Wood cracked against my arm, drawing a sharp yelp from me that was swiftly followed by a curse.
“You’re still too slow,” Avalon informed me unnecessarily. The pain in my bicep was already doing a fine job of making that point for her. “Keep your guard up. The staff has two ends, and you can use either of them. Don’t forget that. Make me watch both of them, not just the top half. Keep it moving, end over end, back and forth. Vary your speed, vary your rotation. Never let me see a pattern, or—”
Without further warning, the wooden staff that my roommate was holding lashed out to smack my other arm this time. While I yelped, she stated flatly, “Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll regret it.”
“And if I’m not lucky?” I asked while taking a second to rub my arm. “Because this feels not lucky.”
“If you’re not lucky, you won’t have a chance to regret it.” Her stare was intense. “You’ll be dead.”
“Point taken.” Grimacing at that particular thought, I nodded before holding my hand up for a break so that I could walk over a few feet across the beach to where we had dropped our stuff. Leaning down, I grabbed a bottle of water and took a long pull from it while catching my breath.
It was early evening, just a bit before dinner. Two whole weeks had passed since that first little field trip into the holographic crime scene. Two weeks of classes about monsters, magic, vampires, and the occasional alien. Or what looked like aliens anyway. Two weeks of learning how to fight and kill.
On the plus side, no more teachers had died and there hadn’t been another attempt on Avalon’s life. Unfortunately, the negative side was that none of us still had any idea who was responsible for either of those events, or if it was even related. Nor was I any closer to figuring out what had happened with my mother. Not being able to outright ask any of the adults about her was proving to be a pain in the ass. It limited us to looking through the library and other parts of the school for any crumb of information similar to the graduation picture that I’d found. Even with Avalon’s help, it was very slow going.
I’d been tempted to talk to the rest of the team about it, but there was the problem of Sands and Scout. Not that I didn’t trust them. I did. But their father was a teacher and the last thing I wanted was to make them lie to him just to keep what I was doing away from the faculty. I wasn’t going to make my new friends choose between keeping my secret and maintaining their relationship with their father. So it was down to Avalon and me to find out as much as we could, which at the moment, was nothing.
Adding to the list of things I didn’t know was the exact reason that I’d somehow picked out the same items that had been on the last receipt in that gas station. Professor Dare had theorized that there may have been some connection between me and one of the people who had been there, but hell if we knew what that connection actually was. According to her, I could be distantly related to one of the victims or one of my ancestors might have encountered the Stranger responsible for killing them and been left with a strong enough tie to the monster to leave me with a residual link after using the Heretical Edge.
I wondered if my mother was the one who had some kind of connection to the evil piece of shit.
Sighing inwardly at the thought, I took another drink of the water before turning to glance at my roommate. Avalon, as usual, looked perfect. I was a sweaty, ill-coordinated mess in gray shorts and a tee shirt that had seen better days. She, on the other hand, was as gorgeous as ever in black running shorts and a green tank top that had to have been magically enchanted. It was the only way to explain why the cantaloupes she was smuggling around didn’t pop out of it. If she hadn’t been helping me out so much, I probably would have been jealous. Okay, more jealous than I already obviously was.
“If you’re so good with a staff,” I asked curiously while nodding toward the wooden training weapon that she was using to help me, “then why do you use those gauntlets instead?”
For a second, Avalon didn’t respond. She just squinted at me as though going over the question in her head to figure out if there was any way that I might be mocking her. Finally, the other girl shrugged. “Of the weapons I know how to use, the staff is the one I’m the worst with.”
I choked a little on my water, squinting that way. “This has been you being bad with a weapon?”
“Out of the weapons I know how to use,” she repeated pointedly while striding toward me. “There’s plenty of weapons that I don’t know how to use at all.” Leaning down, she plucked up the other bottle of water and took a sip from it. “Now quit whining just because I’ve had more practice than you and get your head back in the game. Do you want to get better or not? Because if you’re tired of this already, I’ve got better things to do than waste my time with someone who’s just going to quit.”
“I’m not quitting,” I promised. By that point, the pain in both of my arms had vanished thanks to the healing gift that I had inherited from the ugly little poodle-roach things. “I said I want to learn to be a better fighter, and I meant it. Heck, I’m already improving. You haven’t insulted me half as much today as you did when we first started. You’re even using both hands now. So, you know, yay progress?”
Her response was a grunt before she dropped the bottle back on the ground. “Fifteen more minutes, then dinner. Think you can keep going that long, Chambers? How are your arms holding up?”
“Sore,” I answered truthfully. “But all that weight lifting you keep making me do in the mornings seems to be helping. It’s not nearly as bad as that first night.” That had been near torture. I had been as close as I ever got to flat out quitting and walking away. My arms had felt like they were going to fall off. Still, I pushed on through it and forced myself to keep at the training. Avalon’s stated certainty that I was going to quit helped with that, considering at the time all I’d wanted to do was prove her wrong.
Part of me wondered just how purposeful that attitude had been. Had she been so hard on me through that first bit, even harder and more insulting than the girl usually was (which was saying a lot), to drive me to stick with it through sheer contrariness? It was hard to tell through the girl’s ordinary prickliness.
“Keep it up, then.” Her voice was firm. “You make me think you’re slacking off or being lazy about this shit one time, and I’m done with you. I’m not going to waste my time if you start fucking up.”
“Yeah,” I replied with a slight smile after translating her words from Avalon-speak into a language that was slightly less inherently angry at everything. “I’m glad we’re training together too, roomie.”
The next day was Saturday. After spending an hour in the morning with Avalon doing our by-then standard workout (not having school was apparently no excuse for not exercising), and having a bit of breakfast, I was leaving the cafeteria when my father’s ringtone began to play. It took me a second to maneuver my cell out of my jeans (no uniforms needed on days off), and answer it. “Yo.”
“Hey there, lil bit!” Dad’s voice boomed loud enough that I winced. “How’s my favorite daughter?”
“Oh yeah, that was a hard contest to win,” I replied. “Favorite daughter? Who was my competition?”
He laughed before shooting back, “Hey, for all you know, I might’ve adopted already. I could replace you with an adorable little baby that doesn’t talk back to her old man. Or the new kid next door might have a sister I could latch onto. How long have you been gone for now? Three years, four?”
“Weeks, dad.” I shook my head with a smile. “I’ve been gone for three weeks, tops.”
“Feels like decades.” Dad’s voice was light, but I heard the truth in it. The two of us had been so close since my mother left that I knew this was hard on him. It was hard on me, even as busy as I had been.
Swallowing, I asked, “So what’s this about a new boy next door? Did the Euphrene’s finally move?”
“Seems like it,” my father replied. “Got a new woman in there now. No husband that I know of, but she’s got a little boy. I think he’s about ten or so, named Ammon. Lady keeps to herself, but the kid came over a few times last week. I’m gonna pay him to keep up the lawn and stuff. Poor kid, I don’t think he gets out very much. Sure seemed interested in whether I had any children or not.”
I smiled a little while making my way into the lounge. In the corner, I could see Columbus, Sean, Shiori, and one of the other boys playing Mario Kart on one of the massive televisions. I gave them a wave, then turned slightly to continue my conversation. “Why did he care if you have any kids?”
“Lonely, I think.” I heard the shrug in Dad’s voice. “Seemed interested in you. Hell, I think the poor kid might have a crush on you, Flickster, considering all the pictures he wanted to see.”
I felt a blush creep over my face. “Damn it, Dad, how many pictures did you show this kid?”
He chuckled a little before replying, “Take it easy, I didn’t show him the baby pictures. Just the ones we’ve got up on the walls, and that one of the two of us at the lake that I keep in my wallet. Trust me, we only said good things about you. The kid might want to meet you when you come home to visit. Think you can handle a ten-year-old with a bit of a crush without breaking his poor, innocent heart?”
I rolled my eyes. “He should meet my roommate. He’d forget me in a damn hurry.”
We talked some more, but Dad eventually had to excuse himself to head into the office for a few hours. After disconnecting, I returned my attention to the others and headed over to hop onto the couch beside Columbus. “Who’s winning?” I asked while reaching over to snag a chip out of the bowl nearby.
“Shiori,” Columbus, Sean, and the boy whose name I didn’t know replied flatly. All of them seemed hyper focused on the screen, sitting up straight and leaning forward with looks of intense concentration.
Meanwhile, Columbus’s foster sister was literally laying upside down, hanging off the front of the couch with her head on the floor. Her arms were stretched out in front of her along the floor as she watched the screen from her inverted position. And she was still clearly winning without much effort.
“Wow,” I remarked after watching the race for a few more seconds until the girl had finished lapping them yet again. “Either you guys are seriously bad at this game, or she’s really good.”
“It’s the second one,” Columbus informed me. He wasn’t wearing his uniform, but the tee shirt and khakis was wearing looked as disheveled and rumpled in as his uniform usually did. I wondered if he picked out his clothes the night before, and then slept in them so that he could jump out of bed and go in the morning. It was the only way I could understand how he managed to make his clothes look so messed up from the first thing in the morning. “Shiori’s good at every video game. Seriously. Pick a game she’s never played, any game at all. Give her a couple hours to practice, and she’ll beat almost anyone at it. It’s like some kind of freaky gift or something. I think she killed some kind of video game Stranger and absorbed his skill back when she was six.”
“Did not,” Shiori replied absently while remaining focused on the screen. I could see the slight blush on her cheeks from the attention before she mumbled, “I just like games. It’s not hard once you see how they work. You hit the button, the character does the action. People over complicate them.”
Taking another chip, I smiled. “Sounds like great hand-eye coordination to me.”
“No kidding,” the boy I didn’t know agreed. He was a fairly short guy, stocky in a muscular way, with intense green eyes and a pale face that was dotted with freckles. His light blonde hair was worn long, and he had to shake it out of his eyes before focusing on me as he extended a hand. “Ah, sorry, I don’t think we really met. I’m Andrew. Shiori’s team mentor.”
I did a double take, staring at him in surprise. “Wait, team mentor? As in an older student that’s supposed to help us learn and guide us through first year? That mentor? I thought that was just a myth.”
He chuckled slightly before grimacing. “Yeah, sounds like Deveron’s not excelling this time, huh?”
“More like not even trying,” Sean remarked from where he was sitting. Vulcan lay at his feet, occasionally rubbing up against his master’s leg while looking for a head scratch. I had no idea how scratching helped a dog made of metal, but Vulcan sure seemed to like it.
I nodded while rolling my eyes. “He’s pretty much the worst mentor ever. Has he even said anything to you guys since orientation?” I asked the boys, receiving head shakes from both Columbus and Sean.
Andrew shrugged. “Sorry, wish I knew what to tell you. Dev was a great student last year. Pretty much at the top of everything constantly.”
“That’s what Sands and Scout said,” I muttered before shaking my head. “Why couldn’t we have gotten that guy for a mentor instead of the impostor that’s been wandering around in his skin?”
“You could ask him yourself if you wanted to,” Andrew suggested while nodding toward the doorway. “Considering he just went past.”
After looking that way briefly, I pushed myself up. “I think I will. Whatever his damn problem is, he needs to get the hell over it and start doing his job. We deserve better than this.”
“You want some company?” Sean asked. “Tired of getting my butt kicked here anyway.”
I considered it, but then shook my head. “Let me talk to him first. If I need backup, I’ll let you know.”
Both he and Columbus agreed, and I promised to return to let them know what happened before heading out of the room at a quick jog. I wanted to catch up with Deveron before he disappeared again.
Reaching the hall, I turned the way that Andrew had gestured and picked up the pace. Deveron had been heading out of the building, and if he got too far, I’d never figure out where he went.
Thankfully, the older boy was still in sight as I came through the doors. He was on his way past the staff housing building, walking fast as he turned the corner around the wall.
Wincing, I ran to catch up. No way was I going to miss this chance to give the jerk a piece of my mind.
Just as I reached the edge of the building, instinct made me slow down. Rather than storm around the side and start demanding that he stop and talk to me, the way I’d planned, I instead peeked carefully around the corner.
Deveron was there, crouching near the middle of the building. He had one of the bricks in his hand, and was shoving something into the hole there. Then he pushed the brick back into place and patted it to make sure it was as smooth as possible before straightening.
His head turned in my direction, and I quickly jerked back out of sight, my heart hammering. What the hell was he hiding? Did it have something to do with Avalon or Professor Pericles?
A moment later, I peeked back around and found the area behind the building empty. Deveron had moved on. Forgetting the reason that I’d started to follow him to begin with, I made my way to the same spot he’d been and crouched down to pry at the bricks until I found the right one. It took a bit of work, but I managed to tug the brick out and set it aside before reaching into the hole.
My questing fingers eventually found the thing that Deveron had hidden in there, and I tugged it out, finding a folded up photograph. With a frown, I turned to sit against the wall while unfolding it.
It… was the picture of my mother’s graduating class. I recognized it immediately, considering how long I’d sent staring at it in the awards case. This one was a more worn copy, but it was clearly the same picture. Why did Deveron have it, and why was he hiding it?
Wait. I frowned a little while looking at the photograph. Something was different about it. I’d spent hours staring at the one in the trophy case, and something about this one was off. I just couldn’t tell what it was.
Then I found it. My eyes scanned the picture until they zeroed in on a single figure in the picture that definitely wasn’t there in the other copy. A figure standing directly next to my mother, where there was empty space in the picture that I had studied. A figure that was holding her hand as they cheered for their own graduation from this school. A figure that I had just seen walk away from this spot.
No wonder Deveron had been so good at everything in this place last year. According to this picture, he’d graduated with my mother in 1922.