Programming Note: Despite the title, this is a direct continuation of Extracurricular, so it’s highly recommended that you read that story before this one.
Lisette Greensmith always kept a spare change of clothes in her locker, “just in case.” In case of what, Karessa wasn’t sure, but either way she’d stolen them and did her best to dress Donovan without looking at anything sensitive.
“I knew it,” she said as she used a blue bow to fasten Lisette’s socks to Donovan’s wound. “I mean, I didn’t really know it. But I knew it. Something was off with you.” She buttoned up the blouse to cover the mess. “I have so many questions. Are you okay?”
“Not great,” he replied. “Been better. Been worse. But we must move quickly. Brian – Mr. Lunson – was running to get help for the fire. I’d prefer if we were elsewhere when it arrived.”
Karessa did her best to prop Donovan up despite the height difference. “Oh yeah. So, uh, I stole this umbrella,” Karessa said as she opened it. “I’ll put it back.”
“What were you doing?” Donovan croaked as they hobbled out of a hole in the greenhouse.
“Uh. I left something in the greenhouse,” she lied. “It’s not important. Save your strength.”
Luckily Karessa was adept at navigating the city without being noticed, because the Suntouched limping about wearing the ill-fitting clothes of a young woman would stick out like, well, there’s not really much to compare that to is there?
Most of the shortcuts Karessa knew would involve interacting with someone, so she stuck with a tunnel that started behind a false wall in an alley between a bookstore and a dance hall, and went through the basements of a number of vacant homes. It ended right by the docks, and from there Karessa brought Donovan into Odd & Ends and locked the door behind them.
She brought him to his bed where they removed Lisette’s ruined blouse and discovered that his wound had already healed considerably. Karessa made a cast for his arm and leg with some medical supplies they kept behind the front counter, then pulled up a chair beside him and watched him carefully. He was breathing evenly. He didn’t even seem to be in that much pain.
“So,” Karessa said. “You’re the Suntouched.”
Donovan’s face was as stone in the darkness of the room. The only illumination was the dim glow of the Pale Moon. Karessa lit a candle from the store, which gave off a blue flame. The sight of it made Karessa shudder.
“I need to have Nestor enchant some flame-retardant clothes,” Donovan said finally. His attempt at a grin looked pained. “Yes. I am.”
Karessa’s head fell into her hands. “I’m so stupid,” she said. “Mystery newcomer. Well-traveled. The Suntouched’s ‘historian.’ Linda. It was all right in front of me.”
“You’re not stupid,” Donovan said. “We most often miss that which hides in plain sight.”
“Is Skymoore in danger, then? You’re protecting us?” Donovan shook his head. Karessa’s mind reeled. “So why? What brings you here?”
Donovan took a deep breath. He winced. “It’s a long story.”
“I’m not leaving you like this. I’ve got time.”
“Could you make some tea before I begin?” he asked. “Much of what I’m about to divulge. I’ve never told anyone before. I need some time to collect my thoughts.”
He closed his eyes, then, and Karessa thought he might’ve succumbed to sleep. Regardless, she did as she was asked. There was a tiny kitchen adjacent to Donovan’s room. While she waited for the water to boil, there was a knock at the door. She ignored it. Then it came again, frantically.
“We’re super closed,” Karessa called as she entered the front of the store. “It’s…I don’t know. It’s very late.”
“Karessa?” Mr. Lunson asked. “It’s an emergency. Open the door.”
He was standing on the store’s front porch, the moonlight creating a thin glare on his glasses. His mouth was tight with concern. “There was a fire at the academy. In the greenhouse. I was there on business with Donovan, ordering a special item. He went to go check it out, and when I came back with the Water Marshalls, he was gone, and the greenhouse was in ruins.”
“That’s terrible,” Karessa said. “He’s not here. I came by to…pick something up. And he’s not in his room.”
Mr. Lunson’s face fell further. “I-I, I’ll tell the guards at once. Stay here, Karessa, in case he comes home. I’m sure everything’s fine.” He turned and ran down through the docks, leaving Karessa alone once more.
Once she’d finished the tea, which was blueberry, she returned to Donovan’s room to find him sitting upright in his bed, wearing the green cloak she’d first met him in. His skin glowed in the moonlight. His hair shone. She wanted to ask how he was so fine so soon, but it felt foolish to wonder.
“Let’s start simple,” she said as she took her place across from him, and offered him a cup. “Is your name actually Donovan Allman.”
He shook his head, and suddenly Karessa realized that he was not so fine. His wound may have healed, but he felt older somehow. Tired. He was slouching.
“Okay, then,” she said. “Where did you grow up?”
“I told you the truth of it this morning,” he said, slowly. He even sounded older. “Almost. I grew up in the village of Dera. I have not spoken that name in a long time.
“As I said, it was a small town, less than a town, hardly worth noticing. There were fewer than a hundred of us. We praised a halfling demigod called Druidlona, and we grew carrots that were remarkably healthy and crisp. There was more to it, of course. We lived without currency, we played the sport the minotaur call polardogm, we had wonderful artists whose landscapes and portraits now hang in Dul Tuva Square in Dol Belvargamar. But if you’d heard of us, it was probably because you were studying Druidlona or eating a particularly wonderful salad.
“In Dera there was a dwarf named Hunson Peaceblade. He was a kindly man, a learned man, and a blind man. He always said he gave up his sight in exchange for good looks. In my youth I took it for joke. Today, I am not sure.
“Hunson was an artificer, like Nestor. Not so good at producing flame or levitating stone, but when he spoke to a trinket he could make it do as he pleased. He shared his goods with the town, and we lived fuller lives for it. He traded his wares in a shop, if you could call it that. The only shop in Dera. He called it Odds & Ends.” Donovan smiled as understanding flickered across Karessa’s face. “Yes,” he went on. “Before Hunson, traders avoided Dera because we had no coin for them. But for an amulet that prevented you from ever being lost, a merchant would part with all kinds of exotic food and materials.
“Without his sight, Hunson had trouble doing all the work of running such a shop. He relied on a assistant to write up documents, to read to him by candlelight each night, and to tolerate the musings of an aging dwarf. Few things in this world pain me more than my inability to recall his assistant’s name. But you’re looking at him.
“Don’t pity me, Karessa. Or is that confusion? Either way, you will understand soon.
“Hunson’s ramblings mostly took the form of stories. Ones he’d lived, ones he’d read, and ones he’d made up on his own. Oftentimes I couldn’t tell one from the other. To Hunson, the imagination was invaluable, not least of all because it was the only way he could see the world. But it was more than that. He thought that imagination gave life value. That stories made us bigger than ourselves. He was right.
“My favorite stories were always those of Dawn Lightbringer, the Chosen of Sol. He journeyed in a far off land threatened with the kind of simple evils that fill children’s tales. Dark sorcerers, chaotic dragons, malevolent ancient entities. He struck them all down, and the world was safer for it. Everyone knew his name, an honor he earned through hard work and uncanny heroism.
“But it wasn’t only the heroics that spoke to me as a young man. It was his beginnings. In his youth, Dawn was but a simple farmer in Penscarop, until one day, when the sun was highest in the sky, he was compelled by destiny to climb Mount Paylor. There, he was touched by Sol Himself, who chose Dawn as the world’s protector.
“It was a tale that spoke to me. A story I loved so much that I decided to make it my reality. One year just before Solstice, when Sol was at its closest, I took off for Mount Paylor in search of my own destiny. It did not call me, but I arrived all the same.
“The climb was harrowing. I had trained, but I was not prepared. Halfway up, I regretted it. By two-thirds, I felt foolish. When I reached the top breathless, wounded, and hungry, I considered lying down and never standing again. But then I saw it, the temple which sits atop Mount Paylor.
“It was a grand structure of fine, unpainted wood, seemingly grown from the land itself. Revitalized, I took shelter in the structure, where a humble garden awaited me. I would like to say that I treated it kindly, but I ransacked the shrubs of their berries to regain my strength. It was only after that I noticed the dais.
“It was situated beneath a stained-glass window on the temple’s ceiling. The window depicted a man, standing among a crowd of people, holding a blade which emanated light that repelled a cloud of encroaching darkness.
“Many will say I mediated beneath the window until the following afternoon. There is some truth to that, I suppose, but my time in the temple was spent largely in repose. When Sol reached its apex, directly above the temple, I looked up to see it.
“I went blind at once. I screamed. Its light burned through the window, destroying it and imprinting its essence upon me. I screamed. I burned. I agonized. I stood. In the blinding darkness I saw some things I do not remember. Some things I refuse to share. And other things too beautiful to describe.
“When the flames subsided, I was forged a new man. There was no doubt about that. My skin, my spirit, and my body were all different than before. The temple had been destroyed around me, making one thing clear: I was one of a kind. There could be no other Suntouched.”
Donovan shifted uncomfortably as he considered his next words.
“What I’ve said until this point is merely preamble. The heart of it lies ahead. We journey into that which I have never shared.”
“Not even Linda?” Karessa asked. Donovan shook his head. “Why?”
Donovan leaned forward. “Greatness,” he said. “I desire it. I always have. Call it my hamartia, if you will. Linda does not hunger for greatness, because greatness lives within her. By sixteen, she was a foreman for a prestigious mining company in Castiron. By twenty, she was a folk hero. A woman of the people. Not long after, she was called One With Strength of Twenty. She’s always reprimanded my ambition, because she has never needed it like I do. She sought none of this. Wanted none of this. It found her.
“I, on the other hand, took it. And took it wherever I could. When Hunson’s story turned out to be true, I went in search of other legends without so much as a goodbye to my family. The Skysword, Mordon’s Tail, these weapons earned me fame, but it was self-augmentation I sought above all else. My skin, water-breathing, quick reflexes – these gifts and more allowed me to become something more than human, more than mortal. Each of these came at a cost – memories, mostly. Sometimes sensations – but none so high a price as extended youth.”
There was a knock at the door, then. Karessa sighed. Could no one read the closed sign? “Hold that thought, Donovan. Mr. Suntouched. Um.”
Standing outside were two identical, sharply dwarves wearing glasses with dark lenses. Each produced a small velvet box and revealed badges depicting a cloud raining on a fire. “I’m agent Kraf T. Littlebugger,” one said.
“Cheek E. Littlebugger,” the other said. “Uh, is my name, I mean. Agent. Hold on, let me start over.”
“No. We’re with Skymoorian Arson Investigation and Put-Outery. Our job is to investigate arsons and put them out.”
“Put out fires, not arsons.”
“It’s a bad name.”
“May I help you?” Karessa asked.
“Only if you can share the whereabouts of one Mr. Donovan Allman,” Kraf said. “He was last seen running toward a terrible fire at Pulldrid’s Academy. The fire was put out in a most peculiar fashion, but there was no sign of him.”
“Oh. He’s, uh. He’s here. He’s fine. Well, he’s actually quite hurt. Walked himself home, though. Said something about doctors putting dangerous chemicals in the water…you know, crazy surface talk. Doctors only put the safest chemicals in our water. Like mercury. Oh Sol, look at me rambling on, the way I do when my boss is hurt and not when I’m keeping a secret.”
Smooth, Plunderton. Years of theater have really paid off.
The agents shared a look. Presumably. Karessa couldn’t see their eyes but they definitely turned their heads toward each other. “We’re coming in.”
“We’re closed,” she said, pointing at the sign.
“While we are typically in favor of observing the sanctity of store hours as designated by signs and approved by The Council of Sign Ghosts, our badges here do give us the authority to investigate this store without a warrant.”
Karessa held up a hand to stop them. “No! They had a presentation about this at school today. I go to The Shoe Polishers’ Academy for the Unfortunately Underprivileged. Mayor Dew came today to talk to students interested in one day performing janitorial jobs somewhere close to a government office. In talking about his day, he mentioned a new law, which specifically mentioned that the Council of Sign Ghosts now had a higher priority over the uh, Arson and Put-Out, uh, the fire people.”
Kraf and Cheek lowered their glasses now and shared an uncertain glance, before raising them and turning to Karessa. “You sure?”
“Absolutely positive. If you step through this door you will one-hundred percent, for sure, be fired. Or, was that a dream I had? You know what, it might have been a dream. Feel free to come on in.”
“No, no, that’s fine,” one of the Littlebuggers said. “That does sound like something they’d do, I’m sure you know what you’re talking about.”
“If you could just not ever mention seeing us, that would be great,” the other said. “Okay?”
“Did I see you?” Karessa asked. “I don’t recall.”
One of the agents lowered his glasses. “Are – are you serious? We’re still right here. Are you okay, ma’am? Are you on any intoxicants? How many fingers am I holding up? Can you not see us now? Did we disappear? Oh no, this is just like that recurring nightmare.”
His brother pulled him away and thanked Karessa for her time.
When Karessa returned to Donovan’s room, she found he’d fallen asleep. She couldn’t blame him. It only took a few minutes of sitting behind the register, watching the door for any more visitors, before she fell asleep herself.