“Let’s contain the giggles and gossip for just a few seconds here so I can talk, all right?”
The moment that Deveron said those words, all while continuing to flash that cocky and uncaring smirk, I immediately caught Avalon by the arm before she could throw herself at him. The muscles in her bicep flexed against my grip, and she turned her death glare from the boy to me until I released her. Still, it was enough of a delay that she wasn’t about to lose control completely and choke the prick.
And it gave Sean time to speak up, drawling a casual, “Well fine lil sweetness, if you insist. But only if you promise that we can do our hair up all nice and get some mani-pedis if we do a good job.”
Beside him, the metal dog made a soft little ruff noise of agreement, and Sean added, “Right, and Vulcan wants treats for not biting your ass for being such an unbelievable dick. Personally, I’d go with something jerky based because, let’s face it, your dick level is high enough to warrant the good stuff.”
We were standing outside what was apparently one of the portal rooms of the Pathmaker building, waiting for our turn to go through while Professor Kohaku and the Headmistress spoke quietly with each other a short distance away. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but the word ‘committee’ had been said multiple times, usually by the baroness and in a somewhat raised voice before she quieted.
The area we were in just looked like any ordinary office corridor to me. The floor was lightly carpeted and the walls were an off-white color. The door into the portal room was the only bit that stood out. It was a gleaming silver metallic color, and looked extremely durable. Beside it was was a black circle about half a foot in diameter that I couldn’t figure out the use of.
And speaking of things whose reason for existence I couldn’t fathom, Deveron was spinning his weapon around on one finger. It looked basically like a flintlock pistol, and as far as I could tell, that was his only weapon. Which, even setting aside his attitude, seemed kind of odd for someone whose track was based around exploration. Was a pistol really a good fit for the idea of going onto multiple unknown alien lands to face hostile creatures of any shape, size, and strength? Or did the annoying laziness of our team ‘mentor’ extend all the way into how little he took care of himself too?
Before he could respond to Sean, Deveron was interrupted by Professor Kohaku. She had approached silently before clearing her throat once she was right beside us. “Here are the rules that your team must follow throughout this hunt. First, the quarry that you are facing have been isolated away from bystanders. This will not always be the case, but for a first hunt, it’s more important for you to get the basics down. Later hunts will require you protect civilians from the very creatures you are hunting, even as those very bystanders may mistakenly believe that you are the aggressors. In this case, your hunt will be limited to only these targets, so long as the battle remains within the confines of the safe area. Should any of your quarry escape that space and proceed into bystander occupied territory, you will be notified and full Heretics will step in to ensure the civilian populace remains safe. You will not lose points for such an event, but you will not gain them either. No penalty, no bonus.”
She looked toward Sands, whose hand was up, and nodded. The other girl hesitated before asking, “You said targets, plural. So there’s more than one? Do we get to ask how many or what they are?”
Professor Kohaku, proper as always, gave a very faint smile before responding. “Yes and no. I can tell you that there are five secondary targets and one primary target. You will receive twenty points for each of the secondary targets you dispatch and one hundred for the primary. Each other team has had their points divided accordingly to add up to two hundred total. You may earn both penalties and bonuses to alter that score further. You may at any time ask what creatures you are facing if you cannot identify them, but doing so will detract ten percent from your final score. However, should you fail to eliminate any of your targets specifically because you did not know what you were facing and did not ask after having the opportunity, then twenty percent will be removed from your final score on top of that failure.”
Right. They were trying to encourage us to identify the monsters on our own (particularly on future hunts, thus pushing us to study a lot), but also penalizing the idea of taking that too far. It was worth some extra points to try to identify what the things were, but not worth waiting too long to ask for help.
Beside me, Sands whispered under her breath, “Vanessa’s team probably adores her right now.”
I coughed, realizing how right she was. Thanks to that absurd memory and her habit of reading ahead, the blonde girl could probably immediately identify any Stranger her team ran into.
The Security adviser went on. “You will have one hour from the moment you pass through the portal to eliminate all six targets. The area that you are being dispatched to is a forest surrounding a lake in southern Colorado. There are a half dozen cabins spaced randomly around the lake, along with various other camping and outdoors related buildings. Civilians have already been evacuated from the area, and the territory surrounding the lake will be empty save for wild animals and the Strangers themselves. If at any point you wish to stop, request the Stranger identification, or for any other reason wish to speak with a faculty member, you may simply start talking. We will hear you, as we are monitoring.”
“What about him?” Columbus jerked a thumb toward Deveron. “Is he considered part of our team?”
“He may be a resource if you wish him to be,” Professor Kohaku answered simply. “To start, he will simply accompany you and observe. You will receive no penalty for requesting that he attempt to identify the targets for you, and no penalty for requesting his aid in combat. However, should you not ask for his information, you will gain a five percent bonus upon elimination of the targets. Do not request his physical aid, and you will gain another five percent bonus. As before, should you fail specifically due to a refusal to accept such aid or information, that will become five percent penalties instead. If you are capable of completing this hunt without aid, you will gain more points. But if you need the aid and fail to accept it, you will lose more points than if you had simply asked for help.”
There were no other questions (besides my own worry about whether my heart was going to literally pound its way out of my chest), so Professor Kohaku stepped around us and moved to the door. She pressed her fist against the black circle on the wall and held it there. After a couple of seconds, her hand sank into the black spot like it was tar. The woman allowed her arm to be taken all the way to the elbow before it stopped and held there. Then she explained, “This security system will identify me. If I am not allowed access to this room, it will not release my arm until building security can be dispatched to handle the situation. Most of the time, such an event is a result of either being in the wrong place, or a mix-up in the system, and nothing goes wrong. Occasionally, however, more strict action is required. In such cases, the system may inject my arm with a powerful sedative, remove it entirely, or extract blood to be deposited into a pre-built spell artifact which will allow me to be tracked if I escape this position. In certain cases, the extracted blood from these security devices may even be used as evidence at a trial. It is very difficult to properly claim that you were not the one who attempted to infiltrate the secure facility when your blood and its contained genetics is literally on display.”
The black circle turned white then, and the professor withdrew her arm before reaching out to open the door. “Proceed inside. You may think of the portal room as an airlock. Step in and wait for this door to close and lock itself. Mr. Adams will then initiate the second door. Over the following sixty seconds, the air pressure and temperature within the room will shift to match the area that you will be arriving in. Once it’s done, the second door will open and you may all proceed. When you arrive by the lake, your mission will begin and the timer will count down. After one hour, any remaining targets will be eliminated and your points will be tallied. Should you eliminate all six targets before the hour is up, you will be brought back here to wait for the rest of the teams to complete their missions.”
When no one else asked anything, the professor withdrew a box from her pocket that looked entirely too large for where it had come from. Popping it open, she held the box out, allowing us to see the handful of small dark blue pins inside. They were about the size of my thumbnail, each perfectly circular with a small white dot in the middle of a blue background. “Each of you take one pin and secure it somewhere to your clothing. It will allow you to communicate with your team. Say ‘team’ and they will all hear what you say. Speak specific members names before your message, and only those members will hear it. The system will not update who you are sending your message to if you speak a name in the middle of a message. If Sands is speaking to Flick and asks ‘where is Columbus’, the message will continue to be sent to Flick. If Sands wishes to add Columbus to their conversation, she must stop speaking for a moment, then say ‘Flick and Columbus’ separately before continuing her message. The pins will allow only their wearer to hear what is sent. Another person may be standing directly beside you, and they will not hear the given message unless they are wearing their own pin and were included as a recipient.”
She waited for each of us to take a pin, then gestured for us to head in with a simple, “Good luck.”
After taking in a long, nervous breath, I accompanied the rest of my team through the doorway and into what looked an awful lot like a doctor’s waiting room. There were a couple of couches and chairs, a table full of old magazines and a few paperback books, and soft classical music was playing in the background. Across the room, I could see the second door with its own black circle waiting.
“So the upshot here is that we have no idea what we’re facing yet,” Columbus spoke up while carefully attaching the pin to the underside of his rumpled uniform lapel. “But if we want to sacrifice points, we could just ask and start with the advantage of knowing what we’re walking into. Wouldn’t that be better than stumbling in blind, even if we do end up losing the chance at maximum points?”
“Not yet,” Avalon replied in a firm voice. “We see if we can identify them first, then go from there.”
Columbus blinked. “Really? I didn’t take you for someone that cares about how many points we get.”
“I don’t. Fuck the points,” she shot back. “The only way I could physically care less about the points is if they were being handed out by people whom I find so utterly pointless that I have erased all memory of their existence from my brain in order to spare myself from all the time I would have spent trying to understand why they were ever born to begin with.” She finished with, “So no, I don’t care about the points. But I do care about what the point of this exercise is, and that’s to prepare us. We try to identify these Strangers on the fly. If we can’t, I don’t give a shit if we need to ask for help. Full Heretics do that all the time. But only after we give it a shot and attempt to identify them ourselves.”
“As long as you princesses have that worked out,” Deveron put in while stepping to the other door. “I’ll just go ahead and…” He had raised his hand by that point and held it close to the black circle, but didn’t move further. For several long seconds, the boy just stood there doing nothing but staring at it.
“You’ll go ahead and… what?” Sands gestured for him to continue. “Stand there some more?”
It didn’t seem like he’d heard her at first. He gave no response beyond the slightest lift his chin. I saw his hand tremble just a bit, almost like he was afraid of what was going to happen when he touched that circle. But before I could say anything, Deveron gave a full-body shudder as if shaking it off before pushing his fist up against it. His tone was as uncaring as ever as he replied to Sands, “In a rush, babe?”
Before Sands could retort, her twin caught hold of her hand and tugged her away with a shake of her head. Apparently Scout had caught the brief look of fear before the boy could disguise it as well.
Over the next minute, no one said much. I don’t know about everyone else on the team, but I was too nervous to do much chatting. I had no idea how this was going to go, but I’d never so much as hunted deer before, let alone actual monsters who could actually hunt us back. Yeah, the real Heretics would be watching to make sure nothing went wrong, but there were always accidents. And who could say that things wouldn’t go wrong too quickly for the faculty to intervene? They were good, but I doubted they were perfect. This, as much as the danger was downplayed, was not something to take lightly.
Throughout the portal’s cycling time, the air had grown a bit more chilly. By the time the second door opened, I was glad that we were going to be moving around a lot. A lakeside cabin in October wasn’t exactly the warmest place in the world to take an evening stroll around, even with our uniform jackets.
I felt worse for Avalon and Scout, since they were both wearing the skirt version of the uniform. Neither complained though, and a minute later we had all passed through the open doorway and were standing on the edge of the lake that Professor Kohaku had mentioned. Behind us, the doorway we had just come through led into what looked like an outhouse, making my nose wrinkle.
“Your show now, ladies and less lady-like ladies.” Deveron informed us while stepping aside. He was still spinning that simple-looking pistol on one finger. “Give a shout when you need me to save you from yourselves.”
Avalon pointedly ignored him. Instead, she focused on the quiet twin. “Scout, can you get us a view from up high so we can see what the layout looks like?” For once, her voice was actually more gentle than I remembered her talking to anyone.
Scout nodded silently before hoisting her enormous sniper rifle into position. She held the gun to her shoulder and leaned back to aim up high over the lake, sighting in through the scope. Her left hand moved to flick a switch near the front of the weapon, and then moved to a dial a little further back, adjusting it by a few turns. Finally, she pulled the trigger.
I barely saw the puff of nearly-invisible energy leave the barrel, and I had been watching for it. In the distance, there was the slightest flicker of light in the air far above the middle of the lake that lasted for a split second. Then there was nothing to indicate that anything had happened.
I knew better by that point, however, and stepped back a few feet behind Scout along with the others. We watched for a second before the quiet girl pressed another switch on her weapon. The butt of the rifle began to glow faintly, and then a small screen was projected into the air behind it, like a hologram. The image showed a view of us from the point of view of that spot above the lake that had been shot, where that flicker of light had very briefly been.
Scout, who was seeing the same thing we were through her scope, slowly turned one of the weapon’s dials. The view gradually rotated, moving away from where we were to give a birds-eye view of the surrounding area. We could see every cabin, all the grounds surrounding the cabins, the few boats that had been left on the water or tied up at various small docks, all of it.
Essentially, one of several things that Scout’s rifle was able to do was create small portals in the air, exactly where it was targeted. Those portals could only be traveled through by the gun’s own projectiles. They could also only be seen through the weapon’s scope, or through the hologram the gun projected so that others besides the shooter could watch. For everyone else, the air looked as normal as ever beyond that initial slight flicker of light.
“Wait,” I spoke up quickly as the view continued to rotate. “Go back to that last cabin, the one on the opposite side of the lake.”
The other girl obliged, and the view was centered back on the building where I thought I’d seen a hint of movement through the curtains. Sure enough, something moved past again, just a hint of motion.
“Closer,” Avalon ordered. “We need to see what that is.”
Again, Scout did as she was instructed. Her fingers worked the controls of the rifle, and the view through the projected hologram moved a bit to show the area a few yards away from the window. I saw a small yellow dot appear as the girl touched the dial she had used earlier, and as she adjusted it, the dot moved on the screen without moving the scope view. She was sighting in exactly where she wanted the shot to go.
Then the quiet girl pulled the trigger once more. This time, the shot left the gun, traveled to the first spot in the air where she had created that small portal that was allowing us to see out over the lake, traveled through that portal, and ended up on the other side of the lake right where she had placed the yellow dot.
If she wanted to, Scout could lay on the roof of one building and aim through the window of another building across the street, creating a scope-portal inside the room there. Then she could aim through that first scope-portal, turn her view to face an open doorway within the room and shoot a second scope-portal into the attached corridor. From there, she could attach several more line-of-sight scope-portals until she reached a man in his office on a completely different floor. Once she had them all lined up, she could switch to lethal shots, aim through the various connected portals, and fire. As long as nothing happened to step into its path while it was traveling, her bullet would pass through each linked scope-portal before finally embedding itself in her target.
Yeah, the things that Heretics could do kind of scared me sometimes.
Through the second scope-portal, we were able to see the window a bit more clearly. This time, it was obvious that there were things inside. Hulking figures that moved back and forth, obviously agitated.
“That’s… definitely not humanoid,” Columbus put in, squinting as what looked like a wing smacked against the window. “A really big bird? But… I think there’s a tail…”
“Zoom in a little more.” Avalon instructed. Scout complied, and we all leaned closer, trying to make out what it was that we were seeing.
Abruptly, the figure that had been pushing its way back and forth leapt fully into view, lunging up against the glass of the window with such suddenness that Columbus, Sean, and I all yelped and flinched.
“What the fuck is that thing?” Columbus demanded. “It looks like a… dog with a bird head and really big wings.”
It was Sands who answered. “The Persians called them Chamrosh. You know how the Greeks had their Griffin with the whole half-eagle, half-lion thing? Think of these things as like… their little cousins. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Like part chihuahua, part cockatoo. Or a doberman with the head and wings of an owl. Whatever works.”
“They usually hunt in packs,” Avalon added. “So these are probably the five that were mentioned. The sixth thing… I’m not sure.”
“Well, let’s deal with these ones since we know where they are, then go from there,” Sean suggested. “One step at a time?”
“Right…” Avalon waited a moment, then straightened. “Mason, you stay here and cover your sister just in case. Let us know if anything happens.”
Sands looked like she wanted to object to being left behind, but forced it down and gave a reluctant nod.
“Meanwhile,” my raven-haired roommate continued, “the rest of us will circle around from both sides. Porter, you’re with me. Gerardo, stay with Chambers. One melee focus alongside one ranged focus. Once we’re close enough to cut off their escape or counter-attack, Scout will take the first good shot she gets. As soon as she does, we move in because they’ll come tearing out of there to look for what’s attacking them.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, and we broke apart. Sean snapped his fingers, grinning down at his metallic companion. “Hey, boy, you ready to go show these wannabes what a real monster dog can do?” Vulcan gave a proud woof, and Sean patted his head. “That’s what I thought. Let’s do it.”
He gestured to make sure I was ready, and then the two of us started to walk around the side of the lake. I moved alongside the boy, eyes moving constantly. Every shadow made me almost jump, and I couldn’t help but wonder what other thing was here besides these bird-dog monsters.
Whatever it was, I just hoped we would see it before it saw us.