Month: October 2015

First Steps 2-01

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I was awoken the next morning by the sound of a knock at the door. Fumbling my way out from under the twisted up blankets that I had somehow managed to tie in knots around myself as I slept, I fell out of the bed with a yelp. Flushing, I glanced to the other side of the room, only to find that the black wall that Avalon’s privacy screen had erected was gone. Equally gone was my roommate herself. The bed was empty and neatly made to what looked like military specifications. Actually, I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t a mint sitting on the pillow, to be perfectly honest.

Another knock reminded me of why I was awake, and I picked myself off the floor. Yawning, I glanced down at myself to make sure I looked vaguely presentable before heading over to open it a crack.

Sands stood on the other side, waving as the door opened. She wore a tee shirt with the name Crossroads Academy written in purple on the front and a pair of black shorts with identical violet trim going up the sides. She was also holding a clothing bag in one hand, offering it to me. “Heya, teammate. Ready for morning exercise? Oh, and here’s your uniforms. They were sitting by your door.”

Blinking, I opened the door the rest of the way and took the offered bag. “Morning exercise?”

The other girl’s head bobbed once. “Sure. You know, that thing that Deveron was supposed to talk to us about, if he didn’t, uhhh…”

“Suck ass as a mentor?” I offered.

“Yeah, that one.” Sands gestured in agreement. “Anyway, we’ve got general exercise every weekday morning before shower and breakfast. You can really do it at any point between five and seven, but you have to get half an hour in. Scout and I figured you might want to go together, since your roommate’s already done.”

“Avalon did her exercise already?” I asked while stepping back into the room. “Come on in.”

Sands came into the room, trailed after by her sister. Scout was munching on a banana, and waved to me without meeting my gaze. Her attention seemed firmly riveted to our apparently fascinating floor. Sands, on the other hand, groaned. “Yeah, Sean said she was in there when he showed up, and she was still there when Scout and I went past. Seriously, it’s half an hour of required exercise and she’s been there for at least an hour and a half. It’s like she’s trying to break a record or something.”

“Maybe she just really likes to exercise?” I suggested while opening the bag that the other girl had brought. Digging through it, I found three different uniform sets with the purple trim, as well as two sets of the same workout clothes that the twins were wearing. “Or maybe she’s really a supervillain and her dastardly plan is to make herself look so perfect that the universe itself collapses out of envy.”

Snorting, Sands shook her head. “C’mon, you don’t wanna miss breakfast on the first day.”

My stomach growled at the very implication, and I quickly changed clothes before nodding. “Right, let’s get this workout done then, before I start eating the weights instead of lifting them.”

On my way out, I stopped to grab Herbie, tossing him up into the air before catching him. “Don’t worry, buddy, I wouldn’t leave you alone in the room all day. You’d get too lonely.”

Before I reached the door, a hand caught my sleeve. Glancing over to find Scout standing there with her hand on me, I blinked. “Oh hey, what’s up?”

In answer, the girl released my sleeve before reaching into her pocket to take out a small box. She presented it to me without ever saying anything, a hesitant smile touching her face.

I took the offered box and opened it, tilting my head at the contents. There were a pair of cute googly eyes and a bottle of super glue. It took me a second before I realized. “For Herbie?”

The other girl smiled faintly, half hidden behind her lowered head, and nodded shyly, still silent.

“Hey, thanks, Scout.” I returned her smile. “I’ll put the eyes on when we get down there. That way he can dry while we’re doing the workout. Where’d you find this stuff anyway?”

Rather than answer, the girl visibly froze. She went completely still for a few seconds before shrugging.

“Yeah,” Sands shook her head. “She wouldn’t tell me either. I guess there’s some secrets even I don’t merit. All I know is that she had it when she came back with that banana.”

Seeing the uncomfortable look on the shy girl’s face, I relented. “Right, you go ahead and keep your secret crafting supplies store or whatever it is. Thanks anyway, Scout.”

She nodded, clearly relieved to have the attention off herself, and the three of us headed down to the gym. We had just left the dorm and were making our way across the grass toward the other building when Sands looked toward me. “So how’d your first night go? Did you and Avalon have a fight or something? Is that why she’s spent all morning in the gym?”

“A fight?” I shook my head. “We didn’t talk enough to have a fight. She showed me the privacy screen and then never turned it off. I don’t think she’s interested in earning any awards for being a stunning conversationalist. But, you know, maybe I’ll win her over with a midnight pillow fight.”

“Now see?” Another voice spoke, and I turned to see Columbus and Sean stroll up. The latter was talking. “This is a conversation that I would like to be a part of. Tell me more about this pillow fight.”

Rolling my eyes, I replied, “We’re just talking about how I can get my roommate to open up.” After hesitating for a second, I added, “She’s got the same last name as the Headmistress, are they related?”

A collection of shrugs went around before Columbus offered, “Maybe she’s her daughter?”

I shrugged back, then focused on the twins. “You guys grew up here, don’t you know her?”

“Nope,” Sands replied. “Never seen her before the last couple days. Sorry. I don’t think she’s Headmistress Sinclaire’s kid though. Like I said, we grew up here and she never said anything about having a daughter. Which, we might miss some things, but I’m pretty sure we would’ve noticed that.”

“Huh…” Columbus frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe the name thing is a coincidence?”

Beside me, Sean shook his head, sending his shaggy hair flying back and forth. “Dude, we’re living at a damn magic school so we can learn how to fight monsters. I’m pretty sure thinking that anything is a coincidence at this point is just begging for a giant, ‘you’re wrong’ shaped monster to come stomping through the campus, breathing fire on everyone who ever says things like ‘how bad can it be?’”

******

“This is not a game. I want every last one of you to repeat that back to me. Say it loud.”

It was a couple hours later. I’d finished the brief workout with the twins and Columbus (Sean had already finished his), then showered and changed into the school uniform before having breakfast. Now we had been joined by Avalon and the six of us were in our first class of the day: self defense.

Professor Katarin, the positively massive teacher that reminded me of the guy that had played the prisoner in The Green Mile, stood at the front of the room. It was a different gym from the one that we had exercised in that morning. This one was larger, with plenty of room for at least four different active sparring matches. Mirrors lined every wall, and the floor was padded to the point that it was kind of fun to bounce up and down on it. There were also a handful of what looked like training dummies spread throughout the room, along with six enormous trunks arrayed behind the man that he had wheeled in two at a time before calling everyone to line up in front of him.

There were about three full teams in this particular class, or eighteen students. I recognized some from orientation the day before, but most were new faces. All of us were clearly still adjusting to this place.

Katarin waited there while everyone dutifully repeated the words back to him. Then he shook his head. “Louder. I want you to say it and mean it! This is not a game! Say it again! This is not a game!”

Finally, after it was all but screamed back at him, the man nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Now that you’ve all said that, there won’t be any excuses when I expel the first one of you that acts like this is a game. And I will, believe me. If I see any of you messing around with the stuff in here, or goofing off while we’re trying to learn, or doing anything that could end with you or one of your classmates getting hurt, you’re out of here. I don’t mean out of this class, I mean out of this school. You will never be a part of this again. Do you understand me? Harkess, do you think I’m kidding?”

One of the other bystander-kin students, Malcolm, shook his head while speaking loudly. “No, sir.”

“What about you, Porter?” Professor Katarin was focused not on Columbus, but his foster sister Shiori.

The Asian girl flushed at the attention before shaking her head quickly. “No, sir, you’re not kidding.”

“Damn straight I’m not.” The big man let his gaze move over all of us. “You do not get three strikes in this class. You fuck around, you’re out. I will not teach students who can’t take this seriously. You’ll be a danger to yourselves, to your fellow students, and to everyone we’re trying to protect. Is that clear?”

After a chorus of agreement, Katarin nodded in satisfaction. “In that case, let’s get started. When I call your name, come up here. The rest of you can talk among yourselves until we get all this sorted out.”

He started with one of the male students from Shiori’s team, calling the boy around to the other side of the large trunks. From the look of things, he was digging through the trunks while talking to the boy.

“What’s all this about?” I turned to ask Sands in a quiet voice.

“Weapon selection,” she replied, staring with wide eyes toward the front of the room. Her voice was hushed with awe. “You have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for our chance at this. Every year, over and over, we just watch everyone else get their weapons. Now it’s our turn.”

Blinking at the awe and anticipation in her voice, I looked toward Columbus and Sean. “Come again?”

“Weapon selection,” Sean repeated Sands’ words while grinning. He was clearly excited too, though he did a slightly better job of keeping cool about it. “See, a heretic’s weapon is like… a big deal. ”

“What they’re trying to say,” the voice of Avalon intoned coolly from behind me. “Is that a heretic’s weapon is their life. We learn to do everything with it, and the weapon helps define who you are.”

I coughed. “Oh, right, of course they’re giving us weapons. Sorry, kind of still getting used to going from a school where making a finger gun at someone was grounds for suspension.”

Avalon’s eyes rolled. “Yeah, people are stupid. Big surprise. That’s not exactly a new concept. Point is, this is a big deal. Whatever Katarin up there matches you with, that’s it. Gun, blade, bow, whatever it ends up being, that’s your weapon for life. It’s bonded to you and only you. It gets stronger as you do. You’ll learn to fight with it, and to channel the powers you gain through it. The weapon is your outlet, your implement to use a lot of the skills that you’ll learn here. That’s why he’s stressing the safety so much. Because they can’t just take it away at the end of classes. The whole point is that you carry it around with you everywhere. It never leaves your side, ever. It’s a part of you for life. Understand?”

Columbus whistled low. “Did you say guns? They actually use guns here?”

Avalon gave him a dirty look for that one. “Of course we use guns. We use everything that can kill those monsters. They may not be the kind of guns you’re used to, but that’s because once humans got to the musket, Developer Heretics went off in their own direction for making it better. They’re not mass produced, every Heretic weapon is hand-made, one at a time by Developers who put their heart and soul into what they’re making. Then they’re put into those crates and brought out to be matched against a new student. Once you’re matched to a weapon, that’s it. Unless something happens, and believe me, it’s really hard to break a Heretic weapon, it’s yours until you die. Then they bury you with it.”

At that point, Katarin called for Sands. The other girl gave me a quick, eager smile before schooling her expression to look as calm as possible as she walked to the front. She could not, apparently, stop herself from skipping just a little bit.

“Guess this is a pretty big deal for you two, huh?” I asked Scout, nudging the girl a little bit. I knew she was shy and didn’t talk much, but I was curious enough to prod her slightly. “Waited a long time?”

The quiet twin hesitated before nodding. Her gaze flicked up to me every so briefly before she looked away, back to the front of the room where her sister was. Even that brief eye contact made her blush. It made me wonder why she was so painfully shy and withdrawn. The curiosity bubbled up in me almost against my will. I wanted to talk to the girl, wanted to ask her about herself and get her to open up. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I wasn’t sure exactly how much I should push or leave alone. There was probably a very good reason that she didn’t do much talking, and curious as I was, I shouldn’t pry.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to. I wanted to pry into that, into why Avalon was always in such a bad mood even though she didn’t really seem to be that bad of a person, what her relationship with the Headmistress was, why Deveron was still our mentor even though he was a completely useless and lazy pain in the ass, what exactly had made the vote about my inclusion in the school so close that the Headmistress had been forced to break the tie, and everything else. I definitely wanted to know what the connection was between the Headmistress and the coward that had been my ancestor. I wanted to know all of those things and more, but I wasn’t yet sure how to go about getting those answers.

If it came down to it, I supposed I could just find the woman and ask her about what I’d seen. I’d wait a few days before trying that though, and give things around here a chance to settle into a routine. Or at least as much of a routine as a school where we were handed deadly weapons on the first day could be.

Scout was called next, and I looked up to see Sands returning with what looked like a heavy-duty morning star held tight in one hand. The handle was black, the head of the weapon silver, and the assorted razor-sharp spikes on it were red. She was holding it like a treasured present, something she had waited most of her life to receive after watching year after year of older students get theirs.

“Construction Mace?” Sean asked, receiving a nod from the clearly proud Sands.

I looked back and forth between them, then focused on the weapon. “What’s a Construction Mace?”

“It makes walls,” Sands explained. “See, it just sort of makes walls, floors, whatever, flat surfaces in any orientation. Smash something while holding the trigger and it sort of, absorbs that type of material to make the walls out of.”

My mouth opened and then shut. “Are you serious? How? Where does the material for the walls come from? What produces it? Where does this thing store the material? What–”

“Magic, Flick,” she intoned with a wink. “It’s magic.”

Before long, Scout also returned with what looked like the biggest freaking sniper rifle I’d ever seen in my life. The thing was positively enormous, dwarfing Scout herself. As Avalon had said, it also looked a lot more… muskety than any modern rifle, though the scope on it was pretty impressive. The best way I could describe the whole thing was that it looked like a steampunk version of a sniper rifle, with all kinds of tubes, coils, and other doodads lining the thing. The scope part had multiple lenses all spaced out along the top of it that raised or lowered into place depending on how far she wanted the scope to reach.

“Wow,” I blinked between Sands and Scout. “So you got a weapon that makes you get right up close to people and you got one that makes you stay far away from them.”

“That’s right,” Sands nudged her sister. “I smack ’em in the face and Scout covers me.”

I started to ask if Scout thought she could even fire that thing, but before I could, Katarin called my name. Under the curious gaze of the rest of the class, I made my way to the front where the man was waiting. “Uh, hi, sir. I just thought you should know, the deadliest weapon I’ve held in my hand up to this point was a steak knife. So, you know, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Good,” the big man rumbled. “You knowing that is the best first step. Keep that in mind and don’t do anything stupid with this thing when I hand it to you. Now… let’s see, do you think you’d be more comfortable with something that let you get close, or something that’s more of a distance weapon? Don’t overthink it, just go with your first instinct and we’ll see what matches you.”

I froze for a second. Go with my first instinct? Easy for him to say, after everything the others had said about how this was a choice that would stick with me for the rest of my life. “Umm, I think I’d feel better with something… close. That feels right.” At least I hoped it did.

Nodding, Katarin turned to open the first three storage trunks. “Take a look. Take out a few, hold them in your hand, see what feels the most natural. Don’t worry, if the weapon that’s meant for you is something else, you’ll know. You’ll feel the connection when it’s there, trust me. And trust yourself.”

Emboldened a bit by his encouragement, I stepped up to the first chest and looked inside. Swords, axes, daggers, staves, and more all lined the interior. Slowly, I ran my hand along them. My fingers found a nice looking scimitar, but when I lifted it from the trunk, I knew it was wrong. It didn’t feel right. I couldn’t really explain it, but the weapon didn’t fit me. It felt awkward in my grip and I put it down almost immediately.

I tried a few other weapons in the crate, but nothing really called out to me. Gradually, I moved on to the second one. More weapons, some of which I didn’t even recognize. There was something that looked sort of like a nunchaku, except that there were three handles instead of two, all with cord between them. Beside that were a couple of weapons that were even stranger. Basically they looked like hand-held sickles with the curved blade, along with a straight blade extending in the opposite direction from the base of the curved one, and a smaller knife-like blade down near the handle.

“Hunga Munga,” Katarin informed me. “African throwing weapon. How does it feel?”

I paused, letting my fingers close around the handle. There was something… almost there, and I let my eyes close to focus on it for a few seconds before shaking my head. “It’s close, I think. I feel… something. But I don’t think they fit me.” I bit my lip and looked up then. “Am I just over thinking it?”

“Possibly,” he allowed. “But let’s see if something else suits you better.”

Slowly, I moved my hands further, trying a couple of different weapons. Nothing in the second chest was perfect, or even felt as close to right as those blades had.

Finally, I moved on to the third chest. My gaze passed over several weapons before landing on a long staff set near the back. As my eyes landed on the weapon, I paused. Something, a feeling of familiarity that I couldn’t explain, came to me. I lifted a hand to carefully pluck it out of the chest to examine more closely.

It was a five foot long staff. The body of it was red, with black ends that tapered into points. As I turned the thing over, I felt something… much more immediate than I had thought. There was no question about it. This wasn’t something vague or uncertain. “It’s this one,” I said quietly, but firmly. “This is mine.”

Katarin didn’t ask if I was sure. Instead, he nodded and put his hand out. Somewhat reluctantly, I passed the weapon over and released it.

Taking the staff, the big man gave it a cursory once over. “Right, I don’t want you actually using this thing until I teach you how to do it safely, but this is a kinetic-burst staff.”

“Kinetic-burst staff?” I echoed, staring at the thing. I already wanted to be holding it again.

“Yeah, look here.” He showed me one of the ends of the staff, then directed my attention to a small depression in the handle where his fingers were resting. “Press this here to charge.” As he pressed it, the black ends of the staff began to glow blue.

“Release the button to stop charging.” Katarin continued. He moved his finger off the button, but the blue glow remained at both ends. “Then you’ve got three choices. First, you smack someone with it and it’ll add the concussive force that you’ve charged into it to your blow. Like this,” he turned to the nearest training dummy and gave a whack of the staff against it. The concussive force that the staff unleashed freaking blew the dummy across the room to crash into the mirror on the far side with a terrible noise that made me along with a few other students yelp.

“Better get used to that kind of thing,” Katarin advised before going on. “Second choice, just touch the thing you want to transfer the charge to. Has to be an inanimate object like a wall or floor or something. Like this.” Again, he charged the staff before touching one of the ends to the floor between us. “Keep holding the button while you do it so it doesn’t go off.”

As he held the point of the staff to the ground, I saw a faint blue bubble of energy appear there, about the size of a football. It turned almost entirely translucent and difficult to notice even when I knew what I was looking for after he pulled the staff away.

“Concussive mine,” he informed me. “You can set it off by pressing this other button here on the staff, or just wait for someone to touch it. Use it for traps or just to give yourself an edge in the middle of a fight by controlling where your opponent can safely step.”

Once I found my voice again, I asked, “And the… the third way of using it?”

“Propulsion,” he replied easily, smiling a bit at my resulting stare. “Once you get good enough with this thing, you can use the concussive force to propel yourself through the air. Make yourself jump higher or longer, move faster, escape when the enemy thinks they have you cornered, and anything else you can think of. Girl your size, an average charge ought to throw you a good fifteen, twenty feet when you do it right.”

He was chuckling at my expression while handing the staff back to me. “Of course, you might want to wait until we get through a few lessons before you try anything like that.”

“Uh huh…” I held the staff tight in both hands, staring at it before nodding to the man. “You know, if you don’t mind, I think I might go for a whole four lessons before I try that whole ‘using a controlled explosion as my own personal taxi’ thing.”

“Good girl,” he replied before gesturing for me to go while he raised his voice. “All right, next we’ve got Avalon. Come on up, let’s see what works for you.”

And then he just let me walk away with a weapon that could probably put a hole in the wall if I set even a tenth of my mind to the effort. For all his warnings and threats, the man still let me take this weapon, just like he’d let the other students walk away with the weapons they were now holding.

It was then, in that moment that it really struck me, even more than seeing the vision of my ancestor had. This wasn’t an ordinary school. Sure, it sounded fun and interesting and cool to see all this stuff. But these weapons were real. The danger was real, and they wanted to teach us to fight it.

The phrase that Katarin had made us repeat came to mind, and I truly, truly understood its significance for the first time as more than just words to repeat.

This… was not a game.

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Interlude 1 – Ammon

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The boy in the dark blue ski cap that failed to entirely contain the nest of wild blond hair stood in the candy aisle of the convenience store. Nail-chewed fingers ran carefully along the brightly colored wrappings as he hemmed and hawed over his choices. Occasionally, the boy consulted the crumpled dollar bills clutched tightly in his other hand as though checking to ensure that more had not spontaneously appeared to spare him from being forced to choose between his treasured treats.

Faced with the reality that magic money wasn’t about to manifest itself, the boy finally chose a single candy bar. Turning on his heel, he walked to the cooler section where the sodas were kept. A man in a hooded raincoat turned away from his own intense perusal of beverages long enough to give the boy a long, penetrating stare. He said nothing, content to simply glower menacingly.

Paying him no attention, the boy took the time to collect a bottle of orange soda from the cooler in the back before proceeding to the counter where a girl barely out of her teens watched him curiously.

“Hey, it’s kind of late. Do your parents know you’re out here?” The girl, whose nametag read Denise, asked in the uncertain tone of those who aren’t entirely sure that they’re properly treading the line between paying just enough attention to something wrong and actively being busybodies.

“Yes, ma’am,” the fresh-faced boy, who couldn’t have looked older than eleven, answered promptly and politely. After setting his chosen purchases on the counter, he lifted a hand to point out into the parking lot, where an old sedan sat bathed in shadows. “They didn’t want to come in. It’s been a long drive.”

Glancing toward the car, Denise paused before shrugging as she picked up the candy and soda. Running them past the scanner, she asked, “Family moving or something? That’ll be two ninety-three.”

Brightening at the question, the boy piped enthusiastically, “Gonna visit my sister!” Face shining with excitement at his own words, he laid the three dollar bills from his hand to the counter.

“She in college or something?” The girl asked him while casually slipping the three bills into the register. The machine spat out a receipt as she added, “You need a bag for these?”

Before the boy could answer either question, he was interrupted by a shout from behind him. “Hey, bitch!” The man in the raincoat stood there, hand clutching a small revolver. “How about you pay attention to a real customer, huh? Let’s start with emptying that register into a bag and go from there.”

Eyes wide with sudden terror, Denise immediately began to comply. “Okay, okay. Look, see? Money in the bag, no one’s touching anything wrong, just hold on. We’ve got money right here, you can have it. Just don’t hurt anyone? It’s just you, me, and the kid here. No one’s gonna stop you. Take the money and go.” Voice shaking, the girl dropped all of the register’s cash into the small sack and held it out.

“You get it, kid.” The raincoat-man demanded, jerking the gun toward the boy briefly. “Bring it here.”

Obediently, the boy accepted the bag of money from the petrified clerk and carried it over to where the man was waiting. It was snatched from his hand quickly, and perused briefly before the man smiled in satisfaction. “Pleasure doing business with you, bitch.” He turned then and started for the door at a run.

Denise had just breathed out a sigh of relief as the man reached the exit. However, just before he would have passed out of their lives forever, the boy spoke up. “Hey, wait a second, Mister.”

Spinning on his heel, the man with the gun stared back at the boy. “What the hell do you want?”

Smiling pleasantly, the boy replied simply, “My name is Ammon.”

Both thief and clerk stared at the boy in joint disbelief. The man with the gun worked his mouth a couple times, taken so far aback that he forgot to be angry for a few seconds. “Good… for you?” Finally, his emotions caught up. “What the fuck, you wanna get shot, you stupid little shit?!”

“No,” Ammon answered honestly. Then he turned to point. “You didn’t take her money though. What if she has a lot of it? It’s better if you take that money too.”

“Wha—hey!” Denise blurted, her eyes wide. “What the hell—I don’t have that much money.”

“No… no, the kid’s right.” The man nodded slowly, abandoning the door to return to where the counter was. “Come on, empty your pockets. Empty ’em now, you little bitch. You holding out on me, huh?!”

“Here, here!” The girl scrambled to pull a wallet form her front pocket. “See? Two dollars and some change. That’s it, that’s all I’ve got, okay?” She quickly tossed the bills down. “Take it, just go, please.”

Snatching the bills off the counter, the man shoved them into a pocket while sneering angrily. “Watch your mouth, bitch. I’ll go when I’m good and ready, not when you fucking tell me to.”

“Cunt,” the boy piped up from where he was standing with a voice that would almost have sounded helpful if it wasn’t for the actual words that he was speaking. “You should call her cunt, not bitch. Bitch isn’t that bad. Cunt probably makes her feel worse. It’s better if you use that one instead. That sounds more like what a real bad guy should say.”

Eyes bulging a bit, the girl blurted, “What the hell do you think–”

“Shut it, cunt!” the man bellowed. “Shut your fucking face before I put a couple new holes in it.”

Looking from the man to the confused and frightened clerk, Ammon spoke again. “You should hit her. It’s more interesting if you hit her.” After pausing briefly, he added, “With your fist, not the gun.”

Denise tried to jerk away, but the man’s fist caught her across the face. With a cry, she fell backwards into the wall behind her where the cigarette packs were stacked. Several fell as she jostled the shelves, bouncing off the counter and to the floor while the girl cried out. “Stop it, what’re you doing?!”

“Maybe… maybe that’s enough.” The man decided, breathing out. “Just stay there, I’ll leave and–”

“No,” Ammon interrupted. “You should hit her again. No, kick her. Kick her in the stomach. Hard.”

The poor girl barely had time to protest that time before the man had crossed behind the counter. Winding up his foot, he lashed out hard enough to knock the air from her lungs, the scream that tried to come fading into a sharp, pathetic little wheeze under the force of the harsh kick.

Smiling, the boy walked around the counter. He stood there, motionless for a second before squatting down onto one knee. Slowly, he reached out to brush a finger against the girl’s cheek, catching a tear of confusion, pain, and fear that had fallen there. Gazing at the damp spot on his finger with a look of open wonder and curiosity, he nodded before straightening. “You should do it again.”

“No, stop it, just sto–” The girl had gained enough air to protest weakly.

Whumph! The man’s foot hit her hard once more, turning her words into a squeal once more.

“Again.”

“N-no, plea–”

Whumph!

“Again.”

“Plea–”

Whumph!

******

A short time later, the girl had been beaten so thoroughly that it would have been difficult for even close friends to recognize her. Her consciousness faded in and out, and she had long since stopped protesting. She simply laid there and cried, each harsh blow reminding her of her helplessness.

Advising the man who had been a simple robber to stand aside, Ammon knelt there and touched the girl’s face. She flinched from the contact, a whine filling her ruined throat.

“Shhh,” the boy consoled her. “See, we’re done. That was interesting. I had fun, but I’m bored of that game now. So it’s over.” He brushed his fingers over the girl’s bloodied and bruised cheeks, moving up to her swollen eyes. Under his touch, the flesh mended, the swelling went down, and the girl’s face rapidly returned to normal. “It’s time to play a new game. You get to win this one.”

“Wha… what…” Recognizing that the pain was fading, Denise opened her eyes. Seeing the boy there, she flinched backward. A whine of fear, of terror at the very sight of the boy, rose from her.

Smiling pleasantly, the boy spoke as politely as ever. “My name is Ammon. You should stand up.”

Truthfully, the boy had no idea what kind of thoughts went through the minds of his toys the moment he spoke those four words of introduction. In this case, as in all others, the outward effects were obvious. Upon hearing the statement of his name, the girl’s whine halted instantly. She fell silent, then obeyed the rest of his words, slowly rising to her feet as though it had been her own idea. Her fear most likely remained, buried deep in the girl’s mind. Yet the words Ammon spoke after deliberately introducing himself to her were as impossible for Denise to deny or resist as the physical laws of the universe.

He wondered if she was one of the ones who still held onto her own thoughts, her own personality. Some were like that. Their opinions, fears, thoughts, everything simply locked away inside their own mind, incapable of resisting or even affecting their own body, prisoners to his whim. Others were more like empty vessels once his power took hold of them. They gave no resistance, and seemed not to react at all to the things he made them do. It was a discrepancy that aroused his curiosity, and he would figure out what caused the difference someday. It would just take more experimenting.

After standing, the slightly glazed look left the clerk’s eyes and she tried to throw herself at the door, scrambling in open desperation to escape the hell that the store had rapidly become.

“You should stop,” Ammon spoke quickly, before the girl could get further than a few steps. Instantly, she halted, though a whine of confusion at her own actions crept out of her.

Turning to the man, Ammon held his hand out. “You should give me your gun.” Without complaint, as though it had been his own idea, the man passed the weapon over. He was one of the empty ones, one who barely reacted to anything the boy told him to do.

Taking it, the boy walked over and extended the gun to her. “You should take this and shoot him in the back.” he informed her while settling the weapon into her palm. “Use every bullet. See? I told you you get to win.” To the man, who was already reacting, he said, “You should stop and turn around.”

Both moved as though the boy’s words had been their own choices, their own thoughts. The man turned to face the coolers, standing passively while the clerk raised the revolver. The gun shook slightly in her hand, but she took very careful aim. While the boy watched eagerly, curiosity painted on his face, the girl pulled the trigger. The gun bucked in her hand, and the man screamed as the first bullet hit him. The deafening sound returned as the second shot was fired, then another, and another. By the end, the man’s ruined body lay in a pool of his own blood mixed with the various liquids pouring from the shattered drink coolers, and Denise held an empty revolver.

“There’s no more bullets, you should drop the gun.” The boy’s calm voice instructed, and the weapon bounced off the floor a second later. Smiling, Ammon walked to where the dead man had fallen and reached down. His hands patted a bit until he found a wallet, from which the boy produced a credit card. With that in hand, he started for the exit while addressing Denise. “You should come with me. This part’s gonna be really interesting.” On his way out, the boy’s hand snagged a package of duct tape.

Without looking back, he walked through the door. The girl trailed after him, mumbling to herself about how right he was and how very interesting all of this happened to be. Rather than sounding confident about that, however, the girl’s voice was confused. She was clearly trying to convince herself, and remained uncertain about why she was following his instructions. Uncertain, yet incapable of true resistance. Her mind was clouded, overwhelmed by the power that broke down her own thoughts and opinion, supplanting them with his words of instruction.

Bypassing the waiting car, Ammon walked to the gas pumps in the middle of the lot. The girl followed after him, still trying to explain to herself why she was doing what he said. The logic went around in circles, and she hardly seemed to notice. Her mind fought and struggled against his control, that inner personality trying so hard to break free. Yet she continued, trailing after the boy right to the pumps themselves. “What… why am I… why are we…” She tried to get answers from him, but the words wouldn’t come. She couldn’t force a full question, let alone anything resembling a denial, past his control.

Humming to himself, the young, innocent-looking boy pushed the borrowed credit card into the slot. After taking the nozzle from its stand, he pressed the button to select the fuel grade, then turned to face the girl. “Okay, you should sit down right there. You like sitting right now.” He pointed to the ground in front of the pump.

Slowly, the girl sat, eyes glazed over. “I like sitting right now,” she echoed a bit mindlessly.

Humming to himself, the boy carefully pushed the gasoline nozzle close to the girl’s face. “Now you should open,” he instructed. Once her mouth was open, he inserted the gas nozzle. “Right, now hold it with both hands, okay?” He waited until she put both hands on the nozzle to hold it in place.

While Denise sat holding the gas nozzle, Ammon took a moment to extract the duct tape from the package. Whistling an off-key tune, the little boy proceeded to carefully and deliberately use the entire roll, duct taping the nozzle first to the girl’s hands, then around the back of her head to keep it in place. Finally, he put even more tape around the nozzle itself, securing it carefully to the girl’s mouth so that it couldn’t be spat out. By the time he was done, the tape covered every part of her mouth that the nozzle itself didn’t touch. She couldn’t have escaped even without the strength of his ‘suggestions.’ She was trapped there, incapable of avoiding what was coming.

“Okay,” Ammon announced. “You should sit right there and not try to go anywhere, but I’m done with you now.”

Those words, the statement that he was done with her, made the girl blink twice. Her head rolled back, and then she straightened with a sudden look of terror. She screamed a denial, a plea, but the words didn’t escape the tape that covered her mouth. She struggled, trying in vain to yank the nozzle free, but it wouldn’t budge. The tape held fast against her efforts.

“Watch this,” Ammon waited until the girl’s frantic, horrified eyes were on him, then reached down to the nozzle. Grasping the handle, he found the trigger and pressed it. A muffled scream from the girl was interrupted by a violent choking sound as gasoline was pumped straight through the nozzle and down her throat.

Stepping back, the boy watched for a moment. The girl struggled, twisting and screaming in muffled, trapped terror while she continued to choke on the gasoline being pumped into her. Tears of shock and denial flooded her face as she sobbed brokenly, desperate for help that would never come.

He watched until she stopped struggling, until the still-pumping gasoline had done its job, drowning the girl. Then the boy turned on his heel and walked away. His dirty sneakers crossed the parking lot until he reached the station once more. Humming, he went inside long enough to retrieve his candy bar and the bottle of orange soda before returning to the lot. Barely sparing a glance toward the crumpled form in the middle of the gas pumps, he walked to the waiting car and opened the back door.

“Okay, I’m back!” The boy announced while hopping in.

In the front seat, the elderly woman, the latest in a long line of oh-so-helpful people who had agreed to give the boy a lift, shook as though forcing herself out of a horrible dream. “Y-you killed… they’re dead…. they’re dead…”

Sighing, the boy leaned forward and repeated his mantra. “My name is Ammon.  We should go now. It’s pretty late.”

The woman’s shaking stopped as the power of his introduction reaffirmed its hold. “We should go now,” she repeated. “It’s pretty late.”

As the car pulled out of the lot, leaving both bodies behind, Ammon took a long swig of his orange soda. Then he relaxed, sagging back in the seat with a contented smile. “Coming to see you, sis,” he said to himself. “We’re gonna have so much fun.”

He meant what he said. It would be fun. After all, it was a special occasion. It wasn’t every day that someone found out that their mother had had another child with a different man. Meeting a long-lost sibling was clearly the kind of situation that called for a cross-country road trip. Even if that trip was to a place as boring as Wyoming. And even if it meant ignoring the specific orders of his father, a man he generally obeyed.

He just hoped that Felicity Chambers turned out to be as interesting as he hoped she was.

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Orientation 1-07

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For a meal that had been both quicker and more convenient than anything my good old friend, Mr. Microwave could have whipped up, the food here was pretty damn good. Scratch that, it was good regardless of how quickly it had come out. Dad and I had gotten to be decent at putting meals together, but we were still dependent on boxes with things like ‘ready in fifteen minutes’ written on the label.

I scraped the plate clean entirely and was just putting the fork down when the collective scraping of chairs drew my attention back toward the front. The Headmistress was standing again, though she seemed fairly content to wait until everyone looked at her before she began speaking. She drew attention not by demanding it, but simply by expecting it to be given. Force of personality, rather than loud words eventually drew the eyes of every student until the whole school was once again watching.

“Another wonderful meal provided by our dear Chef Escalan,” Headmistress Sinclaire announced with a graceful smile and nod toward a man standing near the doorway that led into the kitchen. I couldn’t see him that well, but from here he looked like a squat, portly man in a red and white striped apron. Stray bits of straw-yellow hair stuck out from under his flattened chef’s hat. Unlike the headmistress, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, it pretty much looked like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but here.

Either ignoring or not noticing the man’s ugly scowl, Headmistress Sinclaire pressed on. “I know that he enjoys feeding you students almost as much as you enjoy his concoctions. But alas, we must press on if we are going to meet our deadline for the evening.” Clearing her throat then, she clarified, “Not a literal dead line, mind you. The team that was sent to clean up the last of those Thanatosis Marks from last year has assured us that the top floor of the academics building is now perfectly safe.”

Well my attention was caught in a stranglehold by those words, but the headmistress continued by listing several rules that seemed pretty common sense. No going into the beach or the jungle while you were supposed to be in class (with a reminder that the environmental seal, as she called it, would detect if anyone passed it), no fighting between classes, no food in the classroom (though drinks were allowed), the Pathmaker was off limits on threat of horrible things happening to your stomach until the staff arrived to cure you and assign detention, curfew was eleven on school nights, at which point we were expected to be in our dorms, and so on. She also mentioned that there was to be no truth about where we were or what we were doing in messages sent to those ‘outside of the Knowledge.’

Finally, the headmistress smiled. “But enough of our rules. I assure you, we spend less time obsessing upon such things than some would assume given their placement at the start of each semester. For now, it is my pleasure to introduce three new faculty members this year. Professor Inisclic will be taking over for the unfortunately deceased Professor Memon in the general histories courses.” She indicated a thin man in a tweed suit that seemed to be paying more attention to his empty plate than the students.

“Next,” the woman continued, “we have Professor Armstrong, who will be heading up our languages department for the time being, and Professor Carfried, who is filling in for poor Professor Tangle while she recovers from her recent ordeal.” In turn, an older woman with a severe overbite, and a jolly looking younger guy in his twenties that looked too young to be a teacher both stood. I had to both sit on my hand and bite my lip to stop myself from calling out questions. One former teacher that was unfortunately deceased, and another who was ‘recovering from her recent ordeal?’ Was that normal?

Whether it was or not, the headmistress wasn’t saying. She simply made those introductions and then pressed on. “Also, while we happen to be on the subject of introductions, allow me to introduce your specialization instructors for this semester.” Lifting her arm, the woman indicated several of the faculty who stood briefly to be counted, including Professor Dare. “If you have any questions regarding your chosen track, feel free to speak with one of them after we finish here, or at any other time. Their job is to ensure that you are in the correct track for your skills and interests.”

That started a flurry of whispered discussion, and the headmistress chuckled slightly. “As I said, such questions should come when we are done. Be careful, the question you whisper to a neighbor may be one that is answered while you are so distracted.” With that minor bit of chiding done, she continued.

“But I believe that means we have come to the end of what is relevant to our returning students. Class schedules will be delivered during breakfast in the morning, which will be provided, as always, between six am and eight am. Other than that, second years and above, if there are no questions, you are excused. Except, of course, for our team mentors.”

Deveron, who had started to stand with three quarters of the students, sighed and dropped back into his seat. The look he shot toward me made it clear that he somehow blamed us for not being able to leave.

Annoyed, I whispered, “So tell the truth. Which was more important for getting this mentor gig. Was it your stunning and helpful personality, or was it your devotion and strict work ethic?”

He answered me with a fairly infuriating smirk and shrug. “If you must know, I pulled a sword out of a stone. Some people get to be king, I get to babysit a bunch of lemmings.” Patting the table, he added, “At least my round table’s loaded with babes instead of dudes though.” Pausing, he waved a hand toward Columbus and his roommate Sean while adding, “No offense, dudes. Sure you’re quite the conversationalists.”

Rolling my eyes, I leaned over to Herbie, who was still sitting on the table. “Sic him, boy. Bite him.” Herbie, sadly, was far too well behaved to take the suggestion. He did, however, glare menacingly.

By that point, the second, third, and fourth years had all filed out. Left with the smaller audience, Headmistress Sinclaire continued. “Ahh, yes. Our first year students. Another welcome to each of you, whether you have grown up within the Knowledge, or are Bystander-kin. I’m sure many of you have a lot of questions, but let’s see how fast we can get through this first and save those inquiries for afterward, shall we?” She waited for any objections, then continued.

“Good. Now, many of you have already chosen your track for the semester either by attending early orientation last week or by sending your request forms in over the summer. For those who haven’t and do not know what we are talking about, allow me to explain. There are five types of what we call specialization tracks in this school. Those are: Development, Investigation, Security, Hunters, and Explorers. These are indicated by the color provided on your school uniform: blue, purple, white, green, and red, respectively. Those same colors may be found outside of specialization rooms, to indicate that you are in the correct location when you attend those classes.”

That matched up with what the twins had said earlier. They were in the investigation track, which was purple. A glance toward Avalon confirmed that she wore the light blue of the so-called ‘development’ track, while Deveron’s uniform trim was red for the ‘explorer’, whatever that was. Frankly, as lazily as he was coming off, I had my doubts about whether that sounded like the right specialization for him. On the other hand, none of what had been listed sounded like a ‘sit around and eat Cheetos’ career track.

Headmistress Sinclaire went on. “I’ll let our track advisers explain a bit about each specialization while they introduce themselves. Afterward, a sheet will appear in front of you if you have not yet chosen a specialty. Circle the track you are most interested in beginning. This choice may be changed for one week at the beginning of each semester while you attend this school. Indeed, some careers require a certain number of semesters spent under more than one specialty track. All of this information will be available to you at any point as you continue your education here. Professor Pericles, would you mind starting us off?”

A man who looked so old I was surprised he hadn’t been declared legally deceased stood up from the table. In spite of looking positively ancient, he moved without apparent effort. “Good evening!” His voice boomed loudly, another contrast with his deceptively decrepit appearance. “So glad to meet new students every year. I’ve been around for quite awhile, let me tell you, and every year I think I’ll get tired of meeting you young newcomers. But don’t you know, it never happens. I’d tell you how absolutely wonderful it is to see each and every one of you, but we’d be here all night and while I may be old, I am vaguely aware that there are other activities you whippersnappers would rather focus on that don’t include listening to some old coot ramble on. So let me just inform you of the very basics.

“My name is Zedekiah Pericles, and I teach mechanical engineering and a bit of science within what we call the general education courses, and on the other side of things, I’ll be instructing you in how these Stranger sons of bitches are put together and what kinda stuff they can do, as well as a bit about the old magic doodads we’ve whipped up in the time since our ancestors started poking at the creeps with their sharp sticks. Specialization wise, I’m the man that runs the Development track. In layman’s terms, that means we work on making up new toys, new magic, new everything to either kill these things, or just clean up the messes they leave behind. Any of you ever seen those old Bond flicks, we’re Q. ‘Cept we use magic as much as tech to make our little gadgets and doodads. Those of you wearing or soon-to-wear the blue uniforms, you’re all mine.”

I glanced toward Avalon, who was busy watching the man intently with an unreadable expression. She had joined his track, which clearly meant she was interested in the research side of things. Or maybe she really liked building things and putting stuff together? Maybe that was how she’d known so much about that circle surrounding the Pathmaker building. Assuming, of course, it wasn’t just something she’d learned from whatever Headmistress Sinclaire was to her. I still needed to find that out.

After Professor Pericles sat down, it was Professor Dare’s turn. She introduced herself again, stating that most there already knew her. Then she added that she taught fencing and American History, and that she ran the Investigation specialization track, which focused on interacting with those ‘outside of the knowledge’ to determine whether unexplained events in the mundane world were supernatural in nature or not. Usually those investigations were conducted under some false authority, the Heretic posing as a member of a legitimate law enforcement body. In other words, they lied a lot and used those lies to find out whether any random strange or outlandish event was a Stranger or not, and attempted to deal with it if possible. They were also the ones most responsible for keeping ‘bystanders’ out of the way, concocting the lies that prevented ordinary law enforcement (or say, random snoopy reporters like I aspired to be) from learning too much about this shadow world full of monsters. They were, of course, purple. The same color that Sands and Scout both wore.

Next there was the previously mentioned Professor Carfried, the young-looking teacher who had apparently taken over for Professor Tangle while she ‘recovered,’ from whatever she was recovering from. He was clearly nervous, stammering a fair bit but cheerful enough as he explained that he would be heading up the red-trimmed Explorer track. Their job, apparently, was to actually go into breaches between our world and the ones that these Strangers came from, documenting various information about their origins, the lands and homes they built, and more.

Professor Katarin, a male professor with very dark skin and the sort of bodybuilder look I associated with professional football linebackers, stood briefly to say that his classes were gym, general self defense, and that he was the specialization adviser for those in the Hunter track, those with green-lined uniforms. They were, to put it simply, those that actively fought against the Strangers. Unlike the Investigators, Hunters focused on areas where we knew for a fact the Strangers were coming through. They dealt with known and established threats, and were basically the straight up combat troops.

Finally, an Asian woman who appeared to be either in her late twenties or very early thirties stood up and introduced herself as Professor Kohaku. She spoke in carefully measured tones, her voice never rising above what felt like a whisper even though we could hear her just fine. She taught art classes and was responsible for the security of the school. Conveniently, she was also the adviser for those that were a part of the Security track itself, those with the white-lined uniforms. They were essentially responsible for keeping various places safe from Stranger infiltration. Hunters openly attacked, while Security protected.

And that was it. Development, Investigation, Explorers, Hunters, and Security. Once the advisers were done introducing themselves, a bit of plastic not-unlike the menu that had appeared previously popped up out of thin air in front of me. Columbus and his roommate received their own, and the three of us looked at one another while the rest of the table’s occupants either watched curiously (Sands and Scout) or ignored us completely (Deveron and Avalon).

“Hey,” Columbus whispered across the table toward my roommate. “Can I ask you a question?”

Slowly, the beautiful brunette turned her attention to him. She remained silent for a couple of seconds while obviously gathering herself before she spoke. “If it’s about the specializations, yes. Otherwise, you are seriously barking up the wrong tree.”

“Right, it’s about this.” The boy waved his sheet. “The Development track, is that, you know, interesting?”

Again, Avalon was silent. I had a feeling she was trying to determine how serious Columbus was. Finally, she breathed out a long, low sigh. “If you are told about a career that is focused on creating weapons and researching the weaknesses of monsters and have to ask if it’s interesting, either you weren’t listening to begin with or your line for what is interesting sits far beyond what humanity can measure.”

“Gotcha,” Columbus just grinned while circling that with his finger. “Just making sure.”

“What are you going for, Flick?” Sands asked, leaning a bit over the table to watch me as I tapped the sheet a few times.

“Well,” I answered. “Honestly, Explorer sounds pretty interesting. Seeing all those new worlds and stuff? Really cool. And Avalon’s right, so does Development. But I’ve wanted to be a reporter my whole life, one of those people that goes out and finds out the truth. So I think Investigation is pretty much the only real choice for me.” I used my finger to circle that, and my sheet disappeared a second later.

“Hell yeah,” Sands held her hand up, and I gave her five. “Though I guess this makes us kind of Investigator heavy. You, me, Scout. Plus we’ve got two Developers and one Explorer.” Glancing toward Deveron, who appeared to be daydreaming, she rolled her eyes. “Sort of.” To Sean, she asked, “What about you?”

Columbus’s roommate was a Hispanic boy with shaggy hair. He stared at the sheet for another fifteen seconds or so in silence before running his finger around one of the options. “Security.”

“Cool, guess all we’re missing is a Hunter then,” I frowned. “I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Should be okay,” Columbus pointed out. “They said we could change every semester if we want to, right? So we’ll probably go back and forth. I don’t know about you guys, but I wanna check out each track at least once.”

There was a little more conversation, and the headmistress spoke again. But eventually, we were dismissed. As everyone started to file out, I grabbed my rock off the table and stood up. “C’mon, Herbie, time to give you a bath.”

******

A couple hours later, I was exhausted. I’d spent the time using the computer in the dorm room to write an extensive e-mail to my father. Honestly, I felt really bad about the lies I had to tell him. Part of me wanted to put it off because of how… icky the idea of deceiving my own dad felt. Especially since I was apparently going to have to continue doing it not only for the next four years, but forever.

On the other hand, I couldn’t tell him the truth and end up putting him in danger. And I couldn’t just ignore him either. My mother had abandoned the man. The last thing I was going to do was avoid writing to him. It was bad enough that I wasn’t living there and couldn’t see him every night.

So no, there would be no delaying. I was going to write my father a message every day. Sure I’d have to rephrase things or tone them down, and leave out a lot of details. But I told him about Avalon and the rest of my new teammates (I called them an assigned study group), and about some of the school. I did, of course, leave out the part about being on a tropical island. That probably would have earned me a few questions.

After sending the e-mail, I stood up and turned at the sound of the door opening. Avalon was coming in with a damp towel over her shoulders. When I’d asked where she was going earlier, she’d simply said that her body didn’t just magically appear and that she had to work for it.

“Did you have a good work-out?” I asked.

“No,” she retorted flatly. “Too many people. Hey, what the hell is that stupid rock doing up there?”

Adopting a surprised expression, I turned to see where she was looking. The rock in question was resting up on top of large window, balanced on the rim. Gasping out loud, I moved past the scowling girl. “Herbie!” Jumping up, I caught the rock with one hand. “Be careful, buddy, I know you like to see what’s going on, but you could fall. Here, see anything interesting?” Holding the rock in my palm, I aimed it at out the window toward the grounds outside before speaking over my shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s just feeling adventurous after his bath. See?” Turning, I showed the other girl that the stone had been scrubbed clean in the restroom sink.

My roommate just stood there for a moment, then sighed before crossing over to her side of the room. She disappeared into the closet before returning with a nightshirt, which she quietly changed into. “Hey, Chambers, put down the fucking rock and pay attention.”

I set Herbie on the windowsill and looked toward the girl as she moved to a spot on her desk. “See this button? Look at the one on your side.”

Interested, I leaned over to look at side of my desk. Sure enough, there was a small red button there that I hadn’t noticed. “Got it.”

“Great,” her tone was even. “Now watch. You push it and…” A second later, that side of the room was plunged into pitch-black darkness. I couldn’t see any sign of the girl or any of her furniture. It was as if a solid wall had appeared to block it off.

The darkness went away then, and I asked, “So it’s a light switch?”

Avalon snorted. “No, that’s a light switch.” She pointed to the wall. “This is a privacy switch. Press it once, wait, then press it again.”

I shrugged and followed her instructions, pressing my finger against the button. As soon as I did, the same blackness seemed to appear. This time, however, it appeared right on the edge of my own space. It was a wall, I realized. A non-solid wall made out of darkness that prevented anyone outside from seeing in and anyone inside from seeing out.

Flipping the switch off again, I coughed. “That’s cool. Privacy switch.”

“You can’t see through it, you can’t hear through it, and you can’t walk through it unless you’re a faculty member or you have permission,” she explained. “Otherwise, they can’t hear you at all. Understand?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I get it. Do you think–”

“Good,” she interrupted. “Because I wanted you to know exactly what this means.” A second later, her side of the room was plunged into darkness again as she activated the privacy screen. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be taking it down for the rest of the evening.

So much for asking Avalon what her relation to the headmistress was. Sighing, I crossed to my own bed, picked up my rock, and set him on the dresser next to me while laying down. “Guess it’s you and me tonight, Herbie.”

I lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling for a few minutes while letting my mind wander. So much had happened today. So much was still incredibly confusing and more than a little frightening. Yet even with that uncertainty, I knew I’d made the right decision to go through that mirror when Professor Dare had offered me the choice. It… felt like I was where I belonged.

In the morning, classes would begin. Classes that would tell me more about this world I had suddenly become a part of, that would explain what these ‘Strangers’ were and how we were expected to combat them.

I’d never been more excited for school in my life.

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Orientation 1-06

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“And this is what they call the Pathmaker,” Sands announced toward the end of a brief tour of the school grounds some time later. She held a hand up to stop us a few feet away from the entrance of the place, then pivoted around to face us. “Anyone wanna guess what that means?”

Most of what the twins had shown us had been covered earlier by Professor Dare when she had pointed out each of the main buildings. There were also a couple sport fields behind the athletic facilities that I hadn’t noticed, and more gardens than seemed normal for a school to have. But for the most part, everything was seemed to be pretty standard facilities. Except for this particular building.

Up close, the lower case t shape was more pronounced. It was a good eight stories tall, with the horizontal part of the t consisting of the sixth floor, which stuck out several rooms wider to the west and east than the rest of the building. From this close, we could hear a loud, continual humming.

“Uh,” Vanessa, the blonde girl that Sands had almost tricked into being grabbed by the statue at the boy’s dorm, raised a hand tentatively, waiting for the other girl to look at her. She was still clutching that book like it was a lifeline. “Does it make those portals like the ones that brought us here?”

“Yup!” Sands chirped, head bobbing. “Plus it does some other stuff that uhh, I don’t really know about. Trust me, Scout and me, we’ve tried for years to get someone to tell us about it, but they won’t.”

“Wait a second.” I held up a hand. “Aren’t you guys first years too? I mean, I know you grew up knowing about all this stuff, but isn’t this your first year actually being here?”

Grinning back at me, Sands pointed once, then twice. “Yes, we’re first years. No, it’s not our first year being here. See, Scout and me, we grew up here. Our dad’s one of the teachers, so this is our home.” She continued to smile, shrugging. “You have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for this year.”

Beside her, Scout, whose gaze had been locked on the ground this whole time, gave a slight nod. She peeked up through the hair that obscured her face and I saw a faint smile of agreement before she looked down again. For the quiet girl who never seemed to talk to anyone but her sister, that seemed to pretty much be the equivalent of jumping up and down while screaming with excitement.

“So what’s that humming noise?” Columbus put in after tapping a hand against his ear a few times. “And why does it get louder the closer we get to this thing?” He took a step forward, then stopped.

Sands gestured, and I noticed she was careful not to extend her arm past the point that she had told us to stop at. “That noise? That’s the warning.” She gave a little shudder that made me blink. “If you’re close enough to hear it, you’re getting near the line. Here, guys, look at this, but don’t touch.”

She stepped aside and pointed to the ground. There was a metallic silver line, about three inches wide encircling the building. It ran over both the pathway and the grass. As far as I could see, it continued all the way around, leaving the tall building entirely enclosed within the circle.

Once everyone had noticed the line, Sands explained, “See, that line? That’s a magic circle.”

“A magic circle?” One of the other boys replied flatly, his doubt obvious. “Magic. Circle.”

“It’s a long story,” Sands replied. “You’ll find out all about them later. The point is, this magic circle does a lot of things. Like, in this case, keep all of us out of the building. We’re not allowed to go in without an escort and permission, and this line makes sure we stay away from it.”

One of the other girls, pale with long brown hair drawn into a braid, snickered. “We’re not? What happens if we cross it? Do we get in trouble?” Her hand caught hold of Vanessa’s shoulder and arm and she made a motion as though to shove the suddenly protesting blonde over the line. “Let’s find out.”

I started to move, but before I could take more than a single step, a figure shoved past me. My gaze went up and I barely had time to recognize my brand new roommate before she caught the other girl by the wrist. In one motion, Avalon twisted until the girl released Vanessa with a yelp, then yanked the girl backwards, using a foot to trip her so that she sprawled back on the grass. The would-be tormentor landed hard on her backside, yelping in surprise.

“Are you really that fucking stupid?” Avalon stood over the fallen girl. In the background, I actually heard a couple of the boys make appreciative noises. Which, I suppose I couldn’t blame them for. In the sunlight the dark-haired girl looked objectively even more attractive than she had in the dorm room. And right now, standing between the fallen girl and the still-surprised Vanessa, she looked as fierce as a lioness. Righteous fury seemed to envelop her as she stood glaring down at the other girl.

Eyes widening angrily, the girl who had been tossed to the ground cursed while sitting up. “The fuck?”

“No.” Avalon stated the word before using a foot to shove the girl back down. “Are you learning disabled? Did the school create a brand new special ed class this year and I just happened to miss it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s something that would make its rounds through the rumor mill. ‘School accepts student with IQ equivalent to jar of mayonnaise, and slightly less survival instinct.’ Yup, pretty damn sure I would have heard about that at some point.”

Face growing redder by the second while everyone in the group stared, the girl on the ground sputtered, “Get the fuck off me. Who the hell do you think you are? I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

“Not doing anything wrong?” Avalon echoed. Her gaze moved briefly to me before she rolled her eyes and spoke through gritted teeth. “Sands, would you like to take this time to explain what happens when someone crosses that line? You know, the thing you were about to do anyway before Mayonnaise here thought it might be funny to throw someone over it? And for the record, talk faster next time.”

Clearing her throat once, Sands explained, “If you cross the line, you’ll get really sick. Like, face on the ground, expelling everything you’ve eaten for the past two days out both ends. Headache, nausea, dizziness, the works. I’ve seen it happen. It’s really awful. Plus it sets off an alarm, everything closes down, it’s horrible. You don’t want it to happen. Just stay away from the line. It’s bad news.”

“So, Mayonnaise,” Avalon spoke firmly while finally taking her foot off of the girl to let her up. “How about next time someone tells you not to do something around here, you wait and hear why you shouldn’t do it before you decide to test it with someone who didn’t do anything to you? Just sort of seems like the smart way of doing things after you’ve been told that there’s magic and demons and all sorts of nasty stuff out there. But then, I’m not coming at this whole thing with the common sense of a bag of hammers tossed into the dryer.”

Scowling as she pushed herself to her feet, the girl muttered, “My name is Koren, not Mayonnaise.”

“Great, maybe someday you’ll act like a person instead of a jar of condiments,” Avalon replied evenly. “But for now, just shut up and stand in your group where you belong. And the next time you think it might be funny to push someone else around or mess with them for no reason, remember that there’s always someone else that can push you around right back.”

Without missing a beat, she turned her head slightly to the group of guys who had been ogling her throughout this. “And yes, boys those are my tits. Be careful, if you keep straining your necks like that, you’re gonna pull something.”

******

We had a brief lunch out on the grounds that consisted mainly of sandwiches and apples provided in little brown bags. Then we had time to ourselves. I looked around a little, found the large library inside the main academic building, and texted my father to let him know that I’d arrived at my new school just fine. I’d held my breath, expecting an explosion of confusion from him until he’d sent back a message telling me to have fun and to e-mail him every day. He really did think this was all planned.

Before long, it was time for the welcoming dinner. Following the instructions that Sands had left with us, I met up with the rest of the Silverstone group down by the cafeteria and common area building. As Professor Dare had said, this particular building was located between the two dorms. Not directly between, of course. That’s where the courtyard was. Instead, it was sort of slightly above that middle spot, so that each dorm building and this one formed the three points of a triangle.

The professor herself was waiting for us. She greeted each of us by name, and once we had all arrived, cleared her throat. “We’re going inside now. I would like all of you to be quiet and conduct yourselves appropriately. You will sit at the front table until you are divided into your individual teams.”

Blinking, I raised my hand. “Uh, teams, Professor? I don’t understand, what teams?”

She bowed her head to me. “Thank you for reminding me, Miss Chambers. Yes, after the Headmistress has greeted and welcomed everyone, you will be divided into teams. Each team will consist of three pairs of roommates and one older student as a mentor. This team will be the same throughout the school year. You will attend classes together, aside from your mentor of course, who will have his own classes. You will also be assigned projects and other training exercises to be completed as a group.

Right. Which meant that Avalon was one of my teammates. I still didn’t know what to think about the girl. She hadn’t talked to me at all that afternoon, though we’d passed each other in the hall. She clearly had an attitude that wasn’t limited just to me, yet she had stood up for Vanessa. Which, as far as I could tell, wasn’t an isolated incident. My roommate acted like a complete bitch, but she stood up for people.

Before I could think too much more about that, Professor Dare had opened the doors and we filed in after her. The building was divided into two halves by a long corridor. To the left, there were four doors. Three of them led into the same large room, the cafeteria, while the fourth led into the kitchen. And to the right, there was a pair of doors near both ends. Those led into the common areas for students to interact, chat, play games, and whatever else we wanted to do outside of schoolwork.

Turning left, Professor Dare opened the nearest cafeteria door, and led us inside.

The cafeteria was a long, rectangular shaped room. We were at the back end of it. All along three quarters of the room were circular tables surrounded by chairs, clearly designed for a handful of occupants each. Toward the front there were several longer tables that took up most of the width of the room, with a final slightly smaller table at the very end that was set apart from the rest. Beyond that was a door that clearly led into the kitchen from this side.

Looking around the room, I estimated about four hundred students in this place. So roughly a hundred per year. That seemed like a lot for a secret school, but what did I know? Clearly they knew what they were doing.

The separate table at the far end was clearly where the faculty sat. I could see them there, a dozen or so adults watching along with every other eye in the room as we entered. In the very middle sat the woman I recognized from both the picture in the lighthouse and my ancestor’s memory. The headmistress. She gazed impassively from where she was seated, observing as Professor Dare led us through the room all the way to the front.

At the front of the room, Professor Dare gestured for us to take a seat at the end of one of the long tables. There were a bunch of other students our age up here too, including Sands and Scout, who waved at us from where they were sitting. Clearly, this was where the first year students were all waiting for our assigned teams. Once we were at the table, the professor pressed a finger to her lips before moving to join the other teachers.

I’d barely sat down before Headmistress Sinclaire rose to her feet. When she spoke, her voice filled the room. She wasn’t shouting. Actually, she appeared to be speaking in a normal tone of voice. Yet it seemed to come from everywhere in the room at once. It was as if she was right beside me.

“Thank you, Professor Dare.” The tall, red-haired woman looked out over the crowd. She held the stoic look for a brief moment, then smiled broadly. It was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, the kind of smile that made everyone else want to smile back. “My name is Headmistress Sinclaire. And welcome, all of you, to Crossroads Academy. Some of you are joining us for the first time, while others we have been privileged to know before now. All of you, in every grade, are very welcome here. We are pleased to have you.

“Now, I know everyone is very hungry. And Chef Escalan has truly outdone himself this time. So let’s get through this quickly, shall we? First, to divide our first years into their teams.” Looking up toward the back, she lifted a hand. “New mentors, please stand up.” Throughout that collection of circular tables, about fifteen or sixteen slightly older students stood up. Most looked confident, though a few were clearly nervous.

Once they had stood, the headmistress nodded. “Let’s do this as easily as possible, shall we? Start on this end, Mister Travers.” She indicated one of the standing students. “Read off the names on your list, would you please?” To us, she explained, “When you hear your name, go and join your team mentor.”

The boy started to speak, but it was a mumble and no one could hear him. Still smiling, the headmistress touched something inside her jacket pocket. When the boy spoke again, his voice spread through the room the same way hers had. “Uhh, Dastin, Roy and Scofield, Preston?” Two boys that I didn’t know went that way, soon followed by four other students to make a team of six.

After that, Vanessa Moon and a girl named Erin Redcliffe were the first pair to be called by a black girl named Cameron who was standing there the whole time with some kind of lizard perched on her shoulder. That continued on through more mentor students. One by one, our table of first years dwindled. It looked like each team only had one or two of those of us who had grown up without knowing any of this stuff, and I figured that was probably intentional.

A few teams later, Headmistress Sinclaire announced the next mentor’s name. “Deveron Adams?”

I remembered the name. That was the guy that was supposed to be keeping an eye on the other bystander-kin while Professor Dare retrieved me, and later give us the tour that Sands and Scout had ended up giving.

Turning in my seat, I watched as the boy in question stood, stretching lazily as he did so. He was tall, maybe an inch over six feet, and well built. Even from here, I could tell that the boy personified tall, dark, and handsome. His black hair was styled into a crew cut, and it looked like there was a vague hint of Asian genes in his otherwise Caucasian features. The tie and lapels of his school uniform were red.

“Ahh, let’s see who the talent is this year.” Deveron glanced at the paper in his hand. Unlike the others, he read all the names off at once without waiting. “Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Avalon Sinclaire, Sandoval Mason, and Sarah Mason. Let’s go, chop chop, people. Some of us want to eat sometime today.”

Yay. Clearly this guy was going to be a fantastic mentor. Rolling my eyes, I stood with the others and walked to the table where Deveron had already sat back down and resumed his casual, lounging position with his feet up on the opposite chair.

Pointedly, I ignored the other seats, shoving those feet off the chair so I could sit in it. Sands took the seat to my right with her sister beside her, while Columbus took the seat to my left. His own roommate sat beside him, leaving the last chair for Avalon to take.

Linking his arms behind his head, Deveron smirked at me. “Something ruffle your feathers, birdie?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Weren’t you the one that was supposed to give us a tour earlier?”

“Was I?” He shrugged, clearly not caring. “Sorry, guess I had something better to do. Didn’t my substitutes do a good job?” The boy glanced toward the twins. “I left you two of them and everything, just to make up for missing me.”

Before I could retort to that, the next mentor finished listing his students, which meant that all the final one had to do was wave for the few students that remained to join him at the last table.

“Wonderful,” Headmistress Sinclaire smiled broadly once more. “Now remember, these are the teams that you will have throughout the rest of this year. You will go to every class together, you will do all projects together, and you will train together. You will learn to rely on one another, just as the rest of our student teams have. Look at the people around you. These are the students who you will learn to count on to have your back, to protect and learn from each other.”

All throughout the room, at every first year table, there was an exchange of glances and a murmur of uncertainty. Before it could grow too loud, the headmistress continued. “But that’s for later. Right now, you’ve all waited quite long enough. Let’s eat, shall we?”

With that, she clapped her hands twice. As soon as she did, a plastic menu appeared out of thin air, landing on the table right in front of me. Everyone else had their own menu appear, and there were gasps all around the room.

Beside me, Sands leaned closer, speaking so that Columbus and I could hear. “See, just pick up the menu.” She plucked hers off the table and showed it to us. There were four or five main dishes listed, along with a handful of side options, a few different drinks, and so on. “Use your finger like this to circle what you want.” With her index finger, Sands circled the word meatloaf. As she did so, a glowing blue line appeared around it. She followed that up with corn on the cob, french fries, and chocolate milk. Then she moved her finger down to the lower right corner where the word ‘finished’ was written and circled that with her finger so that the line appeared there as well. Then she set the menu down.

About six seconds after she’d set the menu on the table, it vanished and was replaced by a plate laden with all the food she had ordered, and her chosen drink.

“Cool!” I grabbed my menu and stared at it, carefully circling what looked good with my finger. “How does it work?” I asked quickly. “I mean, how do they, how does it… you know, how does it do that?”

Looking right back at me, Sands grinned. “It is pretty cool, huh?” Then she shrugged. “I dunno how it works exactly. That’s the sort of thing we’re supposed to learn this year. Magic.”

Magic. The word hit me, and I had to sit there holding the menu for a few seconds. Magic. We were learning magic. All of this, everything that was happening, it was all coming so fast. I felt overwhelmed, almost sick, but in sort of a good way. It was like the feeling I’d gotten as a kid before a big vacation or an important holiday. Overwhelming, in every sense of the word.

Swallowing, I reached into my pocket absently and took out the stone that I had thrown through the portal earlier. After playing with it in my hand while I thought for a second, I set it down on the table.

“Why do you have a dirty rock?” Avalon spoke to me for the first time that evening, her gaze riveted to it as if I’d thrown a corpse down on the table or something. “Please tell me you don’t think it’s magic.”

“Magic?” I grinned back at the other girl in spite of her scowl. “Nah, it’s just my pet rock.” I announced that while circling ‘finished’ on the menu, then set it down.

“Your… pet… rock…” Avalon spoke slowly, staring at me like I’d just said the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

“Yup!” I chirped just as my plate of food appeared in front of me. Magic. It appeared like magic. I grabbed the fork off the table.”Don’t worry though, he doesn’t eat much and he’s really quiet. I think I’ve got him potty trained.”

On either side of me, Columbus and Sands snickered. I even caught a glimpse of a smile from Scout.

But Avalon just shook her head and looked away, muttering about having a dumbass for a roommate.

Ignoring that, I dug the fork into the food and took a bite. Then I closed my eyes and murmured appreciatively before intoning in a low voice, “Don’t be jealous, I’ll share Herbie with you.”

“Herbie?” Avalon echoed the word flatly.

“Yup,” I nodded. “Herbie. My rock. I’ll let you play with him sometime if you want. You know, fetch, roll over, sit up, play dead. He’s better at those last two, but we’re working on it.”

“Oh my God,” Avalon’s voice was droll. “My roommate is a fucking crazy person.”

Leaning closer to the rock on the table, I spoke in a stage-whisper. “Don’t worry, Herbie. She’ll warm up to you. Just be yourself. And remember, no peeing in the bed.”

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Orientation 1-05

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Moments later, Sands and Scout were leading our little group of bystander-kin out of the lighthouse and back along the trail toward the dorm buildings Professor Dare had pointed out to me. The others were chatting about the things they’d seen, but my mind was stuck on that little revelation.

Right, so the headmistress of this super secret magic school happened to be the woman who had sworn to kill my ancestor however many centuries ago. That in itself raised about a bazillion questions, starting with: how old was she? Was I wrong about how long ago it had been? Their clothing, mannerisms, and everything else said that they were from the medieval era, but she was still alive.

Magic. As soon as I thought the question, the answer came to me. Of course it was magic. Why was I questioning it? I’d just stepped through an empty doorway to be instantly transported literally thousands of miles to a paradise island where I looked into a bright light and experienced a flashback memory from one of my ancestors. Why the hell should freaking longevity trip me up so much?

Hell, humanity’s average life expectancy was getting longer all the time, with just normal technology and medicine. Add magic into the mix, and it really shouldn’t have been surprising at all.

At least I now understood why Professor Dare had just smiled at me when I’d made that comment about how the headmistress must be getting older if she took over the school sixty-seven years ago. With a lifespan like she had, less than seventy years was practically a summer job.

I wondered, briefly, if the woman knew who I was and where I had descended from. It would make sense, considering everything else they knew. Was that, my ancestor’s cowardice, the reason they had taken so long to approve me? But if it was, why would the headmistress have been the one to break that tie in my favor? It was possible that she didn’t hold the coward’s actions against me and wanted to give me a chance. But it was also possible that she wanted me here for another reason.

Stop, Flick. Just stop. You’re being paranoid. Even if Baroness Gaia Sinclaire did know who my ancestor was, she had absolutely no reason to associate me with him. Only a truly pathetic nutjob would treat someone like shit just because of who they were related to. The woman’s been around for centuries. Obviously she was more mature and level-headed than that. I had no reason other than utter batshit paranoia to think she was out to get me. So leave it alone unless something else happens.

“Hey, uhh, what’s your name?” The voice, addressing me apparently, came from the black guy who had spoken up to ask if we were going to find out why we were in that lighthouse. Mr. Porter, the professor had called him. He was fairly tall, just a hair under six feet. His build was athletic, but in a narrow sort of way, more like a runner or a swimmer than a bodybuilder. He was looking back at me curiously.

“Flick,” I tore my attention away from my introspection to speak up. “Flick Chambers.” I extended a hand to the boy. “Sorry for holding everything up and making you guys wait so long.”

“Eh,” he waved one hand dismissively while taking mine with his other to shake once. His grip was firm, his hands strong and calloused. “Don’t worry about it. Sounds like you just found out about all this today, right?” There was a look of sympathy in his gaze. “Trust me, we know where you’re at right now. Me, I met Professor Dare… what… a week ago? What about everyone else?”

There was a general murmur of agreement. Most people had met the professor days ago. I was the only one that had been first contacted mere minutes before orientation. Obviously Professor Dare hadn’t been kidding about how things had come right down to the wire on whether to approve me or not.

“I’m Columbus,” the boy informed me. “Columbus Porter.” He lifted his hand to point to the Asian girl. “That right there is Shiori, my foster sister. Yeah, we both ended up here, go figure, huh?”

I waved to Shiori, listening as some of the other students discussed the things they’d seen. I heard the other black guy, whose name was Travis, apparently, talk about how his ancestor had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and that his vision had been of the man shooting down flying zombie whale monsters in his biplane. This, of course, was met with a boast from one of the Caucasian boys that his ancestor had apparently fought immortal vampire redcoats during the American Revolution. Travis referred to the other boy as Malcolm while scoffing at the idea that something like that was more impressive than his own vision. The two were obviously friends, and they continued talking over one another trying to brag the loudest about their ancestor’s achievements and how amazing they had been.

That little discussion was curtailed as Columbus called up toward the front. “Hey, uhh, Sands was it?”

The girl pivoted, walking backwards beside her silent twin while nodding toward him. “Sup?”

“You guys already had your orientation, right?” Columbus asked. “Did you have to go into the lighthouse and see visions or whatever to unlock your ability to see these monsters and all that?”

Sands shook her head. “Yes and no. See, we do have to look into it and see those visions. But not like you guys just did. When you grow up with this stuff, the ones born in the Knowledge, you go into the lighthouse over the summer before this first school year starts. And you don’t go in with a big group or with Professor Dare. You go with your family, and your parents or guardian or whatever starts it up. Then you talk together about everything you saw. It’s like a… a big family outing.” She swallowed at the end of that, her gaze shooting briefly toward Scout and I saw a hint of a flinch before it went away.

Before anyone could say anything else, we reached the base of one of the two dorm buildings. They were four stories high, and shaped long rather than tall, with the end opposite us pointed toward the beach in the distance. They were placed parallel to one another, with a wide courtyard between them that had several benches and a fountain in the middle, and there was a glass-enclosed bridge connecting the top floor of each. I also saw a couple more of those gargoyles perched at the top of the buildings. In front of the doors we were standing at, there was a gold statue of a knight holding a sword at the ready.

“This is the boy’s dorm,” Sands informed us. “You can tell because of the statue. See, look over there.” We looked the way she was indicating, and found a gold statue of a woman holding a bow and arrow standing beside the door of the opposite building.

“Here, Vanessa was it?” Sands looked to a blonde girl clutching a thick leather-bound book to her chest. When the girl nodded, Sands gestured. “Why don’t you open the door for us?” There was a mischievous glint to the girl’s expression, and she stepped aside.

“I’ll do it,” I said quickly, taking a step that way. I put my hand out toward the door, only to yelp out loud as my wrist was caught in an iron grip. Or possibly golden grip, considering it was the statue that had caught me. The thing had moved suddenly, and I had the feeling that there wasn’t a goofy security guard inside the armor this time. This was something else. I stood still while the thing held my arm, and after a moment, it released me, but continued to stand warily with its head pointed my direction.

“First year boys aren’t allowed in the girl’s dorms or vice versa,” Sands explained. “Sorry, but it’s kinda funny to see the first time it happens. The door statues here will stop you from going in if you’re under age and don’t belong in that particular dorm. Don’t ask me how they know how old we are. Once you’re over eighteen, you can go into the other dorm as much as you want. And trust me, people do. Plus, boyfriends and girlfriends can room together if they make a special request.”

The blonde girl with the book, Vanessa apparently, shot me a grateful look. I shrugged and smiled back at her before turning my attention toward the twins. “Let me guess, four floors, four years of school.”

“Hey, nice catch,” Sands replied with a grin, giving me a thumbs up. “Yeah, first years like us are on the first floor. Next year we move up to the second, and so on. Top floor dorms are completely co-ed. They’ve got a lot of couples living together up there, so the top floor of the dorms are connected by those bridges. They’re also bigger. The rooms up there are more like apartments than dorms.”

“I’ve got a question,” Columbus raised his hand. “Aren’t those uniforms hot?” He nodded toward the clothes that the twins were wearing. “We’re on a tropical island. Actually,” as if it had just occurred to him, he looked around. “Why am I not hot? Hell, why aren’t we all sweating our asses off?”

He was right. The temperature felt just about perfect. Not too hot, and not too cold. It was just right. I hadn’t really noticed it too much before, which made me feel pretty damn stupid, but I’d forgive myself given everything else I was trying to cope with and understand. The weather not being hot enough for a tropical island like this, and the twins not roasting in those uniforms, was just one more thing.

Sands grinned back at the boy. “First, you not being hot is kind of a matter of opinion.” She winked then before continuing. “And as for the rest of it, uhhh, you see those birds over there?” Pointing off in the distance, she indicated a flock of brightly colored parrots flying just above the trees beyond the school grounds. “If you listen really close, you can kind of hear them. But they should be a lot louder. Hell, this whole place should be drowning in noise. That’s a jungle out there, literally. There’s tons of animals in that place, yet, we can’t really hear them. Why? Same reason it’s not as hot as it should be.”

“Magic?” One of the other new students, the Native American girl, asked tentatively.

“Yup!” Sands nodded toward the girl, then hesitated. “Exactly, err, what’s your name, again?”

“Aylen,” the girl answered. “Aylen Tamaya.”

“Aylen,” Sands repeated. “Right, Aylen, it’s magic. See, there’s a big forcefield shield thing all around the grounds. It maintains the temperature in here, and muffles the sound from outside. It also does a few other things, like keep track of when anyone leaves so the faculty always know when someone’s off the grounds. Which sounds like a pain in the ass, but I guess it’s necessary to keep everyone safe and whatever else. Point is, as long as you stay on the school grounds, the temperature will adjust itself to whatever you’re wearing to make you perfectly comfortable. So I could wear a tee-shirt and shorts while Scout wore a snowsuit, and we’d both be comfortable even standing next to each other.”

That… sounded pretty damn useful, actually. I whistled low. “So I guess beyond the shield it’s hot?”

“Hell yeah,” Sands bobbed her head rapidly. “It’s like a ninety degrees out there by the beach today. Step outside the shield and you’ll see how hot it can get here during the day. I think that’s part of why they make us wear these uniforms, to make us not want to go down there while we’re in class.”

There was a little more back and forth discussion about the shield and how well it maintained the temperature and sound before Sands pointed toward the boys dorm entrance. “Guys, if you go in here and past the stairs, you’ll find the first year dorms. The doors all have the names of who belongs there written beside them. Oh, and you’ll have a roommate. I think they try to pair Silverstones like you guys with a roommate that grew up in the Knowledge like Scout and me so that we can answer any questions you have. Your clothes and everything else you brought should be on your bed in there. And… what else… “

She trailed off, frowning as if trying to remember what she had forgotten. After a second or two of that, her twin leaned up and whispered in her ear. Sands snapped her fingers then. “Oh, right. Thanks, Scout. Yeah, there should be a key next to where your name is written in there.” She dug into her pocket and came out with what looked like one of those old, big cast iron keys, except that it was ruby-colored. “The dorm rooms will be locked unless you’re carrying that key with you. You don’t have to actually stick it in anything, you just have to have it and the door it matches will unlock when the key gets close enough to it. It’s cool, plus it saves you from having to take the time to use them.”

It did sound cool, and it reminded me a bit of those electronic security badges that people wore, the ones that didn’t have to be inserted anywhere, but just worked by getting near the door scanner.

“All right!” Sands stepped back from the dorm. “You guys go in, find your rooms and get sorted. We’ll head over to the girl dorms and then everyone meets back out here by the fountain in… ten minutes?”

There was a general agreement, and the boys headed in to find their rooms while Sands and Scout led the rest of us across to the other building. This time, the golden statue outside remained motionless as we approached and went through the door into the dorm itself.

The floor and walls here were dark, hardwood. There was a set of stairs to the right, while an open doorway to the left led into the hallway itself. Doors lined both sides of the hall, with wall-mounted lamps between each pair of them. There were also several paintings of various mythological creatures and warriors adorning the hallway, along with the plaques besides each door with the names listed on them that Sands had already mentioned. Small manila envelopes were attached to the the plaques that obviously held those keys.

Everyone spread out to find their rooms, and I did the same. Walking down the hall, I passed the others until I reached the very end, just before a window that overlooked the grounds that led down to the beach. Finally, I found the plaque that had my name written on it. Felicity Chambers. Below that, there was another plaque with the name Avalon Sinclaire.

Wait. Sinclaire? As in Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire? That… couldn’t be a coincidence. Why was I being bunked alongside someone that was obviously related to the headmistress?

Shaking off my confusion, I took the envelope down and slipped the large red key out. Turning it over in my hand, I examined the key but couldn’t see anything overtly magical about it. Not that I knew what to look for. Finally, I held the key in one hand while reaching out to try the doorknob.

It opened easily, and I stepped into the room that I would be living in for the rest of the school year.

The room was pretty damn nice, actually. I’d seen college dorms that were a hell of a lot worse than this one. It was fairly large, about twice the size of my bedroom back home. The floor was a pretty white carpet that felt soft under my feet. There were two queen sized beds on the opposite side of the room, their headboards each resting on either side of a large window. To the other side of each bed there was a small dresser with a pair of drawers with a lamp and one of those old fashioned wind-up alarm clocks sitting on top. On the left and right sides of the room there were closets, and on this side of the room on opposite sides of the doorway I was standing in there were a pair of desks with comfortable swivel chairs and actual computers that almost looked out of place compared to everything else I had seen so far.

One of the beds had my bag and a bunch of my clothes laid out on it. The other was occupied by a figure who sat with her back to me, fingers flying over the phone that she was holding. When I cleared my throat, she jumped and turned to face me.

Okay, wow. The girl standing in front of me, my roommate apparently, was drop dead gorgeous. Seriously, she looked like she belonged in some kind of super model magazine or something, not attending some magic school. She stood several inches taller than me, her hair was long and pitch black, her skin flawless. Plus there was the fact that, well, to put it bluntly, she was stacked. Unless she was smuggling some actual cantaloupes under the school uniform she was wearing, I had to wonder how she was going to avoid having back problems while we did any of this fight training stuff.

“Who’re–” The girl started to say. “Wait, right. My roommate.” She managed to say the word in the same tone of voice that most people would use to describe something they scraped off their shoe.

“Yup,” I nodded, extending a hand to her while looking the girl up and down. She wore the same sort of uniform as the others I’d seen. Hers was the skirt version, similar to Scout’s, though her tie and the lapel was colored light blue rather than purple. “Flick. You must be Avalon.”

The girl regarded my hand briefly, then ignored it and stepped around me. On her way out of the room, she called airily, “Try to keep your stuff on your side of the room, Chambers. Anything I find on my side, you won’t get back.”

Then she was gone, and I let out a long, low breath. Well, clearly I had the best roommate ever. I couldn’t wait to stay up late at night and tell stories while we giggled and shared s’mores.

“Right,” I said to the empty room. “Good talk.”

Shaking that off, I moved to check my bag and all my clothes. Who cared if my roommate wasn’t exactly the friendliest person on the planet? There was an entire island to explore, magic to learn about, and plenty of much more interesting and open people to chat with.

Besides, I had a feeling that a hostile roommate wouldn’t be the most dangerous thing I ran into this year.

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Orientation 1-04

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Professor Dare’s voice faded into the background, transitioning into a distant rumble of thunder. The blinding light gradually lessened, leaving spots on my vision for a few more seconds until I could finally see again. Which was good, except that what I was seeing wasn’t at all what I should have been.

I wasn’t standing at the top of that lighthouse anymore. Instead, my feet were planted firmly on a rocky, volcanic landscape. The ground beneath me was as black as obsidian, and hot enough that I could feel the warmth through my shoes. The area was lit by various fires throughout the rocky, uneven terrain, and I could see a river of lava in the distance that emerged from a dark and utterly forbidding cave.

Spinning in a circle, eyes wide, I searched for anything that might tell me what the hell was going on. Nothing. No one. “What…” I trailed off, then took a breath to call out for anyone that might be within shouting distance. At the last second, I clasped a hand over my own mouth, cutting off my own cry.

Stupid. I didn’t know where I was or who was around. After every warning about evil and monsters that Professor Dare had just given, was shouting out loud to get attention really a good idea? I didn’t know what might hear me, and I had absolutely no reason to believe that they’d be in a helpful mood.

No, if I was going to figure this out, I had to do it without being an idiot. Think, Flick. Standing in the middle of volcano world with nobody in sight, how do you figure out what the hell is going on?

Okay, let’s go with the options and narrow it down one piece at a time. First question, was this intentional or unintentional? In other words, did Professor Dare know that this was going to happen, or was this something new? A point to the former was that they’d apparently been doing this sort of thing for a long time, so it seemed like they would know what they were doing. Point to the latter was that she hadn’t warned us about anything like this. On the other hand, maybe this was a test or something.

Right, so it could be either. I was leaning toward them knowing about it and just not warning us for whatever reason, but whichever it was, knowing for sure wouldn’t help me in the moment aside from telling me if this was something dangerous or planned. Whichever happened to be the truth, the fact was that I wasn’t planning on being reckless anyway. I needed to take my time and think this through.

Just as I came to that conclusion, the thunder returned, bringing Professor Dare’s voice along with it.

“Wherever you see yourself now, it is an echo, a memory passed along through your family line of a time one of your ancestors saw one of the Strangers. Some of you may find yourselves standing in a prehistoric world, while others may only be a few generations back from your own, or even less. Wherever you find yourself, know that you cannot be harmed. You are a ghost within a memory, and your only duty is to observe what your ancestor witnessed. Watch, listen, and know the truth. The vision will translate the language spoken to one that you are capable of understanding.”

The words seemed to come from every direction before being swept along with the fading of the noise in the sky. I blinked, turning around while trying to understand. I was seeing a memory of my ancestor? Then where were they? Because all I could see was more volcanic nastiness everywhere I looked.

Abruptly, my attention was drawn toward movement. Twisting that way, I stared as a group of figures crested the hill across from me. There were six of them, and they were massive, powerful-looking beings that stood a solid eight feet tall, or very nearly three feet over my paltry five foot four. Their skin was yellow-green, and their muscles made most body builders I knew of look like paltry weaklings. They wore armor made of furs, and their faces were like warthogs, with long tusks.

Four of the six walked in front, their beady eyes scanning every part of the black rocks ahead of them. Their gazes passed over me, never slowing. I was, as Professor Dare had put it, a ghost in a memory.

The remaining two were slightly further back. For a moment, I thought it looked like they were carrying the poles of a litter, one in front and one in back. Then I realized that the box attached to the poles they held wasn’t a luxurious, antiquated method of travel for royalty. It was a cage. The massive, ugly beasts were carrying poles that held up a large cage, where three huddled figures cowered.

I stood still, staring as the enormous figures hiked closer to me, grunting back and forth at each other. They were obviously communicating, but I couldn’t understand the words. So much for what Professor Dare had said about the vision translating for us. Unless that only applied to human languages.

Just as they reached the same hill I was standing on, one of them made a loud barking noise and held up his fist. With a grunt, the two carrying the cage set it down, and the warthog things stepped away. One of them kicked the cage, giving an obvious laugh when the huddled humans cried out. He kicked it again, then said something to his companions, who chortled as well.

From here, I could see that the people in the cage were dressed in what looked like medieval clothing. Two were male, one in peasant garb while the other clearly wore noble clothes. The third imprisoned figure was a female in clothes that were just as shabby as the peasant man. All looked terrified.

While I stood there, unsure of what I was supposed to do next or what I was supposed to be learning from this (if anything), the nobly-dressed prisoner stuck his hand partway out of the cage. His voice cracked a little bit. “Please, please.” He cupped his hand. “Just a little water, just a swallow.”

Sneering, the nearest of the warthogs stomped closer and leaned in. He spat into the cage, then started to belly laugh while bringing his foot down hard to stomp on the man’s outstretched hand.

Except the hand wasn’t there anymore. The second that foot came down, the imprisoned noble withdrew it. Then, as the foot hit the ground and the warthog was thrown off balance, the man’s hand snapped back out of the cage like a striking snake. He caught hold of the stumbling creature and yanked hard. The warthog was hauled off balance, falling onto his backside with a heavy crash.

The other five hogs didn’t seem to know what was happening, it was going by too quickly for them to react. Before the one that had fallen could collect himself, the nobleman yanked hard. That big leg was forced into the cage far enough that the man was able to reach up and grab the dagger out of its sheath.

Newly armed, the nobleman lashed out with three quick strikes as high as he could reach, practically laying on top of the fallen monster to stab into his stomach. The creature howled out in deafening agony, which finally got the remaining five to realize something was horribly wrong (or right, depending on your point of view toward human beings imprisoned by monsters). Unfortunately for them, the reaction was coming too late. The nobleman had already snaked his free hand out of the bars, snatching a single large key on a ring off of the warthog’s belt. He jerked back and quickly unlocked the cage, springing out of it with the nimbleness of a cat. His voice called out a challenge as the five warthogs came running. “Approach in turns or as one, beasts. For all that the order of your attacks shall change is the picture your blood will paint upon the ground.”

He then proceeded to actually follow up his boast with action. The man moved with almost impossible speed and skill, evading the rather clumsy attacks from the warthogs before striking with deadly precision. One by one, they fell to that simple dagger, until only the final warthog was left. This one was both warier and more skilled than his companions. It looked like he and the nobleman were fairly evenly matched. The human couldn’t get a decent lethal strike without leaving himself too open to a devastating counter-attack, and he was too quick for the monster himself to land a good blow on.

In the meantime, both terrified peasants had crawled free from the cage. The man stood, looking around wildly while the woman hauled herself up with one hand on the cage. She was keeping her weight off her left foot, wincing in pain each time she had to use it at all. Yet she was standing, and pointed past the dueling combatants. “More of the creatures!” Sure enough, a good dozen were rushing across the ruined landscape to join the fight. Several rode large armored horses.

Still circling his opponent, the nobleman called out, “Good man, escort the lady away from here. Tis no place for such a lovely form, and no sight for eyes so pretty. Take her swiftly now, and escape.”

Instead, the male peasant just looked at the injured woman. I could read the hesitation and thoughts in his eyes. She would slow him down. Helping or carrying her meant that there was a chance those monsters could catch up, particularly the ones on horseback, with no guarantee that the nobleman would stop all of them.

He bolted, racing away while leaving the woman behind. She shouted in dismay, calling him a coward. Her words seemed to have no affect, and the man simply continued to run, abandoning her.

Standing away from his skilled opponent, the nobleman cast one look toward the incoming horde, then looked to the abandoned woman. “Fear not,” he assured her. “For one such as you shall not fall to these beasts. I will see you away. Of that, you have my word.”

Suiting action to word, the man launched a flurry of attacks designed to drive his opponent back. Given a wide enough bit of room to work with, he turned and kicked one of the fallen warthog’s swords up into his hand, then threw it at the nearest of the incoming horse-mounted monsters. The horse screamed and pitched forward while the man rushing straight at it. He leapt, kicking off of the falling horse to use its body as a platform, launching himself straight at the next horse. His feet planted themselves in the rider’s chest, knocking him off his mount and to the ground. Meanwhile, the man himself landed hard on the saddle. In one motion, he kicked the horse’s sides to get it moving faster, while throwing his stolen dagger across to the third and final remaining horse.

A collective scream of outrage and war bellows went up from the remaining hogs, even as the nobleman kicked his stolen steed into a faster sprint. Reaching the injured woman, he stopped the horse and put his arm down to haul her up onto the horse with him.

“Ride, my lady.” The nobleman urged her even as he himself slipped off and landed lightly on the hard ground. “The steed slows too much for two to escape upon it. Escape to the north. Flee until the grass returns. I shall slow their pursuit as much as I am able, but you must make haste.” When the woman opened her mouth to object, he interrupted. “Please, the knowledge that you have escaped these creatures shall be eternal life to my soul. I could do nothing to endanger that. Flee now. Go.”

“If that coward had only…” The woman clutched the reins of the horse, head shaking rapidly. “If I see his face again, I will kill him myself.” With that vow, she gave the reins a shake and held on tight as the horse leapt into a gallop once more, racing away from the scene.

With her departure, the nobleman turned to face the incoming monsters, unarmed and outnumbered. Still, he raised both hands and beckoned them onward. “Come then. I have not yet seen enough of what lies inside of you creatures to know how far you differ from humanity, and it shall be interesting to see what spills out when you are thoroughly cut.” He cracked the knuckles of one hand, then the other. “Bring me your weapons. I shall return them to you hastily, and with great enthusiasm.”

Okay, seriously, if this guy was supposed to be my ancestor, I had a lot to live up to. God, he was even handsome. Which was weird to say about someone I was apparently related to, but still.

Then… as the armed monsters came charging in, my view grew faded. The area around the fighting man was covered in fog, and I stumbled backwards as something pulled at me. What the hell?

Turning, I found myself pulled along as a figure crawled out from under a distant outcropping of rock. He stood, and I recognized him. The other peasant, the one that had fled. He’d circled around and hid, watching what had happened from a safe place. Now, he had crawled out of his hiding place, dusted himself off and… he was leaving. The coward was quickly walking in a different direction, leaving the nobleman behind in his haste. He never looked back, never so much as hesitated in his rush to escape.

And with every step he took, I was dragged along with him. I couldn’t see how the nobleman’s fight went, because what I had been witnessing wasn’t his memory. It was this man’s, the cowards. This was my ancestor. He was the one I was related to.

With that realization, the bright light returned. I reeled backwards, hissing as the blinding glow enveloped all of my vision for several seconds before finally fading.

I was back in that lighthouse, back with the rest of the group. The others, aside from Professor Dare and the twins, Sands and Scout, were all rubbing our eyes and blinking. Conversation rose quickly as people talked about what and who they had seen, the excitement from their visions obvious.

It didn’t seem like any of them had witnessed an ancestor who had been as much of a coward as mine.

Over those excited voices, Professor Dare spoke up. “The Light of the Heretical Edge has touched you.” The conversations quieted, and she continued. “You have all seen a significant event within the lives of your ancestors, related to the Strangers. You have been welcomed into the Knowledge, and even as the Light has burned your eyes, it has also opened them. You will see the creatures for what they are now, and none of their disguises shall fool you ever again. Be warned, however. They will know that you can see them. They know you as you know them, and they will strike without mercy.”

Her gaze swept over the room, lingering on each person for a moment before she went on. “But sight and understanding are not our only weapons. Part of the Light of the Heretical Edge remains within each of you. When you destroy one of these Strangers, that light draws in part of their strength, transferring it to you. With each of the monsters you destroy, you will become stronger, faster, more powerful. Their abilities shall, over time and effort, become yours. A sufficiently successful and long-lived Heretic becomes a force to be reckoned with. The abilities they use to hunt humanity are turned against their kind by the Heretic who kills them. But rest assured, you are still but children. In time, your strength will grow. For now, you must learn from your instructors, and grow into the warriors that I know you are all capable of becoming.”

With that said, the woman let out a breath. “Now, normally I would have your second year adviser escort you to your rooms so that you may have some time to explore before lunch. But as Mr. Adams has chosen to abandon his duty…”

“We can show them where to go, Professor.” Sands waved a hand. “I mean, sure we’re little firsties too, but we have been here before, you know. It’s just the dorms, we can do that much.” Scout, hair still hiding part of her face, leaned in and whispered to her. Sands listened before adding, “Scout says we can show them around too, since, you know, we’ve been exploring this place for a long time.”

Professor Dare seemed to consider that for a moment before bowing her head. “Very well. I have other duties to attend to. You may show them where their rooms are located.” She extended a hand, and a piece of paper seemed to materialize directly in it. The abruptness of the paper appearing in her hand made me jump, staring as she simply handed the paper to the girl. “Their dorm assignments are here. I trust you will be able to handle this without any… incidents?”

“We promise to be good,” Sands grabbed her sister’s hand and held it up. “Scout’s honor.” Then she giggled.

Sighing, her expression showing that she thought she was going to regret the decision, Professor Dare nodded. “Go then.” To us, she added, “Stay with Sandovo—Sands and Scout. They will show you to your rooms and then give you a tour of the island before lunch. In your rooms, you will find your belongings. This afternoon we will take your sizes and determine your current specialization track for the semester. The specialization track will determine what classes and skills you focus on as Heretics.”

“Yeah,” Sands spoke up. “See, purple.” She waved a hand over her own tie and her twin’s. “That means we chose the investigation track. You know that whole Men in Black thing where they work with the cops while pretending to be FBI or whatever so they can look into mysterious things to find out if it was something not normal? Yeah, that’s basically what we’re getting into. Then there’s like, the people that build stuff, the straight up combat people, and some others.”

“Thank you, Miss Mason.” Professor Dare gave a short nod once more. “There will, of course, be much more information on that soon, but for now just know that you should not fear making such a decision when the time comes. You will have one week at the beginning of every semester to change it if you so choose. Go now, see to your rooms and your exploration. Talk with each other. You will meet your fellow students, the rest of those who, like Sands and Scout, were raised within the Knowledge before too much longer.”

People started filing out then. I moved as well after hesitating briefly, but as I started for the exit from the lighthouse, my gaze found a painting hung over the stairway and I stopped short.

“Who… who is that?” I asked, looking back at Professor Dare.

She followed my gaze before smiling faintly. “Our headmistress, Baroness Gaia Sinclaire.”

I looked back to the painting, swallowing as I stared at it. Because I knew the face in the picture. Not well, but I’d seen her very recently, and it was too perfect of a resemblance to a coincidence.

The headmistress of Crossroads Academy was the woman I’d seen in my vision, the one who had sworn to kill my cowardly ancestor.

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Orientation 1-03

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I expected to feel disoriented or nauseous after passing through the doorway. There should have been some physical indication of what had just happened. Yet, in spite of taking the time to brace myself, I felt absolutely no different aside from now being inside rather than outside. I might as well have stepped through a normal doorway for all that my body seemed to notice.

Once it became clear that my stomach wasn’t going to flip over and turn inside out (metaphorically or literally), I let one eye slowly creak open, then the other before looking around. As I did, my mouth fell open, and I made a small noise that probably sounded a bit like a constipated squirrel.

That giant floor to ceiling mirror with the gold border lay in front of me, and when I looked over my shoulder, I found the black bordered one that I had apparently just emerged from. Which meant that it was real. The impossible doorway had… had actually worked. I was in that beautiful corridor.

Somehow, up to that point, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it as being real. It was one thing to say that I believed the doorway was really going to take me somewhere, or even to believe that I believed it. But actually experiencing it was very different. Two seconds earlier, I had been in a big, mostly empty field. Now, just by taking a single step, I’d traveled… God knew how far.

The corridor was empty by that point, which was just as well considering that my next course of action probably would have forever branded me the most ridiculously enormous dork in the entire school.

“Yes!” Hands thrust into the air with my fists clenched, I blurted that single word, my voice echoing up and down the hall. Then the words came pouring out of me in a squeal. “Holy shit! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!” I was literally jumping up and down, hands held high while simultaneously spinning in a circle in the middle of that long corridor. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

“Miss Chambers,” the calm voice of Professor Dare spoke firmly as she stepped through the mirror.

Stooping, I grabbed the rock that I had thrown off the floor, staring at it in my hand for a second before blurting, “My rock! This is my rock! Holy shit, this is my rock! I threw it, and it’s here, and now I’m here!” I waved the rock at her as if she’d never experienced this before. “How cool is this rock?!”

That time, I was sure I saw a brief smile before the older woman composed herself. Shaking her head, she replied in what was probably the same kind of tone I might use with someone from fifty years ago raving over my cellphone. “It is still only a rock, Miss Chambers.”

“It’s a rock that was in that field!” I corrected her, my voice growing louder from my excitement. “And now it’s here! It was there and now it’s here and it only went that far. It’s a rock that went through a magic portal! Wait, is that a magic portal? Wait, where are we? Wait, is the rock radioactive now? Am I radio—no that’s stupid, you wouldn’t have us go through a portal that made things radioactive, duh, wake up, Flick. But seriously, do you have the slightest idea how freaking amazing this is?!”

Professor Dare shook her head slowly before clearing her throat. “I am very pleased that you seem to be enjoying your arrival here, and that you appreciate the magnitude of what has happened. Only a small percentage of our Heretics come from outside of the Knowledge, and so for most of our students this is nothing to be excited by. It is always refreshing and humbling to see an outsiders reaction.”

Clutching the rock in my hand, I stared at the woman while trying to think of where to start with all of the questions flooding my head. “What do you mean, Heretics? What’s this Knowledge you’re talking about? How many students go here? Where exactly are we? How far are we from Laramie Falls?”

I probably would have kept going, but Professor Dare raised a single red-gloved hand. “Be at ease, Miss Chambers. All of your questions will be answered, alongside the other Bystander-kin.”

I paused, considering that. “Let me guess, Bystander is someone who doesn’t know about any of this stuff, and Bystander-kin is someone like me, someone whose family doesn’t know about it.”

“Yes,” Professor Dare nodded once. “Those who are outside of the Knowledge are Bystanders. You are on the cusp of being within the Knowledge, but you were raised among Bystanders. If you come with me, I will take you to the Bystander-kin orientation. All your questions should be answered there.”

I glanced toward the mirror that I’d somehow come through before nodding. Somehow, I managed to restrain the urge to jump up and down some more. “Okay, sure. Let’s go to this orientation then.”

Pivoting smartly on her heel, the woman strode away from me. I followed, trying to remember where I knew the name Virginia Dare from. It was definitely familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why.

We passed half a dozen closed doors on our way, and behind each of them I could hear the muffled voices that were immediately reminiscent of every other school I’d ever walked walked through. Classes were going on behind those doors. I was curious, but Professor Dare never slowed.

I also took the time to look up, seeing the series of elaborate chandeliers that were lighting the corridor. They looked roughly about as expensive as my whole house, so I resolved not to throw any more rocks.

At the end of the hall, we came to a T junction. To the right, I saw another door-lined hallway. To the left, the way that Professor Dare was turning, the corridor opened up into a larger entryway. A dozen expensive-looking leather couches ran along both walls, divided by gold-plated suits of armor that stood at attention with alternating swords and spears. On the opposite side of the room, past all the couches and statues, there was a pair of enormous oak doors that had to be at least twenty-feet tall.

I was busy gaping up at the gigantic doors as we walked, until one of the statues abruptly leapt off the small marble pedestal it had been standing on, finger raised accusingly as it shouted, “Tardy!”

The statue stormed right up to me while I yelped in surprise. “I knew it!” The knight-figure blurted, sword waving in his arm. “I knew I’d catch you slackers cutting class! Call me obsessed, will they? Well who’s obsessed now, huh?! I’ve got you, yes I do. Cutting class, not being in uniform, attempting to leave the building during proper educational time, you’re going down, Missy. Name and track!”

A long, clearly put upon sigh escaped Professor Dare. “Wyatt,” she spoke the name firmly.

The statue jumped, seeming to notice her for the first time. “Oh, Professor! I didn’t see you there.” Wyatt, assuming that was his name, gave a clumsy salute, the metal gauntlet glancing off the helmet.

“Wyatt,” Professor Dare raised a finger before pausing as though she couldn’t decide where to start. Finally, she settled on, “Please take off that helmet while we are talking.”

“Right away, Professor!” Wyatt clanged his gauntlet off of the helmet with another clumsy salute before reaching up to grab the helmet itself. He tugged it off, revealing a man with a scrawny, narrow face and long, stringy brown hair. I guessed his age at around forty or so, and he was smiling broadly, showing off a pair of big buck teeth as he pointed at me. He almost looked like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz poking his head out of the Tin Man’s body. “See? I told you I’d catch those slackers!”

“Wyatt Rendell,” Professor Dare intoned. “Meet Felicity Chambers, our final bystander-kin student for the semester. I’m taking her to orientation now. That’s why she isn’t in uniform or attending class.” To me, she added, “Miss Chambers, meet Wyatt Rendell, our newest school security guard.”

Looking disappointed that he hadn’t managed to catch a student playing hooky after all, Wyatt mumbled a greeting to me before addressing the professor. “Kinda late getting here though, isn’t she? I thought you picked up all the Silverstones yesterday.”

“Uh, Silverstones?” I interrupted with a confused frown while waving my hand. “What’s that?”

“You know,” Wyatt waved a golden gauntlet at me. “First name Alicia? The actress. Clueless. You were raised as a Bystander, so you’re clueless. That makes you a Silverstone. That’s how it works.”

After considering that for a second, I shrugged. “Eh, I’ve been called worse.”

Excusing herself and beckoning for me to follow, Professor Dare walked on to those gigantic doors. At her approach, they began to grind their way open automatically, admitting blinding sunlight into the lobby along with some kind of exotic smell that I couldn’t place. Then she stood aside to wait for me.

I stepped through, finally getting my first real look at where that magic doorway had brought me.

My first impression was that we were in some kind of utopia. The building we had just stepped out of was perched at the very top of a grass-covered mountain that overlooked an absolutely breathtaking beach. Seriously, it was the kind of place that only existed when people took pictures of the most beautiful beaches in the world and then photoshopped them to take out all those little imperfections. The way the perfect blue water lapped up against that white sand, the idyllic palm trees, it was paradise.

The beach itself was a pretty long ways away, considering the size of the mountain that we were on. There was a wide cobblestone path set against the bright green grass of the school grounds that led from this building toward a gate set into a red brick wall. Beyond the wall was a thick jungle, and I could see brightly colored birds flying just over the treetops in the distance. Their calls, and that of other inhabitants of the jungle, barely reached my ears in spite of what should have been a relatively short distance as far as screaming jungle noises went. They seemed muted somehow.

 

The jungle stretched on out of sight beyond the far side of this building, and from what I could see, stretched on for miles off into the distance.

“Welcome, Miss Chambers, to the island that we call home,” Professor Dare intoned with a smile at my reaction.

“Island…” I echoed slowly, surprised by the revelation. We weren’t in the mountains or in some hidden forest. We were on a tropical island.  I couldn’t see the edge of the it either to the left or right, though I could see the way it curved inward. Whatever island we were on, it was a pretty damn big one.

The cobblestone path meandered its way past a half dozen other scattered wood and brick buildings of varying sizes that lined the side of this hill, including big one that looked like a lower case t. I also saw several smaller pathways between the buildings, and in the distance when I looked to the left, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a tennis court.

Seeing where I was looking, Professor Dare confirmed, “Athletic facilities to the west.” She went on, pointing each way. “Think of the school grounds as a clock. The building right here that we just came out of is at twelve. This is primary academics. You will have your basic math, science, and other such lessons here. It is also where the faculty offices are if you find the need to speak to any of the staff outside of regular lesson time.

“To the left there at two o’clock is athletics. The buildings at four and five are the male and female dorms. Between them is a cafeteria and common area building that you cannot see from here. That is where you will spend most of your non-class or training related time with your peers. The gate is at six o’clock, straight down from here. At seven and eight we have the armory and faculty housing, respectively.” Finally, she indicated the big t shaped building. “And that is the Pathmaker.” Before I could ask, the woman added, “You will find out what that is later. Right now, we are going this way. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the island later.” Strolling off the path, she headed east across the perfectly maintained grass.

It took me a few seconds to follow, distracted as I was by gazing open-mouthed all around me. Finally, I jerked into motion and jogged to catch up, blurting, “Island. You said island. We’re on an island!”

There was a somewhat teasing quality to the blonde woman’s reply. “You are certainly earning that reputation for being a truly gifted investigator, Miss Chambers.”

First I blushed, then I blinked at her. “How’d you know I want to be an investigative reporter?”

“We know a lot about you, Miss Chambers,” she replied easily. “We do a great bit of research before extending an invitation to those who are outside of the Knowledge. As I told you before you stepped through the doorway, once we bring you in, you can never go back to the way you were. This is not a decision that we simply foist onto the first person we happen to lay eyes on. You were not chosen at birth, your name was not magically drawn out of a hat, and no seer spoke of your identity. We generally make our selections the long and hard way, through years of observation and carefully narrowing down lists of possible candidates. Each year, we look at every candidate who will reach the age of seventeen before November, and make our final choices. Most of the time, that candidate is washed out for one reason or another. We are extremely selective, because this life requires extreme dedication.”

I thought about that for a moment while we walked along the grass. Looking over my shoulder, I got a better look at the main academic building we had left. From here, the place looked like literal modern day palace. It was six stories high, and the walls themselves were some kind of white marble unlike the brick and wood of the other buildings. I could even see stone gargoyle statues perched up on the roof.

Something occurred to me, and I quickly looked back to the woman that was leading me. “Two questions. First, why are people in classes already if we haven’t started yet?”

“Those who are attending classes today are the second, third, and fourth year students.” She explained. “They began last week. First year students such as yourself will begin tomorrow. Those raised outside of the Knowledge such as yourself will be given orientation today, while those who were raised within the Knowledge have their own, slightly different orientation. After all, they only need to learn about our specific school rules and requirements, rather than… well, everything else that you must learn. Tonight at dinner there will be an official welcoming speech by the headmistress for all those who are new to this school. There you will also meet the rest of the faculty and be given your class schedule.”

I nodded slowly at that. “Okay, and second, why did that Wyatt guy back there say that I was late? Are all the other, ahh, ‘bystander-kin’ already here?”

“Yes,” Professor Dare confirmed. “You are the last one to arrive. There was last minute debate over whether you should be included or not. The headmistress was required to break the tie.”

Frowning, I asked, “Who’s the headmistress?”

“Baroness Gaia Sinclaire,” the woman answered. “She has been the voice of reason and leadership within this school for nearly sixty-seven years now.”

“Sixty-seven years?” I whistled. “Guess she’s kind of getting up there by now, huh?”

Rather than answer, Professor Dare just smiled sidelong at me before lifting a hand. “There, that is where we are going.”

I looked, and saw a tall white lighthouse sitting on the edge of the mountain, right over a near part of the beach. “There? That’s where they’re doing this orientation thing?”

“Indeed, and we should hurry,” Professor Dare advised. “They’ve been waiting for us.”

With that in mind, still trying to cope with everything that was happening, I started to hurry that way before stopping to look at the woman. “What about my dad? And all my stuff? I can’t just live like this.” I indicated the clothes I was wearing before realizing, “And hey, what about my bag? It wasn’t on the bus when I woke up.”

“All of your things will be delivered to your dorm room,” Professor Dare assured me. “And as far as your father remembers, you left on the bus this morning for your new school. Believe me, Miss Chambers, we do know what we are doing.”

I hesitated, a million questions still swirling in my mind. In the end, however, I finally continued on on to the lighthouse alongside the professor. It was probably a good idea to actually go to this orientation thing, where they might answer some of my billions of questions instead of just flinging them one at a time at this poor woman.

An island school, a portal that came out through mirrors, memory alteration for my dad? That last one seemed… wrong somehow, but I supposed if it was that or leave him in harm’s way from knowing too much, I’d take the former. I’d prefer to feel a little skeevy than put my father in actual danger. But all of it, all of this, was almost too much. I was reeling, trying desperately to keep my head on straight.

The other woman led me into the lighthouse and up the stairs. As we rose, I heard voices until we finally came out into the top platform. The big light fixture was right in the middle, and there was a surprisingly large balcony surrounding it. I could see the ocean, blue and perfect, off in the distance in one direction. Looking the other way revealed miles upon miles of lush jungle.

Standing around the platform were fifteen other teenagers that looked like they could have come right from my own school. Well, if my school hadn’t been something like ninety eight point three percent Caucasian, anyway. I saw seven boys and eight girls. Out of those, two of the boys were black while one was Hispanic, and of the girls, one was Asian, one was black, a third looked Native American, and yet another was clearly of middle eastern descent.

There had been a rather heated conversation going on, but all eyes turned to us as Professor Dare and I stepped into view. The woman behind me paused before asking, “Where is Mr. Adams?”

“Deveron bailed, Professor.” A girl spoke up while coming into view from where the big light fixture in the middle of the platform had hidden her. She looked to be about my age, a pretty brunette with long straight hair and the same kind of brown eyes as me. She stood about four inches smaller than I did, putting her at an even five feet. Unlike the rest of the people up here, my fellow Silverstones, I supposed, she wore the same sort of uniform that I’d seen the other students wearing through the doorway/mirror.

From up close, I had a better look at it. The uniform consisted of a white shirt, a black blazer with the letters CRA on the left front in elaborate lettering, a tie, and either pants or a skirt. This particular girl had gone with the pants. I had noticed that the trim of the blazer at the waist and along the lapels, along with the tie itself, were generally one of several different colors. In the girl’s case, they were purple.

She was joined almost immediately by another girl who looked completely identical to her in almost every way, aside from the fact that this new girl was wearing the skirt version of the uniform rather than pants. She also was pointedly not looking at anyone. Her gaze seemed rooted to the floor, hair partially covering her face, and she stepped into view only far enough to put herself right beside her obvious twin.

Beside me, Professor Dare raised an eyebrow. “Bailed, Sandoval? I deliberately asked that he wait here with the rest of the new students until I returned. And why are you and Sarah not in your own orientation? You don’t belong here with the Bystander-kin.”

The girl flinched. “Professor, please, please just call me Sands like everyone else. Please? Sandoval is a stupid name for a girl. And she’s Scout. She doesn’t like Sarah.” Beside her, the silent twin leaned in to whisper something into her sister’s ear, before Sands nodded and added, “She says please too.”

“Very well, Sands.” Professor Dare dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Will you please answer the rest of my questions then? Where did Deveron go, and why are you and Sar—Scout here?”

“Professor Nimbles let class out early,” Sands replied. “Scout and me were just taking a walk–”

“Scout and I,” Professor Dare corrected, seemingly by reflex.

“Sure, that too,” Sands nodded. “Scout and I were just going for a walk down there, and Deveron shouted that he needed us. When we got up here, he said they were our problem now and took off.”

Again the silent twin, Scout apparently, leaned close and whispered to Sands. After listening for a moment, the other girl coughed. “Scout says it was either stay here and keep your newbies company, or leave them all by themselves.”

Putting her hand to her forehead, Professor Dare sighed. “You may have been raised within the Knowledge, but you are still first year students. Deveron is in his second year and is well aware of his new responsibilities.”

Sighing, she shook that off and focused on the rest of us. “I will speak to him later. For now, welcome to all of you. There will be time for more introductions later. For now, we are already starting late. I apologize for our delay, and I am certain that you all have many questions. Please, wait until after I finish, because many of those questions will likely be answered by then.”

There was a general murmur of agreement before one of the African-American boys waved a hand. “Hey, does one of those answers include why we’re standing up in this lighthouse?”

“It does indeed, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare confirmed. She stepped to the big light then, putting a hand on it before she continued. “Who here knows what the word heretic means?”

The Asian girl raised her hand before speaking when Professor Dare nodded to her. “It’s like, someone who goes against a religious belief, isn’t it?”

Dipping her head at that, Professor Dare smiled faintly. “That is, generally speaking, the definition that modern society has ascribed to it. Yet the term heresy itself was originally derived from a Greek word meaning simply ‘choice.’”

After running her hand along the side of the light with a thoughtful look for a moment, the woman continued. “We call ourselves Heretics for both reasons. We have been considered such because the truths that I am about to explain to you have been considered heretical teachings since before that word existed. The truth of this world and the creatures which dwell within and around it are impossible for most to accept. Thus, any teaching of those truths is automatically considered heresy.

“And the original definition, that of simply, ‘choice’ is apt as well. Because we choose to live this way. We choose to go through this training, choose to live away from the rest of society, and choose to put ourselves between those who would see us burn for our words, and the monsters who would devour the very world they stand upon. This life is our choice. All of that makes us Heretics. We are Heretics because we refuse to accept that our world is doomed. We are Heretics because we choose to think for ourselves, and in that thinking, we choose to fight against what some see as inevitable.”

The woman passed her gaze over everyone there, meeting each of our gazes briefly before she went on. “I am going to tell you the truth about the monsters who have been attempting to devour this world and its inhabitants for countless generations. They have gone by many names, and appear in many forms. Collectively, we call them Strangers. To most, they do not exist. They are creatures that dwell in the shadows of every person’s memory. They create an effect which prevents humans from noticing their existence. An ordinary human being will look directly at one of these creatures and see nothing out of the ordinary. Their minds will not comprehend it. The sight is either erased from their memory before they can consciously acknowledge it, or simply rewritten to be something mundane and explainable.

“That is one of the greatest strengths of these invaders, to remove all true memory of their existence from the minds of their victims.”

She paused then, considering her words before amending, “Well no, not all. Some retain ghost-memories, fragments that give them the ideas for their stories. Vampires, aliens, demons, all of these and more come from the fragmented hints of memory within the human consciousness of these Strangers. And yet, even after all these centuries, most human beings still see them as nothing more than stories to tell. Their power ensures that the truth of their existence remains hidden.

“These Strangers would have devoured this world centuries ago, were it not for the work of one man. The founder of our school, Hieronymus, who created the building we are standing in right now. Hieronymus discovered the way to grant immunity to the Stranger memory alteration to a relative few. Those few blessed with this immunity and the other gifts that Hieronymus’s creation instills would be capable of protecting the rest of civilization from these invaders.”

Professor Dare went silent for a few seconds. Her eyes looked us over briefly before she let out a breath. “That is why we are up here. Because to truly understand what these creatures are, and to become immune to their memory alteration, you must see the light.”

With that, she shoved up on a lever attached to the light in the middle of the room. Suddenly, I was blinded as the thing grew painfully bright. All around me, I heard the others crying out as well.

“Look into the light!” Professor Dare called. “Do not close your eyes, and do not look away. Look into it and receive the gift of truth! This is what gives us our power, our skill, our ability to fight these invaders and stop them from taking our world. The light illuminates the truth and will ensure that you are never again blind to the invaders. This is how we survive. This is how we choose. This is how we retain our memory of these monsters, and see them for what they truly are.”

“This… is the Heretical Edge.”

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