Iona was no closer to falling asleep now than when she first lay her head on the pillow. She’d given up any hope of sleep and resolved to stare at the ceiling and relive the day’s events over and over, as she’d done for most of the evening. When she wasn’t lying on her back, she was tossing and turning, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. Whenever she thought she was settled, discomfort would raise its ugly head and force her to roll over again. Her mind was running on all cylinders. The thought of narrowly escaping expulsion and having her hopes and dreams dashed plagued her nonstop and refused to let her rest.
She needed a way to distract herself and calm her mind. Reading had always been her favourite for that but, after several hours of poring over the Selson Academy for the Arcane student handbook, Iona was left with no desire to even look at another book. Her stomach fluttered a little when she came to the part relating to the infraction that almost got her banished, another reminder of how close she’d come to losing much of what she held dear.
Reckless use of Arcana without the supervision of an instructor that results in the death or serious injury of a student or member of staff, or significant damage to academy property shall be met with immediate expulsion.
Iona read it a dozen times, letting it sink in and vowing to be on her best behaviour going forward. No more mistakes; no more messing around. She wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow. No doubt her family had been informed by now. She was in for a very uncomfortable comm-chat with her adoptive parents. Aldett and Gaelenna had always been pretty easy-going, but that didn’t mean they were pushovers when it came to one of their children (adopted or otherwise) causing thousands of Exius worth of damage that they would then be expected to pay for. They’d both have some very stern words for her; that much Iona was sure of. At least she’d be able to find out how Corlon and Devad were doing. Devad would be taking his final exams, and Corlon started his first year of civil engineering at the University of Tylest at about the same time that she left home to embark on her formal training to be a master arcanist. At least he didn’t have to travel far from home. Iona wondered how he was getting on though thinking of her older adoptive brother did bring a little heartache. She’d been crushing on him ever since they met though she’d always kept her true feelings a secret. People would have thought it weird even though he was only her adoptive brother. For years, she’d suffered in silence while he went through a seemingly never-ending parade of girlfriends that was only certain to get longer now that he was at university. Of course, Iona had plenty to occupy herself with here. She and that pretty redhead had caught each other’s eyes a few times in the lunch hall though she still hadn’t worked up the courage to talk to her. It was almost funny, how she’d never had trouble talking to anybody in her life, but when she discovered someone she found attractive, she would retreat back into her shell whenever they were nearby. She’d talk to her tomorrow if she saw her in the lunch hall, although that was what Iona told herself last time, and the time before that too.
In a final, desperate bid to relax, Iona cast her mind back to almost a year ago, to the time she accidentally walked in on Corlon as he was stepping out of the shower, sliding her hand into her pants as she did. She thought reminiscing about his toned body and shimmering skin would help her relax, but it didn’t. It was hopeless. If dreaming about Corlon couldn’t distract her, then nothing could. She left their home on Valarayan and returned to her bed in the Selson Academy for the Arcane, back to staring at the ceiling with only her dark thoughts for company. When she wasn’t brooding about her near banishment or thinking about her adoptive brother, Iona was reliving her last conversation with Llannaeia, having had much time to think about her older sister and their previous encounter. She’d seethed with rage at the way she’d treated her, but now Iona missed her more than ever, and wanted nothing more than for her to come back. She thought she was too far gone, but, after some thought, had come to change her mind. She couldn’t believe her sister was lost; no one is ever truly lost. There had to be some way to bring her back; Iona was confident of that. But alas, she was most likely a very long way away, and it would be a very long time before they saw each other again, if they did at all.
She’d had enough. Between the tossing and turning and the never-ending thoughts about her sister, she had no hope of getting any sleep. With a sigh, Iona threw off the covers and dragged herself from her bed.
The hallway was dim and silent, the main lights powered down and the students and staff having turned in for the night. While students roaming the academy at night wasn’t explicitly against the rules (Iona had found nothing prohibiting it in the handbook), it was preferred they didn’t for the sake of peace and quiet. Iona padded barefoot passed the doors to the quarters of her fellow students. Immediately, she felt more relaxed, finding peace in the stillness. The hallways reminded her of back home, the colours similar to those of the ceramic floors and mosaiced walls of her adoptive family’s house. They’d helped to curb the homesickness she’d felt in her first few weeks at the academy.
As she approached the end, Iona went to the wall and stuck her around the corner to make sure she was alone before continuing. The last thing she wanted was to run into another student taking a late-night stroll (unless it was the pretty redhead) or, worse, one of the senior instructors who were now no doubt searching for any reason to see her banished for good. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and she slipped around the corner.
They’re dead because of you. The words repeated, whispering inside. She couldn’t get her sister’s voice out of her head. It drowned out everything else. Iona thought more of home in the hope of alleviating her torment: playing in the fountain with her brothers and the other children from the neighbourhood, ogling Corlon and wishing he would notice, the nights out in the city, seeing the latest shows at the cinema and theatre, and hot days spent swimming in the parks, listening to the singing of the birds and the whizzing of the skycars overhead. By far, the thing Iona missed most about Tylest was the weather. It was always warm and dry, even in the winter months. The sun shone almost every day. She didn’t mind the weather on Selson, but she did wish it could be a little more like back home.
Iona peeked around the next corner and found the way clear. She kept going. Wandering the academy at night had become a habit of hers when she couldn’t sleep. She’d done it many times over the past few months. It helped her relax when she was feeling a little homesick or doubting herself after a less than successful day of training. She never ventured far from her room, but this time Iona realized she had, in fact, wandered a little further than usual. She hadn’t been to this part of the academy before, the corridor more or less the same as hers but nevertheless unfamiliar. The silence started to become more eerie than relaxing, nothing but her own breathing and padding feet, almost dead. Iona tried not to let it bother her but, the further she went, the more ominous the atmosphere seemed to get. A dark shroud descended upon the corridor, growing thicker and heavier with every step. It soon felt more like she was walking in a graveyard in the dead of night than the hallways of the Selson Academy for the Arcane, the doors to the bedrooms instead the entrances to mausoleums long abandoned. Her stomach fluttered and the hairs on the back of her neck and arms stood to attention. The halls almost seemed to narrow when she looked to the end. Surely a trick of the mind but nevertheless unsettling.
She’d gone far enough. The deadness of the corridors combined with the dancing of her nerves had become more than a little creepy. Iona now found herself wanting her bed again, confident she would have better luck getting to sleep after her walk. She stopped just short of the next corner and started back the way she came though didn’t get far before she was overcome by a feeling that stopped her in her tracks and sent a chill up her spine. A haunting feeling developed in the pit of her stomach and rooted her to the spot, as if enveloped in an invisible force that refused to let her go any further. Her heart started to beat faster, a shockwave of static barrelling through her. For the first time since leaving her room, she felt like she wasn’t alone. There was nothing in front, but that only made her more uneasy. Her gut whispered to her, telling her something lurked behind. She didn’t know if she wanted to find out who or what. A cloud of sinisterness wrapped around Iona like a dark creature intent on feeding on her fear, the eeriness burrowing under her skin and settling in her core.
Iona wasn’t sure whether to turn or walk, unable to shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. After a few tense moments, she finally worked up the courage. She took a deep breath and turned. There was only an empty corridor. Strange; she was certain she’d find someone standing there, a fellow student or one of the tutors or caretaking staff. The emptiness before her only made her even more nervous.
“Hello”? Iona’s voice quivered under the weight of her unease. “Is someone there”? Silence.
Iona started walking, hoping to get back to her room as quickly as possible. She didn’t want to stay here one second longer. Something wasn’t right, and she had no desire to stick around to find out what. She hadn’t thought much about it but there were rumours floating around that the academy was haunted, by the spirit of a student who died while experimenting with their powers no less. She’d thought it was just a story meant to frighten the new students, but now Iona was wondering if there was, in fact, some truth to it.
Iona had no idea what happened next. She didn’t see or hear anything. She didn’t even know what hit her. One moment she was walking and the next she was face down on the floor, body limp and the back of her head searing. She must have fallen though she had no memory of it. Everything was a blur. Her head felt like it had been bounced off the wall. All she could do was lie there, control of her limbs snatched away. It was as if her brain had stopped working. She couldn’t focus on anything, nor hold onto any thought for more than a second. Then she felt her ankles snap together beyond her control, and then she was going back the way she came. It took a few moments to realize what was happening. She felt the bite of the ropes at her ankles but lacked the strength to resist.
Iona looked over her shoulder but saw only a dark, blurry mass towering over her. She couldn’t break away. The pain and disorientation left her powerless. Silvery fireflies flashed through her sight, an insufferable ringing pierced her ears and sickness swirled in her stomach. A warm, wet feeling had formed around the spot where the pain was most intense, spreading through her hair and down the back of her neck. There then came a sound she couldn’t place at first: high-pitched and deranged, repeating, penetrating. Iona listened harder and focused as best she could, and then realized. A woman’s screams bounded through the halls, soon accompanied by those of many others, followed by a mess of grunts, roars, and screeches that sounded nothing human and filled Iona with terror. Something terrible was happening. People were dying.
But even with that realization, she couldn’t bring herself to fight back. The pain was too much to bear, the binds at her ankles too strong to break. She could only lie there with her arms outstretched and head rested on the cool laminate, her will evaporating as she was dragged further. The screams were getting louder, and closer.
Something else then caught Iona’s attention, a blurred shape at the corner of her eye. She turned to see the face of one of her fellow students staring back, slumped on his side with his back to the wall. She recognized him but couldn’t recall his name; A Haelqen no older than herself with short brown hair and a thin beard. A trail of red flowed from under his hair and down his forehead. His eyes met hers but she saw no life in them. A fresh wave of terror shot through Iona. She started struggling, determined not to share his fate. She shook and flailed and pulled at the ropes with all the strength she had left, and her efforts seemed to pay off, the resistance disappearing. Iona gripped the floor and dragged herself away though she’d barely managed an inch before she felt a big hand take her by the shoulder. Then she was on her back and staring at the ceiling.
She made out a figure standing over her. It looked human, but far bigger and stronger. Then Iona noticed the colour of its skin, and realized that it most definitely wasn’t human: bright blue and covered with darkened blotches. She couldn’t make out a face, but it looked like it had only one big eye in the middle of its forehead. Her will to fight back dissolved in an instant, fear paralyzing her. The blue-skinned, one-eyed creature knelt atop her. Its face began to take shape. It glared into her terrified eyes, but Iona saw only rage and bloodlust in its own. She felt something at the back of her mind that quickly took over everything else. It told her the end had come.
Everything went white. The figure was gone and, with it, her fear and panic. All Iona could see was white, a blinding white light but nothing more. Calmness filled her, like when she was walking the hallways but so much greater that there was almost no comparison. It seemed like everything was gone: the halls, the academy, the creature, and everything else. All of her troubles were no more, nothing but distant memories. She felt no pain in the back of her head, nor did she hear the screams of her fellow students or the hideous calls of whatever seemed to be attacking them. The calamity unfolding around her had been washed away and replaced with serenity and contentment. Was it true? Was there something after all?
The white faded almost as quickly as it appeared, and the screams filled her ears once more, even louder now. Iona was in the middle of the hallway again, the back of her head searing and throbbing like it had been hit with a hammer and then had a white-hot poker applied to it. The figure was nowhere to be seen. Another face occupied the space it once dominated though this one seemed awfully familiar. Her vision started to clear, and Iona was relieved to see it was Sahel looking down on her though his expression brought no comfort. His eyes bulged with fear and desperation and his cheek was stained red. Everything then started to go dark, the screams and roars melting away with nothing to take their place. All Iona could do was lie there and stare into her mentor’s wild eyes. He was saying something, but she couldn’t make out what.