Southbrook Academy Book 1: Valen

By KJ Southworth All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Romance

Memories

Day rapidly descended into evening, leaving the teenagers with a gnawing hunger. Together, they walked to the nearest fast food restaurant, ordered, and marched back to Sedge’s room. Valen refused to let either of them out of her sight.

Over the past few hours, her subconscious had loosened its iron grip on her memories. Her mother’s careworn face, her sibling’s raucous laughter, and her father’s scarred hands all swam before her, each triggering waves of delight and longing.

But she did not remember magic.

It was discouraging. She only had the memory of Ivan and Sedge hanging broken in the air to confirm she had been a caster in the other dimension. But when she asked them further questions about being a scribe, her head began to spin and her stomach twisted with nausea.

That part was irrevocably locked away.

Instead, Valen chose to ask about shifting.

“Fringe magic,” Ivan answered immediately with a dismissive scoff. Sitting at Sedge’s desk, he had devoured two double cheeseburgers and was about to sink his teeth into a third. “His family wouldn’t give it up, no matter their misfortune.”

Misfortune?” Valen echoed.

“At least one person from every generation lost to their experiments for over three hundred years,” Ivan obliged. “His parents were the last ones to go missing.”

“Your parents?” Mouth agape, Valen found herself staring at Sedge. Though they both wished there was no distance between them, she sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed while he leaned against the plain wooden headboard.

Sedge shot Ivan a look of irritation. “They shifted and never came back.”

“Very few actually do,” Ivan added condescendingly. “How old were you when they shifted? Eight? Nine? They managed to take their entire house with them, too. He was at school when it happened; imagine walking home to find it gone. It was enough of a shock for Sedge to swear off the family trade.”

Valen felt Sedge’s ire rising. He turned to Ivan, a nearly imperceptible growl rumbling in his chest. “That’s something your family just won’t leave alone, is it? You’ve been harassing us ever since.”

Confused, Valen looked to Ivan to fill in the blanks.

“My family has been monitoring the magic on our side of the country ever since the original casters invited us to live there,” Ivan explained. “It’s our job to keep the insensate out of our business. Kind of hard to do when houses disappear.”

“Insensate…?” Valen was having trouble keeping up, but she was determined to try. “Are those people who can’t connect with the ether?”

Ivan nodded. “Let’s just say our families have been at odds for centuries.”

Yet again, Valen felt Sedge’s anger growing. Unwilling to set off another fight, she decided to change the subject as best she could.

“Do people always stay in the family trade?” She took a sip of her lemonade and rejoiced when Sedge relaxed. “It sounds like family’s really important to casters.”

“It is if you live in Southbrook,” Sedge said. He rolled his eyes as he crumpled a fast food wrapper. “That place is stuck in the past.”

“Southbrook?” Valen couldn’t contain her excitement. “Is it the same town?”

“Parallel dimension,” he confirmed. “Basically the same town, same people, same buildings, same institutions, similar history, only… with magic. Southbrook is an insular place. The Academy caters to the blessed families.”

“For good reason,” Ivan interjected. “It’s by far the best school for casters in the country. The town is a haven.”

“And his family pretty much rules it.”

Ivan eyed Sedge imperiously. “Because we’ve never had an insensate born into our family. Every last one of us is a blessed caster, no matter where our talents lie. Who else would you want protecting our rights and lives?”

“Right, right.” Sedge waved him off. “I’ve heard it all before. You know, being blessed doesn’t automatically qualify you for leadership. Southbrook traditions smother new talent. They need to modernize.”

“Feel free to drop out anytime you’d like,” Ivan offered with a superior smirk, scoffing at Sedge’s opinion. “I’ll ask them to fast track the paperwork.”

Sedge quirked an eyebrow in annoyance. “We both know I didn’t choose to go there.”

Valen watched them bicker in silent amusement. This was obviously an old, well-worn argument. Repressing a small laugh, she intervened. “What is a blessed caster?”

“An antiquated way of deciding who makes the important decisions for all casters,” Sedge answered.

“They’re the most respected people amongst casters,” Ivan corrected. “Very few insensates are born into their families, if any at all. Every last one has powerful abilities that go beyond anything a middler can accomplish.”

It was Sedge’s turn to scoff. “You really think middlers are beneath you, don’t you?”

“Dare I ask…?” Valen shot them a look of mild annoyance. “Slow down a little, okay?”

Ivan’s expression softened when he met her gaze. “Middlers are the casters that only have paltry access to the ether. Their power is limited to smaller tasks.”

“They also make up the better portion of the caster population,” Sedge added. He laid on his back across the bed. “They’re the ones who risk their lives in the Schorl ranks; they make sacrifices to protect everyone from spellbinders.”

A peculiar surge of energy tingling at the base of her spine made Valen gasp; it felt like fingers travelling up and down her back.

Closing her eyes against the chilling sensation, she smelled something familiar in the air. Was it perfume? No, potpourri. The rousing scent of lavender and rose petals mingled with the smell of varnish and chalk dust.

Pens and quills scratched against paper. She sat at her desk in Mr. Lee’s history class. On the blackboard, he had written the word SCHORL in white chalk. The dedicated teacher listened intently as a student whispered in his ear, so Valen let her mind wander…

Curled up in her antique desk, she studied a scribing spell carved into its light surface; the jagged swirls and symbols meant it would never cast. Tracing the imperfect lines, she glanced around the room and admired the eclectic furniture.

Before Southbrook Academy, she’d attended insensate schools and she couldn’t imagine ever going back. This place was way too much fun. Each classroom was intimately linked with the teacher’s casting skills and personality. Mr. Lee loved old, deep green chalkboards and stone carvings found in ancient elven tombs. The walls reflected this partiality and displayed the sophisticated artistry beneath the haphazard rows of history texts. Even the sharp, earthy smell of an underground cavern wafted through the air.

He also cared deeply for the students; his magic altered each desk to reflect the person sitting in it. As a result, Valen’s was made from weathered ash and covered with cryptic markings.

There was nothing she enjoyed more than a mystery or solving an unusual puzzle.

Mr. Lee’s pulpit, however, was the most beautiful piece in the room. Plaited with white-gold, it was stylishly inlaid with the precious stones the elven monarchs had favoured. Graceful swirls of light danced across its surface. When he spoke, it glowed pleasantly, mirroring his love for teaching.

But even though history was her favourite subject, Valen’s interest waned. Everyone knew about the Schorl so she didn’t have any interest in studying them. If she had cut class, she could have explored the old ruins under the school or investigated the cave she’d stumbled upon near the brook in the forest.

But she’d come to class, so she was stuck.

“All right,” Mr. Lee began, smoothing his wispy black beard. He fixed his students with a teasing glare. “I know the Spring Honouring starts after this class. Who actually bothered to read the assigned pages?”

“It was harsh to assign us work.” Omar sat directly to her right in a sleek, frameless glass desk. He had organized a protest, and his eyes gleamed with mischief. “In a show of student solidarity, we all decided to ignore the reading.”

Mr. Lee leaned onto his glittering pulpit and laughed heartily. “This is Year Three, and there’s no one over the age of fifteen. I guarantee—some of you caved.”

“Not possible,” Omar countered. He seemed confident the others had kept their promise. “We all agreed it was cruel and unusual punishment. We may need your signature to leave campus, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept your assignments.”

“Okay, I suggest a little competition.” Mr. Lee gazed playfully over the class. His own spirits were high from the students’ excitement. The Spring Honouring was a treasured vacation, and everyone was ready to enjoy their week of freedom. “I have a question for everyone in the class. Write down the answer. If you get it right, I’ll sign your dismissal form. Everyone else, congratulations! You have to stay for the lecture.”

The crescendo of teenaged groans had Mr. Lee snorting in amusement. Some students conjured pens and paper from the ether while others opened their spell books to a blank page. Much like the desks, no two books looked exactly the same. As their abilities grew, the spines and covers harmonized with the caster’s talents.

Valen’s, however, was still plain. Only two people in the faculty knew she was a scribe and they were closely monitoring her abilities. Her standard-issue Southbrook Academy spell book had been altered so it wouldn’t reflect that particular talent. Lacking in any other abilities, her cover remained an unembellished, nondescript dark leather. The other students had stopped gawking after Winter Celebration, but she was still embarrassed every time she took it out of her school bag.

Opening it to a blank page, she clicked her pen. Once she had written the answer, it would automatically appear on a page in Mr. Lee’s spell book.

Only the students who had broken the pact were eager to write the answer.

Valen sighed in defeat when she heard the question. Instead of doing her homework, she’d had been up all night fusing spells into her spelunking equipment. Although Southbrook Academy officially frowned upon combining magic and technology—labeling it fringe magic—she had grown fond of the practice. But it’s taboo reputation meant there was only one other student who openly admitted to experimenting with technomancy. But he wasn’t the friendly type, so she’d never spoken with him.

Directly in front of Valen, Fabiola sat in a bush blooming straight from the classroom floor, resplendent with deep pink flowers. Every time she shifted, a branch moved with her, keeping her safe and comfortable. With a triumphant wave of her hand, she dismissed her pen into the ether, jumped from her botanic desk, and grabbed her book bag. The smell of magic-infused potpourri she carried in her pocket—a common witchery spell for curing a cold—wafted over Valen.

“Sorry, Omar,” Fabiola called without a trace of shame. “Spring calls to me; I cannot ignore its youthful blush.”

Traitor,” Omar called after her. His mouth dropped open; in a flourish of charcoal grey uniforms, three quarters of the class began packing up their school bags . “It’s a good thing I never trusted any of you the begin with.”

Valen laughed as Omar quickly scribbled the answer before shoving his spell book into his bag. “Not even the fearless leader stayed true.”

“You didn’t read it?” Omar asked. He had the decency to look sheepish. They weren’t exactly friends, but chatted whenever they met on campus. “I didn’t think anyone would stick to the plan.”

“No worries.” Valen waved off his concerned expression. “I got caught up last night. Even without the pact, I wouldn’t have read it.”

Omar still looked a little ashamed, but a tall, imposing figure interrupted their chat.

Glancing up, Valen flashed Ivan an impish smile. There was so much activity in the classroom he couldn’t move beyond Omar, who was waiting for Sorcia to get herself in order. Considering how clumsy she was, it would take some time.

As usual, Ivan pointedly avoided Valen’s lively gaze. His imperious yet nonchalant way of holding himself lent a confidence to his bearing many accomplished casters had yet to attain. Because of his blessed background and soaring magical talents, most students looked up to him.

Valen, however, thought he was a terrible snob.

“How are you, Aiko?” She knew it was risky to tease him, but she’d heard his elder brother use his nickname at the beginning of the year and had been needling him with it ever since. “You must be happy you read the pages.”

Ivan gave her the briefest of glances. “And you didn’t. As a middler, disappointing results are one of your strong suits. It’s good of you to live up to everyone’s expectations.”

“I do seem to excel at that,” Valen agreed. His snide put-downs never fazed her. It had been clear from the start they had completely different ideas of what success and happiness looked like. “I hope you enjoy the break.”

A pathway to the front of the room opened and Ivan took it without a backward glance. Smirking, Valen readied herself for Mr. Lee’s lesson.

Omar had watched their exchange with unconcealed fascination.“You two don’t like each other at all, do you?” He lingered at Valen’s desk. “Is it a good idea to annoy someone like him? I mean, his family is pretty powerful.”

Valen shrugged and offered him a goofy smile. “I can’t seem to help myself.”

When Mr. Lee finally got back to his lesson, she realized she wanted to listen; bantering with Ivan had that effect on her. It awakened an impish energy that made the most boring tasks diverting. Brushing a hand through her multicoloured hair, she gave Mr. Lee her full attention.

“All right, let’s talk about Schorl Yolanda Weir, the fourteenth century scholar,” Mr. Lee began, his pulpit glowing warmly. “Everyone already knows she was the first ever insensate born into a blessed family; so why do we need to study her?”

A student sitting in an oak desk carved with acorns and covered in druidic runes offered her grumpy reply. “Because of how important her work was.”

“That’s definitely part of it,” Mr. Lee agreed. “Her books and ideas changed relations between insensates and casters forever, ushering in a new era for humankind. Most know of her experiments with wards and household concoctions, meant to protect insensates from magic. Her theories of using non-magical means to counteract spells were revolutionary. But it’s also important to understand the fear her insensate birth evoked in the caster subconscious.”

Mr. Lee placed a finger on his temple for emphasis and paused when he saw his students’ incredulous looks.

Fear?” a boy in a pure gold desk repeated in the front row.

“That’s right.” Mr. Lee grinned at the disbelief in his student’s tone. “Before her, it was considered impossible for a blessed family to have insensate children. We take it for granted now, don’t we? An insensate can be born into a caster family, a caster can be born into an insensate family. Even the blessed aren’t free from this phenomenon. But back then, this had never happened in a blessed family. It was unprecedented and terrifying.”

Valen smiled as her teacher enlivened the students with this knowledge. Some of them sat straighter, fully engaged with the subject. But an overwhelming sense of déjà vu scrambled her senses. The more she tried to concentrate, the more she couldn’t understand. Clinging to her desk, she stared hard at Mr. Lee as he wrote something down on the chalkboard. But the room was spinning; she couldn’t read the words.

This has already happened.

Clasping her hands tightly in her lap, she waited for the disorienting sensation to stop. When she blinked, the classroom was gone.

She was back with Ivan and Sedge, who were still arguing. A rush of other memories from Third Year at Southbrook Academy flowed into her. In the span of a moment, she went from classroom to classroom, the vastness of magic’s possibilities burgeoning within her charcoal-clad peers.

And she’d been an unruly eccentric with failing grades who rarely went to class! It was such a stunning contrast to who she was in this dimension.

“Third Year. They count backwards, so seniors are in First Year.” Shooting Ivan a wicked smile, she waited until he gave her his full attention. “You were a total snob, and you despised me.”

Turning red, he struggled for words.

“Got those memories back, did you?” Sedge was unable to contain his mirth. “He’d rather you didn’t.” Oddly enough, his expression softened when he saw his rival’s shame-filled expression. “His hatred didn’t last. And I shouldn’t laugh; I wasn’t exactly a gentleman around you either.”

“I… don’t remember you yet,” Valen said, apologetically. They locked gazes, and she felt their deep connection flare to life once more.

It was so strange, having two lives come together. According to Sedge, however, she hadn’t had a life in this dimension to begin with. She was just regaining the only one she’d ever had. How was it possible her memories from this world were a fantasy?

“You said I chose this dimension.” For some reason, the hair on the back of her neck was raised. She felt Sedge stiffen as he tuned in to her uneasiness. “How does that make any sense? Your family studied cross-dimensional-shifting, or whatever you call it. Wouldn’t you have been the caster?”

His face lost all expression as he gazed up at the ceiling. “There’s no way it was me.”

“So you claim,” Ivan shot under his breath.

“It takes an ungodly amount of power to shift,” Sedge protested. He kept staring at the ceiling. “I’ve always been a middler.”

“There are ways to boost your powers if you want to,” Ivan argued. “Not to mention you were born into a blessed family. Everyone at school knew you hadn’t come into your full strength yet.”

His words made Sedge chuckle. “I don’t want that kind of responsibility.”

“Which is why you’ll never amount to much,” Ivan charged.

Exasperated with their hostility, Valen put her hands up to silence them. “My question hasn’t been answered. So if Sedge and I shifted at the same time and he says he didn’t have the amount of power needed, then that means… I must have done it? But, according to my memories, I’m barely even a middler. How did I do it?”

Ivan casually leaned his chair backward. Balancing on the back legs, he waited for Sedge to meet his intense gaze. “You going to field this one or leave it to me?”

Deep in thought, Sedge let out an uneasy sigh. “Ivan and I have different theories about what happened. ”

“Okay.” Valen gave Sedge her full attention. “Why are you having trouble talking about it?”

“In our dimension, you were more than just a caster, Valen,” Sedge explained. He sat up and fixed her with a serious gaze before continuing. “You’re what’s known as an eidolon.”

There was that word again.

Sunshine after weeks of rain.

She was swept into another memory, but this time as a spectator.

Mrs. Talbot stood in her office with a pained expression. The normally overly-bright room swirled with planets and stars. Perfect circles, divided into twelve pieces and littered with symbols, covered the walls. The middle-aged teacher was swaddled in a dove grey robe embroidered with silver spider webs. Auburn hair streaked with white was piled atop her head. Face set in serious lines, it looked like she was lecturing a shocked student. But Valen was unable to hear what she was saying.

It took her a moment to realize the student was herself—that she was the one quivering with sorrow, that this moment had changed her entire existence.

“I remember…”

A moment later, she was back in Sedge’s room. Reaching backward with her mind, she tried to hold onto the memory. “Back then, I knew what I wanted. I was going to travel the world, explore the ancient ruins, speak with shapeshifters guarding fey tombs. I was learning to read and write the forgotten languages, learning spells to help me in dark places. It gave me fire, made me bold, made life… exciting.”

She held Sedge’s gaze and felt an intense light shoot through her soul. Elation graced her features. Her dream was why she accepted the offer to attend Southbrook Academy. She had a passion for antiquity and the ancients, forgotten cultures and cities that had ascended to myth. There was no better way to get into a caster archeology program than through Southbrook.

But that moment in Mrs. Talbot’s star-strewn office had ruined everything.

Unlike most of the students attending Southbrook, Valen knew what an eidolon was. They were mentioned in the ancient fey myths she devoured in the school’s library.

Again, Valen was swept back into the memory. Still a spectator, she was strangely present, as though she were physically there. She watched the girl try to hold back her tears, ached for her as she slowly lost the battle. Her jaw-length, multicoloured hair was slowly changing from bright pastels to inky black and electric yellow.

I remember, she thought, eyes brimming with tears as she watched the scene. Third Year, in illusion class… I was supposed to cast a spell that gave the impression I looked different. But I ended up permanently infusing my hair with sensitivity magic. It changed colour with my moods.

“Valen, please...” Mrs. Talbot knelt at the girl’s side and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Mr. Lee and I thought it was best to say something. We’re researching, trying to understand what this all means before we decide who to tell.”

Nobody,” the girl whispered. Her voice sounded preternatural, as though it wasn’t hers. Eyes widening in fear, she placed a hand over her mouth. “This isn’t real. I need Ivan, please.”

Heart breaking, Valen reached a hand out and took a step toward her doppelgänger. Her former self suddenly looked straight at her. Their gazes locked and they stared at each other in shocked silence. Tears streamed down the girl’s face as she stared at the person she would one day become.

I was sitting in that chair, crying, Valen thought, when I saw a strange person….

The quivering girl reached out and took Valen’s hand. In that moment, the two felt their resolve burst forth from their fear and confusion. Their fingers gently explored and caressed, leaving them both shaken yet stronger.

Valen studied the strange yet wholly familiar face.“We’re not alone.”

A small but brave smile lit the girl’s face. “Thank you.”

Unsure what else to say, Valen shrugged helplessly.

When she had been sitting in the chair, gazing up at herself, the vision had wafted away, as though it were made from vapour. This time, the office became a flash of light that catapulted her back to her body.

“Valen?”

Sedge had his hands on her shoulders. He sounded scared, vulnerable, and her heart twisted in sorrow. “Where are you?”

His warm hands on her body brought her back to herself. Focusing on his bright grey eyes, she brought a hand up to caress his face. The energy that invoked made them both sigh in contentment.

He visibly relaxed and dropped his voice to a whisper. “There you are.”

“I still don’t remember you,” Valen whispered back. “Where are you?”

Ivan cleared his throat. He stood next to Sedge, hands clenched in frustration. Turning away from their tender moment, he shoved his fists into his pockets and stared out the window. “An eidolon,” he stated, jumping back into their conversation. “Mythological casters who heralded the coming of a new era.”

“No, that isn’t right,” Valen said. She felt another memory scratching at her. A hollow gaze, devoid of life and passion, assaulted her mind. Yelping in fear, she flung it back into her subconscious. Sedge took her hand in concern as she wrestled with her terror. “I-I don’t think I’m ready for that one.”

“Then take a break,” he instructed. He scrutinized Ivan, who was still pointedly staring out the window. “He still has a few days before those marks fade completely.”

“I don’t want to take a break,” Valen said, invoking her indomitable will. She was too invested to stop. “I want to know how we got here. What’s the first theory?”

“No single person possesses the kind of power needed to shift into another dimension,” Ivan offered, turning back toward them. “You were an eidolon, but still maturing. Once you reach your full potential, that might change. But at the time you disappeared, it wasn’t possible. His family used relics and crystals, scribing and various spells to augment their abilities.”

“So I must have done the same,” Valen surmised.

“Sorry,” Ivan said, holding her inquisitive gaze. He ran a hand through his hair as he considered his next words. “The Schorl scoured the place where you both disappeared, but there was no evidence of augmentation. We found your backpack and Sedge’s, but nothing of interest inside them. But it looked like there had been an epic duel.”

“Duel.” Valen’s eyes lit up in understanding. “A battle between two casters!”

“First thought,” Ivan continued, “your life was threatened, and shifting is how you escaped.”

“But, without relics and such…?” Valen looked to Ivan to finish the thought.

“You had something far more precious to draw on,” Ivan claimed. He looked to Sedge. “Your turn.”

Sedge was obviously disturbed and had trouble looking at either of them. “I’m... your familiar.”

Images of black cats, toads, newts, and ravens flashed through Valen’s mind. “Um…that’s…”

“Abnormal,” Ivan confirmed, “and not something Sedge took to.”

At first,” Sedge qualified. “I didn’t take to it at first.”

“An animal as a familiar gives a caster incredible power,” Ivan said. “Imagine what a person does.”

“That makes so much sense!” Valen cried. Jumping to her feet, she excitedly thought back to the memory of racing to Sedge’s aid, terrified he was going to be killed. “We were in danger. With Sedge’s knowledge of shifting, it must have been our only option.”

Ivan’s expression darkened as he studied Sedge. “Maybe.”

“What else could it be?”

“Second theory,” Sedge said, his face twisted in anger. “As a human familiar, I was able to direct your magic if you allowed it. Ivan thinks I lured you into a battle so I could convince you to let us shift. I was the only one with the knowledge, so in his mind, I must have been the caster. Because I hated being your familiar and wanted to find my parents, he figures I helped your enemies get rid of you without them having to commit murder.”

He met and held Ivan’s suspicious stare. Caught between them, Valen considered Ivan’s accusation. Her incomplete memory didn’t exactly negate his theory, but then—

Feeling ill, she fell back onto the bed. “...What do you mean enemies?”


This story shall be continued in the prequel:

Ivan

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