The Archfiend Artifact

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6:43 AM

That phone had started to ring. The special one she kept in the solarium. The one with the Victorian style base and the mouthpiece that reminded her of a shower head. Only two people in the world had the number to that phone, and if either of them were calling, the news had to be dire. She hesitated to answer it. Perhaps the fears that had been plaguing her in recent days would not come to fruition if the call went unanswered.

A foolish thought, but it gave her a moment’s hope.

At long last, she picked up the receiver. By some miracle, she managed to hold the phone to her ear despite the trembling of her hands. She tried to sound casual as she spoke into it, but her voice came out small and timid.

The voice on the other end spoke quietly. Calmly.

She lamented, falling into the chair beside the phone. Nothing could be done to save her. Even if she had had the time to counter the magick—if that’s what it truly was—she had no guarantee it would work. She could already feel the power beginning to build up around her. It charged the air with a primal energy even as it settled into her bones with a chill.

Static swallowed the voice on the other end of the line. Then the call disconnected completely.

The phone clattered to the floor.

I bolted upright with a wordless cry. Minutes must have ticked by while I sat there, gasping for air and trying to slow my racing heartbeat. Visions rarely left me in such a state of panic like this. The ones that did were often the results of something terribly evil. But this one felt more like a thunderstorm rolling in. A dark, cold super cell.

Could it have been the mirror?

I sighed, rubbed my eyes. “I need to find that stupid thing.”

I cast a glance to the clock on my nightstand. Holy crap! I slept way longer than I thought. Oh well. At least I felt a bit better.

My stomach rumbled in disagreement.

I tore myself from my bed, crossed the room to the sofa. The bag of goodies that Zero had snuck me lay on the farthest cushion. But as I began to reach for something, I spotted the clothes I had worn to Paradox last night. No, wait; the night before. All this sleeping weird hours is confusing me. I never did get to spend any of the money I had pocketed. And I longed for something more than just snack foods.

With my mind made up, I quickly washed and dressed. Blue jeans and an anime tee shirt were the flavors of the day as far as style was concerned. I’d probably stick out even if I wore one of those pristine school uniforms to match the other kids. At least this way, I had pockets to stuff my money and room key into.

I heard voices as I made my way to the elevators, silently counted them as each spoke. A quartet. All students. And they were discussing an assignment for some history class.

Aren’t they up a bit early?

I drew to a stop just before the hallway spilled out into the lounge area. The elevators were situated directly across from where the students had gathered. I’d have to face being seen if I wanted to get anywhere, but I didn’t want to cause another confrontation. The last one had been bad enough.

But my rumbling stomach refused to let me slip back to my room until it had had a real meal.

So I swallowed my anxiety and calmly stepped from the shadows.

The kids didn’t so much as look my way.

Relieved, I made for the elevators and pressed the button to summon one. I silently counted as I waited. At twenty-seven, the doors opened with their chime, and I stepped inside. I discovered a directory hanging on the wall to my right. How I had missed that the last few times I rode the lift, I didn’t know. But now I could easily make my way to the cafeteria on A Deck.

The car stopped once during its climb, but the trio who had been about to join me decided it’d be better if they took a different elevator. Whatever. At least they hadn’t freaked out and started screaming.

How could I have been so stupid?

I punched my reflection in the elevator’s door.

Hi. I’m a demon. Won’t you be my friend? Idiot!

I punched my reflection again.

And here I thought I had finally found a place where I could actually fit in. Heck, I had everything I have ever wanted right here on this ship. Everything. Except my parents.

The elevator eventually slowed to a stop, chimed with the doors’ opening. A group of students stood in waiting. They had been chatting excitedly about something, but went quiet one by one as each of them took notice of me. It quickly turned into the most awkward silence I had ever been in.

The crowd parted like a split log as I stepped forward and off of the elevator. I battled the sudden urge to beat the snot out of the lot of them, kept my emotions hidden behind a blank mask. Maybe if I played it cool, they wouldn’t be so nervous around me.

Yeah. Right. And all my wishes will come true.

Well, I guess, in a weird sort of way, two of them already had. I had freed myself of agilisi, which allowed me to become deputized as a cop. So, perhaps, I had a chance to make friends here. Even one or two would be more than I had ever had.

Then I caught a whiff of roasting meats, and my thoughts turned away from my social problems. My mouth watered as I drew closer to the source of the great smells: a trio of gilded double doors.

I stopped at the threshold, awestruck. The dining hall looked like it belonged in some fairy tale palace, not in a cruise ship. It had two levels, with the upper one being supported by wide, gilded columns. Enormous windows ran floor to ceiling, giving a spectacular view of the sunrise-lit harbor as it emptied into the Atlantic. One huge chandelier dangled in a cone of crystals from the center of the ceiling, drawing the eye back down to the several white linen-covered tables.

Students of all ages occupied some of the tables. Some ate. Others were bent over books, studying. A handful were playing a tabletop game, and I recognized Necro among them. I also recognized Zero when I spotted her winding her way though the tables and towards me. I mentally prepared myself for the worst.

She stopped her approach just out of arm’s reach. “What’s up?”

What’s up? That hadn’t been on my list of things to expect. I hadn’t prepared to answer something like that, so I merely shrugged a shoulder.

Her weight shifted. “I just wanted to ask—”

“Yes, I really am half Shadow demon.”

She made a face. “That’s cool.”

I quirked an eyebrow.

“What? You expecting me to freak out like Felicity and her ilk?”

“Well, yeah.” I frowned thoughtfully. “Isn’t that how people are supposed to treat a demon?”

“Naw, girl. Half the people on this ship probably have a demon ancestor of some type or another. I know I do. You’re just not as diluted as the rest of us.”

I felt my lips form an Oh, but no sound came out. She really didn’t mind my demon heritage? I didn’t know what to say to that. All this time, I had felt like an evil leper. Nobody wanted to be around me, and they certainly didn’t know how to take me. Then Zero walks up like I’m just a normal girl. Could I be looking at my first friend?

Don’t get ahead of yourself.

“Besides,” she continued. “That’s not what I wanted to ask you.”

“Okay.” I drew the word out, stressing my uncertainty in the situation. What else would someone who had heard the rumors about me ask me?

“Yeah. I wanted to know if you’ve enrolled yet.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

It must have shown on my face as she replied, “Still not sure, huh?”

I shrugged.

“Family in the area?”

What would make her guess that?

“Yeah, that’d do it,” she said. “But you can’t let that fear control you or your decisions. You’ll spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder.”

I got the impression she spoke from personal experience. “What made you stay?”

She rocked back on her heels, smiled. “Honestly? My brother. He fell in love with the classes the school offered and the way the staff made us feel like we were part of a family. We had never had that before.”

Same here.

“But, hey, if this place is too close to your old life for you to feel comfortable, you can always look into one of the other four schools.”

I stared at her for a few beats, trying to let that information sink in. “I thought this was the only one.”

“Girl,” she chuckled. “You’ve got a lot to learn about this world.”

I had been about to agree with her when an Asian boy at the gaming table called out to Zero in a language I didn’t know. She shot him an impatient look, replied in the same language. As I studied the boy’s features, I couldn’t help but notice how much he looked like Zero. In fact, I could only spot two differences: his hair had been buzzed short and the dragon on his arm had been inked in scarlet instead of blue.

They were twins.

If Zero could control water, and her dragon is blue, does red mean he could control fire?

Zero looked back at me with a weird, little smile. “Would you like to join us?”

I blinked. My gaze returned to the table of gamers behind her. Necro spotted me and gave a wave, which I sheepishly returned.

“We’re playing Dungeons and Dragons.”

“Uh. Thanks, but no.” I hooked a thumb towards the buffet line. “I’m just here to grab a bite. I have some work for Duncan that I need to get back to.”

“All right.” She backed up a couple of steps. “Take a good helping of the cherry coffee cake. It’s amazing!”

I grinned.

“Oh! And if you need anything, I’m on D2, room sixty-six.”

D2? That’s the same deck as me. And room sixty-six put her just a few doors away. I thanked her, watched for a moment as she rushed back to the table. I turned left and made for the buffet line.

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