Martina Tuner fought to keep a smile off her face as she looked out over the student body. A fight she came close to losing several times and she hadn’t started speaking yet.
Things couldn’t have gone better if she had planned them out herself.
The possibility of failure tempered her near overwhelming glee to more manageable levels.
Her speech needed to be perfect. She could delay for a few days to write out a proper speech for the situation. Unfortunately, that would give ample opportunity for rumors to spread and grow to the point of hyperbole.
The event happening in the evening helped curb the spread of information. Parents were sure to receive letters or phone calls, especially with the assembly, but they would be contacted with information Martina gave herself during the assembly.
“It has come to my attention,” Martina said, “that a large portion of the student body was present at an incident that occurred during Professor Kines’ combative training extracurricular. This incident raised nearly the same amount of concern from the student body in a single day as a horde of zombies did last Halloween. Many messages that reached my desk were, quite frankly, overblown hearsay from people not directly present. Nevertheless, after meeting with the staff, we decided to illuminate the entire student body as to what occurred and what that means for you.”
Martina paused and glanced over the students. They sat patiently, waiting for more words. Some carried hushed conversations with their neighbors; likely discussing the very topic Martina was getting to.
Others seemed entirely unconcerned with the goings on. The assembly hadn’t started long before the first bell rang, but some students looked ready to fall asleep in their seats.
So long as they kept that attitude when confronted with more supernatural elements, they wouldn’t need Zagan sicced on them.
“First and foremost: Brakket Magical Academy is and has always been open to anyone who wishes to learn. We do not discriminate against species, beings, races, creeds, colors, or magical affinities.
“We do not currently have any elves, goblins, and so on enrolled, but this is due more to them having their own magical education catered to the methods they use to perform their specific brands of magic.
“We do, however, have a number of students who are not fully human. They have chosen Brakket–and therefore, human methods of casting–for reasons that vary between the students.”
That got a few gasps from the students. Many started looking around as if knowing that would suddenly let them know who Martina spoke of. More than a few glances went in Eva’s direction.
The little nascent demon sat in a small bubble of her own; only her two roommates and two of her other friends sat near her. The other two of her friends seemed to be giving her a little space, though they were still closer than any other student.
“Don’t bother looking around,” Martina said after a moment. “If they don’t tell you, you likely will never know. Most of them have little to no secondary characteristics of other species. Those that do can hide them well enough that it won’t matter.
“At least one individual does have distinguishing characteristics, although this individual’s case is something of a special one. They were not born as they are now, merely altered into being at least part creature. The nuns we were… host to in recent memory failed in their only job and such an event came around. Any information beyond that is, I’m afraid, personal to the individual.”
Another pause. It was only tangentially the truth, but it was the truth that would best serve in the future. Besides, Martina wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to sling mud at the Elysium Order.
Eva didn’t look happy about it. She sat at a distance, but her grinding teeth were easily visible to her enhanced senses.
Tough for her. It would be better in the long run for her as well, even if that was only an untended side effect.
“This individual’s aforementioned distinguishing characteristics were unfortunately revealed in a public setting just last night. They were the indirect cause of all the concern that reached my desk. Rest assured that this individual is the same person who has attended Brakket Academy for the entire past year. Because you learned a new fact about them does not change who you’ve known for over a year now.
“Relevant staff have known since the incident occurred last November. Nothing has changed due to the events of the previous night.”
Martina stopped and waited. The students started speaking to one another louder than they had before. It took a scant few moments for them to return to their former, quiet state.
“I will once again reiterate that Brakket does not discriminate against any nonhuman heritage, acquired from guardians or otherwise. I, and the rest of the staff, expect all of our students to follow that policy.
“Any questions and concerns by students or their guardians regarding Brakket’s anti-discrimination policies should be forwarded to my secretary’s desk.”
Turning her voice to a more light-hearted tone, Martina said, “It is your first week back at Brakket–your first week period, for some of you. I’d just like to say, welcome. I hope you all had an energizing summer to prepare for this year’s schooling.
“There was going to be an announcement assembly sometime next week, however I think we can all appreciate condensing long, boring speeches down while I’ve got you here. I’ll skip over all the boring part so we can get on with our lives.”
Martina waited for the students’ forced chuckles to die down.
“The biggest announcement is the addition of Rex Zagan to the teaching staff. Many of you had his combative magic class yesterday while the rest of you will have him today. I encourage everyone to pay attention. He has had more experience fighting than any singular person I can think of.”
Light and scattered applause started amongst the students and staff as Zagan stood to give a suave bow. Probably from the students who hadn’t had his class yet.
“Aside from that, there are a number of policy changes regarding security practices at Brakket Academy. This is due, of course, to the frankly disgusting events that occurred last year.
“First and foremost, there is a curfew in effect. All students fourth year and below must be in their dorms by sundown.”
That caused an uproar. Students started arguing and shouting. For the life of her, Martina couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t like many of the city’s buildings stayed open long after dark–especially in the winter when students avoided going outside at all–and there wasn’t much else to do in Brakket city.
Students complaining for the sake of complaining or some perceived restraint on their ‘freedoms’ was the likely cause.
Martina held up her hands in an attempt to quiet the rowdy students. “You do not need to be in your assigned room, merely within the building. There are plenty of recreational and academic activities to pursue without leaving. If you have suggestions or complaints, please drop off a note with Catherine, my secretary. If you wish to speak in person, make an appointment with her. We’re willing to meet halfway on this, but for now the curfew stands.”
“Moving on,” Martina said before any additional interruptions could delay her speech. “Our school’s illustrious benefactor has seen fit to give me the ability to hire a number of full-time security personnel. While I hope nothing the likes of the previous year occurs again, I felt it prudent to go above and beyond for the safety of our students. I am still going through applications, but we should have a preliminary set of guards for the school by early October.
“Provided we have a sufficient security force, the aforementioned curfew will be relaxed for select locations on special events, such as Halloween.
“There are a handful of other, minor notices that I’ll spare you the details of. A notice will be posted on all information bulletin boards around Brakket campus by the end of the week containing a full list.
“With that said, welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy.”
The bell rang just as Martina stepped away from the podium. Perfect, she thought. It was a close one, but everything seemed to have gone well. Especially with the important part of her speech. She wasn’t worried much about the curfew issue; the students would forget or simply not care soon enough.
Her eyes caught the glowering gaze of Zoe Baxter as she turned from the stage. Unlike the other professors who all hurried off to their classes before the students could get there, Zoe got to her feet and marched straight up to Martina.
For a moment, Martina braced herself for a punch.
The punch never came.
“Could I speak with you for a moment? Privately.” Zoe’s jaw stayed clamped shut as she spoke and her lips pursed together even as the words somehow came out of the stern teacher’s mouth. It was a wonder Martina understood the woman at all.
Yet, understand she did. Martina sighed and said, “don’t you have a class to teach right now?”
“It is my seniors,” Zoe said. “They know how I run the class already and there are instructions on the board just in case I needed to speak with you, which I do.”
“Very well. My office then?”
Zoe reached out and gripped Martina’s arm. Before the dean could react, she flicked the dagger that somehow got into her hand.
The stage fell away to reveal white nothingness accompanied by a cooling of the air. It only lasted an instant before Martina’s office built itself up around the two.
Martina smacked the theory professor’s hand away from her arm. “I’ll thank you to never teleport me again. I am perfectly capable of moving under my own power.”
“What were you thinking?” Zoe asked as Martina made her way around her desk.
The dean unbuttoned the last few buttons of her shirt and draped it over the back of her chair before taking a seat.
Zoe continued, seemingly oblivious to Martina’s movements. “You essentially told everyone that Eva is a demon.”
Martina rested her elbows on her desk and steepled her fingers together. “I believe I used the words ‘individual’ and ‘creature’ but I–”
“Don’t give me that,” Zoe spat. “Not a single student doesn’t know who you were referring to. Even if none of the students can recognize a demon, someone will figure it out. Eva already mentioned concerns about that exact issue to me. I downplayed my own fear for her sake.
“But someone will figure it out and then it will spread to everyone else and then what? Even if all the demons that I have met are not mass murdering psychopaths, that doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same. Especially not parents. The word ‘demon’ carries some of the worst connotations for a magical creature in the entire English language. There is no possible–”
Martina held up a hand. She had other work to get done and letting the enraged professor continue wasn’t making any paperwork go away. Besides, she was doing the poor woman a favor. Zoe was turning a tad blue in the face from the lack of air she was getting through her diatribe.
“Professor Baxter–Zoe. I do not know what delusions you are operating under, but I am in no way advocating the ostracization of one of our students. Especially not young Miss Eva.”
“Oh no,” Zoe huffed, “you’re not advocating anything. You merely set up Eva so that all the students will be curious. They’ll dig until they find the answer. Then she’ll be ostracized on her own with no help from you.
“You could have simply said that she is a human that had limbs replaced as an experiment.”
“And lie to the rest of our students? I’m ashamed you’d think me so low.”
“It’s closer to the truth than the drivel you spouted.”
Martina quirked an eyebrow and found herself fighting another grin off of her face. Does she really not know?
“What’s done is done, Zoe. Rest assured I have no intention of seeing Miss Eva flee or be driven from our academy. Quite the opposite, in fact. I would very much like to see her stay at Brakket through her full schooling.”
Zoe’s lips pursed further into a thin line. “Why?”
“Miss Eva’s presence here sets a precedent. Even more so should her ‘heritage’ be discovered. All part of turning Brakket from its miserable state. Isn’t that a goal of yours?”
“Not if it involves ruining the lives of my students.”
“A transitional period. They will come to accept her for what she is and all will be the better for it. As we mentioned in our staff meeting: continue treating her like you have so far. The students will follow our lead.”
Zoe opened her mouth to say something, but appeared to change her mind. It snapped shut with an audible click of her teeth. She glared.
Martina didn’t mind so much, but she did have paperwork to get through. Fabricating histories and identities for several guards she intended to hire wouldn’t do itself, after all.
Dismissing Zoe with a wave of her hand, Martina pulled the first stack of papers in front of her.
Before she could put her pen to the paper, Zoe said, “why is Zagan a demon?”
“He is what he is,” Martina said without looking up. “Much like Eva is what she is, regardless of whether you accept her for that.”
“What I should have asked was, why is our combat instructor a demon?”
Martina glanced up with a smile. “Progress.”
Zoe’s frown turned into a scowl.
“And safety from big threats I suppose,” Martina said as she turned back to the papers. “The amount of humans who could actually match him in a fight can be counted on one hand. Of course, he can’t stay forever–far too volatile for that–hence hiring some new guards to deter threats.”
“I presume lone, rogue imps don’t count as big threats? I haven’t heard of any progress about that little incident.”
It was Martina’s turn to scowl. “Zagan has reported that no more demons have been summoned within the city since then. He has been fairly lackadaisical in actually investigating. Should anything threaten the academy itself, he will step in as per his contract.”
“It harmed a student of this academy.”
“Barely,” Martina half whispered as she signed off a form. The injured girl had been fixed up in only a few days under the care of Nurse Naranga.
She felt a sudden tinge of annoyance as she realized she had marked her signature in the wrong spot. “Do you not need to be getting to your class? It is the first class of the year. I would hate to have to fire one of the best theorists because she couldn’t teach properly.”
There was a small click of teeth again before a cold blast of air threatened to send a stack of papers to the floor. Martina held down the papers until the wind subsided.
Zoe was further into diablery than any other professor–Zagan aside for obvious reasons–but her temperament was far from a proper diabolist. Due to her connection with Eva, she’d dig further than any other professor as well into matters she should leave well enough alone. She’d need to come around or she would be replaced.
But, that could wait a while, Martina thought as she ran her fingers through her hair.
The new hires needed to come first.
— — —
Bradley Twillie paced in front of the zoo’s lecture room. He went on and on about mimics, seemingly ignoring the rest of the class.
Not a single person paid attention to him. If he cared, he didn’t show it. His lecture style hadn’t changed in the slightest since the previous year.
He didn’t glance overmuch in the direction of Eva, unlike everyone else.
Eva kept her head pointed at the front of the classroom. That didn’t stop her from being able to see everyone around her. Anytime she tilted her head in one direction or another, the students all faced forwards and did their best to make it look like they hadn’t been staring.
It was like November and December all over again, before the novelty of a blind girl able to move around without trouble had worn off. Rather than stare at Eva’s blindfold, their eyes were glued on her claws. Eva could only hope that the interest would wear off soon.
This time, the students weren’t looking on in curiosity. They had fear in their hearts–they beat faster whenever someone thought Eva might be glancing in their direction. The moment her head turned back towards the front of the classroom, the students’ gazes returned to her claws.
Claws that occasionally tapped against the desk in front of her. Each clack of her finger caused slight flinching in everyone around. Moving the claws through the air to grab a notebook out of her book bag caused anyone in the direction of motion to scoot even further away than they already sat.
At the very least, those reactions were amusing.
It was a strange feeling. Eva couldn’t help but feel naked. As her two roommates could attest to, she had no problem going without clothing. But without her gloves? Just being able to stretch her fingers to their fullest extent in front of others made her want to hide them beneath the desk.
Hiding was not an option.
If news that the blind girl had claws wasn’t already known to everyone, it would be by the day’s end. Hiding would only make people more afraid; they would end up with rampant speculation about what was under her gloves.
Hopefully they would find her claws to be less terrifying than whatever rumors would have gone around instead.
Eva jumped in her seat as Shalise poked her in the side. Her morose thoughts vanished as Bradley Twillie cleared his throat.
“I understand you have a lot to think about, Eva, but I would appreciate it if you would pay attention while in my class.”
“Sorry, Professor,” Eva said. She hung her head ever so slightly.
The professor pursed his lips before he said, “I asked: How would you identify a mimic from whatever object it is mimicking?”
A mimic would have blood flowing through it, Eva thought. That would be the first sign to her. Eva doubted that was the answer he was looking for. Bradley Twillie probably gave the answer at some point during his lecture.
Unfortunately, Eva had no idea what that answer was.
“Unless you already suspect a mimic to be around, it is unlikely you would be able to notice before you touched the object,” she said with a shrug. “The tedium of checking every single object you touch throughout your life for a mimic would lead to madness.
“Seelie fae are generally easy-going. It would be far more prudent to simply offer to channel some magic for the mimic to feed off of for a minute or two than worry over finding one.”
The professor scratched at his head under his hat before shaking his head in a somewhat disappointed manner. “That’s just asking for trouble,” he said with a shake of his head. “If you give a mouse a cookie,” he grumbled half under his breath.
A ring signaling the end of the class put a stop to Bradley Twillie’s mumblings.
“All of you should be able to answer the question by Thursday’s class,” he said as the students packed up. “We’ll have live specimens in class for you to observe.”
Eva packed her things lethargically compared to her classmates. Everyone else had alchemy next. Eva intended to use her free period to enjoy not being stared at constantly.
“Well,” Juliana said on their way out, “that certainly was something.”
“Tension was a bit thick. I thought a lynch mob was going to form by the end of class.”
“L-lynch mob?” Shalise squeaked.
“I can’t imagine that would end well for anyone,” Eva said softly with a pat to Arachne. Not that there was any danger of being overheard. A large bubble had formed around their group. Shelby and Jordan were the two closest but they were still hanging back with a very nervous Irene and a slightly less nervous Max.
“In any case,” Eva said, “I don’t think they were going to form a lynch mob. I get the feeling they were more afraid or creeped out than angry or hostile.”
“Watch your back. Just in case.”
“They’ll have a whole class period to discuss and calm down without me around at least.”
“What are you going to be doing?”
“Finding a room and having Arachne read me books.” There was a small squirm beneath Eva’s shirt when the spider-demon heard her name.
“In school? What if someone walks in? The claws are hard enough to explain.”
“We managed all last semester. There are plenty of empty rooms and students are all in class. We’ll be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“What about them?” Shalise asked with a not-so-subtle nod of her head towards Jordan’s group.
“Zoe advised me to tell them the truth–minus the ‘d’ word–given they already know about ‘Rach’ and are sure to make the connection, if they haven’t already.” Eva turned to face Juliana. “I was actually hoping your father could come up with some cover story for Arachne. She could be a magical creature instead of what she is.”
“Maybe,” Juliana hummed. “So long as he doesn’t find either of you to be objectionable.”
“We will be on our best behavior. Won’t we, Arachne.”
The spider-demon gave an almost hesitant tap against Eva’s right shoulder.
“Right. That’s what I thought. So,” Eva said with her first smile of the day, “he knows how to get to the prison?”
“Maybe Arachne should give him a ride.”