The Archfiend Artifact

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41

SAATHOFF ACADEMY, DARK MOON PORT, MABON CITY

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25
9:16 AM


I didn’t want to go traipsing through the ship with my wild bedhead and yesterday’s dirt still clinging to my skin (It’s bad for the rep). So I got cleaned up first and climbed into some fresh clothing. Then I took the stairs up to the cafeteria deck.

Okay, I admit; I was putting off talking to Aiden because I was dreading it. Everything that happened to her these past few days was my fault. The jocks beating her up. The Shadow shackling her. Worst of all, I had killed her sister.

Because of me.

No apology in the world could make up for that.

“I might as well try fixing a broken dam with a band-aid,” I grimly muttered, pausing before the threshold to the cafeteria.

The place was practically empty save a dozen or so students who had shoved some of the tables together near the middle of the room. Globules of water danced around them in acrobatic feats as they talked over a tabletop game and snacks. I spotted Zero among them, lazily waving her hand while chatting with the girl seated beside her.

Aiden.

She was munching on Doritos and Mountain Dew, completely at ease despite Zero’s obvious use of hydrokinesis. Her wounds didn’t look as bad as I had been expecting, though the skin around her nose and eyes were dark purple. She sported a Saathoff Academy tee shirt and sweats, and the cast on her arm had been replaced with a clean splint.

She must have felt my stare for she looked right at me. When we locked eyes, I felt like a gunfighter in the Old West, staring down the sheriff until the clock tower struck noon. I half expected a tumbleweed to bounce its way across our path. She broke eye contact first, muttered something to Zero. The water’s tumbling gymnastics paused long enough for Aiden to bow out gracefully, and she started for me.

I worked up the courage to cross the threshold. Every step after that felt like my shoes had been turned to lead. I didn’t want to face Aiden, but I couldn’t run away from her either.

We met beside a table.

I braced myself.

“Hey, Cybil,” she said softly, clasping her hands behind her back and digging the toe of her shoe into the floor.

“Hey.”

“I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

That… Wasn’t what I had been expecting. Where’s the screaming? The hitting? The crying? That’s what I deserved; Not a ‘glad to see you’.

She pulled out a chair and slumped onto it with a sigh. “I’m sorry you got dragged into our family squabble.”

Wait. What?

She wiped at her eyes. “I knew Anjie wanted revenge against Missus Santova for the accident. For our mother. I tried to stop her. Just like I tried to stop her from killing those boys. It was her fault. She abandoned me at the mall and those boys found me.”

Holy crap! I knew Anjie was a witch— in every sense of the word— but abandoning her little sister at the mall was a despicable move. At least it explained why Aiden snuck aboard the ship in the middle of the night. She knew Zero and had sought her help.

Aiden choked on a sob. “I’m so sorry. It wasn’t fair to you.”

I melted down onto the chair beside her. For several long moments, all I could do was stare at her in awe. Here she was, apologizing to me when I was the one who should be sorry.

I hung my head, swallowed the lump in my throat. “Aiden, you don’t owe me anything. Not after what I did.”

“Are you kidding me? You saved my life.”

“At the cost of your sister’s.”

Aiden sighed. “I know I should be sad, but I’m not. I know it makes me sound like a bad person, but I…” She looked me in the eye and continued in a harder tone. “I just don’t care. She abused me all my life, and she tried to kill you, me, and my daddy, so, I guess, she got what she deserved.” Her expression softened. “And it’s not like you knew those things were gonna go after her when you broke that weird mirror. I can’t blame you for that.”

I hadn’t realized I was crying until Aiden wrapped me in a tight hug. It wasn’t an obnoxious, loud bawl—I’ve never cried like that—just a quiet release. After all the stress of the last week, it felt good to take a load off. It only took me a minute or two to calm down.

I broke the hug. “Anjie really left you at the mall?”

Aiden wiped away a stray tear with the back of her hand, nodded. “She was supposed to bring me home when she got off work at eight-thirty. I waited until the mall closed, but she never showed. I couldn’t get daddy on the phone ’cause he was at work, and I didn’t have enough money for bus or cab fare, so I ended up walking. I talked to her boss, and he said Anjie didn’t come in after school like she was scheduled.”

After school? That was around the time I had seen the Crosses’ station wagon on the way to the Palisades. The Shadow attacked us there shortly after. It would have taken Anjelah at least that long to drive from the school to Cynthia’s mansion. And I could swear that Anjie was the same height and build as the mystery lady caught on the phone at the truck stop the night before that.

“Anyway.” She waved her hand. “I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that Anjie was a black witch.”

I didn’t expect Aiden to be so forthcoming about it, but… “Is that what you wanted to tell me the other day? Before those jocks showed up?”

“Sorta,” she said. “I saw you Grounding in homeroom, and figured we had something in common. Very interesting technique, by the way.”

I quirked an eyebrow at her.

She grinned. “Mama was a green witch. I eavesdropped while she taught Anjie about her abilities. Too bad Anjie chose to dip into black magick.”

“So you know all about parathropes and cowans?” A rhetorical question seeing as how Aiden was friends with Zero and knew about Paradox’s underground nightclub.

“Yeah. And I also know you’re an AEON Enforcement Agent.”

It may not have been entirely true, but I didn’t correct her. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it had something to do with my pride. Or, perhaps, it was because it gave me an excuse to not blame myself for what happened to Anjelah.

I just hoped that the guilt I felt would eventually wash away.

Before I could tell Aiden that, Zero came running up. “Come on!” she called, grabbing our hands. “We’re fixing to start a new campaign, and you guys need to be there to help us beat the dragons.”

I laughed and sat down to make some friends.

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