The students of Tamarac Elementary school knew Madeline Chase was strange the second she stepped past the chipped paint door. She was trembling like a newborn kitten, and her eyes scurried from one classmate to the next like field mice. The teacher, Ms. Laine, slowly climbed to her aching feet from the crackling wicker chair and offered a shaky hand to the new girl.
Madeline stared at the spotty and wrinkly skin as if it was plagued, and opted to remain standing against the warm, cushioned stomach of her grandfather. He hummed in amusement, patting her shoulders as she nestled the crown of her head up into his chin. She heard him chuckle under his breath as her curly brown hair tickled him, and it calmed her nerves to know that he was comfortable, although there should not have been a reason to be.
After all, they were in the belly of the beast now. Or the lions’ den. The underworld. A perpetual hell. That last one was how Madeline described it before they left the house that morning, but her grandfather assured her that she would, “tolerate the flames by lunchtime.”
“You can come in, dear,” Ms. Laine said in a soothing, disarming tone. “We won’t bite. Well, Kieran might.”
Madeline’s eyes instinctively fell on the disheveled ash-brown haired boy in the far back corner of the room, sitting at a desk cluttered with unfinished workbooks, half-chewed pencils and discarded candy wrappers. They locked eyes and he silently roared at her like a mute lion, to the hilarity of his neighbor beside him.
“Maddie,” her grandfather warned, “I must get back to work soon. You promised to make this easy.”
“Why would you believe me?” she asked, glancing up at him. He kissed the top of her forehead, and then lightly pushed her inside. At the end of her third awkward step, she spun around, and saw that he had already left her. Her heart felt like it was being digested in the pit of her stomach.
“Tut, tut,” Ms. Laine said. “Now, Madeline, there is nothing to be afraid of, darling. If you would please take your seat at the front of the class, then we can continue. Are you familiar with cause and effect? Did they teach that at—what was the name of your former school?”
“I was home schooled,” she muttered under her breath. The class fell silent at the admission, and her throat constricted as if it was being crushed by a python. Did she say something wrong?
“What’s home schooled?” a student shouted from the back of the classroom.
“Please,” Ms. Laine said to Madeline, ushering her to her seat. Madeline noticed that the hand on her back was not as reassuring as her grandfather’s. There was an impatience in those old bones.
Madeline sat down and tried to keep her frilly, neon pink and green dress from making too much noise, yet each fidget in her seat sounded as if someone was taking their present out of a gift bag. She faced forward and sat up straight in the tiny rickety desk, doing her best to avoid her seat’s cracked sharp edges as she kept her attention solely on the teacher.
“There we are,” Ms. Laine said with a curt nod. “Now, someone asked what home school was. First,” she said, as she clasped her hands together. “We need to raise our hand before we speak. Second, home school is when a young boy or girl decides to get their education at home, and not in a public setting.”
“Do you get recess?” a girl with raven black hair said, leaning in close. Madeline nodded quickly, and Ms. Laine leered at them in disapproval for speaking out.
“She gets all of the benefits of public school,” Ms. Laine was quick to say. “The same education.”
“Then why be home schooled?” Kieran shouted. “What’s the point?”
“Well,” Ms. Laine lifted her gaze to the ceiling to consider the possibilities. “I suppose that the parents want to provide the teaching.”
“But why?” Kieran asked. He couldn’t care less that Madeline was homeschooled. He loved the attention, and the fact that lessons were now delayed for an indeterminable amount of time.
“That’s a question you will have to ask yourself,” Ms. Laine said. “Although…I am curious. Dear? Why were you homeschooled, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Madeline tried to force a smile upon her face, the corners of her lips rising higher and higher with each attempt as if they were hermit crabs being coaxed out of their shells. She took a breath and remembered what Grandfather had once told her. “The education system needs work. Teachers babysit kids because they’re bad, and their parents don’t teach them how to act proper. It’s better to get the foundations and the basics down first, and then go to school to learn how to fit in the world. Learn first, and socialize second. There are—”
A giggle interrupted her thoughts. Madeline looked back out of the corner of her eye to see Kieran shaking his head and holding his ribs. “You sound like a robot,” he said, bursting out laughing. “Bee-boop. Boop. Boop. I didn’t know computers could talk!”
The classroom howled in reaction as Ms. Laine rolled her eyes. She shuffled her way back to her desk and propped a hand on its surface to keep her balance steady. As the laughter died down, and Madeline blushed in embarrassment, Ms. Laine cautiously took her seat and reclined back in relief.
Seeing that the teacher was going to ignore the remark, Madeline’s face turned red in anger. She spun around in her seat and scowled at the annoying boy in the back. “If you didn’t know computers could talk, then you must have a really old model. No wonder your jokes are outdated, you can’t even look a new one up.” She didn’t actually have internet at home, or a computer—they couldn’t afford it—but he didn’t know that.
His face transformed from joy to rage so quickly that one would think she cast a spell on him. “You take that back!” he spat.
“Maybe next time you should consider your words.”
Kieran snorted like a bull that had caught a glimpse of the matador. He slammed the palms of his hands on his desk and stood up like he had been fired out of a cannon. He grit his teeth, glared at Madeline’s tranquil composure, and then decided to do the unthinkable. He pointed a finger at her and shouted for the entire room to hear. “ERITIS CAE—”
“NO!” Ms. Laine roared. The silence fell like a monsoon. Though she remained sitting, the children dared not push their teacher further. They knew much about Ms. Laine—from siblings and parents who once had her, from rumors and overheard conversations in the teacher’s lounge—and there was nothing to suggest that she could incite the level of fear that she had now bestowed upon them. This was not just their teacher anymore. A shadow of her former youth possessed her, revealing the woman that had been personally handpicked by the Ostara Coven for the job.
“I—I’m sorry,” Kieran stammered, but Ms. Laine kept her gaze fixed on him like a wrathful god ready to bestow judgement. “You would attempt—no, you would dare cast a spell IN MY CLASSROOM?” She picked up the stone cane resting on the arm of her chair and rapped it against the chalkboard. “Do you know what I would do to you if I had the permission?”
Kieran’s countenance softened as he realized the significance of her words—he could not be harmed easily.
“Your father will know,” Ms. Laine promised. “The Principal will know, and this time, it will not be so easy to worm your way out of trouble. The punishment will be swift, and unforgiving, do you hear me?” Kieran nodded as his eyes fell upon his desk. “Now shut that disgusting void you call a mouth and sit there like the gargoyle you are.”
Kieran clenched his jaw tight at the sting of her insult, but he sat down, and kept his attitude in check. Madeline smirked in victory, but a hard rap on the chalkboard sent her attention back to the front. Now Ms. Laine was staring directly at her, and it appeared that she was none too pleased.
“And you,” Ms. Laine said, keeping the cane pressed firmly up against the chalkboard. “You say that the teachers are babysitters, as if we aren’t qualified to handle a group of unruly children, but do you not know of our history? Or is that a subject your parents have elected to omit? If they had followed the curriculum provided by the Ostara, then you would have learned that every teacher in this building, in this state, in this country, in this WORLD, have been chosen for a reason. What I cannot grasp is how this common fact escaped you.”
Madeline noticed that Ms. Laine’s breathing had become shallow. Her posture was tense, and it seemed as if the teacher wanted an answer—this was not a declaration or a venting session.
“You come into this classroom,” Ms. Laine huffed, “and you make bold statements. You must have a prestigious heritage. Are your parents well known like Kieran’s? Are you the long-lost daughter of an Ostara? I have seen your personal records, so I doubt it. Therefore, I would like to know—why didn’t your parents teach you the way of the world?”
Madeline knew the truth, but she could not give it.
It would mean the death of her family.
“I—” Madeline knew what she could say to deter the conversation, but the ploy would still hurt, to the point that it could damage any chance she had in fitting in with her classmates. She sighed and closed her eyes. Whatever. She was fortunate to have even made it to public school.
“I don’t have any parents,” she declared for all to hear. “They left me when I was a toddler.”
The gasps that followed were nothing compared to the sting of their memory.
However, the confession worked. Ms. Laine relaxed in her chair as she stared out into space, sighing heavily over the traumas of her own past. Madeline bowed her head in feigned shame. Yes, the sting had been there, but there was no poison behind the prick. Not anymore.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Ms. Laine said. “I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you.”
“Thank you,” Madeline whispered.
Kieran sneered at the back of Madeline’s head, gripping one of the few intact pencils he still had. He snapped it in two, letting the pieces fall onto the floor, and the dark lead stained his palm. He waited. He waited until Ms. Laine had completed her lessons, the children had cleaned up their desks, retrieved their lunches, ate them swiftly in the cafeteria, and then headed out the doors for recess. The world moved like a Round Up at an amusement park, for he had only one goal in mind.
Madeline was the fifth student to walk out into the sunshine, partly blocked by an orange haze and rust-colored, upside down clouds. Laughter permeated the air as the children leapt onto the playground, climbing up slides and slapping each other on the back to determine who was “it.” Madeline held the last bite of her tuna sandwich at her side as the growing wind brushed against her like an ocean to the shore. Where should she start? Who should she talk to? This was her life now, and even the most miniscule and insignificant of decisions were paramount. She recognized early on that it was the little actions—daily—that determined the future of a person, and now that she was out in the real world, her journey had begun. The training was over, it was time to head to the frontlines of war, even if she was only in the third grade.
Something smacked her in the back of the head, and a smile began to form upon impact. She wouldn’t have to do anything herself, after all. One of her classmates must have found it in their heart to include her in the games.
But then the vertigo set in, and the taste of metal coated her tongue. Something wasn’t right.
She fell onto her hands and knees, coughing uncontrollably as she instinctively reached back and felt the back of her head—it was wet, warm, and tender to the touch. Slowly, she craned her neck around to see what had happened, and she was not surprised.
Kieran stood triumphantly over her, with a rock the size of his fist gripped tightly in hand. He cast it to the pavement, unconcerned with leaving evidence behind—he had full confidence in the backing of his father.
Madeline’s eyes frantically scanned the area. None of the children had witnessed the assault, and the teachers weren’t in sight. The faint smoke from cigarettes billowed past the corner of the school’s brick wall, a few yards away. The children on the playground would still be in sight, but none were by the exit to the building. She was alone.
“I bet you didn’t learn about that in home school,” Kieran said, looking down upon her as if she was a fly that had dared to invade his house. “You got the message, didn’t you? You take whatever I throw your way, and you better like it.”
“How are you going to get out of this one?” Madeline asked. She bit her lip hard as she kept her gaze on the ground and not her attacker. She would hate herself if he saw her cry, and she wasn’t sure if she could keep all of the tears at bay.
“Weren’t you listening?” Kieran scoffed. He glanced momentarily at the playground to make sure no one had gotten curious. If anyone had, at least they had enough sense to ignore it. “I can do whatever I want. Now, tell me you love me.”
“What?” Madeline said in disbelief. She allowed herself to look at him out of the corner of her eye.
“Tell me you love me.”
Her heart began to pound on her chest like a gorilla that had gotten entrapped for the first time. She didn’t know what he was playing at, but it had to end. She realized that being the new girl would place her under the microscope, but it would pass in a day or two. Of course, she had to open her big mouth and insult a student with enough clout to back up his words. Grandpa had warned her.
“You’re going to be my girlfriend,” Kieran said, folding his arms. A sly smile crept across his face as his eyes danced in delight. His gaze wandered over her body. “From now…all the way to high school graduation. Too many people know who I am so they would be scared being with me, but you’re new. You don’t know what I can do, so I can make you a good girl. You might even love me later on.” Kieran reached out with the hand that had previously held the rock and caressed her cheek with the back of it, smearing her skin with her own blood.
There were no more tears.
Madeline’s arms tensed and locked as she felt her face get hot. She wanted to grab the rock by his foot and smash it against his thick skull, but she didn’t know how fast he was, and from their exchange in the classroom, she knew that he had training in magic. If he was threatened physically, he could lash out.
“Are you going to say you love me?’ Kieran asked sweetly, “or do I need to teach you another lesson?”
Madeline cast her eyes to the sky above. Flickers of light were beginning to fire off from behind the cloudy veil like Morse code. Should she use her trump card so soon? On the first day?
Yes, it was inevitable. There were two things that no one could think of her.
First—that there was a reason to be suspicious of her.
And second—that she was weak.
After all, she was a human.
Powerless. Hated. Unable to wield or practice magic.
But she didn’t need magic to trick a simple-minded boy.
There was a clear path for her to follow—a goal that could not be sidetracked or delayed, no matter what. One that she had designed meticulously. Most girls would hang up posters of their favorite fictional princesses or a cute actor, perhaps a member of the Ostara, but her walls were plastered with sketches and timelines. Her ambition was scrawled out painstakingly in several notebooks hidden under her bed, and her mirror had listened patiently to her speeches and planned deceptions. Her goal, no—her mandate—no, her purpose, was as clear as air, and she breathed it in, every waking second.
No one, and certainly not an entitled brat, was going to alter her destiny.
“I thought I would end up butting heads with someone like you,” she muttered.
“What?” Kieran said in surprise. Did she just ignore his command?
“Are you a man or a beast?” she asked, shifting her weight so that she was on one knee. With one arm draped over her knee, she used her free hand to begin marking the pavement with the dirt in the cracks. Kieran watched in curiosity as she dipped her finger into her mouth, moistened it, and then returned it to the dirt to create a crude paste. Kieran chuckled under his breath as she continued her work. To Kieran, the symbols were nothing like he had ever seen. They might as well have been ancient hieroglyphics.
“What are you talking about?” he laughed.
“Are you…a man…or a beast?” she asked again, finishing her sentence with a whip-like snap of her finger, completing her masterpiece on the ground before her.
“A man,” he said proudly.
Madeline snickered. “Good. Then this will be easy.”
“You’re trying to scare me,” he said. “It won’t work.”
“Do you know what a bighorn is?” she asked. She climbed up to her feet, but she kept her back to him. The lights in the sky were multiplying rapidly, as if it were a multiplying single-celled organism bursting through the stages of evolution.
“An animal, right?” he said. His cocky attitude was losing its bluster. He was trying to figure her out.
“They’re sheep, with huge horns on their heads. Occasionally, whether it’s mating or to establish dominance…they’ll butt heads, with a force so powerful it would crack your pretty little skull. See, they’re not made like you. They don’t have one solid bone to protect their brain—that one organ that makes you, you. They have many little bones that shift on impact, allowing them to take the blow. I may be young, but I learned that many people are trying to be something they’re not. They have one trick. One card to play. Once they play it, they’ve got nothing left to take the next blow. That one solid bone is gone, and then they’re exposed.”
“And what are you?” Kieran laughed. “You’re a ram? A beast?”
“No,” she seethed, turning slowly to face him. “I’m a damn monster, trying to live peacefully among men, but then you come, and remind me that it isn’t possible. So why hide who I am? Why lower my horns? Why hide the chest of tricks I’ve got under my sleeve? You want to know why I’m homeschooled? I lied about what I said earlier,” she took a step toward him and he took one backwards. “I killed my parents,” she lied with no remorse. “With the forbidden magic I learned at a young age, and all it did was fuel the flames. I’ve been butting heads with people all my life, and I haven’t lost yet. You want to face me? You want to throw that one card you’ve got? Because you better not miss!”
The sky cracked with thunder, and Kieran yelped. The children on the playground halted their games one by one, stopping to investigate the strange cry that had come out of the boy-king.
“I’m sorry,” Kieran whispered. He wrapped his arms around himself for comfort as he shivered. His face scrunched up in worry and his throat became dry. Madeline read him completely—she hadn’t touched him, but he was wounded just the same.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see what I had in store for you?” she asked, pointing back at the inscriptions in the pavement.
“No,” he said.
She wanted to let him go. Her anger had subsided and had become replaced with a twinge of self-loathing. This wasn’t her—to instill fear in others the way Kieran had surely done for years, but this was necessary. The situation had gone beyond her wishes now. The entire playground was watching, and Kieran had a reputation to uphold. He would skulk away and lick his wounds, but he would be back to reclaim his alpha status, and that couldn’t happen.
Her performance was good, but anyone that watches a magician enough times begins to slowly unravel the mystery behind the tricks. She wouldn’t be able to fight back as hard next time.
After all, she was the hornless one.
She was the one trick pony.
“Say you love me,” Madeline said, staring directly into his eyes.
He couldn’t quite bring himself to completely look into hers. “I love you,” he mumbled.
“If you love me, that means you will leave me alone, right? Because it is what I desire.”
“Yes,” he said. He was aching to run away.
“Good,” she said, clasping her hands together. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the teachers walking toward the playground, wondering what could cause the hyperactive children to stop playing. She had seconds left to act. “I placed a hex on you,” Madeline said. “One that activates when I say. All it takes is a word. If I decide to activate it, because you’re feeling like you want revenge for breakfast instead of a nice, healthy dish of humility, then you will lose your ability to walk and speak. Until I decide to let you go.” She took a few steps closer to him, her lips were only inches from his ear. “Don’t tempt me,” she whispered. “Now leave.”
Kieran darted back into the school before the teachers could reach them. As soon as Madeline saw the doors close behind him, she winced and carefully dabbed the wound on her head. Ms. Laine grabbed her free arm and spun her around as a couple of the other teachers ran inside after Kieran.
“What happened?” Ms. Laine demanded. The first raindrops began to fall from the sky, and the children began screaming and shrieking, scurrying past them to get inside.
“I was hit with a rock,” Madeline groaned.
Ms. Laine inspected the wound and sucked her teeth. “This looks bad. You should see the nurse. Do you know who did this to you?”
Madeline shook her head. She needed Kieran to be on his toes around her, not full of spite. Getting him into trouble would only infuriate him more.
“Come on, dear,” Ms. Laine sighed, escorting her inside with a hand on the young girl’s back. Madeline played up the pain, wincing and letting out sharp sighs as they walked briskly back to the classroom. “Um, do you think you can make it to the nurse on your own? It might take me some time before I can find another teacher to watch the class.”
Madeline nodded sheepishly, and Ms. Laine extended a hand out toward the girl’s shoulder to console her once more, but Madeline quickly darted away from the attempt, zipping past like an over-alert housefly. With permission to stroll the halls of the school alone, she refused to waste any more time in the company of those that sought to scold and humiliate her.
Teachers walking past gave her curious glances, but none asked her where she was headed. They were too busy focusing on making it through the next subject, knowing that their rambunctious students were at their worst after lunch, when their bellies were full, and they became little nuclear reactors.
After the third teacher passed by without uttering a word, she felt comfortable enough to let her thoughts wander, and surprisingly, they settled on Kieran. The way he had stared at her before he headed back inside—it terrified her to know that she had caused that level of fear in someone. Had she gone too far? It was not like they were adults, playing a game of life and death. All children, even those that broke the forbidden laws, were given leniency. The Coven had decreed it so, understanding that while they would never gain the full trust of the adults, the children were still impressionable, regardless of their upbringing.
Madeline winced as the wound on her head began to throb—a low pulse that reverberated throughout her body like sonar. She nearly passed the nurse’s office.
“Excuse me, dear,” the nurse called out as she passed by the door. “You’re Madeline, right? Ms. Laine called down to let me know you were coming.”
Madeline turned around and entered the office. The nurse was at a desk with her elbows planted firmly on a stack of crinkled and dog-eared papers. She held a tomato and pepper sandwich in both hands and her white uniform had faded to beige. Madeline was certain that this woman was not going to provide her the proper care.
“I was sure it was you,” the nurse replied. The tag on her left breast said: Iris. “It’s not too often that we get new students around here.”
“Why’s that?” Madeline asked. She remained in the doorway, where she could easily escape if she had to. Though Nurse Iris seemed friendly, she had to remember. They were all her enemy. All of them.
“Once you’re enrolled in Kindergarten, there’s no changing of schools. You’re stuck until graduation…unless you get invited to the Harvest before then.”
“Or you can get a job,” Madeline said. “That’s not terrible.”
“It’s a living,” the Nurse said, her eyes drifting down to the tiled floor.
“Aren’t you happy?” Being a child was the time to ask questions and get answers that were as close to honest as possible. The older she became, the more guarded the conversations would become.
“Happiness is innocence,” the Nurse smiled with tired, blue eyes. “Stay young forever, darling.”
Madeline nodded in understanding. “But then how can I get picked for the Harvest?”
“That’s true,” the Nurse put down her sandwich and wiped her hands on the bottom of her skirt. “Oh well, there’s still much to look forward to. Now, let me see the back of your head.”
Madeline obeyed with hesitation, walking over to Iris and putting her back to her. She could barely see the movements of the Nurse from the corner of her eye.
“This is nasty,” Iris said. “Ms. Laine said someone hit you?”
“With a rock,” Madeline muttered.
“Who would do such a thing?”
“By the way he acts around here, I’m sure you can figure out who it is.”
“Oh,” Iris said with full understanding. “I see…him.”
“Am I going to need stitches?”
“Well,” Iris said, dabbing at the exposed wound with a cotton ball. “It looked worse than it is, so I doubt it. You will definitely need a bandage though…and you went through all this trouble with your hair. So sad.”
“Messy hair is fine,” Madeline mumbled. “I would rather not be hit in the head with a rock.”
“You’ll miss these days, trust me. Men don’t know how to deceive the girls they like yet. They’re straightforward at this age, but later in life, it all becomes a game to them. At least with a rock, you know where he stands.”
Madeline’s face turned red. That was one rumor that she prayed would die in this room. “Kieran is not in love with me.”
Iris chuckled under a breath. “And yet, you’re the only girl I’ve seen him pay this much attention to.”
“He’s sick.” She could hardly believe her ears.
“He’s rich,” Iris retorted. “And his family is well-known too. You could do worse.”
“Never too late to start planning your future. If there’s one thing I’ve learned—” the phone interrupted her, “One sec.” The Nurse kept one hand pressed against Madeline’s head while she answered the phone with the other. “Mm-hmm. Yes. Sure…as soon as I’m finished. No, no, it won’t be long. A minute tops. Yes. Yep…okay, bye.” The Nurse hung up the phone. Madeline noticed that the Nurse’s fingers started twitching nervously as she applied the gauze and tape.
“Is…there something wrong?’ Madeline asked, keeping her eyes forward.
“The Principal would like to see you now.”
Madeline’s eyes went wide. Why? Did Kieran` make up some lie about her? Would he tell someone that he had threatened her? This was the last thing she needed—more exposure. Grandpa Grant was going to have a fit. “Did the Principal say why?”
“I think…it would be better if you go and find out for yourself.”
Okay, that wasn’t good. Whatever the Nurse knew, it was serious enough to keep it hidden.
But for what purpose? Surely the teachers talked amongst themselves about all kinds of taboo subjects. What made this topic so secretive?
She left the Nurse’s office with a numbing sensation, as if she was caught in a dream. Strangely, she didn’t see a soul patrolling the hallways as she made her way down the colorful corridors, plastered with a myriad of art projects, trophy displays and banners with quotes on them, offering words of encouragement such as ‘Never Give Up,’ and ‘Magic Doesn’t Define You, You Do.”
Madeline sighed heavily as she reached the principal’s door. She could hear muffled voices inside, and the tone was calm yet serious. She tried to identify them and was grateful that none of them sounded like Grandpa. She could hear his scolding now. “You didn’t even last a few hours,” is what he would say. It would probably be while he was cooking dinner, so that he wouldn’t have to face her in disappointment. She preferred it that way. At least all she had to absorb were his words, but once…just once, she would have liked for him to turn around and smile once in a while. Then when he said he was proud of her, she would know it, and not think that he was saying it out of obligation.
She shook her head profusely, casting the thoughts aside as she placed a hesitant hand on the doorknob. Of course, he was proud of her. It was silly to think otherwise. Who had supported her in her ambitions, even when she was being difficult? Not to mention that he had done it with such gentleness, such faith in her. She had no right to think any less of him. She couldn’t help but wonder though…would his opinion of her change the longer she was entrenched in this world? Would his faith waver? Could he survive another broken heart?
“Madeline,” the Principal said in surprise, opening the door suddenly. He blinked rapidly as he stammered for his next words, but being unable to find them, he waved her inside. She swallowed hard as she kept her hands folded in front of her. The room was dark and smelled of sandpaper. The blinds along all three windows were closed, and a tiny desk lamp provided the lighting. She felt like she had walked into one of those old detective movies, the ones Grandpa loved to watch on weekend nights. All the principal needed was a trench coat.
“You can take a seat anywhere you like,” the Principal said. She thought of saying, “Even yours?” but she knew what he meant. She patted down her frilly dress as she took the closest chair to the door. She sunk into it immediately, finding herself barely looking over the surface of the Principal’s massive cherry oak desk. He walked over to his chair and sucked in his stomach as he took a seat. A sudden movement in the corner of the room caught Madeline’s eye.
She shot the culprit a stern look, staring into the shadows. Was it a mouse? No…a mouse wouldn’t be up so high. The darkness shifted once more, her eyes narrowly adjusted, and she realized that a person was standing in the corner. She couldn’t see the person’s face, clothing, or any defining features, only that the watcher was tall, thin, and still.
“Thank you for coming,” the Principal said. He cleared his throat and extended a hand out for her to shake. “I don’t know if we’ve met yet. I’m Principal Waters. You can call me Mr. Waters though. The children all do. I think that if you build a rapport with the—are you okay?”
He followed the young girl’s eyes, tracing the invisible line to the living fixture in the corner. When he realized what the reason was for her silence, his shoulders relaxed, and a smile came upon his face. He sat down in his chair and tried to make his voice less authoritative than usual.
“Do not worry,” he said, patting the surface of his desk gently. “She is only here to observe.”
Those words did not soothe her. Observe? Who, exactly?
“Why am I here?” she asked suddenly. Her focus remained on the shrouded stranger. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, yes,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry if this all seems scary. I want to talk about what happened with Kieran.”
“Yes, he was brought to my office by a couple of teachers and he appeared shaken. We tried to get him to tell us what was wrong, but he refused adamantly.”
“Refused,” she repeated back. The stranger had made a noise in the back of her throat. Was that a signal of some kind? “If he refused,” Madeline said, “then what’s wrong?”
“Kieran is a…well, let me say that his parents are highly valued in our community. They chose our city to set up shop and we have all been better off for it. Now, we don’t give him special treatment. He is disciplined and praised accordingly, but when we see this confident, brazen prodigy suddenly fall mute, anxious and apprehensive…we take notice.”
Prodigy? Wasn’t that a bit much?
“I think he was trying to throw a rock at someone,” Madeline said calmly, “and he hit me instead. It was an accident.”
“He was throwing rocks?” the Principal had to confirm.
“All of the boys do, I’ve heard. It’s normal. A girl told me about it in class, but I didn’t listen. I was so excited for recess that I didn’t take cover.”
“And then what happened?”
“I was angry,” she mumbled, acting as if she were ashamed. “I yelled at him…and he didn’t like that. I don’t think he’s used to people challenging him.”
“I see,” the Principal said, nodding his head in contemplation. “Hmm. While I do not condone his or the other boys’ actions—no one should be throwing rocks—I should remind myself that they are in the third grade. I will ask Ms. Laine and the other third grade teachers to watch out for this kind of behavior. Have you seen the nurse?” Madeline nodded. “And are you okay?”
“Yes,” she said. She felt like the interview was almost up, but the identity of the woman in the corner was nagging her. Did they buy her story? She hated lying, through and through, but Grandpa had given her permission to do so when necessary.
“You have no hard feelings against Kieran? Do you want me to inform his parents of his actions? I can, if you like.”
“No, it was an accident,” she said innocently.
“Right, right,” Mr. Waters replied. “Thank you for coming in. Madeline, you may go back to your—”
“Wait,” the darkness spoke. The voice was so sharp and sudden that Madeline jumped a little in her seat. Her heart sounded like a horse going from a trot to an all-out sprint. She held her breath in anticipation, watching as the skeleton-thin woman emerged from the shadow as if she had stepped through a portal.
Madeline gasped in both horror and disbelief. She knew this woman instantly. Her black, pixie-cut hair. The copper-toned skin. Jade-colored serpent earrings. Midnight blue pantsuit and black stilettos. The way her thin lips pursed when she prepared to speak.
This was not an ordinary witch, but a relative god in the new world.
Madeline, a human, part of a race of people that were hunted, enslaved and spat upon, was now in the presence of her sworn enemy. One of the seven that sought genocide against her people.
And she realized, in that moment, no matter how much she had prepared and trained for this day, she was utterly helpless.
“Ah,” Mr. Waters’ voice trembled. “I didn’t know you wanted to speak—here—now…I can handle this situa—”
“Where are your manners?” the woman said, a trace of amusement in her inquiry. “Won’t you introduce us?”
“Yes,” Mr. Waters cleared his throat and looked back at Madeline. She could see the fear in his eyes, the quivering in his lips. “Madeline, I would like you to meet Annalise Torres, High Witch of the Ostara Coven.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Annalise said. “I hope you don’t mind if I ask you some questions.”
“Of course,” Madeline said quickly.
“The first thing I want to know is…why was everything you just told Mr. Waters a lie?”