Nine Minutes to Midnight
The next nine eight minutes seemed to fly by as we watched Cari and her guide, Galiana Franco, return and converse with Sage and Axel. Diego reported his findings and advised us to pack up just before they did, allowing us the chance to follow them out of the cafe with only a few students between them.
When Oreste told us to wait by the foot of the grand staircase and, “enjoy the show,” we knew we were about to witness another one of his visions come to life.
“Hey, Cari–you have your schedule, right?”
“Yup. My homeroom is in room E111, but it doesn’t say who the professor is.”
Is this really what Oreste wanted us to hear? I wondered, throwing a curious glance his way. I could have found this out any number of ways besides standing here and waiting.
The oracle raised a single finger to his lips, silencing any thought I might have had of verbally insisting we move on ahead, and he used that same digit to point toward the top of the stairs. I followed his gaze and found the reason why we were really there.
“Hi, Tea,” I heard Cari say, shyly greeting the freshman vampire standing on the first landing with Jude. The vampire’s blue eyes seemed to brighten a million times over when they landed on the witch.
“Cari! Hey again.”
What’s that about?
“Teagan, have you met Axel?” asked Jude. His words were spoken at an obnoxiously loud volume, almost as if he had anticipated the crowd gathering around us. I wouldn’t put it past him.
“She would have, had you given her the chance,” Axel attested. “By the way, what was up with that? Don’t tell me you think Haunters and Enchanters can’t hang… Oh! Wait, you do.”
“Now Axel, I know you began 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.”
God, can’t vampires throw shade like normal teenagers? I had to keep from rolling my eyes, and instead settled for exchanging an annoyed glance with Diego. What is this, an essay contest?
“Besides,” my thoughts were interrupted as Jude took a second to check out the three witches before him–my shoulders tensed when his eyes passed over Cari–only to settle on her guide and take on a red sheen. “You know I have a thing for Enchanters.”
He winked at her. Cari looked off to the left, then the right. He’s not, right? Is he–?
“Since we both have to guide freshmen to their homerooms, why don’t we go together?”
Sage shook Galiana’s arm, but to no avail. My blood began to boil. He’s compelling her!
I took a step toward them with Diego close behind, but Oreste grabbed my arm, shook his head, and mouthed, “watch,” without tearing his puce eyes from the scene. We joined him, and in my peripheral I could tell that Diego was studying their mana.
“Cut it out, Jude!”
“Cut what out–?”
The vampire was flung off to the right and slammed into the stone wall before falling on his face at the foot of the right staircase. No one had moved; Axel had not lunged, as he was poised to do. Sage had not socked him, and I was certain they would have done. No professors had intervened, and none of the students who had amassed around us had ascended beyond the first couple steps.
Galiana’s legs gave out beneath her the second the vampire was tossed aside. Sage and Axel caught her in time, pulling her upright and supporting her. The sophomore had said something, but she had spoken so softly and sounded so weak that I couldn’t make out the words. However, whatever she had said prompted Sage, Axel, and the freshman vampire Teagan to stare at Cari in disbelief. My eyes widened as I took in her relaxed shoulders and somber expression.
I shot Diego a swift look, hoping he would shrug off my suspicions and explain what really happened. He hadn’t–no, couldn’t–tear his eyes away from Cari. I didn’t think he was capable of expressing such terror; his eyes looked as if they would pop out of his head, his jaw had dropped, and he had lost all the color in his face. Those teal eyes were darker than ever, glued to my younger half-sister.
Cari cleared her throat, bringing my attention back to her as she spun around and stepped closer to the left-most stairs. She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, urging her friends to follow. “We really should get going–”
Her words caught in her throat as her eyes landed on me. Her nonchalant facade was forgotten; her dark, soot eyes stared back into mine, frozen on the spot.
I know the feeling.
“I-I-Isn’t that Val’s little sister?” I heard Diego ask under his breath. The curiosity was killing me–what did he see?
“I didn’t hear her utter an incantation,” whispered Arabela from somewhere behind us. “Did you?”
“She just kicked Jude’s ass without moving or speaking!” chuckled Luke, a fellow teammate on the academy’s football team, the Magic Striders. “Zan, please tell me you saw that shit!”
If Zander Woods, the alpha werewolf of the Salem Pack, had seen it, I couldn’t tell. He either didn’t respond or spoke too low for me to hear.
“They were right–she’s a magickal genius, just like her brother!”
Gunnar’s words pierced through me. Just like her brother.
It was almost immediately after the incident that Professor Blagojević inserted himself, though I couldn’t understand why. All he did was reassign Cari and the new vamp’s guides to Sage and Axel.
The undead professor dismissed the audience at the foot of the stairs, bidding us to enter the academy and to not attack one another. I was in the process of leading my small coven to the main academy building when I heard a familiar laugh.
“Today just gets better and better!”
My head shot up as I searched the crowd for golden braids. Arion!
“Over there,” Oreste informed me with a yawn as he gestured behind us with his thumb. “Give it a second, though.”
I stole a glimpse of the pterippos over my shoulder–he was approached by witches here and there, and from what I could tell, they were all asking if he had seen what had happened between Cari and Jude. Virgil, a vampire in my year, walked beside the senior with his eyes on his phone, completely disinterested.
“That’s seven witches now who’ve asked me to write about Jude’s beatdown!” Arion babbled, grinning as he took notes on his own smartphone. “Three of ‘em witch heads! You know what this means, Virj?”
“That you’re probably going to disregard Fiona’s ‘freshmen are off-limits’ policy after your articles involving Aurilla and Sofia, much like you ignore my requests to say my name correctly?” The Haunter deadpanned without so much as a glance in Arion’s direction.
“Oh, don’t be such a Negative Nancy. It means that now I have to write this article.”
Virgil sighed. “That’s between you and Fiona.”
“You’re unironically missing the big picture here,” Arion scoffed and pulled his golden mass of braids behind his head as he bound them together with a hair band. “Sure, the witches all want the scoop on Cari, but they’re overlooking a crucial detail here: Jude openly attacked one of them where we could all see, and I think he did that on purpose.”
I slowed my pace, listening intently. That’s right–I thought it was weird that he was waiting there with that freshman. Why, though?
“Why would Jude do that?” Virgil challenged, mirroring my thoughts.
“Seriously, Virj?” the pterippos scoffed again. “I could name, like, three reasons off the top of my head. One–”
“I already regret asking.”
“–it’s no secret that Jude has had it out for Axel. He could have done it to piss him off, instigate a fight, and get Axel either expelled, kicked out of the De Ardo Coven, or both.” Arion held two fingers, adding another with every new point. “Two: Lenora and Jude have been dating on and off, and she’s been beefing with Gerardo. Everyone knows that witch covens raise their kids together, so Gerardo and Gal grew up together. Plus there’s that thing between them–”
“You’re imagining connections again,” the vampire said.
“I’m not!” The Hunter insisted. “I’m telling you, I have eyes blessed by the gods of love! I can always tell who to ship–”
“For the hundredth time, stop shipping real people.”
“Point number two is that Jude could have attacked Gal to piss off Gerardo, and all for Lenora,” Arion concluded. “Three: he could have been intentionally trying to provoke Cari.”
“Wait, what?” I glanced back–Virgil was frowning, his phone back in his pocket. “Your first theory made more sense. Why would Jude try to provoke a freshman witch he’s never met?”
“I don’t know,” Arion admitted, his tone cryptic. “How can a freshman witch use wordless magick to both throw someone several feet without moving and break a vampire’s compulsion?”
My heart was pounding in my ears as I recalled how Galiana was freed from Jude’s compulsion at the exact moment that he was attacked. That’s not possible… No witch has ever been able to counter the compulsion of the undead, least of all that of a vampire.
“You need to keep an eye on her.” Father’s words came to mind, bringing with them a clarity I did not have at the time of the memory. “Don’t let anyone see what she can really do. Don’t let anyone know what she is.”
“Oh, she’ll earn it,” Oreste’s claim from a few minutes before joined in. “You’ll see.”
I spun around and stood before Arion. His gold eyes had only grown a little in surprise, but he recovered with exceptional timing as he pocketed his phone and crossed his arms, waiting.
I can’t let anyone know what she is.