“I need a shower.”
“You say that every other session.”
“Every other session is a workout session,” Shelby wiped her forehead on her sleeve. “Look at this. Its gross.”
Jordan brushed her arm off to one side. “If it is so gross, don’t rub it in my face.”
“Don’t be such a baby. It is only sweat.”
“You’re the one who called it gross in the first place.”
Shalise giggled at her friends’ antics. Since Professor Kines’ combative magic club started, the pair had grown closer. Shelby always hung off of Jordan’s arm, but it was stiffer in the past. She was quiet and followed him around like a lost puppy.
Now she still hung off his arm. The quiet girl of the past turned into a smiling loudmouth.
That wasn’t to say that Shalise couldn’t empathize with her point. Every other session wound up with the five of them sweating out enough to fill a kiddie pool. Even after walking from the dueling room back to the main building of Brakket Academy, Shalise could still feel beads of sweat running down her arms and side.
“At least you guys have it easy,” Eva spoke up. “You should see the things Franklin Kines has me do while you go off running. My legs are killing me. I don’t know why I bother.”
“Even if you cannot run, there is still plenty of good to come from training your legs.” Jordan sounded almost like Professor Kines as he said that. He had the same, slightly haughty tone that the professor got during his lectures. For all Shalise knew, that was one of the professor’s own quotes.
“It isn’t that. It is just going to go to waste come summer. I’m having, uh, reconstructive surgery to fix my issue with running. It will likely invalidate all the work I’m putting into my legs.”
Jordan hummed as he tapped his chin. “There’s probably some exercises to prevent atrophy while you’re recovering.”
“It isn’t so much that my muscles will decay as it is replacing specific muscles. The ones I’m working on now won’t be in my legs anymore.”
Shalise went wide-eyed as she glanced at the black-haired girl. She couldn’t be planning on doing to her legs the same thing she did to her hands. Shalise’s questioning gaze turned towards Juliana.
The blond just shrugged with an almost thoughtful look on her face.
“That seems odd,” Shelby said. Her eyes dropped down to Eva’s legs–bare beneath her skirt–and lingered for almost a minute before she shook her head. “If they’re working fine right now, why are you getting rid of them?”
Eva gave a lazy shrug. Shalise doubted she cared about the other girl’s attentions. She walked around their dorm room naked enough that neither herself nor Juliana even blinked at the sight.
“The short answer,” Eva said, “would be that they aren’t working fine. I don’t know the long answer. I’m not a leg surgeon.”
“Are you sure you want to go through with that procedure?” Shalise looked at her roommate with a furrowed brow. “Wouldn’t a smaller one be better? One limited to just your feet.”
“That might work. I don’t know. The doctor just mentioned that there were certain advantages in the full leg treatment.”
Shalise did not miss the emphasis Eva put on the word. She wasn’t sure if the doctor was herself, Arachne, or her mysterious mentor. Shalise hadn’t even seen the latter since before Halloween, though she knew Eva went off to her ‘prison’ almost every weekend.
What ‘prison’ actually referred to, Shalise wasn’t certain. She’d never asked and neither Eva nor Juliana ever explained.
“As long as you know what you are doing and are happy with it,” Shalise said softly.
A gloved hand rested on her shoulder. It gave a squeeze that was a hair too tight, but not painful.
“Thank you for your concern, Shalise. Misplaced, but thank you anyway.”
As their group arrived at the main entrance to Brakket, the doors swung open.
Dressed in her solid black nunnery habit, Sister Cross strode into the lobby. She wore a downcast expression with her eyes glued to the floor. They didn’t stay stuck there for long. She came to a screeching halt as she looked up and noticed the group.
Her eyes settled on Eva. A flash of anger crossed her face before it turned to solid stone.
Shalise watched as Sister Cross’ eyes followed Eva’s arm up to Shalise’s shoulder.
The stony facade shattered into a grimace. Sister Cross shut her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them, her face held a neutral, almost friendly expression. The tight smile did not help.
“Good evening, children.” Her voice lacked the usual melody. It strained, almost rasped out of her throat.
She might have been shouting and battling just before walking in, for all Shalise knew. Since the winged bull smashed up the cafeteria, there had been two more attacks on the nuns off campus. At least. There could have been more that went unnoticed by the rest of the town.
All Shalise knew for sure was that there were notices going up all around town. Every billboard in school and a number in town got curfew postings and reminders not to wander alone after each attack. The nuns had supposedly been banished from the school campus, though one could be spotted walking around occasionally.
They hadn’t met since Sister Cross attacked Eva just over two weeks before.
“Oh? Why Sister Cross, what a pleasure to see you again. Attempted murder on any other students recently?” Eva’s voice came out the picture of politeness. Shalise couldn’t detect a hint of sarcasm in the tone.
Muscles in Sister Cross’s jaw tightened for a mere instant. “Not at all, Eva. You’re the only one who is deserving of such attentions from me.”
“Ah yes, I certainly am amazing to receive your personal murder attempts. It must be terrible to be another student and have to be murdered by one of the lackies of the great Lynn Cross.”
Sister Cross’ eyes narrowed ever so slightly while the rest of her face remained impassive.
The two glared at each other until a light cough drew their attentions.
“I thought the Elysium Order wasn’t allowed on campus anymore,” Shelby all but whispered.
“Funny thing about rules like that,” Eva said before the nun could open her mouth. “They’re often ignored by people willing to murder children.”
“Quite so, Eva.” Sister Cross gritted out the words between her teeth. “I’d recommend you keep your nose clean.”
“Who would even know without your slavering watchdog hanging over my shoulder?”
Sister Cross’ face cracked again. This time rage flowed through. She took a step forward; everyone save Eva and Shalise took a step backwards.
“Don’t speak about her that way. Sister Stirling may have been young, stupid, vaguely insubordinate, and stupid, but she was a good woman. She doesn’t deserve whatever fate she’s met.”
A small humming noise escaped Eva’s throat.
In an effort to defuse the irate nun, Shalise spoke up. “You haven’t found her then?”
Sister Cross sighed and looked back down at the ground. The same expression she wore into the building appeared on her face. With a shake of her head and a soft smile, she looked up at Shalise.
“Her blood was released from the vault to be examined by a senior augur. There hasn’t been any sign of her yet, not even a body. I’m not sure how much more time headquarters is willing to use on their augurs.”
Shalise stepped forwards and felt Eva’s arm fall off of her shoulder. She took the nun into her own embrace for a quick hug. “I’m sure you’ll find her.”
“We’ll keep looking, but I’m being pressured to exalt a sister to be Charon’s newest augur. With everything that has been going on, there just hasn’t been time.” Sister Cross heaved a great sigh.
Shalise wasn’t sure how old Sister Cross was. She guessed somewhere in the late thirties to early forties. Having seen nothing but an oval of skin on her face made it difficult to get a better guess.
The sigh she sighed seemed to turn her from an early forty-year old all the way to her sixties. Pure exhaustion set into her face as her eyes drifted back to the floor.
And the moment was gone. Sister Cross’ face hardened as she looked over the group.
“What are you doing here?” Jordan asked. A cocky grin spread across his face as he brushed a hand through his wavy, brown hair. “Unless you are here to murder us. In that case, I know of some particularly devious third years who are probably far more fun to fight than us little freshmen.”
“If you must know, I have a meeting with the dean,” she said.
If there was any more venom in the word, Shalise would have to run to the nurse and get an antitoxin. The flash of hate on her face was far worse than when she looked at Eva.
That was a good thing. Hopefully. Shalise didn’t want her two friends to fight. If she wasn’t that intensely angry with Eva, maybe she wouldn’t try to kill her again–though Shalise was still sure kill was too big of a word; injure and interrogate seemed far more likely. Hopefully.
Shalise didn’t want to be forced into picking sides between the two.
“Well,” Juliana said in the same whisper Shelby used, “we will be out of your way then. Wouldn’t want to keep the dean waiting.”
Shalise quirked her eyebrows. The blond was all but cowering behind Eva. Did she actually think Sister Cross would just start attacking them?
“Quite.” Sister Cross took another deep breath and held it for just a moment. “Be careful on your way back to the dorms. This late-night club of yours keeps you out too close to curfew, especially with that thing running loose.”
Her eyes hardened as they met with Eva’s eyes. The moment lasted for an instant before Sister Cross ruffled Shalise’s hair with a small smile. She walked around the group without another word.
“Scary,” Juliana mumbled once the group exited the building.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.” Shelby gave a small shudder. “I could almost feel the power dripping off of her every time the word murder came up.”
Shalise cocked her head to one side. She hadn’t felt anything.
“Speaking of which,” Jordan said, “I feel like that word came up far too much for one night. We only got a vague description of what happened. Care to share?”
“Sister Cross didn’t try to kill Eva,” Shalise said. She spoke too loud if the sudden stopping and stares from her friends was anything to go by. “She was just worried about her friend.”
Eva mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “you could have fooled me.”
Shalise ignored her. “Sister Cross always visited my home where I grew up. She’d bring toys and presents and care for all the kids like they were her own. A nice woman like that doesn’t deserve all this stuff with the attacks and fear and hate.”
A silence came over the group. All four of them just stared.
Eva broke the silence first. Her gloved hand clasped on Shalise’s shoulder once again. “Don’t worry. It’s all water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. Tonight was just,” she paused in thought, “good-natured ribbing,” she said with a nod. “As long as she doesn’t attack me again.”
Shalise almost commented on how their interaction tonight didn’t seem like ‘good-natured ribbing,’ but Jordan opened his mouth first.
“The real question is why she thought you might know what happened to her friend,” he said with at glance at Shalise at the last word.
“Because of all the things that went on,” Eva said with a gesture towards the band across her eyes, “Sister Cross thought it might be a good idea to keep watch on me. I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps she thought I was possessed or she thought I might turn into some kind of necromancer.
“Either way, the person who went missing was the person who kept watch on me. Someone I had expressed a distaste for in the past. I believe when I first heard about the scrying, I told Sister Cross to leave me alone. In far harsher words, of course.”
“Of course,” Jordan repeated.
The group slowly started walking towards the dorms. Eva allowed her hand to slide off Shalise’s shoulder.
Shalise shivered as they made the short journey back to the dorms. The cool air on the ides of March felt far colder with all the sweat. Shelby seemed to feel the same way. She wrapped her arms around herself and leaned ever so slightly closer to Jordan.
“I thought your little black envelopes prevented scrying,” Shelby said just outside the Rickenbacker.
Eva let out a loud laugh. “Don’t worry. They work on everything I’ve tried which is probably more than students have access to. If you do find something that can see though my runes, let me know and I’ll see about fixing it.”
“You couldn’t fix it for the nun watching you?”
“I don’t know how augurs see. I tried beefing up the one in our room. I don’t think it worked. Any time I talked to Sister Cross, she never mentioned being unable to spy on me.”
“What she’s saying,” Juliana said quickly, “is keep giving us money. They work on anyone who matters.”
“The scrying protection project has taken on a sort of backburner state for now. I’m working on a huge research and experiment project with runes that is completely unrelated.”
Shalise nodded at that. When around, Eva spent almost all her free time pouring over her rune papers. Every once in a while, she’d crumple up papers and toss them into the trash before starting anew.
She refused to say what she was working on, unfortunately.
“I still say that we should be getting some kind of discount,” Shelby said with a friendly huff.
“You are,” Juliana whispered, “but don’t tell anyone or they’ll all come up with excuses to want a discount too. We can’t afford that. I’ve seen the price tag on those vials of ink and they aren’t cheap.”
Shalise blinked. She blinked again. Eva gave her a pen and ink. So far they just sat in the back of her desk drawer. Unused.
That could be it. Runes did all kinds of crazy things. Eva set up the shower to pour water without using the proper plumbing. Very very hot water, but she was a fire mage.
A smile spread across her face.
There had to be a way to get fireballs or lightning from runes. Some etching into a glove might work. Maybe there were runes that could make a shield too.
Shalise tried to keep the bounce out of her step as the group climbed the stairs to their dorm. She had no intentions to skip regular magic training. Zoe Baxter managed proper lightning by half way through her second year. Shalise intended to beat that.
Until then, Eva’s runes might provide an adequate method of defense.
— — —
Martina Turner kicked one foot up on top of her desk. She leaned back in her chair. With one elbow on the armrest, she slowly rocked a glass back and forth by the rim. With a flourish seen only by herself, Martina tipped her little reward back and downed the glass.
Moments after the liquid touched her tongue, a burn ran through her veins. It coursed from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. A hot and heavy feeling spread through her body. She sank deeper into the chair as the weight pressed down.
Fire lit behind her eyes. The dim light of her office brightened to her perceptions. The single lamp on her desk nearly blinded her while even the darkest corners of the room turned bright as day.
After refilling the glass, she capped the bottle of Hellfire and dropped it back in her desk drawer. The glass slid across the desk with a flick of her fingers. It came to a rest just an inch away from crashing over the edge.
One glass was more than enough for her tastes.
Psychos who drank glass after glass were beyond insane in her mind.
Rex Zagan strode forward from one of those corners. He plopped himself down in one of the comfortable chairs across the desk. His own shiny, black shoes landed on the edge of her desk as he reclined back in the chair.
Not a strand of his short, black hair appeared out of place. Even with the rough landing in the chair, it stayed perfect. Disgustingly perfect.
A grin full of white teeth curled his lips. For a moment, he just stared. His eyes pierced Martina’s very being. She felt herself being undressed and searched over for anything and everything.
Martina had long since become used to the man’s antics. She made her face as impassive as the nun’s had been and stared back.
No matter what she tried, her stare never matched his.
“That went well,” he said. His hand reached out and gripped the glass with gloved hands, though he did not drink.
Martina scoffed at that. “‘Well’ would have been getting the hell out of my town.” She shook her head in disgust. “That woman is endangering my students with her very presence.”
“I took a stroll around town earlier,” Rex started. He paused for a small sip of his drink.
Narrowing her eyes, Martina watched as his face contorted into a look of disgust. His golden eyes all but flared into a bright glow before he regained his composure.
“How can you stand drinking this?”
“If you don’t want it, pass it back,” Martina snapped. “That isn’t cheap.”
He merely hummed as he took another sip. A wince spread across his face, but he managed to control himself better than the first time.
Never again would she offer a glass of her finest Hellfire. Much too good, and expensive, for the likes of him. Stale water would suffice in the future.
Martina shook her head and focused. “What is the word in town?”
“Not sure about all the town,” Rex said with a sigh. “I was doing a little shopping, picking up supplies for my apartment. Normal things, yeah?”
Martina narrowed her eyes again. Rex either ignored or simply didn’t care for her ire.
“I struck up a conversation with the cashier at the grocers,” he took another sip of his drink. “I was hungry, you see.”
“The point, please?”
“I’m expecting,” he paused with a brief gaze into the wall before he waved a dismissive hand through the air. “Well, whatever her name was should be at my apartment in half an hour or so. A pretty little creature. Young too. She had such nice–”
“Zagan. The point.”
His golden eyes gave of a sinister glint for an instant. “I was getting there. Her father–whom she lives with–and some family friends were discussing the state of the town and school just the other day.” He drank the last of his Hellfire and dropped the glass on her desk with a clatter. “They seem concerned that if anything happens to the students, the school might close down which would spell doom for the rest of the town.”
“Given the incident around Halloween last semester, that is understandable.” Martina nodded an agreement. “Was she more specific about her concerns.”
“Not as such. I was more surprised that people actually care about this horrible little town.”
“Some people simply have no place else to go and no money to go there.” She sighed, mulling over her thoughts. She decided to speak few of them aloud. “We’ll drop some more fliers and post more notices. The text should warn against being around the nuns as much as possible without directly stating that they’re the problem.”
Martina received a mere nod in return.
“Try to press more opinions out of your,” she paused, gritting her teeth, “date if you aren’t too busy.”
“Speaking of,” he said as he dropped his feet to the floor, “I wouldn’t want to be late. Good luck with your schemes, Martina.” He turned and strode towards her office door.
“Zagan,” Martina called out. Rex stopped in his tracks. “We don’t need more bodies piling up.”
His face split into a white-toothed grin. Without a proper response, he left her office behind. The door shut with a soft hiss on his way out.
Martina waited. She counted down the steps until he left the reception area. The moment she heard the outer door shut, Martina reached up and pressed a button on her desk phone.
Her finger tapped against the desk while she waited. Just long enough passed for Martina to feel a tinge of annoyance before the screen came to life. Martina grit her teeth as she stared at the cocky figure on the screen.
Wearing her hair short and sky-blue today, the secretary didn’t even look up into the camera. Her eyes were focused on her long fingernails as she groomed them. The fur shirt she wore left little to the imagination with only a thin strip of cloth keeping the rest of her clothes attached as it ran from one breast to the other after looping around her neck.
Insane. Every single person I know is an absolute lunatic. Martina felt her eye twitch as she watched her secretary. The girl was lucky she managed to be competent.
“Catherine,” she barked.
The secretary didn’t even look up as she moved to the next nail. Her only acknowledgment was a slight humming noise.
Unless she was simply humming a tune.
“We’re running more fliers. Get the template ready by tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have content.”
“More slander against the nuns, Martina?” Catherine still did not look up. She reached into her desk and pulled out some silver tool Martina couldn’t recognize if her life depended on it. The secretary slowly ran it over the edges of her long fingernails.
“It isn’t slander if it is true.”
“You don’t need to justify yourself to me,” she said in a sickly sweet voice as she switched hands. “I don’t care one way or the other.”
“Just get it done.” Martina cut off the phone before her secretary could say another word. Nothing good could come from prolonged exposure to the woman.
With a sigh, Martina settled further in her chair. The headrest cradled her as she shut her eyes. There was not much to actually do. Even with the extra help she’d acquired, everything required time to fully ferment.
Rumors spread like wildfire–a fact Martina was counting on. Forcing a direct conflict between the school and the Elysium Order would only end up with her being the villain. Yet there were few things that could accelerate the spread of the wildfire. Her latest, albeit unknowing assistant provided the only real fuel to the flames that could be added.
Everything else relied on time and patience.
Martina Turner had never been one for virtues.