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In the event, the severest punishment handed out was a sort of severe probation. Emma Curie and Fortis Hook were both told that they were in serious trouble, and then told to keep inside their houses (MacMorris, in Emma’s case) and to keep their noses clean.

“It sucks,” said Angelica as the inmates of Ash House finished their dinner of spaghetti and a tossed salad. “Excuse me, Mistress.”

“You’re surely not referring to the cooking of Messrs. Shmoke and Webb.”

“No, actually,” said Angelica. “Nice job, guys. She let you use the cooking wine?”

“She measured out one cup exactly,” said Pinhead, “and then she locked up the bottle again.” He looked at Ash. “Mistress.”

Ash gave Pinhead a tiny smile and looked around the table. They were twelve: Ash as Jesus with her paltry eleven disciples. Rachel had replaced Olympia Month; Natalie was sitting in as a privileged guest. “Mistress,” said Rachel, “how exactly did Emma and Fortis wriggle out of getting suspended?”

Ash rolled her eyes, then controlled herself. She looked at Jen Chang. “Miss Chang, how much a part of this situation do you feel you are?”

“Me?” asked Jen.

“Yes, you, Miss Chang,” said Ash. “Just tell me. You are under no obligation in this affair.”

“The segment?” asked Jen. “Like, the segment of the eleven segments?”

“Yeah,” said Arnulf. “Are you in, or not?”

“Oh, I’m in. I’m all the way in. I wish I was more in.”

“Do you,” said Ash with that little smile. She looked at Pinhead.

“I’m all the way in,” said Pinhead. “Me too,” said Rats. “This is the real stuff.”

Ash looked at Ahir Shaheen. “I don’t need to ask you,” said Ash.

“No, Mistress, you do not.”

“All right. And Miss Rabat and Miss Lopez are both here because one is assured of their being all the way in, and considering that Miss Rabat is now a member of Ash House.”

“I move we award Natalie an honorary membership,” said Angelica.

“I second,” said Ahir and Rachel.

“No need for votes,” said Ash. “This is not a democracy, as I’m sure you all realized long ago. Now listen. In the past, it has been traditional for a house at the Lyceum to have a House Project that they work on for their entire three years here, something which they can pass on to posterity, which can remain as their tangible mark on the Lyceum of the Lake Winds. For instance, the group that just graduated last June created our lovely garden of quietude; the previous group endowed our library’s section on fungi. I was always a little suspicious about that bunch, but I must say I did not know what trouble was until this year. You remind me of when Mistress White and I were in school together in the old Providence Lyceum.”

“You and H. P. Lovecraft,” said Pinhead with a grin, which evaporated when she turned her little smile on him.

“In any case,” said Ash, “you now have a House Project. It will be to keep the segment we seem to have picked up safely hidden. I think that may be a three-year project and then some.”

“What if we find some more?” asked Tom.

“What if we figure out what they do?” asked Cloudius.

Ash rolled her eyes. “Look,” said Angelica. “We are not going to find more segments lying around the trash pile in the school basement. We are not looking for them. There are only eleven and we have one and that is scary enough.” She looked at Arnulf and Tom. “Some of us are only twelve, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Arnulf. “You’d be surprised how scared I am. Cloud’s thirteen and he’s the hothead. Am I wrong?”

“Okay, okay,” said Cloud. “Whatever. I just wondered. What, you know,. they do.” They all looked at Ash.

“I don’t know even one percent of it,” said Ash. “I know there are eleven, and I know they’re split up. I know that they can be combined. There’s some sort of hieroglyph business in there: they can be put together like hieroglyphs into different words that do different things. I can imagine what that might be like, but I do not know more than that.”

“They’re Egyptian,” said Angelica.

“This one’s their letter F,” said Tom.

“The Nazis might have had seven,” said Arnulf.

“Alexander the Great had three or something,” said Rachel. “Right?”

“Five,” said Angelica.

“And they do stuff,” said Cloudius. “We know you can do things if you have the right combination of some of them. Mistress Ash. I would really love to find out about that. Can’t I find out about that? Look, I want to learn. Isn’t that amazing?”

Ash smiled. “That is amazing, yes, Mr Cloud.” She looked around at the rest of the House, plus Natalie. “It will be enough to me if we make it through the semester with ourselves intact and the thing still in our possession. Because I do not want it, but I do not know anyone else I wish to have it. And many will want to take it from us.”

“We’re not thinking we might sell it or something,” said Arnulf. “Please tell me we’re not.”

“We are not,” said Ash. She threw her hands up, put her head in them for a moment, then put them out, palms down on the white table cloth, out to either side of her. “No,” she said, “while I have no idea whatever what to do with the thing, I am also rather sure that we should not sell it. So we are stuck with it. We need to protect it.”

“So you have a security plan,” said Angelica.

“I do, yes,” said Ash.

The plan involved fakery, magical labor and an ironclad discipline about silence. Seals were put up behind quiets behind seals, and distraction zones were placed about the house and grounds, and about White’s house as well: the students of Ash House got a lot of practice making different kinds of these, from small areas that were simply confusing to the unprepared, to triggers that made someone walking over them turn around and retrace their steps, to sleep traps and deflection fields. Each resident found a ring or necklace to instill with the power to pass these zones, and the power was duly instilled, in the Ash House basement, by Ash and Claudius Cloud and Jen Chang.

The segment was carefully hidden, rotated daily among Ash and her residents according to lottery. The members of Ash House turned the basement into a little lab, mostly under the supervision of Cloudius, Daphne and Jen Chang, and item makings spread to most of the kids’ rooms. Within a fortnight, everyone in the house had a faux segment, a crystalline hieroglyphic F (snake with ears) hidden among the underwear. The real one was in the false bottom of a magically locked jewel box containing a particularly effective, Cloudius-made extra fake segment. The box rotated amongst the kids, and sat under Ash’s own pillow through spring break.

And the system seemed to work. And it occurred to the Ash House residents that the thing that made the most difference was that they were more afraid of having Ash angry at them than they were of anything else, from failure and embarrassment to evil wizards taking control of the universe.

The silence was only broken at their house dinners, and then only occasionally, as when, in late February, Rats Laguna asked, “So who are the bad guys anyway? Who’s trying to steal this thing? Maroons? Is MacMorris really Darth Vader?”

Everyone looked at Ash. “No,” she said, “Master MacMorris, and I emphasize that he is still a master of this school and anything he may or may not have done or caused to have done is still completely deniable, Master MacMorris is not Darth Vader. The Maroons are not the Black Riders of Mordor.”

“So who are the bad guys?” asked Pinhead. “I’d really kinda like to know.”

“Well, of course we don’t know,” said Ash.

“The MPW?” asked Angelica in a low voice, even given the seals and quiets in force around the room.

“No, probably not her,” said Ash quietly. “But several who are near her.” She smiled primly. “I do not count myself their equal, sadly. Thus, simply keeping things secret will be of some help.”

“Keep it secret, keep it safe,” said Tom Hexane. “You know, they need to make a movie of the Lord of the Rings.”

“That’ll never happen,” said Rats.

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