Vivi sat on the edge of her bed, feeling numb. She stared at the delicate music box on her nightstand, open and winking in the candlelight. She felt her eyes sting. How could she be so callous? So selfish?
By the time she'd reached the town square she found all the houses closed up, doors bolted, windows boarded. The selected guard for that year were already out and surrounding the town border, lighting the dark woods up with flaming torches. She refrained from rolling her eyes. She had seen this display every year but still the children had been taken. Locked doors and angry parents weren't going to keep the magical School Master from his prey.
She slogged back to her house, brushing her fussing mother off and retreating to her room, slumping down on the bed. She heard the heavy bolt on the front door slide across and when she peeked through the cracks in her boarded-up window, she saw her mother, fair hair bouncing, strolling across the square towards where her father stood on guard. She reached up and touched his shoulder and he turned, smiling, and pulled her to his waist.
Vivi sighed, some of the tension leaving her body. With her mother out on patrol, now she could undo the locks on her window. She had already written a note for her parents, which she now pulled from her drawer and pinned underneath the lit candle on her nightstand. She pondered the quiet music box for a moment, then crossed to her wardrobe and pulled out a bag of tools she'd stolen from the shed earlier, lugging them to the window.
She eyed the clock. She had plenty of time. Perhaps if she finished early, she could go see Arthur and apologise for today. Before she was whisked away from Tempo forever.
The first kidnappings had began two hundred years before. Some years two boys were taken, some years two girls, some one of each. The ages were just as fickle; one could be sixteen, the other fourteen, or both just turned twelve. But if at first the choices seemed random, a pattern soon became clear: one child was always beautiful and good, well-behaved and coveted by the other parents of the town; the other homely and odd, despised and outcast by their peers. An opposing pair snatched from their families and spirited away, never to be seen again.
At first, not privy to any other nearby townships, the villagers blamed bears. Four years later, when two more children were taken, the villagers admitted they should have been more specific and named black bears as the culprit, bears so black they blended with the night. But as children kept disappearing, desperate parents moved to burrowing bears, phantom bears, bears in disguise . . . until eventually it became clear that it wasn't bears at all.
But while villagers moved on to newer and increasingly more ridiculous theories (The Sinkhole Theory, The Flying Cannibal Theory), the children of Tempo noticed something strange. Examining Missing posters tacked up in the square, they found the faces of the lost children oddly familiar. That's when they opened up their storybooks and found the children amongst their pages.
Jack, taken a hundred years before, hadn't aged a bit. Here he was, painted with the same mop of unruly hair and dimples that had made him so popular with the girls of Tempo. Only now he had a beanstalk growing in his back garden and a weakness for magic beans. Angus, the freckled, pointy-eared hooligan taken with him that year was now a freckled, pointy-eared giant at the top of the beanstalk. The two boys had found their way into a fairytale. The children excitedly presented the Storybook Theory to the disgruntled adults—but they reacted as adults most often do. They patted the children's heads and returned to talking about sinkholes and flying cannibals.
But then the children began to show them more familiar faces. Sweet Anya, taken fifty years before, now sat singing on moonlit rocks as the Little Mermaid, while cruel Estra lurked as the conniving sea witch. Philip, the priest's upright son, had become the Cunning Little Tailor, and pompous Gula now spooked children as the Witch of the Wood. Scores of children, kidnapped in pairs, had found new lives in a fairytale world. One as Good. One as Evil.
The books came from Mr Deauville's Tomb of Tomes, an eccentric but cozy little nook between Battersby's Bakery and and the Pickled Pig Pub. The problem was then, of course, where Mr Deauville himself got the storybooks.
Once a year on a day he couldn't predict, Mr Deauville would enter his shop in the morning to find a box just inside the door holding four new fairytales—one copy of each. He would hang a sign in his shop window: "Closed Until Further Notice", and then for months huddle in the back of his shop, copying them by hand until he had enough copies of each for every child in Tempo. Then he would display the books in the shop window as a sign he had finished his laborious task at last and open his shop the next day to a two-mile line spanning the square, weaving through the cottage lanes and skirting the lake, jammed full of children, eager for new stories, and parents, hovering to see if any of the missing children had turned up in this year's tales.
The Elders, of course, had plenty of questions for Mr Deauville. When asked who sent the books, Mr Deauville said he hadn't the faintest idea. When inquired for how long the books had been arriving, he said he couldn't remember a time when they hadn't appeared. When pressed whether he'd ever questioned this magical appearance of books, Mr Deauville replied, "Where else would fairy tales come from?"
That's when the Elders noticed something else: all of the villages depicted in the stories looked just like Tempo. The same bright, lakeside cottages, the same crooked clock tower, the same painted church, only now presented as a fantasy land far, far away. The village only ever served two purposes: to begin a fairytale and to end it. Everything in between most commonly happened in the dark, endless woods surrounding the town.
That's when the Elders realised that Tempo was also surrounded by dark, endless woods.
Back when the children had first started to disappear (and the bear theory was gaining popularity), desperate villagers had stormed the woods to find them, only to be repelled by impassable thickets, falling trees, and violent storms. When they finally braved their way through to find a small town hiding beyond the trees, they vengefully besieged it, only to find that town was their own. Indeed, no matter where the villagers entered the woods, they were always spat back out right where they started. The forest had no intention of returning their children, it seemed. And one day they found out why.
Mr Deauville had just finished unpacking that year's storybooks when he noticed a dark smudge inside the fold of the box. Touching his fingers to it, they came back wet with ink, and he pulled the seam apart to find an elaborate crest of a black and white swan. On the crest were three letters:
There was no need for him to guess what these letters meant, as it said so on the banner printed beneath. Small, black words that told the village where their children had gone:
THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL
The kidnappings continued, but now the thief had a name.
They called him the School Master.
Vivi snapped the last lock off her window, dropped the pliers and pushed the panes open, breathing in the cool night air. She peered out across the square, eyeing her parents standing together in the ring of guards, too engrossed in each other to actually serve as any useful lookout.
She stepped into her shoes and crossed the room, swiping the music box from the nightstand and tucking it into a duffel which she slung over her shoulder. She glanced at the clock. An hour 'til midnight.
As quietly as she could, Vivi swung her legs out the window and dropped to the grass below, turning and pushing the window panes shut behind her. With her room dark, it would look to her parents like she had simply gone to bed, leaving the window secure. Glancing once more across the square to ensure her parents had their backs turned, she crept around the side of the house and into the shadows of the tightly-packed lanes.
Predictably, Kingsmen Repairs had been left unguarded, cast in shadow at the bottom of the hill. There was no danger of being spotted on the way there as the townspeople had left a large gap in the border guard at the back of the town, leaving the way to the workshop clear. Vivi shook her head as she descended the hill. These were people who thought ringing the town with torches and pitchforks would save their children from the School Master, yet they left the rear sector abandoned out of spite for Arthur's family. Her lip curled with disgust. She couldn't wait to get out of this hellhole.
Nearing the dark house, she could faintly make out the glow of a candle behind blackout curtains. Swallowing, she stepped up to the door and knocked.
A burly, bearded man opened the door.
"Lance," Vivi breathed in relief. Arthur's uncle. He wouldn't turn her away.
"Arthur's asleep," he said bluntly.
"What?" Her heart sank. "But I . . . are you sure? I just wanted to—"
"You'll see him tomorrow, won'tcha?"
She fell silent. Of course she couldn't explain to the old mechanic where she was headed tonight.
"And you should be gettin' home, missy. Don't wanna be out too late on a night like tanight."
". . . You're right," she conceded after a beat of silence, stepping away. She paused. "Actually . . . can you give this to him?" She dug the trinket out of her duffel and handed it to him. When she spoke, her voice was sad. "I don't think I deserve it."
The man stared at her for a moment, face blank, and then sighed, nodding.
"Thank you." She turned to leave again. "Goodnight, Uncle Lance."
She whirled. Arthur stood a few paces behind Lance, hair and clothes rumpled. His eyes were red and the bags beneath them were darker and deeper than usual.
He stared at her for a moment, gaze distant. Then he swiped his arm across his face and turned away. "She can come in. I'll walk her home before it gets too late."
Vivi sat on Arthur's sparse bed, hands in her lap. She raised her head.
Arthur stood, back turned, at the window, silent as the graves beyond the glass. His hand dug into his pocket, brushing the music box he'd taken from his uncle and pocketed.
"I really am. I. . . I was stupid. I misspoke. I didn't mean to hurt you and I'm sorry."
After a beat of silence, he turned, steely eyes boring into her. "Why are you friends with me?"
She scrunched her nose. "You know why—"
"No. Why you're really friends with me." He didn't move, just stood still, arms hanging loosely by his sides. "Why did you come to see me on that first day?"
Vivi opened her mouth—
"And don't lie. I'll know if you do."
She shut it again.
He pursed his lips. She ducked her head. Silence descended.
Just as Arthur turned to leave, she spoke. "I wanted to to impress the School Master."
He didn't turn to face her. Just stood, waiting.
"I . . . I wanted—want—to get out of here so badly. I've been dreaming of it my whole life. On my birthday last year, I dreamt Mala was taken instead. I woke up sweating. I needed to be better. I needed to prove that I was Good enough to be taken. So I started charity work. I volunteered in the shops without payment. I planted and tended new gardens in the centre of town, but it still felt like it wasn't enough. Then I remembered the boy on the edge of town."
Arthur's silence was deafening. She strained to hear his breaths, but heard nothing. His chest was frozen still.
She gulped. "I thought that maybe . . . if I became friends with him . . . if I showed him kindness that no one else here would . . . maybe that would prove that I was Good enough to go." She paused to catch her breath, heart hammering against her ribcage. "So I showed up on your doorstep. And I was ready to just introduce myself and visit you every Sunday instead of go to church and leave it at that. But when you opened the door and saw me standing there, you . . . you looked so surprised. So confused."
She could barely hear his breaths now. Shallow and faint. "And when you pointed to the workshop and said you'd call your uncle, and I said that I came to see you, you . . ." Her breath stuttered. "You looked so grateful. So thankful. Your eyes shone. And I knew I couldn't just leave you there."
A few paces away, his shoulders drooped a little, and she forged on. "And when I took you out you were so interested in everything, like you didn't understand what it was like to live up in the village, with people, and we started talking and I was surprised that you were so smart. You were just so isolated—and I began to look forward to seeing you, and I liked seeing you smile, and I realised that you're so sweet and kind and—" She stopped herself. "I . . . I realised I didn't understand why everyone avoids you and your uncle. You've been nothing but kind to me, the both of you. I'd never even thought twice about it before but I began to question how a whole town could hate a boy whose only mistake was to be born."
She heard a soft, painful gasp, and he clamped a hand over his mouth. Vivi swallowed. "I really like you, Arthur. You're the only real friend I've ever had."
Slowly, he turned, eyes cautious. "Then why do you want to leave me here?"
"I don't. I just want to get out of here. I hate it here. I hate how everyone treats you and anything they don't understand. I don't want to see you hurt. I wanted you to come with me, but the School Master only takes one Good child. So I began to think . . ." She shook her head. "I connected dots that didn't exist. I made up excuses in my head so I could hope you could come with me."
His face softened. "To the other school," he murmured.
She nodded, swiping an arm across her watering eyes. The bed dipped beside her and she looked up to find Arthur sitting next to her, eyes on the floor.
"All I've ever known is being alone. I used to think it was because I was bad. Why else would the adults avoid me? Why else would the kids my age throw stones at me?" He raised his eyes to the dark window. "I'd finally gotten used to the idea that I'd never have a life like the other kids. I'd never have a friend. Just me and my uncle, in this little shack, fixing vehicles for a town that hated us."
Vivi bit her lip, raising a hand to set on his shoulder, and then he spoke again. "And then you showed up. And I couldn't believe you wanted to see me at first. That's why I was always so grumpy." He chuckled weakly. "I thought it wouldn't last. But then days turned into weeks, then months, and now you've been coming over for almost a year. And I started to hope that maybe I deserved more than what I'd been given. But seeing the way the people look at me when we walk together. . ." He trailed off. Fingers fidgeting in his lap. Finally he looked up at her, eyes shining. ". . . When we're alone, you make me feel normal. And that's all I've ever wanted."
She felt a lump rise in her throat and swallowed it down, eyes pricking with tears. She opened her mouth but couldn't find the words. Instead, she pulled him into a hug.
His body was rigid, but when she didn't let go, he gradually relaxed into her arms, sniffling softly. She rubbed a hand over his back. "You're my best friend. I'm so sorry I hurt you, Arthur."
He shook his head into her shoulder and shifted closer. They sat like that, leaning into each other, for a long time. They didn't speak. They needed no words.
Suddenly, there was a loud BANG! and the bedroom door slammed open. They tore apart.
Lance stood in the doorway, chest heaving. "Hide. Hide now!" he panted.
Arthur backed up. "What? Why—"
A crooked shadow appeared on the wall behind Lance. Then they were plunged into darkness.
When Arthur's eyes blinked open again, the lights were on. Lance was on the floor, unconscious. Vivi was gone.
He barrelled forward into the front room and up to the window. A hunched shadow slunk its way up the hill, face obscured by a silver mask glinting in moonlight, dragging a wide-eyed Vivi behind it.
"VIVI!" he screamed, and burst through the front door, sprinting up the hill.
He dashed down cottage lanes and charged into the square to find Vivi and the shadow right at the edge, about to breach the ring of torch-waving, pitchfork-bearing villagers.
He cried out and the guard spun around, eyes popping upon finding the masked School Master in their midst, dragging Vivi along with him. They bellowed and rushed towards him, but the shadow flicked a hand and their torches exploded, trapping them in rings of fire. The shadow breezed right through.
Arthur's legs pumped faster, bolting across the square and dodging flames as he ran after his friend, now at the forest's shadowy edge. He called her name and flung himself forward, hands outstretched—his fingers latched around her ankle and he was dragged with her into the twisted trees.
A pale hand grabbed his wrist and hauled him up and he came face-to-face with Vivi. He grabbed onto her arms.
"We need to go! Now!" He cried, reaching over and yanking at the shadow's grip on the back of her sweater. "Let go of her!"
"Arthur, calm down!" Vivi gasped, trying to catch her breath. He ignored her, scaling her like a tree and latching onto the shadow.
"Arthur!" Vivi yelled, grabbing onto his ankle and trying to pull him back down. "Stop! If he drops us now, we'll be lost!"
Arthur stopped struggling, dread dawning. He looked down at her—his grip on the shadow loosened and suddenly it was gone from beneath them, sending them tumbling into a thicket of dry, scratchy branches.
They lay sprawled in the odd thicket for a moment, before Arthur felt a tickle against his stomach.
He rocketed up, ears burning red, and Vivi gasped for air on her back. She scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue, trying in vain to blow something off it.
"Your shirt needs a wash," she said, frowning in distaste. Arthur looked down at himself—a black greasy stain over his stomach. He'd forgotten he'd used his shirt to wipe a dirty tool down earlier today.
But that was the least of their problems.
"Where are we?" he gasped, staggering to his feet and whipping around. "How do we get back?"
"I can't believe he just dumped us here," Vivi huffed, sitting up. "How are we supposed to find our way to school?"
The words hit him like a galloping horse. They'd just been kidnapped. By the School Master. He was real.
The School was real.
A crack. They slowly turned.
A huge black egg nestled in the thicket behind them. Now that he looked at it, actually, Arthur realised the mass of branches and twigs looked more like a giant nest. He paled.
A thin crack snaked its way down the side of the egg, then another. A dozen fault lines exploded out across the shell and then it burst apart, splashing them in foul-smelling black goo.
Through the goo they could make out what looked to be a giant bird emerging from the shell, composed entirely of bones. It looked at them with empty eye sockets and screeched, spread its skeletal wings, sprung up and snatched them up in its huge claws.
"What the fuck is going on!" Arthur shrieked, knuckles white around the talons holding him.
"Language!" Vivi yelled, as if being abducted by a skeleton bird was completely normal and not a cause for disagreeable words.
Arthur opened his mouth to voice this thought when a flash of lightning and the bellowing of thunder startled him quiet. They rose up through twisted branches and into pelting rain, blinding them for a moment before the bird dove forward with a scream. They hurtled through darkness, lit occasionally by flashes from the sky, giving them glimpses of gnarled branches, reaching for them like hands, of spitting vipers hanging from the trees, of dozens of gigantic webs, holding huge spiders, fangs raised, poised to strike—Arthur shut his eyes against the dripping venom—
Then all was quiet. The rain stopped.
Vivi gasped beside him. "Arthur. . ."
He opened his eyes and felt his heart stop. Beneath them sprawled two gigantic castles, reaching into clouds, straight from the pages of a fairy tale. One was made of glittering crystal, bathed in sunlight, pink and blue turrets bathed in shimmering mist, with sprawling green lawns ringed by a clear blue lake. Halfway across, the lake merged with chunky black sludge, which stretched up to muddy ground, spattered with patches of dying, yellow grass. The castle that sprang from these grounds was black stone, three sharp towers reaching into roiling storm clouds belting rain, scores of red creepers snaking over rough brick like veins. Connected over the moats by a silver-brick bridge, the two opposing castles looked like a vision of heaven and hell.
The School for Good and Evil.
As they soared over the pink and blue towers of Good, the bird loosened its grip on Vivi. Arthur blanched, grabbing for her in panic, eyes wide.
But she was smiling.
"I made it," she breathed, eyes sparkling with happiness. "Arthur, I made it to Good!"
But the bird dropped Arthur instead.
Too shocked to scream, Arthur fell, disappearing into shimmering mist.
Vivi's breath caught. She looked up at the bird. With a savage screech, it swooped towards the black towers of Evil.
"Wait!" she cried—
It let go.
Vivi dropped into darkness.