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I stared at the dead body as everyone else stared at me. It laid on the grass, broken and pale.
“I’m going to ask you this again,” a beefy Magical Law Enforcement guard growled, glaring at me as if he wanted nothing more than to rip my head off. “Did you have anything to do with the attack tonight?”
My head swiveled from side to side, taking it all in. The night was still dark, but dawn was beginning to turn the horizon gray. It had to be after five AM, yet everyone was out of bed. Students stood on the lawn, shivering and holding themselves and each other. The Academy buildings appeared as sharp black outlines against the morphing sky. The crowd was silent, a mass of terrified faces glancing between the line of officers and me.
Disha stood at my side, clutching my arm like a lifeline. Her face was also twisted with fear. She hadn’t been at the battle. She didn’t know I had been there and had watched that teacher’s death. Her name was Professor Hernandez and she had been alive earlier this evening, fighting an unwinnable battle. Now her lifeless body lay on the lawn like a piece of trash. She’d been a senior-level magical herbs teacher and now she was dead.
I knew who killed her, and he was standing beside the line of mean-looking officers.
Or, rather, Dean Nyquist, head of our university and vile murderer.
The old dean stepped forward, holding a hand out as if to bring calm to the situation. I stared at his arthritic hand, remembering how he had placed it on Professor Hernandez’s chest as she stayed frozen in time. Nyquist had absorbed Anama’s Looper power--or whatever it was he did with the poor people he kept in his magical dreamscape prison. Then, glowing red with the stolen skill, he’d used it to kill one teacher and maim another. I’d heard the other victim was in the infirmary in critical condition.
We might have two dead teachers by the time this night was through, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst was Nyquist was going to get away with it.
Anyone who opposed him—Lynssa McIntosh, Yuri Fedorov, the subversives—had magicked themselves to Turkey. I took solace in knowing they were safe, unlike me, who now stood ten feet from a madman.
“Well?” the Magical Law Enforcement asked.
“I… I had nothing to do with any of this,” I lied.
“Then where were you?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you come out when we raised the alarm? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, doing my best to fill my voice with outrage as I held the guard’s gaze.
Nyquist peered at me now with soft, wavering eyes as the wind tugged thin strands of hair across his bald spot.
“Charlie, it’s alright,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen to you. Just, please, tell these men the truth. I’ll do everything I can to help you if you’ve done something…” He trailed off, his voice catching. His concern was a show for the crowd around us. Only I knew the truth.
If he sprouted fake tears, I might lose it.
I glanced from him to the line of men who stood ready to take me down at the slightest provocation. Magical Law Enforcement--or M.L.E. for short--did not play around. They were rough and quick to blame. If I got on the wrong side of those steroid-swollen arms, I’d be in trouble.
“I’m telling the truth. I don’t know anything about what you’re saying. Disha just woke me up. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately… with exams coming up. I gave myself a sleeping potion.” I shrugged one shoulder, trying to look convincing.
Disha jumped in. “It’s true. She was sound asleep when I got to her room. I knocked a bunch before she answered and when she did, she was super groggy. I swear.” She held her trembling hand up in the proximity of a Girl Scout salute.
The M.L.E. officer narrowed his eyes. “Check her for remnants of a sleeping potion.” He nodded at one of his colleagues. A man who looked like a poorly dressed Silvester Stallone advanced on me then grabbed my arm. I stiffened, hating the feeling of his touch on my bicep as he ran his free hand over my body, only inches from my skin. Dressed in a light tank top and shorts, I felt exposed as everyone watched him scan me. Magic streamed from his fingers and zapped my chest in short pulses as he used some sort of incantation to discern whether or not I was telling the truth.
“Is that really necessary?” Bridget stepped through the crowd. Although she was wearing a frilly, pink Victorian-era nightgown, her posture let me know she was about ten seconds away from trying to fight off a dozen officers by herself.
I opened my mouth to answer, but the officer scanning my chest answered first. “She’s telling the truth. There’s sleeping potion in her bloodstream.”
Lynssa McIntosh was clever. Even though I was royally pissed at her for faking her own death and not telling me about it, I had to hand it to her. Having me swig the smallest amount of sleeping potion before I left Turkey had worked swimmingly.
Or so I thought.
“It could still be a lie,” the head Magical Law Enforcement officer said. “From what I hear, she’s a known liar who consorts with criminals. Let’s take her to the station for further tests.” He advanced on me, cold hatred in his eyes. He was the same guard from the night Bonnie and Rowan had arrived on campus and tripped the alarm. The same guard who seemed to have it out for me. I wondered what he’d heard. Either way, it wasn’t looking good.
I took a step back, glancing from side to side at escape routes. Twelve men, with magic tingling at their fingertips, blocked my path. And worse, the regents and teachers who had fought with Nyquist stood around the edges. No one would let me out of here unless it was in a body bag.
“That’s not needed, Sergeant Fetzner. I can vouch for Charlie. She’s telling the truth.” Nyquist smiled at me, his grandfatherly act in full swing. He had been at the battle and knew I wasn’t there. At least, that’s what he thought since Fedorov had cleverly disguised me.
I smiled back, hating every second of it. Being Lynssa’s spy was going to be harder than I thought.
Now that he had everyone’s attention, Nyquist positioned himself in the center of the crowd. Waving his hands, he commanded a dirt mound to rise beneath him until he was six feet above us. Witch lights began to glow around him as he pressed two fingers to his throat to activate the voice projection spell.
“Everyone gather ‘round, please. I need to address the crowd.”
When he was sure he had everyone’s attention, he continued. “I know that many of you are frightened. What happened tonight was… horrendous. Terrible. It was the realization of our worst fears.”
You’ve got that right, you sadistic prick.
He went on with conviction. “Tonight, one of our own has died,” he turned sad eyes on Professor Hernandez as an M.L.E. officer put a sheet over her body, “and another has been gravely injured. I blame myself. I should have seen this coming.
“For too long, we have allowed a group of renegades to roam free, terrorizing our precious school and turning this place of learning into a war zone. That ends tonight. Tomorrow, I will give law enforcement carte blanche to track down the people responsible for tonight’s atrocities. Fear not, they will be brought to justice.”
A whoop went up from the crowd and several students and teachers applauded. Cruise Knightley did a fist bump with one of his braindead, stoner sidekicks. Did they have any idea what they were cheering for? Idiots. Lambs to the slaughter.
Nyquist continued. “Along with this subversive group and some faculty members turned traitors, fae warriors also attacked. Our brave men and women fought them off, but I am afraid peace between us and the fairy folk is over.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. Nyquist had abducted Anama and put Sinasre in a magically induced coma. The fae warriors had arrived solely to rescue their people, yet he made it sound like they’d attacked unprovoked. Just another lie in an avalanche of them. I felt like I was drowning in deceit.
“This school’s main goal is to keep you, students, safe and we have failed. Previous administrations have not only allowed unlawful acts to occur, but they have also colluded with the very people who sought to destroy us. I hate to tell you this, but Counselor McIntosh, Dean Bonnie Underwood, Nurse Taishi, Professor Fedorov, and others fought alongside criminals, murderers, and thieves to take us down.”
The crowd gasped. Murmurs arose as students stared around with shock on their faces. Quickly, I realized that I too should be shocked rather than enraged. Covering my face with my hands, I curled into Disha, grabbed her arm and whispered into her ear. “Look surprised. Don’t let them see you’re upset.”
She stiffened, but I could see she got it. Her large, tear-filled eyes stared around like she’d never suspected Nyquist. Like we’d never realized he was using Loopers to twist time and the portals to his own agenda. She gulped, pushing messy black hair back from her face, and shook her head. It was convincing. An Academy-Award-winning performance.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for Bridget.
“That’s bullshit,” my red-headed friend shouted, stepping forward and craning her neck to stare up at Dean Nyquist on his perch. “Those teachers are the best, most honorable people here. If they fought you, then maybe it’s you who’s the criminal!”
Anger darkening her features, she jabbed a finger in Nyquist’s direction. She looked as if she might zap him, and it appeared the M.L.E. officers thought so, too, because one of them raced toward her, blurring with a speed spell. Her head snapped to the right as the buzz-cut-wearing man appeared behind her, but she was too late to defend herself. In seconds, she was on the ground, her hands magically pinned behind her back.
“Get off me! Let me go.” Her nightgown bunched as her body whipped back and forth.
Holding her steady by sitting on her legs, the officer put a magicked hand on her back. Bridget stiffened, then jerked as if he’d hit her with a Taser spell.
Oh, no, Bridget! What do I do? I couldn’t rush to her aid without jeopardizing my entire mission and all the people I was supposed to help, but I couldn’t just stand there and watch my friend be roughed up!
Her eyes rolled back in her head as her body seized. I wanted to run, to blast that bastard off her back and make him regret this, but I’d be breaking the promise I swore to the group in Turkey just before I left.
Whatever you do, Lynssa McIntosh had said, don’t let them know you’re with us.
Trapped, I watched the horrible scene unfold with a sob stuck in my throat.
Disha started forward, but I grabbed her hand and held her back as the officer and Bridget both wavered, then disappeared with a pop.
“Where are they taking her?” Disha shouted, unable to help herself.
Dean Nyquist searched the crowd until he spotted Disha and me. “Oh, don’t worry, my dear. I’m sure they are just making sure your friend doesn’t have any connections to the evil people trying to destroy us. As long as she’s innocent, she’ll be back in no time.” He gave her a warm smile. Fake. So fake.
Disha bit her lip but held back, focusing instead on squeezing the hell out of my hand.
Nyquist turned back to his captive audience. “I’m so sorry that happened, students. I’m sorry all of this happened. We will make this right, I promise you. For now, please know that you are safe. The M.L.E. is here. They will protect us. More officers will come later. And we will conduct exams as soon as possible, starting tomorrow, and send all of you home after that. But never fear. Our precious Academy will be back to its previous glory before the next semester starts.”
At this, he clapped his hands together and sparks whizzed into the air. The Academy’s crest—a shield sporting a lion, a key, a book, and a chalice, all circled by the words “Magicae Vincere Tenebras”—appeared in the air. The school fight song began playing, swelling around us.
Apparently, it was infectious or magicked to produce good feelings because several of the students started singing with it. Soon, they were marching back to their dorms, singing at the top of their lungs and putting arms around each other as if nothing had ever happened.
My eyes turned to the dead teacher under the sheet and then to Nyquist.
He watched the procession of students with satisfaction on his ancient features. He had won.
As if he felt me watching, he turned to me, locking eyes. His warm fatherliness had left his features and now he appeared just as he had on the battlefield—vile, power-hungry, and arrogant.
His eyebrows folded down as he continued to lock eyes with me. His expression seemed to say, I know what you did and you’re going to pay.
The question was, did he really? And could I make him pay first?