"Why can't we see her?" Rose mumbled sadly, pulling at 'Carl's' sleeve desperately.
"Because I say so, she needs rest, not visitors," he replied with a frown.
"What's wrong with her?" Zachery asked.
Francis stood against the wall with his arms folded, eyes narrowed at 'Carl' as he waved the students away from his office. He had been keeping Mara in there since Francis appeared in the hallway with her in his arms, everyone saw, even 'the others'. He had already gotten a lecture off Lupite for bringing her in the front door – not that he had much time to think as he was carrying the rambling girl.
'Carl' had just stood and stared at the two, before taking Mara off Francis and disappearing into his office. Needless to say, Francis wasn't happy. He needed to see Mara and this stupid creep wasn't letting him.
"Francis, you should go too," 'Carl' said as he looked down at the vampire.
Francis raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything as he turned around to follow the rest of the gang out into the main hallway. They all stood in a group, not a single one moved away from one another. After a moment of utter silence, it was Alice that spoke first.
"So, how do we get in?"
Francis' lips pulled into a smirk, showing his pointed teeth – something he didn't do often. "Well, if there's one thing you have to say about Stonemoore's students, they know their way around their school."
Clara was next to speak, reminding everyone just how close she and Francis actually were. Their minds were thinking on exactly the same lines. "Dorm G2, you'll be in charge of the teacher watch. Dorm B2, you'll be in charge of the 'other' watch. Dorm ones', I guess we'll be meeting in HQ for more details. I believe Penelope can get us some... equipment?"
"You bet I can. In a way I'm a little grateful for my past life. I'll drop them off soon," Penelope winked before running off out of the Academy main doors.
"Alright then everyone, let's split," Chad said with a clap of his hands. Without another word, every student went off in a different direction, taking different routes to get to wherever they were heading so as not to raise suspicion.
Francis, Chad and Clara headed through the dining room – aiming for the door at the back that led up a small staircase to the upper floors. Chad opened the door, standing aside to let Clara pass first.
"Well, what on earth are you lot up to?"
In perfect sync, the three students looked back round together, their eyes locked on the two who had entered the room behind them.
Anton smiled sweetly at the little group, hands placed carefully in his jacket pocket. Behind him stood Marie, looking grave and silent as usual. Something thick hung in the air between them, something unsaid, and something that sent shivers down even a vampire and ghost.
"Just heading back upstairs, do you have a problem with that?" Clara asked, her voice pleasant, but her eyes threatening.
"Of course not, I just wonder why you didn't take the main staircase," Anton shrugged innocently.
"Well we figured we'd take a short cut. After all, someone needs to keep these passages in use," Chad shrugged.
Marie's expression didn't change as she spoke. "Well, perhaps we should also use these passages."
"Only the Head students get permission to use them. It's one of our jobs to make sure the old passageways don't crumble. Use the main routes like everyone else," Francis growled.
"I wasn't aware these two were Head's," Anton chuckled.
"Deputies, but we don't really have many duties like Francis and Mara do," Chad explained.
A hint of something crossed Anton's features just before his expression turned worried. "How is Mara? What happened to her?"
Francis had to hold back the sudden urge to leap onto the boy for even speaking her name. It was a perfectly innocent question, but the ancient vampire had lived enough to know when someone was hiding something – and these two were certainly not to be trusted.
As usual, Chad and Clara came to his rescue - or Anton's rescue depending on point of view – and jumped into action without even a second thought. Clara took Francis' hand and began to drag him towards the staircase with a small wave at the others, leaving Chad to wrap up the conversation.
"Oh she's fine, just fainted when we were in town. Probably been working too hard on her science paper. If you'll excuse us, we have a Head Student meeting planned to distribute Mara's duties until she feels better." Chad always made talking to people seem easy, especially those he didn't want to talk to. He seemed to be better at making conversations with people he wanted to avoid than people he actually liked; sometimes Francis envied him for this skill.
Without letting Anton or Marie get another word in, the three headed up the stairs, Chad pulling the door to a firm close behind them. They walked in silence, all unsure as to whether they could be heard or not. It wasn't until Clara reached the passage end and pushed the door at the top open. It opened out into one of the upstairs classrooms, a door at the back that looked like a normal storage cupboard.
"I don't like those guys," Francis complained as he sat down on one of the desks.
"None of us do, there's something... off about them. Almost too obviously so," Chad added as he shut the door. Clara nodded in agreement as she drummed her fingers against a desk with a puzzled look.
Both boys glanced over at her expectantly, knowing fine well that she clearly had something bubbling on the edge of her mind. They didn't bother to ask, simply waiting for that bubbling to overflow like it always did with Clara – one of the huge differences between her and Mara.
"Why are we doing this?" she asked.
"Doing what?" Chad took a step closer to her.
Looking between her two friends, Clara's eyebrows were furrowed in confusion. "Why are we trying to break into 'Carl's' office just to see Mara – he isn't the enemy here, so why are we so worried?"
Without warning, Francis had placed a hand against Clara's forehead, leaning in as if trying to check her temperature.
"That's exactly why I'm worried – because I keep second guessing myself over everything, like I can't make a decision," He pulled away finally and punched Clara's cheek playfully. "And you know me, I always make a decision. Just not always the right one."
"All our heads are screwed up, like someone's messing with our thoughts. 'Carl' knows something, it's obvious, but he won't say anything to anyone – and that's not how things work around here," Chad added with a sympathetic smile as he moved over to stand beside Clara and nudge her with his shoulder.
With Clara seeming reassured, the three made their way down the quiet hallways until they finally reached the Student HQ. Iris and Will were already there, sitting beside each other as they talked in hushed voices. Their heads snapped up as the others entered, but looked relieved when they saw who it was.
"You're acting like you were expecting someone else," Clara pointed out.
"Ah, just Onyx following us around. You know the drill," Will shrugged with a dry laugh.
"Diane is helping G2, since Onyx is being a handful. So it's just us," Iris added, looking a lot less happy about the situation.
Clara giggled, and then proceeded to sit herself down in one of the bean bags. Chad found his place on the armchair and Francis was left to lean around the back of the sofa – facing away from the others.
"So, whilst it feels extremely odd to break into a teacher's office, we best come up with a plan." Iris leaned forward slightly.
"We've broken into offices before. Remember last month when Miss Romford confiscated Chad's science kit?" Clara laughed as Chad pouted at the memory.
Will joined in the laughter, "Yes, but that was just a joke, plus we later discovered it was all a test from Mr Lupite."
"And that wasn't 'Carl'..."
No one spoke in reply to Francis' comment, because they all know it was true. The reality of what they were about to do was hitting them hard.
The door creaked open, claiming the group's attention. Iris and Will both looked happy once again when Penelope appeared with a black bag over her shoulder – looking awfully heavy.
"So, we ready to be hooked up?" she grinned, pulling an earpiece from the bag quickly to show the others.
"Ouch! Watch where you put that foot Francis!"
"Then stop moving your hand there!"
"Guys, will you cut the arguments and focus please?" Will's voice chastised through the earpieces.
"There should be a turn off coming up on your left Iris, that's the one we're heading for," Chad's voices added.
"Affirmative!" Iris giggled as she quickly took the left. "You guys ok back there?"
Both Francis and Clara let out irritated grumbles that couldn't really be deciphered. The three of them were crawling on their hands and knees through the venting system in order to get to 'Carl's' office, Will and Chad had hacked into the school's computer mainframe to get the directions. From what they could hear through the earpiece, it seemed that the B2 boys had caused some massive problem that included Liam and Calvin being tangled in the tennis nets, and G2 girls (plus Diane) were showing the 'others' some of the sites on the ground. Penelope was sitting in HQ with all the electrical equipment acting like an evil genius.
"The second exit on the floor is the one leading to 'Carl's' office guys, be careful!" Will warned.
"Right," Clara whispered back. They finally reached the exit, but couldn't make anything out through the grate.
"Everyone, we have 'Carl' in sight at the gym," Zachery's voice said, giving them the clear.
Iris pulled out the screwdriver from her belt that Penelope had given her earlier and began to unscrew the grate.
"Why can't you just let me tear it apart?" Francis growled over impatiently.
"Sure, like that wouldn't make him suspect something," Clara snarled back.
Iris tucked the screwdriver away and pulled the grate up, providing an entrance into the office. "Got it!" she exclaimed proudly, reaching back to make Francis hand her the rope that he had tied around his arm. Throwing one end out of the grate, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure the others were ready. Clara gave the thumbs up as she double checked the other end of the rope was fastened securely around her waist, and Francis nodded that he was ready too.
She slid down the rope, to land neatly on the floor of the office, Francis soon joining behind her – without using the rope though. Straightening up, the two of them scanned the office. How they had managed to land on a part of the floor was a miracle, the rest of the room was littered with everything and anything imaginable – and probably a few things that simply couldn't be imagined.
Francis and Iris exchanged a shocked look, before heading off in different directions to search for Mara in this maze of a room. It was Iris who found her first, lying sound asleep on a torn sofa right in the corner of the room. A faded blanket over her, and her head propped up on a tacky checked cushion.
"Mara?" Iris whispered as she crouched beside her friend.
The Head Girl's eyes slowly opened, though it took much longer for the white orbs to focus onto Iris properly. Smiling slightly, Mara opened her mouth to speak but seemed to be unable to and shook her head with a frown instead.
"What's going on?" Iris asked with narrowed eyes.
"Ssh!" Mara complained, scrunching her eyes up.
Francis appeared behind Iris, looking down at Mara with a troubled expression. "Mara? What's wrong with you?"
"Oh, well lookie here, how ironic," Mara chuckled in a voice that was much harsher than usual. "A vampire and Decease asking how I am... that's funny."
Iris flinched at the use of her birth name, whereas Francis just rolled his eyes.
"I hate your Dad..." Mara growled at Iris.
Iris forced a laugh, trying to lighten the mood, "You're not the only one."
"He could have taken me too... I could have been saved..." Mara croaked out.
"That kinda contradicts the point of 'Death'... he doesn't save people, idiot," Francis muttered.
"Not true. He can save people by taking them. If he had done that with me, the stars would never have caused all these problems..."
Iris looked up to Francis with a look of both confusion and worry, but the vampire was too focused on Mara to notice. "Stars? What stars Mara? You've got to explain!"
"Guys! We lost 'Carl'! One moment he was here, the next, poof!" Liam's voice yelled through the earpiece.
"And we've got nowhere else to take these guys!" Rose added in a panicked whisper.
"Francis, let's go!" Iris ordered, heading back to the grate with one last worried glance at Mara.
Grabbing her shoulders, Francis shook Mara slightly, his eyes wide and frantic.
"What stars? Mara tell me now!" he snarled.
"Francis!" Iris called from somewhere, as she climbed back up the rope to Clara.
"He has them to... my stars... he has them!" Mara whispered, sitting up to look at Francis as she blinked.
The door creaked.
"Mara, what stars?"
"The ribbons... they're all him, aren't they? He's using the stars!" Mara exclaimed, a glimmer of life returning to her eyes.
There was a quiet crackling sound as the earpiece died.
"Who? Tell me!"
The door slammed.
She blinked again, her hands grasping Francis' arm and shaking him in return – she seemed so awake. "Francis! He's... he's going to destroy you all! I can't... do anything! Please... please stop him! You have to promise me you'll stop that bastard –"
Mara gasped slightly, and twitched like she had just been electrocuted.
Footsteps drew closer.
"Mara!" Francis yelled.
Her body went limp. Her eyes closed.
"Francis," a voice hissed from behind.
Turning around, Mara's sleeping body resting against his chest, Francis looked up into 'Carl's' glower.
"Did you really just break into my office?" he asked.
"Then I suggest you leave at once, and keep this to yourself," 'Carl' shrugged – seeming a lot less angry all of a sudden. He pushed the Head Boy aside to lie Mara back down on the sofa, before tucking the blanket around her again.
It took a while before Francis found himself able to move, but once he could he stood up on his shaking legs and left the office without another word or question – not even a glance behind.
As he shut the office door behind him, he found himself face to face with Lupite, who wore an evil smirk as he stared down at him.
"So, looks like you're in trouble," he grinned.
"Yep," Francis grumbled – suddenly forgetting everything that had just happened as the irritation of Lupite's presence kept his mind occupied. He turned and aimed to walk back to his room, but a hand grabbing his collar stopped him in his tracks.
"And where do you think you're going, kid?"
Francis looked back to glower at Lupite. "To my room, to think about what I did."
"Like hell you are! There's a certain gym that's just dying to be ran around twenty times," Lupite grinned maliciously.
Francis scoffed and pulled away from Lupite's grasp to smirk back at him. "Twenty times? Surely you know how easy that is for me?"
"Oh but you surely you know that because of the school's current situation you can't show off too much of your 'whack' skills!"
The smile dropped from Francis' face faster than Lupite could blink – causing the teacher to fall into fits of proud laughter. Making anyone run that was cruel enough, making a vampire who was used to running at exceptional speeds run that at a human pace? That was torture.