Month: November 2015

A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-02

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“Trust me, Dad, I’m probably eating better here than at the old school. Yes, I know the rules about staying away from anyone suspicious. I’m almost seventeen, not four. Yeah, I’m sure the school runs enough background checks. No, I don’t need help and you don’t need to run any names past ‘your guy in the department’. Trust me, everything’s fine. I’m okay, I just wanted to hear your voice. I miss you.”

Leaning against the side of the athletics building a little bit after dinner the next day, I smiled while listening to my father’s response. I really had missed the sound of his voice, just like I missed spending every evening listening to his stories. Sometimes they were about what he’d done that day, the people he’d talked to or leads he’d followed, while other times they were about his past. Dad had spent a lot of time working for one of the big newspapers in Los Angeles back before I was born, and he had a ton of stories about the people he’d encountered back then. I was pretty sure he exaggerated a lot of it, but it was still fun to listen to. And hearing my dad reminisce had been one of our traditions for a long time.

While listening as he started in about something one of his friends had said about the governor, I glanced down at my free hand and examined the smooth skin. Leaning a bit closer to see my index finger in the light from one of the nearby windows, I noticed that the tiny scar that I’d had there ever since cutting it badly on a nail when I was a little kid had smoothed over, leaving unblemished skin.

Huh. Still listening to Dad talk, the sound of his voice comforting in a way that I couldn’t explain, I switched the phone to my other hand so I could look at my arm. Sure enough, the other scar that I’d gotten as a kid, a long, thin one about two inches down from my wrist had disappeared as well.

Apparently the healing ability granted by killing those few peridles had extended as far as removing old scars. That was going to make things a little awkward if Dad ever happened to notice. Not that he paid close attention to my hands all the time, but still. He was my father and he knew every mark I had.

Shaking that off, I waited for a lull in his stories. “Hey, Dad, I wanted to ask you something else.”

“Sure, kid, what’s up? You need more snack machine money or something? Care package to bribe the RA’s with? Wait, do they have resident assistants there? I’m not sure how private high school works.”

“We’ve got a mentor. Sort of.” I replied with a roll of my eyes. “But he’s worthless. He’s just lazy and doesn’t actually do anything. I don’t think any of us have even seen him since that first night.”

“What?” Dad sounded annoyed. “What kind of adviser is he then? If he won’t do his job, they need to replace him. Do you know who to talk to about that, or do you want me to give them a call?”

“I definitely do not want you to call anyone.” I shuddered at the thought. “I’ve got it, Dad. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Dad was clearly reluctant to let that go. “This school is a big deal, Flicker. I don’t want you getting screwed out of getting everything you can out of it because this kid won’t do his job.”

Smiling a little in spite of myself at his protective instincts, I shook my head. “I promise, it’s okay. I’ll deal with it, Dad. Just let me take care of things, okay? It’ll just be better that way, trust me.”

“Yeah, I guess you don’t really need your old man anymore,” Dad teased. “Just promise you’ll give a good eulogy at my funeral in thirty years or so. You can start with, ‘This guy was my dad, I sort of paid attention to him once in awhile until I turned seventeen. Then I ignored the old fart for the rest of his life. I wonder if he ever bought that cat he was talking about.’”

I laughed out loud in spite of myself. It felt good. “I’m not going to ignore you for the rest of your life!”

“That’s what they all say.” Dad teased, though there was a note of sadness not fully hidden behind it.

Swallowing slightly as I realized what he was thinking about, I closed my eyes. He was still hurting so much from Mom abandoning us. Even now, a decade later, I could hear the hurt in his voice when he thought about it. He and Mom had been very much in love, and the next thing he knew, she was gone.

I had to find out the truth. If there really was anything unnatural about Mom’s disappearance, or if it had anything at all to do with Strangers or Heretics, I was going to find out. And then… well then I’d find a way to give Dad closure. I wasn’t sure how, but I would figure it out when the time came.

“I’m serious, Dad. I’ll visit, you know I will. And we can talk any time you want. I love you.”

Dad’s voice was softer then, the emotion in it making him almost whisper. “I love you too, Flicker.”

We were quiet for a few seconds, and I used the time to wipe a damp spot under one of my eyes. As I rubbed it away, my father was the first to break the silence. “So, what was it you wanted to ask about?”

Well now this was even more awkward than it was always going to be. I flinched and took in a long breath before letting it out, steadying myself as much as possible. “It’s about Mom. Is that okay?”

There was silence for a second before my father responded. “Flick, have I made you think that it’s not okay to talk about your mother? Because if I did, I am very, very sorry. Of course you can ask me about her. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Anything I can. I know we don’t… I know it’s hard sometimes, but I don’t want you to ever feel like you can’t bring her up, okay? She’s your mother.”

“No, I just—you didn’t do anything.” I flushed a little. “I just didn’t want to make you upset or sad.”

“Listen to me, Flick,” Dad’s voice was firm. “It’s all right. I will always answer any questions you have that I can answer, okay? I will never hide things about your mother from you, and you can ask me anything you want, any time. Never, ever feel like you have to avoid that subject, is that understood?”

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I quickly spoke up. “Y-yes, Dad. I was just… it’s probably wrong, but I umm…” This was the tricky part. I kind of wanted to just tell my father that I’d found a picture of Mom here, but I was afraid that doing so would make him want to visit. While the Heretics would probably find a way to fix his memory of that if it came down to it, I really wanted to avoid that entire situation if at all possible. Especially since I didn’t want them to know that I was looking into my mother at all. Which meant that I had to lie to my father. Again, after everything he’d just said.

Sighing at the thought, I pressed on anyway. This was too important. “I sort of think I remember something about her. But I can’t figure out if I’m just making it up in my head or if it’s a real memory.” For a second, I bit my lip and hesitated before pushing through the lie. “I keep thinking that I remember hearing Mom talk about being at a private school. You know, one like this, with uniforms and everything. I just have this sort-of memory of her talking about it, and I can’t figure out if it’s real or something I just invented in my head because I’m here now. Do you remember anything about that?”

“About your mother going to a private school?” He echoed before considering for a moment. “Well, I met Joselyn when she was twenty-four. She’d been out of college for a couple years by then, but you know she just went to the University of Wyoming. Before that, ahhh, I don’t think I can remember all the high schools, but I don’t remember her mentioning any private ones. They were all public.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, Mom went to a lot of schools? Why?”

“You know about that, don’t you?” Dad sounded surprised, and a little guilty. “Your mom moved around a lot as a kid because of your grandfather’s work. He was in the military or something, I never really had a clear idea of what it was. They weren’t really talking by the time we met, but it was something to do with the government. That’s part of why Joselyn wanted to settle down here in Laramie Falls, because it was quiet and stable.” There was a pause then before Dad let out a long sigh. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. Mom had wanted stable, and then she’d abandoned us.

Still, I had to focus on something else he had said. “My grandfather? Mom’s dad? Do you… still have any contact with him?” It was a long shot, I knew, but if there was any chance of getting more information, where better than from my mother’s father? Even just a name would be nice, since looking for every person with the last name of Atherby (mom’s maiden name) would take way too long.

“Sorry,” Dad replied, obviously wincing. “Like I said, he and your mom weren’t on speaking terms. She never told me what happened there, but that was why none of your mother’s family came to the wedding. I had the impression that it was some kind of major disagreement.”

I heard his fingers snap. “Oh, hang on, I almost forgot. We still have the birth certificate. One second.” There was the sound of the filing cabinet in Dad’s office being opened and ruffled through until he found the paper that he was looking for. “Here we go. Your mom’s parents were Dustin and Fiona Atherby. Born at that University of Utah Hospital. Hey, that’s funny.” He went silent for a few seconds.

“Dad?” I frowned, pushing off the wall again before looking around. “What’s funny?”

He coughed. “Sorry, just the name of the doctor that delivered your mother is kind of amusing.”

“What is it?”

“Pericles,” he answered. “Zedekiah Pericles.”

******

Talk about ending up with more questions than you started with. Poor Professor Pericles had been the one who delivered my mother at the hospital where she was born? Was that real, or just part of the Heretic cover they’d given her later? How much of my mother’s history was real and how much was an invention after she’d either left or been kicked out of the Heretics? If it was just a cover history, why would Professor Pericles have his name on the birth certificate at all? What the hell was going on?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t dwell on those questions at the moment. Since it was Friday evening, I had to get to my Investigation track meeting. Unlike every other class, track meetings were only attended by students in that particular track rather than everyone on the same team. Apparently each grade level had their own meeting nights and times with their track adviser. For first years, they were held twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays in the evening. We had still been in the middle of orientation on Monday, so tonight was my very first one. I had no idea what to expect, but I was crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t end with me having even more questions about my family’s history for once.

Sands, Scout, and I were walking together. Apparently the meeting was taking place on the grounds in front of the Pathmaker building, which was intriguing enough to sort of distract me away from the riotous cacophony of thoughts that had been flooding my mind ever since Dad said that name.

There were already other students there when the three of us arrived, including the other black guy from my orientation group that wasn’t Columbus. Travis, that was it. He was standing with another boy that I’d seen him around with, a shorter, still kind of chubby guy with pale skin and even paler blonde hair. I thought his name was Rudolph or Randy or something. There was also (sigh) Koren.

I would have made a point of trying to ignore the other girl, but she already seemed to be pretty busy focusing on her chat with a couple of the guys who had grown up ‘in the knowledge.’ She kept bending slightly to ‘accidentally’ give them a good look down the front of her shirt while they chatted, and they were taking thorough advantage of the opportunity, flirting back and forth.

I rolled my eyes, but whatever. Her life. I was just glad she was leaving the rest of us alone for the moment. Instead, I looked toward Sands and Scout. “You guys excited?”

“Hell yes,” Sands blurted, head bobbing up and down. “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been waiting for this? Classes were one thing, but track training? Scout and I decided what we wanted to be when we were four. Then we changed it when we were six. Then we changed it again when we were seven. And then… well, you get the idea. But we’ve wanted to be in the Investigation track at least half of all those times, and for the longest. It’s gonna be so awesome.”

Even Scout was smiling in agreement by that point, and I couldn’t help but return it. “Well, here’s hoping it’s as interesting as you think.”

“Indeed,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up from behind us. “I shall do my best to meet expectations.”

Turning to look at the woman with a slight flush, I wondered how much she knew about the situation with my mother. Probably all of it. The urge to blurt out a demand for the truth was almost impossible for me to resist, but I managed it. Barely. “Sorry, Professor.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” the blonde woman informed me before looking to the rest of the group. “Good evening. You all know me, so I shall skip the introduction. It is now seven o’clock, the time that you will be expected to be in the location that I give you for this meeting every Monday and Friday from now on. I will not say that excuses for being late will not be accepted. However, I will say that if you give no excuse, the punishment for your tardiness will be less severe than if you attempt to give one and I find it lacking. For those who find that confusing, allow me to simplify. If your excuse for tardiness is a valid and reasonable one, I will accept it. If it is not and you attempt to use it anyway, your punishment will be worse than if you had said nothing. Is all of that understood?”

We agreed, and Professor Dare nodded in acceptance. “As you all know, this is the Investigation track. Here, you will learn to investigate possible Stranger incursions and other situations, identify both new and established threats, and deal directly with the Bystander law enforcement. We have multiple ways of doing this, but one of our most important tools is lying. You will lie a lot. You should not feel ashamed of this. Lying keeps these people safe, and prevents them from making our jobs far more difficult.”

She looked around at all of us, eyes lingering slightly on Koren before moving on. “Tonight, you will be given an opportunity to witness one of several ways that the Pathfinder building is used to aid us in these investigations. You will stay with me, you will touch nothing that you are not told to touch, and you will not disturb the people who are working. Is that understood as well?”

Once we again chorused our agreement, she turned on her heel and walked right up to the edge of the circle. Giving us all a careful look, she put her hand out and spoke a quick series of words that were impossible to follow. The air seemed to shimmer a little, and she gestured. “Come through, all of you.”

After the warnings that Sands and Avalon had given, I was a little afraid of getting too close, even if it was obviously okay now. I slowly walked over the line with the rest of the group, shaking my head in a failed attempt to stop the warning hum.

Thankfully, the sound faded once we were a few feet past the line, and Professor Dare walked up to the door, tugging it open before lifting a hand to indicate that we should precede her.

As a group, we filed into the building. This first room was fairly small and circular, obviously a lobby of some kind. There was a desk with a woman sitting behind it in one corner, and she smiled as we entered. “Good evening, Virginia. This is the new class?”

Before Professor Dare could respond, a group of men came right through the same doors we had just entered from, bustling straight past us in a rush. They barely slowed long enough to nod an acknowledgment to the secretary before moving on to one of a handful of doors that lined the circular wall.

“Hey, where the hell did those guys come from?” Koren spoke up. “Seriously, we were just out there.”

The woman behind the desk glanced down at something before responding, “They came from Indiana, actually.”

Professor Dare explained. “The Pathfinder building exists within multiple locations at the same time. Its existence on the island is only one of a dozen or so locations across the world that it simultaneously occupies.”

My mouth fell open and I made a slightly strangled noise. “Wha-how—huh?”

It was the receptionist who spoke up, her tone simultaneously amused and gentle. “Magic, sweetie. You’ll get used to it. Basically it means that if you enter the building you see in Crossroads, the place in Indiana that those gentlemen came from, our location in Tokyo, London, Calgary, or any other place it exists, you will enter there and appear here. One building, one interior, a dozen exterior locations. Magic.”

I was still staring, trying to wrap my mind around that as Professor Dare started walking to one of the doors. “Come, I will show you one of the reasons that the Pathfinder building is so important to our work.”

Together, we trailed after the professor, following her through a series of hallways and up two flights of stairs. We passed about another dozen people that were hard at work doing… whatever they were doing before we finally reached a short, out of the way hall with a single door.

“This,” Professor Dare announced, “Is one of several projection rooms in this facility.”

“Projection rooms?” I asked with a frown.

She nodded. “In situations where it may be impossible to retain an untouched crime scene, where Bystander authorities make it impossible for us to effectively take over the situation and ensure that the view remains exactly as it was when we arrived, the Heretic may deploy one of these.”

From her pocket, the woman produced a small silver and violet orb, about the size of a golf ball. “This is called a Panoptic Analysis Window System, or PAWS. The PAWS, when deployed, will cloak and take a full scan of the entire designated area. Later, it can be connected to one of these rooms, which will allow the room within to project a three dimensional holographic view of the crime scene, untouched so that our own investigators may see what occurred. But the PAWS does more than take pictures. Its scan runs deep enough that objects within the room may be manipulated and moved around. If, for example, the view is of a motel room and the end table drawer is shut, the investigator may open the drawer within the hologram and see what was inside at the time that the PAWS was deployed. This allows a full investigation of the crime scene to take place, even if the authorities shut off the area and tromp all over the evidence.”

We were still staring at the little orb in her hand for a few seconds after she finished. For my part, I couldn’t help but think of how useful something like that would be to the legitimate law enforcement agencies.

“Now, as a group, we are going to investigate one of these recorded crime scenes.” Professor Dare gazed at us briefly before continuing. “Together, we will see what we can determine as a group before reviewing what conclusions the assigned investigators have come to.”

“What kind of crime scene is it, Professor Dare?” I asked with a raised hand.

She paused, glancing to me before responding. “An incident that occurred at a gas station. A man, who was believed to have attempted to rob the store was found shot in the back multiple times, presumably by the clerk. The clerk herself then exited the store, duct taped the gasoline nozzle into her own mouth, and proceeded to kill herself by choking on the gas.”

Collectively, we stared. I felt sick inside, and somewhere nearby, one of the boys muttered a curse under his breath. Beside me, Scout gave a soft whimper.

“These are the situations we will be dealing with. I will not coddle you from them because to do so would be a disservice to your education and training. If you do not wish to continue, you may at any point speak up and be excused to re-evaluate your track.” Professor Dare spoke seriously, then put her hand on the doorknob. “Now, come. Let us see how much information you can find as a group.”

She opened the door, allowing us to enter the horrific scene. I took a breath, steeled myself, and then stepped through.

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-01

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I was halfway back down the hall before Avalon’s hand caught my arm. She yanked me around and gave me a firm shove up against the nearby wall before planting her other hand on my shoulder to keep me there. Her voice was hard, but quiet. “Where do you think you’re going now, Chambers?”

“To get answers,” I practically spat back at her. For once, I wasn’t in the mood to play. “They knew my mother. My mother went here and they never said a word. They never told me, and I want to know why. I want to know why she quit being a Heretic, why she moved to Wyoming, what they know about why she left, why they pretended they didn’t know anything about her, all of it. I need answers.”

“And you think they’re just going to give them to you now because you’re pissed off?” Avalon shot back, not releasing me. “You run in there and start flinging demands around and the only thing that is going to happen is that they’ll know that you know at least some of it. Best case scenario, they tell you what you want to know, but you still won’t know if they’re telling you everything, so you’ll keep looking anyway. Worst case, they refuse and because they know that you found out something, they’ll start working harder to hide the evidence from you. Things like that picture in there can be hidden if whatever this is about happens to be something they really don’t want you to know about.”

I stared at her, the anger at finding out that something this important had been kept from me still pumping hard through my system. “You… are you trying to say I can’t trust the people here, Avalon?”

“No, I’m not saying that.” The other girl’s voice was emphatic. “I’m saying that people in power tend to think they know what’s best. They decided you not knowing about your mother is what’s best for you. Do you think just throwing out accusations is one hundred percent likely to get past that decision? These are not people who make decisions lightly, Chambers. They obviously think it’s better if you don’t know the truth about your mother, at least not yet. I’m not saying you can’t trust them, fuck. You can trust most of the adults here more than most people in the Bystander world. They’ve been through shit, they know what they’re talking about. But as far as information goes, if you want more, don’t rely on getting it from the same people who decided it was better if you didn’t have it to begin with.”

I breathed out, forcing myself not to snap out a retort, but to actually take the time to think about what she was saying. It was hard. I wanted to start slamming doors and stomping up and down stairs.

Honestly, I knew she was right. Logically, I knew everything she was saying. In any other situation, I’d be the one advising someone else to think before they start blowing up at someone. But this was different. It was about my mother, and quite possibly had something to do with why she had disappeared. It was impossible for me to think clearly when it came to my mom. I just… couldn’t.

Which meant that the best thing I could do was let someone else think clearly for me. In this case, that meant listening to what Avalon said, no matter how much I wanted to storm into the Headmistress’s office to demand answers. She was right, if I wanted to know the truth, I had to be smart about it.

“Right,” I said quietly after another couple of seconds spent reiterating that to myself. “I’m okay now.” The other girl’s doubtful look made me cough. “Not okay, but calm enough. You can let me go, really.”

She did so, releasing her hold before stepping back. Her eyes were wary, clearly ready for me to lose my mind and try to run off again. When I remained still, she relaxed just a little. Well, as much as Avalon ever seemed to relax, anyway. She was still squinting. “So what’s the deal with your mother?”

My mouth opened to spit out my standard response about her abandoning my father and me, but I hesitated and bit it back before settling on a simple, “I thought I knew. Obviously I don’t know anything about my mom. She used to be the town sheriff before taking off with some guy she pulled over when I was a kid. Now… now I’m not sure what the hell I should think. She was here, she used to go here. Then she stopped. She went to have a normal life. Why? And why did she leave it with some loser? Did that have something to do with… with this Heretic stuff, with the fact that she left it? Did she leave it? I don’t even know if that’s possible. Do people just retire from this stuff and have normal, quiet lives?”

“Not usually,” Avalon replied quietly. “Most of the time if someone leaves, it’s a punishment.”

“A punishment?” I echoed, staring at her for a second. “What kind of punishment is that?”

“A bad one,” she snapped back at me. “It’s called Banishment. They send you back through the Heretical Edge. It removes all your memories of this stuff, of the Strangers, magic, your abilities, everything. You go back to being a boring, baseline normal human who could sit right next to one of those monsters and have absolutely no idea what they really are. You go back to being a victim.”

I was quiet for a few moments, collecting myself before asking as calmly as I could, “Do you think that’s what happened to my mother? Do you think she was… banished and that’s how she ended up with my dad?” If that was true, was her disappearance really something mundane, or the result of something coming after her that she would have known about if her memory hadn’t been erased? The very thought that I might have to reconsider everything that I knew about my mother’s disappearance was so thoroughly shattering that I staggered a little, putting a hand out to catch myself against the wall.

Avalon’s response was a simple shrug. “Dunno. But there’s other ways to find out the truth that don’t involve tipping off the people who tried to keep that information away from you to begin with.”

In spite of the whole situation, and my tumultuous thoughts, I had to smile. “You offering to help?”

She rolled her eyes at me and pivoted on her heel to start walking away. “Don’t start thinking that we’re suddenly BFF’s now, Chambers. Because we’re not.” Her stride carried her to the end of the hall before she stopped. Pausing there, I saw her shoulders roll a couple of times as if she was gearing herself up for what she was about to say, steadying herself. Finally, she turned just a little to look over her shoulder at me. “But, umm, I know a little bit about the whole family thing. That I… I sort of get. So if you keep it together and try not to be too annoying, I’ll see what I can do about helping you find out about your mom and what happened with her. But I swear on my own mother’s grave, if you piss me off, I will walk away and you can figure it all out on your own. You got it?”

“Uh, yeah.” I nodded and walked down the hall to join her so that we weren’t practically shouting back and forth before raising a hand. “But how are you swearing on your mother’s grave? She’s sort of… still alive, isn’t she? I mean, the Headmistress didn’t die in between classes or something.”

Avalon’s response was a clearly reflexive glare, her expression storming up briefly. Her mouth opened to spit out what was obviously going to be a harsh rebuke about staying the hell out of her business. But she stopped, looked away, and visibly forced herself to calm down before returning her gaze to me. Her voice was still cold, but clearly less than it might have been. “The Headmistress is not my mother.”

I blinked at that. “I—oh. I’m sorry, I thought she was because of your name. And someone else said–”

Avalon interrupted. “She adopted me, but she’s not my real mother. My real mother’s dead and buried.”

Flinching in spite of myself, I told my mouth to shut up. Unfortunately, my mouth was wasn’t paying attention to anything my brain tried to tell it. Instead, I found myself asking, “What about your father?”

“Oh, he’s still alive.” Avalon’s mouth turned up into a dangerous smile. “At least he better be. I’m going to be really fucking pissed off if anyone kills that evil piece of shit before I get a chance to.”

The headmistress was her adopted mother, her real mother was dead, and she loathed her father. My level of confusion kept going up and down so fast I was getting whiplash. “You want to kill your dad?”

“It’s only fair,” she replied flatly, not looking away from my stare. “He tried to kill me first.”

My mouth opened, then shut, and I took a second before managing to respond, “Why would–”

Avalon interrupted before I could continue. “Unless you want me to walk away right now and never give you the time of day again, don’t finish that question. Just shut up and leave it alone.”

I obliged in spite of my curiosity. Instead, I offered a weak little smile that I didn’t fully feel. “So what now?” What I wanted to do, still, was start demanding that every staff member I laid eyes on tell me the truth about my mother. Hell, with the weird way that ages worked around here, there was a fairly good chance that most of the people that were my teachers had actually known my mom.

“Now you keep it together while we go to lunch,” the brunette replied. “You want to have a chance to figure out why your mom went back to being a Plain Jane Mundane? Then act normal.”

“Normal, right.” I started to nod before hesitating. “Wait, normal normal or this place normal? Because I’m starting to think that the two are very different things.”

Clearly unable to deny that, Avalon simply turned to start walking away. “Just shut up and come on.”

My smile returned as I hurried to catch up with the other girl. “So are we friends now?”

Her voice was a flat retort. “No.”

“That’s okay,” I replied, strolling easily alongside her. “I’ll check again in a few minutes.”

******

The two classes that Avalon and I had missed while we were having our chats with the Runners were Trig and Bystander History. That was the class where they taught what the mundane world thought had happened. Apparently they didn’t want to end up in a situation where a Heretic knew the true Stranger-influenced event, but was completely clueless about what the rest of humanity believed.

Lunch had been about half over by the time we got down there, and then it was time for the first of two afternoon classes, and the one I had been the most curious about all day: Stranger Truths 101. It was the class that Professor Pericles had taught before… yeah. I wondered who was filling in for him.

My answer came the second I crossed through the doorway just ahead of Sands and Scout. The figure on the stage at the base of the amphitheater turned as we entered, revealing what I was pretty sure had to be Patient Zero for the epidemic of ditzy blonde cheerleader types in pretty much every movie ever. She looked more like a student than a teacher, especially considering the bright yellow smiley face that adorned her white shirt. It was a smile that was matched by the wearer of the shirt as she positively beamed upon our entrance. “Yay, students!” The girl called excitedly before gesturing with both hands. “Go on, go on. Sit. Everybody sit so we can have some fun and learn stuff, right? Right. Right.”

“I swear, if she tells us to give her an R,” Avalon muttered under her breath from beside me while we started for our seats, “I will not be held responsible for what I do to her.”

“Going for a twofer on killing teachers, huh?”

My head snapped around at the sound of the quiet voice, but it had come from somewhere within a group of students that were pushing past us and I couldn’t tell who exactly had said it. None of them were looking our way, and whoever had spoken up didn’t repeat themselves.

For Avalon’s part, she either hadn’t heard or (far more likely) was flat out ignoring the comment. She simply moved to the same seat she’d used the last time we had this class and continued to stare straight down at the stage without acknowledging anyone else’s existence.

“Okay!” On stage, the perky young woman clapped twice. She was literally bouncing with excitement. “First, I wanna say umm… oh well, first I should say that my name is Nevada.”

Vanessa’s hand went up, and when the woman looked to her, she asked hesitantly, “Umm, is that Professor Nevada or umm, Nevada Something Else That We Should Put Professor In Front Of?”

“Ooh! Good question!” The woman’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I don’t like titles and I don’t use any other name. So it’s just Nevada. Not Professor Nevada, not Miss Nevada, nothing like that. Just Nevada. Okay? Okay, we’ve got it, we’ve got this. I’m going to be your teacher for this class.”

“You’re kidding, right? Are you old enough to be our teacher?” One of the other girls asked from the other side of the room. “Because you don’t look like you’re old enough to vote, let alone teach. You look like you’re our age.”

“Yeah,” one of the boys added. “We’re trying to learn here. Isn’t this supposed to be an important class? Why would they throw some bimbo at us?”

“Right, right.” Nevada’s head bobbed easily. “See, here’s the thing, making assumptions like that is sort of like, how a lot of people in your position kind of… die. Things aren’t always what they look like. And that’s part of what this class is supposed to teach you. You have to stop making assumptions just based on what you see? This is how I look. Does that mean that I don’t know what I’m talking about or that I can’t teach you anything? Before you decide that, remember that it’s not me that you’re calling incompetent. It’s Headmistress Sinclaire. After all, she’s the one that hired me. So, if you think that, based on a thirty-second once-over of what I look like that you know better than she does, feel free to head on over to her office to tell her so. I’ll even write you a pass to get there if you like.”

The boy who had called her a bimbo mumbled something that wasn’t entirely audible and slumped down some in his seat, clearly embarrassed.

Rather than dwell on it or force the boy to repeat himself, Nevada simply moved on. “In the mean time, until someone wants one of those headmistress passes, let’s continue. As I was saying, first I wanted to say that I’m sorry about what happened to Professor Pericles. I really am. I had him when I went here and… and losing him sucks.” Something in her voice caught a little, and it took the almost-disturbingly young looking teacher a few seconds before she was able to continue. “It just sucks. I want you to know that I’m going to teach you everything I can, but it’s not going to be as good as he could have taught it. I’ll do my best, I really will. But you guys are missing… “ Again, she fell silent, clearly barely holding herself together. “You’re missing out. And if any of you want to talk about him or ask about the kind of classes he used to teach, stop by any time that you’re not supposed to be somewhere else. He was my teacher for a long time and I can tell you… well, a lot of stories.”

Taking in a long breath then before letting it out, Nevada visibly switched gears. That bright, seemingly clueless and overly perky smile returned. “But hey, time for actual learning now, huh? You guys started zombies last time, didn’t you? Perfect. Who remembers the three categories of zombie that you read about?”

I raised my hand about a half second slower than Vanessa, but Nevada focused on me first. “You, umm, umm, hold on. Hold on, I know this. Feeeeeeelicity?”

“Flick,” I informed her. “I mean, you got the name right, but I go by Flick.”

“Flick! Right, go ahead,” she prompted with an eager nod.

Holding up my hand to count off the types, I began. “The first type of zombie is the kind that’s brought back by magic or some Stranger abilities that were used after they died. Those are the slow, clumsy ones. The second type are the ones that are prepared ahead of time, before they die. Sometimes it’s purposeful, and other times it’s some kind of side effect. Either way, they get infected and it stays in them. After they die, they come back as zombies. Those are the fast ones that are better at hunting. The first kind are just mindless drones that shamble toward the nearest food source. The second kind are more like predators. They hunt in packs and work together like… like wolves.”

“Yup!” Nevada’s smile was bright. “And the third kind?”

“The third kind of zombie is a dead body that’s possessed by a specific type of Stranger called a Revenant. They inhabit the corpse. As long as they’re in it, they’re pretty much impossible to kill. They’re immune to pain, they ignore almost all damage, and most magic effects just bounce off them. But the bodies they’re in don’t last very long. They can only possess it for a couple hours before it disintegrates, and when they’re not in someone else’s body, they’re vulnerable.”

“Perfect, yes. Revenant-Zombies are an absolute pain in the ass.” Nevada rolled her eyes thoroughly. “Luckily, they’re really rare. And the ones that are left don’t tend to make a lot of waves because we’ve gotten really good at tracking them until they’re vulnerable and then hitting them before they find a new body. They stay quiet and out of the way.”

After shuffling a few papers on the nearby desk, she looked up to address us again. “Soooo, we’ll come back to zombies in a little bit. I want to show you guys what kind of side effects can lead to the second category, and how you can identify them before trouble starts. But first, I’d like to switch tracks just a little to a different kind of undead creature. Specifically, vampires.”

As she launched into that lesson, I looked away and tried to put aside all the thoughts about my mom that kept trying to crowd their way into my head. Had she sat in this classroom? What did she think about the vampire thing? What had her weapon been? Did she like her team? Was her roommate nice?

But more than any other question, one stood out and would not be ignored no matter how much I tried.

Why had she stopped being a Heretic? Did she really do something so bad that they wiped her memory and kicked her out? And if she did, was that related to why she had disappeared?

For the first time in my life, as far back as I could remember, I actually wanted to know more about my mother.

I just hoped that what I found didn’t make me hate her even more than I already did.

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Interlude 2 – Tiras and Asenath

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July 2nd, 1803

“Higher, papa! I wanna go higher!”

The plea was followed by a loud squeal of happiness as Asenath’s father gave the rope she was clinging to a mighty shove, sending the eight-year-old girl swinging nearly to the top of the tree that the sturdy line hung from. It took barely a fraction of the man’s strength to propel her that far, while the tree’s slight groan of protest at the force was masked beneath the exhilarated cry of pure childish glee.

“Again, again, again!” Joyfully, the girl pled for another swing, and was rewarded with one more solid shove that sent her even higher. This time, however, the branch made its objections to the force known in the most dramatic way possible. It snapped off the tall tree entirely with a near-deafening crack.

Asenath’s happy cry turned into one of fear as she lost her grip on the rope and went flying through the air, her small body tumbling haphazardly end over end. She arced up and over several bushes before dropping toward the rocky ground that marked the very edge of her family’s property.

Before she could crash down, however, there was a blur of motion so fast that it was almost impossible to follow. Her father appeared directly beneath the girl, catching her easily in his strong arms, absorbing the impact without harm by pulling his child to his chest and taking a single step back.

Upon realizing that she hadn’t splattered against the rocks after all, Asenath brightened and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck in a tight, clinging hug. “Papa! You’re fast, Papa.”

Smiling, the man called Tiras went down to one knee while setting his child on her feet. Then he leaned back to examine her. His daughter’s features were a clear mix of races. Most prominent was her mother’s Chinese heritage, though a bit of his own face could be seen as well.

His own face. Most would have said that the man who called himself Tiras hailed from the Cherokee tribes, whose lands were only a week or so ride away. That assumption, however, would have been utterly wrong. Tiras had been born much further away than most would ever come close to imagining.

Tiras was not human. His birthplace lay in another realm, another world entirely removed from this one. To those in this world, he would have been considered a monster. And perhaps he was, in a way. His strength, speed, and other gifts were far from ordinary to the inhabitants of this quaint society.

But by far his most monstrous feature was the man’s incredible hunger, his undeniable need for one thing: the blood of the inhabitants of this world that he had found himself living among.

Upon the world that Tiras had been born, his people were a race of warriors known as the Akharu. One of four separate intelligent races that warred constantly for the meager scraps of resources that their world retained, the Akharu managed to claim the throne of the world, an act that granted them relative immortality. They would not die naturally, and an unnatural death could only be achieved through extremely rigorous actions, usually requiring the complete dismemberment and disintegration of their body. Most wounds would heal extremely quickly, and their other powers grew exponentially.

It should have meant the end to eons of battles as the Akharu established dominion over their rival races. Unfortunately, not all of those races were content to allow the Akharu to win so easily. Another race, the Vestil, pooled their impressive magic in one last desperate bid toward victory. Their efforts could not undo the power that Tiras’s people had gained, but they could force a curse upon their hated rivals. This curse poisoned the blood of the Akharu. As killing them with such a curse was impossible, this poisoned blood simply paralyzed their bodies, leaving them awake and aware, but incapable of acting. They would be trapped that way, helpless to defend themselves.

As the curse spread like wildfire through their people, the Akharu had searched desperately for a cure. Eventually, they had found at least a stop-gap measure. Partaking of the blood from other creatures actually seemed to dilute their own poisoned blood, sparing them from being paralyzed and trapped. It was not a perfect solution, as the new blood would slowly become tainted by the poison, requiring them to take in a fresh batch on a regular basis in order to avoid falling victim to the Vestil’s curse.

Many of the Akharu had left their world, searching for answers and a permanent cure. Tiras had been among those explorers. His search had brought him, like many of his fellow warriors, to this small world. There, they had discovered that they could create more of their own kind from the humans of this place by feeding them their cursed blood within a short period before they died.

There was, however, a weakness to these hybrids. Somehow, the act of becoming half-Akharu left their bodies incredibly sensitive to sunlight. While Tiras and his fellow full-Akharu were perfectly fine within its rays, the altered humans they created would burn very quickly if exposed to it.

Some saw this as a way to create enough reinforcements to storm their own world, defeat the Vestil, and force them to create a permanent cure for the curse. Others, like Tiras himself, saw it as a sign that they did not need to fight such a war any longer. Their world was broken and ugly, destroyed by millennia of war. This planet was pure, nearly untouched. And they were compatible with its inhabitants. They could live here in relative peace, retiring from their very long struggle.

Some of the Akharu, Tiras included, did just that. They attempted to live normal lives, feeding when necessary either from animals or those who were considered evil. Others sought to achieve their initial goal of turning enough of the humans to create an army, while still more simply tried to carve out their own kingdoms, terrifying and enslaving the local populace.

Sadly, the retirement and peaceful life that Tiras and those like him had chosen was not to be. The Heretics, humans of this world who could see the Akharu (and other creatures who had found this world) for what they truly were did not care to make distinctions between those who killed and those who lived peacefully. They hunted down all of what they called vampires, and a steady war had been fought for centuries, a war that Tiras had been avoiding as much as possible by moving constantly.

Twelve years earlier, Tiras’s lonely journey across these lands had brought him to a hospital in what the humans called New York City. There, he had found himself drawn to a Chinese woman named Jiao who lay curled up in one of the beds. The illness she suffered from was beyond what the doctors of this place were capable of healing. They had done all they could by making the poor woman as comfortable as possible, and then simply waited for her to inevitably pass away.

Still, Jiao tried to speak with the man who stood in the doorway of her room. And Tiras had found himself sitting next to her. They spoke, and, over a very short time, he came to care for the human woman more than he had cared for anyone else in his very long life.

Unable to bear the thought of her death, Tiras shared his blood with the woman. When she passed, Jiao awoke stronger and more powerful than she had ever been in life. The two escaped the hospital in the dead of night, and began to journey together while Tiras told her the truth of his existence and origin.

Jiao stayed with Tiras, and the two of them had become inseparable, considering themselves married for all intents and purposes. For several years, the pair had traveled together, until Jiao eventually became pregnant with the daughter that they would eventually name Asenath.

With a daughter to take care of and educate, the two of them had settled on this large ranch not far from the tribe of people whom Tiras’s features most closely resembled. There, they had raised their child for the past decade in peace, feeding upon the very livestock that they raised, as well as the occasional violent bandit who mistakenly believed that the peaceful ranch would be an easy target.

That peaceful life, unfortunately, had drawn to an end very recently. As Tiras embraced his daughter, he hugged her even more tightly than usual for a few long seconds before releasing her. “You understand why I must leave you here with your mother, Senny?”

The girl smiled just a little at the use of her nickname before nodding sadly. Her voice was small. “I know. You have to stop the bad guys from making the magic blood hurt everyone.”

It was a true, though simplistic answer. Several of Tiras’s old friends had tracked him down, explaining that the Vestil had not given up on their attempts to eradicate the Akharu. Over the centuries, they had apparently created another curse. This one would kill all who shared Akharu blood, including his wife and child. Unable to let that prospect stand, Tiras had agreed to go with his people to put a stop to it.

Jiao had wanted to come, but Tiras had convinced her that she had to stay with their child. The two had spent one last night together, and now Tiras had spent the morning with his daughter. Jiao, of course, could not leave the shelter of the cabin during the daytime.

“That’s right, my little Sunny Senny,” Tiras smiled, wanting his child to be happy. “I cannot say how long it will take, but you know that I will eventually come back to you. That I swear to you, my child. If it takes a millennia, I will return to you.”

The girl made a face at him. “I’ll be really old by then, Papa. You better come back sooner.”

Chuckling, Tiras shook his head. “I have given your mother a bit of my blood, child. If the time comes and I have taken too long to return, she will give it to you. Then you will both live long enough for me to come back and find you. Do you understand? No matter how long it takes, I will find you both.”

“I understand, Papa,” Senny’s head bobbed up and down in agreement, her dark hair flying from the motion. “Please don’t take too long though, okay?”

Smiling once more, Tiras embraced his child. “I promise, my beautiful child. I will return as soon as possible. You have my vow. Nothing will keep me from my family.”

******

Present Day

Deep in the bowels of an old warehouse in the middle of Detroit, dozens of men and women dressed in light blue jumpsuits and surgical masks worked diligently to measure and pack the illicit white substance that their employer distributed throughout the state. Here and there, armed guards in black uniforms patrolled through their ranks, ensuring that no one thought sticking some away for themselves or to sell on their own was a good idea. Not that any of them were that stupid. They knew, especially after today, what happened when someone tried to cheat Raul Frein out of what he considered rightfully his.

In the midst of this busy warehouse, the sound of shattering glass abruptly filled the air as a body plummeted through the skylight. The figure, belatedly recognizable as one of the armed guards that patrolled along the roof of the building, crashed hard into the concrete floor. Its sudden and loud arrival instantly drew the attention of every person in the massive room, worker and guard alike.

Conversations halted as two of the guards, automatic rifles held tight in their hands, came close to kick a couple times at the clearly thoroughly dead figure. His head had been turned almost a full one hundred and eighty degrees from where it should have been, even before impact.

“What–” The nearest of the guards, foot still poking his dead comrade, managed to get out. Before he could continue that sentence, unfortunately, the man was interrupted by the second figure who had dropped much more silently through the now-broken skylight. She landed smoothly and effortlessly directly in the middle of the gathered crowd, beside the dead man.

“Hiya!” Asenath, long-since grown into a young woman in her very late teens or early twenties, greeted the men with a wave of one hand. “Maybe you guys can help me. See, I’m looking for the nearest piece of shit drug dealing fucktard who thinks it’s okay to kidnap innocent kids. I asked your buddy there for directions, but you know…” With a small smirk, she indicated his thoroughly and fatally twisted head. “He just got all turned around.”

To their credit, the men tried to act as quickly as they could. Unfortunately, they were still working off of human reaction times. As the nearest brought his rifle up, Asenath gracefully spun away from his line of fire. Her hand snapped out, catching the edge of the barrel and adjusting its aim just enough that the man’s reflexive shot took one of his companions in the stomach.

Exercising a relatively small portion of her strength, the two-hundred year old vampire tore the rifle from the man’s hands. In the same motion, she continued her spin and swung the weapon around and over to collide with the head of another man. She then used that as a brace just long enough, while the man was falling, to flip herself up and around sideways. Her legs wrapped around the neck of the man she had stolen the rifle from, and she gave a hard twist while her weight and force dragged his body sideways. The lifeless man collapsed to the floor, while Asenath herself landed in a crouch.

Three men down, two seconds had passed.

One of the men tried to back away while opening fire and shouting for help. Asenath threw the dented remains of the rifle into his legs, tripping him up long enough for her to spring back to her feet. The kick that she planted in the stumbling man’s stomach drove the air from his lungs and dropped him to the floor, while a follow-up kick ensured that he stayed there.

Pivoting on her heel, Asenath regarded the three guards who remained with their weapons raised. She offered them a faint smile before asking, “Anyone? Anyone want to tell me where I can find the drug dealer of the house?”

The response from two of the men were a vitriolically spat, ‘Go to hell!’ and ‘Chink slut!’

Their fingers tightened on the triggers, but Asenath was already moving. With a blur of motion, she abruptly put herself between the nearest of the two men. While the first bullets were expelling themselves from the chambers, aimed at the spot she had been standing in a bare second earlier, she reached down with both hands. Catching hold of the knife attached to each man’s hip, she tugged them up and out, then stabbed in either direction.

The stream of bullets had barely started before ending. The two men who had opened fire stood with the girl directly in between them, their own knives held in her hands with the blades buried deep in their throats.

With a slight tug, Asenath pulled the knives from the men’s necks. Their lifeless bodies collapsed, and she turned to face the sole remaining guard with a bloody weapon in each hand. Regarding him briefly, she slowly tilted her head with a questioning look.

The man promptly threw his rifle on the ground, took a deliberate step away, and raised his hand to point off through one of the doors. The same gesture was copied by the crowd of workers, all of them pointing to that single door.

“Good boy,” Asenath praised before turning on her heel to walk toward the indicated door.

As she began to leave, the remaining guard let out a breath of relief and began to take a single step toward the exit, intent on getting the hell out of there before she changed her mind. Before he could finish that step, however, Asenath called back to him, “If you’re not standing in that exact spot when I get back, I will track you down.”

He put his foot back where it had been and didn’t move again.

Reaching the heavily reinforced door, the relatively diminutive figure tilted her head while examining it. A single kick a moment later snapped it off its hinges and sent it crashing inward.

“Luuuucy!” She called out while stepping through the doorway. “You got some splainin’ to do!”

The well-dressed man on the other side of the room from the entrance stood with his revolver pressed close to the head of a small, sandy-haired boy. The man’s eyes were wild and frantic while he stared at the figure who had just literally kicked his door in. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Cunt! Back off! Back the fuck off you stupid piece of shit! I swear to god I’ll kill the kid! I’ll fucking end him, you ignorant little bitch! You back the fuck off, I don’t know what the hell you are, but back the fuck off!

Staying where she was, Asenath regarded the man. “You’ve been a bad boy, Raul.” She made a disapproving clicking noise with her tongue. “Kidnapping an innocent kid?” Looking to the terrified child, she added, “Don’t worry, Dominic, you’ll be back with your mom in a few minutes.”

Raul pressed the revolver barrel closer to the boy’s head. “Hey, hey! No he won’t. Not until Dominic’s Uncle Patrick gets me my fucking money!”

In response, Asenath’s hand snapped upward and out. One of the knives that she had appropriated flew through the air with so much speed and force that it had sliced completely through the man’s wrist, severing his hand from his arm, before he even realized what was happening. His hand, with the gun still clasped in it, dropped to the ground.

His scream had hardly begun before Asenath was on him. She gave his head a hard shove into the wall while simultaneously snatching the young Dominic away from him. With a blur of motion, she gathered the boy into her arms and ran from the building. Before the dazed child registered that they were moving, she was setting him down in the middle of the parking lot. In the distance, flashing red and blue lights could be seen rapidly approaching.

“See those cars, Dominic?” She pointed until the boy’s head bobbed up and down. “You run right to them and tell them who you are and that your mommy is looking for you. Understand?” Another nod, and she gave him a push. “Go.”

The boy took off running, and Asenath turned in the opposite direction. Another blur of motion came, and she returned to the room where she had left Raul. The man lay on his side, half-unconscious from shock as he stared at his severed hand. “B-b-b…” He stammered upon seeing her.

“I know, I know,” Asenath gave a single nod. “Bitch. I’m a bitch, right? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t leave you here to bleed out all alone on the floor. I’m not that harsh.”

Staring up at her, Raul managed a hesitant, hopeful smile.

“After all,” the woman returned the smile before slowly opening her mouth to reveal sharp fangs that slid into place.

“I’m hungry.”

Walking away from the warehouse a short time later as the police descended upon it in force, Senny drew a hand along her mouth, wiping the last few traces of blood from her lips before letting out a sigh of contentment.

It had been over two hundred years since her father had left with promises to return as soon as he could. She still held out hope that he would come back one day, but her life had moved on. She and her mother had been forced to leave their ranch or risk attracting too much attention. Over the ensuing years, Asenath herself had grown up, eventually partaking of her father’s blood and becoming a vampire alongside her mother. The two of them had experienced so many incredible things throughout the growth of this country into the force that it now was that Senny had lost track of all the things she wished to tell her father about.

She just wanted him back. Even now, two hundred years later, she yearned for her father’s embrace.

The phone in her pocket rang, interrupting her inner musings. Tugging out the cell, Asenath accepted the call with a simple, “Yeah?”

“Umm…” The tentative female voice on the other side of the line ventured hesitantly. “H-hello? I’m not sure I have the right number. I don’t even know if I should be calling. This is wrong. I just… I just…” The voice dissolved into obvious tears.
Asenath softened her own voice. “It’s all right, you called the right number. Did something happen to you? Something you can’t explain or talk to anyone else about?”

There was a moment of silence before the woman on the other end of the line whimpered slightly. “I, no, not me. My daughter. A friend said I should call this number, that you could help, but I don’t know… the police say sh-she killed herself.”

“You don’t think she did?” Asenath replied as gently as possible.

“My Denise wouldn’t do that!” The woman blurted. “And all the other things they said she did… th-they said she taped the gasoline nozzle to her own mouth, that she drowned herself on it! That she killed that poor man in the store and then killed herself, but how could she?! Sh-she couldn’t, I swear she couldn’t do that! She wouldn’t! But th-they won’t listen. They won’t listen and no one will listen and my Denise is gone, she’s gone and I can’t help her, they won’t help her!” The words turned into incoherent sobbing.

Waiting through that with long-practiced patience, Asenath eventually managed to extract enough details to understand what had happened at that gas station. Once the story was out, she glowered at the empty air. “Ma’am, it’ll take me a few days to get down there, but I will make it as soon as I can.”

“D-does this mean you’ll find out what happened to my D-Denise?” The grieving woman’s voice was a desperate, yearning plea.

“Yes,” Asenath vowed firmly as she strode into the shadowy night. “I will find out what happened to your daughter. I will track down whoever did that to her.

“And I will make that person regret they were ever born.”

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First Steps 2-07

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A couple of hours after what had ended up being my first actual fight, I was sitting in a small room in front of a simple wooden table. I had been escorted here by a stone-faced Wyatt Rendell (the overzealous security guard) after taking a shower to clean off the bug-poodle gunk. He told me not to leave the room, but wait for the investigating Runners to come chat with me about what had happened.

I was alive. I had survived that swarm of… of monsters. In spite of everything that had happened, I didn’t feel tired at all. In fact, I kind of wanted to go out and run some laps. My legs wouldn’t stop bouncing up and down, and my hands kept shaking. I needed to get up. I needed to move around.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door opening, followed by a slight exhale of breath that sounded almost surprised. “Oh, you… you’re really…”

Looking up from a close examination of my hands, I regarded the man who was talking. He was very tall and almost dangerously thin, an ill-fitting green suit loosely draped over his nearly skeletal figure. His eyes were covered by emerald-tinted sunglasses, and his rust colored hair was cut short. He was staring at me as though I was something fascinating to see. “Umm, am I in the right room?”

Seeming to recover from his initial reaction, the man gave a quick nod. “Yes, my apologies. It’s just that–” he trailed off, then seemed to shake himself. “It’s nothing. My mind is just elsewhere, I’m afraid. Memories that are best forgotten.” Taking in a long breath, he let it out before giving me a nod. “Now then, good afternoon, Felicity. I trust you’re feeling a little bit better now that you’ve cleaned up?”

“It’s Flick,” I informed the man automatically. “I don’t… really go by Felicity anymore.” Even as I spoke, I couldn’t stop picturing his expression as he’d stood in that doorway before getting himself under control. That hadn’t been the look of someone who was thinking about something else. It had been the look of someone who was reminded of something traumatic and painful because of what they were looking at. Or who they were looking at, in this case. But why? What did he mean by ‘memories that were best forgotten’? And why would just looking at me make one of the Heretic super-detectives falter and stare like that? I was positive I’d never met the man, unless there were some memory shenanigans involved. Which, to be fair, I probably shouldn’t rule out completely.

Was it possible? Did I have prior interaction with the Heretics that had been erased from my mind? It wasn’t exactly impossible to believe, considering everything else that they were capable of. The look of instant familiarity on this guy’s face when he had seen me was just too blatant to completely ignore.

“Flick then,” he nodded in agreement, interrupting my thoughts. “My name is Runner Tribald Kine. Do you mind if I sit?” He indicated the chair across the table from me while arching one thin eyebrow.

I shrugged. “Sure, I mean, it’s not my chair. I’m not even sure where in the school I am.” Frowning slightly at a sudden thought of portals, I added, “I am still in the school, right?” The maze of corridors that Wyatt had practically dragged me through had been pretty confusing and disorienting even before magic was added into the equation. I really couldn’t rule out the idea that I had been taken elsewhere.

Tribald tugged the chair out and settled himself into it while nodding. “Yes, you are definitely still in school. No need to worry. Not even the bravest Runner would risk taking one of the Baroness’s students off school grounds without her express permission.” He seemed to shudder at the very thought.

“Is Avalon okay?” I asked, watching the man’s reaction. “Those things were after her, you know. You read the message that whoever did it left on the wall? What if they come after her again?”

The man’s thin, hawkish face softened slightly as he nodded. “Don’t you worry, Avalon is in good hands. She might not fully enjoy the experience, but she is perfectly safe, I promise.”

In spite of his assurance, I frowned. “What do you mean she might not enjoy the experience?”

In answer, the man let out a long, low sigh, taking a moment to examine the cuff of his ugly lime colored suit jacket before responding. “Felic—Flick, how much do you know about your roommate?”

I froze briefly at the question, biting my lip as I considered my answer. Finally, I spoke carefully. “Probably more than she wants me to, but not enough to start making a bunch of judgments about it.”

Tribald smiled a little thinly. “Good answer. It’s not really my place to get into specifics. However, there are reasons that one might think that Avalon knows more than she’s telling about this situation. My partner is discussing this possibility with her, and I am fairly certain that it’s not going well.”

My eyes widened, and I blurted, “What? You guys are going after her for this? But she was the–”

The man raised both hands placatingly. “Easy, easy. No. We don’t think she’s responsible for what happened. We do think that she might know more than she’s telling us about who is responsible for it. Call it a… misplaced desire to take care of the situation herself. We think she has an enemy that is targeting her, and that she thinks it’s something she has to deal with personally. My partner is trying to convince her to tell us everything she actually knows so that we can settle this situation.”

Breathing out, I shook my head. “She’s not going to react well to anything you say to her.” I’d only known her for a couple days and even I realized that much. “Your partner is wasting his time.”

“Her time,” the man corrected. “And I wouldn’t be that surprised. Still, we do have procedures to follow.” For a moment, he just looked at me as though considering something. When he finally spoke, his tone was curious. “Would you consider Avalon a friend at this point, someone you can trust?”

I paused, shifting in my seat while I considered his question. “That’s two different questions, sir. Would I consider her a friend? She’s not exactly friendly. I don’t think she has any interest in making any ‘friends’ as far as that goes. And the other question, do I trust her? She saved my life in there. I’m here now because of her, because she helped me and kept me calm. So are we friends? I hope we can be someday, but we’re not really friends the way you’d define it. Not yet. But yes, I do trust her.”

For a few long seconds, Tribald said nothing. He simply watched me, seeming to memorize my expression before giving a final nod. “Understood. Now, why don’t you walk me through exactly what happened, from the moment you walked into the room. Step by step, no detail is too small. You’ve wanted to be a reporter, right? Pretend I’m paying you by the word, and bury me in minutiae.”

Blinking at that, I straightened in the seat while asking, “How did you know I wanted to be a reporter?”

The man simply smiled faintly at me. “You’ll find that the Bow Street Runners do our homework, Flick. We rarely walk into an interview without finding out everything we can about the person involved. But in this case, it wasn’t hard to find. It was one the primary notes in your school record.”

Perfect. My minor attempt at fishing had yielded results. I hadn’t been absolutely sure that this guy had seen my personal school file, but now that I knew he had, I might be able to use it.

Sure, part of me felt bad about manipulating the guy into revealing that much. But hey, these guys had apparently spent years vetting me and digging into my personal life before eventually making the decision to let me into the school. It was only fair that I get to do a little digging of my own into my situation to find out why it had taken a tie breaking vote from the Headmistress to actually admit me.

To that end, I looked up at the man. “Can I ask you a question then, Mister… err… detective… uh?”

Chuckling, he supplied, “Runner. Runner Kine, or just Tribald is good. And what sort of question?”

“You saw my file.” Shifting in my seat, I watched his reaction while asking, “Was there anything in it that might explain why half the people who make the decisions didn’t want to let me into the school, or why the headmistress had to break that particular tie? I know it’s not a normal thing, because I was the only one that was so late. Everyone else, even the other, uh, Silverstones like me were here earlier.”

For a few seconds, the man said nothing. He simply watched me in silence before shifting in his seat. His voice was careful. “If I decline to answer your question, are you going to decline to answer mine?”

I gaped at the very insinuation, blurting, “No! Hell no, of course not! Someone out there tried to kill me and my roommate. They’re probably connected to the death of Professor Pericles too! I don’t—I’m not—I’d never do that! I’d never obstruct your investigation. I just… I just wanted to know before we started talking about what happened. I just… I know there’s something that people aren’t telling me.”

There was something he wasn’t telling me too. That look of recognition that he’d given me combined with the knowledge that something had nearly convinced the school not to let me in made me entirely too curious to ignore. But rather than flat out ask the man about his earlier slip, I masked it with the question about my record as soon as he confirmed that he’d actually read it. Kind of manipulative to be perfectly fair, but I couldn’t just let it go. I needed to understand what was going on.

Tribald looked uncertain, a troubled expression crossing his face briefly. “I’m afraid there isn’t much that I can tell you right now, Feli—Flick. It’s not something that I’m allowed to do.” Before I could protest, he pressed on. “The one thing I can say is that you might find one of the answers that you’re looking for in the Athletic Accolades hall on the second floor of the this facility. But I wasn’t the one who directed you there.”

I wanted to ask more, but realized that pushing would be a bad idea. Instead, I bowed my head gratefully. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t thank me,” the man insisted, his face even more troubled. “Like I said, I wasn’t the one who told you to look there. Got it? If it comes down to it, you were just exploring. Is that understood?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yes, sir. Just exploring.” What was it? What could be so important and dangerous for me to find on the second floor of the building that he didn’t want anyone to know that he’d sent me that way?

With effort, I shook off the thought and focused. “You want to know what happened today? We waited in line for our turn like everyone else. None of the other groups had any kind of problem. It all seemed to be going fine. Avalon and I walked in, and I was going to uhh, you know, kill one of the bugs. But then I noticed there were three of them instead of two, and the door was shut….”

******

“Avalon, wait up!”

I jogged to catch up with the figure walking down the hall ahead of me. I’d come out of the interview with Runner Kine and spotted my roommate heading out. Obviously she had just finished as well.

The sigh that escaped the other girl was audible even from a dozen feet away. She turned as I approached, watching for a second before spreading her arms wide. “Go ahead. Take your best shot.”

Blinking, I slowed down and shook my head. “What do you mean?”

Avalon kept her arms spread wide. “What do you wanna say, Chambers? Fuck me for almost getting you killed? You want a new roommate, one that isn’t gonna get you in so much trouble, or might actually be nice to you? One you can giggle and tell stories with all night long? Here’s your chance. Tell me what a fucking bitch I am and then go get yourself a new roommate. No one would blame you. No one could object to you switching rooms, not now. Not after all that. So do what you’ve gotta do.”

“I don’t want a new roommate,” I replied carefully but firmly. “I like the one I’ve got just fine. What happened back there wasn’t your fault. Someone tried to kill you. And why the hell would I want to get rid of you? You kicked ass. I would’ve been dead without you. You’re the only reason I survived that.

“I’m the only reason that situation existed to begin with,” she shot back. “And you know it.”

“Maybe if we were training to be something simple and safe, like pharmaceutical reps, that might actually be relevant,” I pointed out. “But we’re not. We’re training to do lots of very dangerous stuff. I’d rather have a roommate who gets into dangerous situations and knows how to survive them than one who doesn’t and can’t. You’re a badass, Avalon. I don’t want a new roommate. I want the one that I’ve got to teach me to be at least half as badass as she is.”

Her laugh sounded incredulous. “You want me to what?” She demanded flatly.

“Teach me,” I repeated. “Train me. You feel like you’ve got something to make up for just because I’m your roommate and they’re targeting you? Then teach me how to take care of myself.”

“You’re already learning that from Katarin,” Avalon pointed out, folding her arms over her stomach while regarding me with apparent disbelief that I would suggest such a thing.

“Yeah, we all are,” I agreed. “But you’re leagues ahead of the rest of us. I saw the things you were doing in there. Like I said, you’re the only reason I’m alive right now. I want you to teach me some of that. Outside of classes. I want you to work with me in the mornings, help me learn to do the kind of stuff you can do. Kick my ass, whip me into shape. I need it. I want to learn. I want to earn it.”

The dark-haired girl said nothing for a few long seconds. She just stood there, staring at me before shaking her head. “You’re gonna change your mind. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. I’ll be too rough and you’ll go crying to the nearest teacher.”

“Maybe,” I nodded rather than argue. “And then you can rub it in my face. But right now, I’m the one asking you to be rough with me, and you’re the one backing down.”

Again, she was quiet before heaving a long sigh. “I’m going to regret this. But fine, Chambers. If you’re that desperate for someone to kick your ass, I’ll wake you up in the morning. You better be ready, because I am not going to take it easy on you.”

“Good,” I replied. “Because I’m pretty sure whoever sent those bugs into the school isn’t going to either.”

With that settled, I then asked, “Do you know where the Athletic Accolades hall is? It’s supposed to be on the second floor, but uhh, this building is pretty huge.”

For a second, I wasn’t sure she was going to answer. Then the girl just shrugged and turned on her heel. “Fine, I’ll show you. Just come on.”

I trailed after Avalon, and the two of us went down the stairs and through another confusing maze of corridors. We passed several classrooms full of students, all without talking at all. She seemed more comfortable with silence, and I didn’t want to push any harder than I already had.

Finally, the girl stopped in a doorway and lifted her hand to indicate a long, curved corridor full of trophy cases. “You looking for anything in particular?”

Shaking my head, I walked past her and started turning in a circle. The cases were full of awards. There were the kind of trophies, medals, and ribbons that I was accustomed to, and there were also other kinds, mostly involving weapons. I saw a dagger with a bone handle resting on a plaque that read, ‘Sanjay Rahaln: Serpopard Slayer’ and a golden mace with the name Connor Paulson attached to it,along with what looked like the dates he attended the school. It was forty years earlier.

Everywhere I looked, there were more awards. “I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I just need to look around and…” I stopped talking abruptly, looking past the girl.

“What?” She frowned, realized I wasn’t looking at her, and turned around. “What the hell are you staring at?”

“That,” I informed her, nodding to an ancient looking black and white photograph.

Focusing on it, Avalon shook her head. “So? It’s just some old picture. Says…” She leaned closer to read the inscription. “Graduating class of 1922.”

“1922?” I echoed, surprised I could actually find my voice. “That… that long ago?”

“Yeah,” she replied, still squinting at me. “That’s what it says. Why? What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal,” I answered while reaching past her to set my finger against one person in the old photograph in particular. “Is that I happen to know that student.

“That’s my mother.”

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 First Steps 2-06

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If I had been alone in that moment, I probably would have been killed immediately. Standing there flatfooted and with next to zero actual combat experience, all I could do was start to shriek in terror as those dark, evil shapes dropped from the ceiling and plummeted toward me.

But I wasn’t alone. In mid-scream, I felt a hand grab my arm. Avalon’s voice blurted, “Move, idiot!” Then she hauled me away from that spot with a yank that sent me stumbling backwards. An instant later, one of the cockroach-poodles hit the floor where I had been, making a screeing noise of anger.

That single peridle was joined almost immediately by several others, all crawling over each other to get at us. One crawled on top of another and launched itself off of its body, shell opening up to reveal pitiful little wings that it used to propel itself up and forward, its pincer-like mouth opening as it came.

The awful thing was met in mid-air by a glowing, humming blade of energy that neatly bisected the ugly monster, sending bits of foul-smelling goo splattering everywhere. Avalon stood there, arm raised with the lightsaber-like blade extended outward from one of her gauntlets. She’d barely moved.

As I watched, the other girl’s skin began to glow with a pale green light. The glow surrounded her for a brief second before fading, and I saw her give a visible shudder as a murmur of what sounded suspiciously like genuine pleasure escaped her. A second later, she regained focus and remarked to the monstrous bugs who were currently reevaluating their options. “Yeah, this prey has teeth, fuckers.”

While the peridles were busy regrouping, she spoke to me without taking her eyes off of them or lowering her guard. “You have a weapon. Use it. I’ll keep as many as I can off you, but you’re going to have to do some of it yourself. Don’t fucking panic and don’t let them draw you out. Your staff has range to it. Use the power it has to knock them away when they start crowding you too much, but don’t waste it on a single one. Wait for a group. If you need to, use it to get away. Keep your head up, keep turning so they can’t hit you from behind, and for the love of Gabriel, don’t fucking panic.”

I swallowed, tightening my grip on the staff that I actually had forgotten. “You said don’t panic twice.”

“It bears repeating,” she retorted sharply. “Don’t fucking panic. I will help you when I can, but some of it you’re going to have to deal with yourself. Try to kill one right away to get its regeneration.”

By that point, the peridles had decided that waiting was no longer in their best interests. Spread out as they were, they came charging straight in, mandibles clacking in an almost deafening cacophony.

This time, rather than stand there and wait, Avalon rushed forward to meet them. Three steps and she leapt upward. Her arms pointed toward the floor, and a pair of solid-light hammer shapes slammed into the ground, smashing two of the bug-things beneath them before shoving upward to propel her higher.

She flew in an extended leap, spinning in the air. The hammers disappeared, replaced immediately by a long blade from her right hand and some kind of grasping claw-shape from her left. As she twisted, the blade cut through two more of the creatures, and the claw caught a third one in mid-leap toward me. She yanked it backwards, crushing the thing in the grip of the claw before tossing the remains.

Landing on one knee in the middle of the crowd of monster bugs. One leapt at her, but the energy claw instantly reshaped itself into a sturdy shield. Catching the bug on the shield while she remained crouching, I saw Avalon smirk briefly just before a half dozen energy spikes sprouted from the shield, impaling the creature before it could abandon its perch. Immediately afterward, before I had even registered the next bug’s movement, she flipped herself up and around in a weird little sideways twist, planting one of her feet solidly in the face of another creature’s attempt to jump at her. The thing fell onto its back, screeing in panic for a moment just before Avalon landed on her feet and dispatched it with a contemptuous swipe of a blade from one hand. Its screams died with it.

That glow came back then, brighter and more noticeable this time as my roommate was rewarded with the power from all the peridles she had just destroyed. Barely a handful of seconds had passed.

Without seeming to even glance in my direction (which would have provided her with a good look at my expression of utter amazement), the other girl blurted, “Behind you, damn it, pay attention!”

Remembering belatedly that this was not some badass TV show, I spun around in time to see a solitary bug-monster scrambling toward me. Clearly it had decided to seek easier prey. Much easier in my case.

Right, I could do this. With what was supposed to be a powerful bellow but clearly sounded more like the yipping of a puppy, I held the staff at one end and brought the other end down as hard as I could like a hammer, straight toward the charging thing. To my credit, I managed to keep my eyes open.

Unfortunately, keeping my eyes open just meant that I could see the thing neatly sidestep my utterly amateurish blow. It kept coming, barely dignifying my effort with a single (probably mocking) screech.

At the last second, I managed to lash out with one hand. My fist made contact with the side of the gross thing’s mandibles, and I had a brief flashback to what the lobster had felt like the one time Dad and I had splurged on real sea food. Or as close as Wyoming ever got to the stuff, anyway. The bug was knocked very slightly aside so that its lunge missed me as it landed just to the side. Unfortunately, the pain in my hand made it pretty clear that I’d done more damage to myself than to the monster.

Worse, the thing was still coming. It spun sideways, lashing out at me with a scream of anger. It was met in turn with my own scream of terror as I threw myself backwards away from its lunge, swiping down at the thing with my staff as if it was a rat that I was trying to shoo away with a broom.

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon as the other girl flipped over one of the charging bugs, landed on its shell to bring it to the floor with a solid crunch, then spun into a kick that knocked another of the things aside before simultaneously stabbing downward and sideways with both hands to impale both of them on her energy blades. Retracting both, she hopped off the dead bug, tossed her hair a bit to get it out of her eyes, and regarded the remainder for a brief moment while her body glowed once more with the influx of power that she was absorbing from their dead bodies. Once it was done, she raised one hand, turned her palm up, and beckoned for them to come at her again.

I, on the other hand, was barely managing to keep this single peridle away from me. It snapped at my staff a couple times, but couldn’t actually damage it. I was afraid, however, that if it got a decent grip on the thing, it would be able to tear the weapon out of my grasp. So I kept swatting at the ugly monster from either side, doing my best to hurt it while feeling like the complete amateur that I was.

I’m not sure what made me glance behind myself just then, whether simple luck, some kind of sixth sense, or remembering Avalon’s warning not to let myself get too distracted. Whatever it was, my quick turn and glance revealed a second bug skittering along the wall that I was rapidly backing myself up to. The two of them were working together to pin me in a trap between them, at which point I had no delusions about my ability to keep them both off of me. I had to do something beyond waving this staff like the panicked old woman with a broom in one of those old Tom and Jerry cartoons. I was supposed to be a fighter, a warrior, but so far I had done nothing but gape at my utter badass at a roommate. Which, to be fair, she kind of deserved because god damn. Still, I may have been new to all this, but damn it, I had to contribute. Or at least not die pathetically flailing at two of them while Avalon tore her way through dozens. I needed to stop panicking, think about what I could do, and defend myself.

With that thought, I pulled the staff back and twisted perpendicular to my previous position while taking a quick hop backwards to give myself some distance. The move put both of the bugs in front of me. They were on opposite sides, of course, but at least I could see both of them at the same time.

Rather than randomly lash out with the staff again, I held it close and adjusted my grip so that both of my hands were spread equally apart from the middle. With one finger, I pressed the part of the staff that made it begin to charge with kinetic energy. The black ends of the staff began to glow with that blue energy. Then I waited, warning myself to be patient while trying to ignore the pain in one hand that had come from punching the first creature previously. The pain and my own fear kept trying to overwhelm me, but I forced it back and kept my gaze centered.

The two bugs slowed their approach as it became clear that I wasn’t flailing wildly anymore. I could almost hear their thought processes (if such existed) while they reevaluated the situation. The one on the wall made a loud, ugly scree noise once more, clearly trying to grab my attention. At the same time, the other one used its wings to propel itself up and forward in a violent charge to take me off guard.

This time, however, I was ready. Rather than panic, I stood my ground until the thing was well within range. Then I brought the staff up in as vicious a blow as I could manage, twisting my hips so that my weight was thrown into it. The ugly monster’s face was snapped sideways as the staff slammed into it with enough force to send it flying sideways into the wall with a horrible scream.

Oh wait, that was me. I was the one screaming. Right, so maybe not totally professional and cool.

The peridle hit the wall and dropped to the floor, dazed briefly. Before it could recover, I used one foot to somewhat awkwardly kick it onto its back. Then I grasped the staff in both hands near the top and swung it down has hard as I could into the thing’s exposed underside. It screamed (and this time it really was the monster instead of me), its legs kicking frantically. I repeated the motion again, hitting the thing even harder. That time, I felt something in that soft underbelly crack. A third blow, even stronger than the first two, silenced its terrible, nightmare-inducing screams. It was dead.

The exultation that I felt in that moment was a truly physical sensation. It swept over me, a tingle that blossomed into the kind of pleasure that felt almost embarrassingly wonderful. Hoooly crapcakes that felt incredible. A surprised gasp escaped me, and my skin gave off a similar glow to the one that I had seen on Avalon. Mine, however, was a rich gold color rather than green. It felt absolutely amazing, and for a second I almost forgot that there was another bug to deal with. Finally, at the last second I heard the warning shouted by my roommate from somewhere off in the distance. Realizing almost too late what it meant, I threw myself to the side to avoid the bug’s leap. Still, its mandibles caught on my arm a bit, and I felt more pain shoot through my bicep, making me almost drop the staff as I stumbled.

The bug hit the floor and pivoted back toward me, but I was already reacting. Pointing the staff at the wall behind myself, I quickly triggered the button that would deposit a kinetic-mine there. Then I focused on the remaining bug. “You want me, asshole?” I blurted, hyping myself up. “Come on!”

With a loud screech, the thing took the bait. It leapt straight up and at me. Just before it would have connected, I dropped into a roll, throwing myself away from the thing. There was a loud explosion of air, accompanied by a disgusting splat as the bug hit the force bomb I had left behind. Pieces of it rained down around me, and I nearly retched at the smell. It was awful.

A second later, I was distracted from the scent as that same incredibly pleasurable feeling washed over me. God, was that going to happen every time we killed one of these things? It was a bit distracting.

And the hand that I had smacked against the first bug didn’t hurt anymore, I realized. The pain there was gone, and there was no bruise or mark where it had been. When I looked at my arm where the second bug had cut me, the bleeding had stopped. It still ached a little bit, but was already improving.

I was alive. I was alive! Two of the bugs were dead because of me. I had killed them. For a second, I let myself feel the amazement at the thought of what I had accomplished. It felt… even better than getting Calvin, my old boss at the theater, arrested for his drug schemes had. Those things had been trying to kill and probably eat me. I had survived. I had killed them. I was… I was a…

“Dumbass!” A shout from Avalon interrupted just before the girl landed near me, stabbing downward to impale the bug that had been coming up on my side. Before she had even withdrawn the energy blade from its corpse, she gave me a smack with her other hand. “I told you to pay attention! Stop patting yourself on the back before you get yourself fucking–”

Yelping at the sight of yet another one of the damn peridles charging in while my roommate was berating me, I brought the staff up, triggering the last of the energy that I had stored up while swinging the weapon straight at the ugly little monster. The blow connected solidly with its body, and the release of the kinetic charge made the thing literally explode, spraying both of us with bits of poodle-roach. Our clothes, hair, and faces were completely drenched in this foul smelling stuff. It was like hitting a pinata full of toxic sewage while standing directly beneath it. It was all I could do not to throw up, which would have just added to the level of utterly disgusting.

Somehow, the fact that I was immediately filled with that sense of briefly blinding pleasure after killing the bug made the whole thing worse. “Ugggnn… sorry.” I muttered, opening my eyes with a wince. I expected to see Avalon glaring hatefully at me for getting bug-innards all over her.

Instead, she just shook her head, knocking some of the gunk away. Then she spat twice. Her nose crinkled up in disgust, but instead of blaming me, she mumbled, “Not gonna chew you out for killing the fucking bug, Chambers. It was the right thing to do.”

The two of us exchanged looks for a second, covered as we were. Then we turned to face the rest of the bugs. So far, between the two of us, we had managed to kill dozens of them (Avalon being responsible for roughly ninety-eight percent of that). However, the room still seemed to be just as filled as it was before, if not even more so.

“There,” Avalon muttered, nodding toward some kind of circle that had been drawn on the ceiling. “That’s a summoning circle. It’s transporting them here. They’ll just keep coming.”

“How do we…” I panted a little. “… get rid of it?”

She grimaced, hesitating before admitting, “I… don’t know.”

By then, the swarm of ugly bugs had regrouped and were approaching a bit more cautiously, spreading out to avoid giving us any more openings. They had learned from the deaths of the others, and I had no doubt that they realized I was the weak link. For all that we (Avalon) had done, there was still too many of them. We were going to be overwhelmed.

In the next second, there was a loud crash from the opposite side of the room. The door was literally blown off its hinges, and I saw both Professor Katarin and Professor Dare practically fly into the room. Both acted quickly. Katarin focused on the summoning circle, producing a long chain that he whipped around once before throwing toward the spot on the ceiling. The tossed chain stuck itself into place over the lines of the circle, and then began to glow red while smoke billowed out of it.

At the same time, Professor Dare drew her sword. Standing there, she raised one gloved hand and swept it around the room. As she did so, I saw a bit of the floor or wall underneath each of the scattered peridles shimmer somewhat, almost like the surface of a lake.

That done, Professor Dare flipped her sword around and dropped to one knee while driving the blade into another of the shimmering spots directly in front of her. As she did so, the blade disappeared into that spot before simultaneously emerging from each and every other shimmer spot that she had created. All of the remaining bugs were killed instantly, and the summoning circle had been destroyed.

And just like that, in the span of a handful of seconds since they had entered the room, it was done. The fight was over, and I had survived my first true conflict with the Strangers.

I really hoped they didn’t all smell this bad.

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First Steps 2-05

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“It’s not exploding. Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My response to Columbus’s question was to lift the leather-bound text book, gesturing to the page that I had been reading from. “According to this thing, yeah. It should be blowing up as soon as we throw it.”

Believe it or not, we were doing homework. Magic homework, specifically. It was late that night, about an hour before curfew, and the two of us were standing down on the beach, facing the ocean.

The ocean. The sight of it still made me want to stop and stare at it for hours. I’d never been far from Wyoming before, and now I was standing on the beach of a tropical island, my bare feet wiggling in the damp sand. Columbus had questioned if taking my shoes and socks off was strictly necessary, to which I had pointed to the beach and huffed that of course it was. I wasn’t going to visit this pristine beach and not wiggle my toes in it, even if we were doing homework at the time. That would just be weird.

Honestly, I was a little bit surprised that we were allowed to go out onto the beach and away from the supposed safety of the environmental shield over the school grounds. When I’d raised that wonder with Sands earlier, however, she had pointed out that the shield hadn’t been any protection for poor Professor Pericles, so forbidding us from leaving it probably wouldn’t accomplish much. So, Columbus and I had been free to come down here and work on the assignment that Professor Carfriend had given the class.

The goal of this particular homework was to follow the instructions in the book to invest power in a small object that would then explode like a firecracker when it was thrown. We were doing the best we could to do just that, throwing the sticks that we charged down the beach to some empty sand. Yet the sticks were just landing where they fell, with nothing particularly special happening.

“Maybe it’s because we’re using sticks,” Columbus mused before looking at me pointedly. “The assignment said to use rocks. Maybe this spell only works with stone or something.”

I shook my head. “I already told you, we are not blowing up Herbie’s cousins right in front of him.” Gesturing to my little buddy, who sat enjoying the evening air on a nearby bit of driftwood, I then added, “Besides, I asked Professor Carfried about it and he said the sticks would be just fine. It’s the spell that matters, not the specific object. It just needs to be something hand-held that we can throw.”

“Okay,” Columbus stooped to pick up another stick from the pile that we had gathered. “You wanna just run it through for a third time, or try to work out what we’re doing wrong?”

Before I could respond, another voice spoke up. “He’s throwing it.”

Jumping a bit, I turned along with Columbus to find the blonde girl, Vanessa, standing there. She held a book clutched against her chest, and looked uncomfortable to be down here on the beach. Which might have had something to do with the fact that she was still wearing her red-lined school uniform.

Blinking at the sight, I voiced my confusion to her statement with an extremely eloquent, “Huh?”

“You’re charging it,” she responded after a momentary hesitation. “He’s throwing it. It doesn’t work that way. The person that charges it has to throw it. It’s your energy. He can’t just use it himself. I mean, he could, but that’s a whole different spell that we haven’t learned yet.”

“Are you sure?” Columbus asked with a slight frown. “It doesn’t say anything about that in the book.”

“Look in chapter nine, page eighty-four, third paragraph,” Vanessa replied while hugging her own book tighter to her chest. She looked a little embarrassed, but still confident about what she was saying.

After glancing toward Columbus briefly, I shrugged and flipped the pages in the book. “Okay.. page eighty-four, paragraph three.” Tracing my finger down the page, I found the spot and read aloud. “Within jointly created spells, objects empowered by each individual must be employed by that same individual. The energy is tied between Heretic and object, and cannot simply be used by another.”

Columbus whistled. “How the hell did you know that? That’s like, seventy pages away from where we are. You try to do a joint spell too or something and have to look it up? Or is this what happens when you have an actually competent team mentor.” He looked to me. “I bet it’s the mentor thing.”

Clearly embarrassed, Vanessa shrugged uncomfortably. “No, I just… I just wanted to help.”

“You did help, thanks,” I assured her quickly. “We didn’t even think about the whole sharing thing. But did you really read all the way through chapter nine already? We just got the books this morning.”

No longer looking at me, the blonde girl just shrugged both shoulders again. “I read fast,” she mumbled a little, face pink. “It’s no big deal. I just like to read. And I have a good memory.”

“You can say that again,” Another new voice spoke up as a girl came came down the trail that led from the school to the beach. I belated recognized her as Erin Redcliffe, a tall girl with short hair that had been dyed vivid blue. Unlike the other girl, Erin wore shorts and a crop top to visit the beach. “Do you know how hard it was to drag this girl away from the library? I practically had to threaten to burn the place down if she didn’t come out and have some fun.” Poking the girl beside her, she added pointedly, “You know I didn’t mean come down to the beach and read some more, right?”

From the guilty look on Vanessa’s face, it was clear that that was probably exactly what she’d been hoping. She held the book tighter against herself while mumbling, “You wouldn’t burn the library.”

“Hell no,” Erin gave her another poke. “You just needed encouragement, genius girl. Get you out of the library and into some fun once in a while. We’re living on an island full of magic! People like me are supposed to be used to it. I thought a Silverstone like you would want to get out and see new things, explore new places. Especially since you’re in the Explorer track.”

Looking even more guilty at that little reminder, Vanessa’s head bobbed. “I know, I know. It’s just that the library is familiar. It’s comfortable. I like learning things there. It’s like I’m learning all this new stuff about… about magic and monsters and everything, but it’s still familiar because it’s a library.”

“I know, I get it.” Erin’s voice had softened somewhat. “I promise we don’t have to stay out here long, okay? I won’t even make you change clothes. We’ll just go for a walk down the beach, throw some rocks into the ocean, look at some pretty stuff, and then you can come back. That okay, genius?”

While Vanessa nodded, I spoke up to ask, “Why do you keep calling her genius?”

“You mean besides the fact that she just helped you guys out with homework using information a hundred pages beyond where we’re supposed to be?” Erin replied before gesturing. “Check it out. Vanessa, see the book she’s holding?” She nodded toward my Introduction To Magical Theory And Practice textbook. “What’s the first word on page… thirty two?”

Squirming on her feet, Vanessa was silent for about five seconds before she answered, “Desperate.”

When Erin gestured to me, I quickly opened the book and scanned through to page in question. My eyes widened then. “She’s right,” I said while showing the book to Columbus. “But how did you–”

“Pick two numbers,” Erin told me, grinning a little. “Any numbers between one and nine.”

“Okay,” I thought briefly before answering. “Three and seven.”

“Three and seven, got it. You next,” Erin informed Columbus.”Two numbers. Trust me, it’s great.”

Looking just as uncertain as I’m sure I did, Columbus provided the numbers of four and two. Erin repeated them, then looked to Vanessa. “Right, Flick there gave the first number of three, Columbus’s first number was four. So page thirty-four. Flick’s second number was seven. Columbus’s was two. So seventy-two. What is the seventy-second word on page thirty-four?”

That time, there was no hesitation before Vanessa answered, “Rowing.”

With Erin and Columbus both looking at me, I flipped the pages to the right spot, counting the words carefully to make sure I had the right one. When I saw the word, I stared at it. “She’s right. How?

“I told you, she’s a genius,” Erin replied. “She remembers like… everything. Everything. She reads it, she sees it, she hears it, she remembers it. She could tell you what she had for breakfast ten years ago.”

Columbus whistled. “Damn, that sounds pretty damn useful. Why didn’t we get you on our team?”

“Hey, forget about it, buddy.” Erin pointed at the boy. “No poaching my awesome roommate.”

The two of them moved on to their walk, leaving Columbus and me to continue our homework, the right way this time. The boy looked to me. “Can you imagine having a gift like that?”

I shook my head at that. “I’m not sure it is one…”

Blinking, he asked, “What do you mean, you’re not sure.”

“I mean, look at the kind of things we’re going to see,” I pointed out. “Think about the situations they want us to get into. These monsters, the Strangers, they do bad things. They’re evil. They kill people in awful, horrible ways. They torture, maim, and… and do worse stuff to innocent people. There’s cannibals, Columbus. The stuff they do is kind of soul-crushing just to think about. So, you tell me to look at a girl who might see any of that and never be able to forget it at all, who will always remember everything she sees perfectly, who will always know what it smells like, what the air around it tastes like, who will never, ever forget any of it? I look at her and… I’m not sure it’s a gift.”

******

The next morning, I was picking at my cereal absently toward the end of breakfast. I had been slow enough about eating that almost everyone else in the dining hall had already moved on, heading for their first classes. Even most of my team was gone, leaving me with the twins. Eventually, after a couple more swirls of my spoon, Sands gave me a slight poke, asking, “Are you okay?”

Flushing a little, embarrassed that my distraction had been noticed, I nodded. “I’m fine. It’s dumb. I just… I miss my dad, that’s all. I’ve never really been away from him for a long time. I guess I didn’t really think about it at first because all of this is so new, but… my dad and I have always been really close. Now I can’t even tell him where I really am or what I’m doing. I hate lying to him, and I miss talking to him.” I swallowed hard, looking away. “I’m just homesick, I guess. Told you it was dumb.”

“Hell no, it’s not dumb.” Sands laid a hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “I don’t know how I’d deal with having to spend so much time away from my dad. Ever since Mom disappeared, the three of us have been a team. Dad, Scout, and me. If they tried to separate any of us, I’d be pretty messed up.”

I winced, looking at the girl. “Your mom disappeared too?”

“About seven years ago,” she confirmed before glancing toward her sister. “Is this okay?” Waiting until Scout gave a very slight nod, she then asked, “Do you wanna take a walk?” That time, Scout hesitated before nodding. She stood up and walked out of the cafeteria, as quiet as ever.

Once her sister was gone, Sands sighed. “Scout was with Mom the day she disappeared. Only she wasn’t Scout yet. She was just Sarah. Mom and Sarah took our boat out on the ocean to watch this whale pod that was passing by. That was early in the morning. They wanted me to go, but… uh, I was tired.” There was a look of such guilt in Sands’ face right then that it was almost painful to see. She looked away from me, paused, and then continued. “They were gone all day. The boat never came back. Eventually Dad and Aunt Virginia—err, Professor Dare went out to look for them. When they came back, Sarah was with them but Mom was gone. They said they found her on the empty boat.”

Sands was quiet once more, and I noticed that we were the only ones in the cafeteria. Still, I didn’t interrupt. Eventually, she spoke again. “Dad said they couldn’t find her at first. They thought the boat was abandoned. He… he called their names, Mom’s and Sarah’s. There was no answer, but when he called again, he heard someone crying. He found Sarah under the cot, behind the fishing equipment. When he said her name, she started screaming at him. She wouldn’t stop screaming. He tried to help her, tried to pull her out from under the cot to find out what was wrong, but she was just… screaming at him every time he said her name. He said ‘Sarah, calm down. It’s Daddy, it’s Daddy, Sarah’ and she just cried and screamed even more. Finally, he realized it was her name. Her name was what was upsetting her. So he called her his little scout. That was just a silly little sometimes nickname that he used once in awhile because Sarah was always getting into things, ever since we could walk. Exploring. She was his little scout. So he called her Scout, and she stopped screaming. But she didn’t stop crying.

“We umm, we found out later that there was a… a Stranger out there. It took Mom. And it tried to take Sarah. She hid, and this… this monster was walking through the boat, calling her name. It kept saying things like, ‘Saaaaraaah, mommy misses you. Come out, Sarah. Mommy wants you. Come out, or Mommy gets hurt.’ Then he kept making her hear our mom being… hurt, tortured. Crying. Begging. That monster kept walking through the boat, but he wasn’t saying her name anymore. Mom was. She kept calling for Sarah. I… I don’t know if it was our real mom or a trick, but it was her voice. She kept calling for Sarah. Sarah, help me. Sarah, don’t you love me anymore? Sarah, I’m scared. Sarah, please stop hiding. Sarah, I’m going to die. Sarah, he’s going to kill me. Sarah, please, Sarah.”

There were tears in Sands’ eyes then, and she wiped them away before giving a shudder. “That’s why she doesn’t use the name Sarah anymore. That’s why she’s Scout now.”

I swallowed hard, staring at her. “I… I’m sorry. I had no idea it was anything like that.”

Her head shook. “It’s been awhile. I don’t usually talk about it. God, I’m not sure why I did this time. It just felt like something you might wanna know. You said your mom left you guys, right?”

“For some guy she pulled over for speeding,” I confirmed with a sigh. “Guess all three of us were basically raised by our fathers, huh?”

“I guess so,” Sands replied. Then the two of us were quiet, thinking until the bell rang to announce that we were going to be late for class if we didn’t hurry. I quickly dumped the cereal bowl and we joined Scout in the corridor. Then the three of us raced to reach the self-defense classroom.

We made it just in time, sprinting into the room a second before the late bell went off. At the front of the room, Katarin gave us a long look before gesturing for us to join our teammates. Then he spoke up. “What are the three greatest strengths that we have as Heretics?”

One of the boys that had grown up around all this stuff raised his hand before answering, “Our collective knowledge gained by those who have come before us, our ability to see through the Strangers’ disguises, and our ability to steal the strengths and powers from the ones that we kill.”

“Yes,” Katarin gave a nod of his head before folding his massive arms over his chest. “It’s that last one that we’re going to be working with today. If you’re going to survive the kind of training that we have to get through this semester, you’re all going to have to take a bit of punishment. But we can’t have you getting beat up and bruised, then just send you onto the next class. You need a bit of an edge first. That’s where this little guy comes in.”

Reaching down behind himself, Katarin straightened up with something grasped in his hand. There were several yelps through the room, as well as one muttered, “Fuck, that’s disgusting.”

Whoever had said that was right. The thing that Katarin was holding looked a bit like a poodle crossed with a cockroach. It had six legs and was covered with a dark brown shell with blotches of fur showing here and there. It was probably only about as long as my forearm, but that’s pretty damn big for something as ugly as it was.

“This,” Katarin explained in his booming voice, “is a Peridle. Ugly little shit, huh? Don’t worry, they’re only dangerous in packs. Keep them separated and the things are too stupid to do anything but sit there. They don’t attack, they barely move without a swarm leader, and they are almost entirely useless save for one thing. Anyone wanna try to tell me what that is?”

“They regenerate?” Someone else put in.

“Yup.” Katarin gave the thing a shake, and it made this ugly little squelching noise that almost brought bile to my mouth. “As long as they’re not dead, the damn things heal right up after you hurt them. So one of the first things we do with you new students is have you kill one of these things. That way you get to feel what it’s like to absorb a Strangers’ power, and we get to beat you up a little harder since you’ll get better a lot faster than you would have otherwise. It’s a win-win situation.”

The other thing it did, I realized, was give us something to kill that didn’t look the least bit human. For most of us, dealing with something like this would probably feel more like stomping on a bug than anything else.

“All right then,” Katarin boomed. “Separate into your roommate pairs, and then line up. One pair at a time go through that way.” He pointed to a door at the back of the room before reiterating. “One pair through at a time. You’ll find two of these buggers waiting for you. Kill them, watch your partner kill theirs, then come back out here. Shouldn’t take any of you longer than a minute.”

Looking to Avalon, I smiled. “Guess we’re squashing some bugs, huh?” Her response was a shrug.

We lined up, and one pair at a time passed through the doors. Professor Katarin stood right in the doorway, watching everything that happened. I heard a lot of screams of disgust every time one of the creatures was killed, and the awful stench that kept wafting back wasn’t making me any more eager to go in there. After each session, Katarin went into the room and spoke with the students who had just finished before sending them out. Then he took the time to clean it up a bit and put two more of the creatures into place before sending the next pair of students in. That continued onward, with each student that came out afterward looking dazed but fairly happy, and extremely energetic. They all gathered on the opposite side of the room, comparing stories and generally chatting quite enthusiastically. Whatever else killing one of those things did, it also seemed to give a jolt of energy, making everyone that came out seem almost hyper.

Eventually, it was our team’s turn, and Avalon and I were the first pair up out of the group. Without looking at me, my roommate strode past Katarin and into the room. I followed after her, tugging the cap off my belt sheathe before drawing the staff up and out, still a bit awkward with it.

Right, I could kill a little ugly poodle cockroach thing, couldn’t I? It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Half the class had done so without any real problem so far.

The room smelled worse on the inside than it had on the outside. I gagged a little before taking in the sight. Sure enough, there were two of the damn things sitting a little bit apart from each other on a hard wooden floor. The walls were blank white, and there was bits of blood and bug-poodle body parts lying around that Katarin hadn’t quite gotten to.

Killing bugs, killing bugs, it was just killing bugs. I could do this. Gripping my staff in my hand, I took a step forward.

Then I stopped. “Uh, wait, why are there three of them?” I was looking at the third Peridle, sitting a short distance away from the one that I had been heading for. “Professor, why is the–” Turning that way, I blinked at the sight of the closed door. “What the…”

There was a sudden pounding noise at the door. Professor Katarin’s voice bellowed, “Open this door right now!”

I had just taken a step back that way when Avalon caught my shoulder. “Chambers!” Jerking me around, she pointed. “Look.” Her voice was dark.

Turning my head the way she was staring, I saw the literal writing on the wall. Someone had spray painted a message over the far wall that I swore hadn’t been there a few seconds ago. It read, ‘Eden’s Garden Whore Doesn’t Belong Here. If Headmistress Mommy Won’t Get Rid Of You, We Will.’

Avalon’s jaw was clenched, and I could feel the anger radiating out from her. Before she could say anything, however, a noise drew my attention. Blinking up, I stared for a moment before what I was seeing made any sense. Then I gulped. “Ummm…. Avalon?” Tugging her arm, I pointed.

She looked up as well, and cursed. “That’s a lot of bugs.”

She was right. The ceiling was literally covered in those damn Peridles. The ones that were harmless as long as they weren’t in a swarm. Yeah, a swarm like the one crawling around on the ceiling right above us.

A whimper escaped me before I whispered, “Okay, okay. We just go to the door, and–”

That was as far as I got before every head of those ugly bugs turned our way. With a collective screech, the ceiling itself seemed to collapse as they launched themselves straight for us.

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First Steps 2-04

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“Flick? Hey, you okay?”

A hand gently shook my arm, and I jumped a bit in the heavily cushioned easy chair that I had been sitting in for the past two hours, ever since the announcement had come that morning classes had been canceled. I’d been so lost in thought that I’d missed Sean’s arrival and subsequent attempts to get my attention until he had to physically touch me. Eyes wide, I blurted, “Huh?”

“Sorry,” the boy raised both hands and took a step back. “Just thought I’d check on you. Everyone else is outside and you missed breakfast. So uh, here.” He produced a plate with a couple of muffins on it. “It’s not a lot, but you know, I wasn’t sure what you liked, or if you were even hungry but… yeah.” Trailing off awkwardly, Sean hesitated for a moment before setting the plate on the arm of the chair. Beside him, his mechanical dog whined a little until the boy laid his hand on its head, giving it a pat.

Straightening up in the chair, I put a hand on the plate. “Thanks, I was just… thinking.” Yawning, I glanced around briefly around the lounge. There were two student lounges in the building. One for the first and second years, and the other for the third and fourth years. I wasn’t sure what the one the upperclassmen used looked like, but if this one was anything to go by, then Crossroads Academy was getting something like seventeen bajillion times the amount of funding that my old school had gotten. I could go on for hours about opening the door to find the three pool tables, the arcade machine in the corner, the foosball table, the enormous aquarium full of tropical fish taking up most of one wall, the multiple televisions at either end of the room complete with headphones so students could pay attention to whichever set they wanted to, and on and on.

But honestly, that wasn’t fair. My old school hadn’t been that bad. They did what they could without the benefit of magic and thousands of years of history. And they weren’t responsible for training a bunch of mostly teenagers to go out and protect humanity from literal supernatural monsters, so they deserved a little slack.

Plus, they definitely had the bonus that none of my teachers there had ever been murdered.

“Thinking about Professor Pericles?” Sean winced. “Sorry, that had to be hard. You uh, didn’t, um…” He blanched a little, looking almost ill at what he was saying. “You didn’t see the body, did you?”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “He wouldn’t let us. Professor Mason, I mean. He um.” My throat was dry, and I had to swallow a couple more times. “He made us go back inside. I tried to talk to Avalon about it, but she just… wanted to be alone.” That was putting it mildly, Avalon had stormed off the moment that I had said another word, cursing under her breath and making it clear I wasn’t wanted.

After that, I had just waited for everyone to get up. We were given the information about no morning classes and then directed here, to the common area and cafeteria, but I hadn’t been hungry. I’d split off from the others and come in here to sit and think for a while. That little while had turned into hours.

“Yeah, apparently it was pretty bad.” Sean sat down in the easy chair opposite mine, running his fingers back through his hair before resting his face in both both hands. “Fuck, just… Heretics dying isn’t new, you know? That’s a fact of life. But it’s usually the younger ones. Once you live long enough to be as old as Pericles was, that’s… okay, he wasn’t the strongest guy out there. Just being old doesn’t make you strong by itself. But this guy was up there. Not the Baroness’s level, but probably one of the top three or four Heretics here in the school. And to get taken out like that? It’s scary, man. Real fucking scary.”

Biting my lip thoughtfully, I nodded. “That environmental seal, that should have told them if there was anyone on the grounds that shouldn’t be, right? Especially any mon-err Strangers.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Hell yeah. Not just the seal. Half the faculty and some of the students have so many detection spells between them that if a Stranger so much as got within eyesight of the whole island, there’d be alarms ringing all over the place. They’ve tried. And if the Strangers had a way to get on this island undetected?” He whistled. “They’d do more than kill one teacher.”

I unwrapped the first muffin and took a bite, thinking while I ate quietly. After a few more seconds of that, I asked, “What about Eden’s Garden? You know, the ‘Dark Heretics’ or whatever they’re called.”

“Heard about those guys, huh?” Sean took a moment to pat Vulcan’s head, the mechanical dog apparently enjoying it judging from the sounds it was making. Finally, the boy sighed. “They’d be noticed too. Anyone not authorized to be here sets off an alarm. There’s no way anyone that isn’t faculty or a student could have been on these grounds last night without the teachers knowing about it.”

I gave a long sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that. That means that whoever killed Professor Pericles…”

He nodded back at me, finishing the thought. “Had to be a teacher or a student. One of us. That’s why everyone’s freaked out. Like I said, Heretic dying in the line of duty is normal. Heretic dying here on the grounds of the school when everything else is fine? That’s fucked up. Beyond fucked up.”

I had finished the first muffin and was halfway through the second before I spoke again. “What about that professor that died last year, the umm, Memon? You know, the one that the headmistress said that Professor Insil… Inliss… Inslick was taking over for. And the other one, the one that’s ‘recovering’”

“Inisclic,” Sean corrected me. “Professor Inisclic is taking over for Memon. My brother had him for a few years. Memon died on vacation over the summer. Heart attack while he was at some anniversary dinner.”

“A heart attack,” I echoed doubtfully. “What about the other one?” Snapping my fingers as the name came to me, I blurted, “Tangle. Professor Tangle, that was it. What happened to her?”

Brow furrowing a bit, Sean shrugged. “I’m not sure, sorry. I heard about Memon because my brother liked him. I remember hearing something about Tangle and some kind of big shark, but I dunno.”

Before I could respond to that, the door to the lounge opened and Columbus entered, accompanied by Shiori and a couple of the students from her team. All four were deep in conversation, but Columbus broke off once he noticed the two of us. After saying something to his sister, he came over, lifting a hand in greeting before taking one of the nearby seats. “Hey.” Sighing, the boy slumped in the chair. His uniform was so rumpled I would have guessed that he’d slept in it. “What’re we talking about?”

“The rapidly rising teacher casualty rate,” I replied a bit darkly. “One injured, two dead in the past few months? Wait, what about that third teacher that the headmistress mentioned? She said there were three new teachers. Inisclic replaced Memon because Memon died. Carfried is ‘filling in for’ Tangle while she recovers. But she never said why the other new teacher was here. Professor Armstrong, I mean.”

Sean’s head was shaking. “They just brought Armstrong in to replace Professor Pether after he retired last year. It was a whole big thing. They had a party, everyone signed a card, the works. Ian said they were all sad about it, cuz Pether was around for a long ass time. Then last year he just up and said he was retiring out of the blue. The headmistress tried to convince him to stay, but he said he was done.”

Four teachers gone within the past year. One unexpectedly retired, one injured to the point of not being able to come back this year, one died of a heart attack, and the fourth was murdered right on school grounds in the middle of the night, and was left there for anyone to find. Call me paranoid, but I was detecting a certain trend.

Running a hand over his wrinkled blazer, Columbus frowned at me. “What’re you thinking?”

Before answering, I pushed myself out of the seat, balling the muffin wrappers into my hand in the process. Then I glanced to the boys. “I think there’s something really wrong going on in this school.

“And I’m going to figure out what the hell it is.”

******

At any other school I could think of, the murder of a teacher right on the grounds would have meant that classes were canceled at least for that day. But here at Crossroads, they resumed right after lunch. I supposed that, as unusual as it apparently was for faculty to be killed right here, death was something Heretics lived with every day. It was still a tragedy, but it didn’t stop them for long. It couldn’t. In the mundane world, taking time off to cope with a loss didn’t really affect that much in the long run. Here, it was literal life and death. Not just of the students, but of everyone they were being trained to protect.

I understood that. I got why it was that way. And yet even then, I couldn’t help but feel a little sick to be sitting inside a classroom so soon. I had only known Professor Pericles for a couple days. I’d only had a single class with him, and my stomach still rolled at the thought that he was… gone. Dead, I reminded myself harshly. He was dead. There was no sense in beating around the bush about it.

Headmistress Sinclaire had announced during lunch that any student who felt that they were unable to continue classes that day because of the tragedy were excused, and that there would be people available to talk to. But as far as I could tell, no one had taken her up on it. None in my own grade level anyway. Things were probably different among the students who actually knew Professor Pericles better.

Either way, classes were still on, and this particular room looked pretty full. There were four other teams besides ours, leaving thirty students gathered in what looked an awful lot like smaller auditoriums at the zoo where the handler brings out little animals for the audience to either coo over or hiss and squirm at. The floor was cement rather than carpet or wood, with several drains located at strategic sections, and rather than normal desks, several long tables set in a square formation with an opening in one corner leading into the central stage area that the tables were surrounding.

Sitting on my right side, Sands nudged me while leaning in to whisper, “Did you hear about Deveron?”

I shook my head a little, frowning while whispering back to her. “No, what about him?”

Lowering her voice even further, Sands replied, “They said he was one of the last ones to see Professor Pericles.” When I shot a look at her, she nodded rapidly. “Yeah, the professor took him aside last night while we were at the beach. He was trying to talk to Deveron about why he’s been so… off lately. You know, trying to connect with him. But Deveron wasn’t listening and they got into an argument. Deveron shoved him and then walked off. The Runner pulled him out of class to talk to him.”

“Wait, Runner?” I echoed, frowning uncertainly. “What Runner?”

“You know, BSR?” Sands replied, looking back at me blankly, like I was the one being confusing.

On the other side of me, Avalon spoke up abruptly without looking at us. “Bow Street Runner. They don’t exist in mundane land anymore. Not since they were recruited by the Heretics in the mid-eighteen hundreds.” Finally looking toward me, she went on. “First official police force of London. They didn’t call themselves Runners back then. That’s what the public called them. The Runners thought it was rude or something. But now it’s something to be proud of. Being a Runner is a big deal. Means you run down the worst of the worst. They sent a Runner here to find out what happened to Professor Pericles.”

“Right…” I hesitated. “It’s like being an FBI agent or something. And they sent a Runner here because someone like that being murdered on school grounds is a big deal.”

“You think?” She retorted while looking away. Arms folded over her stomach, Avalon went silent just as the doors on the other side of the room opened, admitting the guy that I had thought looked too young to be a teacher. Professor Carfried, the one that was ‘filling in’ for Professor Tangle.

He came striding in the doors, carrying a thick walking stick over one shoulder and a heavy duffel bag in his other hand. When he spoke up, his voice was about as bright and chipper as I could remember any adult ever sounding, let alone right after a tragedy like the one that had happened that morning. “Good afternoon, class!” He chirped. Yeah, chirped. That was the best word for it. “I know this morning was… awful.” Passing right by the tables to enter the central area, the man lowered his voice just a hair, his head dipping in acknowledgment. The bright perkiness was gone, replaced by sincerity. “And if any one of you feel the need to sit out, don’t worry. You won’t miss anything, because I will work with you later to get you caught up. Do not think that you need to stay for your grades, because you don’t. I will make sure that anyone who needs to step out, for a few minutes or for the rest of the period, gets caught up with everything they need to know. Take your time, and if we’re going too fast, or if you get overwhelmed, just leave. It’s perfectly all right. There are people here to talk with any of you who would like to. They know what they’re doing, and they’re going to be here all day.”

“That said,” Straightening up, the young teacher gave a smile that showed his teeth. “We’re going to move on. Not because the good professor didn’t matter. Hell, he taught me when I went here. You know, a few months ago. We’re moving on because that’s what we do. We push on, we survive. And if you believe anything, believe this. The coward who murdered Professor Pericles will be found. They will be dealt with. They will brought to justice. Our justice.”

Carfried’s gaze moved around the room, seeming to take in everyone in turn before he breathed out. “But for now, until that happens, we have to continue our classes.” His smile brightened once more. “So, let’s learn about magic, shall we?” To punctuate his words, the man tossed the heavy walking stick behind him. It flew a few feet, then seemed to catch in midair, hovering there in the exact center of the room. Slowly, the stick began to turn in a circle, rotating around like the blade of a fan. It gradually spun faster, until the stick was nothing more than a whirling blur of motion that was impossible to track. Then it wasn’t just a blur anymore. An image appeared, like a television screen. It showed an apple orchard, the fruit ripe and ready for plucking on the trees.

Cracking his neck to either side, Professor Carfried took a step that way. Rolling up his sleeves, he showed us his bare arms and empty hands before turning so that the whole class could see as he stuck his hand right into the image that had formed from the spinning stick. His arm appeared in the orchard, a part of the view. He plucked one of the apples from the nearest tree, withdrew his hand, and showed us the fruit sitting in his palm. Smiling at the reaction, he took a loud bite from it, chewing in satisfaction before reaching out with his other hand. The image was disrupted by his hand that time, as he snatched the spinning stick out of midair and held it up.

“This is what I will teach you,” Carfried announced. “This is the magic of the Heretics. Our magic. It is not simple magic. It is not all fireballs and magic missiles. Heretical magic is not fast. Remember that. Learn it. Know it. Live it. Heretical magic is not fast. You could live for a thousand years and you will never learn magic that will let you point your hand, say a couple words, and throw a lightning bolt at your enemies.” Coughing, he added, “Now, you might inherit that ability from a Stranger that you kill, but magic itself will not do it. Because magic is not what, Miss Tamaya?” He looked toward Aylen, the Native American girl that I remembered from Orientation.

“Fast?” She offered after realizing he genuinely wanted an answer.

“Yes,” the man smiled and straightened. “It is not fast. Our magic is based around Enchantment. You will never wiggle your fingers, say a couple words, and throw lightning. You can learn to spend hours of time and energy enchanting a stick with a command word that will then produce lightning when that command word is spoken. But even then, it’s not an unlimited thing. You put the energy into the object, you train it to perform the action that you want, and trigger it. After the effect takes place, the item can’t do it again until you invest your energy and time back into it. The more often a single object is enchanted the exact same way, the easier it becomes for that object to ‘learn’ the effect that you’re teaching it. But even then it still requires time. Minutes rather than hours, perhaps, but in the heat of battle, minutes do not exist.”

“A-are you sure that everyone can do it?” Aylen asked, her voice a bit tentative.

Carfried nodded. “You’ve used the Heretical Edge. You have the connection to the same energy that the Strangers use to come to this world, and you can use that energy for this enchantment magic.”

I raised my hand, and when he looked to me, I asked, “But what about magic things that do seem to last forever. Like umm…” Shifting, I pulled the holster for my staff off my belt and held it up, tugging the stick in and out a couple times. “I’m pretty sure no one’s sneaking up to refresh this every time I pull it out. Or the shield over the school.”

“A very good question, Miss Chambers,” Carfried nodded easily. “Indeed, in the case of your weapon sheath, and others that I’m sure many of you have, those what we call ‘passive effects.’ An object may be enchanted, by someone of sufficient skill, with a passive effect such as the extra-dimensional storage space that will be permanent. Doing so requires vast amounts of experience and skill. And you cannot make an active effect permanent. No fireballs that last forever, I’m afraid. Again, there are inherited Stranger traits that may mimic what you think of as magic, but true Heretical Magic is based only on Enchantment, and that requires time and energy to create. And as for the shield over the school, that is refreshed every morning and provided power by every faculty member in order to keep it going for another twenty-four hours.”

“But doesn’t that mean that someone could get through the shield while it was being recharged, if they knew when it was happening?” I asked, frowning in thought.

Carfried’s head shook. “I know what you’re thinking, Miss Chambers. But it wouldn’t work that way. Even if someone somehow managed to time their entrance to the grounds for the split second when the shield went down, it would be up again within a bare handful of seconds. And when it is, the shield runs another scan over every being on the grounds, making sure that both the quantity and the identities of those present match what it was before the previous shield was dropped.”

I was silent then, even though more questions about how the shield worked kept popping up in my head. Rather than voice them, I kept the questions to myself. There would be other, more private ways to get the answers I wanted other than blurting out a bunch of demands in the middle of class.

“Now,” the young teacher pressed on. “Who’s ready to learn how this magic works?” Gazing around the room, he smiled as pretty much every hand was raised. “Fantastic.

“Let’s get started.”

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