A Midsummer’s Nightmare
The Academy of Magical Arts was a place of secrecy. It was hidden deep within forests, far away from any city or town, its gates sealed with wards. All who were born with magical gifts were taken there, whether with their will or against it, usually from the moment their magic manifested. After all, magic was dangerous. The academy was the only place they could be taught to control it.
In the past century, only two without magic had stepped foot inside the academy. The first was a Bishop who demanded to know its happenings. He never stepped back out. The Church protested for a brief while but then decided that electing a new Bishop was less of a hassle. The second was a mother whose newborn child had begun growing horns and spitting fire. She did manage to leave a few years later, but had no memory of ever going inside.
This was why their announcement in the summer of 1882 was causing a quite stir. The academy was opening its doors to the general public for one night for the first time in centuries. It was promised to be a night of never-before-seen wonders, of unimaginable marvels, of magnificence.
Laurel Kinney had never been outside London before. She never thought it necessary to leave the heart of the Great British Empire. Her lungs had been filled with smog from the day she was born, and it almost felt strange, unnatural, to breathe in untainted uncontaminated air from the countryside. Yet somehow here she was, having begged a few days off work to attend the opening of the academy.
“What was the point?” her boss had argued. “We’ve already witnessed so many technological wonders in recent years that may as well be magic.”
But he acquiesced with the promise that she would finish looking through the Silk Emporium’s payroll for Mr Fiddler by Wednesday.
The Academy of Magical Arts was already bustling with activity by the time she arrived. Her carriage had been caught up by the sudden influx of travellers. The golden gates, shaped into a snarling dragon, were flung open, and she poured with the rest of the crowds up the main pathway and into the academy. There, she found her heart nearly stop in excitement.
Laurel had been in Westminster Abbey on one occasion, but the splendour of this great hall surpassed anything she had ever seen before. The ceiling swirled with stars and cosmic entities. The walls bloomed with flowers. The air was drenched with warmth, laughter, and perfumed scents.
Everywhere she looked was a new marvel. To her left was a woman was entertaining children by blowing enormous gold-sheen bubbles from a pipe. To her right, three violins and a cello were playing by themselves, conducted by a man with a brilliant green moustache. Live songbirds were clinging to the ivy on the walls, their plumage bright and lustrous, and clouds of butterflies were forming shimmering rainbows.
As she moved through the hall, Laurel found her hand caught and clasped by a masked young woman. The only features revealed by her wolf-shaped mask were laughing eyes.
“A pretty gift for the pretty lady,” the woman winked as something was pressed into Laurel’s palm.
It was small, warm and faceted. A crystal of sorts. Deep blue in colour and seemingly pulsing with an inner light. Laurel looked up to thank the woman but she had already disappeared. The crystal regained her attention as it started trembling in her palm. She cried out in astonishment as it shattered and a butterfly with wings the same colour as the crystal emerged. The butterfly fluttered its damp wings once, twice, before leaving her hand to join its brethren in the air.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” said a man next to her. “They could be sharing their gifts to better the world and instead they spend it on frivolities like this.”
He was tall and well-dressed compared to the rest of the guests, his hair neatly parted to the side and his hands enclosed in soft leather gloves. His overcoat seemed almost too stifling in the warmth of the hall.
“Thaddeus Hayes,” he offered when he noticed her staring. He looked like he wanted to say more but he was pulled aside by a similarly dressed companion: an older man with a bristly moustache. “I hope you enjoy your evening.”
Laurel continued into the hall. The butterfly cocoon was not the only gift she received that night. Somebody handed her a stick of spun sugar that felt as light as air in her mouth but melted into honeyed spices and buttery warmth. She licked at it while watching an elaborate shadow puppet show played against a white screen. An audience of children surrounded her, giggling and cooing, each clutching a cotton candy of their own in their pudgy hands.
At the end of the hall, just before the grand staircase was a shallow golden pond. It was covered entirely in floating white lilies. There was a girl dancing in the pond: the loveliest and most graceful creature Laurel had ever seen. Each movement, each sweep of her pale legs, each flick of her ankles, sent ripples shivering across the surface of the pond. The more she danced, the greater the lilies bloomed. Laurel moved closer, entranced, pushing past several gentlemen and a woman in red. The girl’s eyes were closed, her mouth parted in an expression of contentment. Laurel propped her elbows against the rim of the pond and rested her chin in her hands.
Something behind the girl caught Laurel’s attention. The lily furthest on the furthest side of the pond was withering. Laurel frowned, watching as its broad white petals slowly shrivelled inwards. Then the lily next to it withered, and the lily after that, and the lily after that.
Laurel glanced around. Nobody else seemed to be noticing. The dancing girl didn’t notice until her ankle brushed against one of the dying lilies. Her danced faltered. She looked down to the field of dead flowers, her expression shifting from contentment to horror. Then she collapsed into the pond with a splash.
Laurel staggered back. Numbness was spreading up her arms from where the water sloshed against it. The music stopped. Screams erupted.
The last thing she was aware of before darkness ate her vision was a hand tight around her wrist and a voice shouting in her ear.
A voice broke through Laurel’s consciousness. It held so much authority that she immediately felt the need to obey even though her limbs weren’t cooperating. All she could do was force her eyes open. A swirling nebula greeted her. It twinkled gently from an ocean of stars. She had never seen so many stars before, not in London’s polluted skies.
She gradually realised she was staring at the ceiling of the Academy of Magical Arts. The hall had been so brightly lit before that she almost didn’t recognise it in the darkness.
She rolled to her elbows. And immediately wished she hadn’t.
There were bodies all around her. Young, old, men and women. Some were only children, the same children she had seen laughing at golden bubbles and shadow puppets earlier. They all lay with their faces contorted in fear but their bodies were otherwise untouched. Bile began to rise in her throat.
“Ah, so you’re alive after all.”
Laurel lifted her head. The voice, it seemed, belonged to the woman in red Laurel had pushed past earlier. She stood several feet away from Laurel, straight-backed and an elegant contrast to the bodies surrounding her. Her dress was the colour of blood and it spilled around her in satiny folds. There was a man kneeling in front of her. Though his face was only illuminated by starlight, Laurel recognised him as well. He was the one who introduced himself to her as Thaddeus Hayes.
“Do you know what happened here?” the woman asked.
Thaddeus ran a shaking hand through his hair and managed a glare at the woman. “This is magic at work. Shouldn’t you understand more than I?”
“I am not the stranger at this academy.”
It was almost surreal watching the two of them converse, their voices echoing in the vast empty hall that had been once filled with light and music. They were the only two beings in the vicinity that were still moving. Even the flowers growing along the walls had withered.
“Uh, sorry, excuse me,” Laurel said, pushing herself onto her knees. Her voice quavered. “But, are they…are they all dead?”
Both turned to stare at her. The woman’s gaze was terrifyingly domineering. Thaddeus looked like how Laurel felt.
“Yes,” said the woman softly, “everyone is dead. Everyone except for us.”
Laurel didn’t exactly remember how she was moved from the hall to a small antechamber. She remembered, distantly, Thaddeus muttering about ‘women’ and ‘hysteria’ as he gathered her in his arms. She remembered him stumbling over a feathered lump on the floor: one of those brightly plumaged birds that had been singing on the ivy. She remembered seeing the girl in the pond as they passed, floating face-down with dead lilies tangled in the tendrils of her hair. And she remembered a child’s laughter, or the memory of one, echoing around the great hall.
The fireplace blazed as soon as they entered the antechamber. It illuminated a single desk, chair, and a shelf of odd knickknacks. Laurel was deposited into the chair and the woman in red sat on the desk after shifting aside a stack of papers and a skull-shaped paperweight. She clasped her hands on her satin skirts.
“I am the headmistress, Hesperia,” she said. “I welcome you both, though I suspect this was not the warmest welcome you could’ve received.
“You are very young for a headmistress, Miss Hesperia,” said Thaddeus. She raised an eyebrow.
“How young do you think I am?”
Not much older than Laurel. Laurel decided against voicing this aloud. She wasn’t sure she could open her mouth without retching.
“Tonight was of much significance,” Hesperia continued. “My students would finally get a glimpse of the outside world, and the outside world would be more understanding of what we do in here. However, it seems someone had the audacity to use black magic in my academy. We are only three who survived. I was able to counter the magic and protect the girl. I’m not sure how you survived.”
Instead of responding verbally, Thaddeus reached into his overcoat and pulled out a pendant. It was attached to his neck with a leather tie and looked as though it was made of polished bone. Hesperia plucked it out of his grasp, turning it between her forefinger and thumb as she examined the strange inscriptions carved into it.
“This is from Mesopotamia, am I correct?” she said, allowing the pendant to fall back to Thaddeus’ chest. “Very powerful, and very rare. Why do you carry such a thing? Who are you?”
For a moment, it seemed Thaddeus was hesitant to answer. Then an expression of resignation overcame him. He avoided eye-contact as he tucked the pendant into his overcoat and said, “My name is Thaddeus Hayes. I represent the Church.”
“The Church, of course,” said Hesperia, pressing a hand to her face. “And you?”
It took a while for Laurel to realise she was addressing her. “Oh, uh…I am Laurel Kinney, representing the Institute of Chartered Accountants.”
Thaddeus’ grimace indicated that he didn’t appreciate the joke but Hesperia tilted her head in curiosity.
“Well technically I don’t represent them because they haven’t started admitting women-” Laurel rambled.
“I help manage finances. You know, keep track of payrolls and taxes and such.”
“Ah. We have no use for such things.” Thaddeus cleared his throat loudly.
Hesperia glared at him. “Mr Hayes, seeing as you seem to have experience with magic, I am hoping you can assist me in catching the perpetrator. I cannot sense any other living beings in this school so they are either dead or skilled at concealing themselves from me. We will first investigate the north tower to see if they are after the artefacts stored there.”
Thaddeus, who had been examining a painting of a witch burning on the wall, nodded. “And, Miss Kinney, you are to stay here.”
Laurel, who had been examining Thaddeus examining the painting, started. She scrambled to her feet. “I wish to go home, if you don’t mind.”
“You cannot go home until this matter is resolved,” said Hesperia. “I have reactivated the protective wards of the academy. Nobody is entering or leaving. If you do not wish to stay here, then come with us.”
“I’ll…do that then.”
The path to the north tower passed the great hall again, and all the motionless bodies illuminated by stars. Laurel choked back a sob. Thaddeus placed a gloved hand on her cheek and directed her gaze to the floor.
“Should we be worried about sickness from the bodies?” he asked Hesperia.
“Sickness won’t touch them. After we resolve this matter, I will ensure they receive proper burials from their families.”
Even after the hall disappeared from their sight, Thaddeus kept his hand on her, though he shifted it to her shoulder. Laurel was grateful for it. She suspected that he needed this form of comfort as well.
“Do you think we can trust her?” he said quietly as they walked through a long hallway of portraits.
The portraits were frightening. Laurel wondered if they were of past students and teachers, though some depicted reptilian faces instead of human.
“I don’t think we have a choice.”
Thaddeus huffed. “Because she is the only survivor? She is not as kind as she pretends to be. Fifty years ago, the Archbishop of York entered here and never left.”
“You can choose not to trust me,” Hesperia called out, not turning around, “and wait for me in that antechamber. But do not dare insinuate that I would kill my own students. My school does not tolerate black magic.”
Thaddeus pressed his mouth into a line.
“And Archbishop stayed of his own will. He managed to convert several students and sustain a lovely vegetable patch. We even built a chapel in his honour after he died.”
They continued in silence after that. The corridor ended at a massive circular staircase, which had Laurel’s sides burning with every step she climbed, and the staircase ended at a set of metal doors. There was no keyhole or door handle, but at Hesperia’s presence they opened.
Moonlight bathed the room in an soft glow. There were many strange and curious objects: a collection of swords displayed on the wall, each with shining jewels encrusted into their handles or symbols inscribed into their blades; a crystal wind chime that tinkled with every non-existent gust of wind, its music reminding Laurel of a child’s laughter. The skeleton of an enormous creature was suspended from the ceiling. It could’ve been a dragon, but it had six legs and no wings and it was unlike any dragon Laurel had ever seen before. Each tooth in its massive jaws was at least the length of her hand. Glowing dust particles drifted through the air, and layer of dust swathed everything except for a three-metre mirror with ornate gold gilding.
“Stay here and don’t touch anything,” said Hesperia.
She moved into the room. Though she passed the gold-gilded mirror, her reflection did not show. As she disappeared behind a sarcophagus that looked like it could contain three men abreast, Laurel took the opportunity to lean against the metal doors and slide until she was resting on knees.
Thaddeus sat down beside her. His eyes flickered between the artefacts in the room and Laurel wondered if he was taking mental notes to bring back to his church.
“Your companion,” she said, a memory jolting her. “You were with someone when I met you in the hall. He worked with you, did he not? Why didn’t he survive?”
Thaddeus jerked his head towards her. Before he could say anything, he was interrupted with a, “Companion? There was another one of you?”
Hesperia stood before them. Her expression was unreadable.
“None of the artefacts have been disturbed,” she said, “which means my original hypothesis is wrong. But I am interested in hearing more about your companion.”
Thaddeus said nothing so Laurel spoke in his place. “He was older, grey-haired. I thought he was your superior.”
“And yet there was nobody beside you when I found you. Tell me, Mr Hayes, did he leave the hall? Was he under instructions to investigate the academy.”
Thaddeus continued saying nothing. This time, Laurel couldn’t answer for him.
“I had wards in place to discourage intruders, but he knew how to circumvent them, didn’t he?” said Hesperia. Without waiting for the non-forthcoming response, she turned away and said almost to herself, “But there is nothing…”
She stopped. Her entire demeanour seemed to change.
Even when she had been surrounded by her dead students, she had been nothing but collected, but now there was fear in her eyes, colour draining from her face. Abruptly, the metal door Laurel had been leaning against slid open. Laurel fell forwards with a cry and Hesperia pushed past her.
Thaddeus cursed under his breath and followed.
Laurel watched as they ran down the circular staircase, Hesperia’s dress rippling like a trail of blood and Thaddeus’ long legs taking two steps at a time. Though her knees were bruised from the fall, Laurel ran as well. She didn’t know what would happen if she were to be separated from them.
Down the tower, they ran, along the hallway of portraits, and past the great hall again. Laurel’s sides ached and her lungs were close to bursting. They went through a corridor of shining suits of armour, past a heavy wooden door that Laurel barely managed to catch before it closed on her, and down, down a set of stone steps that twisted aimlessly into the ground. Purple torches on either side blazed into life as Hesperia passed them.
The narrow stairway opened into a room with metal cells on either side. Dungeons. They were in the dungeons. All the cells were empty, but some contained scraps of fabric or smears of dried blood.
Her steps slowed as she head arguing voices. She turned to see a narrow corridor with doors on either side. Some doors had names carved into the wood. Hesperia and Thaddeus stood in front of a door labelled as ‘Melinoe’, seemingly in an agitated debate.
“Whatever you have in there has killed a castle full of people. You need to let me in.”
“No!” Hesperia snapped. “This is only another hypothesis. I don’t need you with me when I examine it.”
Laurel’s heartbeat was ringing in her ears, each thrum of blood as loud as an earthquake. “I knew I couldn’t trust you, Hesperia!”
As she rested her hands on her knees, she heard a third voice over the frantic pumping of her heart. Or fourth, if her own was counted. It was a child’s voice, not laughing, but crying. It came from behind the ‘Melinoe’ door but neither Hesperia nor Thaddeus seemed to notice it.
Laurel stepped closer. It was definitely a child. Hesperia had said that she sensed no other living beings, but perhaps she missed someone. Wordlessly pushing both of them aside, she opened the door.
The first thing she saw was a young girl. She couldn’t be older than twelve years of age, sitting on an unmade bed. Her dark hair was in dishevelled pigtails, her face was streaked with tears, and her clothes had seen better days.
“Oh sweetie, sweetie, what are you doing here?” Laurel found herself asking.
She crouched down, hands reaching out to comfort the crying girl. Immediately the girl slid off the bed and tumbled into her arms.
“Shhh, shhh,” Laurel murmured, running her fingers through the girl’s hair. “Don’t cry. It’s okay.”
“Please,” the girl whimpered, “please save me.” “I’m here, I’ll get you out of here. Don’t worry.”
There was warm carpet beneath her knees. Warm carpet, and warm sticky blood. Laurel raised her head and saw, over the girl’s shoulder, a moustached man lying in a wet bloodstain. It was Thaddeus’ companion.
The girl looked up at her with wide watery eyes. “Save me from Hesperia.”
Laurel recoiled. The girl wouldn’t allow her. Her grasp tightened on Laurel’s arms until Laurel was flinching from the pain.
“Meli,” came Hesperia’s voice from the doorway. “Meli, step away from her, please.” The girl stopped crying.
“Meli, why? Why did you do this?”
A burst of giggles escaped from the girl’s, Meli’s, mouth. She buried that laughter almost affectionately in Laurel’s hair.
“Oh god,” Laurel whimpered. “Oh god, oh god oh god.”
Laurel’s couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t pull out of Meli’s hold. All she could do was stare at the bloodied corpse, its shredded organs and staring eyes, and repeat those words over and over again.
“You all deserved it,” said Meli, still laughing. “I just wanted to leave. Why won’t any of you let me leave?”
“Meli, you know why.” Hesperia’s voice was pleading. “You know why you can’t leave. Look at what you’ve done-“
Her words broke off with a gargle. Thaddeus cried out. Then a gunshot rang. Laurel squeezed her eyes shut. Blood splattered against her face, hot and viscous, and drenched the front of her dress. Meli collapsed into her arms.
“Oh god, oh god.”
Meli was unmoving, her face relaxed into a smile. Her fingers relaxed their hold on Laurel but Laurel still couldn’t move. It was only when she felt a leather-clad hand on her shoulder, one that smelled strongly of gunpowder, did she allow Meli to fall to the ground. The hand pulled her to unsteady feet and guided her to sit on the bed.
“I just shot a child,” said Thaddeus, sliding his revolver back inside his overcoat. “I really hope someone has an explanation for me.”
“The outside world is a curiosity to I and my students, as much as this academy is to you.”
Hesperia was leaning against the doorway. There were purpling bruises around her throat and a rasp in her voice. She looked older than when Laurel had first seen her, her eyes weary and downcast.
Now that Laurel had calmed, she could see that they were in a child’s bedroom. Meli’s bedroom. The walls were painted pastel pink and the bedspread had pretty floral embroidery. There were several toys scattered around: a wooden rocking horse, a small lute, a doll with pins pressed into its pleated dress. However, windowless and buried deep in a dungeon, it was the saddest child’s bedroom Laurel had ever seen.
“As soon as we are discovered to possess magic, we are brought here,” Hesperia continued. “I don’t recall what my parents look like. This academy teaches us how to control our magic, how to refrain from turning to darker paths. But it is unavoidable for some of us to turn to black magic. Once you start practicing it, it is difficult to stop. So we find them practicing, we lock them up. But we’re kind to them, we ensure that they receive everything they need.”
Her gaze turned tender as she looked upon Meli’s tiny form.
“Meli was too young, too powerful. She only wanted to find her mother. She was brought in as an infant, and when the mother tried to take her away we erased her memories. I raised her. I loved her, as my own daughter, but I was terrified of her. I never thought she was capable of this.”
On the bed next to Laurel, Thaddeus shifted, his arms unfolding to rest on his lap.
Hesperia glared over at him.”I suppose your suspicions are correct. This school is dangerous and I’m untrustworthy. You were right to investigate us. And I suppose you will advise your superiors to lock me up, to close this place down.”
“Not quite,” said Thaddeus.
The room fell into silence. Laurel fidgeted with the bedspread and Hesperia turned her gaze to the ceiling.
“Yes, I do want justice for what has happened, but closing this school down won’t achieve it.” Thaddeus stood. “Come with me to London, Miss Hesperia. I have some suggestions on how to improve the academy.”
Two weeks later found Laurel sitting in her office building in London. Her boss had, thankfully, refrained from punishing her for her delayed return, and her co-workers eventually withdrew their questioning after she told them that her carriage broke down and she spent a weekend in a small village near Glasgow instead. Life returned to normal. Or what could pass as normal. Perhaps some nights she woke up screaming from the memories of a great hall filled with lifeless bodies, or the warmth of blood against her face. Perhaps sometimes she flinched when she heard a child’s laughter dancing through the marketplace.
No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t avoid news of the academy. It was published in every magazine on every stall, sometimes even fuelling sensationalist plots of Penny Dreadfuls. Headlines screamed about a ‘Nightmarish Incident’, a ‘Night of Horror’, and artists did their best to capture the gruesome details. They couldn’t come close to what actually happened. As the days passed, new stories emerged: stories about how the academy was reopening, how the headmistress was willing to cooperate with the Church and Crown to ensure that no such incidents would occur again. Laurel tried imagining Hesperia working with Thaddeus and snorted into her paperwork.
A co-worker tapped on her desk to gain her attention. “Mail delivery came and dropped something off for you. Next time, don’t use this address for personal business.”
“I didn’t…I’m sorry. Thank you.” He grunted and moved on.
She examined the package. It was contained in a cylindrical tube and had no return address. She unfastened one end of the tube and tipped its contents onto her desk. A single rolled up letter and a small crystalline cocoon spilled out.
She flattened the letter with both hands.
Dear Miss Kinney
The Academy of Magical Arts has a position available for an accountant and we believe you possess the qualifications suitable for this job. Pay can be negotiated and food and board will be provided. We can also offer assistance should you have any difficulty extracting yourself from your current job.
We look forward to hearing from you soon (I am unfamiliar with your postal system but I have been assured it would reach you within the week).
Yours sincerely, Hesperia
Laurel glanced at the cocoon. It had already hatched and a bright gold butterfly was sitting in its remains. Its wings were drying in the afternoon sun. Through her open window, she could see the expanse of London, its grey streets and ordinary people. Safe, complacent. The butterfly crawled onto her hand, its wings unmoving as though waiting for something. Laurel brought it to her mouth.
“Tell her I’m willing.”
By Anne Feng from Australia