The moon conceals
While brightly lit
The darkness holds
Just out of sight
In the day
and the night.
They ran as fast as they could, as fast as their combined powers would allow them. And then they managed to get themselves cornered.
“Where in Nei’s name did you take us, Nikki?” one of the women growled, carrying a boy piggy-back.
“Hush, Astra, I know what I’m doing.” Nikki looked up, following the cliff’s face to an astounding height. She didn’t have enough energy to carry them that high, and Astra’s powers were focused on keeping the boy … safe.
“Stay here and keep a light mirage over you and the boy to stay undetected while I scout for another way out. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Before Astra could answer her, Nikki turned into a sparrow and raced away. Astra huffed and did as she was told, waiting as their pursuer approached the dead end.
Small leathery wings cut through the air and a large bat came to a swift stop when it noticed the cliff. It let out a frustrated chirp and, with a dramatic poof, it turned into a man dressed in black clothes fit for a “classic” vampire-fan-turned-vampire. Astra couldn’t help but emit a low growl in the back of her throat at this fool.
He perked and looked around, narrowing his eyes as he searched for the source. He was obviously a fledgling, and a poor student at that. Perhaps she had a chance at something slightly risky …
Bracing herself, she rushed through the mirage she had created and used a little wind magic to push him against the cliff’s face and up, up, up to the top. As she left him fall, he turned into a bat, but she was already racing the way she came, the way Nikki had taken to get help.
“Hold on, kid,” she shouted as she used the last of her strength to create a portal home, stumbling a little as she landed on the other side, catching herself before she fell to the floor.
“Somehow I knew you couldn’t resist.”
Astra looked to her right, where Nikki leaned against the wall, arms crossed, and a face that told Astra she was in trouble.
She offered Nikki a sheepish smile. “Well, he was a fledgling. Really, who sends someone so inexperienced to catch someone like you and me?”
“Can I get down now?” came an apathetic boy’s voice.
Astra set the boy down and they summoned a maid to take him to the nursery.
“Make sure you have someone to watch him at all times,” Nikki told the maid, making sure she understood it was a life-or-death command.
She nodded. “Yes, ma’am. The new arrivals are waiting for you in your office as you requested, mistress.”
Nikki smiled then. “Thank you, I’ll be right with them.” She waited until the maid was gone before shoving Astra into the wall, bracing her hand on Astra’s shoulder.
“Understand, dear little sister, that I freed you, and understand that I can send you back just as easily. Don’t ever disobey my orders again.”
“What were you going to do, dear big sister, hmm? Fly him away to safety on your little sparrow wings? I saved the mission we were so dismally about to fail at the hands of a fledgling, and my thanks is a threat to send me back to that …that place?”
Nikki’s features softened and she released Astra’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I was only worried about you.”
Astra lightly punched Nikki’s shoulder. “Don’t threaten me, then, dummy.”
“Come on, you’ve got things to do, and I have to meet our new students.”
Men and women from every corner of the universe came to Solunaria University to learn how to cope with their abnormalities and strange abilities, and how to blend into their own society. On the surface the four women gathered in Nikki’s office seemed no different, but they were far from the normal paranormal.
Nikki gave them a bright smile, carrying their files as she made her way to her desk. “Good morning, ladies. I trust you all had a restful journey here?”
The youngest-looking spoke first. “What are we even doing here? I received a rather small, vague letter that burst into flames in my hands and wrapped around my neck to form a strange necklace around my own.” She indicated the necklace, which was completely black except for the pendant, which was a strange symbol with a glowing blue substance behind it.
“Same goes for us, sweetie,” the dark-haired one in the corner snarled sweetly. She was the only one not sitting down, with her back to the wall as if something was going to come out and attack her if she didn’t.
“All in due time, girls. First we need to introduce each other,” Nikki said. “I am one of your headmistresses, Nichole Grimm. Unfortunately Astra, my sister, had some things to take care of, so she couldn’t be here today.” She nodded her head to the youngest one. “I think you should go first.”
“Dr. Kyra Schuylar.”
“Human technomage, nineteen, with a rare condition,” Nikki said, reading her file.”You’ve been infected with a viral strain of alien DNA. You’re not the first, but you’re the only one who hasn’t been horribly disfigured and scooped up by the culprit. Who’s next?”
A blond woman sat up straighter. “I am Sabryne Aalekoth.”
“Ah, yes, the luxdraco. Last of your kind, and older than time,” Nikki said. “I am proud to meet you.”
“I am Azreal Zalros,” the white-haired one said. “I am a seraphim, and my age is none of your business,” she said pointedly at Nikki.
“Fair enough,” Nikki said, nodding her head. She looked expectantly at the last one, the dark-haired one, and she rolled her eyes as she stood straight.
“I am Aris Ichibara, a vampire–”
“Just like me,” Astra said, bursting in. “Why hel-lo, girls,” she chirped emphatically.
Nikki sighed. “Have you taken care of everything, Astra?”
“Yes ma’am, and just to meet these lovely ladies. How are you all doing this fine evening?”
“You don’t look like sisters,” Azreal said, eying them both up.
“We’re half-sisters, but that’s not important,” Nikki said. “I’ve gathered you four here to discuss something important. By now you are aware that the amulets do not come off, and that they have concealed your true form.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Azreal asked, tugging on hers.
“You won’t be able to remove your amulet unless the amulet senses that you are ready. Each amulet is unique to the wearer, concealing what the wearer’s home-world would consider strange.”
“You mean freakish, vile, and repulsive,” Aris said bluntly.
Nikki shot Aris a look, but ignored her comment and turned her attention to the others. “I know this situation is strange, and I also understand that you may feel blackmailed or forced into this. To to believe me when I say that this is all for your own good.”
“Didn’t Hitler say something like that at one time?” Aris said, raising her hand.
“Oh, please. I can be far worse than that child,” Nikki said lightly. “Follow me, I’ll show you to the cottage you four will be sharing.”
Nikki and Astra led the girls through a succession of cottages, each with a number. The cabins all had three levels, but they were all slightly different, as if made to order for the occupants inside.
Soon they stopped at a gate leading to one of the cottages. “Here we are,” Nikki called out. “Number 714.”
“We’re going to stay here together?” Sabryne piped up. “With her?” She added, pointing at Aris as if she were a vile thing to be avoided.
“You’re not pleasant company either,” Aris said, rolling her eyes.
“You better get along,” Astra said in a sing-song voice. “After all, you’re going to have to sleep in the same room for the next … well for a long time.”
It was Kyra who pushed forward. “I don’t really care, I just want to get fixed. Is our luggage here yet?”
Nikki nodded. “I had a few extra staff members unpack them for you while I try to find a helper for your cottage. Acquaint yourselves with the cottage in the meantime, get to know one another. Mingle,” she said, almost menacingly.
On Terra, a dark figure skulked through the dimly-lit streets of a small town. Here was the last known location of his target.
A couple drunkenly stumbled down the otherwise empty street and the creature stilled until they had passed.
He found the house, lifted the window, and climbed in. Up the stairs, and to the bedroom, he approached the covers with a net in his hand.
“So sorry, but the master has his orders,” he muttered, throwing the net over.
The figure underneath the covers didn’t move and his heart skipped a beat in fear. If she was dead …
He pulled the covers back and gave out a frustrated, angry shriek at the pillows, tearing them with his claws as he threw a temper tantrum.
“Stupid girl, stupid girl, stupid girl,” he ended on a heavy sob. “Master will surely kill Lesel when he’s found that she gave Lesel the slip.”
He paused when his foot crushed a small paper. No, an envelope. He picked it up and sniffed it, staring at the ripped wax seal on the back.
“What’s this? A clue?” He turned the envelope around to read it. “To Dr. Kyra Schuylar.” He turned it around in his hands again and again. “There’s no address, no nothing … ooh, except the seal. Let’s see …” He forced the ripped seal together to discern what it held. “SU. What on the master’s good name is SU?” The creature perked. “Surely Master would know. If Lesel handed him this, he might not kill Lesel, or might do it painlessly.” He gulped. “I hope.”
When left alone, the girls did explore the cottage, and each found their favored niche. Kyra had found a book detailing technomancy, curling up on a love seat in the living room in front of a cozy fire. On the third floor Aris had found her bed, decorated in her dark colors and with a sword display on the wall, occupied by the magical claymore that never left her hip. Sabryne had found the alchemist’s lab on the second floor, and had acquainted herself with the lab by mixing various poisons, some deadlier than others. Azreal was outside on the balcony, staring up at the stars and thinking about her home and her family.
Nikki sighed and looked up from her scrying bowl. “They’re not mingling.” She pouted. “Why aren’t they mingling?”
“Would you mingle if a couple of strangers pulled you out of your natural habitat? A tiger can’t get along with a mountain lion simply because the zookeepers demand they mingle. What is it with you and mingling, anyway?”
“They’re not animals, Astra. That’s why they should mingle.”
“We’re all animals. The first thing to do is to get them to acknowledge each other. They need a mission. Anything simple, preferably dangerous enough to require a little teamwork.”
After a moment of brainstorming Nikki brightened. “I’ve got just the thing.”
“You have to go to Sekka and retrieve Harei Edai, a boy living at the orphanage in one of those seedy small towns. He’s wanted by several dangerous factions, and your mission is to bring him here so we can keep him safe before they locate him.”
“Missions? We have to go on missions?” Aris said incredulously. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It’s a way to build your powers and to practice concealing them. And it’s a part of your core curriculum,” Nikki added.
“What makes this boy so special?” Sabryne asked.
“An ancient prophecy, of course. I’m not clear on the details since the manuscript was destroyed a long time ago. All that I know is, if he’s in the wrong hands, he will bring about the second era of chaos.”
“Chaos?” Aris scoffed. “Like the end-of-the-world chaos where people break into stores and steal stupid stuff like TV’s and gaming systems?”
“Like the end-of-the-world chaos that everyone lives through, a literal hell on Terra,” Azreal said.
“Worse,” Astra said, something akin to terror crossing her face. “I’ve seen into Keos, home to demons and hellish nightmares, sealed by the white tree and the black tree you saw on your way to the cottage. Armageddon is a peaceful hot-spring getaway.”
Kyra rolled her eyes. “End of the world, Armageddon, Keos … it makes no difference. If we have to keep the peace of the universe, then so be it. Where is this boy?”
“Mafa’s Orphanage in Tilug. Sekka is a small planet just outside this solar system, and Tilug is literally the town with the largest population, so the only landing pad is there.” Nikki raised a key, a rabbit’s foot hanging off it. “We have the ship that can take you there. All you need to do is say your destination, and since we’ve been there, it will take you straight there.”
“So what’s the key for, then?” Sabryne asked with a confused look.
“It won’t start without a key, silly. I think even a dragon should know what a key is for,” Astra giggled.
“Fine. Whatever. Let’s just get going and get this over with,” Aris said, snatching the keys from Nikki and walking out.
“Ugh, this place is a dump,” Aris said, wrinkling her nose as it was assaulted with the stench of gutter filth. “Almost filthier than London.”
“Humans have always been filthy,” Sabryne said.
“Hey,” Kyra protested. “Human here.”
“You don’t count anymore anyway,” Azreal said. “And it still doesn’t change the fact that they’re filthy. Even demons smell better.”
“Sulfur and brimstone smell better?” Kyra paused. “Well, yeah, you’re right there. Never mind.”
“Let’s just find this kid. Hey, you, where’s the orphanage around here?” Aris barked at some innocent local.
He paused, and if he had a shell he’d have hid in it. “T-the orphanage is j-just up the road. Miss,” he added hurriedly. “P-please don’t kill me,” he whimpered.
Aris let out a disgusted sigh and told him to be on his way. She continued onward, and the other three rolled their eyes as they followed.
Mafa’s Orphanage was run-down, and as filthy as the rest of Sekka.
“That poor boy lives here?” Kyra said, covering her nose. The air was particularly foul.
“Well, we’ve come to take him away from all this,” Sabryne said.
“Your optimism is sickening,” Aris said as she headed up the stairs. She shouted for Mafa to come out and show her where Harei Edai was. Of course she said it in her own special way.
An old lady emerged from behind the desk on the first floor, hands on her hips. “Watch your language, young lady. There are children here.”
Aris scoffed at the word “young.” “We came here for just one.”
“I know. I heard you outside,” the woman said, disapprovingly looking over her shoddy glasses. “I don’t let strange couples, or quadruples for that matter, adopt my children.”
“That’s biased. And disgusting,” Azreal said. “Besides, we’re adopting him with this.” She produced a small pouch, opening it to show the specks of silver. Metal was rare on Sekka and only imported for a small fortune.
The old woman’s demeanor instantly changed. “Welcome to my humble abode, ladies. Please have a seat and I will get Harei.”
While they waited, politely refusing to sit in the ratty chairs, Sabryne spoke. “Amazing how fast her attitude changed when we waved silver dust at her.”
“I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her,” Aris said, still staring at the door the woman had disappeared behind.
“Don’t you mean you trust her as far as you can throw her?” Kyra asked.
Aris shot her an irritated sneer. “I’m a vampire. I can send double-decker busses into orbit, so I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her … which is a long way,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a child.
“Don’t you mean you trust her as far as you can throw her?” Kyra asked.
Aris gave her a look. “I’m a vampire. I can send double-decker buses into orbit, so I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her … which is a long way,” Aris said slowly, as if speaking to a slow child.
Kyra picked up on Aris’s attitude and growled low in her throat. “I’m not a child.”
“You’re nineteen, which to me is nine days. You’re just a human barely in her adulthood hanging out with beings who have lived at least two millennia.”
Before Kyra could retort, the old woman burst through the door, daggers in hand, followed by ten other people wearing robes with hoods all brandishing little ceremonial daggers.
“P-please … spare me,” the old woman whimpered.
Aris had her by the neck, furious and bloodthirsty after each of the robed figures turned out to be mere feeble magic marionettes.
“Where is the boy?” she growled, sword tip readied at the woman’s belly.
“I-in the back. We left him by the back door.”
Azreal went in to check, and came out shaking her head. “He’s gone.”
Aris made a move to shove the tip in, but the woman let out a horrendous wail. “Stop, please, I don’t want to die.”
Aris turned, her irises glowing crimson with her mounting anger. “What?”
“She’s just a pawn,” Astra said, stepping forward. “This was supposed to be a simple exercise in teamwork, but it seems we were too carefree with our security.”
Nikki stepped in after. “There was a hidden sect on Sekka that I found too late. They’ve taken Harei to their ‘secret underground hideout.’ Behind the only waterfall on Sekka,” Nikki added.
Aris lunged at Nikki, but a sharp burst of air and a bright light sent her straight into the wall and her eyes turned back to normal as she slid to the floor, stunned.
“Now that you’re a little more sensible, I need you to find him. I don’t mean to order you around like this, but he really is important.”
“You’ve already deceived us,” Kyra said. “How do we know this isn’t another pseudo scenario?”
“Do you really have the option to question it?” Nikki retorted, eyebrow cocked.
“Ugh, okay. We’ll go and rescue him, but if this turns out to be another joke …” Aris threatened.
Astra laughed then. “You think you’re so bad, little one.”
“I’m not little,” Aris growled.
“To me you are,” Astra said with a wink and a giggle before she left, Nikki following her.
Aris rushed after them, but they had already disappeared. “Witches,” she mumbled. “The both of them.”
“They are,” Azreal said.
“Think about it,” Aris snapped before heading out. “Are any of you coming or what?”
Azreal took a moment, and then her mouth opened. “Aris, that’s positively atrocious.”
The waterfall wasn’t water. That much the girls knew. They weren’t sure if it was polluted or if the waterfall was pollution, but none of them were excited about going through it.
“Can we just forget the boy?” Aris said, blanching at the stench.
Sabryne walked to the edge of the waterfall, put her hands together and slowly parted them. The waterfall split to allow an archway, and the girls carefully walked through, the split closing behind them.
They crept down a long, jagged cave, and Aris motioned for them to stop just before reaching a cavern where several men in robes stood around a boy.
“So … what now?” asked one of the men.
The boy looked at him, expressionless. “You stole me. You should know.”
“Boss, I’m not even sure this is the right one.”
“Of course he is, you idiot.” The man reached down and lifted the boy’s shirt up to reveal a small mark circling his belly button. “The ancient words circle in a Celtic knot.”
“Good job,” the boy said. “Now all you need to do is read it, and only the chosen one can read it.”
The man threw the boy’s shirt down in disgust. “Who is the chosen one?”
“It’s in the manuscript. Haven’t you read it?” the boy asked, as if that were the most practical thing to do and it hadn’t disintegrated eons ago.
A man pulled out his dagger, aiming at the boy. “We should just kill ‘im if we can’t do what we want.”
The man rolled his eyes. “For the fifth time, we’re not going to kill him. Killing him would accomplish nothing.”
“We’re not doing anything anyway,” the man said, hopeful.
Aris came out, and the other three followed. “If you don’t hand over the boy, the only one who’s going to do the killing is me.”
The men lunged at her, and they fought. Every man disappeared in a poof of black smoke, like earlier, and when the last man was vanquished, Aris let out a frustrated roar.
“What does it take to kill someone real around here?”
Nikki and Astra emerged from the tunnel, both beaming.
“Congratulations, girls. You passed your initiation exam. Welcome to Solunaria University.”
“You mean this was all a test?” Aris said. “You’re lucky I don’t run the both of you through.”
“You’d be lucky if you succeeded,” Astra said sweetly, although it was saccharine.
Aris lunged at Astra, and Astra grabbed Aris’s blade. It was a magical blade, able to cut through dragon scales like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t even nick Astra’s skin.
“You’re out of your league, little girl,” Astra whispered.
“Astra,” Nikki said sharply.
Astra let the blade go, shoving it away from her. Aris sheathed her sword.
“I want to continue doing what I was doing before I got that accursed note,” Aris said.
“And what was that, hm? Training, abstaining from blood, toughening your vampiric senses? You already decided to leave your betrayer alive to live his pitiful existence.”
“How do you know all this?”
Nikki crossed her arms. “You’ll find out soon enough. My amulets won’t let you leave until you learn to take them off, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
“So we leave all our friends and family behind?” Kyra asked.
“Those who have been left behind have been notified. Come, we need to file reports on the mission’s events.”
The girls followed, albeit reluctantly. What would happen to them?
* * *
The girls sighed in relief as they finally finished their separate reports, all sitting in the booth next to the floor-to-ceiling multipaned window, recessed to keep the room spacious.
“I’ve always hated paperwork, but not as much as I do now,” Kyra said, rubbing her eyes from the strain.
Astra and Nikki joined them, and Astra collected the reports.
“Today was a test, and it wasn’t about passing or failing, it was about assessing your ability to work as a team.”
“If today was a test, why do we even have to do paperwork?” Aris complained, giving Nikki an intimidating look.
Nikki gave Aris her sweetest smile. “You came in the middle of a quarter, so these are your first graded papers. Be up bright and early, girls. You have classes first thing in the morning.”