Joshua wondered if he should feel more anxious upon learning that the meanest and most unpopular witch in history had not only returned to the world, but was freely roaming the very school in which his classic Milton lack-of-foresight had landed him and was, as the saying goes, “sorely achin’ for some sweet life-takin.’” Instead, he could think only of his weird fucking dream and of the fleeting hope that his mother’s spirit may still be alive… or, at the very least, whatever qualifies as alive for a woman who played Victim in the most dramatic and unsolvable courtroom drama to ever air all over Wizard Television.
“Okay,” said Joshua, rubbing his eyes. “That’s, uh… The Chaos Witch thing, that sucks. Sir, do you know anything about the Dirge of Douglas?”
“Who cares about that!?” Oxwald yelled, pulling at his hair. “Listen to me, Joshua, it’s far too dangerous out there. We need to stay hidden or else every one of us is going to turned into hundreds of spiders, which I’ve been told is an entirely unpleasant experience to go through!”
“Wait,” Joshua said, wriggling out of his immovable blanket prison. “Did you come here to tell me this or to hide from the Chaos Witch?”
There was a long silence. Oxwald didn’t answer, but instead nodded and wandered to the opposite end of the room, stroking his chin.
Joshua briefly entertained the idea of hiding out in the Fun Buncher dormitory until this whole thing blew over. But then he remember his Uncle Horbert, trapped in a crystal of anger. He remembered his mother, trapped in a labyrinthian hellscape of diabolical mind games. He remembered the Big Cup and his blood pact with Bothersnatch. Wait. The Big Cup. If Darkovkar was now free, where was it? Was it possible she’d left it abandoned in some random corridor, free for the taking? His hell reckoning drew nearer by the day, and certainly he could not prevent it by waiting for the Big Cup to miraculously appear in the Fun Buncher vault.
“Guys, look,” Joshua sighed. “I get that it’s really scary and dangerous out there, but I couldn’t stay here if I wanted to! There are far too many good and interesting mysteries waiting for me and also there’s some Hell Magic involved, so I’ve no choice but to actively participate in this school year. If any of you want to come along and help me to not die, I’d certainly appreciate it.”
“Nobody will help you!” Seymor laughed, trying to look intimidating in his bright pink bunny pajamas with footies. “We’re all committed to the whole hiding and cowering lifestyle, and nothing will ever change that!”
“What do you even do in here?” Joshua groaned. “Don’t you guys get bored?”
“Yes, extremely!” Seymor replied. “We like to pretend, sometimes. Here, let me show you.” Seymor rolled up his sleeve, pulled out a magic wand, and pointed it threateningly at the red headed girl who’d briefly spoken to him earlier. “Big fireball!! FWOOOM!!! IT’S HUGE!!!” He waved his wand around wildly like he’d never actually seen anybody use one.
“Oh! I’m on fire!” the girl screamed, dropping to the floor. “SHIT!!! AAAAAH!!! IT BURNS, IT BURNS SO MUCH!!! MY SKIN, OH NO, IT IS ON FIRE, AS IS MY HAIR AND MY TEETH!! OH NO!! SHIT!!!”
Seymor smirked proudly. “Miriam’s one of the best,” he explained as she continued convulsing and rolling around on the ground. “She always makes strong choices.”
“None of you actually know any real magic, do you?” Joshua frowned.
There was a ton of silence, and some of the Fun Bunchers kicked dirt. Miriam’s performance awkwardly lost fervor until she was shamefully lying on the ground in silence like the rest.
“Okay,” Joshua sighed. “I’ve got class in thirty minutes.” He glared at Oxwald, who was trying to make himself hidden behind a mountain of stuffed animals. “Class that you’re supposed to teach!” Joshua walked over to the exit and held his hand defiantly over the wheelchair accessibility button. “If anyone would like to spend this year actually learning how to shoot real fireballs and cool lightning bolts, this is your chance to follow me! Yes, we might be killed by Snakeothies or the most powerful supervillain to ever roam this Earth, but it’s better than being cooped up in here.
“Well said!” came Wilfrit’s voice, directly behind him. Joshua could swear that he’d been entirely absent this whole time. “I’m down for school adventures, count me in!”
“That’s two of us!” Joshua smiled. For all the ways Wilfrit Pippers was weird and off-putting, he was at least reliable, and this was comforting to Josh. “Anybody else?”
There was silence. Awkward shuffling. Seymor was tisking condescendingly as Joshua held his breath for a response. It was no use. These students were not strong and brave.
Except for one. A small, ghostly-pale hand quietly trembled up from the corner of the room. Amid gasps and whispers, the Fun Buncher masses stepped aside to reveal a small blonde girl tightly clutching onto a stuffed ghost plushie. Joshua could see his own face reflected in her wide, terrified eyes.
“No!!” Seymor cried out, sweating bullets. “Boo, don’t be foolish! Your power level is lower than the rest of ours combined!”
“Wow,” Joshua said. “Okay. That’s rude.”
“No, it’s true,” Wilfrit said. “I’m sizing up her battle aura right now and it’s really rather pathetic.”
“You don’t just TALK about people power levels!” Joshua threw his hands into the air. “It’s impolite! Besides. How do you know that she’s not, like, concealing her true ability until the right moment?”
“I’d know,” Wilfrit said, with bizarre certainty. “She’s not.”
Boo puffed up her cheeks, annoyed. “I don’t care if I’m the weakest student here! I came to this school to learn how to shoot lightning bolts and fireballs!” She squeezed her plush toy tighter. “I don’t want to hide here all year. I want to get stronger, even if that means risking my life!”
“Well, I think that’s wonderful!” Joshua said. “I’d be proud if you came with us. We can go on adventures together, bond, and whimsically defeat the chaos witch against all odds! They can call us the Three Wizardly Chums!”
Wilfrit cringed, and the fur on all his squirrels stood on end. “That’s… not a good idea, Josh. I get what you’re trying to do here: inspiring these timid sweet peas to seize their destiny? That’s cute. Adorable even. The problem is, she’s a dud. And that’s by Fun Buncher standards, which are already pretty bad.”
“What the heck is your problem??” Joshua said. “It’s not like either of us are going to win a magical boxing tournament. We’re all misfits here, so if she’s brave enough to come with us, I say she’s worth taking with us!”
“Thank you,” Boo said, marching up to him and locking arms with him. “I’m glad someone here understands.”
“You’re really going?” Seymor Tickle said. “Even though there’s a whole entire Chaos witch out there?”
“But what about, y’know, us?” Seymor wrung his fingers anxiously. “I thought we had some real chemistry going, what with us both liking make believe pretend games so much.”
“Sorry, Seymor,” Boo said, staring into the distance. “We had a lot of fun, but I think it’s time I stopped pretending to be a badass sorceress, and started living like one.”
Seymor looked at the floor, and sighed. Defeated, he walked over to the entrance of the Fun Buncher Bunker, and started undoing the three hundred door chains sealing the vault shut.
“Oxwald, you should come with us too,” Joshua said. “That way you can teach us hot to shoot fireballs and lightning bolts.”
“Yes,” Oxwald said, loosening his shirt collar. “Those are definitely both things that I know how to do!”
Wilfrit rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Since Milton here is so dead set on dragging all this dead weight around, I want you all to stay behind me, okay? It’s going to get hairy out there.”
“So, Boo,” Joshua said, only half listening to Wilfrit while they waited for Seymor to finishing opening the door. “What’s your deal? You like ghosts a whole lot? That’s pretty weird and also beautiful.”
“Yes,” Boo said. “Ghosts are wonderful. Nature’s most precious gift to us. Each one is a poem, written in blood. Nothing makes my heart sing like imagining a soul ripped from its flesh. Then, at last, it is free to wander through wretched world for an eternity, mourning the warmth of sensation. It is unbearable that each of us must endure until that state of transcendent grief. Only then are we made perfect. That is why I must become powerful, so I might free souls from their prisons of sinew with the purity of fire.”
“Okay,” Joshua said. He was now reconsidering whether he ought to have a romantic subplot with Boo. “That’s… cool.”
The last door chain fell loose, and the door to the Fun Buncher dormitory swung open to reveal an entire horde of demons standing on the other side.
“Oh my,” Joshua said. He had never seen quite so many demons before in his life. They all looked an awful lot like Bothersnatch, which made Joshua worry that maybe he was racist. These demons were blue though, and not purple like his friend. Also, none of them had a cool dragon tattoo, and none of them were disguised as a ghost disguised as a teaching assistant.
“CAPTURE ALL OF THE CHILDREN!” Shrieked the biggest of the demons. “SACRIFICE THEM ALL TO OUR QUEEN!!”
“Let me handle this!” Wilfrit said, striking a cool action pose. His squirrels spread out and engaged the front lines of the demons in a brutal melee.
“Hold on!” Joshua said. “I think we should let Boo try instead.”
“Josh, that’s a really bad idea and I don’t think we should,” Wilfrit said, his squirrels just barely keeping the horde at bay.
“But she should have a chance to prove herself now that she’s part of the group,” Joshua said.
“No, that’s fine,” Boo said. “I don’t know how to fight yet. Only how to pretend.”
“It’s okay!” Joshua said. “I think you should try anyway. You can do it! I believe in you!”
Wilfrit watched as Seymor and Oxwald were carried off by demons, screaming. “Josh, you need to let me take care of this!”
“Listen here, Pippers.” Joshua folded his arms. “I know I’m new to this whole having friends thing, but I’m pretty sure I know how it works.” He thought back to the time his uncle Horbert had left the television on by accident and Joshua had gotten to watch an entire episode of an anime. “If you want to be my friend, you need to let Boo have a crack at saving the day!”
Wilfrit clenched his teeth, and called back his squirrels. Immediately, hundreds of demons flooded into the room and started nabbing kids left and right. Joshua stared at Boo expectantly.
“Um.” She mimed waving a magic wand. “Fwoom. Fire ball!”
The demons, unaccustomed to playing pretend, were unaffected by the attack. One of the demons grabbed her, and then with its other hand it grabbed Joshua before carrying them out the door. It was at this point Joshua was willing to consider that perhaps he had made a dumbass mistake.
GREG the helpful teaching assistant poked his head out of the cupboard in which he’d chosen to hide his body. If the night before had been chaos, the hubbub around the school this morning was super chaos. He watched as a murder of orange demons hefted what appeared to be game show set pieces down the halls while some gun-metal grey demons wheeled cages of screaming children in the opposite direction.
“Demons everywhere,” Bothersnatch growled as he ducked back into his cover. “Looks like the Chaos Bitch Darkovbald really came back after all. Kid, you know anything about standing your ground against legions of evil demons?”
The young boy Nicholas whimpered and sniffled unintelligibly from the corner of the cupboard.
“Uh… okay, so… yes?” Bothersnatch scratched his head. Humans were so weird and confusing. “We’re gonna have to stay hidden, but we might just find a way to escape to a safer hideout if you stick with me and listen to my instructions carefully. First of all, we want to remain absolutely quiet. Demons have excellent hearing.”
“Somebody’s whispering in the cupboard, over there!” a demon immediately yelled.
“Shit nevermind,” Bothersnatch sighed. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I fucked up, Nicholas. I really fucked up and I’m sorry.”
The cupboard doors flung open and the screaming child was immediately seized and hauled away by probably like a hundred burnt sienna demons. Before GREG could make his daring escape, he was confronted by a hot pink demon with an enormous red bow on her head. She was pointing a gun at her new captive, who was frozen in stunned silence.
“Teaching staff, yeah?” she asked, one hand fixed on GREG and the other frantically conjuring up texts on her smartphone. “You’ll come with me, don’t try resisting or, you know, gun.” She waggled her firearm as a reminder.
“Kate!” GREG gasped.
Kate the demon stepped back, red in the face. “Um… It’s very uncomfortable and weird that you know my name! Anyway, you need to come with-”
“No, no, it’s me!” GREG ripped off the disguise.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!” said Kate as the teaching assistant was revealed to be a scary ghost.
“Dammit, wait!” the ghost snapped in frustration, ripping the sheet off from over his head. “Kate, it’s me! Bothersnatch!”
Kate dropped her phone and gun at the same time, mouth agape. “Oh my GOD! You’re… you’re supposed to be in… what- what are you doing here!?”
“A little magic boy freed me from my ruby prison,” Bothersnatch explained, taking his old flame by the hands. “Kate, listen, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve done. You were right, Kate, that bank heist was a big mistake from the start, and I should have listened!”
“Bothersnatch, wait-” Kate said, trying to pull herself away.
“Kate, I should have made different choices!” Bothersnatch continued. “That night we had at the combination KFC and Taco Bell, I had… I had so many things I thought I was gonna say. So many things I was planning to say.”
“Please, we can’t do this now!” Kate panicked.
“But now I’m stronger, and have more muscles! I’m going to tell you all the things I should have told you before, right now!”
“Heya doll, what’s the hold up?” came a third voice. Entering the room was a buff turquoise demon in a letterman jacket, tossing a football from one hand to the other.
“Sorry, Chad! I got a bit tied up!” Kate skipped over happily to Chad the demon and the two made out for thirty minutes. When they broke, Kate looked nervously at Bothersnatch. “Er… Chad, this is Bothersnatch. He’s… an old friend.”
“Whoa! A purple demon!?” Chad laughed uproariously. “What a freak!”
Bothersnatch was accustomed to receiving ridicule from his fellow demons in regard to his grotesque birth defect. It had haunted him his entire life, but spending so much time in isolation had almost been enough for him to forget that he was different.
“Chad!” Kate slapped her boyfriend on the back of his neck. “Please, he’s very sensitive!”
“Ha ha, sorry there, guy!” Chad said, pulling Bothersnatch to his feet with a single Herculean yank. “Yeah, like she said, I’m Chad. Kind of a demon Football star, not a big deal.” He passed the football to Bothersnatch, who failed to catch it entirely and ended up slapping it out the window. Chad was sad.
Putting aside his confusion and frustration, Bothersnatch got to the point. “Hey, just what the hell’s going on around here anyway? Did that old bat really return to this realm?”
“Oh, yeah, her Chaos Majesty finally got out of the Big Cup,” Kate nodded, taking a frowning Chad by the arm. “Except now we’re stuck inside this school until the school year is over. There’s this really nasty girl outside who’s refusing to switch off the barrier and is generally being very unreasonable about the whole thing,” she grumbled.
“So, you know how her Chaos Majesty is,” Chad shrugged. “Instead of killing the children outright, she’s gonna make it a whole production. Dougie P’s already got this crazy survival game going on, so we’re kind of building off of that. The teaching staff has actually been extremely cooperative and enthusiastic about the whole takeover.”
“So what if, theoretically, I was hell bound to one of the kids,” Bothersnatch asked.
“Jesus, are you still making Hell Wishes?” Kate scoffed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bothersnatch said, looking away embarrassed. “But like, I really need to make sure this one particular kid survives at least for a couple of weeks.”
“Well,” Chad said, searching the room for a replacement sports ball. “As long as they’re really smart and powerful with huge muscles, your odds might not be that bad.”
“Her Chaos Majesty’s about to hold this big re-orientation ceremony,” Kate explained, leading a disappointed Chad out of the room. “Your kid will be there. They have no choice. We’ve gotta get going, so good luck with that Hell Wish thing!”
Bothersnatch was now depressed and fucked.
The Chaos Witch Darkovkar shifted around in her seat, trying to get a feel for her newly constructed throne. It was a massive rune covered stone edifice, towering high in the school gymnasium. The velveteen cushions were comfortable, but something was still wrong.
“IT’S NOT SCARY ENOUGH!!” Darkovkar said, her voice a vengeful wind howling in the darkest of storms. Even sitting, she was gigantic, though her body was bent like a sickle. Her chalk white skin gave her face an otherworldly glow. She stared down at her new slaves with piercing silver eyes. “MY THRONE IS SUPPOSED TO BE REALLY SCARY, LIKE ME.”
“You don’t have to shout all the time!” Said Bridget Sixowls, the impudent mortal worm.
“Sorry,” Darkovkar said. She had a problem with getting over excited sometimes. “I just think that if I’m going to be the overlord of a whole school, my throne ought to be just as scary as me.”
Bridget let out a big sigh. “Look. It’s the best our goblins could throw together on short notice. Stop complaining!”
“It would be scarier if you made it out of skulls,” Darkovkar said, trying her best to be constructive. “Just saying.”
“We haven’t got a lot of skulls lying around,” Maynard Jaffles, the former overlord of the school, said. He was wringing his hands and groveling like a good slave. “What are we supposed to do?”
“You could go dig up a graveyard or two,” Darkovkar suggested.
“No, we can’t!” Bridget said, stomping around the gym. “General Snowbell is using the school’s forcefield to keep you trapped! Now none of us can leave!”
This recap of Darkovkar’s annoying predicament made her grumble. Bridget was always such a downer. “It’s fine. It’ll wear out eventually.”
“Not until it wears out at the end of the school year, you stupid old cow!!”
The Chaos Witch stood up. “DO NOT GET SNIPPY WITH ME, WRETCH!” Inky tendrils escaped the folds of her coal black robe, burrowing through the seams of reality like cancerous veins, each burning like a solar eclipse. “I COULD END YOU WITH A THOUGHT.”
“Knock it off, Eliza,” Bridget said, rolling her eyes. “No one’s impressed.”
“I am!” Maynard Jaffles said, who was cowering behind her.
“Nothing matters,” Bridget said. “Snowbell is not going to risk you getting loose again. As soon as the barrier goes down, she’s just going to throw the whole Magical Wizard Army at you so she can keep you pinned down. If she can’t kill you, she’ll stall you long enough to throw the barrier back up. We’re never getting out of here.”
Darkovkar smiled. “DO NOT WORRY.” She retracted her chaos tendrils and sat down again, making sure to adjust her butt for maximum comfort. “I HAVE A PLAN. ISN’T THAT RIGHT, GRIZZLEWICK?”
A demon in full battle armor stepped out of the shadows, dribbling a basketball with a steady, ominous, thunk against the gym floor. “Yes, mistress. As we speak, our demon forces are gathering along the outer rim of the forcefield and taunting the human general. We are making all sorts of mean and cutting remarks about how she has no hair, even though she actually has quite a lot of bright red hair. It won’t be long before she gets so mad that she has to drop the forcefield and come inside to fight us.”
Jaffles gasped. “That’s genius!”
“AND THAT’S NOT ALL!” Darkovkar said, clicking her jagged fingernails together. “IF THAT DOESN’T WORK, WE’LL THREATEN THE HOSTAGES!”
“What hostages?” Sixowls said.
The gymnasium doors burst open, and troops of demons marched inside carrying whole bushels of children.
“You said if we surrendered that you wouldn’t hurt the children!” Sixowls said.
The chaos witch did a big shrug. “GUESS I’M EVIL.”
All the demons dumped the kids all over the floor. Bridget Sixowls waded into the mess and helped children to their feet. “Please tell me you all read the safety guidelines!” She said. “It is VERY IMPORTANT that ALL OF YOU read the safety guidelines CAREFULLY.”
Darkovkar thought that that Bridget was using really weird emphasis in her sentence just now. It was probably not important. Bridget always was a weirdo, even way back during marching band.
“LISTEN UP CHUMP NUGGETS.” Darkovkar hopped off her throne and tap danced her way down the steps to the bottom. “I HEAR YOU LIKE TEAM BUILDING COMPETITIONS HERE, SO I GOT A GAME WE’RE GONNA PLAY.”
“What happens if my team loses?” Asked an extremely tiny and nervous young boy who did not appear to be at all thrilled about this predicament.
“I KILL YOU ALL IN THE MOST PAINFUL WAY POSSIBLE TO SHOW A DUMB GENERAL I MEAN BUSINESS.”
The little magic boy was even less enthused than before. “What… what kind of game are we playing?”
Darkovkar paused for dramatic effect. “YOU EVER WATCH LEGENDS OF THE HIDDEN TEMPLE ON NICKELODEON?”
Legends of the Hidden Temple was a gameshow that aired on American kids’ television from 1993 to 1995. In the show, children were placed onto teams and challenged with conquering the various puzzles and feats of athleticism that the enigmatic temple demanded of them. The centerpiece of the whole production was a large stone funny head named Olmec, who narrated the adventure while providing historical fun facts and biting political commentary.
Darkovkar’s new plan wasn’t dissimilar to the original that is now so universally recognized and beloved by all True 90’s Kids. The only significant difference is that in the original, Olmec was a fictional puppet voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, whereas in the universe of The Little Magic Boy, he was as real as you and me and was considered a highly decorated and respected figure of authority.
“Too bad they couldn’t get the real Olmec,” Wilfrit sighed as Grizzlewick clambered inside the very fake and poorly-made puppet head the Chaos Witch had cobbled together with their limited time and resources.
Joshua looked down at the grossly oversized purple T-shirt he’d been given to represent his allegiance. “This is stupid. We’re already Fun Bunchers, now we’re also the purple birds?”
“THE PURPLE PARROTS!!!” Darkovkar slammed her fist on the arm of her throne. “GOD!”
Ricard Prisselworth, now decorated in a Green Monkey shirt and a golden helmet for safety, folded his arms. “Hey, Chaos Witch! Why can’t Snakeothy be the Silver Snakes? That just seems… I don’t know, logical?”
“PUZZLE PALS ARE THE SILVER SNAKES!” Darkovkar screamed. “BECAUSE SERPENTS ARE CLEVER! YOU’RE GREEN BECAUSE GREEN IS EVIL! WHY IS THAT HARD TO UNDERSTAND!?”
“Then why are we the Blue Snakes?” one of the Manderlie triplets questioned as her sisters drilled skateboard stunts behind her. “That’s not even a team in the original!”
“THIS ISN’T THE ORIGINAL!” the Chaos Witch bellowed, quickly growing sick of the unruly children. “SO WHAT IF I HAVE AN ORIGINAL FAN TEAM! I ALWAYS THOUGHT THERE SHOULD BE BLUE SNAKES SO IN MY VERSION THERE ARE BLUE SNAKES!”
“I want to be the Purple Snakes,” Boo raised her hand. “I don’t like that every other team has some kind of snake thing except us.”
“Children,” Jaffles said with a gentle smile as Darkovkar was too busy steaming like a tea kettle to respond. “It’s best not to question the Chaos Witch’s mysterious tactics. She could remove your skeletal structure with a determined blink of her eyes.” He cringed, as if recalling an unpleasant memory.
“Ho ho ho!” the fake bullshit Olmec roared to life, his jaw bouncing in an unnatural way. “Welcome, children, to my Hidden Temple! Are you ready for the thrills, the chills, the kills of an elaborate team-building adventure?”
“No,” said most of the kids.
“Oh!” Olmec said. “Oh no! Well, here’s out it works! Two from your team will be sent into the Hidden Temple in search of a mysterious relic! Whichever team manages to retrieve it has exclusive access to that relic’s powers and a distinct advantage over the other teams!” The light in Olmec’s left eye burnt out and a bunch of swearing yellow demons scrambled to replace it as he continued talking. “If you get caught using a relic seized by a team that isn’t your own, her Chaos Majesty will fucking kill you!”
The Chaos Witch snapped her fingers and a BIG GUN materialized in her hand.
Joshua felt somebody fiddling in his back pocket. He bolted his neck around behind him and saw the silhouette of a razor scooter slinking into the shadows. He reached into the problem pocket and found a small booklet titled RULES AND SAFETY. “Hey, guys,” he whispered to Wilfrit and Boo.
“Hm,” Boo frowned, taking the booklet from him. “Safety guidelines? I think it’s more exciting not to know anything going in. Like, you never know whether the next step will lead to success and glory or a slow death at the bottom of a spike pit. What a delicious dilemma!”
Wilfrit grabbed the safety manual from her and took an extra step of distance between them. “Let me just take a look.” He folded it open and briefly perused its contents. He frowned for a long time.
“Well?” Joshua said impatiently. “Anything useful? It sounded like there might be some sort of-”
“No,” Wilfrit said, and the manual burst immediately into purple flames. “Nothing you need to see. Don’t worry about it.”
“Joshua!” Wilfrit snapped, his squirrels beginning to hiss angrily at his tiny friend. “Don’t worry about the stupid pamphlet. Friends are all the safety you need.”
“I guess, but…” Joshua trailed off.
“…the Big Cup!” Olmec’s voice grabbed Joshua’s attention once again. “That’s right, kids, her Chaos Majesty’s home away from home for the past several decades can be yours, if you can successfully avoid Temple Guards and swing on ropes and overcome other fun challenges!”
“Oh no!” Joshua yelled. “Guys, I’ve gotta have my cup!”
Bernard Crowley appeared before them, a sinister smile on his face. “Now, let’s see here! Who among your ranks would be best suited to challenge the temple first?”
“Sir,” Joshua raised his hand, trying to put out of his mind that the professor was actively conspiring to sacrifice him for personal gain. “Please, let me challenge the temple! I need that cup!”
Bernard raised an eyebrow. “Very interesting,” he brushed his hand through his own gorgeous locks. “Clearly this is very important to you, tiny little Milton.” He walked over to Joshua and swiftly plucked up Wilfrit and Boo by their hair like Pikmin. “These two will do!”
“Hey!” Joshua yelled. “Please, you have to let me do it!”
“The teams have been chosen!” Olmec’s voice boomed, knocking the children to their feet. “The decision is final, and nothing will ever change it!”
Joshua stood with the other hostages, arms crossed with his hands tucked in his armpits. He watched as the demons filled the school’s indoor swimming pool with live sharks in preparation for the first of the Temple Games.
“This is stupid,” Joshua said. “I’d be a much more exciting contestant for this thrilling blood sport!”
Seymor Tickle wrung his sweater sleeves, eyeing the burly demons watching them. “I hope we live long enough to see our parents again.”
“Must be nice to have parents!” Joshua said, who was maybe a bit too eager to play the orphan card. “Ones that aren’t spiders and/or trapped in magical orbs!”
“Geez, Josh. Sorry,” Seymor said. “This is just a really scary situation. If Wilfrit and Boo don’t at least place in this kooky 90s nostalgic gameshow throwback, we’re all going to die!“
Joshua had to admit that the Fun Buncher class president had a point. On the other hand, Joshua was as good as dead anyway if he didn’t get his hands on that cup. Even if Wilfrit won it, he’d probably just give it to a squirrel or something.
“First team to cross the moat wins the first Pendent of Chaos!” Fake Olmec announced. “Go!!”
“Wait, we’re starting?” Ricard said. “Shouldn’t it be on three or something?”
Wilfrit did a perfect swan dive into the pool and swam past all of the sharks in a matter of seconds. He leapt onto the far side like a dolphin, where a team of squirrels were waiting with towels and a hair dryer.
“Come on, Boo!” He called across the pool. “Swim!”
“I can’t!” Boo said.
“Yes you can!” Wilfrit said. “Sharks are not actually as aggressive as popular media leads people to believe! As long as you don’t antagonize them, you should actually be relatively safe!”
Hearing this, the other children leapt into the water to swim across and claim victory. Boo hesitated at the edge of the pool, still scared.
“Hurry up!” Wilfrit said, as Ricard Prisselworth and April Manderlie joined him on the other side.
Boo stepped into the pool and sank like a rock. A moment later, she surfaced with a platoon of squirrels with adorable scuba gear outfits carrying her across. It still wasn’t enough, as she was the last one to make it to the other side.
“OUGHT OH!!” Olmec said, as a slide whistle and sad trombone played over an instant replay of Boo’s pathetic performance. “Looks like the Purple Parrots are the losers for this round! If they don’t pick up the slack, it looks like the Fun Bunchers are going to get e-e-e-eliminated!!”
“That wouldn’t have happened if I was playing,” Joshua said. “I am much smaller and it would be easier for those squirrels to carry me.”
“THE FUCK?” The Chaos Witch said. “NOT A SINGLE KID GOT MURDERED BY SHARKS!! THIS IS BULLSHIT. WHICH ONE OF YOU NITWITS DID I PUT IN CHARGE OF MARINE BIOLOGY RESEARCH?!”
A solitary demon wearing a lab coat raised a sheepish hand. Darkovkar pointed a finger at him, and he popped like a balloon filled with grape jelly.
“ALRIGHT, START THE NEXT GAME!” The Chaos Witch said. “I HAD BETTER SEE SOME BLOOD THIS TIME!”
The demons began prodding children with cattle prods to herd them to the next event arena. Joshua toddled along, still insufferably salty.
“Psst! Hey! Kid!”
Joshua turned around to see a surprisingly tall, purple student who was wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘child hostage’ written on it with permanent marker.
“Hello?” Joshua said. “Do I know you?”
“It’s me! Bothersnatch!” The giant child said. “I’m in disguise!”
Joshua gasped. “Why, it is you! What happened to your other disguises?”
“Never mind that,” Bothersnatch said. “I need your help. My ex-girlfriend is seeing this new douchebag named Chad. I think if you help me trash his bedroom, Kate will come around and realize that I’m the better catch.”
“I think we got more important things to do!” Joshua said. “The winner of this dumb game show gets the Big Cup!!”
Bothersnatch stopped in his tracks. “Whoa crap, really? That’s way more important than my thing. Let’s steal it while everyone’s distracted.”
“Are you two CRAZY?!” Seymor hissed at them, swiveling his head to see if the demon guards were paying attention. “You can’t pull a stunt like that! They’ll kill you!”
“Shut up, Seymor!” Joshua said. “Do you think the Fun Bunchers actually stand a chance of placing anything but dead last?”
“Well… No.” He said.
“And do you think the Chaos Witch is actually going to let ANY of us live in the long run?”
“…Probably not…” Seymor said. “B-but I would like to delay my gruesome death for as long as possible!”
“That’s not good enough for me!” Joshua said. “I’m going to drink from the Big cup, and then I’m going to use my big muscles to stop the Chaos Witch and save everyone! Unless you’ve got a better plan, either help me, or stay out of my way!”
Seymor Tickle looked taken aback by Joshua’s words. He stared at the floor, humbled, before looking up at him again. “I want to help, but I don’t think I can. I’m not brave enough.”
Joshua groaned in frustration. “This whole team is worthless! Aren’t you good at ANYTHING?”
“We’re good at pretending,” Seymor said.
“Well, how about you pretend to be brave then!” Joshua said. “How about that?!”
Seymor Tickle went very quiet. He seemed to think about what Joshua had said, and then something strange happened. His eyes glazed over. His back straightened. His chin rose, and a look of deadly determination spread across his face.
“Alright,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “Let’s do this.”
Chad the demon looked up from the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. Three children were shuffling towards the exit. With a heavy sigh, he approached them. “Come on, guys. This is how you get punched in the face.”
With a glimmer in his eye and a dream in his heart, Seymor Tickle clenched a fist and thrust it hard into Chad’s jaw with a mighty shoryuken dragon punch. Chad rocketed upward, his head burying itself in the acoustical ceiling tiles. Bothersnatch laughed out loud, beckoning the attention of the rest of the demon guards.
“Go, Josh,” Seymor commanded, radiating a manly bravado like Joshua had never seen before. “Find your cup.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Josh asked, worried about how long his friend’s imagination would last him.
Seymor cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck around, smirking at the demons scrambling to grab their oversized child-smashing mallets. “Don’t worry about me,” he assumed a brave fighting stance. “Oh, hey, is Boo watching me?”
“No, she’s busy failing horrifically at the Steps of Knowledge,” Bothersnatch said, slightly disappointed he’d be missing important moments of the exciting event.
“Shit,” Seymor sighed, launching himself into the oncoming assailants.
“Alright kid, let’s get moving,” Bothersnatch whispered as he led Joshua by the hand into the hallway.
“Wait, where are we going?” Joshua asked, darting in both directions. “The Big Cup’s inside the gym, right? Backstage in the temple thing”
“Oh,” Bothersnatch stopped. “Yeah, um.” Bothersnatch scratched his head. “Maybe there’s like, a backdoor… to the gym? I don’t really know how schools work.”
“HEY, I HEAR CHILDREN!!” yelled a demon from around the corner. “LET’S BREAK THEIR KNEECAPS!”
“Jesus, Grumbletooth, they’re children,” replied another demon. “We’re just going to escort them back to their seats with a First Warning. We have a system, Grumbletooth.”
“Uh oh, we need a plan, fast!” Bothersnatch cowered.
Joshua glanced in every direction except up, and found no way out. Then he looked up and saw another air vent. “Throw me up there! I’ll see if I can find the temple!”
“Oh, throw you, huh?” Bothersnatch looked up. “I don’t know, kiddo… Throwin’ ain’t really my strongest suit. If I could throw, like, even a Sportball, then heck, maybe she would’ve… I don’t know…”
“What are you talking about?” Joshua said as the sounds of a million patrol demons’ footsteps became SO MUCH CLOSER. “It’s like ten feet upwards and I weigh like an ounce! Anyone could do it!”
“I DON’T KNOW KID!” Bothersnatch folded his arms and looked away. “I just… I don’t know! I don’t know if I can do it! I don’t know if I have the confidence to throw something, man, I don’t know!”
The patrol demons were so close to the corner that it wasn’t even funny. “Just try!!!” Joshua yelled, thoroughly exhausted. “Seriously, this is not a big deal!”
Bothersnatch heaved a heavy sigh. He remembered that game. He remembered unexpectedly catching the Sportball in the Final Inning with five seconds to go. Cuddlebutt was wide open. It was the perfect opening and the crowd was roaring. He remembered Kate, jumping up in down in her cheerleader outfit, screaming his name.
“Bothersnatch!” she screamed. “You can win this!”
“Do it, kiddo!” yelled Coach McDie, giving a thumbs up from the sidelines. “It’s all ridin’ on you!”
“I’M WIDE OPEN!!!” screamed Cuddlebutt.
Bothersnatch the little teen demon took a deep breath, pulled back his arm, closed his eyes, and screamed as he Hail Mary’d the shit out of that Sportball.
It plopped into the mud exactly one foot in front of him. The entire audience booed and the entire opposing team tackled him all at once as the buzzer signaled the end of the game. Cuddlebutt was crying.
“What are you doing!?” Joshua slapped Bothersnatch in the face. “Will stop spacing out and throw me already!? Those demons are JUST ABOUT TO TURN THE CORNER ANY SECOND NOW!!”
“Almost there!” yelled the demons.
“Alright,” Bothersnatch sighed. “Alright, I’ll give it a shot. Climb up on my arms.”
Without a second to spare, Bothersnatch set aside his traumatic backstory and tossed tiny Joshua Milton up into vent. It was extremely easy.
As the tiny boy smashed through the grate, he saw his friend with an enormous smile giving a thumbs up as he was carried off by one million demons. “Find your cup, Josh!”
There was no time to lose. Joshua scurried like crazy through the vents, following the sounds the crowd cheering and the Chaos Witch’s screaming. It was all directly beneath him now. The rest of the temple should be just ahead. With everyone focused on the current events, he could hop in, take a sip from the cup, and be done with it!
Sooner than he’d anticipated, he crawled right over it. Kicking out the grating beneath him, the tiny child saw his coveted cup sitting atop a dimly lit pedestal. He crawled out, careful not to make a noise, and noticed the cup was set on top of the Aggro Crag from Nickelodeon GUTS. Apparently the Chaos Witch had no problem intermingling her nostalgic kids’ programming.
The Big Cup was right in front of him. Joshua could hardly believe it. Without a second’s hesitation, he grabbed it and drank from it like you would from a cup that has a drink in it. And he waited. He waited for a sign that magic was happening. He waited for his muscles to grow like Popeye. He waited for his mom to come back to life, or something magical like that. But nothing of the sort happened.
“What are you doing here?” came a girl’s voice. Joshua whipped around to see one of the Manderlie triplets tucking a big cup into a backpack. Given that April and May were participating in the game, he surmised that this one was Courtney.
“It’s you!” Joshua yelled in a hushed whisper. “What are you doing!?”
“Asked you first,” she said, pulling the straps of the backpack over her shoulders. “You’re drinking out of a fake cup. You know that, right? Well, I guess it’s a real cup, but it’s not a real magical cup…”
It suddenly occurred to Joshua that this “Big Cup” he had acquired was a bright pink plastic sippy cup like a baby would drink from, and not the cup he had seen before.