falling. The back half of the room was enveloped in fire, and the wall leading into the school was set ablaze.
“Fiery eternity!” Karessa swore. “Donovan!” She looked about her in a panic. All she had was gardening supplies and – wait.
There was this book she had to read in school last year. The Grand Gosby. It was a very boring, pretentious story about a traveling magician. She didn’t read most of it, but there was this one part that stood out to her, engrained into her conscious like an embarrassing moment. Invisible most of the time, but surfacing now and then without rhyme or reason.
A fire broke out at one of Gosby’s shows, and he put it out using only the materials he used in his act; fluids from a frog, the leaves of a Frosty Freesia, and a single drop of water.
Hoping that there was some research put into that scene, Karessa gathered those contents in a vial and shook it up. Sure enough, it grew almost painfully cold in her hands as she tossed it toward the blue flame. A frigid blast of air erupted out from the shattered vial and filled the room with wintry mist and a thin layer of snow, snuffing out the fires completely.
Where the flame had once been stood a sight just as unnerving. Lying on the floor in a field of ashen snow was a naked Donovan. With a metal pole through his abdomen. The wound had been both burned and frosted shut.
Karessa swore under her breath and ran toward him. “No no no nonono. Donovan. Donovan?”
Karessa couldn’t remember if you were supposed to leave the impaling implement in the impalee or if she should remove it, but she couldn’t imagine transporting him in this state, so she pulled it out.
Donovan’s eyes shot open, and he screamed as blood poured from the wound. Karessa put pressure on it.
“It’s okay,” Karessa said entirely without confidence. “It’s just…oh Sol. Uh, it’s not that deep.”
The shopkeep shut his eyes tightly, both because he was in pain, and because he was already regretting his next sentence. “Take off my ring,” he gasped. “I’ll.” He groaned in pain. “I’ll recover faster.”
“Wait a second,” Karessa said as she fulfilled his request. “You’re not…burned.” He was bruised and red from the force of the explosion. One of his legs looked broken. One of his arms was definitely broken. But there wasn’t a burn in sight. And as the glamour faded, Donovan’s white skin gave way to the red of an endless sunburn.
“Frosty damnation,” Karessa said.
“What,” Karessa said.
“Holy shit,” Karessa said.