Zoe Baxter snapped shut the book in her hands.
It was all worthless.
She had put a halt to her demonology studies–taking the terminology from Devon–to work on helping one of her new students.
No matter how many books she read on the subjects of diseases, debilitations, and illness, none of them had any answers. She’d been up and down every book and hadn’t even been able to come up with similar cases, let alone a cure.
Zoe was starting to get worried that she would have to delve into far more abstruse tomes to find any hint.
The girl’s father mentioned that they had never before come across anything that might lend a clue. With the power of Brakket Academy Library behind her, Zoe thought she might be able to find something.
She even roped Lisa into helping despite her being the nurse to the Rickenbacker dorms while Miss Finnell resided within the Gillet. She had absolutely nothing against Nurse East. He was a good medical professional and an adequate potioneer, but Eirin tended to be a tad loony at times.
So far, Lisa had found nothing. It didn’t help that Lisa hadn’t examined the girl on account of Miss Finnell vanishing for the entirety of the summer months. Despite arriving on the flight for orientation, she went back home to her father to spend some more time with him before school started in full.
She neglected to mention how she returned home.
Zoe sighed as she stood up. The book in her hand dropped back to between–Zoe would return it to the library later. She walked around her desk and came to a stop in front of her transparent office door.
First year students filed into her classroom one after another. They were always such fun to watch. Freshmen going to their first class displayed the largest range of emotions. Some came in eager, others nervous. One particular red-headed boy showed off an air of cockiness usually reserved for those with parents who trained them before school started.
Zoe doubted that young Mr. Beans had such training.
The door to Zoe’s classroom sat at the back of the room. As such, few noticed when Des and her adopted brother Hugo entered the room hand-in-hand. The class’ obliviousness did not last long. The two walked straight to the front of the room and took a seat nearest to Zoe’s lectern.
Hugo simply sat. His eyes unfocused as he stared straight ahead.
Des, on the other hand, seemed fairly chipper. With a smile on her face, she pulled out a book and immediately put her nose in it.
Then the whispers began.
The rest of the class had been conversing normally up to that point. Now they pointed and half covered their mouths as they spoke among the small cliques that formed over the summer.
Zoe expected this and had given due warning to both Des and her father. Both simply nodded and had a small solemn look–not that Doctor Finnell lost his wide smile–which gave Zoe the feeling that it happened at some previous school. They both agreed to have Des attend despite that.
Still, it annoyed her to see others so blatantly disrespecting their fellow students.
Zoe almost entered the room. The bell would be ringing shortly and she liked to start the year off with a bang. Or a bolt, as the case was.
Two students approaching the front desk gave her pause.
Part of Zoe hoped that they were going to be nice, polite, and perhaps even become friends.
The taunting looks on the two girls’ faces made Zoe think otherwise.
Yet Zoe stayed her hand. She’d wait and watch how it played out.
Both girls walked up, both attempting to hold in laughter by the looks of things. The one in the front–a black-haired girl Zoe did not yet know the name of–immediately opened her mouth and launched into a deluge of words.
Des didn’t seem to notice anyone speaking to her for a few moments. Once the girls started laughing, she looked up from her book.
The black-haired girl had a few more words to say before both burst out laughing again.
First, Des’ smile slipped. She frowned and looked nearly ready to cry. Hugo put a hand on her shoulder and Des’ face went blank. Her lips curled into a soft smile and she spoke a few words. Looking back to the students, Des’ hand moved up to her face.
Zoe couldn’t make them out from behind her privacy warded door, and the girl’s back was turned so Zoe couldn’t even attempt to read her lips. The bullies did hear the words and they saw whatever her hand was doing.
Grins slipped from their faces and one took a step back. Another student, one who merely sat nearby and was not participating, actually looked a little sick. The girls didn’t say anything as they retreated to the far corner of the room.
Des turned back to the front with a bright smile on her face, looking none the worse. With a short word to Hugo, she buried her face in her book once again.
Zoe waited another minute before entering the room. The bell for class to begin rang the moment she stopped at her lectern. After sweeping her eyes over the room, Zoe glanced down at the curly-haired girl in front of her. “Miss Finnell, if–”
“Just Des, please.”
Great, Zoe thought as she suppressed an eye-roll, another one. “If you would stay behind for a few moments after class.”
At the growing look of horror on the young girl’s face, Zoe quickly added, “do not worry, you are not in trouble.”
The look of horror subsided with a small nod from the girl. Her curly hair bounced around her head as she did so.
“Now then,” Zoe said. She raised her wand and cast a lightning bolt against a special panel built into the wall of her room. “A wand is but one of many items that perform the function of a foci.”
With that, her lesson started.
— — —
“Horray,” a silky voice droned, “you’ve reached your second year of schooling. Unfortunately, the lot of you are absolutely trash at anything worthwhile.
“I’d say that you shouldn’t feel bad, that your utter worthlessness is expected of fourteen year olds, but we know that isn’t the case. This very class has a student on par with a third or even a fourth year student.”
Juliana shrank into her chair as most pairs of eyes turned towards her. Some were filled with envy, others annoyance or hate.
Being called worthless to their faces had a lot to do with that. It wasn’t an untrue statement. Juliana felt confident that she could fight the entire class–Eva and Arachne not included–and come out without a single scratch. That didn’t make it okay for a teacher to tell the students they were worthless.
Especially when it turned the focus to her.
Not even five minutes into the class and she was already hating their magical combat instructor. She didn’t want to. When she walked into the room and saw who it was, Juliana hoped she might actually learn something outside of her own studies this year.
As the professor glared at her with a golden glint in his eyes, Juliana felt that hope wither. He wasn’t here because he wanted to teach. He didn’t like children. He certainly did not like her. The demon was here because of a contract with someone. Nothing more and nothing less.
At least, Juliana assumed that to be the case; she had no clue who a devil would willingly contract with.
“Dean Turner wishes to rectify that,” he said after the students had a good stare. “This won’t be like your general magic classes where you learn a thought pattern and practice it for a while before moving on. You will be drilled repeatedly and ceaselessly on any and every spell that can be used to fight. Your end of term test will include casting your spells while under a sleeping potion.”
Juliana frowned. Was that a joke? Was that serious?
She stared at his face, trying to figure it out. Her stare kept up until Zagan turned and gave her a wink.
Juliana felt her face heat up. She couldn’t believe this was the same person as the demon that had fought Sister Cross.
Sure, he lacked the horns and giant wings. They had been too far to see his eyes or hear his voice. His knees bent in the proper direction for a human. And he wasn’t breathing fire.
But it was still him. Juliana could tell.
The rippling muscles that covered his bare chest during the fight were still there. They might be covered up by his solid black suit, but Juliana could almost see straight through the cloth. He definitely had the same body type. More notable than his body type was his stance.
The professor had the same feet apart, arms crossed, utter pose of contempt as the devil from that night.
Eva, standing on the other side of Juliana, could tell it was him as well. Then again, she knew the moment they got their schedules and saw his name on the paper. She crumpled up the paper with grit teeth. Eva hadn’t bothered to share the cause of her ire.
That she knew the demon’s name while Juliana did not was likely the reason.
Shalise stood beside Juliana with a small smile on her face, completely ignorant of their professor’s true nature. Excitement radiated off of the girl. Ever since they heard that there would be a proper combat class, she’d been nonstop practicing her air magic to try to get ready.
The eyeless glare Eva had been giving the professor since the moment they walked in had not subsided in the least. It was scary how she could do such a thing.
“You may call me Zagan.”
His golden eyes scanned over the entire room, left to right, as if daring someone to comment.
No one said a word.
“By show of hands, how many of you participated in the little dueling club that went on last semester?”
Apart from Juliana’s friends, only three students raised their hands.
“Disappointing,” he said. “You’re already woefully beneath where you could be,” he gestured again towards Juliana, “and yet hardly any of you have the drive to improve. Do you take your ability to do magic for granted?”
Irene was the one who raised her hand. She started speaking without being called upon. “Not all of us intend to pursue careers involving fighting.”
Zagan’s lips curled into a cruel sneer. “Whatever you intend to do with your life doesn’t matter to me, yeah? Do you think that excusing your lack of ability by saying that you don’t want to fight will absolve you of your inadequacies? Do you think that this girl’s,” he gestured again towards Juliana, “advanced abilities will be a detriment in any profession she chooses?”
His comment caused another few students to glare in Juliana’s direction. Part of her wondered if he had a specific distaste for Juliana. Even if he didn’t, the constant singling out grated on her nerves.
Irene put her arm down, though she kept up a defiant look at their professor.
“To start with, we’ll be drilling your basic attack–fireballs, ice spears, lightning, and earth shards–until you are able to cast with some degree of competency.”
“Not shields?” Drew asked from the back row. “That was the spell we were attempting to master in Professor Kines’ class.”
“Learn to attack before learning to defend, yeah? Even with the strongest shield, if all you do is sit and cower then your shield will eventually break. You must strike back in order to defend.” Zagan shook his head side to side with a sigh as if the question was something everyone should already know.
It honestly was something everyone should already know. If Drew had paid any attention in Zoe’s class, he would know.
“Besides, order magic is complex, tricky, and not suited towards combat. Until you’ve advanced your understanding and abilities with elemental magic, your shields won’t stop much of anything.
“Now, let’s get to work.”
Zagan had everyone form up in front of human sized targets. They were using the same dueling building that Professor Kines used the previous semester. As such, the ground was made from earth and there were troughs of water between the dueling rings.
There were even candles set out for the pyrokinetics to use despite fire being the easiest element to conjure. Most fire mages learned to conjure a flame before any other aspect of pyrokinetics.
At his command, the class began slinging their attacks at the dummies.
Five shards of stone split off the floor in front of Juliana. With a flick of her wand, a burst of magic launched all five straight at the target. All sunk a good few inches into the chest area.
More than a few students sent glares her way.
Juliana eased back and lazily flung a single shard or two every now and again.
After about ten minutes of slogging earth around in a way to try to avoid drawing unnecessary attention while Zagan went around lecturing individuals who weren’t her, Juliana decided to switch tactics.
She decided to start with water first–it was her mom’s secondary element, after all. Juliana had a small amount of training in wielding it. Not a fraction of what she had in earth, but enough to get started at least. They’d be choosing a secondary element sometime later in their elemental magic class anyway.
The troughs of water inset into the floors weren’t far away from Juliana. She waved her wand at the nearest grate and drew out a small stream of water.
Launching ice shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was different enough from earth to make a difference, but not by much.
The real trick was forming the water into spike shapes and then freezing it before it reverted to its more natural globule shape.
Most of her attempts winded up being misshapen blobs of ice. She launched them at her target anyway. Most missed by a wide margin, but it was easier to launch the blobs and try again with fresh water than it was to unfreeze and reform the ice.
Unlike her earth shards, the water blobs missed. They didn’t fly though the air like earth did. Part of it was the aerodynamics, but part of it was also simply the idiosyncrasies of launching a foreign element. Still, she managed to propel them away from her far better than some of her hydroturge classmates.
Every fifth one or so, Juliana managed to form into a more-or-less proper spike of ice. She took care to try to remember every thought pattern she had whenever she managed that. And, every time she managed a spike, Juliana took care aiming.
Most of her spikes at least brushed the target if they did not strike it directly.
“Rivas,” a voice half shouted from behind Juliana just as she formed a proper spike.
The ice dropped to the ground and shattered as her concentration snapped like a twig. She spun around, metal clinging to her already turning to liquid as she activated her ferrokinesis. The sword of metal forming out of her sleeve stopped just inches from Zagan’s face as he leered over her.
He didn’t even flinch.
“You will be serving detention with me on Saturday alongside,” he glanced to one side, “Anderson.”
Juliana followed his gaze to her fellow student.
On the other side of Shelby stood a very blank-faced Jordan. A ball of fire clung to the tip of his wand. He frowned but gave a small nod.
“Detention?” Juliana said as she looked back towards the professor. She wasn’t going to just take it. “For what?”
“You both disobeyed me. I believe I said to use your element. Neither of you are using your element.” A sharp glint grew in his eyes as he spoke. “I will not suffer insolence from the likes of you.”
Juliana snapped her jaw shut. She had a feeling he meant more than just children by his last statement.
“Well,” Zagan said as he pulled himself to his full height, “what are you all staring at? Get back to work unless you want to join them.”
Nobody needed telling twice.
— — —
Every time Zagan walked past, he glared at Eva.
She was trying her best. She didn’t want detention. Her fireballs just weren’t up to snuff.
Arachne helped out. She rearranged herself into a position that couldn’t be comfortable for the poor spider, but she managed to peek out of Eva’s shirt between two buttons. Without speaking to one another, they managed to work out a sort of communication.
If Eva missed, Arachne would tap out a ‘no’ followed by a few taps on Eva’s stomach to the left, right, high, or low. The number of taps indicated by how much Eva missed.
Luckily, Eva wasn’t missing often. It wasn’t like the targets moved.
Ideally, fireballs would either explode with a concussive force on contact or splash burning fire over the target. Eva’s did neither. She could make them hit. She could make them hot. None did anything more than leave a small scorch mark before vanishing.
The score on her exams actually got docked down for that. One aspect of the exam included both concussive force and another had her keep the flames burning in a far more fluid manner than fire had any right to be.
In her defense, it was harder than it sounded.
Eva couldn’t actually see the fire. It burned away any blood she allowed to get close to it. After the first few balls of fire sailed through the air and struck the targets, Eva kept a small vacuum of blood between her and the target. She would end up burning through all of it before class finished otherwise.
Now, the heat warming her hand through her glove was the only real indication she succeeded at conjuring it. Once the fire left her hand, it vanished from her sight.
Still, Zagan glared. He never said a word to her, unlike the words of ‘encouragement’ he had for the other students.
Not that Eva wanted any of his ‘encouragement.’ From what she overheard, none of it seemed all that useful.
His glares were something of a mystery. Eva didn’t think the two of them were on bad terms, even if Eva would be happier never meeting him again. Perhaps he was upset about the demon attacking during Zoe Baxter’s seminar the other week.
Zagan hadn’t spoken with her since before that attack. If he or Martina Turner suspected Eva of having anything to do with it, neither acted on their suspicions.
Towards the end of class, Arachne poked Eva right in the bellybutton.
Eva let out a truncated yelp as a the fireball she held fell and nearly incinerated her pants.
Of course the messed up one splashes all over, Eva thought as she patted down her clothes.
She was about to give Arachne a harsh swat disguised as brushing off her shirt when she felt it.
The hairs on Eva’s neck stood on end as a wave of hot air blew past her head.
Eva mentally cursed herself–she hadn’t lost concentration on her surroundings in a long while. Slowly, she turned to face Zagan.
“Something wrong, Zagan?”
“My office. After class.” With that, he turned and continued stalking around the students.
Arachne repeatedly tapped ‘no’ on Eva’s shoulders as she turned back to the target dummy. Ignoring Zagan, despite Arachne’s repeated tapping, couldn’t have good consequences. “He wouldn’t try something in the middle of school, would he?” Eva whispered to Arachne.
The demon’s ‘no’ taps immediately swapped to Eva’s opposite shoulder.
As the bell chimed for the end of class, Eva found herself hanging back despite Arachne’s increased protests. She waved off her friends and told them that she would catch up afterwards.
The small antechamber to the main dueling gymnasium seemed more like a locker room than an office. The drains on the floors beneath a set of shower heads were a dead giveaway. Zagan didn’t seem to care. He marched in with Eva in tow and plopped down behind a desk that sat on the hard tile floor.
It didn’t look much like it was supposed to be there.
“So,” Zagan said with a glare, “bringing your pet demon to class? You haven’t banished her yet?”
Eva frowned as Arachne drummed her legs on Eva’s back. That’s what this is about? “You’re one to talk. Why are you here at all?”
“I am fulfilling my contractual obligations.” He kicked his feet up onto his desk. “It isn’t like anyone could do anything about me if they found out. You on the other hand–”
“Arachne accompanied me to every class from September to November last year and there were no problems. She only stopped because of the nuns wandering the city. Nuns that we helped remove.”
Zagan shook his head side to side. “I warned Martina about Catherine already, but she insists her familiar won’t cause problems. With you, your pet–” Arachne bristled lightly, “–that demon on the horizon, and our unknown summoner all tainting the air, it is a wonder we’re not onset by hunters already. Too many in close proximity.”
“Devon seems to think that no hunter would attack while you are hanging around.”
Zagan shrugged. “I won’t be around forever. Of course, you might not have to worry at all. I may decide to raze this school before returning to the Void when my contract ends.” As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t think I’m fond of teaching.”
Eva’s frown deepened. “When does your contract end?”
“Could be a year, could be twenty. It isn’t time based. The details are for me and me alone, however.”
Before Eva could comment, Zagan switched tracks.
“You truly are tainting this place. I can smell it. You smell like a demon, though I hope that would be obvious to you. But it has rubbed off. Your friends smell like demons as well.”
Eva drew in a sharp breath. My friends smell like demons?
“Don’t be silly, embryonic one.” Zagan said with a brushed hand. “They aren’t like you. It would be interesting to watch, between you and Martina’s plans. Maybe I’ll preserve the school just for that. If you are interesting enough that is. If not, well, I might get bored.
“Of course, it will be fun to see you two panic as hunters arrive without me here. I hope you prepare better than Martina is doing, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Eva said after a moment. She had a sudden urge to speak with Devon regarding what could be done about hunters at the school. Her master would have ideas. They hid out in Florida for years.
Though they never had Arachne constantly summoned in Florida. She only turned up on occasion for treatments or jobs.
“Well,” Zagan said, “what are you standing around for. Be gone with you, foul creatures.” He started laughing to himself as Eva backed out of the room.
“Don’t worry,” Eva whispered to Arachne. She stroked the spider-demon lightly over her shirt. “We are not sending you back. Not while Zagan and Martina Turner are around. Even if that means we’ll have to deal with hunters.”
Arachne gave Eva a few slow taps on her right shoulder as they headed off towards their second class of the first day.
— — —
Des idly rubbed one of the lines of stitches running from her forehead to her ear. She nodded along as Professor Zoe started her talk about the treatment she was getting from her fellow students.
It wasn’t going to help. She’d heard this speech from teachers other than Professor Zoe before. Des had already resigned herself to being ‘freaky Des’ once again.
This time was different. This time she had a loyal companion. Hugo couldn’t betray her. Hugo couldn’t make fun of her.
So, Des smiled. She had at least one friend here. If her father was correct, she might even get a second.
“I am curious, Miss Des. What did you say to those girls?”
Des’ smile grew a few inches. “Oh! Those nice girls were just wondering why my eyes were different colors.”
She lifted her finger up to her right eye and carefully pressed her finger above her eyelid. Being extra careful–it wouldn’t do to crush another one, daddy had been angry enough the first time–she compressed it to one side so Professor Zoe could see the stitches.
“I showed them.”