A sound came to Arein. It was as if the volume was being turned up slowly until it was too loud, pounding in his head relentlessly. Eventually, the sound became distinguishable as the chatter of children. He could hear it more clearly now. He could also feel his body, though he wished he couldn’t. There was an oppressive weight spreading from his head to his toes. Arein’s breath hitched in his throat as he felt the heaviness. It gave him an awful feeling as if the pain was bearable but was about to get a lot worse.
Trying to feel past the weight, Arein realized that he was sitting upright. He could even vaguely feel something underneath him – a chair. He tried to open his eyes but the awful feeling weighed in on him. He fought with it for a moment and, slowly and painstakingly, he wrenched his eyes open.
His bleary surroundings focused after a few laboured blinks. As he had guessed he was sitting upright in a chair on what appeared to be a large stage. A thick, red curtain separated him from whatever was causing the noise.
He forced his neck to the right, seeing two more chairs. In them sat Sedalia and Rem. On his left was Arella. He breathed a sigh of relief; they were all there at least, they weren’t… He forced away the lump in his throat and made himself focus. The others were asleep, or so it seemed. They sat straight up in their chairs, although there were no ropes to force them into their positions.
Arein went to turn around, to see behind him but the weight on his body pressed down even harder, causing Arein to flinch and gasp. He didn’t feel pain, but he felt, again, as if he was pushing the boundaries and any minute the weight would snap and crush him to death. He didn’t dare try to turn around again, but he needed to move, to get off the chair and get out of wherever he was. Panic started to rise in his chest as he became all too aware of where he must be; the Kasimir Castle.
He fought with the weight on his body, desperately trying to pull his limbs away from his side, his torso away from the chair, but again and again he felt the invisible pressure of the boundary and could not stop himself from pulling back. The prospect of the pain it would bring to break the barrier was too frightening, too terrible to even imagine.
A low groan came from his right. Arein whipped his head around as fast as the weight would allow. Wincing with the pain, he heard another groan. It was Rem.
“Rem,” Arein hissed, surprising himself with how softly the sound came out. “Rem!”
“Rem, wake up!” Arein hissed again, focusing on making his voice louder. “Rem!”
“…Arein…?” came a small voice from Arein’s left.
It was Arella. Arein turned his head, more slowly this time, to see her eyes searching the room. When she spoke, her voice was almost too quiet to hear. “W-where are we…?”
Arein didn’t want to say it aloud, foolishly hoping it wasn’t true, but his silence wasn’t the answer Arella was looking for.
“Arein, tell me.”
“Kasimir Castle… I think.”
Arella’s eyes widened. She seemed to struggle for a moment, her eyes cast down on her body. “Arein,” she whispered urgently, her eyes still focused on her frozen frame, “I can’t move.”
“Neither can I,” he said lifelessly.
“What’s happened to us?” Arella’s eyes were terrified as she whispered the words. Arein had never seen her normally serene face so frightened, and it frightened him even more.
“I don’t know,” he replied, fighting to keep the panic out of his own voice. “I think we’ve been drugged or… or something… I don’t know!” His voice caught on his last words and Arella’s eyes widened even further. They flickered to the curtains as she noticed the noise coming from behind them.
“Who’s out there?”
“I don’t know,” Arein repeated, wishing he could say something else. “It sounds like children though.”
It reminded him of the dining hall at the Kasimir School, the constant chatter as voices fought over one another to be heard,
Just as Arein finished speaking, the noise died down. The area behind the curtain became completely, unnaturally quiet as though the people there had suddenly disappeared, or were at least sitting extremely still.
Then, a loud voice boomed from behind the curtain.
“Boys and girls,” it said slowly. It was a male voice, rich, indulgent and faintly familiar to Arein. “We are all here together to celebrate this momentous occasion. We are finally one step closer to our goal!”
The invisible crowd gave a cheer in unison, sounding strangely rehearsed at it.
“We have been training long and hard for this, have we not?” the voice continued, taking on a sympathetic tone. “But there is hope. We do not have much longer to go now.”
Arein was hardly listening to his words. Something about the voice was familiar but wrong, like an old favourite blanket that still felt the same but had taken on the musty, mouldy smell of the attic that it just couldn’t get rid of.
And then he realized. It was Olle. It was the same voice, had the same intonations and the same tone but it was too youthful; too strong; not the voice belonging to the old man.
He continued his speech unaware of Arein’s frightening discovery. Olle was here, talking to a crowd of what could only be the Kasimir students…
A whoosh of air came from behind Arein as if someone had opened a door. He could hear footsteps behind him and he turned slightly to Arella, only seeing a glimpse of her frightened face before a voice spoke.
“We better get you ready for your… performance then,” a woman’s voice murmured from behind them.
Arein turned his head just slightly until he could see a woman’s figure standing in front of Sedalia. She raised a gloved hand and gave Sedalia a sharp slap across the face. Sedalia gasped, but Arein could not see her face.
“Wake up,” the woman ordered, moving over to Rem. She raised her arm again and Rem was slapped awake, though he stayed silent. The woman came to Arein next.
“Well Arein, I should have guessed you’d be awake already.”
Arein gaped, only just remembering the name of the girls’ coordinator at the Kasimir School. “Miss Shyla?”
“Mmhmmm…” Miss Shyla said dismissively, looking at a small notebook she held in her gloved hands. She glanced up to Arella. “Oh. Your friend is awake as well. What a shame.” She stuck out her lower lip in a fake, baby-like frown. “I’ll have to tell them that the spell’s not strong enough, or that you two weaved a little bit of magic of your own… Mathius won’t like that.” She chuckled darkly, turning her attention back to her notebook and pacing in front of them.
Arein’s eyes moved over to Sedalia’s, trying to see her face, to tell her it was all right. As their eyes met, Sedalia gave a whimper and Miss Shyla twirled around.
“Quiet, girl,” she said harshly, striding over to her. She took Sedalia’s face in her hands, her voice dripping with sudden sweetness. “You need to put on a brave face for the crowd. You don’t want to embarrass yourself now, do you?”
Sedalia tried to wriggle her way out of Miss Shyla’s grasp, but stopped suddenly. “Ah –”
“No control for you,” Miss Shyla said, cutting off Sedalia. She giggled in a childish way. “I can’t having you jumping off the stage!”
She released Sedalia and strode away, moving around them and out of Arein’s view.
“Wait!” Arella called suddenly, her voice wavering.
The footsteps stopped. “Yes…?” Her voice was both warning and taunting at the same time.
Arella closed her eyes. “What’s going to happen to us?”
Arein could almost hear the grin in Miss Shyla’s voice when she replied. “Wait and see… although you’ll have to wait quite a while. It’s a slow and painful process, having your very being pulled out of your body… or so I’ve heard…” She laughed again, but it was drowned out by another cheer from the audience. “Well, your public awaits.”
They waited in silence for only a moment before Olle’s voice boomed out from behind the curtain. “ – I now present to you, four of the Twelve!”
The crowd cheered again and, as if on its own accord, the curtains flew open. The noise was suddenly deafening. Hundreds of children calling, jeering and shouting at them, all seated in a massive hall filled with row upon row of chairs. Every student that had ever been through the Kasimir School now stood up from their seats, their face’s twisted with malice and a hatred fed by Mathius. Arein, Arella, Rem and Sedalia winced at the insults they could hear, and the even worse ones that they couldn’t. They were on show, frozen in their seats to be paraded as trophies.
Arein squeezed his eyes shut willing himself to ignore the crowd of children below. After what seemed like an age, the crowd quietened and Arein forced himself to open his eyes again and see what was to happen next.
“That’s quite enough,” came Olle’s voice from the corner.
Arein wrenched his head around and had to bite his tongue from screaming at the pain it caused him. The invisible barrier throbbed red hot, the pain slowly easing away leaving Arein gasping. The crowd noticed his pain and laughed as one. Ha ha ha – all together, again, as if it had been planned and rehearsed.
Arein kept his eyes on the floor, but he could hear slow footsteps advancing towards him. He raised his eyes and saw…