The main building resembled a storybook castle. Built of pristine white brick, the walls sparkled with chips of mica and hematite and glittered in the early morning sun as they soared gracefully overhead. They swept into turrets at each of the four corners, a majestic representation of the four elements defying ground and gravity all at once. Clay dyed royal blue capped each of these. It spread across the main roof of the building and melded with the sky in a dazzling blaze of color.
No moat surrounded the graceful walls, but a dotting of sweeping willows billowed gently in the breeze. A circle of thirteen surrounded the castle in a near perfect circle. And around each of these, a ring of white heather circled the aging trunks. In between each of these grew a symmetric ring of anise hyssop.
Teagan Calder hated it on sight.
The scene hung textbook pretty in front of them, but that perfectly polished portrait lost its luster mere yards away. Behind the beaten footpath running through the campus, the neglect shone through. Oh, beyond it was well cared for, but here, where the humans dwelt, age and weather showed the damages they'd wrought. The grass grew a little less lush and looked far more sallow than green. The flowers, where they struggled through the weak light, sprouted sparse and frail.
Just like the humans, the area would never be more than second-class.
Looking out across the quad, it would have been impossible to tell that not a single human had crossed that hard-packed earth, or that those on the other side were anything but. Other than their beauty, no difference announced that those across the divide stoked magic in their veins. Nothing except the sheer, mind-boggling power that rolled off of them in waves.
It scraped at Teagan's stomach like a steel-clad fist. Bracing herself, she clambered up the roughly hewn steps – careful to keep to the left side of the path and away from the shapeshifters' and witches' right of way.
The first mixed class of her entire life occurred today. The first time she and other humans would have to interact with the witches and the shapeshifters like equals, to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. It had been sixty years since the Council had enacted the anti-discrimination laws, sixty-five since the shapeshifters and witches had been forced to pretend the humans were equals. Despite all of that, this was still just a game to them, a way the politicians could tout their good will and all the benefits they poured on the human race, when in reality, nothing had changed.
The inside of the building was no less impressive than the exterior. Wide marble slats veined with silver and dusty rose quartz spanned the breadth of it, while the walls soared imposingly to the cathedral-high ceilings. Doorways edged in dark cherry stood like soldiers guarding an army of classrooms. Meticulously carved benches in the same dark cherry graced the spaces between the doors.
They had not been placed there for human use. Even if she hadn't seen the Others – a term often used to described the witches, the shapeshifters, or both – lounging against the benches, they left an indelible print behind that rubbed like sandpaper against her skin. She came to her classroom and ducked inside.
It was a mistake. The second she stepped through that broad doorway, the smells assaulted her senses and magic swelled sickeningly. The Others weren't even bothering to be covert about it. Taking shallow breaths, she tried not to be overwhelmed.
Lion. Snake – a cobra? a rattler? She couldn't tell. Birds. A whole flock of different sizes, shapes, and colors. Jaguar. Reptile. She clung to her books while the back of her neck crawled. The power pushed at her, prickling along her skin, sliding over her senses, until she could taste it. If she didn't remember to breathe, she was going to choke.
With some effort, she pushed the heavy auras away from her. Air flowed back around her and she took a calming breath. Her vision slipped back into normal shapes and lines. When it did, she finally noticed her best friend frowning at her in concern. To get to her, she would have to pass three rows of Others, an issue she noted with no little trepidation.
Breathe, she reminded herself, you just need to make it past them. She moved carefully around the front of the room and over to the desks that had been designated for them. An empty row of desks marked a clear line between the Others and the humans. Teagan knew it was not an accident.
As she passed the outer row of students, one of them leaned out of his chair, darting close to her like a snake dancing. He inhaled the air next to her skin and let out a little hiss of displeasure. "Half-breed," he sneered.
Teagan stumbled past him. Breathe, she repeated, then she tumbled into the seat next to her best friend.
Avery Hallihan was human. Human, Teagan thought, but the ethereal quality of the others shone through her wide, almond shaped lavender eyes. Russet curls framed her petite, heart-shaped face, but no pure magic glowed behind that delicate magnolia skin. She'd barely bothered with her appearance that morning. Though, to be fair, Teagan couldn't really blame her. None of them could afford the shimmering costly clothes that the Others wore. Why even bother?
"What are you doing?" Avery snapped. Her heavily lashed violet eyes flicked cautiously in the direction of the Others, but she didn't allow her gaze to rest on any of them. "Trying to get yourself killed?"
Teagan yanked her arm out of Avery's grasp, willing herself to calm down. "Stop it," she said. The heightened emotion arching between them amplified the tension in the classroom. Avery might not have been aware of it, but the shapeshifters fed off of those sentiments. It wouldn't do to set one of them off on the first day of class. "When did you get here?"
"Aidan dropped me off," she said after a moment, her watchful violet eyes never leaving Teagan's face. "Before his first class."
Any further conversation was cut off as the instructor slinked into the room. He surveyed them dispassionately and set a stack of books on the desk. The corners of his mouth tilted down when he saw the row of empty desks in the middle of the room.
"Good morning," he said, and Teagan noticed that his eyes were the pale amber of a wolf's. "I'm going to pass around the syllabus and then we'll go over it. But first, let's check attendance." He removed a stark white sheet of paper that might have held fifty names. "Amanda Abrams?"
The girl was human. Teagan was sure of it. Not only was she sitting on their side of the divide, but she had the scared look of prey. The next student was human as well, then a shapeshifter and a witch. She'd heard that a handful of students from the most prominent families in the country would be entering the school this year, and she wondered if she would share any classes with them.
She switched her attention to the fresh white notebook in front of her, her pen scratching idly against the blank surface while she let her mind wander. As the names were called out, she absently classified them by their race. Shapeshifter. Witch. Shapeshifter. Shapeshifter. Human.
The boy who'd scented her earlier flashed a feral grin in the teacher's direction. "Here."
One question answered. Colin Graethe's family lead one of the most powerful shapeshifting clans on the East Coast. They were allied with at least two other powerful clans and the most prominent coven of witches in the country. Teagan studied him covertly from across the room, willing him not to notice.
He had the sinuous movements and bronze hair just like the rest of his family, complete with the engaging ebony gaze. It hadn't been a cobra or a rattler she'd smelled earlier. It had been anaconda.
Clearly at home among the ranks of Others on the other side of the classroom, he winked at a dark-hair witch and smirked at a rail-thin shapeshifter in the row beside him. He already seemed to know most of the students on that side of the room. Teagan wasn't surprised.
A quick glance at Avery showed the illusion of boredom. Outwardly, she nearly oozed it, but Teagan could smell the underlying fear. Her friend surreptitiously avoided looking at the other half of the room. It was, unconsciously, the action of a submissive, and they were going to eat her alive.
Teagan sighed and went back to mentally categorizing her fellow classmates. Witch. Human. Human. Human. She was in the middle of classifying the next one as a shapeshifter when the teacher called out a name she hadn't been expecting. Sitting ramrod straight in her chair, she felt a sick feeling settle in the pit of her stomach.
"Here," Nasira Ifrit responded coolly. "And I prefer to be called Sira."
Even Teagan wasn't bold enough to look at her openly. She slid a glance out of the corner of her eye, taking in the pale copper hair and innocent green eyes. Colin Graethe was known because of his family. Sira Ifrit was known because she was feared. Although nothing had ever been proven, the tiny shapeshifter had been rumored to be behind numerous assassinations of human rights activists and witch families alike. The incongruous discrepancy between her reputation and her appearance stunned Teagan. She resembled, to be blunt, a porcelain doll that someone had pampered and primped into perfection.
She looked like she should be having afternoon tea parties with make-believe friends, but popular legend said her favorite toys came in steel and sharp edges. It was no surprise that even the witches and other shapeshifters looked uncomfortable at her mere presence.
Teagan shifted her gaze abruptly to her notebook before Sira realized she'd been one of those staring. This was one of those times when it was best not to draw attention to herself. She'd managed to mask her own unease as well, but she could smell it on the humans around her. They reeked of it.
Several seconds later, she realized that her indolent doodling had blossomed into a string of ornate symbols. Symbols she wasn't supposed to be able to use, and therefore symbols she couldn't know. The heavy stroke of her pen slashed them out before anyone could see them. She pressed the tip into the page, blacking out every last curve of ink.
She had to start paying attention.
Another one of the illustrious few. She gazed around the room, careful not to let her eyes rest on Sira.
"Call me Kai."
Although he was sitting, she could tell he was tall, with a lean, rangy build and a muscled body, his movements liquid amber and controlled with the grace of a cat. He had cheekbones to die for and a mouth so beautifully sculpted that it should have been immortalized.
He was completely golden, with burnished spiky hair and spinning ingot eyes. The sun-kissed skin spoke of lengthy time spent outdoors. He was beautiful, and in that first glance, Teagan could tell that he was dangerous.
That knowledge burning in her chest, she stared uncomprehendingly at her notebook while the teacher finished taking attendance. When the syllabi made their way to the human side of the classroom, she took hers automatically and passed it on. Then she read through it twice before she realized she had no idea what it said.
The instructor finished calling roll. Setting the paper down, he looked over the class levelly, his gaze appraising. "I'm Dr. Adamson," he said. Teagan was pleased to note that he didn't skim over the humans like they were worthless. "Tomorrow we'll have assigned seating."
Protests rose all around the classroom, from the humans, shapeshifters, and witches alike. Just when Teagan thought chaos would prevail, his voice cut through the noise acidly. "It isn't up for negotiation. Look at the first page of your syllabus."
Another furtive glance around the room showed something surprising. While most of the students looked disgruntled, Sira Ifrit's face was utterly blank. She appeared completely unaffected by Adamson's announcement. Colin Graethe was openly sneering. Kai Ochiern merely looked bored.
Interesting. She picked up her syllabus and waited to see what Adamson would do.
He started by reading the discrimination notice at the top. "'Hargrove University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Institution. The University does not discriminate on the basis of age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, color, or – and I stress this -- race in the administration of any of its educational programs, activities, or with respect to admission or employment. Faculty, staff, students, and applicants are protected from retaliation for filing complaints or assisting in an investigation under the University's Equal Opportunity Policy/Affirmative Action Plan.'" He lowered the paper with a grim stare. "You may think that you can get away with whatever you like because of your last name, but in my class, racism will not be tolerated. After the first offense, you will be asked to leave the classroom. After the second, you will be reported to the administration. The third will result in an unforgivable F."
Silence settled over the classroom and Adamson finally smiled.
"Now that we have that out of the way, welcome to World History, or History 102."
They read through the rules, requirements, and grading criteria, and listed the required textbooks. Teagan had already purchased hers. Adamson seemed strict, but not racist, something Teagan was extremely grateful for. She'd already felt Avery relax beside her. Her interest perked up when the instructor began detailing what they would cover. Human rights would apparently be a widely explored topic. But first, they would start with when the witches created the shapeshifters and their struggle for power. It had been so long ago that most of the shapeshifters acted like they had never been second class citizens, but Teagan wondered how closely the humans' continuing struggle would mirror their own.
An hour later, class was dismissed, and Teagan was relieved to know that at least one class would be bearable. She and Avery had roughly the same schedule – they shared all but one class tomorrow – and they were free for the next two hours.
Avery started to rise from her seat, but Teagan stopped her. "Wait," she said softly.
Colin Graethe and Kai Ochiern loitered outside the wide door, all casual smiles and easy banter, but Teagan knew they were waiting. Colin wasn't quite focused, his responses a heartbeat off. Kai's gaze slid ever so cautiously to the right. They waited for the rest of the Others to exit the classroom. To Teagan's surprise, it was Sira who saved them. She couldn't hear what the shapeshifter said, but with only vague disappointment clouding their eyes, they followed her away from the classroom.
Shouldering her bag, Teagan finally moved away from the desks.
"What was that all about?" Avery demanded.
"Hmm?" Lost in thought, Teagan stared blankly at her.
She had no doubt Colin and Kai had been waiting for her. The way Colin had inhaled next to her skin, tasting her aura, and the flat look he had given her were dead giveaways. Half-breed, he'd called her. Well, at least he'd used the more polite version. But the memory of the look in his eyes still made her shudder.
She would have to be careful, she realized, throwing a wary glance over her shoulder while her fear dropped like ice into her stomach. She saw no one, but even she knew the shadows were deceptive. They more often hid as much as they revealed. She shivered and turned her attention back to her friend. "What did you say?"
A sigh of exasperation. "Really, Tea, what's up with you today? First you flaunt yourself in front of the shapeshifters like a giant stick of cotton candy, and now you're out in La-la Land." She shook her head, her upturned nose wrinkled in vexation. "I asked what that was all about. Any reason we had to be the last people out of the classroom?"
Teagan frowned at her. "You just accused me of parading myself in front of a shapeshifter like a carnival treat and you still have to ask that question?"
Avery shrugged. "We're supposed to meet Aidan and Cian outside of the library. Come on."
With that, she took off in a near sprint across campus, careful to stay on the humans' side of the path. Teagan hurried to catch up with her. Although Avery was several inches shorter than she was, she moved quickly. Teagan didn't even question how she knew where the library was; she simply made sure she kept up.
When they stopped maybe a mile away, Avery breathed easily, as if she'd been under no strain at all. Teagan was tempted to strangle her, but Avery's brother and his friend were waiting beneath the shade of an elm tree, and so instead she smiled.
Cian Merrick smiled sweetly back at her, dimples winking in his chiseled cheeks. Pale blond hair, tanned skin, and silvery gray eyes gave him the incongruous appearance of an angel, albeit a fallen one. The expression in his eyes was just a little too feral and the twist of his mouth a smidge too disillusioned.
Aidan Hallihan's appearance contrasted sharply, boasting the same russet hair as his sister and a brighter shade of the same core-of-a-flame lavender eyes. While Cian wore his hair short and cropped close to his head, Aidan's spiked with natural blond highlights. They were both tall, lanky, and smoothly muscled in that way that only human males were, without the preternatural fluidity of the Others.
"Hey, guys," she said softly.
Aidan wrapped her in a quick hug that nearly crushed her ribs. He let her go too quickly to do any real damage. "It looks like you're surviving," he said. "How's your first day so far?"
Avery shrugged. "The first class was today. We have this prof named Adamson. Seems like a bit too much of an idealist."
Cian was quick to disagree. "No, Adamson's cool. And he's fair. You don't find that often around here, especially not from a shapeshifter. You'll like that class." He reached to snatch Teagan's schedule out of her hand. "What do you have next?"
The smile faded from his face as he read over her schedule. Aidan had pilfered Avery's at the same time, and even his normal nonchalance slipped when he saw their next class. They exchanged a quick and telling glance.
A few seconds later, Cian handed Teagan's back without comment. Instead, he slung an arm across her shoulder and forced a smile on his face. "Since you've got a break, we're going to let you in on a secret," he confided. The weight of his arm steered her in a direction she hadn't been before. "Best coffee on campus. You up for it?"
"You'll love it, Av," Aidan agreed. "You'll think the coffee at home is sludge compared to this stuff."
An uncomfortable, prickling sensation crawled up the back of Teagan's neck. She glanced around, but the quad was empty. The tables and benches were deserted. No students lounged on the grass. She couldn't even pinpoint a direction. She could just feel it, like the press of hot iron against her skin.
He met Teagan's eyes, his expression guarded. "Yeah?"
She sighed. "Never mind."
But she could feel the weight of eyes on her until long after they were ensconced by the café's glass doors.
As some of you who have been reading my work for years might have figured out, this is (gasp) the original fiction rewrite of Illusoire. A lot has been changed, and a lot more will be changed, but there are things you will probably recognize. Either way, I hope you enjoy.
When I originally did this, it was meant to be a trilogy, and I'm hoping to finish that out. We'll see how that goes, but this has been bugging me for weeks and months to be written, so chances are good.
However, before you see another part of this, you will most likely see Marcus, because he's been running his mouth. The point is, I will finish LtY, but this decided it wanted to make an appearance first. ;) I'd love to know what you think!
And as always, thanks to Myrika, who even when she's being evil is still being supportive. ;)