“Are you ready for this, Miss Chambers? Are you prepared for possibly the most grueling, dangerous, most gefährlichste situation you have ever encountered in your very short yet somehow interesting life?”
I blinked once at Wyatt as the man not-so-impressively attempted to loom over me. He really needed a stepladder or something if he was going to do much in the way of looming. Still, I had the grace to pretend to swallow a little so he still felt like he was accomplishing something. “Uh, gefährlichste, sir?”
It was Sunday morning, and the two of us were standing in the cafeteria. There were still some scattered people eating even at eight o’clock, since Sunday was far more laid back in schedule than an actual weekday would have been. But the tables surrounding us were empty save for my pack and the one that Wyatt had brought with him. Koren was off having one last talk with her team before she’d join us, and I had absolutely no idea where Deveron was. Probably still sleeping or something.
“Yes, well,” Wyatt replied dismissively. “It’s German. There aren’t nearly enough words to adequately describe all the danger that exists in this world, so I’ve begun borrowing from other languages.” His hand snapped up sharply and suddenly, his finger ending about a centimeter from my nose. “But don’t change the subject. Do you truly believe that you are adequately prepared to go on this jungle hike?”
“Well,” I edged a step back so I could nod without taking his finger up my nose. “I think so. I got help from Avalon and the headmistress about what I needed to take in my pack. And you’re gonna be there, Mr—err… Guard… um, what’s the right title for you guys? Guard Rendell? Mister? I mean, I could just go with Wyatt and you could call me Flick instead of Miss Chambers. You know, if you want.”
He was squinting at me like I’d just casually asked him what the secret code to sink this entire island into the sea might be. “You want me to call you by your first name, hmm? You want to be on a first name basis, like we’re friends? Like we’re super buddy pals? You want to be fine old chums?”
“Um,” I coughed before managing what I hoped was a somewhat friendly smile. “I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to be chums if you’re a character in one of those old hardcover Hardy Boys books.”
“I love those books!” Wyatt blurted abruptly, leaning even closer so that our noses were almost touching. “How did you know I love the Hardy Boys? Who told you? Did you go through my room? Did you find my book shelf? Did you check my library history? How’d you know which library I use?”
Before I had to figure out a way to respond to that, Deveron’s voice spoke up from behind both of us, his words a casual drawl. “I’m sure Flick’s just an avid bookworm there, Wyatt. After all,” he added once both of us turned to look in his direction, “does she really look like she gets a lot of sun?”
My face screwed up to snap at him, but before I could start, Wyatt beat me to the punch. “Adams!” he barked. “You’re late. That Fellows girl had an excuse, you don’t! Drop and give me twenty push-ups.”
Deveron blinked at that, head tilting a little before he coughed. “Fellows… I didn’t know that she was–”
“I didn’t ask that, Adams,” Wyatt pointed out. “If I wanted to know what you didn’t know, I’d ask how to be a decent team mentor.” With that bomb, he pointed to the floor. “Now twenty push-ups. And you,” he pivoted toward me. “You can do the same while we wait for Fellows. They’re good for you!”
So that was how both Deveron and I ended up doing push-ups in the middle of the cafeteria floor while Wyatt watched, along with an audience of a couple dozen scattered students from their breakfast trays. It wasn’t as bad as it had been when I first got to this place and barely knew what a push-up was, let alone how to do a proper one. The past few months had really caught me up on all that exercise.
We were just finishing up by the time Koren came into the room. She glanced toward Deveron and I with a raised eyebrow before looking to Wyatt. “Is that part of the preparation ritual or something?”
Shaking his head, Wyatt held a hand out. “I’ve already gone over their packs, let’s see how you did.”
The other girl shrugged before slipping the heavy pack off her shoulders. She swung it around in front of herself before holding it out for the man to take. He did so, setting it on the table before going through the thing methodically. I had to say this much for Wyatt. He may be paranoid and jumpy, but he was very serious about this jungle hike. And he was clearly making sure we were properly prepared.
“Good,” he announced after a few seconds of digging through the pack and murmuring to himself. “You’re prepared for a night or two out in the jungle, supply-wise at least. Now, you shouldn’t be in the jungle that long, but always go prepared for the worst situation. If we make it back this evening like we’re supposed to, then you’ll just have carried around camping supplies for no reason. But if we get caught out there and have to bed down, you’ll be glad we have the supplies to do so safely. Got it?”
Koren and I both bobbed our heads. I stole a glance at the other girl, and saw that she was staring at the man even more than I had been. She looked… well, kind of sad, actually. There was definite emotion in her eyes before she noticed me looking and quickly glanced away. When she turned back, it was gone.
Deveron gave his own agreement, also looking distracted for some reason. Once he was satisfied that we were taking this seriously, Wyatt pivoted once more while gesturing to where our packs sat on the table. “Load up,” he instructed before starting to walk. “And we’ll begin our journey into the wild!”
Hefting the pack onto my shoulders and adjusting it, I turned to help Koren make sure hers was strapped and set properly while she did the same with me. The two of us didn’t say anything, though we did meet eyes silently for a moment before returning to our work. Once everything was set, we both looked toward Deveron. The older boy already had his own pack on and adjusted. When we looked that way, he gave an easy smile before gesturing for us to move. “Go on, girls. I’m right behind you. This is your first hike, after all. You don’t want to miss out on all that jungle adventure out there, do you?”
We looked at one another again, and Koren spoke in a dull, flat monotone. “Whoo. Jungle adventure.”
Then we began to follow after Wyatt, who was waiting at the door. Together, the four of us marched (literally in Wyatt’s case) out of the building and down toward the jungle on the far end of the grounds.
As we neared the treeline, Wyatt turned back to us. “There’s a path. You will stay on it, and you will stay with me. Do you understand? The only reason to go off the path is if I go off it. Do not wander off to chase an interesting bird or monkey. This is not some nature hike in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and Piglet. It’s a very dangerous jungle. The Heretics do our best to limit that danger to students, but there are still very bad things out there. So stay close and stay alert. Mess around just once and the whole thing is off. We’ll come right back here and you can spend a few hours in detention. Okay?”
Again, the three of us agreed. Wyatt watched us carefully for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. “Right, first thing then. Take these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like three small stones. He held them all close to his mouth and whispered something before holding them out.
I took one, glancing at it uncertainly. The stone fit in the palm of my hand, and felt warm. “What is it?”
“Put them in your pockets,” he instructed. “They’ll protect you from insects. Each one should last about twelve hours. It drives the bugs away from you much more effectively than any insect repellent.”
“But you told us to bring insect repellent,” Koren pointed out while putting her stone in her pocket.
“Yes!” Wyatt agreed enthusiastically, his grin broad. “Because you have to be prepared for anything! What if the magic fails, hmm? What if a bug out there has evolved past my ability to repel it with enchantments? Then you’ll be glad you have the secondary layer of defense, the regular bug spray! Never be so dependent upon magical solutions that you fail to think for yourselves, girls. Always have a plan, and always have a back-up plan for that plan. Never rely on a single solution to any problem.”
Nodding firmly to his own words, the man reached into his pocket again, this time producing three small sticks. “Speaking of which, put these in your pockets as well. If we get separated for any reason, break your stick. It’ll send out a tracking beacon to me, the security office, and the headmistress.”
I pushed that one deep in my pocket while Wyatt turned to step into the jungle. “Adams,” he announced, “you’ve been on these hikes before, and I’ve heard you used to be a decent student. You bring up the rear and let us know if you see or hear anything. Girls, you two park yourselves right behind me and in front of Adams and don’t leave that general position. Oh, and enjoy the jungle.”
And with that, we began to hike. This time, I was more prepared for the wet, hot conditions. It still felt like walking straight through the mist from a waterfall, but at least I was expecting it that time. And I was dressed for our hike, in clothes that would breathe while still protecting my skin. Thanks to Avalon’s help, I’d also made sure to wear a decent pair of boots with decent venting to let the moisture out. I wasn’t sure where these had come from or how Avalon just happened to have a pair in my size, but she’d thrust them at me as soon as I woke up that morning. I thanked her, and she just told me to make sure I wore them, threatening to make me sleep in the hallway if I got sick from soaked feet.
As we hiked along the jungle trail with Wyatt leading the way, I let myself look around. The place was… god, it was gorgeous in a way that I couldn’t even begin to describe. Yes, the animals were still just as noisy as ever, but they were the chorus behind the jaw-dropping vista that spread out before me everywhere I turned. Looking to my left revealed a sea of green, of a running stream full of tropical fish whose colors almost matched those of the eclectic birds that flew overhead. Looking to my right revealed an absolutely incredible waterfall ahead, partially hidden by even more unbelievable trees.
We had been moving for a couple hours when Wyatt called for a stop in the middle of a clearing. I moved up next to him, glancing that way while trying to figure out if there was any way to bring up our relation without letting Deveron overhear. Actually, I was really considering just flat out confronting Deveron over what he knew or didn’t know. The guy had been acting like a jerk all year, but he had also been close to my mom. If he’d, I don’t know, found out about what they did to her last year somehow, maybe that was why he was behaving like such a dick this semester? I had to believe that someone close to my mother had some redeeming qualities, and everything I’d heard about him the year before seemed to bear that out. People said he earned his spot as a mentor. So maybe I should just talk to him.
On the other hand, there was still the chance that he could be possessed by one of those Seosten things. Which would make opening up to him a really, really bad idea. I had no idea which was more likely in this case. Sure, Avalon still thought the Seosten would be better at blending in, but there was still a chance he wasn’t in control of himself anymore. And if he wasn’t, I really didn’t want to confide in him.
I’d make up my mind later, toward the end of the hike. But one way or another, Koren and I were going to talk to Wyatt, even if we had to make up some excuse to get Deveron to go away for a little while.
Koren joined us, and Wyatt spoke quietly. “Look,” He nodded his head fractionally in the distance.
At first I didn’t see what he was pointing out. My gaze moved over the grass, bushes, and leaves before finally rising a little bit. Then I saw it. At the very edge of my vision and about eight feet off the ground, prowling its way along a thick branch, there was a tan and black spotted jaguar. The thing was in full stalking mode, and when I turned my head to follow its line of sight, I saw the head of a deer sticking just above the tall bush there. The deer’s ears flicked that way briefly, and the jaguar froze. But after a couple seconds, the deer returned its attention to eating, and the big cat prowled even closer.
We stood there, watching while the jaguar got near its prey. Part of me, the little girl who had loved the movie Bambi so much as a child, wanted to shout a warning. But I didn’t. Because the truth was, that cat deserved to eat every bit as much as the deer did. The jaguar wasn’t evil just because it happened to eat meat. It was just trying to survive. It was doing what it had to do in order to keep going.
And maybe I didn’t say anything because, after the past few months, I was more like that jaguar than the deer. I had killed to protect myself and to protect my friends. I would kill even more in the future, especially to save my mother. I wasn’t an innocent, helpless little girl anymore. I wasn’t a full Heretic either, that much was for sure. I still had a lot to learn. But I was getting there. And, from what I’d seen, maybe I didn’t want to be a full-blown Heretic. Not if it meant throwing away my ability to see nuance, to judge things by their actions and not by what species they were born as. Whatever I ended up being or wherever I went, I never wanted to throw that away. I never wanted to stop thinking for myself.
In the end, the jaguar got its meal, and the rest of us moved on. As open-minded as I’d found myself about the whole predator-prey thing, I still didn’t really want to hang around and watch the thing eat.
So we continued walking. Wyatt talked a lot about the things we were seeing. As it turned out, he was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to the jungle. He knew what all the plants were called, which ones were edible and which weren’t, what the different birds and bugs were, and all sorts of other bits of information. He was great at playing tour guide, stopping now and then to point out these incredible sights, like that bit with the jaguar hunting the deer. Things that very few people got to see in person.
Yeah, it was hot, and wet, and loud, but I was genuinely enjoying myself. Deveron was staying mostly quiet, just watching us for the most part, and Koren seemed to be pretty into it as well. She kept asking Wyatt questions about what this fish was or if she could safely touch and sniff that flower. She never complained. Actually, she was even more into engaging Wyatt with questions and picking his brain than me.
After about three and a half hours in the jungle, the four of us were standing at the top of a ravine near an old bridge. I was looking out over the absolutely breathtaking vision before us. The jungle stretched out in every direction, and I couldn’t help but stare in complete awe.
“Hey, Flick,” Koren spoke up after a few silent moments. “You okay over there?” She nodded toward my face, and I realized that there were tears in my eyes.
“I…” Coughing, I wiped my arm over my face before nodding. “I’m fine. I just… I really wish I could tell my dad about this.” My voice was soft. “Forget the monsters and the magic and all that stuff. I just wish I could tell him that I got to walk through a jungle. I wish I could show him pictures of some of this stuff. He’d love it. I just…” I swallowed hard. “I wish I could share it with him.”
There was no response to that, until Deveron spoke up, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “Chambers.” When I looked that way in spite of myself, he spoke again. “Talk to Gaia. Get her to send your father some kind of permission slip for a school field trip to the jungle. Fake a whole big thing about it. Yeah, you can’t tell him this stuff over Thanksgiving, but you can take some pictures the next time you’re out here and then share those with him. Take him the permission slip and all that over the holiday. Yeah, it’s still lying about how you’re going on this trip and all the specifics, but at least you can share some of the experience.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it before squinting at the older boy, searching for the laziness or sarcasm. There was none. He was looking at me earnestly, openly. That or he was faking it really well.
“Um,” I started. “Tha–”
That was as far as I got. In the same instant that I was trying to express my gratitude to the boy, something shot down out of the sky. It was some kind of meteor, burning up hot as it approached. My attention had just snapped to it before Deveron noticed the thing as well. He leapt into the way, giving me a hard shove that sent me stumbling backwards. But the meteor was about to hit.
Somewhere behind me, I heard Koren scream. Then there was some kind of explosion, and what felt like a mule kicking me in the chest while light blinded me.
After that, the next few… however long it was passed in a hazy rush. I passed in and out of consciousness. I felt water all around me, even over my head. I felt myself falling now and then, swimming, sinking, and rolling. The bridge, I’d fallen through the bridge and into the river. I had to wake up. I had to get back up. I had to focus, had to… and then I would pass out again.
Suddenly, a strong hand caught mine, snapping me awake as I was hauled out of the river and onto dry land. I fell to my knees there, coughing and sputtering.
“You okay, Flick?”
I nodded a few times, still coughing as I faced the ground. “Yeah, Deveron. I’m good. Just a little half-drowned, that’s all.”
“Deveron?” the boy’s voice replied. “Who’s Deveron?”
Blinking at that, I lifted my gaze from the ground. And immediately let out a yelp of surprise while flailing as I fell over backwards. “Naaaaked boy!” I blurted, covering my eyes while also closing them tightly. “Naked boy, naked boy.”
Lifting my head more and picking myself up so that my line of sight wasn’t… quite what it had been from that previous position, I cracked my eyes open. Yup. Naked boy. I moved my hands down a bit to block the important bits from my line of sight. My face was red.
Yeah, this boy was… wow. Blonde and pretty much the most attractive guy I’d ever seen. He looked to be about my age, with blonde hair that was worn a little shaggy. His body was… well, quite honestly he was the male version of Avalon. Perfection. And he was giving me this adorable little smirk that made my blush deepen.
Plus, there was something… familiar about him. And he’d known my name.
“Sorry,” he casually replied. “Couldn’t really bring clothes with me on the trip. And I guess I forgot that humans are kind of modest.”
“Forgot that… humans are kind of… what… where did you come from?” I demanded. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
That grin brightened. “Seriously? You don’t recognize me? Oh, well, I guess I was a little bit shorter when we met before.”
I blinked, tilting my head before my eyes widened. “No.”
My mouth fell open in total and complete shock.