School For Supervillains
Chapter 9: “The Headmistress’s Office”
I almost died trying to get to Aunt Rasputina’s office.
I had to climb one hundred narrow stairs covered in blood red carpet until I got to a landing. There was a black door painted with so much gloss that I could see my own reflection in it. I saw that my face looked puffy and that a single strand of hair had fallen out of place. I caught my breath, tucked that rebellious lock of hair behind my headband, and knocked on the door. It creaked open like an old man gasping for air.
It turned out Aunt Rasputina’s office was not at the top of this landing. There were hundreds and hundreds of steps cut into what looked like the steep, jagged side of a grey mountain. I was more than confused; I was convinced I was being tricked. Bianca told me that her office was at the top of these stairs, so where was it? It was supposed to be here. Instead, there was a mountain.
I tried to remember everything I had seen yesterday when Dr. Hazel and Martin had driven me up to the school. Gosh, had it only been yesterday? Yes, I had only been in this crazy school for a day. While I could remember seeing gargoyles and towers, huge flying buttresses and spires reaching for the clouds, I couldn’t recall any sort of mountain.
But here I was. I had a mountain to climb.
I adjusted my school bag. I could feel the weight of all my new books — and all my new sorrows — pushing into my shoulder. I could also feel a stinging catch in the back of my throat. I wanted to cry.
Footsteps rushed up the stairs behind me. I turned around and saw Hemlock bounding towards me. I collected myself in time to give him a weak sort of smile.
“Whoa. Are you okay?”
“I — uh — yeah.” I lied.
Hemlock closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
I decided to give a little. With a slight whimper, I said, “It’s just that there are so many stairs to climb.”
He nodded. “Yeah, but I always turn it into a game. I pretend a monster from below or an Impry is chasing me and I’ll only be safe if I make it to the top before them.”
“That’s your idea of a game?” I teased. “Sounds really freaking scary to me.”
He giggled. It was a weird sound coming from him and I couldn’t tell if he was amused or nervous. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were full of worry. He explained, “Well, I guess most of my games are terrifying. I grew up in the Underworld, after all.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I had forgotten that if he grew up with his dad that he would have grown up literally in Hell.
Hemlock rocked on his feet for a moment and then filled the dead air by saying, “I’m not saying my dad tortured me or anything. It’s just that Hagatha and I didn’t grow up playing snakes and ladders or anything. Well, I mean, there were snakes in the Palace of Hades…and there were ladders…”
Now I was the one giggling.
“What?” He asked sheepishly.
“I don’t know why you’re so nervous. After all, I’m the new kid in school.”
Instead of trying to prove me wrong, Hemlock blinked, thought for a moment, and said, “Yeah, I don’t know why either.” He smiled. “But I’ve got some theories.”
A clock chimed somewhere in the distance. I didn’t know where it was or what it meant, but its call made Hemlock look even more worried.
“Is that bad?”
“And there’s another flight after this. A tougher one.”
“Run up those stairs and pretend the biggest, baddest baddie from the Underworld is chasing you!”
“I don’t — ”
I turned and raced up the stone steps. I didn’t need to imagine that “the biggest, baddest baddie from the Underword” was chasing me because it was enough for me to know that Hemlock was on my heels. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of him and I certainly didn’t want him to catch me.
So, I ran. I pumped my legs and soon noticed that the more I focused on raising my knees, and the more I thought about slowing my breath, the easier it got. I never liked pushing my body. It just never seemed all that fun to run around a track while a gruff lady in a sweatshirt timed me. But this all felt different. I had a reason to run and I started to feel like I could hear my body like never before. I didn’t know I could go this fast, this far, with just a little bit of concentration and the slightest of nudges. I felt like I had just discovered my body. It was exhilarating.
Before long, we had made it to the top of the mountain steps. Unfortunately, Hemlock was right about that extra flight. The stone stairs ended on another landing just like the last. There was the same carpet, the same black door, but I somehow doubted that the next batch of stairs would look the same as the carpeted steps or the steep ones carved in stone.
Hemlock panted behind me. He seemed weirdly more winded than I was. “Are you ready?”
He pushed the door open and I gasped when I saw that the next flight of stairs were made of all sorts of sharp blades. The steps were made out of great swords, spears, and daggers. All were larger than human sized — and they were all wide enough to step on — but the sharp side of each weapon was facing out. If you moved too quickly you risked being cut.
“Yeah,” Hemlock concurred. “It’s pretty scary. But you can climb them.”
“You have to be careful, though, and more than a little bit brave.”
“She’s weeding us out,” I said without thinking.
Hemlock grinned at me. “Yeah, but the thing is she’s not testing discipline or courage as much as she’s testing us for resolve.”
“A careless idiot coward can get to her office — if he wants to get there badly enough.”
“Or she.” I corrected.
“So, do we want to get there badly enough?”
“Oh yeah. This is where the real lessons begin.”
I let Hemlock take the lead this time. I did my best to copy his every step up to her office. I was particularly cautious, worried that every step might slice a heel or chop off a toe.
At one point, Hemlock looked back. There was an irritated look on his face I didn’t like. “Stop that.”
“You’re making me nervous.”
“I can’t help it,” I explained. “I’m nervous.”
“Just trust that we can make it. Just fifteen seconds more.”
“Okay.” I nodded.
I stopped thinking about all the ways I could be hurt and started remembering how good it felt to just focus on moving my legs as hard as I could. So, I did that…and almost slammed into Hemlock.
“Whoa,” he said breathlessly as we finally made it to the top. “You’re way faster than me.”
He was obviously teasing me. “No, I’m not.”
“Sure, keep thinking that.”
I looked around and saw that this final landing looked different than the other two. Everything was red. The floor, the door, even the bricks. The scarlet lacquered door swung open. Aunt Rasputina was waiting.
She stood in the doorway, wearing a gorgeous navy blue suited gown and a look of complete disgust. She rapped her fingers on the door frame, and because her nails were as long as talons and as sharp as knives, they made a terrible drumming sound that sounded like a snare drum on an old-fashioned battlefield.
“You’re late,” she snarled.
I started to apologize. “I’m so sor — ”
“It’s my fault, Headmistress Karpova. I kept playing games with her all the way up here.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And did you win?”
Hemlock looked at me and then at her and then smirked. “It was a draw.”
She laughed. “I doubt that.”
She didn’t ask either of us anything else on the topic. She just snapped her bony fingers and led us inside. Office hours had begun.
In many ways, Aunt Rasputina’s office was a lot like any principal’s office. It had a big impressive desk, shelves overflowing with leatherbound books, and various personal knickknacks scattered about the room. But I had never seen a principal’s office in a high tower, with narrow windows carved from stone. I had never seen a desk made out of tar black human skulls and I had certainly never seen a room decorated with real cast-iron cauldrons, dozens of crystal balls, giant brass scientific equipment from centuries ago, or a tiny squalling lizard in a bird cage.
I wanted to stop and take in all the curiosities in sight, but there was clearly no time. Aunt Rasputina was already seated behind her gargantuan desk of bones and Hemlock had taken a seat in a chair that looked like it had been carved out of a single block of obsidian. There was another like it in front of the desk. I took the hint and sat down in it. The touch of the stone was so cold I could feel it through my clothes.
This was going to suck.
Aunt Rasputina rang a small pewter bell shaped like a claw and my first “tutorial” began.
Bianca had explained to me in passing that most of our classes were going to be structured like the ones in a normal American middle school. We’d show up to class. There would be a collection of students. Either Aunt Rasputina or a visiting scholar would teach us a lesson. Then, there would be homework assigned, and it would be off to the next class period. But once a week, we would have an old-fashioned, proper British “tutorial.” This meant that I would meet for an hour with Aunt Rasputina — and another student with a similar major — to get specialized instruction. Since Aunt Rasputina had registered me as “Undeclared,” that meant my partner was Hemlock.
My stomach sank. I needed a major. I had forgotten all about that. I sighed heavily and both Hemlock and Aunt Rasputina turned to me with a snap. There was nervousness in their eyes. It occurred to me that either I was being played as a part of a large and elaborate prank or I really did have Berzerka’s powers. Well, I sort of had her powers. I mean, maybe. Kind of. I didn’t know.
“Look, I don’t have Berzerka’s powers, okay?”
Hemlock and Aunt Rasputina both fell into rabid hysterics at the same time. For me, this was clearly proof.
“See? I’m nervous and you’re laughing.”
“It’s nervous laughter.” Aunt Rasputina countered. “Hemlock?”
He shrugged. “To be honest, I just thought it was really funny.” He saw Aunt Rasputina’s face fall slightly and added, “But then again, I’m never ‘nervous.’ My father spent years training it out of me as a kid. But, you know, I do feel “scared” around Irina. You know, when she’s scared. Like, well…she has an effect on me. My theory is that she has some sort of power that’s similar to her mother’s.”
I couldn’t believe this. I shook my head. “No, you’re just playing with me.”
Aunt Rasputina’s eyes took on an icy glean as she said, “Irina, I am not one to play. Ask Hemlock.”
Hemlock piped up in an almost deadpan tone. “Yeah, no offense, Madame Karpova, but you are no fun. Like, zero fun.”
Aunt Rasputina tilted her head back — putting her spindly, chalky white throat on display — and laughed loudly once more.
I could only stammer. “But I-I don’t-I can’t-I just don’t have Berzerka’s powers.”
“Of course, you do!” Aunt Rasputina protested.
“She could make other people feel anything she was feeling,” I countered. “I can only make people feel slightly nervous or dizzy when I’m really nervous or totally scared.”
“But that’s a start,” Hemlock said.
“Yes,” my aunt concurred. “It’s a start. You’re what? Thirteen years old? Your powers are just asserting themselves. Bonnie Czerny didn’t become Berzerka overnight. I remember Vlad told me how she showed subtle signs for months and months before the full strength of her power manifested itself in her. Just you wait. You’re your mother’s daughter and I know Vlad always theorized that you’d be even more powerful than she ever was.”
Terrified by this thought, I bit my lip and stared at my lap.
Aunt Rasputina asked, “You’re frightened, aren’t you, my sweet?”
“She is,” said Hemlock.
“Great! Am I that easy to read?”
“You’re that powerful,” Aunt Rasputina proclaimed.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I thought about what they were saying and it did make a tiny bit of sense. It also occurred to me that Aunt Rasputina and Hemlock (and Bianca, for that matter) were all trying very hard to make me feel special. I couldn’t deny that it felt good, but it also felt suspicious. The way they’d been swarming around me for the past 24 hours reminded me of this really pushy salesman who once wouldn’t let me and Dr. Hazel leave a used car lot. So, I didn’t trust them, but I also knew that it would probably be smarter to let them think I did.
I forced a blush, which wasn’t hard, and said, “Wow. I never thought of it that way, but maybe I am. Maybe…I’m special. I really am, aren’t I?”
Aunt Rasputina’s lips curled back into an eerie shark’s grin and Hemlock nodded at me.
“Excellent,” she said. She strongly rapped the desk with her knotty knuckles. “Let’s finally get started.”
Hemlock dove into his tattered grey knapsack and pulled out a composition book and pencil. I did the same. Aunt Rasputina pulled a red leather tome out of her top desk drawer. She opened it and flipped through the yellowed pages which were all covered in multicolored handwritten scrawl.
“Alright, Mr. Jones. How are your latest assignments going?”
“Well, I think I’ve won gold target over. Blue target remains neutralized. Nothing new on purple target. White target thinks I’m cornered, but I’m not. Which I find…hilarious. I’m still trying to think of a way to utilize black target, but it’s impossible without risk. Red and green targets don’t see me as threats — which is good — because I’ve been observing their combat styles and there are some glaring soft spots.”
Aunt Rasputina was making furious notes in her big red book. ‘Good. I’ve noticed the same. Your job this week is to give me a full report on targets gold, silver, green, and red.”
“What’s wrong, Mr. Jones?” Her voice was cold enough to make me shiver. I thought I saw Hemlock tremble a bit, too.
He stumbled over his words. “I just…it’s just…target silver…I don’t know how, or why…” Hemlock was strangely flustered.
“Am I supposed to know what he’s talking about?” I loudly interrupted.
They both turned to me. An obviously fake smile found its way to Aunt Rasputina’s face. “No, Irina. Don’t worry about it. This is all something between Hemlock and myself.”
“Then why am I here?”
“It’s tutorial,” she said simply.
“What does that even mean?”
“It’s a classic form of education that offers a student special attention and mentorship.”
“No, why isn’t it one-on-one? Why are there two of us? I don’t need to be here.”
Hemlock leaned over and explained, “It’s to get us to compare our work against one another’s. It’s supposed to foster competition. We’ll hate each other and work harder. It’s a jealousy thing.”
Aunt Rasputina decided to pretend Hemlock hadn’t said a word. “Irinia! Why not tell us: Have you picked a major yet?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s tough because I never gave it much thought. I didn’t know it’s something I should give thought to. Like, what my major at a school for supervillains would be.”
“Ah! So you need more time. I’ll have Bianca-”
“What do you mean?” She was confused.
“I don’t need Bianca’s help with this. I know what major I want.”
Aunt Rasputina seemed bemused. “Oh?”
Hemlock sat up with a smile.
“Yeah, I want Hemlock’s major.”
“You want to remain Undeclared?”
I corrected her. “No, I want to major in manipulation.”
Aunt Rasputina glared at me. “What? That’s not — that’s not his major — you’re not supposed to know — ”
“I’m going to major in manipulation,” I repeated. “You see I’m tired of people thinking they can play me. I’m going to play them.”
End of Chapter 9
Next Chapter: “Gym Clothes and Hell Hounds”