Her hug was only stiffly returned. She pulled away from the target of her embrace and glanced over her friend.
Shalise took one look at Eva and her stomach sank.
“Y-your eyes… that isn’t from when you saved me, is it?”
Eva just tilted her head to the side in a confused look. She leaned slightly against Juliana’s desk. “No. Why would you think that? I was sitting around on the floor holding you for several minutes afterwards.”
That must have been a stupid question, Shalise thought even as she felt her face run hot. “I-I thought it might be some kind of sacrifice. Your eyes for my life or something.” Shalise hung her head.
“Nothing of the sort. I lost my eyes in a mostly unrelated accident a week or so later.” At that, Eva’s thus-far polite smile flashed into a gritting of her teeth for just an instant. It turned back into a smile before Shalise could blink. “The only sacrifice for that was your own. Speaking of, how are your hands?”
Shalise stuck out her hands and flexed her fingers. A deep scar ran lengthwise through one of her hands. “They’re all working. Sister Cross sent a special healer Sister to take a look. Doctors told me that I’d never use my right hand again but after she did her magic, I could move my fingers again.”
“That’s good. I was worried, especially about the zombie bite.” Eva moved a gloved hand to the thin leather strap over her eyes and pulled it up. “I can see for the most part thanks to magic, but I don’t have eyes currently.”
“I… don’t– That’s–” Shalise’s mouth stumbled over what to say. Her brain couldn’t even decide, it was stumbling just as much. The eye socket she held open was gross to look at, but would it be rude to turn away? Shalise didn’t know.
“You’re scaring the poor girl on her first day back,” Juliana said from her place on her bed.
Eva let out a chuckle as she slid the band back down.
Shalise finally settled on a one word response. “Currently?”
“It is a work in progress.”
And Eva said no more. Shalise simply nodded.
“One more thing, something you can’t tell anyone. Only us three, Zoe Baxter, and Sister Cross know.”
Shalise nodded again, though she wondered at the tone Eva used when she said Sister Cross.
Sister Cross had been unusually pushy as of late. When Shalise wanted to go into the dorms without her, Shalise thought she might take her straight back home. Eventually she relented, but only after a good five minutes of Shalise’s best glare.
Eva started pushing up the sleeves of her dark gray school uniform. She had tattoos? No, it wasn’t markings on her skin. Something in her skin curled and twisted away from her elbow. It turned into a solid, shiny black about two inches away and continued all the way down to the edge of her gloves.
“How much do you remember about Halloween?”
Juliana lightly chuckled, though there didn’t seem to be much mirth in it.
“Good,” Eva said. “You might remember Arachne then?”
“That was,” Shalise paused a moment in thought. Truthfully, she didn’t remember much. Most of it was told to her by Juliana over the next few days. Some things stuck out in her mind; the phantom dancer for one. “That was the person you danced with who killed the zombies? She helped heal me, or cure me, right?”
Juliana’s nod to one side confirmed Shalise’s half-guesses.
“I lost my hands a few weeks after Halloween and Arachne offered her own as replacements.”
“That was… nice of her. I guess.” Was it? It seemed an odd thing to do. Not something Shalise would be interested in offering. Then again, she didn’t know much about magic. “Is she okay just like, chopping her hands off?”
“She’s fine. She’s a demon.”
There was a brief moment of silence while Shalise’s brain caught up to everything. Her eyes grew wide. “D-D-Demon?” Shalise drew back, horrified.
Then she paused. And thought. Eventually she said, “is that bad? I-I mean church says they are bad, but I don’t know… Goblins are always bad in stories, but Professor Baxter talks about them like regular people.”
Shalise gave a glance to a shrugging Juliana. It seemed that she’d get no answers from that corner.
“Depends on who you ask,” Eva said. “A demonologist I know would say, ‘of course they are ya damn dimwit, why do you think we call the damn things demons.’ Everyone else would just say yes.”
Eva held up her hands–or rather, claws–before Shalise could say anything. “I would say it depends on the demon. Arachne has always been very nice to me, even if I am mad at her right now for,” she waved a hand to one side, “reasons.”
“And she gave you her hands? Just like that?”
“Don’t feel sorry for her, she’s already regrown them.”
Shalise shut her eyes and took a deep breath. “So,” she said, “are there tentacles or something under those gloves?”
“W-worse?” Shalise tried to keep her voice from peaking as she glanced at Juliana. The girl was grinning off to the side.
Maybe she should have switched rooms like Sister Cross said.
No. Eva saved her life. She owed her at least the benefit of the doubt.
Eva already had her gloves off before Shalise could say anything. Long fingers uncurled and spread out, flexing lightly. They were thin and had lots of joints. Her hands were at least twice the size of regular hands.
Shalise looked down at her own hands. Maybe not twice the size. Close though.
For the most part.
“I think,” Shalise said as she stared at them, “have I seen these hands somewhere?”
“Arachne is Rach, the pet spider Eva had.” Juliana sported a wide grin. “Remember that?”
Shalise looked down at the claws again. There was some similarity. Eva was nodding a confirmation when she looked up.
“Anyway,” Eva said, “now that we have that out of the way, we should go about catching you up in school work. I actually expected you to show up sooner than the day before second semester started, but I guess this is what they call cramming.”
“Me too. I think Sister Cross really wanted me to not stay in your room. For a while, I thought she was going to stop me from coming altogether.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.”
“The good news is that Sister Cross has been forwarding me most of the classwork. The only things I wasn’t able to practice on my own were our ecology classes and alchemy.”
Eva’s face turned to a frown as she spoke.
“Eva’s been all but banned from alchemy,” Juliana said. “Professor Lurcher thinks her hands and eyes are a safety issue–” Eva shrugged, but did not object. “I’ll be happy to help with that.”
“We should still go over all the magic we’ve learned, just to make sure.”
“That would be good,” Shalise agreed, “I was having trouble with water manipulation. It takes so much effort to pull a single drop out of a glass.”
“Well,” Eva said as she placed her claws on her hips, “I can’t do any water magic, but I can watch you and give pointers with Juliana.”
Shalise gave Eva a wide grin. “That sounds great. Let me get unpacked first and we can go over some things.”
There hadn’t been much to bring; Shalise didn’t have loads of belongings at home and most of it fit into a single suitcase. Books and clothes made up the bulk. She spent the next ten minutes putting away her clothes, arranging her books and stationary at her desk, and trying not to stare at Eva’s claws.
It was a lot to take in. Shalise put on a smile for Eva. As much as she wished it wasn’t, her smile was forced.
Juliana didn’t seem to mind the claws; if she did mind, she was hiding it well. They had several weeks together since November so she probably got used to it.
Sister Cross apparently knew about it. Maybe talking with her would be a good idea.
As Shalise sorted her belongings, she noticed something. Her bottom drawer had something in it.
Shalise reached in and pulled out a small box. It had to weigh at least a few pounds.
Juliana had a grin on her face while Eva just had a nice smile.
Inside of the box, Shalise found a pen and a copper plate. Etched into the copper plate was a picture of her. Her wavy hair was much longer in the picture, but she had cut it down to her shoulders while she was gone. Still, it managed a good likeness.
The pen was thick and silver. Too thick for her liking, if she was truly honest. Still, it seemed like an expensive thing. It looked a lot like the one Eva used on occasion, except hers was black.
“Merry Christmas, even if it is a week late,” Eva said.
“I-I don’t know what to say. I didn’t get either of you anything.”
“Say thanks and don’t worry about it,” Juliana said, “we’re just glad you’re back and in one piece.”
“Now,” Eva said, “on to your schooling.”
Shalise sighed. She’d find a way to pay them back.
Juliana set a glass of water on her desk just as Shalise pulled out her wand.
“So, what part are you having trouble with?” Eva pulled up her own chair to Shalise’s desk.
Shalise took a breath. “Okay,” she said. She concentrated, envisioning the water as a sphere. With a flick of her wand, she felt a burst of magic escape and mold the water into a sphere.
“I get it this far,” Shalise said. “Then–” She slowly drew her wand across the air, willing a single drop to escape the mass. It already had a spark of her will inside it, so it should be easy to manipulate.
That’s what the textbook said, in any case.
A small droplet laced out, just as Shalise intended. For a moment, it looked like it was working.
The sphere of water bubbled and collapsed. Water moving in the glass knocked it to the floor.
“I’ll grab a towel,” Eva said as she walked to the bathroom.
Shalise sighed. The sleeves of her shirt soaked up most of it. “Then that happens.”
Air was a much friendlier element. It wanted to dance and play. When she messed up, it didn’t soak her. Water seemed grumpy to Shalise. It fought her every time she tried to move it. Just getting the water into a sphere took hours and hours of practice.
If water was grumpy, she was glad she didn’t have to deal with earth.
“When I try manipulating water,” Juliana said as Eva returned with a towel, “it ends up the same way. Yuria said that water can’t be ordered around the same way as earth. Earth needs a firm hand and clear direction. Water flows. It needs an open mind.”
Shalise tried prodding the water out of her shirt with her wand. It didn’t seem to help much. She sighed and said, “what does that even mean?”
A slumping Juliana answered her, “like I said, it turns out the same way when I try.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it right now,” Eva said as she laid a comforting hand on Shalise’s shoulder.
A comforting claw.
Shalise flinched back before she could stop herself.
Eva pulled her claw back quickly.
“Sorry,” Shalise mumbled. A nasty feeling cropped up in her stomach.
“Don’t be,” Eva said with a small smile. “And don’t stress about water magic. We’re only being tested in our own element this year. Apparently we pick a second element next year to work on. If you can do this,” she started to gesture towards the glass with her claw, but pulled it behind her back, “I’m sure you’re ahead of the curve next year.”
Hiding her claws behind her back twisted the wrench further into Shalise’s stomach.
“How are you doing with air?”
Shalise smiled. “Better, I think.”
“Why don’t we take a look at that then.”
— — —
“As I am sure many of you are aware, I am the new dean, Martina Turner.”
Martina Turner scanned the audience. Her eyes paused briefly on Eva.
Not surprising, really. Despite her trying to cover it with her hair, Eva’s blindfold still made her stand out more than others.
“I am deeply honored to become the new dean of Brakket Magical Academy. I wish to say a word of respect towards my predecessor, Rebbecca Halsey, who has elected to retire after the events during Halloween and the following weeks. She has paved the way for me to take this position. I and the rest of the staff wish her a fond farewell and luck in her future endeavors.”
There was a pause as Martina Turner bowed her head slightly. The rest of the staff had mixed reactions. Some followed her lead, others exchanged glances with each other before also lowering their heads.
Eva noted that neither Wayne Lurcher nor Zoe Baxter bowed their heads.
“Brakket Academy was founded on the principle of readying the youth of tomorrow for the challenges that life has to offer. Sadly, it has failed in this with regard to the six students who lost their lives on Halloween night. I would like to take a moment of silence in remembrance for them.”
She bowed her head, deeper this time. None of the staff hesitated in their own bowing. Several students did as well. Eva heard at least one sob softly somewhere in the auditorium ahead of her.
“This is not acceptable,” Dean Turner broke the silence.
“We will be reinstating several programs that were removed from the school by its previous dean. Programs that will prepare students for all situations, not just cushy government jobs or work as an enchanter.”
“Professor Kines has offered to start extracurricular lessons in self-defense and offense. A mage-knight club, if you will.”
She gestured a hand back to the lightly waving botanist. If the blood in his cheeks was any indication, the scrawny man was embarrassed about the whole thing.
“I highly encourage everyone with even the slightest interest to attend. First and second year students may have a harder time due to their proficiency with magic, but I am certain they will gain valuable skills. Professor Baxter, who teaches a combat oriented seminar during the summers, offered to assist if his class gets too large.”
Martina repeated her gesture towards Zoe Baxter. The stern woman just gave a nod of her head and no increase in her pulse.
“Professor Price will be starting up a combative golemancy extracurricular class designed for fourth year students and above.”
A petite woman actually stood up and gave a light curtsy.
“Several other programs will be starting up next year. Until then I encourage prudence when dealing with any unknowns. Please inform an instructor if you feel anything is amiss. Your safety is paramount.
“Thank you for giving me this time to speak and this opportunity to turn things around for the betterment of Brakket Magical Academy.”
Martina Turner turned and left the stage without further comment.
“That was shorter than I expected.”
“Don’t jinx it, Juliana, one of the other teachers could still jump up and start talking.”
“No. It had to be short unless she wanted to cut into class time,” Eva said. “I mean, we only met ten minutes before class started. If she planned for a long speech, I’d hope she would have us assembled earlier.”
“Well, what now?”
“Let’s head to class early. I’d like to talk to the professor about my water magic.”
Eva shook her head but turned to follow Shalise anyway. Despite their encouragement to focus on her air magic, she was still attempting to diversify into both water and fire.
Her fire magic demonstration made Eva more than a little nervous about the integrity of their dorm room. Luckily it hadn’t been bad enough to activate the sprinkler system.
Eva stumbled forwards almost immediately as she followed Shalise, but caught herself on a seat. Someone left a chair out of place that she missed while scanning the floor. She brought her flecks of blood tighter together and hurried to catch up with Juliana and Shalise.
Shalise looked back at the noise. Concern bled into her face–literally from Eva’s perspective–when she realized what happened.
Eva just smiled and shook her head. “I didn’t see the chair.”
“Do you need someone to–” Shalise stopped and bit her lip.
“I’m fine. Just need to be more careful watching where I’m headed.”
Juliana knew how she moved around. Zoe Baxter eventually got in on that secret as well. Eva hadn’t told Shalise yet. She seemed disturbed enough by Eva’s hands. That could wait another week.
Part of the problem were her toes, but not by much unless she tried to run. New eyes were a much more pressing matter than new feet; especially because Arachne was ready and willing to offer her legs.
It wasn’t just stumbling into things now and again, or missing objects lying right in front of her.
Without eyes, Eva couldn’t step. Or wouldn’t step. There was too big of a risk of something going wrong, some chair left out of place.
Not looking where she stepped is how she nearly lost a leg the first time. Arthfael blasted his healing aura for an entire summer and even then, Eva had been lucky. The pane of glass she stepped into was thin enough to leave only a sliver of meat and bone behind.
The thought of stepping into something thicker sent chills up Eva’s spine. Especially if something vital was disrupted.
Juliana and Eva took their seats at the front of Yuria’s classroom. Shalise headed to the front of the class and demonstrated her water problems with their young instructor.
At least, that is what Eva assumed Shalise was doing. She didn’t want to accidentally disrupt any magic with her flecks of blood.
“She really came back then? And seemingly uninjured.”
Eva half jumped out of her seat. Being able to see in every direction didn’t help at all if she didn’t pay attention. It was still a quirk of her sight she was getting used to. Eva did a quick check of everything around her while Juliana spoke to Irene.
“One of the nuns healed her, it seems. I guess her hand was completely unusable before then.”
“I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I don’t know that I could come back.”
“I would. Definitely. Brakket might be a boring town, but home wasn’t much better. At least during the school year there’s something to do here.”
Some of the students had the same idea and headed straight to class. Others mingled out in the hallway. Eva couldn’t put a name to any of the circulatory systems apart from Jordan, Max, and Shelby.
And one other person. The only reason Eva recognized her was because she’d been staring at her for the last ten minutes.
Martina Turner strode down the hallway. She entered the classroom’s open door with little flourish. After giving the classroom a once over, she took a seat at the very back of the room.
All conversation died as everyone, including Yuria and Shalise, took notice of the dean.
“Carry on as you were. I’m here to observe. I’d like to see how my staff operate their classrooms.” Her voice carried throughout the classroom just as easily as if she had a microphone and a stage to stand on. A real speech giving voice.
“Of course,” Yuria said hesitantly. If Eva had to judge by her heart rate, the poor professor was both intimidated by and not expecting the dean.
Martina Turner seemed to pick up on some cues as well. “You’re not in trouble. This is not an audit. I merely wish to know the ins and outs of my school.”
Conversation slowly resumed and Shalise asked another question. The professor quickly pulled out her own wand and began waving it around. Very nervously. If she hadn’t been a water mage by trade, Eva imagined that Yuria would be spilling the water just as much as Shalise.
Eva almost rejoined the conversation between her two friends. Her mouth snapped shut before a word could spill out. Something at the edge of her sight caught her attention.
A cow stood outside the windows to the Infinite Courtyard. At the very edge of her vision if she pushed it as far as she could.
Eva stood up and walked over to the windows, trying to glean an extra few feet.
Cow was wrong. It was a bull for sure. It stood still, almost staring at the classroom.
Eva jumped a good three feet in the air. Her jump startled Shalise into jumping. A brief smile passed between them as they got control over themselves.
“Nothing wrong,” Eva quickly assured her. “Just an odd animal outside. Some sort of bull.”
Eva turned her attention back outside, but the animal had wandered off.
Shalise leaned forward and began peering out the window. Her heart rate picked up.
Excitement over seeing an animal? Or is she worried about something?
They hadn’t talked about Halloween apart from Shalise referring to it when she asked about Eva’s eyes. Shalise seemed mostly smiles since she got back. Eva wondered if she should talk about it with her or if that would just bring up memories she wanted to bury.
“There are wild animals in the Infinite Courtyard, right?”
“A lot of them,” Eva said, “but this one might have come from the zoo.”
Shalise tilted her head to one side as the two headed back to their table. “What makes you think that?”
“It’s just that most wild cows don’t have wings.”
Eva didn’t bother to comment.
“All five of our lamassu are in their habitat.”
Despite his confidence, Bradley Twillie’s heart rate had been hammering when Eva mentioned seeing a winged bull.
It worried him enough that he even took them out into the zoo enclosure to personally check. Normally, he kept the students far away and only begrudgingly allowed them in during certain lessons.
“I thought lamassu had human heads,” Jordan said from his place half leaning over the railing.
Bradley Twillie took on his lecture pose. One hand pointing out at the students and the other in his jacket pocket. “Myths and nonsense,” he said. “Lamassu are considered good luck and will protect their territory from anything they perceive as enemies, but are not part human nor overly intelligent.”
One of the bulls raised its head and snorted out a breath of air.
“I said overly. You’re still the smartest bovines around.”
The lamassu shook its head in a disturbingly human-like manner. It flopped back down, basking under a pair of heat lamps set up near one wall of their snow-covered pen.
“Could it have been a stray?” Eva asked.
Bradley snorted in his usual nervous manner and rubbed his hand against the lumberjack hat he always wore. “Not unless we’ve been transported to Egypt without noticing. There are other schools and zoos, but I’m sure I would have been notified days before one could fly out here.
“How clearly did you see–” He looked off to one side. His eyes shifted back to Eva in a distinctly uncomfortable manner. The already lacking professorial demeanor he usually had vanished in a second. “I mean… It’s just that–”
Eva just sighed–he already said it once without even noticing. Another reason she needed new eyes, though how she got them might raise worse problems. “What were you going to say?”
“There are other winged creatures about that size you might have mistaken it for. Griffins, anzu, garuda, hippogriffs, roc, plenty more.” He brought a hand up to rub the back of his neck. “Well, maybe not roc. If you saw a roc everyone in town would have noticed too. They’re not exactly small.”
“That’s why we are asking you,” Shalise said. It had been her idea to ask the magizoologist about ‘Eva’s mysterious creature’ in the first place. “Surely you must have some idea.”
“You said winged bovine, I thought of lamassu.” After a sigh, he puffed up and tried to reassemble his professional attitude. “You kids get to Mr. Kines’ class or you’ll be late. I’ll check the pens of all our other winged creatures. If they are all where they’re supposed to be, well, I won’t worry too much.”
“You’re not going to search for the one Eva saw?” Shalise said, aghast.
“The Infinite Courtyard didn’t get that title for being small.”
“It isn’t actually infinite.”
“In the middle of winter? It might as well be. I’ll put out a notice to warn students. If you see it, just back away slowly, don’t threaten and don’t agitate it. Find an instructor.
“Now come on, back to class with you.”
Bradley Twillie all but dragged them by their ears out of the zoo–more or less literally in Jordan’s case–and slammed the door. The rest of their group had been waiting out in the lecture room.
“Well?” Shelby stood up from her desk along with Irene and Juliana. Max leaned back and grabbed his book bag off the floor before joining them.
“It wasn’t the lamassu,” Shalise said.
“They were fascinating creatures,” Jordan said with no small amount of enthusiasm. “And did you see the apep as we walked past? I think there was only one of them but half of its pen was a coiled up snake. And its pen was about the same size as the pen for five lamassu.”
He gave a content sigh with a wide smile on his face.
A brief moment of silence passed while everyone stared at him.
Jordan gave a brief clearing of his throat before Juliana spoke. “Anyway, about the creature?”
“Bradley Twillie didn’t seem to think it was much of an issue, so long as it wasn’t one of his pets missing. Just don’t agitate it and be sure to leave it alone.”
Max gave a long hum. “That seems irresponsible.”
“So?” Juliana asked. “What do we do?”
“It isn’t that big of a deal, is it?” Irene had her arms crossed as she leaned against one of the desks. “If our expert on magical animals isn’t worried about it, why should we?”
The bell chimed just as Irene finished speaking.
“Irene is right,” Eva said. She wasn’t sure that it was such a big deal in the first place. With a sigh, Eva added, “and Bradley Twillie was right as well, we’re late to class.”