I felt the sting of tears rolling down my cheeks. I tried to quickly rub them away, but they were falling at a speed too fast for my hands to handle. I dropped to the floor, and blood now covered my knees.
My mother was pale; there was no pink in her cheeks, no subtle movements of her ribs. Her eyes were still wide, her jaw relaxed. I gently grazed her eyes closed; her eyelids now damp from the teardrops that had adhered themselves to my fingertips.
I sat there for a moment, motionless, forgetting to breathe at times. I stood up, clamoring through the hallway, shuffling into walls as I walked. I swung the door open, and I didn’t take care to close it before luanching into a full sprint, not paying attention to where I was going; not caring. I screamed into the starless night sky, into nothing. I was utterly mad at the world.
Three weeks prior.
“Ashlem~!” Noma called my name as she ran toward me. “Only eight days until Breakwood!” She squealed, wrapping her arm around my shoulders. “You know I was doubtful you would even get accepted; you’re barely level 2.” She joked and poked at my ribs. “But I’m glad you did. I'm not the most social being."
"More social than me, and my core is not ‘barely level 2’, it is level 2, thank you very much,” I chuckled, a little weighed down by Noma hanging off of me.
“Level 1, level 2; who cares? I am just happy my mom let me go. She is way too protective, but when I told her you were going, it’s as if the sun had shown on her face.” In the middle of laughing about her vexatious mother, Noma abruptly stopped and turned around.
“What is it?” I asked. I turned around also, but slower than she did—wary.
“Slugs who have somehow crawled up from the sewers that they call home sweet home.” Noma was staring down the first sons of both the Ardwich and Harding houses.
“You’ve always had a way with words, Ladybug.” Smyth Ardwich turned his head and grinned at his equally horrible friend, Aldwin Harding.
“Don’t. Call me that.” She glared at the two boys in front of us.
“Oh, come on baby, don’t be like that, and why are you hanging out with commoner scum like Ashlame over here, huh? We are so much better than he is, we promise.” Aldwin winked at Noma. Now I was getting mad.
“Hey, why don’t you guys go bully some other kids around here, huh? I would hate to see all of your time wasted on commoner scum such as myself.” I stepped in front of Noma, who was fuming. I could almost make out actual smoke coming from her ears.
“Step aside, twig, you’re not worthy of her.” Smyth walked toward us, corralling us back into an alleyway between two stores. “Haha, look how scared they are, Aldwin.” Smyth pushed me onto the ground, laughing. Smyth’s grossly wide grin had finally pushed me over the edge when someone appeared behind the two dickheads who have been terrorizing people for entertainment ever since they crawled out of their mothers’ wombs.
“Hey! Get away from them!” The dark shadow, which I couldn’t quite discern, called out, producing a small but menacing mana ball.
“Let’s get out of here.” One of the fiends whispered under his breath.
“Hey, are you okay?” Aaron Goldlock, a well-known sophomore that was currently studying at Breakwood Academy. He was also a genius who was an A rank mage and had a Blue mystique core at the age of 17, but I wasn’t keeping track or anything.
He gave me his hand and pulled me up, and I might’ve lingered a little too long, since when I looked over at Noma she was grinning, crazily.
After Aaron said his goodbyes, Noma went frantic. “Oh. My. God. Is there a serious bromance budding there? ” Noma giggled.
“What in the world are you talking about? He was just worried, that’s all.” I brushed it off, while also brushing off dirt from my clothes.
“Sure, sure, you keep telling yourself that.” She winked at me, running out the alleyway that we were caged in, and onto the sunlit sidewalk. I followed her, at an even jaunt. Noma stood there basking in the sun, like she had been locked in an attic for her entire life.
“Come on, weirdo.” I chuckled, hooking my arm through the nook of her elbow. “Oh, hey. Can I come to your house tonight? My mom is working late again.” I asked while walking through the markets of Cerara, the town my mom and I lived, which just so happened to be the closest town to Sempal Castle, where Noma lived.
“Oh, sure. You know I don’t even know why you guys moved out, you're always at our house anyway. Ooh, look at this.” She answered, noticing something behind me. She dashed over to a scepter-like object resting on a half-rotten wooden post of a dark market stall. I walked over to her, noticing the merchant was a little strange. They resembled a hunchback or one of those close-ins you would always hear about. They were dressed in dark, almost black brown rags, with a dark hood that concealed their entire face.
“That’s not for sale.” The merchant said, still not looking up from his hood. He then kind of moved his head in my direction. “But you. You can have it when you’re ready, I will find you.” His voice was creaky, breaking every couple of words.
“Okay.” I nodded, slightly perplexed. Let's get out of here, Noma said quietly, hoping the old man wouldn't overhear, and I nodded, taking her hand in mine as she reached for me. Then she ran, laughing. I didn’t know where we were going, but I didn't need to.
“Oh my god, that was so weird. ‘I will find you’, do you think he actually will? I mean when will you be ready?” Noma asked, a little bit out of breath, but still grinning. We stopped running as we hit the back wall of the markets, the only way to get out was through the market again or through a narrow alleyway between two townhomes. Noma and I frequented the markets a lot, to look at the variety of goods Cerara had to offer; so, I knew the lay of the land.
“I have no idea.” I chuckled back, looking up at the sky. “Hey, it's getting dark, let’s call a carriage and get out of here." Noma nodded, also looking up into the sky. We walked through the alleyway onto the less bustling sidewalk we were once on and called a carriage.
The carriage ride was uneventful, mostly us making small talk, and me looking out at the scenery. Even though I have lived in Cerara my whole life, I could never get over its beauty; its variety of foliage and fauna, and its vast meadows and fields. It wasn’t long until we reached Noma’s house, if you could call it that, and I could never get over its beauty either. Sempal Castle; huge, wondrous, and all over fantastical. “You have seen it so many times, actually you’ve lived in it, so why in the world do you always stand there gawking?” Noma looked at me seriously, furiously trying to conceal a grin.
“Because it has always been gawk worthy.” I smiled wickedly and wiggled my eyebrows. Earning me a chortle from Noma.
“Noma Marie!” Noma’s mother, Margarey, called out, quickly flittering down grand–but somehow modest for such a stately house–stone stairs that lead up to the front door. “It’s been such a long time since you were home!” She hugged her daughter. “Oh, and don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you.” She reached out for me, enveloping both me and Noma in a group hug.
“Okay, okay, mom. I was literally home yesterday.” Noma contradicted, pushing away from her mother’s grasp.
“Yeah, I know, but I still missed you Ladybug,” Margarey said while reaching for Noma, giving her a final squeeze.
“Ugh, don’t call me that. Some ‘people’ started making fun of me for it.” I could tell Noma was exhausted by today's events. I finally squirmed my way out of Margarey’s grip, waving goodbye while Noma and I walked into the castle. More like Noma dragged me into the castle. She grunted and grumbled the entire time. I was still grinning at Margarey, waving goodbye.
Nixie, Noma’s younger sister, ran up to us when we entered the castle. She wrapped her arms around my ankles. “Let go of him, Nix. All it’s going to do is make it harder for him to go upstairs.” Noma scolded, already over everything. Nix let go of my legs, looking like a sad little puppy. “Come on Ash, let’s go upstairs.” Noma, once again, dragged me upstairs and I waved goodbye to Nixie. Nixie ran to her brother, Nathaniel, as he entered the room from the kitchen. The double acting door swinging back and forth.
I stopped waving when Nathan scowled at me, he never liked me, and he made sure I knew. His bloodlust was so thick someone could’ve cut it with a knife. I felt like I was lying below him, helpless. Nathan was one of Sempal's Blades, an elite group of mages who protected each kingdom, along with Feyra, but she was nicer.
“Hey! Cut that out, you’re going to make him pass out!” Noma shouted at her twin brother. Nixie punched Nathan’s knees and he released me. I unclenched my left hand from the banister which I hadn’t even noticed I was clenching. I wriggled my other hand out of Noma’s fists, massaging my sore palms. Noma moved past me down the stairs, marching up to Nathan, punching his chest. “Well good job, douchebag.” They were in a glaring match for a few seconds, then Noma came back to me, ushering and pushing me up to her room.
“God.” Noma huffed, falling onto her bed, her arms stretched up, making her fingertips lightly graze the dark purple accent wall of her room. “My family is so freaking annoying.” I stayed standing, looking at all of her books. She had quite a good selection. Noma turned on her Ashbark television–a type of wood that can be magically enchanted to show all sorts of things–that sat on a low-lying bookshelf.
"Kallan Midweadow, a Breakwood Academy professor, died tonight. Cause of death is still unknown, but it is most likely from a six-inch blade that stabbed into the victim’s chest.” A reporter on the screen states, cold and unattached.
Noma sat up looking at the TV. Then at me with her eyebrows knitted together. “Maybe we shouldn’t go after all.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. We both worked hard to get into Breakwood, and I am not allowing any of us to quit because some psycho is killing people.” I plopped on the bed, one of Noma’s books in hand. “Okay?” I asked. Noma nodded, laying her head on my shoulder.
“Okay. But still, it’s weird, who would kill a teacher?” She inquires, taking the book from my grasp. “And don’t steal this, it’s one of my favorites.” Noma grazed her fingertips over the golden, projected lettering on the spine of the novel. “Kremashura; my mom used to read it to me every night when I was younger.” Noma grinned.
“Really? It’s a little crass.” I took the book as Noma offered it to me. “I promise I won’t steal it.” Noma sighed, content. I looked over at her, and she was fast asleep, even snoring a bit. “Good night, Noma,” I whispered, laying her on her bed. I repositioned her so she could sleep vertically and wrapped her in an overly soft blanket. I brushed a piece of stray hair out of her face.
As I was leaving for a guest room, Noma whispered, "Stay." I turned around, rolled my eyes, debated for a moment, then walked over to her. I started to lay on the floor when Noma asked, probably annoyed by my ignorance, “Why are you not getting in the bed?” I looked up at her and chuckled for a moment.
I stood up, looking down at her, and said, “You are going to have to move over if you want me to sleep next to you.” She reluctantly inched herself closer to the wall, making room for me.
I settled into bed, bringing the covers closer to me, and moved the vacant pillows to fit my needs. Noma whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I ask, flipping over so I can see Noma’s face.
“For you feeling responsible for everyone and everything.”
“What do you me–.” Noma was fast asleep before I could finish my sentence. I could hear her soft snores, which coaxed me into a deep slumber myself.
- - -
“As you know, Kallan has been killed, and we must formulate a plan immediately.” I declared, rousing from the round table that filled Breakwood's meeting room. As I stood, my chair moved back, screeching on the cobbled floors of the room. “We have been lucky that we’ve been able to save Breakwood’s reputation–”
One of Breakwood's professors, Barthe, scoffed; he was done with the whole ordeal. "You mean cover up the other murders."
“Yes. But whatever we call it, we still need a plan for this.” I backed up and sat back down, causing the room to be filled with shrill noise as I scooted the chair to the table. “Any ideas?”
“What about we just do what we should’ve done from the beginning and tell the truth?” Marie—who is a very smart mage with potions and alchemy but not so smart when it comes to socializing—mutters, almost whispering, to the group. But she was loud enough for me to hear.
“That would risk some of Breakwood’s beneficiaries to pull out, and most likely some of the students. It could also cause an all-out war on us from Soulrose or Marndock. Thinking that they could overtake us.” I glowered at Marie but stopped mid-stare, knowing that she would likely start crying if I continued. I sighed, “It was a fine idea, Marie; I’m just stressed.” Marie nodded, got up, which caused even more screeching, and bowed. She picked up her money pouch that she carried everywhere with her and frantically left, bowing even more as she did. Her cheeks and nose were a rosy pink. I looked up at the ticking clock, and we were way over time. “The rest of you are also dismissed.” I waved my hand, dismissing my staff. I was rubbing my temples, trying to get over a pounding migraine, when I noticed Barthe still sitting in his seat. It seemed Barthe was debating whether to stay or not. “I do mean all of you.” Barthe tightly closed his eyes, standing up.
“Just don’t be stupid, and remember it’s your night with Trivion.” Barthe stated, his brow line clearly showing. He left me in the room to think. Silence, finally. I exhaled, falling into the nooks of my arms. I had to think of something, anything, that could save the academy, but I couldn’t. I stood up, pacing the oval-shaped room. The dark ruby wallpaper reflected the moon’s light that streamed through the north wall’s window. I walked over to my desk that sat directly under this window, picked up a feathered ink pen, and started writing.
I need your help. I know that you are probably on your way to some resort up in Aspia with your daughter and husband and don't want any distractions. But this is an urgent matter; the academy is in trouble. There have been some murders, and I can’t think of a solution that doesn’t result in the academy’s reputation taking a huge hit. I am pretty sure that my mind is going to implode soon if this doesn’t let up.
Anyway, I need some support, and you know I would only message if this was an emergency. So, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears—or, I guess, eyes.
Your favorite sister, Anastasia