Eight Minutes to Midnight
You know that feeling you get when you set out to do something–to be something–and you just fail on epic proportions?
Now pretend you’re a socially awkward teenage witch on her first day at magick monster high school in an alternate dimension, and you’ve just taken out the big vamp on campus for breaking the rules and hurting your new friend–a feat you managed by breaking those same rules.
Can’t fathom what that’s like? Then you’ve never been in my black leather booties, sweetheart–because at that very moment, I was creating a mental guest list for my funeral when Axel spoke up.
“Cari..?” He checked behind him and found Jude coming to, moaning and cursing. After a quick glance down the steps, my best friend sped to my side and gestured to the ascending steps with a nod before he addressed the crowd.
“It was all just a misunderstanding, alright, folks? Jude broke a rule, new girl broke the same rule to put him in his place. Now she knows not to do that, and he knows not to assert himself on others without their say-so,” Axel chided, shooting the senior Haunter an exasperated look. Jude scoffed at the sophomore’s words, pushing himself off the ground. “Good? Good. Let’s get to homeroom now.”
I waved Sage over, urging them to follow as I began up the steps. Sage continued to support Galiana as they trudged up the stairs after Axel. Teagan remained on the landing, seemingly unsure whether to come with us or help her guide–until a presence sped past her, then us, blocking my path.
This guy doesn’t know when to quit. I glared at the vampire and clucked, “Listen–“
One look at his face told me I had the wrong Haunter in mind. Oops.
He cocked a thick eyebrow, his fangs peeking out over his pale plump bottom lip. He might have looked like a regular man for the most part, but I could tell that this undead professor was at least a few centuries old. His slick hair was the color of marigold, and his skin was the shade of clean bones.
“I fully intend to listen, Miss de Ardo–so long as your reasoning for assaulting one of your classmates with magick on your first day is worth my time.”
His irises reminded me of a peacock’s extravagant tail as they studied my face, searching for any response to his allegation.
I gulped. “I-I won’t lie and say that I didn’t know that using magick without permission was a rule–we both know that my brother attended this academy, so the rules are still pretty fresh in my mind.”
I could tell that my honesty was not what the professor had expected; nevertheless, he did not interrupt me, so I sputtered on. “A-a-and because I know that this is a rule, I was upset with an upperclassman breaking this rule in order to compel my guide. I know that two wrongs don’t make a right, and I have no good excuse as to why I acted without thinking. I’ll accept whatever punishment you give me, s-sir.”
You could imagine my surprise when the professor snorted at my words. “Calm down, moje dete. This is an academy for teenagers, not a trial before a grand jury. It seems as if you had no ill intent towards one of your classmates, and simply acted on impulse to rescue another. You are a good friend to have.”
The professor’s blue-green eyes locked onto Teagan’s, a hint of amusement on his lips. “You should help Jude to the healing ward. Your new guide will show you the way and escort you to your homeroom–isn’t that right, Mister de Ardo?”
“Me?” Axel blurted out. The elder shot the sophomore a reassuring smile before my friend cleared his throat. “Oh. Yeah, I could do that. Thanks for the opportunity, Professor B.”
The professor sighed and addressed the witch behind us. “Mx. Bloodworth, it may benefit Miss Franco to visit the healing ward as well. Could you escort her there and take over her guide duties for the day? I’m sure she’ll be back on her feet before the final planning period.”
Sage nodded and swept Gal into their arms, carrying her bridal style as they continued their ascent. I thanked the professor and followed my guides, more than a little aware of the elderly vampire’s eyes on me as I made my exit.
Goddess, that guy gives me the creeps… I made a mental note to ask Sage about him later.
Once we hit the second landing, it became clear that the student entrance to the academy was underground in a dungeon; we were now on the ground floor of the school, and I gazed around in wonder. The gneiss stone walls were replaced with smooth Georgia marble, each brick a unique swirl of different shades of white; coconut, parchment, salt, and frost were just a few I could name. There were slate vintage lanterns on either side of us every three meters, bolted high above my head and lighting our way.
The corridor from which we entered gave way to another lobby. This one was completely round, its diameter over fifteen meters, with a circular obsidian table at its center. Placed around the table were four booth-like leather sectionals, each curved seat the same shade of currant red. One booth looked as if it could seat four of me.
Hanging above the center of the lobby was a three-tier Mediterranean chandelier, its sable-painted curved brass housing a family of garnet red candles. Each candle’s base was wide enough to allow for pooling wax, and I tried to picture the poor, disgruntled janitor who was paid to replace all the candles and keep every light fixture clean. Whoever they are, they deserve a damn raise.
It was about then that I noticed that there were three corridors leading away from the lobby; one led off to the west, or our left, to what I presumed to be the academy entrance for students who resided in the dark dimension. A plaque by the corridor’s entrance labelled it the “A Wing.” The northern corridor would take us straight ahead, labelled as, “B Wing”; the eastern hallway would steer us to the right, and had no plaque.
Sage nodded to the waiting area, Galiana still curled up in their arms. “Have a seat. The healing ward is just ahead–I’ll be right back.”
“Oh. Okay, I’ll be here.” I smiled awkwardly at the witch as I stepped between the booths, trying to convey that I was perfectly capable of sitting in a new place all by myself after nearly getting expelled.
They tried to smile back, but it came off as a tight line through their well-groomed facial hair. I watched Sage carry Galiana to the corridor opposite the way we came, disappearing into the third room to the right. I huffed and slumped onto one of the booths, my backpack already on my lap as I hugged it and thought about how my first day was going.
Mami will kill me if she finds out I was almost expelled before homeroom, I whined internally, keeping my head low. I could hear the footsteps of other students coming from the portal entrance, and I begged to whatever deity would listen to let them walk straight past me. I can’t believe I forgot that freshmen aren’t allowed to use magick outside of class. How could I be so stupid? Why did I step in like that?
I knew the answer almost immediately: I had done it to protect Axel.
Ax is such an impulsive hothead, I reminded myself. Mami isn’t the first matriarch to not accept him, but as far as I know she’s the first to threaten kicking him out over any hiccup. Attacking Jude in defense of another student would have only gotten Ax detention for a day, especially since Jude broke the rules and compelled Gal–but Mami couldn’t care less about that. She’d use it as an excuse to push him out.
My thoughts flew back to the crowd that had formed at the bottom of the staircase, and I let out a groan as I buried my face in my hands, mortified. I’m an idiot… I’m such a fucking idiot. After what I said to Wihn, I bet all the witch heads think I attacked Jude as a power play.
Certainly, I was calculating a way to take my rightful place as the head of our coven, but attacking Jude had not been a factor in that equation. That wasn’t like me… Not at all.
“Looks like you beat us here.”
I peeked off to my left; Axel and Teagan had just arrived, each supporting Jude under his arms. The senior vampire glared at me, obviously fuming from having his ass handed to him. Before he could spit venom my way, my friend sighed.
“Tea, do you mind staying here with Cari? She doesn’t bite, I promise.”
The freshman nodded nervously, pulling away from Jude and waiting for the upperclassmen to continue to the infirmary before she sat on the booth adjacent to mine. I shot her an awkward half-smile, which she returned hesitantly. Her blue eyes never wavered from me, as if she expected me to attack her as I had her former guide. Other students had begun filing in, sneaking glimpses at us before heading down the corridor to my right.
I’m ashamed to say I only lasted a whole ten seconds before I caved. The tension was insufferable. “I’m sorry if I freaked you out back there, but you saw what he was doing. He tried to take advantage of my guide. I couldn’t just stand back and let him.”
“I get it,” Teagan shrugged, her smile a grimace. “Compelling other students is against the rules. As a senior, Jude should’ve known better. I’m sorry about your guide.”
I frowned. “You don’t need to apologize, Tea. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Maybe, but I still feel like crap over this whole situation. Like, that’s the person who’s supposed to help me get accustomed to academy life?” The vampire rolled her eyes. “I think I’d rather have Axel. Vamps might talk shit about him for attending the academy later than normal, but that extra time seems to have done something right.”
I smiled and crossed one leg over the other. “He’s not one to follow rules, but if he considers you a friend, then he won’t let anyone mess with you.”
She chuckled softly. “Guess he taught you that, huh?”
When the Haunter caught my puzzled expression, she snickered and shook her head. “Never mind. So, how’d you do it?”
“How’d I do–?” My face grew warm as I realized what she was referring to. “Oh! Um, well my coven’s thing is that we don’t all specialize in one thing or adhere to a specific affinity. We dabble in different studies and affinities in hopes of mastering multiple fields.”
Teagan’s brilliant smile reached her glimmering eyes as she asked, “You dabble?”
I had no real way of knowing, but I was pretty damn sure that my face was redder than the mass of curls she had pulled over her shoulder. Her eyes were like sapphires in the glow of the flames over and around us. She gazed back at me with a playful interest that made me want to melt.
Holy shit–is this flirting? I asked myself, panicked. Is this cute vampire flirting with me? Me? And I’m just talking about something boring like affinities? Get your shit together, Cari! I opened my mouth and tried desperately to think of something–anything–to say to her. No words or sounds came out, and we just sat there in a silence so awkward that I wanted to find a rope and hang myself from the chandelier.
Say something, you idiot! “Uhm, so where are y–?”
“Caricia de Ardo!”
The two of us jumped at the sudden interruption–which I was both grateful for and annoyed by–and we turned to the witch who had addressed me. Her black hair was dyed in a color gradient that progressed to mostly turquoise with some prominent streaks of cobalt on the top-most layer. They were twisted into loose curls that, coupled with the color scheme, reminded me of the ocean. Her eyes were so dark a brown they appeared almost as black as her roots, peering at me from beneath long thick lashes. Her cat eye was impeccable, her eyebrows curved with the structure of her face instead of arching unnaturally, accentuating her beauty. Her nose was straight, with a single silver starfish stud pierced onto her left nostril. Both of her ears were double pierced and dressed with studs portraying conch shells and bottlenose dolphins. Idling behind her was the rest of her coven, all eyes on me.
I did my best not to let my alarm show as I relaxed my shoulders and smiled innocently at the witch. “Arabela Luna, right?”
Arabela returned the smile, pleased that I knew her. “That’s right! I know I’m not your guide, but feel free to reach out to the Luna Coven if you need help or something. Anyone who can put people like Jude in their place is exactly the kind of friend I’d like to have.”
I noticed Teagan’s eyes flash red briefly as she addressed the witch head, who had completely ignored her presence. “And by ‘people like Jude,’ you mean who exactly?”
The senior rolled her eyes at the vampire’s question. “Chill, freshman. Interclass beef was squashed, like, two years ago. I meant people who think it’s okay to use their powers to manipulate others.”
Two figures materialized outside the healing ward; recognizing our guides, I slipped my arms through the straps of my backpack and took Teagan’s hand in mine purely out of impulse. I avoided her surprised eyes and turned back to Arabela briefly.
“Thanks for the offer. I’ll let you know if something comes up. See you around!”
Then I pulled Teagan with me as we met up with our guides at the mouth of the right-most corridor. I could tell by just a glimpse that Axel had heard everything, and he made it a point to plant himself behind Teagan and me. Sage stuck by his side, peeking over their shoulder at the wave of students following along.
It was only another minute of Teagan and I marveling over the vault ceilings before the corridor gave way to yet another lobby. The walls were carved from Creole marble; streaks and stripes of ocean green were the most obvious, with hints of olive and indigo standing out against the pale pistachio green backdrop. The stone’s magnificence was interrupted by two more corridors and yet another bifurcated staircase. I knew from my orientation the night before that the northern corridor led to the E wing, the southern corridor to the C wing, the northern stairs to the F wing, and the southern stairs to the D wing. Each wing of the academy had restrooms and vending machines, allowing students easy access to the facilities between classes. They also had exits and pathways that led students to the exterior café and courtyard for Mid-night Meal.
“Cari and I have Stedelen’s replacement,” Sage reminded Axel. Their head jerked to the left as they motioned toward the northern corridor. “You got Blagojević?”
“Yeah,” Axel confirmed, his eyes on his phone as he double-checked his schedule. “Tea, what about you?”
“Uh…” Teagan’s face scrunched up in an adorable pout as she racked her brain for the answer. “Pretty sure I have Bowyer for homeroom.”
“She teaches ceramics, so she’s upstairs in D wing,” Axel directed. “I’ll walk you there.”
Teagan was about to follow the sophomore to the staircase when she hesitated. I felt something squeeze my hand, and it was only then that I realized that I had held hands with a complete stranger for the last couple of minutes.
“Oh–!” I released her, my cheeks warm. “S-Sorry. I’ll see you around.”
The vampire grinned at my flustered reaction. “I hope so.” Then she winked and sped after Axel, two blurs flying up the steps that could only be distinguished by their hair. I sighed at their departure and turned back to my substitute guide–who was smirking at my expression.
“I-I don’t want to talk about it,” was all I said as I began power-walking down the northern corridor. The bell was about to ring, so there weren’t many students left in the hall.
“If you say so,” the junior practically sang. They pulled a black elastic hair band from their pants pocket and proceeded to tame their silver waves into a low ponytail that sat at the base of their skull. They kept up with me easily; one stride of their long legs was at least two and a half of mine.
Tall, athletic build, strong enough to lift someone and carry them across an impressive distance… A light bulb seemed to go off in my head. “Hey, Sage? Do you play any sports?”
They nodded. “Yeah, I’m on the football team.”
When I said nothing else, the upperclassman glanced over and caught me grinning to myself. “What’s so funny?”
I shook my head. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that I spent all of last year wondering why Axel took a sudden interest in going to the school’s sporting events when he’s too lazy to play.”
I confidently met Sage’s wide-eyed gawk with my own knowing smirk. Their recovery time was amazing; they cleared their throat and glimpsed ahead of and behind us. We were just outside our homeroom, and there was just one straggler at the furthest end of the hallway.
Sage’s cheeks had taken on a blush tint as they simpered, “We can talk about that later.”
“If you say so.”