As soon as Jeanette walked into the bar, she saw the vampire she’d fight tonight. There he was, pressed up against the polished wooden bench, leaning forward, leering at the bar mistress. His teeth might be hidden, but she could feel them under the surface of his gums, his greed wrapping around them like chains.
Jeanette wore a black vest, a brown jacket, and tight combat pants. If anyone had bothered to look, they would’ve realized she was trouble. Instead, they kept their eyes on each other.
A little over 75 percent of the patrons in this venue were mundane. The rest were magical. While most just wanted to get by, just needed a drink and a snack before they braved the world out there again, the rest were here for real food.
Jeanette sidled up to the side of the vamp just as he fixed his leering gaze on the bar mistress again. The vamp couldn’t be too old – barely over 18, if Jeanette was any guess.
At least his body was barely over 18. Who knew how old his mind was?
It was a disconcerting experience though, especially for the bar mistress, who had to be well into her thirties.
“You going to order a drink or what, love?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, a sick smile sprawling over his lips like a city that didn’t know when to stop. “We’ll get to the drinking part later.”
He shot her a sanctimonious look. It made Jeanette want to reach over, curl a hand into a fist, then smash it across his jaw. While she was there, why not reach for one of the forbidden weapons in her magic portal, ram it up against his neck, and ask him to repeat that?
Oh yeah, because that would come later.
She kept her back straight, kept her feet firmly planted, and kept her eyes ahead. She didn’t need to lock them on the guy to track his every movement – both physical and magical. She could feel his force rippling out through him, just under the surface of his apparently perfect physique. He was like a deceptively clear pool – one that hid monsters within.
The guy kept leering at the bar mistress, even licked his teeth at one point. His vamp canines weren’t out, but given a thought – and half a drop of blood – they would surge forth from his gums and sink into the closest neck he could find.
Jeanette would ensure it wasn’t that bar mistress’s throat.
It sure as heck wouldn’t be Jeanette’s, either. Not if this vamp had any intention of living through the rest of the night.
She reached forward and drummed her fingers for a few seconds until she got the bar mistress’s attention, then Jeanette ensured she flattened a polite smile over her lips. She even twisted her gaze to the side, indicating the vamp before she rolled her eyes.
The bar mistress flicked Jeanette a knowing smile. “What can I get you?”
“Anything will do.”
The bar mistress went to reach for a glass, but then she looked Jeanette up and down. “How old are you, sweetie?”
“Old enough to know better,” Jeanette muttered under her breath, but the comment wasn’t about seeking out a much-needed drink at this dingy bar. Once more, she slid her gaze over to the vamp.
Jeanette repeated that statement in her head, and it echoed like a choir matching pace with wild drumbeats.
She was old enough to know better. She’d been doing this, hunting down vamps and other unsuspecting magical creatures, for years.
At some point, it would grow old, right? At some point, she’d trade this dangerous game in for another.
But that point would not come today. Or so Jeanette thought.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out her wallet, and threw it to the bar mistress.
The woman caught the wallet easily, fingers sliding around the smooth, old, dappled leather, and quickly assessed Jeanette’s age.
As she handed the wallet back, she gave Jeanette a once-over. “You look much younger than you are. What do you use on your skin?”
Pure revenge, Jeanette wanted to mutter back. Instead she flipped the wallet closed, slid it into her tight pocket, and shrugged. “I find the best way not to show your age is to look busy.”
The bar mistress shook her head. “Doesn’t work for everyone. Every time I’m rushed off my feet like this, I swear I age another year.”
“Best to cut that fragile life short, then, and give all that blood up to another,” the vamp muttered under his breath. No, it was nowhere near loud enough that the bar mistress with her human level of hearing would be able to pick it up, but Jeanette registered the muttered comments easily.
It made every muscle down her back turn rigid. It would’ve forced her to clutch her hands into fists, too, but instead she kept smiling at the bar mistress as she watched the vamp out of the corner of her eye.
As Jeanette had already said upon walking in here, 25 percent of the clientele were magical. That meant there were plenty of other people who could recognize this guy was a vamp.
And almost everybody who did quickly turned around and walked out. He wasn’t just any vamp. He was an Academy vamp.
She could tell that because the idiot was still wearing his school shirt. Yeah, it was tucked under a jacket, but Jeanette recognized that pristine magical white cotton and always would.
This city had one of the most prestigious magical academies in all of the country. Usually Jeanette couldn’t walk down the street for want of knocking into one of their students.
While their ordinary witch and wizard students were one thing, the vampire elite was another.
They formed the backbone of the school. Other magical races had only been let in 20 years ago. Some queried whether that was only so they could serve their vampire overlords. It wasn’t like vampires ever liked to mingle with those lower than them.
And it sure as heck wasn’t like they ever gave a crap about anyone else. While they sometimes had to tolerate the magical community, all bets were off when it came to humans. Yes, it was frowned upon to go on a killing spree. And you certainly wouldn’t want your antics to wind up in the paper too often, but if you were a powerful enough vamp, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted.
Unless you ran into Jeanette.
She slid her gaze up and down the guy once again, judging not just the glimpse of his school shirt beneath, but how many magical weapons he’d have onboard.
Not all magical races could fight with magical talismans. You had to be seriously powerful to begin with, which pretty much precluded some of the weaker races.
Most talisman fighters were vampires.
Jeanette wasn’t most fighters, and she sure as heck wasn’t a vampire.
Though not a single soul in the whole city would know this, she had some of the most important and rarest magical talismans in the country.
That’s what happened when you lived a life like hers. That’s what happened when you dedicated yourself, day in, day out, to finding every magical creep you could and relieving them of their power before moving onto the next target.
As the bar mistress poured a drink, Jeanette leaned in a little too close and nudged the vamp.
Until now, he’d ignored her, either unmoved by Jeanette’s relatively ordinary looks or incapable of noticing anything other than the bar mistress’s tasty throat. Now he snarled, his dark eyes narrowing.
“Who the hell do you think you are? You—”
“Crap, we’re out of whiskey. Hold on, sugar,” the bar mistress said to Jeanette. “I’ll just get some from out back.” She slid out from behind the bar, and the vamp’s attention scissored off Jeanette and locked onto her quicker than a photon ejected from the sun.
Jeanette could hear his teeth trying to push out from underneath the sheath of his gums. It was a spine-tingling sound. Jeanette would say there was nothing else akin to it in the entire natural world. But there was one sound that was worse. The moment the teeth actually protruded from the skin. You could play it to her a thousand times, and each time, her body would still react with the same stomach-sucking shake.
Better not to let it get to that stage, then.
Now completely ignoring her, the vamp shot one look at the other barman, muttered a quick magical spell under his breath that caused the guy’s mind to shut down momentarily, then jumped over the bar himself.
What a damn amateur, Jeanette thought to herself. As she’d pointed out twice before, 25 percent of the people in this bar were magical. And his quick spell hadn’t worked on a single one of them. They all saw as he shot over the bar, bloodlust widening his eyes.
But none of them saw the second Jeanette followed.
She had no intention of letting this guy do whatever he pleased.
When she was done with him….
Jeanette just smiled at that thought.
Rather than obviously jump over the bar, she twisted around, moved quickly through the room, and reached the front door. She slipped out of it, hit the street, half closed her eyes, and focused on the bar mistress. It wasn’t hard – all Jeanette had needed was to have one conversation with her, and now Jeanette’s magical senses had locked onto her like a military targeting radar.
She was in one of the storerooms at the back of the pub.
As for the vampire, he was currently prowling down the corridor to get to her.
When Jeanette reached the side of the building, she pushed into a run, every movement controlled, her muscles snapping and pumping like they belonged to some well-oiled machine.
And if there was one way you could describe Jeanette, it was just like that. Her body always knew what it had to do, so too did her mind, and importantly, so too did her magic.
As she ran around the back of the building, old shoes scrunching against the uneven cobbles, she reached into her magical pocket.
Not every practitioner could create one. She had to go back to the bit about races who could practice with talismans. A requirement to wield them was being able to hide them. You had to store them somewhere, and if you were dumb enough to keep them on your real physical body, some opportune magical fiend would just reach in and steal them. Better to place them in a pocket only you could ever access.
As Jeanette reached into hers, fingers easily parting through the air and accessing the pocket like someone opening a drawer in a kitchen, she concentrated until a dagger fell into her grip. Shiny, it looked like the moon condensed down into pure metal. It was so smooth to touch, Jeanette’s fingers could’ve slipped off. But she’d never once lost hold of a weapon, and she had never once lost a fight.
She reached the back of the bar. A small alleyway led to an overflowing dumpster, old bottles stacked up beside it for recycling. Some hadn’t been empty, and they leaked a pile of sticky, colored alcohol over the cracked asphalt.
The bricks beside it had either been splattered by one too many drunken spews, or this area never got any rain, because they practically bled mold. It marched up in these great horrifying patches that made Jeanette question whether she needed to get in a zoological expert here.
No time for that. Reaching the back door, she kicked it open, though she used a charge of magic to ensure that she didn’t break the handle or the lock.
When she was done here, she would slip into the shadows, and no one – including the vamp – would ever know what she’d done.
As she reached the corridor, it was to the sound of the vamp pushing into the storeroom.
Then there was that familiar surprised yelp. A very specific one. The one you always got when someone realized they were in trouble.
Maybe you could accuse Jeanette of making that up. No two people screamed the same. And no two dangerous situations were the same. Each would call for a different reaction from every person.
But there’s always this little moment when the brain catches up, when it forces the lungs to suck in a sudden, forceful breath. A moment when it realizes danger has just knocked on its door.
But Jeanette wouldn’t let this danger knock for long.
The bar mistress took another similar breath, then even from here, Jeanette could tell that she grabbed hold of her nerves. “… What the hell are you doing around here? This is only for—”
“Couldn’t resist. Sorry,” the vamp actually laughed. He would’ve sounded like a child, but one that came along with the sharp edge of the damned.
There was a whoosh, then the sound of the vampire pinning the bar mistress up against some wall.
Jeanette reached the closed door and kicked it open.
It didn’t explode. Well, not technically. That was to say when Jeanette was done with it, it wouldn’t hold on to its damage. But for now, it ruptured out in a blast of sparks and shards of wood.
Several of them dashed against the vampire as he twisted to stare at her, eyes wide, teeth finally protruding from his gums.
Fortunately the sound of the door exploding meant Jeanette didn’t have to put up with the god-awful noise of his teeth growing.
It was quickly followed up with a snarl then one single muttered word.
The vamp clicked his fingers, and a fireball appeared just over his short nails.
He was still pinning the bar mistress up against the chipped white painted wall, one clawed hand holding onto her blouse and throat.
At the sight of his fingers exploding into fire, she screamed once, but the sound could go nowhere.
Not only did the guy wrench his hand up and lock it over her mouth, but he cast a silence spell at the same time.
He also let his fireball out.
It shot towards Jeanette.
Jeanette stood there. She didn’t bring up an arm to defend herself. She just watched as if this was nothing more than a quaint documentary you might get on birds and flowers. In other words, utterly innocent and harmless.
The fireball reached her. It smashed into her chest. It was immediately dispersed by her greater magical system.
Magic brings order to the chaos of nature. And the more ordered your mind and power, the easier it is for you to overcome someone else’s attack with little effort whatsoever.
The vamp’s eyes shot wide. Then they narrowed in a twitch. “You’re a witch, then?” he snarled, not nearly as terrified as he should be.
Jeanette had just obliterated his attack with no effort whatsoever. And yet he still tilted his head back, his eyes twitching regally as if he had the upper hand. That was because, to a vampire, they always had the upper hand. To them, evolution had handed them the winning ticket the second they’d been born.
So it was time for Jeanette to show him how wrong that was.
She still held the dagger in her hand. She kept it behind her back, but now she brought it around, threw it up, then caught it by the hilt. She twisted it around in an arc, and magic spewed out, following the move, crackling over her wrist, then reaching up over her shoulder. By the time it made it to her eyes, it had framed them with pure anger.
At least the vamp twitched back now.
Her display would prove she wasn’t just a witch.
She was a pissed-off witch brimming with power.
Yet still this guy didn’t know what was good for him.
Teeth glinting under the powerful downlights, he shot forward, and he clicked his fingers again.
The idiot insisted on using another fireball, even though it was by now perfectly apparent that would not work on Jeanette. A fact she proved as, sure enough, it smashed into her chest once more, and without having to break a sweat or even lift a hand, her body automatically discharged it.
At least this time the guy noticed what he was dealing with and paused long enough to lurch backward.
He finally pulled his hand from around the bar mistress’s throat, and she fell down to her knees, a shaking mess.
Though Jeanette could’ve let her go, she’d seen too much.
Long before the vamp could get to her again, Jeanette twisted, flipped right over the guy’s head as if she possessed all the agility of a combined gymnastics team, and reached the woman.
Her eyes widened, but not with fear.
“I’ll be sure to seek your revenge for you,” Jeanette muttered before she clicked her fingers in front of the woman’s nose once. Sleep-inducing magic shot out from Jeanette’s hand, spiraled around the woman’s nostrils, then plunged in. Her head jolted back, then she fell forward.
Jeanette smoothly grabbed her by the middle, twisted her around, and placed her down just as the vampire reached her again.
Once more the idiot tried another fire spell, but this time at least his eyes widened with fear as it struck her.
And yeah, once more, Jeanette just dealt with it.
She smiled at the guy. Then she leaned back, leather jacket scrunching as she twisted and angled against a metal shelf. “Is that all you’ve got, vampire boy? I thought all you kids at the Academy learned to fight to the death? Or at least you vampire overlords? What are you gonna do when you wind up unconscious behind this joint, every single one of your talismans gone, and the word loser tattooed over your head in permanent magical ink?
The guy roared. This twitching fear rocketed up and reached his eyeballs. But the idiot still didn’t call on one of his talismans.
You called on talismans for heavy fights. You didn’t bother for most other encounters.
Why reach for an important weapon when a single kick or punch would do?
This guy tried both of those – but they were about as effective as attempting to stop the Pacific Ocean from, you know, being an ocean. When his second punch tried to strike her face, she sliced around with the dagger. No more playing around. It slashed over his knuckles, and they bled.
The vamp crumpled down to his knees, real shock plastering over his face now.
She got where it came from. Vampires were at the top of the food chain. No other magical race ever dared get in their way, let alone challenge them. And to this guy, a clear card-carrying member of the Academy, while he’d be forced to interact with other magical practitioners most days, they’d all defer to him. In other words, every other interaction he’d ever had with someone like her would have affirmed that he was on top. Time to be kicked right down to the bottom of the pile, then.
Jeanette took a sauntering step forward, never slipping, even though the floor was now covered in sticky, burning alcohol.
If the guy kept going like this, willy-nilly casting fireballs in every direction, the storeroom could explode.
Jeanette was relatively certain that even if it did, she had more than enough magic to fight anyway.
The guy jerked back. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with. I’m—”
“Another vampire from the Academy, right? Because every single vamp in this old town has something to do with the Academy. If you don’t go there or don’t teach there, you send your kids there. And every damn vamp that goes there learns the same thing. You’re on top. I’m here to tell you that is not a fact. It’s an assumption. And assumptions are pretty damn dangerous.” On the word dangerous, she slashed out again, re-gripping the dagger, twisting it high, and letting real magic spark across the tip. This idiot might think he practiced real magic, but it was time to give him a crash course in true force.
Sure enough, he couldn’t jolt back fast enough, and the tip slashed him across his jacket. It burnt through the fabric in a few sparking hisses, revealing his perfect, pristine white shirt.
A fun fact about Broadside Academy was that the vampires had designed the shirts. For one purpose. You could drink your way through the town, but your clothes would never splatter with blood once. You could roll in the mud, but they’d always come up clean. In other words, they were the perfect cloak to hide your darkness.
The guy got back up again, gaze even wilder, wide eyes searching for some form of escape.
But then Jeanette grunted, she twisted the knife, and she slashed it in the other direction. His shirt should have been able to take the blow, in theory. In practice, she slashed right through the enchantments protecting it, and there was a sound like bones snapping.
He jerked, slipped in the burning alcohol, and fell flat on his ass. His wide, searching eyes stared into hers, real fear finally slackening his jaw as his small brain caught up to the situation.
Jeanette threw the knife up, twisted it around, caught it one last time, then scratched the back of her head with it. “Like I said, I will take every single one of your talismans—”
“You might be a small talismans witch, but you’ve got no idea what you’re dealing with. I’m one of the best-rated players at the Academy. It’s time for you to meet real pain, witch,” he snarled.
She didn’t bother to waste the breath to tell him that witch wasn’t an insult in her books. Psychotic privileged monster was.
She could tell him later, whispering it in his ear as she stole everything that was important to him.
The guy reached behind him, and in a cloud of utter power, activated his talisman pocket.
She glimpsed within.
Maybe he wasn’t lying. There were at least 30 talismans in there. Most of them were low-powered, but one or two were decent.
Proving how terrified this guy was, despite his brave words, he reached for his number one talisman. As it fell into his hand, clunking as if it weighed a thousand tons, she saw the force charging up and around it. It cascaded as if it was the very heart of creation come to burn her.
But if the heart of creation had come, it sure as heck wouldn’t be on this guy’s side.
Without waiting around, he slashed at her face. It was a blow designed to rend flesh from bones, designed to split her head in half and see her brains splatter over the magic shelves behind.
Once again, theory didn’t match practice.
Jeanette at least had to dodge this time. She did so easily without breaking a sweat, without even struggling for breath.
The guy jerked in surprise and tried to slash again, but it didn’t matter – Jeanette had already put sufficient distance between them.
Now it was her turn. Technically, on paper at least, her little dagger was much less powerful than his incredible talisman. But it was all in how you used magic, how you concentrated and purified it like you had a refinery crammed in your chest.
Quietly now, as if she was the equivalent of a vocal shadow, she pressed in from the side, slashed across his shoulder, rolled to the other side, and slashed him from that side too.
He shouted, crippling fear getting the better of him.
He staggered down to his knees as he clutched his arms, but that meant he dropped his talisman.
It was an odd shape. Not every talisman resembled an ordinary weapon. For every sword or dagger you got, you might find a truncated staff, an orb, or something that resembled a small tag. His was like a tiny wand. It had a rotating crystal at the top, one that spewed out light. It presumably helped him magnify his magic, but you can’t magnify what isn’t really there.
He tried to headbutt her, but Jeanette slipped in close, wrapped an arm around his throat, twisted, then pinned him against the floor. The alcohol covering it was still alight. Jeanette didn’t want to let it go near the prone bar mistress. Her locks had tumbled out from behind her, and they formed a thankfully soft cushion for her still face. The fire could reach her shirt and black skirt, but it wouldn’t dare burn her while Jeanette was around.
Jeanette had a policy. Nobody got hurt on her watch. Apart from the people who deserved it. And this man? Oh, he deserved it.
He tried to headbutt her again. Just for laughs, Jeanette let it connect. There was the crunch as his skull rammed into hers, but then nothing.
It didn’t knock her back, and it sure as heck couldn’t rob her of her momentum. She pulsed all of that into her fist as she smashed it against his face. Blood splattered out, some of it splashing down onto his once-pristine shirt, and the rest being eaten up by the charging alcohol fire.
“What the hell? You’re not a standard witch. You’re—”
“A pissed-off witch,” she stated as if that was the most important category of tactician out there.
Heck, maybe it was. It was time the vampires of this twisted little old town realized that.
Horton Vale was a tiny, almost insignificant historic town – according to the local council, at least. It had an old museum, numerous little trinket shops, and these cobbled laneways that led to picturesque courtyards and old gnarled trees. It was also the most magical town in all of the country, and up behind the winding forest that protected most of the left flank of the city sat Broadside Academy. You couldn’t see it – unless you could see with magical eyes. If you could, it was this sprawling 20-building complex that looked as if it had been taken out of a Bavarian puzzle, combined with brutalist steel and concrete, then sprinkled with magic.
Even now as Jeanette twisted around, grabbed the vamp by the throat, and smashed him down against one of the metal shelves, she saw it out of the corner of her eye. There was a high window to her left. It seemed to offer the perfect view up past the forest to Broadside.
Rather than face the vamp, she faced it, and she imagined smashing its face into the ground just as she locked him there with her foot. You technically couldn’t grapple with an entire school and break its nose, but there was little Jeanette wouldn’t imagine – as long as it was violent and involved getting retribution on the vamps in some way.
The guy clutched something in his pocket, no doubt in a last-ditch attempt to stop Jeanette. Good luck with that. He drew it out. It looked, curiously, like a little stamp. Something you might use on an old letter. What did you call it again? Oh yeah, a seal.
Owing to Jeanette’s specific life, she sure as heck hadn’t seen anything like that in a long time.
So she didn’t react fast enough.
The guy slammed the seal down onto the only patch of concrete around him that wasn’t covered in his own blood and chaotically discharging magic.
Something shot out of the tip.
Or at least it tried.
Jeanette acted. For the first time since the fight had begun, real adrenaline pulsed through her stomach, shook up into her heart, and rattled through her rib cage.
She kicked the seal out of his hands then stamped on it.
His eyes widened to the point of cracking. “What the hell?”
Jeanette had to stamp on it twice, and the second time, she drew her magic into her center, clutched it with the equivalent of her mental hands, and focused it down. It pretty much turned her foot into a hammer – the kind you might use on a mountain, not a mere nail.
There was a satisfying crack, and whatever magic protected that thing finally broke.
The magic that discharged was strange – these little red-black crackling hisses that twisted over the floor, bounced along for a few centimeters, then disappeared into unseen cracks in the concrete.
While she couldn’t see any obvious fissures in the floor, they sure as heck cracked over the vamp’s face. True fear the likes of which she thought a monster like him would never show wore him like a mask, not the other way around. “How the hell do you have the power to break through a seal?”
Jeanette shrugged, locked her arms around her middle, and tilted her head to the side. “Because I have the power to do a heck of a lot more. Now, time to go through with the bargain from before. Time,” she reached toward him, though technically her fingers angled toward the entrance to his subspace magical pocket and all of his talismans within, “to alleviate you of your bounty, knock you out, wipe your memory, and write loser across your head.”
The guy twitched. But then Jeanette grabbed him, and it was lights out.
Jeanette walked away from the bar, her smile pronounced as she tilted her head back and stared at the silvery moonlight above. It played over the old slate roofs around her.
She reached one of the cramped cobblestone laneways that crisscrossed through the heart of the town. Why they were still made from cobblestones, Jeanette didn’t know. Rip it all up. Put asphalt down instead. It would be easier for the cars, and God knows it would be easier for her heels to run across.
But she got the point. Horton Vale was a historic township. The cobbles brought character, right? Yeah, but many a broken nose and cracked tooth, too.
Speaking of which, as she shoved a hand further into her pocket, she tilted her head around, and she stared back one last time at the bar. By now, that woman would be back serving customers, albeit while slightly confused. The vamp? He’d show up nearby in the morning sometime, loser painted over his head, his talismans gone, and a giant hole in his memory. Even if you put him under proper magical interrogation, he wouldn’t remember a thing. That was thanks to a talisman Jeanette had picked up what… five years ago?
She could barely count time anymore and didn’t bother. Calendars were for people who had things to look forward to. Every night for Jeanette was the same. Go out, get revenge, and steal talismans.
She couldn’t see that ever changing.
But sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us.
Jeanette made the mistake of walking out of the laneway and down a wide street. You’d hardly call it a main road. You might be able to fit a lorry down here – if you were terribly ambitious and didn’t mind if said truck smashed up against fence posts, letterboxes, hundred-year-old oak trees, and little old ladies walking their dogs at night.
Whatever. The point was, this wasn’t one of the more protected streets in town, and that was proven as a group of attractive men and women spilled out of an upper-class bar – probably 10 to 20 times better than the one she’d just been in.
Sorry, upper-class was a misnomer. Just call it expensive. When you pay more money for something, it doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else. It usually just means you’re an idiot.
Jeanette intended to keep her hands shoved into her pockets as she navigated around the crowd, but with another step forward, she realized they were no ordinary group.
She could smell them from here. You could cork her nose – heck, you could cut it off. She’d still be able to pick up the heady scent of vampires. Especially those that had just fed.
Jeanette didn’t grind to a halt – would never be that obvious – but she stepped slower now, every move laborious, her heart pounding hard. You know that hammer she’d mentioned before? She wanted to go back to it. She needed to wield it and smash right through this group.
If the fact she could smell blood wasn’t bad enough, a second later, she saw it. One of the elegant tall women with tapering blonde hair that reached her coccyx lifted the cuff of her silk blouse. And right there, just under the thumb, was a single droplet of blood.
You can’t clean blood out of silk – not unless you have a seriously motivated dry cleaner and a lot of luck. Unless you’re a vampire, that is. The woman licked the cuff of her shirt, tongue slipping out with the sound of metal on leather. With a little charge of magic, the blood was gone.
The smell lingered.
There were five vamps. All of them were powerful. And all of them would go to that damn Academy. They’d be taught proper combat. And unlike the fool she’d just fought, one or two of them looked like they really knew how to use talismans. Did that stop Jeanette? Hell no. She slipped in behind them properly now. Her intentions were clear – at least to her with her furrowed brow and taut, clenched fists.
Though Jeanette had only intended to hit one vampire tonight, why not hit a group of five all at once?
This tiny, almost insignificant warning bell went off in Jeanette’s skull. It had sounded out more frequently of late, especially now. This was risky. Yeah, she was unmatched. Yeah, she had some rare talismans that would make the entire town gag, but if she gave a hoot about her future, she should stop and draw back.
All Jeanette cared about was revenge. Every vamp left on the streets was another predator who could attack some poor sap tomorrow night.
With that thought to harden her resolve, Jeanette pulled her hand around. If any one of the vampires had turned, they would’ve seen how white her knuckles were. But they were far too interested in themselves.
“He didn’t even resist. Poor boy. I guess I’ll see him in class on Monday. Then again, he might be too ashamed to ever show his face again.” The woman who’d licked the blood off her cuff chuckled.
You rarely heard laughs like that. For one, ordinary folk aren’t that cold. Even an actor couldn’t grasp the true disgust needed to pull off a sneer like that.
But vamps could. Especially this one.
One of the three male vamps laughed. “No one would dare get in your way, Helena.”
Helena tilted her long neck to the side and laughed. “Not if they know what’s good for them.”
The only thing this conversation did was solidify Jeanette’s will further.
The vamps took a turn down the laneway, and there was an expensive low-slung car. Jeanette lacked vehicular vocabulary – didn’t need it. The trappings of the rich and famous were irrelevant. Actually trapping them, on the other hand – that was all she ever devoted her life to.
She waited until all of the vamps got in the car. It wasn’t because she fancied having a race with them. Though, with a few well-placed spells, maybe she could take them on even while they were speeding down the street.
Nope. Jeanette paused because she thought she heard something behind her.
She’d heard someone slip out of the restaurant just after this group, right?
No. It was just her mind playing tricks on her.
Jeanette went to dismiss the thought, and it was criminally easy.
No one could challenge her in this town. She’d never found a single practitioner of talismans who’d ever come close to her. Not in 10 years.
Jeanette knew that arrogance was dangerous. But it isn’t arrogant when you are right, is it?
Jeanette went to reach out toward the car, but that would be when something snagged hold of her shoulder. Quick, hard, it had the kind of grip that would never falter, even if you shoved a crowbar into it and pulled with all your might.
The vamps in the car drove away.
They never looked back to see Jeanette being dragged into a laneway just behind her. The mouth was small. No, the mouth of the laneway was insignificant, because the laneway itself was created by the magician behind her. The guy muttered one word. It was just under his breath, but it pushed out with a punctuating rumble.
As he yanked Jeanette around, she charged with magic.
She twisted down, fell onto her knees, then lanced out with a punch, but the guy had already flipped. Somehow, in the blink of her damn eyes, he put several meters between them.
No one could move like that.
No one who was technically alive.
Jeanette squinted through the sudden darkness to see a student from Broadside Academy. Worse, the guy was a vamp.
Darkness seemed to gather over his face, but a few rays of light made it in from the silvery moon above, and they illuminated his blazer. There was the Broadside emblem, and there, underneath, was that damn pristine white shirt. But something else glinted in the moonlight, too. He opened his mouth, and there was a set of powerful white vampire teeth.
At the sight of them, rather than recoiling in despair, she laughed, all hearty and throat-punching. “Oh, you’ve got no idea what you’re messing with, boy,” she snarled.
“I’m afraid I do.”
Jeanette’s stomach pitched. Slightly. It was the tiniest of movements.
It was the only warning she’d get.
Ignoring it, she sliced toward him.
She went to punch him across the jaw, and she almost got there, but at the last moment, he moved. Somehow.
What, did this guy possess a wind spell shoved up his jumper or something? He twisted, footwork light, hands continually shoved into his pockets. From his even, almost bland expression, it looked like he was doing nothing more than having a fight with a teddy bear.
Jeanette’s heart hadn’t beaten properly during a battle in a long time, but now it kicked up a gear.
Thumbing her nose, she ensured her own footwork was light. She twisted and went to ram him from the side, but once more, without any effort whatsoever, he put several meters between them as if he owned space and could warp it at will.
“I didn’t come here today, Jeanette, to dance with you,” he muttered.
Jeanette heard one word. One word that could stop her world. One word that could send a train ramming into her heart, that could pull out every single one of her organs and lay them at her feet and crush them, one by one.
She must’ve paled three shades. Hell, her blood must’ve diverted and emptied out of her feet. No one in this town knew her name. Heck, no one in the country knew her name. When she’d escaped the magical community, she’d slipped into the darkness, exactly where she intended to stay.
The vamp smiled slightly. She still couldn’t see his entire face, though from the lower half of his jaw, he looked handsome.
Handsome for a vamp. They had the money, the access to magical surgery, and the need to look perfect. Heck, it was practically an evolutionary drive to have a killer smile and to back it up with even more murderous teeth.
Jeanette was getting distracted here.
She jolted back again, putting more distance between them, even though this guy hadn’t done anything yet. She narrowed her eyes and finally appreciated the darkness preventing her from seeing his face came from the spell he was cleverly casting.
“Who the hell are you? How did you—”
“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. Prolific, aren’t you? Tell me, was the plan to churn through Horton Vale and make every vampire here pay?”
Fear rocketed up from her heart and pounded into her jaw. It didn’t make her open her mouth, and she sure as heck didn’t scream. She just clenched her teeth harder. “I can promise you one thing. You won’t remember my name once I’m done with you.”
“I can promise you something else, Jeanette. I’ll never forget your name, no matter what happens.” With that dire warning, he finally pushed forward.
Jeanette reacted. She shunted in quickly, magic bursting over her fists. She’d knock this guy out with two punches and end this mess before it got started.
But this guy had other ideas.
His footwork was still faster, still made him look as if he was the wind come to life. He moved in beside her, and the next thing she knew, he locked a hand on her hip. He twisted with her as if they were actually dancing. Her hair fanned out around her shoulders, and her leather jacket brushed up against his blazer.
For the first time, she looked into his eyes, and what eyes they were. Yeah, sure, every feature was probably manufactured. His dear rich mom had probably looked in a magazine of models and pointed to the best one and told the surgeon to make him look like that. But actually being pressed up against his face this close meant that Jeanette couldn’t look away.
He had an angled jaw, an aquiline nose, and short-cropped, curly black hair. It made him look like a Greek god come to life.
Then there were the eyes. The very clearly vampire eyes. The same eyes that were now crackling with power, all of it directed at her.
As his firm grip slipped further over her hip, his thumb rumpling her jacket, for a second, she forgot why she was here. She was reminded as he finally attacked. He didn’t do anything so crass as to punch her across the jaw, even though she was fully open for such an attack. Instead, he slipped his hand further up her back. It took several seconds until Jeanette realized what he was doing. By that stage, it was far too late.
She let out a hiss of a breath as he practiced a neural blocking enchantment on her.
Jeanette crumpled down to one knee. That neural blocking enchantment would have frozen anyone else. They would’ve practically become quadriplegics on the spot. Not Jeanette. While one of her knees twitched and her face fell down between her shoulders, her hair slicing over her eyes, the rest of her worked fine. A point she proved as she cupped her left hand into a fist. No more wasting magic. She had to figure out how this guy moved. Back in the early days, Jeanette had faced challenges. To be fair, because she’d been a wee teenager. She’d gone after vamps and warlocks triple her age.
Back then, however, she’d taught herself how to fight hard targets. She knew when to hold back; she knew when to gather information, and she knew when to take a breather before the final act. Right now she tilted her head up slightly, sticky fringe slicing over her eyes. She was fully aware of the fact that the moonlight illuminated her, just not him. Apart from that slice of his Greek god face she’d seen, he’d moved back into the darkness wholeheartedly, and now only his blazer was lit up.
Was this where he’d chuckle? Was this where he’d say he had her exactly where he wanted her? Hell no. This was where he just stared.
Jeanette sneered. “I don’t know who you think you are, but—”
“You’re about to give me a dose of my own medicine? We’ll see. Time for you to pull out your best-rated talisman, Jeanette,” he said. And damn him for the way he said her name. It slipped off his tongue like whiskey on the rocks.
Hell, that was a tame image. His words were like a hand down the most expensive silk.
Nothing would dare get in their way.
And Jeanette’s heart sure as hell couldn’t.
It trembled once as she reached behind her.
He was right. The only way out of this was to call on a talisman. Because even if she didn’t, if he defeated her, he’d be able to force her to call on one anyway.
And yeah, Jeanette had just thought that word. Defeated. It was a verb she hadn’t thought about in a long damn time unless it was to explain the defeat of one of her enemies.
Now another charge of fear leaped through her heart, though her arrogant mind tried to pretend it was something else.
Just justifiable concern, right?
From the look in this guy’s eyes, he had Jeanette exactly where he wanted her.
That was until Jeanette jerked all the way through his neural blocking enchantment, snapping it like you would a straw.
She reached for one of her highest-rated weapons, but she chickened out in the end. She pulled out a mid-range dagger, the movement slow, giving the impression she was in complete control.
But he still tilted his head to the side.
He stared at the dagger, gaze direct and judging, then slid his eyes over to her. “This isn’t the best you have, Jeanette. I happen to know you have one of the only two drunken daggers in the world. I’m disappointed that you didn’t think I’m threatening enough to deserve it.”
So much happened in several seconds, Jeanette was like a cat staring at a thousand pieces of string shoved at its face all at once.
He knew she had a drunken dagger. How…?
Drunken daggers might not sound like much, but they were two of the rarest and most powerful talismans in all the world.
Why were they called drunken daggers? Because they could change direction at will. It might look like the dagger itself was drunk to the untrained eye, but anyone who was practiced in seeing and understanding magic would realize that the dagger could flow through your environment, cutting through the roots of your opponent’s spells, sometimes before they’d even finished casting them.
Jeanette clutched the dagger she’d already pulled out, fingers trembling now.
Slowly but surely, something started to dawn on her.
Whoever the hell this guy was, he wasn’t a pushover.
And Jeanette wouldn’t get to defeat two enemies in one night. Jeanette might not even make it through the night.
She glared over at his vampire teeth again.
Most vamps didn’t walk around with their teeth open and out for everyone to see.
They pulled them out solely when they were feeding. Otherwise, they tried to slip into the background and pretend they were just like everyone else. Not this guy, apparently. He opened his mouth wider, and the darkness spell that hid most of his features retracted around his mouth completely. It showed off that tapering angle to his strong jaw, and that just accentuated his sharp teeth even further.
Jeanette clutched the dagger harder. She drew it in front of herself in a defensive position. “Just who the hell do you think you are?”
“I assure you, I don’t think I know who I am. My identity is an unassailable fact.”
“Then put me out of my misery.” Her fingers slid further down the hilt. She now clutched it so tightly, if it weren’t a magical talisman, she would crush it to dust.
That would be the least of her troubles, frankly.
The guy took another step toward her, head angled her way. His gaze darted down her body, and maybe for a second or two, lingered on where he’d grabbed her hip.
This wasn’t lasciviousness. This was the look of a vampire carving you up to judge how much blood your poor little veins carried from your poor little heart.
Jeanette had seen that look all too many times. There was a reason she’d become the woman she was today. The reason bled in her heart and shadowed her every move. And it was the same reason that forced her forward long before he could attack.
She twisted to the side, reared up from the left, then rolled. She moved fast. Yeah, this guy might be like the wind, but Jeanette could put on a burst of speed or two if she needed it.
She proved that now as, finally twisting in from the right, she went to slash the guy across the chest.
Went to, at least. Just before the knife could slice over his skin, injuring but not killing him, he grabbed her wrist. Just like that.
And worse, he had the power to hold her in place.
Jeanette’s eyes exploded. Honestly, they must have. She could still see, but that wasn’t the point. So much adrenaline-fueled horror ricocheted through her, she should’ve popped.
The guy had a tender but firm grip. Sorry, wrong way to explain it. The guy’s grip was complete. He could hold her still with little effort, which meant that he didn’t have to tighten his knuckles much. It also meant that he had all of the energy and attention left over to just stare at her, his nonplussed expression making it seem as if Jeanette was a curious bug that had wandered in front of his power.
Either he retracted his darkness spell for a few seconds, or this close, it wouldn’t work on Jeanette. She got a full glimpse of his face again.
She wanted to change her statement from earlier. He wasn’t like a Greek god. Even Greek gods didn’t look like that.
He had this sense of superiority, but somehow it didn’t come with arrogance. He just looked like he deserved it. This guy was at the tippy top.
Jeanette put her shoulder into it. She grunted. Hardly a ladylike move, but she didn’t care. She threw her arm into the move as much as she could until the joint protested. Then she growled.
Finally she felt his wrist budging, and just as it did, his eyes opened wide, even flashed with something that looked slightly like pride. Hell, his lips curled, too, like he was enjoying this.
He really wouldn’t enjoy it when she slashed the drunken dagger across his chest.
“Just what I need,” he muttered.
Again Jeanette’s treacherous heart fluttered, but she twisted, pivoted, and pulled her drunken dagger from her talisman pocket, throwing the other inside with a pop. Then she went to slash him across the chest again. Either she broke out of his grip, or he let her go. It happened too quickly to judge.
No. It didn’t. Some part of Jeanette recognized that she hadn’t wrenched free from his firm grasp. He’d just retracted his fingers.
And that same part that recognized that screamed at Jeanette to turn and run. She didn’t have a chance. Losing was an inevitability.
The rest of Jeanette couldn’t give up. She never backed down from a fight.
She twisted to the side and went to slash him across the shoulder, but he moved with her. He pushed his body to her left until he came up around her as he chuckled. Then once more, he danced with Jeanette, one of the most violent, grunting waltzes she’d ever heard, and to be fair, she brought all the grunting while he kept laughing lightly.
She didn’t think she’d ever been this up close and personal with someone while they were laughing. It was different from hearing it. Feeling it meant she couldn’t get away from it, couldn’t get away from his deep, throaty, rumbling voice, nor the way it made her tremble.
And critically, she couldn’t get away as he finally turned. Maybe he was done playing now.
He reached a hand over his shoulder. He activated his own pocket.
The old Jeanette could not be kept down. Despite the fact she was very much not winning, her heart still opened to the possibility she could get access to his pocket—
Something sliced out of the subspace rip. It twisted around, moving on its own, without even a little assistance from the vamp. And that something was the drunken dagger. The only other drunken dagger in all of existence. Jeanette… she didn’t even have time to recognize what it meant. The dagger moved too quickly. It twisted around several meters away, then it shot in close. Jeanette couldn’t buck back. It was going to slice through her throat.
She would die.
She jolted at least. But that would be when the vamp grabbed her, one hand on her shoulder, one hand spread forward.
He didn’t catch the drunken dagger, but he forced it to pause. It maneuvered between his fingers, not cutting his webbing or injuring him once. The blade stopped right against her throat.
Jeanette was forced to shove hard into him with all her strength. It meant her body got an up-close-and-personal tour of his muscles. They weren’t even the main event – that was the throbbing core of his magic growing like a storm. “How does it feel to lose, Jeanette?” he asked. She expected him to sneer his words, to enjoy every single last one of them. If the vamp at the bar had done this, he would’ve taken so much damn pleasure in the moment, he probably would’ve passed out like a junkie. But this guy was in complete control. He still had a hold of her shoulder. His solid, broad hand felt like it could grasp up all of her at once.
An inappropriate, irrelevant image considering the fact that the drunken dagger remained paused there, just by her throat.
“Who… who are you?” For the very first time, actual fear shook through Jeanette’s voice. It was now or never, right?
Jeanette had some of the rarest talismans in the world. Up this close, the vamp would be able to feel into her subspace pocket. He’d now know what she had. And he’d take it all. Hell, if her quick character assessment was anything to go by, he’d seal the deal by taking every last drop of her blood.
But Jeanette was never very good at judging someone’s character.
“You lost, Jeanette,” he said, voice strangely even for a man – no, a vamp – with his dagger right up against a victim’s throat.
“You… bastard,” she snarled.
“You can churn through the magical community, doing whatever you want. But not forever. Someone will stop you eventually.” Jeanette tried to take comfort in that. She hardly could, though.
She wanted to be the one to bring justice to the magical community. She had to be the one to stand over every single vamp and prove to them that no matter how powerful they thought they were, they were still part of nature. They were still fallible. And every single one of them could still fall if she pushed hard enough.
But she’d pushed and she’d pushed, and this guy had still won.
“Trust me,” his voice did this thing, dropping a full register, sounding like it was trying to burrow through the earth, “there are worse monsters out there than me.”
Jeanette swore a cloud should’ve traveled over the moon at that. The way he snarled that statement, it clearly came from somewhere deep down in his heart. He didn’t just feel this; he bled it.
Jeanette might not be a terribly good judge of character, but when she got out of her own way, she could assess a person’s emotional state, and for a vamp who was in complete control, that statement had derailed him.
He pressed his lips together, swallowed, then straightened. And weirdly, he let her go.
He didn’t plunge the dagger into her throat. He didn’t start drinking. And nor did he reach around and grab out every single talisman Jeanette had. Nope. He just stepped back and pulled her drunken dagger from her grip.
Jeanette wasn’t ashamed to say that she slid down to her knees.
Her body refused to work. Why waste the energy, anyway? The conclusion would be the same.
This vamp had won. He was just playing with her. Soon enough, he’d reach in and end her life.
She didn’t shake, though – never would around one of those monsters. She tilted her head back in defiance and stared at him. He no longer kept himself hidden with that darkness spell. Or maybe the moonlight had warmed up to him. Maybe it was brave enough to light him up now.
It glinted along his jaw and aquiline nose, and it gathered there, just underneath that intense, piercing gaze. And said gaze roved over Jeanette. It was quick enough and seemed to penetrate her defenses well enough that she shivered, from her feet to her knees.
“You lost, Jeanette.”
“Fine. So take my talismans. Do what you want. But know this—”
“I’m a monster? Like I already said, there are far worse creatures out there than me.”
Jeanette hadn’t actually faced him the last time he’d said that. She’d inferred his expression based on the way his voice had rumbled through his tight chest. Now she got to see exactly what his face did. It contracted, this wave of anger – maybe even grief – contorting his cheeks, then his jaw, then his throat. Jeanette had never seen a more perfect example of anatomy before. And anatomy directed toward feeling one thing. Disgust.
It was surely an emotion vampires were built for. But it wasn’t for her.
Jeanette continued to stare up at him, confusion marking her brow, driving her eyes down until they were practically half closed. “What the hell do you want?”
“What I want is simple. And I’ve waited too long for it.”
His gaze was steady. He looked only at her.
Jeanette remained there down on her knees. Honestly, she had the strength to jolt up, just no reason to.
He took a step forward. The moon glinted along his blazer once more, the silvery glow highlighting the pompous shield of Broadside. Still holding onto his drunken dagger and hers in the same grip, he lifted his hand and tapped his blazer.
“What do you want?” Jeanette demanded again.
He tapped the Broadside emblem. “Your assistance.”
The penny dropped. Sometimes vampires didn’t bother to bleed their victims dry. No. They made them into familiars instead. Little slaves that would run around and do whatever their vampire lord dictated.
Jeanette had never once in all of her life imagined she would ever be a familiar. She’d taken down enough to get to their vampire lords to know she could never swallow such servitude.
He watched her, gaze darting back and forth until a smile crumpled his handsome lips. “This is not a request, Jeanette. You lost. And it will be the only way for you to keep your talismans.”
Jeanette heard the words keep her talismans, and her world flipped. All the fear gathering through her stomach slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop.
She stared at her drunken dagger, then up into his eyes. “What? Do you even know what you’re holding?”
“I clearly do, as I have my own. And I know just how hard they are to get your hands on.” He pointed to her with the hilt of the dagger, eyes taking her in all in one go. Heck, they were like some kind of industrial telescope. He could take in the entire sky with one blink, let alone her.
Jeanette had never felt small at the feet of a vampire before, but right now, she didn’t exactly know what she felt as her nerves crashed together with expectation and magic.
She stared at her dagger again, then up at his angled face. “There’s no—”
“Think carefully, Jeanette. How long has it taken you to acquire these talismans? At least 10 years, right?”
Her stomach pitched. How the hell did this guy know so much about her? By the sounds of it, he’d been tracking her for some time.
He continued to watch her, drinking in her fright. No. Other vampires did that. He didn’t look amused as her face paled and her cheeks twitched. All he was was attentive. He was determined not to miss a thing, and with her expression revealing every single emotion, he didn’t.
“It was 10 years, wasn’t it? I’m offering you your talisman collection back. For a price.”
“If you think I’m gonna become your familiar, if you think I’m gonna race around finding victims for you to kill—”
With no warning, he threw the drunken dagger back at her. It embedded in the ground by her feet. Several cobbles cracked right through, and a few discharges from the drunken dagger sank past them, easily burning through the mortar.
Jeanette stared down at it, then up at him.
“I will not ask you to attack humans or ordinary magical folk, if that is your concern.”
Jeanette didn’t work through his logical statement to infer which group was left over. She just snarled at him. “I won’t become your glorified assassin.”
“Why not? You will be hunting the same thing you do every night, just in a slightly different location.”
Jeanette didn’t follow.
Until she suddenly followed with the equivalent of someone slapping her cheeks. “What?”
“You will join Broadside Academy, Jeanette. You will be my secret familiar. And when you’re there, you will keep doing what you do best. You,” he took a step toward her, “will get to hunt the vampires of Horton Vale under my watch. You can take their talismans, and you will get to shift the balance of power. You’re gonna get revenge in my stead. And Jeanette, you can’t say no.”
Jeanette stared at the vamp.
There was no damn way in hell she was ever going to acquiesce to his request, but when he reached for her drunken dagger, her stomach pitched. For 10 years, she’d been scrounging talismans. But it was really only in the last year or two where she’d gotten enough that any fight she encountered was as easy as smoothing melted butter.
If she had to go back to having no talismans….
If she could go back. The vamp’s words echoed in her head.
So too did the way he’d said them, his eyes unsheathed and pulsing. She’d called them intense before, right? And they were, but they were intense with an edge.
He took another step toward her. She faced him warily, tilting her chin back, staring defiantly into his eyes, just daring him to try something.
He tried nothing. He got down onto one knee in front of her, close enough that if she had any edge in this fight, she could take advantage of his proximity. Instead, she just had to put up with it.
“You will get exactly what you want. And so will I.” He plucked the drunken dagger up and twisted it around, holding it by the blade, not the hilt, and handed it to her.
She stared at it.
You know what she could do right now? If she had enough strength, she could shove forward, grab the hilt, push the blade through his fingers, and force him to stab his own chest.
If she had enough power.
And… maybe enough desire, too.
She’d never met a vamp like this.
It wasn’t just the look in his eyes that held her to the spot. It was the promise, too.
There was no way Jeanette could get into Broadside on her own. Hell, she couldn’t even infiltrate the place to try. It was totally blocked off from her.
But a vamp like this would be able to pull strings.
As he tilted his head to the side, more shadows built under his eyes and highlighted that glare even more. “I will sign a contract with you. The terms will be clear. As will your goals.”
She glowered at him. But she still didn’t stop him. He let go of the drunken dagger and stood. Then, with one hand in his pocket, he grabbed out a piece of parchment. Even from here, Jeanette could feel that it was an honest to God bona fide vampire contract. Telltale crackles of magic blasted up around the sides and congregated just under his clenched fingers.
Reality finally struck Jeanette. This guy was serious.
His gaze darted across her face once more, and he nodded. “That’s right. This is real. All you have to do is hunt the vampires at Broadside. Those who have wronged,” he added, this note shaking through his voice.
It was one she’d never heard a vampire use before. Was it righteousness? Kind of. It was a little too cold for that. Righteous people become numb to the world. This was not the voice of somebody who couldn’t feel – just the exact opposite.
Before she could juxtapose that with everything she knew about coldhearted vampires, he thrust the contract forward. Jeanette was exactly where he’d left her, down there on her knees, the drunken dagger still in her grip. She looked from him down to the contract, then back to him. “You—”
“You will get to keep your weapons. Our relationship will remain secret. And all you have to do is—”
“Dismantle the vamps in this city and change the balance of power. Why? So you can rise to the top?” She arched an eyebrow.
He was prepared for her question. He didn’t react. Obviously, anyway. The look in his eyes contracted somehow. It wasn’t like his brows lowered. It was almost as if the pupils jammed into little tight fists. “It will be enough for me to see the vampires in this town get their just comeuppance. Now, sign.” He thrust the contract closer to her.
She read it quickly. It was relatively simple.
Vampires usually caught you up in clauses, but not this guy. Everything he had just promised was already written there. Jeanette would get to keep her talismans. All she had to do was go after the vamps he’d tell her to attack.
Easy, right? She pretty much did that already.
Now she’d get access to the insides of Broadside, too.
She’d heard tales over the years that suggested there were hidden talismans at the heart of Broadside, some even more impressive than the drunken daggers.
She’d heard a lot of other things, too, like the fact that the prestigious vampires had human trafficking rings.
The horrifying stories outweighed the good ones.
Jeanette, before she’d met this guy, would’ve given anything, including her left leg, to get inside. Now all she had to do was sign this contract and give in to the look in his eyes.
He produced a pen from somewhere. Jeanette ignored it.
She didn’t have a choice, right? She looked down at her feet then slowly up at him.
She didn’t know if it was a test for him or her.
But both of them passed. Jeanette twisted the drunken dagger around and sliced it right down her wrist.
It wasn’t a deep enough cut that she’d lose consciousness or anything, but a good deal of blood slid out. Then she used the tip of the bloodsoaked blade to sign her name.
All the while, the vamp just watched.
As soon as her name was signed, he rolled the contract up, opened his hand, made a copy, gave her one, then slipped the other into his chest pocket. Then he loomed above her, staring down.
He reached a hand her way.
Jeanette wanted to keep hold of the drunken dagger in case they got into a fight again, then quickly realized they wouldn’t. Because they couldn’t.
Familiars couldn’t fight their vampire overlords.
Crap, what had she done?
He kept his hand held out to her.
When she didn’t accept it, he leaned down and grabbed her wrist, the same one she’d cut.
She waited for him to start lapping up her blood, but he didn’t.
He muttered a quick enchantment under his breath, and Jeanette felt a sophisticated medical spell sealing her blood in place.
Soon, the skin would knit. By the morning, this deep scar would be naught but a painful memory.
She’d just blown a hole in the side of her life – and that, however, would never heal.
Her breath became quick and choppy, all at his proximity and that damn look he shot her.
She waited for him to let go of her wrist, but he didn’t.
“You can unhand me now,” she snarled. “I signed your damn contract.”
“But it’s time to mark you, Jeanette. From this point on, you will be the familiar of Tyler Solomon.”
Jeanette’s heart lurched. “You’re a Solomon—”
“Yes.” He half closed his eyes.
Jeanette couldn’t wrench out of his grip – wouldn’t have been able to even if she tried. She’d signed the damn contract. Now she was the familiar of a freaking Solomon.
They were one of the most prestigious, oldest vampire families in the country.
Worse than that, Tyler’s uncle was the principal of Broadside. Because the principals were always drawn from the Solomon family.
She’d just agreed to become his glorified assassin.
There was no point distracting herself from the process of being marked as a familiar. In fact, there was precious little that could try. Not as Tyler’s magic started to pick up. It was nothing at first. Nothing but this light, almost gentle caress. Then it started to sink into her skin.
To be marked as a familiar, your vampire had to create a tattoo that only he could activate. It required intense, penetrating magic that would push into not just a person’s body, but their magic system.
Jeanette clenched her teeth.
She went over the fight, over and over again, over and over how stupid she’d been, but it was far too late to back out now.
Tyler continued to mutter something under his breath, the words quick, his intention clear. Then he opened his eyes and stared right into hers, and it was just as the tattoo wrote itself around her tender flesh.
It appeared as a bracelet. One with a complicated mandala-like pattern, and one she would never be able to get rid of, no matter how hard she tried.
He continued to stare intently into her gaze until the final spark of magic charged around her wrist. Then he dropped her.
Jeanette lurched back, but where exactly would she go?
She was this damn vamp’s familiar now.
He took several steps back, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Come Monday, Jeanette, you will join Broadside Academy. And there, you’ll do as you are told.”
“What exactly is the first thing you’re gonna make me do?”
“You’re gonna go after Helena Sullivan,” he growled.
“Because she traffics in humans.”
Jeanette couldn’t believe she was doing this. Her mind had to be elsewhere, right? Maybe she’d taken drugs accidentally? Maybe she’d been beaten half to death and this was a hallucination? Or maybe, Friday night, she really had made the greatest mistake of her life.
Now, she rocked up to the gates of Broadside, she paused, and she stared. All the while, she clutched a hand behind her back, and she let her fingers slide down her wrist.
She could feel the familiar cuff. No one else would be able to see it. Nor would they be able to activate it – not without Tyler’s permission. And speaking of Tyler, he’d delivered her uniform and a set of instructions to her loft, proving he had been watching her, as he knew exactly where she lived.
Jeanette had gotten over the raw, spiky fear of that fact. Pretty easy considering she was now his damn familiar and would be connected to him for life.
But for a few seconds now, she forgot to kick herself mentally for ever agreeing to the contract. She just tilted her head further back, and she stared at Broadside through the gates.
She’d been this close, but no closer. She’d felt the oppressive energy of Broadside all throughout Horton Vale. Now she stood at the foot of it, and she waited to be let inside.
Jeanette was here early, just as Tyler had demanded.
As for Tyler, he was nowhere to be seen.
Jeanette had her pass. She wore it around her neck like a lanyard. In theory, it would let her through those gates, and nothing would dare stop her.
And when she stepped foot inside… the old Jeanette would’ve gone nuts. She would’ve fought every single vampire she could find, then she would’ve blasted down into the bowels of Broadside to find out its every secret. Now? She stood there awkwardly at the side of the huge wrought iron magical gates. The massive shield of Broadside was emblazoned in the middle, crackling with a permanent charge of magic. Not only did it make it look impressive, but it was a security charm. Unless you were coded, you could not enter.
Speaking of being coded, Jeanette heard the crunch of tires, and an expensive car rolled down the old gravel driveway. That was the irony, see. The land leading up to Broadside didn’t look like much. The gardens weren’t manicured. There weren’t statues of prestigious vamps. It was just forest, really. And to get to Broadside, you had to make a turn off one of the major highways down a crappy-looking dirt drive. In other words, you had to know where you were going, and you had to know why.
The vampires in the expensive car sure did. Jeanette’s gaze locked right on the blonde woman driving.
Jeanette’s jaw clenched.
She hadn’t forgotten Tyler’s order.
Helena would be Jeanette’s first target.
So did Jeanette jump in the car with Helena, knock her out, and steal her talismans?
Hardly. Tyler had made it clear that Jeanette was not to act without his permission.
Even the thought of jumping in the car made her wrist itchy. She scratched it surreptitiously.
The gates opened for Helena.
Other cars were arriving, and some magicians were on foot, just like Jeanette.
Everybody gave her sideways glances. Fair enough, she was the new kid. Sorry, not a kid.
Then again, when vamps were involved, age was meaningless. They could look 18 for hundreds of years.
Why their parents insisted on sending them to school, however, was a curiosity of the vampire population at large. Vampires aged slower. Some might not be considered full adults until they were at least 50.
None of this was the point. The fact that Jeanette had to turn around, hold her breath, and walk through the opening gates was. As soon as she crossed that threshold, it felt like somebody hammering nails into her coffin. No going back now.
There was no going back from the moment she signed that contract.
Wind whipped over the grounds, charging over the perfect, immaculate green grass, catching Jeanette’s loose hair and sending it scattering over her face.
Jeanette was wearing a disguise skin, again provided to her by Tyler.
It clung to her entire body. She could wash, but it wouldn’t be washed off. She could be burnt, but it would not be burnt off. It would remain with her until and unless Tyler decided to get rid of it.
Her disguise was relatively plain. Then again, Jeanette as her ordinary self would never stick out from the crowd. You didn’t want to, see. Sticking out from the crowd came with disadvantages.
Especially in a city like this. Get seen, and you might find yourself getting eaten, too.
Jeanette clutched her bag to her back. There were books inside, actual books. There was even a frigging wand. Who practiced with a wand these days? They were nothing more than crutches. Find yourself without one, and your enemies would easily be able to pull you down. Best to practice with your fists and feet. Notwithstanding amputation, they’d always be by your side, ready to leap to your defense the next time someone attacked you in the dark. The same could not be said for glorified lumps of wood.
Jeanette was aware of every harsh stare that locked on her back as she marched across the green grounds toward the primary school building. She’d already done her recon on Broadside years ago. She knew where every building led to and what its purpose was.
But now she had to go there for classes.
Actual frigging classes….
Had that part sunk in yet? Not only would Jeanette be Tyler’s glorified assassin, but she’d technically have to learn at the same time.
What exactly did she have to learn? Especially from this place?
Jeanette didn’t need to know the nuances of magic. She just needed to know how to use it to keep herself alive. And trust her, the last 10 years had been a crash course in pure survival. One she could use to take on any vamp here… except for Tyler.
And speaking of Tyler, she finally saw him. He’d already arrived. Or more likely, he lived here.
Some of the more prestigious vamps did. There was a boarding school. It was for those who deserved to be here or who couldn’t live anywhere else. Tyler had already told Jeanette that she would be a live-in. Fair enough. He wouldn’t want his familiar too far out of reach.
Tyler stood by the main doors. And what doors they were. Massive, they were at least 20-meters high. Jeanette wasn’t engaging in overemphasis here. They were the kind of doors that you’d need a team of trolls to break through. Even then, good luck taking on the enchantments that protected the Academy as a whole.
As Jeanette marched over the grass, her black polished shoes crunching every blade, she shivered internally. Any witch in her position would. There was a good reason why she’d never taken on Broadside Academy, regardless of how powerful she was and the talismans stashed in her pocket were. According to legend, the enchantments that protected this place were so strong, there was nothing in the country that matched them. Even the Ministry of Forces had nothing to rival them. Why they were here in this mere school, Jeanette didn’t know.
Or maybe she did. If the secrets about this place were even partially right, then underneath the very grass she now strode across were artifacts that belonged to the earliest days of magic.
Tyler watched her, but not obviously. She’d only seen him once before, but she already knew how he moved. She might be an awful judge of character, but because she’d fought so much, she was an excellent judge of what people wanted to hide, and now as other vamps and magicians got to the main doors, giving Tyler a wide berth, not one of them realized he kept all his attention for her.
Jeanette didn’t like to be seen. It wasn’t just that she’d been on the run for 10 years. She hated putting up with focused attention. She just didn’t know what it meant. Someone pausing and just looking at you meant they weren’t fighting you. It seemed good, right? Wrong. At least to Jeanette’s battle-broken mind. She was like a high-powered car. She didn’t know how to move slowly anymore. All she wanted to do was blast her fists and feet into whatever got in her way.
That would never happen with Tyler.
She took her time, watching the grounds and the other students before she reached the massive set of ascending steps that led to the huge doors. Tyler waited there.
Jeanette stopped just before the carved smooth gray steps. Only one side of the huge double doors were open. She imagined if you opened both sides, it would let in such a fiendish wind, it’d blow up every skirt and knock every picture off the walls.
Plus, with only one door open, it still had the same grand effect. It told every single poor idiot who wasn’t a card-carrying vampire that they were only here because their overlords tolerated them.
Tilting her head back and ensuring her neck muscles weren’t too pronounced like a tight rope, Jeanette shoved a hand into her pocket, mimicking Tyler’s go-to move, and finally went to walk up the steps, but that would be when someone rammed into her shoulder, hard enough that she was jolted to the side. She didn’t fall on her ass, but she should have. She stared past to see none other than Helena. She didn’t wear the standard school uniform – her skirt was a darn sight shorter. Plus, her blazer literally blazed. For whatever reason, the emblem of Broadside at the front looked like it was perpetually aflame.
Helena went to walk past Jeanette, but when she didn’t fall flat on her ass, Helena stopped and stared.
Jeanette had looked into the gaze of monsters so many times, she couldn’t possibly count every incident.
Yet Jeanette had never seen anyone quite like Helena. There was this air of total control – somewhat like you would get if someone was simply playing a game and all of the characters around them were nothing more than artifacts to be toyed with.
Helena had been approaching Tyler with a certain kind of smile over her lips, all brought and fat, all interested and seductive, but now she turned, lips pulling over her teeth as she snarled at Jeanette.
Jeanette had to reassess her lifelong assumption. Out in the town, vampires didn’t show their teeth until they fed. But at Broadside, they wore them like shields.
“Who the hell are you?” Helena snarled every word.
There was a crowd. Not only was Tyler standing there, hand languidly pressed into one of his pockets, heavy build allowing for him to lean further back than an ordinary person would be able to pull off, but other students were walking past too. Every single one of them stopped to stare. One or two were small-time vampires – the rest were a couple of witches and wizards. The lower practitioners looked at Jeanette like she was about to be stamped on like a fat cockroach. The vampires? They sneered as they got ready to enjoy the show.
Jeanette was here to get rid of Helena, right?
Jeanette took a step toward Helena as she ground her hands into fists.
That would be when an itchy, unmistakable sensation raced across her wrist. It moved fast and sank in with a biting warning.
Just when Jeanette went to charge with magic, she abruptly found she could not.
She stared in horror over at Tyler. He simply turned. “Helena, may I have a word?” he muttered.
Helena continued to stare Jeanette down again – glare just as dangerous as a bed of snakes. Then she shook her head once and made a cutting motion across her neck.
Jeanette watched. Tyler got several steps through the door, paused, then shot her one short, sharp warning look.
Jeanette soon walked up the steps into the main hall. And what a sight it was. This was the inside of the most prestigious Academy in the world.
Once upon a time, she’d seen old footage of the place. That was from 50 years ago. It had been smuggled out by a witch who’d presumably paid the price afterward. Jeanette had watched it excessively, learning every secret she could. But now all of that study went out the window – for everything had changed.
The atrium was massive, the ceiling 50 meters above. Important detailed portraits hung on the walls, and they were accompanied by busts on plinths. There was a massive sweeping staircase in the middle of the room. It was so large and overly ornate, you might find a princess sweeping down there, dressed in flowing silk. But the only thing that swept down it now were snide vampires. A group of five of them brushed past Jeanette, one of them smashing into her shoulder.
She couldn’t take it. A part of her brain knew she was here to follow orders, but the rest of her always reacted and asked questions later. Just as she snarled and went to charge with magic, she felt a powerful gaze driving into the back of her neck. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tyler paused on the stairs.
He gestured his hand to the side ever so slightly, and a warning tingle charged over Jeanette’s wrist.
It meant she just stood there as one of the biggest guys in the group harshly brushed past her shoulder again.
She recognized him. He’d been in the car with Helena on Friday night.
She didn’t give him his space, clearly, and he shoved into her shoulder harder. Jeanette fell flat on her ass.
He paused and stared down at her, head tilted to the side, nostrils flaring. “What do we have here? Are you rich? Where did you come from? I can’t smell your power. How the hell did you get into this Academy? You’re not a bursary scholarship, are you?” He pushed forward, teeth pressing out further, his vampire canines sounding like creaking hinges. They weren’t after oil though, just blood.
Jeanette plucked herself up, but rather than do anything, she warily watched Tyler up on the stairs above. He stared at her, but from his cold attention, it was clear he was just as likely to come to her aid as a raging fire was to extinguish itself before it burnt through your house and all your belongings.
Jeanette pushed her tongue against her teeth. Fine. Tyler wanted her to play games, then? She could play.
She forced her lips to wobble. She grabbed her shirt and tried to pull it out from her throat in a fumbling move that just brought all of her attention to her neck. The same throat the vamp now stared at unashamedly.
Jeanette knew the rules of Broadside. The vamps couldn’t attack the other students. Obviously, anyway. But you tell that to this guy as he leaned down real close, got right up against her neck, and actually sniffed. Though, to be fair, at the same time, he grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.
She was not impressed by his chivalry.
“I can see you are new here,” he said, still glaring at her throat. “You clearly don’t know the rules. You need someone to teach you. So consider this your first lesson.” He locked his hand on her chest and pushed her down, thumb brushing up against her throat.
She fell with a thwack. It got everyone’s attention. A whole group of students was walking past, clearly busy, wands and books in their hands. Now everybody stopped to stare.
Not one of them looked like they’d come to Jeanette’s aid. Several of the ordinary witches and wizards were clearly shocked and horrified, but only in that way you get when you’re watching some nature video. It would suck to be the gazelle being chased by the lion, but it was just the law of the land, wasn’t it? And you couldn’t fight nature.
Jeanette remained there down on her knees, staring up at the guy, desperately trying to look weak, but inside hardening like frigging concrete.
She’d known this kind of thing happened at Broadside – this kind of thing and worse. But it was different to understand something intellectually and then to experience it – all while some idiotic vampire snarled right in her face.
He leaned down again, but this time he sure as hell didn’t grab her hand. He pushed in close until she could see his teeth, until she could actually feel them. That’s right, they changed the air around them, changed the magic, too. It was almost like the school was daring him to break the rules, all so he could taste her blood.
Jeanette knew she should show fear, but it was too damn hard. She glowered up into his eyes, attention like fire.
It threw him for half a second. Then someone cleared their throat and marched through the halls. “Get to class. Fun is over. It’s time for senior students to head to homeroom. New girl, head to your accommodation and settle in. You will be sent a guide soon.”
Jeanette didn’t react to being called the new girl, but she did glower at the vamp. He touched his throat a couple of times and laughed.
Jeanette tilted her head to the side. That’s all she did. She said nothing, and she certainly didn’t scream. She only moved with all of the finesse of a snake. And snakes don’t honestly care if you call them names. Nor do they particularly care if you threaten them in front of preppy students. At the end of the day, they’re just snakes. They will bite you because that’s what they do.
With that thought echoing around her mind, the teacher pointed up the stairs, muttering something about the fact that the accommodation was on the third floor.
Jeanette was glad that she was on her own. It wasn’t to say that other students weren’t coming and going down the stairs. But thankfully she no longer had to put up with Tyler’s glower.
What, had she mortally offended him on the first day? He shouldn’t have made her a familiar, then.
Heck, if he’d really wanted to control her, he could’ve put more clauses in their contract.
Jeanette hadn’t thought about the contract nearly as much as she should have. It had only been two days since she’d signed the damn thing. But there’s only so much ruminating a mind like hers could indulge in.
She was built for action.
That action was now marching up the stairs, just behind her.
She reached the accommodation block.
The accommodation level was just as stunning as you’d think it would be. A massive hallway – that you could easily fit a truck down – led to rooms interspersed on either side. At first, it gave the impression that said rooms were tiny, as the doors were directly alongside one another, separated by only 30 centimeters. But Jeanette could feel the crackling enchantments under the plaster. She could also feel the sense of general privilege that oozed out of them like blood from a festering wound.
She reached a hand out, trailed her fingers over the closest door, then snapped back when it gave her the equivalent of a wooden bite.
Nothing compared to what she’d get next.
Someone or something moved in quickly behind Jeanette. For someone who was usually so attentive to their environment they could hear a pin dropping several blocks away, it was a new, somewhat terrifying experience. That was until Tyler grabbed her by the wrist, spun her around, and pushed her against the wall. For half a second. He quickly slipped his hand to the side, right past her hip, and opened the door beside her.
Before her body could get any ideas, she realized it had to be her own door, that, or Tyler was going to take her on a tour of every room here.
The door creaked open, and he swept her inside. Then he closed the door with the toe of his boot. The click of the lock engaging was the only thing that could be heard over her pounding heart. But screw her heart. Her lips were all that mattered as they pulled into a grimace. “What—”
He dropped her and took a step away from her, arching his neck hard, every muscle down into his stomach contracting. All that offset just how pissed off he looked as his lips sliced over his glimmering teeth. And, yeah, you could guess it – his canines were out on full display. “Were you actually trying to draw attention to yourself back there? Or are you just a lot dumber than you look?” His sharp gaze ticked from left to right over her face.
She’d already claimed that he had the kind of attention that could grab her all up in one go. It seemed he could also crush her – or at least try to.
She shrugged her shoulders, eased the tension out of them with a shrug, then tilted her head to the side confrontationally.
Confrontationally didn’t last, however. Soon sharp tingles raced across her wrist, and she yelped as she drew it up.
Tyler took another step back. He still looked angry, but he crunched his hands down into his pockets. Then he eased himself back until he pressed his shoulders against the wall. He looked her up and down. “We both know why you’re here. We both know you signed a contract. You’re bound to me. So you will listen, whether you want to or not,” he snarled. He drew a hand out of his pocket and tapped his left pec. Jeanette knew exactly what he meant, because as his fingers scrunched over some paper in his breast pocket, said paper sent terrible tingles charging through her wrist once more. It had to be the embodiment of their contract.
Jeanette pushed backward, grabbed her wrist, and held it tightly. She closed her eyes. She could fight this. But she’d lose. Just the thought of trying to win against Tyler again made her stomach zip and tingle terribly.
She turned. She looked at the room. “This is my room, right? You haven’t just manhandled me into somebody else’s room, right? You wouldn’t do that, would you? I imagine every single private room in this establishment is chock-full of personal surveillance spells.”
“Firstly, it’s not an establishment. It’s—”
She shrugged, looking at him challengingly from underneath her arched eyebrows. “What, are you going to say it’s an institution? The family one, at that?”
“No, this place is a hell hole. I would think someone like you would know that.”
She hated the way he said someone like her – hated the glare he shot her even more. She still didn’t know how long this asshole had been keeping tabs on her, but from the fact that he seemed to be familiar with her life history – and her motivation for fighting vampires – it must have been a while.
“What’s your second point?” she jogged him.
“I do not need to be reminded about the surveillance charms in this place. You clearly do. Never challenge a vampire like that again – not until and unless I tell you too. This is a careful game we are playing, Jeanette – and I won’t have you break it before it starts.”
Now she’d all but confirmed this was her room, she turned, kicked the chest of drawers beside her just to check if it was solid, then walked over to the bed. Massive and fourposter, she had to admit it looked comfortable – and far different from anything she’d slept in over the past 10 years. Her current loft in Horton Vale was alright – and in any other village might go for $1000 a week. But said loft could only be reached by a magical bridge she alone knew the address of.
The point was, it was comfortable – but not like this.
She could actually imagine herself living here. What Tyler had in mind, however, would not be living.
She sat on the edge of her bed, crossed her arms, and knew she looked like an idiot in her school uniform. Don’t get her wrong – it fit her. Technically. But it matched her personality about as much as a lollipop would match a hardened warrior.
“If a vampire challenges you like that again, you will fall to your damn knees and kiss their feet. You got that?”
Her eyes flashed. “If you honestly think—”
He tapped his chest pocket. That’s all it took. Jeanette’s wind fell from her sails. She wanted to keep her pissed-off expression and keep her arms crossed over her chest, but she couldn’t. She had to yank her hands around and start scratching her wrist.
When his silence became sufficiently pointed, Tyler finally pushed himself up from the door. He pointed out the window beside her bed. “That place is a hell hole,” he repeated, and from the way he spat it, it was damn clear he meant this from the bottom of his heart. A foul, wretchedly dark heart, if Jeanette was any judge, but still one that seemed unnaturally alive for a vampire.
Should she bother to point out how unusual this was?
A vampire who had a drunken dagger shouldn’t be doing this. He should be living it large at the top of the food chain. Instead, he was using little old her to get revenge.
Speaking of which. She shoved to her feet. “Why are you even—”
He lifted a hand, all bony, strong, and broad. “This is not a question-and-answer session. You’re my familiar.” His voice shook, powered through the room, and grabbed hold of her stomach like he suddenly locked his hand over her belly. “And I don’t need to explain myself to you. You will do as you’re told, Jeanette. The very first thing you will do is kowtow to Jason.”
Her brow crumpled. She’d been expecting him to say that the first thing she should do was lick his feet. Who the hell was Jason?
“The idiot you ran into earlier. The one just begging to be defeated in a real fight.”
His eyes did this thing, searching, almost like they wanted to turn into hands, find this very Jason, and lock around him to choke him dead.
But then, just as soon as she saw it, it disappeared. He straightened, smoothed a hand down his blazer, tapped his emblem once, then tilted his head to the side challengingly. “You understand?”
She slapped a hand on her face. “This is my first day at school. No one will hang out with me. I’m just a lonely witch.”
“You caught Jason’s eye. He thinks you’re an easy feed. Let him lead you around by the nose.”
“Until?” she asked pointedly.
“Just let him lead you around by the nose.”
“Fine.” She gestured expressively then wrapped her arms around her middle again. But this was not a defensive move – she just needed somewhere to put her hands so she didn’t get tempted to try to punch him. “What if he gets other ideas and tries to lead me around by the throat instead?”
She was careful when she said throat. Yeah, she was his familiar, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get any ideas.
Not once did his gaze scissor down to her neck. It remained at eye level. His cheeks stiffened, though. “You can act in self-defense. Otherwise, you will just follow him around. He is Helena’s attack dog. He also keeps most of the information for the human trafficking ring. Or have you forgotten about that, Jeanette? Has this just become fun and games for you? You need to remember there are real people involved here, Jeanette, and the only reason I let you into Broadside is to do good, not to feed your petty ego.”
Ouch. On two fronts. The ego bit was technically right. And yeah, she’d forgotten about the real crimes here.
On the streets, Jeanette had heard all sorts of strange theories about Broadside. Some of them sounded true – students went missing all the time and the lower-level witches and wizards had to act as vampire slaves. But this? This was insane.
He obviously saw the doubt in her gaze, because he stepped over to her, shoes crushing the rich pile of the cream rug. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Trust me,” his voice powered down low, “there is much worse waiting for you out there in the halls of Broadside. Lucky you have someone to keep you safe,” he added.
Wow. Now that was a bridge too far.
Jeanette dropped her arms, but she couldn’t control the challenging look in her gaze.
“I don’t need anyone—”
“You’re lucky you ran into me.” He turned, reached out, and locked a hand on the handle, his fingers sliding over the brass. “If you hadn’t, you would have eventually run into something you couldn’t fight. You are arrogant, Jeanette. You think there’s nobody you can’t take on. But you’re wrong.”
“When you fought me, you got—”
“Lucky? You know the tip of that iceberg I talked about earlier? One day it would have found you, Jeanette – and if I hadn’t found you first, you’d be dead by now.”
She laughed in his face.
He didn’t flinch back. “Now be a good girl – and head to potions class. Try to catch Jason’s eye. It won’t be hard. He likes anyone who falls in front of him, anyone who reminds him of just how high he is. So lick his damn shoes if you need to. And while you’re there, find the evidence we require.”
There were so many things Jeanette wanted to do right now. And none of them included heading to potions class dressed in a frigging school uniform.
She tried not to saunter, tried not to hold her head up too high. She didn’t need to be affected by all the stares the students shot her, and trust her, they were not kind. If stares could beat you half to death, then these glares were like the combined attack of a brutal gang.
Most of them came from vampires, and all of them were sizing her up to see how much of an easy mark she was. But some of the other lower-class magical races weren’t being any kinder.
What, was Jeanette a cut of meat? Were they seeing how much flesh they could cut from her body?
They could give it a try.
Jeanette went to squeeze her fingers together but quickly reminded herself of Tyler’s warning. She needed to get close to Jason. To do that, she had to be simpering and weak.
She walked down the echoing halls of Broadside. It was a veritable warren. She could tell why. The halls moved about whenever they felt like it, doors appearing from nowhere to disappear with a few hisses and clicks. Though sometimes it was convenient, it was still a waste of magic.
But if Broadside had as many secrets to hide as she was starting to suspect, then it had plenty to keep hidden in the shadows.
She made it to the massive doors that led into the potions class. She peered through them to see a huge room. It was like half a football field. Stations were interspersed at even intervals. They had some of the equipment you’d expect from a chemistry class – sinks and Bunsen burners and whatnot. But every single one of them had a magical array of floating vials just above the main chairs. They were empty for now.
Jeanette knew potions.
Enough to realize they were a waste of time. Great if you needed to heal something quickly. Okay if you wanted to surprise one of your enemies. But once more, they were a crutch – just like wands. They slowed things down – and they critically took you further away from the actual raw nature of magic. You needed to be in there, practicing order with your fists and feet and heart and mind. If you used something like a potion or a wand, it just put a buffer between you and all the natural forces of your powers.
As she walked in, she stared around the class.
It was already filling up. She didn’t see Tyler. Maybe he was too sophisticated to lower himself to such a useless class as this. But she saw Jason – at the back. As soon as she walked into the room, his gaze slid over to her like water down polished marble.
Though her first inclination was to tilt her head to the side and snap over to him, she twisted her clenched jaw from left to right instead and tried to slap herself into the role of the damsel.
She paused in the rows between the benches, and someone smashed into her shoulder. It was hardly a light move. They did so with enough force that, if Jeanette were an ordinary human, she would have dislocated a joint.
She turned to see Helena. Helena didn’t have eyes for her – just Jason. She played with something in her pocket, long bony fingers pulling it out until just a flash of red metal was visible.
She slipped close to Jason’s side, pressed a hand on his shoulder, then whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, his eyes widened with real interest, the skin down across his jaw and over his cheeks tightening with a twitch.
Helena twisted and walked several benches away, stopping as a simpering witch came up to her side and begged to assist her in class.
She just waved a dismissive hand their way.
Somebody went to join Jason, but Jeanette closed her eyes and told herself she had to do this.
She took a jolting step forward, forced herself to fall, and tumbled headfirst into one of the benches.
Her theory was that Jason would come over and save her.
He liked weak people, right? Well, either he was too distracted or didn’t care for Jeanette’s particular act.
Jeanette ended up nutting herself. It wasn’t a light move, but it wouldn’t kill her yet.
At least it grazed her temple and actual blood beaded out.
As the students nearest chuckled and Helena gave a dismissive snort, Jeanette plucked at her injury. She slid her fingers over the graze, bit her lip as she stared at it, and went to rub her blood on her pants.
Finally, she got Jason’s attention.
He leaned forward, locked his elbows on the stainless-steel benchtop, and looked right at her. “You want to be slightly more careful with blood around vampires, sweetie. That’s your second lesson.”
She wanted to ram him in the stomach, pin him against the wall, and ask what the third lesson would be, but instead, she shrugged her shoulders, tried to look small, and found an empty bench. Jason didn’t invite her over.
But she ensured that her bench was right in front of him, and more than once, she felt his gaze sliding over the back of her neck.
The potions lesson was simple.
Could she keep up? Not particularly. They used vernacular she wasn’t familiar with. But she understood what all the potions did, and if push came to shove, she could create them all – faster than any of the students here could. But when push came to shove, Jeanette intended to be somewhere else, preferably with a drunken dagger pressed right up against Jason’s throat.
She tried to screw up in class as much as she could.
Every time she foolishly dropped one of her vials, she felt Jason’s eyes on the back of her neck. When she cut herself on a jagged piece of glass, they were there again, sliding down her skin. She wouldn’t do him the dignity of saying that his stare was like fingers. It was less coordinated than that. It was more like talons. Ones he used shamelessly and ineptly.
If Tyler was like whiskey, Jason was like pure ethanol cut with paint thinner.
At the end of the class, Jeanette waited until almost everyone else had left. Then she half tumbled off her stool.
This time, she wouldn’t fall alone. Before she could slip off and bang her knee against the side of the bench, she felt a hand descending on her shoulder. Then a whisper by her ear. “You are not built for this place. You need some help if you want to survive the day, let alone the year.”
She controlled her first urge – to twist and kick him where it mattered. She shivered. She opened her eyes wide, hoping she looked like some doe-eyed doll. “Ha?”
His hand slipped off her shoulder, and he grabbed his bag, several of his heaviest books kept in charges of magic floating just in front of him. One wizard scurried in several seconds later, offered to carry the books, and did so, even though they had to weigh a ton.
Jason paused at the door, flicked her another glance, smiled, and walked off.
Finally Jeanette was alone. She grabbed the edge of her bench, and she twisted her fingers in and in and in. She didn’t use magic, but she didn’t have to. Her natural force mattered most, and she actually bent the stainless steel. She stopped before she could wrench it right out of the wall. She grabbed her own bag, swung it over her shoulder, and walked away.
Was this really what Tyler had in mind? Running after this idiot Jason, simpering to him, and waiting for him to spill the beans? Jeanette could think of a far more effective method to get information out of him. It was the same strategy you used when you needed to get water from a sponge. Squeeze it. And when that didn’t work, stamp on it instead.
She walked into the corridor, expecting no one to be there, but she strode past several students. They hunkered close, talking amongst themselves. They used ear enchantments that meant no one should be able to pick up what they were saying, but Jeanette didn’t even have to concentrate to break through them.
“They say Jason’s gonna get a new one tonight,” one of them hissed.
Jeanette’s eyes darted over, locking on the student in question. Young, she couldn’t be older than 18. She had rosy cheeks and wide eyes, and that made the shock she showed all the more visceral.
“And?” her friend asked, clearly unmoved. The guy crossed his arms. It half covered the emblem of the school. His, suffice to say, didn’t burn like an eternal flame. Hell, it was dull as if he’d been kicked in the dirt all day. And the expression that marked his features revealed the same. There was a little scar down the side of his neck. Jeanette knew the kind. She very much doubted he’d nicked himself while shaving. That was a scar a vampire gave when they were trying to hide the fact they’d bitten you.
“What do you mean and? Another poor student is going to fall to him tonight. Do you really want them to end up like you—”
“Shut up,” the guy hissed, finally darting his gaze over to Jeanette.
As for Jeanette, she dropped down and pretended to do her shoelaces, then she continued on, but not before turning over her shoulder and shooting both students a quick glance.
The guy gripped his throat. His fingers slid over his scar, and Jeanette realized it was fresh. Maybe two days old, but she doubted it was older.
What if he’d been the student Helena had been snacking on Friday night?
The answer was, it would be intriguing, but Jeanette had classes to get to.
They lasted, unsurprisingly, all day. And all day, she had to pretend to be a klutz.
Jason wasn’t even in most of her classes. But she had to keep up appearances, lest word got around that she was just faking this.
By the end of the day, all Jeanette wanted to do was run.
She could head back home to her loft, punch a pillow until it exploded into sparks, and leave this sorry chapter far behind.
But Tyler wasn’t going to let her do that.
When the last class came around, all Jeanette wanted to do was punch the first thing she could see. Fitting, because it was combat.
They walked into a massive hall. It was even larger than the one dedicated to potions. There wasn’t a crash mat in sight. Instead, the floor was hard, marbled concrete. One look at it and Jeanette could actually see the bloodstains that had been inexpertly cleaned out over the years.
Real nice place, then.
Jeanette couldn’t help it. When she strode in, she did so with her head held high. This was when she was in her element, after all. Even before she’d left her own magical school and gone on the run, no one had ever defeated her in combat class.
But there’d be no winning today.
She tried to stay hidden around the side of the class, but the teacher wouldn’t let her. Most of the other teachers she’d encountered today hadn’t drawn attention to the fact she was new, but not this one.
A barrel-chested bear of a man walked in, his robes barely hiding his bristling muscles. He looked like some kind of genetic experiment.
And that didn’t even account for his eyes. One of them was perpetually half aglow. A magic accident, then?
He locked his gaze on her and gestured her over with one brief, almost dismissive pat of his hand. “You, new girl, what’s your name again?”
“Cassandra,” Jeanette volunteered. On the inside, her eyes narrowed. There was something about this teacher, something about the fact that the students had all started laughing, though low so it didn’t echo around the hall.
What, was she going to have her face kicked in the dirt again? Sorry, the impenetrable concrete?
Whatever. Jeanette would always pick herself up again.
With that promise bolstering her, she walked forward.
“My name is Professor Anderson. And you’re my volunteer.”
“A volunteer for what, sir?”
“First and foremost, you will learn that you do not speak back to teachers,” he growled.
Sure, it had been a long time since Jeanette had been in a school environment, but she still understood what it meant to talk back. That had been nothing more than a justifiable question. But clearly this man didn’t like his victims speaking up.
Jeanette had to try damn hard to control her expression. All she wanted to do was sneer at him and tell him he could shove his experiment where the sun didn’t shine. Instead, she viciously slipped her gaze around the room, trying to figure out why everyone had become so silent. All of the laughing had stopped. Worse? Or better, considering your perspective? Jason had muscled forward until he was at the front of the group. There was a certain glint in his eyes.
A predatory one.
Jeanette had been around enough vampires to know that they got this certain edge to them when they knew blood was about to be let. Their nostrils would flare, their eyes would sharpen, and you could hear their teeth retracting from a mile away.
So this wasn’t a standard combat class, then? She said that as if she knew what standard meant in this school.
Yeah, she’d seen the boring side of Broadside all day. But this place had a reputation for one very good reason.
It taught vampires how to be the best and everyone else how to follow.
“Now, you aren’t expected to win. I’ve seen your combat scores from your previous school,” Anderson said.
She’d had a previous school? Tyler hadn’t even bothered to fill her in on her back-story. So she just nodded and smiled vacantly.
“Consider this an introduction to the real world of magic,” Anderson snarled.
Introduction? Why not give her the full course? Hell, Jeanette could take it from here. She could whip out her drunken dagger, and she could show this weak class exactly what it meant to fight for your life. It sure as hell wasn’t fancy wand waving and robe wearing. You could wear one if you wanted, but that was only if you were overly fond of tripping over your feet and ending up in a pool of your own blood and broken teeth.
Though Jeanette knew she shouldn’t, she still strengthened her stance and centered her breath in her stomach.
A wise decision. Anderson, it seemed, was a man of few words. Without another one, he took a step back and threw his arm out in a wide circle over his head. Instantly, magic crackled down from some recess in the ceiling. Jeanette had to watch out of the corner of her eye. Dart her head up and change the inclination of her neck, and not only would it give every vampire in the room a clear advertisement to where her jugular was, but it would distract her at the wrong damn time.
The wrong time came half a second later as something crackled down and smashed into the floor beside Jeanette.
It was a grave monster. Something you might get around gravesites. Others called them ghouls, but true ghouls feasted on dead flesh and only dead flesh. Technically the creature behind her could feast on the living, too.
It was squat. To begin with. But should it choose to rise off its wiry haunches, it could become much taller than Jeanette. It could also move a heck of a lot faster. So you never let it get to that stage. Upon seeing one of these things, you went in hard, you went in fast, and you went in like you damn well meant it.
Jeanette right now had to hold back.
She could feel the students’ attention on her, none more so than Jason. He was at the front of the group, a sanctimonious smile spreading his lips, his head tilted to the side. What she wouldn’t give to switch places with him.
She didn’t rush. Monsters like this were activated by movement or perfect stillness. If you remained perfectly still, they would think you were a corpse, and they would rush in for a snack. But if you moved ever so slightly, not like you were trying to run from them, but just like you were standing there and breathing, they would get confused.
So Jeanette remained poised on her feet, arms swaying softly, breath even, attention sharp.
No student said anything, their every breath hushed. But as the creature did not attack, Jason’s lips ticked into a somewhat peeved snarl. “Is this meant to be the show, Anderson? I thought this was touted as a lesson? And I really doubt she’s learning a thing. People like that require a little forceful encouragement.” He spat the word forceful out like spines.
Jeanette wasn’t careful. She glowered right at Jason, gaze unfiltered, hatred burning within. Hell, maybe he could even hear the bile thrumming up her throat from there.
“Cassandra, move,” Anderson snarled.
“But I don’t have a weapon,” she stammered. She tried to get her fear just right. But all the while, she remained there, poised on her feet, not moving an inch, but still breathing freely.
The monster just looked at her.
Then it started to dart its gaze over the rest of the group.
The thing about monsters like this was they could sense death. Not just the dead, but people who’d interacted with death recently.
Jeanette expected its gaze to lock on Jason. Hell, though the grave monster was being kept in place by a rough magical ring with a diameter of about 10 meters, maybe it would smell so much death on Jason that it would rush over, break the ring, and eat him right then and there.
But that’s not who the monster’s attention diverted to. Nope. It was that kid – the same one who’d been speaking in the class outside of potions – the one with the wounds in his neck.
Jeanette’s eyes narrowed.
The kid in question looked a little thrown at the fact that the monster pushed forward on its feet and sniffed him, but he just as clearly had no idea what that meant.
“Move, Cassandra,” Anderson bellowed, “or you will fail the class.
Jeanette narrowed her eyes further.
She did not move immediately. Who cared if she failed the class? She was doing what she was meant to do – gathering information. It might not be on Jason, but Jeanette got the impression this was important too.
For this monster to be so interested in that kid, it meant he’d either doled out death or been right next to death recently. Someone had been killed beside him, or he’d killed them, in other words.
He had to have something to do with the human trafficking ring. It was the only thing that could account for the monster’s specific interest. Jeanette could be making this up, but it seemed fixated on him. Which meant that it hadn’t been only one person he’d killed or stood next to as they’d died – it had been several.
“Cassandra—” Anderson bellowed.
Fine. Whatever. Jeanette jerked back. She waited for the monster’s attention to swing to her, and it did.
She looked utterly nonplussed until she twisted to the side and saw that Jason’s eyes were on her – all over her, in fact.
The monster reached her. It moved quickly. It had to. Its whole shtick was to run down the living, but it was only capable of short bursts like a cheetah. It was far more powerful around the dead – usually in graveyards. So it wanted to catch you before you left the vicinity of the cemetery.
Jeanette twisted and threw herself down, knowing full well that the creature was about to leap up and pinned her on the back, and sure enough, it did. Anderson could’ve cast a spell to stop it, but he didn’t. The grave monster landed on Jeanette’s shoulders. Immediately, its long talons sank into her skin with a sickening crunch.
She screamed and tried to wrench it off, but she couldn’t. Unless she used actual magic. And even now, she only used a halfhearted lurch as she yanked her shoulder backward and up.
She heard a dark chuckle. It had to be Jason. Clearly, he was enjoying the show. If this was what he was into, then she’d have to give him a taste of it when she ran him down.
“The first thing you must learn is monsters like this go after people who move too much. You can’t stay perfectly still, though, and you can’t run. You must maintain your equilibrium, and to do that, you have to control your nerves.”
Jeanette lay there, face down, feeling her blood splattering out onto the concrete underneath her. And speaking of that, it hadn’t exactly been pleasant to fall on top of.
She did as she was told. She quickly moved to that point between fear and action, between inaction and explosive force.
And she obviously went there far too fast, because the brutal chuckle Jason had just given paused in his throat.
“Not everyone can pull it off,” Anderson snarled, “but clearly our new girl here is a natural-born fighter. Let’s see if you’re any good at scanning spells. I take it you know how to cast one. Usually, to do so, you need to move, and you need to let magic move through you. Do that while the grave monster is on your back, however, and it will react.”
Yeah, Jeanette knew how to cast a scanning spell. She hadn’t done so in years, however. Better to learn what your enemies were before you fought them. Scanning spells wasted time and energy. They also were a great indication to the monster you were fighting that you had no idea what you were doing and you were way out of your depth. Monsters weren’t stupid. They understood magic too. Maybe they didn’t speak English, but when a dumb witch or wizard paused to scan them, they could put two and two together and take advantage of the distraction. Usually in a bloody and terribly effective way.
When Jeanette didn’t move, Anderson growled at her again.
So, rolling her eyes, confident no one could see, she reached around. She cast the spell. Immediately, the grave monster sank its claws in deeper.
Jeanette didn’t scream. She could put up with more pain than this and presumably would before her little life was cut short in a blast of blazing glory by Taylor.
She managed to cast the spell, but it cost her.
The grave monster now virtually jumped up and down on her back. If it got any more excited, it would wrap its teeth around her throat. Clearly Anderson didn’t care about that.
Jeanette’s shimmering scanning spell appeared just above the monster, and even though her face was pressed down into the concrete, a recreation of it appeared right in front of her face, too. It confirmed everything she already knew. This was a standard level I grave monster, and the best thing to do was not to fight it at all. If she had to fight it, fire was one of the most effective methods. That, or level 2 talismans.
She didn’t have any level 2 talismans. Long ago, she’d cleaned out her collection of low-grade weapons. She had some level 200 talismans, though.
As the monster continued to sink its claws into her back, she fantasized about pulling one out now.
She didn’t need to.
As more blood dripped down her back, someone chuckled harshly. “I think she’s learned her lesson, Anderson. Scan first, then attack,” Jason said in a rumbling voice.
Anderson cleared his throat. Jeanette heard him swipe his hand to the side. That electrified ring on the ceiling activated, and the next thing Jeanette knew, the monster was pulled back into it with a slurping sound.
She didn’t push up. She was starting to learn what this school expected. There was no point doing anything unless she was told to.
Sure enough, Anderson took his time before he snarled, “On your feet. I will have someone take you to the medical bay. As for the rest of you, get ready. You’re going to be fighting grave monsters today. I just have to recalibrate the trial machine.”
Jeanette had never heard of anything like it. And to be fair, nor had she experienced anything remotely similar.
As she pushed to her feet, Jason strode over, a smile spreading his lips, either at the fact she was the damsel once more, or at all the blood that had spilled over her top. But Jeanette kept all of her attention for the electrified ring above them. It disappeared for a few seconds as Anderson made a complicated set of gestures with his outstretched hands.
He was clearly attempting to control it. That’s where clear ended.
Exactly what kind of contraption was that thing?
If Jeanette was right, then it seemingly had the ability to create any monster you could think of.
It would be incredible to train with. It would also be an incredibly effective torture tool.
Jeanette went back to the sense she’d got when she’d walked in here. The floor was splattered with blood. Years upon years of it. Presumably, it was cleaned up after every class though, right?
So where did all that blood come from exactly?
Jason slid a hand over her arm and helped her to her feet. He stood way too close. “I’ll take you to the medical bay now.”
She forgot herself momentarily and just glowered at him but quickly let her lips twitch into a pathetic smile. “Thank you. I can barely move.”
He momentarily looked at her, then smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “I can see that.”
Keeping his arm locked around hers, almost like they were off for a stroll, he led her out of the room.
She felt the eyes of all the students on her. The young woman she’d seen previously, talking to the man with the wound in his neck, shot Jeanette a look like she’d never see her again.
Jeanette certainly hoped Jason would attack her. She had to go back to Tyler’s lesson. Jeanette could attack in self-defense. She itched for the second Jason would lose it and stick his teeth in her throat.
Then she’d stick her fist in his face.
Jason knew where he was going, that, or he was taking her on a circuitous route through the winding tunnels. He certainly walked with purpose. He took her to the left side of the combat hall, then hooked a right, then another right.
In about five minutes, they stopped in front of an ornate door. It was carved, and there were runes all over it. There was even a tree of life.
Jeanette stared at it and waited for Jason to open the door, but he didn’t. He took a step back, dropping her arm like she was a hot coal. He looked her up and down. “You’re a surprising package.”
“Yeah, you shouldn’t be standing,” he muttered.
“I….” Jeanette staggered slightly to the side. She ensured that she pushed her bloody shoulders up against the door. She even rubbed them slightly to make certain that the scent would be carried through the rest of the hallway.
It certainly worked on another vampire who was walking several meters away. The guy stopped, turned, and shot her a look that said if they were anywhere else, he’d bleed her dry.
Jason took a step in front of her, blocking her from view. He continued to look at her with that sharp gaze. “I thought you were a klutz. Didn’t realize you could fight, though.”
Jeanette’s jaw hardened ever so slightly. “Fight? Do you remember what happened back there? That thing almost killed me. I’ve never faced a lesson like that before.”
“Sure. But a lesson you didn’t need. You know you didn’t even scream once?” he muttered. With his arms crossed, he took another step back from her.
Jeanette felt like he’d punched her. Crap. She grabbed her shoulders again, this time using her superior agility to actually clutch one of the wounds. She scraped a nail right down the major puncture, spilling yet more blood. Heck, at this stage, if it didn’t start distracting him, she’d cram it in his mouth, all to get him to shut up.
Tyler was already disappointed in her. She’d screwed up the mission on the first day….
Exactly what would a Solomon do to her when she outright failed? Solomons were the most powerful family in the country, and if their wretched reputation was anything to go by….
Jason suddenly closed the distance between them and jutted his chin right in her face, sharp eyes like knives. “Cut the crap. You know exactly how to fight. You’re not a klutz, either. You’re too balanced. All this is an act. Why? Are you trying to get close to me?”
He tilted his head to the side. Fortunately he didn’t try to pin her against the wall. Do that, and in her current mood, she would crack.
Her lips almost cracked now. She tried to keep them in a frown, but they started twitching up and down.
“What’s your angle, Cassandra? What are you trying to do?”
“I’m not… I heard you were having some kind of party,” she tried, clutching at anything to distract him.
He nodded. “Yeah, I am. But I don’t think you’re going to come, though. This is where our little relationship ends.” He plucked up a strand of her bloodsoaked hair from her jacket. He rolled it around in his fingers, then dropped it. He turned. “I’m warning you, you might think you know how to fight, but I’m a real vampire.” She heard the sound of his teeth protruding. It changed the way he spoke as he hissed his next words, “If you dare get in my way, I’ll kill you, Cassandra, no questions asked. I will bury you right out the back of the accommodation block. Now watch yourself.”
With that, he stalked off.
Jeanette didn’t bother to shudder back, and she sure as heck didn’t scream. She turned around and punched the wall when he was out of earshot.
“Dammit,” she snarled.
She went to leave but realized she had to look after her shoulders.
Or heck, maybe she didn’t. When Tyler found out about this, maybe he’d kick her out.
Good. It was rapidly turning out that there were things Jeanette couldn’t do after all. She was built for fighting, not intrigue. She was an assassin, not an interrogator.
But if she wanted to survive this damn school, she’d have to learn to be all that and more.
Once she got out of the medical bay, Jeanette was at a loss. Technically the students were in the cafeteria eating, but she had no intention of joining them.
She walked the halls for a while, waiting for Tyler to appear, but he didn’t. And clearly he had no intention of doing so. Jeanette got a few more steps, then her phone rang. There was a problem though. She’d never had a phone. What was the point? You had phones to keep in contact with people, right? Who exactly did Jeanette need to keep in contact with? It sure as heck wasn’t her nonexistent family and friends. As for the Internet, she didn’t need it. Revenge distracted her just fine, and the kind social media offered was nowhere near as effective as the kind her fist was built for.
But as she drew to a stop in a thankfully empty corridor, she almost lost it when she felt something ringing in her pocket.
She yanked it out quickly, staring at the expensive case, then glanced at the screen.
It said one word. Master.
It had to be Tyler, then. She snarled at it and rolled her eyes before finally answering. “What?”
“I heard you were injured. Jason—”
“Jason is onto me. Apparently I didn’t scream enough when I was in combat class. Sorry, I’m not sure I can play the damsel much longer.”
There was a long, heavy pause.
Jeanette didn’t care that he was disappointed in her, but she had to admit, he was awfully good at being passive aggressive. And hell, he was also very good at being aggressive. Maybe right now, he was unsheathing his drunken dagger, and all too soon, he’d send it whipping through the school to find her and skewer her.
Jeanette took a hard breath. “Look, I think I can fix this. I didn’t say or do anything—”
“Keep your head down for a few days. Do you understand?”
Jeanette rolled her eyes. “Can’t we just get to Helena already?”
“Be careful what you say. This phone has a silence spell cast on it. Nobody should be able to pick up what we’re talking about, but I don’t want you thinking you can freely discuss this out in the corridors. You are here for one reason, Jeanette, and you will do nothing to jeopardize that. Do you understand?”
Jeanette clutched a hand into a fist and slowly locked her knuckles against the wall beside her. She could feel every single tendon tensing. It took an age to open her mouth and spit, “Yes, boss.”
“Master, not boss. You are not my employee. You are my contracted familiar. Now, settle into school for several days. And for God’s sake, keep your head down.”
With that, he ended the call.
Jeanette tilted her head to the side. Keep her head down? She wasn’t here to learn frigging potions. She—
“You seem kind of funny, George,” someone said in a light voice Jeanette remembered instantly. It was that girl from before – from outside of potions class.
“Look, it’s fine. I’m just a little jumpy, that’s all. But I’m better now you’re here. And you are right beside me, aren’t you, Kate?”
There was a long pause. “Yeah, I’m right beside you, George. But… maybe you should go back to your room? You’re sweating.”
“It’s nothing.” There was the sound of George swiping at his face. Even from here, Jeanette could tell that he was shaking like a cat in front of the dog.
Jeanette judged when they would come around the corner. She didn’t want to look like she was paying too much attention to them, so, still appearing to play on her phone, she just shrugged up against the closest wall.
Sure enough, as George burst around the corner, holding Kate’s hand and pulling her on, they didn’t look at her once.
Jeanette, on the other hand, kept all of her attention for them. George was like an open book written on fear.
Not only did he shake, but Kate was right – he was sweating profusely.
He also kept clutching his neck.
Jeanette had been wrong. Crap. That mark on his neck wasn’t just a wound. It was a familiar bite. She was all too good at recognizing it now she had one of her own. Most vampires marked their familiars on their throats. Tyler had been an aberration, marking her wrist instead.
Whoever had marked George, on the other hand, sure as hell hadn’t been messing around. Jeanette was certain she could feel the excess control magic from here.
“Look… um, I’m hungry. I want to head to the cafeteria—” Kate began.
“You can do that after. Okay? I just need your help. You will help me, won’t you, Kate?”
There was a substantial pause. “Yeah. I guess… I want to help you.”
Jeanette watched over the top of her phone, lips drawing into a pronounced frown.
George jittered. It wasn’t just from the magic. He’d either taken something, or some spell had been cast on him.
Whatever it was, it was in complete control.
George was naught but a slave to it.
And slaves will do anything and sacrifice anyone for their masters.
He pulled Kate around another turn in the corridor.
Jeanette pushed up from the wall.
She flicked her gaze left and right, judging where they might be headed.
Though she’d been surprised by how chaotic the insides of Broadside were, she was starting to get a hold of it.
She reached forward. She tapped the wall with her fist.
Sure, there were surveillance charms around here, but no one was actively watching them.
Tyler had told her to keep her head down.
Tyler didn’t know what he was dealing with.
Nor did George, she added, head dropping forward, hair fanning in front of her eyes, and lips pulling into a deep sneer.
Jeanette tapped the wall again, then finally got hold of the spell that substantiated it.
It was hard to walk through real walls. Matter kept trying to push you apart. Fake walls, on the other hand, especially ones created by magic, were easy enough to stride right through – if you were strong enough to catch the root of the spell. Jeanette did that now, with nothing more than a single knock. She walked right through.
She appeared in the corridor just behind George and Kate. She was silent, though. George’s rollicking, sharp breaths were a thousand times louder.
“Look, George, what the heck is going on?” Kate tried.
“Nothing. It will be over soon. It will all be over soon.” George shoved his fingers into his collar and tried to pull it out, but he was having trouble. He was starting to lose his coordination. Not with the hand that grabbed Kate, though. That became even tighter than ever, and as he squeezed, Jeanette heard a crunch.
“Not long now, Kate. Just trust me, okay?”
He dragged her over to a door.
Then he stopped. He knocked on it twice.
He pulled Kate through.
She had to decide whether to follow.
No, she had to decide whether to let Tyler know what she was doing. She would follow. She would never let anyone fall to someone like George.
It didn’t take Jeanette long to realize there was no way she was gonna call Tyler. Sure, he seemed almost vaguely like he cared about the other students at this school, but that was nothing more than an act. Jeanette had no idea what his endgame was. She should never have signed that contract, but she couldn’t go against it. She could, however, do whatever she wanted while she wasn’t tracking down his enemies.
She quickly reached the now closed door. She went to knock on it but realized it had some kind of specific spell cast on it. She tilted her head to the side and dragged her teeth over her lips.
The door was being actively watched. If she burst through it now, someone would find out.
She couldn’t just wait here and do nothing. She jerked back. She went to lift her foot.
That’s when she heard students walking down the corridor.
She hadn’t given up on Kate. Just the opposite. If she was seen to be violently attacking doors with magic she shouldn’t have, Tyler would find out sooner rather than later.
So she ducked to the side. She ran around to another section of the corridor.
She’d already grabbed the root of one of the wall spells. Now she was going to try something far more ambitious – something no student at this damn school would think she was capable of.
Jeanette closed her eyes. She rocked forward and locked her hands onto the wall.
Then she gritted her teeth.
She tried to feel all the walls in this section at once.
They belonged to the school. And dammit, as she flattened her palms on them, she could feel the school’s horrifying power pulsing underneath. She couldn’t think of an example of what it was akin to. It was just that the plaster and bricks and wood pulsed with the dangerous magical legacy of Broadside. It didn’t matter if said plaster, bricks, and wood were made out of magic. The underlying energy knew exactly who it served.
Time to give it a new master.
Jeanette’s heart beat harder, and she couldn’t get the image of Kate’s wide eyes out of her head.
Once upon a time, Jeanette had been just like Kate. Before her life had been turned upside down and Jeanette’s whole family had been murdered by vampires, she’d had the same faith in the world. Then someone had come along and sucked that faith – and blood – all out in one go.
She would never let that happen again.
Jeanette clenched her teeth, and she focused until her nose could’ve bled.
She had to take hold of every single wall spell in this area, all in the hopes that one would tell her what room George had gone in to.
Just when she didn’t think it would work, just when she heard more footfall about to interrupt her again, she did it. With a righteous frigging yank, she tugged at the spell roots, and she moved right inside the closest wall. It was just as it gave her a glimpse of the area around her.
George had taken Kate down a set of cold gray steps. He was still walking down them, his hand on Kate’s arm, his grip just as bone-crushing as it had been before. But there was one difference. George was now so covered in sweat, it was like someone had dumped him in the Atlantic Ocean. He shook, too, these visceral, powerful pounding moves. They came from his neck, and he kept clutching that with his free hand. Kate had long gone past asking what was wrong with him.
She’d slipped a hand into her back pocket to grab up her wand.
Even if she was a competent magical practitioner, Jeanette doubted she’d get away.
Jeanette couldn’t use her control of the walls to figure out where those stone steps led. It would take too much time, anyway.
Time to throw all caution to the wind. If what she was about to do would get her kicked out of Broadside, c’est la vie.
Jeanette moved through the walls until she was deposited in the stone corridor. She wasn’t behind George and Kate, though – just in front of them, down a twist in the stairway so she couldn’t be seen.
Jeanette darted forward.
You’d think it would be easiest to rush in, kick George, and free Kate.
It wouldn’t be that simple, though. She really needed to figure out where they were heading and scout out ahead in case a powerful vampire was there.
She kept an ear out for George and Kate, listening to their frantic conversation as she reached another turn in the stairs. This led down to a short metal door. Nondescript and painted black, while it didn’t look like much, it felt like so much more.
Jeanette instantly narrowed her eyes at it and parted her lips back in a sneer.
It had serious magic throbbing just underneath the surface of all that metal.
Again it was a strong spell, and again it was one Jeanette should not have the power to break through.
She didn’t need to break through it. The walls were now on her side.
Jeanette wasn’t thinking of Tyler. Deliberately.
If the thought of him strayed into her head, not only would she be forced to endure the memory of him casually leaning against her door and staring at her, but she might stop herself. She might realize she could only protect herself with magic in self-defense.
As Jeanette had already told you, she was a high-powered car. She lived for going fast. She’d die if she had to stay still. And so too would Kate.
Jeanette slipped her hands beside the door, and she concentrated. She didn’t have that much time left. By the sounds of it, George would come around the turn in the stairway soon.
But Jeanette wasn’t hurried.
She threw her mind into the task, locked her senses on the wall, and grabbed hold of its spell again.
Then she pushed right through. She didn’t shove into the room, just the wall.
Fortunately it was thick enough that it obscured her completely.
Then she paused.
That’s right – inside the bricks and mortar. And trust her, these were real bricks and mortar. Yes, they were controlled by the spell, but the original material had actually come from the side of a mountain, not the inside of some wizard’s brain.
Most practitioners would freak out at being inside a wall for more than several seconds. Not Jeanette. It felt good, in fact – because it meant she was no longer on display.
She still maintained her connection to the outside world, and soon enough, George reached the door.
“George,” Kate said in a clear voice now, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I don’t want to have any part of this now.” She broke his grip.
Jeanette could feel the moment she yanked back. That would be when George twisted around. He grabbed her again, and a pulse of power ricocheted down from the familiar mark on his neck, instantly sinking into his skin and making his grip twice as hard.
“George?” Kate spluttered now. “What has gotten into you? You don’t have this kind of magic—”
“I didn’t have this kind of magic. But things change, don’t they? I finally have a friend on my side.”
“Friend? George, what the hell is happening?”
“It’s okay, Kate. Trust me, this is better than what he’s got planned for you, anyway.”
Jeanette’s gut hardened.
Was he talking about Jason or someone else?
Who cared? George was lying. What he had in store for Kate would not be better than anything. It would be death.
Jeanette was suddenly reminded of the way that grave monster had stared at George.
Jeanette was missing out an important reason why grave monsters were attracted to humans.
It wasn’t just those who’d handed out death or stood beside the dying. Sometimes they could predict when others were going to kill. And that’s what the grave monster had predicted when he’d stared so fixedly at George.
Jeanette would never let it happen.
She finally tuned in to the room just beyond the door. It felt like it was some kind of office. Or maybe a rumpus room of some description. There were couches, some kind of bar, and a few tables. One of the tables was awfully high, though. Jeanette could only get a vague impression of it as she fixated on the wall’s senses, but it seemed to be made of shiny metal.
A gurney, then.
Kate screamed now. “George, let me go. Whatever the hell is happening, just let me go. We can go to the principal. We can try to get you some help—”
“There is no help in this place, is there? You can only get help if you are brave enough to clutch at it yourself.”
“Is this about that wound on your neck? I heard from the other students that you went to a bar on Friday night. Did something happen? Did she bite you?”
“Shut up,” George screamed, confirming Jeanette’s theory. People only react with that much emotional ferocity when they can’t face the truth.
“George, there’s got to be some way—”
“There is a way. He said all he needed was a sacrifice. He said you’d be fine. Just a little blood. This way you will be protected too. You get that, don’t you, Kate? I’m doing this for you.”
Enough of this crap.
Jeanette went to push forward, but she paused. She could feel some kind of gathering presence in the room. She waited for it to become Jason. It had to be him, right? It wasn’t just that he was pretty much the only other vamp Jeanette had met on campus. It was that it fit in with all the facts she’d already heard. Jason had been looking for another sacrifice. He hadn’t picked Jeanette, so he would’ve picked Kate, right?
It’s just that sense gathering in the room beyond Jeanette didn’t feel like Jason at all. While Jason was an idiot, while Jason was weak compared to other vamps, the sense in the room was old, powerful, and even Jeanette could admit it was terrifying.
Sure enough, Kate stopped speaking abruptly. Then in a rush, she spluttered. “What the hell is that energy, George? What’s going on?”
“He promised to help me, okay? He’s not like the other vampires. He recognizes that we familiars need to be protected.”
“We familiars? George, you’re a familiar? I saw that scar on your neck, but—”
“It isn’t a scar. It’s a familiar mark. It means I am protected, okay? Just like you. You just have to give him a little blood.”
Jeanette couldn’t take it anymore.
She pushed out of the wall.
Fortunately they had their backs to her.
There was a couch just there in front of her, so she crouched down beside it. Then, placing her fingers on the side, inched her face out from behind cover.
She watched Kate pulling back madly on George’s grip, but it couldn’t be broken.
Though Jeanette had already felt the fact that his familiar mark was pumping energy into him, now she saw it. Waves of force kept spiraling down into his grip.
Kate looked like she was a strong practitioner, but there was no way she could break his grasp.
Maybe she didn’t want to.
A force started gathering in the middle of the room, these dense, dark waves of energy coalescing into a pulsing black point that hovered two meters over the floor.
It would have been criminally easy to give into the fear that raced up Jeanette’s spine and clamored in her skull. That dark energy was primed to produce it.
But whenever fear tried to get the better of her, Jeanette knew what to do – she just had to move her body. Lash out and punch the closest wall. Sure, it was hardly the kind of advice you’d get from a psychologist, but Jeanette’s life hadn’t taught her healthy habits.
But there would be no running away from that sense.
It powered up into the ceiling, shaking the stones and sending down fine dust that covered Kate’s upturned face. “What—”
George suddenly dropped down to his knees. He lifted one hand and proffered it in supplication. “I have brought you another familiar. Just like you asked. She’s also been targeted. You can also protect her,” George stammered way too quickly.
Kate said nothing. Her mouth was fixed open, her eyes glazed over with fear. It was the normal response you would get from anyone who had their common sense intact. George, on the other hand, had clearly lost everything, including his mind.
He continued to hold his hand up, continued to shake there, even smiled. “I brought you everything you asked for.”
Jeanette didn’t move. Chiefly because she couldn’t.
That growing energy terrified her.
It couldn’t be a student.
Hell, she doubted it was an ordinary vampire. This energy was far too dark and far, far too powerful. A crackle of it suddenly arced out. It smashed into one of the couches nearby, and it burnt it in a single attack.
Jeanette was careful not to jolt, but if or when an attack like that struck her couch, she would have to do more than jolt.
She tightened her fingers around the leather.
She’d come down here knowing that she could take on most forces.
There was one big fat problem. If this vamp didn’t attack her directly, she wouldn’t be able to face him.
More energy continued to crackle through the room, getting denser, getting darker, making it feel as if the whole world was about to fall.
“George, please,” Kate began.
George had eyes for no one other than the growing force. He finally let go of Kate’s arm.
Kate punched him across the jaw, turned, and made it to the door, but that would be when an electrified black force field shot across it. She jolted back before she could be burnt. Then she turned her terrified gaze up to the growing crackling storm.
Another blast of energy sliced out of it and smashed into the wall, but it didn’t gouge a chunk through the stones.
Instead, that shield rebuffed it.
Crap. If Jeanette hadn’t pushed out of the wall when she had, she would’ve been entombed in there forever.
All the strong, powerful emotions that had seen her come down here to save Kate suddenly withered and died.
They were now both as trapped as each other.
Kate continued to back off, now down on her ass as she stared up at the ceiling.
A moan suddenly struck the air. It was mournful, twisted, cold.
Jeanette clenched her hands over her ears. She felt like the damn thing had an edge, and a second later, it proved that. Because the moan turned into a shriek.
Kate wasn’t quick enough. She screamed and crumpled down to her side, clutching madly at her face, but she couldn’t protect herself from that shriek.
George didn’t even try. He now lifted both hands up to the crackling black void. “My lord, I brought what you need. Another familiar—”
“She’s already a familiar,” a voice rang out from somewhere. Low, deep, and dark, make no mistake, it sounded like a vampire, just not like any modern bloodsucker Jeanette had ever met.
She’d heard horrifying whispered tales of ancient vampires. They were the kind of things told in school to scare students. They weren’t meant to be real, but now Jeanette couldn’t shake the impression that that growing storm was one such foul creature. It was the only thing that could account for the sheer oppressive horror in the air.
George spluttered. “She’s no familiar. I would know. Please. She’s just like me. She’s getting targeted by the vampires—”
“She is not just like you. She is a familiar of a Solomon. But do not worry. She will not leave the room.”
Crap. The ancient vampire had already realized Jeanette was in the room. So much for slipping in without anyone noticing. So much for keeping her secret. The day wasn’t even done, and it had already slipped.
Jeanette could’ve stayed there. There was literally no point now.
Kate continued to writhe on the ground, still in pain from the ancient vampire shriek. As for George, he just stared up, mouth agape. What, had the idiot actually thought that this ancient vampire would protect Kate?
If the little Jeanette knew about them was true, then when awakened, the only thing they looked for weren’t friends – just victims.
Jeanette shoved to her feet.
She shook slightly, but she still crunched a hand into a fist.
Kate didn’t look like she was up to much, but she reacted to Jeanette’s sudden movement. Fear bolted through her gaze. Fear that Kate somehow managed to direct at another human being, despite the fact she was in a terrifying situation herself.
George spluttered. “What the hell? Aren’t you Cassandra? What the hell are you doing here? How did you get here? How—”
“What are you doing, you idiot?” Jeanette snarled, not holding back, her words like whips. “Do you have any idea what you just called on? That’s an ancient vampire.”
“He came to me. He offered me protection. He is the only damn force in this school that can protect us wizards and witches. I don’t know how the heck you got down here, but if you fall down to one knee, he might accept you.”
“That thing isn’t going to accept anyone. The only thing it wants is blood. You’re about to let it feed on the neck of your only friend. You’re a goddamn monster,” Jeanette spat.
George jolted. “He’s not gonna feed on Kate—”
“What are you doing here, Cassandra?” Kate asked.
Jeanette just stared at the crackling cloud.
The time for fear was over. The time for action was here.
She rolled her fingers in. She called on her magic, and she went to slice it forward, but just at the last moment before it could arc out and strike the ancient vampire cloud, nothing happened. Her force just doubled back in on itself. Worse than that? The mark around her wrist suddenly blazed into life.
Jeanette screamed. It didn’t hurt so much as just come at entirely the wrong moment.
If she couldn’t fight this vampire before he manifested, then she’d be as dead as a doorknob.
As she crumpled down to her knees, George shot over. “You’re here to hurt it, aren’t you? Nobody will hurt the ancient one.”
“George, you’ve got to snap out of it. I don’t know what the hell that is,” Kate said breathlessly as she stared up at the cloud in horror, “but you’ve got a snap out of it.”
“I’m doing this for us. Jason will target you next, Kate,” he said, voice filling with fear. “I cannot let that happen.”
“You are not here to protect me. I can look after myself. Now, what the hell have you done, George? Just what is this thing?”
“I got chased, you know? When I got home to my accommodation on Friday, Helena’s vampires didn’t let me go. They chased me all night. I fell down a set of stairs that appeared out of nowhere. I found him,” George said. He got this glassy look in his eyes as he turned and he stared up at the cloud again. “He’s the only vampire who has ever given a crap about me. And he’s the only vampire who has ever promised to give me the power I need,” George’s voice hardened.
“George, it’s some kind of monster—”
“It’s not a monster,” George now screamed, losing it completely.
Jeanette remained there, down on one knee where she’d fallen, a hand around her familiar mark.
What the hell was she gonna do?
She watched in horror as the ancient vampire appeared for half a second. She saw a hand reaching out to her. But the cloud didn’t have the power to manifest for long.
Not until and unless it got blood.
George shoved to his feet again. He lifted his arms out wide as if he was some ancient priest trying to seek pity from a violent god. “You said you needed help. I brought it. Kate is confused now, but she won’t be when you show her your power. She will serve you, just like I do,” George promised.
“Like hell I’m gonna serve anything. George, you’ve got to snap out of it. This thing only wants your blood.”
“I am its familiar. It only wants to give me power,” George spat. His apparent concern for his friend was quickly turning into spitting hatred. “Why can’t you see what I’m doing for you? Now Jason is targeting you, you’re going to turn into me, Kate, and I can’t let that happen. Why can’t you recognize this is all for you?”
Kate slowly pushed to her feet. It involved shoving her back into the door and walking up the wood.
Not once did she take her gaze off George or the crackling cloud.
She also kept staring over at Jeanette, concern flashing in her eyes.
“You will listen to me, George. We need to get out of here. Now.”
“He is going to give us—”
“He’s going to use us to manifest. If that’s a real ancient vampire, and if you somehow disturbed one in the bowels of the school, then there’s only one way to break free. We have to get out before it drinks our blood. George,” she said clearly as she reached a hand toward him, all hints of fear gone, “you need to come with me. Do you understand?”
“Kate. I’ve done—”
“It doesn’t matter who you did this for, George. You just have to come with me, okay?”
Jeanette had assumed Kate was weak. Harsh but true. It came with the doe-eyed look she shot the world.
But weak people don’t stare into the face of danger and then offer it a hand.
Yet she sure as hell didn’t back down. She spread her fingers wider. “Please, George. You’ve gotta come now before it gets any more powerful.”
“Bring me the offering,” the ancient vampire suddenly hissed.
Its voice was dark – pure darkness, in fact. It was perfectly calibrated to access someone’s fear and turn it up to its maximum setting. Even Jeanette wasn’t immune.
She shook on her knees, and a bead of fat sweat dribbled down the center of her brows. And yet somehow Kate still stretched a hand out to George, her fiery gaze never deviating off him once. “You have to grab my hand and get out of here, George. Please, this is your last chance.”
“This is your last chance, Kate. You can’t look after yourself. You need me to do it for you—”
“I never asked you to do this, George,” she whispered quietly. “Please.”
Jeanette shoved to her feet. She wasn’t gonna sit this one out.
But as she tried to open her hand and charge with magic again, her familiar mark acted up.
She fell down to her knees once more.
The ancient vampire laughed. “A hamstrung familiar who cannot attack at will. What do we have here? A victim who cannot run away,” he answered his own question.
His intentions were clear. Suddenly a bolt of power shot out of the cloud and spun towards Jeanette’s face, and there wasn’t a thing she could do.
So that would be when someone saved her instead.
Kate dashed over. She didn’t look like she had it in her, but she clearly knew how to throw her body around. She also whipped her wand out from the back of her pocket so quickly, there was a blinding flash.
She cast a spell, and it smashed into the growing cloud. It forced it back before it could secure its tendrils around Jeanette.
Then Kate grabbed Jeanette by the middle, hauled her up, and pushed her back toward the door.
George shrieked. He grabbed his face, dug his fingers in, and screamed again. “You can’t do this. You just can’t do this to me. You can’t do this,” he snarled over and over again. “I sacrificed everything for you. I’m here to help you, but you don’t even recognize that. Why don’t you recognize that?” he shrieked.
“George, you’ve lost your mind. You need to accept my hand and get out of here,” Kate tried. All the while, she kept her wand pressed forward, and she backed off into Jeanette. She now protected Jeanette with the bulk of her body as Jeanette shook against the door.
That’s not all Kate did. While she directed her attention forward and importantly looked like she was ready to practice out of the tip of her wand, she cast a spell back through her hand into the door. She started to work on the locking mechanism and the shield that protected it.
George screamed louder and louder. He fell to his knees. Then he turned. His expression changed. No, it cracked. Right there on fast forward, Jeanette saw somebody lose their sanity. He grabbed his shirt. He did so with the kind of grip that should tear it in half. “Do you have any idea how screwed up this magical world is, Kate? Do you have any idea what it’s like to sacrifice everything for someone who doesn’t care?”
“You didn’t need to sacrifice anything for me, George. I can protect myself.”
“This is the only way to get the power we need to defeat the vampires.”
“You’re making a deal with a vampire,” Kate snarled back. “An ancient vampire, at that. George, snap out of it. You’re being used.”
“You think I care?” he shrieked. “As long as I get power, I will get what I want.”
“George, give me one last chance. You have to come with me now.”
“He’s already lost his mind,” Jeanette muttered.
Kate bristled. But she didn’t scream at Jeanette that she was wrong.
No, she continued to cast a spell on the door until finally, she broke through the lock and the shield.
It was a clever enchantment.
Jeanette had to retract everything she’d ever thought about Kate. It had only been Jeanette’s legendary arrogance talking.
The real Kate knew her way around her wand, and most importantly, knew her way around environmental charms.
As she opened the door, she didn’t just blast through the lock. She cast a shield over it to ensure that it would not relock any time soon.
Then she opened the door and shoved Jeanette out.
It was a strong move, and Jeanette wasn’t ready for it. She fell down on her ass and rolled, but at least she then crunched up to her knees.
George shot forward. He opened his hand and screamed.
He seemed to access some core of power from the ancient vampire spell. A shot of it arced up, blasted around him, and added to the violent power of his shriek. Now every single piece of furniture in the room was destroyed. They turned into sparking flames that crackled around George and were sucked in by the vortex of his power.
If George was left in that room, he’d be absorbed by the ancient vampire. No questions asked.
But if Jeanette and Kate stuck around, the ancient vampire would feed on their blood, and he would manifest fully.
Jeanette hated making brutal decisions, but she still needed to. She reached forward to close the door, but Kate wouldn’t let her.
She pushed Jeanette’s hand down firmly as she gripped the wand harder.
“Sorry, George.” She sliced the wand to the side, and with a muttered enchantment, produced a small fireball.
It blasted out of the tip and smashed into George’s chest. He immediately crossed his arms and took the attack, but it was costly, and the front of his shirt burned.
The rest of his sanity burned up, too. His face cracked like broken glass. “Why did you just attack me? Kate, what happened to you? Did you already become the familiar of a vampire too? You need to let me protect you,” he said as he smashed his hand on his chest.
“No, George, it’s time to protect you from yourself.” Kate whipped the wand around, and this time, she put her all into it.
With a scream, she let a massive fireball blast out, and it smashed into George’s chest. He tried to cross his arms and take the blow, but even as he absorbed force from the ancient vampire, it didn’t work.
George was thrown backward. His head smashed into the wall behind him with a ringing thump, and he slid down.
He was finally unconscious.
But he had to get out of there now if he wanted a chance of seeing another day.
Jeanette went to twist past Kate to grab him up, but Kate shoved her to the side.
She whipped her wand around and cast a levitation spell.
Then she pulled George toward them. It was just as the storm arced up. Bolts of power blasted out, but Kate was smart enough to dodge them all. She soon got George’s comatose body out of the door, and she slammed it closed.
She went to cast a locking enchantment on it, but tendrils of the ancient vampire’s power pushed around the hinges.
Kate had to drop George, had to drop everything, including her wand. She locked her hands on the door, her shoulders shaking. “Get out of here,” she spat at Jeanette. “Take George with you. I don’t know if I can—”
“Screw this.” Jeanette launched to her feet.
She shoved her hands against the door. She pumped her magic into it. And sure enough, it worked. She wasn’t directly fighting a vampire here – just casting an environmental spell.
Jeanette was like a horse let out of the stalls. So much magic bolted from her, you could see it crackling around her in a storm of power. It sank into the door, and a second later, it locked. And satisfyingly, it cut off every single tendril of the ancient vampire’s power as it attempted to push around the metal.
There was an echoing click.
Then a light gasp.
Jeanette turned, and Kate was right there.
Crap, Kate had seen everything. Worse? She’d save Jeanette twice.
Jeanette couldn’t tell you the last time someone had done that. Maybe if they had done that to her and her family years ago when that vampire had attacked, Jeanette wouldn’t be the same person she was today.
Now she had to reassess everything.
Jeanette had a nasty habit of thinking she was always on top.
To be fair, it was because she didn’t mingle with other witches and wizards. Most days, she only saw victims. She’d save them from vampires, wipe their minds, and go on her merry way.
But she wouldn’t be able to wipe Kate’s mind now, would she? Those with seriously powerful psyches could not be forced to forget what they’d seen.
And Kate was just as strong as they came.
She stared Jeanette up and down, up and down, then shook her head. “Who the hell are you? And why are you marked by a Solomon? He meant Tyler, didn’t he?”
Kate put every fact together just as quickly as somebody using an AI to do a puzzle for you.
Jeanette grabbed the back of her neck, pushing her fingers into her tight trapezius. “Look—”
Kate didn’t need to be told this wasn’t the time for a question-and-answer session.
She turned, leaned down, grabbed up her wand, then whipped it over George’s prone form. She also tilted forward, locked a hand over his head, and checked on his consciousness. “He’s going to be under for some time. We need to get him to the medical bay, and we need to do it secretly. You will help me, right?” There was no question, just a statement.
And Jeanette… despite everything, Jeanette actually nodded.
They walked up the steps.
Kate was competent the entire time. She kept checking on the integrity of the spell she’d cast on George, and her flight spell didn’t lose any height once.
The whole time, Jeanette just knew Kate was assessing her.
“I could ask you questions, but you won’t answer them, will you? You probably can’t,” Kate began.
“Why didn’t you stop George earlier if you had that kind of power?” Jeanette answered the question with a question of her own.
She went back to how pathetic Kate had seemed. But had Jeanette just seen what she’d wanted to?
“I knew something was up. But I knew he’d never tell me. I had to see it with my own eyes.”
“I had no idea that he’d somehow become the familiar of an ancient vampire. Hell, before today, while I’d heard stories there were ancient vampires in the bowels of Broadside, I’d thought they were fictitious.”
Reality suddenly slammed back into Jeanette. Because yeah, that had been an ancient vampire, and it had almost manifested fully. If it had… God knows what would’ve happened. It could’ve used Jeanette and Kate’s blood to break through any enchantment that kept it locked in the basements of the school. Then presumably it would’ve gone on a rampage.
Or maybe it would’ve just called the faculty and started running this place like a glorified king.
Jeanette grabbed her mouth, squeezed her fingers in, and dragged them down her throat. Then she shook her head once. “Look, we have to—”
“If you’re about to say we have to call the principal, presumably you know better. No one will believe us. And they sure as hell will not help us. The only thing we can do right now is get George to the medical bay and wipe his mind. If he forgets the vampire is down there, presumably he won’t go looking for him again.”
“That won’t change the fact he’s a familiar.”
“Yeah, but it’s clear that that ancient vampire can’t leave that room. It’s the only way to save George,” Kate said firmly.
Jeanette followed in silence for a few seconds. Then she almost found her hand tilting back into her subspace pocket. They didn’t need to go to the medical bay to wipe George’s mind. Jeanette could do it right now.
She hesitated. Then she dropped her hand.
She’d barely lifted it, but it was enough that Kate saw.
Kate turned and frowned at her. “You’re more powerful than you look, aren’t you?”
“I managed to close that door—”
“Not what I mean. I saw what you were doing with your hand. That’s a telltale sign that someone is a talismans practitioner. What, have you got something in your collection that can help us right now?”
Boom and bang. There was no one faster than Kate. If Jeanette thought she was a force to be reckoned with, she had never met someone like this.
Her lips twitched uncomfortably. “I—”
“Your reaction says yes. So do it. Bring out a talisman. I already know all your secrets. You work for Tyler, and before you think that you managed to convince people you’re just a weak witch, think again. I saw how you took on that grave monster in Anderson’s class. You knew exactly what you were doing. And you didn’t even scream once.”
Jeanette flinched. But she didn’t reach into her talisman pocket and pluck out the device used to wipe minds.
She grabbed her wrist and trailed her fingers down it. Then she looked to the side.
Kate followed the move. “You’re not allowed to fight other vampires, are you?”
“Unless in self-defense,” Jeanette blurted way too quickly. Then she chided herself for needlessly sharing that kind of information.
“I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with Tyler, and it’s not like I have any clue what’s going on here, but it was clear you came down there to help. Now I need your help again. I got you out of there, so this is the least you can do for me.”
Jeanette reached behind her, but she still didn’t open her talisman pocket. “If George really is the familiar of an ancient vampire, then I might not be able to cast magic on him,” she muttered. “Tyler,” she stammered, knowing she didn’t reveal anything but still feeling so wrong as she mentioned his name, “won’t let me fight other vampires. And a familiar is an extension of their vamp.”
“That’s an assumption. You have no idea whether you can fight a familiar or not. So just try. It’s a risk for us to take him to the medical bay. And it’s honestly an assumption that we’ll be able to find the potions powerful enough to wipe his mind. If you’ve got a talisman, use it,” she ordered Jeanette again.
Jeanette looked bashfully to the side. That’s right, bashfully. It was a combination of Kate’s forthright power and Jeanette’s confusion.
Everything Kate had said was right. If Kate had not been there, Jeanette would be dead right now.
With a breath, she opened her talisman pocket. She was careful not to let Kate get a glimpse inside. She didn’t need to rummage. The device used to wipe minds was right there. She pulled it out.
It was still a seriously high-level device, and Kate clearly recognized that. She arched an eyebrow. “What is that? A level 100 device or something?”
110, but Jeanette wasn’t about to correct her on that.
The device itself was nothing more than an orb. You passed it over the eyes of your victim, and it would remove 24-hours’-worth of memories.
If you needed to remove more, you had to be selective, and you had to pump it full of power. So Jeanette just hoped she had the juice required to get this done.
She’d never had performance anxiety before, but now she couldn’t meet Kate’s direct stare.
Jeanette didn’t think she’d ever read someone’s personality worse than she had Kate’s, then she swiftly had to remind herself she’d done that to Tyler, too.
Jeanette had to stop making knee-jerk character assessments. Certainly around this school.
She concentrated, focused her magic, and pulsed it up into the orb. It soon spun around it and sank into George’s still brow. He twitched once. Then his eyes opened of their own accord.
Kate looked a little surprised, but she controlled herself and didn’t jolt. She watched with keen interest, gaze darting back and forth as she picked up every detail.
You know how Jeanette really didn’t like to be on display? Well, this was worse. She was giving up every single one of her secrets, but there was no backing down now.
She passed the orb over George’s now open but sightless eyes.
She could see something flickering within. It would be the memories she was trying to wipe.
Even if she shoved her face close up against him, she wouldn’t be able to read them.
George twitched again. Jeanette paused, holding the orb closer to his face.
“What’s happening?” Kate demanded like a competent doctor who didn’t like what was happening with one of their patients.
“The jolt usually means we’ve encountered a powerful memory.”
“Have you got the memory of when the ancient vampire encountered him, then?”
“I doubt it. I haven’t gone far enough yet. It has to be some other memory. It must have significant emotional import. It….” Jeanette remembered the way the grave monster had stared at George.
At the time, she’d just assumed that George had stood by when someone had been killed. But what if he’d done the killing?
“What’s going on?” Kate demanded again.
Jeanette peered down at George. She was usually okay with the fact that she couldn’t discern somebody’s memories from this process, but now she wanted to rip apart George’s fragile mind and find out what he’d done.
She couldn’t. So with clenched teeth, she went back to wiping his memory. He’d already revealed that he’d met that ancient vampire on Friday night, so Jeanette pushed and pushed, pumping more magic into the orb until she took it back far enough.
She shook a little, but she ignored it.
Kate didn’t. She rammed up against Jeanette’s side, squeezing herself between the wall and Jeanette. She held onto Jeanette’s shoulder. “Don’t black out, whatever you do. I don’t have the force to use an orb like that. I am not a talismans practitioner,” she said honestly.
“Don’t worry. I’ll stay awake. I’ve lived through worse,” Jeanette promised, voice dropping down hard. But she couldn’t get away from the way George had jolted, nor the sick sense that had filled her. What exactly had George done?
Yeah, by wiping his memory, it meant that he would not be able to head back to the ancient vampire and help him to manifest. But it also meant that if he had killed someone, he’d never remember and quite possibly, that person would never get justice.
It was a horrible catch 22. But Jeanette simply couldn’t allow that ancient vampire to be brought back to life.
Jeanette shook a little more, but Kate kept her together, her hand on Jeanette’s shoulder until Jeanette finally wiped George’s memory.
His body shook there. It was still suspended in the float spell, and it jerked up and down like someone had shoved magical electric leads into his brain. Even a little smoke issued from his mouth. But finally, he lay still.
Then silence descended. It was sharp, and it was made even more pointed by the fact that Kate was right there, her steely gaze unpeeled and just as piercing as a knife through the heart.
Jeanette slowly took a step away and shoved her orb back into her subspace pocket. Then she bit her lip and stared at Kate. “You can’t—”
“If this is where you say that I can’t spread a word about the fact that you’re Tyler’s familiar, you have my word. But—”
Jeanette got there first. She stared down at George then back at Kate, then over her shoulder. “This idiot was about to awaken an ancient vampire.”
“He’s not an idiot,” Kate said softly.
“He did all that because he didn’t think you could protect yourself.”
“But he’s still not an idiot. He’s just challenged. Always has been. He’s been targeted by the vampires from day dot. No matter what he’s tried to do, they’ve always followed him around. I guess they see him as a weak target. He’s not even that weak. But he’s never had the chance to be anything other than a shadow. So I kind of get why he’s done this—”
“You get why he called on an ancient vampire – one that, if let out, would presumably feast on the entire school?” Maybe Jeanette had read Kate wrong. She made that apparent as she crossed her arms.
She was forgetting something. Kate could deal it out just as fast as she got it. “This is rich coming from a vampire familiar.”
Jeanette’s lips twitched. “Look—”
“I’m not saying that George’s not guilty. He is. I’m saying that if we waste all of our attention and force to go after George, we’ll miss the bigger picture.”
“Sorry… what is this we?”
Kate said nothing. She did turn, and she did hold on to her wand harder as she whipped it over George and continued to force him to float over the stairs.
A thrill chased up Jeanette’s back. “Look, I can’t work with anyone. My life is complicated. But you have to promise, Kate, that you won’t spread a single word about the fact I’m a familiar.”
“My lips are sealed. But it’s not going to stop.”
“What’s not gonna stop?”
“That.” She pointed at Jeanette’s mark.
Jeanette stared down at it. It was starting to become invisible again. While it once burnt brightly, now it was nothing more than a faint hint.
Jeanette’s back stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“Like I said, I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with Tyler, but I can promise you this, if he stops you from attacking vampires, you’ll fall victim to them sooner rather than later.”
Jeanette became silent. She couldn’t face Kate anymore, so she turned her gaze to the wall.
She had no idea what Tyler would do to her when – or if – he found out about this.
She wanted to believe he had the run of the school, but if he did, surely he would’ve interrupted her by now? She also didn’t want to believe that he cared about this place, but if he did, he would’ve stopped an ancient vampire, no matter what it took.
But Tyler wasn’t here.
Jeanette was forgetting something very important. Kate was just there. Her eyes were on Jeanette, and she was clearly smart enough to pick up every single detail of what Jeanette was thinking, even though she wasn’t speaking aloud.
Kate crossed her arms, though she was careful to keep the tip of her wand pointed toward George at all times. “Just why did you accept to become a familiar of a Solomon?”
Jeanette’s lips twitched. “You—”
A phone rang. Jeanette immediately went to grab hers out of her pocket, but she realized it was George’s.
Kate frowned, leaned over, paused, then let her hand drop.
“What are you doing? Answer or at least look at it,” Jeanette protested.
“It’s George’s business.”
“Seriously? George’s business seems to be bringing ancient vampires back to life.” Jeanette showed just how little she cared about George’s privacy as she shouldered in, patted his pocket down, and yanked out his phone.
It was an unlisted number. She shrugged. She answered. All the while, Kate shot her a peevish look, but she didn’t interrupt. And as Kate had already pointed out superbly, with that wand of hers, she could interrupt with a bang if she felt like it.
Jeanette didn’t say hello. She said nothing at all.
There was a purring hiss over the line. “Remember Friday night?”
Helena. Jeanette might’ve only interacted with Helena a few times, but that was irrelevant. Jeanette didn’t need the anger descending through her stomach to recognize Helena’s specific tones. Heck, you could knock Jeanette out, and she’d still know when Helena was near.
Jeanette’s free hand tightened, and she tapped it against the wall behind her.
“We are going to have another little soirée at the end of the week. It will be in the official vampire lounge. You know where that is, don’t you? See you there. Oh yeah, and bring a friend.” With that, Helena hung up.
Kate didn’t need to ask Jeanette to repeat. Despite her earlier protestations, she’d leaned close enough to pick up the entire conversation. Now she paled appropriately. “That was Helena, right? Why the heck would she be inviting George to a party?”
“Because she bit him at her last party. She probably thinks he’s an easy mark. Where the hell is the vampire lounge?” Jeanette demanded.
She expected Kate to know. Kate had been deliriously competent until this point. But she shook her head. “I’ve got no clue. It’s invitation-only.”
“I need to get there. I have to figure out what they’re doing.”
Kate narrowed her eyes. “Why? Why don’t you just ask Tyler? You’re his familiar—”
Jeanette straightened. “Look, I wiped George’s mind. You’re his friend. You can keep an eye on him. If he seems to display strange behavior… come back to me,” Jeanette pushed the words out long before she could think them through. Then she turned.
Kate reached out and grabbed her arm. She stared at her seriously. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. To the cafeteria? Back to my accommodation? I’m gonna do whatever it is you students do here.”
“You say students like you’re not one of us. Cassandra – right?”
Jeanette didn’t react quickly enough.
So Kate’s lips jutted out. “Fake name, isn’t it?”
Darn, was this girl quick. Jeanette straightened, shrugged, and started to walk up the stairs.
“Look, whatever your name is, you can’t just go back to business as usual. The school won’t let you,” Kate said, voice descending low.
Jeanette paused several steps ahead. She angled her face to the side, but she didn’t turn completely. “This school would be surprised at what I can put up with.”
It was Friday. Already. And what had Jeanette done? Nothing.
Tyler occasionally contacted – mostly with text messages. And mostly it was to tell her to keep her head down. Honestly, Jeanette tried. It was hard, though. Jason had already pegged her as a strong fighter, and now it seemed that news had spread. No matter how many times Jeanette forced herself to fall over and act like a klutz, dropping her books everywhere, nobody paid attention to her. Far from being laughed at for being weak – she was utterly ignored as if she was naught but a mark on the floor.
Only one person paid attention to her – and that was Kate. Not once did she walk up and say hello, though, but she always made eye contact in the corridors.
At least it stopped Jeanette from going insane.
This right here was the longest Jeanette had ever gone without striking something. Though trust her, she kept punching the wall in her room, but it wasn’t the same. Every day she went to classes, she picked up more information – muttered comments and rumors that made her skin crawl and her knuckles pump.
She wanted to get out there and solve the injustices of this school, but until and unless her handler let her, she was just a caged tiger.
This caged tiger hadn’t forgotten what she’d learned on the phone. It was Friday, and she was currently heading to her last class. All week, surreptitiously – or as surreptitiously as a high-powered car like her could be – she’d attempted to find out exactly where the vampire lounge was. She’d even tried to start conversations with people, but it hadn’t worked. She still didn’t know.
But she was starting to get the impression that she needed to find out, and she needed to be there.
Whatever would happen tonight, it would be more violent than all the rest of the crap Jeanette had seen so far.
Jeanette headed to history class, her bag over her shoulder, heavy books within. Why the books in this school had to weigh 100 tons, she didn’t know. And while that was overemphasis, it wasn’t as much as you’d think. Each one was at least 10 kilos. Sure, she understood that they needed to have protected magical spines and covers to ensure that any excess magic didn’t leak out. But a little of it had to be torture just for the pure fun of picking on non-vampire races. Vampires, after all, were usually 10 to 20 times as strong as humans – and that was ordinary vampires.
Vampires who came from strong lineages might be 30 times more powerful.
So what about ancient vampires?
Jeanette hadn’t forgotten what George had tried to do, nor could she push from her mind the fact that under her very feet, an ancient vampire roamed. Though roamed was probably a rich term. He seemed to be nothing more than an energy being. For now. If he managed to lure another student down and suck their blood, who knew what he would become?
So much for having a simple life. Not that, in the past, Jeanette had thought she’d had a simple life. But at least she’d led a predictable one. Sleep during the day. Eat. And hunt at night. Now everything mixed together to form this swirling, gut-punching mess of chaos, intrigue, and plain irritation.
Speaking of that, she brushed past the door, and someone smashed into her shoulder to get in behind her.
It was Jason.
He’d already pegged her as a fighter, so she was done acting pathetic around him. She slowly tilted her head to the side, chin jutting to the left, eyes swiveling to the right. There was no fear. There never would be.
But as she showed her true colors, Jason just twitched his lips into a snarl. “Know your place,” he growled. “That’s lesson number three.”
“I’m pretty sure that was lesson number one,” she hissed back at him. “Don’t have a very good long-term memory, do you?”
“I think you’ll find out that vampires remember the past better than anyone else. And listen up, little witch, I’m sure you’ll learn something useful in today’s class.”
Jeanette had mostly repeated her classes all week. Potions, combat, basic magical skills, and general studies. This was the first time she’d ever had a history class, though.
For whatever reason, her intuition was acting up, and an itchy sensation was spreading over her spine, across her stomach, and over her back.
She mostly only got a feeling like this when something was up – usually before a big fight or some vampire rumbled her.
But this was just a damn class, she told herself as she sat somewhere in the middle. She was done trying to sit right in front of Jason. Better to keep an eye on him instead. He was off to her left, a few seats back, but for someone like her who was as good as tracking things in their peripheral vision, it was pretty much the equivalent of being up in his face.
The rest of the class came and sat down. Kate sat beside Jeanette. But not obviously. Not once did she smile or make any indication that they knew each other.
It kind of felt nice, though. And yep, Jeanette had just thought that.
It didn’t take much longer until the teacher walked in. Small, possibly the most petite staff member Jeanette had seen on campus, while she wasn’t much when it came to her stature, the woman had a piercing gaze that looked even worse than Tyler’s. She had a book clutched in her arms, and Jeanette could see from here that it weighed as much as a boulder. When she placed it down on the desk, the whole thing shook.
Then she paused and looked around. Once or twice, her gaze sliced over Jeanette, and Jeanette couldn’t say it was nice.
“Today, we will go over the history of talismans. I’m sure most of you already know the basic facts, but as it is the very lifeblood of magic, it is always worth a refresher course.”
Someone put their hand up. It was a witch, and Jeanette was starting to learn that she had some of the best grades in most of their classes.
But clearly, in this class, questions were not encouraged. The teacher looked like she was about to jump down the poor witch’s throat. She still answered, “Yes?”
“Ah, Professor Campbell, I was just wondering why that was the case? Talismans are just a subset—”
“Talismans come from the very heart of magic, from the very beginning, too. True talismans come from when magic was invented.”
Jeanette could tell that the smart student wanted to point something out. Magic hadn’t been invented. If anything, it had been discovered. Some boffin hadn’t been tooling around on the prehistoric equivalent of their computer and discovered a key flaw in physics or anything like that.
But this professor did not seem to be the kind to retract her statements easily.
She pressed forward, pushing her knuckles into the insert of her desk. “Talismans, when used correctly, can bring us in line with the foundational forces of real power.”
Jeanette went to tune out. Seriously. Firstly, this was wrong. Talismans were old objects of power. Wielding them didn’t somehow make you align with the past, however. They just made you stronger. Why was it that vampires always had to tart things up and make them seem a lot grander than they were? Oh yeah, because every time they did that, it gave them more personal power. Those who control the narrative control the world, right?
Jeanette wasn’t brave enough to start tapping her fingers on the table in front of her, but she did let her eyes wander. Strangely, Jason of all people was paying utmost attention to the class. Or maybe that was because he knew that Professor Campbell was about to use a prop. Sure enough, with no warning at all, she whipped something out from a pocket behind her. She was a talismans practitioner, and Jeanette happened to glimpse right into the pocket. It was the angle and likely the fact that Campbell wasn’t protecting her pocket. She wouldn’t think anyone here was strong enough to be able to see within completely.
She had no clue what Jeanette was capable of.
Jeanette almost had to shove her fist in her mouth to stop herself from gagging.
Campbell had several level 300 weapons. They were still underneath the drunken dagger in power, but not that far underneath. And yeah, you’d just read that right.
Jeanette sat there, flabbergasted, incapable of moving, feeling like someone had just hit pause on the world. But the world kept moving. She did not.
The talisman that Campbell had whipped out was nothing much. It was a level 100. It might look impressive to the rest of the people in class, but you could find similar weapons if you went hunting for them in the woods and came across the correct magical creatures. Because yeah, magical creatures had talismans too. Not because they used them – unless they were intelligent. It was most often because they accidentally picked them up in their travels. They were far more connected to the land, and old talismans had been forgotten in wars and whatnot over the years, usually buried deep down where no ordinary person would find them.
Jeanette couldn’t pull her mind off what she’d glimpsed in Campbell’s pocket. If this were any other circumstance, Jeanette wouldn’t be able to pull her hands from it, either. After glimpsing such power, she’d immediately challenge Campbell to a fight and hopefully win.
But who knew?
Jeanette had been almost certain that she was the top-rated player in the country. Then she’d met Tyler. Now, a seemingly innocent ordinary teacher at Broadside had power akin to him too. What the hell was going on here?
Jeanette wasn’t being careful. Something she only figured out when Kate cleared her throat.
Jeanette didn’t stare at Kate but repositioned her attention back to Jason. It felt like he’d been watching her for minutes. Crap.
He knew she was powerful, but what if this was a test to figure out if she could use talismans as well? Yeah, Jeanette had mostly lost her cover, and everyone knew she was a fighter, but her biggest secret was intact. If Jason somehow figured out that she was an unmatched talismans practitioner, then Tyler would blow a gasket. Though it would be kind of nice to see his strict, blank expression show something other than mild disdain, Jeanette could think of a thousand other ways to do that.
She sat there, getting itchier and itchier as she stared over Campbell’s shoulder.
Campbell did not open her subspace pocket again. But she did start handing the talisman around.
Double crap. Talismans always reacted to strong players.
A great way to figure out if someone else was a talismans practitioner was to just yank a talisman you wouldn’t miss out of your pocket and hand it to them. A true practitioner knew how to hold them. And if you were really powerful, that power could flow into the talisman, lighting it up like you were the equivalent of electricity and it was just a hungry globe.
Fortunately Campbell didn’t hand the simple talisman dagger to Jeanette first. It was the student directly to Jeanette’s left.
She had to control herself, and she had to do it now. She was used to fighting and calling on her power quickly. This was a whole other kettle of fish.
Just when the talisman was about to be handed to Jeanette, and she questioned whether she had enough power to hide who she was, Kate put a hand up.
Campbell paused. She shot Kate just the exact same look she’d shot the other smart kid. Sorry, it was worse. Kate seemingly had nothing going for her, right?
But these idiots had no clue what Kate was capable of.
“What is it, Kate?” Campbell demanded.
“I have a question?”
“Isn’t it customary for a talismans practitioner to announce what level they are first? I wasn’t even aware you are a practitioner. What level are you, ma’am?”
Campbell looked like she was going to blow, but she controlled herself long enough to let her lips twitch over her teeth. “I am a relatively low-rated player,” she announced.
Kate noticed. But she didn’t let anyone else realize that. Her lips twitched into a slight smile. “Forgive me, but to an ordinary witch like me who can’t practice talismans, I was just wondering how you got all of your talismans? Don’t ordinary players usually have to go out into the forest or something and try to find them on magical creatures?”
“It is slightly different for we vampires,” Campbell hissed.
“You still have to win the talismans in a fight, right?”
“Correct. You have to defeat your opponent. If you defeat them completely, however, you can take all of their talismans.” Campbell’s gaze twitched back to Jeanette.
Triple crap. Jeanette knew exactly what that piercing look meant. Campbell had enough information to suspect she was a talismans practitioner. Or, more likely, Jason did. And Jason had set this entire thing up.
This was a warning, wasn’t it? If Jeanette kept sniffing around him, he’d challenge her to a fight. And considering she couldn’t actively fight a vampire unless Tyler let her, she’d lose spectacularly.
Jeanette paled five shades. She would’ve looked as if she’d been thrown out into space and she’d hemorrhaged all her precious blood, never to regain it again.
She clasped her hands in her lap, fixing the fingers in tightly, grinding her nails up and down her skin. It was that or scream and run for the door.
What exactly would the idiot Jason do if he came across something like the drunken dagger? Quite possibly, he’d stab himself with it. But before he did that, he’d blow Jeanette’s cover. Worse, he’d get access to some of Jeanette’s other rare magical items. If he stole her memory orb, God knows what he could do.
Jeanette kept telling herself not to look panicked, but it was too freaking hard.
So Kate put a hand up again. It was hardly required – Campbell was right there in front of her desk. Kate was so enthusiastic, Campbell had to jerk back slightly. Then her eyes blazed with clear anger. “Are you done interrupting the class yet, Kate?”
“I thought talismans drew from the power of the practitioner that owned them? And at all times, unless they are taken by a stronger player, they are connected back to their owner. I was just wondering why your talisman doesn’t seem to be connected to you right now, that’s all.”
Campbell’s lips twitched again, but this time it was different. There was a suspicious, hard edge. “Are you commenting on my power, student?”
“Not at all,” Kate said professionally. And she didn’t flinch – not once. Here she was, a rabbit dancing in front of the lion, but instead of running, she just kept dancing.
All for Jeanette.
Why did it take until now, halfway through the conversation, for Jeanette to realize that? Kate was going out on a limb for her.
This weird sensation rushed through Jeanette’s stomach, and it almost felt like loyalty.
But if it was loyalty, then Jeanette would surely rise to Kate’s defense?
But Jeanette could rise to nothing right now.
She just sat there. If that talisman was handed to her, she really doubted she had the wherewithal not to react to its power.
“I don’t like your tone, student. You will get detention after this class—” Campbell began.
“I also don’t know too much about talismans. These are useful questions,” Jeanette put her frigging hand up and muttered that quickly.
It happened automatically. It was like going to someone’s defense when they were being hunted by a vampire. And to be fair, Kate was being hunted by a vampire – but Campbell had no interest in her throat. Yet.
Jeanette was so surprised by her own reaction that her hand hovered in the air like she’d lost the ability to move it.
Campbell turned. She had a somewhat satisfied look on her face. “If you—”
Out of nowhere, an alarm rang. Jeanette wasn’t familiar with it, but the rest of the students clearly were.
“An explosion alarm? Really? Another fire in the potions lab? God, this is so boring.”
Campbell flinched, not with fear but anger. She stared straight at Jeanette. The level 100 dagger was still in her hands, and her knuckles tightened around it. But then she turned. She gestured toward the door. “All students are to head outside and congregate on the grass until the explosion is dealt with. As always, don’t touch anything. If a strange stairway appears around you or a door or window, do not go through it.”
Of all the things Campbell could’ve said, that rattled Jeanette the most.
What the hell?
The class got up, and everyone filtered out. Jeanette remained at the back of the group. So did Kate.
Kate bumped into Jeanette’s shoulder on purpose. “We get explosion alarms a fair bit. Usually when something goes wrong in the potions lab.”
“Yeah, but what’s the bit about not accessing any strange doors or windows?”
“Sometimes Broadside’s magical innards can get skewed.”
“I don’t really know. That’s just what the teachers say. But now….”
She didn’t have to finish her sentence. Now she knew what had happened to George, she had a whole new and dangerous context for this.
She expected Kate to leave her behind, but she didn’t. She stopped by Jeanette’s side, and together, they navigated through the hallways out of the main doors and onto the grass.
Every other class was out there, too. Jeanette thought it was a bit of overkill until she saw a window blow up only several meters away. Plumes of magical sparks and flames shot out of it, leaping up high and staining the darkening dusk as it marched across the sky.
Several students screamed. The rest of them didn’t bat an eyelid. Clearly, this happened a lot.
Jeanette was far too distracted staring through the broken window.
Could she see some kind of shadow in there?
No. She could see someone else, though. Further away from most of the students stood Tyler. He had his back up against a tree, his hands in his pockets. Several devoted vampires were around him, but not too close.
They acted like a bully force for him, stopping any younger students from getting near.
But Jeanette knew the truth – Tyler didn’t need anyone else doing his dirty work. He already had her. Speaking of which, he let his gaze surreptitiously slide over her several times.
He didn’t look happy.
… Wait, he hadn’t created the explosion, right? He hadn’t been monitoring the class and decided it would be too risky to let Campbell hand her a talisman, right?
Who frigging knew?
There was only one thing Jeanette could be certain of these days. Broadside could and would throw up every distraction she could imagine, then more. And progressively, every one would become more dangerous.
When they got off the lawns and back into school, the class had been canceled. It was already time for dinner.
Kate waited around for her detention, but clearly Campbell was too distracted. Jeanette hung out in the atrium with her until Kate turned. She shrugged. Then she walked straight up to Jeanette, right in front of other people.
Jeanette’s eyebrows crumpled down over her eyes. “… People can see you. They’ll know—”
“Screw it,” Kate said as she stretched her shoulders. Then she patted Jeanette on the back like she was a real friend.
Jeanette was uncomfortable with the move and had no clue what to do until Kate leaned in.
“You look like I’m pulling your teeth. It’s not that bad to have a friend, is it? Speaking of which, I don’t exactly know—”
“We can just be associates if you’re uncomfortable,” Jeanette muttered quickly. It wasn’t what she wanted to say. She needed to demand that they were just associates. Jeanette didn’t want friends.
Kate just chuckled. “Sure, whatever. Let’s skip dinner, though.”
“I think I found out where the vampire lounge is.”
Jeanette’s eyes rounded then softened. “What do you mean you were looking for—”
“See? We are more than associates. The first thing friends do is look after one another. Associates don’t care and go straight for the important information. But you don’t need to worry about me.” Kate slung her bag over her shoulder, held it with both hands, and smiled. “I know how to look after myself, even though the rest of the school thinks I’m an easy target.”
The rest of the school could go hang. They had no clue how strong Kate was.
That was proved as Kate started to lead Jeanette up the stairs to the accommodation block. But halfway up the landing, she paused, waited until no one was around, then shifted one of the paintings slightly to the left. A slight shimmer of energy raced across it. She pressed her tongue against her palate, muttered something under her breath that sounded like she sure hoped her hand wasn’t about to be bitten off, then poked the painting right in the eyes.
“What—” Jeanette had a chance to mutter.
A door opened in the painting. And the canvas itself, though it had only been about half a meter by half a meter, suddenly expanded until it was large enough to walk through.
“That would be a secret entrance to the vampire lounge. Come on. People will be along soon enough.” She grabbed Jeanette’s wrist – the one without the vampire mark, thankfully – and pulled her through.
There was a pop and a crackle as the painting closed behind them. Jeanette instantly twisted, but all she saw was a blank stone wall. She touched it carefully, but she couldn’t even feel a single charge of magic. “That’s insane.”
“Trust me, that’s tame compared to most of the secrets the school holds. Now, according to what I found out, the lounge is around here somewhere.”
Jeanette looked ahead. She noted there was a long stone corridor. And branching off it were doors. Hundreds of them. They all looked the same – just painted with this nondescript red color that was eerily similar to blood.
“Why don’t we just check every single door?”
“Bad idea,” Kate snapped.
“Pick the wrong one, and we’ll end up in some kind of booby-trap.”
“… I trust you,” Jeanette said.
Worse? She actually trusted Kate. Certainly enough to follow her down the corridor.
Kate stopped in front of several doors, pinned her tongue between her teeth, and flattened a hand down them, but soon moved on.
“Seriously, what happens if you pick the wrong door?”
“Hard to say. I think some of them will just deposit us back on the landing. As for others, who knows? I have heard that Broadside has dungeons. More than one,” she added before Jeanette could question.
“I know you want to figure out what Helena is up to. This is the only way we’re going to do it,” Kate said.
Yeah, this was the only way they were gonna do it. And it was the only way Jeanette was gonna get any traction here. For whatever reason, Tyler didn’t want to use her. Which meant that she could just end up going to the school like a real student and languishing as all of her skills fell behind. For a fighter like her, you needed to fight every day to hone your powers. Take a week off, and you might find yourself a few seconds slower. It might not sound like much, but what if you took an entire year off?
Jeanette shuddered at the mere thought.
Kate continued on until she came across a door that looked even drabber than the rest. From the shocked way she paused and her eyes opened wider, it was clear she had discovered something.
“Okay. Here goes nothing.”
Jeanette snapped forward and grabbed Kate’s wrist. “What happens if you walk straight into the lounge? Everyone will realize that we’re not meant to be here.”
“I thought about that, too.” She reached into her pocket and revealed two small potion vials.
Jeanette stared at them, then up at Kate. “Are those disguise potions? We are dealing with vampires—”
“I’ll have you know that potions is actually my best class. I may not say much, and I might not technically be on the leaderboard, but I’m better than the rest of them,” Kate said confidently.
It would come out as arrogance from anyone else, but from Kate, it had to be a real assessment.
Kate handed over the vial.
Jeanette shrugged. Usually, you asked more questions before downing an entire potion, especially from someone you’d only just started to trust.
Jeanette didn’t have time.
It might only be just after classes, but she got the impression that once the school week was out, Helena didn’t waste time.
She got down to the real business of being a vampire.
As nerves continued to flutter through Jeanette’s stomach, she uncorked the potion, and she swallowed it.
It was only after that she remembered something key. She was technically already in a disguise. A disguise skin, to be fair, but it still utilized the same magic.
What if they interacted in the wrong way? Worse? What if Tyler was somehow connected to his disguise spell, and he would get a warning that Jeanette had attempted to alter it?
It was too late for any of those questions. The disguise magic started to take hold. Fortunately, it didn’t crack Jeanette’s disguise skin. It moved around it, over it, and under it. It was an intoxicating experience. She had to admit that true to her word, Kate was a hell of a potions practitioner.
Once the spell was complete, Jeanette looked down then up at herself. It didn’t take her long to recognize that she resembled one of the vampires from their classes. “What the—”
“It’s crazy, right? I’ve been working on this all week. It’s not just a standard disguise spell. I picked two live vampires for us to pretend to be.”
“And what if the vampires in question are there?”
“I already thought of that. I distracted them.”
“How?” Jeanette arched an eyebrow.
“I locked them in their rooms.”
“Another potion,” she said, looking slightly bashful. Then, as always, she just jutted her chin out and looked competent.
Jeanette chuckled. And yeah, it was the first time she’d done that like this for a long time. This wasn’t laughing at somebody else’s misfortune, and it wasn’t the kind of grim snort she’d give before she knocked a vampire out. This was almost fun.
When the disguises were firmly in place, they opened the door. Fortunately, it didn’t lead to a pit of zombies or spikes. It just led to a corridor. It was longer, it was wider, and it was far more important than the last. It was exactly the kind of place you could imagine leading to an important vampire lounge.
As they walked down it, they soon reached a set of steps. It opened out into a much wider hallway. It had intricately carved pillars, art on the walls, and a checkered floor.
There was also music pumping in from somewhere.
There was the heady scent of something, too. Jeanette couldn’t exactly figure out what it was until Kate stopped, sniffed, and shook her head. “Blood cocktails.”
“Blood given from the willing mixed with alcohol and a substrate of magic. Helena’s favorite drink as far as I know.”
“Students willingly give their blood?”
“Yep. Wouldn’t you? For a chance to be favored by Helena, the witches and wizards of the school will do anything. It’s that, or run into her legendary anger.” Kate lost a lot of her fury and glanced sadly to the side.
Jeanette could tell that she was thinking of George.
Jeanette had seen George around. He looked confused, but he certainly wasn’t running around and gathering sacrifices for his master.
If Jeanette – or Tyler, for that matter – really wanted to disrupt what was happening at the school, they needed to be proactive.
So Jeanette took the lead. She charged down the steps, fists clenched until Kate leaned forward and shook her head. “The vampire you’re pretending to be – Maurice – is not that strong. You’re about to be walking into the lair of the real vampires around here. Remember your place.”
Jeanette twitched. Yeah, she remembered her place. She seriously wanted to get back there – all the way back to her loft and her old simple life – but it was time to put her dreams to bed. It was time to wake up to her new reality.
Kate fixed her appearance, and together, they strode down the stairs.
There were already a few vampires and other practitioners out in the corridor.
One vamp had a poor guy up against the wall, and she was practically drinking him dry.
Jeanette skidded to a halt, but Kate grabbed her hand and muttered, “She won’t kill him. That’s not what this is about.”
Jeanette still couldn’t stop the anger that charged through her. But she sure as heck could stop the magic. Even though Jeanette wanted to dart over, yank the vamp off, and strike her, her magic wouldn’t let her.
Damn Tyler to hell.
It didn’t take long until they reached a massive door that led down into a huge room. This one was pumping. That’s where the music was coming from. Roving lights were interspersed between couches. Vampires chatted with one another or sat crouched over witches and wizards.
No one screamed. And… everyone was controlled. That was to say that no vampire bled anyone dry. One guy tried, but a more senior vamp walked over to him, immediately wrenched him back, and punched him across the jaw with one snarled warning, “Nobody gets to kill.”
Jeanette inserted a caveat into that statement. Yet. Because while everything seemed controlled, the vibe was not. She’d been to vampire feeding frenzies before, and she knew exactly what feeling to expect. And this was it. These were all vampires on the edge. They were getting what they wanted, but they still had to control themselves ever so slightly, and it was too much.
The whole point of vampirism was that it was beyond control. You gave in to your baser instincts, and you let your bloodlust do whatever it wished.
But the point here was that all of these vampires, no matter how powerful, weren’t at the top. The woman sitting on the couch right at the back of the room, legs crossed, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders, was.
Helena looked like she was a queen. She sat just as regally, and the power in her eyes was just as pompous.
Though Jeanette wanted to head straight to her, Kate was smarter. She knocked into Jeanette’s side and suggested they go get a drink.
They stopped by the bar.
And that’s when Jeanette saw the blood cocktails.
There was a ditzy witch standing at one end and one vampire acting as a barman. He held a cannula.
There that witch was, voluntarily giving up blood from her throat, and it was pouring straight into a tall led tumbler.
The guy patted her on the shoulder, muttered something, and walked away. He grabbed some potions from behind the bar and added them to the blood.
A powerful vamp walked up and grabbed it. He downed it in one go, a sick grin spreading over his lips a second later.
Jeanette couldn’t help it. Her hands curled into tighter and tighter fists.
This was disgusting. This was everything she had ever tried to stop. But here at Broadside, it was permissible.
Heck, it was encouraged. She almost thought she saw a teacher at one point.
“Just hold it together,” Kate said, voice low so no one could pick it up.
But honestly, even if she shouted it from the rooftops, it wasn’t like Kate would pay attention.
Her head was about to explode.
She never usually associated with vampires for this long. She had a seriously short fuse around them, too. One guy smashed into her shoulder – a senior vamp – and she turned, a deadly grimace marching over her face until Kate pushed in close, rammed her other shoulder, and got her out of the way. She quickly muttered a, “Sorry, sir.”
The other vamp seemed placated and didn’t say anything. He headed straight up to the bar for another blood cocktail. And some stupid wizard gladly gave his blood for it.
Jeanette was about to explode.
Kate had no intention of letting her. She pushed in close. “The only way we’re gonna find out the information we want is if we stick this out. The party has only just begun. Let’s get a drink – one without blood,” she added darkly, “and just sit around and find out what happens next, okay?”
Not okay. Jeanette couldn’t take this, dammit. But Kate seemed to know how to talk Jeanette down. She went and got a drink, then when no one was looking, added some kind of potion to it until it looked like blood. Then Jeanette and Kate sat on one of the couches.
They were low vampires, so none of the witches and wizards offered their blood to them.
They just sat alone, watching, incapable of doing a damn thing. And even though Kate was a lot more levelheaded than Jeanette, Jeanette could tell that Kate hated this just as much.
All the while, Helena sat on the other side of the room, legs crossed, a superior expression flattened over her face as she watched the entire thing like some presiding queen.
Several hours in, finally something happened. Jason appeared.
He had a witch on his arm. Jeanette had seen her around. She was new – though not as new as Jeanette. Maybe she’d only gotten here a month or two ago, but she should know better, dammit. And yet, she let Jason wear her like a handbag.
He came marching up to Helena like he was a dog and he’d just dragged in a rat. “I have one,” he muttered.
Helena hadn’t moved since Jeanette had arrived. Helena had just watched the party with her legs crossed and a perpetual smile on her lips. Now she pushed to her feet. Jeanette wouldn’t do her the dignity of calling the move graceful. It was predatory in every way. But Helena did a good job of hiding it. Without a word, she shrugged over her shoulder, and she led Jason away. People saw, but either they didn’t care, or they didn’t think it was dangerous. Meanwhile, Jeanette’s heart catapulted. So too did Kate’s. Jeanette might not be a vampire and she might not be as attuned to people’s circulatory systems, but right now, she swore she heard Kate’s heart pumping like a desperate engine. “What the hell do they want with her?”
“Time to find out. But—”
“If you’re about to tell me you can’t bring me along, think again. Unless those vampires attack you and you can act in self-defense, you’re a sitting duck, remember?”
Crap. Jeanette had actually forgotten. There was something about being in the moment that made her ignore her restrictions. Now she grabbed her familiar mark and cursed.
“We’ll do this together.”
Staying close, they moved over to the side of the hall. While Jeanette just wanted to rush in, Kate was a heck of a lot smarter, like usual.
They paused until they saw where Jason and Helena were going.
They tapped the wall twice, and a stairway appeared. Fortunately it stuck around, even as they walked down it.
In several seconds, their footfall was out of earshot.
Jeanette’s heart kicked up a gear again, then again. She knew how vampires worked. They were quick. When they had the promise of a real feed, they didn’t just hang around for small talk. Jeanette and Kate needed to rush in now and save that witch while they still had the chance.
“They won’t kill her,” Kate tried, but her voice was distant, her tone weak.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because it’s been a long time since anyone’s wound up dead at this school.”
Jeanette didn’t pause to point out that wasn’t a long time at all. This was a school. People should not be murdered here at all.
Jeanette couldn’t speak, though. Her heart made her focus forward.
She saw a break in the crowd. She felt one, too. Even though she might act gung-ho all the time, she still did have strong battle senses, and now she realized no one was looking their way. She grabbed Kate’s arm, and without letting her protest, pulled her down the steps. Instantly as they walked down the first one, the music cut out. It became perilously silent. No, they could hear footfall. It was further off, though. The stairs led down to a short winding corridor.
When they reached the last step, Kate pushed in close. Before she could say a thing, Jeanette cast a powerful cone-of-silence spell. Even if Kate screamed with all her might, Helena wouldn’t be able to pick it up.
Sure, Jeanette couldn’t attack Helena and Jason directly, but she was still a seriously strong witch, and she could still cast spells on her environment.
Remembering that, letting it bolster her, she pulled Kate closer. “If we can’t fight them directly, we are going to have to distract them, go in, get that witch, and get her out of there.”
“And then what?” Kate asked, eyes now so crinkled, they misted up with tears.
“This which voluntarily offered herself up to them. Unless we get her out of the school, aren’t they just gonna come to her again?”
Jeanette paused. She hadn’t frigging thought that through.
She was so used to dealing with situations when vampires went after ordinary mundanes and all that was required were a few mind wiping spells that she was at a loss.
It was Kate’s turn to crunch in close. “I guess we’ll just save her first and think of the rest of the plan later.”
If a plan would come.
As they walked down the stairs, following the footfall, Jeanette started to get this niggling sense in the pit of her stomach. She was being watched.
She didn’t feel like it was from Jason. He wasn’t subtle enough to just stare. If he’d figured out that two low-class vampires were following him, he’d get into a fight immediately. It didn’t feel like Helena, either. Jeanette knew her specific energy. It took another step until something struck Jeanette.
She turned to the side. And there, she saw a nondescript door.
“What is it? You think it leads to where they are taking that which?” Kate asked quickly. She leaned toward the door.
Jeanette could’ve screamed in her face but instead just grabbed her hand and held it still. It would’ve taken every teacher at Broadside to break Jeanette’s grip.
Kate looked at her in surprise. “What is it?”
“That… door leads back to him.”
“That ancient vampire… he’s watching us,” Jeanette said, spreading her lips over her teeth.
Kate turned and stared at the door. She didn’t immediately tell Jeanette she was mad. She just watched it with horror sinking down her face.
But that would be when they heard a slight yelp. It was hard to say what it was. It could have been an animal. It equally could’ve been somebody stumbling down the stairs but righting themselves in time. It was still terrifying enough that it got them going. Jeanette now broke into a run, and Kate kept up fine.
They reached another door. Jeanette was certain that they’d gone through here.
Kate had other ideas.
She whipped her wand out of her back pocket, paused, then cast a spell. She frowned. “They’ve split up.”
“I’m detecting Jason’s energy down there, but Helena’s over there.” She pointed to another door.
“Do you know where the student has gone?” Jeanette demanded.
Crap. They would have to split up, right? But surely Jeanette couldn’t let Kate go off on her own?
Kate took a step back. Then she really saluted. “I took a backseat at this school, doing nothing for so long. I’m not going to do that anymore. Wish me luck.” She turned and headed toward the door that led to Jason.
Jeanette couldn’t stop her in time. Kate had made a decision, and she fully intended to go through with it.
This was so bad on so many levels. What if something happened to Kate? And what if something happened to Jeanette? She couldn’t go up against Helena directly. But she still… she still had to move.
Jeanette opened the door that led to Helena. She reminded herself that Kate had more of a chance against Jason than that poor witch had against Helena.
Jeanette carefully snuck into a darkened hallway. There were no lights on, and it didn’t seem as if any would turn on anytime soon. Everything was cast in this eerie gloom. It clung to Jeanette’s shoulders, sticking to her skin like she’d rolled around in tar.
She took several more steps and had to redirect energy to her eyesight to be able to peer through it. It was a tricky enchantment. She also had to ensure she did it silently, without a single spark breaking out.
Jeanette didn’t think she’d gone in the right direction until she finally heard a gasp. It couldn’t have come from Helena’s lips. Helena would never make a sound like that. Unless she was on the edge of death. And Jeanette certainly wouldn’t be that lucky today. It was the witch.
Jeanette threw herself on faster until she came to a door.
She pressed herself against it and clenched her teeth.
She had to get through.
Jeanette had already cast magic on the walls of Broadside before. And they’d acquiesced to her greater force. Could she do it again? Especially in the vampire lounge?
She had no choice. If she just darted through that door right now, Helena would probably see, and then Helena would end this. Swiftly.
Jeanette would not let Helena get her way. So dammit, she had to try.
She flattened her hand on the wall. It did not immediately accept her request to move through it. Hell, it sent a warning charge blasting over her knuckles. It burnt her skin, and the scent filled the air. So Jeanette just clenched her teeth, and she tried harder once more.
“Come on. You can do this,” she muttered to herself.
For someone who usually found magic so easy, it was so strange to be so desperate.
Just when she thought that desperation would get in her way, she twisted it around, and she used it against the wall. She shoved her magic in harder and harder and harder.
She wouldn’t let the wall get away from her. It tried to burn her, so she just forced her way in further.
Just when she thought the witch might run out of time, it finally happened. Jeanette parted through the wall spell, and she pushed in. She had to control herself from darting in too quickly because that would mean darting out the other side of the wall. Instead, she had to inhabit the space between the bricks and use her connection to the wall to scan into the room.
She managed it.
Maybe she had connected to the wall spell better than the last time she’d cast this enchantment, or maybe it was just her desperation aligning and giving her everything she needed, but Jeanette could actually see into the room beyond. Seriously magical abodes started to get senses of their own after a while. Tune in to them, and it would be like watching security footage.
The room was large. Certainly sufficient to be chock full of cages.
They weren’t small, either. They were long enough and tall enough for humans. And, crap, there was a skeleton inside one of them.
Jeanette screamed. She couldn’t stop herself. Fortunately, the wall stopped her shout from going anywhere. It simply ricocheted back and forth across the bricks until it felt like it was going to pound a hole through her skull. That she could deal with. The human skeleton on the other side of this wall, she could not. Her anger hit a crescendo. If it had been a fire, it would’ve suddenly reached the melting point for steel.
She didn’t think she had ever felt something like this – not since the death of her family.
How the hell was Broadside letting Helena get away with this? If other vampires knew, why hadn’t they stopped her?
Dammit, why had nobody stopped her?
If Jeanette had been paying attention, she would’ve realized her wrist started to itch. Heck, it smoothly went past the itching stage and started to burn. But whatever, you could chuck her in a furnace right now, and she would roll right out just to get to Helena.
The witch Helena had taken with her was silent now. No more yelping, no more anything. She stood there, cold and sweaty in the middle of the room, surrounded by those cages. Helena took a step up to her and tilted her head to the side. “Power needs power. Nothing comes for free. If you want something, you have to sacrifice something.”
“I was told that all I had to do was bring you some blood—”
“Oh, sweetie, I have thousands of students who can bring me blood,” Helena said, her hands behind her back, her skirt flaring over her knees as she turned, marched in one direction, turned again, and marched right up to the poor witch’s face. “What I need from you is a human.”
“What do you mean a human?”
“You associate with them, don’t you? You have a human family, don’t you? I need a human. And when you bring me one, I will give you the power you seek. I’ll even let you practice with talismans.”
Helena briefly clicked her fingers, and Jeanette saw a glimpse of a talisman, though Helena didn’t open her full talisman pocket.
The witch spluttered. At first it was in fear, then her eyes widened.
Jeanette saw the real greed and need there.
Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between those two emotions. Sometimes you absolutely can. On a face like Helena’s, it was obvious. She didn’t need the blood that she wanted. She didn’t need to keep killing people. But for this witch, both emotions slammed together to form a toxic mix. It was clear she couldn’t continue with the status quo in this school. It was killing her. It was also clear she didn’t want to do what Helena suggested.
So Helena took another step forward. She pushed her face right up against the witch’s. Then she sniffed once. “I know you associate with humans. So all you have to do is bring me one. I don’t care if it’s a family member. You can pick your dear old grandmother as long as you bring her here.”
“What… what are you gonna do to her?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t want to—”
“You don’t want to what? Live? I’m sure you do. That’s why you came to me. You don’t want to continue living in a school that doesn’t respect your power. But trust me, this is just the beginning. When or if,” Helena’s voice shook down low, “you graduate, you will have to deal with the rest of the magical community. The connections made at Broadside will dictate the rest of your life. Should you choose to have a family, then they will dictate the rest of the life of that family, too. Now all I ask,” Helena brought one hand up and stiffly kept her finger right underneath the witch’s nose, “is for one human sacrifice. That’s it. It will give you assured peace and security. It will even bring you new wealth and power. If you can’t practice with talismans, you can’t do anything in this magical world. Now, what do you say?”
The witch shook. Tears rushed down her cheeks. She even glanced at the door. So Helena pushed in closer. She locked a hand on the witch’s shoulder. She spread her lips next to the witch’s ear. “What do you say?”
Here Helena was, pretending like this poor witch had a choice. It was clear that if she said no, Helena would take her life instead.
Jeanette couldn’t frigging take this anymore. She had to do something. But what?
Her wrist kept itching.
She ignored it. She just tensed the same hand and called on all the magic she could.
Even if the least Jeanette could do was cast spells on the environment to ensure she could break that witch out, she’d do it.
Jeanette might’ve claimed she’d never had any friends. But Jeanette had still been loyal. Just to no one in particular. Her allegiance had been to life, to giving people a second chance away from vampires, and Jeanette would not give up on that loyalty now.
She went to push through the wall. Her intentions were clear.
She would save the witch, no matter what it took.
Someone else’s intentions were clearer, however.
Long before Jeanette could push through the wall, somebody pushed into it behind her. And the next thing she knew, they had her by the middle.
Jeanette’s wrist exploded with magic. She felt Tyler shove in. Immediately one of his hands locked over her mouth and the other around her middle, and he yanked her backward.
He pulled her into the corridor beyond the door.
Even then, he didn’t let her go. He kept pulling her backward.
Jeanette yelped, but it quickly turned into a grunt. Then she tried to elbow him in the stomach.
“Familiar,” he growled in her ear, “you will do as I say.”
His voice somehow calmed her, then enraged her all at once. All she wanted to do was get back to Helena, but Tyler had no intention of letting her.
He kept backing away until he found another section of a wall. Unlike her, he didn’t need to flatten his hand on it. Immediately it got out of his way. He walked straight through it, dragging Jeanette with him.
They reached some nondescript storeroom. Only then did he let his hand go from her mouth.
Immediately Jeanette turned and went to throw herself through the wall again. Tyler got in her way. He crossed his arms in front of her and snarled in her face. “What the hell are you doing? I told you to keep your head down, didn’t I?”
“Helena’s got a witch. She will kill her if we don’t do something. This was what you brought me here to do, right, Tyler? If you give a shit about the school, let me—”
“Never question my motivations, Jeanette.”
In a flash, he changed his countenance. And the moody, disrupted Tyler returned – the vampire who was so complicated, he had more layers than a thousand onions. But Jeanette didn’t need this right now. She had to save that witch. She darted forward again, but he just grabbed her wrist, specifically her familiar mark.
It had the effect of locking her in place, her feet feeling like buses that’d had their tires ripped off.
She spluttered in indignation and anger. “That witch—”
“I’ll deal with it. You will stay here.”
“Just let me take Helena on already.”
“You’re not ready to take Helena on. Helena has weapons that would make you blush.”
Jeanette opened her mouth to say that was crap, but all she had to do was think of Campbell. Campbell was just an ordinary vampire. How the heck did she have so many high-powered talismans?
Tyler’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re starting to figure out this world is a lot more complicated than it seems, ha? Just wait here.” He disappeared through the wall.
Jeanette went to pound on it, but she suddenly couldn’t use any magic at all. The familiar mark had locked her in place. So she screamed and just punched the wall until her knuckles became bloody.
It didn’t take long – maybe three minutes or so – then Tyler came back. He silently walked through the wall beside her, and it was just as she punched it again. Pity. If he’d just walked a little to the left, she would’ve ended up hitting his face. Instead, her knuckles splattered a little blood over his pristine white shirt. He glanced down at it, then over at her, then reached in once more.
She just snarled at him.
He didn’t bother hissing back. He grabbed her hand.
She knew she couldn’t jerk away, so she settled for growling in his face. “What did you do to that poor witch? Kill her? I don’t know who you think you are, Tyler—”
“I think I am your vampire,” he said, slowing down each word as if she was too stupid to understand them. “I think you have betrayed my trust.”
Her stomach twitched.
It was because of the word trust, right? No, it was that look in his eyes. She didn’t want to face it anymore. She detested the way he could scoop up all of her attention – the way he could hold her to the spot. He just had to let her free.
But that was the last thing Tyler was going to do. It took her a while as he continued to hold her hand to realize that he was trying to heal the injury to her knuckles. She just didn’t care about it. How could that be a priority?
“Helena is offering to give witches and wizards the power to use talismans as long as they bring family members and friends,” her voice broke, “as sacrifices. We have to stop her.”
Tyler’s lips twitched. Then strangely, no, horrifyingly, they curled into a smile.
Jeanette had foolishly let him hold her hand until now. Now she went to punch him across the face, but just before her fist could connect, her hand stopped as a pulse of familiar magic prevented her from moving another inch. It sure as hell didn’t prevent her from snarling, though. “You sick monster. Do you find that funny, ha?”
“No. But you’ve still done exactly what I brought you here to do, even though I was starting to question if you were the right pick.”
She had to slow her mind down to understand a word of what he said. Even then, her thoughts were too jagged to make sense. “Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, I am. You are finally starting to find out information on the human trafficking ring.”
Slowly, everything slid into place.
He was right.
That didn’t dull her anger much. She continued to bare her teeth at him. “So why don’t you go in there and defeat Helena yourself? I’ve seen your talismans. You could take her on.”
“I could, but I won’t.”
“Why not? Are you too much of a coward?”
His eyes flashed. It was a warning look. It was kind of like the spark you’d get before an overloaded power board burst into flames.
Jeanette couldn’t do subtle right now, though. Her mind was marching along at a million miles an hour, and this fool was still in her way.
“You have to stop her. I don’t care what has to happen—”
“No, Jeanette, you’re gonna be the one to stop her.” With that, he let go of her hand.
The healing process had completed.
Her fingers were still marked with blood, but it was no longer actively oozing from her half-shattered knuckles. And as for her knuckles, they felt fine. She flexed them once, then immediately went to punch something again. Tyler would not let her waste his healing magic, though. “Save your anger. You can use it on Helena later.”
“I want to—”
“You have to go after Jason first.”
All Jeanette had to do was hear the word Jason, and her thoughts aligned. Crap. Oh God. “Kate—”
She jerked toward the wall.
Tyler wouldn’t let her go. “You have to stay here until Helena leaves, okay?”
“No. I have to go out there and save—”
“Your new friend?” Tyler asked, voice dropping low.
She’d been laboring under the stupid possibility that maybe he didn’t know about Kate and everything they’d gotten up to. Now Jeanette flinched. “Look, I have to go and save her, okay?”
“Your friend is turning out to be a lot more competent than you are. Maybe I should’ve made her into a familiar instead?”
“Don’t you dare—”
Tyler lifted a hand. “Trust me, one familiar is more than enough. And Kate is fine. She followed Jason, but I ported her away. Now she is back in the accommodation block searching for you.”
Jeanette… she had to believe Tyler. She had no option but to. Then she just had to stand there, wondering what the heck this could mean.
He shoved one hand into his pocket. Then he looked up and down, then up, then down, then finally over at her. When his eyes snapped onto her, the delay meant the experience was all the more powerful. “Jeanette, I didn’t bring you here to sacrifice your life. I brought you here so you could finally do something worthwhile with it.”
Jeanette had no idea what he meant, so she just screwed her lips together and snarled. “You brought me here because you’re a vampire—”
“Whatever insult you’re about to dream up, just stop. We finally have the information we need. We can now go after Helena directly. But like I said, you have to go after Jason first.”
Jeanette finally slowed down long enough to hear what he’d said.
She’d imagined Tyler would send her back to her room, and Jeanette would just have to go to classes for another week while horrendous crimes occurred all around her, and she couldn’t lift a finger to stop them.
That’s not what he was suggesting. From the look in his eyes, he wanted Jeanette to do this soon. Maybe even tonight.
She paused. Then she straightened. For the first time, she stopped clutching her hands into bloodless fists.
The slightest smile pressed over his mouth, and it was accompanied by a light chuckle. “Do you honestly think that I was just gonna let you sit on the sidelines forever? It took far too long to track you down.”
That was the second time he’d mentioned tracking her down. It was like he’d known of her for years somehow, and while Jeanette had been a legend at her crappy magical school, she certainly wasn’t known across the lands.
She could’ve asked him, but she didn’t have the time. He moved in close. Not so close that he breached her personal space, but close enough that all she could do was fix her attention on him, every scrap of energy that was required for shouting at him being redirected to staring.
“Jason already suspects you use talismans. He’s a lot smarter than I gave him credit for,” Tyler admitted.
“Fine, then I’ll—”
“You will challenge him to a fight,” Tyler said blankly.
It lacked emotion so completely that Jeanette almost didn’t follow. She went to demand that Tyler had to let her fight Jason, then her brain caught up. “What? You actually think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s the only idea. He will just challenge you to a fight in public, otherwise. So you will do it in private.”
“When and where and how?”
“In his room tonight,” Tyler stated flatly.
Jeanette straightened. “You serious?”
“Yes, I am. I only had a short time to investigate Helena’s dungeon. I can’t tell you how many humans have been brought through it. Usually, my magical scanning techniques are unsurpassed, but either she is too prolific, or something is protecting that place.”
Jeanette became sickened again. When she closed her eyes, she could see that skeleton.
She shook her head. “Fine. Let me at him.”
“It’s not going to be that easy.”
“I’ll just go to his room, knock on his door, go inside, and beat him half to death. How is that not gonna be easy?”
“Remember, Jason isn’t your target. Helena is.”
“You have to lose.”
Jeanette blinked her eyes closed. It took her a long time to open them. “You said—”
“You need to lose and let Jason take you to Helena. Then you can fight them both.”
Jeanette paused. “A second ago, you said I didn’t have the power to take Helena on directly—”
“I will assist you. But I must stay hidden. And you have to take them both on at once.”
“Because if you don’t, when the other finds out one of them has been defeated, they will go to ground. Then we’ll never crack their human trafficking ring, okay? You have to fight them both at once. Which means you have to deliberately lose to him.”
Jeanette just watched Tyler. She didn’t know what she was looking for. No, wait, she did. “You mean I voluntarily have to let that psychopath win? Why on earth do you think that he’ll take me to Helena? Wouldn’t he just get his revenge?”
“I know this is an ask, but trust me, I know how vampires think.”
“Trust you?” Her voice jolted down hard.
He just held her gaze. “Yes, Jeanette, trust me.”
Maybe it was the way he used her name, but when Jeanette went to shake her head, she paused.
Tonight, she’d seen the last evidence she needed. These people had to be shut down. Now. No more letting them get what they wanted. It was time to show the other vampires at Broadside that no, you couldn’t get what you desired every single day. And if you broke the law, there would be people there to punish you.
She turned sharply, faced the door, then turned back to him. “Fine.”
Once the words were out, she knew she couldn’t retract them.
He straightened. His gaze darted across her. It was almost like he cared about this. You know, actually cared about whether she could survive. In her head, she wanted to believe that he could just make anyone a familiar once Jeanette died. He clearly already had his eye on Kate.
But no matter how much she distracted herself with thoughts like that, his gaze did not dull. It roved over her intensely, almost as if he was double-checking this was a good plan.
“You can’t back out now,” she said, realizing this was likely going to be her one and only chance to seek real revenge on those two monsters. “This is the plan.”
“Fine, Jeanette, this is the plan. But….”
“Don’t get yourself killed, my familiar.”
Jeanette’s stomach certainly tingled. It wasn’t necessarily at the use of the words my familiar – but the way they were delivered, practically handed to her, not by his rumbling voice, but by his steady gaze.
He meant it.
She was his.
Before that thought could go anywhere and do untold things, he reached close.
He opened his hand.
She stared at it. “What now?”
“Just take it, okay?”
There were a thousand reasons not to do it, but if this was a prelude to him letting her fight Jason, she had to.
She settled her grip in his.
She felt his magic charging up. It was different now. Not just different from the first time they’d fought, but different from the last time he’d touched her.
The last week had been a distraction. Now, finally, the true game would begin.
He muttered something under his breath, twisted, then pulled her right through the wall.
Jeanette was pretty used to walking through walls – you knew that. But this was different. He seemed to completely command the school, or rather, the school was far too scared to get in his way. Bricks just shifted past him like water down a waterfall.
He strode right through eight walls until he reached the accommodation level.
There he paused before pulling her out of the last wall. “You go to him, you knock on his door, and you challenge him. Remember, I won’t take my eyes off you, but you need to get Helena to appear before I can.” He turned, and while they were still in a frigging wall, managed to stare at her like nothing could get in his way.
Her gaze darted back and forth, back and forth.
There’d been a time when she hadn’t liked to look at him much. Now she couldn’t stare anywhere else. “And if nothing works out?”
“Then, Jeanette, you will do what you’re made to do. You will dig deep, and you will pull victory out of the hands of defeat anyway.”
The way he said that, it was clear he meant it. Once more Jeanette was struck by the fact that he must’ve been watching her for a long time.
She’d already gotten rid of her Maurice disguise. That said, he kept watching her intently as if he was only really seeing her for the first time.
But there was no time to be drawn in by that. He pulled her through the last section of wall. No, pushed her.
She turned, staggering against the smooth red and blue patterned carpet of the accommodation level, but he didn’t follow her. She waited there, gawking at the wall, but she soon realized she’d draw too much attention.
She didn’t know which room belonged to Jason, but then she looked down at her hand.
From nowhere, without her feeling it, Tyler had written the address on her palm in disappearing magical ink.
She walked toward it, hands stiff, heart heavy, and mind… elsewhere. Her treacherous thoughts were back there in the wall with Tyler. She wanted a couple more minutes with him – or maybe just a few seconds. Just a little longer to figure out what was going on with him.
If he really had saved that witch, then… was Tyler a good guy? Could vampires ever be good? It went against everything Jeanette had ever taught herself.
But why would one of the most prestigious students in all of the school be trying this hard to help others unless he was different?
There were a thousand things Jeanette could say to that. Maybe this was all about power, and Helena and Jason just stood in Tyler’s way?
But… it didn’t feel right.
She stopped in front of the right door, trailing her fingers over her wrist one last time. Then she snapped right out of it, and she knocked.
Just once. She made it brutal, too. You might not think you can do that. One knock should be the same as another. But this was like death himself rising up to ring your doorbell.
At first, Jason didn’t answer. It took one more knock, then the door swung inward. She didn’t bother to jolt back and instead gripped it with a white-knuckled hand.
She pulled it open.
And there stood Jason. His expression had been easygoing like he expected a friend, but now it hardened. Then one lip ticked into a snarling laugh. “What the hell do we have here? This is a house visit, is it, Cassandra?”
“Nope.” She shoved into him, used her strength to push him back, and kicked the door closed. Then she crossed her arms and leaned against it. “This is a challenge.”
He’d fallen down to his ass. He spluttered and shot up to his feet, his brow compressing with real anger and hatred. “What the hell—”
“I said this was a challenge,” she spoke louder now, practically screaming that. “Are you hard of hearing? Or are you too scared to take me on in a talisman fight?” There, she dropped her challenge like a bomb.
His lips twitched. Then they ticked up as he laughed. “I knew it all along. You’re a talismans witch.” He touched his lips, but then his stiff fingers trail down to his throat. He tapped it once. “I’m going to shred you. You hear that? I am going to—”
“Are you going to fight me or what? There’s no point in talking. It’s just you and me. So let’s see who’s stronger.”
She reached behind her. She was very careful not to let him see into her full talisman pocket. Then she pulled out a level 50 weapon.
He was too distracted by the fact she’d come to him to even bother to glimpse into her pocket. Obviously, in his head, though she was a practitioner, she wasn’t strong enough to possibly vie with him.
As soon as he saw her level 50 weapon, he chucked his head back and laughed. Then seamlessly, smoothly as if he did this all frigging day, he reached behind him and accessed his pocket. And out he pulled a level 150 weapon.
Sure, it was impressive, but it wasn’t that impressive. Until he charged it with magic.
Then it somehow became twice as powerful.
If you were a seriously strong practitioner, you could get more juice out of your weapon. If Tyler were to use a level 50 weapon, it would act more like a level 300 weapon.
But Jason wasn’t Tyler. So how the hell was he doing this?
Jason was clearly waiting for her expression, and as soon as he saw her surprise, he guffawed. He even slapped his thigh. As for his eyes? They widened like twitching hands. “That’s it. Surprised, aren’t you? Oh God, you’ve got no idea what’s coming. You’ve walked right into a little trap. You know, no one is even going to notice when you go missing. They’ll just think you quit. You won’t even be another murder to add to this school’s prestigious list. You’ll just be forgotten like you never mattered at all.”
He threw the dagger up, caught it, and let excess power crackle out. What an amateur.
True practitioners always channeled their magic back in on itself. You had to save every spark. Because you didn’t know when one tiny fragment of magic would make the difference in a fight.
But Jason thought he had Jeanette exactly where he wanted her. So why bother to save magic?
Jeanette didn’t know exactly how to play this game. She could just let Jason win in a single blow, but she didn’t want to. She had to use this time to figure out how he moved. It would matter when it came to the real fight.
So she jolted backward just as he tried to slash her across the throat. It was a brutal move, and if it had struck, it would’ve likely killed her.
Maybe he needed her on the edge of death before he took her to Helena. Hell, maybe he wasn’t even thinking.
He snarled when she dodged, but he just came at her again, harder and faster this time, swiping the dagger to the left then the right then the left again. He went to slice it over Jeanette’s arm, but she twitched and spun.
“Fast one, aren’t you? Faster than I thought. Still, you can’t win, can you, Jeanette? There’s gonna be a limit to how much you can dodge. Then you’re gonna get sliced and diced.”
“Give it a go,” she snarled.
He twisted. He left himself open.
It was only for a moment, and you had to be quick to capitalize on it. Jeanette could have. But she couldn’t until the main event.
For a moment, she didn’t want to wait, though. She’d just defeat him, then find a way to get to Helena, but Tyler’s word slammed back into her head. When one of them disappeared, the other would figure out and go to ground.
Jeanette didn’t want to admit Tyler was right, but if the only way to take them both down was to do it together, then so be it.
Jeanette didn’t capitalize on the opening. She dodged instead. He was right. There was a limit to how much she could continue to dodge, but she sure as heck wouldn’t come against it in this tame fight. She was learning everything she needed to. Unsurprisingly, he was arrogant and slow whenever he moved to the left. He clearly hadn’t been in too many real fights.
But every time Jeanette saw an opportunity, she just had to file it for later. Then, a couple of hours from now, or minutes, depending on how fast Jason would take her to Helena, she’d get to show him just how much of a quick study she was.
Though she really didn’t want to lose, she had to start sometime soon. Just as he was twisting to the side, she let him catch her on the foot. It sent her spiraling back. She thrust into the door. She hit it with a bone-shaking thump.
You should’ve heard the shriek of joy Jason let out. It sounded like he was gonna bring down every single ceiling in the school. The idiot took a while to capitalize on the move, though, almost as if he actually thought one hit would be all it would take.
Jeanette tabulated every single thing. The time it took him to turn, how quickly he pumped magic into his weapon. Everything.
Then… as uncomfortable as this was to admit, she left herself wide open.
It took him two seconds to capitalize on it, and as he came close, Jeanette saw a certain question playing in his eyes.
Kill her or take her to Helena?
It soon became less of a question and more of a fact.
He stabbed her right through the middle.
It wasn’t a blow that would kill her. Immediately. But in 15 minutes or so, she would bleed out.
Her eyes pulsed wide. Fear ricocheted through her, and he grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her close. “We’ve been looking for a new victim. You just volunteered.”
With that, he let her go, and she fell to his feet. As her consciousness swam in and out, she cursed Tyler’s name.
So much for keeping her safe.
Jeanette didn’t expect to wake. Just as she fell unconscious, her brain told her this was it. She’d trusted the wrong vampire.
But then, slowly, an unknown amount of time later, Jeanette’s eyes started to flutter open. The first thing she saw was a drab concrete roof. The second thing she saw was an electrified cage.
Her mind might be elsewhere, struggling through her pain and confusion, but she recognized one thing.
Tyler had been right after all. Jason had taken her away. That said, she couldn’t hear Helena’s dulcet tones. Just Tyler. He was in the corner of the room, muttering some kind of spell. Whatever it was, it had to be complicated, because he kept stuffing it up. As his voice arced up for the second stanza, he messed up a complicated magical word, and even from here, Jeanette heard a fizzle as some spell failed to take root. He swore and hit something. It sounded like flesh.
That’s when everything came together.
Yeah, Jeanette had been captured, but these monsters were trafficking people. For all Jeanette knew, Helena had gotten her claws in that witch once more, and the poor idiot had already brought a family member.
It was enough that Jeanette managed to blink one eye open, then another. Hell, if she’d had 80 eyes, she would’ve forced them all open at once, regardless of the physical cost.
She made her eyesight resolve, and she peered into the semi gloom that clung to the walls and the electrified bars of the cage. Finally she saw Jason. He was down in the middle of a magical circle, runes dancing half an inch above the concrete. With shaking hands, he held a talisman dagger. It was dripping in blood.
It took Jeanette a moment. She looked for an injury on Jason. She couldn’t see one.… Because this was her blood.
She might be able to move her eyes, but any other part of her body was off-limits.
She could, however, feel the wound in her stomach where he’d stabbed her. It was corked with a little magic to ensure that she didn’t die too quickly. The 15 minutes she’d given herself previously would be more like an hour. But the closer she came to her deadline, the more her faculties would shut down.
Speaking of which, her eyesight suddenly became so blurry that she could no longer discern him. He was naught but an illuminated shape against the dark walls behind.
Jeanette’s eyes threatened to roll into the back of her head, but she stopped them with a quick mental curse.
Tyler had promised to come. So where the hell was he?
A thousand thoughts had the chance to race through her mind all at once, and you could probably guess what they were.
This could’ve all been an elaborate trap to kill Jeanette. After all, why not have some fun with her? Vampires like Tyler could do whatever they wanted. Which meant when they wanted to have fun, they had to make increasingly elaborate plots. A quick game of chess or a trip down to the arcade was insufficient. Tricking a powerful witch like her into becoming a familiar only to kill her, why, that was far more scintillating.
While those thoughts could gather and rush through her mind, she could hardly cling onto them. She couldn’t hold on to anything.
Not even her blood. Maybe Jason had thought he’d done a good job with this corking spell, but it didn’t fit her wound right. Vital blood – and magic – kept spilling out of it and covering the floor of the cage.
If he were a genius – which he very much wasn’t – he would’ve cast spells on the cage to monitor his victim. Jason was far too involved in the spell he kept messing up. For with another earsplitting scream, he shouted at his own inadequacies again. The yelp echoed off the walls.
That’s when Jeanette realized this room was big. It was also familiar. She hadn’t set foot in here personally, but she had seen it through the walls.
Jeanette could only just slightly twitch her muscles, and she was certain to do it when Jason screamed again, so he wouldn’t hear.
There, when she turned her head, only several meters away, she saw another cage. Inside? Was that skeleton.
Jeanette had a moment of silent ache. One where existential pain claimed hold of her, wrapped around her heart, and squeezed.
Who knew who that poor mundane had been? One thing was certain. They should not have died at the hands of a greedy vampire. There should’ve been something there to protect them.
Instead, presumably one of their own family members had given them up for power.
Jeanette continued to stare at that skeleton until her gaze became even more blurry. She was shutting down here. In a few minutes, she might be able to see, but she sure as heck wouldn’t be able to practice magic.
Helena was not in the room. Maybe Tyler was gonna wait until both of them appeared, but that was a pretty dangerous game, considering how injured she was.
Jeanette… Jeanette had to do something herself.
She could fight Jason, technically. That was to say her familiar mark wouldn’t stop her from punching him. Her increasing fatal fatigue, however, would.
Jeanette had it in her for one more spell. She had to pick very cleverly what that spell would be.
Her gaze darted first to the bars of the cage. Surely the smartest thing to do here was to break herself out? Then maybe Jason would be too distracted and let her go. And maybe pigs would fly as well and elephants would join them.
Jeanette had one last chance. If she wasted it on useless hope, then she would give up everything.
She searched for a plan, but her gaze kept on going back to that skeleton in the cage. She wanted to know who they were, who they’d trusted, and who’d betrayed them.
Jeanette had done that before. She’d trusted a vampire in school, in fact, and look what had happened to her family?
That horrible thought reignited why she was here. It brought back flashes of her life over the past decade.
She’d fought. And she’d won in situations crazier than this, so why the hell couldn’t she do it again?
Bolstering yourself with strong thoughts can usually work if you are only a little weak. But not if you’re bleeding out all over the floor. There comes a point where adrenaline just doesn’t work anymore. The body redirects all of its power, quite rightly, to staying alive.
All your breath, every heartbeat, and every cell’s power – all of it has to maintain your life just a little longer. Until help arrives.
But help wouldn’t get here, would it?
Jason’s voice suddenly arced up higher. He reached some kind of tone. Though Jeanette couldn’t see his face, she was sufficiently connected to him to know just how thrilled he was. He was finally doing it. Sure enough, the room started to shake. Jeanette thought she heard this pounding sound. It was like a drumbeat down in the heart of some mountain. What, was he calling down to the very bowels of the earth here?
The drumbeat quickly changed, and Jeanette realized it wasn’t a drum after all. It sounded… like a heart. Just not a human one. Some massive thrumming pump.
And it brought with it a sense Jeanette did not want to feel ever again. One of something ancient. Something that no longer belonged, but something that was rising anyway.
Jeanette had previously said that adrenaline couldn’t pull her up out of the doldrums now, but that gut-punching spike of fear did it. It focused her and told her she couldn’t die here, because if these idiots were doing what she suspected, and they were contacting that ancient vampire, then Jeanette had to do something. Now. Before… before it could hurt anyone else.
She swiveled her gaze off Jason, though it was more accurate to say that she twisted her eyes to the side. Her gaze could barely pick up anything more than contrasted shapes now. She couldn’t see his leering face, and Lord knows she couldn’t detect the runes spiraling around him. But there was one shape she could discern easily. The wall.
She’d been inside that wall, and maybe… in some way, she was still connected to it.
She’d never technically stopped casting the wall spell. Tyler had just pulled her out of it. So she just needed to… pay attention and….
She felt herself tilting backward. Memories of her childhood rushed up to meet her. She heard her sister clamoring in her ear, asking for a piggyback. Then there was her mother’s smile and her father’s magical library.
She reached out to them. It was like they were waiting there for her, anyway. All she had to do was cross over some threshold, and she could be with them again.
Jason’s voice got louder. And she could hear the victory echoing through it. He was so close to getting what he’d always wanted.
If there was one thing Jeanette had to stop, it was monsters like him getting exactly what they desired.
The first time you conceded to them was also the last time you conceded to them. Because when people like that started to learn that they could get whatever they desired, they would twist this world to ensure it never stopped them again.
So all she had to do was… reach out to the wall.
She couldn’t do it with her fingers. They were frozen – cold, too. She felt this rushing in her ears. It was like she was tilting back into the heart of some great thundering waterfall.
But the wall was still just there.
Jeanette half closed one eye, but then she just saw the images of her family again. They were so much sharper now. All they wanted to do was to bring her back into the fold. And Lord knows she wanted to go back there. All these years out in the cold on her own had been a waste.
She wanted to be normal like everybody else, to have a family, and to have people to protect her and people she could protect in turn.
It was such a seductive image that Jeanette lost hold of her thoughts. She barely remembered who she was anymore.
But it was just as everything tipped backward and she wanted, with all her heart, to go back to the past, even if it cost her her life, that she thought she heard something.
It was just this whispered murmur. She had no clue where it came from. The wind? The rocks? Broadside itself?
It sounded like Tyler somehow.
You wouldn’t think that his mere words would be enough to center her and drag her away from the joy of her family, but they were.
And they were the very last thing that could.
Jeanette grabbed hold of the wall spell. She reached right through the distance that separated her from it. She grabbed that magic from somewhere inside her. And she would not let it go.
She didn’t have to open her eyes. All she needed was to concentrate.
The wall rumbled.
Jeanette would drag it toward Jason and dump it on him. Then….
She couldn’t think far enough forward to finish that sentence. She could only act.
The wall shook, mortar falling down between the bricks. Then it dislodged itself and rushed forward.
Long before it could strike the surprised Jason, someone ported in from another part of the school and stopped right in front of it, their hand held wide, magic already marching around them.
And that someone was Helena.
As her hand spread further, her magic grabbed hold of the wall spell, and it stopped several inches from her face.
Jason twisted, fear in his eyes, and jerked out of his magical circle. “What—”
“I have this, idiot. Finish the spell. I thought you could do this on your own. Clearly you cannot. Your poor little victim over there is not unconscious. She’s clearly already been in this room, and she has her hooks into the walls. You should’ve figured that out already.”
Jason spluttered, but it wasn’t in indignation. He reeled himself in long before he could show any form of disdain. Instead, he crawled back into the center of this spell circle. He pressed down on his knees, fixed his palms onto the cold concrete, and shoved his head against a specific chipped, marked section. In that prostrate position, he continued to pray over the dagger covered in Jeanette’s blood.
As for Jeanette… all she could do was pay attention to Helena as she took a single step over to the cage.
“It was very obvious from the first day you got here that you have real magic. Why did you hide it from people? Are you here for revenge? Did you come from some poor family who was touched by our power? Revenge,” she said, voice hardening and dropping down low, “is not something the simple should aspire to. It will always get them in trouble with higher forces.”
Jeanette teetered on the edge of unconsciousness. It would take naught but the touch of a frigging feather to push her back, and yet Helena’s words did the opposite. They wrapped around her like a tether and pulled her closer and closer.
Jeanette couldn’t believe she was about to give up.
Her family could wait. Monsters like Helena needed to be dealt with now before more blood was spilled over the hallowed halls of this school.
Jeanette had closed her eyes, but now she opened them again, one after the other. Could she ram up to her feet? No. Could she shove her fist into Helena’s face? Absolutely not. But sometimes the smallest moments of dissent are the ones that matter. They prove to you you can do it, and they open up a path to further action.
Helena reached the bars. Showing her dexterity, she got down on her knees. Pushing her fingers through them, the electricity not harming her but seemingly giving her power instead, she laughed once.
Why bother to cackle louder? Why make it into something it didn’t need to be?
People only chortle when they’re not in control. Helena held all the cards. And the keys to this cage, apparently, because without a muttered word, she suddenly turned on the electricity pulsing through the floor.
It arced into Jeanette, and she screamed.
“There we go. You can scream after all. Apparently you didn’t scream at all, even when that grave demon had you pinned. It was enough to alert poor little Jason here to the fact that you had to be magical. Can you imagine when I had you pegged? The very second you walked into this school. Now, pay attention. If somebody sent you here to get revenge on me, you will tell me who that person is. And you will tell me the full truth. If you’re here working for some other little witch or wizard, you will give me their name. I can promise you, I will go after them. Relentlessly. In fact, I will go after their entire family. First, I will break them, then I’ll use them to sacrifice their family to me. Does that sound horrible? It will be brought on by your own crimes. You did this, Cassandra. Not anyone else – you.”
This cold wave of dread sank through Jeanette’s stomach. You see, she’d heard words like that before. The vampire who’d killed her family had said something similar.
Once upon a time, Jeanette had used that statement to give herself fire, to get herself through any fight. But now it held her to the spot. She felt herself disintegrating as if she was a picture someone had lit with a lighter.
Helena was a proper vampire. She would be attuned to Jeanette’s circulatory system. She would understand that Jeanette’s heart shuddered, that it then skipped several beats. She would feel the cold wave of dread that kept passing through Jeanette, crashing against her resolve and dragging it down until Jeanette would never be able to clutch it back.
Sure enough, Helena laughed, all low and sultry. “You really are see-through, aren’t you? I actually thought that you might put up some resistance after you grabbed hold of that wall spell. The very fact it’s there means that you’ve been spying on me. Now, why would you do that? Maybe you’re new here, but surely you recognized the second you saw me that I control this school?”
Jeanette was surprised when her lips twitched. Of all the times she could have resisted something Helena had said, this was the stupidest. But her mouth still opened. “You don’t control the school.”
“Look around, Cassandra,” Helena spread her hands to indicate this horrifying room, “I can do whatever I want.”
“But you’re still not a Solomon, are you? Only they can be the principals of this school. I don’t even know what your last name is,” Jeanette kept it together long enough to spit every single word out. They didn’t even shake in her throat. There would be nothing preventing Helena from understanding them.
And even her legendary arrogance couldn’t protect her from this.
She became deadly silent. Then she thrust forward, grabbed the bars of the cage once more, and pumped even more power into it.
Jeanette didn’t scream this time. She just opened her mouth, settled her lips over her blood-caked teeth, and sneered back in defiance.
“I will be a Solomon soon enough. All their vaunted power will become mine.”
“Tyler will have to marry at some point. I’m the only logical option. Which means you’re back at square one, little Cassandra. You’re trapped,” she shook the bars, “half dead,” she leaned through, trailed her fingers through Jeanette’s blood, and licked it, “and utterly vulnerable. You will do anything I tell you to do.”
“Yes.” She grabbed Jeanette’s throat.
“And how are you going to make me do that?” Jeanette hissed.
“Simple. I’m gonna make you my familiar. That way you won’t be able to resist telling the truth. And when you’ve spilled every single secret, and have killed everybody you’ve ever known, I’ll come for you.”
The threat barely had a chance to settle. As Helena wrapped one hand around Jeanette’s throat, something charged up to meet her magic. It was the equivalent of a slap – or 400.
Jeanette felt her mark rise over her wrist, burning brightly, moving like the sun as it raced across the sky.
Helena jolted back. She fell flat on her ass just outside of the cage, and though Jeanette was about to lose consciousness again, she focused with all her damn mind until she managed to squeeze her eyes open. Then she stared at the shock plastering Helena’s face. “What? You already have a mark? You’re a familiar—”
The mark around Jeanette’s wrist shook. Energy built up from somewhere. Energy she shouldn’t have. And energy that started to flood into her. It raced to her injury like water to a fire.
The cage wasn’t big. But it was still large enough that Jeanette suddenly floated off the floor. It prevented the electrified metal from harming her again.
Nothing, however, could stop her vampire mark from revealing itself in full.
It hovered just a centimeter above her flesh, and it took form.
Helena jerked away and even shrieked. She locked a hand over her mouth, and she shook her head, her locks tumbling over her cheeks. “That’s Tyler’s mark. You’re a Solomon familiar—”
Jeanette’s hand moved of its own accord. It locked over her stomach. And blessed, warming, powerful magic spilled into her injury. It was enough that her head jerked back and her mouth opened in a silent gasp. But it wasn’t painful. Just the opposite.
Jeanette hadn’t been able to take anymore.
And now she didn’t need to.
Because Tyler was here.
She felt somebody transport in behind her. Like she’d said, it wasn’t the biggest cage in the world. Tyler didn’t need room, apparently. He appeared down there on one knee, one hand over her wrist, the other in his pocket.
As for the cage? It damn well got out of his way the second his body took form, the bars bulging with groaning creaks.
Helena would be another matter.
She was still flat on her ass half a meter away, her eyes getting wider by the second. Jason spluttered from his magical circle, but he still didn’t let up, and though Jeanette hadn’t noted it before, now a cloud of force was crackling around him like a storm about to give birth to pure chaos.
As soon as Jeanette felt Tyler’s grip around her wrist, everything just stilled. For a moment, she couldn’t hear Jason’s chanting. Nor could she hear the pitter-patter of her own blood.
It was just him and her as if his entry to any scene could carve out the rest of reality until it was just the two of them.
She tilted her head up, and she looked at him, but he didn’t look at her. He kept all of his attention for Helena. But the side of his lip curled into the slightest smile, and she got the distinct impression that was for her.
Tyler swiped his hand to the side, got rid of the rest of the cage, and rose.
He didn’t pull his hand off Jeanette’s wrist. He brought her with him.
She shouldn’t be able to stand, but as his magic continued to pulse into her injury, it sealed it on fast forward.
Vampires can share their life force with their familiars. If they want to. Few would be inclined, but clearly Tyler right now had the sufficient motivation – the sufficient magic, too. For as he took away her injury, a similar injury didn’t appear in his body. There wasn’t even a mark.
Helena remained down there on her butt, shaking her head reflexively. “I… I had no idea she was your familiar. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have—”
“What is this place, Helena?” Tyler asked, voice cold.
Hell, it was frigid. But it didn’t even match the look in his eyes. That was like the endless tracks of deep space. If Helena wasn’t careful, his gaze would swallow her up, deposit her there, and leave her in that frozen embrace for good.
But Helena clearly had no idea what was going on. She pushed to her feet now, smoothing her hand down her skirt as she crumpled her lips into a smile. “It’s just a little harmless fun, that’s all.”
“Harmless… fun,” Tyler said. His voice was dead. It was a surprise his lips didn’t wither up and fall off his face. As for his gaze?
Jeanette twisted her head around and stared at it fully, even as he continued to hold her wrist in a light grip.
… She’d been wrong about Tyler, hadn’t she? She kept questioning why he was doing this, wondering if this was just a ploy for him to get to the top. It wasn’t. This was revenge. You see, Jeanette had seen that look too many times. Every single night she’d dragged herself back to her loft, it had been there, plastered over her face. And every morning whenever she’d dragged herself into her bathroom, she’d seen it in the mirror.
Very few people could ever match that look – unless they’d lost something significant, just like her.
… And just like Tyler.
He tightened his grip around her wrist, but only momentarily. Then finally he let her go.
She could be unkind to herself and say this was somewhat like the hunter loosening the leash of their dog. But she was too mesmerized by the way he continued to stare at Helena.
Helena, on the other hand, just chuckled, grabbed her hair, pulled it over her shoulder, and dragged her nails through it. “Don’t worry, I can share with you. That was always the plan. When I had enough power, you and I—”
“How many humans have you killed, Helena?” There wasn’t a single note of warmth or light in his voice. Jeanette had said it was dead before. It went beyond that. It was pure frigging lifelessness.
Helena didn’t notice. She smiled again. “Why—”
Helena shrugged. “It’s got to be around 300, I suppose. It can be more, of course. If I have someone like you on board,” she whispered as her gaze darted endearingly up and down him, “there’ll be no limit to how much cattle we can wrangle.”
“They are humans,” he muttered so quietly, even Jeanette had to lean in to pick it up.
“Sorry?” Confusion crumpled Helena’s brow.
“The people you are ruthlessly murdering are humans, not cattle. Even if they were cattle, they wouldn’t deserve this. Nobody does.”
Helena’s lips twitched. Then, for the first time, doubt fluttered up into her pretty eyes.
“These people don’t deserve what you did to them, Helena. Someone needs to stop you.”
She laughed. It was teetering, high, and utterly confused. “You’re a Solomon—”
“Don’t you tell me what I am or what I’m not. Now, draw.” He reached behind him, and he opened his pocket.
Jeanette realized it was time to fight, so she did the same.
She did not pull out a level 50 blade. Though part of her wanted to hide the fact she had a drunken dagger – the rest… the rest of her just wanted to help Tyler.
She wasn’t even doing this for that skeleton in the cage anymore. It was for him and that dead damn look in his eyes.
Jeanette gripped her drunken dagger and pulled it out. It was just as Jason lurched to his feet. “What—” his eyes virtually exploded as he saw the dagger. “How the hell did she get that? What’s going—”
Helena threw out her hand. She might be simpering most of the time, but she still had a functioning head on her shoulders. Alarm pulsed through her eyes. Then she narrowed them. “You’re not here to join me, are you, Tyler? God, you’re just like your damn mother.”
Tyler’s jaw could’ve ricocheted off. So much tension pulsed through it, it was a surprise she didn’t hear it like trees cracking in a forest. “You do not have the permission to speak about my mother.”
“She learned her lesson. Maybe you need to learn yours, too.” Helena reached behind her, opened her subspace pocket, and pulled out a level 300 weapon.
Helena was strong, but she shouldn’t have power like that.
“Draw, you idiot,” she snapped at Jason.
“She’s got a drunken dagger—”
“Tyler would’ve given it to her. She’ll be a pushover. You take her. I’ll take the Solomon.”
With that, she jerked forward toward Tyler.
Tyler shouldered Jeanette out of the way.
It was a heavy blow, and though Jeanette was certainly a lot better than she’d been when she’d been half dead, she wasn’t fighting fit.
Tyler didn’t care. The fight was on.
He lurched to the side, twisting quickly, almost beautifully. He had fine control of his form, and it was something that Helena lacked. She twisted her own sword to the side, but Tyler was much quicker.
And so was Jason.
He was covered in power from whatever spell he’d been casting. It made him far more powerful than he’d been back when they’d fought in his room.
Jeanette might have a drunken dagger, but long before she could use it, he shoved his hand backward and pulled out two level 300 weapons.
Two of them. Where… where the hell were they coming from?
Jeanette spluttered, and Jason enjoyed every single moment.
All that excess magic around him pulsed into the weapons. It made them even more powerful, so powerful… they could probably rival her own dagger.
One week at Broadside had ripped up everything Jeanette thought she knew about the talisman world.
It hadn’t yet given her a new foundation to stand on, and that was the point.
Jason pulsed to the side then rammed both of his daggers down into the floor. It sent magic rippling through the stones. It smashed up into Jeanette’s feet, and though she tried to remain standing, she couldn’t. She fell harshly to the side.
And Jason capitalized on the move. He let go of one of his daggers. Despite the fact they weren’t drunken daggers, they still reacted like them. His dagger spun around and came at her from behind. Jeanette twisted, but she couldn’t escape.
So she had to let go of her own dagger. It jerked up, fanned around her, then smashed into Jason’s blade. It parried the blow just in time, but it was so close to Jeanette’s face that a sea of sparks scattered over her cheeks and eyes.
She blinked back ferociously, but it gave Jason the time to reach her from behind. He twisted his dagger around.
And as he moved, she heard the power rushing off him. Once more she detected that thump, thump, thump of a heart.
And she felt the call of an ancient vampire.
It was a horrifying experience, and if Jeanette hadn’t felt it before, it would have soldered her to the spot, but something pushed her to the side just at the last moment. Maybe it was Tyler’s terrified gaze drilling into the back of her neck, or maybe it was just Jeanette’s own damn intuition.
It saved her – by half a centimeter. As one of Jason’s blades sliced past Jeanette’s face, she thought she recognized the magic crackling over it. It was the same ancient vampire that George had tried to awaken.
Crap, the guy was out there reaching out to the students.
Jeanette had experienced his power before, but she hadn’t bothered to fill in the fact that somebody with that kind of force did not just give up when you made one of their familiars forget.
Of course he’d managed to contact other vamps.
And of course he’d be at the heart of the darkest things going on at Broadside.
Jeanette was only partially aware of Tyler’s fight with Helena. You’d think, considering Tyler’s power, it would be over already, but every single time he delivered a significant blow, she healed. As did her weapons. His drunken dagger slashed through her sword, but then crackles of magic sank into it from somewhere, and they fixed it right in front of him.
Jeanette and Tyler might be able to win on paper, but not while Helena was busy quickly rewriting the rules.
“Come here,” Jason roared.
Jeanette tried to twist. She went through every single weapon she had in her pocket, wondering which one would help, but then he somehow moved in front of her. She didn’t see the moment that he flipped, and he sure as heck didn’t run. But he was behind her, then he was in front of her, and he was slashing the dagger down.
Tyler himself had fixed Jeanette’s injury, but not completely. She’d still need to recuperate for a while. And she certainly didn’t want to reopen the injury again. Jason had other plans.
Jeanette tried to stop him, but her fingers slipped and fumbled over his dagger. Then the blade plunged right in.
For the second time in however many hours, Jeanette faced the horror of being stabbed in the stomach.
It wasn’t just her horror to face this time. She heard Tyler give a yell like he meant it, like he cared. “Jeanette,”
“Who’s Jeanette?” Helena snarled. “You have no idea what kind of trouble you will get in when the rest of the vampire community finds out you’ve fallen into your mother’s footsteps,” she hissed.
Jeanette twisted her head. It was just in time to see that Helena did the same thing. She somehow changed direction without transporting or using magic. At first she was beside Tyler, then she was in front of him. She stabbed her own sword down.
Jeanette had never signed up to save the world. That wasn’t what her revenge was about. Hell, in the past, she could have taken on bigger vampires, but she never really had. Because that’s not what it had been about. To do that, she would’ve had to sacrifice more. But by going after the small vampires and low-hanging fruit, she’d managed to convince herself she was doing something, and that had kept her alive.
But had it changed the world? No.
Tyler, on the other hand, had offered her to reach for something higher.
Now he was going to die, and so would she.
The blade sliced in. She felt the moment it reopened her wound and added to the crippling damage.
Then she saw Jason’s sneering face.
Hell, she wondered if she could see the future playing out in his eyes. This would just embolden him further. Soon nothing would be able to stop him from churning through the witches and wizards of Broadside.
Every human in Horton Vale. Then? The rest of the country. Monsters like that didn’t stop. Not on their own. You had to stop them.
Sometimes it takes blood, sometimes it takes sweat. Sometimes?
It takes something you didn’t even know you had.
Years ago, when Jeanette had been safe in the embrace of her family, she’d found she had a talent for talismans.
Maybe it was jealousy over that talent that had ultimately seen her family die, but the talent remained.
It had been the only thing to keep her warm and safe in these intervening years.
And now, as her heart lurched at the almost fatal injury to her stomach, again, it was the only thing to keep her company.
Tyler couldn’t do it. Nor could Kate. No one and nothing else could rise to Jeanette’s defense now.
Her talent for talismans and her power to wield them wasn’t some external force. It wasn’t something she had to beg for and clutch at. It was part of her, the very basis of her magic, the heart of her power, if you will.
But she’d never explored that heart before. She’d used it, and she’d enjoyed every single powerful moment.
But had she ever understood it?
Professor Campbell had foolishly said that talismans connected you back to the very beginning of magic. Jeanette doubted that, but could they connect her back to the beginning of her own magic?
Jeanette had already said that magic was order to nature’s chaos. But it didn’t just bring order to nature, did it? It imposed structure on the chaos of the mind, the ego, too.
Every time Jeanette had thought that she was slipping back, that she couldn’t survive in this wretched world, her talismans had been there to pull her through. They’d given her the structure and strength to rebuild her life.
And now they could give her that structure once more.
Her talismans were no mere tools. They were an extension of her better dreams and hopes.
For what are better dreams and hopes than a structure for your future? One you must fill with all your might.
Jason’s leering face pressed closer as he shoved the dagger further in. Jeanette should feel the damage spreading. His magic should reach her heart. And he should be able to stop it in a single second, his ferocious force borne on the wings of the ancient vampire’s power.
But something rose up in Jeanette, and it stopped him.
She connected to her talismans like she never had before.
She opened up to them and realized the dreams that they carried were so much greater than the life she currently led.
If she wanted to live in those dreams, she had to let them carry her through.
Jason went to shove the dagger in the last centimeter, but he couldn’t.
He’d already cut Jeanette’s drunken dagger out of the air, and it lay at her feet, the spell half snapped.
Now it shuddered once.
As far as Jeanette understood, talismans were magical objects from different periods of history. Maybe they were swords that had belonged to powerful wizards or staffs or orbs. But they weren’t a part of you. And they simply couldn’t be an extension of the soul.
But they could be. And they would become so for Jeanette.
Tyler screamed. She couldn’t see him anymore, but the exact anguished quality of his shout meant that he’d just been stabbed, too.
Helena shrieked in joy. She crowed like someone who’d gotten everything they wanted, and it would be the prelude to her getting more.
Unless Jeanette could rise up and stop her.
Unless Jeanette’s dreams could be greater.
As her mind half shut down on the edge of death, every lesson she’d ever learned about magic was thrown out the door. Instead, she was forced to face the bleeding, pulsing heart of her power.
So she closed her eyes. And she faced it.
Jason screamed. Helena laughed, and Jeanette… Jeanette reached out to her talismans in a way she never had before. She accepted them as a part of herself, as an extension of her mind, and each one as a step to a new tomorrow.
Tomorrow isn’t just built in your actions. Nor is it simply built on the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Tomorrow is built in the unique energy of our own minds.
And what is magic but that ability that connects our minds to the world beyond?
Just as Tyler screamed Jeanette’s name once more, she grabbed hold of her drunken dagger.
She wielded it. Like it had always wished to be wielded.
It sliced past her shoulder and stabbed into Jason’s arm. It wrenched him back just before he could deal his fatal blow.
He fell to Jeanette’s feet with a floor-shaking thump. From somewhere, from deep within the school, Jeanette heard a shriek like no other. It was the ancient vampire realizing it had been defeated once more.
“What the—” Helena began.
Jeanette fell to her knees. She opened her eyes. She was so injured that she should just black out, but she didn’t and she couldn’t.
She opened her hand, and she let her future spill into the drunken dagger. She let it wield her hopes. She twisted it around just as Jason tried to get to his feet.
But as he wielded one of his level 300 daggers, Jeanette’s blade cut right through it.
Helena jerked back. “You… no way—”
Jeanette never got to find out what Helena would say next.
Jason used his last level 300 dagger.
He jerked in front of Helena.
It didn’t count.
Jeanette cut right through his weapon.
Then she cut him down. That wasn’t to say that she detached his head or stabbed him through the heart. No. At the last moment, her dagger spun, and it struck him over the back of the skull with the hilt.
Jeanette reached Helena.
Horror continued to plaster her eyes wide open, but it quickly turned into leering hatred. “No matter who you think you are, you can’t defeat me. No one can.” She opened her arms wide, and suddenly, three level 300 swords spun out of her pocket.
Jeanette stared at them. Then she glanced past at Tyler. He was sporting a significant stomach wound, and his hand was crumpled over it, but he didn’t seem to care. No. All of his energy was transferred into the proud smile puckering his lips. The smile that was directed right at Jeanette. Then he opened his lips, and he muttered one thing, “You can do it.”
Jeanette had never had anyone in her corner. Sorry, until she’d come to Broadside. Now she had two people who seemed to want her to win.
All three swords spun around Helena as she let out another righteous cry.
Then they sliced forward.
With Jeanette’s drunken dagger, she cut through every one. She couldn’t describe how connected she was to her talismans right now. And the more she attempted to put the experience into words, the more it defied all explanation.
This just… it felt so right, as if Jeanette had been born for it.
Desperation pulsed through Helena’s eyes, and she twisted her already broken swords to the side once more, but with a loud, ringing cry, Jeanette cut through the first one, then the second. Then finally, she reached the third.
Helena dropped down to her knees. “There’s no way you can win against us. We serve him. And he will always give us his power,” she spluttered.
“You’re talking about that ancient vampire, aren’t you?” Jeanette asked as she took one step up to Helena and then stopped, her drunken dagger held before her, now pulsing with so much force, you’d be able to see it from Jupiter. “You can tell that ancient vampire one thing from me,” Jeanette’s voice arced up high, knowing the guy was probably listening in any way, “I’ll come for him, just as he came for me.” With that, Jeanette clicked her fingers, and her drunken dagger spun. It changed direction, and its hilt smashed across Helena’s head. It knocked her out, and she fell.
She would be the first of many.
For several seconds, Jeanette did nothing. She just watched Helena, gaze roving over her still form. Then Tyler pushed to his feet.
Jeanette rushed over and went to loop an arm under his, but he stopped her, one hand on her shoulder, his gaze opening out like flowers right before her face. “You did it,” he muttered.
Either it was his injury or something else, but his voice was lower than she’d ever heard. It made her stomach tingle something crazy. “Yeah, I did it,” she muttered. “But you’re—”
“You’re injured, Jeanette. And I must not let my familiar die.”
There were those words again. My familiar.
They were just as powerful as the grip he used as he slipped his hand down her side and clutched hold of her stomach. She shivered, but she didn’t tear her gaze off him. “What the hell happens now? What do we…?”
“You use your memory orb upon them. Wipe their memories of all of this with my help.”
“But what if that ancient vampire reaches out to them again?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get them out of Broadside.”
“So… it’s over?” She took another step with his help, tilting her head down, staring into his eyes with everything she had.
He slowly faced her. He took several seconds until his lips opened. “No, Jeanette, it’s just beginning.” He reached for her face.
The end of Vampire’s Bargain Book One. There are four books in this series. It is complete, so finish it today. The next book is Vampire’s Bargain Book Two.