The hours until the Ceremony passed without another incident. Aram was staying vigilant, well aware that from now on he had to constantly look back, but it seemed that Cillian and his goons had decided to leave their revenge for another time. Which was actually worse. The more time your enemies used to plan their revenge, the harsher it would be, Aram was sure of it. There was nothing he could do though, except waiting for the day when he'd be probably beaten till bloody.
Six o'clock was approaching. Every student was to put on their Academy robes and wait at the front doors. Boys wore suits and pants, and the girls were in suits and knee-high skirts, all of them clad in dark-blue hooded gowns. They were standing in groups, and everyone whose suits and shirts didn’t have a badge had gathered around the statue of the faun, waiting eagerly for the door to open. The humming was growing louder with every passing minute, but as the star-shaped clock above the doors began striking, all the sounds ended and all the eyes stared at the polished suits of armors, whose crossing spears parted on their own, freeing the entrance into the Academy. After the sixth strike, the doors opened and two people stepped out.
Wtch Demetria was beautiful in her long purple gown that left her shoulders bare, but had sleeves almost touching the ground; Wz Persivald not so much. His face had the same sullen expression it had carried yesterday, and even the luxurious forest-green robe lined with meticulous needlework didn’t make him look more pleasant.
"Sixth, fifth, and fourth-year students, please follow me," Demetria said. She turned and walked into the castle, and half of the students in front of the front doors followed her.
Once they were gone, Persivald said, "Third, second, and first-years, follow me. And keep quiet."
The first-years were the last in the line to enter the Academy through the massive front entrance. Aram heard gasps and whispers from fellow first-years, heard his own heartbeat pulse in his ears as they marched down a hallway covered with deep-blue carpet and illumined by tall candelabra. The high ceiling and cold gray walls were smooth and polished and glowed with black, and the walls between the stained glass windows were hung with tapestries and oil canvases of people and animals, or carved with shapes of elves and dwarves gazing down at them with lifeless eyes.
The students turned into another hallway, and the windows and tapestries vanished, giving their places to suits of armor and burning torches. Wizard Persivald was moving so fast that the crowd following him was almost scurrying through the narrow passage. They took the carved stairs, then walked across another hallway, which was longer than the previous two altogether. The snouts of stone unicorns protruding from the walls watched them pass below. Trying to keep up with the other students, Aram barely managed to glance at his sides, sometimes catching a glimpse of closed doors, sometimes entrances into other corridors. He was sure that if left alone in the middle of that endless hallway, he’d never find the way out of the Academy, and even Nick’s expensive map wouldn’t help him out.
was inscribed across a golden plaque that was hovering freely inside the entrance to another hallway. Aram squinted and tried to see more of what was in that restricted part of the castle, but the crowd was moving rapidly, and he had to move along.
At last everyone stopped. Aram could hear the ragged breathing of some of the first-years. Apparently, none of them had expected a running marathon. They were standing on a grand landing lit up by bronze girandoles, and right in front of them, in a chamber with tall, narrow pillars and iron statues of dragons and gryphons, tables set for the feast were awaiting them.
“It’s the Feast Hall,” Theodore said, hurrying inside.
The two-story hall was probably round, but half of it was hidden behind red drapes, and the chamber resembled a great half-moon. The tables were shaped like half-moons too, and as the front tables were reserved for the first-years, Aram, Nick, and Theodore hurried to take the one in the center, then waved for Gwenlian, Karishma, and Meilin to join them. Once seated, Aram looked around the Feast Hall. It was bright, but there were neither chandeliers nor girandoles with candles. The source of light was something else, and only after turning his head right and left, Aram realized that the light in the hall was due to the crystals plastered across the walls, the pillars, and the dome-shaped ceiling. They shone with bright sliver and blue, but their light wasn’t piercing, but gentle, even soothing. Some of the students (probably the sixth-years) and the staff were seating at the tables on the second floor balcony. Aram recognized Demetria by the shiny diadem on her head and squinted at the people around her. They were probably his teachers, Academy professors, but there were fewer crystals above their table and he couldn’t make out their faces.
After everyone had been seated, some of the crystals dimmed out and the red drapes spread open, exposing a stage illumined by a single ray of light falling from the ceiling. A gentle tune began playing in the hall, and as a lonely silhouette slowly stepped into the sole light on the stage, the hall burst into long cheering and applause. Aram stared unblinkingly at the person on the stage. For the life of him he couldn’t understand why that old man in red fluffy sleepers adorned with half-moons and a velvet robe dotted with stars would make such a buzz. He had a pointy night-cap on his head and gray messy hair creeping from beneath it. On his pointy nose he wore a pince-nez that reflected the azure light flowing down over him.
The old man spoke and despite the vastness of the hall and the absence of any kind of microphone, his voice seemed to reach even those sitting on the far end of the hall.
“For many of you this introduction takes place not for the first time. But for our newcomers everything happening the last two days has been new and maybe even unheard of.”
Aram strained and leant forward, trying not to miss a word.
“I am Grindewald Arterberry, also known as the Old Loon,” the old man said, making everyone in the hall laugh.
“He’s also known as the Great One,” Nick whispered. “He’s just too humble to admit it.”
“This is him? The founder of the Academy?” Aram asked.
“Yesss,” Theodore hissed.
“Newcomers, you have arrived at a place where the impossible is the norm and the norm is extraordinary. Some of you have heard of this place, others are just discovering it. The Academy of Lost Knowledge will support you through your endeavors, but you also need to support the Academy. Every knowledge you receive should be used for good and good only. Consider this an advice, but also a warning. Enjoy your stay here, learn the ways of our ancestors and pass their knowledge through time, but don’t you ever let anyone corrupt you and push you onto the wrong path. Magic is responsibility, and only the responsible ones may possess it.” Grindewald’s eyes ran through the hall, and Aram stirred in his chair.
“He met my gaze,” Nick whispered in awe. Strangely, Aram could say the same.
“Newcomers, I welcome you into our big family.” Grindewald spread his hands wide, as if giving everyone a big hug. Some of the first-years looked down at their suits and gasped, others smiled delightfully. They all had received badges on the front pockets of their suits and shirts, a green embroidery of a cauldron, a broom, and a cat, with ALK embossed beneath.
“Academy rules should be respected. Wizard Persivald Arterberry is your dean.” Grindewald looked at the table with the teachers. With a click of his finger Persivald lit up a candle on his table and it cast a bright light upon him. The stern composure remained on his face, though he gave a slight nod of approval.
“They are brothers?” Aram asked.
“The three founders,” Theodore whispered.
“Heed to his advice and directions and your first three years will pass smoothly and effortlessly,” Grindewald was saying. “Afterwards, you will gain the right to enter the Academy, and your new guardian will be Witch Demetria.”
Demetria rose and took a graceful bow. The candlelight was playing upon her face that possessed a strange, exquisite beauty. But then Aram remembered about her white eyes and shuddered.
“Our honorable teachers and professors have asked me not to mention each of them separately, thus getting to the food faster,” Grindewald said, and the hall boomed with laughter, “but I still want to mention our guest, beloved Dame Iris, and thank her for the amazing attires we wear today.”
Dame Iris could be a hundred years old, but looked so full of undying vigor and fire, it was obvious she was ready to live another hundred years. She was wearing a bright red tuxedo and so many bracelets and necklaces, Aram wondered how that skinny frame of hers could carry so much heavy jewelry. She rose and, pressing a hand to her chest, bowed to the people in the hall.
“Her clothes cost a fortune,” Karishma said with indignation, “made for the richest of the rich.”
“And special thanks to Madame Francine, whose beautiful ballerinas will delight us with yet another graceful dance today,” Grindewald said.
Madame Francine barely reached Dame Iris’s chest, and unlike her motley clothes, the Ballei choreographer was wearing black from head to feet, looking a bit reserved, even haughty.
“Did you sign up for her classes?” Nick asked the girls.
“Blimey!” Gwenlian snorted. “I don’t want to hear about Ballei ever again.”
“Why? What happened?” Nick prodded.
“I’m too heavy, Gwenlian’s too tall,” Karishma said, her voice filled with hurt. “You see, Ballei is for tiny, gentle creatures, not trolls like us.”
Aram turned to look at the girls. Surely that woman couldn’t have said something like that to them, but judging by their sulky faces, she might as well have.
“Meilin, and you?” Nick asked.
“She was ready to take me, although she wasn’t very fond of the shape of my face, but I declined her generous offer,” Meilin scoffed.
Aram turned back to the teachers’ table. Grindewald was now thanking the cook and the baker. Trays heavy with food soared into the hall and the silver dishes and cut-glass decanters floated gently onto the tables.
“Enjoy the evening, young magicians!” chanted Grindewald.
The stone dragon coiling around the pillar behind the stage breathed out a long strip of fire, which swallowed the old wizard and half of the stage. Taken aback, Aram and Nick jumped up, but the rest of their company, as well as the whole chamber, clapped their hands enthusiastically, as at that moment four men with bagpipes, drums, and harp-guitars appeared out of the orange flames. Clad in medieval garments, they were playing loud merry music that seemed to be the favorite of the guests, for most of the students were on their feet now, clapping to the musicians and singing along as if they were famous rock stars.
“Local celebrities?” Aram asked Theodore.
“The Mediaevals,” Theodore said, swaying rhythmically to the music. Aram had never seen Theodore so cheerful before. He couldn’t deny that he too was loving the music.
Whilst some chose to dance, others were momentarily swept away by the delicious odor of the food on their tables. There was balsamic glared chicken and pork chops with sauce, brown rice and vegetable salad with basil dressing, broccoli and cheese soup, black beans and roasted squash and colorful lemonades that smelled of peach and strawberry.
The fire burned brightly on the stage, and the bards were now on their second song, walking freely inside the red flames and singing about the “Dragonson who stole the crown.” A dragon of flames and smoke rose from the fire and circled over the hall, boosted by the cries of the young guests.
Aram looked at the teachers’ table. Grindewald Arterberry was sitting next to his brother, round-faced where Persivald was gaunt, smiling where Persivald was morose, engaged with the performance on the stage, unlike Persivald, who seemed uninterested. Two brothers, yet so different in face and character. Aram examined the people behind the teachers’ table, wondering who the third founder was.
The second song ended. The soaring dragon returned into the fire and it spread all over the stage, swallowing the musicians. The dome of the Feast Hall opened, the starlit sky greeted the magicians, and silver fireworks shot into the air.
The fire on the stage had turned blue and was gradually dying away. A beautiful waltz started to play and something whooshed from the bluish flames into the night sky hanging over the Feast Hall. Gwenlian, Meilin, and Karishma squealed as more lights dashed out of the blue fire and span above the hall. Aram thought them to be big-sized butterflies, but as they froze in a pose of a seven-edged star, he saw girls on flying broomsticks, wearing bright-colored tutus and holding lanterns in their hands.
And for the next five minutes Aram made no sound and hardly blinked. With a gaping mouth he stared in awe at the girls dancing on flying brooms. The ballerinas were the most beautiful and graceful creatures he had ever seen. They soared freely in the air, moving in synch with each other, forming the shapes of stars and flowers. They hung the lanterns on the hooks below their broom saddles and lifted their hands in the air, crossing their lithe legs on the broomsticks and turning three hundred and sixty degrees, somehow staying effortlessly in the air, then flying gracefully in-between each other, revolving on their axis. Then the ballerinas swiftly pulled out the clubs attached to the backs of their tight corsets, and waltzing on synch in the air, began juggling the clubs first solely, then with each other. The brooms obeyed every light push of their bodies and it seemed that the ballerinas weren’t riding them at all, that the brooms had a mind of their own, which Aram knew already couldn’t be. They were just skilled and agile like majestic peafowls spinning in the air.
Aram recognized the ballerina in the sky-blue tutu. It was her, the girl with golden hair and emerald eyes he had seen in Amonshire. Her hair collected into a tight bun, wearing a blue corset and a multi-layered silken tutu, she resembled a flower, no, a majestic bird swaying gracefully in the air. With one swift motion she attached the clubs back to her corset and rose high into the sky, sprinkling silver dust into the air. The multi-colored ballerinas mimicked her, and the air above the stage filled with sparkling silver.
The music ended and the fifteen ballerinas formed a seven-edged star, bowing to their audience from the sky. Clapping with all his might, Aram peeked at the three girls at his table. Gwenlian, Meilin, and Karishma had tears in their eyes. They were staring up at the ballerinas without breathing, without blinking. Aram felt a twinge of anger toward the Ballei choreographer. She could have given a chance to the girls. There was so much yearning in their eyes that he thought about going to Madame Francine as early as in the morning and begging her to take Gwenlian and Karishma into the group. Aram knew it wasn’t possible. The proof was before his eyes: the ballerinas were the slimmest, most light-boned and slender girls he had ever seen.
“I could just see you three up there,” Aram said, trying to sound as sincere as possible.
“Seriously?” Gwenlian asked.
“Absolutely.” He looked back at the ballerinas, searching for the one in sky-blue tutu. They were still up in the air, waving to their audience. Aram watched them as they soared away. He looked around the Feast Hall. It was crowded and he had no idea where the ballerina in sky-blue tutu would seat after she returned to the hall.
The lights went out suddenly and the hall plunged into an impenetrable darkness. Everyone was expecting some kind of fireworks, but for almost a minute the Feast Hall was as black as the sky above. Even the stars seemed to have dimmed out.
“What’s going on?” Nick whispered.
“No idea,” Theodore said.
A faint red light shimmered in the darkness. It was the size of an egg, but as it moved slowly to the center of the stage it grew as big as a soccer ball. Aram squinted. He could distinguish a face inside the light, a very strange face of someone who distinctly resembled a human, but also had short horns peeping from the messy red curls and a square mouth that seemed to be carved from wood.
Then a second face appeared, and all that was seen of it were the whites of the eyes and the sneering white teeth surrounded with red lips.
The wooden mouth opened so suddenly that the hall gasped. It was a doll, Aram could bet on it, but it ran its big red eyes over the guests and said in a squeaky voice, “Did I scare them, Montero?”
“Oh, no, not at all.” The second man’s red lips opened and closed. “You see, they are not so easily scared. Which is a shame, actually.”
Aram still couldn’t see the rest of that man. Where were his arms and legs, his torso? But the doll had come fully into the view. It was small, its hands and legs dangling in the air, its red eyes staring gleefully at the audience. And it was so hideous Aram couldn’t understand what was the purpose of that doll’s presence at the Initiation Ceremony. He glanced back at the teachers. Candles were burning on their table, and inside their dim light Aram distinguished a mix of worry and wonder upon Grindewald’s old face.
“Why a shame, Montero?” the doll asked. “Isn’t courage a good quality?”
“Courage, yes,” the man said. “But not foolishness.” He took another step and at last Aram saw him in full height. He was tall and clad in a dark suit and pants, and was holding the wooden doll on his arm.
“A ventriloquist,” Aram muttered under his breath.
“Is there a fool here, Montero?” the doll asked, running its eyes around the hall.
“Not just one, my little friend.”
“Why?” the doll squealed. “Tell me why do you call all these magicians fools?”
The hall was quite. No one seemed to dare make a sound. Aram looked back at the table of the teachers. Grindewald was still staring at the ventriloquist. Demetria had risen, but was being held by her hand by one of the teachers. Persivald’s morose face had become even gloomier.
“I will not tell you,” Montero said. “But I will show you.”
Then he brought his gloved palm to his lips and blew red pollen into the air. The pollen danced and streamed, and to the sound of music coming from the man himself split into dusty ribbons, each of them snaking to one side of the stage and spinning into vivid and outlined images.
“Gather around people, let me spin you a tale,” the ventriloquist sang, “About the old times that didn’t fare well.
Once upon a time there was living a witch
A healer who cured the poor and the rich.
A changeling she was
Left in a villager’s care,
A daughter of selkie
And a dark forest fae.
To ravens she talked
With the she-wolves she played,
And learning their wisdom
Flourished this maid.
“‘Come over to my house
I’ll give you a cure,’
Called to the villagers
This heart kind and pure.
The times were dark
And the minds black and weak,
The witch was arrested
Condemned as a freak.
For five days and five nights
She waited in vain,
That someone would save her
From hunger and pain.
On the dawn of the sixth day
Of evils she lied,
And right at the sunset
To the log she was tied.
Till the very last second
She was hoping for help,
But the treacherous villagers
The blazing torch
Into brushwood was thrown,
And the innocent witch
Was burned to the bone.
While Montero sang, the red strips of light he had released shaped into images he was telling about: there was the outline of a woman collecting flowers into her basket, then brewing a potion in a cauldron hanging over flames. Then the long ribbons of dust grouped together, painting in the air the shape of the hunched man spying on her, the chains around her hands and feet, the fire swallowing the stake and the woman.
The skylarks were singing
With the first rays of sun,
When the villagers learned
That her body was gone.
A decade hadn’t passed
When the rumors were spread,
A mysterious sorceress
Brought evil and death.
For more than a century
Her loyal dark court,
Pillaged in her honor
And dwelled in her fort.
The red dust span into an image of a woman and other creatures, horned and hoofed, bowing to her and kissing the hem of her long robe. They came in and out of dust-made doors, until one of the doors proved to be solid for exit.
The Dark Age was over
As the Great Wizard came,
He ended her long reign
But never her fame.
And up to this date
The sorceress waits,
For someone to open
Arcana’s tall gates.
The song ended and the hall returned to silence. No one was speaking. And no one thought about clapping. It seemed that Montero’s song had put a spell on every one in that hall, and all they did was sitting still in their chairs and waiting for something else to happen.
“Did you like the story?” Montero asked the doll.
“I did, I did,” the doll squealed. “Delightful story, indeed. But tell me this, Montero, the gates of Arcana, will they ever open?”
“I think not.” Montero smiled uncannily. “But there is another way out.”
“There is?” the doll asked with a child’s naivety. “What is it?”
“A tiny treasure, little friend. But with its missing friends, oh so powerful.”
“It will let the sorceress out?”
“And what will happen then, Montero? Will she punish those who wronged her?”
“Ohh, those she has already punished,” Montero said, and his white teeth opened in a sneer. “She will do things worse. The world of magic she will turn upside down.” Montero’s eyes darted around. “Trouble and destruction, chaos and mischief. For the good of everyone, the treasure needs to be destroyed.”
“But where is it?” the doll asked.
“And what do you think, my little friend?” Montero said.
“Ahhh,” the doll squealed. “I know now why we are here tonight!”
“You are smart, indeed, unlike many wizards and sorcerers present here.”
“And what will happen to them?”
“That’s up to them, little friend. But as for now,” Montero’s lips curved into a wicked smile, “Abra Cadabra!”
The doll blasted in his hands and the audience gasped, blinded momentarily by the stinging red light. Aram blinked hastily and looked back at the stage. Red smoke was eddying where Montero and the doll were standing just a second ago.
Both were gone.