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 outsider’s 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 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 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 a 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 a 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 nearby 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.”