“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 seemed to be pretty standard facilities. Except for this particular building.
Up close, the lowercase 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 our measurements taken for the school uniforms before getting 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.”