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Oh God I can’t wait, thought Matt, salivating at the plate of food he’d piled high in front of him. Wait no sorry, two plates – there’d been so much that’d looked good at that sweet, sweet buffet, he’d done a Giselle and double parked. Pizza, lasagne, roast beef, mashed potatoes, chicken carbonara, even these little vegetarian spinach quiches that looked simply to die for. And he hadn’t even got dessert yet.

He glanced around for a place to sit – the classic new kid dilemma. He spotted Wally surrounded by a group of tall, good-looking folk, but they seemed like an exclusive sort of crew and the seats down there were all taken so Matt decided to give that a miss. He would have sat with Ed if Ed had bothered to come down to dinner with him, but the thought of crowds seemed to make the genius uncomfortable and he said he’d prefer to eat later.

He spied a lanky girl with a ponytail sitting relatively by herself at the left-most table. That’ll do, Matt thought, and moseyed on down to join her.

“Hi!” he exclaimed, dropping down into the place beside her and setting his plates of food carefully upon the table. She looked at him like he was weird. “I’m Matt. Clairvoyant.”

“Celeste,” replied lanky-pony-tail. Matt offered his hand and she shook it, albeit with a semblance of reluctance. “Faunamorph.”

“Nice to meet you Celeste. What’re you up to?”

Celeste turned her head slightly, as if not sure whether he was being serious. “Reading.”

Matt glanced down at what looked like a veterinary textbook on the table in front of her opened up to a diagram deconstructing the circulatory system of an octopus. “So you are,” he said. He started cutting up his potato. “What ‘cha reading about?”

“Um…” replied Celeste, “…anatomy… of animals?”

“Nice,” approved Matt, showing more interest than he actually felt, “Why ah, what’s got you reading that?” He slopped his potato chunks all through the roast beef and gravy.

“I’m a faunamorph,” she repeated in a monotone, looking at him like he was an idiot, “I change into animals?”

“Right,” said Matt through a mouthful of potato, giving her a friendly thumbs up. He took in her long face, overbite, pony-tail and small unicorn stud earrings, and had a sudden burst of intuition. “Hey, mad guess, but do you like horses?”

“Oh my God yes, how did you know?!” Celeste replied, almost instantly perking up.

“Clairvoyant,” he said smugly, in reality having dated a horse girl in year seven and being able to recognise one a mile away. Matt didn’t really see the appeal of horses but his ex-girlfriend had talked about them non-stop and he’d unintentionally learned more than he cared to.

“Oh my God, that’s so amazing!”

“Oh well thank you,” Matt crooned, playing at being flattered, “And I bet you’ve got a particular horse you just love to turn in to right?”

“Oh my God yes, you’re incredible, palomino!”

For the next half an hour, the “clairvoyant” and the horse-girl discussed the minutiae of horses and horse care, the majority of which was spent with Celeste gushing about large farm animals while Matt nodded appreciatively and ate like one. Horses weren’t just a passion for Celeste, it turned out – they were the very reason she’d managed to get into the Academy.

“I did a Pegasus,” she announced proudly, “Most other faunamorphs, they get stuck on the idea of being real quick or doing a whole bunch of different animals – but I started thinking, right, and I was like ‘I can do a horse, I can do a swan; why can’t I do a horse with swan wings’?!”

“Wow,” wowed Matt. He swallowed a mouthful of pizza and gave an indulgent little golf-clap. The girl blushed. “That’s amazing! And that’s what got the Legion interested?”

“Yeah. Most people only ever learn to do one or two normal animals, let alone something that doesn’t exist.”

“I’ll bet,” said Matt, refilling the lanky girl’s glass from a jug of apple juice he’d pilfered from the buffet halfway through the horse lecture. “So are you like, the best faunamorph here?”

“Oh no,” Celeste replied, blushing redder this time, “Well, there’s no real ‘best’. We’re all just Acolytes.”

“Oh,” said Matt, “Well I guess me too then. Acolytes represent.” He held up a fist and after some hesitation the girl giggled and bumped it. Matt glanced down at the open book, sitting there practically forgotten. “So if you can already do a Pegasus, what’re you working on?”

Celeste hesitated for a moment, then a conspiratorial grin slid over her face and she beckoned Matt to lean in. “I’m going to be a dragon,” she whispered and then leant back, beaming. Matt was genuinely impressed.

“Wow, really?”

“Well, that’s the plan,” Celeste grinned, though a second later her smile faded slightly and she looked back down at the octopus diagram, “But it’s like, dragons are made up of soooo many animals, and I’ve got to keep all the right parts in my head without getting mixed up. And I’ve got no idea how I’m going to do the fire. Messing with secretables can be dangerous.”

“Yeah, right,” said Matt. A niggling thought occurred to him, and against his better judgment he found himself letting it slip through.

“Is there a lot of… I don’t know… danger here?” he asked hesitantly. “Do people, you know… get hurt?”

“Well yeah,” Celeste shrugged, seeming unfazed, “But I mean we’ve got healers.”

“Right,” said Matt, “So no one… dies?”

“Um…” Celeste’s face scrunched up as she thought, “I don’t think so. Not that I’ve heard of.”

“Right,” Matt said again, feeling a bit relieved, “So you wouldn’t say, like, death stalks Morningstar?”

“What?” the faunamorph snorted, “No. Where’d you hear that?”

“Nowhere. TV. I don’t know, I must’ve misheard. Forget it. Hey is that ice-cream?”

*****

Matt hummed to himself as he strolled alone through the corridors, the upbeat tune somewhat muffled by another spoon of Neapolitan from the bowl he was carrying. He’d actually come up with two bowls, the bigger of which he’d left outside Jane’s door – he hadn’t seen her come down to dinner and a part of him suspected that in all the excitement she might’ve forgotten to eat. Now, his good deed done for the day, Matt meandered back to his own room, ice-cream in hand. Upon reaching the door, he paused to fish the key out of his pocket, then turned it in the lock and strode through.

To find the blue-eyed boy sitting on his bed.

“Je-thus!” Matt yelped and there was a soft thud as the spoon fell from his mouth onto the carpet. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make the image go away, willing it to be his imagination – but when he opened them the child was still there, holding up the notepad.

Listen

Matt shot a single, terrified glance over his shoulder and slammed the door behind him, spinning immediately back round to face the boy, who hadn’t moved.

“Jesus Christ, you’re real?!”

The child nodded, and in a rush Matt realised the kid could actually hear him.

“What!” he spluttered, ice-cream forgotten, “How?! Who are you?! How’d you get in here?!”

The boy just shook his head. He glanced around at the walls, like he could see through them. He bent down over the page.

No time

“What?” Matt replied, unable to believe he was engaging with whatever the hell this was, “Time for what?” He followed the child’s gaze. “What’s wrong, what’re you looking at?” More scribbling.

Death

The boy looked pleadingly up at him and a chill ran down Matt’s spine – though met, a second later, by a flare of irritation.

“Death,” he repeated flatly, “Just general, inevitable death. Can you be more specific?”

The child shook his head, his blue eyes desperate. The pencil flew across the page.

Why you’re here. Why I gave them your application

Matt’s jaw dropped and without realising he stepped forward and grabbed the boy by his skinny arm.

“That was you?!” he cried, fighting the irrepressible urge to punch a ten-year-old in the face. The boy nodded, wriggling. Matt’s grip slackened and the boy pulled free, desperate to continue writing. The sound of his pencil scratched through the silence and then finally he looked up, holding one last message in front of Matt’s face.

Stay hidden Matt Callaghan

Or the world ends

And in an instant, he vanished.

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About the author

Benjamin Keyworth

  • Australia

Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).

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