Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Trial Begun Judgment Rendered Found Innocent
Shiran had to wear the special circlet to the academy. It was only the first day of his mark, but if his parents’ tone had been any indication, there would be months more of it in his future. It wasn’t hideous, with its white gold coloration and central yellow diamond, but it was clear to everyone, student and teacher alike, what it meant.
He couldn’t take it off, even for a moment, when he was out of his parents’ sight. That would remove their protective enchantment and make him vulnerable to an assault. He was on the stairs that morning, the first class bell still five minutes away, when he stopped and examined his fellows. The Von Trayer sisters eyed him once but kept walking. The Nufinlin boy made a rude hand gesture, even as his nail beds glowed like hot coals and burned him. Those gestures were banned on academy grounds, but he’d considered it worth the pain.
Worse yet, it was his first year at the academy. He had no safety net of friends built up yet to help with the circlet’s presence, nobody to poke at it and make lighthearted jokes. All he had was his green uniform, freshly washed, his clean fingernails ready to cast the day’s spells, and a few enchanted books in his bag that hardly offered encouragement, even when they did speak.
His parents were moving up in the world, in the hierarchy of the Arcane Court to be specific, and it had given them enough social clout to squeeze Shiran, their firstborn, into the Academy of the Finest Adepts. In this case, Finest meant anyone over fourteen and under nineteen who could maintain enough magical focus to avoid transforming their hands into bats or frogs. That, and anyone whose parents could make generous donations to the academy’s strongbox.
His family did not have donations, but threats. His parents had recently been assigned as the prosecutors in an ongoing scandal of magical manipulation. A ring of influential magi had used their powers to coerce those without magic into all sorts of menial labor. They’d chained commoners into maids, butlers, gardeners, and farmhands. Untangling such strings from the mind was a long and arduous process, because you never knew exactly how much self-respect and autonomy needed to be restored. Some people simply were servile, but not as many those accused would suggest.
Shiran’s circlet, scaled up, had been invaluable during the trail, its magic protecting the prosecutors and judges from manipulation by the accused. It had worked perfectly, and last night, in front of a rowdy audience, the judges had passed their sentences. All the accused were guilty and would spend thirty-five years in arcane sleep. They would miss much of their family’s lives and come out of it with greatly diminished magical power, siphoned away as it was by the counting fauns of the dream realm.
The guilty had been sent to sleep immediately, sealed away in a mausoleum of sorts. Their bitter children, who still had to attend the academy despite their loss, were mixed into the crowd that shuffled up the stairs around Shiran. The circlet was on his ears in case any of them got any ideas in the same vein as their mothers and fathers. He had to live in fear of someone taking revenge, slipping strings and hooks into the divots of his soul when he was distracted by advanced incantations or hand conduction. The bell tolled. Its magical peel told each student, individually, what they were nearly late for.
“Hurry Shiran,” the bell said. “Professor Zizzlestik won’t wait on you. You didn’t do so well on the last assignment…”
Advanced Incantations Hand Conduction Animal Whispering
Animal whispering class was probably the safest part of the day. Each student got their own hutch where, if they crouched down, they couldn’t see any of their classmates. Shiran always felt odd doing it, as Professor Zizzlestik liked to stand outside the hutches and look down on them with a scowl as if they were flea-covered bunnies, but he was happy to get that scowl today. It meant everything was normal.
The animals in his hutch that day were in fact bunnies that came in several sizes, colors, and coats. His assignment was to speak their tongue well enough, and magically enough, to get them to plant a supply of alfalfa sprouts in a row without eating them. He had only an hour to do it, so he quickly brought out his book and recalled last week’s lessons.
Rabbits hardly ever used their voices, so Shiran had to make do with the twitching of his nose. His button nose was well-suited to the task, but the scent of hay in the air made him prone to sneezing. In rabbit-babble a sneeze was basically screaming bloody murder. If he gave in his charges would be too frightened to plant anything.
Three twitches to the left for ground, then two to the right for food, and then one to the lower left to say that the food should not be eaten. He got that far before one of the bunnies drew his attention by lifting their paws into the air and waving them up and down as one. Bunnies didn’t bother giving themselves names, not like those conceited cows and horses, but Shiran thought of that one as Mittens, given its especially fluffy feet.
He was nervous about leaving the other four alone with the alfalfa, but he sternly told them to talk amongst themselves with fifteen quick nose twitches. He poked each of them in the nose once to confuse them slightly. That way if they tried to collude with their twitching it would smart a little and discourage them.
The boy shuffled over to an overturned hollow piece of wood where Mittens was nearly in shadow. He asked the bunny why it had not come out to participate in the day’s lesson. If Zizzlestik saw one of the animals nervous, it could mean marks off his grade. Then, every morning that darn bell would remind him of it.
“I’m sitting on something,” Mittens said with twitches. He sounded nervous.
“What are you sitting on?” Shiran asked.
“Cursed thing. Somebody put it here for you. It would curse you if it could get out from under my fluffy butt. I’ll stay here though. Make it warm. Make it nice so it won’t curse anybody.”
“Who put it there?” Shiran asked. He fiddled with the sides of his circlet to make sure it was still in place.
Vanadine Mintinhoff Glarksburg
“The boy called Glarksburg,” Mittens informed. “Cursed thing feels gross, but I’ll keep sitting on it. No curse left in a little while. My butt is just too warm for nasty things like that.” Shiran decided to take the bunny’s word and thanked the creature for looking out for him. He was probably the best friend Shiran had at the academy. Even before the big case he got nasty looks and insults magically tossed around the school; they ricocheted from ear to ear until they eventually hit his.
They called him rat mostly. Once the case was underway some of those insults became much longer rants that he would have to dig out of his ears in the middle of a lecture. He couldn’t believe some of the things they said. The non-adepts deserved to be puppets. What good was a mind that couldn’t mold reality? Those who couldn’t were just tools, like coat racks or stirring spoons.
Shiran was so distracted that he didn’t notice the sound of all the points being extracted from his grade as Zizzlestik drew a pencil across his clipboard. Eventually he turned away from Mittens and saw his grade posted on the side of the hutch. The bunnies had taken the liberty of planting the alfalfa like he asked, but they took a cut of one sprout for every four. That resulted in a grade that was barely passing. Good enough for now.
Glarskburg’s mother had been put to sleep with the others. His motivation was obvious, but what was Shiran supposed to do about it? He could, as everyone assumed he would, ‘rat’ on the boy, but he wouldn’t likely win anything. A bunny’s testimony was not sufficient in matters such as this. Only a dog, only a familiar of one of the staff, would be considered reliable enough as a witness.
He could try talking to him. Glarksburg was on the stampede team. They practiced during second period, when Shiran normally took his lunch. That was his only chance to meet with the boy and perhaps calm him enough to prevent running into any other cursed objects. He silently vowed to do so as he finished the remainder of his lesson and waited for the bell. The last thing he communicated to his bunnies, with forty-five precise twitches, was that they should tell Zizzlestik if he ever started acting strange. The fuzzy creatures nodded along, more emphatically so when he slipped them an extra batch of sprouts.
The bell mocked him for his new grade as he left the main building and rushed down the stairs towards the grassy playing field. Why couldn’t his parents give him a circlet that kept out that voice as well? Really, any criticism was mind control if it was repeated enough. Perhaps the bell should’ve been jailed in dreams as well.
The stampede field was already chaos: rhinos running into moose colliding with bears and tackling buffalo. They tore up the field with their claws and hooves. The field would repair itself of course, the academy hadn’t imported perpetual-perfection lawn grass for no reason, but it still made Shiran nervous.
He tried not to picture the surface of his mind as the turf before him as he toed the boundaries of the field. Each beast was a student practiced in transformation. He didn’t know the exact rules of stampede, only that the most popular students had animal alter egos on the field. He thought he remembered something about each team being allotted two carnivores, two herbivores, one omnivore, and one bird of prey. He knew Glarksburg was on the team, but not what form he took when they practiced. His question was answered when one of the animals stared at him and wound up getting tackled.
The coach blew on a pan flute, dismissing them.
Rhinoceros Fishing Eagle Crocodile
A crocodile slowly waddled over to Shiran while all the other animals dispersed. A quick glance confirmed everyone else was turning back to their human forms, shedding the scratches and gouges they earned in different bodies. They helped themselves to streams of water from a levitating globe of it on the side of the field.
Yet Glarksburg did not abandon his reptilian form. Shiran sat down in the grass, legs crossed to indicate he wasn’t being confrontational. Glarksburg was a year above him anyway; if they were to fight with magic he would surely lose. His words were his best weapon. He wished he could take off the circlet to make his appearance more humble, but that would open him up to the mind control spells he suspected Glarksburg was eager to use.
“Your curse didn’t work,” he told the crocodile. The gray knobby animal didn’t respond. He just opened his mouth wide and let a low grumble escape. To everyone else it would merely look like he was enjoying sunbathing in his scaly suit. “I didn’t put your mom away.”
The crocodile remained still. Glarskburg’s eyes were blank, thought they stared at the yellow diamond on Shiran’s circlet. If there were any crocodile tears, he wouldn’t let Shiran see them.
“Okay, I’ll keep talking. You could get expelled for that. I won’t say anything this time, but if it happens again I’m turning you in… if you try to mind control me by the way, this thing will kill you.” He tapped the circlet. It wasn’t true, but he wanted to discourage the older boy from trying. It was only when he said the word kill that he realized how afraid he actually was.
The crocodile spun and lunged at him, the tail touching the tip of Shiran’s nose and forcing him to roll backward. Glarksburg turned the motion into a standing one as his body warped back into a human state. His sharp teeth were the last to go, shooting back into his jaw like bamboo growing into the ground. Shiran jumped to his feet as well, but Glarksburg was significantly taller.
“Big talk from someone wearing a tiara,” the boy finally said. His voice was deep, but there was a hurt knot at the bottom of it, like a heart too tight to pump.
“It’s a circlet,” Shiran corrected weakly. He touched the side of it again. Was it giving him a rash? His scalp did itch slightly.
“Whatever you do to me, it won’t compare to what’s coming for you. Do you know what it’s like to see your mom’s face go blank and know she won’t smile again until you’re middle-aged?”
“She… might smile if she has good dreams,” Shiran countered.
“We’ve already decided you don’t get to keep your brain,” Glarskburg threatened. A bit of the crocodile’s growl came back into his voice, resonating in his rigid throat.
His Crush A Teacher The Bell
Glarksburg pointed behind them, which gave Shiran a bad feeling even before he looked. He pointed too high for it to be a person. The bell. The lousy bell. Not only was it making fun of him, but somehow it was involved in the attempts to get him cursed or controlled.
He asked Glarksburg to explain, but the coach blew on his flute once more and the older boy collapsed back into a crocodile and waddled out into the field with his teammates. He’d said all he wanted to say. Shiran had another twenty minutes before his next class, before he had to sit in a desk, get stared at, and fiddle with his circlet until it felt less heavy.
That, or he could take things into his own hands. There was stair access up to the side of the bell. Teachers used it to magically transfer announcements to the bronze monstrosity. He didn’t know if it was capable of conversation, but somewhere in its hollow was the information he needed. He thought back to Zizzlestik’s sneer. None of the teachers liked him either. Only the bunnies were honest. Everyone else was mind control, subtle or not. The bell was always on his shoulder, telling him what to do. Perhaps it needed a good crack down the middle to convince it to shut up.
Shiran practiced his casting gestures on the way back up to the building. The school would punish him for using violent spells with a nasty burning in his hands, so those were out. He only knew a few anyway: lightning bolt, pain bolt, soft fire, shrieking boom, and rash glitter.
He was out of the sun now. The tiny wooden door that led up into the belfry was a couple hundred feet in front of him. There were other students moving to and fro, but Shiran kept his eyes on his hands. Something whizzed by his ear, knocking his circlet loose. He panicked and grabbed it, pushing it down onto his forehead. He put his back to the wall and tried to convince his breath to come back.
Nothing stood out. It could’ve been a hand, or a simple magic breeze. He had a sudden headache as well. His reflexive head grabbing had dumped some of the magic he was fiddling with into his mind. Normally it would’ve flowed right back out, but the energy of the circlet dammed it up. His eyes felt like goldfish bowls with more fish than water.
He couldn’t take this anymore. The presure was on all sides. He slid along the stone wall like it was the lip of a cliff until he found the iron knob of the belfry door. He twisted it open and slithered inside, clsoing it behind him.
The dark stairway smelled like spiderwebs and black leaves. The air was moist and he could hear dripping somewhere. Shiran climbed. He wanted to be right up next to the bell before it was supposed to toll again and tell everyone in the academy what they were doing wrong. Another incorporeal thing whizzed by his head. Another spell following him? Another attempt to take his mind? Shiran bolted up the stairs as fast as he could.
It was much brighter in the belfry, but he didn’t feel any lighter in the open. He half-expected to find a face on the side of the bell he’d never seen, but it was jut as the blank as the rest. He fought the urge to kick it, instead scraping the tip of his boot in a circle around it.
“Go on,” he told it, not sure where he might get. It had to talk. Everything was talking, telling him what to do. His parents were the circlet. Zizzlestik was his grade. Glarksburg was a crocodile ready to swallow him for justice he hadn’t even reaped. It could talk. He smacked it just gently enough to avoid a loud ringing.
“You don’t touch me,” the bell finally tolled. “Only the teachers get to touch the bell of Critis Crotics!”
“So a teacher has it out for me? What are you doing to me? Do you even make fun of the other kids? What’s the point of all this?”
The Circlet His Parents The Sleep Sentence
“Not a teacher, moron,” the bell mocked. “Your parents. Alumni are allowed to touch the bell of Critis Crotics as well. Your parents came by last week and told me to keep an eye on you, keep you standing up straight.”
“So you call me a moron?”
“Look at your posture right now, it’s perfect!” the bell countered. “I did that. Me. The bell of Critis Crotics.”
“What does Glarksburg have to do with you? I’m pretty sure my parents don’t want me cursed.”
“He tried to convince me to tell you to kill yourself,” the bell said nonchalantly. “He couldn’t make me do anything. My mind is impenetrable. He was happy to hear that I was insulting you between classes though. It put a big crocodile smile on his face.”
Shiran ignored the bell as it extolled its own virtues repeatedly. He even ignored it when it rang to usher people into their next classes. He simply sat down on the open edge of the belfry and dangled his feet over the academy.
He took off his circlet and held it in his lap. His mind was open now. The headache dripped out of him as tears. Briefly, very briefly, he considered indulging Glarksburg in his request. That was what everyone else wanted. Magic or not, they were controlling his mind and he didn’t know how to stop it. The circlet kept bad things out and bad things in. It couldn’t be the answer.
Shiran broke the circlet over his knee and dropped it. It struck the head of a strolling teacher below. That teacher was Professor Mantork, a fat red-faced woman full of rage and sparkling magic. She pulled Shiran down from the roof with one arcane gesture and held him three feet off the ground, but he didn’t respond.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” she bellowed, rubbing the welt on her head that had injected the last remains of Shiren’s headache.
“Nothing. I’m the only one worth talking to,” he said. He didn’t need the circlet anymore because he’d decided only his mind could affect his mind. He had a fence of anger now that he could fortify with all sorts of misbehavior. All Glarksburg, or Zizzlestik, or the bell, or Mantork could do about it was make faces in his direction.
Shiran stuck out his tongue and made a horrible noise, a decision he never regretted.