Twenty-five Minutes to Midnight
We had been transported to an open lobby that was crowded with students, all awaiting the arrival of freshmen. The noisy group of teenagers fell into whispers as they studied us.
Well, as they studied me–I could hear a few of them saying things like, “Is that the de Ardo witch?” And, “Holy shit, I think that’s Val’s little sister!”
Closest to me was a cute girl with flaming red curls pulled over her right shoulder. She was the one who had giggled, and she stood before her own mirror, her eyes a sparkling blue.
“I thought I was the only one worried I’d get it wrong!” She flashed me a stunning smile, and I caught a glimpse of fangs.
The Haunter nodded, holding out her hand. “I’m Teagan! Or just Tea for short–which is super weird, ’cause I hate tea. Wait, no, I like iced tea–but only sweet tea. Like, super sweet. And I guess hate is kind of a strong word, but how can anyone drink anything so bitter–?”
The look on my face must have been similar to a deer in headlights awaiting death, because Teagan gave me an apologetic smile. “Sorry. When I get nervous I can’t shut up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I smiled, hoping my emotions came off as genuine. It wasn’t like I couldn’t empathize, I just wasn’t much of a talker. I shook her hand and introduced myself. “I’m nervous too. Cari, freshman witch.”
A small group of students emerged from the crowd, presumably guides greeting their assigned students. Axel gestured for two of them to join us, the biggest smile on his lips. Both were witches; one was almost Axel’s height and had cinnamon-colored hair pulled back in a French braid, her hazel eyes wide as she linked arms with the other Enchanter and met us a short ways away from the portals. The other towered over her, their shoulder-length waves and soft smile contrasting their anchored mustache and lean arms.
“Cari, these are my friends. Sage Bloodworth, a junior–” The silver-haired witch gave me a small wave, their eyes darting between my face and Axel’s lips. “And Gal, a sophomore. She’s going to be your Academy guide.”
“Technically I’m only your guide for the semester, um, but you can come to me even after that if you have any questions!” Gal laughed, waving off Axel’s introduction. She extended her hand out awkwardly, and I took it in the same manner. “Galiana Franco, here to guide you! Um, not that you really need guidance–your brother is like a genius so us Enchanters are dying to see how you–“
Axel glared at her, and she cleared her throat and recovered with, “S-so do you go by Caricia or…? I’ve heard Ax call you Cari. Oh–unless that’s not cool? Like, if I call you that?”
Oh goddess, how many nervous talkers are there at this damn school? I considered letting Axel do all the talking, but taking a backseat would get me nowhere. You’re the head witch of the De Ardo Coven at AOA, I reminded myself. It doesn’t matter that you’re a freshman, or fourteen, or anti-social. You need to be everything that Val was too distracted to be. Besides, these are Axel’s friends–they can’t be that bad.
Hand still held captive by Galiana’s nerves, I threw her a little smile and said, “You can call me Cari, it’s what my friends call me. Can I call you Gal?”
Gal’s eyes nearly popped out of her head as she fought to find words. I wasn’t totally sure, but it sounded like she was caught between “friends” and “fuck.” “F-f-f-fyes! Oh my Goddess, please do!” She shook my hand vigorously before finally releasing me from her grasp.
It was about that time when I noticed that Teagan had been pulled away by another vampire. His straight mahogany hair was pulled into a braid over his left shoulder, and his piercing brown eyes darted between Axel and myself as he spoke to her in a tone too low for his words to register to my ears.
However, Axel’s heightened senses allowed him to hear the other vampire. He snorted, his upper lip curled in disgust. “Whatever, Jude.”
Then the Haunter caught our puzzled looks and shook his head, dismissing our unspoken questions. “Later, at Middy. Besides, Gal should be taking you to homeroom.”
“Wait–does that mean I can’t grab an iced coffee?” I whispered, catching as Sage’s juniper eyes remained on my lips as I spoke.
“Don’t worry, we have time to grab drinks!” Galiana assured me, her bright smile reaching her taupe eyes. She was so uplifting, she made me want to smile, too. “We’ve got, like, twenty minutes before the first bell rings. The cafe’s iced coffee selection is to die for! And if you’re hungry, they also offer some breakfast foods–”
Sage tugged on the sleeve of her jacket, a hint of amusement in their eyes as they gestured behind us. Ax, Gal and I followed their gesture back to the crowd of students who were freshmen-watching. I couldn’t tell who we were looking at, but Galiana spun back around, her eyes as wide as her panicked attempt at a smile.
“Hey! You know, you’re probably super hungry, so let’s get you to the breakfast booth, ‘kay?” She then mouthed, “thank you,” to her friend, who shook their head in a dismissive fashion.
I followed Axel and his friends away from the portals, and we had just entered a wide corridor when I remembered something I had to do. Something important.
“Guys, wait–I have to skip out on breakfast tonight. I’m supposed to meet with the rest of my coven.”
I watched as all three of them exchanged wary glances. Sage seemed to be silently insisting that Axel say something to me, while Galiana fidgeted between them.
“See, the thing is,” she began, wringing her fingers. “Freshmen Enchanters are normally assigned to an upperclassman from, you know, their own coven. A-And the De Ardo Coven is notorious for taking on freshmen, regardless of their family name… Uh, and so, when our headmistress called me last week and insisted that I be your guide–you know, rumors spread fast in a high school, and that’s probably all that it is! Just a rumor–”
“Gal.” I cut her off, straining to keep my emotions in check. I felt like a steam engine about to blow–I was under far too much pressure to pretend like everything was fine. “I don’t care that you’re not from my coven, or even from a head family–but if you’re going to guide me, then I expect total honesty. What’s the rumor about me?”
Her shoulders were tense as she swiftly relayed in a single breath: “All the witch covens are saying that every single De Ardo upperclassman that was assigned to be your guide refused the position because the other families in your coven are trying to oust you since–”
“Since I’m not the heir,” I completed her thought, allowing my guide the chance to catch her breath. I crossed my arms over my abdomen, hugging myself as I took in the news. My own coven doesn’t even want me.
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