“Welcome to Brakket Magical Academy.” Zoe Baxter looked over the students. She quickly spotted her candidates. Eva Spencer and Juliana Rivas looked already acquainted. Good.
Zoe was a bit disappointed in the lack of Shalise’s presence. She would have to make another visit to the girl’s orphanage and impress upon her the importance of attending a proper magical school, namely Brakket.
Jordan Anderson, one of Wayne’s candidates, stood close to Eva. He had a small entourage around him all of whom seemed to know each other. Whispers went back and forth between all six students. Two of them kept shooting wary glances at a small pet carrier in Eva’s hands.
That must be the tarantula Eva mentioned. The girl must have shown them. Judging by their looks, they didn’t like what they saw. Zoe planned to avoid her candidate’s room as much as possible once they moved in.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as she imagined.
Zoe let her gaze move past the other students. Some she recognized as being candidates for other teachers, others she drew a blank on. Altogether there were only twenty-two students. Seven less than last year.
Hopefully the school wouldn’t shut down before the students had a chance to prove themselves.
“You were all personally met by an instructor before you came here. They will be your primary advisors.” Zoe paused, gesturing to herself. “I am Zoe Baxter, instructor of magical theory.” She waved her hand towards her companion. “This is Wayne Lurcher, alchemy instructor.
“We will be taking a short bus ride to the dormitories where we will meet the rest of the teaching staff. If you forgot who your primary advisor is, find either myself or Mr. Lurcher and we will assist you. There will be a short orientation of the dormitories when we arrive. Afterwards, you will be free to do as you wish, though there will be a meal provided free of charge after the orientation.”
Zoe surveyed the students once again, looking for any sign of confusion. Her search came up short, but she still elected to ask, “any immediate questions?”
A slightly rounder boy standing near Jordan Anderson raised his hand. Zoe nodded towards him.
“Are the dorms co-ed?”
Zoe frowned while Wayne answered with a terse, “rooms are divided by gender, but you’ll all be in the same building.”
“There are detectors,” Zoe added, “to ensure no untoward behavior with the opposite sex occurs on school property.”
The boy made a comment to his peers that Zoe didn’t catch. They gave a few chuckles and quieted down.
“If there are no other questions,” Zoe paused and glanced around the room. When no one raised a hand, she continued, “the bus is waiting.”
They got the students loaded up and set out on their way.
Zoe kept an eye on the students as they drove. She listened for any comments or questions. Most of the students looked fairly tired however and the rest looked hungry. Not much chit-chat went on between them.
She did keep a special eye on her candidates. Eva almost looked like she wanted to come up and speak with her when they first boarded, but had moved on to sit next to Juliana. At one point, Zoe caught the girl peeking down her own shirt. She gave a sigh while Juliana looked on with a tired look. Zoe didn’t think the black-haired girl had much to complain about, at least for her age. Still, Zoe smiled sadly, remembering all too well her own feelings when she was younger.
The bus lurched to a halt outside the Rickenbacker Hall. The students were brought into the lounge where the other instructors waited. Before they could separate to their advisors, Zoe called their attention once again.
“This is the Rickenbacker Lounge. The noticeboard,” she gestured towards a simple bulletin board, “will have all important information regarding anything the school feels you need to be made aware of. Students may use it to post their own notices so long as they do not interfere with school information. I encourage you to make a habit of checking it each night before you sleep. You may find your advisors now.”
The group dispersed to the various instructors. Eva, Juliana, Jordan, and the round boy, Maxwell maybe, stuck behind.
“You didn’t find a third after all, Wayne?”
“I don’t see a third for you.”
“She is just wrapping things up at her home. She’ll be along before school starts.”
Wayne just huffed. “Come on, boys.” He marched off. The two boys shared a glance and followed after him.
“What was that about?” Juliana asked.
“Originally, Eva was to be one of his candidates.” Zoe glanced towards the girl in question. “He got in a bit of a tantrum when you ran away, and I snatched you up.”
“Just who we all picked to enter the school, like I did for each of you.”
Eva spoke up. “Did no one want come to this school without being recruited by an instructor?”
Zoe spared a glance at the other few students who had yet to leave the lounge. This was not a line of questioning she wanted to get into in front of others. “Let me show you to your rooms. You can ask questions there.”
She led the girls up to the third floor and stopped in front of a room.
“Room three-thirteen?” Juliana asked.
“What luck! I’d sure hate to be those poor folk in room seven-seven-seven.” Oddly, Zoe didn’t detect much sarcasm in Eva’s voice.
“There are only three floors in both dorms, room three-twenty is as high as it goes.”
Zoe ignored Eva’s scoff as she held out two black cards. “These will open the door to your room with a swipe. They will also open all amenity rooms in this building as well as anywhere else you have access to across the entire campus. Don’t lose them.”
She pulled out her own card and opened the door. Inside was the standard dorm room for the Rickenbacker. Three beds with plenty of storage drawers beneath them and a desk at the end of each bed. Two windows gave plenty of space between the beds. There was a small kitchen and dining area. No open stoves but there was a fridge and microwave.
A single bathroom lay through a small door.
“You can fight amongst yourselves which bed you want. There will be a third member of your dorm arriving sometime this summer, so do keep the spare clean.”
The two girls immediately darted for the beds with walls. They set their things down on their respective desks and Eva turned back to Zoe.
“Should I be worried that our extra luggage isn’t here?”
“It is being brought in a second vehicle. It should be delivered by the time we finish eating. If you did not put your name on it, there is an office adjacent to the lobby that has a lost and found.
“Unless I am mistaken you had concerns about our recruitment methods?”
Eva sat on the bed she had chosen and regarded Zoe with a wary look. “I’m not complaining. I doubt I would have even attended any kind of magical schooling without you. However, I’ve heard rumors,” she said as her eyes flicked towards Juliana who had taken a seat on her own bed, “that this school is barely holding together.”
Zoe thought about deflecting completely, but decided to edge around the issue. “Our reputation is poor, it is true. Yet every student in all six years of this school are on the same scholarship that you are. If we were so poorly off, we would not be able to afford such things.
“As for our reputation itself, well, it is a complicated issue. You will learn more about it in the future, I am sure. For now just focus on your schooling and rest assured that plans are already in motion to elevate our school in our peer’s eyes.”
Eva did not respond, she just frowned in thought. Juliana looked bored by the short discussion, like she wanted nothing more than to flop down on her bed and sleep.
“On an unrelated note,” Zoe lied as she pulled a small pamphlet out of her breast pocket, “there is a seminar that will meet several times this summer. It is meant for older students, but I ask that you attend even if you cannot participate right away.
“You can ask me questions if you have them later.” She dropped the paper on the small dining table. “Lets finish up our tour before we miss dinner. After that, I am sure that Miss Rivas at the least would like to sleep.”
Thankfully, Eva left her pet carrier on the desk.
The two girls followed her on the tour through the building’s facilities. They stopped by the alchemy lab, though both seemed disappointed they would not be allowed inside without supervision until they finished their second year. The library seemed of particular interest to Eva though she seemed a bit disappointed by the small size. Zoe quickly stressed that there was a much larger library within the main school building.
The recreational areas seemed to please the girls. The pool disguised as a massive beach and the hot tubs that looked like natural hot springs atop a snowy mountain were especially well received by Eva; she seemed more happy that there was actual magic present than she was about the water.
Juliana found one of the study rooms to her liking. It was a smaller room with a ceiling that showed the sky and stars above as if there weren’t light from any source, regardless of the actual time of day.
At the end of the tour, the two girls began whispering to each other. Eva spoke up. “We can take our meal in our rooms, right?”
“I don’t see why not,” Zoe said with a shrug. “There is a communal kitchen near the lobby we started at, they will serve you meals there. There is a large dining room adjoining the kitchen if you wish to socialize with some of your future classmates.”
“I’m exhausted,” Juliana said. “I will probably fall asleep the moment I get food in me. I’d rather not have to climb stairs between the eating and the sleeping.”
Zoe wondered for a moment if that was an excuse to get out of her presence. The deep rings beneath the blond’s eyes convinced her otherwise.
“Very well.” Zoe pulled out two of her business cards and handed them to the girls. “If you have an emergency, you know how to use these. Otherwise I will see you at the seminar.”
The two children walked off down a hallway that was almost the shortest route to the kitchen. She didn’t correct them. They would learn in time.
The moment they were out of sight. Zoe withdrew a thin silver dagger and flicked it across her chest. The walls of Rickenbacker hall trembled and tipped backwards into the ground. The pure white space of between rushed to fill their vacancy. Another flick and reality reconstructed itself in the form of the staff meeting room.
She walked from between into the room and took her usual seat. A plate of roast and mashed potatoes materialized in front of her and she ate while waiting.
Soon enough other instructors began entering the room. They tended to use far more normal methods, such as the door. They would move to their chairs and sit down. Some would eat the meals that appeared while others chatted about their new students.
Wayne appeared directly in his seat. He ignored the food and turned to Zoe. “Did you get a look at her spider?” he grunted.
“I saw its cage. I didn’t ask.”
His face split into a feral grin. “My boys were talking about it. Big as her face, they said, and it climbed all over her head. She didn’t even bat an eye when its deadly fangs rested on her forehead.”
Zoe glared at him, looking for any sign of a lie. She didn’t find one. “An exaggeration, surely,” she paused, looking at him again, “or a poor jest trying to frighten me.” She wasn’t about to tell him it was working. “I did my research after she mentioned having her pet. They didn’t look near as bad as I first imagined.”
Sure many might be poisonous and have poisonous bristles sticking out of them. But domesticated tarantulas were supposedly calm and didn’t attack unless they felt threatened.
Wayne grunted. “Don’t come cryin’ to me when you want someone to hold your hand during inspections next week.”
Zoe paled at that. She had yet to find someone to take over that responsibility and she doubted she would be able to.
“Did you ask her about the museum?”
“Must have slipped my mind.”
“The Elysium Sisters reported a dangerous object was stolen with the aid of runes, a system hardly anyone uses these days, the same day your girl used the same runes in your presence. She also met with a mysterious mentor later that night. And you don’t question her?”
“Very long-winded of you Wayne.” Zoe glared at the man.
“I’m just sayin’ if the dorms explode in a ball of black magic, don’t come cryin’ to me.”
The dean popped into the room at the head of the table alongside her secretary. Conversation died out as she cleared her throat.
Zoe started tuning the woman out before the first word bumbled out of her mouth. The woman was the cause of half the academy’s problems and this meeting was a waste of time.
But, Zoe didn’t want to be fired. And she had a job to do. So she smiled and nodded along with whatever the dean was talking about.
— — —
Eva awoke at her usual time. At least, she thought it was her usual time. The black sky outside her window suggested otherwise.
Time zones, she thought with a sigh.
Stretching and yawning, Eva sat up in her bed. A heavy lump fell off her chest and into her lap.
She poked Arachne tentatively. The spider twitched and sprung to her feet. Her frantic glancing around gave Eva a spur of giggles. The spider leapt and half tackled her back to the bed. Arachne clasped her legs around her and just sat.
Eva just sat back with Arachne on her chest. She half wondered if Arachne had a nightmare. After five minutes she patted the spider’s back.
“Going to take a shower now,” Eva said.
Arachne’s grip not loosen in the slightest. Eva shrugged and walked straight to the bathroom.
With the hot shower water poring over the two, Eva patted Arachne’s back once again.
“Hey, you alright?”
One of her legs finally unclasped and lightly tapped Eva’s right shoulder.
“We’ll spend some time this week finding a place where we can be ourselves a bit more. In fact,” Eva said, “if you want to run around today while I’m shopping, that would be perfect. Well, perfect as long as you stay out of sight and don’t attack anyone.”
There was a bit of hesitation before Arachne tapped her right shoulder again.
“Alright. Good. For the record, I liked the hospital much better than master’s place. If we could find something like it, that would be best.”
Eva shut off the shower. It wasn’t half as good as her old shower. The runes she carved into the metal shower heads were the perfect temperature. Or maybe she just got used to the temperature. Eva made a note to look into recreating it.
After towelling off, Eva stepped out of the bathroom and froze.
Juliana had sat up in her bed. Her eyes locked with Eva’s. A moment later they flicked downwards, staring at Arachne, then downwards again before snapping back up to Eva’s eyes.
“I’m not used to other people around,” Eva said slowly.
“Not a problem,” Juliana stood up, revealing simple white pajamas. “I just didn’t expect you to be telling the truth when you said you showered with Rach.” And with that she disappeared past Eva into the bathroom.
Eva sighed and looked down to find Arachne’s eight eyes staring back. “Maybe I should buy some–” Eva cut herself off with a shake of her head. “Too late I suppose.”
Arachne climbed off and unfurled herself to her human form. Eva hoped the squelching noises were covered up by the sound of the shower. Once human, four legs sprouted from her back and wrapped themselves around Eva. Her clawed hands ran themselves through Eva’s hair.
“You’ve been hugging me non stop for almost a full day now.”
Arachne pulled back with a wide grin on her face. “I know. I wanted another one.”
Eva bit her lip and decided to ask again. “Are you sure you are alright?”
“I’m great. Why?” Her grin might have stretched a little wider.
“You just acted a bit odd this morning.”
“Well, as long as we’re going to be together for a year, might as well be together during it, right?”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and slid the window open. The screen fell out with barely a tap. Both Eva and Arachne leaned out the window and watched it land in some bushes below. They shared a glance and both shrugged.
Arachne climbed out, using her spare limbs to attach herself to the wall.
“Don’t worry, I won’t be seen. You stay safe,” she said, one of her long legs poking at Eva. “If you get even a scratch on you, I will tear this place to pieces.”
“That’s a bit much for a scratch.”
“Then you’d love to see what I’d do if you were seriously injured.”
With that she disappeared up the building into the morning darkness.
Eva shut the window and got dressed. They were in Montana and its vastly different climate. Still, it was June. A skirt and tee-shirt should do.
Juliana emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed, and sat down at her desk. “So,” she said.
Eva smiled and sat on the edge of the as of yet unclaimed middle desk. “I’m planning on heading into town for shopping. School supplies among other things. Do you want to come?”
“It might be too early to get uniforms,” she patted herself, “just in case. But nonperishable alchemy supplies and books would be nice.”
Eva nodded. “I need a focus as well. And a new set of vials with anti-decay enchantments.”
“A focus?” The blond tilted her head to one side. “You lost your old one?”
“Never had one.”
“Oh. I just expected with all those potions you had, that you would have had a focus as well.”
“Don’t need a focus to brew potions.”
“I suppose that is true,” Juliana said with a nod. “Shall we grab some food before we head out?”
The girls headed downstairs and scrounged up a light breakfast in the kitchens. They met some other early rising students and exchanged pleasantries. Only when the other students mentioned the time did the girls realize it was far too early for shops to be open.
They killed time in the dorm library. Eva was a bit disappointed, if unsurprised, to find no books catered to her specialized interests. There was a book on runes that Eva had never read before. Juliana poured herself into a book on magical creatures.
Soon enough they left the library and headed outside. Rickenbacker Hall was one of two dorm buildings built across from each other. They each held three years worth of students.
Turning down one path led to the school. A large but mostly flat building except for a three-story wing at one end. It was a modern structure, mostly made out of large cinder blocks with lots of glass and decorative metal. Not at all what Eva expected a magical academy to look like.
The opposite direction led off campus. There was a large town built around the school. It was similarly modern, though none of the buildings looked more than two stories high. According to the school pamphlet, a lot of entertainment areas filled the immediate area outside the school campus. Regular shops and homes lay further beyond.
The reality couldn’t be worse. There were shops around campus to be sure. Entertainment buildings as well—however a number of them looked closed. And not just closed because it was still early in the morning.
At least Arachne would have plenty of selection.
Eva doubted the situation got better further away from the school. There were probably tons of homes where the owners had packed up and left the dying city.
“Shall we start with your focus? It is always fun to get one.”
“Sure,” Eva said with a shrug. “If we can find a place that sells some.”
“I came here during summers when my brother still attended. I think I remember my way around.”
“Lead on,” Eva said. “I’ll follow.”
Juliana grabbed a surprised Eva by the hand and led her right past the first line of shops. They came to a circular plaza that looked like the perfect area for school supplies.
Outside a clothing shop, a set of school uniforms performed a tuneless waltz. The bookstore’s sign was a giant book that flipped pages every few minutes. Eva wondered if the text was actually anything other than nonsense filler words. The potion shop, focus store, general equipment store, and a good handful of other stores all had similar eye-catching advertisements.
As Eva’s initial surprise at the sights wore off, she noticed there was not a single person milling about. The benches were all empty. The guy sitting behind the Gooble Gobble Gourmet Grub kiosk was obviously playing some sort of game on a tablet and hadn’t even looked up once.
Perhaps it was because of the early morning. Just after the shops opened maybe no one was there. Eva doubted it.
Undaunted by the worries that plagued Eva, Juliana dragged the black-haired girl straight to Foible Foci.
Wands were the prevalent foci on display. Wooden ones, metal ones, simple ones, jeweled ones, all laid out on shiny racks. Given that wands were what magic was instructed with at the academy, that was probably a good idea.
Still, Eva found herself wandering to the alternate foci. Rings, large red spheres, staves, crystal capped rods, daggers and other weapons, even books specifically designed for use as foci.
The rings were obviously the most enticing for the combat aspects Zoe Baxter had mentioned. With Juliana at her side, Eva began her search.
Eva purchased a simple wooden wand. It would suffice for classes and Eva had no intention of using it outside class. For rings, Eva chose a full fingered version. According to the shopkeep, it had far less capacity for raw magical power than something like her master’s dual ring and bracelet combination. Juliana didn’t expect it to be useful aside from the most mundane of spells.
Eva didn’t think that would be much of a problem with her natural abilities. Unnatural abilities? Either way, she could do magic on her own.
They soon left to the alchemy and potions shop where they both picked up a large number of brewing supplies. Eva picked up a lot of fresh ingredients that Juliana avoided. She had to leave most of her potion cupboard at home and she didn’t intend to be caught with only what she had in her satchel.
Juliana bought out half the bookstore when they arrived there. She wanted every book that she didn’t already have at her personal library at her home. Eva wondered how she planned to transport them all back when the girl pulled a small suitcase out of her pocket. It grew to a regular sized suitcase and she dumped the books in. They still went over the edge, but when the blond zipped up the zipper, not a spot looked like it had even the slightest bulge. She then dropped it back in her pocket with a small wink to Eva.
“I want one of those.”
“Family heirloom,” she said, once again showing her rare smile. At Eva’s frown, Juliana continued, “there are mass produced versions at shops, maybe one down in the general equipment store. They will be far inferior and still very expensive.”
Turning to leave the store as soon as she heard that, Eva ran straight into a person coming in. She stepped back with a hastily mumbled apology as two men brushed past her without a word.
Juliana came up next to her and whispered, “rude.”
It was Eva’s turn to grab the blond’s hand. She led the girl back towards the dorms.
“We’re not heading to the general store?” Juliana asked as they left the circular plaza.
Eva barely heard her as she walked, but she managed to register the question a minute later. “No. Think I’m a bit fatigued of shopping for now.”
“Those men bothered you?”
“Would you believe bad vibes? We’ll come back another day. I still want one of those suitcases,” Eva said with a big smile.
The smile disappeared as she turned forward again.
There was something off about those two men. And it wasn’t just that they were the only two customers Eva had seen aside from herself and Juliana.
It might not have been noticeable from a distance, there was something covering it up, but Eva’s nose had been right in the man’s chest. She took a brief inhale of two very familiar scents. One was the coppery tinge of blood.
The man wasn’t a blood mage though. If he was, he wasn’t a very good one. Every drop of blood spilled by a proper blood mage is consumed whether in spells or to heal yourself, as such the scent doesn’t stick around long or that strong.
The other scent was far more worrying. A scent she had only ever found on long decayed corpses.
The scent of rotting flesh.