Oxwald pulled Joshua up the stairs of the Transportation Ziggurat, fuming. How could Bernard just quit the diamond inspection business? Did their rivalry mean nothing, after all these years? What was so special about teaching that he would throw away everything before Oxwald had the chance to defeat him once and for all with this enormous diamond purchase?
“Mr. Oxwald, sir, you are crushing my hand.”
He stopped. “It cannot be helped. Your hands are just so small and brittle that it is impossible not to. Anyway, we are here.”
Pushing the automated handicap door opener, the gates of the pyramid swung open to reveal a massive complex filled with every wacky form of transportation imaginable. There were buses, cars, bicycles, hang gliders, subway cars, magic carpets, riding griffins, and maybe like five other things. Joshua seemed too preoccupied with his crushed hand to notice how impressive it was, so Oxwald decided to explain.
“Welcome, Joshua, to the central artery of all movement within Shelbyville! Here we have every magical form of transportation known to mankind! This is where you will make the final leg of your journey to your new school.”
Joshua stopped being a wuss long enough to be amazed. “Wow. Why are there so many different ways to travel?”
“Well,” the terrifying ghost said as it followed them inside, “wizards are extremely faddish and they have to come up with a new zooky way to get around every couple weeks or they get bored.”
Oxwald glared. “Okay. That’s rude.”
“Which method am I going to use?” Joshua asked.
Oxwald ushered the child onto a cat walk overlooking a giant furnace. He pointed into the towering flames spewing out the top.
“This is the latest and greatest form of magical teleportation!” He ignored a snide look from the ghost. “I will simply hurl your miniature body into the flames, and you will be whisked away to the school.”
“That sounds really scary and dangerous,” Joshua said.
“Nonsense!” Oxwald said, picking Joshua up over his head. “All that will happen is that the flames will burn your body down to tiny molecules, which will twirl through the air all the way to the Dougie P. Wilson, where all the little burnt pieces will reassemble into your body again. I think, anyway. I don’t know how it works exactly, but I’ve been assured it’s extremely scientific.”
“I don’t like this!” Joshua said. “Please, can we go a different way?”
“Stop whining! I need you to get to the school already so I can get around to buying those diamonds! In you go!”
“Uh, hey, diamond guy?” The ghost pointed at a sign, which in small print requested that no one jump inside of the fire. “This isn’t the transport furnace. This is the trash incinerator.”
“It is?” Oxwald was terribly embarrassed. “Oh my. I almost made a tragic mistake. Then where’s the one for traveling?”
They turned around and found an identical flame pit on the other side of the cat walk. This one had a big sign with a pictograph of a man jumping inside the fire with a smile on his face and a big thumbs up.
“Oh. There it is.” Oxwald hurled Joshua into the fire before he had a chance to complain. The kid screamed like he’d never had his flesh melted before, and exploded into a shining assortment of whimsical floating motes which escaped through the ventilation system on their way to the school.
The more Oxwald thought about the school, the more he imagined Bernard being the best teacher on the campus. The notion made his skin crawl. He realized there was only one logical choice to make.
“I’m going too,” he said. “I will not let Bernard go uncontested! I will become number one teacher at the school, and then that smug bastard will finally be put in his place!”
“Oh.” The host looked up from his phone. “So you’re going to jump in too?”
“What?” Oxwald said. “No! I hate this thing. It is extremely painful! I’m just going to drive there. It’s only like two blocks away.”
“Can I catch another ride?”
“Yes, obviously.” Oxwald marched back toward the entrance. “It would hardly be courteous to refuse.”
Joshua Milton strained to open his eyes. It was very bright and very warm. So warm, in fact, that Joshua felt as though his flesh were melting off of his bones. It was very uncomfortable indeed! In between uncontrollable screams, Joshua managed to catch a glimpse of the world around him. It was very bright and orange, but there was a distinctive figure very close by.
“Hello Joshua,” it called in a calm, soothing voice.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!” Joshua responded, curiously.
“Who am I?” the stranger replied with a chuckle. “Think of me as your guardian spirit, Joshua. I’ve been watching over you for a long time and it’s time to pursue your incredible destiny.”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!??” Joshua asked skeptically.
“Why, because I have to bestow upon you my great wisdom!” the stranger answered. “We only have a short time, so I’ll make it brief. I’m going to teach you about the Founding Principles of True Strength. Are you ready, Joshua?”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” Joshua said with great determination.
“Good! Now, the first Founding Principle of True Strength is the principle of big muscles. One must have big muscles to be truly strong, Joshua.”
Joshua nodded, waiting for his guardian to continue.
“Well, that’s all of the Founding Principles of True Strength,” the guardian said, probably nodding sagely. “Armed with this knowledge, you will go on to destroy the Chaos Witch Darkovkar for good! Good luck, it’ll be really hard!”
“AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!” Joshua said, suddenly bolting upright to find three raven-haired girls hovering over him. In an instant, they scattered clumsily in every direction. It was difficult to tell, but they all seemed to be identical. Triplets, perhaps. Before he could size up the situation, an elderly woman with glasses that made her eyes appear to bug out approached him at an alarming speed and pressed a magnifying glass up to Joshua’s face.
“Hmmm!!” she hemmed, methodically prodding, poking, shaking, and inspecting the tiny boy. “Only a few second-degrees, you’ll be fine!” She decided, pulling Joshua up to his feet (an astoundingly easy task for even such a frail lady as herself). “Move along now!” She scampered away to some children who were still on fire, shaking her head disapprovingly.
Joshua looked around to find a sea of young magic children proceeding up the gigantic staircase that lead to the golden gateway that lead to the esteemed Dougie P. Williams (Shelbyville Campus). While some had taken the same horrible route he’d chosen, Joshua observed griffins dropping students from their incredible beaks, students appearing in clouds of ninja smoke, and several clambering out of Cold War-era nuclear submarine that had emerged from the nearby river. It was very whimsical.
“Hello!” called a voice belonging to a young boy. Joshua turned to find exactly that, a child with puffy brunette hair, freckles on his cheeks, bright green eyes, and a respectable number of squirrels frantically scampering on his person. “You look confused! Are you a first-year as well?”
“Oh, yes, I am,” Joshua replied, scanning the area for any sign of the girls he’d awoken to.
“Aha!” the boy said, lifting one of his furry friends and holding it in front of him. “Thaddeus sniffed you out! He has a sixth-sense for weakness, it’s really amazing!”
Joshua caved to this unwanted distraction. “I’m sorry, what? What are you talking about?”
“I’m a first year too!” the boy said proudly, tucking a frothing and screaming Thaddeus safely into his front pocket. “The name’s Wilfrit! Wilfrit Pippers! You look like you could use a BEST FRIEND!! Would you like to accompany me to get Orientated?” He gave a little thumbs up.
“Oh, I, uh…” Joshua stammered as the boy enthusiastically extended a fur-covered hand for shaking. “Okay… Okay, yeah, hi, I’m Joshua Milton.” As he grabbed Wilfrit’s hand, one of the squirrels immediately darted onto Joshua and fumbled its way into his pants.
“Oh my!” Wilfrit gasped. “It seems Mischievia has taken a liking to you! Would you like to carry her around for a while? She’s very friendly!”
Joshua frowned at the extremely uncomfortable sensation of a rodent twitching about his undergarments, but decided to entertain this new stranger all the same. “Did you take the horrible furnace thing as well? It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Oh, that?” Wilfrit said, looking horrorstruck as the unconscious figures of three more children erupted out of the furnace. “Oh, Jesus, no! I took the Kitten Carriage!” He motioned towards a bright pink carriage that had just arrived. The doors opened and a young girl tumbled out, covered in adorable kittens. She was red in the face from laughter.
“Oh,” Joshua said, ignoring the creature now crawling up along his ribcage. He looked around for something else to take his mind off of it. Then he saw one of the girls from before, staring curiously at him from the golden gates of Dougie P. Who were they? What did they want with him? Were they a part of his magical destiny or whatever the hell? She and Joshua made eye contact for a brief moment before she took off further into campus. “Wilfrit, did you see those girls who were staring over me?”
“Oh, yeah, them…” Pippers replied, breaking eye contact. “I, uh… I think you were robbed?”
“What?” Joshua, confused, dug around in his pockets. Then he froze. The single penny he’d be gifted by his dead uncle was missing.
Oxwald snatched his freshly printed resume out of the library printer, and proof read it to be certain the font was pleasing enough for the job he was applying for. He grimaced at how much he embellished his credentials. In truth, Oxwald only had 40 years of experience in the diamond inspecting industry as opposed to 70. Normally Oxwald was morally opposed to lying under any circumstance, but this was an emergency. He just couldn’t fucking stand the idea of Bernad being a success at an entirely new career without any competition.
Storming across the school campus, Oxwald burst into the principal’s office waving his resume. “I demand a job!”
The principal awoke with a snort and sat up at his desk. “Oh. Hello.” He wiped the crust from his eyes. He looked ancient, with a snow white beard pouring all over the place and so many wrinkles it was difficult to discern where his actual facial features were. “I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Maynard Jaffles, I’m in charge of this dump. Is there something I can do to help you?”
Oxwald slammed his resume down on the desk with a flourish. “You are going to hire me for your best and most important sounding teaching position!”
Principal Jaffles put on a pair of spectacles and squinted at the resume. “I thought we already filled the advertised position,” he said. “That dashing Bernard fellow earlier this week. That’s right.”
“Well, surely there are other positions that need to be filled!” Oxwald said.
“Well, now that you mention it, there is.” The old man stroked his beard. “Just this morning, our Magical Self-Defense instructor was brutally murdered by a mysterious and unknown assailant.”
“What luck!” Oxwald said. “The cosmos have aligned in my favor.”
“Well, not really,” Jaffles said. “We go through Self Defense teachers like popcorn. Seems like every month we have to hire a new one. You’d think given the job description that they’d be better at defending themselves against the forces of evil. Are you any good at fighting the legions of evil?”
Oxwald hesitated. It had been a long time since he’d been in wizarding school. “Is it anything like assessing the relative value and quality of large diamonds?”
“Oh no! Not at all!” Jaffles laughed. “Quite the opposite, actually. There’s nothing the Chaos Witch and her demon hordes like quite as much as large diamonds. It’s the source of their power, after all.”
“I definitely knew that already,” Oxwald said, sweating bullets. “Because I am exceedingly qualified for this job.” He was confident that, if he had to, he could leaf through a textbook and pick up the general idea in an afternoon.
The principal nodded. “That’s good to hear. I really didn’t want to have to interview anybody for a job that is basically a death sentence anyway. The job is yours if you want it. Can you start today?”
“You got it!” Oxwald said, and they shook on it. “Flawless sale!” He added, which was his catchphrase whenever he cinched a diamond deal.
The burst burst open a second time, startling both Oxwald and the principal this time. In charged a disheveled looking man in a diamond studded suit.
“Horbert?!” Oxwald said. “I thought you were dead!”
“No, you blithering idiot!” Horbert shouted. “I was slightly bruised, is all! And for your information, there aren’t any ghosts in my diamond mine! It was just a demon, which is a totally normal thing for a diamond mine to have! I demand you buy all of my diamonds right now!”
Oxwald scratched his chin. “I’m afraid I’m no longer in a position to do that. I just changed jobs. I’m now a teacher here at D.P.W.S.C.”
“Whaaat?!” Horbert lashed his cane around the office, knocking over a fax machine and spilling paperclips everywhere. “Then I demand you return my slave nephew to me this instant! I can’t have him here learning things when he should be at home working!”
Oxwald felt superbad about this mix up. “I’m sorry, old friend. I already faxed the paperwork over for his admission.”
“Oh!” Jaffles said. “Is this about that Milton boy? I already stamped off on his enrollment. I’m afraid he’s now fully enrolled and it will be literally impossible for him to leave. Because of magic.”
Horbert screamed, and kicked over filing cabinets and tore portraits off the walls. After he winded himself from his tantrum, he paused long enough to think of something. “Then I have no choice! I will have to enroll in classes alongside him and make every day of his life a living hell! I will make that child pay for what he did to me with blood and tears!”
“Okay,” Jaffles said. “I’ll get you an enrollment application. Your timing is impeccable. If you hurry, we can get you into the sorting ceremony and we can assign you a school house.”
The moment Greedy Unky Horby finished signing his wicked name in golden ink from his magical golden quill, the three men were brought to their knees by a piercing scream. Somewhere nearby, Wilfrit’s squirrels joined the screams in some sort of twisted disharmony while Joshua felt an abrupt stinging pain in his ears. Because it was loud.
“EEEEEEEEHEEHEEE HEEEEE!!! ALMOST FREEEEE!!!! I AM ALMOST FREEEE AND THEN I’M GOING TO KILL SO MANY CHILDREN EEEEEEEEEEHEHEEEHEEE!!!”
Just as suddenly as it had started, the screaming stopped. While Horbert and Oxwald were left shaking in terror, Principal Jaffles merely rolled his eyes and allowed his lips to flutter as he breathed out a heavy sigh.
“Okay, so, that’s been a thing,” he shrugged. “Professor…” He squinted at Oxwald’s application. “M… Mandy? Mandy, you’d better come along with me. As the Self Defense teacher you are solely responsible for the protection and wellbeing of every living thing on campus. As for you, little Horbert,” Jaffles smiled as Uncle Horbert wiped the sweat off of his brow. “You’d better run along to orientation! The faculty will take care of this!”
Uncle Horbert didn’t hesitate to obey, waving his arms in the air screaming something to the tune of “I’ll get that little orphan boy yet!”
“Er, before we go,” Oxwald interrupted, awkwardly. “Is it alright if my assistant comes along?” He whistled to the door.
Bothersnatch entered the room. In compliance with the school’s very strict KILL ALL GHOSTS Policy, Oxwald and Bothersnatch had fashioned a clever disguise; on top of the spooky ghost’s head was an awkwardly-fitted top hat, and a moustachioed face had been crudely drawn onto the sheet with a Sharpie. “Uh… Heya, my name is… Um… GREG?” Bothersnatch mumbled with a bow, careful to hold tightly onto the hat so as not to give away their ruse.
Jaffles furrowed his brow and studied GREG very, very carefully. “I’d hardly expect you to teach about the dark arts without an assistant,” he agreed. “Come along then, GREG.”
Principal Jaffles lead the two down a long, dusty corridor, gliding on his Razor scooter deep in thought. Oxwald and GREG giggled and high-fived at how clever their little scheme was.
“What’s the plan, J-man?” said Rodney the Magical Talking Razor Scooter. “That witch’s screams were quite a fright! The kids will be kept up all night!”
“I know, Rodney,” Jaffles said with a sigh. “We’ll figure something out.”
“So where’s your money on this year’s HOUSE WAR?” Rodney asked as the four delved deep into the magical hedge maze. “Snakeothy always wins, what a bore!”
“Actually,” Jaffles smiled, expertly solving a 9×9 sliding panel puzzle of a choo choo train. “I’ve got my eye on Funbuncher this year. I’ve got a good feeling about their odds.” A secret chamber opened up. Oxwald and his loyal assistant GREG followed silently, basking in the mystery of the garden’s numerous block puzzles and segmented statues that had been rotated in the incorrect order.
As they approached the Top Secret Treasure Chamber, a figure wrestled in the darkness in front of them.
“Uh oh, that fuckhead Murderdeath is here,” Rodney scowled, dropping his fun rhyming quirk.
Before them stood a slender man shrouded in a black cape, with locks of hair as shiny and black as oil draped over his shoulders. His goatee was trimmed to a sharp point and he had eyeliner liberally applied. The man was attempting to shove a writhing hand back into a big cup with the blunt end of a broomstick, shouting obscenities as he did so.
“Morning, Murderdeath!” Jaffles greeted, ringing the tiny pink bell affixed to Rodney’s handlebars.
Murderdeath groaned as he finally popped the wicked hand back into the Big Cup. “Sir, I implore you,” he said a low, smooth tone. “You must allow me to teach the children how to protect themselves against dark magicks. You’ve no idea what’s at stake!”
“Calm yourself, Betrayus!” Jaffles chuckled, doing some donuts on his cool scooter friend. “I must have you here as my vice principal, so you can make sure that I am protected personally!”
“She smelled diamonds,” Betrayus Murderdeath growled, displaying the Big Cup to his audience. “I’ve told you, Maynard, time and time again, we must not allow one single ounce of that wretched gemstone to breach these walls!”
“Oh,” Jaffles muttered. “Hmm, yes, I think there might be diamonds on campus.”
Oxwald was nervous, because literally every pocket on his person contained a sizeable quantity of diamonds at all times. “I… I believe one of the students had a diamond suit,” he stammered, smiling nervously as Murderdeath stared daggers into him. “Must have… you know, set the old bat off! Perhaps I shall go seize his assets!”
A bell tolled. Crows were startled out of position and flocked off into the the horizon in a loud cacophony. A tense wind disturbed the hems of Oxwald’s pantlegs and commanded Murderdeath’s cloak to dance around him. Betrayus’ gaze remained steady, and Oxwald felt a terror even his lifelong rival Bernard could never had instilled in him.
“The bell means that orientation draws near!” Jaffles laughed, clapping his hands in delight. “Betrayus, do not worry yourself with the Big Cup! Mandy and his friend who looks a lot like a scary ghost and a little bit like a demon will take care of that. Off we go! Wheeeeee!” Rodney left behind a magical rainbow trail as he rocketed off to the ceremony.
Betrayus Murderdeath flung his cape over his shoulder and began walking towards the exit. He stopped for a moment as he passed Oxwald Manderlie, not making eye contact. “I hope you’ve accepted death.” And then he ran out of the chamber with his arms behind his back like Naruto.
Joshua gave chased the three shadows down the winding corridors of the school. Faint giggles echoed off the hallways as they continued to run much faster than Joshua’s tiny legs could carry him.
“I don’t like this,” said Wilfrit, huffing. “We’re going to be late for the ceremony if we keep chasing these girls. Let’s just forget about it.”
“No!” Joshua shouted. “Not until I get my penny back.”
“Dude, bro, as your official best friend for life, I have to tell you this is a stupid,” Wilfrit said. “I can just spot you tenner if you want. That is literally ten thousand times as much money as you lost.”
“That’s not the point!” Joshua said, tracking the grimy footprints of the girls who robbed him. “That penny was given to me by my dear, late uncle. It’s the only thing I have to remember him by. I won’t be able to live with myself if I let them take it!”
Wilfrit watched as Joshua struggled to push open the door to the next room, his tiny muscles straining to nudge the hinges wide enough to squeeze through the frame. The door snapped open when Wilfrit pressed the wheelchair accessibility button, and Joshua tumbled through face first.
“Whoa!” Wilfrit said, stepping over Joshua. “What the heck is all this stuff?”
Sitting up, Joshua saw that they were at the top of a huge crystalline obstacle course, with giant buzz-saw blades, laser beams, flame throwers, and automated turrets all situated across a long corridor with bottomless pits and precarious skateboard grind rails to traverse. At the very end of this onslaught of navigational challenges was a tower, and at the top of the tower was a locked glass case containing an enormous cup. One might even say it was a Big cup.
“This is just like my favorite video game,” Wilfrit said. “Madden 2013 for the X-box 360.”
There was a scream. They both looked and saw three black-haired girls trapped in a magic force field while a stone slab above them was inching closer to crush them.
“Oh no!” Joshua said. “If I don’t do something, my penny will be squished and ruined! I have to get in there!”
Wilfrit grabbed Joshua by the sleeve. “The hell you are! Do you see all these death traps? You’ll get obliterated!”
Joshua hesitated. The weird squirrel boy was right. Any one of these mechanisms could turn him into into an especially tiny corpse. The smart thing to do would be to turn back, but seeing the big cup reminded him that wasn’t how strong men behaved. He needed to be brave if he ever hoped to have huge muscles. He yanked his arm free from Wilfrit, closed his eyes, and charged headlong into the obstacle course.
After a few moments he opened his eyes. He was surprised to realize that all of the buzz saws and firearm traps were keyed up to kill someone of significantly taller stature. He was able to walk around pretty freely underneath all of it without being at any real danger. It was actually kind of disappointing.
“What are you doing?!” one of the girls said. “Help us!” another said.
“Give me back my penny first!” Joshua demanded.
“There’s a forcefield in the way, you dingus!” The third girl said as they all stooped to avoid being squashed. “We can’t give you anything!” The first girl held the coin out. “You can have it back if you deactivate the trap! The switch is up there!”
They pointed. At the top of a spire rising out of a bottomless pit was a lever. Joshua scrambled as close to the edge as he could, but found the gap far too great for a boy as small as him to leap.
“Hurry, shrimp! We’re gonna die!”
Thinking as hard as he could, Joshua pulled Mischievia the squirrel out of his pants and hurled her across the pit. She landed on the switch and it lowered with a loud thunk. The barrier around the girls dissipated, the crushing slab receded back into the ceiling, confetti sprayed everywhere, and several robot arms distributed freshly whipped milkshakes to all in the room.
“Smooth moves kid,” one of the girls said, and flicked him the penny. “You’ve got makings of a master thief.”
“I’m not a thief!” Joshua shouted. “You are! Why did you steal my penny?!”
“For the thrill,” one said, shrugging. The others nodded. “It’s kind of our thing. Let us introduce ourselves. We’re the Manderlie triplets. I’m April…”
“And I’m Courtney!”
They each struck a pose. The three of them looked the same in their school uniforms, each one more identical than the last. “We’re all students in house Rad Lion, with all the cool brave kids who do all the extreme stunts.”
“Hey, you’re a first year, right?” April said. “You should try and get into our House. That way you can help us steal the Big Cup!”
“We kind of bit off more than we could chew with this one,” May sighed. “But with someone tiny like you on our side, we might be able to get all the way to the tower!”
“I don’t need the helps of villainous scum like you!” Joshua said. “I’m going to get the Big Cup all on my own!”
Courtney scoffed. “Good luck with that, pipsqueek. You see that grind rail over there? The one above the crocodile tank?” She gestured.
Joshua had to admit he’d never seen quite so many crocodiles in one place before.
“You’d have to pull off a pretty sick ollie to clear that jump. Only a member of Rad lion has any hope of getting in there.”
“Josh!” Wilfrit shouted from across the room. “Did you get your dumbass coin?! We’re going to be late for the house naming ceremony!”
“I don’t care how sick a trick I have to pull!” Joshua told the triplets. “I’m not going to let any of you criminals get to the cup first, because it’s got my name on it!”
“Ooo. Big words coming from such a little boy,” April said, cooing. “We look forward to seeing you pull that off. But we’re coming back tomorrow with skateboards, so we’re gonna beat you to it!”
The three girls made their way back toward the exit doors, back-flipping around obstacles, doing parkour and wall running around death traps. Joshua felt really lame strolling back to the exit like normal.
“Scoundrels,” Joshua scoffed, polishing his relinquished penny with his dirty old orphan T-shirt. “The whole lot of them, just an absolute menace.”
“You don’t care much for thieves, huh?” Wilfrit asked, looking back and forth between two impossibly long corridors, trying to decide which one led to the ceremony.
“I hate thieves!” Joshua yelled, stomping his angry little foot into the stone floor with a sound that could almost be compared to a squeak toy. “Every day, one billion diamonds are stolen somewhere in the world! Do you know how hard it is to dig up a single one?”
“It’s very hard!!!”
“…Well, Josh, aren’t you planning on stealing the Big Cup yourself?” Wilfrit snacked on a pocketful of acorns as a literal skeleton crew (because they were skeletons) hoisted a rope pulley that lifted the platform beneath them. “Aren’t you kind of… you know, doing a thing that thieves do?”
“I’m just going to borrow it!” Joshua said, folding his arms like an unhappy toddler. “I just need to drink from it once to see if that can get me big muscles!”
They slid four stories down a rainbow slide and landed in a bed of thorny roses. Ouch.
“Well, your muscles are awfully small,” Wilfrit muttered, attempting to calm his panicked woodland friends.
“Be quiet!” Joshua snapped.
“But they are really, really small!”
“No, hush!” Joshua said again in a harsh whisper. “Somebody’s talking!”
The two listened and, sure enough, heard a low, oddly-soothing voice chastising somebody nearby.
“…Do you understand what you must do, Ricard?”
“You want me to… steal the Big Cup?” replied a voice that must have belonged to a child around Joshua’s age, quite high and quite pompous.
“Ricard…” the first voice answered. “This is an extraordinarily simple request. Yes, I want you to steal the Big Cup. You don’t have to keep repeating it back to me.”
“You hear that!?” Wilfrit gasped under his breath. “Someone else wants to steal the Big Cup too! Maybe we can team up!”
“I do NOT want to steal it!” Joshua corrected, kicking Wilfrit in the ankle. “I’ll not associate with anyone who engages in thievery of any sort, do you understand?
“Geez, okay,” Wilfrit said.
“Grrrrrrrrrr,” said the Bengal Tiger that was pounced to strike mere feet behind the two tasty children.
Joshua and Wilfrit looked at each other, blinked twice, and looked behind their shoulders at the member of the largest cat species on the planet. They turned back towards each other, gulped, and broke into a sprint waving their arms in the air while screaming. In their panic, the two rounded the corner and slammed headfirst into Betrayus Murderdeath and a young magic boy.
“What the hell?” Murderdeath yelled, stumbling back as the three children crumpled into a little kid pile. “What are you two doing here!? You should be at the ceremony!”
“Tiger!” Joshua gasped, scrambling to his feet. “In the halls, a big, scary tiger!”
Murderdeath rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Are you stupid? There are no tigers in the school! Not a single one!”
“But…” Joshua muttered, turning behind him to see that nothing was chasing them.
“Wait… You’re first-years, aren’t you?” Murderdeath noticed, putting his palm to his temple. “You haven’t even been assigned a team yet.” He pulled the third boy up to his feet by his silvery blonde hair. To Joshua’s shock, the boy was exactly as small in stature as he was, though he had one key distinction; muscles. This eleven-year-old boy was cut like a fucking diamond. “You’re just as dull as Prissleworth here,” Murderdeath growled. “All three of you, get going to the ceremony this instant!” He flung his cape dramatically over his shoulder and ran off with his arms behind his back like Naruto.
“I’m Ricard!” the muscular child announced proudly as he led Joshua and Wilfrit through the labyrinthian passages of Dee Pee Wilks. “Ricard Prissleworth, the smartest student to ever grace this halls! My father is the richest and most powerful wizard in the world!”
“Okay,” said Joshua.
“I already know which team I’m going to be on,” he said. “I’m going to be a Snakeothy, just like every great wizard in the history of everything. Think of any famous wizard you know, not a single one of them was on any other team!”
“Toady Adams,” Wilfrit said immediately. “He was a Rad Lion. Uh, Julietta Gillensdale, the movie star? Also Rad Lion. General Snowbell was a Puzzle Pal. Hell, Principal Jaffles was a Funbuncher. That’s just off the top of my head, so I mean, your claim is objectively false.”
“Yeah, well,” Ricard smiled, at last approaching the door to the Magical Gymnasium. “I’m much stronger than you are.”
Wilfrit shut up and scratched one of his squirrels behind the ears. Ricard was correct. There was no retort.
“Hey, kid,” Ricard hissed to Joshua, hands on the door. “Snakeothy can make you strong, too. Really.” He eyed Joshua’s tiny physique condescendingly. “You look like someone in need of… gains. I can teach you. I can give you an easy-to-follow twelve-week program involving resistance training three days a week, light cardio in between, and, most importantly, a carefully-measured diet focused mainly on lean protein sources taken within a four-to-six hour eating window.”
“Not interested,” Joshua spat back, remembering that Ricard was as much a thieving low-life as Oxwald’s stupid daughters. “I’m going to get my gains the old-fashioned way, by exploiting forbidden magical powers to achieve my goal instantaneously and with minimal effort.”
“Have it your way, shrimp,” Ricard Prissleworth scoffed, though he seemed a little disappointed. “Better get used to relying on everyone else to do your work for you!” He smirked, and paused for an awkward moment. “Uh, squirrel kid… I can’t reach the handle. “
“Oh, sure,” Wilfrit said, opening the door.
As soon as the three children set foot in the Magical Gymnasium, one thing became immediately apparent to Joshua; they were most definitely late.
The entire gymnasium was staring at Joshua, their eyes wide and desperate.
“There they are!” a nearby kid said.
“Oh thank God!” a teacher shouted from the stage.
“We’ve been waiting for over an hour!”
Their new classmates piled on Joshua, Ricard and Wilfrit, hefting them into the air.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Ricard said. “Unhand me you degenerate paupers!”
The three of them were hurled onto a crude plywood stage in the center of the room.
“Hurry up and get your teams assigned, idiots!” Shouted a rando in the mob.
Sitting up, Joshua saw the old woman with the bulbous eyes who had greeted him on his arrival to the school. “Hello. Why is everyone angry at us?”
“All three of you are extremely late,” she said. “Principal Jaffles has placed an elaborate curse on the gymnasium that prevents anyone from leaving until all registered students are assigned teams. Anyone who tries to sneak out early for supper is fatally electrocuted.”
“It’s all here in the school brochure,” Wilfrit said. He handed Joshua a pamphlet, which had excellent graphic design. “D.P.W. Shelbyville takes its team building exercises way serious.”
“Get on with it!” Various starving students demanded.
The woman cleared her throat. “My name is Professor Bridget Sixowls, and this is like the fourth time I’ve had to explain all this for you lollygagging ingrates. Before our school’s namesake, Douglas P. Wilson, was sentenced to spend eternity inside the Orb of Screams, he expressed that he felt the most important part of any education. He said that intense, bitter competition and rivalry was all that really matters. So we’ve divided all of you up into teams and you earn point for doing school crap. Earn the most points, and your team gets bragging rights and you can redeem the points for school branded merchandise.”
“I want to be on team Rad lions!” Joshua said.
“That’s not how we roll,” Professor Sixowls said. She yanked Joshua by the scruff and slammed a VR helmet onto his head. All at once, Joshua was sucked into an immersive 3D polygonal fantasy realm with full range of motion and photo-realistic centaurs.
“We’ve got you on the overhead projector,” the professor’s voice boomed. “This test is designed to decide which team suits your personality. There’s the lame and harmless Fun Bunchers, the literally evil Snakeothies, the musclehead Rad Lions, or the legitimately good team Puzzle Pals.”
A computer operating system GUI window popped up over the fantasy world, and loaded a quiz website with lots of ads. Joshua had to move various pop ups out of the way to find a list of questions of multiple choice questions, with such selections as:
What do you like doing in your spare time?
A) Being really rad and brave with big muscles.
B) Plotting the demise of those around me.
C) Solving lots of riddles and getting smart.
D) I don’t know, probably being nice or whatever.
Trying not to get preoccupied with how obvious the test was, Joshua was glad the test was transparent enough that he could just pick what he wanted. He tapped the option that he loved being rad, and a the entire fantasy world flashed red.
“LIE DETECTED. SELECTING CORRECT ANSWER FOR CANIDATE.”
The option for being nice or whatever turned green and the next page loaded.
“What?! No! That’s not what I picked!”
The next question popped up: What’s your animal?
A) Poisonous, deceitful serpents
B) Massive, powerful lions
C) Something soft, cuddling, and dumb.
D) Solving riddles
Joshua knew the answer he wanted, but every time he slammed a fist into the choice to be cool and rad, the quiz auto-selected the choice for Fun Bunchers. Pounding his arms against the screen, Joshua was horrified as he cycled through dozens of pages choosing the lamest options possible.
Professor Sixowls pulled the VR set off Joshua’s head with a sweaty pop.
“What is even the point of making it a test if I don’t get to pick what I want?!” Joshua said.
“Look kid.” The professor tucked a goofy Fun Buncher ballcap onto Joshua’s head. “I’m not to one lying to himself. The app is magical. It knows when you’re fibbing. Now go sit down with the rest of the rejects.”
Furious, Joshua stomped all the way over to the bleachers under the Fun Buncher banner. Everyone had big goofy grins, and unicorn t-shirts and bad hair. Of course Wilfrit was waiting for him with an empty seat saved. Joshua fell into the seat and brooded over his fate. Across the aisle, he spotted Ricard exchanging high-fives with the snakeothies. Why the fuck did he get the school team he wanted?
“Can we go eat now?” Asked Wilfrit.
“Yes, sure, go,” Professor Sixowls waved them away.
The children sprang to their feet and sprinted towards the exit. The first one there was electrocuted and exploded into a fine spray of ash.
“Oh,” the professor said. “I guess we’re still waiting on someone.”
“That’s right!” The door at the back of the auditorium burst open. Joshua’s jaw fell open as he watched Uncle Horbert stride through the door, wearing a freshly purchased Douglas P. Wilson branded sweatshirt hoodie.