Though a powerful mind can overwrite all of existence, it requires significant discipline to truly eradicate what has come before. A burst of reality-altering energy, if unfocused, might radically change the overall nature of the world while only slightly altering objects on an individual basis, much as lightly running an eraser over a chalkboard smudges the writing without removing it completely.
- Dr. Leonard Clarence, On Reality, Unreality, and the In-Between
In the Beginning
It could have been anyone's fault, really. In a way, that was what made it so terrible.
Stacks of papers shuffled to and fro between Foundation offices, requesting changes in position, alterations in schedule, amenities for contained individuals, and a thousand other modifications. Each appeal was slight, each approval minor. None, it seemed, amounted to any more than mere creature comforts.
Someone with a degree and a dark sense of humor requested a few of his favorite books for use in experimentation on a text-altering anomaly. Someone with a pen and a growling stomach put their signature on the paper without fully reading it. Someone with ink-covered hands and a history of insomnia smudged the document, and desperately tried to correct it. Someone with blurry eyes and an overloaded schedule entered the corrected text into a datafile. So it went for several hours, mistake piling upon oversight piling upon judgement failure, until at eleven o'clock the next morning, a small girl was given several new books.
At noon, she began reading.
At twelve-thirty, she decided she did not like the new books very much. Something about them made her feel sad and angry and sick. But most of all, something about them made her feel scared. So she closed her eyes, held her breath, and imagined a world in which she wasn't scared, in which everything would make sense and all the bad things were in the places where they belonged.
When she opened her eyes, she no longer saw the concrete and steel she had become used to. Around her, she saw stained, rotting wood, quietly creaking itself to death. She felt a stack of papers in her hands, and smelled sawdust and spilled ink. Somewhere close by, a school bell tolled.
And she smiled, because she wasn't scared anymore.
Miss Holloway wishes to welcome you all to another education-filled day at her esteemed School. Student satisfaction checks will be carried out at random throughout the day, so remember to have a pleasant morning in order to avoid disciplinary action.
Miss Holloway's School for Children with Potential
The morning bell signaled a rush of activity, as students leapt, rolled, or were forced out of their beds and began their daily routine. Across several miles of dormitory floors, children slipped into school uniforms, put the finishing touches on their homework, and set out for the nearest cafeteria.
Students spiraled upwards and downwards along vast staircases, and dashed through hallways that curved around at impossible angles, sometimes leaving students to travel along the ceiling of another walkway. Sometimes, an inattentive student would stumble and fall through a hole in the floor, vanishing into the relentless void between the walls of the school and emerging on another floor entirely.
Three mischievous brothers sold contraband goods out of their pockets, while another student stuck out her tongue at them and exchanged small, handmade toys for pens, books, and completed homework assignments.
The gramophone horns mounted on the wall crackled to life, shouting orders and occasional jeers at students as they made their way through the halls.
Far above it all, in a shadowed, musty conference hall, the thirteen members of the School Administration met to discuss their plans for the day, outlining what students should be monitored, what students could be manipulated, and what students needed to be reminded of their place.
A scream drifted through the school as an unlucky student tripped and fell into the basement. Fortunately, it was quickly silenced, to be replaced by snarl, and then a softer gnawing sound.
It was another day in Miss Holloway's School for Children with Potential, just like every other day that had been, and every other day that would be. The school aimed to be eternal, and it rested upon a solid foundation.
Due to an unauthorized experiment by the members of the Manna Club of Sacred Charity, cake will be served with all meals for the foreseeable future. Consumption of this cake is mandatory, though enjoyment, while encouraged, is not.
The Bully was a figure of much speculation around the School. Certainly, there were many bullies who stalked the corridors and brought misery upon their classmates, but there was only one capital-B Bully that anybody talked about.
Few students could claim to have actually seen the Bully with their own eyes. The Bully, it seemed, appeared and vanished as it pleased, leaving only a trail of destruction to show where it had been. The few times anyone claimed to have actually witnessed the Bully had passed on into school legend. Some claimed the Bully had once climbed down into the Basement and fought with the monsters living there among the sacks of flour and potatoes. Others claimed that several teachers had tried to use the Bully to discipline disrespectful students, until it had gotten fed up and torn both groups to shreds. A few said that the Bully couldn't be killed, and a few others said that killing the Bully wouldn't be enough to stop it, anyway. Overall, it was tacitly agreed that nobody really knew anything.
Aldon never paid much attention to the rumors about the Bully. Personally, she felt that he, (it, whatever) probably didn't exist at all. Sure, there were stranger things in the School, like the bathtub in the third floor dormitories that screamed at itself, or the painting that surrounded itself with lizards every lunch period, but at least you could actually see those for yourself, and confirm that they were real. The Bully was more likely than not a rumor made up by the students to suggest that the faculty could be opposed, or even more likely, a rumor made up by the faculty to keep the students in line and afraid.
Aldon sighed and flicked her pen with her free hand. School had barely begun for the day, and already her mind was wandering. She hadn't slept well last night, because the Administration had gotten wind of her secret project, and replaced it with a note telling her that art supplies were not allowed out of their assigned room, and that her sculpture was highly inappropriate and had been confiscated for her own good. Though the note wouldn't have caused her to lost any sleep on its own, the fact that it was attached to a box of angry snapping turtles certainly did. Aldon absentmindedly rubbed the bite marks on her arms and sighed again.
Suddenly, there was a loud crackle from the gramophone horn fastened above the door. Everyone in the room jumped, including the teacher, who abruptly stopped his lecture on tesseracts in mid-sentence. The horn produced the sound of a person clearing their throat, and then began to speak in a monotone, genderless voice.
"The School Committee of Normalcy Retention regrets to inform you all that there has been a minor breach of disciplinary protocol, and an especially troublesome student has gained access to the school at large. All students -" Here, the voice cut off with a tremendous crash.
A few seconds later, another voice, equally monotone but subtly different, resumed the announcement. "All students and faculty are to observe Emergency Ruling Number Twelve," it finished, ending with another crackle.
Emergency Ruling Number Twelve? Aldon thought, crawling beneath her desk and curling into a ball. That's reserved for the worst stuff possible. What student is this? Around her, she heard students whispering the same thoughts to each other, along with a single word: Bully.
Garbage, Aldon thought, or would have thought, had the door not immediately exploded off its hinges. With no time to react, she could only stare as a flurry of muscle, unkempt hair, and dark tattoos raced towards the classroom's front desk. As it grew closer, she caught a glimpse of a scowling face, twisted with inhuman rage. Aldon pulled her head further beneath her desk and closed her eyes. Above her, she heard a scream of primal rage, and a flurry of clattering, tearing, and… slicing? I don't want to know, I don't want to know, she thought desperately. The noises of destruction continued, until finally, a primal scream rocked the classroom. Then, silence.
After several minutes, Aldon finally pulled herself out from under her desk and surveyed the classroom. The whole place was a complete wreck. Almost all of the furniture had been smashed, and there was no sign of the teacher. The door frame had been ripped out of the wall, suggesting the monster had exited the same way it had come in.
And stuck in Aldon's desk, embedded nearly to the hilt, was a single, night-black knife. As Aldon stared, the blade faded away before her eyes, leaving a massive gash in the wood that declared as clearly as any writing: The Bully was here.
Slowly, Aldon exhaled, then took a few shaking breaths. She wouldn't be sleeping well that night, either.
The School Committee of Ethics and Discipline reminds you that the curfew exists primarily for your safety. Students not in their assigned nighttime locations by curfew will be expected to fend for themselves until morning.
It was noon, and a red, angry light beat down on the Secondary Athletic Courtyard of Miss Holloway's School for Children with Potential. The Courtyard was empty, save for one gaunt figure pacing around and around the swimming pool.
The Lifeguard sighed, counting her steps. Six thousand seven hundred seventy five. Six thousand seven hundred seventy six. Six thousand seven hundred seventy seven. That made nearly thirty-two revolutions around the pool today. And, as usual, nobody was in it to watch.
The Lifeguard paused to tap the side of her belt. Yes, it was still there. She resumed marching. Some time ago, hadn't there been others to walk with her? A man with an anchor on his arm, and another with a guitar? Somehow, she imagined a lot more people had once helped her lifeguard. But perhaps she was wrong.
But then again… hadn't the pool been… larger, somehow? No, that was impossible. Miss Holloway's swimming pool was the largest in the world. She had been told that, she thought, when she became the Lifeguard. And yet, the vague image of a much larger pool tugged at her memories. A pool with something at the bottom, she remembered. But she could see plainly that there was nothing at the bottom of Miss Holloway's pool. It was perfectly clean, as it should be. Somehow, it made her feel a bit sad.
She paused again, and checked her belt. Then, carefully, she removed her revolver from the side of it, and examined the cylinder. Five bullets. One empty space. Sometime, long ago, she had used one of those bullets. She felt a vague sense of nostalgia and guilt. She had regretted using the gun that time, she thought. They had explained it to her, she remembered. Told her that it had to be done. That sometimes Lifeguarding meant doing the exact opposite of guarding lives. But that was all a while ago, before she had come to Lifeguard at Miss Holloway's School.
At Miss Holloway's School, the recruiters had said, she could have a whole pool to herself, and she would never have to use the revolver again. But she should keep it with her, just in case. The Lifeguard hadn't questioned the suggestion. She hadn't questioned anything in a long time.
The Lifeguard replaced the revolver in its holster, sighed, and began pacing again. Six thousand eight hundred five, six thousand eight hundred six, six thousand eight hundred seven…
The School Committee of Ethics and Discipline reminds all students that anyone found floating toy boats in the School's Sanguine Pond will be forced to retrieve them personally.
The Empty Room
The forty-third room on the third floor of Miss Holloway's School for Children with Potential was empty. No teacher held class there, and no club ever met there for long. The Administration refused to acknowledge the room at all, skipping it entirely in the organizational plans.
Those few students who spent time in the room said that it had an air of sadness, as if something belonged there, but it had left, and would never be back again.
The Administration would like to issue a reminder that it does not condone the formation of unofficial religious groups, covert or otherwise. On an unrelated subject, any hyacinth flowers found in possession of a student will be confiscated immediately.
Cleaning Floors, Moving On
The School's Clock Winders hummed happily as they repaired its central bell tower. A few of the mechanisms had broken down, as they often did, but all would be made right again with the quick application of the right tools. The Head Winder began the ritual chant as his followers scuttled to and fro, checking over all the cogs and levers and springs one final time. As he concluded, he signaled his second-in-command, who removed the wooden stoppers from between the largest gears. The mechanisms began to spin and twist, and the school's massive bell tolled, bringing the Clock Winders to their knees with its glorious sound. As the twelfth and final chime faded out into the afternoon air, a few of the Winders let out happy sighs. "And so God speaks," said the Head Winder. "Amen," the others echoed. Then, they crawled away to examine the School's other machinery. None of them paid any mind to the darkly-clad man who had begun to wipe the machinery down with a damp cloth.
Later, as the students filtered out of their classes and dispersed throughout the school, they stepped around a small space in the third-floor hallway, avoiding it without thought. If one of them had stopped and really stared at the place her cohorts subconsciously dashed around, she might have caught a glimpse of something like a man-shaped shadow, slowly mopping the floor. But nobody stopped, and nobody noticed.
This was how it always was for the Janitor. He cleaned, others moved, and the two groups never mixed or acknowledged the other's presence. Sometimes, when the Janitor had finished a job ahead of schedule, he might stand and look at those who moved around him. On occasion, he might vaguely recall a chorus of thirteen voices declaring, "As you sought attention before the Administration through your misbehavior, so shall you lose the privilege of the attention of others," and he might feel a twinge of regret pierce his stomach. But then he would be whisked away to the site of his next job, and not dwell on such half-memories.
Presently, he was scrubbing away at a spatter of blood that had added a point of bright red to the hallway's gray-brown floorboards. As he washed away the blood, he idly wondered who or what had created it. A stronger student impressing his will upon another? A loose class project running amok? The Disciplinary Committee making its presence felt?
It could have been anyone's fault, really. In a way, that was what made it so terrible.
Students who fail to adequately clean their assigned blackboards will be sent to the office of the Committee of Ethics and Discipline to receive appropriate punishment.