Wayne Lurcher had never been one for passive action. The very phrase was an oxymoron he couldn’t stand.
And yet here he sat, in a meeting room, listening to Rebbecca Halsey panic. The dean had called an emergency meeting to try to figure out what went on last night and what the damage was. If the senile woman had any clue, she would realize that no answers would be found in a meeting with the faculty.
Especially because the only one who might have any answers at all was absent.
He cast a sullen glance at the empty seat next to him. Zoe had gone off to a meeting of her own. He only hoped she knew what she was getting into.
Wayne didn’t trust Eva Spencer. He had a bad feeling in his gut when they met with the girl’s father. The feeling got worse when she ran away in the alley. Every time he had seen the girl outside of class and half the time when she was in class, his gut said there was something wrong.
The girl was trouble.
At least that meeting might be productive, Wayne thought as Yuria stuttered out a report of her actions last night.
Wayne ticked off two more students’ names as Yuria finished her report. Five students dead was five too many. At least with her report finished, all the students were accounted for. There wouldn’t be any more ticks on his list.
Townspeople were another matter.
Halsey would be relieved of her post, he was sure, if not imprisoned. Zoe had warned her about the zombies in the house, the suspicious characters wandering town, and even the crypt full of skeletons a few miles out-of-town. The old woman had done nothing, probably at the insistence of the slimy secretary standing just behind her.
Of course, he wasn’t wholly innocent in the matter. He knew the dean had done nothing. Could the kids have been saved if he had taken more drastic measures? Maybe. Maybe not.
“And Zoe’s report?” Halsey glanced at the empty seat next to Wayne. She lurched to her feet, one hand darting over her mouth. “Oh no, where is Zoe? She didn’t…”
“Baxter is fine,” Wayne said as he took to his feet. That the old bat didn’t notice her missing until just now made hackles rise on the back of his neck. “She is dealing with a couple of students, one of whom was injured last night.”
“Oh.” Halsey sat down, patting her chest and taking deep breaths. “That’s good. She’s with children then, are they alright?”
Wayne shifted his feet to one side. He didn’t want to come off looking uncomfortable, but this topic unsettled him. “Baxter and I were patrolling the same areas last night, I will supply the report for both of us.”
He started with the regular stuff, the same things all the other teachers mentioned. The routes they took, number of deceased redeceased, and if they knew anyone. He reluctantly mentioned the two students Zoe had been forced to dispatch.
Then he got to the more worrisome topic. Zoe asked him to leave Spencer’s name out of it. He would, but only out of respect for Zoe.
“A third-party intervened last night. They engaged the necromancers behind the incident, though did not manage to eliminate them. I do have descriptions,” Wayne passed around papers describing the men. “Baxter got them from said third-party while I tended to the aforementioned injured student.
“They were my main concern, you will have to get additional details on the third-party from Baxter herself at a later date.” He glanced around the room, daring any to request more details. Secretary Orgell looked like he wanted to speak, but he stayed silent.
“The injured student was Shalise Ward, first year, Rickenbacker three-one-three. She had injures consistent with being bitten by human teeth as well as several other injures. Before you go marking her off,” he said as a few of the instructors moved their pens to the sheets in front of them, “she is alive and well.
“I inspected the wound myself and found no trace of rot or infection.”
“Preposterous,” Twillie jumped to his feet, “there is no cure for a zombie bite.”
“That is what I said. However, the third-party insisted they had a potion to halt the effects. The other members of Rickenbacker three-one-three confirmed that Ward was bitten by a zombie and administered a potion soon after. Ward herself was regrettably, though understandably, unconscious.”
Wayne glared at Twillie until the man retook his seat. “Baxter is watching over her at the moment, just in case this ‘cure’ doesn’t take.”
Wayne retook his seat. Everyone continued staring at him. He didn’t blame them, but he’d said his piece. Wayne glanced at Kines and nodded for him to start his report. The last one of the meeting, thankfully.
Eventually, Kines took the hint. He had had a rather tame evening, being one of the ones assigned to watch over the dorms.
The meeting wrapped up shortly after. Halsey wanted to reconvene in twelve hours to decide future actions. In the meantime they were to speak with each of their students, check in on them and make sure they were alright. The parents of students who were ‘directly affected’ by the night’s events would be getting personal visits from Halsey during that time.
Wayne ignored that order. He had few students and had visited them all already. The closest any got to danger was Jordan and Maximilian. They had a run in with a small horde of zombies as they ran back to the dorms in search of friends. Jordan managed to hide the two of them with chaos magic.
Jordan was a point of pride for Wayne. The young boy showed remarkable bravery and talent for a thirteen year old. Most importantly, he was not a troublemaker unlike a certain other instructor’s students.
Rather than visiting his students again, Wayne elected to return to town and continue sweeping it for any remaining creatures.
The familiar wrongness of between almost overwhelmed his gut in the brief instant it took to appear in town. Getting Zoe to agree to learn that spell had taken months of prodding. When she finally relented and learned from him, she spilled her lunch the first several times. She had told him that she never intended to use it again.
Unfortunately for the both of them, its sheer utility outweighed the sickening sensation it caused.
Wayne walked down the street. He kept an ear out for anything unusual. He patrolled around, suppressing any lingering idle thoughts. Distractions could get him killed.
He froze at a movie theater. There was something off about the building. It looked right, no blood or displaced posters. But it bothered him. It bothered his gut.
Wayne growled and marched towards the building, tome at the ready. There would be zombies inside, stragglers from the night before. He was sure of it.
His gut told him so.
— — —
Shouts pierced the wall of Rickenbacker three-fifteen.
Irene pulled her covers over her head and tried to avoid eavesdropping. Even with the privacy enchantments on the rooms, such a task was near impossible today.
“Zoe says you have been afraid to leave your room for three days.”
“Zoe doesn’t know what she is talking about. The first day, I had an injured roommate I was looking after. The second day I went to the hospital with that injured roommate and stuck by them for most of the day. Today I decided to stick around the dorms since you were coming. I can see that was a mistake now.”
“Juliana Laura Rivas. Do not talk to me that way. Gather your things, we are leaving.”
They had been arguing for the better part of an hour. Pretty much from the moment Mrs. Rivas arrived. It had been silent at first, then their voices escalated. It triggered the safety systems in the enchantments to let distressed voices through–in case of an emergency in another room–and they hadn’t let up since.
Irene shut her eyes and desperately wished humans could shut their ears. Such a feature would certainly help with Shelby’s snoring.
She almost wished her mother had shown up to pull her out of the academy. Irene was the one who hadn’t left her room in three days. Sadly, her parents hadn’t come. Her parents originally wanted Shelby and herself to attend a different school. Since her father lost his job during government reorganization, the prospect was off the table.
Several other students were already home. The prospect of near free schooling was outweighed by unchecked hordes of zombies that the staff apparently knew about for months.
Irene doubted that claim.
While the zombies were scary, and she definitely did not wish to come across any, they weren’t her main concern at the moment.
Some Elysium Sisters arrived to investigate earlier in the morning. They were famous for being the most experienced organization in matters of undeath. They’d have whatever mess happened on Halloween cleaned up by the weekend.
Her issue was with the thing living in the neighboring room. Irene knew the ‘spider’ Eva had shown them wasn’t a real spider. She knew it. Every time she brought it up with Jordan, he would just hum and shrug with a smile.
He also knew it wasn’t normal.
He probably knew what it was.
If Jordan knew what it was, she definitely didn’t want to be near it.
Luckily for Irene, it had stayed out of sight for most of her time at Brakket. She’d only seen it once or twice during study sessions. Even then, it was mostly just the thing’s legs poking out of Eva’s shirt.
Until Halloween. It showed up, just glaring at them–at her–wearing human clothes. It took a few minutes, but Irene made the connection. Eva and Juliana’s reactions helped. Shalise, oddly enough, just looked confused.
Irene wished she could have seen Jordan’s reaction through his stupid shadow mask.
Shortly after, she made the excuse of being sick. Lucky too. Irene and Shelby arrived at the dorms before anything truly terrible happened.
It showing up at the same time as the zombies couldn’t have been a coincidence.
Still, Jordan acted nonchalant about the entire thing. He’d rushed to the dorms with Max and stayed with the twins over night. He was far more worried about the zombies. Even when Irene asked about the thing, he just shrugged and said it wasn’t his business as long as they stayed out of his affairs.
Max told his story of how the thing tore apart zombies with its bare hands.
That did nothing to make Irene feel better.
Irene peeked out of her covers at the empty room around her. It was only Shelby and herself in room three-fifteen and her other half wasn’t scared of leaving the room.
Shelby was afraid of the zombies, but decided the opportunity to hang off Jordan’s arm without Irene around was worth whatever fears she felt.
Irene sighed and put her back to the room. Hopefully things would make sense again when school started back up. She missed the routine and the learning.
Both were major stabilizers she needed right now.
— — —
The house Lynn Cross stood in front of looked much better than it had in the past.
The peeling paint had been replaced by a fresh coat of tan. Gone were the rickety stairs leading to the door. The door knocker looked new and the window didn’t have the large crack running down it.
Lynn gave the knocker a good three knocks and stepped back. Excited shouts brought a small smile to her face. A middle-aged woman opened the door a moment later.
Gabrielle Mendoza looked over her guest with surprise worn clearly on her face. “Sister Cross? We weren’t expecting you for a few weeks.”
“I apologize,” Lynn said with a slight bow, “I won’t be able to make our previous appointment. I was in town today and thought I might drop by. If it is inconvenient, I can go, of course.”
“No, no,” Gabriella waved her hand quickly and opened the door wide. “Please come in. The children would have my head if I turned you away.”
Lynn gave her a polite chuckle as she walked into the front hall. It wasn’t much of a hall, just a small room that was barely kept separate from the rest of the building by a low wall.
Three little heads peeked over that low wall. When they saw who walked in, excited cries of ‘Sister Cross’ squeaked out of them and they dashed around the small wall. One tried to climb over the barrier.
“Slow down there Tim,” Lynn said. She plucked him off the barrier with her gloved hands and dropped him on his feet, saving him a near head first fall. “I’m not going anywhere yet.”
“Did you bring us gifts?” Cody asked.
Lynn put on a fake pout. She knelt down and tapped his nose. “You haven’t seen me in a year and I don’t even get a hello?”
Cody had the good manners to look embarrassed and then he wrapped Lynn in a friendly hug. Tim and Lisa joined without a moment of hesitation. She returned the hug.
After disentangling herself from the three, they took a seat in the nearby sitting room. Lynn asked each of them how they were doing, if they needed anything, and other such general questions.
They talked quite excitedly about school and friends. Lynn entertained them for the hour. She liked children, especially these kids, but time was dragging on. She had a real reason to visit the group home aside from a social call with the three runts.
She waited for a lull in Lisa’s rapid fire speech about a painting she drew for school. When the lull came, Lynn tapped her forehead. “Silly me,” she said, “I forgot. I did bring you kids gifts.”
Lisa immediately forgot about her painting and joined the other two in trying not to look so eager. Well, joined Tim in trying not to look so eager. Cody made his excitement clear.
Lynn reached into the small bag she brought and withdrew three small boxes, each neatly wrapped with some simple but nice wrapping paper. “I know it is a tad late for Halloween and very early for Christmas, but if you promise to be good, you can have these.”
The three quickly agreed and Lynn handed them out. “Run along and play now,” she said with a smile. They thanked her and ran off into one of the children’s rooms to inspect their new bounties.
Gabriella chuckled lightly. “Thank you,” she said.
“It isn’t anything much.”
“It means a lot to them.”
Lynn just nodded. She packed up her bag and headed towards the door. There was one more thing she needed to do before leaving, but she didn’t want to raise the point. It might add unnecessary attention to both of the subjects.
Luckily, Gabriella spoke up first. “Before you go, would you mind visiting Shalise?”
With her carefully practiced ‘mild-surprise’ face on, Lynn said, “I thought she was up in Montana, schooling. Is it vacation time already.”
“There was…” Gabriella looked down, rubbing her hands together. “An accident. She won’t tell me the details, but about a week ago she shows up covered head to foot in bandages. She barely speaks and barely eats.”
Lynn frowned at that. She’d heard Shalise was injured. Bandaged head to toe seemed different from the report. Not eating definitely wasn’t in the report.
“I know you’re busy,” Gabriella said quickly, apparently taking Lynn’s failure to respond as hesitance. “It would mean a lot. To all of us.”
Lynn forced her frown into a small smile. “Of course, Gaby. She’s up in her room?”
The caretaker nodded.
Lynn took the stairs to the second floor. She stopped just outside the first door and knocked lightly.
No one responded.
“Shal? It’s Lynn.”
Undeterred, Lynn opened the door a small crack and peeked inside.
Shalise sat on her bed, propped up by a multitude of pillows. Stuffed animals covered every available inch of her bed, and much of the floor where several had been knocked off. The normally chipper girl would always pick them up and replace them on her bed. But they just lay there, abandoned.
The poor girl’s arm was up in a sling, bandages visible on the hand sticking out of it, or perhaps that was a cast; Lynn wasn’t sure. Her face had a deep red gash stretching from her nose to her ear. A bandage might have been there at one point, a bit of medical tape clung to her cheek. Her other hand rested in her lap, also wrapped in a bandage. If the lump under her blanket was anything to go by, she had a cast on as well.
Lynn felt a twisting in her heart as she looked at her girl. Her face was as blank as a corpse.
Shalise’s large brown eyes just stared dully out the window, half turned from the doorway. They were unfocused and didn’t seem to track to any movement outside. She didn’t spare a single glance towards the woman standing in the doorway.
Lynn had only a vague idea of what happened at that school. When the request for assistance came in from the school’s dean earlier in the week, they had sent a few cursory investigators. Preliminary reports were about rogue necromancers unleashing zombies on the town.
She’d hoped to get a few inside details from Shalise, but nothing warned her that it had been this bad.
Lynn stepped into the room and shut the door quietly. She discreetly pulled her wand from the holder on her back and put some simple privacy protections on the room. Anyone who even accidentally overheard anything would suddenly feel a need to be in the opposite end of the house.
With the protections in place, Lynn replaced her wand–Shalise being none the wiser–and moved to the empty chair beside Shalise’s bed. She placed a hand on the girl’s knee, confirming that she was wearing a cast. She slid her hand up to the girl’s thigh only to draw back at the girl’s shriek.
Stuffed animals went flying as she scrambled back against the pile of pillows. Shalise stared, wide-eyed and far more focused. It took a moment before recognition set in and Shalise slumped back against the pillows.
“Hey kiddo,” Lynn said. She offered a sad smile.
“Sister Cross. I thought I was going to die.”
Lynn wasn’t sure if she was talking about just now or back on Halloween. Possibly both. “I’ve told you, call me Lynn.” The stubborn girl just shook her head. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
They sat in silence for a minute. Lynn replacing her hand on the girl’s thigh seemed to set her off. She burst into tears and leaned into Lynn’s shoulder.
At least she didn’t pull away, Lynn thought as she patted the girl on her back.
Shalise started talking about her time at school. Learning magic, her roommate’s creepy pet spider, the teachers and how one of them named Yuria something–the poor girl let out a sudden sniffle as she said her last name–was her favorite, and on and on about her friends and roommates.
Then she got to Halloween, or the preparations for it. How Shalise agreed to go to a party despite her roommate’s apprehensions.
That was something Lynn wanted to follow-up on. Did they know something was going to happen?
She chose her costume and helped a friend choose one. She went over the party and her roommate dancing the most awkward dance she’d ever seen with some stranger.
Her voice was excited and animated, if a bit tear filled. The fun she had brought a small smile to Lynn’s lips.
Then she went silent.
“I don’t really know what happened after that. I was on the ground and in pain.”
She went silent again. Lynn gave her a light squeeze.
“I was attacked by a zombie. Then its head just exploded in front of me. All over me. That’s where I got most of my injuries.”
Lynn frowned at that. The reports didn’t mention she was attacked by a zombie. How she was even sitting in front of her had to be a miracle.
Shalise lifted up the arm in her sling. “Doctors say I might not be able to use my hand again, too much of the wiring… eaten. I’m lucky it doesn’t need to be amputated. When a magic doctor says you’re out of luck, you know you’re really out of luck.” She sighed. “My leg broke when I fell to the ground and the zombie landed on top of me. My other hand isn’t healing properly, though that injury saved my life so I suppose it is forgivable.”
Lynn quirked her eyebrow at that. “An injury saved your life?”
A brief grimace of panic crossed Shalise’s face before she settled back into her melancholic look. “I was supposed to tell all the doctors and teachers and anyone else who asked that a potion stopped me from becoming a zombie.”
“It was something else, then?”
Shalise brought her eyes to meet Lynn’s for the first time since she entered the room. She searched back and forth, looking for something.
Lynn couldn’t hide her disappointment when the girl dropped her eyes back to her lap, apparently not finding it.
“My friend said I’d get the person who saved me into a lot of trouble if I ever told what actually cured me. I think I owe her enough to stay silent.”
Lynn sighed at her reluctance. She couldn’t remember the last time Shalise kept something from her. That it was an injury that cured her spoke of black magic. She thought for a moment about asking Shalise to see the wound, but decided to let it be.
From the sound of it, Shalise knew this person, this ‘her,’ outside of whatever incident this was. Probably not a necromancer that grew a conscience. Someone who was at the club? A friend then.
Something to look into later.
“So what are you going to do now?”
Shalise just shook her head.
“You sounded like you were having fun, learning magic and being with your new friends.”
“I…” She leaned back and turned her gaze out the window. “I think I need time, for now.”
“I understand. Don’t take too long to decide, you’ll fall behind in class.”
When Shalise didn’t respond, Lynn stood up and ruffled the girl’s brown hair. “I have to go. In fact, I’m going to Brakket.”
Shalise’s eyes snapped over to Lynn. “You? Why?”
“Didn’t I ever tell you? The Elysium Sisters are necromancer hunters.”
Shalise’s eyes spread wide open. Lynn was quite sure she didn’t know that the order of nuns was even magical.
“They hurt a good friend of mine so I’ll be going personally to oversee the operations.” She fluffed up Shalise’s hair once again. “I have to make it safe if that good friend decides to go back to school.”