Uncle Horbert lit up a handful of cigars, sucked them generously, and bellowed out an imposing cloud of smoke shaped like a dollar sign. He was beaming at a petrified Joshua.
“Mwahaha!! Don’t act so surprised to see-”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!!!” cried Sixowls, flicking out a long, thin twig that had a maple leaf still hanging from it. In an instant, five glowing spectral owls lifted Uncle Horbert by his trousers and struggled to hoist him onto the stage.
“WOWIE!! REAL MAGIC!!!” exclaimed a gaggle of the Fun Bunchers whose ranks Joshua was dreadfully forced to count himself among.
“Before Douglas P. Wilson got locked up in the Orb of Screams,” Sixowls yelled at nearly a screech, plopping Horbert down on his rich hiney. “He decided that competition was great, and so, FOUR TEAMS.” She pointed fiercely at the headsets while Uncle Horbert rubbed his tender behind, much to the bemusement of Team Snakeothy. “Therefore, put on the stupid helmet so we can eat!”
“Now wait just a MINUTE here!!” Horbert yelled, swatting away the owls as they attempted to place the VR helmet on his head. “I’m just here for that small child over there!” He pointed directly at Joshua. Several students had to lean forward and squint their eyes to catch a glimpse of tiny child Horbert was addressing. “You will place me with Joshua Milton so that I may torment him for the rest of his days!”
“You? A Fun Buncher?” Sixowls gasped, shaking her head. “I positively forbid it! They are our most tender and fragile students and I fear that your being in their proximity would drive them to an early grave!”
Joshua noted that at least one Fun Buncher was already crying due to Horbert’s rudeness.
“Nonsense!!” Horbert yelled, reaching into his pockets. “If you won’t make me a… Fun Buncher… I shall bribe you for it!” He pulled out a fistful of diamonds. “I brought so many diamonds! How many would you like?”
Gasps of horror echoed as panic set in among the students. Sixowls let out an audible scream and kicked Horbert in the shin, causing him to fling the diamonds into the air. Everyone was horrorstruck as the diamonds were sucked into the ventilation unit and scattered all over the campus.
“What have you done!?” Professor Sixowls screamed, clawing at her face. “We must retrieve each and every one of the missing diamonds at once!” She flicked her magical twig at Horbert dramatically, but it broke in half. “Shit, hold on.” She awkwardly scrambled to the storage closet and came out with a second one. This time she would be more careful. After taking her place once more, she flicked the twig dramatically at Uncle Horbert and a spectral owl slapped some handcuffs on him.
“What is the meaning of this!?” Horbert yelled. “Joshua, you stupid little brat!! Look what you’ve done!!”
“Uncle Horbert!” Joshua yelled, standing from his seat.
“You’ve violated the school rules and will have to spend a week in the dungeon!” Sixowls declared as a miniature police cruiser entered the room, a high-pitched siren blaring.
“Wait! What about his team?” Wilfrit called out.
“He’s a Snakeothy, obviously,” Sixowls rolled her eyes as a couple of tiny goblins dressed in adorable little police uniforms attempted to fit the gigantic man into the back seat of their very small vehicle. “We can pretty much tell from looking at students where they’re supposed to be.”
Having failed their initial plan, the goblins tied a rope to Horbert’s foot and opted to drag him behind their car.
“AS SOON AS I GET OUT!!!” Horbert yelled as he was dragged away very slowly by the struggling engine of the goblin cruiser. “I’M COMING AFTER YOU, BOY!! JUST YOU WAIT!!”
“Uncle Horbert!” Joshua called after him. “I’ll find a way to free you, I promise!”
“Now, all of you! Get to the cafeteria! Your food is very cold by now but you are expected to eat every last crumb!” Sixowls yelled, prompting the entire body of first years to pile chaotically out of the gym in complete disorder. The bug-eyed witch pointed a long, pointed finger directly at Joshua. “Except for you!” she yelled. “You’re going to help us sort out your uncle’s mess!”
Wilfrit shrugged at Joshua. “I’ll save you a plate, I guess.”
Joshua waited as everyone else went to eat. The Manderlie triplets soared past him on their Converses that doubled as roller skates. May stopped short in front of Joshua and popped a bright pink bubble.
“Fun Buncher, huh?” she smiled. “That’s a pretty bad look, tiny man.” She snorted with laughter and glided off to rejoin her sisters.
Professor Sixowls grabbed Joshua by his tiny hand, nearly crushing it. “Come this way, now. I’ll have you work with our new Magical Defense professor to figure out how we’re going to solve this mess.”
A complete stranger stepped out of Oxwald’s office. He was a tall man with a moustache, a big smile, and a rather charming little tophat. He wore what appeared to be a large white sheet and had distinct purple demon-like feet sticking out from under it.
“Yo, uh,” the stranger said. “Professor Manderlie’s takin’ care of some Big Cup stuff. I can hold onto the kid for the moment until he gets back.”
“We have a diamond emergency, GREG!” Sixowls said, handing Joshua off. “I’ve got to meet with Jaffles in the cafeteria for the three hours of Pre-Dinner Speeches. There are diamonds on this campus and you must find them all, do you understand!?”
“Oh, yeah, okay,” GREG said. “Yeah, me and little tiny Joshua here will have a little pow-wow. Come up with a real good game plan.” This total stranger gave Joshua a thumbs up, which just confused the boy.
“Good!” she said, being carried away by her five owls. “And make sure he’s back at Fun Buncher House by curfew!”
Oxwald Manderlie rounded the corner of the labyrinthine treasure chamber, pointing his bo staff at any potential enemies in the dark. He had gotten very lost, and was confused about what he was supposed to be doing exactly. The principal and his creepy friend Betrayus were worried about there being diamonds on the school grounds, which struck him as absurd. Diamonds were great and served many practical purposes. They could be used in jewelry, decoration, cooking… the possibilities were endless. The fact that they could be used to fuel demon magic was just evidence of their versatility.
On the wall there was a lightswitch with a label reading DEATH TRAPS, flipped to the on position. That sounded rather dangerous, so Oxwald decided to turn it off so no one got hurt.
There was a loud clang several corridors back. Oxwald wandered back in that direction, and found that the Big Cup had fallen off its pedestal onto the floor. A withered, gross looking arm was reaching out the top and dragging the cup along the floor by its fingernails.
“Stop that,” Oxwald said, and prodded the arm with his bo staff. “Stay on your little satin pillow. I’m supposed to be protecting you or something.”
“DIAMONDS!!” shrieked the voice of the Chaos Witch Darkovkar from inside the Big Cup. “JUST ONE DIAMOND AND I WILL BE RESTORED TO MY TRUE POWER!!”
“Stop shouting!” Oxwald said. “I can hear you just fine.”
“Sorry,” she said, now using her inside voice. “I’m just so excited about the diamonds.”
“That’s understandable,” Oxwald said. “I know what that’s like. I was technically the number one diamond inspector in the Shelbyville district before I switched careers today, you know. Sometimes I had a hard time going to sleep because I would think about all the diamonds I would buy the next day.” He sighed. “But those days are behind me now. I need to learn how to be a professor so I can put that damned Bernard in his place.”
The temperature dropped 10 degrees, and a shiver ran up Oxwald’s spine. The Big Cup righted itself, and the arm shrank back inside. The contents of the cup began to glow a luminous green.
“Young man,” the Chaos Witch said, her voice like a thousand whispers scraping at the inside of Oxwald’s skull. “Peer inside the Big Cup.”
“Sure, okay,” Oxwald said, bending over to take a peek.
“What do you see?”
It churned with a phantasmagoria of every nightmare he had ever experienced. Prismatic light danced across his face, while his skin crawled as if countless spiders were spreading to cover his entire body. Oxwald parted his lips to speak, afraid something might creep inside.
“Like, okay. There’s like a lot of weird spooky fog. Is it supposed to look like something?”
“Focus,” the Chaos Witch whispered. “What is it you desire most in this world?”
The miasma took shape. Inside the cup, Oxwald saw Bernard Crowley, being awarded a certificate for being the best and most important professor in the school’s history. Of course he had this enormous shit eating grin, and it made Oxwald so mad. But before Principal Jaffles could hand him the award, Bernard recoiled in pain.
“Oh no!” The little Bernard said. “I appear to be exploding!”
And then he exploded. The entire auditorium inside the Big cup applauded and cheered, and Oxwald saw himself climb onto the stage where he was given all of the awards instead. Then all three of his daughters, April, May, and Courtney, appeared next to him to tell him that they respected him. Finally, a surprise pizza party was announced.
The dream dissipated, and Oxwald was left with his jaw hanging open. A whirlpool of ether was knotting inside the Big cup.
“Bring me a single diamond,” the Chaos Witch said, “And I will make it so.”
Oxwald hesitated. “Hold on. Weren’t you saying something earlier about wanting to kill all of the children once you’re free?”
“What?” Darkovkar said. “That was just a funny joke. Ha ha.”
“Well, I suppose that’s alright then,” Oxwald said. “I can’t imagine getting you one little diamond would hurt. Just promise me you won’t kill any of the children.”
There was a long pause. “Alright, how about I only kill most of the children?” she said.
“What, like half?” Oxwald scartched his chin.
“I’m thinking eighty percent.”
He stood up, frowning. “No, that’s an awful lot of dead children.”
“Now hold on!” She held up a gruesome corpse hand from the cup. “New offer. Sixty percent of the children die.”
“Listen.” Oxwald was starting to lose his patience. “I have three daughters attending this school. I can’t come home with one and one fifth daughters. My wife would have a fit.”
Groaning with exasperation, Darkovkar hopped the Big cup closer to Oxwald. “Listen big guy. I’m kind of it a bind here, and you’re twisting my arm. Here’s my final offer. I don’t kill you, any of your daughters, I make this Bernard guy explode, and then I kill only twenty percent of the children. Will that make you happy?”
Oxwald beamed. His diamond bartering skills were really paying off.
Bothersnatch concluded a rigorous session of banging his forehead against the chalkboard and cursed his own existence under his breath. He had overturned each and every desk in the classroom except for the occupied by tiny Joshua Milton. He almost broke out a window as well, but Bothersnatch the demon felt that would be extremely unprofessional.
“Help me to understand our situation, here,” he said, finally calmed back to a point of speaking. “There are four, not one, FOUR other children lookin’ to get their grubby little touch-beans on this Big Cup. Three ladies capable of extreme death-defying stunts and a kid so strong he could probably bench press a school bus.”
“Yes,” Joshua said, his arms crossed defiantly. It was hard for Joshua to maintain this confidence knowing that he had to be propped up by all twenty-nine volumes of Doing the Right Thing – The Life and Times of Count Dracula just to see over the desk.
“And you…” the demon growled, trying to resist kicking over the waste bin. “You got yourself on the bad side of each and everyone one of ‘em!?” He could take it no further. He kicked over that waste bin with reckless abandon.
“The girls stole from me!” the tiny orphan boy protested. “And one of them is a no-good Snakeothy! I’ve been told by no less than two casual acquaintances that that’s a bad thing!”
“We have less than two weeks!!” Bothersnatch cried, sinking into the professor’s chair and burying his face in his hands. “You can’t possibly pull this off by yourself! You’re very small!”
“I have… a friend!” Joshua yelled back. “He’s very supportive, he owns a lot of squirrels, and has some very compelling arguments in favor of horses being allowed to run for Congress!”
“Alright, that settles it!” Bothersnatch sat bolt upright in the chair. “I didn’t want to resort to this, but we’re gonna need that diamond freak OxBALD to help us out here.”
“That’s a terrible nickname,” Joshua complained. “He’s got lots of hair.”
Ignoring this, Bothersnatch continued. “He’s got more authority over that cup than anyone else here, and since he appears to be the only one you haven’t pissed off yet, we might be able to convince him to get it for us. If THAT doesn’t work, we could probably just kill him.” He briefly entertained the mental image of Oxwald exploding in front of a classroom of students, followed by thunderous applause and an impromptu pizza party. “Nice.”
At that moment, Oxwald Manderlie flung the door open. Bothersnatch was quick to throw on his white sheet so as not to give away his secret identity.
“What happened to your secret identity!?” Oxwald yelled, grabbing the top hat from the coat rack and placing it on top of the spooky ghost’s head. “Listen, if they find out I’ve let a very scary ghost onto school grounds, they’ll have both of our heads!”
“Hello… Er, Professor Manderlie,” Joshua waved.
“What?” Oxwald wretched. “Please, continue to call me Oxwald. My strategy for defeating Bernard BALDY hinges on being a cool enough professor to be referred to by first name!” He smirked at his clever nickname, despite the fact that Bernard had long beautiful locks.
“Professor, could you show us the Big Cup?” Joshua asked outright.
“What!?” Oxwald panicked, tugging at the collar of his shirt. “The big WHAT? I’ve, uh, never heard of that! Ha ha ha!” He put on a horrifying fake grin, turned red in the face, and began rapidly twiddling his thumbs. “No, Joshua. The Big Cup is a very powerful artifact with a long, dark history of unspeakable terror and it would probably be irresponsible of me to let you or any other tiny children ever come near the thing.” He stopped, and blinked. “Wait a second, Joshua, what the hell are you doing in my office?”
“Oh, yeah,” GREG the friendly assistant said. “There’s diamonds scattered all over the campus or something? We gotta find them or else the Chaos Witch is gonna… I don’t know, kill a guy, I assume? I haven’t been paying that much attention.”
“Diamonds, you say?” Oxwald grinned, stroking his chin. “Perfect!” He giggled and made an exploding noise under his breath, much to the confusion of Joshua and Bothersnatch. “Er, yes, we must find those diamonds! And make sure you bring them to me, so that I can make sure that they are kept in a safe place and NOT used to empower the greatest terror the world has ever known for the sake of ending a petty feud!” Oxwald could not have planned this any better. Bernard Crowley was straight up fucked.
“There were hundreds of them,” Joshua explained. “How are we going to find so many tiny little diamonds?”
“Easiest thing ever!” Oxwald announced, reaching in his coat pocket. “To locate the best and strongest diamonds, one must develop a keen sense of smell!” He pulled out a very short wand, holding it as if it were a piece of chalk. “Hold still there, little Josh. FOLLOWUS YOURNOSIUM!!” He shouted, flicking Joshua on the tip of his nose.
In an instant, Joshua Milton’s nose grew three times bigger and turned bright green. It looked very stupid.
“This should get you started!” Oxwald smiled, tucking his wand back into his pocket. “Your sense of smell has been improved by 2%!”
“This is… very uncomfortable!” Joshua complained, struggling to hold up the weight of his own head.
“Oh, it’ll wear off in a day! Well, hopefully. Anyway, run off to dinner, and remember…” He poked his own nose with a wink. “Keep your nose open!”
“And don’t forget your objective,” GREG growled.
Oxwald scratched his head. “Er, yes, to collect diamonds! I think that has been well-established!”
“I’ll see you in class then, I suppose,” Joshua said, cringing at the nasally sound of his own voice. He left the office, not an inch closer to the big muscles he so desired.
Professor Murderdeath swung through the deepest bowels of the school using his twin ninja grappling hooks. He arched gracefully through the air like the world’s blackest and most brutal dolphin, and landed without a sound on top of an ancient gargoyle statue hanging high over a secluded hallway.
“Took you long enough to get here.”
Murderdeath scanned the darkness. Where had that voice come from? Had someone mastered the shadows as well as he had? Impossible, or so he thought. A cloaked figure emerged from the darkness, standing atop the gargoyle across from his own. He removed his hood to reveal himself as none other than Bernard Crowley.
“Long time no see, Betrayus,” Bernard said.
Murderdeath sneered. “You have no right to call me by my true name! You will address me as Montgomery Murderdeath. Only my truest, dearest, most fam B.F.F.s may call me Betrayus.”
Bernard rolled a quarter across his knuckles. “Does that include Principal Jaffles?”
Murderdeath froze. He had to choose his words carefully, or risk tipping his hand too soon. “The old man is a fool,” he said. “I think we both know what this job means to me.”
“Oh, that I do my good fellow.” Bernard’s smile was carnivorous. “Which is why I’ve come to take it for myself. You see, Jaffles only needs one shadowy adviser of ambiguous allegiance. That’s going to be me from now on.”
“Oh, fuck off Bernard,” Murderdeath said. “Me and Maynard go way back. Do you have a secret handshake with him? I don’t think so.”
“Actually,” Bernard said, clearly waiting all day to say this, “Just this morning, during the job interview, he and I developed three separate special handshakes, each one more secret than the last.”
“What?!” Murderdeath was sure he had, at most, only developed two secret handshakes with the Principal.
“Not only that but, as it happens, I’m a better teacher than you as well. Classes haven’t even started yet and all of MY students have already completed their midterms!”
Murderdeath began to sweat. “You think you can get that man to trust you more than he trusts me?! Were you even at the final battle to seal the Chaos Witch Darkovkar?”
“Probably.” Bernard shrugged.
“You don’t even know!”
“Well, it’s just I participate in so many cataclysmic end of the world battles that I’ve lost track of all of them,” Bernard said. “You probably haven’t even heard of all of them.”
“Listen here you lanky prick!” Murderdeath said, losing his composure. He fanned three shuriken throwing stars in his hand. “I’m the shadowy adviser around here! Step off or I’ll stomp that smirk off your face!”
“I wouldn’t try that if I were you.” Bernard revealed a flashing remote control from his pocket. “I have buried explosives all throughout the school. You try and cross me, and I detonate them all with the push of this button.” He laughed. “How do you like that? All of your plans ruined in the blink of an eye.”
Murderdeath couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled his own remote control out from his robes. Bernard had walked right into his trap. “I saw through your plans the moment you set foot in this school, Crowley! That’s why I had my own explosives installed over your explosives. All I need to do is pull this tiny lever, and then my bombs will destroy yours before they even have the chance to explode!”
“Then it’s a good thing I had explosion proof force-fields installed around my bombs,” Bernard said.
Murderdeath narrowed his eyes. “You’re bluffing.”
“Am I?” Bernard chuckled. He rolled his coin between his thumb and forefinger. “How about a little game. If this coin lands heads, we detonate our bombs and see who planned the best. Or, if it lands tails, we settle this like gentlemen one on one. What do you say, old man?”
Swallowing his anxiety, Murderdeath knew there was no backing down. “Let’s do this.”
Bernard flicked the quarter into the air. It twirled, and both men held their breath. Murderdeath kept one hand on the remote for his bomb, while the other reached inside his robes for his two magic wands that doubled as nunchuku.
Before the coin was halfway to the ground, something darted through the air and snatched it. A squirrel scrambled up the stone walls and onto a third stone gargoyle that neither of them had noticed until now. The darkness rippled, and a normal sized boy appeared who was covered from head to toe in squirrels.
“Who the devil are you?!” Bernard said, taken aback for what seemed like the first time in his life.
“Willfrit Pippers,” the boy said. The squirrel carrying the coin in its mouth rejoined its master. It chirred happily in his arms. “You both are proving very, very amusing. It’s sad to think you are both just pawns in the greater game.”
Squirrels appeared on all sides of them, each one on a smaller gargoyle perch. Murderdeath gasped when he realized each squirrel was holding a bomb component in their mouth, which they promptly dumped on top of him.
“Ouch!” Murderdeath said, as bomb parts rained on his head. “How dare you touch my beautiful bombs!”
“I can’t afford to have either of you nut-jobs interfering with my plans just yet,” Willfrit said.
“And if we do?” Bernard said.
“Then my friends will have something to say about it.” Willfrit snapped his fingers and the squirrels shifted into attack mode, hissing and flashing their sharp teeth. Bernard and Murderdeath both scooted along their respective gargoyles to keep their distance. “I’m here to make sure that everything goes according to the prophecy.”
It was all Murderdeath could do not to shit himself. “The d-dragon prophecy?!”
“The very same,” Willfrit said.
“You monster!” Bernard spat. “You think we’re going to let you get away with this?!” He raised his magic wand, only for a squirrel to bite it in half.
“Oh, I know you won’t.” Willfrit flashed a smile. “I’ve controlled every variable to make sure things unfold just as planned.”
Murderdeath was disappointed. Ten minutes ago he was certain that HE had every variable under control. This sucked.
“Play nice with each other boys,” Willfrit said before disappearing in a cloud of squirrels. “And stay out of my way!!”
Joshua ambled into the cafeteria, keeping his head down as he was met with laughter and wolf whistles from the crowd on account of his goofy nose situation. “Oh, brother!” came a voice that must have belonged to Prisselworth or one among his rotten Snakeothy pals. He found his best buddy, Wilfrit Pippers the funny Funbuncher squirrel boy, beaming and unmoving as he stared at the untouched rack of lamb in front of him.
“What a mess,” Joshua grumbled, taking a seat next to Wilfrit. “All I care about is finding this stupid cup and I keep getting roped into these other shenanigans! I’m just a little magic boy!”
Wilfrit said nothing, but continued smiling at his meal.
“Err, are you going to eat that?” Joshua asked of the meat. “You… look like you’re very excited to eat it. Wait, where are your squirrels?”
Wilfrit fell over, and Joshua was beginning to notice that his friend appeared to be thin like cardboard.
“That’s rude,” Joshua muttered, making a grab for the meal. He couldn’t remember the last time he was allowed fully cooked food, but his enhanced sense of smell nearly knocked him out of his seat. The flesh was seared to perfection, shining globes of golden fat glittered across its surface, and the overwhelming scent of garlic and peppercorn invaded his every sensation. It was such an incredible and beautiful hunk of meat that tears were now beginning to form in the tiny boy’s eyes.
A dinging from the front of the cafeteria grabbed everyone’s attention as Principal Jaffles tapped a wine glass with a tiny little spoon. “Well, wasn’t that delicious! Meal time’s over!”
Just as Joshua sank his teeth into flesh, it turned to ash, sending him into a coughing fit. Through his tears and his overwhelming sadness, he noticed the head table was full of teaching staff. On either side of the principal were Professor Crowley and a terrifying man with oily black hair and a sharp goatee. Both had big smiles and encouraging thumbs up, but were otherwise completely still and silent and also as thin as cardboard. Curious, Joshua thought. Very curious.
“Alright, now that everyone is settled in, it’s time to get down to business,” Jaffles said, tilting his head downward so that his glasses reflected the bright light from the miniature sun that floated dangerously above the cafeteria at all times. “We’re all hear to learn magic, and that’s all well and good, but the real reason any of you are here… Kukukuku….” He pulled a rope and the wall behind him collapsed into rubble, revealing an endless supply of armaments from swords and knives to ornate battle axes and scary whips. Along the walls were shelves and shelves of poisons and venoms harvested from every manner of horrible magical creature.
Slowly, chanting began around Joshua and the sun above them glowed a blood red color. Stomping the ground as they shouted, their words became audible. “House war! House war! House war!” In mere moments, students were standing on their tables, banging cups together, and somewhere a great distance away, a war horn sounded. Joshua suddenly felt one hundred times smaller, and turned to his best friend for support.
“Wilfrit, maybe we should get out of here!” he said, uprighting the squirrel boy, whose head broke off and fell to the floor. “What the-”
“Kukukuku! Settle down, children!” Jaffles called out, swiveling a glass of brandy. “Yes, yes, it is time once again to begin our traditional House War! Truly the only reason anybody comes to Douglas P. Willikers!” He smiled sinisterly at the bloodthirsty students. “Indeed, we all remember Douglas’s famous catch phrase!”
“You can die at any moment!” everybody said.
“Famously spoken the moment before he died!” Jaffles said, kukuing quietly to himself. “Oh, Douglas, my poor, dead cousin! How fortunate that I am still here to carry on your legacy!” He motioned towards an enormous portrait of a terrified-looking middle-aged man with a cowboy hat and a pencil moustache, holding a very small pistol. “Yes, this is definitely what you envisioned for this school, I’m pretty sure!”
A few seats next to him, a rough-looking tabby cat with an eyepatch and a cigar hopped up onto the table. “Listen up, you little rats,” he snarled, standing on his hind legs and scanning the student body with a single, judging eye. “I’m Professor Muffin, and I am proud to serve as the official arbiter for this unspeakable bloodbath. You got some kind of issue or some little shit decides to break the rules…” He growled, fixed upon the Snakeothies. “You answer to me.”
“Don’t call him cute,” whispered a redheaded Funbuncher girl next to Joshua. “He can set you on fire with a slow, adorable blink of his eye!”
Professor Muffin continued, marching across the head table like a military general. “The rules are simple. You act like good little boys and girls, make good grades, make great demonstrations of the bonds you’re forming with fellow students… You’ll get points. At the end of the school year, the team whose members have accrued the most points will get bragging rights, T-shirts, and a pizza party. If you’re a model student, you can become a very valuable asset to your team.” He smiled, taking a slow draw of his cigar. “That can be a problem for the other teams.”
Joshua was really annoyed now. On top of everything else, now he had to make sure his fellow students didn’t murder him for his juicy points that he was certain to accumulate, for Joshua was a good boy through and through. With his only friend being totally weak and definitely useless in a fight, Joshua Milton failed to see how his odds were anything but terrible.
“There are a few rules, however,” Professor Muffin explained, purring as Sixowls began to scratch him being his ear. “Listen to them very carefully! They may just save your sorry little behinds!”
Joshua leaned forward, ears open, wanting very much to survive.
“Rule numero uno!” Professor Muffin said, marching across the table. “Don’t die! Screw that up, and you WILL be expelled!”
Joshua halted his frantic note-taking, and wondered how useful these rules would actually be.
“Don’t even THINK about coming back as a ghost,” the cat said. “We have a strict KILL ALL GHOSTS policy. No exceptions!”
“He’s not joking,” Professor Sixowls said. “Not even Douglas P. Wilson got away with that. We had to put his soul in the Orb of Screams.” She paused. “I want to say God rest his soul, but God can’t hear you if you’re in there. It’s just round the clock, nonstop suffering.”
“That’s what happens to cheaters!” Professor Muffin shouted. “Speaking of: Second rule! Tail pulling is officially banned! Do you hear that, Nicholas? I swear to the dragons, you try that shit this year and I will personally feed your scrawny ass into the orb myself!”
There was a distant, disappointed “aw man” which came from the back of the cafeteria. Joshua raised his hand.
“You got a question, shorty?” Muffin said.
“Yes, thank you.” Joshua scrambled to climb up onto the table to be speak. “I wanted to ask, are there any rules I can use to make sure I am not maimed or killed?”
The other school teams burst into uncontrollable laughter at Joshua’s expense. “What a Fun Buncher!”
The feline teacher raised his one surviving eyebrow. “Uh, well. Most of the rules pertain to stuff you’re not allowed to use to protect yourself. No invisibility cloaks, no hiding in cupboards, no camouflage, and no protective amulets. Shields are straight up forbidden. If you have any sort of fancy blood powers from being half vampire or leprechaun or whatever, you gotta report it so we can give you a handicap.”
“Oh.” Joshua began to sweat. Carrying around a big shield was the first and only plan that had occurred to him. “What should I do if I am very small and die very easily?”
Professor Muffin glanced back at Principal Jaffles, who did a big shrug. The cat struggled to think of what to say. “Okay, uh, here’s a protip. Don’t try too hard. If you earn lots and lots of points, you’ll make yourself a target. If you get too few points, we’ll expel you forever. Safest thing is just to shoot for mediocrity.”
Joshua felt as if something was amiss. “So you’re saying strategy for attending this school should be to coast by doing the bare minimum effort?”
“Yeah!” Muffin said. “Sounds about right. I think that captures the spirit of Douglas P. Wilson perfectly! Not literally, though – His actual spirit is already captured forever in a nightmarish extra dimensional prison of endless puzzles and unspeakable torment.”
“Those were all fantastic questions!” Principal Jaffles said. “That deserves some recognition. I award Team Fun Buncher one thousand points!”
A leader board appeared magically on the wall, graphing the scores of each team. The Fun Bunchers rocketed way ahead of everyone else, with a big portrait of Joshua as the MVP.
“No!” Joshua said. “My questions weren’t that good! I don’t want this! Please stop!”
“Oooh!” The principal said. “How modest of you! Twenty more points for you!”
The score jerked even further ahead of the other teams, and the rest of the students turned to glare at Joshua, who had managed to secure an insane number of points before the game had even started.
Professor Muffin yawned. “Well, I think we’ve covered all the important rules,” Professor Muffin, rolling onto his side to take a nap. He puffed adorable little rings on his cigar as he started to drift off. “Everyone grab a weapon. House War starts… now.”
The cafeteria broke into complete pandemonium as the children shoved, screamed, and kicked their way through one another toward the towering arsenal of weapons. The Manderlie sisters twirled through the air like trapeze artists and got into the stash of katana swords and hand grenades before anyone else. Ricard Prisselworth sprayed a flamethrower into the first wave of Fun Bunchers that made it to the front. Joshua backed away. There was no way he stood a chance to arm himself, let alone fight. Those grenades were especially dangerous because they could make any, even a professor, explode. Joshua picked up Wilfrit’s flat, severed head. “Well, Pippers, I think our only hope is to run!”
Wilfrit said nothing. His face frozen, staring in judgment.
“Don’t give me that look!” Joshua said. “I’m not a coward! If I had big muscles, I’d be up there like the rest of them! But I’m not! I’m just a tiny boy and I’m scared!”
“You can die at anytime!” bellowed an older student, revving a chainsaw and barreling towards Joshua.
Moments from death, Joshua grabbed the rest of Wilfrit’s body, and made a break for the exit. Three-fourths of the student were out for his blood, he needed to find all the diamonds on the campus, his uncle was in the dungeon, and he was no closer to drinking from the Big cup. Joshua’s first day of school was shaping up to be really very crummy.
A lone traveler heaved himself up the great staircase so iconic of Dougie P’s, struggling to survive against the torrential lightning/meteor storm that had kicked up at the very end of his years long journey. At long last, he had made it. At long last, he could stop the prophecy before it was too late.
Faced with the gigantic golden double doors of the front offices, the traveler found that he hadn’t the strength to push them open, in part because they were so heavy that it often took twenty to thirty children working together to get them to budge. Nonetheless, he threw the entirety of his incredible weight against them and with a belabored scream, he felt give. Slowly, so slowly, he wedged himself through the door and plopped helplessly on the ground, soaked, singed, and at death’s door.
Attending the front desk was a seventh year girl with silvery blonde hair and an enormous pair of rounded, yellow-tinted glasses. Up to this point she had been absent-mindedly playing on an original Gameboy, but screamed for just a moment upon witnessing this near-dead blob falling to the ground before her. Promptly she paused her game and skipped over to help the poor man to his feet.
“Oh no! Oh dear, oh my, but you’re a mess, poor stranger!” she cried, heaving at his shivering palm until at last he stood towering above her. “You really ought to mind the weather forecast! Or purchase an umbrella! Or use magic, or… well, there are lots of things you could have done!”
“Is that… is that you, Floria?” the stranger coughed, wringing out his fedora. “Floria Maplehorse, the cleverest puzzle-solver to ever grace these halls?”
Floria gasped, and blinked four times. “P… Professor… Sweats!? It’s really you, isn’t it!?” She blinked a fifth time.
“Not a professor anymore,” Sweats laughed, sinking his massive weight into the nearest sofa and conjuring up lots and lots of paper towels to dry himself. “They forbade me from teaching after I tried to throw Murderdeath into a volcano.”
“He deserved it!” Floria cried, her fists clenched. “That man is truly an insufferable dickleberry!” She frowned. “We’ve all missed you… We used to call you the Exploding Professor! Because you frequently blew our minds with knowledge!”
“The exploding professor!”
“You called me the exploding professor?”
“That’s right! Chumford Sweats, the exploding professor!”
Floria pointed her littlest finger at an empty glass, cast a spell that sprayed it liberally with purple Kool-aid, and handed it, dripping everywhere, to her guest. “I’m afraid the timing of your visit is rather awkward, Professor. The House War has just begun, and we cannot permit anybody to enter or leave the school!” She broke eye contact with a heavy sigh. “Not even you.”
Sweats suddenly became very serious. “Floria, my little prodigy, I’m afraid my business is rather urgent.” He fished in his pockets for a list. IT WAS WRITTEN IN BLOOD! “This school has become a great danger to the world, and I must confiscate a number of magical and mysterious relics from its halls before things get out of hand!”
Floria attempted to laugh this off, but saw that her former sensei was serious. “Well, I’m afraid I don’t understand!”
Sweats put on his magical reading glasses and read from the list. “One Orb of Screams. One Danger Trident. One Jade Dagger of Fate. TWO Inferno Gauntlets. And, lastly…” he glanced from his list and met Floria Maplehorse’s eyes. “One Big Cup.”
“You must be mistaken!” the young girl smiled, twirling her hair around her Kool-aid finger. “Magical relics? Inferno Gauntlets? In my school? No!”
Professor Sweats hopped to his feet with alarming speed, bolted over to Floria, and flashed a badge in her face. “I’m not going to play games with you,” he glanced into his open palm, which contained an emblem of a shrugging business suit with a large question mark where the head would be. “You know this school’s dark secrets better than anyone else here, and I don’t want my organization to know that you’re a liability. We will stop at nothing to see our vision realized!”
“Organization Enigma!” Floria gasped, stealing panicked glances in both directions.
“Please, Floria… “ Sweats begged. “Cooperate with me, here. This is bigger than us and I won’t hesitate to remove any obstacle in my way. Not even…” the exploding professor’s lip quivered for just a moment. “Not even… if it’s an old friend…”
“I understand,” Floria nodded, flipping a light switch that removed the impenetrable magical forcefield protecting to the school. “I know where to find what you seek. Follow me, and be very quiet.”
She lead Sweats down a series of staircases, solved a light-reflection puzzle with such grace and mastery that it brought tears to the professor’s eyes, and lead him to an empty room in the darkest dungeon with a lone treasure chest in the middle.
“They’re all in there,” Floria explained. “The Big Cup, the Dangerous Trident, the… Silver Knife of… Death? All of the things you said.”
Professor Sweats smiled and gave his star pupil a sweaty hug. “I’m so proud of what you’ve become,” he said. “You’ve saved countless lives today.” He wobbled over to the treasure chest, twiddled his fingers anxiously, and slowly creaked it open.
Inside was a large bomb, its fuse lit and angrily fizzling away towards a fiery climax. Professor Sweats leapt back and pulled at his hair. “What the!? Oh no! Floria, it’s a bomb! Floria, help, it’s a bomb!” He turned back and saw that she had locked the door behind him. “Floria, get me out of here! There’s a bomb in here! FLORIA!!!”
As she walked back to her post, she couldn’t help but deliver one final message to her old professor. “Organization Seventeen sends their regards,” she said with a smirk. She raised a hand in the air and snapped her finger, and several seconds later, heard the professor explode.