Fifteen Minutes to Midnight
Sage and I jumped at Gal’s query, straightening up and putting space between us. Sage shut their notebook and swiftly returned it to their bag, a small smile planted on their face. I shook my head in response to our friend as she and Cari placed our drinks on the table.
“Professor Penn gave us an assignment to complete over the break, and Sage was just reminding me about it.”
Galiana frowned. “I still think it’s weird for her to assign homework at the end of last year to be turned in at the beginning of this year.”
“It’s only for repeat students,” Sage clarified. “Besides, it’s easy extra credit.”
“What was the assignment?” asked Cari. Her eyes were as dark as hickory as they pierced mine. She sees right through me.
I shrugged and scooped up my drink. “Just to write something.”
“Literally anything,” the junior witch agreed as I busied myself with my drink. I was instantly filled with an intense rush of energy the second the blood touched my tongue. “Poetry, short story, anecdote, journal entry–the only requirement is that Professor Penn should be able to feel the emotions we express through our writing.”
Cari had her lips wrapped around her own straw and was taking a sip of her iced coffee when she cocked an eyebrow in a quiet puzzling gesture.
“Oh, right! It’s only your first day,” Gal recalled. “Professor Penn is a member of the Itzala Coven. She’s an empath who specializes in reading emotions–and since she teaches our creative writing course, which involves students expressing themselves through a written medium–”
“She uses her affinity to determine whether or not the student wrote something from the heart or just to get the assignment over with,” the freshman concluded with a pensive expression. “Interesting. I’ve never met one of the famed, ‘Sisters of the Shadows,’ before.”
“You’re a freshman witch, so you probably will,” Sage pointed out. “She also teaches Charms & Incantations for first and second years, and there’s a good chance she’ll be your tutor.”
Cari blinked. “Uh? Tutor?”
“At AOA, the first and last period of each day is spent in your planning period, or your homeroom class,” I explained between sips. “Homeroom professors are assigned based on your class, and they’re meant to be your go-to for any issues. We just call them tutors.”
She nodded. “Tutors. Got it.” The freshman proceeded to lean forward and lower her voice. “Anyone I should look out for?”
I cut in before Sage or Gal could ask her to expand on her question. “The Hollingsworths. Lenora Hollingsworth is the most popular witch on campus. Your enrollment is the biggest blow to her pride since Val turned her down during her first year. Her brother, Gray, doesn’t seem all that bad, but you can’t be too sure,” I divulged. “Gerardo Serafim is a pig, Rosa Zaldivar is a womanizer, Arabela Luna is all talk and appearances–she’s actually the second most popular witch here. Third one’s Izayah Hawkins, but I don’t think him and his coven are so bad. Renette De Mortie is cool, very genuine. Camille and Gunnar just go along with the consensus of the bigger covens. There’s a bit of a power struggle right now between Gerardo and Max, though I can’t say Max cares. He’s the unofficial peacekeeper around here.”
“Oh,” was all Cari said. She tucked a stray onyx curl behind her right ear and resumed her caffeine consumption. I could tell she was a little distracted, but thought it best to wait until we were alone to discuss what had happened just moments before.
At least, that was my plan.
“Oh–Cari, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Gal began nonchalantly. “Do you know Max Quercini?”
I choked on my sanguine drink and dissolved into a coughing fit. Sage pursed their lips and glared at Galiana from across the table.
Cari, on the other hand, was nowhere near as caught off guard as we were by her guide’s question. “Not personally,” she shook her head. “I’ve heard of him. He’s a junior, right? Head of the Quercini Coven?”
“Yes, that’s him!” Gal grinned. “He’s really cute.”
Cari shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Wow, really?” asked her guide. “I guess the rumors aren’t true, then?”
How the hell can she ask her so calmly?! I wondered, my eyes darting over to Cari, who appeared unfazed by the sophomore’s probing. I guess I should’ve expected that Gal would ask her–she’s not one to spread rumors, but she does like to stay updated on the latest gossip. It’s pretty obvious now that Cari did expect this… How’s she going to play it off?
“Actually,” the freshman confessed, still speaking in a soft tone that only we could hear. “The rumors are true. Alfonso Quercini is my dad–Max and I are half-siblings.”
Galiana gaped at the first year. “Wait, seriously?”
Cari returned Gal’s shocked expression with a somber half-smile. “Seriously.”
“And you two have never met?”
Cari shook her head. “I… Don’t think it’d be a good idea. My mom doesn’t exactly keep her negative views on the Quercini Coven to herself, and they’ve been our rivals for generations. I have no doubt that Max has heard similar rhetoric aimed towards us.”
The sophomore frowned. “Yeah, I see your point. Do you actually believe any of the stuff your mom says about them, though?”
“Nah,” Cari admitted. “I learned a while ago that I shouldn’t base my opinions off of my guardian’s biased views.”
Gal swapped an uneasy glance with Sage before letting out a short, nervous laugh. “Are you sure you’re only fourteen? ‘Cause you do not sound like it.”
“They make ’em grow up fast in the De Ardo Coven,” I sighed. “Val was the same at this age: mature, self-aware…”
“Okay, boomer,” Cari joked, eliciting giggles from my friends. I flipped her off as they gathered their things. “Ha-ha,” I mocked her. “Let’s go, assholes.”
We exited the breakfast lobby to a short corridor that led to a bifurcated staircase. The grand steps paused at a landing before dividing into two sets of curved stairs. An enormous tapestry hung on the center of the gneiss stone wall, sporting the black school insignia on crimson. Since the steps leading up to the tapestry were wide enough to fit ten students shoulder to shoulder, I nodded for the witches to join me on the leftmost side. Gal linked arms with Sage and led the ascent, while I followed closely with Cari.
“Hey, Cari–” Gal called from over her shoulder a little too loudly. “You have your schedule, right?”
“Yup,” she confirmed. “My homeroom is in room E111, but it doesn’t say who the professor is.”
I cringed as a sense of deja vu swept over me. Shit. I left my schedule at home.
“Us too!” The sophomore gushed excitedly. “And it’s probably the new professor who’s replacing Stedelen. They only just hired them this weekend–I heard they weren’t even at the freshman orientation.”
“That’s true,” Cari agreed. “I guess the schedules were made before they were hired.”
“Did you remember your schedule this year?” Sage aimed their teasing words at me with a smirk.
How are you equally desirable and aggravating? “About that–”
My phone buzzed in my pocket right after Cari had spoken. I pulled it out as we neared the tapestry landing, only to find that she had emailed me a digital version of my schedule. “Holy shit! Thanks, Cari.”
“No biggie,” she shrugged. Then I watched her face relax with recognition, and her lips formed a small smile as we made it to the tapestry. She was focused on the two students standing before it, and I had to stifle a groan as she threw one of them a little wave. “Hi, Tea.”
Teagan was there with Jude, discussing something in a hushed tone. She turned to face us upon being called, and I saw her face light up when her green eyes landed on us. “Cari! Hey again.”
The senior had noticed our arrival before Cari had even spoken up; his demeanor swiftly changed from serious to amused as he practically announced, “Teagan, have you met Axel?”
“She would have, had you given her the chance,” I countered. “By the way, what was up with that? Don’t tell me you think Haunters and Enchanters can’t hang…”
My hand shot up to partially cover my mouth as I feigned surprise. “Oh! Wait, you do.”
“Now Axel,” he chided. His words dripped with condescension. “I know you began attending school a little later than you should have, which is why you carry this false sense of superiority towards the rest of our kind–what with you having joined the wrong kind of coven–but that’s no reason to throw around such wild accusations.”
Jude’s cinnamon eyes danced over the three witches before focusing on Galiana and taking on a red tint. “Besides, you know I have a thing for Enchanters.”
He winked at my friend, whose face flushed considerably. I caught Cari rolling her eyes and glancing off to the left, then the right. Each staircase had a different sign hung on the wall before a student’s continued ascent. The stairs to the right led to the “Professors” wing, while the left set of steps would take us to the rest of the academy; the cafeteria, the gymnasium, the classrooms, etc. She’s already looking for an escape.
“Since we both have to guide freshmen to their homerooms, why don’t we go together?” Jude suggested. His eyes bore into Gal’s, flashing red and rendering her speechless. Sage took hold of the sophomore’s arm and shook her; she didn’t even acknowledge their action, leading the witch to shake her even harder.
“Cut it out, Jude!” I snarled at the upperclassmen. I could feel my fangs protruding, bearing at the threat I perceived. That alone could land me in detention, but I didn’t care. This asshole is trying to compel my friend.
“Cut what out–?” Jude began to taunt, but he was promptly interrupted when an invisible force threw him nearly five meters to the right. His body smacked against the stone wall, a loud whack resonating through the corridor.
Galiana blinked; her knees buckled under her weight, but Sage and I caught her by her arms and pulled her back to her feet.
“W-what…?” she whimpered, one of her hands cradling her temples. “How…? Who–?”
No one answered her. Sage, Teagan and I all fixed our gazes on Cari, and part of me hoped–no, prayed–that she would stare back at us with the same wide-eyed, jaw-dropped look.
She cleared her throat and pointed behind her to the stairs opposite where Jude fell–the ones that would lead to the academy.
“We really should get going–“
She spun around and eased closer to the stairs in an effort to seem nonplussed, but in doing so she caught a glimpse of the corridor that led to the grand staircase. It was then that her confident mask chipped away slowly, her eyes growing large as she took in the scene. I followed her stare, and I felt my heart drop.
An audience of students had gathered at the bottom of the stairs, frozen from having witnessed the altercation. While the Haunters seemed either indifferent or entertained, the Hunters and Enchanters watched Cari with either extreme caution or intrigue. As if to make matters worse, the heads of every witch coven were among the onlookers–and Max Quercini was with them.
This is not good–
I could hear them gossiping amongst themselves–though in the crowded hallway, most of them were loud enough that even mortals like Cari and Sage could hear them.
“That’s Val’s little sister?” asked Diego, one of the Quercini witches. Max said nothing in response; he merely stared back at Cari with a deer-in-the-headlights look that rivaled hers.
“I didn’t hear her utter an incantation,” Arabela acknowledged smugly, her grey eyes flitting over to Wihnhilda and the other De Ardo witches. “Did you?”
“She just kicked Jude’s ass without moving or speaking,” gloated Luke, not bothering to hide his grin. He turned to a couple other werewolves from his pack and addressed his alpha. “Zan, please tell me you saw that shit!”
Zander regarded the senior with just a nod, too fascinated to tear his eyes from the freshman witch.
“They were right,” Gunnar told Camille. “She’s a magickal genius, just like her brother!”
Camille simply scoffed. “Someone should tell her that magicking without permission is forbidden for freshmen–and attacking another student with magick is grounds for detention.”