by Serena W. Sorrell

  After the rudimentary introduction of terminology and history Professor Bloomfield went on to illustrate proper line marking and wrote several example sentences on the board. These were copied by every student, some already on their third page of notes. Vera had managed to take up a half page with a cramped style of handwriting she would use a magnifying glass to decipher later.

  The only exception of note taking sat to Vera’s left. The raven haired slop of a boy had not unloaded a textbook or notebook after they’d been dismissed to sit. However, he had procured a ballpoint pen. Black ink lines drawn onto his forearm resembled a leaf’s veins, until Vera realized with mild distaste he was tracing his own veins. She returned to the lesson at hand. After demonstrating the proper method to mark up lines the professor wrote ten erroneous sentences in chalk.

  “You have fifteen minutes to correct these on your paper. I will then call on students at random to stand, dictate the mark up, and recite the corrected line.”

  Vera’s heart plummeted into her stomach at that. At random was bad. At random was almost a certainty she’d be called. And the stresses and breves would most definitely not cooperate on her tongue. That meant attention. Perhaps she could merely announce the corrections; she would receive a black mark for not reciting the line…and she would have to explain. Surely she could control her voice for the entirety of one sentence. Vera corrected the lines as instructed. She would just hope the universe granted her this one mercy. Surely she was due one. The boy beside her at last retrieved a calligrapher’s pen, the sharp steel nib caught the light. For a moment Vera expected at least a smoothed crumpled ball of paper to follow. Surely he would not completely shirk the lesson so brazenly as Bloomfield began to walk the aisles. She stopped here and there to clarify a point or assist a student. Vera’s attention was stolen from the professor at the near inaudible pop of pierced skin to her left. Blood filled the nib and siphoned into the ink chamber of the boy’s pen.

  “What are you—”

  Vera’s words escaped against her will. It had been enough to garner Bloomfield’s immediate attention. The professor climbed the steps. Vera sat in the center of the row, but it was clear to see her desk was outfitted with only a single piece of paper and a pencil. The blooded calligrapher’s pen vanished left the boy’s desk naked.

  “Names.”

  “Vera Blackwyne,” she managed to say it clearly, though she could not bring her eyes to meet the professor’s.

  “Kain.” Came the voice of the distraction.

  “Miss Blackwyne, Mister Wallachia, is there a problem?” The professor’s voice had taken a low tone and waited for further insubordination. “Aside from the utter lack of proper supplies you both demonstrate.”

  “No, Professor Bloomfield.”

  Kain made no reply but only shrugged a little. His share of shame fell upon Vera who felt twice as heated at his complete disregard for manners. The final grain of sand fell and the hourglass chimed.

  “You will both receive two marks a piece. One for the disruption, another for lack of preparation.”

  The professor returned to the podium without another word or glance. Vera was glad for it. When Kain resumed his deliberate cutting with the pen, reappeared, Vera kept her eyes focused on the board and the white words chalked upon its face. She would find a way to anonymously report the incident to the school hospitus so they could proceed with offering Kain help. It was not her place to ask a gentleman of society about his destructive habits. The Wallachia name was not unknown to her, likely there was no one at the whole of the university unfamiliar with the family. The infamy of one’s relatives was a poor excuse for such blatant self‑abuse, but Vera could at least guess at the cause now. It was entirely possible she shared the desire to disappear with the young Wallachia; this revelation did nothing to persuade her to another course of action than the one she had already decided on. And she certainly was not looking to find a kindred spirit, famed or not. She had her own goal; she would not be distracted from it by something as frivolous as friendships.

  “Mister Sephtis Hearne, the first sentence, if you’d be so kind.”

  A boy on the opposite side of the room stood and dictated corrections while Professor Bloomfield copied his directions onto the sentence she’d written.

  “Well done,” Sephtis beamed at the praise, “though do mind your commas and semicolons. Mark their differences.” She changed the overlooked punctuation. Sephtis bowed and sat, enthusiasm drained. “Miss Reagan Prydunne, number two, please.”

  The process repeated and the professor praised here, corrected there. Again and again a name was called. Each time it was not Vera Blackwyne Vera felt lighter, more able to breathe. Vera marked anything she had missed on her paper with something like calm. Some of the students were more animated in the recitations, nearly dancing to the beats. The professor did not discourage it but rather seemed keen that they had made the rhythmic connection. Number nine sat after a half flubbed correction, yet the professor praised them on finding all the spelling errors. Nine had been the most complex sentence by far, even containing a line of Italian. Vera had missed the mistake in the verb ending completely.

  “Miss Vera Blackwyne. Ten, if you—”

  The universe opened the classroom door, staying Vera’s doom. Her heart sank once more. The universe had stopped one doom and presented another. A man walked into the room, long brown jacket buttoned neat over plum cravat and collared shirt. A chocolate brown plait down his back and a swell of hair rested on his brow. His jaw taut as he took in the room with eyebrows raised over hazel eyes. Vera slumped more than was appropriate for a lady, but to no avail. The corners of those hazel eyes wrinkled upon spotting her.

  “Good afternoon Professor Bloomfield. Terribly sorry to step in without calling. I was passing by when I heard some fine recitations, so I’ve come to introduce myself to the freshest minds come to Mount Ovi.” His voice was velveteen and more than a few girls and boys blushed at the luxurious tone.

  “Of course, Headmaster. We are honored to receive you.” Professor Bloomfield was sincere in her welcome, whereas Vera had seen many a teacher abhor such interruptions by their superiors and be reduced to a bumbling mess of nerves. “Perhaps you would like to address the class before we continue?”

  “Thank you.” At her offer the headmaster bowed. Hands clasped behind his back he took to the stage careful not to intrude upon the professor’s podium space. “I am headmaster of the university, Jyvis Eliphas Daresbury. I would like to welcome you to our halls and classrooms; they will become your home for the next four years. No doubt Professor Bloomfield has explained the virtues of her lessons, and I pray you take her words as truth. Every other class you enroll in will build on what you learn under her care. Indeed my own specialty would be useless if not for my own foundation in line reading.

  “Our fine institution has graduated some of the keenest minds and abilities of the past and modern era. This is thanks to our gifted staff, and they are here in turn to bestow their wealth of knowledge to you. To err in Professor Bloomfield’s class is forgivable, to err when it matters most is not,” a look of regret flashed in his eyes; it went unnoticed except by Vera who knew best the source of his pain. “A misplaced comma or misplaced breve or stress can make all the difference in practice. We all know what is at stake; by enrolling here you not only acknowledge that evil but vow to fight against it. It is my greatest hope that during my post as headmaster that we may even solve the Wonderland Formulae.”

  Vera knew what came next before he resumed his speech. Jyvis was terribly predictable.

  “As a practitioner of zodia I rely on the lines just as much as the laws ordained by the stars. If I may demonstrate the capabilities of mastering Professor Bloomfield’s expertise when combined with your own talents.”

  Here he turned to the professor, as though she would deny the headmaster in front of new students. She swept a hand as if to offer him the floor. Headmaster Daresbury bowed with a handsome smile. Jyvis had always been a terrible showoff. Vera had been saved from one humiliation and given another; Jyvis had most certainly been waiting to swoop in and rescue her from creating an incident by creating a spectacle himself. How he had become headmaster of UMO was still something of a marvel to her. Though she knew he was one of the most skilled zodia on the continent, one of the more rare schools, which made him a prime candidate for any high position. Perhaps he wouldn’t dedicate himself to interfering with her life daily if she could prove she was in no danger.

  “Thank you, professor. As I said, I am a zodia; my ability was discerned when I was nineteen, only a year older than most of you here. If you have not discovered your own ability I implore you do not fret. It remains latent in most until they reach twenty. The fact that you are in this classroom means you have passed the inspection of the Soma Board, and so you do carry an ability.

  “My own relies on the rules of the astrological schools, flawless line reading, and impeccable soma control. These three in tandem allow me to navigate the power of the zodiac signs. As my birth sign is a Scorpio my strongest abilities lie in that field and allow me to do my best work with a fellow water sign partner. However, I am able to cross the circle into fire signs if assisted by their tertiary, an earth sign. Professor Bloomfield, if you would choose an adept line reader who falls under an earth sign.”

  The professor glanced down at the attendance sheet of names and personal information in front of her for no more than two seconds, “Dustin Whittling, Taurus.”

  “Very good. Mister Whittling if you would join me here at the front of the room.”

  An ashen smudge of a boy rose, chair screeching. Wordlessly and slowly, like one attending a funeral, Dustin joined the headmaster at the fore of the class. If earth signs were stones Dustin was talc, in its powdered state. He looked as though a strong breeze would scatter every speck of him. Vera pitied the boy; it was obvious Dustin would rather be a part of the stone walls than be standing in front of sixty‑six pairs of curious eyes.

  “Mister Whittling, here is the line you are to recite.”

  On the blackboard the headmaster wrote:
      Rock ember bright shine shine ignite.

  “Earth sign lines follow the pattern of their base, true of each element. Although that has yet to be covered, Mister Whittling, if you would mark the line to your best ability. Professor Bloomfield and I will be at your service to correct any stray errors.”

  Dustin took a piece of chalk. It shook in his grip. Even though he lifted his arm to write his hand was all but ensconced by his overlong sleeve cuffs. He put chalk to board. It wailed at his first stroke, eliciting hisses and groans of pain from his fellow classmates. Dustin corrected the angle of his hand. The back of his neck and ears had gone bright red. He stood so close to the board the line was all but hidden as he marked. At the end he paused, hand still raised.

  “We will be glad to assist—”

  “No thank you, sir. I’m finished.”

  Jyvis faltered only a blink for being interrupted. “Then let us have a look and correct it.”

  Dustin stepped away from the board and stood to the side of the line he had marked:
      ˘Rock, ˘ember  ˘bright,||˘Shine, ˘shine, ig‑ ˘nite.

  “Not a single error. Well done, Mister Whittling,” Professor Bloomfield spoke before Jyvis could process that someone had not needed his help.

  “Yes,” the spell lifted from the headmaster at last, “‘stress, stress, breve, stress|’ is indeed the shape of an earth line. Splendidly performed.” Jyvis thumbed his chin before he turned once more to the professor, “A fire sign student if you please.”

  Professor Bloomfield returned to her roster and called out, “Bedelia Victoria Tenniel.”

  Beside Vera Bedelia’s face flushed, though markedly different than Dustin’s had been. The lady was beaming. She was actually excited to go down there. Vera imagined Jyvis was incentive enough to most young hearts and silently praised Dustin for not wanting to take part in the spectacle. The headmaster extended a hand to Miss Tenniel, who was all too eager to take his offer.

  “While I explain the process to Miss Tenniel, professor will you please rehearse the lines with Mister Whittling until he can recite them with clarity and perfect intonation?”

  At this instruction Professor Bloomfield joined Dustin by the board and they both turned their backs to the class, which at least seemed to give Dustin some escape.

  “Miss Tenniel, if you would consider your fire sign. You strike me as a Leo.”

  “My word! How did you know, sir?”

  It was near frightening how Bedelia had so transformed herself from when she had spoken to Vera and when she spoke to Jyvis. Then again, Jyvis could be charming…when it suited him.

  “As a zodia I am able to discern someone’s sign by a quick touch. And as you took my hand it was all too clear to feel your Leo traits.” Bedelia flushed at the words. “Leo is ruled by the sun, and as such can channel all the power of that great star. Miss Tenniel, tell me, imagining the sun, fire, lions even, what effect would you like to exhibit?”

  Jyvis had scarce finished the question before Bedelia replied. “I want to shine as bright as the sun, blinding and powerful.”

  “Spoken like a true Leo,” Jyvis laughed and Bedelia retreated into an almost shy smile. “To perform this triad of soma cooperation you will give me your dominant hand,” she immediately proffered her right hand as a lady would to receive a kiss, “and Mister Whittling your other.”

  Bedelia frowned at this; Dustin, who had finished his recitation practice, saw her reaction and stiffened. She thrust her left hand at him as though expecting to receive a vaccination and wishing it over quickly. The three of them stood hand in hand, though Jyvis and Dustin would not touch. It would negate the balance of Dustin’s soma if they did and so they stood in a line with Bedelia at the center of the platform, which pleased her. All eyes were on the trio. Except Kain, who still scratched lines of blood into his forearm. The pen’s ink chamber was almost filled. Vera refocused her attentions to Jyvis’s showy performance.

  The lines began. Jyvis’s smooth, deep voice took the lead and Dustin’s joined after the first couplet’s recitation. Dustin’s voice was clear and heel tapped to keep the tempo in his mind though he kept his eyes shut. A good thing too. Hair made of white light seem to sprout from Bedelia’s head. Her skin began to glow, soft at first, then brighter. She was a warm brightness, just bearable to be looked at. Then Vera heard it. Dustin repeated ‘shine’ three times instead of two. Then the screaming began. Bedelia shined brighter. Her radiant locks of light whipped at the air and turned to dancing flames. Fire raged in her eyes. Her skin began to darken, harden; was she turning to stone for Dustin’s mistake? The blackened husk of her body cracked like a mirror and revealed solar magma. Bedelia had stopped screaming, melting and oozing over the floor that sparked and flamed at the girl’s death touch. Dustin had been grabbed and pulled away by Professor Bloomfield before he suffered the same fate as Bedelia. Jyvis was already reciting lines to reform Bedelia, to draw her soma back into its rightful shape. As if to spite the headmaster’s attempts Bedelia’s remains sputtered and coughed, splattering an explosion of fire and magma in a neat circle around where she had stood.

  Tears streamed down Dustin’s pale cheeks as he spewed forth apology after apology. Professor Bloomfield shot the stunned headmaster a look of anger as she petted Dustin’s ash blond hair and blocked his view of Bedelia’s remains. A hush had fallen over the class. Everyone waited for the moment Headmaster Daresbury performed some masterful lines and reformed their beautiful classmate. For his part Jyvis mumbled something about an inconsistency between their manatic constitutions when a golden flash sprang out of the smoking remains. It spread like a web and reached for Jyvis with vigor. A piece of it managed to grab his shoulder. It anchored to the headmaster, piercing through clothes and skin until it reached his soma. The rest of the golden, fleshy flap attempted to cover him. Bedelia’s final expression of horror and pain swam through the suctioning monstrosity and pulled ever closer to Jyvis’s face.

(part one) (part three) (part four) (the end)

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