“You guys do know that this isn’t really fair, right?” I half-joked while holding my staff in front of myself as I looked first to Avalon in front of me, then over my shoulder toward where Deveron had positioned himself. Both held wooden staffs and wore nearly identical smirks. “Both of you at once?”
It was Friday, the next morning. Or rather, a few hours later. I’d finished my training with Gaia and slept for an hour and a half (clearly showing how exhausted I’d been), waking in time for this training.
Deveron just shook his head when I looked at him. “You think the people you’ll be fighting care about fair, Flick?” Spinning the staff expertly in his hands, he added, “You’re lucky we’re all using the same weapon. Eventually, you’re gonna have to figure out how to fight both of us with different weapons and adjust your style. And once you get used to that, we’ll see about adding in more people. Like Shiori.”
“He’s right,” Avalon spoke up before I could respond, and I turned back that way to find her tossing her own staff from hand to hand. “You want to get better, you have to keep making your training harder.”
“In that case,” I replied, “how many people are you training against at this point to keep improving?”
Her response was an almost feral smile. “How many people are in our class?” Sobering then, she clarified, “I train with the older students whenever I have a chance. And,” her gaze flicked to Deveron. “Now that we have a mentor who isn’t a completely meaningless waste of space, he helps too.”
Deveron snorted at that, bowing his head in acceptance. “I deserve that. And probably even more. But I’d deserve a lot worse if I didn’t push your training, Flick. You need to get better, so let’s get to it.”
Holding up a hand, I quickly put in, “Wait, I wanted to ask. Have you guys ever used that, um, the animal projection thing?” It took a moment to remember what Gaia had called it. “The um, theriangelos spell?” I’d already told them about how it had gone, and how it had been all I could do to focus on seeing through my fox’s eyes without getting a headache. Gaia had said that it would take time and practice to do it properly, and that eventually I’d be able to easily switch my attention back and forth.
Avalon shook her head, spinning her staff behind her back and to the front again. “No,” she replied simply. “I haven’t done any extra magic. Eden’s Garden starts learning it this year, so I’m not ahead of you on that. Actually,” the girl added with a tiny smirk, “I guess that means you’re ahead of me.”
Flushing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “I’m sure Gaia’d teach you if you ask her.” At that point, I was positive that Gaia would do almost anything if Avalon asked her to. “She really cares about you a lot.”
I actually managed to catch sight of the other girl blushing slightly before she got it under control, clearing her throat as she focused past me toward Deveron. “What about you?” she asked, pointedly.
“Yeah, I’ve done it,” he replied. Eyeing the enchanted coin that was lying nearby to ensure our privacy, he added, “Jos thought it’d be a good way to communicate when we couldn’t be with each other.”
Intrigued by that, I asked, “So what was your animal thing? What is the ‘spirit animal’ of Deveron Adams?” Smiling a bit, I added, “And just to warn you, if you say ‘sloth’, I might just die laughing.”
Snorting clearly in spite of himself at that, Deveron shook his head. “No, it’s not a sloth. It’s–” He paused then, obviously bracing himself for something before actually answering. “It’s a weasel.”
I blinked once, then again. A gradual smile rose on my face as I fought to control the burst of laughter that tried to come out. It escaped in the form of a snicker. “Weasel. A weasel? That—you know, not that long ago, I would’ve said that a weasel was completely appropriate for you. Almost as much as a sloth.”
“Laugh it up,” he retorted, through his own self-depreciating smile. “Go on, get it out of your system.”
Behind me, Avalon started to hum softly. It was a familiar song, one that was right on the tip of my tongue for a second before my eyes widened. “Pop goes the weasel!” I blurted. Then I really started to laugh. “Oh my god. Oh god. Mom. Mom’s a monkey! Mom’s animal is a monkey!” Half-doubling over from my own snickering, I recited, “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel!”
Poor Deveron shook his head slowly, groaning as his hand waved. “Yeah, yeah, it’s hilarious. Trust me, your mom thought it was the best thing ever. It was–” He sobered a little, and I saw the emotion in his eyes as he straightened and swallowed. “It probably sounds stupid, but the song was… important to us.”
My own head shook at that, and I put a hand up to touch the man’s arm. “It doesn’t sound stupid,” I assured him, though my voice cracked just a little as I spoke. “I’ve got stuff with… with Mom, memories that other people would probably think were silly or dumb. But they’re not. They’re… her.”
For a moment, he met my gaze steadily and silently before nodding. “They’re her,” Deveron agreed quietly, yet firmly. “And those are the memories that we have to hold onto, until we get her back.”
I nodded at that without breaking his gaze, echoing his words just as firmly. “Until we get her back.”
Even as my own hand stayed on Deveron’s arm, I felt Avalon touch my shoulder. It was a light brushing of her fingers, but it felt like so much more just because she was the one reaching out. Her voice was soft. “If you want to save your mother when the time comes,” she reminded me, “we need to practice.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand away from Deveron and nodded. “Right, practice.” Stepping back, I flipped the staff around and looked first to my roommate, then to my sort-of stepfather. “Let’s do this then.”
“Well, I suppose since this is our very last class of the semester and you’ve already finished your tests, we should do something interesting with the time that we still have left, hmm?”
The man talking was Professor Stephen Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. He was the guy who taught us all about the lands, areas, and even entire planets that Bystanders either didn’t know about or had forgotten. He’d promised that we’d get to Atlantis next semester after people wouldn’t stop asking.
Professor Vandel was a short man, even shorter than me and almost as short as Sands and Scout. I would’ve been surprised if he topped out at much more than five foot two or so. He looked like he was in his mid-late thirties, with red hair that he wore in a ponytail and a neatly trimmed goatee. Every time I’d seen him this semester, the man was wearing a long-sleeved black and white checkered shirt with a bolo tie and crisp blue jeans that looked brand new. I wasn’t sure he even owned any different clothes. And most striking of all, he wore an actual monocle over his right eye. Yeah, an honest to God monocle.
“Yes,” he replied to himself while I and the rest of the class watched. “Something interesting indeed.” Straightening, he moved from the whiteboard where he’d been erasing some of the details about the test we’d just finished. “Most of you have asked, at one point or another, where we are.” Spreading his hands, he elaborated. “That is, where exactly this island is located. Would you like to talk about that?”
After a chorus of agreement and nods, Professor Vandel smiled before launching into his story. “Good. Well then, let’s start by talking about our founder, Hieronymus Bosch. He was, as you all know by now, not only a genius inventor and one of the most powerful and gifted magic-users in the history of our world, but also a painter. Of course, it’s that last skill that Bystanders know him for, but we shouldn’t forget it either. Because it’s his painting skill that brought us to where we are today, to this very island.”
“Wait, what?” Malcolm spoke up from across the room, brow knit in confusion as he shook his head. “The hell does painting have to do with this island? What’d he do, sell a bunch of them to pay for it?”
Professor Vandel shook his head with a slight smile. “No, Malcolm, he didn’t sell paintings to pay for this place. This place, this island that we live and learn on? It is a painting, one of his very best works.”
That made everyone start talking, questions blurting out from every corner of the room while Vandel held his hand up and waited for people to quiet down. Once he could get a word in edgewise, the man continued. “Let’s just go with one question at a time. How about you first?” He nodded toward Koren.
She was staring at the man, eyes just as wide as I was sure mine were. “What the hell do you mean, ‘the island is a painting’? What does that even mean? We can’t be in a painting, it’s a painting. That’s just—just–” The other girl floundered a bit, hands waving dramatically before blurting, “Crazy. It’s crazy.”
Chuckling a little bit at that, Professor Vandel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I suppose it should sound unhinged. But then, most of what we talk about in every class of this school doesn’t seem exactly sane, does it?” He started to pace a bit then. “Let me explain. Maybe more details will help. The island wasn’t simply ‘created’ by a painting, no. That would be fairly ludicrous. As powerful as he was, Bosch was not a god. After all, there are living things here on this island, and in the surrounding water.
“You see, this island already existed on Earth. It was in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and a bit southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That was the island where Bosch and those early first Crossroads Heretics chose to construct the Heretical Edge and the school that would train their students. In those days, being on an island in the middle of nowhere was safe enough. Ships could be drawn away from the island. There were enchantments that ensured Bystanders would leave us alone.”
Halting his pacing about halfway up the row of seats that I was in, Vandel turned slightly to look over the class before he continued. “But Bosch knew that Strangers would never stop trying to invade our sanctuary, and that eventually the amount of energy required to maintain our protection against their invasion would be too much. He knew that there had to be a solution that would ensure this school and the Heretical Edge itself would be kept safe. For months, he searched for the best way to do that, to protect his legacy. And in the end, he found it in one of his longest, greatest past-times: his painting.
“Through extensive magic and more power than I believe any of us has ever witnessed, our great founder painted this island, and enchanted it so that the island itself and its surroundings were taken into that painting. He created a pocket dimension, a separate yet connected world where the real island was drawn, leaving Earth entirely and yet remaining somewhat connected to it through the painting.”
“So wait a second.” Douglas Frey spoke up with a raised hand. “You’re saying that this place is some… pocket dimension that Bosch created, that exists in one of his paintings? What if something destroyed that painting? Would we all just…” Pausing, he drew his finger across his throat pointedly.
Professor Vandel shook his head, speaking up over the commotion that caused. “First of all, let me assure you that the painting is perfectly safe. It’s one of the most well-protected objects in the world. The Bystander President of the United States has less protection than that painting. Nothing is going to happen to it. And if anything did, we wouldn’t be killed. Believe me, Bosch would not have left such a clear and obvious vulnerability. The painting maintains the connection between this pocket dimension and Earth. At most, the island and all of us on it would simply be ejected back into the normal Pacific Ocean where it used to be and we would go from there. But that won’t happen, because, as I said, the painting is not in any danger.
“So, let’s talk a little bit about what exactly made Bosch choose this place to begin with.”
It was still about half an hour before I was supposed to meet with Klassin Roe for our next session. But I was heading in early, because I was hoping that we could get done soon enough for me to have time to make a trip out with my sharks before it was time to eat dinner and then go to our last track training of the semester. Among other things, I wanted to get Klassin’s advice for what I should do about Kohaku’s invitation to join the Security track.
As I approached the man’s office, however, the sound of voices revealed that he wasn’t alone. Stopping short outside of the door, I hesitated a moment before starting to turn away. If he wasn’t available, he wasn’t available. I’d come back when we were actually supposed to meet.
Then one of the voices spoke up loud enough for me to make out the full sentence. “It wasn’t my fault, it was Joselyn.”
That made me halt in mid-step. Turning back, my eyes widened. I knew the voice. It was Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father. Why was he talking about my mother?
After a moment of indecision, I took a breath and stepped closer to the door. Rather than just standing there, however, I put my hand against the wall and felt the wood there. Swallowing at the thought of being caught, I pushed myself into the wall, using the wood-walking power to merge with it. Then I continued to listen.
“It’s easy to blame other people for your mistakes,” Roe was saying. “But Joselyn didn’t make you do what you did, and she definitely didn’t force you to cover it all up afterward.”
“I did what I thought was right,” Professor Mason insisted through gritted teeth, his voice low and yet almost desperate in tone. “Joselyn was acting insane, and you know it. I had to protect the school.”
Klassin’s voice was just as quiet, but also harsh. “And how did that work out for everyone, Liam? Because as far as I can tell, all you did was make everything worse. Did you ever tell Larissa what you did?”
There was the sound of a shove before Professor Mason snapped, “Don’t talk about Larissa, Johnny.”
Johnny? I was confused. His name was Klassin Roe, so where was the name ‘Johnny’ coming from?
Roe spoke up after a moment of silence that I was sure both men spent glaring at each other. “Larissa isn’t here. But if she was, and if she knew what you did, she’d be disgusted by you. That is, unless you helped wipe her memory too. Isn’t that how you deal with your problems?”
That time, I heard what sounded like a table being kicked backwards and some rustling as the men clearly struggled with each other, followed by a hard thud that was clearly one of them hitting the wall. Roe continued, his voice harried and even more harsh. “It’s the truth, Liam, and you know it. You betrayed your friends, the people who trusted you.”
“I had to!” Mason spat back, his own voice broken by emotion. “Joselyn was—she was wrong. She was crazy. Making deals with Strangers? She was going to destroy everything, and get a lot of good people killed because she was naive. They all were!”
I heard the table squeak again as it was moved back before Roe’s voice all-but snarled, “It wouldn’t have been that way if it wasn’t for you to begin with, Liam. Joselyn trusted you, she tried to talk to you about the whole thing. They all trusted you. They thought you were on their side, and what did you do? What did you do? You ran to Ruthers. You blurted the whole thing to him.”
“Fuck you, Johnny,” Mason snapped. “I told you, I did what I had to do to protect everyone from Joselyn. They were going to get hurt, or worse, destroy the school.”
“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?” Roe retorted. “No. You snitched and suddenly the quiet little underground railroad to protect Alters turned into a full-fledged rebellion. You didn’t protect anyone, Liam. You turned the whole thing into an open war. And then you helped erase it from everyone’s memory. Including the woman that you later married. Did you ever happen to mention that to her, or was it too inconvenient?”
I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with something like a two-by-four. On the hike in the jungle, Deveron had said that the whole secret underground resistance had blown up into full-scale war because he and Joselyn had trusted the wrong person. Now I knew who it was.
Sands’ and Scout’s dad. He was the traitor. He was the one who made the whole war happen.