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The Worst Wizards School


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The old abandoned brick works were just out of town at the worst end of things. The crumbling brick tenements where the workers used to live were still standing and inhabited and after that there was the turbid little river and then the brick works. The train tracks that used to run by them had been torn up for the scrap steel and landscaping timbers long ago and even the gravel had been scraped up and dragged away, leaving a dead, lifeless path that ran to the ruined wooden bridge.

The few children who grew up in the tenements, where the rent was cheap and the land lords didn’t ask questions, avoided the brick works. There were rumors,. There were strange lights in the windows on moonless nights and many had seen the ragged robed and hooded shadows passing across the rubble strewn yard. Even the junkies stayed away. They said they could see ghosts around the place and more than a few went cold turkey after they did.

The boy who walked resolutely across the bridge’s loose boards one autumn day could see the ghosts just fine without drugs. He could always see the lights and robed shadows in the windows at night but had learned long ago to hold his tongue. He had a scar that ran over his milky white left eye and down across his lip where the closest thing he’d had to a father had slashed him with a broken bottle. His mother was three days dead, her eyes still staring blindly at the cracks in the ceiling of the apartment and a smile of blissful relief on her face. He hadn’t cried when she convulsed and lay still, but he had crept out from hiding in the hall closet to look in the cupboards for food and then slipped out with half a packet of crumbled crackers and a box of stale bran cereal. He lurked about for a day waiting, half dreading, half hopeful that the police or the government people would come for him but when they didn’t and even the grungy crumbs of bran and rock hard raisins were gone he began to go farther afield. The next day he found some half eaten donuts in the garbage behind the coffee shop before the dishwasher came and chased him off.

Slowly but surely he found himself drawn out of town towards the brick works. He spent a whole, starving, sleepless night staring across the river in dread. Watching the ghosts. Ghosts were nothing new to him, he’d seen a few in the tenements and felt a certain kinship with them. He too was lost and neglected by the world, hungered for things beyond his grasp, and passed unseen by the living when he wished and through walls as if they were only shadows. But these ghosts were more active, more alive, and more watchful. They patrolled the perimeter and thronged invisibly about those who sought to cross filling the inquisitive and desperate with dread and despair and an overwhelming desire to be anywhere else.

Thus he crossed the bridge in daylight when the ghosts were dimmer. To his surprise they let him pass unopposed, though several fell in behind as he approached the double doors which leaned against each other, crooked and ajar. At the threshold he faltered and looked back. The tenements stood silhouetted against the skies like the battlements of a fortress gazing across the river ever watchful against the terror of the brick works. Then he turned and finding the doors jammed turned and slipped through sideways.

The halls were plain, laid in brick and concrete dark with age. The floors were free of dust and the corners free of cobwebs. Though they were ephemeral, ghosts could stir up dust and disturb cobwebs but the hall beyond those crooked doors was purposefully clean in a disturbingly un-ghostly way. He could hear the distant chatter of voices and clatter of furniture and drumming of hurrying feet. And as the boy stood, eyes wide, half terrified, a long dark shadow fell over him.

Wheeling he found himself looking up at a tall stern woman in a severe grey suit dress. She regarded him coldly for a while then spoke sharply “Decided to join us at last Albert Tennyson?” He blinked and nodded. “You received your letter a month ago but didn’t reply. Perhaps you thought there was some mistake? Perhaps you thought you could get through life without an education?”

He stared dumfounded for a moment and then understanding flooded into his face beginning with the widening eyes and flowing down to the dropping jaw. He managed to stammer, “Is this Saint Augustine’s Academy of Natural Philosophy?”

“Indeed it is,” the woman said tartly, “I suppose you expect your confusion to excuse your tardiness? Was the address not plainly written on the letter? Was the school act not enclosed in the envelope? Was there no telephone number or glyph of communing? Or perhaps your parents never got the letter because you managed to nick it and hide it?”

The boy, who was indeed Albert Tennyson looked at his feet for a moment, then over his shoulder at the ring of ghosts blocking the way back.

“Well?” the woman asked again impatiently.

“I haven’t got no parents no more ma’am,” he said flatly, “I haven’t got no phone and I didn’t know this place belonged to that address. I thought it was just the old brick works. If that other page was the school act thing, the writing was too little and blurry for me to read it. I figured the government people would come around looking for me and take me to school like they always do. But nobody came and then my mom died and I didn’t have anywhere to go. So I came here because nobody comes here and I didn’t want them to take me away again.”

The woman glared at him so fiercely that he flinched instinctively, raising his arm to ward off the expected blow. “I read your file just last week, your parents are both alive, you live with your mother and your father’s only one town over though they don’t talk. Both have had some trouble with the law but that’s not unusual with our students. Saint Augustine’s deals with many students from difficult backgrounds and needs strict discipline to keep order. We have refugee children from war torn countries and the children of addicts and criminals, though indeed, most are just the children of working class parents who lack the gift and the wherewithal to procure placement in a private school.”

She waved her hand and said “records”. A file folder magically appeared. She opened it and scanned the contents. “This says your mother died of an overdose three days ago and your father is back in prison for assault and robbery.” She raised an eyebrow, “It was nice of the records department to keep me informed.”

A deep, hollow voice echoed from above. “Terribly sorry, but we simply can’t be held accountable for relaying events occurring over the weekend until Wednesday according to article seventy three subsection ‘c’ of the contract.”

As the woman looked up and launched into a complex contractual rebuttal, Albert willed himself unseen and turned toward the wall, intending to pass through it but in that ephemeral state the ghosts could grasp him and they did, holding him and turning him back to face the snarling woman who glanced back at him in the midst of her tirade. She stopped short. A look of great sorrow and weariness crossed her face and she knelt down to look the boy in the eye. “Albert,” she asked in a weary voice, “when was the last time you had something to eat?”

“I got a couple dry old donuts from a bin yesterday,” he answered in a small embarrassed voice.

“And you can turn invisible and walk through walls?” She seemed almost impressed.


“Well, we’d better feed you something and get in touch with the agency that will find you a temporary placement. This is a public school and you can’t live here you know.”

“I know”

“I’m sorry we got off to a bad start Albert. We’ve got so much to do here and they give us so little to do it with. I’m Mrs. Bradamite and I’m the head here and we’ll do as much as we can for you. We deal with so much of this from one day to the next that sometimes we get pretty hard on the outside but things will get better for you now. There are people who understand you here and can teach you the things you’re going to need to know to get by in our world, your world.”


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Mrs. Bradamite lead Albert down the hall to a set of double doors with “OFFICE” stenciled on them in black paint. Inside, a number of secretaries were busy at work with stacks of paper and old fashioned fountain pens. “All the other schools I was at had computers,” he said slowly.

“You’ll find tradition and simplicity are very important to us here. Complex devices like computers complicate enchantments exponentially. That means very badly. For every spell, charm, and binding resting on these old bricks to be improved to the point where they could account for every possible bit allocation in a single computer you’d need every magician in the world working for a thousand years just get it to work. No, the stenographers transend the documents to the Gnomish archivists and we can call up any file or piece of data with a single word. We outsource to the Gnomes because they’re obsessive compulsive as a rule and most can give any computer a run for its money.

She pointed to a bench where a young African girl in a crisp white shirt and navy skirt sat hunched over, sobbing. “Sit down there for a moment and I’ll make a few calls.” said Mrs. Bradamite as she walked through a door.

Alfred sat next to the girl for a moment listening to her cry and trying to remember if he ever had. At last he whispered “What did they do to you?”

She sniffed and stared at him with eyes wide as the moon. “They take my baby away and they say they give her back but they never do and then they send me here to England. And I has education and nice clothes and I has nice food and my baby don’t even have a mother. I not even know if she alive or dead.” The girl’s English was halting and she had to choke back tears as she spoke.

“I don’t think she’s dead,” he said softly, “I...I mean my mom lost a couple babies. She didn’t take care of herself and they were born half dead. I think I must’ve been too. But I could see their ghosts. They stayed with her, I think they seemed pretty happy, they weren’t crying or anything ‘cause they weren’t hungry or wet or cold or nothing so they just held onto her until they were ready to move on. And I don’t see any ghosts around you at all.”

“But I been here two years,” she cried, “and they says they’ll do what they can but they can’t do nothing so that’s what they do.”

Alfred looked away quietly thinking the girl didn’t look much older than him. Maybe fifteen tops. “I’m sorry,” he said as he struggled to make some sense of her story, “I don’t know much about any of that but can’t they just ask those Gnomes where your baby is?”

“Wasn’t magic folks what took me from Somalia,” she said, “I was a little girl with my mother and my father but then the soldiers come and says my father has to fight and they has guns and so he goes to fight. But the rebels come and take me away when he gone and they make me fight and they give me to the older boys to use and when I get too big to fight they going to kill me so I run away to the village where the soldiers are but my father not there. And these Americans and English ones there see me and send me to a hospital and they very nice and my baby come and the doctor say she beautiful and they take her away to give her shots but then rebels coming to the hospital. The American and the English ones say we has to go and they takes me away but I wants my baby and they won’t let me go back. And they say my baby is fine and send me on the plane for a refugee. Then I gets so mad the fire comes out of my eyes and they very scared so they send me here to learn witchcraft and I study hard so I can get my baby back.”

As she talked, a matronly woman in an apron came into the office carrying a tray with a bowl of soup and some crackers on it, which she gave to Alfred without a word. Alfred offered the girl some crackers but she shook her head. He ate hastily and even when the soup and the crackers were gone he felt hollow inside. “They took me from my mom all the time but they always gave me back. I don’t think she really wanted me back but my grandma’d always call her lawyers and make mom get straight and cleaned up for the judge. I don’t really know why, she didn’t want me around either. I wish I had a mom like you who wanted me and would do anything to get me back if they took me. It was bad at home but it was even worse when they took me away.”

The girl had stopped crying and was looking at him in a calculating way. “You been hungry and you been hurt and you been alone. In Africa we always think there no problems like that over here but when I come to this school I find out we wrong about that.” She shook her head and smiled broadly. You are a good boy and I hope you in my classes.” He didn’t smile back. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that he really didn’t know how to.
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