The SCHOOL for GOOD AND EVIL (THE LAST EVER AFTER) - Soman Chanani

'How do you turn your back on your best friend? How do you leave them behind?'

Sophie and Agatha thought their ending was sealed when they went their separate ways. But will their story be rewritten?
With the girls apart, Evil has taken over. The villains of the past have come back with a vengeance and the forces of Good are in deathly peril. Can anyone stand in the way of Evil's deadly reign - and the Last Ever After of all?
Action, adventure, laughter, romance and more twists then ever before in this extraordinary conclusion to the School for Good and Evil series.

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5. A Princess Returns

Graves are meant for dead people, who have no reason to see, breathe, or use the toilet. Unfortunately forAgatha, she needed to do all three. Trapped underground in darkness, she and Tedros inhaled mouthfuls of soil while tangled in each other’s sweaty limbs. Agatha couldn’t make out her prince’s face, but heard him hyperventilating with panic.

“You’re using up all our air!” Agatha hissed.

“Graves have b-b-bodies—d-d-dead bodies—”

Agatha blanched with understanding and gripped on to any of Tedros’ flesh she could find. “Sophie’s mother . . . she p-p-pulled us in?”

“C-c-can’t see a thing. For all we know she’s right next to us!”

“Magic,” Agatha wheezed. “Use magic!”

Tedros gulped a breath and focused on his fear, until his finger flickered gold like a candle, lighting up a wide, shallow grave the size of a large bed. Shivering on top of each other, Tedros and Agatha slowly turned to their right.

Dirt.

No body. No bones.

Just dirt.

“Where is she?” Agatha choked, rolling off Tedros, who groaned and rubbed his chest. She snatched her prince’s wrist and swept his fingerglow over the right half of the grave, spotting only a pair of dung beetles fighting over adirt ball in the corner. She shook her head, baffled, and swung Tedros’ hand to the left—

Both of them froze.

Two sparkling brown eyes glared at them through a black ninja mask.

Agatha and Tedros opened their mouths to scream, but the figure gagged them with slender hands.

“Shhhh! They’ll hear you!” the stranger whispered in a low, breathy voice.

Tedros gaped at the ninja in the grave with them, wrapped in draping black robes. “Are you . . . are you Sophie’s mother . . .”

The ninja let out a giggly squeak. “Oh how absurd. Now shhhh!”

Agatha tensed. That squeak. Where had she heard it before? She tried to catch Tedros’ eye, hoping he’d heard it too, but her prince was smothering the stranger in a hug.

“Oh thank God! We’ve been trapped for a month in the smallest, foulest house you can imagine, almost burned at the stake, almost skewered by an army, and then you pulled us in, whoever you are, which means you have to get us out! We need to get to the School for Good and Evil and rescue our best friend. Surely you know it. It’s halfway between the Murmuring Mountains and—”

The ninja gagged him with a fist. “I know cats that listen better than you.”

“You have no idea,” Agatha murmured, punchy from the lack of air.

A sharp crackle ripped above their heads, like a sword splitting earth, and the grave tremored, caving clumps ofdirt into their faces.

“Check ’em all,” someone growled gruffly, followed by more sharp tremors. “Intercepted a message from the League of Thirteen. Said they’d be comin’ through a grave.”

Agatha’s stomach plunged. The voice didn’t sound like an Elder’s.

“Coulda been more specific. Thousands of ’em and I’m starvin’,” a thick, oafish voice added. “Besides, should be out fixin’ our stories like the others, not diggin’ around in graves. What’s so important about these two anyway?”

“School Master wants ’em. Reason enough for you,” said the gruff one, punctuated by another violent crackle. “He’ll give us a turn at our stories soon enough.”

Agatha and Tedros swiveled to each other. The School Master’s men in Gavaldon? How had they gotten past the guards? The ceiling shook harder, showering clumps of earth.

“Think he’ll let us eat an Everboy as a reward?” asked the oafish one.

“Might even let us eat two,” the gruff voice chortled—

A black furry claw smashed through the ceiling into the grave, with five knife-edged talons snatching right and left.Agatha and Tedros choked back screams as the ninja flattened them against the dirt wall, the hooked talons swiping at air, missing the inseam of Tedros’ breeches by a whisker. It slashed in vain a few more times and then curled into a fist.

“Nothin’ here,” the gruff voice growled. “Come on, let’s eat. Maybe we’ll find a juicy little boy in the Oakwood.”

The claw withdrew empty-handed and vanished, followed by loud, thudding stomps.

A terrorized silence passed . . . then Tedros and Agatha shoved mouths to a hole in the ceiling and sucked down air. Agatha glanced at Tedros to make sure he was okay, expecting he’d be doing the same for her. Instead, her prince was pulling at his breeches, looking down his own pants. Tedros smiled, relieved . . . then saw Agatha frowning.

"What?" Tedros said.

Agatha was about to question his priorities, then noticed the footsteps had stopped. The voices too. Agatha's eyes shot wide open and she dove for her prince - "Tedros, watch out!"

The black claw crashed through the ceiling and grabbed Agatha off her prince, dragging her out of the grave. Tedros leapt to clasp her leg too late. He craned up in horror to see the claw pull his princess into the night sky, dangling her like a caught mouse.

Agatha stared into the bloodshot yellow eyes of a tall, bony brown wolf on two legs, fur and flesh flaking off his face, leaving gaping holes over pieces of his skull.

“Lookie here. A princess returns,” the wolf snarled gruffly, cheekbones poking through one of these holes.

Agatha paled. Was he the one talking about the School Master before? How could an Evil wolf have crossed into Gavaldon? And where was the Elderguard? Her eyes darted around, but all she could see in the darkness was a smattering of crooked headstones. She tried to make her finger glow, but the wolf was gripping her hand too tightly.

“Storian ain’t writing, world dying, armies rising—all ’cause of you?” he purred, tracing her pallid skin and charcoalhair. “Less princess, I’d say, and more . . . skunk. How Good’s fallen in my time away. Even runty Red Riding Hood was a more tempting treat.”

Agatha had no idea what he was talking about, but after all she’d been through tonight, the last thing she needed was to be insulted for her looks by a puny wolf with a skin condition.

“And yet, Red Riding Hood’s wolf learned his lesson, didn’t he?” she warned, knowing her prince must be nearby. “Messed with Good and a hunter tore out his stomach.”

“Tore out his stomach?” said the wolf, appalled.

“With his bare hands,” Agatha lied loudly, signaling Tedros.

“And is this wolf . . . dead?”

“Very dead, so beat it before MY hunter comes,” Agatha yelled, cuing Tedros again.

“Dead as in doornail dead?” the wolf fretted.

“Dead, dead, dead,” Agatha snapped, squinting angrily for her prince.

“Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead,” mumbled the wolf, mulling this gruesome fate. “Well, if that’s true . . .” He lifted big, shiny eyes. “How am I still here?”

Agatha’s eyes lowered to his other claw, tapping at a hideous scar crisscrossing his belly. Her face lost all of its blood. “I-i-impossible—”

“Can I eat this one?” an oafish voice said behind her. Agatha spun to see a 10-foot, bald, humpbacked giant, swinging Tedros upside down by his bootstrap. The giant’s flesh peeled off his skull, covered in zigzagged stitches, as he probed and pinched Tedros’ muscles. “Ain’t seen such firm meat since young Jack came up mybeanstalk.”

Agatha’s heart rose into her throat. Red Riding Hood’s dead wolf . . . Jack’s dead giant . . . alive? Tedros met her eyes, ashen and upside down, clearly petrified by the same question.

“I told you. School Master wants ’em conscious,” the wolf groused.

The giant sighed miserably . . . then saw the wolf smirking.

“But that don’t mean we can’t break off a piece or two,” the wolf said, gripping Agatha harder.

She and Tedros let out twin cries as the giant and wolf raised them high in the air and slowly lowered their legs into their mouths like pork ribs—

“That would be a very poor decision,” said an airy voice.

The wolf and giant both froze jaws over their prey, eyes flicking to the ninja on the ground. The wolf pulled Agathaout of his mouth and smiled at the masked stranger, prepared to delay a snack if it might result in a larger meal. “And why’s that, oh Faceless One?”

“Because if you release them, I’ll let you go on your way,” said the ninja.

“And if we don’t?” snorted the giant, mouth full of Tedros, shivering between the giant’s teeth.

“Then you’ll be woefully outnumbered,” said the ninja.

“Strange . . . ,” the wolf replied, prowling towards the stranger, Agatha in hand. “Given your prince and princess are a bit held up, I see one of you and two of us.” He loomed over the ninja in the moonlight. “Which means it’s you that’s outnumbered.”

Slowly the ninja looked up. The black mask came off, revealing almond-shaped eyes, olive skin, and black hair flowing in the wind.

Princess Uma smiled. “Then you’re not looking very closely.”

She let out a piercing squeak through her teeth and a roar echoed from every side of the darkness, a thunder beneath their feet. For a moment, the wolf and giant spun dumbly, the roar crashing towards them north and south, east and west . . . until they dropped their two prisoners like hot potatoes. From the ground, Agatha raised her glowing finger just in time to see a stampede of bulls leap over her body and ram into the wolf and giant like balls to bowling pins. Horses and bears sprang over Tedros, tearing into the monsters with their hooves and claws. By the time Agatha and Tedros wobbled to their feet, their gold glows illuminating the scene, the wolf and giant were howling for mercy atop the beastly tide bucking them into the darkness. Princess Uma whistled a cheery thank-you and her animal army echoed with singsong growls. Soon their shadows faded and the wolf and giant were gone.

Agatha whirled to Princess Uma, a teacher at the School for Good who she’d once mocked as helpless and passive and weak, but who had just saved her and Tedros’ lives. “I thought the princes killed you!” Agatha cried. “Hester said Dean Sader left you to die in the Woods. We all thought you were dead—”

"A professor of Animal Communication unable to survive in the Woods?" Princess Uma swished her finger and turned her black robes to pink, a silver swan crest stitched over the heart. "Even your mother had more faith in me and we've never met."

“You . . . you know my mother?” Agatha asked. Knew, a voice corrected. Agatha battled a fresh wave of nausea. She couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“Only through her messages to the League,” Uma replied.

“League? What League?” Tedros broke in.

“The League of Thirteen, of course,” said Uma, unhelpfully. “Her last message to us made three things very clear: That we protect your lives. That we get you to Sophie. And that we’d find you right here.”

Tedros and Agatha followed their teacher’s eyes down to the empty grave that once held Sophie’s mother. . . . Only the headstone was different now. Instead of a tall rectangle, it was a murky oval, with a long crack down the middle, carved with thick black letters.

HERE LIES
VENESSA
OF
WOODS BEYOND

“Vanessa was Sophie’s mother. ‘Butterfly,’ I think the name means,” remembered Tedros, studying the stone. “Sophie told me one night when she was Filip.”

“Sophie never told me her mother’s name,” Agatha said, hurt.

“Perhaps because you never asked,” said Tedros. His face changed. “Wait a second. Her name wasn’t on the grave before. And look, it doesn’t say ‘Loving Wife and Mother’ like it used to.” He squinted at the shadows of crooked slabs around them. “We’re in the same graveyard, in the exact same spot. Doesn’t make any sense. A gravestone can’t just change—”

“Unless you’re not in the same graveyard at all,” Princess Uma said behind them.

Agatha and Tedros spun to see their teacher shoot a bolt of white glow into the sky. From every direction, thousands of fireflies whizzed to it like a signal, swarming over the Evers’ heads and detonating neon-green wings into a giant light cloud, illuminating a sprawling landscape in every direction. Prince and princess gazed out at a vast cemetery, with thousands and thousands of gravestones sloping over steep, barren hills. For a moment,Agatha thought Graves Hill had magically grown bigger. But it was what lay beyond the cemetery that madeAgatha feel faint—a dark, endless gnarl of black trees, rearing high into the night like a primeval monster.

They weren’t on Graves Hill.

They weren’t in Gavaldon at all.

“We’re in the Woods,” Agatha rasped.

She was suddenly aware of the sea of dead bodies under her feet. In an instant, the images she’d been damming up broke through with a vengeance—guards, spears, her mother falling . . . Agatha buckled, about to retch—

Tedros’ hand touched her arm. “I’m right here.”

His voice brought her back to the moment. Agatha swallowed the acid taste in her mouth and uncurled to stand, clutching her prince by the shirt laces. She steadied her legs, trying to see a graveyard in front of her, just a graveyard and nothing more . . .

“Hold on. I’ve been here before,” said Tedros, searching the landscape.

“Each Forest Group makes a trip first year to scavenge meerworms. No doubt Yuba accompanied you,” Princess Uma replied.

“The Garden of Good and Evil,” said Tedros. “That’s what he called it. Every Ever or Never whose name makes it into a storybook is buried here.”

Under the firefly cloud, he scanned thousands of coffins down one side of the hills, teeming with glittering gem-crusted memorials for pairs of Evers, united in life and now in death. “That’s Ever Embankment, where the greatest heroes are,” he said. “Except Dad, of course.”

Agatha looked at her prince, waiting for him to go on, but he turned back to her. “We must have come out the other side of Vanessa’s grave. One end is Gavaldon, the other end the Woods. It’s the only explanation. But how would your mother have known the grave was a portal?”

Agatha thought of the black and white swans on the two graves flanking Sophie’s mother’s. “Even if she did know somehow, why would Sophie’s mother’s grave connect the two worlds?”

“You’re asking the wrong questions, students.”

Agatha and Tedros looked up at Princess Uma, studying them intently.

“You should be asking why her grave is empty.”

Uma circled her finger at the sky and the firefly cloud swept over their heads, illuminating the slope Agatha and Tedros were standing on. A bank of cracked and moldy headstones glowed in the alien green light, jutting from ragged black mounds.

“Necro Ridge,” said Tedros. “It’s where the worst villains are buried.”

“Sophie’s mother was a Never?” Agatha asked, disoriented.

“Not according to our findings. The League of Thirteen has no evidence of a Vanessa of Woods Beyond attending the School for Good and Evil, being mentioned in a fairy tale, or having her body buried here at all,” said Uma, pocketing gooey gray meerworms off a tomb. “And yet, she has a grave amongst our most famous Nevers.”

“You keep talking about this League,” Tedros rankled. “I’ve never heard of them—”

“As you shouldn’t,” said Uma, even more unhelpfully than before. “Listen to me, Agatha. There are no words to ease the pain you’re in right now. But your mother died before she could give the League the answers we needed. Think back. Do you have any idea why Vanessa’s name is carved into a headstone on Necro Ridge? And where her body might be?”

"I don't see why we should help a League we know nothing about," Tedros grouched.

But Agatha’s head was still swimming. Her own mother, Callis, had moved between the two worlds as a witch without anyone in Gavaldon knowing, including her own daughter. And yet, her mother fit all the traits of a Never—unmarried, mysterious, reclusive. . . . If anything, Agatha should have seen the clues. But Sophie’s mother? Sophie had spoken only rapturously of her mother, doting on her wicked, unfaithful husband until her dying day. There was no hint of her being anything other than a radiant, loving caretaker and wife. So how could her name be on a villain’s tomb? Agatha shook her head, at a dead end . . . until her eyes suddenly flared wide.

“The Crypt Keeper will know!”

Quickly she scoured the horizon for the blue-skinned, dreadlocked giant she’d learned about at school, responsible for digging and filling graves. “Hort said he buries everybody himself. Never lets anyone interfere. That’s why Hort’s dad’s been waiting for a coffin all these years. So the Crypt Keeper has to know why Sophie’s mother has a headstone here . . .” But the hills were deserted, except for a few hovering vultures nearby. She turned to Uma. “Where is h—”

Agatha stopped cold, seeing Uma’s expression.

Slowly Agatha turned back to the vultures.

Lying on the ground beneath them was a massive, blue-skinned body crumpled in a spray of dirt. His bones were broken and his throat split open, the blood staining his neck long dried out. Agatha could see the whites of his wide-open eyes, as if the shock of dying paled to the shock of what killed him.

Agatha felt Tedros squeeze her hand with his sweaty palm, telling her she hadn’t seen the worst of it. Dread growing, she tracked his gaze past the dead Crypt Keeper and across the 200 graves on Necro Ridge, marking the resting place of famous fairy-tale villains. But now Agatha saw why there were so many mounds of dirt, blacking out the grass. Every single one of the famous villains’ tombs had been dug up, the insides of all of them . . .

“Empty,” said Agatha. “The villains’ graves are empty.”

Legs shaky, Tedros gaped at the bodiless graves. “Red Riding Hood’s wolf . . . Jack’s giant . . . and a whole lot worse . . .”

Agatha whitened, remembering who the wolf said they worked for. “And they’re all under the School Master’s control.”

Princess Uma came up behind them. “For hundreds of years, Evil lost every story because Good had love on its side. Love gave Good a power and purpose Evil couldn’t match. But those happy endings held only as long as Evil wasn’t able to love. Things have changed, students. The School Master has found someone who loves him and who he loves in return. He’s proved Evil deserves a chance to rewrite its fairy tales. Now every old villain gets a new turn at their story. Every dead villain is reborn.”

True love? The School Master? Agatha shook her head, trying to understand. How could anyone love him?

Suddenly Agatha noticed Vanessa’s empty grave again and her heart seized. “Wait—Sophie’s mother . . . body missing . . . means she’s . . . she’s—”

“She wasn’t buried here, remember?” Uma said, cutting her off. “We don’t even know if her body was buried at all. And yet, the Crypt Keeper saved this grave for Sophie’s mother amongst the famous Nevers—the CryptKeeper, who answers to no one but the Storian itself. Why he saved a villain’s grave for her could be our greatestclue to understanding how the School Master came to choose his new queen.”

Agatha felt a cold darkness rip through her stomach. She had a thousand questions: about her mother and her best friend’s mother, about letters and Leagues, about empty graves and undead villains . . . but only one mattered.

“Queen?” she whispered, slowly looking up. “Who?”

Uma met her eyes. “Sophie took the School Master’s ring. She is his true love.”

Agatha couldn’t speak.

“But . . . but we came to rescue her from him,” Tedros said, stunned.

“And you must. But it will not be an easy task,” said Uma. “Sophie’s kiss may have brought him back to life—but it is his ring on her finger that makes the power of that kiss last. As long as Sophie wears his ring, the School Master remains immortal. And yet, there is a way to undo the kiss, children. A way to destroy the School Master once and for all. And it is our one and only hope.” Her voice was fiery, urgent. “You must convince Sophie to destroy the School Master’s ring by her own hand. Convince Sophie to destroy his ring and the School Master will be destroyed with it forever.”

Agatha was still lost in a fog.

“But beware,” Uma added. “While you seek your true ending to The Tale of Sophie and Agatha, the School Master seeks his too.”

Tedros could see Agatha staring into space, no longer listening. “And what ending is that?” he asked.

Uma leaned in, her soft features hardening. “The wolf and giant were no accident. War is coming, Son of Arthur. As long as Sophie wears the School Master’s ring, all of Good is in terrible danger, past and present, young and old. Either you and your princess bring Sophie back to Good . . . or Good as we know it will be wiped out forever. That is the ending he seeks.”

Agatha’s heartbeat swirled in her ears.

Once upon a time, she and Sophie had slain a deadly villain who’d torn them apart.

Now her best friend had given her heart to that villain.

"But he's Evil. She knows he's Evil . . . and Sophie isn't Evil anymore," Agatha breathed, looking up. "Why would she want to be with him?"

“For the same reason you and your prince want to be with each other.” Uma gave her a wistful smile. “To be happy.”

Agatha and Tedros watched the Princess circle her finger, extinguishing the fireflies, and hasten towards the dark Woods beyond the hills. “Quickly, Evers,” she said, snatching a few more meerworms off a grave. “It’s a two-day journey to school and we must get to Sophie before they find you.”

Tedros frowned, lagging behind. “Before who finds us?”

Who?” Uma glared back, incredulous. “Whoever else was in those graves.”

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