Raven took the boy’s hand as he helped her up. “Thanks. Does she do that to everyone or am I getting the star treatment?” Raven said bitterly.
The boy laughed. “Sorry, Ms. Raven Delias, but you’re like the rest of us peons. We all get to suffer it. It’s a warning.”
“Yeah, I gathered that,” Raven said with a sigh.
“Enough with the doom and gloom. Not everything here is that bad,” the boy said.
Raven quirked her eyebrow.
“Completely the truth…okay maybe half-truth, but I’ll give you the low down on how it works,” he said. He walked over to a desk and grabbed a pamphlet out of a drawer. He walked back and handed it to her.
Raven looked down at it and her mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Welcome to East Cronos Institute. Where we shape you into a better you. Sounds a bit ominous.”
“Oh it is, but it gives you a rundown of the ‘Dos and Do Nots.’ I suggest reading through it if you don’t want the principal to get on your Kase.”
Raven groan. “Really? You went there?”
“My puns are divine,” he said. “By the way, I’m Ethan, though feel free to call me Mr. Wilkens instead.”
“I’ll go with Ethan. You can call me Raven.”
He nodded and then with a flourishing bow. “Right this way, Raven. I will guide you through the mysterious hallways of ECI.”
Raven couldn’t help smiling and she felt a little relieved. Ethan seemed almost normal. Maybe the rumors about ECI wasn’t as bad as she thought.
“So low or high crime?” Ethan asked as he led her down the hall.
“What?” she asked, confused.
“You did something to get in here, right? So low crime or high crime? Low being theft, drug running, and destruction of property. High crime being murder, rape, that sort of thing.”
Raven gaped at him. Okay, so maybe the rumors were true after all. Raven closed her mouth and shook her head. She didn’t know if she had technically committed a crime. If she did, what did putting nine innocent people in comas rank? She really didn’t want to know.
At her silence, Ethan shrugged. “Ah, the shy type. Well, I’m low crime myself. Sticky fingers, literally,” he said with a laugh as he wiggled his fingers.
Raven was somewhat relieved she hadn’t been left with a murderer. Still, she wasn’t exactly sure what to say to that, so she continued following Ethan. They reached a hall where crystals the size of beach balls floated. One of the crystals glided towards them. Raven stiffened in alarm. A blue light slid over them, scanning them and the crystal flashed green.
A feminine voice came from the crystal. “Hall access granted for Ethan Wilkens and Raven Delias. Please continue your tour.”
Raven blinked. “What was that?”
“A detection crystal. It’s a new prototype. Get used to seeing stuff like that. ECI is the guinea pig for a lot of magic tech testing. Of course, we don’t ever get to keep the good stuff, only the annoying things. ”
Raven nodded, watching as another crystal moved down a different hallway. They continued walking down the hall, where several classrooms were. Most of the classes were empty though a few had students. Since it was the weekend, Raven figured it was some sort of club activity or tutoring.
“Classes start at 8am sharp,” Ethan said, bring Raven’s attention back to him. “If you’re late then you get a penalty. Too many penalties lead to a shutdown.”
“Shutdown?” Raven asked.
“The entire magic suppression thing you got a taste of.”
Raven shuddered. Another question went through her mind. “What are the other penalties?”
“They change,” Ethan said. “Mostly it depends on what new toys have been sent for Principal Kase to try out. When I said we’re the guinea pigs, we really are the guinea pigs. Believe me, you don’t want a penalty if you can help it.”
“It sounds like torture,” Raven mumbled.
“Bingo,” Ethan said, turning around and facing her, walking backward as he did.
“How is that even allowed? And the shutdown I’m sure is illegal.” Raven shook her head.
Ethan tucked his hands behind his head. “Yeah, a lot of things here are toeing the line or outright crossing it, but good luck trying to do anything about it. ECI is under MDE and most people are going to believe them over a bunch of kids with records.”
Ethan stopped walking and met Raven’s eyes. “One thing you better learn now is that life isn’t fair. Accept it. You’re better off focusing on getting a sponsor.”
Raven frowned, her brow furrowing at what Ethan said. She chewed on her lip as question after question went through her mind. Ethan turned away and started walking when he abruptly jerked to a stop. Raven almost ran into him, barely catching herself in time.
“What you doing out here?” a boy ask. The boy was big. He was corded with thick muscles. He was at least 6ft if not bigger. His face looked like it was carved out of granite and his eyes were a cold gray that held a sharp intelligence. His hair was an inky purple that was almost black and trimmed in a neat stylish cut. Though he was handsome, there was something off-putting about him. Raven found herself taking a step back.
Ethan stood stone still. The smaller boy seemed to shrivel underneath the bigger boy’s gaze.
“New student. Principal Kase wanted me to give her a tour,” Ethan said stiffly.
“Hmmm,” the boy said and looked over at Raven. He pushed pass Ethan and strode forward until he was standing in front of Raven.
Raven swallowed. Part of her wanted to duck her head, but she stayed straight. She knew that showing weakness in front of someone like him was asking for the sort of special attention she could do without.
The boy studied her and then held out his hand. “Pete Burros.”
Raven blinked, a little surprised. “Raven Delias. Nice to meet you.” She held out her hand, wondering if she was setting herself up from a hand crushing.
Pete took her hand and shook it. His grip was firm, but no trying to crush her or even linger. His touch was cold and dry. He dropped her hand and then looked back over his shoulder at Ethan. “Once you’re done come see me.”
“Yes, Pete,” Ethan said.
Pete didn’t say anything else, he continued down the hall. When he was out of sight, only then did Ethan relax.
“That, right there, was Pete Burros. He’s the student in charge of the boys at ECI. Not someone you want to mess with. He usually leaves the girls alone, so nothing to worry about unless you get on his bad side.”
Raven looked back where the boy had gone. She frowned and then looked down. She realized she was rubbing the hand he had shook against her leg as if trying to wipe off his touch. She stopped. What was wrong with her? But the feeling of something cold and foreign still lingered on her skin.
Ethan had begun walking, returning to his jaunty attitude. “There’s a girl’s side and a boy’s side. Make sure to keep to the girl side or penalty. Unless of course, you have a perk like me,” Ethan said and flipped the gold coin he gotten from Principal Kase. He tossed it to Raven.
Raven caught it. She looked it over. It was a gold plastic coin with a three etched on it.
“Those right there are your perks,” Ethan explained. “Perks give you special privileges and if you get enough perks you can buy things around here. But I’m going to give it to you straight. Getting perks requires a humongous amount of ass kissing, either that or you have to get yourself a sponsor.”
“That’s the second time you mentioned sponsors. What is that?” Raven asked curiously.
Ethan turned and raised his hand. Raven frowned. She looked at Ethan’s hand and then her eyes widened. The ring on his hand was different. It had four lines instead of three. The lines on the far left glowed yellow while the one on the far right glowed orange. The two in the middle were silver. “You’re not wearing a suppressor!”
Ethan grinned. “That’s right. This is an Advanced stabilizer. It’s a prototype to help train my Illusion magic and gives me access to my Core magic. A pretty sweet ass gift from my sponsor.”
Raven looked at it with wonder, but then her brow furrowed in confusion. “But we’re not allowed to use magic. How are you even allowed to have this?” Raven asked.
“Things are a little tricky around here. Build perks, get noticed, and you might get the chance to show off your skills. Showing off your skills means one of the sponsors might notice you. Get a sponsor and you’re living the easy life. You’re no longer a criminal, but a future investment. Get me?”
Raven nodded slowly. She thought she got it somewhat. Was ECI a display case of talent? Is that why the judge decided to send her here instead of a detention center? She wasn’t sure she wanted to sell herself to some corporation to be their tool. Her brows shot down in a deep frown. But she also didn’t want to be labeled a criminal for the rest of her life.
Ethan continued explaining to her about how the school worked. Raven got the gist of it. Boys and girls were kept separate except during meals. Everything was on a schedule and being late was not an option. Everything you did wrong had a penalty and those penalties varied by the offense. Still, there was one thing she was curious about.
“We’re not allowed to use our magic, right?”
“Yeah, well, except for class assignments,” Ethan said.
“Then how do we show off our skills to get a sponsor?” Raven asked.
Ethan leaned in with a wide grin. “That’s a surprise.”
Then they turned the corner and stopped in front of a guarded door. When the guard saw Ethan she smiled. He showed his perk and she nodded.
“Here to bring Raven Delias to Lisa,” Ethan said.
The guard held out a small handheld crystal, similar to the floating ones in the hall. The crystal scanned them and a small holographic screen popped up in front of the guard. She looked it over and nodded. “Clear.”
Ethan turned to Raven with a smile. “This is my stop. Remember what I said. Collect as many perks as you can. And don’t worry, Lisa is awesome. Good luck!”
Raven didn’t have a chance to say anything else before Ethan was walking away. The guard led her down a long hall to the girl’s dorm. It was quiet and Raven was too nervous to try to start up a conversation. The hall came to an end and there was a buzz then the door opened and the guard pushed her in.
Surprised, Raven turned, but the guard was already closing the door and walking away. Raven turned back to see girls walking around the halls, talking with each other. A crowd of girls milled around a large room further down the hall. Raven figured she would try her luck there to see if she could find the Lisa Ethan had mentioned.
Raven took a step forward when suddenly a girl flew through the open doorway the girls were cluster at. The girl slammed into the wall and then crumpled to the floor. Thin cracks appeared in the wall from the impact. Hurrying forward, Raven ran to the girl, seeing that she was unconscious.
She turned back to the girls standing by the door. “We need to get help. She might have a concussion.”
Some of the girls chuckled while others rolled their eyes. No one moved to help. Raven bit her lip, not sure what she should do.
Everyone grew quiet when a slim older girl walked gracefully out of the room they had clustered around. The girl was beautiful. She had long pink hair that was up in a high ponytail and cascaded over her shoulders. It gave her a soft almost fairytale look. She had sky blue eyes framed by long lashes and a delicate porcelain face.
The girl’s attention swept past everyone to settle on Raven. “Who the hell are you?”
Raven blinked, too stunned to do anything but blurt out her name. “Raven Delias.”
The girl frowned and stared at Raven intently as if she was trying to figure something out. Then she tilted her head and snapped her fingers. “Oh my gosh. I completely forgot. You’re the new girl.” She shook her head. “Well, this is a mess.”
She walked pass Raven to the unconscious girl. She looked down at the girl with annoyance. “Terry, Michelle.”
Two females behind the pink-hair girl stepped forward.
The pink-hair girl reached down and grabbed the unconscious girl by her shift with one hand. She lifted her off the ground like she was picking up her purse. She tossed the unconscious girl to Terry and Michelle without even a hint of strain.
Terry and Michele tumbled backward when the body smacked into them. They recovered quickly like they were used to it.
“Get her to Old BB,” the pink-hair girl ordered.
The girls nodded and together they carried the unconscious girl away. Raven almost wished she could go with them. Staying here seemed crazy. Raven turned back to the pink-hair girl. A sinking feeling began to stir in her gut. She got the feeling she knew, by how the girls obeyed the pink-hair girl, who she might be.
The pink-hair girl grinned at Raven and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Lisa Marie Baker, head of the ECI girls, and your new roommate. Nice to meet ya.”