By Nicole Walsh
“If she’s screaming like that, she’s being eaten.”
“You don’t know that, Marten.”
Marten Grimshadow gave Sally Siren a glare across his knee. Grimshadow’s tall angular body was folded into a remarkably small position in the cramped staircase. Sally was crouched on the filthy concrete steps like she was about to leap up and do something. She wouldn’t. With her bad knee, she’d be lucky to get up at all.
Moments ago I’d been having a sneaky smoke in the servant’s staircase, enjoying the mould, dust and insect crap. The next moment, all three faculty members had come charging into the cramped staircase, all but jumping into my lap.
“You address me as Master Grimshadow,” Grimshadow said. “We agreed. Callie?” He looked at me plaintively.
“We have more pressing issues, Marten,” I said. “Do I need to remind you that poor little Missy is our only student? That we are unlikely to get another if this one is eaten?”
“We don’t know she’s eaten,” Scrim said. Harold Scrim was a frail pot-bellied man with long pallid fingers that lifted and moved ceaselessly, like long white worms.
“Did anyone see what happened?” I asked.
Sally scuffed a hand across her shaved, scarred scalp.
“The child started screaming,” she said. “Then Marten screamed. Then everyone nearly knocked me over stampeding in here.”
“You are supposed to serve as security,” Grimshadow said.
“Security? It came out of your spell-room.”
“From one of his books.” Grimshadow glared at Scrim.
“Wait, what? This is…” I patted about for my fob-watch. “This is third period. Missy is in your class, Marten?”
“He makes her cry,” Sally smirked.
“Once! That was once…”
“Gentleman, lady, please,” I winced. “We need to keep our voices down.”
Everyone checked the stairway door just below us. Since none of us had a bone of handy in our bodies, the water-swollen door didn’t close correctly. I had tacked a handwritten ‘staff only’ sign on the door. Whilst that slowed down a curious twelve-year-old, it was unlikely to deter ravening beasts. That thought got me twitchy. Were we really equipped to chase student-eating monsters out of our school?
I drew in a deep, steadying breath.
“Alright,” I said. “Sally, what did you see?”
“These two idiots running down the hall.”
“I ran because Grimshadow was running,” Scrim said.
“Near knocked me over,” Sally grumbled.
“Let’s circle back.” I twirled a finger in the air. “Missy was in your class Marten, studying wards?”
“Ah, no.” Grimshadow’s long, pallid face scrunched into a wince. “The child was sniffling. I let her catch her breath by doing homework this one set.”
“I thought we agreed no homework?” I frowned. “Wasn’t that what was making her cry last week?”
“Homework was to review what we covered in class.” Scrim’s fingers were doing their weird dance, lifting and falling against ragged, potion-grotty robes.
There was a pause as we processed this.
“Missy was reading a poison book?” I said. “Then she started screaming hysterically?”
A second awkward silence descended.
“She was supposed to be supervised…” Sally squeaked.
“Supervised for Warding 101!” Grimshadow flashed back.
“Shhh,” I hissed. “Listen. It’s too quiet.”
All four of us considered the silence beyond the mould-blackened servant stairway.
“She probably hasn’t been eaten,” Grimshadow said.
“One of Grimshadow’s wards probably misfired.”
“Do not start…!”
“Lady and gentlemen,” I hissed. “Need I remind you our last hope of a comfortable retirement is screaming out its last out there?”
“Comfortable?” Grimshadow and Sally glared. “Do you call this comfortable, Callie?”
“Retirement?” Scrim whined. “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life…”
I cut glares between my colleagues.
“We have a roof over our heads, walls to our backs and our own rooms. That’s more than any of us had two months ago.”
I glared at each in turn, willing each of them to remember the stakes. We were poor and desperate, down to our last sticky coin. For antisocial and introverted Scrim to inherit his uncle’s house, he needed to be running a licensed business. Grimshadow had trained dozens of students, all of whom were willing to provide references. Sally had made quite a name for herself as a battle-mage tutor before surrendering to drink. I might be burned magic-less, but I was the only one who had seen the inside of a functioning Academy.
We had one single, female, almost magicless student. If Missy was dead, we were in big trouble.
“She’s too young,” Sally hissed. “Sixteen, I said. Twelve is far too young.”
“She’s female,” Grimshadow scowled. “I don’t know how to teach female students.”
I held up my hand to stall Sally’s murderous growl.
“We can’t stay in here,” I pointed out.
I watched them consider it. The old school was a dusty, filthy mess, but we were all appreciating having our own rooms.
“Someone needs to check,” Scrim agreed.
“The battle-mage,” Grimshadow decided.
“It’s your classroom.”
“It was his book that poisoned her.”
“Callie’s in charge.”
They all looked at me.
“I can’t cast any spells,” I pointed out, then realised the argument was about to whirl around in another circle, probably louder and more likely to attract the attention of whatever monster, rogue spell or creeping poison had taken out Missy.
I flailed a hand, scrubbing the argument out of the air: “We all go.”
“It’s pointless all of us dying,” Scrim whined.
“We agreed to do this together. As a team. Remember?” Everyone winced and squirmed and avoided eye-contact. We had spent a long painful day creating mission statements, terms of reference and value statements on the back of serviettes at the pub.
I pushed to my feet, helping Sally up. Sally and I had worked together for years, back when we were slim and young and kick-ass. I did not feel particularly kick-ass any more. I scrubbed sweaty hands on my trousers, feeling dusty and utterly unprepared for what lay outside this stairway.
“Coming,” he huffed. “If you get eaten this whole plan falls into a steaming pile of slop, Callie. No one else understands that thing with all the boxes.”
“KPIs?” I frowned. “Compliance? The audit?”
“The thing we have to do each semester.” Scrim twirled one damp, appalling finger.
“Ridiculous concept,” Grimshadow huffed. “I taught the most powerful dark-masters in all the ‘verse with nary a…”
“Can’t even teach a twelve year old girl,” Sally muttered, unquietly.
Grimshadow whipped around. I grabbed his skinny elbow before it took out my eye.
“Grimshadow, please. If you would go first.”
“What if she’s in pieces?” he winced.
“Her brain may have exploded,” Scrim warned. “Too much water on a woman’s brain.”
“How the Hells do you think I do battle-magic?” Sally hissed.
“Do you do battle-magic?” Grimshadow grumbled. “All I’ve seen is…”
“Stop!” My voice was a whiplash of authority. “We move together. We protect one another. Right?”
“Right,” Grimshadow sighed. “If it comes at me…”
“I’ll kill it,” Sally agreed. “No one screams or runs.”
“I did not scream. That was Missy.”
I nudged Grimshadow out ahead of me. In moments we were on dusty carpets, in a dusty hall. Since this wing of the ‘school’ wasn’t very big, it took an unfortunately brief period of time creeping in slow motion down dark hallways before we were at the door to Grimshadow’s classroom.
My heart hammered. I had to fight the urge to pluck at the back of Grimshadow’s robes as we inched around the doorway. We froze in unison as spotted Missy at her desk in the front row, reading a book.
“Brain turned to dust,” Scrim breathed.
“Shh.” Sally shoved past Grimshadow and stalked into the room. “Girl? Missy? Are you okay?”
Missy, a plain, watery girl with a soft round face, looked up in confusion. “Yes miss.”
“You were screaming.” Sally checked the room cautiously. “A spell?”
“N-no miss. A mouse.”
“A mouse, miss.”
Grimshadow stalked in with a crack of black robes. “A what? Where?”
“A magical mouse?” Scrim checked the floor nervously.
“Just a mouse, sir.”
“You were jumping about beating at your clothes and tearing at your hair…” Grimshadow frowned.
“It was scary, sir.”
I took charge: “Where is it now?”
“A trap spell?” Sally froze.
“No miss.” Missy paused awkwardly. “The book, miss. Sorry, Master Scrim.”
Scrim’s gaze dipped to the floor. His pretentiously heavy and ornate family tome lay, ominously tilted. I clapped my hand to my mouth, appalled.
“You…?” I squeaked.
“Was that a test miss?” Missy looked between us curiously. “As to what I would do, in a crisis?”
We floundered an awkward moment.
“Yes,” Sally decided. “Self-defence is an essential part of all magical work.”
“Proactive action in a crisis,” Grimshadow agreed, checking to see if his books were unmolested.
“That’s…” Scrim blinked his watery eyes, fingers fluctuating. “Very violent.”
I gave him a glare as the girl’s eyes flooded with tears.
“You did good, Missy,” I said.
“Did I?” she wobbled. “It’s scary out here alone.”
“Yes, well. We needed to see what you would do. In a crisis.”
“Well.” Missy studied the tilted book thoughtfully. “There’s no point running and hiding, is there miss?”
“No,” I agreed. “No, there is not.”
The other three nodded at me encouragingly. I am pretty good at speeches. I straightened my shoulders and firmed my voice: “We need to meet challenges head on, Missy. Step to the fore. Right, Sally?”
“Correct,” Sally agreed, arms folded, hip as cocked as it would get. “You were very brave.”
“Did you put the mouse here deliberately, miss? Is it fake?” Missy lent over in the chair, reaching down to check.
I quickly motioned at her not to. “It was… a valuable test, Missy.”
“Is the spider a test too, miss?”
“The, er, what?”
“The spider.” Missy pointed.
Grimshadow screeched. Sally’s spell smashed through the spider, the wall and most of the classroom beyond.
There was an awkward pause.
“Wasn’t that warded?” Sally winced.
“The blackboard?” Grimshadow yelped.
Scrim raised fingers oscillated as various bottles next door popped and fizzed.
“Yes,” I said, very calmly. “That was a test too, Missy. After lunch you will write an essay proposing three important life lessons demonstrated today.”
“Yes miss.” Missy looked intrigued. “Thank you, Mistress Callous.”
I nodded sagely.
“Our pleasure, Missy. Perhaps, er…”
Grimshadow raised his arms in a sinister way, pausing to glare at each empty seat in turn. The shadows behind him darkened.
“Class dismissed,” he rasped.
Missy shivered. “You’re scary, sir.”
“Thank you, Missy.”
About the author: Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy that spans from a little bit dark, a little bit amusing through to a little bit steamy. Visit Nicole at: https://nicolewalshauthor.com/ and www.facebook.com/nicolewalshauthor
This post has already been read 378 times!