he cauldron was huge. Bigger than any vial Aram had ever seen. Witch Betula was standing behind it, watching the class with her big green eyes. She had branches growing on her head, which were so long and thick it looked like a piece of the Wildwood had stepped into the Magical Creatures’ chamber. She was willowy and slender, her face flat and devoid of any mimicry, with neither eyebrows nor eyelashes, and were she a human she would be called weird and ugly, but with all the strangeness of her face Wch Betula was otherworldly. Ethereal. She was a dryad. Moreover, she was of royal blood—a first cousin to the prince of Celebtaur—the silver forest. Her classroom was a forest too, but not the Wildwood around the Academy. She had her own house, a vast arbor of entangled oaks and birches, with a needlework of leaves over the walls and a narrow but deep stream gushing from the underground and crossing the chamber with a soft babble.
“Today we shall talk of races,” Wch Betula said. Her voice was deep, velvety, and Aram thought he could listen to her speak forever and never tire. Gracefully swaying her slim hand, she summoned a long string of water from the stream into her enormous cauldron. With another suave gesture she woke the fire under the cauldron. “The majority of humans, we call them Edain, have pushed us all into one single category—enemies. But we do not agree.” Betula’s green lips curved into a reserved smile, and the branches on her head, already thick with birch leaves, bloomed with petite colorful flowers. “She plucked one flower from her branch and threw it into the cauldron. A violet steam coiled and danced above the cauldron, slowly becoming a human figure.
“Adan,” Wch Betula said. “A human. Humans don’t like us very much, but some of them, the least prejudiced, have become a part of our world.” She plucked a blue flower from her branch and tossed it into the cauldron. The violet steam turned blue and changed into many silhouettes circling above the cauldron. “The highborn,” Betula said. “Dryads, elves, nymphs, faes, dwarves, fauns, centaurs, merpeople.” She plucked a yellow flower and the yellow steam presented another group of creatures, although not as beautifully shaped. “The lowborn: trolls, goblins, ogres, giants, boggarts.” A red flower landed into the seething cauldron and new shapes circled in front of the class. “The transformed: vampires, werewolves, lychans. Stay away from them. All of them.” As the leaves on Betula’s branches withered, she plucked a dead leaf and sent it into the cauldron. “The dead: phantoms, ghosts, spooks, sylphs, specters, poltergeists. The race lists grow, new creatures come into existence every once in a while. Scholars study them and categorize. I will teach you who are dangerous, who cannot be trusted, and who can be your best friends.”
Aram squinted at the shapes spinning slowly inside the now gray steam. They all had looked menacing, especially the dead and the transformed. And the lowborn, too. And many of the highborn. He looked covertly around the classroom lost in the steam. There were a few highborns in his class, two dwarves and a girl who was said to be a nymph, but the rest seemed to be humans.
“Today I want to talk about a creature of the lowborns race, the Bizarres.” Betula swept her hand over the cauldron and the spinning shapes broke into fragments of steam. She plucked a single acorn growing on the top of her branch and let it fall into the boiling cauldron. The shape that grew from the steam was much bigger and more menacing. To Aram its elongated skull and arms longer than the legs reminded of an ape, and the clawed fingers and scaled body of a Komodo dragon.
“The Academy’s, as well as Amonshire’s security, is high, but Bizarres dwell in the mountains, outside of the town borders. They are fast, deft, and always hungry. It is strictly prohibited to go into the mountains, as well as staying outside after ten o’clock in the evening. Remember, Bizarres possess reason and are one of the deadliest carnivores of our world.”
After Magical Beings, it was hard to sit through two boring classes that were Grammar and Literature. And Mg Pilloy wasn’t as mesmerizing as Wch Betula. Skinny and almost seven-feet tall, he sat behind his desk for two long classes, simply reaching out his hand whenever he needed a book from the top shelf, or beckoning a book from the bookcases under the walls with a sway of his hand. Aram tried to stay alert during the classes, but very often his mind snuck out of the classroom filled with books from wall to wall and wandered in the Academy grounds.
The thirty minute break was long-awaited. Aram, Theodore, and Nick gathered their books and headed to the Refectory after snacks. Literature and Grammar house was near the arena, and passing by, all three couldn't miss the riders atop stallions trotting across the field.
“Cillian and his cronies,” Theodore said. “I’ve heard they are in the Pixie Polo team. There’ll be a game in November.”
“I still don’t get the rules,” Nick said, leaning against the fence. “And where are the pixies.”
“Pixies are not released every time someone practices. You need a special permission from the coach.”
“What if we practice, too?” Aram asked, throwing a side glance at Theodore and Nick.
“I don’t even know,” Theodore said. “We already have a lot of classes, so much reading...”
“Knock it off, Teo,” Aram said. “We can find time once or twice a week to ride a horse and hit the balls.”
“I can’t ride a horse,” Nick said. “I never learned.”
“It’s never late,’ Aram said.
“Nah, I’ll pass,” Nick breathed out, rubbing his stump.
“Will and I took riding classes since we were five. I ride pretty well, but I’ve never played Pixie Polo.”
“My grandpa’s taught me to ride,” Aram said. He watched Cillian hit the ball with his club while his stallion galloped freely across the tall grass.
“Are you as good?” Theodore asked him.
“Maybe not as good, but I’m a fast learner.” He glanced at Theodore, expectant. “Let’s sign up to riding classes,” he pleaded.
“Alright,” Theodore sniffed. Aram and Nick high-fived each other.
“But if you break a bone or fracture a rib, don’t blame me.”
“I won’t,” Aram laughed. He looked at the stands and saw Meilin, Gwenlian, and Karishma coming toward them. They looked gloomy. A few seats away Aram spotted Natalia and her gang of pretty girls sitting in a circle, with Natalia in the center, and laughing loudly. It was obvious they had once again bullied Meilin, Gwenlian, and Karishma, forcing them to leave the stands. They shouldn’t leave, Aram thought, they should stay where they were and retort Natalia and her gang. But then, the bullies only delighted when someone answered back. It gave them an opportunity to sting back, and the second insults were usually worse.
“Over here, girls!” Nick waved a hand at their girlfriends.
Aram looked farther at the stands and his breath clogged in his throat. The golden-haired ballerina and her friend were passing right in front of Natalia’s gang, moving toward the two middle seats. Aram still didn’t know the ballerina’s name or where she was from, and couldn’t think of a way to sleek his curiosity. He looked at Natalia. She was ready, waiting for the two girls to get closer before she opened her stinky mouth. Just the thought that the ballerina was going to be subjected to a bully’s humiliation pained Aram. Natalia said something and the girls around her burst into a loud laughter. Aram expected the ballerina and her friend walk away, just like Gwenlian, Karishma, and Meilin had done, but the ballerina turned back and said to Natalia something in Russian, which Aram didn’t make out, but which shut Natalia up and changed the color of her face from white to green. The ballerina and her friend calmly sat in front of the bullies and took out their snacks from their backpacks.
Aram chuckled under his breath. She wasn’t just beautiful, but also confident and fearless. She was perfect.
All six had Astronomy in the crooked tower behind the boys’ dormitory. Rumors said the tower had an elevator, but after none of the first-years located it, all of them, silently and disgruntled, took the spiraling stairs bedecked with images of the moon phases and zodiac signs, and climbed for ten minutes, which seemed like forever.
But the moment they entered the Astronomy chamber, fatigue was gone. It seemed to Aram that they had stepped on to a very big orrery, with planets spinning around, comets and stars crossing the distance and passing right through them. There was no floor, but the black and endless space, and no one dared step on it until a few of the braves checked its solidity with the toes of their shoes.
“Come in, don’t be shy,” said a voice from the other side of the chamber.
But the students still didn’t dare walk over the invisible floor.
“Desino!” the same voice said, and the solar system faded away, giving its place to walls and floor muraled with the maps of the night sky, and a long balcony with two dozen small telescopes and an enormous one in the middle, constructed of gears, lenses and a big compass in its center.
The astronomy teacher was standing next to the big telescope, waiting for the class to join him. He was a wizard, there could be no doubt about it. He was everything an astronomy teacher could look like: ancient, his white beard sweeping the floor, his long gown embroidered with silver and gold, his dark blue mantle adorned with astronomy symbols and astrology signs. The stars on his cone-shaped hat gleamed in the sun, and the medallions hanging down his neck clang with his every move.
“Over here,” Wizard Estrellio said, gesturing the students toward the telescopes. “Pick one and have a seat.”
Something stirred around his heels under the long mantle, then an undistinguishable animal slid out and rushed into the shadows on the other side of the chamber,
“Now look into the telescopes,” Wz Estrellio urged them. “As my dear teacher, Nicolaus Copernicus, loved to say, let us not waste a single star. Today we start from the Spellbinder’s Nebula.”
The students took out their books and copy-books and looked into the telescopes.
“Informative,” Gwenlian said as they were walking back from the Astronomy tower.
“Too much information for the first day,” Theodore said. “How Will’s able to be a Scarab student is beyond me.”
“Stop complaining,” Aram said. “One more day and there’s the weekend. We’ll rest and have a bit of fun in Amonshire.”
“Yeah, sure,” Theodore said gloomily. “With so much homework assignments we won’t be having fun until the end the semester. Or maybe even the ends of our lives.”
“Mr. Gloomy,” Meilin said jokingly, “brace yourself for the Flying class. Today we’ll be flying with pairs.”
“Outstanding,” Theodore muttered with discontent.
Around the boys’ dormitory Aram became quiet and listened. A sudden tremor made his hands shake and the blood rushed to his face. “What’s that?” he said. “Can you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Gwenlian asked.
Aram stopped, listened.
“I do,” Nick said. “Someone’s reading something.”
Exactly, Aram thought. Someone was reading something. Something painfully familiar, something he knew by heart. How could that be? How could those words be known to someone else?
“We swear to you this is for your own good,” a male voice was saying. “Please do not ever blame yourself or think you were unwanted.”
Beads of perspiration sprang upon Aram’s brow. There could be no mistake, and clenching his hands into fists, he followed the voice.
“Aram?” Nick asked. “What’s going on?”
“Who’s reading my letter?” Aram passed the pillars and peered around the corner.
A big company was sitting on the dormitory stairs, forming a half moon. Aram recognized both first and second-years, heeding to the one who was speaking the familiar words. It was Cillian’s goon, Andrew Redmeyne, sitting in the center and reading from a sheet of paper.
“And please, son, do not search for us. Try to forgive your unfortunate parents who are leaving you not by their own will, but because of unjust circumstances.” Andrew faked a whimper, making everyone laugh. “We will think of you day and night, and whenever you look into the sky, know that somewhere two people that love you the most are looking into that same sky and sending you their blessing.” Andrew finished reading and wiped the nonexistent tears off his face. “And there he is,” he chuckled, noticing Aram, “the poor soul thrown away by his own folks.”
It was noon, but the night arrived suddenly. Or maybe it was his vision that darkened. Cillian and his minions had snooped into his personal things, found the letter and were now reading it in the center of the dormitory courtyard. Reading and smirking. And the rest were smirking along.
“No, Aram!” someone shouted, but he wouldn’t listen. When the sight returned to him, Andrew was on the grass, wriggling under him. Cillian pulled Aram away and Aram punched him in the face. for the second time that week they grabbed each other and rolled on the grass. Someone was trying to pull them apart in vain. Aram punched Cillian with so much strength blood spurted out of his nose. The sudden pain made Cillian loosen his grip and Aram stood up, rushed to Andrew and pulled the wrinkled letter out of his hand. He scanned the letter that somehow, probably by magic, had been translated into English. Some pages were torn and crumpled, and it brought Aram’s fury back. His punch would have knocked Andrew out, but luckily Theodore and Nick dragged him away and his fist swept through the empty air.
“Don’t! Don’t!” Teo was saying. “Not again, Aram. Not worth it.”
“Please, stop!” Gwenlian yelled. Then she, Meilin, and Karishma surrounded Aram, blocking his way and not letting him lurch back at Andrew.
“The Artenberries will hear of his,” Andrew said through greeted teeth.
“Gather your stuff, foundling,” Lucas Barbosa, Cillian’s second minion, said gleefully.
Cillian would have said things worse, but he was occupied with his bleeding nose.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” Karishma yelled back at them. “You all,” she pointed her hand at the students on the stairs, who had been laughing over the letter. “All you lot are disgusting bullies. It’s his life, for heaven’s sake! How can you be so heartless?”
Some of the students sobered and looked away, as if they were there by accident and hadn’t taken part in another student’s humiliation. Some shrugged, others hurried away, well aware that detentions might follow like hot pies on Christmas.
Karishma turned to Aram. “Don’t pay attention to them.”
Gwenlian touched his temple. “You have bruises, let’s go see the doctor.”
“Crap,” Nick muttered in a low voice. “The Sullen One.”
Everyone in the courtyard went silent, for Wz. Persivald was unhurriedly pacing to them. His morose glance nailed every single student to the ground. Those who were hurrying away, stood petrified, and those who were still sitting on the stairs, gulped down nervously. Wz. Persivald eyed Aram, then Cillian and Andrew. Their two other friends, Lucas and Pedro, were standing by Cillian, ready to jump to his defense if the situation demanded.
“Mr. Cobo, Mr. Barbosa,” Wz. Persivald told Pedro and Lucas, “take your friends to the doctor. As for you, Mr. Nazarethian, at eight o’clock in the evening I want to see you by the Academy doors.”
“He needs a doctor, too!” Gwenlian exclaimed, and bit her tongue immediately when Persivald flashed her a glance, then strode away, the hem of his dark blue mantle sweeping the grass.
Aram heard gleeful chuckles behind his back but didn’t turn. Why Persivald didn’t give Cillian the same look was beyond him. But what mattered now was that the torn shreds of the letter were in his clutch. Torn, yes, but the handwritten words, though in another language, were still there, and the paper that had been once touched by his parents, though crumpled, had survived. Aram burrowed them inside the inner pocket of his jacket and marched with his friends to the Flying lesson.
He was inattentive during the whole lesson, and didn’t utter a word during dinner in the Refectory. His friends, too, were mostly silent.
“He won’t expel you,” Teo assured him. “If he wanted to expel you, he wouldn’t call you to the Academy doors in the evening. He’d take you straight to the headmaster.”
“I’ve heard Wz. Grindewald has expelled students for just one wrong word. You better be careful when around him,” Nick said.
“Nonsense,” Meilin said. “You’ll probably get a detention…”
“And detention is something we all will be getting sooner or later,” Karishma laughed, trying to cheer him up, but Aram nodded wordlessly and continued to stare into his plate.
At ten minutes to eight Aram was in front of the Academy door, ogling the chiseled images of the cat, the broom and the cauldron. The clock began striking, and after the eighth strike the doors opened and Persivald stepped onto the threshold.
For a very long time they walked in silence. The path Persivald had taken stretched into darkness, but as soon as he reached the first candelabrum, it lit up on its own, illuminating the dean’s way. As the eleventh candelabrum lit up, Persivald stopped, and Aram stopped along. They were in front of wide and narrow stairs with iron handrails. Someone had hunched over the stairs, scraping the cold stone with a wet sponge.
“Osvald,” Persivald said, and the man turned. “You may have your leave. Mr. Nazarethian will finish.”
Osvald wrenched the water off the sponge and placed it into Aram’s hand. Then he bowed to Persivald and slithered away into darkness.
Persivald looked at the wet stairs, at the sponge in Aram’s hand, then back at stairs. His slightly raised eyebrow spoke a thousand words. Aram looked around. What if someone from his class was there and would see him scraping the stairs? Unlikely, he thought. The first-years had nothing to do inside the Academy, but the thought still didn’t comfort him. Anyone could pass by those stairs and see him washing them. Persivald could have used detention, extra homework, but his choice wasn’t just punishment for Aram’s brawl, it was humiliation, too. Why, Aram didn’t know.
Aram knelt on the wet floor and continued Osvald’s work. The stairs were caked with dirt. It had rained recently, and it seemed that all the mud of the road and garden had slunk into the Academy, covering the stairs with endless mire.
“I need to change the water,” Aram said, when the water in the bucket became pitch black. Persivald pointed into the dark corner. There appeared to be a marble sink with a copper tap in the form of a mermaid with a jug. Aram filled the bucket with clear water and returned to the stairs. During the whole time that he scraped the stairs, Persivald never flinched. Like a stuffed dummy the wizard continued to stand in the shadow and keep his small gray eyes on Aram, who never once looked at him, but who felt that stern glance on his nape.
Still hunched over the stairs Aram froze as a pair of red velvet slippers with shiny half-moons entered in his vision, stepping softly on the stairs. Then the hem of a silver robe sprinkled with stars came into view. As Aram’s eyes traveled up, he saw none other than Grindewald Arterberry himself.
"Abracadabra: The Witchcraft Academy" will come out in the beginning of the fall. ;)
Follow my blog for news.