RELEASE DAY: Fantastic Schools Anthology!

So, every now and then, I think: wouldn’t it be cool if there were a story about…

For example, like many people, I loved the story of Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Not just because he was an awesome character, but because he started me thinking: what other cursed kids can’t go to Hogwarts? Dumbledore managed to come up with a scheme to get Remus into Hogwarts and keep him and his classmates safe, to an extent, but what about the kids who couldn’t go?

Children with disabilities never seemed to exist in Hogwarts. To be fair, maybe wizards aren’t “disabled” in the same ways as Muggles. After all, Madame Pomfrey is pretty much able to regrow Harry’s arm. Perhaps blindness, deafness, paralysis and developmental delays are cured among wizards in the same way that we remove extra fingers and toes o the rare occasions they develop. But there are curses and conditions that even wizards cannot cure.

Where would such children — the children who couldn’t be mainstreamed without great danger to themselves or others — learn their magic? And what would happen on that terrible day when they, and they alone were left to save the world, against all odds? This was the genesis of my novelette, “The Last Academy.” And I never thought I would write it until I was invited to the anthology Fantastic Schools. Obviously, I didn’t write in the Potterverse, but think of it as a, shall we say, Potteresque story.

And now, to whet your appetite, an excerpt, from Edric’s first day at his new school:

There was already a chair pushed back next to the boy who was eating with one hand. Edric began to sit.

“Excuse me, but this seat is taken,” said an exasperated voice.

Edric jumped. He almost lost form. “What?” The boy next to him was looking up with an amused expression on his face, but Edric would swear he hadn’t spoken.

“Yes, I know, you weren’t to know,” said the voice, which sounded like a young boy’s. “But I promise you that I am here, even though you can’t see me. Although honestly, the food might have been a clue.”

Edric blinked. There was indeed about a third of a meal on the plate in front of the seat. And the seat-cushion was flattened.

“Look, you can sit opposite me if you like.”

“Um, thank you.”

That meant that Edric had to walk around the girl in the wheelchair, the head of the table, and then the sphere of darkness, which was uncomfortably close to the wall.

“Um,” Edric said, trying not to address anyone in particular, “Is that dangerous?”

“No,” said a girl’s voice from inside the sphere. “Just don’t stick your head inside it.”

Edging around so as not to touch it, Edric sat down next to the blindfolded girl with grayish skin. As he did so, his plate filled. There was a steaming portion of shepherd’s pie, some white bread, and a cherry tart. The food looked decent enough, but it didn’t appear he was going to get any choice.

“Are you Edric?” the girl asked, without turning to face him.

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m Gwen.” She faced him and smiled, offering her hand in his general direction. He took it. Her hand felt unusually dry and cold. “Thanks for sitting with us.”

“It wasn’t his first choice,” said the girl in the wheelchair, sourly.

“Oh, come off it, Karen,” said the boy across from Gwen with a smile. “Half the people at the table tried to sit down there. It’s a shock finding yourself at Calarzat with the monsters. Can’t blame people for wanting to latch on to what looks normal.” He nodded to Edric. “Hi, I’m Callahan.”

Edric extended his hand. Callahan gave a wry smile. “Thanks, but you don’t want to do that.” He pushed himself back and withdrew his hand. Instantly, the candles guttered out and he held up a hand that was alive from wrist to fingertips in incandescent flames.

“Ah… I see,” said Edric. “I could shake the other hand?”

“Not unless you like second-degree burns,” Callahan said.

“Oi! Kindling! Lights!” yelled the biggest wolf, from down the table.

Callahan slid his hand back under the table and the candles sprang to life. “It’s useful.” He gestured to the chair beside him. “That’s Ian.”

“Sorry I tried to sit on you.”

“Oh, it’s all right, I suppose.”

Edric turned to Gwen. Might as well get the awkward parts over with. “Why are your eyes bandaged? Did you hurt them?”

“Not exactly. Are you afraid of snakes?”

Edric blinked. “Not particularly. Why?”

For an answer, her hair parted, and a thin snake peered out at him brightly. His mouth dried up as he realized what he was sitting next to. “You’re a… gorgon?”

“In a way. The Dark Lord cursed me when I was four. An attempt to blackmail my family. But I started out as a human. Calarzat is for human monsters.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Edric asked Callahan.

“Um, no,” said Callahan. “I’m afraid we had a bit of a house fire when I was seven years old. My Dad panicked and tried to cast a spell so the fire wouldn’t hurt me. It worked. Sort of. You see, the fire became my best friend. And it never wants to go away.”

“Can you control it?”

“Can you control your friends?” asked Callahan. “It gets… upset if I do that too much. You don’t want to see it angry. Ian’s dad tried to keep him safe, too. From the Dark Lord. Turned him invisible. Permanently.”

“Callahan!” snapped Karen. “You don’t talk about other people’s conditions. You know the rules.”

“I don’t mind,” said Ian. “S’true.”

“That’s not the point,” Karen said.

“What about them?” asked Edric, jerking a nod toward the group at the other end of the table. “They look normal enough.”

“It’s not full moon,” said Ian.

“Werewolves?” Callahan nodded. “Don’t like anyone else much, do they?”

“If you’re not a wolf, you’re not worth anything to them,” Callahan said.

Even Karen didn’t bother to dispute this. “And you’re here because… you can’t walk?”

Karen frowned. “No one at Calarzat is compelled to talk about why they are here unless they want to. And I don’t.”

“What about you?” Callahan asked. “What brings you here?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Edric said. I don’t want to explain it.

Karen scoffed. “Wants to know our secrets but keep his own.”

“Can you show us?” asked Callahan.

“Uh… not if you want to keep eating,” Edric said, staring down at his plate.

“And you’ve been to Porcinoma?” asked Gwen. “Yes,” Edric muttered. He wished he was back there, with his friends. Except he’d be dead. With his friends.

I hope you’ll give it a try.

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