One of the junior healers came by just after sunrise the next morning to cut Jane free and to check her for anything they’d missed.
“You shouldn’t have any lasting injuries,” the small, mousy-haired girl, whose nametag read ‘Editha’ assured her, as she removed a thermometer from her white apron and stuck it, not un‑gently, under Jane’s tongue. The reading came back normal. “How would you rate your pain, with one being nothing and ten being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?”
“Zero,” scowled Jane, who just wanted to get out of there. The small nurse raised an eyebrow, and Jane sighed. “Fine,” she relented, “Three.”
“I thought so. Lay down and let’s see what we can feel here.”
Grumbling, Jane rolled over onto her stomach. The healer pulled up Jane’s nightshirt and laid her palms on the empath’s bare back. “Don’t you go taking my powers now,” she chuckled, beginning to knead rhythmically into the muscle.
“I don’t want your stupid powers,” Jane muttered under her breath, but her head was buried into the pillow so it was doubtful the mousy-haired woman heard. A few seconds later, she began to regret her defensiveness as a feeling of creeping warmth stole out from Editha’s hands, melting away the painful bruised knots in Jane’s back and shoulders like hot water pouring over ice.
“Arms, arms too,” she murmured after a few minutes as the healer prepared to stop, “Arms sore.” Even though she couldn’t see her face, Jane could have sworn she felt the small woman smirk.
After about ten minutes, Editha had run over every part of Jane’s body and evaporated practically all of her pain. “Thank you,” conceded Jane, sitting up as she pulled on a new shirt in place of the hospital gown.
“You’re welcome,” replied the small healer with a knowing smile. Then her satisfaction momentarily wavered. “You… didn’t actually copy my powers, did you?”
Jane sighed, not even able to muster the energy to be angry at her ignorance. “You’d know if I did.”
“Oh,” said the medic, smiling normally again, “Good. Just checking.”
Dressed back into her normal jumper and jeans, which someone had been kind enough to bring down from her room, Jane made her way out of the Infirmary alone, wandering back down the several flights of stairs to the ground level. On her way she passed several other Acolytes, most of who hissed or swore at her as she walked by – but Jane tried to ignore them. This was just another test, she reminded herself, drawing from the conclusion she’d reached last night – another hurdle she had to clear to achieve her goal. If sticks and stones and broken bones couldn’t make her leave the Academy then she wouldn’t let words and whispers do it.
She walked through the open doors to the Great Hall holding tightly to her new mindset. A hundred pairs of eyes turned to watch her enter, but nevertheless she continued forward. A quarter of the way up the right side of the room she saw Matt sitting relatively alone reading a book that looked like it was about horses.
“You’re alive,” he said without any preamble, turning to look at her as she dropped into the empty space beside him.
“You sound surprised,” Jane said shortly.
“You almost got beaten to death like, an hour after we spoke.”
“Hour and a half.”
“I thought you were going to die.”
“That wasn’t an insult,” said Matt, rolling his eyes. Jane didn’t reply but just made some unintelligible noise somewhere between a grunt and a growl. She glanced around the room – the staring hadn’t abated. Matt followed her gaze.
“Ignore them,” he muttered, dismissing the onlookers with a wave of his hand.
“I am ignoring them,” she snarled.
“Yes,” he replied humourlessly, “I can see they’re not getting to you at all.” Jane crossed her arms and scowled, turning back to face the big sunny windows looking out onto the grounds. Behind her, she could hear the muttering intensifying, punctuated here and there by peals of laughter. She tried to focus on her breathing.
“I’m hungry,” she spat, after a moment’s pause.
“Then get some food, you fool,” said Matt, oddly tetchy.
“Screw you,” she snapped again.
“You know, that loses some of its impact when you say it, like, every second sentence.” They lapsed once more into silence. Finally Matt looked up at her.
“Do you want me to get you some food?” he asked, with only a touch of impatience.
“No. I’m fine,” she replied, although she still didn’t move from the bench.
“Yeah but you’re not eating,” said Matt, waving a finger at the empty space on the table in front of her, in contrast to his own plate a few inches away. “You need to eat.”
Jane glared at him. As much as she hated it, he was right. She needed to eat, at least to assist her recovery, let alone give her energy for whatever fresh hell she’d be subjected to today. After a few seconds she stood up and began walking over to the front of the Hall. She reached the buffet amid a sea of murmurs and chuckling, feeling every eye in the room drilling into the back of her head. Just ignore it. They didn’t matter. She filled up a plate with beans and corn and walked back, breathing slowly. “Ach-loser!” someone behind her ‘sneezed’, and an entire table laughed. Just keep walking.
“I need to tell you something,” Matt whispered the second she sat down, his horse book seemingly forgotten.
“What?” said Jane, not really listening. She glanced around the room, seeing too many smiles and nudges, too much chortling and whispering.
“It’s about the other night. After the ice cream. I got back to my room and-”
Behind her, a commotion was building. There was indistinct calling, shouts of laughter – the wooden screech of the heavy bench being pushed back. Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw a large shape rising. Don’t turn, she reminded herself, don’t engage.
But it was too late.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”
Even with her back to him, Jane knew that voice. Unable to help herself she turned, following Matt’s eyes as he stopped mid-sentence and turned to look at the front of the Hall, where a gigantic dark-skinned man had risen from his table, staring straight at her – his face split into a malicious grin.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE!” Anybody else might have stood on the stage to make this announcement but James Conrad already towered over the rest of the room. He stood, huge and grinning, a full foot above the heads of the smirking crowd around him – and then, as she watched, the strongman held up a glass and gently, with a butterknife squeezed almost comically between two massive fingers, tapped the side.
Ting ting ting. The room fell silent.
James’s grin widened.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he repeated again, surveying the Hall and everyone around him with a broad, sarcastic smile, “Good morning.” He paused. “Let me ask you a question. Who here knows the name Zephyr?”
A cheer went up around the room, punctuated by the sound of Acolytes whistling and banging their cups on the tables.
“How about the White Queen?” declared Conrad and this time the cheer was louder, interspersed with scattered whooping. Jane saw Matt’s brow furrow, but his sceptical expression went unnoticed amongst the commotion.
“Captain Dawn,” said James, and this time the roar was almost deafening. All throughout the room Acolytes clamoured to their feet, clapping, cheering, shouting indiscriminately into a storm of noise that sent a ringing in Jane’s ears and a precarious rattling through the windows.
For a few moments, the strongman allowed the noise to continue, but eventually he again raised his massive, plate-sized hands. As if on cue, silence descended on the Hall.
“Great names,” James said solemnly, “Given to great people, right here in this very room.” He paused and bowed his head in a respect that vanished as soon he raised it. “Titles which captured the essence of who they were.”
There was a smattering of more restrained applause, maybe from the minority of people who didn’t get that this wasn’t a tribute, and that that wasn’t the punchline. James held up his hand and the clapping stopped.
“Giving names has always been a Legion tradition,” he declared, “And it’s one I’d like to continue.” The strongman paused, and with a rush of cold dread Jane felt his eyes fix on her. “Ladies and gentlemen,” James announced, raising a powerful fist above the crowd, “A new name! To our newest member!” He raised his hand towards Jane and the entire hall watched as he proclaimed: “Ladies and gentlemen, Acolytes and Ashes, I give you, fresh from her stay in hospital, our very own parasite: LEECH!”
His words rang out, and in an instant they were swallowed up as the entire room erupted, roaring with laughter. Jane’s fists clenched in her lap.
The noise drowned out anything she or anyone could have said, but then James held up a lone finger, and the Hall again fell silent. “Now Leech,” he continued, speaking like a children’s storyteller and grinning at the sea of shining faces watching merrily as he spoke, “Thoroughly sucks.” The Hall rang with barks of laughter. “She only ever takes, and she’s easily squished.” The laughing intensified. “But still, she has one, undeniable talent.” James’s grin widened, and as the noise around him faded he looked down at Jane and put a mocking hand over his heart. “And that’s to make us thankful.” The room fell silent and the strongman paused – then shook his head. “By reminding us all just how worthless we could’ve been.”
“Hey man-” Matt started to say beside her but his words were drowned out by James once again thrusting his glass into the air.
“TO LEECH!” he roared, and the Hall was filled with shouting and laughter as a hundred Acolytes took up the toast. Jane’s face burnt, her jaw clenched in place. She could hear the blood rushing through her ears, feel her shoulders shaking. Her eyes never left James’ – he smiled at her over the top of his glass and tilted it towards her in a small toast. It took everything she had not to leap up, not to charge him, not to fight right then and there. But that was what he wanted. He wanted her to get angry, to do something stupid. Her nails dug into her palms, the muscles in her hands starting to cramp. Just let it happen, she tried to think, just let it go. Just get it over with.
“Now James!” cried a new, shrill voice. Jane’s head snapped around as its source – a raven-haired girl in her early twenties, as bony and pale as James was dark and meaty – rose to her feet at the other side of James’ table. Dressed handsomely in a grey felt overcoat and skin-tight jeans, for a second Jane thought she might actually be getting up to defend her. Then she saw the wicked, sardonic smile on the girl’s face, and the pit in her stomach dropped.
“Come now,” smirked the newcomer, her voice refined and rich with sarcasm. She waved openly, one hand on her outstretched hip, a brown leather shoe leaning on the bench. This was a performance – Shakespeare in the park. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss our new arrival!”
“Natalia Baroque,” smiled James, gesturing to the new speaker, “I of course ceded the floor to the Legion’s best psychic.” The words left his lips with barely restrained glee. He glanced over at Natalia and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that whatever this was, the two of them were in it together.
“Why thank you my dear James,” Natalia crooned, and the crowd laughed as she turned to them. “Friends,” she said, “Come now. It would wrong of us to simply dismiss this-” she indicated at Jane, “-admittedly mangy individual-” the room laughed, “-as completely useless. Why, what she may lack physically, she may make up for with a cunning mind! What say you, fellow Acolytes? Should we test her, find out what she’s made of?”
“YES!” came the roaring reply, which then broke down into squalls of pealing laughter – the loudest of it coming from the lackeys surrounding both the strongman and the psychic. Only a few people out of the hundreds there weren’t laughing, including the girl who’d waved to her in the corridor on her first night, who seemed exasperated at the whole thing, and a freckly, curly-haired ginger in a Hawaiian shirt, who was staring off into space as if wishing he was somewhere else. Everyone else was up in arms, banging their cutlery on the table, grinning at her.
Natalia strode out and around the table into the middle of the room, beaming at Jane the whole time. “So what do you say, darling? Care to see what you’re worth? Care to test the mettle of your mind?”
“Jane,” Matt whispered warningly, but the girl barely heard him. She only had eyes for that smug pale piece of trash and the garbage chanting behind her. Without even realising it, she was on her feet. An “oooooooohhhh” went up from the crowd.
“Dear Acolytes, I think she accepts!” proclaimed Natalia.
“Go to hell.”
The crowd laughed, but not with her. The psychic tutted.
“So rude, little empath,” she said, shaking her head, “A terrible quality.”
“Screw you all,” Jane snarled, “I’m not letting you in my head.”
Natalia smiled, bending low with and expression of mock disappointment. “Oh, but you misunderstand darling. It’s just a game – we’re all about games here.” She turned to the room and the room rang back its resounding agreement. “See?” she smiled at her, showing sharp white teeth, “Just a bit of harmless fun.”
“Jane,” Matt warned again, louder this time, but Jane wasn’t listening. She glared at Natalia, then up at James.
“Leave me alone.”
“We’ll leave you alone,” smirked James, arms crossed, “Just pass this little test and I swear, hand on my heart, nobody-” he gestured around the Hall, and the Hall agreed between fits of laughter, “-will bother you ever again.”
“Twenty seconds,” smiled Natalia. She was tiny next to the rippling mountain of muscle that was James, but somehow that only made her look fiercer, less human. “No, fifteen. Ten. Keep me out for ten seconds, and you’ll have earnt yourself the respect and admiration-” she said the words with a grand, mocking wave, “-of everyone here.”
“A true Acolyte,” assured James, grinning murder.
“Proved and proper,” said Natalia, her dark eyes gleaming.
Jane hesitated. Instinct told her to run, that this was a trap, obviously a trap – but ten seconds? Ten lousy seconds and she’d beat them, ten seconds and she could get them all off her back? Ten seconds. How long was ten seconds? Not that long. All she had to do was clear her mind, hold her breath, endure, for ten measly seconds…
“Jane!” Matt cried, but she didn’t hear him. She could do it. It was possible. Mental defence had never been her best subject, but if she just thought hard enough, if she concentrated, maybe she could…
“Ok,” she muttered – and a cheer went out around the room. Natalia’s smile widened.
“Ok,” the psychic smiled. And then her eyes narrowed and her fingers flew to her temple.
Instantly, Jane was gripped by searing, screaming pain. The world around her warped and wafted, twisting sight and smell and sound into a spinning river of silver shards slicing into her skull, burning through her brain. I am- she tried to think, tried desperately to hold onto but before she could even finish creating the thought it was gone, torn away, and she was falling, tumbling down through her memories, her subconscious, every hope and dream and fear and feeling-
She wasn’t in her body, she wasn’t anywhere, she was nothing…
She was falling…
She was screaming…
And then it stopped.
Jane coughed, weak and wet and sick. She blinked sluggishly, her vision blurry, her head spinning. She was on the floor, cold wood and granules of dirt beneath her hands, beneath her knees. How had she…? Where was… why?
Her ears rang with delirium, and under that another sound, more distant, more real. Waves of echoing laughter, laughing at… at her. She tried to look up, struggled against the wavering dizziness, the rushing and the ringing – saw a girl in front of her, white skinned and black haired, ivory-teethed and ebony-eyed. She was laughing most of all, throwing her sleek head back, grinning from ear to ear. Her vision wavered, the figure split into three – and behind her, high up and far away, the sigil of the Legion and the uniforms of Dawn stared down in silent judgement.
The black man and white woman, matching pieces on a chessboard, were speaking.
“Oh… ladies and gentlemen… come now… that’s just sad…”
Jane tried to focus, tried to force her mind back into place. She heard a small voice say her name, and through blurred eyes saw a familiar hand subtly offered to her right – but Jane snarled and pushed it lurchingly away. She didn’t need… she tried to move, tried to place one unsteady foot on the ground, but her leg just wavered and wobbled, unable to support her weight.
“Poor little Leech.” Through the haze, Jane could still hear the psychic speaking, her words rolling through the Hall. “It’s a sad story really, my heart goes out to her, it really does…” Jane strained her neck, pulled her eyes up to see the psychic shaking her head in mock pity.
“Leech, whose middle name is Euphemia-” there was a wave of laughter, “-and who slept with a teddy bear until she was fourteen-” more laughter, “-has been to seventeen schools! At least she thinks she has – she’s almost lost count!”
Natalia was turning around now, addressing the crowd of gleeful onlookers. “She has no friends, terrible grades and – I’m sorry to say – a truly, truly, mediocre mind. I’m afraid James, you might be right.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval, then stopped and let out a peal of chortling laughter. “But that’s not even the funniest part. You want to know the funniest part?”
The Hall jeered. Natalia held her hand to her ear, where a diamond stud sat sparkling.
“I can’t hear you,” she said, all sing-song, “I said, who wants to know the funniest part?!”
Another roar, even louder. Cups banged on tables, feet thumped on floor. So much noise. There was a pounding behind Jane’s eyes. She felt like she was going to be sick.
“The funniest part,” crowed the psychic, “The funniest part is that she misses her mommy.”
Jane’s heart clenched in her chest, as a derisive “Awwwwww” went up around the room.
“Yeah…” pouted the girl, “Misses her poor, dead mommy, every day, every night before she goes to sleep. Awwww….” Then her face hardened. “Poor woman probably killed herself for having such a useless freak for a daughter.”
The room erupted into squalls of laughter, loud and cackling all around her. Blood pounded in Jane’s ears. She tried to push herself up, her arms shaking, all strength from them gone. She looked up at the pretty, smiling little girl, and she had never hated anyone more in her life.
“I’ll kill you,” she whispered, but the girl only laughed.
“Careful Leech,” she said with a sneer, “Or I’ll make you mess yourself.” Jane tried again to rise, only to fall forward again, trembling, onto her hands and knees. Another wave of laughter echoed around the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think she wants some more!” Natalia laughed. Her eyes narrowed to slits and her fingers touched lightly to her temple. “Alright then little parasite. Let’s see if we can’t go even deeper this time,” she whispered.
But then suddenly a dark shape stepped in front of Jane – and someone else spoke.
“Come on,” said a familiar voice, “That’s enough.”
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).