“I feel like Mary Poppins,” I announced a few hours later while walking down the hall alongside the rest of my team. We were just leaving lunch and heading for the first afternoon class of the day.
There had been two more periods after that first class: Trigonometry and Chemistry. Nothing had happened in either one that stood out nearly as much as the act of literally choosing lethal weapons to bring around with us for the rest of our lives. Though, to be fair, that was a hard act to follow.
“Mary Poppins?” Sands, walking alongside me, asked with a tilt of her head. “You mean because of–”
“Yup.” I reached down, brushing the jacket of the school uniform aside to reach what looked like a small canister about the size of a cell phone case that had been clipped onto my belt. Flipping the cap open with my thumb, I caught hold of the top couple inches of the object within and tugged it up a bit. Those inches were followed by several more, until the first foot or so of my new kinetic-burst staff was drawn into view. This, despite the fact that the canister on my belt was entirely too small to contain it. Somehow, the five foot long stick just… kept going when I slid it inside, until only enough stuck out to get hold of with my fingers. It was, to use the scientific term, completely fucking amazing. Seriously, just… seriously! How did it work? I had peered into the thing, only to see what looked like the bottom. I had stuck my finger into it and felt the bottom. But when I put my staff in it, somehow the thing fit. How?! I had spent a good portion of lunch pulling the staff in and out, trying to figure out what it did.
Giggling, Sands nudged me. “I guess that probably looks weird to someone who didn’t grow up with it, huh?” Her own hand strayed toward her own hip, where she wore a somewhat wider version of what I had to contain her own spiked mace. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it eventually. Right, Scout?”
Her twin nodded without looking up from her close examination of the floor that we were walking over. Rather than anything on her belt, Scout was wearing what looked like a camera bag over one shoulder. The enormous rifle (seriously, the thing was as long as she was tall) was stored safely within.
“When Katarin said that we were gonna have to carry these things around, I was expecting it to be a bit harder than this,” I admitted. Glancing over my shoulder then, I added, “And a lot harder than that.”
Columbus just grinned back at me, his eyes hidden behind a large pair of goggles with dark green lenses. “You’re just jealous,” he replied, while the lenses shifted color to blue.
I just sniffed pointedly at him. “Nobody mentioned that goggles were considered weapons now.”
“They are when those goggles can shoot out a beam of light that can punch through a brick wall,” he retorted good-naturedly while taking a few steps ahead of us to open the door. “I mean yeah, all the extra stuff like seeing in the dark, seeing invisible things, seeing magic lines, that’s all probably useful. But I’m pretty sure it’s the bazooka eyes that kick these things over into the weapon category.”
He stood there holding the door open while we passed through one at a time to enter the amphitheater that was our next classroom. Sean, the last one in, took the other boy by the shoulders and kissed him grandly on the cheek. “Muah! Chivalry is not dead! My dearest of roommates has proven it so!”
We were the last team to enter, which meant that the eighteen members of the other three teams that we were sharing this class with all stared at the shaggy-haired boy. Unbothered, he simply waved at them and snapped his fingers toward his leg. “Here Vulcan, c’mon, boy.”
The dog that scurried through the door in response to his words might have looked like an ordinary doberman if it hadn’t clearly been made out of metal. The robotic animal took a moment to seemingly ‘sniff’ at his master’s hand before peering up excitedly, silver tongue lolling out of its mouth.
Grasping an almost completely hidden handle set near the dog’s backside, Sean gave a tug. Immediately, there was the sound of grinding gears as the robot animal was lifted off the ground. Its paws and legs were drawn up into the body, disappearing within. Its head flipped over, the snout also disappearing into the main body while the back of its head, newly emerged, revealed six barrels spaced equally apart in a circle. By the time the ‘dog’ had been fully lifted up, the second handle appearing near the front once the head was locked into place so that Sean could hold it at both ends, its true nature as a fairly massive minigun was revealed.
“Man’s best friend,” Sean intoned with an easy smile before hefting the huge weapon with him up to the last set of seats that were still open. Setting it next to him, he let the gun revert to its dog-shape. “One more chance, boy. But if you can’t keep quiet through the lecture, you’ll have to stay in gun mode through the whole class again. You don’t want a repeat of Trig, do you?” The dog whined, and Sean nodded pointedly. “That’s what I thought. So shhhh. Got it?” The dog lay on its stomach and went still.
A mechanical dog that transformed into a minigun. Goggles that shot out concussive energy blasts. Seriously. This whole school was just… amazing. Also terrifying in a lot of respects, but still amazing.
Finally, the last member of our group (and the most antisocial one) brushed past me on her way to the seat. Like Columbus, Avalon wore her new weapon as an accessory to her uniform. In her case, however, it was a pair of sleek, silver-blue gauntlets rather than goggles. A small upraised slit in the back of each gauntlet would, at her command, project a solid-light energy construct of various blades and other melee weapons, as well as various tools that she would need in her work as a Developer.
And that was all of us. Kinetic staff, construction mace, sniper rifle, enhanced vision laser goggles, dog-minigun transformer, and gloves that projected solid light tools and weapons. A bit of a difference from my last school, where sharpening a key against a locker was almost enough to get you kicked out.
“Right, right, right!” The trio of repeated words came with the rapidity of automatic gunfire, and were punctuated by an equal number of loud hand claps that filled the air of the amphitheater. I spun to find the ancient-looking, yet super-energetic figure of Professor Pericles enter the room. “Let’s have a seat and get started, shall we? So much to go over, so very much to do.” He bustled past us toward the front stage, dropping a heavy briefcase on the desk there before whirling back around. “Are we all here?” His eyes, bright and lively against his heavily wrinkled face, scanned the room. “Yes! No one’s late. Good news. Excellent news in fact. I hate giving lectures about tardiness. It’s just dreadful for everyone involved, so let’s try to avoid it for the whole year, shall we? So much to do, so little time to waste! Everyone’s here, all twenty-four of you. Keep it up, keep it up indeed, congratulations all around.”
Pausing only long enough to draw breath, the man then continued. “Without looking anywhere but straight at me, what is the name of this class, Mister… Kinder!” He pointed to a pale boy with red hair.
“Uhh, umm,” the boy stammered briefly before managing a somewhat weak, “Stranger Truths 101?”
“Yes!” The instructor beamed as though the boy had given a brilliant response while grabbing a black marker off the desk. He crossed to the white board and wrote that in large letters. “Now, can anyone tell me what we’re supposed to learn here? Anyone at all?” He looked over everyone. “Don’t be shy.”
Several hands went up, most of them from students that had obviously grown up ‘in the knowledge.’ One, however, I knew for a fact was a Silverstone like me. Vanessa Moon, the blonde girl that Koren had almost thrown over the magic circle line the day before, sat front and center with her arm raised.
“Miss Moon,” Professor Pericles pointed to her. “What is the purpose of this class?”
When Vanessa spoke, it became obvious that she was reciting words from a book, though she wasn’t actually reading anything at the moment. “To provide an introduction to the most common types of Strangers currently known, including their habitats, strengths and weaknesses, and how alike or dissimilar the truth of their nature is from how they are portrayed in common bystander media.”
Professor Pericles chuckled. “Clearly someone has read the introduction of the text book already. Which is interesting considering I haven’t actually handed that book out yet. Err, have I?” He sounded genuinely curious. “Oh gods, did I forget a day again? I knew I shouldn’t have tried that cookie.”
A blush touched the blonde girl’s face and she spoke a little more quietly. “You didn’t miss a day, Professor. I just found the book in the library and read some of it during lunch.”
“A girl ahead of her time and well after my heart!” Pericles was smiling broadly once more. “Alas, you’ve chosen to pursue a career in Exploration rather than Development.” Vanessa’s uniform was highlighted with red. “Still, a good answer. Yes, this class is an introduction to the truth. Here, you will learn about the monsters that lurk under beds and within closets, the beasts that crawl from the swamps, the creatures hidden within shadows, whose eyes watch the world of unsuspecting humanity and see not peers in intelligent thought and potential companions, but a buffet of flesh and blood. You will learn the truth of what bystanders call vampires, zombies, werecreatures, and many more that haven’t been served quite as popularly by the advent of television and film. You will learn how these creatures use their gifts to hunt, kill, and often but not always devour our unsuspecting fellow humans. Within this class, you will learn the bare essentials of what these creatures are, where they come from, and how they do the wicked and evil things that they do.
“I ask that you all pay attention through these lectures, because the content within them will quite literally become a matter of life and death for you and those you care about. Failure to pay attention, or any attempt to treat this subject with anything less than the seriousness that it deserves, will unfortunately be met with severe disciplinary action.”
His smile returned after that bit of seriousness. “There! Now my warning is out of the way, so we can continue. And I trust that each of you will heed it. If there are any questions about that, or about anything I ever tell you, my office is right down the hall.” He pointed out the door. “You’ll find my name written beside it, just on top of a chalk board where I will list my schedule for that day so that you will always know where to find me at any given time. Please, do not let yourself fall behind. If you have questions, ask. If you’re concerned about something, tell me. If you for any reason feel as though you should know something that I haven’t covered, speak up. I will always be ready to chat.”
After looking around the room to let that sink in, the man continued. “Now, if that’s clear, let’s start discussing our syllabus for the year. I thought we’d begin the semester proper tomorrow with an in depth look at the truth behind those most popular of mythological creatures, the zombie…”
A few hours later, I was lugging a bag full of books from the library on my way back to my dorm room. I’d scoured the shelves for forty-five minutes, looking for anything that seemed to mention the current headmistress or the history of the school in general. Maybe I could get some answers there about what relation my ancestor had had with the Baronness, and whether or not she was even aware of who I was. It meant doing extra reading on top of all the classes, but I had never been the kind of person who was content to sit and wait for answers to come to her. I had to drag them out myself.
Speaking of classes, this school was a bit odd in that respect. Rather than having a single schedule every day like most if not all high schools that I was aware of, the schedules here differed each day, more like a college. Some classes had only two periods per week, while others were a daily occurrence. As a result, I was technically taking about a dozen actual classes rather than six or seven.
Hauling the bag of books with me to the door, I reached for the knob, only to nearly get smacked in the face by the door as it was shoved open from within. Yelping, I stumbled backwards and nearly fell over.
Avalon’s hands shot out, catching my wrist as well as the bag before it could fall. She yanked me back upright, her eyes a little wide. “Hey!” She blurted, seemingly reflexively. “Watch where you–” In mid-sentence, the other girl stopped talking. She went silent for a handful of seconds before breathing out noticeably. “No. That was my fault.” Her voice was stiff and uncertain, clearly unaccustomed to speaking the words. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”
I blinked once, then again. “Yeah, I’m… fine. Uhh, thanks? Hey, are you heading for the showers?” The girl was wearing a pair of drawstring pants and a tanktop, and she had a towel under one arm.
She paused once more before giving a single somewhat stiff nod. “I thought I’d try to be clean before dinner. Is that a problem?” There was that same challenging tone to her voice that I was used to by now, as if she was accustomed to defending every choice she made.
Shaking my head quickly, I replied, “Nope, not a problem. Just thought I’d go with you if you hold up a second. I—hey, is that a tattoo?” I squinted closer at her bicep. Sure enough, there was an image of a small red apple with a dagger cleaving it in two.
Instantly, Avalon’s expression clouded once more and she brushed past me on her way into the hall. “Take your own damn shower, Chambers. And mind your own business.”
Then she was gone, stalking off down the hall while leaving me utterly bewildered. To her retreating form, I asked, “Uhh, what did I say that time?”
“What’d you say to who?” Sands spoke up, and I turned the other way to see her approaching with Scout at her side. “Hey, we were just coming to see if you wanted to check out the beach before dinner. What’s up?”
“Just making more mistakes with my roommate,” I replied with a shrug. “Apparently I’m not supposed to ask about the apple and dagger tattoo.”
Both of the twins froze at that. After looking to each other briefly, Sands asked with an obvious careful tone, “Was the dagger cutting the apple?”
“Umm, yeah?” I shook my head in confusion. “Why, what’s the big deal?”
Sands whistled. “Okay, look.” Glancing around as if to make sure we weren’t being overheard, she lowered her voice. “This isn’t something they like to get into so early, but this place? Crossroads Academy? It’s not the only school for… for our kind. There’s another one. Eden’s Garden. Only they’re… different.”
“Different?” I echoed. “What do you mean, different?”
“Crossroads Heretics work to fight the Strangers, to drive them away from humanity,” Sands answered, her voice even lower. “But Eden’s Garden Heretics, they… they’re sort of the other way around. They’re humans who actually help the Strangers do the bad things they do. They’re awful people, trust me. They just do really, really horrible stuff. Human experimentation, Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments, nasty things. They’re evil. And all their students have a tattoo.”
“Let me guess…” I bit my lip, looking over my shoulder.
“Yup,” Sands confirmed. “A tattoo on their bicep of a dagger cutting an apple in half.”
“Maybe it’s a coincidence?” I offered a little lamely.
“No,” Sands shook her head. “Trust me, Avalon wasn’t a bystander. She grew up with this stuff. And no one who grew up with it would ever have a tattoo like that. Not unless…”
“Unless she was a part of that school,” I finished, still looking back the way Avalon had gone. “Unless she was from Eden’s Garden.”
“Yeah…” Sands trailed off for a moment before breathing out. “Flick, I think your roommate was one of the bad guys.”