Andrew

Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discuss smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.

Asenath.

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-04

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Wood cracked against my arm, drawing a sharp yelp from me that was swiftly followed by a curse.

“You’re still too slow,” Avalon informed me unnecessarily. The pain in my bicep was already doing a fine job of making that point for her. “Keep your guard up. The staff has two ends, and you can use either of them. Don’t forget that. Make me watch both of them, not just the top half. Keep it moving, end over end, back and forth. Vary your speed, vary your rotation. Never let me see a pattern, or—”

Without further warning, the wooden staff that my roommate was holding lashed out to smack my other arm this time. While I yelped, she stated flatly, “Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll regret it.”

“And if I’m not lucky?” I asked while taking a second to rub my arm. “Because this feels not lucky.”

“If you’re not lucky, you won’t have a chance to regret it.” Her stare was intense. “You’ll be dead.”

“Point taken.” Grimacing at that particular thought, I nodded before holding my hand up for a break so that I could walk over a few feet across the beach to where we had dropped our stuff. Leaning down, I grabbed a bottle of water and took a long pull from it while catching my breath.

It was early evening, just a bit before dinner. Two whole weeks had passed since that first little field trip into the holographic crime scene. Two weeks of classes about monsters, magic, vampires, and the occasional alien. Or what looked like aliens anyway. Two weeks of learning how to fight and kill.

On the plus side, no more teachers had died and there hadn’t been another attempt on Avalon’s life. Unfortunately, the negative side was that none of us still had any idea who was responsible for either of those events, or if it was even related. Nor was I any closer to figuring out what had happened with my mother. Not being able to outright ask any of the adults about her was proving to be a pain in the ass. It limited us to looking through the library and other parts of the school for any crumb of information similar to the graduation picture that I’d found. Even with Avalon’s help, it was very slow going.

I’d been tempted to talk to the rest of the team about it, but there was the problem of Sands and Scout. Not that I didn’t trust them. I did. But their father was a teacher and the last thing I wanted was to make them lie to him just to keep what I was doing away from the faculty. I wasn’t going to make my new friends choose between keeping my secret and maintaining their relationship with their father. So it was down to Avalon and me to find out as much as we could, which at the moment, was nothing.

Adding to the list of things I didn’t know was the exact reason that I’d somehow picked out the same items that had been on the last receipt in that gas station. Professor Dare had theorized that there may have been some connection between me and one of the people who had been there, but hell if we knew what that connection actually was. According to her, I could be distantly related to one of the victims or one of my ancestors might have encountered the Stranger responsible for killing them and been left with a strong enough tie to the monster to leave me with a residual link after using the Heretical Edge.

I wondered if my mother was the one who had some kind of connection to the evil piece of shit.

Sighing inwardly at the thought, I took another drink of the water before turning to glance at my roommate. Avalon, as usual, looked perfect. I was a sweaty, ill-coordinated mess in gray shorts and a tee shirt that had seen better days. She, on the other hand, was as gorgeous as ever in black running shorts and a green tank top that had to have been magically enchanted. It was the only way to explain why the cantaloupes she was smuggling around didn’t pop out of it. If she hadn’t been helping me out so much, I probably would have been jealous. Okay, more jealous than I already obviously was.

“If you’re so good with a staff,” I asked curiously while nodding toward the wooden training weapon that she was using to help me, “then why do you use those gauntlets instead?”

For a second, Avalon didn’t respond. She just squinted at me as though going over the question in her head to figure out if there was any way that I might be mocking her. Finally, the other girl shrugged. “Of the weapons I know how to use, the staff is the one I’m the worst with.”

I choked a little on my water, squinting that way. “This has been you being bad with a weapon?”

“Out of the weapons I know how to use,” she repeated pointedly while striding toward me. “There’s plenty of weapons that I don’t know how to use at all.” Leaning down, she plucked up the other bottle of water and took a sip from it. “Now quit whining just because I’ve had more practice than you and get your head back in the game. Do you want to get better or not? Because if you’re tired of this already, I’ve got better things to do than waste my time with someone who’s just going to quit.”

“I’m not quitting,” I promised. By that point, the pain in both of my arms had vanished thanks to the healing gift that I had inherited from the ugly little poodle-roach things. “I said I want to learn to be a better fighter, and I meant it. Heck, I’m already improving. You haven’t insulted me half as much today as you did when we first started. You’re even using both hands now. So, you know, yay progress?”

Her response was a grunt before she dropped the bottle back on the ground. “Fifteen more minutes, then dinner. Think you can keep going that long, Chambers? How are your arms holding up?”

“Sore,” I answered truthfully. “But all that weight lifting you keep making me do in the mornings seems to be helping. It’s not nearly as bad as that first night.” That had been near torture. I had been as close as I ever got to flat out quitting and walking away. My arms had felt like they were going to fall off. Still, I pushed on through it and forced myself to keep at the training. Avalon’s stated certainty that I was going to quit helped with that, considering at the time all I’d wanted to do was prove her wrong.

Part of me wondered just how purposeful that attitude had been. Had she been so hard on me through that first bit, even harder and more insulting than the girl usually was (which was saying a lot), to drive me to stick with it through sheer contrariness? It was hard to tell through the girl’s ordinary prickliness.

“Keep it up, then.” Her voice was firm. “You make me think you’re slacking off or being lazy about this shit one time, and I’m done with you. I’m not going to waste my time if you start fucking up.”

“Yeah,” I replied with a slight smile after translating her words from Avalon-speak into a language that was slightly less inherently angry at everything. “I’m glad we’re training together too, roomie.”

******

The next day was Saturday. After spending an hour in the morning with Avalon doing our by-then standard workout (not having school was apparently no excuse for not exercising), and having a bit of breakfast, I was leaving the cafeteria when my father’s ringtone began to play. It took me a second to maneuver my cell out of my jeans (no uniforms needed on days off), and answer it. “Yo.”

“Hey there, lil bit!” Dad’s voice boomed loud enough that I winced. “How’s my favorite daughter?”

“Oh yeah, that was a hard contest to win,” I replied. “Favorite daughter? Who was my competition?”

He laughed before shooting back, “Hey, for all you know, I might’ve adopted already. I could replace you with an adorable little baby that doesn’t talk back to her old man. Or the new kid next door might have a sister I could latch onto. How long have you been gone for now? Three years, four?”

“Weeks, dad.” I shook my head with a smile. “I’ve been gone for three weeks, tops.”

“Feels like decades.” Dad’s voice was light, but I heard the truth in it. The two of us had been so close since my mother left that I knew this was hard on him. It was hard on me, even as busy as I had been.

Swallowing, I asked, “So what’s this about a new boy next door? Did the Euphrene’s finally move?”

“Seems like it,” my father replied. “Got a new woman in there now. No husband that I know of, but she’s got a little boy. I think he’s about ten or so, named Ammon. Lady keeps to herself, but the kid came over a few times last week. I’m gonna pay him to keep up the lawn and stuff. Poor kid, I don’t think he gets out very much. Sure seemed interested in whether I had any children or not.”

I smiled a little while making my way into the lounge. In the corner, I could see Columbus, Sean, Shiori, and one of the other boys playing Mario Kart on one of the massive televisions. I gave them a wave, then turned slightly to continue my conversation. “Why did he care if you have any kids?”

“Lonely, I think.” I heard the shrug in Dad’s voice. “Seemed interested in you. Hell, I think the poor kid might have a crush on you, Flickster, considering all the pictures he wanted to see.”

I felt a blush creep over my face. “Damn it, Dad, how many pictures did you show this kid?”

He chuckled a little before replying, “Take it easy, I didn’t show him the baby pictures. Just the ones we’ve got up on the walls, and that one of the two of us at the lake that I keep in my wallet. Trust me, we only said good things about you. The kid might want to meet you when you come home to visit. Think you can handle a ten-year-old with a bit of a crush without breaking his poor, innocent heart?”

I rolled my eyes. “He should meet my roommate. He’d forget me in a damn hurry.”

We talked some more, but Dad eventually had to excuse himself to head into the office for a few hours. After disconnecting, I returned my attention to the others and headed over to hop onto the couch beside Columbus. “Who’s winning?” I asked while reaching over to snag a chip out of the bowl nearby.

“Shiori,” Columbus, Sean, and the boy whose name I didn’t know replied flatly. All of them seemed hyper focused on the screen, sitting up straight and leaning forward with looks of intense concentration.

Meanwhile, Columbus’s foster sister was literally laying upside down, hanging off the front of the couch with her head on the floor. Her arms were stretched out in front of her along the floor as she watched the screen from her inverted position. And she was still clearly winning without much effort.

“Wow,” I remarked after watching the race for a few more seconds until the girl had finished lapping them yet again. “Either you guys are seriously bad at this game, or she’s really good.”

“It’s the second one,” Columbus informed me. He wasn’t wearing his uniform, but the tee shirt and khakis was wearing looked as disheveled and rumpled in as his uniform usually did. I wondered if he picked out his clothes the night before, and then slept in them so that he could jump out of bed and go in the morning. It was the only way I could understand how he managed to make his clothes look so messed up from the first thing in the morning. “Shiori’s good at every video game. Seriously. Pick a game she’s never played, any game at all. Give her a couple hours to practice, and she’ll beat almost anyone at it. It’s like some kind of freaky gift or something. I think she killed some kind of video game Stranger and absorbed his skill back when she was six.”

“Did not,” Shiori replied absently while remaining focused on the screen. I could see the slight blush on her cheeks from the attention before she mumbled, “I just like games. It’s not hard once you see how they work. You hit the button, the character does the action. People over complicate them.”

Taking another chip, I smiled. “Sounds like great hand-eye coordination to me.”

“No kidding,” the boy I didn’t know agreed. He was a fairly short guy, stocky in a muscular way, with intense green eyes and a pale face that was dotted with freckles. His light blonde hair was worn long, and he had to shake it out of his eyes before focusing on me as he extended a hand. “Ah, sorry, I don’t think we really met. I’m Andrew. Shiori’s team mentor.”

I did a double take, staring at him in surprise. “Wait, team mentor? As in an older student that’s supposed to help us learn and guide us through first year? That mentor? I thought that was just a myth.”

He chuckled slightly before grimacing. “Yeah, sounds like Deveron’s not excelling this time, huh?”

“More like not even trying,” Sean remarked from where he was sitting. Vulcan lay at his feet, occasionally rubbing up against his master’s leg while looking for a head scratch. I had no idea how scratching helped a dog made of metal, but Vulcan sure seemed to like it.

I nodded while rolling my eyes. “He’s pretty much the worst mentor ever. Has he even said anything to you guys since orientation?” I asked the boys, receiving head shakes from both Columbus and Sean.

Andrew shrugged. “Sorry, wish I knew what to tell you. Dev was a great student last year. Pretty much at the top of everything constantly.”

“That’s what Sands and Scout said,” I muttered before shaking my head. “Why couldn’t we have gotten that guy for a mentor instead of the impostor that’s been wandering around in his skin?”

“You could ask him yourself if you wanted to,” Andrew suggested while nodding toward the doorway. “Considering he just went past.”

After looking that way briefly, I pushed myself up. “I think I will. Whatever his damn problem is, he needs to get the hell over it and start doing his job. We deserve better than this.”

“You want some company?” Sean asked. “Tired of getting my butt kicked here anyway.”

I considered it, but then shook my head. “Let me talk to him first. If I need backup, I’ll let you know.”

Both he and Columbus agreed, and I promised to return to let them know what happened before heading out of the room at a quick jog. I wanted to catch up with Deveron before he disappeared again.

Reaching the hall, I turned the way that Andrew had gestured and picked up the pace. Deveron had been heading out of the building, and if he got too far, I’d never figure out where he went.

Thankfully, the older boy was still in sight as I came through the doors. He was on his way past the staff housing building, walking fast as he turned the corner around the wall.

Wincing, I ran to catch up. No way was I going to miss this chance to give the jerk a piece of my mind.

Just as I reached the edge of the building, instinct made me slow down. Rather than storm around the side and start demanding that he stop and talk to me, the way I’d planned, I instead peeked carefully around the corner.

Deveron was there, crouching near the middle of the building. He had one of the bricks in his hand, and was shoving something into the hole there. Then he pushed the brick back into place and patted it to make sure it was as smooth as possible before straightening.

His head turned in my direction, and I quickly jerked back out of sight, my heart hammering. What the hell was he hiding? Did it have something to do with Avalon or Professor Pericles?

A moment later, I peeked back around and found the area behind the building empty. Deveron had moved on. Forgetting the reason that I’d started to follow him to begin with, I made my way to the same spot he’d been and crouched down to pry at the bricks until I found the right one. It took a bit of work, but I managed to tug the brick out and set it aside before reaching into the hole.

My questing fingers eventually found the thing that Deveron had hidden in there, and I tugged it out, finding a folded up photograph. With a frown, I turned to sit against the wall while unfolding it.

It… was the picture of my mother’s graduating class. I recognized it immediately, considering how long I’d sent staring at it in the awards case. This one was a more worn copy, but it was clearly the same picture. Why did Deveron have it, and why was he hiding it?

Wait. I frowned a little while looking at the photograph. Something was different about it. I’d spent hours staring at the one in the trophy case, and something about this one was off. I just couldn’t tell what it was.

Then I found it. My eyes scanned the picture until they zeroed in on a single figure in the picture that definitely wasn’t there in the other copy. A figure standing directly next to my mother, where there was empty space in the picture that I had studied. A figure that was holding her hand as they cheered for their own graduation from this school. A figure that I had just seen walk away from this spot.

No wonder Deveron had been so good at everything in this place last year. According to this picture, he’d graduated with my mother in 1922.

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