“We were supposed to be superheroes.”
The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.
At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”
As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.
A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.
Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”
Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”
Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.
Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.
A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”
“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”
Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.
For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.
“You already are one.”
It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.
“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”
“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”
“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”
As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.
It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.
Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.
“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”
Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.
There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.
“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”
Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”
Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.
Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”
Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”
That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”
Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”
The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”
“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”
The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”
“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”
Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.
Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”
Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”
Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.
Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”
“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”
Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.
In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.
“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.
“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”
“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”
“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”
“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”
Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”
A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”
“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.
“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”
For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”
“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”
Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”
Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.
“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”
Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.
Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.