Soon, we were all making our way into the Pathmaker building. The class consisted of about a third of the first year students, which amounted to six teams, or thirty-six of us. Apparently the remaining sixty-six would get their field trip the next time they had Heretical History. We were the first group.
We were met at the entrance by a couple adults I didn’t recognize, and that Wyatt guy that had been hired as one of the security guards. They were all wearing the same uniform, so I assumed the other two were his co-workers, though they also looked like they were only a year or two out of school, as opposed to Wyatt, whose age I still guessed to be around forty. Then again, it was still impossible to guess how old anyone in this place was, no matter how much my brain kept reflexively trying to.
Regardless of their ages, all of them wore serious faces to the point of looking downright dour. Apparently the last couple incidents had been bad enough that we were being sent with escorts.
I was walking alongside Sean, while Vulcan trotted on his other side. As we moved into the building (and I still thought that whole ‘it exists in multiple locations all at the same time’ thing was kind of crazy), I glanced sidelong toward the boy. “So how much do you know about this Hieronymus guy?”
He shook his head. “Not that much more than you do, really. Unless you’re a big Renaissance artist buff, in which case you probably know more than I do.” Cracking his neck to one side, he continued. “Pretty much all I know is that he created the Edge, he’s one of our Founders, and without him there’d be a hell of a lot less Heretics in the world today. Oh, and there’s that thing about the treasure.”
“Treasure?” It was Columbus’s turn to pipe up from behind us. “What treasure?”
That sparked a series of groans from several of the Heretic-born students, and Gavin, the tall, thin boy who was one of Sean’s fellow Security-track students, reached out to swat the Hispanic boy. “Damn it, dude, did you have to mention that old rumor? Now no one’s gonna shut up until they hear the story.”
Sean just waved a hand and chuckled. “Oh, they’d hear about it anyway, and you all know it. It’s Bosch’s Treasure, everyone fucking hears about it. Shit, I’m still surprised it isn’t a common bystander myth already. God knows they’ve already got enough myths that did start out as just ours.”
One of the boys I didn’t know, from a team I had barely paid attention to spoke up then. “Well, go on then. Tell them all about Bosch’s Treasure. I wanna see if anyone’s dumb enough to go looking for it.”
“Hey, hey!” The high pitched voice, almost like the yapping of one of those small, annoying dogs, interrupted just as Sean was opening his mouth. Wyatt, security badge gleaming on the front of his pristine white uniform (it sort of looked like one a formal officer’s uniform from the US Navy), came striding up. “What’s all the commotion? What’s all the yammering, huh? You planning some kind of prank, huh? You kids think it’s funny, you think we’re playing around now? I bet you got some prank planned, don’t you? Yeah, you’re planning something. You think you’re hiding it, but I can see right through ya. You think you’re so funny. Funny, huh? You think you’re funny, punk? Do ya?”
“Sir, no sir,” Sean replied with the air of a military cadet. “I am fairly confident that you’re providing the majority of the humor in this particular moment, and I wouldn’t dream of stealing your thunder, sir.”
“You think I’m kidding?” Wyatt demanded. “You know what happens to traitors out here? I think you-”
“Yo, Wyatt,” one of his fellow security guards, a younger guy who looked like he was about twenty-three or so with sandy blonde hair and an earnest expression, stepped up. “I think Professor Ross might need your help with the portal room door. You know how finicky those things have been lately.”
Distracted, the older guard went off to the front of the group to ‘help’ the teacher. As he left, his coworker turned an broad, easy smile toward us. It was a look that spoke of a childhood full of mischief. He had broad shoulders and the tanned face that made me think of long days on a farm. He reminded me of Captain America or something. That kind of earnest optimism.
“Sorry about that, folks,” he drawled easily, going so far as to tip an imaginary hat. “We do try to keep Wyatt entertained, and he’s a damn good security enchanter. But ahh, maybe not the best to have around actual people. Don’t take it personally, he’s pretty ornery with everybody. Hope everyone’s okay. He didn’t go assigning detention for looking at him funny or anything this time, did he?”
Everyone shook our heads, and the man’s smile broadened. “Great, great. Good to know. Well, if you look at him cross-eyed or whatever and you need to get something off your record, just find me. My name’s Rucker, Reid Rucker. I’ve been Professor Kohaku’s second in command of the Security division for about twenty years now. Usually those of you outside of the security track wouldn’t even see me except in passing unless something went awfully wrong. But well, given a few events this year… well, let’s just say we’re doing things a little bit different until everything calms down.”
“You mean until you find out who killed Professor Pericles,” Koren, blunt as always, spoke up.
Rucker nodded easily. “Ain’t no reason to be coy, I guess. Yeah, that’s one of the major issues we’re dealing with right now. But don’t worry, we’ll nail him. Or her. Everyone makes a mistake sometime.”
With that promise, Rucker smiled before stepping away to say something to his partner. As he left, I took a moment to wonder why Wyatt had only been hired this year, and what he’d been before. Seriously, he was one of the newest members of the school staff, and he had access to all the security details. Not being suspicious of him would be stupid, even if he did come off as a big paranoid goof.
It was worth looking into, especially since I needed to find a way into the security office anyway. But for now, I had to focus. As I turned away, Sean caught my gaze with a raised eyebrow. Before he could say anything, however, we were being ushered through the now-open door and into the portal room.
It was a bit crowded in the waiting room, and Professor Ross spoke up while shifting her way through the mass of students to reach the other side. “I know, I know it’s uncomfortable, guys. Just think of it as if you’re standing in a really big elevator. Sixty seconds, then we can go through to the other side.”
While we were waiting, I saw the twins. Sands had been pretty much as quiet as her sister. Her gaze was on the ground, and she was standing with her shoulders a bit hunched, obviously wanting to be left alone. When she felt my gaze on her, she looked up. I expected a bit of anger or wariness, but she just looked a bit lost and even a little confused. And tired. She definitely looked tired. We locked eyes for several long seconds before the other girl looked away once more, turning her gaze to her sister.
I wanted to sigh out loud. I didn’t blame her, not really. This was a lot to expect someone who had grown up with this stuff to just accept on the word of someone they met a few months ago. Actually, I was kind of surprised that Sean was taking it as well as he was. Sands’ reaction was understandable. I just hoped that when she was ready to start talking about it again, she would let me know.
Before much longer, the temperature in the room had dropped somewhat to match wherever we were going. There was a definite chill in the air even before the door opened, and once it did, I felt a cool breeze that made me shiver a little bit. Around me, I could see most of the others react similarly.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Professor Ross assured us while standing by the open door, having produced a small box from somewhere that she was holding in one hand. “Everyone just file through here and take one of these buttons on your way. Attach the button to your uniform, then press your thumb against the center circle and activate it the same way you’ve used those flash enchantments.”
One by one, we moved on through the doorway and to the other side. When it was my turn, I dipped my hand into the box and took out what appeared to be a simple blue button about two inches across. There was, as she had promised, a red circle in the middle of it, about the size of my thumb. I used the pin on the backside of it to attach the thing to my uniform jacket, then pressed my thumb against the circle while focusing on channeling power the same way we’d learned to do for those flash bangs.
By that time, I had stepped through the door, finding myself standing in the middle of a grassy field with some trees to my right. Ahead of me there was more of the admittedly very pretty grass field, and in the far distance I could see the skyline of a city with a few tall buildings, including what looked like a very impressive church. The city was clearly visible even from this distance.
Oh, and it was cold. Eesh. Just as my thumb was pressing against the button, I felt the chill wash over me. It wasn’t quite snow-cold, but it wasn’t much warmer than that. I’d put it at forty degrees or so.
The button activated a couple seconds after I pressed it, and the cold suddenly vanished. Once again, it felt like we were back at school under the weather-controlled magical shield. Clearly, these buttons were the portable, hand-held version of that. Useful. I wondered how hard they were to make.
Curiously, I turned to look at the door we had come through. Just like that day back in a very different field when my only other landmark had been an empty school bus, there was a doorway standing there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing. Through it, I could see more students coming and the interior of the room that I had just left. But when I peered around the other side, it was, again, empty.
Actually, come to think of it, I’d been wondering why Professor Dare’s portal had brought me out of those mirrors in the main school building rather than through the obviously more commonly used Pathmaker building. Was there a reason behind that? If I asked her, would she tell me the truth?
“Welcome,” Professor Ross intoned as soon as we were all through and most of the shivers had stopped as students activated their provided buttons. “If you all look a little bit that way, you’ll see the lovely city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, or as the locals usually call it, Den Bosch, including St. John’s Cathedral. Crossroads maintains several safehouses in the city, and the Cathedral is one of them. If you are ever in the area and need help, go there and use the phrase, ‘Peasant Bruegel lost his H for Pieter.’ Try to remember that. Peasant Bruegel lost his H for Pieter. You will probably learn a lot of these phrases, and remembering as many of them as possible will end up helping you eventually.”
The older-looking woman sighed a bit wistfully. “Actually, this place is very beautiful, and is… essentially our holy place, for all intents and purposes. The city is wonderful, and I strongly suggest that all of you take the time to come here at some point on your own. Walk around the city, try to experience it as our forefather must have, though it has moved on far beyond his time. See the statue of Bosch. Climb the many, many steps in the cathedral to look out over the city from its highest point. Believe me, such a trip is well worth it, and getting away from all the… insanity is good for you.”
Turning away from the city skyline then, she twitched a finger. “Come. The city of Hieronymus Bosch’s birth will be there for you when you wish to visit. For now, we have something else to see.”
We all started walking again, and the three security guards spread out. Wyatt and Rucker moved to flank the group on either side, while the third guard (an Indian man whose dour look had not disappeared once we started on the trip like Rucker’s had) took up a position at the rear.
As we walked through the beautiful green countryside, I was about to ask Sean to finish what he’d been saying earlier when Malcolm spoke up. “So what country are we in anyway, Holland?”
It was actually Koren of all people who corrected him. “Holland isn’t a country, dude.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Malcolm demanded. “You got your wires crossed, babe. Of course Holland’s a country. You know, the land of windmills and dikes and stuff.”
“She’s right,” Vanessa piped up then. “Holland isn’t a country, it’s a region. It’s part of the Netherlands.”
“It’s like California,” Koren explained. “It’s not a country, it’s part of a country. They just tend to use the name interchangeably because Holland is where almost everything anyone who goes to the Netherlands wants to see is. Like Amsterdam. Holland is the famous area, so some people use the term Netherlands and Holland interchangeably. But it’s kind of insulting to the people that live there. Like, you know how you’re from Iowa? How would you feel if someone came there and called it New York?”
Blinking at that, I leaned closer to Sean and whispered under my breath, “Did Koren just explain why something was insulting to someone else without any prompting or cue cards or anything?”
“I know,” Sean replied in a dull, stunned voice. “Now I’m really scared.”
“Right,” Malcolm shrugged. “Holland, Netherlands, whatever. Point is, are we there? Better question, exactly how far away from Amsterdam are we? You know, just in case we get some free time.”
It was Vanessa’s turn to answer. “We’re outside ‘s-Hertogenbosch, so Amsterdam is about ninety kilometers….” She turned in a slow circle before pointing. “That way. North.”
“Okay, now you’re just making stuff up.” That was one of the other students, a girl I didn’t recognize. “How could you possibly know which way is north from here already without doing anything?”
Vanessa just blinked at her once before answering. “Because you can see the cathedral from here. It’s on the south side of the city, which means we’re south of the city. Which means north is that way.”
By that point, we had apparently reached the area that Professor Ross wanted to show us, because she stopped walking and gestured for us to come closer and circle around. “This,” she spoke in a hushed voice. “Is the spot where Hieronymus Bosch encountered the creature whose death led to the creation of the Crossroads Heretics.”
I looked. In the middle of this small grove, there was a single white tree. On that single tree, a rope had been tied. The rope was in the shape of a noose. It hung there rather ominously.
“The creature,” Professor Ross continued, “a hangman demon of sorts, attempted to kill Bosch using the very same noose that you see before you. Fortunately, Bosch managed, through sheer luck, to kill his attacker. When Hieronymus put his knife in the monster’s neck, its blood sprayed him in the face. Blood which happened to be one of very few things which is capable of eliminating the memory fog ability that all Strangers possess. Thus, Bosch was literally baptized in blood to his new calling. Later, he took that creature’s blood and mixed it into his paints. Every painting of Hieronymus Bosch that exists today possesses a bit of this hangman demon’s blood.
“Before long, Bosch found that he could see all manner of creatures, and remember their existence in ways that others could not. Eventually he met another man, an early Heretic, who told him of what now was, and that there were very, very few of them. This man, whose name has been lost through our stories, taught Hieronymus how to use his new abilities, how to kill to protect himself and others.”
“So what’s the light in the lighthouse, then?” Travis Colby demanded. “Cuz I don’t remember getting any blood on me or anything. Just that blinding light.”
Professor Ross smiled. “Yes, Hieronymus was a brilliant man even before his encounter and awakening. Afterward, he realized that even this genius was not enough. Indeed, for what he had planned, he needed to be even more intelligent. So he sought out and killed not just the warrior Strangers, the ones who did the most damage and looked most ferocious, but the cunning ones. Any Stranger whose abilities might grant him greater intelligence or understanding was a target. Hieronymus hunted them down to give humanity an opportunity. You see, his mentor had taught him that only a few humans could become Heretics at a time. But Hieronymus felt that, for humanity to have a chance of survival, there must be a way to create more, many more.
“Eventually, he learned that the answer to his question was within the very same blood that he had been putting into his paintings. The blood granted him knowledge, because this creature, this hangman demon was of a race which shared their memories through blood. From father to son, they bleed on one another in order to teach, spreading their memories through their people. This is what erased the Stranger memory effect. More than that, it’s also what allowed Hieronymus to gain the powers of other Strangers. The power of the blood overwrote his own genetics, allowing his body to ‘learn’ some of the powers wielded by each of the inhuman enemies that he subsequently killed.”
Several hands went up, but the woman went on, anticipating our questions. “Through his acquired genius, Bosch was able to create a device which he then plugged the head of the long-deceased hangman demon into. That device does the same thing as the creature’s blood. It takes the power of the creature’s memories and broadcasts them in the form of light. All who see that light are granted the same gift, which manifests itself as a memory experienced by one of their ancestors who has had an encounter with a Stranger.”
“You mean the thing in the lighthouse that gives off that light is… a monster’s head?” one of the other girls demanded, looking a bit ill.
“What about Eden’s Garden?” That particular question came from Sands. “How do they make new Heretics if they don’t have the skull light?”
Professor Ross started to answer, before realizing that Sands wasn’t talking to her. Her attention was directed toward Avalon. The other girl’s connection to the Garden had become fairly common knowledge, considering she wasn’t doing much to hide it. Still, I could feel the tension in the air as soon as it was brought up.
My roommate paused, turning her head fractionally toward the teacher for a moment before answering. “The founders of the Garden…” she stopped as though considering her words. “… took the paintings that Bosch left in Crossroads which used to tell this story. They extracted the blood from the paint and used it to seed a tree in the middle of what became the Garden. From that point on, the fruit borne by that tree gained the same ability as the skull light created by Bosch.”
“You mean they stole the paintings that our founder left as part of our heritage and desecrated them to make their own offshoot branch,” Zeke, the boy who had been so annoyed at me for bringing Herbie along during the first hunt, spoke up in a nasty voice.
“No wonder they’ve always hated each other,” Columbus murmured quietly from nearby.
I thought there might be an argument for a second, but Avalon just shrugged one shoulder and looked away as though it wasn’t worth debating.
“Come then,” Professor Ross spoke briskly, interrupting the mood that had begun to settle over the group. “We have much to see and too little time to see it in. Next, we’ll visit the area where Hieronymus and his mentor trained and lived while he was still learning the truth of what he had become.”
I started to follow along with the others, but something, a sensation that I couldn’t explain, made me stop and turn around to look at that tree again. My eyes found the rope that hung there, centering on the noose. How long had it been there? How was it still in one piece, and why had no one moved it?
“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m… not sure,” I admitted even as a little shiver ran through me. “That rope, there’s something about it. It’s… I can’t explain it. Maybe nothing.”
Before the other girl could retort to that, the Indian security guard interrupted. “Is there a problem here, girls?” His voice was severe, though his eyes had softened somewhat.
We both shook our heads and moved to follow the group. Still, as we walked, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder toward that dangling noose. The uneasy feeling that it had given me wouldn’t go away.
Somehow, I knew two things. First, there was something wrong with the story that we’d been told. Something off about it.
And second, the answer to what that something wrong happened to be was connected to that rope.