Shadow Oracle by Laura Greenwood
My phone chirps.I pull it out, checking the message, only to be surprised to find there are two. I click it open.
A package has been delivered to the academy office for Syxe Weston. Please collect before the end of the day.
Oh, that must be the coffee machine Mathias and I ordered. It's taken its sweet time getting here, but it's going to be so worth it. Juliet will be pleased that we won't be constantly coming into her room to use hers.
I close the message, not needing to respond to it, and open the next.
Good luck, see you later. M x
A warm fuzzy feeling travels through me. He told me the same thing before I left to come to my appointment at the Supernatural Retrieval Agency, but it's nice to have a message reminding me that Mathias is thinking about me.
I type a quick reply and hit send just as Agent Fielding walks into the room with two mugs in her hands. She sets one down in front of me with a small smile.
I don't need to check it to know she's made it just the way I like it. We've had enough interviews by now that I'm sure she knows my hot drink preferences almost as well as her own.
"Thanks for coming in again," she says as she settles herself behind her desk. She pushes a stray strand out of her face, revealing the soft points of her ears. She's definitely been more willing to reveal her fae nature to me in the past few weeks. Maybe she realises there's no need to hide it when I have none of the inborn prejudices a lot of the supernatural world have. I'm not even sure what the fae did to gain their reputation in the first place.
"No problem. You said you had some follow up questions for me?" Surprisingly, I'm not nervous. Or maybe that isn't a surprise. Agent Fielding is always pleasant unless I count the time she arrested me. But even then, she was doing it so she could help me, so I don't think it counts as bad.
"I do. Just let me get the recorder set up."
I nod, having grown used to this at the start of our meetings. They're nothing if not predictable. I could probably even guess what kind of question she'll start with.
She messes around with a few things on her desk before finally hitting the record button.
"This is the sixth meeting between Agent Susan Fielding of the Scarborough office of the Supernatural Retrieval Agency, and Syxe Weston, former ward of the Shadow Association," she says in a matter-of-fact tone that I know from experience doesn't quite match her feelings towards the Association.
A shiver runs through me at the reminder of my past. Finding out I grew up in a cult still makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially as I didn't realise until I started at Scythe Grove Academy and my friends cleared it up for me.
Fielding clears her throat. "You've said before that you had no idea you were a reaper until you turned eighteen."
"That's right," I confirm. She's told me it's useful when I do that so each of the recordings can be used on their own, and I want to do things the right way.
"How long have you been able to see ghosts?"
"For as long as I can remember," I answer honestly.
"And no one thought to tell you why?"
"Didn't you think to question it?" Genuine curiosity crosses her features.
I understand why. When I look at my childhood objectively, there are a lot of things that don't make sense.
"I did," I respond. "Several times. But Ms Margery discouraged questions. The first time I asked, she told me to stop telling lies and that I was making things up. The second time, she punished me."
"How did she do that?"
My whole body goes cold even at the echo of it. "I don't remember exactly," I admit. "After a while, the punishments started to blur together so I can't tell which was for what."
"Did you get punished often?" If I'm not mistaken, there's a hesitance in her voice that wasn't there before. She may need to know the answers for her case, but I think a part of her doesn't want them.
"There were other children who got punished more than me, but I wouldn't say it was infrequent." The Shadow Association may not have managed to break me, but they did teach me that sometimes it's best to put my head down and behave.
"A few times a month, I think." I hate that I can't be more specific in my answers, but I genuinely can't remember the specifics of some of the things she asks. After a while, everything just starts blurring together, especially when they're not memories I enjoy reliving.
Fielding nods, but I can tell from the set of her shoulders that she's a little uncomfortable about what I'm saying. She's never said as much, but I have to assume she's lost someone to the Shadow Association herself. Not that I've never been brave enough to ask, but this feels personal to her, unlike any of the other Supernatural Retrieval Agents I've dealt with so far.
"What kind of punishments would they give you?"
"Ms Margery's favourite was locking us in an isolation room. You saw one of them when you arrested me." And I lapsed straight back into old habits while I was in it.
She nods. "When was the first time you saw a room like that?"
"I don't know. Maybe when I was about five or so?"
"She locked five-year-olds in rooms on their own overnight?"
"Sometimes longer than that. I think Annalise once spent three days in one. She was the other girl my age who lived at the Association." Though I believe the punishment worked in her case. She gladly swore the Shadow Oath when the time came. The only way I can imagine her being comfortable with it is if she fully believed in what she was swearing to.
"That's awful," Agent Fielding blurts, clearly forgetting that she's supposed to be staying dispassionate while she asks questions. I don't know what kind of damage it'll do. Probably none. It's not like I'm an impartial witness to begin with.
"You get used to it after a while." I shrug, before realising that I don't have to pretend not to be affected by this anymore. I'm in a place where I can admit how bad it was. "The first time I was locked in the room, I cried the entire night. I can't remember what I did to get the punishment, maybe it was asking about the ghosts. But after a while, it just became part of life. Sometimes, the punishment wasn't for something logical. It could happen at any time, to anyone. Then I started making games out of it. Counting the ceiling tiles, making up stories, that kind of thing."
Fielding chews on her lip.
I reach for my mug and blow across the top of my coffee before taking a sip. I can tell from the way she's shifting in her seat that she needs a moment.
"Did they ever hit you?" she asks.
I set the mug down. "Every now and again, but not very often, and not very hard. I think Ms Margery would have liked it if she could discipline us physically, but I think they were very aware that we were leaving the house to go to school and they couldn't do anything that we'd report."
"And you never thought to tell your teachers that you were being locked in rooms on your own?"
"No. Why would we? To us, it was normal. All the other kids I lived with went through the same thing. It was just a part of life. I can see now why it's a problem, but at the time, it never crossed my mind."
She swallows hard. "Did any of your teachers ever raise concerns with you or the Shadow Association to your knowledge?"
"No. But I doubt they'd have told me if they had. Maybe that's what happened to cause some of the punishments that didn't have an explanation." Though I doubt it. We never looked like we were neglected. Our school uniforms were always bought new, and they made sure to send us to school looking neat. We always did our homework on time and didn't cause trouble because of how it resulted in us being punished in the house.
"Did you make many friends at school?"
"Some. But not many. While I was at primary school, I was just one of my class, I wasn't excluded or anything. When I started secondary school, I mostly kept to myself but ended up with a group of friends by the end. I never had anyone I'd consider to be a best friend."
Juliet springs to mind. How things have changed. If anyone asks me if I have a best friend now, I know the answer instantly. I'm lucky I came across Agatha's ghost and the two reapers who found it when I did.
Fielding clears her throat. "So you never went to someone else's house and saw what it was like?"
"No. And if I had, I don't think it would have made me realise what was going on. I've known I'm an orphan for as long as I can remember." As far as I know, anyway. The Leader said my mother died, but I don't know how much I can trust him. Ms Margery implied she might be alive, but that was all part of a trick. It's impossible to know what the answer is.
And even then, no one has ever mentioned my father. According to my friends, it's likely he's a reaper, but other than that, I know nothing about him.
Agent Fielding moves along with the questioning, all of it focusing on my childhood. I answer everything I can, but have a growing sense of unease that it isn't enough. I'm not giving her what she needs.
"This is the end of conversation six between Agent Susan Fielding and Syxe Weston," she says after a while longer, clicking the button and ending the interview.
It's good timing. My throat is starting to get hoarse and I need to have more to drink.
"Thank you for coming in, Syxe," she says. "I know this is tough."
"It's necessary," I agree.
"But why were you so focused on my childhood? Surely it'd be more useful to talk about what the Association was like earlier this year when I lived there?" I know I shouldn't ask, and that she probably can't share a lot of information about the investigation with me, but my curiosity gets the better of me.
"I'm trying to get my superiors to intervene on the grounds of child abuse or neglect. If I can prove that what they're doing is harmful to children, then they might be able to get all the minors living under the Shadow Association's wardship out. It's harder than I thought."
"Because I'm not a child anymore," I say, understanding the problem.
"What if you could talk to a minor still in their care?" I muse.
"If I could find one who'll talk, that would be ideal, but that involves knowing which children are wards of the Association. You've seen your paperwork from your schools, you have a named guardian on all of them, which makes it difficult."
"What if I could tell you the name and school of one?"
"You could do that?"
I nod. "I don't know if she'll talk, or if they haven't moved her, but it might be worth a try?"
Excitement flits over her face. "Anything like that would be good."
The relief of being useful crashes through me. "Try Reed Smithers, she's sixteen and goes to Queen Victoria Secondary School."
"I know it." Fielding scribbles down the information. "Anything I should know about her?"
"It might be hard to get anything out of her. She's a follower, not a leader. And I don't know what kind of supernatural she is. We lived in the same dorm."
"Thanks, that's helpful. Hopefully, she'll say something that will let me make my case and get the minors to safety."
"I hope so."
She flashes me a genuine smile. "I'll email you about our next meeting if that's okay?"
I nod. "Sure. I'd better be getting back to the academy anyway, I have history class in half an hour."
"I'll try." Though knowing Professor Haines I'll be bored out of my mind barely five minutes into the lesson. Despite wanting to know all I can about reapers, history class can be very dull.
But I'll get to see Mathias, and that always brightens my day.