The Archfiend Artifact

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9:03 AM

Oh! You have got to be kidding me! The Saathoff Academy is a freaking cruise ship?!

I kept my attention glued to the windows as Quinn moved the Bel Air through a garage filled with antique and exotic cars. We passed a 1960s Mustang Fastback. One of the new Ferraris. A huge and heavily modified GMC truck. Then my jaw hit the floorboards. Ho. Lee. Crap. They had a Veyron. A Bugatti Veyron!

It sat there in Tiffany Blue and onyx, gleaming like a jewel begging to be touched.

“Oh, good,” said Duncan when he finally took notice of where my attention had gone. “They have finished it. Beautiful vork, too.”

“As usual,” agreed Quinn.

I tore my gaze away from the Veyron. “What are you talking about?”

“Our auto body class did the paint work.” With that, Quinn pulled the Bel Air into an empty space beside a school bus and killed the engine.

“What do you mean ‘our’?”

“This academy serves as AEON’s North American Headquarters,” explained Duncan. “Parathropes make up the entire population.”

“Everyone here is a monster?”

They both made a noise, and Duncan quickly corrected me. “The term ‘monster’ vas slapped on us by the cowans during the Dark Ages. Ve use parathrope to describe our kind. It is less insulting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”

Duncan flashed a too-white smile. “Come on. Let us get you settled in a room and—” he considered my tattered backpack a moment. “Is that all you have?”

I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment and glanced down at my ugly bag with my meager belongings. “All I had access to.”

He pushed the car door open. “Then ve vill get you some things from the school store.”

I started to protest, but he and Quinn had already left the car. With a sigh, I grabbed my bag and joined them. I admired the enormous collection of cars as I followed them through the garage. I think they have at least one vehicle of every make, including some old, three-wheeled thing. A pair of Audis had been parked apart from the others and a group of young people stood around them. A tiny woman in a dark green jumpsuit circled one of the cars, pointing out things with a wrench longer than my forearm.

“Professor Tekna Johnson,” said Quinn when he caught me watching. “She’s our auto body and automotive maintenance teacher.”

“Neat,” I replied. Then I looked at him. “Are all the classes that relaxed?”

We came to a stop at an elevator door. He hit the button and faced me with a cheeky grin. “If you think that’s relaxed, you should meet the yoga club.”

“Now there is a laid back group of students for you,” agreed Duncan.

The elevator arrived with a polite chime. Duncan led the way into the car, pushed the button for a floor marked D2. He took the lead again once the car stopped. “This is vone of the dormitory decks,” he explained as he navigated the halls with practiced ease. We were moving so fast that I couldn’t remember which direction we had come from. We came upon a door marked D2-78 and walked right in. “This shall be your room vhile you stay vith us.”

“Okay.” I followed him inside to take a look. Duncan flicked on the light, and I my jaw dropped in awe.

The room must have measured twenty feet long by fifteen. A door to the immediate left of the entrance led to a bathroom. A closet the size of a small house filled the opposite wall. At the far end of the room, centered beneath a single large window, sat a full bed flanked by nightstands. Between the bathroom and the bed, and against the left wall, stood a long desk straddled by cupboards that ran floor to ceiling. A small flat screen TV sat on a shelf of the cupboard closest to the bed allowing it to be watched from anywhere. A sofa with a matching ottoman had been set in place just opposite the desk. A bookshelf with a small handful of tomes filled the void between the bathroom wall and sofa, and an armchair had been parked in front of it. Everything had been decorated in neutral tones of beige and gray, which matched the rest of the ship.

I set my bag on the bed, took another look around. The room may have been huge compared to my former prison, but it had a kind of hotel-ish feel to it. It wasn’t a Motel 6, but it wasn’t exactly the Ritz either. I had to remind myself that this was a dorm room on a cruise ship, not a mansion’s master bedroom. Plus, I wouldn’t be staying here very long anyway.

I felt a pang of disappointment as I thought that, shoved it away. There’s no point in getting attached. I have to leave. Before agilisi could find me. Otherwise I might as well just start walking back to Obsidian Grove right now.

“Now, vhat do you say ve get you some clothes and little necessities?”

As much as I wanted to protest, I knew it would be a losing argument. Besides, I needed the stuff. I still felt obligated to say, “I’m not used to charity.”

He stopped in the entryway, turned to face me. “Vell, you could vork off the debt, but that vould extend your stay here. Vould you prefer that?”

I shrugged, glanced around the room again. It had almost everything I had ever dreamed about having. And Duncan could easily get me the rest. Heck, he even offered me a job. Staying here would be great. At least until agilisi found me and dragged me back. I don’t think I’d survive that encounter. Tears clawed at my eyes at that thought.

“Is it your grandmother?”

I nodded, not trusting my voice just then.

“I promised you that I vould help you disappear. I give you my vord that she vill not find you. Not if she searched all of Mabon City. Not even if she searched the entire vorld.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, looked down at my dusty, old moccasins.

“Come,” he gently said. “Let us get you some of life’s little necessities. You can decide what you vant to do later.”

He led me back to the elevators, pointing out the student lounge and laundry facility along the way. Then he explained that the bulk of the classes took place on the upper decks and ran nearly 24 hours every day. The weird schedule meant that even nocturnal beings, such as himself, didn’t have to contend with the sunlight. The cafeteria and the school store were one level below the classroom deck and one above the gym slash fitness center.

By the time we reached the store, I could almost admit that he had convinced me to stay. The lingering doubt came from the terror that agilisi would find me.

“Ah, good. Zero is vorking,” he said as we went inside. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it wasn’t a mini mall. It had a section for clothing, another for food and drink, a third for books and collectibles. Shoes. Crystals. Bath and body. You name it, this store probably had it.

I stopped dead in my tracks and gaped at the young Asian lady behind the counter. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, with creamy skin the color of sand. Her black hair had been tied back in dreadlocks that bore beads or blue ribbons. She wore a turquoise tank top and accessories that spoke volumes as to her character. On her hands were black leather gloves with the fingers cut off, and several bracelets dangled off her wrists. A royal blue, Chinese-style dragon scrawled the entire length of her right arm, from wrist to shoulder. It was so detailed I almost believed the creature would come alive.

But it wasn’t any of that which grabbed my attention.

Liquids of various types tumbled around her in lazy acrobatics as if she were Saturn and they her rings. They would catch the light and break it into a riot of color. And she had only to twiddle the fingers on her right hand to do it.

“Good morning, Zero.”

She looked up from the magazine she had been reading, smiled. “Zǎoshang hǎo.” Then her sapphire gaze shifted to me. “Good morning.”

“I need you to do your thing.”

The liquids followed her as she rounded the counter. She waved her hand, and sent them rushing towards the sink beside the coffee station. She pursed her lips as she looked me over.

“Let me guess,” she said as she started pulling shirts off the hooks. “Runaway.”

I blinked. “How do you know?”

“I’ve been there. Lived on the streets of Louyang for two years, wound up forced into service by a street gang who discovered my hydrokinesis. Myth—” she paused, looked at me, “she’s in charge of AEON’s Asian branch—” then she continued pulling clothes off the racks. “stumbled upon me about eighteen months ago. At first, I was returned to my father, here in the States. But he found out about my abilities too, so now I’m here. This place is a life saver, believe you me. Here, give these a try.” She handed me a small mountain of clothes, and pointed me towards the fitting rooms. “I’ll scrounge up some other stuff for you.”

I dutifully made for the short row of tiny rooms, pausing only a moment to look back at her before stepping inside. I broke down in silent tears as I sifted through the shirts and pants and underthings. She had even grabbed a couple pairs of pajamas for me. Everything except one pair of pants fit me like a glove. For the first time in ten years, I had brand new things to call my own. That feeling is indescribable.

And I couldn’t stop crying.

It took over two hours to get me sorted with enough supplies to last for a long while and return to my room. I had been glad to finally be alone, and went about unloading everything. I thought about what I might do as I sorted the new clothes and hung them. I could stay here. I wanted to stay here.

Zero had snuck in a couple goodies when neither Duncan nor I had been watching. Snacks. Sodas. Body lotion. And, for some odd reason, bright red hair dye. It had taken me all of two minutes to decide to use the dye, and I scurried into the bathroom. The first thing I did was chop off my hair. I hated it long, but agilisi had never let me cut it any shorter than the middle of my back. I hacked it into a messy pixie cut that exposed my neck. Then I turned the red dye on my bangs. I snacked while it set. The Doritos and Mountain Dew were like ambrosia after going twenty-four hours without food. I showered, dressed in my new pajamas, and fell into bed, thoroughly exhausted.

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