Twenty-two Minutes to Midnight
The four of us stood in strained reticence off to one side of the corridor. Groups of students strolled by, throwing inquisitive stares as they passed. Sage and Axel glared at every one of them, intimidating each onlooker until they continued to their destination. Galiana had one of her hands on my shoulder, and I felt her squeeze softly as she tried to comfort me.
If any of them spoke, I couldn’t have bothered to care. My first night at the Academy, and I’m already light-years behind my brother.
Nanny’s words from earlier that night echoed in my mind: “It’s not a race, love. You need to move forward at your own pace.”
Galiana said something about getting breakfast. My head seemed to bob on its own, consenting to share a quick meal without any conscious thought. I felt my feet lift and fall, carrying me as I trudged along behind my guide and her friend. They were a meter or so ahead of me–close enough that I could tell they were having a conversation in hushed voices, but just far enough that I couldn’t make out any words. I was about to wonder where Axel was when his elbow nudged my upper arm.
“You gonna be mopey over those arrogant assholes all night?”
I sighed. “Leave me alone, Ax. I need time to think.”
Then I noticed the plume of white smoke coming from his direction, and my head shot up as I confirmed my suspicions. In his hands was a slim black vape pen; one end mere centimeters from his lips as he paused from his vice to cock an eyebrow at my dropped jaw. “What?”
I knew what I should have said–that he was irresponsible, that he had brought a prohibited device through the portal, that we could all get in trouble for his actions–instead, I took a moment to compose my expression and read the room.
No one’s stopped him so far to confiscate it… A dimple formed above the bridge of my nose as I realized why. There are no professors on this level. And none of the students care enough to snitch on one person because that could ruin this brief moment without supervision for all of them. So I don’t need to worry over something that’s obviously not a big deal to everyone else. Not to mention that if he did get caught, AOA guidelines dictate that only the offending students can be punished for breaking the rules. There’s no such thing as “guilty by association” here unless the violation is for something serious like bullying or harassment.
I completed my mental sidebar with a sigh. “Nothing. Does this mean you’re quitting?”
He shrugged, nodding to a mummy and a ghost in turn as we neared the end of the corridor. “I haven’t decided yet.”
I scoffed. Axel was the most stubborn guy I knew–there was no way he would kick cigarettes without an ulterior motive. Probably the same reason he’s had me help him with his homework… My eyes darted over to Sage, who was using both hands to gesture to Galiana. And the reason he’s asked for BSL lessons. “So? Will I get to meet more of your friends?”
“Only if you don’t embarrass me, kid.” Axel took another long puff off his pen and held his breath, offering the pen to me. My eyes narrowed.
“Really? You’re getting high on the first night of school?”
“It helps me relax.” He practically wheezed the words out in an attempt to keep his breath held.
“You’re full of shit–you’re undead, Ax. It doesn’t even affect you all that much.”
Our eyes met as he exhaled, and I caught the flash of red that appeared and almost immediately dissipated from his irises. “It will if you smoke and let me have a sip.”
He snickered as I rolled my eyes. “Goddess, you’re such a stereotype. Are you like this with your Academy friends, or are people here as annoyed with you as I am?”
Axel shrugged again, his plump lips forming a smirk. “Depends on the friend. Speaking of…”
We had caught up to Gal and Sage at the end of the corridor. The vampire paused physically as well as verbally, his icy eyes studying the sea of students that were blocking the path. As far as I could tell, they were all witches–and they were all watching me.
I fought the rising panic within me as I recognized several of them from DarkScene. Lenora Hollingsworth, Gunnar Naismith, Arabela Luna, Gerardo Serafim, Renette De Mortie, Izayah Hawkins, Rosa Zaldivar–those are the heads of the most influential witch covens at AOA!
Then I noticed three of the witches who stood with them, and my heart dropped. Wihnhilda Nurse had taken over as head of the De Ardo Coven after Val’s graduation, and it was expected that she would pass the torch to me once I began. Huddled behind her were Madalynn Blake and Rafael Solart, two other upperclassmen from our coven.
All standing around, blocking the incoming traffic from the portals. All making it very obvious that they were watching me, waiting to see how I would react.
I could imagine the death glare Axel was giving them, and I wondered how I looked to them. An unwanted freshman grouped together with other teens who were already established as outcasts.
Axel was a late bloomer, as far as vampires went–most spent the first one hundred and fifty years of their undead life undergoing a blood trial, in which they learn to tame their bloodlust. My friend had relapsed a couple times in the past–long before I was born, he used to say–but that meant that he was accepted into the Academy at the uncommon age of one hundred and seventy-three. Vampires are keen on accomplishing great feats in a short span of time, and value self control above aggression.
Sage was the heir of the infamous Bloodworth Coven, but they were the only member of their family enrolled at the Academy. This meant they missed out on many opportunities, such as creating covenants with other witches and leading charges, or other witches. They were also hearing impaired and relied on sign language and lip reading, which unfortunately not many teenagers know. I had no doubt they had spent the majority of their tenure alone.
And Galiana–well, let’s just say that Gerardo Serafim, the head of her coven, is renowned for his pigheadedness. I could already tell by the way she clung to Sage’s side and avoided Gerardo’s pompous gaze that he had caused her some trouble in the past.
My blood boiled at the thought. No. Axel is my friend–Sage and Gal are my friends now, too. We are not nobodies.
With that, I took Axel’s hand in mine and gripped tightly, hoping to steal just a sliver of his strength. He glanced back at me with raised eyebrows, surprised as I threw the congregation of witches a warm smile.
“Wihn, hi! Sorry, I can’t make the gathering before class starts. My friends are taking me to grab some coffee.”
Wihnhilda’s hazel eyes wavered slightly as she met my steady gaze. “Oh! Uh, that’s fine. We were just going to skip the whole ‘gathering’ tradition thing anyway.” Rafael averted his eyes to avoid meeting mine, and Madalynn visibly gulped as Wihnhilda spoke.
I fought the scoff that tried to escape my throat. So this is why they don’t want me around–they think I’ll tell Mami about them slacking. “Cool. Fuck tradition. I’ll see you guys around, probably.”
I was already leading Axel through the witch blockade as I spoke, so by the time we had exited the corridor Wihnhilda had delivered her quiet response. “Uh, c-cool. See ya.”
The wide corridor had led to a second lobby; this one was double the length of the first, nearly a hundred and fifty meters. Benches and dining tables for small parties were littered about, several of which were occupied by chattering students. The entire west wall was overtaken by booths catering to every culinary desire and dietary need I could think of–bottled blood, seared flesh, pure human hearts…
Just kidding. None of us eat human hearts. The blood and flesh, however, is not a joke–Haunters have to eat, too. And in spite of every horrendous rumor you heard about them, werebeasts and other Hunters have no desire for humans or their organs.
I was about to glance over my shoulder and ask Galiana and Sage if they had any suggestions when Axel squeezed my hand and pulled me toward the breakfast booths. Before I could ask what he was doing, he leaned in and whispered, “Don’t worry, they’re behind us. Walk. Now.”
My eyebrows furrowed, and I opened my mouth to protest when I heard one of the male witches behind us call out, “Yo, Max! You just missed Cari de Ardo.”
My eyes widened as the realization struck me. I had completely forgotten that Massimo Quercini, the heir of the Quercini Coven, was enrolled in the Academy of the Occult Arts. He didn’t start until the year after Val graduated, and Axel never said a word about him.
I let my best friend steer me away from the witches without a backwards glance, and I wondered if Massimo Quercini despised me as much as I was expected to despise him.