“So, I know you’re a Silverstone and all, but you do know that tonight is kind of a big deal, right?”
I blinked once at the boy who was talking. He was one of the other students in my year, a thin and aristocratic looking guy with hawkish features and a thin nose with a golden stud in it that was shaped like a heart. I hadn’t interacted with him much over the last few weeks, but I knew his name was Zeke, and he was on a team with Vanessa and Erin. That team consisted of those three, Zeke’s roommate Malcolm, as well as Travis and Rudolph, the two guys that Columbus and Sean hung out with.
“Yeah, sure,” I replied to him after a second. “Some kind of once a month team exercise thing.” Belatedly, after letting my eyes move over the crowded patch of grass near the Pathmaker building where all the first years had been gathered, I added, “Everyone seems pretty amped up.”
That was an understatement. There was a current of anticipation running through the students who knew what was going on that reminded me of being a kid at school right before Christmas vacation. This was obviously something they’d really been waiting for and looking forward to for a long time.
Zeke nodded, eyes never leaving me. Or rather, never leaving a particular spot a few inches above my eyes. “Right, and the ‘team exercise thing’ is a big deal. Most of us, those of us who grew up waiting for our chance to be here, have been dreaming about how these events would go since we were toddlers.”
I smiled at that, giving him a thumbs up while being careful not to move too much. “Hey, good to know. Hope it lives up to the hype. Good luck to your team and everything.”
“Uh huh.” His eyes hadn’t moved. “So you know this is a big deal. Great. So I have to ask, why aren’t you taking it seriously, exactly? Do you think it’s funny to mock the things that we like?”
“Mock?” I echoed blankly. “How am I mocking it?”
His eyes dropped a bit to squint at me. “This is our first big Heretic fight, you know? The first time we get a chance to fight as teams and actually go after real bad guys. Sure, it’s a fight with the training wheels on and the staff is right there to grab us if anything happens, but still. Big fight. Big chance to look like heroes, to be heroes. It’s a big deal, Felicity. You could at least pretend to take it seriously.”
“One, it’s Flick.” I reminded him. “And two, how am I not taking it seriously?”
By that point, Zeke was speaking through gritted teeth, unable to mask his annoyance any further. “If you’re taking it seriously, then why is there a rock on your head with a plastic sword taped to it?”
It was Columbus who spoke up from beside me. “Hey, I’m working on the little guy’s real weapon, but it took longer to get time in the metal shop than I thought, okay? The plastic’s just a placeholder.”
Grinning, I reached up to pat Herbie while remaining careful not to move my head too much so that he would remain perched a few inches in front of my ponytail. “Yeah, you just said everyone around here really looks forward to this. Can you blame the little guy for wanting to get in on the action too?”
To Sean, who was standing behind Columbus, I added, “Oh, thanks for the sword by the way. Herbie loves his new weapon, even if it is temporary. It really suits his debonair swashbuckler style.”
The other boy returned my easy smile while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “No problem. I’m gonna need He-Man’s weapon back once Columbo finishes up the metal one, but I don’t mind sharing with Herbie for now. Least this way the little guy gets to feel like he’s contributing.”
“Contributing?” Zeke was looking at us like we were all certifiably insane. “It’s a stupid rock with a couple googly eyes glued on and a plastic sword taped to it. It’s not a–” He started while lashing out as if to smack Herbie right off the top of my head, his annoyance apparently getting the better of him.
It was a move he regretted, since his hand had barely gotten within a few inches of my little buddy before Avalon seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Her hand closed around the boy’s wrist, and she gave a slight twist that made him abruptly turn sideways and drop to one knee with a yelp of pain.
“Funny,” my roommate stated flatly, her voice cold. “I’m pretty sure you don’t usually get a chance to make the whole ‘don’t touch a hair on my teammate’s head’ thing quite this literal. So I’m going to make this one count.” Leaning in a bit closer, she made sure the boy was looking at her from his kneeling position before speaking again. “The rock wasn’t bothering you. Neither was Chambers. You’re nervous that you’re going to fuck this up, so you’re looking for something to pick a fight about. Stop it. Shut up, stand up, and walk away. Quit spending so much time and energy obsessing over why someone else is doing something you think is stupid and focus on your own shit. Got it?” When the boy gave a single nod, Avalon released him and watched as he picked himself up. He scowled briefly, but said nothing before turning to slip away, pointedly ignoring the people who were staring.
Briefly meeting my roommate’s gaze, I gave her as much of a nod as possible. She ignored me and returned her attention to her gauntlets, obsessively going over them for any possible imperfection with the same meticulousness that I’d seen her use on her own face in the mirror.
I understood that urge a little bit more now that she’d told me her story. The need to be perfect, the drive to make herself look good extended through both her physical training and the time she spent on her appearance. Avalon had a drive to be as close to perfect as possible, all to prove her father wrong. She worked her ass off constantly to avoid being the helpless little girl that had been abused for so long. This image she’d made of herself, of this untouchable, beautiful badass was something she desperately needed so that she never had to think about the girl she’d been before. Avalon had basically created this almost mythological figure for herself and she worked almost constantly to maintain it.
Over the past week and a half, she and I had been investigating Deveron. We still hadn’t had a chance to get his roommate alone yet, but Avalon said she had an idea for that. I just had to wait to see what it was. In the meantime, I had been going through the library looking for any mention of either him or my mother. It was slow going since I couldn’t ask any of the staff about it, but so far nothing had turned up.
At least my father’s old advice about this sort of work was proving true. Detective work was turning out to involve a lot of reading boring file after boring file until it felt like my eyes were going to bleed.
But it was worth it. I had to know what Deveron’s connection to my mother was, what the hell his deal was in general, and what had happened to both of them. It was all just… insane, and I wanted answers.
Before I could say anything else, Sands and Scout moved up on either side of me, the former slipping right between Columbus so that she could pluck Herbie off my head, giving him a quick peck right above his eyes. “For luck,” she said before grinning my way. “You guys ready to kick ass and take a whole lotta names? Or, you know, as many names as we can take while kicking literally all of the ass.”
I took Herbie back from her, admiring the sword briefly before giving Sands a hip bump. “Actually, I’m kind of freaking out and trying not to show it. Guess that’s why I need my buddy so close.”
Sands met my gaze seriously. “Hey, it’ll be fine. Yeah, I guess it’s kind of scary. We go off as a team to deal with some Strangers and all that. But it’s okay. They’ve got staff monitoring everything the whole time. If something goes wrong, they’ll jump right in. This is just a way of getting our feet wet. After all, they can’t really let us out in four years with just book knowledge and a few classroom battles.”
Scout nodded, though I noticed that the girl was already holding her rifle in front of herself rather than leaving it inside the camera case where it usually was. She was obviously more nervous than her sister.
“Hey, Scout.” I offered my hand to her with the rock in it. “You wanna hold onto Herbie for me? He likes you, and since you’ve got the long distance weapon, he’ll probably be safer with you anyway.”
Smiling, the other girl accepted the little guy, holding him carefully while nodding to me.
“Eyes front, first years!” A voice bellowed, drawing everyone’s attention to where four teachers and the headmistress herself were standing. Professor Katarin was the one speaking, and he had Sands’ and Scout’s father Professor Mason on his left side, as well as Professor Kohaku the art teacher and security track head on his right. Headmistress Sinclaire and Nevada, the cheerleader-looking young woman who had taken over for poor Professor Pericles, were standing near the back, quietly conversing.
“Let’s have some quiet here, huh?” Professor Katarin ordered, the big man’s eyes moving over the crowd of excited (and obviously nervous) teenagers for a few more seconds before he spoke again. “Now here’s the thing, I know this is a big deal for you guys. But it’s a big deal for us too. This is your first hunt. It may be a training wheels hunt since we’ll be setting you down where we know the bad guys are and you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for the whole time. Plus we’ll be watching. But it’s still a real hunt, and there are some real consequences if you fuck up too badly. So if any of you look like you’re going to cause problems or not follow instructions, you’ll sit this out. No warnings, no second chances. That includes anyone we see trying to talk while we’re talking. You don’t pay attention, you’re done for the day. That’s it. You will stay here and you will not participate in any further hunts until we are satisfied that you are ready to take this seriously. Is that understood?”
Katarin waited until there was a chorus of agreement before continuing. “Now, it should also go without saying that if any of you are not comfortable with this hunt and do not think that you are ready, you should absolutely say so. Speak up, and you will not be forced to participate. No one will give you a hard time about sitting it out and waiting until you’re ready, or they’ll answer to me. So, would any of you like to wait until next time to give this a shot? Anyone at all?”
There were no takers. A few people (mostly bystander-kin like me) looked tempted, but no hands went up. Katarin looked around, giving enough time for someone to work up the nerve to be the first to say they wanted to sit out, but when none came, he nodded. “All right then. Headmistress Sinclaire has some things she’d like to say to you. Remember what I said, you talk while she’s talking, you’re done.”
Then it was the headmistress’s turn to speak. She took a moment to look out at everyone, a smile touching her expression before she finally began. “Good evening, everyone. I’m glad to see all of you here, ready for your first live hunt.” Briefly, the woman’s eyes looked toward me while she added, “Each and every one of you was told before accepting your invitation to enroll within Crossroads Academy that this is not a normal school. Over the past month that you have been students here, I hope that fact has been sufficiently impressed upon you so that this evening’s activities do not surprise you.
“We have identified and tracked a different target or small group of targets for each of your teams. These targets have been painstakingly cataloged to ensure that your team is ready to attempt a capture or kill. If you fail, do not be discouraged. Many fail their first attempt. That’s why we do these things rather than simply make you read books on the subject and then expect you to know what to do in a live combat situation. While it is true that many of you will go on to duties that do not involve chase and eliminate, being capable of such live combat is a necessary skill for every Heretic. Make no mistake, even in the less directly violent professions that you may aim for, you will always be a target for the Strangers. You will know them and they will know you. Therefore, you must be prepared to fight, and to kill when it comes down to it. Because they will not hesitate to kill you.”
Inwardly, I noted the second bird that stone happened to kill. Namely, that directing trainees to deal with the less powerful threats also allowed the full Heretics to focus on the more dangerous Strangers.
After letting her words sink in for a few seconds, the baroness spoke again. “Your teams will be sent through the Pathmaker one at a time to your destination, alongside your team mentor and a faculty aid. Both will remain close while you hunt, though the hunt itself will be up to you as much as possible. You will be told what creatures you are hunting, as well as as much information as you require to find them. Be warned, however. In future hunts, your faculty aid may choose to make you rely on what you actually know rather than provide answers, so you will want to be caught up on your studying.”
I rolled my eyes while looking toward the empty spot where—wait, where Deveron was standing? Where the fuck had he come from? Blinking up at the boy, who had somehow managed to position himself right nearby without me noticing until just then, I was so surprised that I actually opened my mouth to say something. At the last instant, I caught myself and halted my voice in its tracks, swallowing back the words that had started to spring out. A glance toward Katarin showed the man eyeing me pointedly, nodding to show that he had been paying attention before making a gesturing motion with his head toward the headmistress to tell me where my own eyes should be.
I obliged, though it was hard not to immediately demand to know what Deveron was doing. Was he just pretending to be a mentor now because the staff were watching? That had to be it, right?
Meanwhile, the headmistress assured us a few more times that we would be safe and that there would always be several staff members watching everything that was going on. Finally, she nodded toward the security chief while finishing with, “Professor Kohaku will be taking each group one at a time into the Pathmaker building once it’s their turn to start. Each of you will stay with her, and follow first her instructions and then that of your faculty guide when the time comes to start the hunt. Until Professor Kohaku takes your group, you may feel free to speak among yourselves, but do not leave this area.”
With that, she and every other teacher aside from the small Japanese woman moved into the nearby building. Nevada briefly gave us a thumbs up before skipping to catch up with the other teachers.
As soon as they were gone, I whirled toward Deveron and hissed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Lazily linking his arms behind his head, the boy arched an eyebrow at me. “Jeeze, Chambers, make up your mind. First you can’t stop bitching because I’m not spending enough time with the team. And now you’re bitching because I am?”
My eyes rolled. “Let me guess, not showing up here and at least pretending you give a damn is grounds for a lot more punishment than you want, so you’re just gonna stand two feet away and be completely useless instead of standing as far away as possible and being useless.”
“Ouch, she bites.” In spite of his words, Deveron didn’t sound bothered. As usual, he didn’t really sound like he cared about much at all. That and his lazy smirk made me want to smack him.
“Is there a problem here?” Professor Kohaku had silently approached, her eyes moving between me and our team ‘mentor.’
I opened my mouth to respond, but Sands stepped on my foot. “Nope,” she replied firmly. “No problem. Right, Flick?” Looking my way, she made it clear with her expression that she really, really wanted me to go along with it and not complain about Deveron. Obviously, she was afraid that saying anything might end up getting us removed from the hunt. Her mouth moved silently to form the words, “We can do it without him.”
Resisting the urge to sigh, I nodded. “We’re all good.”
“Good,” Professor Kohaku replied quietly. “Because your team is up. Let’s go.”
Deveron winked at me, and then we were heading for the building. Heading to our first real hunt, our first real… kill. No matter how they dressed it up, that’s what it was. We were supposed to be hunting and killing monsters, and now they were about to have us do that for the first time, in as controlled circumstances as possible.
God, I really hoped I wouldn’t fuck this up.