My father lied. This wasn’t high school. This was hell.
Still grieved over his witch mother’s disappearance, Joshua the mage is shipped off to a paranormal boarding school by his cold vampire father. Mistrusted as a supernatural freak, all Joshua wants to do is lay low until graduation. But when vandalism, thefts, and other crimes start plaguing the school, all fingers point to him. And when one crime takes a turn for the deadly, it’s up to Joshua to clear his name. If he doesn’t, he risks more than expulsion.
He risks paying the ultimate penalty.
Why, hello, dear reader. Long time, no see. Always glad to have you back. We’ve been through so much together now. Multiple kidnappings, vampiric despots, body bag bombs, vengeful assassins, demons, et cetera. This time, I thought we’d mix it up a bit. Enter a world a bit more sensible and orderly—at least in appearance. Take a trip back in time with me, won’t you? Where, you ask? Why, to where all good stories seem to start these days.
My father lied. This wasn’t high school. At least, not the kind this half-Yankee would recognize.
Oh, it seemed like an ordinary British boarding school, sure enough. There was the usual start-of-term hubbub. Parents admonishing the children they dropped off. Old students greeting friends, comparing class and house assignments, schedules in hand. Newcomers looking up at the school’s facade in awe and trepidation. And with good reason: Equinox Academy was the premier independent school in the UK for those thirteen to eighteen. The equivalent of a private school in America, “Equin”—as it was known to students and staff—was beyond exclusive. Numerous heads of state, international diplomats, business magnates, military leaders, and high-ranking nobility were often furious when their offspring were turned down for admission. But that was where the similarity with mortal academics ended.
Can’t very well advertise it’s a school open only to witches—and those with comparable magical blood. I stuffed my earbuds back into my ears, ready to crank up The Clash—or maybe some Sex Pistols—at full blast. My music player’s battery was dead, but I stared it at, willing it to recharge in midair. One nice thing about a place like this? Unlike mortal society, witches had no need to disguise their powers.
What? No, they’re all called witches. Yes, even the male ones. And if you go looking for broomsticks here, dear reader, the only place you’ll find them is the janitor’s closet. Wands, did you say? Good lord, you really are in the wrong place, aren’t you?
The messenger bag I wore crosswise thumped against my thigh. I’d left home in such a hurry, the rest of my luggage was being mailed later. With no family here to see me off, I made my way across the great front lawn on my own. You could feel the change, the shift in the air from the mundane world to the magical one. Despite the nervousness about the start of term, the frantic busyness, there was a palpable sense of relief. Parents and students were smiling, telekinetically passing around pamphlets, stray clothing, last-minute suitcases. They no longer had to hide here. I wished I could say the same for myself.
I know what you must be thinking. That, despite my father dumping me here, I’ll be among my own kind for once. Indeed, I’d never been around so many supernaturals at one time before. But you’ll soon see why it brought me little comfort. At least I was in the sixth form. That’s the last two years of formal education in the UK, if you’re reading this across the pond. I was seventeen, and in Year Eleven. So, in a little less than two years, I’d be done with this place. If I stayed.
My black lace-up army boots crunched over every dry leaf in their path. The autumn air was always so crisp and fresh after the heat of summer. It made the season one of new beginnings—even more so to me than spring. But not this year. This year, she was still gone. It made the days just seem like a slow, endless march toward inevitable winter.
I passed a large statue of Cerridwen, the Wiccan goddess of knowledge, among her other aspects. She looked regal, yet austere, stirring her cauldron while gazing onto the moors with gray, stone eyes. Yes, witches sometimes use cauldrons, but they’re mainly symbolic. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded terribly trading places with her, even if it did mean standing frozen on Equinox’s lawn.
I popped the collar of my black leather duster and pressed my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose. I tried to avoid making eye contact, keeping my head down and my shoulders hunched. But even so, it’s hard not to stand out if you’re nearly six feet tall and thin as a rail. I could feel the other students—and even a few parents—staring at me, their magic on the periphery of my thoughts, trying to feel their way in.
As if I’m too stupid to put up a shield. I could tell they already had theirs up, although it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to dismantle the weaker ones. They probably think mages are idiots who let other supernaturals read their thoughts whenever they like. The air was filled with whispers, and a few indiscreet individuals even pointed at me.
Maybe it’s my clothes. In addition to the duster and boots, I was the only one here in tight, dark jeans and a T-shirt. Even though the term didn’t officially begin until tomorrow, most of the other students were already in uniform. Many of those who didn’t have on the full ensemble still wore Equinox’s navy blazer, emblazoned with its crest: a yellow circle with a horizontal line running through it. The only real variation was in the color of the tie stripes. Some were red and orange, others yellow and white, and still more in tones of brown, green, blue, and violet.
Uniforms. That was another thing I’d have to get used to. I’d been enrolled so quickly, I hadn’t had a chance to buy one in advance. I was sure the school would rectify that soon enough. My military father said it would instill discipline. My American mother would’ve said it instilled fascism. But neither was here to say anything. And one might never speak again.
No, my clothes weren’t the cause of the stares and murmurs. They must’ve caught wind of who I was. I supposed it was only a matter of time. I tried to ignore the low voices around me, but it wasn’t easy.
“I hear he’s the son of a powerful witch.”
“No, he’s the son of a vampire.”
“Vampires can’t have children, you git.”
“Well, that’s what I heard, anyway. His mother was kidnapped under some mysterious circumstances, and no one knows where she is. She’s probably dead. His father sent him here because he burned down his last school.”
“No, my mum said he killed a man.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised. The vampire blood in him was bound to lead to murder at some point.”
Son of a vampire . . . mother kidnapped . . . probably dead. I winced at that last one, because it was likely the truth. Though it was nearly the only part of the gossip that was.
As if Equinox would let me in if I’d burned down a school, or had proof I killed a man. Though I assumed my short-notice matriculation here was courtesy of my father pulling strings, or threatening someone. As a witch-turned-vampire and two-thousand-year-old former Roman general, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him.
Most of the students here were born witches, same as both their parents. But my mother had been mortal, and was studying to become a witch when she had me. She hadn’t come into her full magic yet, hence my second-tier mage status. Though technically, I wasn’t supposed to have any status. I wasn’t supposed to even exist.
Vampires can have sex, you see, but not children. My birth is theoretically impossible. And yet, here I am. No one, not even my parents, knows how it happened, and long ago gave up trying to find out. I chalk it up to an anomaly, like mortals who have webbed toes, or give birth to quadruplets.
If only the rest of the Wiccan community could let it go so easily. Unfortunately, such a bizarre phenomenon only fueled suspicion that I was evil somehow. I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t as if I was possessed by a demon, for pity’s sake.
I stopped walking for a minute to glance up at Equinox’s facade. Although I’d seen many strange things in my life, I had to admit the building was intimidating. It was huge: like a castle that had been added to many times over. In fact, I’d read somewhere that Equinox hadn’t started out as a boarding school. I didn’t know what it had started out as, but now, it was as if generations had pasted neo-Gothic Victorian details over the original medieval ones. I turned my head ninety degrees in either direction, and could still see it spread out.
The landscape was sufficiently majestic as well. High on a hill, surrounded by moors that were surrounded by forests, Equinox was just isolated enough to eschew prying mortal eyes. No, I am not going to tell you where in Great Britain you can find it. I do apologize, but I’m sure you understand supernaturals’ need for discretion.
As I stared up at stone columns, jagged rooflines, and massive turrets, part of my hair fell over one eye. I pushed the black strands back to get a better view, but the gel I put in it that morning refused to hold. Should’ve gotten a buzz cut before I came, I thought. The baby-fine tendrils that trailed down my neck made me appear childish in comparison to the freshly shorn boys here. With my wispy hair, pale face, light green eyes, and half-moon eyebrows, I looked like a nervous, worried sort. The kind made for picking on.
Let them heckle at their peril. I gave up trying to see the rooftops of Equinox, and trudged on. They’ll soon see they’ve messed with the wrong mage.
As if on cue, I heard derisive snorts as I trailed the river of students under a stone archway toward the dormitories. We emerged in an enclosed courtyard, where the guffaws grew louder. Somehow, I knew they were meant for me. Instead of following the others through the next archway, I turned around to see half a dozen students snickering.
“Wow, Equin’s really gone downhill.” A boy with sleeves rolled up to his shoulders glanced at me, then gave knowing looks to his friends. “What with all the wannabe witches they let in.” He leaned his elbow on one of the empty marble pedestals scattered around the grass.
“It’s a sad day when they have to resort to admitting mages, that’s for sure.” Another boy sitting on a stone bench lit a contraband cigarette. “Especially the girly ones. Where’d you get those tight trousers, mage?” he called to me. “Benders R Us?”
I looked down at my jeans. “No, Marks & Spencer. But thanks for revealing yourself as a homophobe. Saved me the trouble.” I kept walking, but another member of the group—a girl with hair teased too high and shirt collar too low—stepped in front of me.
“It’s all right, Geoffrey,” she said to the smoking boy, who looked like he wanted to pummel me. The girl’s eyes ran up and down my frame, and she put one hand on her hip. “I’d probably dress like that, too, if I were a virgin.” Her friends erupted in ugly laughter while she smirked at me.
I stared down at the girl without blinking. “I’ll bet that’s been a while, huh?” Her smile faded, and one of the other students whispered, “Bloody hell!”
The boy with the rolled-up sleeves kicked his suitcase out of the way, and I saw a ball of magic form in his palm. “Come a little closer and say that. Nobody insults my Nadine.”
“Roger,” said Nadine, “you know you’re not allowed to fight with magic unless it’s for Tournament.” Despite the warning, she didn’t look terribly displeased that two boys were about to do battle over her.
“Bollocks. Term doesn’t officially start till tomorrow.” Roger took a few steps forward. Magic glowed and crackled in his hand as he glared at me. “Which means that, for now, I can trounce whomever I like.”
I looked down at Roger, who was at least two heads shorter than me. “Sorry, mate, but this isn’t a fight you would win. And I try not to beat up little girls if I can help it.”
Roger’s face twisted in anger, and he was about to reply when there was shouting from across the courtyard.
“I told you, Idlewild, you’re a water witch.” A boy with dark brown hair had his back to a girl, and was trying to prevent a smaller Indian boy from reaching her. “Leave Penelope alone. We can’t have your damp hands sullying the noble House of Fire. And you.” He turned to the girl, whose eyes darted back and forth between him and the smaller boy. “It’s like I said: no fraternizing with the enemy. You’re just making it harder on yourself to take your precious Miles down come Tournament. I won’t have our house losing because you two decide to go all lovesick.”
When the dark-haired boy turned around again, I was able to get a better look at him. I put him about my age. He had what one might call classic good looks. Symmetrical features, bright eyes, a wide smile, perfect teeth. The smile was charming, wholesome. Slim and fit, I’d wager he was the kind of boy who played cricket or lacrosse. So, why did I see a flash in my mind of his smile fading and his eyes darkening?
A monster lurking beneath the mask.
“I can’t just leave Pen alone, Victor.” Miles moved from side to side, looking for an opening. But Victor blocked him easily—even when Miles tried to fly over him. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“Not at Equinox, she isn’t.” Victor snatched Miles’s suitcase from his hand and threw it to two other boys on the sidelines. Miles tried to grab it, but the boys telekinetically tossed the suitcase back and forth between them. They laughed, turning it invisible every time Miles was about to reach it. Victor’s associates, no doubt, I thought. Finally, Miles gave up and turned back to Victor.
“She’s my girlfriend regardless of where we are, you stupid blighter,” he said. The other boys stopped laughing. The suitcase stopped moving, midair, and fell between them.
Victor stared hard at Miles. “What did you call me?” A sudden chill filled the air. Two dozen or so other students in the courtyard noticed the shift as well. They edged toward the two boys, looking at each other, but saying nothing. The group who’d been egging me on before forgot I existed, moving closer to Victor and Miles.
“Well . . . well, you are a stupid blighter.” Miles swallowed hard, his chest heaving up and down. He realized his mistake, but it was too late to back down. Penelope turned pale and covered her mouth with her hand. “Who cares what house we’re in? Why does it bother you so much, anyway?”
Victor inhaled and exhaled slowly, the way I imagine a dragon would just before he set something on fire. Hell, I could practically see smoke rising from his nostrils. It seemed I wasn’t wrong: the handsome face really did hide a metaphorical monster.
“Magical houses are divided into primary elements for a reason.” His voice was low, but not hard to hear. Everyone else in the courtyard had gone deathly quiet. “So that we can learn to better control our affinity for the element we were born with. To hone it, to sculpt it. Not to have it sullied and diluted by those of other, lesser elements.”
I rotated one of the silver rings on my thumbs, thinking. I suddenly realized what the striped ties signified. Victor’s was red and orange; so were his two goons’. That must mean they’re from House of Fire. And Miles’s tie is blue and violet, so . . . House of Water.
“Oh, come off it, Wright.” Miles had gone too far, but it seemed he was going for broke now. “You know all the elements are equal. Earth, air, fire, water . . . what difference does it make? We all have to learn to control the other three, even if they’re not as strong in us. That’s part of why we’re at this bloody school.”
What Victor Wright said was true: each witch or mage is born with an inclination toward a specific element. Quick-witted air, hardworking earth, intuitive water . . . the list of attributes went on and on. But I, like Miles, found the notion of extreme loyalty to one’s house a bit preposterous. Of course, I knew exactly what my father would say about the situation: that the only loyalty owed was to one’s own ambitions.
“Not even you can stand in the way of true love, Victor!” a teary girl called from the side. Another worried-looking girl stood beside her; both had Equinox uniforms on, complete with jackets. The teary girl held an extra jacket in her hand. Three suitcases sat next to them. Must be Penelope’s friends, I thought.
“Nothing happens at this school unless I say it does. Nothing.” Victor reached toward Miles as if to grab him around the throat. But his hand stopped before it got that far and moved slowly upward. A trail of magic snaked its way from Victor’s hand to Miles’s neck. Miles rose in the air, clutching his throat and thrashing about. Victor’s friends hooted and clapped while Miles kicked his legs frantically and tried to tear the magic away. I saw tendrils of his own magic wrapping around Victor’s, desperate to pry it off. But Victor was older, stronger in magic, and clearly more experienced. Miles was no match for him.
Penelope grabbed Victor by the shoulders, trying to force her own fire magic into his torso. “Get off him, you bastard!” she yelled. But Victor effortlessly shrugged her off, and his two friends held her back by either arm. They kept laughing and encouraging Victor.
“Yeah, keep going!”
A few students joined them, including Roger and the hyena pack I’d run into earlier. But others just looked from each other to Victor and Miles and back again, jaws slack, eyes fearful. It was as if they wanted to say something, but didn’t dare. Only Penelope’s friends were begging Victor to stop, the tearful one sobbing in earnest now. Miles’s face was turning bright pink, and his eyes began to water. Victor’s face was pure elation. He was actually enjoying this.
Is he even planning on releasing Miles?
“Let him go!” Penelope screamed.
“That’s enough already!” her crying friend said.
“I’m inclined to agree,” I boomed. When I’ve a mind to, I can imitate my father’s commanding tone, what I call his “general’s voice.” It’s useful in getting people’s attention. I made it across the courtyard in less than five strides. “Why don’t you stop trying to get between the two lovers—literally—and we’ll call it a day?”
It was deathly quiet in the courtyard, save for one’s person gasp. Victor turned to me in disbelief. He dropped Miles to the ground, where the latter lay, coughing and sputtering. The red, vengeful magic around him vanished. Penelope cried out and tore herself away from Victor’s goons. She ran to Miles and helped him back to the sidelines next to her friends, grabbing his suitcase on the way. The goons were so busy staring at me, they made no attempt to stop her.
“Who the hell are you?” Victor demanded.
“Joshua,” I replied. “Joshua Alderman. I don’t suppose you want to shake hands.”
Silence. I already knew Victor’s full name, of course, but he made no attempt to formally introduce himself. After a few seconds, I spoke again. “I believe this is the part where you tell me your name, and we agree to hate one another forever.”
Slowly, Victor’s demeanor changed. A smug smile spread across his face.
“Victor Wright,” he said amiably. He circled me with both hands clasped behind his back. Although it seemed an innocent enough stroll, I watched his hands with a wary eye. I wasn’t the son of a general for nothing. “Alderman?” he repeated. “Not Silver, after your mum? Not even Aurelius, like your father? Shame he couldn’t give you his name. Assuming he is your father.”
Ah, there we have it. I knew something spiteful was coming. “Protection,” I said through gritted teeth. “An old family name on my mother’s side. Both she and my father have enemies. Knew the fewer people who associated my name with theirs, the better.” Because it’s working so beautifully right now. I sighed in my thoughts. Nice one, Mom.
“Yes, one must be very careful with whom one associates.” Victor looked me up and down with disdain—an expression I’m sure he practiced often. “Half-breeds tend to carry around things—like fleas—that can rub off on normal people.” I felt magic gathering inside me automatically, hardening in my stomach. But I tried not to let it show on my face. “Actually,” he said nonchalantly, “I’m surprised to see you out during the daytime.”
It took me a few seconds to make the connection. “I’m not a vampire, you moron.” A few students inhaled sharply.
“No one tells Victor he’s a moron,” I heard one whisper.
“He’s bloody well dead, he is,” hissed another.
Victor shoved me on both shoulders with his fingertips. The force of it—combined with a nasty spike of magic—sent me stumbling back. “Call me that one more time, mongrel, and I’ll end your miserable life. Not even your fangs’ll be able to protect you.”
I quickly regained my balance. “Fangs? Still not a vampire. But by all means, step right up again if you want a better look at my teeth. I won’t be held responsible for what happens if you get within striking distance.”
The murmurings and whispers turned to gasps. In the corner of my vision, I saw Miles, wide-eyed, shaking his head rapidly back and forth.
“So, it’s a fight you want then, eh?” Victor cracked his knuckles, a sound I detest, even when there isn’t magic swarming around them. A feeling of dread mixed with the magic and anger in the pit of my stomach.
“Not really.” I removed my bag and duster and threw them to one side. I pushed back my sleeves; my arms were bare, except for their leather cuffs. “But I have a feeling it’s going to happen anyway.” The small crowd that had gathered around us buzzed with excitement.
“Shit, he’s in for a world of pain now.”
“Poor, daft bugger.”
“This is gonna be good.”
Fantastic. Since arriving at Equinox, I’d been the victim of vicious rumors, had my life threatened, and was about to get into a fight with the most powerful student in the school. All this, and I hadn’t even set foot in the door yet. My father had definitely lied. This wasn’t high school.
This was hell.