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“You can stay here.”
“We don’t want to stay here.”
“You have to.” Mrs. Phipps said, blocking the path through the doorway. Outside of here was safe.
The feeling of danger crept Alexandra’s neck, flushing her cheeks burgundy. I’m sure that, if anybody had really looked, they’d have seen the same stress response in me. Alex tugged at her collar, the stiff shirt no longer just a piece of the uniform, but a restriction.
They hadn’t seen me - I didn’t allow that, so instead they stared at Mrs. Phipps and Mr. Hodge with wide, scared eyes. They looked like deer caught in the headlights, knowing something bad was going to happen yet powerless to avoid being hurt.
“Why do we have to stay here?” another girl squeaked, her pitch high and irritated. It was growing stuffier –if even possible- and the oxygen supply seemed to be depleting quickly. We were in the Religious Studies classroom of the old English school. It smelt of old bibles and other sacred texts that lined the bookshelves, and of the decaying wooden desks catering to students’ needs for the last quarter century.
There were only three ways to get out. The first was blocked by the teachers. The second was out of the window, dropping two hundred metres to the concrete below – not an advisable route. The third (most-likely) was an unused door hidden at the back. It leads to the History and Geography classrooms and the old servants’ staircase. Down three flights, through the kitchen tunnels and out through the courtyard. That was my planned route of exit.
Mr. Hodge scratched his bald patch with short, stumpy fingers. It wasn’t difficult to see his receding hairline – even at five feet three inches; I was two inches taller than him. The girl with the backpack shuffled nervously, shifting the weight between hips. She was carrying heavy textbooks and folders from the previous class. She’d expected to drop them at her locker, five minutes ago, not anticipating that her forearms would be aching with strain and her heart thumping with panic.
It had surprised them when they’d been stopped by the teachers – the students were acting completely normal, nothing wrong. Not if you didn’t know what to look for. But if you did, the answer would be blindingly obvious; it’s energy pulsing, like a raindrop falling into a calm stretch of water. The thing was literally rippling the surrounding air.
“Chloe. I must do a bag search. I believe you are carrying something against school policy on your person.” Hodge said, sniffing to push wire-framed spectacles up his nose. The girl carrying the folders looked dumbfounded.
Students were constantly reminded to have impeccable manners and behave appropriately, scared of rebellious consequences. I knew that Chloe would never break the rules. Correction: never knowingly break the rules. She shrugged the backpack from her arm. Her friends eyed her with caution, her teachers with hunger. Now was my moment.
I felt the tingle; over in a millisecond, no less painful than being scolded for an hour. Naturally, the teachers saw me first. The cat-like gleam of their eyes flickered to the glimmering creature perched on a bookcase, as I had been for the last ten minutes. The humans didn’t register me until I’d swiped the backpack away. By then, I was halfway out of the rear classroom door.
The teachers moved quickly but not fast enough. I knew that if either of them were to succeed, it would be Mrs. Phipps. She was tall –at least six foot- her long limbs throwing the door shut. The stout Mr. Hodge threw himself across the desks, but instead of stopping me, he’d ended up in a pile of textbooks and folders. I was too quick, already in the History classroom when Phipps slammed the door.
She knew my intentions. She ran the corridor entering the History room. If I sprinted, I could out-run her. And I definitely didn’t want to go out exit number two: the windows. It wouldn’t hurt, but I wouldn’t be inconspicuous anymore. Surprisingly, people tend to notice a girl soaring through the air, ten-foot wings sprouted from her back. I pulled the Geography door open and it slammed shut behind me, just as the screams began.
. . .
It was mid-winter, the weather uncharacteristically mild, the streets covered in silvery moonlight. Sirens raced towards the school, their blues and reds illuminating the night. I kept my head low, the hood of my jacket covering my face. My shoulders sulked forward and I moved quickly but weakly. Experience taught me to live unnoticed. I kept my eyes to the ground, watching sidewalk cobbles rather than the curtain-closed homes shutting out the world.
I passed a mother pushing a pram, eager to get home. This wasn’t the type of area to receive house calls from the police, yet-alone speeding to the village’s finest establishment. The Belfleur School of Excellence for Young Ladies prided itself on being the most-academically superior in the shire. Parents paid tens of thousands annually for their daughter to receive education there. No, it wasn’t the place to be involved in crime.
Most of the police were human, but others were demons like Hodge and Phipps: hungry to kill whatever had dared steal their prize. Mrs. Phipps had caught a glimpse of my hair when I’d slammed the Geography door shut. Plus I was wearing the school’s field hockey uniform, the surname ‘McKay’ scrawled in huge letters across my back. There would be a search party looking for me by now.
I’d slammed the door on her claws, hard. That was the scream. Well, the first of them. The terrible, raucous rasp that forced itself from her throat – pain the only indicator she could feel anything human. The other screams were high-pitched, soprano, terrified. Four of them.
Hodge had revealed his true face, frightening the hostages. I couldn’t save them. I’d had to run, already knowing their fate. Instead I pushed through the burning in my legs – an unfortunate side effect of the human form.
Now, the cold night air clarified my thoughts. The classroom girls were ignorant, and a proper interrogation would take months. Hodge was impatient and wanted answers now – his ego too bruised to take another setback. He’d shown his demon face – the human facade disappearing when he used his talents. Drawing energy their energy, Hodge had read them like open pages of a book. Instantly, he’d have seen that all four of them were innocent, only trying to drop the backpack off to Lost Property. Now, those poor, poor girls would be traumatised for life. Watching their Math teacher morph into a crusty beast with yellow eyes (still wearing Mr. Hodge’s clothes) had certain psychological side effects.
I walked down an old alleyway that housed the bakery and other small shops. Unusually, their lights were out, their signs reading ‘Closed, please visit another time!’ The alley formed an over-grown path out, crossing a footbridge over the river that ran alongside the village. The bridge’s original purpose was for horse and carts, now only cyclists and walkers. It meant I’d be safe from vehicle pursuit – the bridge being too small and too weak for police cars.
It was time. Humans couldn’t see in the darkness, the dull light from the village reaching its limit. I sprouted my wings, unfolding them through slits in my polo shirt and jacket. They were glorious, gilded feathers that dwarfing my otherwise human frame. I would miss them.
The egg was still safe. I took it from the backpack, feeling its warmth in my cold hands. Something so near extinction my species was bound to protect it. The human world was a cruel place for dragons.
The egg vibrated in recognition as I felt burning along my spine, focussed between my shoulders. With a cry, I felt the wings rip from my back. Dislodged, hovering the air for a moment, confused until they found their recipient. Attaching to the egg, I watched as them carry it to safety of the homeland, far from here.
My skin bubbled, reforming until I looked completely human. My wings would grow back eventually, maybe a year or so. I would mourn them, of course, but I knew my duty. Besides, I’d still have other abilities.
I sensed him before I saw him. He was earthy, organic, radiating the comfortable warmth of a human.
The weather was strange, mild temperatures and no signs of frost. The ground wasn’t slippery with ice, so he’d taken advantage cycling along this route. Unlucky.
Again, the tingling. I concentrated it to my left arm. It spread like wildfire to my fingers, but didn’t stop at the tips. Unlike demons, my talents didn’t leave humans scarred. Quite the opposite – they had induced amnesia, forgetting whatever had happened when I revealed my powers. The man on the bike wouldn’t remember me. At most, I’d be a distant figure back on the bridge.
The man shifted his cycle path so we didn’t collide. I didn’t move. Annoyingly, he bleeped his bell to capture my attention. I raised my arm, freezing him and the bike. I prised his knuckles from the handlebars and his feet clear of pedals before raising him into the air. Climbing onto his bike, I shoved a hand into my pocket, pulling out five twenties. It was old and rusty. For sale, he’d probably earn £40 for it - a very generous estimation. The other sixty was for causing any inconvenience or shock. Maybe he’d cycled twenty miles; the money would cover a taxi ride home. I opened the side-pocket of his trousers, sliding the notes in.
Turning the bike around, I lowered him to the floor before peddling off as fast as possible. He’d have a few seconds of unbalance before questioning his sanity. But he could turn around and see me. On his bike. I needed to put as much distance between us as my human lungs could manage, until the dark concealed me.
“What the?!!” He shouted, two hundred metres behind. I allowed myself a peek, seeing his amazement at the bulge of money in his pocket.
The lane curved out of the village, taking a sharp 90° turn onto another bridge across the water. I cycled up to it, climbing over the wooden style with the metal frame of the bike on my back, passing a car from the village. Female driver, mid-forties, peroxide blonde. Her small, flat eyes squinted, watching, the car cruising slowly like a huge silver shark. In the passenger seat, a young boy was pointing at me, shouting silently from the other side of the glass. As she went out of view, I caught a glimpse of her reaching for something metallic.
She was telephoning someone on her mobile. I vaguely recognised her, placing her bleached hair at the school’s parent-teacher committee. The search party. I dumped the bike in a ditch at the side of the road. She’d tell the others that I was cycling. Even in darkness she would see the Belfleur Blues jacket. I didn’t know how much of the ‘thief’s’ description she’d been given, but anyone paying the slightest interest to the school’s sports teams knew I was the only flame-haired player. Even though I kept my hood up, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that I was Poppy McKay.
The cold was starting to bite at my exposed legs, the winter temperature dropping. It would be better for my circulation and distance if I ran. I started a steady jog along the now-empty road.
The screeching hit my eardrums as two cars leading the convoy came to a halt.
“That’s her! That’s McKay!” I heard the blonde woman yelp as I was tackled to the ground from behind.