Irene dug her fingers into the moist soil. The small hole grew as she wiggled her fingers. As smooth and soft as the magically modified dirt was, she could feel it grinding underneath her fingernails.
She had to purchase a fingernail brush for this class alone. Her nails were clipped short and she’d long given up painting them. Other students wore gloves to avoid getting dirt on their hands. Irene’s hands instantly turned into balls of sweat the moment gloves touched her.
Her hand snapped back to her chest. Something wiggled underneath the dirt. Just an earth worm, Irene thought to herself. She took a deep breath and glanced around to see if anyone noticed her.
Someone noticed. Of course someone did. It had to be her.
Eva politely smiled her way. It wasn’t cruel. Eva wasn’t gloating or sneering. Just a polite, almost understanding smile.
Irene returned the smile and turned back to her pot. She didn’t need the black-haired girl’s pity. She didn’t understand how Eva could have noticed her jumping back. The girl didn’t even have eyes.
She shuddered as her hand dug back into the dirt. That was a thing she tried hard to ignore. Everyone else seemed to do that just fine. They all sat at their table at lunch and laughed and talked like nothing was wrong.
No one ever talked about her eyes.
The teachers all ignored it. Other students whispered to themselves. Her group never mentioned it.
Jordan didn’t even have a theory on how she saw. He’d only discussed it with her once, the week after Eva came back to school. He knew how he’d try to see if he lost his eyes, but Eva wasn’t using whatever method that was.
Irene glanced up at the table across from her.
Jordan stood next to Shelby with their backs turned. When Shelby glanced towards Jordan, Irene could see a wide smile on her face. She pointed at something in her clay pot as she nudged Jordan’s arm. He chuckled lightly at whatever she was showing off.
Max said something which all three of them laughed at.
The large pot in front of her blurred slightly as she dug through it. She blinked twice and wiped her eyes. If she was crying, something was seriously wrong. She blinked again.
The blur didn’t go away.
Irene sighed. It was an issue she’d been noticing lately. Distances were fine, things up close tended to blur. Books were getting especially difficult to read. It might be time to get a pair of glasses, she thought. At least I’m not crying.
Not that she had anything to cry about.
Sure, her botany partners might never talk to her. She liked it that way. They didn’t share jokes or bother her with useless social nonsense. The closest they got to talking to her was when Kristina badgered her with questions.
Of course Irene was all too happy to answer.
Arm deep into the pot, Irene’s fingers touched something round and soft within. She froze.
“There you are,” she whispered to herself.
Irene inched her fingers around the dirt so as to not startle the little plant. Slowly her fingers encircled the little ball. She squeezed down and lifted up.
Out of the pot, the little ball of fluff squirmed in her hands. It tried to escape back to the safety of the dirt.
Irene would have no such thing. Digging through once was enough.
It was a soft little ball of pure fluff. As it wiggled in her hands, the dirt fell away into the pot. The little ball turned pure white as the dirt failed to hold onto its fur.
With a smile on her face, Irene dropped the kesaran into a jar and snapped the lid on. It burrowed down into the small amount of dirt. All the white fluff vanished beneath the surface, but a small amount could be seen pressed up against the glass.
A cute little thing.
Irene brushed off her hands as much as possible into her pot before stepping over to the sink. As hard as she scrubbed, she could still feel dirt beneath her fingernails.
A crash of glass behind her made Irene jump.
She dived forward. The little ball of fluff was already squirming out of the small mound of dirt. She didn’t want it to escape or hurt itself.
Her fingers closed around it. A sharp pain shot up her wrist as they did so. She looked around, not sure what to do with the baby kesaran.
“Here,” a jar was thrust into her face.
Irene plopped it in without even thinking.
A gloved hand reached out and gripped her hand. She used it to pull herself back to her feet, only to find herself face to face with Eva.
“What’s going on here?” Professor Kines said as he rushed over.
Irene turned to her professor, but another voice answered first.
“I saw the whole thing. Irene caught her kesaran, but set the jar down on the edge of the table.”
Irene spun to find a very smug looking Drew. Her other botany partner swapped places with an almost distraught looking Kristina.
She had done no such thing.
“Irene,” Professor Kines said. She turned back to him wearing a frown. “I warned everyone several times not to leave their jars near the table edge.”
“No excuses,” he turned to face the crowd of students that had all stopped their work at the commotion. “Let that be a lesson to the rest–”
“Professor,” Eva half shouted. “Irene cut herself on the shards of glass. I will take her to the nurse’s office.”
“What? Yes, of course.” He waved his hand off towards the door.
Eva started dragging her away by her hand. She noticed the girl’s firm pressure on her wrist.
“As I was saying, kesaran aren’t like normal plants. They can and will knock over the jars.”
Before they left the greenhouse, Irene saw the professor turn to her two lab partners. “You two,” he said, “sweep up this mess.”
The door shut just as Drew’s protests started.
That was worth a small bit of satisfaction. Drew could go screw himself.
Halfway between the greenhouse and the main school building, Irene tried to shake off Eva’s hand. Her grip was like a vice.
“Eva,” she said, “I can go on my own.”
“You’ve damaged an artery,” the girl said without looking.
“How can you know that?” Irene didn’t even know that. There was just a sharp sting in her wrist.
She brought up her free hand to tap her temple. “You know how they say not to let your eyes blind you? As it turns out, I don’t have to worry about that.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
Eva didn’t respond. She kept her warm hand gripped tightly around Irene’s wrist as they entered the main building. From there, it was a short trip to the nurse.
“Oh dear. What have we got here?”
The nurse pulled Irene’s arm out of Eva’s grip.
When she finally saw it, Irene almost passed out. She might have for a moment. It might have been her shutting her eyes for a long time, Irene couldn’t tell. A deep red line ran from the palm of her hand half way up to her elbow.
“She cut herself on some glass in botany.”
“It’s good that you came to me. This might sting a bit.”
Nurse Post–her name tag had a realistic looking heart in place of the ‘o’–started cleaning out the gash. Irene winced back at the foaming potion that the nurse poured in the cut. The nurse massaged the foam into the cut with her hands. The bleeding seemed to stop and the blood cleared away as the foam was rinsed.
If seeing the cut almost made her pass out, seeing the cut without blood in the way almost made her throw up. The muscle and veins all stuck out, plain to see in the white light of the lamp.
Before she could, the nurse forced two potions down Irene’s throat.
Sure enough, a few minutes later and the cut stitched itself shut.
Irene shut her eyes and tried not to think about it as it did its thing.
A pat on her knee woke her from her mental shutdown.
“You’re all done, kiddo.” Nurse Post’s smile pinched her one red eye shut. Her other eye had a gauze pad taped over it.
Irene opened her mouth to ask. “Thanks,” was all that came out.
She stood up. Her arm looked back to normal save for a thin line of fresh skin over the spot that had been cut. “Do I need to fill out any forms or can I just go back to class?”
The nurse chuckled. “School will be ending in twenty minutes. You might as well be done for the day.”
Irene nodded. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be done for the day. The kesaran would be fine in the jar for a few days, so long as Drew didn’t set it free again. She did have a report to write up about it. No, she could do that at the dorms. Professor Kines would have–
She had to stop herself from jumping back as she walked out of the nurse’s office. Eva stood there, leaning against a window. Irene had forgotten about her.
The black-haired girl almost looked asleep. Her head was tipped down and her arms were hidden under her chest. She looked up as Irene took a step closer. Or turned her head up. She didn’t have any eyes to look.
“Thanks,” Irene said.
That was it. There was nothing more to say. Irene turned and walked down the hallway, away from Eva.
Or she tried to.
Eva had other plans. With a quick hop in those somewhat awkward steps Eva used brought the girl right up to Irene’s side.
“How’s your arm.”
She could run.
Eva couldn’t. The girl had never shared anything about what happened, only her obvious lack of eyes and constant use of gloves told the tale. Something happened to her feet as well, though it was less obvious. She had offhandedly mentioned being unable to run once.
Yet it wasn’t something that Irene would do. She wasn’t cruel and Eva seemed to have done nothing wrong. Shalise returned without any apparent injuries and they got along fine.
She was just… creepy.
Irene kept up her stride, even though slowing would have been more comfortable for the girl. They walked almost to the entrance.
Irene continued for three more paces before she stopped too. Did I go too far? Should I have just let her walk alongside me? With a sigh, Irene turned.
The girl had her head tilted to one side. Her hair–that really needed a trim, in Irene’s opinion–hung off the side of her head all the way down to her waist. She took a step forwards. Then another step. With a third and forth step, she moved just past Irene. Her head was tilted all the while.
“That bull is back.”
Irene glanced out the nearest window. The snow had melted off for a day but returned in full force the first week of February.
Nothing was out the window but snow.
After sighing, Irene rubbed one of her temples. “Are you sure you’re not making it up?” The thought had crossed her mind almost every time Eva ‘saw’ the cow.
Eva frowned, looking back to Irene. “Pretty sure. Sometimes it is hard to tell.”
“Well,” Irene sighed. She didn’t want to get involved. “I’ve got a report to write. You probably do too. I think I’ll just–”
“It’s on the roof this time.”
On the… “Why would a cow be on the roof?”
“Bull. It is definitely a bull.”
“How do you even know?”
“Same answer I gave about your arm.”
That still doesn’t answer anything!
“Wait,” Eva said, “it is moving.”
Eva ran, or hobbled, straight to the window. She stumbled part way, but managed to catch herself on the window ledge. “It is right up there, looking down.”
Even pressing her face against the glass, Irene couldn’t see anything. “Eva, shouldn’t we just get Professor Twillie and leave it at that?”
“It’s coming,” was Irene’s only warning.
Snow flew in front of the window as a heavy thud rattled the glass.
A massive bull covered in black fur absorbed the shock of the fall. Its knobby little legs straightened to their full height. Even on four legs, the bull rose over Irene’s head.
Irene fell backwards, landing on her butt. She crab-walked backwards until she was in the middle of the hall.
Eva all but pressed her face against the glass. “It is there, right? I’m not just imagining it? Your heart rate has skyrocketed.”
It was all Irene could do to mumble out an answer. She wasn’t entirely sure what that answer was, but it was an answer.
“What does it look like?”
“I thought you could see,” Irene snapped in a brief moment of sanity.
Eva crossed her arms. “I can’t see very well.” It almost sounded like a pout.
The bull snorted out a steamy breath, fogging the glass up. It turned and spread its massive wings. With a few flaps, it was gone.
Eva’s shoulders drooped, but she walked over to Irene and offered her a hand.
For the second time that day, Irene pulled herself to her feet with Eva’s help. At least this time she didn’t have a massive gash in her arm.
“Well?” Eva had her hands on her hips.
“What did it look like?”
“It was a bull.”
“A huge one.”
“It had wings.”
“I could see that much. Tell me something I couldn’t see.”
“I don’t know what else you want. It had a crumpled horn? It was big? It breathed out steam?”
Eva shrugged. “Everything breathes out steam in the winter.”
Irene didn’t have an argument for that. “What do we do?”
“What do you mean?” Eva tilted her head to one side.
“We have to tell someone, right?”
“Of course. You have to tell our friends so they know I’m not crazy.”
Irene flicked her forehead. Eva stumbled back half a step. “I mean a teacher or someone.”
Eva shrugged again. “We already told Bradley Twillie and Zoe Baxter. They said they’d look into it.”
“That was a month and a half ago.”
Eva turned back to the window, sending hair flying behind her. “They never said they were good at looking into things.”
That was true. There were at least three questions she’d asked Professor Baxter about magical theory that the teacher had never gotten back to her on.
“We should remind them at least,” Irene said.
“You do that. School is almost over and I have to get ready for Franklin Kines’ combat class.”
There was a bit of an edge in the way Eva groaned out his name. “You don’t like it?”
— — —
“There are rules for magic,” Zoe Baxter said.
It was the opening line of one of her fourth year lectures. There are obvious rules and rules that are less obvious.
The most obvious rule–the one students tend to offer first–is that mages cannot use the opposing element to their primary. Fire can’t cast water, earth can’t cast air. Simple and obvious.
Every creature that used thaumaturgy followed this rule. Elves, goblins, dragons and their related kin, and even the species of fae that practiced proper thaumaturgy. Most fae used their own magic but often tried to disguise it as thaumaturgy for whatever nonsensical reasons the infuriating creatures came up with.
Yet one of the books Eva lent her had a creature described within that wielded all four elements.
It was an impossibility.
Thaumaturgy was the only magic capable of manipulating the elements. Even the Elysium Sisters only appeared to use air magics. Their lightning bolts were not true lightning.
The author must be mistaken. The demon must have appeared to use elemental magic when instead it used some form of telekinesis to create the illusion it was manipulating all four elements.
Zoe herself could do a similar trick. As an air mage, she could perform telekinesis on metal or rock and fling the items around.
With a sigh, Zoe dropped the book into her storage pocket in between. Any time she got the urge to test anything she read in the books, she immediately stopped. It was a dangerous mindset to get into.
The stack of ungraded essays on her desk hadn’t shrunk while she was reading. She pulled the top one in front of her and pulled a red pen out of her desk.
She started working on the essay. Her eyes scanned down the tight, neat handwriting of Jordan Anderson. The analysis of learning nonthaumaturgical methods of magical manipulation that he wrote last semester raised several good points on the subject of ‘dark’ magic and how dark was subjective.
He gave the example of using skeletons and flesh golems as a manual labor workforce. Apart from regular work, the dead could go many places the living would be hesitant to enter. People could have donor check boxes on their identification that would allow their bodies to be used in case of death for the betterment of the living. It would allow a morally acceptable use of necromancy in society.
Controversial views, especially for the son of Governor Alex Anderson, but a valid idea nonetheless.
It was always the younger students that surprised Zoe. She had only been teaching for five years–five and a half now–but it was a pattern that held up for all five years. Older students gave textbook answers, the kind of answers that would get them a passing grade without effort.
That magical theory tended to be a highly disliked subject in comparison to the practical magic classes only compounded the students’ apathy.
So Zoe enjoyed reading the essays of students who had yet to learn ways around the system. Bright students such as Jordan were easily the highlight of her grading periods.
Zoe got to the bottom of the essay she held in her hands three times before she realized she hadn’t read a word.
Leaning back in her chair, Zoe arced her back and stretched her arms over her head. This is going to be a long day, she sighed.
She stood from her comfortable chair and crossed the room. The one-way wall showed an empty classroom on the other side. As expected from after school hours. A flick of her dagger and the door clicked locked.
The walls of her office tipped backwards and fell into nothingness as the cool embrace of between took hold around her. An empty side street rushed in to replace the white space of between.
Zoe straightened her butterfly tie and walked down a few steps to a well-worn wooden door. With a gentle push on the brass handle, the door opened without the faintest sound of a squeaky hinge.
The room beyond was warm even in the middle of February. The dark oak bar and tables, backed with red brick and lit by tasteful orange lights, only added to the warm atmosphere. Rows and rows of bottles rested on the shelves behind the bar.
A young man in a white shirt and black vest stopped washing down one of the tables as the bell on the door chimed. He looked surprised for a moment before kindly smiling. Simply seeing his charm filled smile vanished most of Zoe’s tension and worries.
“Zoe,” Tom said, “I haven’t seen you in a while. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Just a little unwinding,” Zoe said.
“Ah, I know just the drink for that.”
“A small one, I do have work to get back to.”
He moved behind the counter and pulled off a handful of bottles. “Technically, I’m not open yet. I think I can make a small exception.”
“I appreciate it,” Zoe said as she moved to one of the stools in front of the bar.
She watched as he mixed her drink. Tom even put on a small show by flipping the bottles and the mixer, almost juggling them. He tossed one behind his back and caught it on his elbow while he poured with his other hand. The bottle on his elbow tumbled off, spilling just enough into the tin before he caught it.
All that effort went to just an inch of drink in her iced glass.
“So,” he said as Zoe took a small sip, “what’s got you wound up?”
“Children being children, I suppose.” She couldn’t very well tell him that one of her students seemed to be a budding diabolist. “I just needed a change of scenery for a few minutes before I finish grading some papers.”
He grinned at her. “Well you’re always free to change your scenery here.” Tom stepped back around the bar. “I need to finish wiping down the tables. If you need anything, just say so.”
Zoe downed her drink with deliberate lethargy. It was a good drink, as expected of Tom. Not one she knew the name of. It had a deep amber color and tasted of some fruit she couldn’t place.
As she finished her drink, Zoe looked around the bar. She looked past the tables and the working Tom up to the stage. A beautifully polished grand piano sat in the center, lit by soft red lights.
“Hey Tom, mind if I use your piano?”
The bartender looked between the piano and Zoe before shrugging. “Not at all.”
Zoe walked up the short steps to the piano. Her fingers ran across the surface of the smooth keys as she sat down. She stared at the piano, not sure what she wanted to play.
She started slowly, very high up in the treble. Zoe kept the bass light, letting it mix in naturally. Her right hand descended to the middle of the piano.
More bass added in as the treble drew back into the ambiance. Her left hand hammered the keys. Her feet danced over the pedals, drawing out the notes to just the right length.
It all stopped for an instant. The treble came back with the bass in full force. Her fingers flew up and down the keys in a full run down. High and low and back to high. Her hands blazed across the piano.
Her song drew into a close with her hammering both hands down on the chords several times, holding the final strike.
Only when the piano’s sound stopped completely did Zoe pull her hands off the keys. She wiped a few beads of sweat off of her forehead. A deep breath in and a deep breath out had Zoe feeling much better.
A clapping had her almost jumping out of her chair. It wasn’t just Tom–though he looked as if he had stopped his cleaning to listen. A patron stood near the entrance. His hands moved together as he smiled a wide grin.
Zoe quickly removed herself from the seat of the piano. Her face felt the slightest bit hot as she hopped off the stage. She wasn’t counting on an audience other than Tom.
“May I buy you a drink,” the man said as she drew closer. He had a bright smile on and a gloved hand extended for a shake. “That was most impressive.”
Zoe had intended to simply leave. She did have work to do. Something made her stop just before she walked past him. I’m acting like one of my students, she thought as she took hold of his hand.
“One drink,” Zoe said.
His golden eyes glinted as he smiled and led her to the bar.
Tom already moved behind it and started up his routine of drink making. He set out a tall glass for each of them that started dark at the top but ended up almost white at the bottom. He moved back to finish wiping down the tables without a word.
“So,” Zoe said as she pulled the drink closer. That was far more than she wanted to drink, not that she considered herself a lightweight by any means.
“I apologize,” his white teeth spread into a grin, “where are my manners. I am Rex Zagan.”
“Zoe Baxter,” he said, mulling the name around on his tongue. He took a deep drink from the glass in front of him. “I think I’ve heard that name before. Are you a teacher?”
“Of magical theory.” She stopped just before taking a drink of her own glass. “Do I know you?”
“No, no,” he chuckled. “I’m an acquaintance of Martina’s. Providing all goes according to plan, I’ll be an instructor next year.”
Zoe frowned. She hadn’t heard anything about any of her colleagues planning on retiring or quitting. Had someone messed up badly enough during one of the dean’s little sit ins to get fired? Her worries must have been written on her face.
“I believe I’m being brought in to teach a class that the previous dean did away with. Martina wants to bring back a proper combat class.”
“You’re going to teach the students how to fight?”
“A lack of a proper course in combat is at least one of the reasons this school is so poorly regarded, yeah?”
“That’s true,” Zoe said. That was why she ran her seminar over the summer. “Though hardly the only reason the school is in poor shape. What are your qualifications?”
“I’m a class one fire mage with heavy background in combat.”
He certainly looked like he had a background in combat. He wore a solid black suit, but there were definitely hefty muscles hiding underneath.
“I spent around ten years on the front lines in a small conflict between some South American warlords. I was… well, conscripted.” He dismissed the line of conversation with a suave wave of his hand. “That’s all ancient history. Suffice to say, I’m alive and many others are not.”
Zoe took a drink as the future professor began what she expected to be his opening lecture.
It covered all the key points of what he hoped to achieve with the class. There were still some details to be worked out, but it seemed he would be running a mostly physical show aside from heavy casting drills until the students’ third year where it would shift to a magic focus. After that it became an elective like so many other classes.
“I believe Professor Kines noticed that problem as well,” Zoe said. She gave a short run down of his mage-knight club. “He’s been having the first few years do more exercise than casting.”
“Ah, good. I was concerned that next year’s second and third year students would both need the first year course. That should help things along.”
“Indeed,” Zoe said. A buzzing in her pocket caused her to stop and glance at her phone.
Was it really that late, she thought as she saw the time. Wayne had sent her a message asking where she was.
“I do have work to be getting back to,” Zoe said.
“Don’t let me keep you,” he said with a bright grin. “It was nice to meet a future coworker. We should meet again like this.”
Zoe stood, returning his smile. “Maybe I’ll stop by and play the piano once in a while.” She turned to a bartender who was looking very much like he wasn’t listening in. “Tom?”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got the school’s moneybags on speed dial.”
Zoe gave him a curt nod and headed outside, leaving a half-finished drink on the bar. With a thought, she was back to her office.