Always look on the bright side
A short story inspired by a recent dream
Welcome to another Story Cauldron post. This week I’m sharing a brand new story that was inspired by a dream. In fact, I dreamt the entire first half of the story just a couple of days ago, and even though I didn’t know what it was about, I had to write it out.
While I didn’t write it to be part of my Favor Faeries universe, it’s close enough.
I hope you enjoy it!
Always look on the bright side
It was the second week of her seminar with the troll.
Lila grabbed the seat closest to the arched window: a tall wooden chair with arms that curled into claws, a plump red cushion, and legendary creatures carved into the back like an imaginary family crest.
As she peered over the window ledge, she could see fellow students lining up at the Emporium, where they could peruse the used grimoires, half-priced wands, and second-hand cloaks. Graduates, of course, could commission their own magical goods, but students had to make do with the cast-offs.
She opened her leather-bound spellbook and flipped through the pages with a grin. After her petty crimes and fondness for illicit mushrooms, she should have ended up in one of those ‘scared straight’ boarding schools, not a school for witches. And even though she knew how lucky she was to be here, she still hadn’t proven she could make the right choices.
Her other classmates shuffled into the small room and took their seats in the elaborate chairs that formed a wide circle facing the tower stairs. Elwin had a head of fluffy blond curls and reminded her of a dandelion gone to seed. She suspected he was in the class because she noticed that despite a strong showing in nature magic, professors didn’t take him seriously. Tansy and Coretta, inseparable friends who had learned to combine their magical abilities, giggled as they sat down. Lila heard others say the spells they cast were more creative than effective. And then there was Wiley Silvian. As the last one to arrive, he had to find a way to make the narrow velvet fainting couch accommodate his broad backside and stubby legs. At first, he tried to recline on it but must have realized the message that would send to their instructor, and carefully sat up and wriggled his way into the curved section, his feet not quite touching the floor. Lila worried that he wasn’t up to this class, both in magical aptitude and demeanor, but it wasn’t her place to say.
As for Lila, her mentor Hankar Greybark warned her that this course was her last chance. It was the most difficult and dangerous course in the Academy, but a passing grade would make up for her previous failures. If she were to fail the class, however, the consequences would be, as he put it, unappetizing.
Lila didn’t want to know why he chose that word in particular.
The five students waited in silence, shuffling their feet or flipping through notes. None of them wanted to appear unprepared when their teacher arrived. Too much was riding on their success in this class—especially for Lila.
As she waited, Lila chewed on her thumbnail and turned her attention to the tower classroom. It was an unusual space for lessons, as the room was small and looked like it served as a wizard’s sitting room when not used for academic purposes. There were three windows, but the other two were on the other side of the stairs that bifurcated half of the round space. The roof rose up above them, its multiple ribs forming a spire, with thin metal wires tracing a pattern between them. When not used as a classroom, it was probably quite cozy.
Loud thumping on the stairs announced Kaoli Mountaincleaver’s approach. Lila dropped her eyes from the roof and took a few deep breaths.
Their instructor’s head appeared first—a huge mass of spiky black hair over what could have been mistaken for a boulder, if it hadn’t had a face and a torso attached. His eyes were as big as Lila’s hands, and his shoulders barely fit through the opening to the tower room. When he squeezed the rest of himself inside, he sat down with a thud that shook the floor, taking up most of the open space that their chairs encircled.
Lila swallowed, trying to dispel the innate fear that caused shallow breathing and unwanted perspiration. Kaoli was their professor, and they were told he was bound to peace. But that didn’t make the sight of a real-life troll any easier to countenance, even the second time around.
Her eyes fell to the large ceramic tablet she held in her lap, the troll’s version of a textbook. On it were images of different faerie creatures. They had received these in class last week, and Lila had rushed to research each as assigned.
To start off the class, he pointed to the tablet he held. “Names.” The sound of the single word coming from his mouth was loud and sinister, like the roar of a forest fire. Kaoli used as few words as possible, as human speech was difficult for his kind.
Lila looked around. Everyone else was staring at their tablet or looking towards the floor.
The booming voice said: “Lila.”
Her breath caught in her throat as she stared at her tablet. The first was an image of a wispy green faerie, with backward antlers, and short arms that protruded from its coat of thorny vines and ended in pudgy, three-fingered hands. Feeling the troll’s attention made her face feel as if it had been scoured by a sandstorm. “Greenbriar,” she announced. Then she continued to name the faeries across the tablet. “Puffball, Jeremiah Coat-Twister—”
“Enough,” Kaoli barked. “Coat-Twist. Where?”
She stared at the image. The assignment was to study all of the creatures on the tablet. She had found all their names and had started learning more about their habits two nights ago, right before she went to Jasper Blueglass’s party. But she hadn’t found the time afterward to return to this assignment.
Her hands were sweaty as she clung to the tablet. Was he the kind of instructor who wanted her to try her best, or would he rather admit she didn’t know?
“Where?” he insisted, his voice much louder, and she cringed.
As she faced down a disappointed 10-foot-tall troll, she scrambled for a snippet from her reading. Nothing. Then she remembered a fairy tale her grandmother told her. “In the space between the pages,” she said quickly. She knew it was incorrect, but at least it was creative.
Kaoli crept towards her, and she imagined the stone floor being pockmarked by his heavy feet and claws. “Try again,” he roared.
Inexplicably, Lila felt her face flush, and her whole body felt excessively warm. Had Kaoli done something to her? “I just guessed,” she attempted, despite knowing trolls had no patience for excuses. “I promise I’ll have it all memorized next week.”
“No next class,” Kaoli rumbled, the words coming at her like bowling balls.
Lila flinched and scooted her chair backward. Her hand caught on a lever attached to a metal apparatus embedded into the wall and running towards the ceiling. She had noticed it earlier and assumed it allowed servants to fill the lanterns that hung from heavy chains overhead.
It would be a perfect distraction. Her fingers caught on the lever, and she yanked on it. Anything to buy her time to get out of Kaoli’s line of attack.
She expected one of the glass lanterns to careen towards the floor, making a loud noise as it crashed to the floor.
Instead, the most unexpected thing happened. The ceiling opened up, and a giant claw dropped down over Kaoli, hauling the bellowing creature off the floor. He shouted untranslatable things as he was hoisted out of the tower, and the students had to cover their ears to block his deafening voice.
Lila cowered as Tansy started a spell and Coretta completed it. All of the students’ tablets reformed into shields, a good choice as the troll’s saliva could be caustic. Already his angry shouting had caused droplets to fall from the roof, causing the carpeting to sizzle.
After the initial shock wore off, the five of them rushed out of the tower, holding their tablet-shields over their heads. They passed by witches who stared with their mouths agape as if nothing like this had ever occurred before.
When Lila exited the building, she looked toward the tower. Kaoli remained suspended high over the Academy buildings, his voice carrying across the entire facility. Dozens of students stared upwards or leaned out of windows; the faculty scurried about as if no one was quite sure what to do next.
Lila hesitated for only a moment. When the dust settled everyone would agree she had failed the course, and soon she would be banished. She abandoned the tablet in a bed of silvery wormwood and ran to the edge of the town. Maybe she could find her mentor Hankar.
She didn’t make it very far before Professor Belladonna stepped into the road. “What is all the commotion?” she asked. She wore a long apron over her grey blouse, the sleeves of which were rolled up to her elbows. Black curls drifted out from under her blue headscarf, and yellow and green blotches stained her hands. Immediately Lila knew the teacher had been making herbal tinctures.
Lila stopped and wiped the cocktail of tears and perspiration from her cheeks. Her hands were still shaking from the incident. “I was in Professor Mountaincleaver’s class and —”
“Oh heavens!” Belladonna’s expression shifted from curiosity to terror and she quickly wiped her hands on her apron. With newfound urgency, asked, “Was anyone injured?”
“I don’t know—I don’t think so.” Lila took a couple of deep breaths. “But our professor was yanked out of the tower by a giant claw!”
Belladonna tried to catch a glimpse of what had happened, but the sun was in her eyes. Turning back to Lila, she said, “It sounds as if someone activated the safety device. I always wondered if that thing really worked.” She smiled at Lila. “There’s no need to worry. He can’t harm anyone now. And when they release him, he’ll be sound asleep for days.”
Rather than calm her, hearing that made Lila even more agitated. “Maybe so, but he’ll kill me when he wakes up!”
Belladonna tipped her head to the side and wrinkled her nose. “Oh don’t worry about that. He won’t be bothering anyone again.” When Lila frowned, Belladonna added, “Why don’t you come inside and have a glass of skullcap and rosebud tea? It will calm you down.”
Lila dared to glance back down the road, where a sizeable crowd had now gathered. They would come for her eventually, but maybe this way she could at least tell her side of the story to someone before they kicked her out. “Okay, I guess it doesn’t matter now.” She followed the teacher into the building, and a leaded glass bay window distracted her. All manner of creatures were depicted in the panes, and she couldn’t help but marvel at it.
“Now, tell me what happened,” Belladonna said, offering her a tall glass of pale pink tea. A rosebud floating among the ice cubes.
Lila gripped the cold glass and explained what had happened as best she could.
“So you didn’t complete Kaoli’s assignment?” Belladonna arched an eyebrow. “Surely you know his reputation, and what happens to students who fail his seminar..”
Lila had heard the rumors, but she assumed they came from students trying to psych each other out. “I tried, but I ran out of time,” Lila said, realizing how foolish attending that party had been. It had seemed like a lot of fun at the time. “I didn’t know that guessing an answer would make him so angry.”
“The answer to what?” Belladonna leaned closer. “What did you say?”
Lila felt a tear running down her face. How had she failed so badly? Even though it was embarrassing to admit her failure, she let it all tumble out. “He asked me where you could find each of the faeries, and I blurted something out that he didn’t like about the Coat-Twisters living within the pages of a book. It was just something from an old story my grandma told me.”
Belladonna’s eyes grew wide, and she paused before replying, “Interesting. Tell me, how did he end up in the trap?”
Lila blinked. “I’m not sure. When he didn’t like my answer, I guess I accidentally pulled it. I was just hoping for a distraction.” She panicked. “Did I break it?” She would get kicked out of the Academy for sure now.
“On the contrary, you did everything right.” Belladonna took a sip of her tea and smiled. “Kaoli has been a thorn in our side for ages. Years ago he approached the Academy demanding we allow him to teach about faeries since he lived among them and knew things none of us witches would.”
“But he’s a troll,” Lila said. “They aren’t known for their love of humans. How could he be a teacher?”
“Exactly right. That’s why we built the trap. Kaoli cursed the Academy so we couldn’t make him leave. It could only be countered if a student discovered something about faeries he doesn’t know.”
Lila gasped with excitement. “Are you saying I broke his curse?”
Belladonna laughed. “No, you definitely got that bit wrong, and it should serve as a warning that you should take your homework more seriously. But on the other hand,” she added, raising her glass, “you’re the first one to figure out how to use that contraption Hilda installed—right before Kaoli ate her.”
The rumors were true? Lila felt a bit sick. “With him out of the way, I guess at least I passed the class?”
Belladonna shook her head. “No, sadly, forcibly removing your teacher definitely counts as a fail. But look on the bright side!”
Lila stared at her feet. “What bright side?”
The teacher took her empty glass. “You could have ended up like Hilda.”
Thanks for reading my story. I struggled with the ending—let me know if you think it works or if there’s another direction it could go.
Also, don’t forget about the Great Substack Story Challenge. The first three chapters of the story, “The Grisly Ghosts of Gruesome Time,” are available on Fictionistas. Start reading now because my chapter will drop at the end of the month!