A few hours had passed since Sebastian left, leaving me in that small stone room with only my thoughts to keep me company. At least the room was beautifully decorated.
I escaped the cocoon of covers and paced the small room back and forth, barley taking the time to realize I was in a nightgown of the softest silk I’d even felt, and not in my usual stained tunic and leather pants.
That’s funny... I didn’t remember changing.
Sebastian’s last words kept bouncing in my skull like ping pong balls. “Why, sweetheart, you’re in the Witches Academy, and you’re about to become a student here.”
First off... sweetheart? I was really getting tired of hearing that. And second, Witches Academy? What the hell? My birthday wasn’t for another three months yet. I wasn’t even old enough to become a soldier and fight on the front lines. So why would I be qualified to become a witch?
Because you’re a dumbass and exposed yourself while dueling.
Oh yeah. Forgot.
With a groan of well deserved frustration, I flopped back on the bed, face first.
Could life get any worse? I mean, I know there were probably people out there that had it worse than even I, but why couldn’t I catch a break?
Being an orphan taught me one thing: Don’t count on anyone but yourself. But the shitty part about that little life lesson was that I didn’t have anyone else to blame but myself if something took a turn for the worse.
But I guess I could blame my parents, whoever they were. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even be in this little predicament in the first place.
And I guess I haven’t been completely honest with all of you. Legend has it, as Maggie tells me, it was the night before the war started and she heard a knock on her door. January 1st, she said. When she opened her door, a baby girl lay bundled in a small wool blanket, wailing and crying. Me.
I never got to see that small wool blanket, nor did I really want to. It was the last thing there was of my damned parents, and why would I want a reminder of them? They left me. Abandoned me. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to honor their precious memory by carrying around the only thing they ever gave me.
Screw that. I was better off alone.
But look where being alone has got you, that traitorous voice in my head sounded, and I groaned into the comforter. If only I’d let Jack and Lucas help with retrieving food...
Tears prickled my eyes. I had no idea how long I’d slept, so were they awake now? Was Buddy playing with his little toy horse, and was Emma making sketches in the dirt? Was Lucas trying to woo the girl two alleys down, and was Lucy asking Jack to brush her hair because I was absent? Maybe they didn’t even realize I was gone. No, no they wouldn’t. They rarely saw me as it was; only when I was hauling food back home or to confront Maggie about stealing one of the kids items.
I flipped onto my back and sucked in a ragged breath.
Were they even going to miss me?
A knock sounded on my door and I shot upright, wiping tears out of my eyes with the back of my nightgown. “Come in,” I said tentatively.
The rounded door opened with a squeak, and I small woman with beady eyes stood in the threshold, a plate of steaming food in her hands. She was pretty, with her hair pulled into a tight bun and high cheekbones. “I was told to bring this to your room,” she said.
I eyed the food, and for once, my hunger didn’t roar to life. The thought of food made me want to vomit. “Just leave it on the nightstand,” I replied bleakly.
With a swift nod, the woman set the steaming plate of food down and turned to leave.
She froze, turning back to face me. “Yes, miss?”
“What time is it?” I asked.
She played with the hem of her apron. “Its half past five in the evening, miss.”
I blinked, shocked. Half past five? I was asleep for over half the day.
The small woman stared at me, her eyes blinking expectantly, waiting for an answer. Or maybe a dismissal?
“Um, thank you. You can go now.” She bowed slightly and ducked out the door, leaving me alone with a plate of food I wouldn’t even eat.
For the next few days, life fell into a steady routine of hot meals that I wasn’t hungry for and a plush bed that I couldn’t stomach to lay in. Nobody but the small maid from earlier came to see me, and I didn’t get much a view into the hallway outside my room when she left. All I could see from my chair in the corner of my room was royal red walls and golden candles flickering with pale orange light.
I woke up every morning to the Rising Bell’s bays, surprised that it was even louder here than in my village. The booming rings shook the very foundation of the building I was in, causing small particles of dust to fall from my rock ceiling.
I hated this.
I felt like a prisoner, or a cave hermit or something. Best case scenario? I’d grow wings and become a vampire. At least then I wouldn’t be suffering from a vitamin D deficiency.
On the third day - I think - I’d finally given in and lay curled in a tight ball on top the red comforter when a knock sounded at my door.
I’d barely touched the food the maid had broughten in the past couple days, and I wasn’t that hungry. But the thought of finally talking to someone again sparked a flame of life into me. “Come in,” I called.
The door creaked open, but it wasn’t the small woman standing in the doorway.
There Sebastian stood, all dark and dangerous dressed in his black cloak and dark leather boots. His hair was ruffled, as if he’d just woken up, and eyes were hard. He wasn’t happy.
“Get up, get dressed, and I’ll be back in five minutes to come get you.”
Stunned, I stared at him even as he turned and left.
I toyed with the idea of heading with him, or staying here. He couldn’t make me leave. Suddenly I thought back to the rose scented gas.
Shit. Yes he could.
I jumped off my bed and shucked off my silky nightgown in rushed movements. For the first time since I’d arrived here in the Witch Academy, I stalked over to the wardrobe and flung open the doors. An extensive collection of black sweaters, tunics, cotton shirts and leather pants greeted me.
Why was everything black?
I understood the soldiers wearing their ebony uniforms, but why did all the witches wear this color?
I reached in and picked out a black long sleeve shirt with a high neck and tight leather pants. Also black. At the bottom sat two pairs of shoes: A pair of leather boots, and a pair of tuxedo shoes.
Bending down, I laced the dark boots up to my shins, grateful for a proper pair of shoes for the first time in my life. Using the strings from the tuxedo shoes, I tied my hair into a messy ponytail, letting my champagne hair fall over my right shoulder. I ran my fingers through the white strands, flinching when my fingers snagged on a knock. And my hair was greasy.
God, I needed a bath.
Staying true to his word, the Count showed up at my door approximately five minutes later. And he looked even more pissed off than before. Great.
“Follow me,” he commanded in a steely voice, but I stayed put.
“Where are we going?”
He growled low in his throat, his golden eyes smoldering with annoyance. “Follow me.”
I practically stomped my foot. “Where are we going?”
If looks could kill, I would have been sent off to the morgue in a bloody heap. “Do you really want to do this?”
“Do what?” I challenged. “I’m simply asking you a question.”
He glowered at me, his black hair hanging in his eyes, and I wanted to throat punch him for being so stubborn. All he had to do was tell me where we were going and I’d follow him like a duckling follow its momma. That wasn’t that bad, was it? He should be happy. I could be throwing a tantrum. After all, he was the one to kidnap me. And the last time I checked, kidnap victims weren’t always this cheery.
“I’ll use the sleeping spell on your again. Don’t think I won’t,” he threatened, though I could see the edgeness melt from his stance. He was enjoying our little banter.
I tensed. “You wouldn’t.
He pursed his lips like he was going to whistle, but when he blew, a soft, misty vapor escaped from his lips.
I thought about the inability to move; how I was involuntarily being whisked away by sleep. Panic set my heart racing. “Wait!” I yelled. “I’ll go with you!”
The witch raised his eyebrows.
“I’ll go with you,” I said again.
The pink vapor vanished in a blink. “Good.This way then.”
I followed the Count through the threshold and into the strange hallway outside my room. The redwalls spanned in front of me in a endless square tunnel. Taking one glance over my shoulder, I realize it spanned the opposite direction as well.
The candles on the walls flickered with a warm glow, causing my shadow to appear at my side - a silent friend.
“Why use candles when it’s obvious you have working electricity?”
“We only have a limited supply, so we only use it when needed.”
I thought back to my hours locked away in that room, lights on for no reason. Was the guilt I felt?
“Ah,” I replied, not really knowing what to say.
I followed Sebastian in silence then, the only noise coming from our heavy booted footsteps. He led me down the hall to where a large oak door stood, its brass knob glinting. With a quick twist of his wrist the door opened with a loud groan, revealing a wide case of steps that descended into darkness.
“I’m not going down there,” I said, backing up slowly.
He chuckled. “Unless you want to stay in the dormitory, I think you will.”
I internally groaned. I just wanted to go home. I rubbed the back of my neck with my palm and flinched when my thumb grazed something tender below my jaw. I fingered the spot, surprised to remember Sebastian and his dagger on my throat, drawing blood.
The Count stopped, turning to see me rubbing the healing wound. Something flashed in his eyes. Regret? Pity? “Sorry about that,” he grunted before turning and heading back down the steps.
“Sorry my ass,” I muttered back, to quiet for him to hear.
With every three of four steps we took, a new torch magically burst into flame on the walls, lighting our way. Sebastian must have seen my awed expression. “Dawn and day witches came up with this spell. When anything with a heartbeat comes within a few feet of them, they burst into flame.”
“What happens if a mouse gets close to it, or a fly buzzes by?” I asked, more curious now than anything.
He shrugged. “I assume they’ll light up.”
I stretched a hand towards the torch. Was it real fire? “Isn’t that a waste?”
Heat pulsed from the flickering flame. I guess it is real.
“I don’t know.” He shook himself, as if needing the physical movement to focus on his task at hand. “Now come. Someone wants to meet you, and it’s best not to keep him waiting.”
I don’t know why, but my heart sped up in my chest. What was he going to do with me? What did he want?
I. Should. Have. Listened. To. Benny.
We passed many doors that mirrored the one at the end of my hall, but Sebastian made no move to go through one. Instead, he continued to descend down-down-down into darkness. I presumed all those doors opened up to more hallways - more floors, more dorms, but I didn’t ask anything about it. I just wanted to get away from this Count of Night, and indulging in conversation wasn’t going to get me out of these cursed walls. It didn’t matter how hot he was.
Eleven doors and many steps later, we finally reach the bottom of the staircase, coming to yet again, another oak door. It was the same as before, even down the bronze knob.
When Sebastian opened up the door, frigid air blew through the threshold and tossed my ponytail in multiple different directions. I took one step into the outside word, and was surprised to see a full moon hanging low in the sky, its illuminating glow almost completely memorizing. Night’s animals had emerged from their daily slumber, creating a haunting symphony of chirps and coos that blew through the glacial wind. I tilted my head back and let the frozen air inch down my throat like fingers and into my lungs, teasing.
“So you like night, huh?” he asked, his tattoo twitched as he smiled.
Gah, his smile was perfect. Was there anything about him not perfect? His personality probably. I shrugged. “I prefer night over day, sure. But it’s the cold. I love frosty, frozen things.”
He studied me for a long moment; long enough to make my pale skin reden with blush. “To each their own, I guess.”
I tried to push back the distant feeling of embarrassment. Was it bad that I liked winter? What was so wrong about that? Did he think I was a freak because of it?
He led me across a large courtyard full of looming statues and spitting fountains. It was beautiful, yet terrifying given most of the statues looked as if they wanted to Strip me right here and bare my soul and secrets to the world. Perphaps it was just the darkness that made them look fierce, intimidating, but I still clung to Sebastian like a shadow none the less.
Two more buildings lay perched in the darkness, looming over us both in dark blankets of gloom. He pointed to the smallest building on our right. “That’s the cafeteria. Three stories, though I have no idea why so don’t ask. And if you’re wondering why we’re strolling the campus at night, it’s because so far you don’t have a schedule and I’m not waking up at the asscrack of dawn just to take you across the courtyard.”
We strolled past the second building, this one being at least fourteen stories tall. The height of the building seemed to weigh down on me, as if it could lean over and crush me at any second. I felt like one of the fleas I’d always catch under my mattress.
When we cleared the second building, a large hill blocked our view from anything further than fifty feet. Sebastian starting hiking up the steep bluff, and I was assuming he wanted me to follow.
“Where are we going? Wasn’t that the Academy?”
He nodded, pulling his dark hood over his head. “Yeah, but only the professors live there. The person that is wishing to meet you lives quite a ways away yet.”
My stomach knotted so tight I felt as if I was going to turn inside out. A few moments later he stood at the top of the abrupt slope, motioning for me to follow. I gritted my teeth and made the climb. Halfway up and I had to glance down at my palms, given they were becoming more tingly as my heart sped up.
I inhaled sharply.
Small ice crystals were coating the tips of my fingers, as if I’d just dipped my fingers in a fresh pile of snow. With closer inspection... I realize it was frost. Alarmed, I blew a lungful of warm breath into the air. A small cloud of mist billowed from my mouth.
Okay, so it was cold enough to see my breath, but was it really that cold to make frost form on my fingers? I wasn’t even cold.
Sebastian growled slightly in annoyance. “Are you coming?”
I shook my hands and wiped them on my pants. “Yeah, sorry,” I mumbled, and continued the climb to the peak of the small hill. What lay beyond managed to take my breath away.
Building number three wasn’t just a building, it was a freaking castle. A huge castle. A large body of water surrounded the monstrous structure, and the reflection from the candles in the windowsills made it seem like a million fire flies were floating indifferently in the flowing current. The acropolis structure however was built on top of the sloping lawns that surrounded it, dotted with large evergreens that looked like toothpicks the distance.
It finally hit me.
If I was going to visit someone who lived in a castle, it could only mean one thing: a Sage has somehow heard about my power and sent Sebastian after me.
Suddenly I began to shake, my nerves on end as I stared at the magnificent castle looming just below the horizon.
Something grazed my shoulder and I glanced over to see two golden eyes shine at me through the shadows of a hood. “You have to go,” he said evenly, his voice as flat as a board. “You don’t have a choice.”
“The hell I don’t,” I snarled back, yanking my shoulder back from his fingers. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want too, and I sure as hell don’t want to go in there.” I pointed towards the castle in the distance.
Everything started pressing down on me. The weight of my situation, the fact that I would probably end up sitting in front of seven thrones and not being able to do a damn thing about it. I just wanted to go home... I wanted to see my little Lulu, and even Maggie’s old wrinkled face would be a welcome sight right now.
The Count took a step towards me, and I don’t know what happened. Something snapped in my mind. Maybe it was just instinct, or maybe it was something more, but suddenly the air around us turned frigid. The grass below my feet started to wilt, dying from the sudden frost coating its tips. Even his boots and hood started to form little ice crystals.
He took another step towards me.
“Stay away,” I hissed, raising a hand to stop him. His eyes locked on my hand, and he froze. Wind picked up around us, blowing white strands of hair into my face and tossing lone sticks and dead leaves. It even pushed his hood back over his ears.
Ebony, tousled hair fell into his eyes, and I felt myself longing to run my fingers through those bangs. Horrified, I straightened my spine. Bad Eve. Bad, bad!
His voice was dark, stern as he spoke. “Eve, don’t do this.”
It was the first time he’d uttered my name, like as if he’d say it, it would make me real. A person, not just a rat. Did he just think that he could say my name and I would melt, that I would forget everything that he’d already taken away from me?
No, no I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t forget. How could I?
My heart thrummed.
I continued to hold my hand up, shocked but pleased when I realized my fingers were a bright, searing blue. They shone with an icy radiance that seemed to repel the witch in front of me, so I didn’t think much of it.
He took another step forward, and he was close. Close to taking me away again. I couldn’t let him, wouldn’t let him. He radiated power, and I found myself quaking in my boots, my teeth clanking together.
Just then, a shriek rang out behind me. Spinning on my heal, I gasped when a spindly but solid weight rammed into me, sending me sprawling on the grass face first. Spitting blades of lawn from my lips, I whipped my head around, only come face to face with pupiless, milky eyes.
“Ah,” it hissed between pointed teeth. “I’ve been looking for you.”