No one could say that Brakket Academy wasn’t welcoming towards its guests. Anderson had pulled out all the stops to make them feel as comfortable as possible even with all the demons wandering around. Though with his order for the demons to remain hidden, the only obvious demonic beings were Arachne and Eva.
After having her inhuman hands revealed in public, Eva had gotten her fair share of stares. Getting a few more was nothing special. And the meal was doing a decent job of distracting everyone.
A feast had been laid out for everyone. In typical Brakket Academy fashion, Eva couldn’t tell what most of it was. The mashed potatoes and roast were obvious. That is where the food she was familiar with ended.
An orange soup that smelled of lilacs seemed to be favored by one of the schools, though nobody Eva was sitting with had touched it. Perhaps it was a local delicacy of some sort. There was a thick, almost honey-like drink for everyone to partake of. Though it wasn’t sweet like honey. Rather, it had a taste not unlike that of lightly salted butter.
Eva had taken a single sip and decided that between the thickness and taste, that one sip had been more than enough for the rest of her life. Which, assuming all went well, would be practically forever. Luckily the feast had water available as well. Something Eva was much happier with.
Still, the students from another school were guzzling it down by the glass, making Eva wonder if it hadn’t been laid out specifically for them. Each school seemed to have some odd food that they favored over the others.
The thought had Eva’s mind running off on a tangent. She had never actually met the cooks at the school. With all the weird stuff they served for lunches, Eva wondered if they were even human.
But, that was just a tangent. She shook her head and went back to inspecting the new arrivals.
They were staring at her. She would stare right back.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t stare at one of them for even half as long as they stared at her. Luckily, she didn’t have to. As soon as her eyes met with someone else’s, they would always look away first. Usually in the first second and with a slight jump of shock.
Once or twice, when faced with a student who didn’t look away fast enough, she would even smile at them.
While amusing herself with making everyone uncomfortable, there wasn’t all that much to look at. Not everyone was human, but none particularly stood out to Eva as they ate. Well, except for the woman apparently made of wood and leaves over at one of the tables. So far, that woman hadn’t even looked to Eva. Aside from that, small talk was made, often with points or gestures in her direction. In fact, few people actually seemed to be eating, focusing more on the talking.
Not really surprising.
Well, almost nobody stood out. There were a few she was suspicious about. A group of twenty students from one of the schools in particular.
There were only supposed to be ten contenders, but apparently the other schools had been welcome to bring friends or family. Or maybe just spectators that had wanted to come.
Eva didn’t really care. She hadn’t paid any attention when the schools were being announced. Her interest in the event amounted to how much she could avoid participating while still participating enough.
Not paying attention was coming back to bite her at the moment. Two members of that school had something unusual about them. Each had an eye-like object implanted right around their sternum.
Leaning over past Shelby, she tapped Jordan on the shoulder. “Which school was that group from?” she asked with a nod of her head in the direction. He should know, he was the dean’s son after all.
“Isomer Holy Academy. A school for thaumaturgy from where the Elysium Order gets most of their recruits.”
Eva slowly nodded as she glanced back to the two girls a table and a half away.
The two immediately locked eyes with her, not flinching away in the slightest.
“They’re nuns in training,” Eva murmured with a groan. She really did not want to deal with some half-baked nuns out for revenge because of her various humiliations of the Elysium Order.
Nobody had even died last time save for Arachne, and she returned the stupid obelisk. They should just get over themselves already. Eva wasn’t even holding that big of a grudge for them killing Arachne—it was mostly her own fault for assaulting them, even if she hadn’t had much of a choice at the time.
But maybe they didn’t even know about that. Would the higher-ups in the order have told two lowly recruits? They were probably the freshest of all the nuns, given that they were still in school.
Maybe they just hated her because she wasn’t human.
The rest of the students looked hostile, but not quite to the level of the relentless glare that those two nascent nuns were giving Eva. Most glanced away as soon as Eva looked at them.
Oddly enough, the two adults with that school—the headmaster and some other authoritative chaperon—were looking more uncomfortable than angry. Both sat up with the rest of the visitors, professors, and the dean, quietly talking to each other as they ate. Neither had eyes implanted in their chests. They were, to the best of Eva’s ability to detect, two perfectly normal humans.
The Elysium Order must employ regular humans as professors and staff.
“I’m surprised they bothered to come at all,” Eva said, glancing back to Jordan.
“The Elysium Order isn’t currently operating in North America, but they didn’t shut down the school. It is, after all, just a regular school for mages. As for actually showing up,” he paused with a shrug. “Maybe they wanted to keep an eye on you. Or us.”
“As long as that’s all they’re doing.”
Eva shrugged her shoulders, breaking eye contact with the nearly-nuns. Technically, she looked away first. It wasn’t that big of a deal to her though.
Besides, she was in much too good of a mood to have it ruined by a few sticks in the mud.
She had been practicing her warding. Right over her own plate of half-finished half-pushed-around food was a small bubble. A ward she had been toying with. It let her hands pass through and it let food out—when she deigned to take a bite—yet the few droplets of water that she flicked over the ward hit it, stopped, and ran down the side to pool on the tablecloth.
Eva grinned for a moment before clamping down on her expressions. While she had flashed a brief smile at a few of the students just to make them uncomfortable, she really wasn’t interested in being known as the girl who sat around playing with her food and smiling at it.
Not only that, but this ward still had problems. She had a feeling that snow would pass through without trouble. The potatoes had a good amount of moisture in them and they went through without trouble. Of course, it couldn’t be completely impermeable to water. Humans were basically bags of the liquid.
Which was probably why so many of her failures were completely impassable, now that she thought about it.
Though pleased with her current success, the situation as a whole was frustrating enough that Eva was actually thinking about seeking help. Weather wards weren’t exactly uncommon, so it wasn’t like she was trying to invent a whole new branch of magic. She wanted someone to straight up teach her how to make one or just do it for her. Probably the former as the latter would require bringing someone else out to what was obviously a ritual site.
Luckily, it just so happened that Eva had a teacher who was supposed to teach her these kinds of things. While weather warding wasn’t on the schedule for another few months yet, she might be able to ask about it in an extracurricular fashion.
Glancing up to the table, Eva watched Professor Lepus for a moment. She, as always, had her hair tied up in a ribbon that pointed straight up, resembling the ears of a rabbit. Unlike most of her coworkers, she wasn’t talking to anyone. Her fork ran through her food, pushing it around much as Eva did when killing time waiting for others to finish.
Lepus never really struck Eva as very unsociable. She spoke well in class and never so much as stuttered. But those were all prepared lessons. Maybe she suffered when forced to interact in more improvisational situations.
Eva considered playing a brief prank on her. Just a little thing to get her attention and maybe signal that she wanted to talk later. All the professors had office hours extending beyond the regular school day, so she could just walk in without any sort of appointment. But still, she was growing increasingly bored of this feast.
Just as she was about to attempt a long-range ward around the professor’s food, blocking all access to the plate, Eva caught a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye.
All thoughts of her warding professor were lost as Eva scanned the room. She used both her eyes and her sense of blood to pick out anything unusual. Perhaps a suspicious insect buzzing around or someone not where they were supposed to be.
Especially towards another school’s table where the flicker looked like it had been heading towards.
After staring for a moment and finding herself unable to locate any real threat, she glanced back to Jordan.
“Nod Complex for the Supernatural,” he said, preempting her question. “The only school in America that openly accepts non-human students. Aside from Brakket I suppose.”
As soon as he said that, Eva turned back to the table and started paying attention more to their insides than their outsides. Now that she was actually looking, she quickly found a few problems. One of the boys had a tumor growing in the rough shape of a third lung.
Actually, on closer staring, Eva decided that it was a third lung.
A few of them were obviously plain and ordinary humans. The others, she wasn’t so sure about. One girl’s heart was beating faster than a frightened rabbit’s. While she could be simply scared of knowing that demons and nuns were about, Eva found it far more likely that she wasn’t human. Three more were elves, only really noticeable because of their ears.
One boy, slightly older looking than the rest of them, actually waved when Eva turned her attention to him.
She couldn’t understand how she could have missed him before. Perhaps she had just been distracted with the nuns.
His heart wasn’t beating and his blood wasn’t pumping. While not as deathly pale as Serena, he was still a vampire.
Slowly and without making a single expression on her face, Eva turned her head to look back at the Isomer table.
The two nuns were still staring straight at her. If they had noticed the vampire, they were being extremely subtle about it.
And they didn’t have a single subtle bone in their bodies based on how they were staring at Eva.
Just as slowly as she had looked away from the vampire, Eva turned to face nothing in particular. She stayed staring at nothing for a few moments before finally speaking in a hushed tone of voice.
This was supposed to be a serious yet somewhat friendly competition. Yet with those nun trainees, Eva had a feeling that there would be a good amount of blood spilled by the end of it. Either theirs or the vampire’s.
Not Eva’s blood. Well, not unless she was using her blood magic for some reason. But she intended to be the one spilling blood if it came down to it.
“Hypothetically, can vampires even learn thaumaturgy?”
Her friends were silent for a few moments before Shelby shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “By all accounts and Professor Bradley’s personal testimony, they’re magical beings. Thaumaturgy isn’t exactly human exclusive. Elves have been known to learn it on a fairly frequent basis.”
Eva blinked at the information before remembering where it came from. Shelby was taking Bradley Twillie’s magizoology elective.
“That makes sense. Though, they do have their own magics, don’t they? Things that normal humans wouldn’t be able to learn.”
“Yes, I believe so. Exactly what they can do varies by strain. Why do you ask?”
“Oh. No reason. Just a thought that popped into my head.”
She might have to ask Serena about vampire specific magic later on and whether or not there was a way to tell what strain the vampire was. She found herself wondering just how old the vampire was and for how long he had been a vampire. And, perhaps more importantly, just how he was to compete.
Serena had needed a full winter regalia including an umbrella and heavily mirrored skiing goggles just to watch her treatment early on in the summer. Unless all the events were at night—which wouldn’t surprise Eva—the vampire might stick out like a sore thumb if he tried the same.
But the vampire was several leagues above normal humans. Probably on par with some average demons, based on observations she had seen of Serena fighting. He would be a threat to everyone even if he couldn’t do any thaumaturgy.
It seemed like the Nod Complex was stacking their deck just as much as Brakket was. She didn’t know what the other non-humans brought to the table, but they probably had their own advantages.
Actually, Isomer was cheating as well. The two with the eye implants could probably do the white magic of the Elysium Order. And then there was the connection thing that gave them a sort of hive-mind while connected—or something, she might need to ask Nel again.
No wonder Brakket had never been able to compete before.
It made Eva curious enough to start scrutinizing the other schools a bit more in-depth. They were probably cheating as well. Maybe they had brought literal dragons shoved into human skin as their contenders.
Before she could, Anderson got to his feet. The quiet murmurs died off almost completely as he cleared his throat at the head of the center table.
“Looks like most everyone is done eating,” he said as he cast a slow gaze around the room. “If you are still eating, don’t worry. There are no further events planned for tonight so you may consume and mingle until there is nothing left.
“However, there are a few announcements to be made and they should be made before we disperse for the evening. First, living accommodations. Isomer and Faultline academies will be housed in the Gillet dormitory building. For reference, when facing the dorms with your back to the main school building, that is the building on the right. You’ll be on the second floor. Your rooms should have your names posted on the doors.”
Eva let out a small sigh. That was good news. She really didn’t want Isomer or its nuns to be in her building if at all possible. Maybe it would be a good idea to just sleep over at the prison for the foreseeable future.
“The Rickenbacker—which is opposite of the Gillet—will be housing the students from Mount Hope and the Nod Complex. You can find your rooms on the third floor.”
Which had Eva groaning.
While her blood might be a bit ‘sugary’ for Serena’s tastes, that didn’t mean that she was an unattractive blood bag to other vampires. And then there was everyone else in the dorms. Since Eva only knew that he was a vampire because of her ability to sense blood, she highly doubted that anyone else knew.
If he lived with the other students at the Nod Complex, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal. He probably had an agreement with one of the other students or a professor to give him a food supply. Honestly, she should probably be more worried about Serena deciding to snack on students than him.
Especially given that she had already drank at least one student’s blood on Eva’s recommendation.
“But,” Anderson said, “living accommodations are not the most exciting of events. Luckily, we have far more interesting things planned than where you all will be sleeping. I’d like to invite up someone many of you probably already know.” He took a step back, gesturing to his side. “Director of the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights, Wallace Redford.”
Eva blinked. She really was not being half as attentive as she should be. She hadn’t even noticed the older man up among the professors. Not having seen him since the start of the school year, she had almost forgotten that he even existed.
He was seated just as all the professors were, facing the students. Next to him, a woman with golden-yellow hair sat to his side with her eyes closed. Though she appeared to be asleep judging by her face alone, she was sitting upright in her seat. Eva could tell through her sense of blood that her body was as active as any other conscious person.
But there was something off. Eva couldn’t quite place what it was. Everyone had their individual characteristics in their circulatory systems. To liken them to fingerprints would not be an exaggeration. If anything, it would be an understatement.
So everybody was different. But she was differenter. Perhaps not human? But human enough that Eva couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong.
But, if she was up there with Redford and the professors, she was probably not a dangerous person. At least, not towards the students or staff.
So Eva ignored it as Redford began moving.
A loud click echoed throughout the gymnasium as his cane tapped into the ground, silencing the hushed murmurs that had started up upon his name being announced. A scowl on Redford’s face slowly deepened as he got up and moved to the front of the stage alongside Anderson.
He looked out over the assembled students, looking from table to table. After scanning the entire room, he took a deep breath.
“Honorable combat,” he said, “is a fantasy. A byword for stupidity, should you believe in such a thing. In the real world, entering combat with a bow and a hope for a good fight will get you killed before you can even right yourself.”
Again he paused to glance around, though his eyes never seemed to settle on any one person.
“You may have heard that phrase before. ‘In the real world’ things are different. I’m here to tell you that they aren’t. Or, to be more accurate, you live in the real world. People, especially those up here on stage with me, have a stake in the victor. Brakket Academy wishes to elevate its reputation. The others would find losing to them to be an embarrassment.”
Anderson, standing just to the side and slightly behind Wallace, didn’t flinch in the slightest. He had an almost genuine-looking showman’s smile on his face.
“I was asked to tailor events in such as way that they might be fair to all five schools. A fascinating problem. One I considered for a great deal of time. I knew without a doubt that all five schools would attempt to gain unfair advantages. To cheat, in simpler terms. Some more obviously than others,” he said with a glance towards a still smiling Anderson.
But Anderson’s face was far from the most interesting expression.
The headmasters and chaperons of the other schools, formerly listening politely with either happy or neutral expressions, all took an immediate downturn as Wallace spoke. The headmaster of Isomer actually started turning red in the face in spite of the fact that his cheating was far more obvious to Eva’s eyes than any other school.
Well, save for the vampire with the Nod Complex.
“And then, it came to my attention that it was custom for the schoolmasters to act as moderators and judges.” Casting his gaze to his feet, he shook his head. “This will not do.”
Much as Anderson had done when he introduced Wallace, Wallace waved his own hand to the side. Except his hand held a cane. One that pointed at a small gathering of people who had been sitting with him, though slightly away from the woman. None looked particularly pleased to be singled out.
More than one wasn’t even paying attention, choosing instead to stare at Eva.
“I have invited a special group of judges. Five people who have absolutely no stake in any of the participating schools. Five people whose identities I have kept secret for the past few months to avoid any bribing or threatening.” He turned, putting his back towards the students to face the professors, headmasters, deans, and other adults. “Speaking with them outside of an official capacity in public is grounds for forfeiture.”
None of the adults really reacted. Not like they had when he mentioned that they were cheating. They had probably been informed of this beforehand—and likely agreed to it in the first place—and he was just making the statement public.
“They are mundanes,” he said, spinning back around to face the student body. “Incapable of magic. I expect them all to be treated with just as much respect and–”
“This is an outrage!” The Isomer headmaster jumped to his feet, face red and bulging as if it were about to burst. “You cannot bring mundanes into a magical school–”
“In my school, Headmaster Drosselmeyer, I decide who is welcome and who is not.” Anderson said, turning to face the outspoken headmaster. His smile was still on his face. However, something was slightly off about it. The way the corners of his lips rose made it look all the more predatory. “You already agreed to allow Wallace to choose the judges. So, unless you wish to forfeit…”
Drosselmeyer puckered his lips as he glanced to the other school heads. None seemed ready to jump to his support. With one last glare towards Anderson, he retook his seat.
“Good,” Anderson said. “We are all… sapient beings. I would have hated to announce that one of our illustrious schools withdrew on the grounds of classism. Our viewers might have found that distasteful.”
“Viewers?” Drosselmeyer asked in a far more subdued tone of voice.
“Of course! I forgot to mention that detail. If you don’t mind, Wallace.”
The leader of the Guild glared at him as if to ask why he couldn’t have waited just five more minutes. “Go right ahead,” he said through loosely clenched teeth.
“As you’re well aware,” Anderson said as he moved up to address the students. He kept his body slightly angled to keep the schoolmasters in view. “Brakket Academy has been under observation by the mundane news media, mostly because of our beautiful sky.”
Eva took a moment to roll her eyes.
“A few pillars of light in the past month renewed their interest. Rather than keeping them at arm’s length while such an event was going on, I decided to invite them in to observe. We’ve kept ourselves mysterious and hidden from mundanes despite them knowing about us for years. For too long. As such, I am pleased to announce that for the first time ever, the Interscholastic Competency Competition will be aired live over mundane news networks.”
Silence reigned over the gymnasium.
For about ten seconds.
Students and adults alike both burst into chatter. It grew loud enough that Eva could barely hear herself think. She couldn’t even pick out a single conversation to listen in. At least, not outside her table.
Shelby was poking Jordan in the side, asking if he knew about that bombshell. Juliana shrugged her shoulders while Shalise just sighed, saying something about her mother that Eva couldn’t quite catch with all the noise.
Eva wasn’t entirely sure what to think about it. She would have to take even more care not to be seen using blood magic. Not that she was planning on it during the actual events. However, if there were cameras around at other times, all it would take would be one nosy journalist sneaking through the Infinite Courtyard at the wrong time.
Three loud clicks echoed over the noise. They were loud enough to be almost deafening. Wallace must have some sort of enchantment on his cane.
“You’re all distracted, so I’ll skip over much of my speech. The first event will be next Saturday. Each school is to select three of its ten competitors.”
There was a bit of murmuring among the students at that proclamation. It died off with a glance from Wallace to the loudest group of students—those from the Faultline school, if Eva wasn’t mistaken.
“These three will not be allowed to participate in the second event, so choose wisely. Perhaps you’ll wish to select your top three students, or maybe save some of your best for the following event. The choice is yours. Further information will be given on the day of the event.”
He gave one last look around the room before turning and retaking his seat.
“Exciting, exciting,” Anderson said, his smile once again fit for a salesman. “Now, feel free to continue mingling or to disperse to your dormitories. The evening is yours to do with as you wish.”