“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 Carfried 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 belatedly recognized her as Erin Redcliffe, a tall girl with short hair that had been dyed a 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 the 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.