Zoe Baxter had been feeling off-balance the entire day. There was a weight in her pocket unlike anything she’d felt before. It didn’t hold back her movements or tear through the threads holding her pocket together. For all she knew, the weight was nothing but her imagination.
Symbolic, most likely.
Cursed metal, otherwise.
When she first put the ring on in the presence of Ylva, it shrunk down and latched onto her finger. She nearly went into a panic. It took a lot of self-control not to pull out her dagger and chop off her own finger. It was only because Zoe had the presence of mind to simply try pulling the ring off that she still retained ten fingers.
It stretched to its full size and could be pulled off easily. She left it on until the moment she left Juliana behind in the cell house. After that, Zoe tore it off and dropped it in her pocket, much to Eva’s amusement.
Since then, Zoe kept it in her pocket. If it actually offered protection, especially against the current troubles plaguing Brakket Academy, it was too useful to leave in a desk or throw away. It could help should students find themselves in trouble, though she doubted it would work with anyone else given her name was engraved on it.
Wearing it and standing between her students and threats would have to suffice.
At least, that was how Zoe justified carrying it around and how she justified allowing Juliana to wear hers. Juliana at least wore several other rings, mostly to use their metal in the case of an emergency, so one extra ring seemed to have gone by unnoticed by the students and staff thus far.
She had no such justifications for experimenting with the metal. The fascinating properties had her mind whirling every time she thought about it.
Aside from the obvious weight discrepancy, it acted almost like a focus. Magic could be channeled into the ring. If it went unused, the magic would simply vanish. Regular foci disperse excess magic into the environment. The void metal would be able to channel exceedingly dangerous spells with very low chances of either exploding or catastrophically dumping the magic.
Of course, it was only a ring and not a large one at that. The total capacity for holding magic at that size was severely limited. A full, proper focus made out of the material would be invaluable.
That was far from the strangest property of the metal.
Zoe blinked. She glanced around the class until her eyes came to rest on the speaker.
“Yes? Mr. Harrison?”
“You were telling us about magic numbers.”
Zoe nodded. “So I was. I fear I’ve been distracted today.” She glanced at the clock hanging in the back of the room. “Only three minutes left of class. Remember your essays on theoretical alternate types of foci are due on Monday and have a good weekend. You’re dismissed.”
The students gathered up their belongings. Half of them were already packed and ready to go, waiting on the edge of their seats. Those ones were out the door the second the words were out of her mouth.
Others, the more respectful students, politely cleared their desks. They lingered, talking with their friends or simply enjoying the time. Soon enough they filed out as well.
One seat was never pushed away from its desk. Its occupant hadn’t shown up for class. It was doubtful Susie would be back any time soon, if at all. The burns she suffered were treatable. The elves were known for their potion brewing skills; they had access to materials that they worked hard to keep out of everyone else’s hands.
The school received more than a handful of complaints from the permanent residents of Brakket. Most of those complaints were directed at the Elysium Order. The injury of Susie worried the town more than the parents of other students, for the most part.
If the school shut down over all the parents pulling their students, the town would dry up soon after. It was already a parched town. Most people left living in Brakket wouldn’t be able to afford to leave.
Prospects like that scared a lot of people.
All the more reason to keep the ring close at hand. As an instructor, it was Zoe’s first and foremost job to protect her students. Teaching them was a good second. By protecting the students, she’d also be protecting the town.
As the last student filed out, wishing Zoe a good weekend as she went, Zoe headed back to her office. There she sat upon her couch–the same one Nel sat on a mere month before.
Nel looked… alright. In truth, most of Zoe’s focus had been on the demon. From what little she saw, there were no tear streaks nor any harm that Zoe could see. She even smiled once or twice and sported a very happy looking open-mouthed grin when Juliana asked to stay for a few moments.
If Juliana was to be believed, the former nun was very lonely but otherwise doing fine in her service to Ylva. They apparently had a long talk before her questions with Ylva. She didn’t speak of what questions she wanted to ask. The only real information Zoe had about their meeting was about Nel.
Zoe wasn’t opposed to meeting with Nel every so often. It seemed entirely too cruel to leave her with nothing for company but a demon. The demon herself was the biggest holdup in agreeing to let Juliana meet Nel.
Fondling the ring in her pocket, Zoe thought, that demon seemed to have taken a liking to us. Zoe hadn’t forgotten about her words about Death on their first meeting. It was probably safe to be in her presence. Physically, at least.
Mentally, Zoe worried about possible corruption. Tempting and encouraging her students towards darker paths was simply unthinkable.
Of course, Eva herself probably counted as a worse corrupting influence than Ylva.
Zoe sighed, resting her head in her hands with her elbows on her desk. Things were getting so out of control. First it had just been Devon, or so she thought. Then it turned out that Eva had her own pet demon.
Now Juliana and Zoe were getting wrapped up in this mess. Juliana had taken to all the aberrations far better than Zoe had. Every little thing that happened grated on Zoe’s conscience.
Coils bound tighter and tighter with every passing day. There was no one to turn to. Wayne had been exceedingly terse since their rather heated discussion the other day. For a long while, Zoe thought he would simply report everyone who had been to Eva’s prison.
He never did.
Instead, Zoe had been given one hard slap against her cheek. Not even for being involved in all the diablery but for not telling Wayne in the first place.
Zoe had half a mind to just get up and go talk to him. She told Wayne the goings on, but she had neglected to mention all her fears and worries. She had put on the strong Zoe Baxter and kept her calm throughout their discussion.
But she couldn’t. Not for a while at least. Zoe maintained office hours for one hour after the final class of the day. Students rarely showed up, but there was always the possibility that today would be different.
Lightly slapping her own cheeks, Zoe straightened up and prepared to work on her lesson plan for the next week.
Zoe scratched down a stream of notes in her notebook. Like all of her research projects, Zoe started with a blank tablet. It never stayed blank but this project became ridiculous somewhere along the line. It was getting to the point where she almost needed a new one and not even a week had passed.
At first, Zoe had been extremely hesitant with her experimentation. She only had the one ring and, while she never wanted to meet Ylva again, she didn’t want to risk destroying the ring and offending the demon. Slowly she ramped up her experiment’s intensity.
No matter what she tried, nothing even made the tiniest scratch on the surface of the ring.
Placing it in a pit of the hottest magical fire she could produce did nothing. The parts of the flame that touched the ring simply vanished. It wasn’t so much extinguished as the flame just disappeared.
Ambient heat still forced Zoe to keep a short distance. When the temperature ramped up as hot as Zoe could make it, it reached around two-thousand kelvin. Hot enough to melt steel with heat to spare. Not as hot as Wayne could do, but he was class one, not a lowly class three.
Zoe watched as the ring sat in her kiln. It remained black. Not a hint of the glow expected from molten metal.
After cooking for ten minutes, a panting and sweating Zoe released her magic. The flames died down and vanished. Zoe plucked the ring from the kiln with a long pair of tongs. She dropped it on ceramic tiles and took temperature readings.
Zoe frowned as she waved her hand over the ring. Lower and lower she moved her hand without feeling any heat radiating off. With a deep breath, she touched the back of her hand against the ring.
Shock ran through her nerves. She drew back almost immediately. With only a moment’s hesitation, Zoe gripped the ring in her hand. Not even the slightest heat touched her fingers.
It felt much like it had been stuck in the freezer. Unpleasant only in that it was colder feeling than room temperature.
Her next experiment consisted of leaving it in the freezer, of course.
She half expected to pull it out white-hot. It lay on the ceramic tiles, perfectly black. Not one to ignore caution, Zoe pulled it out with tongs once again. After a few temperature readings–room temperature once again–Zoe carefully touched her fingers to the metal.
Again, it felt much like it had been in the freezer.
Should have expected that, Zoe thought with a small amount of humor.
Magical ice might act differently. Unfortunately, while she may have been a class one aerothurge and a class three going on class two pyrokinetic, Zoe barely scraped by her class five hydroturge exams.
She’d need help for that experiment. Help might ask questions.
With a sigh, Zoe leaned back in the couch of her home. She rolled the ring between her fingers, occasionally slipping it on one of them. The ring’s ability to resize to fit any of her fingers was a mere footnote in her notebook. She hadn’t even started investigating that property.
A hammering on her door had Zoe on her feet in the blink of an eye.
No visitors were expected.
Her dagger whipped out, aiming at the door. The ring she had been fondling found its way onto her finger. She slipped it off and into her pocket, keeping one finger half way in.
Ready to cast a shield or a lightning bolt at a moment’s notice, Zoe approached her door. A small part of her wished it was enchanted like her office door–one way transparency. Her pitiful teacher’s salary wouldn’t cover the cost and she wasn’t adept enough at order and chaos magics to do the enchanting herself. Not permanently, at least.
Still, there were other methods of seeing through solid objects.
Zoe drew a line in the air with her dagger. Rippling magic seared the bindings of reality. The line of magic pulled apart at the midsection creating a vertical eye shape. Nothing but the pure white of between lay inside. With a thought, the white changed to the scene just outside her door.
Blinking twice to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, Zoe allowed reality to mend itself. The eye-shaped tear stitched itself back together and vanished into nothingness.
Zoe palmed her dagger, though she kept it at the ready, and walked up to the door. It swung open to reveal a dark-haired, golden-eyed man with a smile full of pearly-white teeth.
A flicker of disgust or even hate passed over his face. It came and went so fast that it might have been her imagination. Rex’s face turned to the polite and slightly roguish smile she first saw on him.
Zoe tried to keep her face as neutral as possible. She maintained her slightly surprised expression without mirroring his flicker.
Zoe trusted herself far too much to believe it had been her imagination.
“Hey, Zoe. Just got back into town after some business.” He hefted up a bottle of wine. “Thought we might catch up, yeah?”
“So you came straight to my home late in the evening?”
“Well, I got your address from Martina. I thought about stopping by in the morning.” He brought his free hand to the side of his mouth. In the loudest stage whisper Zoe heard, he said, “I’m not much of a morning person.”
Zoe allowed a polite smile to touch her lips, though she kept careful watch for any more flickers of emotion. “I spoke with Martina about you, you know.”
A lopsided grin split his face. He brushed one finger along his chin, almost as if stroking a nonexistent beard. “Did she mention what a handsome devil I am?”
“More like, ‘don’t get yourself involved with that pathetic display of walking pestilence. I regret the day I met him everyday,’ or something along those lines.”
He leaned back and let out a roaring laugh. “That sounds like Martina.”
It didn’t sound like half the joke he apparently thought it was when Martina said it.
“So,” he said, “this a bad time?”
A brief thought of slamming the door in his face crossed her mind. She wasn’t quite sure where the thought came from. Even with his flicker of emotion, Zoe wasn’t such a rude person.
“Not as such, no.” Zoe opened her door wider and stepped to one side. “Though I’ll let you know this: I intend to keep our interactions strictly professional. No relationships in the workplace.”
“Me as well, me as well.” He took one step into the door way before leaning over in his stage whisper pose. “Trust me, you don’t want Martina’s hellish breath on the back of your neck.”
“I’m sure I can imagine,” Zoe said as she led him inside. “There’s a lasagna in the oven. Should be done soon. I think there will be enough for two.” So long as I give up leftovers for the weekend, Zoe thought with a mental sigh.
“Excellent, Excellent. It smells lovely,” he said after a long breath through his nose.
“Take a seat.” Zoe gestured towards the couches. She tried to ignore the sudden realization that they were incredibly cheap and not very comfortable. If she had a proper dining room setup, she’d have led him there instead. “I’ll get us some glasses,” Zoe said and quickly stepped into the kitchen.
Zoe sighed as she retrieved two glasses. They weren’t even wine glasses, just cups. Rex would look at them, look around at her home, and run off. He’d wisely decide to find a career that paid more, even though Zoe made more than enough to live off of. Most of her money went towards research.
Freezing halfway back to the sitting room, Zoe had a thought. What were they going to talk about. Not many people considered magical theory to be an interesting line of discussion. Sure, they would politely nod along and pretend they understood or cared about what she said–they never actually did.
Many of her projects, especially the current ring project, she couldn’t even talk about with anyone. They were simply too dangerous or too incriminating.
Resigning herself to a night of awkward silence, Zoe headed back to Rex. She dropped the glasses on the coffee table and took a seat across from him.
He politely smiled, no traces of any disgust on his face. With a flourish Tom would be jealous at, Rex popped open the bottle and poured a healthy amount in both glasses. Her glass slid across the table with a flick of his finger.
Zoe lifted the glass, swirling it around with her wrist. It had a faint scent of alcohol and bit of a floral smell to it. It wasn’t that she thought Rex Zagan would poison her, but she waited for him to take a swig of his own glass before she took a small sip of hers.
Paranoia never hurt anybody, after all.
The drink was a tad dry. Not to her tastes at all.
“So,” Rex said after she set the glass back on the table, “everything is lined up for me. I’ll be finishing the paperwork tonight to finalize my teaching position next year.”
“That’s good,” Zoe said. The words felt, for lack of a better word, lame in her mouth. “I’m sure the students will enjoy another practical class,” she added.
“Ah, yes. I am sure I will enjoy teaching them. It should be,” he paused, “fun.”
During that pause, Zoe was sure she saw a flicker again. Not of disgust or hatred, but of elation. The barest hint of a grin before his face resumed the mannerly smile he had on before.
That’s a good sign, Zoe thought. At least he seemed happy about teaching. Instructors who did not have fun and were not happy teaching generally did not teach much at all.
Beeping of the oven echoed throughout the small house before Zoe could continue the conversation. Zoe excused herself and headed into the kitchen, shut off the timer, and pulled out the lasagna. She scooped a third onto her plate and a third onto another plate. One leftover meal would have to suffice.
For a moment, Zoe thought about moving the lasagna into some sort of visually appealing arrangement. That thought quickly vanished from her mind. Not only did she not know where to start, but she decided she didn’t care. If Rex wanted a fancy looking meal, he could go find a restaurant.
“Looks delicious,” Rex said as Zoe set out the plates on the table. He said it sincerely if Zoe didn’t miss her mark.
She took her own seat and started eating.
A few bites in and Rex was all smiles. Zoe couldn’t detect the slightest flickers of any other emotion on his face. He dug in like a man possessed. Eating the way he did made Zoe wonder if he had been eating much at all in the past few days.
“This is absolutely exquisite. You’ll have to give me the recipe sometime, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Zoe said, “maybe. It might be a family secret.” It might also be from the frozen food aisle.
“Ah,” he said, “I know a lot about family secrets.”
“Yep. My family has a whole slew of them. ‘Never speak of these to others,’ I was always told growing up. Quite the pain if I say so myself.” He took a large bite of his lasagna leaving not much left.
Zoe hoped he wouldn’t ask for seconds.
“Then again, all my family secrets are about magic and other magery. Not many culinary secrets in the Zagan family.”
Zoe couldn’t help herself. She had to ask. “And what secrets are in the Zagan family?”
“Now, now,” Rex said slowly, “just because it is a pain doesn’t mean I can go around spilling the secrets of my ancient magical knowledge. They wouldn’t be secret for very long if I did that.”
Ancient magical knowledge sounded very much like something she wanted to get her hands on. Zoe frowned, prompting a laugh from Rex. “Any hints?”
“Well,” he shifted his eyes from side to side as if checking for any eavesdroppers, “I suppose I could say that a lot of them are fairly tantric in nature.”
Her eyes narrowed, prompting another laugh from Rex.
“There are plenty of secrets that are more normal, to someone like you at least.”
Someone like me. Zoe wasn’t sure what to make of that. Instead of thinking, she downed the entire glass of wine.
“Perhaps we can trade. One of your secrets for one of mine.”
Zoe frowned. “I might have to get back to you on that one.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be about your culinary expertise. I am certain there are other secrets held by a fascinating individual such as yourself.”
Flattery. For what purpose? His earlier statement came across as an insult. Now he covered it up with flattery.
“I suppose I had best be going,” he said.
“It seems like you just got here. Did you not want one of my secrets?”
“Yes, but you’re not weaseling my secrets out of me in one night so I’ll give you some time to think over what secrets you have,” he said with a chuckle. “That and I’d like to be home before the riot tonight hits its climax.”
“Right,” Zoe let out a terse sigh, “that’s not the only thing–”
Zoe blinked. She blinked again. Cold water dripped down her spine as she jumped to full alertness.
“Oh yeah, nasty little thing,” Rex said with a wide smile. “Saw it on my way into town. Seems like half the population is gathered around some warehouse just outside town. They’re all up in arms with torches and pitchforks.”
“Torches and…” Zoe let out a short laugh. “You’re joking. You are, right?”
“Well,” he said as he flashed his grin again, “maybe about the pitchforks. They have wands instead.”
Zoe frowned and pulled out her cellphone. Four missed calls in the last half hour, all from Wayne. How did I miss these?
She immediately called him back.
“I’ll just see myself out then, yeah?” The door slammed and he was gone. Zoe didn’t even notice him walking to the door.
She was too distracted with waiting for Wayne to pick up.
By the sixth ring, a click sounded in her ear.
“You’re missing the party.”
Zoe gripped the cellphone in her hand. “There is something going on then?”
“Something. You could say that,” Wayne grunted out. “I tried to tell you earlier.”
After taking a deep breath, Zoe said, “I must have silenced my phone.”
She’d done no such thing and Zoe knew it. Wayne’s mirthless chuckle seemed to agree.
“Your girls are here.”
“Of course she is.” Zoe stopped and blinked. “Girls–plural?”
“Yep. Along with the pet demon.”
Zoe grit her teeth. Eva was one thing. Juliana was another. If Eva dragged Shalise into some mess, there would be words.
“Just tell me where.”