Zoe Baxter stalked down the halls.
A wet young girl skipped along at her heels.
Zoe finally managed to drag the girl out of the hot tubs. She made a beeline for the rocky pools the moment the tour stopped by. She jumped in without even removing her clothes.
Now she happily skipped along with a towel around her, drawing several odd stares from passing students. She was oblivious to it all.
Zoe stopped outside a specific door on the third floor and knocked.
Conversation on the other side of the door stopped. The door opened a second after.
“Time for inspection already?” the black-haired girl asked. “I’ll grab Rach and be out of the room if you’d like.”
“No inspection today, Miss Eva.” Zoe stepped aside, glad the wet girl hadn’t run off. “Your third roommate has arrived. May we come in?”
Eva blinked at the wet girl then blinked again. She seemed to recover herself as she stepped backwards and waved them in. “Yes of course, I was just working on a little project.”
The room was much the same as when the girls first moved in. Neither saw fit to decorate or even personalize the place much. The only decorations were the black envelopes attached to the ceiling that had spread through much of the girl’s dorms.
When asked, everyone responded that they were for luck or to ward off bad dreams. Obvious lies. Attempting to gain access to them caused the contents to turn to foul-smelling slime. Scrying into them produced adverse effects.
The staff considered confiscating them until Juliana and Eva came forth as the creators and explained they were to prevent scrying. Zoe had Eva explain every symbol on the sheets making sure nothing would harm the students. Satisfied with the results, the two girls were allowed to continue their business.
Eva appeared to be in the middle of making additional runes if the pens and rune covered papers on her desk were any indication. Juliana had a book in hand, though she looked up at the intruders.
The blond erred on the side of caution, these days. She carried two wands everywhere she went. With her in a short-sleeved shirt, Zoe could see the metal bands she wore around her forearms. Each sported intricate designs made with the girl’s own ferrokinesis. Sadly, she often covered them up with long-sleeved shirts or jackets.
Apart from the additions to her attire, the girl seemed less bothered by her incident than Zoe expected. Zoe had had several talks with her over the course of the last week and she seemed fairly normal. Not talkative, but Juliana never was a chatty sort. She insisted on continuing her urban explorations, though she promised to contact Zoe at the first sign of anything abnormal.
She set down her book and walked over near Eva.
“This is your new roommate, Shalise Ward.”
The girls looked to the dark-haired girl and looked her over before introducing themselves.
“Shalise,” the girl said with a happy nod.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Eva started, “why are you wet?”
Shalise rubbed the back of her wet brown hair. “I slipped into the spa on our tour.”
Lies. There was nothing accidental about that ‘fall’ into the tubs.
“Do you want to use the shower? We can talk afterwards.”
“I’d just change into wet clothes. I don’t have anything else with me.”
Juliana looked the girl up and down. “You look about my size, if my clothes are fine with you.”
“I don’t want to be a bother on my first day–”
“Nonsense.” Eva waved her off. “I would have offered my clothes if Juliana didn’t.”
The girls pulled out a set of clothes and sent Shalise to the shower.
“School starts next week,” Zoe said after the bathroom door shut, “are you girls ready?”
“Can’t wait,” Eva immediately replied, “I don’t know what you were thinking when you made everyone show up three months early.”
Juliana nodded. “I’ve read half the library and that’s aside from my other activities.”
Eva raised an eyebrow at the blond, but brushed it off. “I mean, your seminars are alright. Apart from that, there is nothing interesting around here.”
“I wouldn’t say nothing,” Juliana said. “But it could stand to be more fun around here.”
Zoe looked between the two girls. She wondered if they weren’t just sparing her feelings by saying her seminar was the highlight of their summer.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” Maybe if they had come several years ago when the town was in full swing. “Miss Ward is completely new to magic. She’s never cast a spell once in her life. Perhaps helping her get school supplies around town and maybe showing her some simple things will alleviate some of your tedium until school starts.”
Eva gave an indifferent shrug. “I haven’t bought a uniform yet.” She looked towards Juliana.
“Same” was the response.
“Good,” Zoe said. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted to your new roommate. Do play nice.”
The girls nodded and said their farewells.
As soon as the door closed, Zoe flicked out her knife and entered between. She could have left from their room, but that left a bad taste in her mouth. It just felt rude.
Zoe moved into her private quarters and took a seat at her own desk. She pulled out a notebook and set to work. Zoe intended to fulfill her promise to Shalise as soon as possible.
She just had to find out where to get the money.
The three girls headed out to the same circular market Eva first shopped at.
Unlike last time, there were a handful of students milling about the plaza. Students looking to get last-minute supplies for the most part.
Shalise gaped at each advertisement around the plaza. First the dancing uniforms, the cauldron’s overflowing contents that vanished just above the heads of students, and the rest. She dragged Eva and Juliana to the most crowded store to watch the dancing uniforms up close.
Irene stood inside the store. She looked to be troubled over choosing between skirts or pants.
Juliana dragged the group up to the girl. “Hey, on your own today?”
Irene half jumped and turned to face the group. “Juliana, Eva,” she said. She turned to the third member of their crew and cocked her head to one side.
“Shalise.” She offered her hand.
Irene moved to shake, but her hands were full of clothes. Shalise grabbed the hand anyway and shook with a smile.
“Irene,” she offered. “And yeah, everyone else bought their uniforms already.”
Eva pulled a skirt off the rack. “Neither of us have, and Shalise is brand new today.”
The skirts seemed to come in many different sizes. From ankle length dresses to barely there skirts. All of them black with teal trim. The longer ones occasionally had teal patterns sewn into them.
For shirts, they had a choice of gray, white, or black button ups in short, long, and no sleeve variety. They were meant to be worn with a teal tie.
Eva planned on picking up a light jacket as well. If there were outdoor classes during winter, she’d wear a heavy coat, but for indoor classes, a jacket would suffice.
Eva picked a couple of the third shortest skirt off the racks. Long enough to cover to just under mid-thigh. Juliana put her hand on her arm as she pulled off a third skirt of the same length.
She shook her head. “We shouldn’t need more than one. They self clean.”
“That’s handy,” Eva said. She replaced all but one of the skirts. “Why don’t all clothes come with that.”
“It isn’t cheap,” was Irene’s response. “Costly to get good materials for the enchantments and harder to actually enchant.”
Eva frowned. “Yet all of us are getting them on our scholarship. And every student has the scholarship. Where is the school getting all the money?”
No one offered any response.
Eva pulled a dark gray shirt from the sleeveless rack. Juliana decided on black with long sleeves. Shalise looked torn between a lighter gray and white. Irene had four colors all of varying sleeve length.
Adding a jacket and coat to her pile, Eva moved on to the shoes. There were no required shoes, but Eva was always on the lookout for a good pair of boots. Sadly nothing looked remotely good.
Purchases in hand, Eva moved to the checkout just behind Shalise. The girl fumbled around, handing the cashier her dorm key card. Once she got her purchases sorted, Eva moved up next.
Eva held out her card. The cashier ran it through the card reader the same way any credit card would be. Eva couldn’t help but ask, “these do give you real money, right? Not some fake money the school prints out?”
The cashier’s lip curled into a frown. “Girl, if the school didn’t pay me real money, I’d have been gone from this town years ago.”
“Fair enough,” Eva said as she took her purchases off the counter.
Juliana gave her a quirk of an eyebrow.
Eva smiled. “Seems suspicious is all.”
That suspicion gnawed at Eva over the last few months. The only explanation she could come up with was that there were a significantly higher number of donating alumni than new students. Assuming Zoe Baxter’s justification for the scholarships was correct.
Either that or an eccentric and rich funder. Eva hadn’t seen any evidence of illegal activities that might be the source of funds. Though, she supposed, if I could wander around for a month or two and stumble across illegal activities, some authority would have noticed much sooner and shut them down.
They parted with Irene outside the clothing shop and entered Foible Foci.
Juliana meandered over to the alternative foci, leaving Eva to guide Shalise around.
Shalise turned her brown eyes over everything in the shop. Not just her eyes. She had to touch absolutely everything, much to the chagrin of the young man managing the store.
Eva dragged the excitable girl to the simple wands and helped her pick out a wooden wand.
“So, Shalise, you’ve never done magic before?” Eva asked before the girl could run around the store.
“I heard of magic, who hasn’t, but I never expected Professor Baxter to show up claiming I was a mage.” She laughed and waved a hand in front of her face. “I told her she had the wrong person. That nothing in my life could be considered magical.”
Eva waited, but Shalise didn’t continue. A bit of a look had fallen over her face. She turned her eyes downwards and sighed. Just as Eva was about to ask if she was alright, Shalise continued.
“She handed me a ticket for a flight, a scholarship fund, and a bunch of papers. I threw them all in the trash.
“Professor Baxter showed up again a week later asking why I missed the flight and if I needed assistance getting to school. I told her I had too much to care for at home, too much work that other people wouldn’t do.”
Eva never thought about that. Someone like Juliana, from a magical family, was probably expected to be shipped off to school. Eva held no attachments to anything back in Florida. But what about people who actually had friends and liked living where they did.
A smile flitted across Eva’s face. Maybe her registration to high school hadn’t been withdrawn. She’d be marked as absent in all her classes until truant officers were sent to her father’s house. If he got arrested due to her disappearance, it would be a happy day.
It was a bit much to hope for. Unfortunately, he knew Eva could do magic and he knew she had visitors from ‘one of them magical academies’ looking to recruit her. Even if Zoe Baxter hadn’t arranged anything, the government surely had a method of contacting Brakket and finding out where Eva was.
Shalise broke Eva from her thoughts. “Eventually, she promised me that she would take care of my home while I was gone. And that I could visit anytime I wanted just by asking her. If I turn out to be a terrible mage or hate it here, then I can go right home.”
“Well,” Eva said, “it is probably good you skipped summer. It has been fairly dull around. I can’t say that I hate it, or that I’d be doing anything more interesting at home except volunteering at a local vet’s office.” She gave Shalise a smile. “Hopefully, school keeps us busy, at the very least.”
Juliana wandered back from the other side of the store, sporting a full finger ring on the index fingers of either hand. At Eva’s questioning glance, Juliana said, “I thought yours looked cool so I got some. Though you never wear yours…”
“It turned out to be a tad more cumbersome than I expected.” Not to mention Eva didn’t actually need any foci for casting her spells. The wand was just for show.
Eva blinked at her terse response. “Yeah,” she said. It would be a handy excuse if she had to cast a spell in an emergency, that was at least part of the reason she originally bought it. “Maybe I will.” She turned to Shalise. “Do you want to look for any alternate focus?”
Shalise held up her hands and took a step back. “Oh no. I don’t think so. This,” she held up her new wand with a bright smile, “is more than enough for now.”
Juliana looked like she wanted to say something but held it in.
“Let’s get your books then. I could use some more paper and ink from Major’s as well.”
Toomey Tomes Bookstore was just as devoid of life as the last time Eva entered the shop. The sole living person was the owner, sitting behind a counter. He was a pencil thin man with far too much gel slicking back his hair. His sunken in eyes glared at the group as they entered his store.
Eva glared right back. Her last time in the store found her running right into some dangerous smelling people. If they were in the store to meet with the shop owner, then that was all on him.
Because of her suspicions, Eva took extra care snooping about the store while Juliana helped Shalise find her books.
Of course, Eva didn’t expect to find anything. If she ran a bookstore of a less than scrupulous nature, she wouldn’t leave evidence lying around the front room. There would be no hidden rooms where customers could stumble into them. There wouldn’t even need to be a secret room. Just a shelf in the back storage room with a few legitimate books set in front of whatever needed to be hidden.
If there were anything that needed to be hidden at all. But you didn’t deal with people who smelled like death if you didn’t have anything to hide. Unless those men just needed a book.
After finding nothing around the shelves, Eva changed tactics. She walked up to the counter where Stephen Toomey, based on his name tag, still glared at her. “Do you have any books you keep out of the main room here?”
“What’s wrong with the books out here, huh?” His nasally voice peaked at the end. He stood from his stool and waved a finger at Eva. “If you’ve damaged any of my merchandise little girl, I’ll be collecting tenfold the cost from you.”
Eva held up her hands. “Nothing like that. I’ve read most of them and was looking for more along my interests.”
Stephen Toomey crossed his arms. “Read most of them? I don’t believe you. I haven’t even read half of them.”
“You clearly have better things to do,” Eva countered. “I am a student stuck in the most boring town I’ve ever been in. It would be strange if I hadn’t read all the books around town.”
It was a lie, of course. She had barely read the required school books. It sounded believable to her though.
Apparently it sounded believable to Toomey as well. “Even if that’s the case,” he said, “I don’t think I have anything to show little brats who shirk responsibility and damage products.”
“Damage products? I never–”
“Don’t be coy with me, little girl. It was you and that brat with the blond hair.” He pointed at an approaching Juliana. “The book you ruined was pointed out by two gentlemen, still dripping with ink.”
“Are you sure they didn’t do it?”
“Don’t shirk responsibility onto others. I was with them the whole time, showing a book on a completely different shelf when one of them tapped me on the shoulder and pointed it out.”
Eva frowned. “Do you still have the book?”
“‘Course I still have it. Can’t sell rotten books now can I?”
“I thought you might have thrown it away or something.”
“Thrown it away? Even damaged as it is, it still is an original copy of the Resplendent Mysteriis.”
“Bring it out and I’ll buy it at full price. Plus extra for compensation.”
Toomey stared at Eva. “You better be able to afford this, little girl,” he said as he stalked into the back room.
Juliana walked up to Eva with raised eyebrows.
Eva shook her head. “After we leave,” she whispered.
Toomey returned to find a large amount of cash sitting on the counter. Double the most expensive book Eva could remember seeing in the bookstore. The cash was the results of her rather successful business. Eva didn’t want to risk her spending money on her scholarship card being low.
He counted the money then slid the book across the counter. “Take it and get out of here.”
“My friend,” Eva said as she stepped out of the way, “still needs to purchase her books. I’d ask that you don’t treat her the way you treated me. She only arrived at Brakket earlier today.”
“Yeah, whatever.” He rung up Shalise’s total without another word and glared the group out of the shop.
Outside, Juliana immediately turned on Eva. “What was that all about? I know you didn’t spill ink on that book.”
“You didn’t either.”
“Those men then?”
Eva nodded. “I think so.”
They filled in a very confused Shalise.
“You never told me why you were afraid of them.”
“I wouldn’t say afraid,” Eva said with a light shuffling of her feet. “I had my nose right in one’s chest. People who smell like they do are generally not the sort of people you want to be around.”
“You can’t discriminate against people based on how they smell,” Shalise said. “Maybe the poor guy’s house was undergoing renovations and he couldn’t shower.”
Shaking her head, Eva said, “not the same kind of smell. This was pungent and vile, the kind of smell I expect from a corpse whose stomach has been torn open.”
“C-corpse?” Shalise half shouted.
Eva hushed her. Glancing around, she was glad for the mostly empty plaza. “There are plenty of very good reasons to smell like death.” Eva tried calming the girl. “Undertakers, morticians, even doctors, nurses, and veterinarians. Trust me, I volunteer at a vet’s office sometimes.”
That seemed to assuage Shalise, at least a little. Juliana, on the other hand, had gone very pale.
“Let’s get back to the dorms,” she said.
She shook her head. “I’ll tell you back at the dorms.”
She marched off leaving Shalise and Eva behind. The two shared a glance and followed after her.
“Just one, as far as I know. Mrs. Baxter didn’t tell me what happened afterwards.”
Eva paused her flipping through the book. The pages were almost entirely ruined. Almost as if the book had been dipped in ink rather than having ink spilled over it. The papers crackled and flakes of ink fell off at the lightest touch. Many pages were stuck together. Eva couldn’t detect any blood, which she originally thought the ink was trying to disguise, but there could still be runes or other magical elements etched into the pages.
It still felt dangerous. Eva had been cautious, checked it for traps and contaminants. The flakes of ink that had fallen off were kept in a small pile on Eva’s desk. She would obliterate them later with blood magic, after her roommates had gone to sleep.
Eva wanted to hand the book off to her master, keep it under magical suppressants and shackles much like the black skull. He’d dealt with necromancers at least once in the past. He might be able to find something she couldn’t.
“Sorry,” Eva said, glancing at Juliana, “just had some thoughts.”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just thought we should all know.”
“Thanks.” Eva gave what she hoped was a comforting smile. Juliana spoke very solemnly about her experience. Eva didn’t want to make light of the zombies, but something else bothered her. “I’m actually less concerned with zombies and more concerned with the book.”
“Not concerned with zombies?” Shalise asked, aghast.
“Less concerned than I am about the book,” Eva repeated.
Juliana leaned back on her bed, resting her head on the wall. She shut her eyes and asked, “what’s wrong with the book?”
“My mentor has dealt with necromancers in the past. I’m not an expert, but I’ve heard things from him. Now, I’m not saying it is for sure, but I don’t want this to be a component in a ritual.” Eva tapped the book. “Town sized sacrifices to draw Death’s gaze are not unheard of.”
Neither girl said anything.
Eva wondered if she made a mistake. That she should have downplayed the danger. It was all just a guess, after all. A guess that made a lot of sense to Eva. What else would necromancers be doing in a tiny town like Brakket.
Juliana kept her eyes shut, breathing deeply and slowly. Some kind of calming technique, perhaps.
Shalise went rigid. She looked about ready to fall off the back of her bed.
What a fun introduction to your first day in magical society.
“You’re not acting concerned,” Juliana said without opening her eyes.
“If I were to perform a ritual involving mass death to a power like Death, it would be on either Halloween or winter solstice. Maybe other local cultural days that involve observance of the dead. I’d say we have a bit of time, though again, I am not an expert.”
“W-well, lets call the police.”
Juliana shook her head. “If this is a massive ritual, I’d rather not spook them and have them do something drastic at the first sign of opposition.”
Eva nodded. She didn’t want people running around searching for dark magic in a town where she and Arachne lived. People snooping around would be problematic at best. “I said I’d aim for Halloween. It is very likely that the ritual could be done sooner if needed.”
“I’ll contact my mother and see if she can’t round-up a few of her old mage-knight contacts to poke around quietly. Preferably ones that have children attending Brakket. They can disguise their visits as social ones.”
Eva didn’t like the sound of a handful of mage-knights running around any more than a full police investigation. “We might just be overreacting,” she said, “it might all be coincidence.”
Juliana shot Eva a look that said, ‘you don’t believe that any more than I do.’
Eva ignored it. “I’ll speak with my mentor, he’s dealt with unsavory sorts before.”
“We have to at least tell Professor Baxter. If this is d-dangerous to students, the school needs to know.”
“I agree,” Juliana said before Eva could object.
Eva repressed a sigh as Juliana withdrew one of the instructor’s business cards. Eva avoided carrying them around. Being tracked to the prison would be a terrible thing.
She’d have to do something about that. It wouldn’t do to have snooping bounty hunters stumble over the prison in their search for necromancers. Eva almost felt bad for Arachne; the moment she got back from setting up Devon’s room at the prison, she’d just be returning.
Her master had lived in the women’s ward until he decided it was too demeaning. He moved out to cell house one, the oldest prison block, and requested Arachne’s help in remodeling. The set up shouldn’t have taken all day. Eva glanced out the window. For all she knew, Arachne was hanging on outside the windows, not wanting to barge in and be seen by the unknown Shalise.
They really needed to work on better communication and transportation to the prison. It had become one of Eva’s top priorities since Zoe Baxter had refused to teach her the method of teleportation she used. Arachne was becoming increasingly convinced that Eva could handle a walk through Hell. The fact that the spider-demon always ran to the prison when going alone gave Eva some reservations about that.
A knock at their door brought Eva back to the present. She, being the closest to the door, stood from her desk and allowed Zoe Baxter into the room.
No one said anything.
“Out with it.”
“There are zombies in town,” Shalise blurted out.
Zoe Baxter glanced a hard glance at Juliana. “More than just the one time?”
“No. Shalise means to say that we suspect necromancers running around the city.”
“Of course there are,” Zoe Baxter glared at the three of them. “Zombies don’t raise themselves. Well, they do. The first ones don’t raise themselves. Rest assured the matter is being investigated. Unless you know who the necromancers are?”
Eva frowned as both Juliana and Shalise turned her direction. Zoe Baxter noticed and looked to Eva as well. “Juliana and I,” she said, making sure to emphasize the blond’s name, “ran into people we now believe are necromancers on our first week of school. We didn’t exactly get their names, but they were in Toomey’s bookstore destroying a book.” She patted the book on her desk, already hating herself for drawing attention to it. “The one I ran into was tall and thin, very bony. I might have thought he was a skeleton if he hadn’t obviously been alive. I didn’t get a good look at his partner.”
“Larger, but not fat,” Juliana chimed in. “Probably muscle. He had short black hair.”
“You might want to check in with Toomey, he seemed fond of them for some reason,” Eva added.
“And the book?”
“It is…” Eva leaned over to read the cover. “Resplendent Mysteriis. Know anything about it?”
“A collection of poetry, if memory serves. None of the poems have any known magical use. I don’t find them particularly good, either.”
“It is a common book then?”
“I wouldn’t say common, but the school library should have a copy of it. I believe I will be confiscating that copy, however.”
Eva frowned. Given that it was destroyed like it was, and that Stephen Toomey called it an original, Eva had hoped it was destroyed to cover up what the necromancers were doing. A common book with plenty of copies would just get attention drawn to the book. That meant her first theory was probably more likely, but she just didn’t know enough. And now the book would probably be destroyed before her master had a chance to examine it.
Unless… Eva smiled.
“Something amusing, Miss Eva?”
“My mentor has dealt with necromancers in the past, told me stories one time. I’m sure he would be very interested in examining this book.”
“I am not going to leave a potentially dangerous book in the hands of a student, let alone some mysterious mentor who refuses–”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” Eva interrupted the now frowning Zoe Baxter. “Just don’t destroy the book right away and I think I can force the meeting you so very much want to have.” She smiled to herself. Her challenge was about to be complete.
That set frowns across Zoe’s face. “Indeed,” she said.