No Eva, no Shalise, no Juliana.
Irene didn’t like it.
None of the teachers told her or Shelby anything. Whatever caused their absence only happened two days ago and yet all three were missing from class. From the tiny amount that they were told, Juliana wasn’t even there when their room was trashed.
Maybe her mother finally pulled her out of school for good. Irene hadn’t given up hope that her own mother would decide the school was too dangerous for her. It was too dangerous.
Whatever happened was always right next door.
Two break-ins and two fights before the first year was through. Nothing led Irene to believe that this fight had been any less deadly than Juliana’s encounter with the flesh golems. More so if any of them actually were injured, as the rumor-mill believed.
Room three-thirteen was cursed.
And room three-fifteen shared a cursed wall.
Irene didn’t know what to do if this pattern kept up. What if whoever attacked them next got the wrong room number. Or they got the wrong window. What then?
A white robe nun patrolled around the room, catching Irene’s attentions. Their numbers had dropped since January. The one in the cafeteria was the only one she’d seen all day.
Would they be able to protect her?
Not likely. They hadn’t saved Juliana in November and they didn’t even show up the other day.
Irene gave a drawn out sigh as she played with her haggis. The food looked revolting but the other option for the day was hot dogs. Something was just off about hot dogs.
Shelby didn’t even pick up a meal. She sat next to Jordan as they talked about their combat class. Or exercise class, as the case was.
Twins who ate similar foods and had similar habits tended to look similar, even if they were fraternal twins. They still had the same parents, after all. Yet Irene couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy at the slightly slimmed Shelby.
Unlike Eva, Shelby didn’t offer a word of complaint when Professor Kines switched them over to an exercise program. She didn’t stress over grades and essays either. Her twin didn’t even seem bothered by all the goings on in Rickenbacker three-thirteen.
Irene often wondered what it might be like to simply not care about anything.
Stifling those thoughts turned into a constant chore for Irene. One little slip and she’d be back to how she was before. She did not need Jordan pulling some crazy stunt to pull her out of her slump again.
“You going to eat that?”
Irene glanced up to Max. His plate had been scraped clean. She shrugged and slid her haggis over to him. “Knock yourself out.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.”
Rolling her eyes, Irene said, “it’s an expression.”
“Just a joke,” he said with a nudge to her side.
Irene bristled at that. She turned away as her face heated up. Anger at herself for not realizing it was a joke, not something silly like embarrassment or shyness around the boy.
Despite them spending evenings studying while everyone else was at exercise class, Irene didn’t think she got along with Max very well.
He was too much like Shelby. Perhaps more dedicated in his studies, but otherwise carefree.
A heavy thud outside rattled the glass of the large cafeteria window.
Irene stood with a gasp. Shelby and the boys weren’t far behind her.
“That’s Eva’s bull.”
None of them responded except to gape at the massive animal. Just like the other time she saw it, it stared into the window. Its head slowly drifted back and forth over the students. The massive wings folded up to a fraction of their size as it just stood there.
The rest of the formerly eating students simply stared out the windows. Forks and spoons hung frozen in their hands. Silence settled around the cafeteria.
Until someone screamed.
Panic and chaos overtook the room. Those closest to the window climbed over each other to get away. Max and Shelby both took off towards the exit. Irene started to follow.
Jordan stayed rooted to the spot.
Irene nibbled on her lip. “Jordan,” she said, grabbing his shoulder, “we need to get out of here.”
“Why?” He glanced back at her. With just the slightest hint of a grin, he turned back to the window. “It is just standing there.”
A crack echoed through the room, louder than all the panicked students put together. Lightning crashed into the window.
Everything froze. All the students left in the room stopped and stared. The nun stood alone in the center of the room, her arm outstretched towards the window. The glass absorbed the lightning.
For a moment.
Shattering glass flew in every direction.
Irene grabbed Jordan and threw both of them down under the table. A second lightning bolt flew through the broken window just before she disappeared from view. She landed on top, her knee crushed into his stomach which elicited a sudden gasp of air from the dark-haired boy.
The most horrible screech Irene ever heard bellowed through the cafeteria. Irene clasped her hands over her ears, losing the support that kept her from falling into Jordan’s chest. He followed suit. She tried to block out the noise. It wasn’t helping. The sound pierced through the cracks in her fingers.
The entire ground shook. Tables and benches vibrated. From beneath the table, Irene could see the cinder block wall collapse inwards as the beast charged in.
As it charged across the room, the nun dodged and rolled off to one side. She came to a stop next to Irene’s table. The bull crashed into the counters leading into the kitchen.
It turned, slowly, as the nun launched another lightning bolt. Its head was too high to see, but it stopped turning when its legs faced the nun. When its legs faced them.
“Jordan,” Irene said, pulling his hands away from his ears. “We have to move. We have to move now.”
His head snapped up to the bull. It already started its charge.
Arms gripped around Irene’s backside and pulled her down. She heard something not unlike the sound of a pillow hitting her. Her vision went dark for an instant before everything came back.
Everything came back wrong. She was wrapped in Jordan’s arms beneath a table. It wasn’t their table. They were further from the cafeteria exit, almost at the opposite wall. The bull trampled over their oh so recently vacated table with the nun only dodging by the skin of her teeth.
“Just standing there, huh?”
“Maybe if the Elysium Sister hadn’t been so eager to throw lightning over the tops of students’ heads,” Jordan said as he shoved Irene off of him. He gripped his wand tightly in his hand. Irene hadn’t even seen him draw it.
Speaking of other students. Irene glanced around the room. Most of the students seemed to have made it to the exit. There were a number of others who dived under the tables.
Two cowered in a corner of the room, hugging each other tightly.
The bull had oriented itself towards them in its battle with the nun.
“Those two,” Irene said as she patted his chest then pointed. “They’re about to get–”
He didn’t wait. The body beneath her turned black and white. His own shadow reached up and pulled him under the floor.
Irene looked up to see him emerge from the student’s shadow against the wall. His hands, one with his wand in it still, clasped around both their shoulders. Two screaming students turned black and white before their own shadows consumed them.
The bull rammed into the corner only a second after. Fractures snaked up the blocks. Chunks of the wall and even some ceiling fell down on the bull’s back.
“I hope they didn’t recognize me.”
Irene jumped. Her head knocked against the table before she rounded on Jordan. He had a goofy grin on his face. “I don’t think it matters,” Irene said as she rubbed her head. “Stop enjoying this and do something.”
He glanced back to where the nun tossed very ineffectual lightning bolts at the creature. They didn’t seem to do much except infuriate the beast. After it charged through another set of unoccupied tables, the nun changed tactics.
White fire burst from her fingertips. It shot out like a flame thrower, dousing the bull.
Screeching filled the air once again. Irene and Jordan both tried to block the sound out with their hands.
From the pained look on his face, he wasn’t any more successful than she was.
The flaming bull charged once again. The nun dodged and turned to face where the bull went.
It wasn’t there.
The moment the nun dodged, the bull flapped its massive wings. It stopped–or even went backwards–without another step being taken.
The nun spun around to face her target just as the bull swung its head. Its single, straight horn pierced her chest. Red liquid splattered across the room directly behind the nun as the horn emerged from the other side.
Students remaining in the room screamed. Irene screamed. Jordan did not.
The bull tossed its head to one side and the nun with it. She flew off the horn and slammed into a cinder block wall. The nun stuck against the wall before gravity remembered its duties. She slid down off of it and collapsed on her face. A trail of blood marked her path.
Flames on the bull’s back withered and died as the nun disappeared from Irene’s view.
Irene turned, grasping for Jordan. She wanted nothing more than to tell him to get her out of the room that instant.
He wasn’t next to her.
He knelt next to the nun with his back to the bull like some kind of idiot.
The bull was already charging after him.
It skidded to a stop as shadows peeled themselves off the floor and the walls and anywhere there was a shadow. A wall of darkness formed around Jordan and the nun, blocking them from view.
The bull stared for just a minute. Its head slowly moved over the room until it came to a rest on Irene.
Her heart caught in her throat as she scrambled backwards. All the bars under the table were in the way.
A tremor went through the room as it lumbered towards Irene. Its head disappeared above the edge of the table, but it continued its slow stomp towards her.
Its crumpled horn swung down, hitting the bench in front of her and sent it flying across the room.
The head of the great bull dipped below the table.
Irene pressed as hard as she could against the bars of the table. She held up her hands in front of her the way one would try to placate an angry person. “I don’t have any weapons, I’m not going to hurt you,” she tried to say. She wasn’t sure how it came out. The salty taste of tears filled her mouth as she opened her mouth.
The bull stopped approaching. Its head tilted to one side so a single black eye could take her in. That brought the blood soaked horn far closer than Irene wanted. Her ideal distance would have been somewhere around the opposite side of the Earth.
But still, it stopped.
Relief flooded through Irene. It stared, but it didn’t trample or stab or eat or otherwise try to kill her. She tried not to smile. Animals didn’t like smiling, right? Smiles were considered aggression. She’d read it in a book once.
Instead, Irene slowly reached out. Her hand inched towards the beast’s long face. She stopped her hand just in front of its nose.
Another thing she read in a book. Let the animal get a good sniff.
The bull nudged forwards. Its nose bumped into Irene’s extended hand with a soft tap against her palm. The coarse hair bristled beneath her fingertips.
She let out a short burst of a laugh despite herself. The bull had just killed someone yet here she was, petting it. Irene’s life took a surreal turn somewhere in the last five minutes.
The bull let out a loud and hot snort.
Irene recoiled, pressing back against the table again. The steam was like Jordan’s parent’s sauna. Except for the smell. A coughing fit overtook Irene. It was like someone shoved eggs up its nostrils and left them to rot.
It wouldn’t be impossible either. She could probably fit her entire arm up the bull’s nose. Its head had to be almost her size.
With what Irene was sure was a laugh, the bull pulled its head out from under the table. Its bloody horn swung within half an inch of her face as it did so.
Just as it cleared her table and took a few massive steps backwards, three teachers charged into the cafeteria. One she didn’t recognize, Professor Kines, and the disheveled dean.
Professor Kines immediately raised his wand, obviously intending some kind of attack.
“No,” someone shouted.
It was her. Irene shouted.
Hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, Irene clambered out from under the table and held her arms up. “Don’t attack it.”
Dean Turner gripped Professor Kines’ wand hand and held her hand in front of the other professor.
The bull’s head swung back to look at her.
Irene pinched her eyes shut. If it was about to kill her, she didn’t want to see. Just go. Just go. Please don’t attack them. Please don’t attack me.
She felt the ground rumble as the beast moved away. It slowly marched towards the opening it made.
Irene peeked her eyes open. Everyone’s eyes were trained on it.
The moment it was fully outside, its wings flapped and it vanished in the sky.
“What was that about Irene?”
Irene turned back to find Professor Kines and Dean Turner standing inches away. The other professor moved to kneel near Jordan.
“No need to shout, Franklin.” The dean gave a kindly smile to Irene. “Miss Coggins, if you might elucidate?”
“I didn’t want you to get hurt.” Opening her mouth reminded her that she had been crying. Irene quickly wiped down her face with her sleeve. “The Elysium Sister hit it with at least a hundred bolts of lightning and set it on fire. That all just made it angry.”
Professor Kines shuffled nervously in his spot. He gave a short glance back to where Jordan and the other professor were picking themselves up off the floor.
“I see.” He glanced up to the dean, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“What was it doing here?”
Irene looked at the woman. How was she supposed to know that.
“I’ll explain,” Jordan said as he walked back. The other professor followed just behind. Both of their clothes were stained red.
“Very well, Mr. Anderson.” Dean Turner nodded for him to continue.
“The bull landed just outside the windows. It just sat there for a few minutes, looking in. The nun fired lightning at the window, shattering it, and another bolt hit the bull. That is when it charged in and started attacking her.”
“She’s dead, Martina.” The other professor gave a half gesture back to the nun.
“I see. Franklin, get the other children to Nurse Post. Chelsea, you’re covered in blood. Get cleaned up and find another member of the Elysium Sisters.”
The two instructors nodded and split off to carry out their assigned tasks.
“Are either of you two injured?”
“I touched it,” Irene blurted out.
“I mean. I’m not hurt.” Irene shook her head. “I touched its face.”
“You shouldn’t touch wild animals, Miss Coggins.”
“I know,” Irene stared down at her feet. She felt heat in her cheeks. “I was scared, it was right in front of me. I don’t think I was thinking clearly.”
“Understandable.” The dean nodded. “Can both of you make it down to Nurse Post’s office? Mr. Anderson is covered in blood that isn’t his own and Miss Coggins, you’ve touched a possibly disease ridden animal. It wouldn’t hurt to get yourselves checked out.”
Jordan said, “of course, Ms. Turner.”
Irene just nodded her head.
A slick yet slightly sticky hand gripped Irene’s own. She tried to pull out of Jordan’s grip, but he held tight. Soon enough he was dragging a barely resisting Irene down the halls.
“It felt weird,” Irene said aloud. She glanced down at the fingertips that weren’t encased in Jordan’s bloody hands.
Trying to remember what it felt like taxed Irene’s mind. It was coarse; not quite what she expected in that regard. The real mind numbing part of touching the beast was how the hard hairs wriggled beneath her fingers. Like they were alive, feeling her just as much as she felt it.
Then she remembered its breath. Irene stumbled as a small involuntary shudder came over her.
Jordan stooped over and caught her before she could fall down completely. Maybe the shudder had been larger than she thought.
“Alright, up you go.” He lifted her arm over his shoulder and supported half her weight.
“I think can walk on my own, thank you,” Irene said.
“And I think you’re in shock. It isn’t everyday you see someone killed.”
Irene stumbled again as he said that. She hadn’t even been thinking about the nun. That poor nun, even if it was her fault.
“Come on Irene. We’re almost there and then you can lie down for a while.”
Irene nodded. “Lying down might be nice.”
— — —
Consciousness took hold of Nel. It crept up with bits and pieces of the room fading into her perception one thing at a time. Like the trickle of a coffee pot.
Nel suppressed shaking her head. So many years passed since she last had coffee that she couldn’t even remember the taste. Or drinking it. Had she ever tried coffee? It was a weird analogy to think of in either case.
Keeping her eyes closed, Nel slowly drew in a breath of air. Ah, that must be why I thought of coffee. While the memory of its taste had faded over time, its scent almost overwhelmed her.
None of the sisters drank coffee. Anything that could cause even the slightest alterations in thought patterns was banned. That was one of the reasons augurs were such pariahs. Frankincense burning was seen as violating that tenet.
So Nel took a long, drawn out breath. She reveled in the stench of coffee. It was a good sign. It meant she hadn’t awoken in the hands of her would be murderers.
Whatever she lay on was not the most comfortable bed she’d ever woken up on. It was far from the worst. The odd slant made her think it was more of a couch or a bench than a bed. Nel had to stop her body from trying to correct itself.
She wanted to keep pretending to be unconscious as long as she could.
Without opening her eyes, Nel glimpsed the room she was in.
It was an office. A heavy wooden desk sat near one wall with two comfortable chairs on the visitor’s side. Stacks of papers covered the desk. To one side looked like a rolling tray of medical supplies. Tweezers, bandages, cutting instruments, ointments, and potions. Some were covered in blood. Nel’s blood, most likely. The couch she lay on rested against one wall of the room with a portable privacy curtain blocking the view to the rest of the room..
Apart from herself, the room was empty.
Nel looked better than she expected. An IV drip had been attached to one of her arms. The other was hidden beneath a blanket. She could feel a cast on it when she tried to wiggle it. There was no pain, but she didn’t feel hopped up on drugs. Maybe her body had simply gotten used to whatever feelings while she was unconscious.
It took willpower to avoid bolting upright. How long have I been unconscious? Nel used her glimpse over and over to try to find a calendar in the room. Nothing. No daily planner, no papers on the desk with dates. Not even a clock.
More than five days couldn’t have passed. Not unless Sister Cross hadn’t reported her missing. Otherwise she’d be back in their custody without a doubt.
Carefully, Nel peeked open a single eye. It wasn’t that she distrusted her glimpse, but she half expected to find Sister Cross glaring over her.
That wasn’t the case. She lay on a couch with a blanket and an IV drip behind a privacy curtain.
A long sigh of relief escaped her lips.
Nel slowly and carefully pulled herself into a sitting position. Very carefully. The last time she checked, her back had glass stuck in it. Yet nothing hurt on her way up. She took a quick glimpse to inspect her backside.
There was a bandage wrapped around her waist, probably one of the deeper cuts. Everything else looked remarkably healed. Her back was smooth save for the small slits–
Her back was visible.
Nel’s breath caught in her throat. She was naked beneath the blanket. Someone had treated her.
Someone had seen her.
Short, rapid breaths obscured Nel’s thoughts. What did I expect them to do? Not try to fix me? Nel tried to calm down. She took another deep breath of the coffee tinged air. It was good. Calming. Nel thought for a moment about going to find the coffee pot and drinking some.
First, Nel threw off her blanket and inspected herself. She had to make sure.
Nothing seemed out of place as Nel patted herself down. The IV drip in the crook of her arm, the bandage around her waist, and her arm cast were the only noticeable changes. A few scars stuck out here and there on her arms and chest, but nothing major.
Nel wrapped her blanket around her and pulled herself to her feet. She carted the pole the IV bag was attached to around the privacy screen. She wasn’t sure what was in it, but interrupting dosages of potions could have side effects. Unpleasant side effects. She left the needle where it was.
The door caught her eye. Or, she assumed it was the door. She couldn’t actually see the door, just the classroom beyond. The only indication that the door was shut was the visible handle, floating in midair.
Nel walked closer, observing the class. The instructor she had run to for help stood at the front, waving around a wand while talking about something. The students payed attention. She had them hanging off every word.
None of the children that Nel had been spying on were in class. Neither were their friends. It must be an older class.
She almost reached for the door handle. Sister Cross would be after her sooner or later. Nel needed to be gone before the evil woman could get a release signed for her blood and another augur to locate her.
Interrupting the class would just make the teacher angry. She might be less inclined to help. Nel glanced down at the blanket that was struggling to cover even half of her. Traumatizing everyone with the sight of her naked body wouldn’t do either.
Nel looked around the office with assistance from her glimpse to cover more area in half the time. Her tunic was nowhere to be seen. The only scrap of clothing Nel could find was a long robe hanging off a hook on a wall. Nel quickly slipped into it.
She returned to the couch and sat. And waited. Her bare foot slapped against the tile floor as she tried to calm her tense muscles. It wasn’t helping. She picked up that foot and crossed it over her other leg. That leg decided to start tapping.
The butterflies filling her stomach didn’t help either. Every little sound from the classroom, muffled though they were, had her jumping in her seat. Sister Cross was sure to be one of those noises.
The kindly chime of the school bell nearly sent Nel into a panic attack. She used her glimpse to see everything in the surrounding area.
No Sister Cross.
Students tossed notebooks into bags and filed out of the classroom. The teacher waited until the last one left. She turned and marched into the office.
Without hesitation, she strutted to the privacy curtain and tossed it to one side.
Nel flinched back. She couldn’t help it. A feeling of guilt washed over her. She shook it off. Nothing that happened was her fault. It wasn’t.
“How long was I out?” Nel asked in a quiet voice.
“You showed up on Saturday afternoon and the last class of Monday just finished. Roughly forty-eight hours. Now,” the instructor’s eyes glared down on her, “explain.”
Nel found herself flinching back under the glare. I’m not the enemy, stop looking at me like that, she thought. “I don’t have time. It is supposed to take five days, but Sister Cross could have declared an emergency or broken rules or any number of things. I need to be gone. You can teleport right?”
There was a slight hesitance behind the teacher’s eyes. “I can. I–”
“Your student, the ab–” Nel cut herself off. What was the girl’s name? She couldn’t remember. “The one with black hair and hands,” Nel wiggled her own fingers. “She has a prison. I know you’ve been there, I’ve seen you there. I need to be taken there.”
The professor took several steps backwards. A glint in the light brought Nel’s eyes down to her hands. She held a dagger, gripped with white knuckles.
Nel cowered backwards into the couch. She pulled her arms up to hide her face. Why did the professor have a knife out? She didn’t want to be stabbed.
“Are you a demon?”
“What?” Nel stared at the woman. Why would she think such a thing. “I’m a human.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.”
Nel blinked at the woman. She could feel the tears welling at the edges of her eyes. “I’m the Charon Chapter augur. I’m as human as they come.”
“The missing augur.”
Missing? “I ran away. Sister Cross is trying to kill me.”
The professor’s eyes narrowed. They searched over Nel’s face, looking for any sign of deceit. “Then why do you need to speak to my student?”
“She can hide me.”