“Come on, Chambers, move it, move it!” Professor Katarin bellowed at the top of his lungs (I hoped), his voice echoing over the grounds from the top of the hill near the main building. “Don’t tell me you’re tired, cuz we all know that’s a damn lie! Pick up the pace, let’s go! Moon, you too, keep running!”
It was Thursday morning, and today’s Introduction to Combat class had started out with a brisk jog around the school grounds, just to warm everyone up. From there, Katarin had led us to the bottom of the hill, pointed to the top, and told us that we were going to be running wind sprints. Only in this case, it would be up the hill and back down again, over and over until he thought we’d had enough.
Knowing Katarin as we did by that point, most of us figured that things wouldn’t be nearly that simple, so even as we started out, there were a lot of cautious glances. The man had a reputation for starting what seemed like a relatively mundane exercise, and then transforming it partway through into something that could only be described as completely insane. He called it keeping things interesting.
Still, it was good exercise, and the man was great at his job. Maybe just a little enthusiastic in his creativity. He was definitely making every effort to both get us in shape and teach us how to fight.
Columbus was a little behind me, panting as we made our fifth trip up the hill. I was deliberately slowing myself down so that he could keep up, and apparently Professor Katarin had noticed.
“So… damn…. jealous.” Columbus complained just as we reached the top and leaned over to touch the red tape that Katarin had laid down across the width of our running area. Somehow, the tape registered whose fingers touched it and how many times. That way, Katarin could make absolutely sure he knew exactly how many repetitions each person had done, and call them over when they’d done enough. Plus it stopped anyone from being able to cheat while the man’s attention was on a different part of the hill.
“Hey,” I called back pivoting around. “Just be glad you guys got the upgrade from those chamrosh. Imagine how tired you’d be if you didn’t have that.” While the bird-dog things hadn’t given my teammates quite as much of a stamina gift as I’d gotten from the amarok, they still seemed to help a lot.
“Well then!” Katarin called out from what sounded like an inch from my ear, as loud as he was. “If you people are feeling bored enough to chatter, I guess it’s time to make this a little more interesting!”
His words were met by groans combined with a few scowls in our direction. Whoops. Not that I felt too bad. Katarin would have upped the ante on the exercise any minute any way. It was what he did.
“All right, people,” the man went on, the smirk obvious in his tone. “You showed me you can hustle. Now let’s see you keep that hustle and pay attention to your surroundings. Sinclaire, your left!”
An instant after he spoke, something popped up out of the ground near Avalon. It looked almost like a tetherball pole, about seven feet tall. One second it wasn’t there, and in the next second, fwoosh, it shot up into place. A second after that, two horizontal wooden sticks about four feet long popped out of opposite sides of the post. One was around five feet and the other around one foot. As soon as they appeared, the post spun around several times in a row, the wooden sticks making whistling noises.
Avalon reacted by doing this little side flip that brought her over the lower stick, while keeping herself low enough that the higher stick didn’t smack her in the face as it whipped around into position. The flip put her just barely out of its range before she turned to watch the spinning thing with the rest of us.
“My little friends here are stationed all over this hill,” Katarin announced. “You will keep running. When they pop out, they will give you a second to react and then they will spin. When you get hit, and you will get hit, you will keep moving. Do you understand? We are not keeping score, we are not even counting the hits, not this time. What I am counting is how many of you give up because you get a little hurt. Remember, the peridles will heal anything these little sticks can do, so keep running.”
As a group, we all looked at one another just long enough for Katarin to bellow, “Let’s go, move it!”
So we did. The uphill wind sprints continued, this time with the added fun of being randomly attacked by spinning sticks popping up out of the ground without warning. We dodged where we could, some more effective than others, but everyone was hit eventually. The sticks stung, but as Katarin had said, the healing from the peridles made sure it didn’t last that long. It was bad enough to want to avoid being hit by them, but not so bad that it would actually do real, lasting damage.
Just another gym class on an island full of monster hunters-in-training.
A few hours later, once classes had ended for the day, the whole team was sitting out on the grass, near to the beach but still within range of the temperature shield. I could see tropical birds flying overhead, and heard vague hints of the heavily muted jungle sounds coming from the nearby trees. Herbie sat on the grass beside me, his little plastic toy sword replaced with the metal one that Columbus had made. The little guy was keeping a wary eye out, and I was sure he’d let us know if anyone approached.
In the distance, we could see Shiori’s team being put through some kind of training drill by Andrew. At the moment, Aylen was dueling Stephen. The Native American girl was fighting hand to hand while Stephen had his spear, though we’d watched Andrew work some kind of spell over the end of it to dull the blade before they’d started. Almost like he was an actually competent mentor. I’m sure it was a real treat.
Sovereign, Aylen’s mechanical hawk, was circling over head, but thus far hadn’t actually contributed other than to make loud screeing noises now and again as if he was giving advice.
As we watched, Stephen whipped his spear around. Aylen stepped in close, ducked the spear, and popped him in the face with a quick jab that barely connected. She tried to follow it up with a more solid hit, but Stephen’s spear suddenly whipped through the same space it had already passed through, knocking the girl down. She hit the grass and rolled back to her feet.
Wait. No, Stephen was still holding his spear outstretched. The one that had swung through the air disappeared a second after it had finished the swing. What?
As if in answer to my silent question, the boy took a step back, swinging his spear in a complicated maneuver while Aylen danced in and out, looking for an opening. The spear spun up and then around, twirling in a brief protective move before he stopped, pulling the spear back to his chest.
A moment later, a different spear appeared out of nowhere, copying that same maneuver. Before it had finished, another one appeared, and so on. Apparently Stephen’s spear was able to duplicate itself performing its own maneuvers. He swung it once, recorded the move, and then his spear could manifest new versions of itself swinging in that same spot over and over again. Which meant that while you were fighting him, you didn’t just have to watch for where his spear was currently swinging. You had to watch everywhere it had already been.
Aylen was still moving, watching for an opening while Sovereign flew overhead, calling down his own guidance. Yet no matter where the girl stepped, Stephen’s spear was there. He added a protective swipe here and there to cut her off, which kept repeating themselves whenever she tried to get close.
Finally, Aylen gave a sharp whistle. Sovereign came swooping down, talons extended. Yet instead of attacking Stephen the way I figured he would, the hawk seemed to practically plow directly into his owner’s back. Aylen was knocked forward a step as the mechanical bird attached himself to her. His wings folded in under her arms to cross in front of her chest, while his body was flat against her back with his beak upright pointed to the sky directly behind her head.
For a second, it looked like the girl was wearing a special backpack or something. Then the hawk reshaped itself. Metal plates slid out of its body and wings, more than I thought could actually fit inside the animal. They continued to slide and rotate, locking themselves into position until most of the actual bird shape was gone, and Aylen herself was completely covered in a metal suit that hugged her figure. Only her face was left exposed. And a second later, the birds head slid up over the top of hers while more metal plates slid down from the beak, forming a protective helmet over every spot except her eyes. Finally, the birds own eyes lowered into place over Aylen’s before they widened to form lenses for the helmet.
Stephen tried to use his spear, but he’d hesitated too long. The blow glanced off the metal armor, and Aylen was able to push right through the duplicated spears that kept trying to knock her back, easily catching Stephen by the arm before taking him to the ground.
“Dude,” I nudged Columbus with my foot. “I think you just found your Colossus.”
“I can totally live with that,” the boy replied, still staring in awe for a few more seconds before forcing himself to look back toward the rest of us. “Anyway, uhh, right. Let’s go through it one thing at a time. What’s everything we already know we need to do? I mean, besides dealing with a psychopathic necromancer with a Flick obsession.”
“We need to find out if Sands’ and Scout’s father has my mother’s weapons stored away,” I pointed out with a glance toward the twins. I still wasn’t sure how they felt about sneaking behind their dad’s back.
“We’ll take care of it,” Sands replied with an unhappy sigh. “If they’re anywhere in our place, we’ll find them. But I still don’t think he’d have them. Why wouldn’t he just turn them over after he got them?”
I nodded. “He might’ve. But we need to be sure. And even if he did, he went out of his way to get them back. So he might have some other record or something. Maybe a picture with my mother, maybe a note, maybe… anything. So you’ll have to be thorough. Can you do it without letting him know?”
This time, Sands snorted. A slight smile played at her mouth in spite of her obvious uncertainty about the general situation. “You clearly don’t know us well enough, Flick. I may not totally agree with all of this, but if there’s one thing Scout and I know how to do, it’s sneaking around without Dad finding out about it. Let’s just say we spent our childhood figuring out how to get even with all the people who thought they were so much better than us because they were students and we weren’t allowed to be yet. You know, glue here, dye in the shower there. Silly stuff. But we did learn how to get around most of the alarm spells and other things that they stick up around here. Especially the ones that Dad makes.”
Sean spoke up then while rolling a metal ball around in his hand as Vulcan watched intently. “You said you wanted to talk to Deveron’s roommate, didn’t you? “ He reared back and threw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it. “Did you ever get around to that? Anything come out of it?”
It was Avalon’s turn to look just a little bit embarrassed, shifting her weight slightly. “Ah, no. Not really. Turns out you’re gonna have to be the one to talk to him if we want any information.”
Vulcan came running back with the metal ball in his mouth. He dropped it into Sean’s hand, and the boy reared back before throwing it again as he replied with a raised eyebrow. “Me? Why me?”
Avalon gave him a look. “Let’s just say I managed to get him alone, but my method of persuasion was ineffective. Judging from his reaction, I’m pretty sure that you’d have more luck.”
Scout got it first, hiding a giggle behind her hand just before Sean barked out a single laugh. “You think—oh, right.” Without a hint of shame, the boy heaved a put-upon sigh. “Well, if I must, I guess I’ll gussy myself up and see what I can find out. Honestly, you people only keep me around for my body.”
“That’s not true,” I argued. “You’re the one that brings Vulcan. We’ve gotta keep you to have him.” At the sound of his name, Vulcan came over with the metal ball in his mouth, sniffing at me a little eagerly. With a smile, I accepted the ball from him and gave it a toss. The mechanical dog gave a loud bark of excitement, leaned up to lick my face with a cold metallic tongue before bounding off again.
“Uh, should I even ask why his tongue’s actually wet?” I asked while rubbing a palm over my face. “Or what it’s wet with?” I looked at my hand briefly before drying it off on the grass.
“Guess they want him to be realistic,” Sean replied with an easy shrug. “You know, except for that whole folding up into a minigun thing. Pretty sure there’s not a lot of dogs that do that.”
Avalon was shaking her head. “Fine, you’ve got the lazy asshole’s roommate. Let us know what you can get out of him. But there’s also that whole security room thing.” Her eyes moved to me then.
I groaned, nodding as I resisted the urge to fall onto my back. “Like I said, that’s not gonna be easy. I’ve walked past there a few times already and someone’s always in there. Plus, you know, there’s all those alarms on the place. If anyone goes in there that they don’t know about, I don’t think we’d be able to take two steps before half the faculty came down on our heads. For some silly reason they actually take security seriously around here. Which I’m sure is a good thing, but it’s kind of annoying right now.”
Scout leaned over to whisper in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “If you go out at night, the security guys go on patrol once every two hours. Should give you at least fifteen minutes in the room without company. And uh, we could teach you how to disable the alarm spells so you don’t attract attention, but you’d have to know where they were for that to do any good. See, Scout and I used to spend weeks tracking down the exact spots where the alarm enchantments were cast so we could disable them. You’ll have minutes, not weeks. And I don’t know any way to find them any quicker.”
“Actually, uhh, I might be able to help with that.” It was Columbus’s turn to speak up as he raised a hand. “I was messing with my goggle settings in the lab on Monday night during track class, and I sort of found a setting that highlights magic stuff. It uhh, took me awhile to figure out what it was, but yeah, it makes all these glowing line things where magic is. It’s kind of cool. I should be able to point the alarm lines out to you pretty quick. You know, assuming we actually get there without getting caught.”
“Maybe we should go too,” Sands pointed out. “Instead of just teaching you how to do it. Scout and me, we know how to take the alarm spells down quick, once we know where they are.”
I hesitated, but nodded in the end. “Okay, if you’re sure. You don’t have to. This thing is sort of my big issue. You guys sure you wanna take the risk of getting caught sneaking into the security room?”
Sands shook her head. “Hey, you’re our teammate. And our friend. Plus, Deveron’s a jerk and I wanna know why. Like I said, we’ve been waiting a long time for this. Getting a pathetic, lazy mentor wasn’t part of the plan. I want someone that’ll actually help us, damn it. So figuring out what the hell’s wrong with him and why he keeps acting that way now? That’s definitely something we want to be part of.”
“Did you know him last year?” I suddenly asked, tilting my head. “Back when they said he was this amazing student. Top of his class, all that stuff. Did you guys see him around? Was he… that different?”
The twins exchanged glances before nodding emphatically. Sands scowled. “You have no idea, dude. Seriously. That guy was the top of practically everything. He was amazing. I Thought… you know, when I found out he was gonna be our mentor, I was kind of happy. Hell, that’s why Scout and I went out to the lighthouse that first day, cuz we wanted to see what he was doing.” Her scowl darkened a little further. “Turns out his Hyde stuffed his Jekyll in a closet over the summer and we ended up standing around with you guys while that lazy jerk took off. Would you believe I actually thought he was trying to teach something?”
Wincing, I cleared my throat. “Okay, so, the four of us? I hope we can get in and out before they get back. Especially since we’ve gotta read everything we find in the room. Can’t take anything out of there or that damn spell will just make sure we can’t read what’s on them anymore, so they’ll be useless.”
It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “Sean and I will make sure you have enough time.” When the boy looked at her, she gave him a humorless smile. “Assuming you’re not afraid of being a distraction, of course. If being chased by security scares you too much, I’ll just do it all by myself.”
“Me?” Sean gave an exaggerated gasp of offense. “Afraid? Why, I never.” Lifting his chin, the boy added, “You sure your mom won’t be upset if you end up in detention for being out after hours?”
He was kidding, but I saw the way Avalon flinched a little bit before resuming her stoic expression. “She’ll be okay. I’ll tell her the truth as soon as we can, and well, we’ll talk it out. Right now, what’s important is getting into that room and finding out what’s on those records as soon as we can.”
“Scout and I can show you some places you can hide if you need to,” Sands put in. “We used them to hide from security whenever we wanted to go where we weren’t supposed to. Or, you know, whenever someone we were pranking happened to come back early and get all upset or whatever. They’re these, uhh, hidden room things. I dunno what they’re for, but they’re really useful when you’re being chased.”
“Hidden rooms that even security doesn’t know about?” I asked with a blink. “Is that possible? Wait, how did you guys find them then?”
The twins shrugged, and Sands replied, “All I know is they never found us when we hid in there. As to how we found them, well, when you’re bored and wandering around this place for years, you tend to touch a lot of things. You find stuff you’re not supposed to. Stuff other people don’t know about. Like those hidden rooms.”
“Either way, it’s convenient for us,” Avalon announced, which I was pretty sure was her way of congratulating the twins for being incredibly useful. “The question is, when do we do it?”
Aww, she was totally softening up! It hadn’t been that long since she would have just flat out told us when we should be there and what we were going to do.
“Tomorrow night?” I offered, looking around the team. “It’ll be Friday, so we can stay out late without sleeping through classes.”
“Tomorrow works for me,” Sean agreed. The rest of the group nodded, and I let out a long breath. Tomorrow night. Whatever was in that security room, whatever answers were recorded there, we would find them tomorrow night.
Hold on, Mom, I thought to myself. We’ll find answers.
And then we’ll find you.