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.