Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. Sounded magical, didn't it? Well, sorry to disappoint, but there was nothing pleasant about its emergence. It was the hour that every student attending Crescent Academy dreaded, for the indigo overcast was a curse that'd leave us exposed to ether-eating creatures that roamed the world.
It wasn't even a strong curse. All it'd take to break it was an easy removal spell along with the caster's magical imprint, even if it was just their residue, meaning it didn't matter whether they were living or dead. Seemed simple enough. Except it wasn't. No one knew who cast the curse. It just appeared one night, eight decades ago. The most popular rumor that still haunts the halls of the Academy was that it was a Professor with a vendetta against the students. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing if that was true, even after each faculty member was ruled out upon having their magic compared to its essence. Curses could be fickle and untrustworthy sources, so it'd be helpful if someone did know who cast it. Though I guess if the enchanter was eaten by an ether-eater, it wouldn't matter anyway. Their remains would never be recovered, and the curse would last for eternity.
Some might be thinking; make a new school that isn't cursed then. Gee, wouldn't that be an idea!? First off, wise-ass, creating an academy made of magic wasn't as easy as it sounded. It took nearly a decade of dedicated work by half a dozen of the most talented enchanters to form this one. Secondly, the curse was worldwide. I knew this because students come from all over the globe to attend here and confirmed it. So no matter where we went, we wouldn't be safe from it. The enchanter who cast the curse was smart in that regard.
Terrestrial mortals thought nothing of the fluffy mauve clouds, finding them beautiful and mesmerizing, completely oblivious of their true purpose. While to us, it represented our doom.
How'd we manage to keep our world's existence a secret from terrestrials? Easy. We avoided them or used cloaking spells. As for ether-eaters, they weren't usually a threat to terrestrials since they lacked the main ingredient, and they weren't visible to them either, as their spectral appearance could only be seen by those who were also supernatural. But they still lived among them, hiding in the shadows or crawling through the gutters, biding their time until some unsuspecting enchanter walked by to snatch up and be their next tasty meal. Unfortunately, there were those rare occasions when a terrestrial happened to cross their path and get in the way of them satisfying their insatiable hunger, and they wouldn't hesitate to ruthlessly kill them.
If that sounded like a great plot for a horror movie, just wait, it gets better.
Even though these ether-eaters preyed on all supernaturals, mature enchanters weren't their primary dish to forage for. Instead, they opted for adolescents since we were just coming into our magic, and therefore didn't have a grasp on how to protect ourselves just yet.
An ignorant terrestrial would ask; Then why not stay under the protection of the mature enchanters? And I'd have to then explain that that wasn't logical. They'd spend all their resources protecting us all day, every day, exhausting themselves and becoming vulnerable in the process. Not to mention, they'd be scrambling for time to teach us all the various self-defense spells because of the diverse types of ether-eaters there were. A combustion spell would have zero effect on those that were slimy, ghostly, or rock solid in form. At least here at the Academy, we were protected by an enchantment that'd prevent them from reaching us twenty-three hours out of the day. It was just that one lousy hour we'd be fighting for our lives, thanks to those cursed clouds, and therefore our odds of survival were greater. Speaking of which...
I glanced over at the wall clock to check the time. As if on cue, the alarm blared, signaling the end of class, and warning every student we had fifteen minutes to barricade ourselves in a room and pray we'd make it through the hour. But I found that blindly trusting in faith to keep me safe wasn't working for me. Not after my fifth day into my first year, when a weak yet still as deadly ether-eater found me, along with three other freshmen locked inside our chemistry class. I made it out. The other three weren't as lucky. What worked for me the past three-ish years was using combative spells, or invoking a restless spirit to lure them away or distract them, and I was always armed with an enchanted weapon of some kind. My favorites were chem bombs that had a reliable success rate on most kinds of ether-eaters.
Was it strange that we had lectures that ran until the middle of the night? Not in Crescent Academy. We had to work around the curse, and since we were up fighting for our lives in the dead of night, we couldn't very well have classes in the morning. Instead, our schedules went like this; midnight came and we'd try to stay alive for an hour until the clouds disappeared and any ether-eater left inside would instantly disintegrate. After, we'd congregate in the cafeteria to exchange our near-death encounters while we had our dinners, studied, then went to bed, woke up, and started lessons mid-afternoon until the cycle repeated all over again. It was stick with the program or get left behind. No one got accommodations here. It was a privilege to even attend.
At the sound of my name, I turned and slowed my pace, and other students muttered under their breath in their displeasure at having to walk around me. A person waving drew my attention, and I saw that it was my strongest ally, Nicolette, or Lette if you're on friendly enough terms with her. We were close enough that I could use her nickname, but I wouldn't exactly call us friends. Here, at Crescent Academy, people knew better than to attach themselves to one another. Besides the chance you might not see each other again after midnight, survival came before all else. A friend could stab you in the back just to steal a spell book, or, for a more likely reason, to take all your protection charms that warded off ether-eaters. So even though Lette and I had been allies for the past three years and never had any bad blood, I still didn't fully trust her. To be fair, I didn't trust anyone in this place, and I was sure she felt the same. But as long as there was common ground between us, there was no reason to end what we had, especially since there was safety in numbers, which we needed to survive this place.
As she neared, I resumed my walk and she quickly fell into step beside me. "I overheard Daevon say he's planning on sabotaging us again tonight," Lette said, and peered over at me to catch my expression.
"He could try and fail again," I responded blandly, and she grinned. Like every other school in existence, we also had peer animosity. Though our version tended to be more malicious and deadly, as if the monsters trying to eat us weren't already troublesome enough. Daevon happened to be my one-sided nemesis. I say one-sided because I had no interest in quarreling with him. It wasn't worth my energy. But apparently, I was worth his, so I had to constantly find ways to protect myself.
"Here, I took this from him." She held out a single strand of white-blonde hair. "I know it's not ideal, but can your specialty still get a read on it?"
Every enchanter had a specialty that manifested by the time we turned sixteen and mine was clairvoyance. It wasn't like I could see straight into the future. But if I touched an object, I'd get a reading that'd benefit me in some way, sometimes with things I didn't even realize I needed. Another convenient part of my gift was sometimes items would find me just so they could feed me information. Though it was hard to discern whether a penny would be in my path just because someone dropped it, or because it was trying to warn me of a spell gone wrong and on the loose. It was a strange specialty, but it made me invaluable.
With a scrunched nose, I take the hair from her. "Yeah, but this is so gross."
"Better gross than dead," she countered, and I nodded in assent.
Without slowing my steps, I pushed a very small kernel of magic into the hair, coaxing it to give me information. It responded in eagerness, wanting to enlighten me with whatever juicy material it had, and whispers started around me before a translucent scene came into view. No one could see what it shared with me, not unless I wanted them to. But no one knew that because I didn't want people to demand that I let them in on whatever piece of tidbit I'd be receiving. Quite often I'd have someone come to me requesting that I tell them what hex was placed on their pencils to make the only word that they'd write be "idiot", or what enchantment was making their shampoo turn their hair green, and sometimes the items would warn me that their owners didn't have my best interests in heart and to stay clear of them. So I didn't want them to know that their own objects were snitching on them.
The transparent episode showed Daevon and his four posse members in a circle around a small bag in some type of ritual. I identified their spell as a scent-marking spell that'd lure ether-eaters.
I smirked as the image dissipated and dropped Daevon's hair like it was contaminated, but not before thanking it for its service. "Got it. They enchanted a little black velvety bag with a delicious ether-flavored aroma. So we'll need to search the room for it when we get there," I tell Lette and she scowls.
"The audacity. He goes so far out of his way to hassle us when you're the one that found the room and you have a key," she muttered as we descended the steps on our way to our coveted hidden chamber.
That was exactly why he hated me, that and the fact our families had been rivals for the past three generations. His quest to destroy me started last year when he heard about my specialty. He showed me a key his great-grandfather had given him and asked me to find out what it went to because he wasn't given any instructions on how to use it- just that it was important. The key turned out to be one of six needed to open an encrypted hidden room located beneath Crescent Academy's largest building. Nothing but those keys could open it. The room didn't show up on any blueprints, and after some digging, Lette and I found that was because it was formed by the six magnificent enchanters who created the academy three centuries ago and used it for a secret organization.
Lette's specialty was configuration, and similar to my specialty, anything regarding design and building would make themselves known to her, though her spatial awareness wasn't as visually in-depth as my clairvoyance. Still, together we made a powerful duo.
The key also shared with me, that I possessed one of its siblings, as did Lette, which was stashed somewhere in her room with other "useless belongings" that were passed down to her. I never told her that bit, though. While some would say that's wrong, as I previously mentioned, I didn't fully trust her, especially not with access to the safest room in the Academy. She'd likely turn on me, and with her configuration specialty, I couldn't risk her finding a way to change the composition of the door, ensuring no other key but hers could unlock that room. Feelings of guilt and self-recrimination were things I couldn't afford to experience here. I already rationed my once-in-a-blue-moon kindness to being hospitable by allowing her and a few others sanctuary in my half of the room every night.
Yes, my half. I couldn't bar Daevon and his friends from entering since he had a key. Nor could I prevent him from claiming dominion over half of it. Fortunately, the room was decently sized, only occupied by receding shelves containing rare collections of enchanter books and six smaller rooms in the back, each one only accessible by the key specific to it. Unfortunately, his people quickly pieced together that there were four more keys in existence, and word spread as they scrambled to figure out where they were. The chamber wasn't much of a "secret" after that. Though I was the only person who knew where the other keys were, and I'd take that knowledge to the grave since it was information that could get me killed if anyone ever found out.
We'd yet to learn why the founding enchanters made those individual strongrooms. My best guess was that, although they formed a secret organization together, they didn't trust each other and added the rooms in case one of the others ever turned on them. It seemed the most plausible theory, since they're better protected than a powerful enchanter's family crypt.
"You know how this place is," I replied. "Especially when someone feels they've been deceived." Because that's exactly what Daevon thinks. He believes I tricked him and stole the information from his key for myself. His claim was partially valid, though not the part where I'm a swindler. But what rational person wouldn't take that crucial bit of life-saving intelligence to protect themselves from ether-eaters? Especially when they also had a key to gain access.
Lette gave a grunt of agreement as we took the final step, and turned right down the long, dimly-lit hallway leading to the hidden chamber. Gathered just outside were our other three companions waiting for us.
Rebecca was the first to spot us, and she sighed loudly in relief, her breath stirring strands of red hair framing her pale face. "Thank the stars, I was starting to get nervous."
Both Liam and Nick looked up at the same time in our direction, also wearing relieved expressions. I get it. They couldn't get into the room without me, and I kept the key on me at all times, even while I slept. One can never be too careful.
As I neared them, I grabbed the chain from around my neck and gently pulled the key out from where I always had it tucked into my breastplate. No, no, that wasn't a typo. I proudly wore a silver breastplate over my school uniform every day. I happened upon it when I visited the Academy's Vault my sophomore year, which was similar to a lost and found, and only opened once during the winter solstice for students to withdraw from- at a cost. If anyone was wondering where the unclaimed belongings of deceased students went, well, there's the answer. They end up in the Vault.
We could only take five items a year, and since my specialty had just manifested, I chose things confirmed to be of genuine value, even though the price was hefty. Only Lette knew about my clairvoyance at the time, and I offered to help her decide which objects to grab for herself. Though she did thoroughly inspect them afterward to make sure I didn't mislead her. I wouldn't expect anything less.
The breastplate once belonged to a rare forger specialist. She designed the metal to withstand anything, even some of the deadliest spells known to enchanters. It saved my life more times than I can count in the past year, and the people who once ridiculed me for it all wished they had one now.
I brought the old key up to the plain wall, and we all watched in awed silence as it transformed into a giant, wrought-iron door. "We need to hurry and search our side of the chambers," I said as I quickly unlocked the door and rushed inside.
Nick groaned. "Let me guess, Daevon left us another gift? You know, you're quite a liability. I'm beginning to wonder if allying with you was a mistake."
Lette cut him a look. "If you think your chances at surviving are better elsewhere, then leave, no one's stopping you."
He glared at her but made no other comments regarding the matter.
"So what are we looking for?" Rebecca asked as we scurried over to the back right corner where my room was located.
"A small, black velvety bag," I answered tonelessly, giving her question half my attention as I scanned a bookshelf. My only saving grace was that Daevon couldn't access my room to ambush us. The doors were enchanted to reject anything but their keys signature. Although I commend him for his tireless efforts and resourcefulness in finding other methods to get at us. He'd make a great ally, if only he didn't see me as his enemy.
"Found it," Liam announced bitterly and held the palm-sized bag for all of us to see.
"Is that what you saw in the reading?" Lette asked, leering at the bag like it greatly offended her.
"Yep," I confirmed, glaring at it too. "That's it."
"Were there any more or just the one?" Nick demanded and went back to scanning his shelf before I could reply.
I rolled my eyes. "Relax. There was just one."
"Cool, soooo how do we dispose of it?" Rebecca asked, then gave it a quick sniff and crinkled her nose in disgust. "Oh, yuck. Do we really smell like that?"
Liam and Nick smelled it, too, then made farting jokes and broke out into laughter. Boys. I snapped my fingers at them. "Hello!? Can we focus?"
"Oh, right. I say we return their gift to them," Nick suggested with vengeance replacing his mischief, and Liam nodded in agreement.
Lette snatched the bag from Liam's hand. "No, idiots. If this does lure ether-eaters then we won't be any safer from them locked down here with that bag only a couple yards away."
"Then we should burn it," Rebecca said encouragingly.
It was really hard not to gawk at her for making such a ridiculous request. "If we burn it then the smoke will spread and lead the salivating ether-eaters straight down here."
"Oh," she said, and looked at the bag again.
"Then what do you want to do with it?" Liam asked and checked his watch. "We only have five minutes left, and if the ether-eaters break down the door because we couldn't get rid of it in time, I'm feeding you to them first and getting the hell out of here."
I gave him an unamused expression.
"Here's an idea."
We all turned, finding Daevon leaning against the doorframe of his room with his arms crossed, his friends all behind him. "Go somewhere else and fight for your lives like the rest of the unfortunate students here."
I glared at him. "Your pettiness is getting tiresome, Daevon. Besides, you don't own this chamber. I have a key, too."
His eyes darkened unsettlingly. "Do you though, Marsser? For all anyone knows, you could've learned that key's whereabouts from mine." Well, he wasn't wrong. Though it led me straight to my ancestral safe where each generation stashed their valuables while attending here. I left the other keys alone because there are consequences for abusing specialties. It might stop working or worse, backfire on me and give me false information.
"If that were true, then I'd know where all the keys were, and I'd have not just one but five rooms to hide in," I responded, and gave myself a mental pat on the back for dowsing any suspicion he or anyone else might've had about that possibility.
He opened his mouth, probably to make yet another false claim affronting my character, when alarms blared again, forestalling whatever he was about to say. The uncanny siren signaled we only had a minute left until the cursed clouds arrived.
Dread built up inside me and I threw Daevon another icy glare that he instantly returned before slipping inside his room, leaving us to deal with the odorous ether-scented bag. Gah! What a jerk.
I quickly unlocked the door to my room and threw it open before holding out my hand to Lette. "Give it to me."
Her eyes bulged out of her head. "Are you nuts? We have less than a minute!"
"Better hurry then," I said, and held her gaze as I waited her out. It didn't take long. She immediately handed me the bag while the others quickly shuffled into the room.
"You better come back before the alarm ends or lord so help me," she said, then followed them in and closed the door behind her.
I took her warning to heart and sprinted out of the room and up the stairs two at a time. Thankfully, my past self took proactive steps to build up my stamina by doing lots of cardio. Physical fitness wasn't a mandatory class at Crescent Academy, but it was a mandatory survival skill. We learned early on that if anyone ever saw someone running down the hall, we should probably turn and run too because chances were, if it wasn't an ether-eater chasing them, then it was probably a hex gone rogue, or a spell no one wanted to get in the crosshairs of.
I made it through the stairwell and out of the building in record time and checked the clock tower to see I had twenty seconds left. I chucked the bag as hard as I could before turning on my heel to get back inside. But when I reached the door, the handle wouldn't budge.
My heart vaulted into my throat. I yanked on it harder. Nothing. Crap. I quickly said an opening spell, only to feel my magic get sucked by whatever enchantment was sealing the door shut. No!
Gripping the handle, I used my specialty to get a read on whatever spell was cast. I couldn't even be mad. Who could blame someone for taking such desperate measures to survive the ether-eaters? Not everyone was as lucky as me or Daevon to have a cozy room that did a damn good job of keeping the starving monsters out. If there was more space, I'd try to fit everyone down there. But the max capacity for the strongrooms was six (they weren't originally designed to be bunkers), and the chamber itself wasn't completely ether-eater-proof either. The ones that could take vapor or liquid form would still be able to creep their way in.
A sheer scene unraveled in front of me and my jaw dropped in horror as I watched Daevon's companion, Aurora, invoke a spell explicitly meant for the door to bar me from entering once I passed through it while he stood by and watched. That prick! Now I knew why my spell didn't work. Aurora's specialty was absorbent, so when someone's magic touched her spells, it'd feed it, making it stronger, unless you happened to have a charmed token or a specialty that opposed hers. And as luck would have it, I was out in that department.
My hands clenched tightly, but I was too furious to feel my nails biting into my palms. He went too far this time. Tampering with the hidden chamber was one thing. But obstructing me from getting inside the safest building on campus was all kinds of messed up. How'd he even know I'd come out here? The answer didn't really matter. He wanted to make me his enemy, and he officially succeeded.
The jarring alarm suddenly stopped, returning my thoughts to the present, and everything grew deadly quiet as the world delineated the approaching chaos. I swallowed and began frantically searching for a place to hide. My eyes caught on a thick vine running up the side of the building and hope filled me. I scaled it in haste and checked the second-story window to make sure Aurora's incantation didn't reach it. It didn't. Ha!
I didn't even bother using an opening spell and just shattered the glass. A few surprised screams came from within the room, indicating there were students hiding in there, probably freshmen. Thunder sounded overhead, and I peered up to see the violet clouds rolling in. I didn't waste another second and climbed inside, though the breastplate wasn't designed with functionality in mind, so I fell unceremoniously.
I righted myself and repaired the broken glass. As soon as the last shard settled into place, movement drew my attention to find the first few ether-eaters racing across campus.
Panic gripped my stomach, and I rapidly enchanted the windows to withstand anything that matched a level-five hurricane. Once finished, I went to turn but paused as I suddenly remembered the ether-scented bag and waited to see how they'd react. But the first one ran passed it. Then another, and another. Not once slowing their steps, or sniffing the air. They didn't even spare it a glance. At first, I was confused, until a thought occurred to me... There was no spell on it. Daevon just made me believe there was to get me outside.
I wanted to laugh at how foolish I'd been. I should've accounted for the fact that Daevon's specialty was alteration, meaning he could influence someone's enchantment, a writing assignment, or in this case, another specialty. He wanted Lette to take his hair so he could tweak whatever I'd see to fit his agenda. How crafty of him. He was like a walking, talking curse, and as I previously stated, curses were fickle and unreliable sources. To add insult to injury, his condescending words to fight for my life like the rest of the students came back to mock me.
I was seething as I stormed over to the closet and tore open the door, nearly ripping it off its hinges. The freshmen yelped in alarm, but I didn't have the patience to coddle them. "If you want to live do everything I say."
The seconds that ticked by felt like the countdown to an explosion. My gut twisted sickeningly at the idea I had to rely on eleven measly freshmen to have my back when the room swarmed with ether-eaters. Honestly, we'd likely die before the hour was up.
The door to the classroom rattled violently as the first ether-eater hit it, sending a chill down my spine. I nearly wept in relief that the freshmen didn't make any sounds. Cries were like a beacon to them.
I watched from where I hid in a floor hatch as the ether-eater took the form of black sludge and wormed under the door. I was shocked none of the freshmen knew of its existence and told them there was one in every classroom. If we survived the night, hopefully that knowledge would help them in the future.
A pungent odor hit me, and I nearly gagged in revulsion. The smell indicated that this ether-eater was rotting from the lack of nutrition. Some students would make the mistake of thinking that meant it wasn't as dangerous as a well-fed one. But if I'd learned anything in the three years I'd been here, its that its desperation for sustenance makes it all the more deadly.
Several other ravenous ether-eaters banged on the door, and eventually, from all the weight of their combined forces, it caved in. My eyes widened in alarm at the growing number that trickled in. There was no way any of us were making it out alive.
The first ether-eater slid over my hiding place. Then more joined it, and I braced myself for the bloodshed that was about to unfold. Only the strangest thing happened. They sniffed the air, and made a noise that sounded like disappointment, then fled the room in a hurry. What the-?
Before I had a chance to make sense of what had just happened, someone hiccupped and my whole body stiffened with bone-numbing terror. The rotting ether-eater that was nearly out the door turned, and I knew it was about to give its shrill call of victory that'd certainly notify others of its find. I quietly threw open the hatch and used my hands to sign out a spell that turned it into stone. Then did another to finish it off, and it gradually decayed, flaking as it crumbled into dust.
The next forty-five minutes went by surprisingly smoothly- for us, at least. I couldn't say the same for those whose deafening screams echoed through the corridor. For some odd reason, no more ether-eaters entered the room, aside from minor ones desperately looking for scraps, which between the twelve of us, took minimal effort to extinguish.
"Thank you for helping us," a tiny girl said to me after the alarm that signaled the danger had passed faded. Others expressed their gratitude as well.
"Sure," I responded, my sullen mood bleeding into my tone. I hated receiving their praise for something I'd done nothing to earn. They thought I did something to repel the ether-eaters, but I hadn't, not directly anyway. Though there was a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind of what might've been the cause.
I went out into the quad and picked up the little velvety bag, coaxing it to award me with insight. The image that appeared was unexpected, and I stared at the apparition of Daevon in confusion. "Hello, Marsser. We need to talk," was all he said before vanishing with the wind.
About the Creator
I never believed the sky is the limit, therefore my passions are expansive. My interest in writing stemmed from poetry but my heart lead me to Sci-Fi Fantasy. Consequently, my stories are plot-driven with splashes of evocative elements.
This is suspenseful, creepy, and really well written. Great job.
This is solid world building with quite a few interesting ideas sparking up to keep a full novel moving along briskly. The adversarial nature of Mars' world is kind of refreshing too. The specialty idea is a really good plot device that you've already used to keep your reader interested. The ether-eaters are suitably creepy too. The longer form of this story gives you the room you need to let your descriptive abilities shine. Really like it Brin; I'd read more of this novel for sure!