It was official.
Science was not Robert’s subject.
Robert turned his gaze and watched the gears turning in Jacob’s mind as his pen scribbled across the page, turning numbers into solutions faster than he had ever witnessed.
Sometimes Robert felt like he was in way over his head.
How could he possibly compare to the students at his school? Most of them had some incredible talent.
Jacob could work numbers into any fathomable solution with record speed.
Sam could transcribe music perfectly without an instrument while only hearing the sounds once.
Stefan had mastered mass hypnosis by the time he was six and has bested many in the God of the Night’s court before turning 10.
Ming could identify any medical ailment after one conversation with someone.
Cain was one of the only people in the world with magic capable of sensing anyone’s emotional state; due to this he’s renowned for his intense research into the subject.
Mincia excelled with battlefield strategies, ending a war between several Werewolf clans by the age of 12.
Sarah could build anything from practically nothing - she was already engineering solutions to several drought crises across the world.
Everyone in Lord Aadish’s Academy had something they were strong in - just something.
The only strength he found was that he was good at reading, his calligraphy was above average, and he was capable of mimicking any style of writing put in front of him; something Sam never let up on when they figured out he could mimic the professor’s handwriting.
Mimicking was not an art. It was not a skill nor even that useful.
Professor Clemence always praised him consistently for his work with books and had, in the past several weeks, repeatedly asked if he would consider looking into book restoration as a future career. Book restoration. The future is bright.
Everyone in the school boasted accreditation and articles under their name, while Robert only had the single paper on the healing effects of Spirit Spring water, which anyone could’ve gotten had they grown up in the vicinity of one of the only Spirit Springs that had a water source.
Jacob tapped his shoulder and pulled him from his thoughts. “I think I got it, the science stuff is always iffy, but the numbers… those worked out perfectly. Once the book started talking equations the rest was a piece of cake.”
Robert looked down at his textbook and blew air out through his lips. “I-”
Professor Millgrim cleared her throat. “Alright, let me grab your attention back up here as I think most of you have reached an understanding. Now that we’ve revisited the building blocks from chapter 6 we can move forward in the text and-”
The door swung open wide, thumping against the connecting wall from the force of it and the entire class turned to stare at the interruption.
The whispering started but was cut off by Professor Millgrim. “Ah, Professor Luken…? What can I do for you today?” She stood straighter at the front of the class.
“Good morning Professor Millgrim and class!” Professor Luken stretched, his voice carrying easily through the room. “Pardon the interruption, I was hoping to steal Mr. Robert Egan from you. I was hoping to utilize his expertise!”
Robert felt his eyes growing wider as all the eyes on the class fell upon him.
“Right, there you are!” Professor Luken beamed at him before motioning. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to bring him back in time for class, but don’t worry, I’ll catch him up to speed, Professor!”
Robert looked to Professor Millgrim who gestured for Robert to go with Professor Luken. “Have a good day, Robert.”
The whispering picked up again, louder now, as Robert gathered his bag and slung it over his shoulder before waving off Jacob.
Professor Luken tipped his head down, “study hard, everyone.”
With that, Robert heard the door close behind them as they stepped into the quieter hallway and Professor Luken was already several paces ahead of him down the hall. “This way, Robert!” He motioned without looking back and Robert jogged to catch up to him. “Do you go by Rob? Or do you prefer your full name?”
“Either works.” Robert breathed as he tried to keep pace.
“Grand! You’ve really put me through a loop, you know that? That paper was absolutely brilliant. I’ve spent the last decade or so - give or take - pulling out tiny morsels of information on the Spirit Realm with painstaking effort and you bring forth a feast with ease! Positively marvelous!” Professor Luken grinned at him. “Not a single one of my head researches could bring me a fraction of what you did.”
Robert nearly tripped trying to keep the pace as they moved up the stairs and towards the library. “Th-Thank you-”
“Come, this way! My mind works best when I’m moving - helps me process things faster. In this mortal world us thinkers need all the help we can get.” He paused for only a split second to glance towards Robert then. “Would you be alright if I recorded this conversation? Repetition brings memory, and having a flying scribe would distract, I fear.”
Robert’s eyes widened as he tried to not show how heavily he was breathing. “Uh… sure.”
“Marvelous!” He beamed, flicking his wrist as a ball of light formed beside him. Robert stared at it with wonder; how could someone create something so quickly? “There now, I’ll have to teach you that one day, very useful! We can start magic training tomorrow, no rush for it today!” He spoke as if answering Robert’s internal question.
Professor Luken certainly was an odd one, but given how most people were at the Academy it certainly wasn’t that surprising.
A year ago Robert would’ve been a lot more shocked, now it was almost expected.
The professor picked up his rapid pace again, moving down the library halls as he talked just as quickly, occasionally knocking a book off a shelf that would hover and follow after them. “Did you know that we once not only knew everything we could possibly know about the Spirit Realm, but we had actually made contact with hundreds upon thousands of its inhabitants?” He stopped to let his fingers slide over the bookshelf in thought, causing Robert to nearly run into him. “All of that knowledge was right at our fingertips… right in front of our own eyes, Robert… and poof!”
“It was lost in the Mystic Age during the Morlemnar - the Week of Darkness. I read about that when I was researching my paper.” Robert interjected.
Professor Luken gave him a strange look that morphed into a grin. “Precisely! The Knowledge Circles lost everything in that catastrophe - like everything had been wiped clean. It took far too many generations to recover what we have and I fear there are things the world will never get to know again. The Spirit Realm was never a top priority for anyone - understandably. Diseases needed researched, technology, societal structure in general… there were far more things needed to be learned, but now… now we have time. Now we can take notice again, and this one is proving to be quite difficult to learn.”
Robert still remembered the bright blue eyes of the pale spirit that found him as a child: the one he never saw again. “That’s because I think the rules change as we go.”
The professor stopped suddenly again, whipping around to look at Robert with narrowed, quizzical eyes. “Say more.” He gestured to him wildly as he reached to touch Robert’s shoulder with his other hand.
“I… uh… it’s just something I speculated as I wrote my paper, yet I didn’t have enough proof to put it in, sir.” Robert stumbled under his intense, yet curious gaze.
“That’s where the best hypotheses come from, my boy! Lay it down for me.” His gaze was unwavering.
Robert shifted. “The rules are only working half the time because it’s simply a matter of someone being there to respond to the rules. My mother used to tell me that going near the Spirit Spring was a great honor, and that we must treat it with the utmost respect… and she compared it to going to visit a stranger’s house. I didn’t think much of it until I actually got in the Spring, to which-”
“In?” Professor Luken persisted on the word. “Into… the Spring?” He shook his head. “You… you made it in?”
Robert suddenly felt doubt fill him. Did he actually make it in? Was that really a spirit he saw? No, he couldn’t be certain. He was going to cause such a terrible disappointment when Professor Luken found out. “I… I guess… I’m… I suppose I’m not certain but…”
Yet the professor immediately shifted gears, his face rapidly changing to something more eased, “no, no! It’s alright, stay calm. I don’t need perfect proofs at all, Robert! I do believe, however, that I need to hear more of this. Do you have any more classes today?”
Robert nodded. “Uh, yeah, just one more-”
“You’re going to miss it, but don’t worry I’ll catch you up to speed later, I promise! Come this way.” Professor Luken was motioning once again before he released Robert and turned, heading straight for the library wall.
Robert felt confusion fill him, there wasn’t a place left to g-
A flash of light engulfed the wall and swallowed Professor Luken whole as Robert stood with his eyes wide at the spectacle.
It was merely a moment before the professor’s head popped out of the light once again to grin at him, “are you coming?”
“I-In there?” Robert sputtered, pointing to the bright, gap in the wall before him.
“Have you not used a portal before, my boy?” Professor Luken asked with a slight laugh.
He’d heard of it, but he’d never actually seen one. His mouth went dry at the thought of going in. “Won’t we fall off the side of the Academy?”
His professor laughed a little louder, it echoed and carried throughout the library. “I promise that won’t happen, Robert. Come, time is a precious commodity we’re not granted much of!”
What a country bumpkin he must seem, Robert thought as he slowly shoved his fears down. The professor disappeared back into the glowing hole in the wall and Robert braced himself as he, too, walked straight into the unknown.
“You alright, Robert?” There was an echo behind his voice.
Robert’s eyes were sealed shut, yet even when he opened them all he saw was darkness save for the cold fog crawling up his ankles. He jumped backwards and was caught by a steady arm. “Where are we?” He choked out, the same echo following his own voice as if they were talking into a chasm of emptiness.
“The in-between.” Professor Luken said gently, his face filled with a warm concern. “I hate that this is how I first introduce you to this part of magic, but the last thing I wanted to do was drag you through a teleportation spell.”
“Is there a difference?” Robert asked, doing his best to not cling to his professor’s arm as they started walking.
“Quite! Portals are more stable, but require more energy, it takes you to the same place every time - namely, here - and then you navigate from there. Teleportation spells are wild and hard to control, they get you places faster, but have adverse side effects. It’s the difference between using an elevator to descend floors compared to a bungee cord.”
Professor Luken continued talking, his voice echoing back, yet Robert was no longer listening.
He spared a glance around the desolate landscape, feeling this eerie familiarity wash over him. The darkness threatened to consume him but he pulled his gaze away, desperately searching for Professor Luken’s consistent form that cut through the blackness.
It felt strangely familiar - like he’d been here before.
Somewhere like here before, but different.
“Is this the Spirit Realm?” Robert mumbled, yet it went unheard. He couldn’t shake that he knew this place. He’d been here before - the magic tingling on his skin felt entirely the same.
“Here we go, right here.” Professor Luken made a gesture with his hand that sparked a suddenly bright light. The white light washed over Robert’s vision and he was once again a part of the normal world.
It was like gravity hit Robert all at once and he nearly crumpled to his knees as he used a nearby table for support. He straightened himself almost immediately so Professor Luken wouldn’t see.
“This is my office, Robert. Please, make yourself at home.” He snapped his fingers and the chairs began to shift in place, moving to knock Robert’s knees out so he collapsed back into its cushioned seat. Very carefully he sat in the one across from Robert, looking at him with curious eyes. “Now I believe you and I have a lot to talk about.”
“Rooooob!” His name was elongated as Stefan ambushed him from behind. “I hear you got yanked out of class yesterday, lucky-skunk!”
“Hardly lucky,” Robert groaned. “I already struggle with science, I don’t need more of a reason to.”
Sam had been right behind Stefan and he gave him a half-shrug. “I hear that! I usually just beg Sarah to help me.”
Stefan snorted, “you should really see it when he does, Sarah makes him go all out: groveling and all!”
“Worth it.” Sam shrugged nonchalantly. “I just need to pass, I don’t need dignity.”
Robert choked on a laugh and nodded. “Can I come beg with you next time?”
“Of course, just bring your best puppy eyes you can.” Sam stopped suddenly as they were walking and pointed. “Hey, there’s Jacob.”
Robert turned to look ahead of him as Jacob shifted awkwardly, talking to another girl in the school. “Who’s he talking to?”
“I think her name is… Ari?” Sam squinted that direction.
“Artis.” Stefan corrected. “She’s from the Midnight Hollow area. We had science together once last quarter.”
“Isn’t she the stuck-up one?” Sam looked to Stefan who nodded in response.
“Understatement of the year. Is he trying to flirt with her?” Stefan was now the one squinting in confusion.
Robert looked over and resisted a laugh. “Well, he’s trying it looks like.”
Stefan shook his head along with Sam, who closed his eyes tightly.
“Should we go save him?” Robert looked hesitantly.
“Nah, man. Sink or swim, a man’s gotta tread the two-x-chromosome water alone, lest everyone involved drown.” Sam looked forward woefully.
“What a beautiful metaphor,” Stefan complimented as he applauded him dramatically.
“Thanks, I try.”
Robert watched Artis walk away, her attitude showing with each step she took. It felt familiar in a way and reminded him a bit of how Catrina would walk. He hadn’t thought of her in quite some time.
He wondered how she was doing? It wouldn’t be long before she would become a student here, herself. Perhaps she and Artis will be friends? He could see that.
“Jaaaaake!” Sam elongated his name as Jacob approached. “We saw you drowning-er I mean, talking to Artis over there.”
Jacob grinned and looked back the way he came, “yeah,” his accent exaggerated the confirmation with a happy sigh. “She’s real pretty, ain’t she?”
Robert, once again, resisted a laugh and elbowed Jacob gently. “She didn’t seem like she was being very nice.” They all collapsed onto the sofas in the nearly-empty lounge. It was seldom there were even seats open, so they took them when they could get them.
“Huh? Oh naw, she was just fine! I think she’s just particular ‘bout who she talks to and stuff.” Jacob couldn’t stop grinning and Robert already knew there was no point in arguing.
Sam and Stefan seemed to agree, and they made a face that went unnoticed by Jacob. Sam finally snorted and elbowed Stefan. “Well, looks like you’re not the only love-struck one now.”
This was news to Robert, and he raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“You like Artis too?” Jacob straightened with alarm.
Stefan coughed, his eyes coming open wide. “WOAH! No!” He straightened, giving Sam a glare. “I am not love-struck.” He slumped back into the couch and put his feet up before adding: “yet.”
“Now I’m really confused.” Jacob eased back into the chair he sat in.
“Same.” Robert echoed. “Yet?”
Stefan let out a sigh as he stared at the ceiling. “I have… dreams, ok? Just dreams of this one girl I haven’t met yet. My mom says she’s my ‘Blood-Link’ or something.”
“Blood-Link?” Robert and Jacob asked at the same time.
Jacob continued: “that sounds like a disease.”
The boys all laughed at once.
“Sure feels like one.” Stefan tried to joke, dryly.
“A ‘Blood-Link’ is a soulmate.” The voice came from behind a book that was carefully peeled away, revealing Chrysanthemum Puccihini behind it. None of the boys had even seen her there, reading in the corner. Robert only knew her name by association: she was Sarah’s roommate. “It’s a connection you have with someone else that’s so deep you can sense them - even before you’ve met.” She pursed her lips and gave a delicate shrug. “It’s really romantic, actually.”
“It’s actually based off a biological need…” Stefan defended.
Chrysanthemum rolled her eyes at that as she seat-hopped to be closer to the conversation. “It’s easy for you to say this now, once you meet her I’d bet my career that you’ll be singing a different tune.”
“A need?” Jacob was eyeing Stefan curiously, and Robert had to admit he was curious himself. Does one need a soulmate? The question seemed so odd and unscientifical compared to the setting they were in.
Stefan brought his finger up and peeled back his lips to gesture to his fangs. “A need.” He mumbled before removing his hands from his lips. “From what I’ve read it’s supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Sam snorted, “like those birds that eat the crap out of crocodile’s teeth?”
Stefan swatted at him.
“Is she the bird or the crocodile in this scenario?” Sam jeered.
Stefan straightened. “Scientists believe it relates to the reliance of Vampires needing blood as a form of nutrition. Evolutionarily it is a lot more beneficial if you have a consistent food source, while the enhanced features of a Vampire are beneficial to a human for protection. How it picks the Blood-Link is something I’m not entirely sure of-”
Chrysanthemum let out a breathy laugh. “I already told you, Stefan. It’s your soulmate. Every single person in the world has connections with others, and depending on who the other person is, and who you are, will determine your compatibility with that person. Some people connect to such a deep degree that it would make them soulmates. It creates a pull between two people - and it’s, unfortunately, not all that common.”
“I thought everyone had a soulmate.” Jacob mused. “My mama always said so, at least.”
Chrysanthemum pursed her lips as she contemplated how to answer that. “Well…” Her head tipped back and forth. “Yes…? And no. Everyone does have a soulmate, but they don’t always line up properly and the conditions aren’t always met.” She looked at Jacob and gestured, “like your soulmate could’ve existed 300 years ago. That’s why I said it’s not all that common; there’s only ever one other person who is your 100% match, and it’s been found to be a lot more flexible than the followers of Love have initially thought. Despite that, even if you don’t have a 100% match right away doesn’t mean you won’t have a 99% match… or an 80%... or even a 50%. Generally anything above 40% is good.”
“How can you know all this?” Sam’s head lolled to the side as they listened to her explanation.
Chrysanthemum laughed a bit more. “I’m studying it, Sam, I’d hope I’d know it. I’ve been planning to become a Priestess of Carule since I was 7 and first visited the Temple of Carule in Bridgeport.”
Robert’s eyes widened. “A priestess? That sounds really intensive.”
Chrysanthemum shrugged, a proud smile tugging on her lips. “Yes, I suppose it is a bit.”
“So are you gonna find out your soulmate then?” Jacob leaned forward, genuinely interested.
She shook her head. “Absolutely not. To enter the priesthood of Love is to enter abstinence. I am not to date, nor marry.”
“Lame.” Stefan and Sam said at the same time, they shared a devious grin and high-fived.
Robert’s brow furrowed. “That seems odd, considering it’s the God of Love and Marriage.”
“It’s not that odd.” Chrysanthemum straightened. “Followers can date, marry, and do whatever they want to their heart’s content. Priests and Priestesses are meant to put aside their love to help others find theirs. Forsaking their own love allows them to actually see the matches - their names, when they’ll meet them, how strong of a connection they’ll have… I was already born with a bit of this gift, despite my parents both being humans. It’s a big reason why I was admitted to school here.”
“Ooh! Could you tell me my soulmate?” Jacob careened forward, eyes wide. Robert smiled at how excited his friend was at the prospect of love. Why didn’t the thought excite him this way? Logically it seemed like a nice thought...
It just wasn’t exactly a topic Robert thought about often.
“Sorry buddy, but it’s probably not Artis.” Sam snorted.
Chrysanthemum laughed again, and it was really the first time Robert had seen her so invested in a conversation. “If I concentrate really hard I can give you their initials, but that takes a lot of strength which I don’t have tonight; however, I can tell you the strongest compatibility you have at the moment. That’s not too taxing. I just need to see your hand and-”
Jacob shoved his hand forward, his eyes lit up with excitement.
Chrysanthemum smiled. “Alright, let me get set up here.” She pulled her sofa forward and suddenly all of the boys were helping her move the table from the center so she could reach them easier.
“Ooh! You boys getting your readings?” Sarah teased as she passed by with Mincia. “Kissy-kissy!”
“Damn straight Sarah, and I’m going to have a stronger match than you!” Sam taunted.
Sarah giggled, wiggling her fingers at the boys. “Good luck with that!”
“Come on, Sarah.” Mincia muttered, not even waving ‘hello.’
Robert turned to wave fully at them. “You want to join us?”
“As if.” Mincia retorted. “We have exams to study for. Come on, Sarah.”
Sarah made a slightly surprised face that was likely echoed by the rest of the group at Mincia’s outburst. “Tell me how it goes!” Sarah waved at them as she was pulled away.
“Me-ow. What’s up with her?” Sam said as soon as they were out of earshot.
Robert, Jacob and Stefan shrugged while Chrysanthemum adjusted herself in her seat. “It’s probably got something to do with that boy her father brought to meet her on Family Day.”
Just like that, all of the boys turned their gaze onto her.
“What? I told you I’m good at this.” She smoothed her hair down. “And my parents didn’t show up that day so I may have overheard them talking when I was getting ready to go for a run. Anyways, Stefan, can I see your hand first?”
“Mine?” Stefan made a face.
“Yes, yours. I need a baseline so I can get a sense for how strong of a connection I should be looking for. You see it’s not like it gives me numbers… I look in and I see a line, and depending on how opaque that line is determines the percentage. This is why I need a baseline, and Stefan’s should be 100%, so my readings will be even more accurate than normal.”
She held her hand out expectantly and Stefan finally relented, giving her his hand.
“Thank you.” She returned it and then reached for Jacob.
Jacob eagerly met her halfway, excitement in his eyes.
Chrysanthemum looked at his hand intently before nodding. “60%.”
“60? That feels so low…” Jacob sighed.
“Believe it or not, that’s above average. Also please try to keep in mind that none of you are done growing and changing yet, so none of this is exactly set in stone. Life changes, and this is it for right now.” She responded levelly, and Robert could see why she wanted to become a Priestess. She handled herself well.
“Me next!” Sam held his hand out. “Lay it on me, Love Doc!”
Chrysanthemum rolled her eyes with a slight smile before looking down at Sam’s hand. She pursed her lips for a moment, and adjusted his palm around before nodding. “80%.”
“Woo!” Sam threw his hands up just as Chrysanthemum had let them go. “How high was my sister’s?”
“75%, if I remember correctly.”
“Fuck-yes! I finally beat her at something! I can’t wait to tell her!” Sam smirked.
Stefan snorted. “Yes, she’ll just continue beating you in every other field that counts.”
“Yes but my future girlfriend loves me 5% more than hers.” Sam was doing a victory dance in his seat.
“That’s not how that-” Chrysanthemum moved to interrupt him when Stefan held up his hand.
“Let him have this one.”
“Do ya mean 'boyfriend?'” Jacob looked towards Sam confused.
Sam shook his head. “Nah, mate. She bats for the same team we do.”
Jacob’s confusion hadn’t let up. “...I… thought we were talking about dating…not-”
Robert immediately interjected. “He means she likes girls, Jake.”
Jacob’s face lit up with realization. “Oh!”
“Alright, Robert. Your turn.” Chrysanthemum was looking at him expectantly.
Robert felt his gut drop out. “Me? Oh… uh… save your energy. I’m not really that into-”
“Fork it over, Rob!” Sam reached over Stefan to grab at Robert’s hands.
“Come on, man! Don’t be shy!” Stefan urged.
Robert glanced from each of their expectant faces before sighing and reluctantly giving his hand. He honestly never really thought about love. When it came time to picture his future, he never saw someone else in it.
Granted, his future always felt hazy to him. All he knew is he wanted to do something that made him feel fulfilled… and so far that calling was Spirits.
Chrysanthemum seemed to take a long time on his hand as she looked from several angles and Robert felt his face flush.
This was just a waste of time, and the last thing he needed was to figure out he truly was alone in the world.
“Stefan, can I see your hand again?” Chrysanthemum murmured, her voice softer.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Robert tried to not groan.
Chrysanthemum held both his and Stefan’s hand in each of her own, her eyes jumping between the two with her lips partially opened. “It’s the same.” Her voice was bewildered.
“What?!” It was Sam who had an outraged voice. “You two?! Together?! Steffy how could you? I’m supposed to be your only bromate!”
“No, not that!” She answered, almost too seriously. Finally her gaze came back up to look at Robert.
“Robert… You have a soulmate out there, too.”
~ Next Chapter ~