A hot fire burned away the cold October air. It crackled and warmed the young instructor’s office. The professor sat in her chair, calmly reading through a thin book as the red flames scorched the walls of her fireplace.
Zoe Baxter sighed and snapped her book shut. She tossed it into a pile of similar books and grabbed the next book on her stack. It slipped from her tired fingers and clattered to the floor. Zoe didn’t bother to pick it up. If the pile of worthless books was any indication, it wouldn’t help anyway. She moved on to the next book in the stack.
There were no records to be found of any books, tomes, or grimoires titled Exanimis de Mortuum.
It didn’t help that Eva’s description had been so vague. There were apparently no words on the cover, just a pentagram with a man inside it. Its effects were to shield souls from Death. Randolph Carter had recognized it almost instantly from the cover alone.
Randolph Carter suffered some sort of injury while finding the cover of the grimoire. He promptly vanished presumably to find a way to heal himself. That’s what Eva said, in any case. Zoe hadn’t seen the man since their first meeting over a month ago now. Eva said that her only instructions were for the book to be destroyed.
And therein lay the heart of her current problem.
The book was proving impossible to damage.
Zoe thought there might have been a hint or directions for its disposal, but she couldn’t find a reference to it anywhere. There was no word on any alternate names it might go by and Zoe couldn’t even ask because of Carter’s disappearance.
She had tried the standard methods for eliminating dangerous objects, but none worked. The disguised cover, Resplendent Mysteriis, had long since been destroyed. It was the bulk of the black pages that refused any attempts at destruction.
Eva made her impatience clear. She only got more nervous as time elapsed. The phases of the moon bothered her as did the upcoming Halloween. They passed the day of the new moon without incident, but even Zoe was apprehensive about Halloween.
If she couldn’t find a way to destroy the book by the thirty-first, she was very seriously considering handing it over to Eva.
The girl was strongly convinced that she could destroy the book where Zoe had failed. She said that it was her who destroyed the phylactery they stole earlier in the year. That Eva refused to speak of what methods she would use and refused to allow Zoe to watch both lent credence to her claims as well as disturbed Zoe.
There was little doubt that Randolph Carter used magics more obscure than proper thaumaturgy. Those obscure magics generally fell into one of two categories: light and dark. If the man was a practitioner of light magic then Zoe would eat kiviak for a month straight.
Zoe tossed another book on the pile. None of them were helping and the few left unread in the stack likely wouldn’t either. She stood up and paced around her small office.
Other help could be called in, of course. Several groups were known to fight this sort of thing. Any of them would cause a big stir about the whole situation that the academy simply didn’t need right now. She was lucky that none of the three students involved in this mess raised a fuss about it.
Of course, Shalise didn’t have anyone to raise a fuss to. Not that the girl knew of anyway. Juliana wouldn’t dare tell her mother more than she already had. Genoa had had several words for Zoe about her daughter’s activities over the summer and none of those words were very kind.
Eva not only had no one to tell but also was the primary maker of trouble.
Finder of trouble, Zoe corrected. Whatever necromancers got their roots in the town were the makers of trouble.
A chime rang through the office. Zoe stopped pacing with a sigh. The students would arrive soon and she hardly got sleep the night before. She definitely made no progress with the book.
She glared at the book that was sitting deep in her roaring fireplace. It happily soaked up the flames without suffering a single singe. Zoe flicked her dagger, extinguishing the flames, and dropped the book back to between. At least there it should be safe from theft and mostly immutable.
Through the one-way wall, Zoe could see her classroom already filling with students. Her three sat together with Wayne’s two and the Coggins twins. The seven seemed good friends, at least while they were in class. It might be a good idea to encourage it out of class. That might also encourage the others to get involved with the more sordid goings on.
Governor Anderson finding out about even the zombies could shut down the school. Zoe wasn’t sure how Wayne convinced the man to send his only son to Brakket and she didn’t want to jeopardize that.
Zoe took a quick look in the mirror in her office. She straightened out her hair and smoothed down her suit. It was the same suit as yesterday. Student’s at Brakket alternated classes, so she wouldn’t see many people from the day before. Even if she did, she doubted they would notice. Zoe had a lot of suits, after all. With a flick of her dagger, a bit of air magic freshened her up.
Confident in her appearance, Zoe turned to the door separating her from her classroom. She paused, watching through the one-way wall. One of her students, a Mr. Bradley, just set a sickly green sphere at the base of her lectern. He pulled out his wand and cast a spell on it. It shimmered and blended into the background.
The ball was easily recognizable as a joke item from Sorcerous Shenanigans by the double S logo on its side. She couldn’t be sure what this specific one did, but she didn’t intend to find out.
What interested her more was the spell. It wasn’t an invisibility enchantment, but chameleon was the next best thing and still a third year spell at best. Impressive, but always a shame when students put efforts into jokes rather than schoolwork. Still, more than one of her students had gone on to be very successful despite terrible school performance.
She waited until Mr. Bradley had returned to his seat before opening the door. With barely a motion of her dagger, she dropped the camouflaged ball between. In the same stride, Zoe twitched her wrist to cause it to reappear just under Mr. Bradley’s desk.
Zoe reached her lectern and glanced slowly over the entire class. She doubted a single one of them had noticed; most weren’t even looking at the lectern when the sphere was placed. Mr. Bradley, at the very least, had an eager grin on his face.
She met his grin with her usual mirthless face. One thing she learned and mastered as she got older was never to let on when you held all the cards.
Today’s class was bound to be a fun one.
— — —
“I’m just saying that Jason got what he deserved,” Max said. The three seats across the table were ruthlessly splattered with some kind of brown beef mush. Everyone quickly learned to leave them empty. The only danger came when he looked around.
Shalise frowned at the gross display of wasted food. Not to mention the gross display itself. She half thought that Max took twice as much food as everyone else solely because it ended up on the seats and table. Such a waste.
Restaurants threw away food by the truck load. Tons of good food tossed at the end of every day. They’d lock the dumpsters to keep vagrants out of it. Even Brakket Academy had to throw away tons of leftovers so she knew it was a petty thing to focus on. There was just something different when it happened right in front of her.
She sighed, tuning the conversation out.
Learning magic was supposed to be fun. Classes were fun. Hanging out with friends was fun. It was the bits that came after that put a damper on things.
All this necromancer and zombie business Juliana and Eva spent half their time talking about scared Shalise. Whatever little adventure they went on two weeks ago only made things worse. They came back talking about skeletons and a grimoire that needed to be destroyed.
Skeletons, Shalise could understand. She hadn’t bothered to ask what a grimoire was; the answer was probably worse than her imagination.
She imagined quite terrible things. From spells worse than raising zombies or skeletons to horrible creatures seemingly made of nothing but tentacles and mouthes. Shalise had no idea where that last thought came from, but it occupied her nightmares since hearing the word, grimoire.
Her nightmares were nothing compared to Juliana’s. Shalise was sure that her roommate hadn’t slept for three days straight. She tossed and turned all night until it was finally time to head to school. Until the third day, that is; they got home from school and Juliana flopped onto her bed. She didn’t move until Shalise woke her up the next morning.
Since then, Juliana had very restless sleep, but she slept.
Eva, on the other hand, slept like a baby. She worried about something, Shalise could tell, but it wasn’t whatever kept Juliana up at night. Eva wrapped up in her spider’s arms–or legs, rather–and slept until her alarm went off.
A poke in her side made Shalise half scream. She glared over at the culprit.
“You were off daydreaming,” a smiling Jordan said. “You better be careful. Shadow creatures lurk daydreams and eat intruders.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Irene said as she elbowed the smile off Jordan’s face. “Everyone knows shadow creatures lurk in the shadows, duh. Fae are the ones who invade daydreams.”
“I suppose you’d know more than I do,” Jordan said a bit sarcastically in Shalise’s opinion, if in good humor.
Shalise smiled at the byplay. Their little group knew nothing of what troubled dorm room three-thirteen. Shalise had a good amount of envy for them. They could joke and laugh without worrying about monsters in the shadows.
If she hadn’t known about the necromancers, Shalise might be joking and laughing with them. Instead she was discovering her potential as an air mage. Aerotheurge, she was told, was the proper name. Her lightning bolts might be better called sparks and her whirlwinds more of a breath of air, but she had thrown herself full into it.
Without that she might not have learned how to enhance her senses. It was just a slight thing. Professor Baxter assured her it would get better in time until she never wanted to turn the spell off. Shalise felt she was far past that point. Dark lightened, distances lessened, sounds became far more distinguishable, smells changed similarly to sounds, touch and taste also enhanced though less so. None of it literally, it was all perception.
She wasn’t sure why air changed her eyes, taste, or touch. Professor Baxter said it was just a nuance of the spell. Each of the four elements had their own versions of the same spell. Earth mages would increase their strength and toughness while water mages increased their flexibility and agility. Fire mages actually increased the speed of their thought. It sounded amazing, though Professor Baxter said it was the hardest to learn of all. For a master of pyrokinesis, a single minute could be ten minutes of thought.
“And she’s gone again,” Jordan said.
“Straight to lala land,” Irene agreed.
Much faster than Shalise could think, apparently.
“We better save her from those terrible fae.”
Irene grew a terrible grin. “If one poke failed, think two might work?”
“Worth a shot,” Jordan said.
Shalise clamped her hands over her hips. “Not this time,” she said.
Irene put on a fake pout before breaking into light chuckles.
“Now that I have all your attentions,” Jordan said with a glance at each of the three-thirteen girls. “There is going to be a party on Halloween. We were wondering if you three wanted to join us.”
Shalise did not miss the glance Eva and Juliana shared across the table. She hadn’t forgotten Eva’s theory about some mass ritual happening on Halloween. Didn’t they discard that theory? The book wasn’t some ritual component.
Either way, Shalise wasn’t going to let fear–theirs or her own–ruin her school life or keep her from having fun with Irene, Jordan, and the rest. “I’ll go,” she said.
Slowly, Eva and Juliana nodded and agreed to go as well. Good. They’ve been spending too much time worrying. Maybe a bit of fun will help.
“Excellent,” Jordan said. “It is at The Vertex right in the entertainment plaza. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“I’ve never been to a real party before. Anything I should know?”
“Never one?” Irene asked.
Shalise shook her head. “Just some things with some of my family.”
“Well, costumes are allowed. Encouraged even. Apart from that,” Irene shrugged, “just have fun, I guess.”
“Right. I can do fun. Hopefully. What are you dressing as?”
“Ah-ah,” Jordan said, “that would ruin the surprise.”
Skeletons and zombies were right out as costumes. What else was there? Vampires, perhaps. Were vampires real? Did they care that tons of people dressed up as them?
Probably not. Shalise didn’t think she’d care if she were a vampire. If even half the legends were true then they were old, powerful, and had mostly apathy for mortals. Maybe she’d go as one of them.
She’d check with Juliana and Eva first and make sure she wasn’t about to get killed for insulting powerful creatures.
— — —
Halloween was supposed to be their day.
The one day a year, before this year at least, that Arachne got to spend with her Eva without Devon hounding her.
It was true they had been spending every day and every night together for the past few months, but Halloween was still their day. Halloween was the one day outside of Eva’s treatments or the rare job they both were taken on that Arachne saw Eva.
The cow’s skull exploded in her hand. Blood, viscera, and brains splattered over her. The rest oozed to the ground.
She reveled in it.
The smell calmed her. The blood dripping off of her was cathartic in a way only blood could be.
Arachne wanted more.
And she got it.
A fat pig cowered in the back of its pen. As well it should. Arachne imagined its squeals were those of the fat pig that hung off her master’s friends like a leech.
She held it still with extra legs that sprouted from her back. She stroked it. Patted it. She calmed it until the squeals ceased.
Two sharp fingers dug into its eye sockets. And it screamed.
Arachne listened to the pleasant shrieks even as she liberated its insides from the cruel prison they were trapped in. She waited until the last twitches of the fat creature died down and then turned to find another stress release.
She had told Eva that she was heading back to the prison to see if Devon had returned. And she would. Later.
Now Arachne was having too much fun.
The skeletons had been a decent workout, no matter how much her Eva worried about the superficial wounds they gave Arachne. It was nice having the concern without Eva being upset at causing the wounds. Even if the concern was completely misplaced.
Arachne had lived forever and she would live forever more.
That was the main reason she had run for five hours to find this remote farm. Hurting the people her Eva perceived as friends would never be forgiven. Arachne knew that.
That was not something she wanted to risk.
Arachne stepped over the six corpses lying around the field. A squish sounded as she crushed the stomach of a headless lamb.
The little girl who accepted the party invitation bothered Arachne the most. If she hadn’t been there, Arachne would be walking around the room like normal. If she hadn’t been there, this Halloween party wouldn’t be a thing.
Arachne clacked her claws together. Her bloodlust subsided along with her anger as a sudden thought occurred to Arachne.
Uh-uh. This could work. A grin revealed her sharp teeth. Not every mistake is a foolish one, even when the little girl was nothing but a fool.
This was a costume party. Arachne could go. She couldn’t walk in with her Eva. Too many questions about a sudden extra friend. Eva would be met at the party.
And what do humans do at parties? They dance.
Her grin spread wider. Oh yes, they dance. Arachne never once had danced with Eva. That would change this Halloween. It would still be their night. There just might be other people around.
Other people would see her magnificence just like Juliana had. That girl acted differently since the skeleton cave. She now looked at Arachne with a bit of respect and a lot of trepidation. Not once had the girl called her harmless.
The few times they had spoken while Arachne was in her usual form left Arachne with the impression that the girl had become frightened of her. She spoke politely, but never at any length.
And that suited Arachne just fine. She had no desire to speak to anyone but her Eva. And occasionally Devon if he was needed.
Though, Arachne thought, maybe I will say thanks to the little sheep who accepted the invite. The thought of dancing with Eva threw Arachne into a jovial mood. The thought of terrifying the little girl while appearing polite and even courteous in front of her Eva only added to that.
Her grin left her ears as it slipped into a slight frown.
The corpses would be a mess to clean up. Even then, the animals would be found missing. Arachne didn’t want to raise any suspicions even several hours away at her top sprint.
It might delay her returning to the dorms, but this was her mess to clean up. They had wolves in Montana right? Or lions? She’d dump a few of them around the farm. They would eat at least some of the corpses. The crushed skulls wouldn’t even be looked at. Humans never looked farther than the obvious answers.
Arachne bit what passed for her lips.
Yeah. That will work.