Crossroads Academy

First Steps 2-04

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“Flick? Hey, you okay?”

A hand gently shook my arm, and I jumped a bit in the heavily cushioned easy chair that I had been sitting in for the past two hours, ever since the announcement had come that morning classes had been canceled. I’d been so lost in thought that I’d missed Sean’s arrival and subsequent attempts to get my attention until he had to physically touch me. Eyes wide, I blurted, “Huh?”

“Sorry,” the boy raised both hands and took a step back. “Just thought I’d check on you. Everyone else is outside and you missed breakfast. So uh, here.” He produced a plate with a couple of muffins on it. “It’s not a lot, but you know, I wasn’t sure what you liked, or if you were even hungry but… yeah.” Trailing off awkwardly, Sean hesitated for a moment before setting the plate on the arm of the chair. Beside him, his mechanical dog whined a little until the boy laid his hand on its head, giving it a pat.

Straightening up in the chair, I put a hand on the plate. “Thanks, I was just… thinking.” Yawning, I glanced around briefly around the lounge. There were two student lounges in the building. One for the first and second years, and the other for the third and fourth years. I wasn’t sure what the one the upperclassmen used looked like, but if this one was anything to go by, then Crossroads Academy was getting something like seventeen bajillion times the amount of funding that my old school had gotten. I could go on for hours about opening the door to find the three pool tables, the arcade machine in the corner, the foosball table, the enormous aquarium full of tropical fish taking up most of one wall, the multiple televisions at either end of the room complete with headphones so students could pay attention to whichever set they wanted to, and on and on.

But honestly, that wasn’t fair. My old school hadn’t been that bad. They did what they could without the benefit of magic and thousands of years of history. And they weren’t responsible for training a bunch of mostly teenagers to go out and protect humanity from literal supernatural monsters, so they deserved a little slack.

Plus, they definitely had the bonus that none of my teachers there had ever been murdered.

“Thinking about Professor Pericles?” Sean winced. “Sorry, that had to be hard. You uh, didn’t, um…” He blanched a little, looking almost ill at what he was saying. “You didn’t see the body, did you?”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “He wouldn’t let us. Professor Mason, I mean. He um.” My throat was dry, and I had to swallow a couple more times. “He made us go back inside. I tried to talk to Avalon about it, but she just… wanted to be alone.” That was putting it mildly, Avalon had stormed off the moment that I had said another word, cursing under her breath and making it clear I wasn’t wanted.

After that, I had just waited for everyone to get up. We were given the information about no morning classes and then directed here, to the common area and cafeteria, but I hadn’t been hungry. I’d split off from the others and come in here to sit and think for a while. That little while had turned into hours.

“Yeah, apparently it was pretty bad.” Sean sat down in the easy chair opposite mine, running his fingers back through his hair before resting his face in both both hands. “Fuck, just… Heretics dying isn’t new, you know? That’s a fact of life. But it’s usually the younger ones. Once you live long enough to be as old as Pericles was, that’s… okay, he wasn’t the strongest guy out there. Just being old doesn’t make you strong by itself. But this guy was up there. Not the Baroness’s level, but probably one of the top three or four Heretics here in the school. And to get taken out like that? It’s scary, man. Real fucking scary.”

Biting my lip thoughtfully, I nodded. “That environmental seal, that should have told them if there was anyone on the grounds that shouldn’t be, right? Especially any mon-err Strangers.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Hell yeah. Not just the seal. Half the faculty and some of the students have so many detection spells between them that if a Stranger so much as got within eyesight of the whole island, there’d be alarms ringing all over the place. They’ve tried. And if the Strangers had a way to get on this island undetected?” He whistled. “They’d do more than kill one teacher.”

I unwrapped the first muffin and took a bite, thinking while I ate quietly. After a few more seconds of that, I asked, “What about Eden’s Garden? You know, the ‘Dark Heretics’ or whatever they’re called.”

“Heard about those guys, huh?” Sean took a moment to pat Vulcan’s head, the mechanical dog apparently enjoying it judging from the sounds it was making. Finally, the boy sighed. “They’d be noticed too. Anyone not authorized to be here sets off an alarm. There’s no way anyone that isn’t faculty or a student could have been on these grounds last night without the teachers knowing about it.”

I gave a long sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that. That means that whoever killed Professor Pericles…”

He nodded back at me, finishing the thought. “Had to be a teacher or a student. One of us. That’s why everyone’s freaked out. Like I said, Heretic dying in the line of duty is normal. Heretic dying here on the grounds of the school when everything else is fine? That’s fucked up. Beyond fucked up.”

I had finished the first muffin and was halfway through the second before I spoke again. “What about that professor that died last year, the umm, Memon? You know, the one that the headmistress said that Professor Insil… Inliss… Inslick was taking over for. And the other one, the one that’s ‘recovering’”

“Inisclic,” Sean corrected me. “Professor Inisclic is taking over for Memon. My brother had him for a few years. Memon died on vacation over the summer. Heart attack while he was at some anniversary dinner.”

“A heart attack,” I echoed doubtfully. “What about the other one?” Snapping my fingers as the name came to me, I blurted, “Tangle. Professor Tangle, that was it. What happened to her?”

Brow furrowing a bit, Sean shrugged. “I’m not sure, sorry. I heard about Memon because my brother liked him. I remember hearing something about Tangle and some kind of big shark, but I dunno.”

Before I could respond to that, the door to the lounge opened and Columbus entered, accompanied by Shiori and a couple of the students from her team. All four were deep in conversation, but Columbus broke off once he noticed the two of us. After saying something to his sister, he came over, lifting a hand in greeting before taking one of the nearby seats. “Hey.” Sighing, the boy slumped in the chair. His uniform was so rumpled I would have guessed that he’d slept in it. “What’re we talking about?”

“The rapidly rising teacher casualty rate,” I replied a bit darkly. “One injured, two dead in the past few months? Wait, what about that third teacher that the headmistress mentioned? She said there were three new teachers. Inisclic replaced Memon because Memon died. Carfried is ‘filling in for’ Tangle while she recovers. But she never said why the other new teacher was here. Professor Armstrong, I mean.”

Sean’s head was shaking. “They just brought Armstrong in to replace Professor Pether after he retired last year. It was a whole big thing. They had a party, everyone signed a card, the works. Ian said they were all sad about it, cuz Pether was around for a long ass time. Then last year he just up and said he was retiring out of the blue. The headmistress tried to convince him to stay, but he said he was done.”

Four teachers gone within the past year. One unexpectedly retired, one injured to the point of not being able to come back this year, one died of a heart attack, and the fourth was murdered right on school grounds in the middle of the night, and was left there for anyone to find. Call me paranoid, but I was detecting a certain trend.

Running a hand over his wrinkled blazer, Columbus frowned at me. “What’re you thinking?”

Before answering, I pushed myself out of the seat, balling the muffin wrappers into my hand in the process. Then I glanced to the boys. “I think there’s something really wrong going on in this school.

“And I’m going to figure out what the hell it is.”

******

At any other school I could think of, the murder of a teacher right on the grounds would have meant that classes were canceled at least for that day. But here at Crossroads, they resumed right after lunch. I supposed that, as unusual as it apparently was for faculty to be killed right here, death was something Heretics lived with every day. It was still a tragedy, but it didn’t stop them for long. It couldn’t. In the mundane world, taking time off to cope with a loss didn’t really affect that much in the long run. Here, it was literal life and death. Not just of the students, but of everyone they were being trained to protect.

I understood that. I got why it was that way. And yet even then, I couldn’t help but feel a little sick to be sitting inside a classroom so soon. I had only known Professor Pericles for a couple days. I’d only had a single class with him, and my stomach still rolled at the thought that he was… gone. Dead, I reminded myself harshly. He was dead. There was no sense in beating around the bush about it.

Headmistress Sinclaire had announced during lunch that any student who felt that they were unable to continue classes that day because of the tragedy were excused, and that there would be people available to talk to. But as far as I could tell, no one had taken her up on it. None in my own grade level anyway. Things were probably different among the students who actually knew Professor Pericles better.

Either way, classes were still on, and this particular room looked pretty full. There were four other teams besides ours, leaving thirty students gathered in what looked an awful lot like smaller auditoriums at the zoo where the handler brings out little animals for the audience to either coo over or hiss and squirm at. The floor was cement rather than carpet or wood, with several drains located at strategic sections, and rather than normal desks, several long tables set in a square formation with an opening in one corner leading into the central stage area that the tables were surrounding.

Sitting on my right side, Sands nudged me while leaning in to whisper, “Did you hear about Deveron?”

I shook my head a little, frowning while whispering back to her. “No, what about him?”

Lowering her voice even further, Sands replied, “They said he was one of the last ones to see Professor Pericles.” When I shot a look at her, she nodded rapidly. “Yeah, the professor took him aside last night while we were at the beach. He was trying to talk to Deveron about why he’s been so… off lately. You know, trying to connect with him. But Deveron wasn’t listening and they got into an argument. Deveron shoved him and then walked off. The Runner pulled him out of class to talk to him.”

“Wait, Runner?” I echoed, frowning uncertainly. “What Runner?”

“You know, BSR?” Sands replied, looking back at me blankly, like I was the one being confusing.

On the other side of me, Avalon spoke up abruptly without looking at us. “Bow Street Runner. They don’t exist in mundane land anymore. Not since they were recruited by the Heretics in the mid-eighteen hundreds.” Finally looking toward me, she went on. “First official police force of London. They didn’t call themselves Runners back then. That’s what the public called them. The Runners thought it was rude or something. But now it’s something to be proud of. Being a Runner is a big deal. Means you run down the worst of the worst. They sent a Runner here to find out what happened to Professor Pericles.”

“Right…” I hesitated. “It’s like being an FBI agent or something. And they sent a Runner here because someone like that being murdered on school grounds is a big deal.”

“You think?” She retorted while looking away. Arms folded over her stomach, Avalon went silent just as the doors on the other side of the room opened, admitting the guy that I had thought looked too young to be a teacher. Professor Carfried, the one that was ‘filling in’ for Professor Tangle.

He came striding in the doors, carrying a thick walking stick over one shoulder and a heavy duffel bag in his other hand. When he spoke up, his voice was about as bright and chipper as I could remember any adult ever sounding, let alone right after a tragedy like the one that had happened that morning. “Good afternoon, class!” He chirped. Yeah, chirped. That was the best word for it. “I know this morning was… awful.” Passing right by the tables to enter the central area, the man lowered his voice just a hair, his head dipping in acknowledgment. The bright perkiness was gone, replaced by sincerity. “And if any one of you feel the need to sit out, don’t worry. You won’t miss anything, because I will work with you later to get you caught up. Do not think that you need to stay for your grades, because you don’t. I will make sure that anyone who needs to step out, for a few minutes or for the rest of the period, gets caught up with everything they need to know. Take your time, and if we’re going too fast, or if you get overwhelmed, just leave. It’s perfectly all right. There are people here to talk with any of you who would like to. They know what they’re doing, and they’re going to be here all day.”

“That said,” Straightening up, the young teacher gave a smile that showed his teeth. “We’re going to move on. Not because the good professor didn’t matter. Hell, he taught me when I went here. You know, a few months ago. We’re moving on because that’s what we do. We push on, we survive. And if you believe anything, believe this. The coward who murdered Professor Pericles will be found. They will be dealt with. They will brought to justice. Our justice.”

Carfried’s gaze moved around the room, seeming to take in everyone in turn before he breathed out. “But for now, until that happens, we have to continue our classes.” His smile brightened once more. “So, let’s learn about magic, shall we?” To punctuate his words, the man tossed the heavy walking stick behind him. It flew a few feet, then seemed to catch in midair, hovering there in the exact center of the room. Slowly, the stick began to turn in a circle, rotating around like the blade of a fan. It gradually spun faster, until the stick was nothing more than a whirling blur of motion that was impossible to track. Then it wasn’t just a blur anymore. An image appeared, like a television screen. It showed an apple orchard, the fruit ripe and ready for plucking on the trees.

Cracking his neck to either side, Professor Carfried took a step that way. Rolling up his sleeves, he showed us his bare arms and empty hands before turning so that the whole class could see as he stuck his hand right into the image that had formed from the spinning stick. His arm appeared in the orchard, a part of the view. He plucked one of the apples from the nearest tree, withdrew his hand, and showed us the fruit sitting in his palm. Smiling at the reaction, he took a loud bite from it, chewing in satisfaction before reaching out with his other hand. The image was disrupted by his hand that time, as he snatched the spinning stick out of midair and held it up.

“This is what I will teach you,” Carfried announced. “This is the magic of the Heretics. Our magic. It is not simple magic. It is not all fireballs and magic missiles. Heretical magic is not fast. Remember that. Learn it. Know it. Live it. Heretical magic is not fast. You could live for a thousand years and you will never learn magic that will let you point your hand, say a couple words, and throw a lightning bolt at your enemies.” Coughing, he added, “Now, you might inherit that ability from a Stranger that you kill, but magic itself will not do it. Because magic is not what, Miss Tamaya?” He looked toward Aylen, the Native American girl that I remembered from Orientation.

“Fast?” She offered after realizing he genuinely wanted an answer.

“Yes,” the man smiled and straightened. “It is not fast. Our magic is based around Enchantment. You will never wiggle your fingers, say a couple words, and throw lightning. You can learn to spend hours of time and energy enchanting a stick with a command word that will then produce lightning when that command word is spoken. But even then, it’s not an unlimited thing. You put the energy into the object, you train it to perform the action that you want, and trigger it. After the effect takes place, the item can’t do it again until you invest your energy and time back into it. The more often a single object is enchanted the exact same way, the easier it becomes for that object to ‘learn’ the effect that you’re teaching it. But even then it still requires time. Minutes rather than hours, perhaps, but in the heat of battle, minutes do not exist.”

“A-are you sure that everyone can do it?” Aylen asked, her voice a bit tentative.

Carfried nodded. “You’ve used the Heretical Edge. You have the connection to the same energy that the Strangers use to come to this world, and you can use that energy for this enchantment magic.”

I raised my hand, and when he looked to me, I asked, “But what about magic things that do seem to last forever. Like umm…” Shifting, I pulled the holster for my staff off my belt and held it up, tugging the stick in and out a couple times. “I’m pretty sure no one’s sneaking up to refresh this every time I pull it out. Or the shield over the school.”

“A very good question, Miss Chambers,” Carfried nodded easily. “Indeed, in the case of your weapon sheath, and others that I’m sure many of you have, those what we call ‘passive effects.’ An object may be enchanted, by someone of sufficient skill, with a passive effect such as the extra-dimensional storage space that will be permanent. Doing so requires vast amounts of experience and skill. And you cannot make an active effect permanent. No fireballs that last forever, I’m afraid. Again, there are inherited Stranger traits that may mimic what you think of as magic, but true Heretical Magic is based only on Enchantment, and that requires time and energy to create. And as for the shield over the school, that is refreshed every morning and provided power by every faculty member in order to keep it going for another twenty-four hours.”

“But doesn’t that mean that someone could get through the shield while it was being recharged, if they knew when it was happening?” I asked, frowning in thought.

Carfried’s head shook. “I know what you’re thinking, Miss Chambers. But it wouldn’t work that way. Even if someone somehow managed to time their entrance to the grounds for the split second when the shield went down, it would be up again within a bare handful of seconds. And when it is, the shield runs another scan over every being on the grounds, making sure that both the quantity and the identities of those present match what it was before the previous shield was dropped.”

I was silent then, even though more questions about how the shield worked kept popping up in my head. Rather than voice them, I kept the questions to myself. There would be other, more private ways to get the answers I wanted other than blurting out a bunch of demands in the middle of class.

“Now,” the young teacher pressed on. “Who’s ready to learn how this magic works?” Gazing around the room, he smiled as pretty much every hand was raised. “Fantastic.

“Let’s get started.”

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Orientation 1-07

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For a meal that had been both quicker and more convenient than anything my good old friend, Mr. Microwave could have whipped up, the food here was pretty damn good. Scratch that, it was good regardless of how quickly it had come out. Dad and I had gotten to be decent at putting meals together, but we were still dependent on boxes with things like ‘ready in fifteen minutes’ written on the label.

I scraped the plate clean entirely and was just putting the fork down when the collective scraping of chairs drew my attention back toward the front. The Headmistress was standing again, though she seemed fairly content to wait until everyone looked at her before she began speaking. She drew attention not by demanding it, but simply by expecting it to be given. Force of personality, rather than loud words eventually drew the eyes of every student until the whole school was once again watching.

“Another wonderful meal provided by our dear Chef Escalan,” Headmistress Sinclaire announced with a graceful smile and nod toward a man standing near the doorway that led into the kitchen. I couldn’t see him that well, but from here he looked like a squat, portly man in a red and white striped apron. Stray bits of straw-yellow hair stuck out from under his flattened chef’s hat. Unlike the headmistress, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, it pretty much looked like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but here.

Either ignoring or not noticing the man’s ugly scowl, Headmistress Sinclaire pressed on. “I know that he enjoys feeding you students almost as much as you enjoy his concoctions. But alas, we must press on if we are going to meet our deadline for the evening.” Clearing her throat then, she clarified, “Not a literal dead line, mind you. The team that was sent to clean up the last of those Thanatosis Marks from last year has assured us that the top floor of the academics building is now perfectly safe.”

Well my attention was caught in a stranglehold by those words, but the headmistress continued by listing several rules that seemed pretty common sense. No going into the beach or the jungle while you were supposed to be in class (with a reminder that the environmental seal, as she called it, would detect if anyone passed it), no fighting between classes, no food in the classroom (though drinks were allowed), the Pathmaker was off limits on threat of horrible things happening to your stomach until the staff arrived to cure you and assign detention, curfew was eleven on school nights, at which point we were expected to be in our dorms, and so on. She also mentioned that there was to be no truth about where we were or what we were doing in messages sent to those ‘outside of the Knowledge.’

Finally, the headmistress smiled. “But enough of our rules. I assure you, we spend less time obsessing upon such things than some would assume given their placement at the start of each semester. For now, it is my pleasure to introduce three new faculty members this year. Professor Inisclic will be taking over for the unfortunately deceased Professor Memon in the general histories courses.” She indicated a thin man in a tweed suit that seemed to be paying more attention to his empty plate than the students.

“Next,” the woman continued, “we have Professor Armstrong, who will be heading up our languages department for the time being, and Professor Carfried, who is filling in for poor Professor Tangle while she recovers from her recent ordeal.” In turn, an older woman with a severe overbite, and a jolly looking younger guy in his twenties that looked too young to be a teacher both stood. I had to both sit on my hand and bite my lip to stop myself from calling out questions. One former teacher that was unfortunately deceased, and another who was ‘recovering from her recent ordeal?’ Was that normal?

Whether it was or not, the headmistress wasn’t saying. She simply made those introductions and then pressed on. “Also, while we happen to be on the subject of introductions, allow me to introduce your specialization instructors for this semester.” Lifting her arm, the woman indicated several of the faculty who stood briefly to be counted, including Professor Dare. “If you have any questions regarding your chosen track, feel free to speak with one of them after we finish here, or at any other time. Their job is to ensure that you are in the correct track for your skills and interests.”

That started a flurry of whispered discussion, and the headmistress chuckled slightly. “As I said, such questions should come when we are done. Be careful, the question you whisper to a neighbor may be one that is answered while you are so distracted.” With that minor bit of chiding done, she continued.

“But I believe that means we have come to the end of what is relevant to our returning students. Class schedules will be delivered during breakfast in the morning, which will be provided, as always, between six am and eight am. Other than that, second years and above, if there are no questions, you are excused. Except, of course, for our team mentors.”

Deveron, who had started to stand with three quarters of the students, sighed and dropped back into his seat. The look he shot toward me made it clear that he somehow blamed us for not being able to leave.

Annoyed, I whispered, “So tell the truth. Which was more important for getting this mentor gig. Was it your stunning and helpful personality, or was it your devotion and strict work ethic?”

He answered me with a fairly infuriating smirk and shrug. “If you must know, I pulled a sword out of a stone. Some people get to be king, I get to babysit a bunch of lemmings.” Patting the table, he added, “At least my round table’s loaded with babes instead of dudes though.” Pausing, he waved a hand toward Columbus and his roommate Sean while adding, “No offense, dudes. Sure you’re quite the conversationalists.”

Rolling my eyes, I leaned over to Herbie, who was still sitting on the table. “Sic him, boy. Bite him.” Herbie, sadly, was far too well behaved to take the suggestion. He did, however, glare menacingly.

By that point, the second, third, and fourth years had all filed out. Left with the smaller audience, Headmistress Sinclaire continued. “Ahh, yes. Our first year students. Another welcome to each of you, whether you have grown up within the Knowledge, or are Bystander-kin. I’m sure many of you have a lot of questions, but let’s see how fast we can get through this first and save those inquiries for afterward, shall we?” She waited for any objections, then continued.

“Good. Now, many of you have already chosen your track for the semester either by attending early orientation last week or by sending your request forms in over the summer. For those who haven’t and do not know what we are talking about, allow me to explain. There are five types of what we call specialization tracks in this school. Those are: Development, Investigation, Security, Hunters, and Explorers. These are indicated by the color provided on your school uniform: blue, purple, white, green, and red, respectively. Those same colors may be found outside of specialization rooms, to indicate that you are in the correct location when you attend those classes.”

That matched up with what the twins had said earlier. They were in the investigation track, which was purple. A glance toward Avalon confirmed that she wore the light blue of the so-called ‘development’ track, while Deveron’s uniform trim was red for the ‘explorer’, whatever that was. Frankly, as lazily as he was coming off, I had my doubts about whether that sounded like the right specialization for him. On the other hand, none of what had been listed sounded like a ‘sit around and eat Cheetos’ career track.

Headmistress Sinclaire went on. “I’ll let our track advisers explain a bit about each specialization while they introduce themselves. Afterward, a sheet will appear in front of you if you have not yet chosen a specialty. Circle the track you are most interested in beginning. This choice may be changed for one week at the beginning of each semester while you attend this school. Indeed, some careers require a certain number of semesters spent under more than one specialty track. All of this information will be available to you at any point as you continue your education here. Professor Pericles, would you mind starting us off?”

A man who looked so old I was surprised he hadn’t been declared legally deceased stood up from the table. In spite of looking positively ancient, he moved without apparent effort. “Good evening!” His voice boomed loudly, another contrast with his deceptively decrepit appearance. “So glad to meet new students every year. I’ve been around for quite awhile, let me tell you, and every year I think I’ll get tired of meeting you young newcomers. But don’t you know, it never happens. I’d tell you how absolutely wonderful it is to see each and every one of you, but we’d be here all night and while I may be old, I am vaguely aware that there are other activities you whippersnappers would rather focus on that don’t include listening to some old coot ramble on. So let me just inform you of the very basics.

“My name is Zedekiah Pericles, and I teach mechanical engineering and a bit of science within what we call the general education courses, and on the other side of things, I’ll be instructing you in how these Stranger sons of bitches are put together and what kinda stuff they can do, as well as a bit about the old magic doodads we’ve whipped up in the time since our ancestors started poking at the creeps with their sharp sticks. Specialization wise, I’m the man that runs the Development track. In layman’s terms, that means we work on making up new toys, new magic, new everything to either kill these things, or just clean up the messes they leave behind. Any of you ever seen those old Bond flicks, we’re Q. ‘Cept we use magic as much as tech to make our little gadgets and doodads. Those of you wearing or soon-to-wear the blue uniforms, you’re all mine.”

I glanced toward Avalon, who was busy watching the man intently with an unreadable expression. She had joined his track, which clearly meant she was interested in the research side of things. Or maybe she really liked building things and putting stuff together? Maybe that was how she’d known so much about that circle surrounding the Pathmaker building. Assuming, of course, it wasn’t just something she’d learned from whatever Headmistress Sinclaire was to her. I still needed to find that out.

After Professor Pericles sat down, it was Professor Dare’s turn. She introduced herself again, stating that most there already knew her. Then she added that she taught fencing and American History, and that she ran the Investigation specialization track, which focused on interacting with those ‘outside of the knowledge’ to determine whether unexplained events in the mundane world were supernatural in nature or not. Usually those investigations were conducted under some false authority, the Heretic posing as a member of a legitimate law enforcement body. In other words, they lied a lot and used those lies to find out whether any random strange or outlandish event was a Stranger or not, and attempted to deal with it if possible. They were also the ones most responsible for keeping ‘bystanders’ out of the way, concocting the lies that prevented ordinary law enforcement (or say, random snoopy reporters like I aspired to be) from learning too much about this shadow world full of monsters. They were, of course, purple. The same color that Sands and Scout both wore.

Next there was the previously mentioned Professor Carfried, the young-looking teacher who had apparently taken over for Professor Tangle while she ‘recovered,’ from whatever she was recovering from. He was clearly nervous, stammering a fair bit but cheerful enough as he explained that he would be heading up the red-trimmed Explorer track. Their job, apparently, was to actually go into breaches between our world and the ones that these Strangers came from, documenting various information about their origins, the lands and homes they built, and more.

Professor Katarin, a male professor with very dark skin and the sort of bodybuilder look I associated with professional football linebackers, stood briefly to say that his classes were gym, general self defense, and that he was the specialization adviser for those in the Hunter track, those with green-lined uniforms. They were, to put it simply, those that actively fought against the Strangers. Unlike the Investigators, Hunters focused on areas where we knew for a fact the Strangers were coming through. They dealt with known and established threats, and were basically the straight up combat troops.

Finally, an Asian woman who appeared to be either in her late twenties or very early thirties stood up and introduced herself as Professor Kohaku. She spoke in carefully measured tones, her voice never rising above what felt like a whisper even though we could hear her just fine. She taught art classes and was responsible for the security of the school. Conveniently, she was also the adviser for those that were a part of the Security track itself, those with the white-lined uniforms. They were essentially responsible for keeping various places safe from Stranger infiltration. Hunters openly attacked, while Security protected.

And that was it. Development, Investigation, Explorers, Hunters, and Security. Once the advisers were done introducing themselves, a bit of plastic not-unlike the menu that had appeared previously popped up out of thin air in front of me. Columbus and his roommate received their own, and the three of us looked at one another while the rest of the table’s occupants either watched curiously (Sands and Scout) or ignored us completely (Deveron and Avalon).

“Hey,” Columbus whispered across the table toward my roommate. “Can I ask you a question?”

Slowly, the beautiful brunette turned her attention to him. She remained silent for a couple of seconds while obviously gathering herself before she spoke. “If it’s about the specializations, yes. Otherwise, you are seriously barking up the wrong tree.”

“Right, it’s about this.” The boy waved his sheet. “The Development track, is that, you know, interesting?”

Again, Avalon was silent. I had a feeling she was trying to determine how serious Columbus was. Finally, she breathed out a long, low sigh. “If you are told about a career that is focused on creating weapons and researching the weaknesses of monsters and have to ask if it’s interesting, either you weren’t listening to begin with or your line for what is interesting sits far beyond what humanity can measure.”

“Gotcha,” Columbus just grinned while circling that with his finger. “Just making sure.”

“What are you going for, Flick?” Sands asked, leaning a bit over the table to watch me as I tapped the sheet a few times.

“Well,” I answered. “Honestly, Explorer sounds pretty interesting. Seeing all those new worlds and stuff? Really cool. And Avalon’s right, so does Development. But I’ve wanted to be a reporter my whole life, one of those people that goes out and finds out the truth. So I think Investigation is pretty much the only real choice for me.” I used my finger to circle that, and my sheet disappeared a second later.

“Hell yeah,” Sands held her hand up, and I gave her five. “Though I guess this makes us kind of Investigator heavy. You, me, Scout. Plus we’ve got two Developers and one Explorer.” Glancing toward Deveron, who appeared to be daydreaming, she rolled her eyes. “Sort of.” To Sean, she asked, “What about you?”

Columbus’s roommate was a Hispanic boy with shaggy hair. He stared at the sheet for another fifteen seconds or so in silence before running his finger around one of the options. “Security.”

“Cool, guess all we’re missing is a Hunter then,” I frowned. “I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Should be okay,” Columbus pointed out. “They said we could change every semester if we want to, right? So we’ll probably go back and forth. I don’t know about you guys, but I wanna check out each track at least once.”

There was a little more conversation, and the headmistress spoke again. But eventually, we were dismissed. As everyone started to file out, I grabbed my rock off the table and stood up. “C’mon, Herbie, time to give you a bath.”

******

A couple hours later, I was exhausted. I’d spent the time using the computer in the dorm room to write an extensive e-mail to my father. Honestly, I felt really bad about the lies I had to tell him. Part of me wanted to put it off because of how… icky the idea of deceiving my own dad felt. Especially since I was apparently going to have to continue doing it not only for the next four years, but forever.

On the other hand, I couldn’t tell him the truth and end up putting him in danger. And I couldn’t just ignore him either. My mother had abandoned the man. The last thing I was going to do was avoid writing to him. It was bad enough that I wasn’t living there and couldn’t see him every night.

So no, there would be no delaying. I was going to write my father a message every day. Sure I’d have to rephrase things or tone them down, and leave out a lot of details. But I told him about Avalon and the rest of my new teammates (I called them an assigned study group), and about some of the school. I did, of course, leave out the part about being on a tropical island. That probably would have earned me a few questions.

After sending the e-mail, I stood up and turned at the sound of the door opening. Avalon was coming in with a damp towel over her shoulders. When I’d asked where she was going earlier, she’d simply said that her body didn’t just magically appear and that she had to work for it.

“Did you have a good work-out?” I asked.

“No,” she retorted flatly. “Too many people. Hey, what the hell is that stupid rock doing up there?”

Adopting a surprised expression, I turned to see where she was looking. The rock in question was resting up on top of large window, balanced on the rim. Gasping out loud, I moved past the scowling girl. “Herbie!” Jumping up, I caught the rock with one hand. “Be careful, buddy, I know you like to see what’s going on, but you could fall. Here, see anything interesting?” Holding the rock in my palm, I aimed it at out the window toward the grounds outside before speaking over my shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s just feeling adventurous after his bath. See?” Turning, I showed the other girl that the stone had been scrubbed clean in the restroom sink.

My roommate just stood there for a moment, then sighed before crossing over to her side of the room. She disappeared into the closet before returning with a nightshirt, which she quietly changed into. “Hey, Chambers, put down the fucking rock and pay attention.”

I set Herbie on the windowsill and looked toward the girl as she moved to a spot on her desk. “See this button? Look at the one on your side.”

Interested, I leaned over to look at side of my desk. Sure enough, there was a small red button there that I hadn’t noticed. “Got it.”

“Great,” her tone was even. “Now watch. You push it and…” A second later, that side of the room was plunged into pitch-black darkness. I couldn’t see any sign of the girl or any of her furniture. It was as if a solid wall had appeared to block it off.

The darkness went away then, and I asked, “So it’s a light switch?”

Avalon snorted. “No, that’s a light switch.” She pointed to the wall. “This is a privacy switch. Press it once, wait, then press it again.”

I shrugged and followed her instructions, pressing my finger against the button. As soon as I did, the same blackness seemed to appear. This time, however, it appeared right on the edge of my own space. It was a wall, I realized. A non-solid wall made out of darkness that prevented anyone outside from seeing in and anyone inside from seeing out.

Flipping the switch off again, I coughed. “That’s cool. Privacy switch.”

“You can’t see through it, you can’t hear through it, and you can’t walk through it unless you’re a faculty member or you have permission,” she explained. “Otherwise, they can’t hear you at all. Understand?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I get it. Do you think–”

“Good,” she interrupted. “Because I wanted you to know exactly what this means.” A second later, her side of the room was plunged into darkness again as she activated the privacy screen. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be taking it down for the rest of the evening.

So much for asking Avalon what her relation to the headmistress was. Sighing, I crossed to my own bed, picked up my rock, and set him on the dresser next to me while laying down. “Guess it’s you and me tonight, Herbie.”

I lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling for a few minutes while letting my mind wander. So much had happened today. So much was still incredibly confusing and more than a little frightening. Yet even with that uncertainty, I knew I’d made the right decision to go through that mirror when Professor Dare had offered me the choice. It… felt like I was where I belonged.

In the morning, classes would begin. Classes that would tell me more about this world I had suddenly become a part of, that would explain what these ‘Strangers’ were and how we were expected to combat them.

I’d never been more excited for school in my life.

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Orientation 1-06

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“And this is what they call the Pathmaker,” Sands announced toward the end of a brief tour of the school grounds some time later. She held a hand up to stop us a few feet away from the entrance of the place, then pivoted around to face us. “Anyone wanna guess what that means?”

Most of what the twins had shown us had been covered earlier by Professor Dare when she had pointed out each of the main buildings. There were also a couple sport fields behind the athletic facilities that I hadn’t noticed, and more gardens than seemed normal for a school to have. But for the most part, everything was seemed to be pretty standard facilities. Except for this particular building.

Up close, the lowercase T shape was more pronounced. It was a good eight stories tall, with the horizontal part of the T consisting of the sixth floor, which stuck out several rooms wider to the west and east than the rest of the building. From this close, we could hear a loud, continual humming.

“Uh,” Vanessa, the blonde girl that Sands had almost tricked into being grabbed by the statue at the boy’s dorm, raised a hand tentatively, waiting for the other girl to look at her. She was still clutching that book like it was a lifeline. “Does it make those portals like the ones that brought us here?”

“Yup!” Sands chirped, head bobbing. “Plus it does some other stuff that uhh, I don’t really know about. Trust me, Scout and me, we’ve tried for years to get someone to tell us about it, but they won’t.”

“Wait a second.” I held up a hand. “Aren’t you guys first years too? I mean, I know you grew up knowing about all this stuff, but isn’t this your first year actually being here?”

Grinning back at me, Sands pointed once, then twice. “Yes, we’re first years. No, it’s not our first year being here. See, Scout and me, we grew up here. Our dad’s one of the teachers, so this is our home.” She continued to smile, shrugging. “You have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for this year.”

Beside her, Scout, whose gaze had been locked on the ground this whole time, gave a slight nod. She peeked up through the hair that obscured her face and I saw a faint smile of agreement before she looked down again. For the quiet girl who never seemed to talk to anyone but her sister, that seemed to pretty much be the equivalent of jumping up and down while screaming with excitement.

“So what’s that humming noise?” Columbus put in after tapping a hand against his ear a few times. “And why does it get louder the closer we get to this thing?” He took a step forward, then stopped.

Sands gestured, and I noticed she was careful not to extend her arm past the point that she had told us to stop at. “That noise? That’s the warning.” She gave a little shudder that made me blink. “If you’re close enough to hear it, you’re getting near the line. Here, guys, look at this, but don’t touch.”

She stepped aside and pointed to the ground. There was a metallic silver line, about three inches wide encircling the building. It ran over both the pathway and the grass. As far as I could see, it continued all the way around, leaving the tall building entirely enclosed within the circle.

Once everyone had noticed the line, Sands explained, “See, that line? That’s a magic circle.”

“A magic circle?” one of the other boys replied flatly, his doubt obvious. “Magic. Circle.”

“It’s a long story,” Sands replied. “You’ll find out all about them later. The point is, this magic circle does a lot of things. Like, in this case, keep all of us out of the building. We’re not allowed to go in without an escort and permission, and this line makes sure we stay away from it.”

One of the other girls, pale with long brown hair drawn into a braid, snickered. “We’re not? What happens if we cross it? Do we get in trouble?” Her hand caught hold of Vanessa’s shoulder and arm and she made a motion as though to shove the suddenly protesting blonde over the line. “Let’s find out.”

I started to move, but before I could take more than a single step, a figure shoved past me. My gaze went up and I barely had time to recognize my brand new roommate before she caught the other girl by the wrist. In one motion, Avalon twisted until the girl released Vanessa with a yelp, then yanked the girl backwards, using a foot to trip her so that she sprawled back on the grass. The would-be tormentor landed hard on her backside, yelping in surprise.

“Are you really that fucking stupid?” Avalon stood over the fallen girl. In the background, I actually heard a couple of the boys make appreciative noises. Which, I suppose I couldn’t blame them for. In the sunlight the dark-haired girl looked objectively even more attractive than she had in the dorm room. And right now, standing between the fallen girl and the still-surprised Vanessa, she looked as fierce as a lioness. Righteous fury seemed to envelop her as she stood glaring down at the other girl.

Eyes widening angrily, the girl who had been tossed to the ground cursed while sitting up. “The fuck?”

“No.” Avalon stated the word before using a foot to shove the girl back down. “Are you learning disabled? Did the school create a brand new special ed class this year and I just happened to miss it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s something that would make its rounds through the rumor mill. ‘School accepts student with IQ equivalent to jar of mayonnaise, and slightly less survival instinct.’ Yup, pretty damn sure I would have heard about that at some point.”

Face growing redder by the second while everyone in the group stared, the girl on the ground sputtered, “Get the fuck off me. Who the hell do you think you are? I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

“Not doing anything wrong?” Avalon echoed. Her gaze moved briefly to me before she rolled her eyes and spoke through gritted teeth. “Sands, would you like to take this time to explain what happens when someone crosses that line? You know, the thing you were about to do anyway before Mayonnaise here thought it might be funny to throw someone over it? And for the record, talk faster next time.”

Clearing her throat once, Sands explained, “If you cross the line, you’ll get really sick. Like, face on the ground, expelling everything you’ve eaten for the past two days out both ends. Headache, nausea, dizziness, the works. I’ve seen it happen. It’s really awful. Plus it sets off an alarm, everything closes down, it’s horrible. You don’t want it to happen. Just stay away from the line. It’s bad news.”

“So, Mayonnaise,” Avalon spoke firmly while finally taking her foot off of the girl to let her up. “How about next time someone tells you not to do something around here, you wait and hear why you shouldn’t do it before you decide to test it with someone who didn’t do anything to you? Just sort of seems like the smart way of doing things after you’ve been told that there’s magic and demons and all sorts of nasty stuff out there. But then, I’m not coming at this whole thing with the common sense of a bag of hammers tossed into the dryer.”

Scowling as she pushed herself to her feet, the girl muttered, “My name is Koren, not Mayonnaise.”

“Great, maybe someday you’ll act like a person instead of a jar of condiments,” Avalon replied evenly. “But for now, just shut up and stand in your group where you belong. And the next time you think it might be funny to push someone else around or mess with them for no reason, remember that there’s always someone else that can push you around right back.”

Without missing a beat, she turned her head slightly to the group of guys who had been ogling her throughout this. “And yes, boys, those are my tits. Be careful, if you keep straining your necks like that, you’re gonna pull something.”

******

We had a brief lunch out on the grounds that consisted mainly of sandwiches and apples provided in little brown bags. Then we had time to ourselves. I looked around a little, found the large library inside the main academic building, and texted my father to let him know that I’d arrived at my new school just fine. I’d held my breath, expecting an explosion of confusion from him until he’d sent back a message telling me to have fun and to e-mail him every day. He really did think this was all planned.

Before long, it was time for the welcoming dinner. Following the instructions that Sands had left with us, I met up with the rest of the Silverstone group down by the cafeteria and common area building. As Professor Dare had said, this particular building was located between the two dorms. Not directly between, of course. That’s where the courtyard was. Instead, it was sort of slightly above that middle spot, so that each dorm building and this one formed the three points of a triangle.

The professor herself was waiting for us. She greeted each of us by name, and once we had all arrived, cleared her throat. “We’re going inside now. I would like all of you to be quiet and conduct yourselves appropriately. You will sit at the front table until you are divided into your individual teams.”

Blinking, I raised my hand. “Uh, teams, Professor? I don’t understand, what teams?”

She bowed her head to me. “Thank you for reminding me, Miss Chambers. Yes, after the Headmistress has greeted and welcomed everyone, you will be divided into teams. Each team will consist of three pairs of roommates and one older student as a mentor. This team will be the same throughout the school year. You will attend classes together, aside from your mentor of course, who will have his own classes. You will also be assigned projects and other training exercises to be completed as a group.”

Right. Which meant that Avalon was one of my teammates. I still didn’t know what to think about the girl. She hadn’t talked to me at all that afternoon, though we’d passed each other in the hall. She clearly had an attitude that wasn’t limited just to me, yet she had stood up for Vanessa. Which, as far as I could tell, wasn’t an isolated incident. My roommate acted like a complete bitch, but she stood up for people.

Before I could think too much more about that, Professor Dare had opened the doors and we filed in after her. The building was divided into two halves by a long corridor. To the left, there were four doors. Three of them led into the same large room, the cafeteria, while the fourth led into the kitchen. And to the right, there was a pair of doors near both ends. Those led into the common areas for students to interact, chat, play games, and whatever else we wanted to do outside of schoolwork.

Turning left, Professor Dare opened the nearest cafeteria door, and led us inside.

The cafeteria was a long, rectangular shaped room. We were at the back end of it. All along three quarters of the room were circular tables surrounded by chairs, clearly designed for a handful of occupants each. Toward the front there were several longer tables that took up most of the width of the room, with a final slightly smaller table at the very end that was set apart from the rest. Beyond that was a door that clearly led into the kitchen from this side.

Looking around the room, I estimated about four hundred students in this place. So roughly a hundred per year. That seemed like a lot for a secret school, but what did I know? Clearly they knew what they were doing.

The separate table at the far end was clearly where the faculty sat. I could see them there, a dozen or so adults watching along with every other eye in the room as we entered. In the very middle sat the woman I recognized from both the picture in the lighthouse and my ancestor’s memory. The headmistress. She gazed impassively from where she was seated, observing as Professor Dare led us through the room all the way to the front.

At the front of the room, Professor Dare gestured for us to take a seat at the end of one of the long tables. There were a bunch of other students our age up here too, including Sands and Scout, who waved at us from where they were sitting. Clearly, this was where the first year students were all waiting for our assigned teams. Once we were at the table, the professor pressed a finger to her lips before moving to join the other teachers.

I’d barely sat down before Headmistress Sinclaire rose to her feet. When she spoke, her voice filled the room. She wasn’t shouting. Actually, she appeared to be speaking in a normal tone of voice. Yet it seemed to come from everywhere in the room at once. It was as if she was right beside me.

“Thank you, Professor Dare.” The tall, red-haired woman looked out over the crowd. She held the stoic look for a brief moment, then smiled broadly. It was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, the kind of smile that made everyone else want to smile back. “My name is Headmistress Sinclaire. And welcome, all of you, to Crossroads Academy. Some of you are joining us for the first time, while others we have been privileged to know before now. All of you, in every grade, are very welcome here. We are pleased to have you.

“Now, I know everyone is very hungry. And Chef Escalan has truly outdone himself this time. So let’s get through this quickly, shall we? First, to divide our first years into their teams.” Looking up toward the back, she lifted a hand. “New mentors, please stand up.” Throughout that collection of circular tables, about fifteen or sixteen slightly older students stood up. Most looked confident, though a few were clearly nervous.

Once they had stood, the headmistress nodded. “Let’s do this as easily as possible, shall we? Start on this end, Mister Travers.” She indicated one of the standing students. “Read off the names on your list, would you please?” To us, she explained, “When you hear your name, go and join your team mentor.”

The boy started to speak, but it was a mumble and no one could hear him. Still smiling, the headmistress touched something inside her jacket pocket. When the boy spoke again, his voice spread through the room the same way hers had. “Uhh, Dastin, Roy and Scofield, Preston?” Two boys that I didn’t know went that way, soon followed by four other students to make a team of six.

After that, Vanessa Moon and a girl named Erin Redcliffe were the first pair to be called by a black girl named Cameron who was standing there the whole time with some kind of lizard perched on her shoulder. That continued on through more mentor students. One by one, our table of first years dwindled. It looked like each team only had one or two of those of us who had grown up without knowing any of this stuff, and I figured that was probably intentional.

A few teams later, Headmistress Sinclaire announced the next mentor’s name. “Deveron Adams?”

I remembered the name. That was the guy that was supposed to be keeping an eye on the other Bystander-kin while Professor Dare retrieved me, and later give us the tour that Sands and Scout had ended up giving.

Turning in my seat, I watched as the boy in question stood, stretching lazily as he did so. He was tall, maybe an inch over six feet, and well built. Even from here, I could tell that the boy personified tall, dark, and handsome. His black hair was styled into a crew cut, and it looked like there was a vague hint of Asian genes in his otherwise Caucasian features. The tie and lapels of his school uniform were red.

“Ahh, let’s see who the talent is this year.” Deveron glanced at the paper in his hand. Unlike the others, he read all the names off at once without waiting. “Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Avalon Sinclaire, Sandoval Mason, and Sarah Mason. Let’s go, chop chop, people. Some of us want to eat sometime today.”

Yay. Clearly this guy was going to be a fantastic mentor. Rolling my eyes, I stood with the others and walked to the table where Deveron had already sat back down and resumed his casual, lounging position with his feet up on the opposite chair.

Pointedly, I ignored the other seats, shoving those feet off the chair so I could sit in it. Sands took the seat to my right with her sister beside her, while Columbus took the seat to my left. His own roommate sat beside him, leaving the last chair for Avalon to take.

Linking his arms behind his head, Deveron smirked at me. “Something ruffle your feathers, birdie?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Weren’t you the one that was supposed to give us a tour earlier?”

“Was I?” He shrugged, clearly not caring. “Sorry, guess I had something better to do. Didn’t my substitutes do a good job?” The boy glanced toward the twins. “I left you two of them and everything, just to make up for missing me.”

Before I could retort to that, the next mentor finished listing his students, which meant that all the final one had to do was wave for the few students that remained to join him at the last table.

“Wonderful,” Headmistress Sinclaire smiled broadly once more. “Now remember, these are the teams that you will have throughout the rest of this year. You will go to every class together, you will do all projects together, and you will train together. You will learn to rely on one another, just as the rest of our student teams have. Look at the people around you. These are the students who you will learn to count on to have your back, to protect and learn from each other.”

All throughout the room, at every first-year table, there was an exchange of glances and a murmur of uncertainty. Before it could grow too loud, the headmistress continued. “But that’s for later. Right now, you’ve all waited quite long enough. Let’s eat, shall we?”

With that, she clapped her hands twice. As soon as she did, a plastic menu appeared out of thin air, landing on the table right in front of me. Everyone else had their own menu appear, and there were gasps all around the room.

Beside me, Sands leaned closer, speaking so that Columbus and I could hear. “See, just pick up the menu.” She plucked hers off the table and showed it to us. There were four or five main dishes listed, along with a handful of side options, a few different drinks, and so on. “Use your finger like this to circle what you want.” With her index finger, Sands circled the word ‘meatloaf.’ As she did so, a glowing blue line appeared around it. She followed that up with corn on the cob, french fries, and chocolate milk. Then she moved her finger down to the lower right corner where the word ‘finished’ was written and circled that with her finger so that the line appeared there as well. Then she set the menu down.

About six seconds after she’d set the menu on the table, it vanished and was replaced by a plate laden with all the food she had ordered, and her chosen drink.

“Cool!” I grabbed my menu and stared at it, carefully circling what looked good with my finger. “How does it work?” I asked quickly. “I mean, how do they, how does it… you know, how does it do that?”

Looking right back at me, Sands grinned. “It is pretty cool, huh?” Then she shrugged. “I dunno how it works exactly. That’s the sort of thing we’re supposed to learn this year. Magic.”

Magic. The word hit me, and I had to sit there holding the menu for a few seconds. Magic. We were learning magic. All of this, everything that was happening, it was all coming so fast. I felt overwhelmed, almost sick, but in sort of a good way. It was like the feeling I’d gotten as a kid before a big vacation or an important holiday. Overwhelming, in every sense of the word.

Swallowing, I reached into my pocket absently and took out the stone that I had thrown through the portal earlier. After playing with it in my hand while I thought for a second, I set it down on the table.

“Why do you have a dirty rock?” Avalon spoke to me for the first time that evening, her gaze riveted to it as if I’d thrown a corpse down on the table or something. “Please tell me you don’t think it’s magic.”

“Magic?” I grinned back at the other girl in spite of her scowl. “Nah, it’s just my pet rock.” I announced that while circling ‘finished’ on the menu, then set it down.

“Your… pet… rock…” Avalon spoke slowly, staring at me like I’d just said the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

“Yup!” I chirped just as my plate of food appeared in front of me. Magic. It appeared like magic. I grabbed the fork off the table. “Don’t worry though, he doesn’t eat much and he’s really quiet. I think I’ve got him potty-trained.”

On either side of me, Columbus and Sands snickered. I even caught a glimpse of a smile from Scout.

But Avalon just shook her head and looked away, muttering about having a dumbass for a roommate.

Ignoring that, I dug the fork into the food and took a bite. Then I closed my eyes and murmured appreciatively before intoning in a low voice, “Don’t be jealous, I’ll share Herbie with you.”

“Herbie?” Avalon echoed the word flatly.

“Yup,” I nodded. “Herbie. My rock. I’ll let you play with him sometime if you want. You know, fetch, roll over, sit up, play dead. He’s better at those last two, but we’re working on it.”

“Oh my God,” Avalon’s voice was droll. “My roommate is a fucking crazy person.”

Leaning closer to the rock on the table, I spoke in a stage-whisper. “Don’t worry, Herbie. She’ll warm up to you. Just be yourself. And remember, no peeing in the bed.”

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Orientation 1-05

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Moments later, Sands and Scout were leading our little group of Bystander-kin out of the lighthouse and back along the trail toward the dorm buildings Professor Dare had pointed out to me. The others were chatting about the things they’d seen, but my mind was stuck on that little revelation.

Right, so the headmistress of this super secret magic school happened to be the woman who had sworn to kill my ancestor however many centuries ago. That in itself raised about a bazillion questions, starting with: how old was she? Was I wrong about how long ago it had been? Their clothing, mannerisms, and everything else said that they were from the medieval era, but she was still alive.

Magic. As soon as I thought the question, the answer came to me. Of course it was magic. Why was I questioning it? I’d just stepped through an empty doorway to be instantly transported literally thousands of miles to a paradise island where I looked into a bright light and experienced a flashback memory from one of my ancestors. Why the hell should freaking longevity trip me up so much?

Hell, humanity’s average life expectancy was getting longer all the time, with just normal technology and medicine. Add magic into the mix, and it really shouldn’t have been surprising at all.

At least I now understood why Professor Dare had just smiled at me when I’d made that comment about how the headmistress must be getting older if she took over the school sixty-seven years ago. With a lifespan like she had, less than seventy years was practically a summer job.

I wondered, briefly, if the woman knew who I was and where I had descended from. It would make sense, considering everything else they knew. Was that, my ancestor’s cowardice, the reason they had taken so long to approve me? But if it was, why would the headmistress have been the one to break that tie in my favor? It was possible that she didn’t hold the coward’s actions against me and wanted to give me a chance. But it was also possible that she wanted me here for another reason.

Stop, Flick. Just stop. You’re being paranoid. Even if Baroness Gaia Sinclaire did know who my ancestor was, she had absolutely no reason to associate me with him. Only a truly pathetic nutjob would treat someone like shit just because of who they were related to. The woman’s been around for centuries. Obviously she was more mature and level-headed than that. I had no reason other than utter batshit paranoia to think she was out to get me. So leave it alone unless something else happens.

“Hey, uhh, what’s your name?” The voice, addressing me apparently, came from the black guy who had spoken up to ask if we were going to find out why we were in that lighthouse. Mr. Porter, the professor had called him. He was fairly tall, just a hair under six feet. His build was athletic, but in a narrow sort of way, more like a runner or a swimmer than a bodybuilder. He was looking back at me curiously.

“Flick,” I tore my attention away from my introspection to speak up. “Flick Chambers.” I extended a hand to the boy. “Sorry for holding everything up and making you guys wait so long.”

“Eh,” he waved one hand dismissively while taking mine with his other to shake once. His grip was firm, his hands strong and calloused. “Don’t worry about it. Sounds like you just found out about all this today, right?” There was a look of sympathy in his gaze. “Trust me, we know where you’re at right now. Me, I met Professor Dare… what… a week ago? What about everyone else?”

There was a general murmur of agreement. Most people had met the professor days ago. I was the only one that had been first contacted mere minutes before orientation. Obviously Professor Dare hadn’t been kidding about how things had come right down to the wire on whether to approve me or not.

“I’m Columbus,” the boy informed me. “Columbus Porter.” He lifted his hand to point to the Asian girl. “That right there is Shiori, my foster sister. Yeah, we both ended up here, go figure, huh?”

I waved to Shiori, listening as some of the other students discussed the things they’d seen. I heard the other black guy, whose name was Travis, apparently, talk about how his ancestor had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and that his vision had been of the man shooting down flying zombie whale monsters in his biplane. This, of course, was met with a boast from one of the Caucasian boys that his ancestor had apparently fought immortal vampire redcoats during the American Revolution. Travis referred to the other boy as Malcolm while scoffing at the idea that something like that was more impressive than his own vision. The two were obviously friends, and they continued talking over one another trying to brag the loudest about their ancestor’s achievements and how amazing they had been.

That little discussion was curtailed as Columbus called up toward the front. “Hey, uhh, Sands was it?”

The girl pivoted, walking backwards beside her silent twin while nodding toward him. “Sup?”

“You guys already had your orientation, right?” Columbus asked. “Did you have to go into the lighthouse and see visions or whatever to unlock your ability to see these monsters and all that?”

Sands shook her head. “Yes and no. See, we do have to look into it and see those visions. But not like you guys just did. When you grow up with this stuff, the ones born in the Knowledge, you go into the lighthouse over the summer before this first school year starts. And you don’t go in with a big group or with Professor Dare. You go with your family, and your parents or guardian or whatever starts it up. Then you talk together about everything you saw. It’s like a… a big family outing.” She swallowed at the end of that, her gaze shooting briefly toward Scout and I saw a hint of a flinch before it went away.

Before anyone could say anything else, we reached the base of one of the two dorm buildings. They were four stories high, and shaped long rather than tall, with the end opposite us pointed toward the beach in the distance. They were placed parallel to one another, with a wide courtyard between them that had several benches and a fountain in the middle, and there was a glass-enclosed bridge connecting the top floor of each. I also saw a couple more of those gargoyles perched at the top of the buildings. In front of the doors we were standing at, there was a gold statue of a knight holding a sword at the ready.

“This is the boy’s dorm,” Sands informed us. “You can tell because of the statue. See, look over there.” We looked the way she was indicating, and found a gold statue of a woman holding a bow and arrow standing beside the door of the opposite building.

“Here, Vanessa was it?” Sands looked to a blonde girl clutching a thick leather-bound book to her chest. When the girl nodded, Sands gestured. “Why don’t you open the door for us?” There was a mischievous glint to the girl’s expression, and she stepped aside.

“I’ll do it,” I said quickly, taking a step that way. I put my hand out toward the door, only to yelp out loud as my wrist was caught in an iron grip. Or possibly golden grip, considering it was the statue that had caught me. The thing had moved suddenly, and I had the feeling that there wasn’t a goofy security guard inside the armor this time. This was something else. I stood still while the thing held my arm, and after a moment, it released me, but continued to stand warily with its head pointed my direction.

“First year boys aren’t allowed in the girl’s dorms or vice versa,” Sands explained. “Sorry, but it’s kinda funny to see the first time it happens. The door statues here will stop you from going in if you’re under age and don’t belong in that particular dorm. Don’t ask me how they know how old we are. Once you’re over eighteen, you can go into the other dorm as much as you want. And trust me, people do. Plus, boyfriends and girlfriends can room together if they make a special request.”

The blonde girl with the book, Vanessa apparently, shot me a grateful look. I shrugged and smiled back at her before turning my attention toward the twins. “Let me guess, four floors, four years of school.”

“Hey, nice catch,” Sands replied with a grin, giving me a thumbs up. “Yeah, first years like us are on the first floor. Next year we move up to the second, and so on. Top floor dorms are completely co-ed. They’ve got a lot of couples living together up there, so the top floor of the dorms are connected by those bridges. They’re also bigger. The rooms up there are more like apartments than dorms.”

“I’ve got a question,” Columbus raised his hand. “Aren’t those uniforms hot?” He nodded toward the clothes that the twins were wearing. “We’re on a tropical island. Actually…” As if it had just occurred to him, he looked around. “Why am I not hot? Hell, why aren’t we all sweating our asses off?”

He was right. The temperature felt just about perfect. Not too hot, and not too cold. It was just right. I hadn’t really noticed it too much before, which made me feel pretty damn stupid, but I’d forgive myself given everything else I was trying to cope with and understand. The weather not being hot enough for a tropical island like this, and the twins not roasting in those uniforms, was just one more thing.

Sands grinned back at the boy. “First, you not being hot is kind of a matter of opinion.” She winked then before continuing. “And as for the rest of it, uhhh, you see those birds over there?” Pointing off in the distance, she indicated a flock of brightly colored parrots flying just above the trees beyond the school grounds. “If you listen really close, you can kind of hear them. But they should be a lot louder. Hell, this whole place should be drowning in noise. That’s a jungle out there, literally. There’s tons of animals in that place, yet, we can’t really hear them. Why? Same reason it’s not as hot as it should be.”

“Magic?” One of the other new students, the Native American girl, asked tentatively.

“Yup!” Sands nodded toward the girl, then hesitated. “Exactly, err, what’s your name, again?”

“Aylen,” the girl answered. “Aylen Tamaya.”

“Aylen,” Sands repeated. “Right, Aylen, it’s magic. See, there’s a big forcefield shield thing all around the grounds. It maintains the temperature in here, and muffles the sound from outside. It also does a few other things, like keep track of when anyone leaves so the faculty always know when someone’s off the grounds. Which sounds like a pain in the ass, but I guess it’s necessary to keep everyone safe and whatever else. Point is, as long as you stay on the school grounds, the temperature will adjust itself to whatever you’re wearing to make you perfectly comfortable. So I could wear a tee-shirt and shorts while Scout wore a snowsuit, and we’d both be comfortable even standing next to each other.”

That… sounded pretty damn useful, actually. I whistled low. “So I guess beyond the shield it’s hot?”

“Hell yeah,” Sands bobbed her head rapidly. “It’s like a ninety degrees out there by the beach today. Step outside the shield and you’ll see how hot it can get here during the day. I think that’s part of why they make us wear these uniforms, to make us not want to go down there while we’re in class.”

There was a little more back-and-forth discussion about the shield and how well it maintained the temperature and sound before Sands pointed toward the boy’s dorm entrance. “Guys, if you go in here and past the stairs, you’ll find the first year dorms. The doors all have the names of who belongs there written beside them. Oh, and you’ll have a roommate. I think they try to pair Silverstones like you guys with a roommate that grew up in the Knowledge like Scout and me so that we can answer any questions you have. Your clothes and everything else you brought should be on your bed in there. And… what else… “

She trailed off, frowning as if trying to remember what she had forgotten. After a second or two of that, her twin leaned up and whispered in her ear. Sands snapped her fingers then. “Oh, right. Thanks, Scout. Yeah, there should be a key next to where your name is written in there.” She dug into her pocket and came out with what looked like one of those old, big cast iron keys, except that it was ruby-colored. “The dorm rooms will be locked unless you’re carrying that key with you. You don’t have to actually stick it in anything, you just have to have it and the door it matches will unlock when the key gets close enough to it. It’s cool, plus it saves you from having to take the time to use them.”

It did sound cool, and it reminded me a bit of those electronic security badges that people wore, the ones that didn’t have to be inserted anywhere, but just worked by getting near the door scanner.

“All right!” Sands stepped back from the dorm. “You guys go in, find your rooms and get sorted. We’ll head over to the girl dorms and then everyone meets back out here by the fountain in… ten minutes?”

There was a general agreement, and the boys headed in to find their rooms while Sands and Scout led the rest of us across to the other building. This time, the golden statue outside remained motionless as we approached and went through the door into the dorm itself.

The floor and walls here were dark hardwood. There was a set of stairs to the right, while an open doorway to the left led into the hallway itself. Doors lined both sides of the hall, with wall-mounted lamps between each pair of them. There were also several paintings of various mythological creatures and warriors adorning the hallway, along with the plaques besides each door with the names listed on them that Sands had already mentioned. Small manila envelopes were attached to the plaques that obviously held those keys.

Everyone spread out to find their rooms, and I did the same. Walking down the hall, I passed the others until I reached the very end, just before a window that overlooked the grounds that led down to the beach. Finally, I found the plaque that had my name written on it. Felicity Chambers. Below that, there was another plaque with the name Avalon Sinclaire.

Wait. Sinclaire? As in Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire? That… couldn’t be a coincidence. Why was I being bunked alongside someone that was obviously related to the headmistress?

Shaking off my confusion, I took the envelope down and slipped the large red key out. Turning it over in my hand, I examined the key but couldn’t see anything overtly magical about it. Not that I knew what to look for. Finally, I held the key in one hand while reaching out to try the doorknob.

It opened easily, and I stepped into the room that I would be living in for the rest of the school year.

The room was pretty damn nice, actually. I’d seen college dorms that were a hell of a lot worse than this one. It was fairly large, about twice the size of my bedroom back home. The floor was a pretty white carpet that felt soft under my feet. There were two queen-sized beds on the opposite side of the room, their headboards each resting on either side of a large window. To the other side of each bed there was a small dresser with a pair of drawers with a lamp and one of those old-fashioned wind-up alarm clocks sitting on top. On the left and right sides of the room there were closets, and on this side of the room on opposite sides of the doorway I was standing in there were a pair of desks with comfortable swivel chairs and actual computers that almost looked out of place compared to everything else I had seen so far.

One of the beds had my bag and a bunch of my clothes laid out on it. The other was occupied by a figure who sat with her back to me, fingers flying over the phone that she was holding. When I cleared my throat, she jumped and turned to face me.

Okay, wow. The girl standing in front of me, my roommate apparently, was drop-dead gorgeous. Seriously, she looked like she belonged in some kind of super model magazine or something, not attending some magic school. She stood several inches taller than me, her hair was long and pitch black, her skin flawless. Plus there was the fact that, well, to put it bluntly, she was stacked. Unless she was smuggling some actual cantaloupes under the school uniform she was wearing, I had to wonder how she was going to avoid having back problems while we did any of this fight training stuff.

“Who’re–” The girl started to say. “Wait, right. My roommate.” She managed to say the word in the same tone of voice that most people would use to describe something they scraped off their shoe.

“Yup,” I nodded, extending a hand to her while looking the girl up and down. She wore the same sort of uniform as the others I’d seen. Hers was the skirt version, similar to Scout’s, though her tie and the lapel was colored light blue rather than purple. “Flick. You must be Avalon.”

The girl regarded my hand briefly, then ignored it and stepped around me. On her way out of the room, she called airily, “Try to keep your stuff on your side of the room, Chambers. Anything I find on my side, you won’t get back.”

Then she was gone, and I let out a long, low breath. Well, clearly I had the best roommate ever. I couldn’t wait to stay up late at night and tell stories while we giggled and shared s’mores.

“Right,” I said to the empty room. “Good talk.”

Shaking that off, I moved to check my bag and all my clothes. Who cared if my roommate wasn’t exactly the friendliest person on the planet? There was an entire island to explore, magic to learn about, and plenty of much more interesting and open people to chat with.

Besides, I had a feeling that a hostile roommate wouldn’t be the most dangerous thing I ran into this year.

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Orientation 1-04

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Professor Dare’s voice faded into the background, transitioning into a distant rumble of thunder. The blinding light gradually lessened, leaving spots on my vision for a few more seconds until I could finally see again. Which was good, except that what I was seeing wasn’t at all what I should have been.

I wasn’t standing at the top of that lighthouse anymore. Instead, my feet were planted firmly on a rocky, volcanic landscape. The ground beneath me was as black as obsidian, and hot enough that I could feel the warmth through my shoes. The area was lit by various fires throughout the rocky, uneven terrain, and I could see a river of lava in the distance that emerged from a dark and utterly forbidding cave.

Spinning in a circle, eyes wide, I searched for anything that might tell me what the hell was going on. Nothing. No one. “What…” I trailed off, then took a breath to call out for anyone that might be within shouting distance. At the last second, I clasped a hand over my own mouth, cutting off my own cry.

Stupid. I didn’t know where I was or who was around. After every warning about evil and monsters that Professor Dare had just given, was shouting out loud to get attention really a good idea? I didn’t know what might hear me, and I had absolutely no reason to believe that they’d be in a helpful mood.

No, if I was going to figure this out, I had to do it without being an idiot. Think, Flick. Standing in the middle of volcano world with nobody in sight, how do you figure out what the hell is going on?

Okay, let’s go with the options and narrow it down one piece at a time. First question, was this intentional or unintentional? In other words, did Professor Dare know that this was going to happen, or was this something new? A point to the former was that they’d apparently been doing this sort of thing for a long time, so it seemed like they would know what they were doing. Point to the latter was that she hadn’t warned us about anything like this. On the other hand, maybe this was a test or something.

Right, so it could be either. I was leaning toward them knowing about it and just not warning us for whatever reason, but whichever it was, knowing for sure wouldn’t help me in the moment aside from telling me if this was something dangerous or planned. Whichever happened to be the truth, the fact was that I wasn’t planning on being reckless anyway. I needed to take my time and think this through.

Just as I came to that conclusion, the thunder returned, bringing Professor Dare’s voice along with it.

“Wherever you see yourself now, it is an echo, a memory passed along through your family line of a time one of your ancestors saw one of the Strangers. Some of you may find yourselves standing in a prehistoric world, while others may only be a few generations back from your own, or even less. Wherever you find yourself, know that you cannot be harmed. You are a ghost within a memory, and your only duty is to observe what your ancestor witnessed. Watch, listen, and know the truth. The vision will translate the language spoken to one that you are capable of understanding.”

The words seemed to come from every direction before being swept along with the fading of the noise in the sky. I blinked, turning around while trying to understand. I was seeing a memory of my ancestor? Then where were they? Because all I could see was more volcanic nastiness everywhere I looked.

Abruptly, my attention was drawn toward movement. Twisting that way, I stared as a group of figures crested the hill across from me. There were six of them, and they were massive, powerful-looking beings that stood a solid eight feet tall, or very nearly three feet over my paltry five foot four. Their skin was yellow-green, and their muscles made most body builders I knew of look like paltry weaklings. They wore armor made of furs, and their faces were like warthogs, with long tusks.

Four of the six walked in front, their beady eyes scanning every part of the black rocks ahead of them. Their gazes passed over me, never slowing. I was, as Professor Dare had put it, a ghost in a memory.

The remaining two were slightly further back. For a moment, I thought it looked like they were carrying the poles of a litter, one in front and one in back. Then I realized that the box attached to the poles they held wasn’t a luxurious, antiquated method of travel for royalty. It was a cage. The massive, ugly beasts were carrying poles that held up a large cage, where three huddled figures cowered.

I stood still, staring as the enormous figures hiked closer to me, grunting back and forth at each other. They were obviously communicating, but I couldn’t understand the words. So much for what Professor Dare had said about the vision translating for us. Unless that only applied to human languages.

Just as they reached the same hill I was standing on, one of them made a loud barking noise and held up his fist. With a grunt, the two carrying the cage set it down, and the warthog things stepped away. One of them kicked the cage, giving an obvious laugh when the huddled humans cried out. He kicked it again, then said something to his companions, who chortled as well.

From here, I could see that the people in the cage were dressed in what looked like medieval clothing. Two were male, one in peasant garb while the other clearly wore noble clothes. The third imprisoned figure was a female in clothes that were just as shabby as the peasant man. All looked terrified.

While I stood there, unsure of what I was supposed to do next or what I was supposed to be learning from this (if anything), the nobly-dressed prisoner stuck his hand partway out of the cage. His voice cracked a little bit. “Please, please.” He cupped his hand. “Just a little water, just a swallow.”

Sneering, the nearest of the warthogs stomped closer and leaned in. He spat into the cage, then started to belly laugh while bringing his foot down hard to stomp on the man’s outstretched hand.

Except the hand wasn’t there anymore. The second that foot came down, the imprisoned noble withdrew it. Then, as the foot hit the ground and the warthog was thrown off balance, the man’s hand snapped back out of the cage like a striking snake. He caught hold of the stumbling creature and yanked hard. The warthog was hauled off balance, falling onto his backside with a heavy crash.

The other five hogs didn’t seem to know what was happening, it was going by too quickly for them to react. Before the one that had fallen could collect himself, the nobleman yanked hard. That big leg was forced into the cage far enough that the man was able to reach up and grab the dagger out of its sheath.

Newly armed, the nobleman lashed out with three quick strikes as high as he could reach, practically laying on top of the fallen monster to stab into his stomach. The creature howled out in deafening agony, which finally got the remaining five to realize something was horribly wrong (or right, depending on your point of view toward human beings imprisoned by monsters). Unfortunately for them, the reaction was coming too late. The nobleman had already snaked his free hand out of the bars, snatching a single large key on a ring off of the warthog’s belt. He jerked back and quickly unlocked the cage, springing out of it with the nimbleness of a cat. His voice called out a challenge as the five warthogs came running. “Approach in turns or as one, beasts. For all that the order of your attacks shall change is the picture your blood will paint upon the ground.”

He then proceeded to actually follow up his boast with action. The man moved with almost impossible speed and skill, evading the rather clumsy attacks from the warthogs before striking with deadly precision. One by one, they fell to that simple dagger, until only the final warthog was left. This one was both warier and more skilled than his companions. It looked like he and the nobleman were fairly evenly matched. The human couldn’t get a decent lethal strike without leaving himself too open to a devastating counter-attack, and he was too quick for the monster himself to land a good blow on.

In the meantime, both terrified peasants had crawled free from the cage. The man stood, looking around wildly while the woman hauled herself up with one hand on the cage. She was keeping her weight off her left foot, wincing in pain each time she had to use it at all. Yet she was standing, and pointed past the dueling combatants. “More of the creatures!” Sure enough, a good dozen were rushing across the ruined landscape to join the fight. Several rode large armored horses.

Still circling his opponent, the nobleman called out, “Good man, escort the lady away from here. Tis no place for such a lovely form, and no sight for eyes so pretty. Take her swiftly now, and escape.”

Instead, the male peasant just looked at the injured woman. I could read the hesitation and thoughts in his eyes. She would slow him down. Helping or carrying her meant that there was a chance those monsters could catch up, particularly the ones on horseback, with no guarantee that the nobleman would stop all of them.

He bolted, racing away while leaving the woman behind. She shouted in dismay, calling him a coward. Her words seemed to have no affect, and the man simply continued to run, abandoning her.

Standing away from his skilled opponent, the nobleman cast one look toward the incoming horde, then looked to the abandoned woman. “Fear not,” he assured her. “For one such as you shall not fall to these beasts. I will see you away. Of that, you have my word.”

Suiting action to word, the man launched a flurry of attacks designed to drive his opponent back. Given a wide enough bit of room to work with, he turned and kicked one of the fallen warthog’s swords up into his hand, then threw it at the nearest of the incoming horse-mounted monsters. The horse screamed and pitched forward while the man rushing straight at it. He leapt, kicking off of the falling horse to use its body as a platform, launching himself straight at the next horse. His feet planted themselves in the rider’s chest, knocking him off his mount and to the ground. Meanwhile, the man himself landed hard on the saddle. In one motion, he kicked the horse’s sides to get it moving faster, while throwing his stolen dagger across to the third and final remaining horse.

A collective scream of outrage and war bellows went up from the remaining hogs, even as the nobleman kicked his stolen steed into a faster sprint. Reaching the injured woman, he stopped the horse and put his arm down to haul her up onto the horse with him.

“Ride, my lady,” the nobleman urged her even as he himself slipped off and landed lightly on the hard ground. “The steed slows too much for two to escape upon it. Escape to the north. Flee until the grass returns. I shall slow their pursuit as much as I am able, but you must make haste.” When the woman opened her mouth to object, he interrupted. “Please, the knowledge that you have escaped these creatures shall be eternal life to my soul. I could do nothing to endanger that. Flee now. Go.”

“If that coward had only…” The woman clutched the reins of the horse, head shaking rapidly. “If I see his face again, I will kill him myself.” With that vow, she gave the reins a shake and held on tight as the horse leapt into a gallop once more, racing away from the scene.

With her departure, the nobleman turned to face the incoming monsters, unarmed and outnumbered. Still, he raised both hands and beckoned them onward. “Come then. I have not yet seen enough of what lies inside of you creatures to know how far you differ from humanity, and it shall be interesting to see what spills out when you are thoroughly cut.” He cracked the knuckles of one hand, then the other. “Bring me your weapons. I shall return them to you hastily, and with great enthusiasm.”

Okay, seriously, if this guy was supposed to be my ancestor, I had a lot to live up to. God, he was even handsome. Which was weird to say about someone I was apparently related to, but still.

Then… as the armed monsters came charging in, my view grew faded. The area around the fighting man was covered in fog, and I stumbled backwards as something pulled at me. What the hell?

Turning, I found myself pulled along as a figure crawled out from under a distant outcropping of rock. He stood, and I recognized him. The other peasant, the one that had fled. He’d circled around and hid, watching what had happened from a safe place. Now, he had crawled out of his hiding place, dusted himself off and… he was leaving. The coward was quickly walking in a different direction, leaving the nobleman behind in his haste. He never looked back, never so much as hesitated in his rush to escape.

And with every step he took, I was dragged along with him. I couldn’t see how the nobleman’s fight went, because what I had been witnessing wasn’t his memory. It was this man’s, the coward’s. This was my ancestor. He was the one I was related to.

With that realization, the bright light returned. I reeled backwards, hissing as the blinding glow enveloped all of my vision for several seconds before finally fading.

I was back in that lighthouse, back with the rest of the group. The others, aside from Professor Dare and the twins, Sands and Scout, were all rubbing our eyes and blinking. Conversation rose quickly as people talked about what and who they had seen, the excitement from their visions obvious.

It didn’t seem like any of them had witnessed an ancestor who had been as much of a coward as mine.

Over those excited voices, Professor Dare spoke up. “The Light of the Heretical Edge has touched you.” The conversations quieted, and she continued. “You have all seen a significant event within the lives of your ancestors, related to the Strangers. You have been welcomed into the Knowledge, and even as the Light has burned your eyes, it has also opened them. You will see the creatures for what they are now, and none of their disguises shall fool you ever again. Be warned, however. They will know that you can see them. They know you as you know them, and they will strike without mercy.”

Her gaze swept over the room, lingering on each person for a moment before she went on. “But sight and understanding are not our only weapons. Part of the Light of the Heretical Edge remains within each of you. When you destroy one of these Strangers, that light draws in part of their strength, transferring it to you. With each of the monsters you destroy, you will become stronger, faster, more powerful. Their abilities shall, over time and effort, become yours. A sufficiently successful and long-lived Heretic becomes a force to be reckoned with. The abilities they use to hunt humanity are turned against their kind by the Heretic who kills them. But rest assured, you are still but children. In time, your strength will grow. For now, you must learn from your instructors, and grow into the warriors that I know you are all capable of becoming.”

With that said, the woman let out a breath. “Now, normally I would have your second-year adviser escort you to your rooms so that you may have some time to explore before lunch. But as Mr. Adams has chosen to abandon his duty…”

“We can show them where to go, Professor.” Sands waved a hand. “I mean, sure we’re little firsties too, but we have been here before, you know. It’s just the dorms, we can do that much.” Scout, hair still hiding part of her face, leaned in and whispered to her. Sands listened before adding, “Scout says we can show them around too, since, you know, we’ve been exploring this place for a long time.”

Professor Dare seemed to consider that for a moment before bowing her head. “Very well. I have other duties to attend to. You may show them where their rooms are located.” She extended a hand, and a piece of paper seemed to materialize directly in it. The abruptness of the paper appearing in her hand made me jump, staring as she simply handed the paper to the girl. “Their dorm assignments are here. I trust you will be able to handle this without any… incidents?”

“We promise to be good,” Sands grabbed her sister’s hand and held it up. “Scout’s honor.” Then she giggled.

Sighing, her expression showing that she thought she was going to regret the decision, Professor Dare nodded. “Go then.” To us, she added, “Stay with Sandovo—Sands and Scout. They will show you to your rooms and then give you a tour of the island before lunch. In your rooms, you will find your belongings. This afternoon we will take your sizes and determine your current specialization track for the semester. The specialization track will determine what classes and skills you focus on as Heretics.”

“Yeah,” Sands spoke up. “See, purple.” She waved a hand over her own tie and her twin’s. “That means we chose the investigation track. You know that whole Men in Black thing where they work with the cops while pretending to be FBI or whatever so they can look into mysterious things to find out if it was something not normal? Yeah, that’s basically what we’re getting into. Then there’s like, the people that build stuff, the straight up combat people, and some others.”

“Thank you, Miss Mason.” Professor Dare gave a short nod once more. “There will, of course, be much more information on that soon, but for now just know that you should not fear making such a decision when the time comes. You will have one week at the beginning of every semester to change it if you so choose. Go now, see to your rooms and your exploration. Talk with each other. You will meet your fellow students, the rest of those who, like Sands and Scout, were raised within the Knowledge before too much longer.”

People started filing out then. I moved as well after hesitating briefly, but as I started for the exit from the lighthouse, my gaze found a painting hung over the stairway and I stopped short.

“Who… who is that?” I asked, looking back at Professor Dare.

She followed my gaze before smiling faintly. “Our headmistress, Baroness Gaia Sinclaire.”

I looked back to the painting, swallowing as I stared at it. Because I knew the face in the picture. Not well, but I’d seen her very recently, and it was too perfect of a resemblance to a coincidence.

The headmistress of Crossroads Academy was the woman I’d seen in my vision, the one who had sworn to kill my cowardly ancestor.

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Orientation 1-03

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I expected to feel disoriented or nauseous after passing through the doorway. There should have been some physical indication of what had just happened. Yet, in spite of taking the time to brace myself, I felt absolutely no different aside from now being inside rather than outside. I might as well have stepped through a normal doorway for all that my body seemed to notice.

Once it became clear that my stomach wasn’t going to flip over and turn inside out (metaphorically or literally), I let one eye slowly creak open, then the other before looking around. As I did, my mouth fell open, and I made a small noise that probably sounded a bit like a constipated squirrel.

That giant floor-to-ceiling mirror with the gold border lay in front of me, and when I looked over my shoulder, I found the black-bordered one that I had apparently just emerged from. Which meant that it was real. The impossible doorway had… had actually worked. I was in that beautiful corridor.

Somehow, up to that point, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it as being real. It was one thing to say that I believed the doorway was really going to take me somewhere, or even to believe that I believed it. But actually experiencing it was very different. Two seconds earlier, I had been in a big, mostly empty field. Now, just by taking a single step, I’d traveled… God knew how far.

The corridor was empty by that point, which was just as well considering that my next course of action probably would have forever branded me the most ridiculously enormous dork in the entire school.

“Yes!” Hands thrust into the air with my fists clenched, I blurted that single word, my voice echoing up and down the hall. Then the words came pouring out of me in a squeal. “Holy shit! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!” I was literally jumping up and down, hands held high while simultaneously spinning in a circle in the middle of that long corridor. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

“Miss Chambers,” the calm voice of Professor Dare spoke firmly as she stepped through the mirror.

Stooping, I grabbed the rock that I had thrown off the floor, staring at it in my hand for a second before blurting, “My rock! This is my rock! Holy shit, this is my rock! I threw it, and it’s here, and now I’m here!” I waved the rock at her as if she’d never experienced this before. “How cool is this rock?!”

That time, I was sure I saw a brief smile before the older woman composed herself. Shaking her head, she replied in what was probably the same kind of tone I might use with someone from fifty years ago raving over my cellphone. “It is still only a rock, Miss Chambers.”

“It’s a rock that was in that field!” I corrected her, my voice growing louder from my excitement. “And now it’s here! It was there and now it’s here and it only went that far. It’s a rock that went through a magic portal! Wait, is that a magic portal? Wait, where are we? Wait, is the rock radioactive now? Am I radio—no that’s stupid, you wouldn’t have us go through a portal that made things radioactive, duh, wake up, Flick. But seriously, do you have the slightest idea how freaking amazing this is?!”

Professor Dare shook her head slowly before clearing her throat. “I am very pleased that you seem to be enjoying your arrival here, and that you appreciate the magnitude of what has happened. Only a small percentage of our Heretics come from outside of the Knowledge, and so for most of our students this is nothing to be excited by. It is always refreshing and humbling to see an outsider’s reaction.”

Clutching the rock in my hand, I stared at the woman while trying to think of where to start with all of the questions flooding my head. “What do you mean, Heretics? What’s this Knowledge you’re talking about? How many students go here? Where exactly are we? How far are we from Laramie Falls?”

I probably would have kept going, but Professor Dare raised a single red-gloved hand. “Be at ease, Miss Chambers. All of your questions will be answered, alongside the other Bystander-kin.”

I paused, considering that. “Let me guess, Bystander is someone who doesn’t know about any of this stuff, and Bystander-kin is someone like me, someone whose family doesn’t know about it.”

“Yes,” Professor Dare nodded once. “Those who are outside of the Knowledge are Bystanders. You are on the cusp of being within the Knowledge, but you were raised among Bystanders. If you come with me, I will take you to the Bystander-kin orientation. All your questions should be answered there.”

I glanced toward the mirror that I’d somehow come through before nodding. Somehow, I managed to restrain the urge to jump up and down some more. “Okay, sure. Let’s go to this orientation then.”

Pivoting smartly on her heel, the woman strode away from me. I followed, trying to remember where I knew the name Virginia Dare from. It was definitely familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why.

We passed half a dozen closed doors on our way, and behind each of them I could hear the muffled voices that were immediately reminiscent of every other school I’d ever walked through. Classes were going on behind those doors. I was curious, but Professor Dare never slowed.

I also took the time to look up, seeing the series of elaborate chandeliers that were lighting the corridor. They looked roughly about as expensive as my whole house, so I resolved not to throw any more rocks.

At the end of the hall, we came to a T junction. To the right, I saw another door-lined hallway. To the left, the way that Professor Dare was turning, the corridor opened up into a larger entryway. A dozen expensive-looking leather couches ran along both walls, divided by gold-plated suits of armor that stood at attention with alternating swords and spears. On the opposite side of the room, past all the couches and statues, there was a pair of enormous oak doors that had to be at least twenty feet tall.

I was busy gaping up at the gigantic doors as we walked, until one of the statues abruptly leapt off the small marble pedestal it had been standing on, finger raised accusingly as it shouted, “Tardy!”

The statue stormed right up to me while I yelped in surprise. “I knew it!” The knight-figure blurted, sword waving in his arm. “I knew I’d catch you slackers cutting class! Call me obsessed, will they? Well who’s obsessed now, huh?! I’ve got you, yes I do. Cutting class, not being in uniform, attempting to leave the building during proper educational time, you’re going down, Missy. Name and track!”

A long, clearly put upon sigh escaped Professor Dare. “Wyatt,” she spoke the name firmly.

The statue jumped, seeming to notice her for the first time. “Oh, Professor! I didn’t see you there.” Wyatt, assuming that was his name, gave a clumsy salute, the metal gauntlet glancing off the helmet.

“Wyatt,” Professor Dare raised a finger before pausing as though she couldn’t decide where to start. Finally, she settled on, “Please take off that helmet while we are talking.”

“Right away, Professor!” Wyatt clanged his gauntlet off of the helmet with another clumsy salute before reaching up to grab the helmet itself. He tugged it off, revealing a man with a scrawny, narrow face and long, stringy brown hair. I guessed his age at around forty or so, and he was smiling broadly, showing off a pair of big buck teeth as he pointed at me. He almost looked like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz poking his head out of the Tin Man’s body. “See? I told you I’d catch those slackers!”

“Wyatt Rendell,” Professor Dare intoned. “Meet Felicity Chambers, our final Bystander-kin student for the semester. I’m taking her to orientation now. That’s why she isn’t in uniform or attending class.” To me, she added, “Miss Chambers, meet Wyatt Rendell, our newest school security guard.”

Looking disappointed that he hadn’t managed to catch a student playing hooky after all, Wyatt mumbled a greeting to me before addressing the professor. “Kinda late getting here though, isn’t she? I thought you picked up all the Silverstones yesterday.”

“Uh, Silverstones?” I interrupted with a confused frown while waving my hand. “What’s that?”

“You know,” Wyatt waved a golden gauntlet at me. “First name Alicia? The actress. Clueless. You were raised as a Bystander, so you’re clueless. That makes you a Silverstone. That’s how it works.”

After considering that for a second, I shrugged. “Eh, I’ve been called worse.”

Excusing herself and beckoning for me to follow, Professor Dare walked on to those gigantic doors. At her approach, they began to grind their way open automatically, admitting blinding sunlight into the lobby along with some kind of exotic smell that I couldn’t place. Then she stood aside to wait for me.

I stepped through, finally getting my first real look at where that magic doorway had brought me.

My first impression was that we were in some kind of utopia. The building we had just stepped out of was perched at the very top of a grass-covered mountain that overlooked an absolutely breathtaking beach. Seriously, it was the kind of place that only existed when people took pictures of the most beautiful beaches in the world and then photoshopped them to take out all those little imperfections. The way the perfect blue water lapped up against that white sand, the idyllic palm trees: it was paradise.

The beach itself was a pretty long ways away, considering the size of the mountain that we were on. There was a wide cobblestone path set against the bright green grass of the school grounds that led from this building toward a gate set into a red brick wall. Beyond the wall was a thick jungle, and I could see brightly-colored birds flying just over the treetops in the distance. Their calls, and that of other inhabitants of the jungle, barely reached my ears in spite of what should have been a relatively short distance as far as screaming jungle noises went. They seemed muted somehow.

The jungle stretched on out of sight beyond the far side of this building, and from what I could see, stretched on for miles off into the distance.

“Welcome, Miss Chambers, to the island that we call home,” Professor Dare intoned with a smile at my reaction.

“Island…” I echoed slowly, surprised by the revelation. We weren’t in the mountains or in some hidden forest. We were on a tropical island.  I couldn’t see the edge of it either to the left or right, though I could see the way it curved inward. Whatever island we were on, it was a pretty damn big one.

The cobblestone path meandered its way past a half dozen other scattered wood and brick buildings of varying sizes that lined the side of this hill, including a big one that looked like a lower case t. I also saw several smaller pathways between the buildings, and in the distance when I looked to the left, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a tennis court.

Seeing where I was looking, Professor Dare confirmed, “Athletic facilities to the west.” She went on, pointing each way. “Think of the school grounds as a clock. The building right here that we just came out of is at twelve. This is primary academics. You will have your basic math, science, and other such lessons here. It is also where the faculty offices are if you find the need to speak to any of the staff outside of regular lesson time.

“To the left there at two o’clock is athletics. The buildings at four and five are the male and female dorms. Between them is a cafeteria and common area building that you cannot see from here. That is where you will spend most of your non-class or training-related time with your peers. The gate is at six o’clock, straight down from here. At seven and eight we have the armory and faculty housing, respectively.” Finally, she indicated the big T-shaped building. “And that is the Pathmaker.” Before I could ask, the woman added, “You will find out what that is later. Right now, we are going this way. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the island later.” Strolling off the path, she headed east across the perfectly maintained grass.

It took me a few seconds to follow, distracted as I was by gazing open-mouthed all around me. Finally, I jerked into motion and jogged to catch up, blurting, “Island. You said island. We’re on an island!”

There was a somewhat teasing quality to the blonde woman’s reply. “You are certainly earning that reputation for being a truly gifted investigator, Miss Chambers.”

First I blushed, then I blinked at her. “How’d you know I want to be an investigative reporter?”

“We know a lot about you, Miss Chambers,” she replied easily. “We do a great bit of research before extending an invitation to those who are outside of the Knowledge. As I told you before you stepped through the doorway, once we bring you in, you can never go back to the way you were. This is not a decision that we simply foist onto the first person we happen to lay eyes on. You were not chosen at birth, your name was not magically drawn out of a hat, and no seer spoke of your identity. We generally make our selections the long and hard way, through years of observation and carefully narrowing down lists of possible candidates. Each year, we look at every candidate who will reach the age of seventeen before November, and make our final choices. Most of the time, that candidate is washed out for one reason or another. We are extremely selective, because this life requires extreme dedication.”

I thought about that for a moment while we walked along the grass. Looking over my shoulder, I got a better look at the main academic building we had left. From here, the place looked like literal modern day palace. It was six stories high, and the walls themselves were some kind of white marble, unlike the brick and wood of the other buildings. I could even see stone gargoyle statues perched up on the roof.

Something occurred to me, and I quickly looked back to the woman that was leading me. “Two questions. First, why are people in classes already if we haven’t started yet?”

“Those who are attending classes today are the second, third, and fourth year students,” she explained. “They began last week. First year students such as yourself will begin tomorrow. Those raised outside of the Knowledge such as yourself will be given orientation today, while those who were raised within the Knowledge have their own, slightly different orientation. After all, they only need to learn about our specific school rules and requirements, rather than… well, everything else that you must learn. Tonight at dinner there will be an official welcoming speech by the headmistress for all those who are new to this school. There you will also meet the rest of the faculty and be given your class schedule.”

I nodded slowly at that. “Okay, and second, why did that Wyatt guy back there say that I was late? Are all the other, ahh, ‘Bystander-kin’ already here?”

“Yes,” Professor Dare confirmed. “You are the last one to arrive. There was a last minute debate over whether you should be included or not. The headmistress was required to break the tie.”

Frowning, I asked, “Who’s the headmistress?”

“Baroness Gaia Sinclaire,” the woman answered. “She has been the voice of reason and leadership within this school for nearly sixty-seven years now.”

“Sixty-seven years?” I whistled. “Guess she’s kind of getting up there by now, huh?”

Rather than answer, Professor Dare just smiled sidelong at me before lifting a hand. “There, that is where we are going.”

I looked, and saw a tall white lighthouse sitting on the edge of the mountain, right over a nearby part of the beach. “There? That’s where they’re doing this orientation thing?”

“Indeed, and we should hurry,” Professor Dare advised. “They’ve been waiting for us.”

With that in mind, still trying to cope with everything that was happening, I started to hurry that way before stopping to look at the woman. “What about my dad? And all my stuff? I can’t just live like this.” I indicated the clothes I was wearing before realizing, “And hey, what about my bag? It wasn’t on the bus when I woke up.”

“All of your things will be delivered to your dorm room,” Professor Dare assured me. “And as far as your father remembers, you left on the bus this morning for your new school. Believe me, Miss Chambers, we do know what we are doing.”

I hesitated, a million questions still swirling in my mind. In the end, however, I finally continued on on to the lighthouse alongside the professor. It was probably a good idea to actually go to this orientation thing, where they might answer some of my billions of questions instead of just flinging them one at a time at this poor woman.

An island school, a portal that came out through mirrors, memory alteration for my dad? That last one seemed… wrong somehow, but I supposed if it was that or leave him in harm’s way from knowing too much, I’d take the former. I’d prefer to feel a little skeevy than put my father in actual danger. But all of it, all of this, was almost too much. I was reeling, trying desperately to keep my head on straight.

The other woman led me into the lighthouse and up the stairs. As we rose, I heard voices until we finally came out into the top platform. The big light fixture was right in the middle, and there was a surprisingly large balcony surrounding it. I could see the ocean, blue and perfect, off in the distance in one direction. Looking the other way revealed miles upon miles of lush jungle.

Standing around the platform were fifteen other teenagers that looked like they could have come right from my own school. Well, if my school hadn’t been something like ninety-eight point three percent Caucasian, anyway. I saw seven boys and eight girls. Out of those, two of the boys were black while one was Hispanic, and of the girls, one was Asian, one was black, a third looked Native American, and yet another was clearly of Middle-Eastern descent.

There had been a rather heated conversation going on, but all eyes turned to us as Professor Dare and I stepped into view. The woman behind me paused before asking, “Where is Mr. Adams?”

“Deveron bailed, Professor,” a girl spoke up while coming into view from where the big light fixture in the middle of the platform had hidden her. She looked to be about my age, a pretty brunette with long straight hair and the same kind of brown eyes as me. She stood about four inches smaller than I did, putting her at an even five feet. Unlike the rest of the people up here, my fellow Silverstones, I supposed, she wore the same sort of uniform that I’d seen the other students wearing through the doorway/mirror.

From up close, I had a better look at it. The uniform consisted of a white shirt, a black blazer with the letters CRA on the left front in elaborate lettering, a tie, and either pants or a skirt. This particular girl had gone with the pants. I had noticed that the trim of the blazer at the waist and along the lapels, along with the tie itself, were generally one of several different colors. In the girl’s case, they were purple.

She was joined almost immediately by another girl who looked completely identical to her in almost every way, aside from the fact that this new girl was wearing the skirt version of the uniform rather than pants. She also was pointedly not looking at anyone. Her gaze seemed rooted to the floor, hair partially covering her face, and she stepped into view only far enough to put herself right beside her obvious twin.

Beside me, Professor Dare raised an eyebrow. “Bailed, Sandoval? I deliberately asked that he wait here with the rest of the new students until I returned. And why are you and Sarah not in your own orientation? You don’t belong here with the Bystander-kin.”

The girl flinched. “Professor, please, please just call me Sands like everyone else. Please? Sandoval is a stupid name for a girl. And she’s Scout. She doesn’t like Sarah.” Beside her, the silent twin leaned in to whisper something into her sister’s ear, before Sands nodded and added, “She says please too.”

“Very well, Sands.” Professor Dare dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Will you please answer the rest of my questions then? Where did Deveron go, and why are you and Sar—Scout here?”

“Professor Nimbles let class out early,” Sands replied. “Scout and me were just taking a walk–”

“Scout and I,” Professor Dare corrected, seemingly by reflex.

“Sure, that too,” Sands nodded. “Scout and I were just going for a walk down there, and Deveron shouted that he needed us. When we got up here, he said they were our problem now and took off.”

Again the silent twin, Scout apparently, leaned close and whispered to Sands. After listening for a moment, the other girl coughed. “Scout says it was either stay here and keep your newbies company, or leave them all by themselves.”

Putting her hand to her forehead, Professor Dare sighed. “You may have been raised within the Knowledge, but you are still first-year students. Deveron is in his second year and is well aware of his new responsibilities.”

Sighing, she shook that off and focused on the rest of us. “I will speak to him later. For now, welcome to all of you. There will be time for more introductions later. For now, we are already starting late. I apologize for our delay, and I am certain that you all have many questions. Please, wait until after I finish, because many of those questions will likely be answered by then.”

There was a general murmur of agreement before one of the African-American boys waved a hand. “Hey, does one of those answers include why we’re standing up in this lighthouse?”

“It does indeed, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare confirmed. She stepped to the big light then, putting a hand on it before she continued. “Who here knows what the word heretic means?”

The Asian girl raised her hand before speaking when Professor Dare nodded to her. “It’s like, someone who goes against a religious belief, isn’t it?”

Dipping her head at that, Professor Dare smiled faintly. “That is, generally speaking, the definition that modern society has ascribed to it. Yet the term heresy itself was originally derived from a Greek word meaning simply ‘choice.’”

After running her hand along the side of the light with a thoughtful look for a moment, the woman continued. “We call ourselves Heretics for both reasons. We have been considered such because the truths that I am about to explain to you have been considered heretical teachings since before that word existed. The truth of this world and the creatures which dwell within and around it are impossible for most to accept. Thus, any teaching of those truths is automatically considered heresy.

“And the original definition, that of simply ‘choice’ is apt as well. Because we choose to live this way. We choose to go through this training, choose to live away from the rest of society, and choose to put ourselves between those who would see us burn for our words, and the monsters who would devour the very world they stand upon. This life is our choice. All of that makes us Heretics. We are Heretics because we refuse to accept that our world is doomed. We are Heretics because we choose to think for ourselves, and in that thinking, we choose to fight against what some see as inevitable.”

The woman passed her gaze over everyone there, meeting each of our gazes briefly before she went on. “I am going to tell you the truth about the monsters who have been attempting to devour this world and its inhabitants for countless generations. They have gone by many names, and appear in many forms. Collectively, we call them Strangers. To most, they do not exist. They are creatures that dwell in the shadows of every person’s memory. They create an effect which prevents humans from noticing their existence. An ordinary human being will look directly at one of these creatures and see nothing out of the ordinary. Their minds will not comprehend it. The sight is either erased from their memory before they can consciously acknowledge it, or simply rewritten to be something mundane and explainable.

“That is one of the greatest strengths of these invaders, to remove all true memory of their existence from the minds of their victims.”

She paused then, considering her words before amending, “Well no, not all. Some retain ghost-memories, fragments that give them the ideas for their stories. Vampires, aliens, demons, all of these and more come from the fragmented hints of memory within the human consciousness of these Strangers. And yet, even after all these centuries, most human beings still see them as nothing more than stories to tell. Their power ensures that the truth of their existence remains hidden.

“These Strangers would have devoured this world centuries ago, were it not for the work of one man. The founder of our school, Hieronymus, who created the building we are standing in right now. Hieronymus discovered the way to grant immunity to the Stranger memory alteration to a relative few. Those few blessed with this immunity and the other gifts that Hieronymus’s creation instills would be capable of protecting the rest of civilization from these invaders.”

Professor Dare went silent for a few seconds. Her eyes looked us over briefly before she let out a breath. “That is why we are up here. Because to truly understand what these creatures are, and to become immune to their memory alteration, you must see the light.”

With that, she shoved up on a lever attached to the light in the middle of the room. Suddenly, I was blinded as the thing grew painfully bright. All around me, I heard the others crying out as well.

“Look into the light!” Professor Dare called. “Do not close your eyes, and do not look away. Look into it and receive the gift of truth! This is what gives us our power, our skill, our ability to fight these invaders and stop them from taking our world. The light illuminates the truth and will ensure that you are never again blind to the invaders. This is how we survive. This is how we choose. This is how we retain our memory of these monsters, and see them for what they truly are.”

“This… is the Heretical Edge.”

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Orientation 1-02

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The first thing I did, once it was obvious that there was no one around to answer my question, was dig the phone out of my pocket. Right. I had no idea where I was or how I had gotten here, but hopefully I could just call and—no signal. The phone had no connection, which meant that unless I could solve this mystery by playing a virus simulation or word scramble game at it, the thing was completely useless.

Well, not completely. Bringing up the camera app on the device, I took a picture of the bus. Stepping slowly around the thing, I took a series of shots of it from all sides, making sure to show the untouched ground around the bus where there were no tire marks. Then I stood right in front of the door and turned, taking pictures of each part of the massive empty field from where I was.

Finally, I turned and took a few pictures of the door itself from both sides. I made sure to get decent photos of it from every possible angle, even leaning in to get a close shot of the knob.

Honestly, I had no idea how any of this was going to help me figure out what was going on. But just because I didn’t know how any of this would be relevant or helpful right now didn’t mean it never would be. Somehow, I had been brought to this empty field on a bus with no one else around, and no sign of how the bus had gotten out here. Every bit of this was relevant, and I was going to figure it out.

Part of me knew that I should probably be terrified by this whole situation. And I was a little bit. But mostly I was just incredibly curious. What the hell was going on? How had I gotten out here? Why was this door standing in the middle of nowhere? The fear was one lone voice drowned out by the chorus of demands for answers. I didn’t have time to be afraid, there were just too many questions.

Lifting my free hand, I set it against the white door. It felt like wood, and it was warm to the touch. Not painfully so, but enough to make me not want to leave my hand on it for very long. Testing the alabaster doorknob gingerly, I found that, by contrast, was cool to the touch. Frowning, I touched the door again. Hot. I touched the knob. Cold. Huh.

Thinking that the answer might be inside the door itself, I decided to try opening it. Grabbing the cool knob, I tried pushing to no effect. When I pulled, however, the door promptly swung open. My eyes followed it while I stepped out of the way, then I returned my attention to the door frame.

People! There were people on the other side of the door frame now! I jerked in surprise, literally stumbling backwards before landing on my backside as a loud yelp escaped me. Then I sat there in the grass, staring with wide eyes at the impossible scene before me.

There were definitely people. Through the open door, I could plainly see dozens of teenagers, most of them around my age or a little older, rushing back and forth. They all wore those formal uniforms that were so popular in private schools and the parts of the internet Dad thought I didn’t know about, with ties, blazers, the works. All of them were rushing past the doorway as if they were late for class.

My brain was registering so many problems with this scene that I had to make it shut up and report one thing at a time or I would have sat there for hours just staring like an idiot. So, from the top, I went through everything that was wrong with what I was seeing.

First, I couldn’t hear anything from them. These people were rushing back and forth, but there was no sound. I could see their lips moving as they called to one another, yet none of their words reached me. I couldn’t hear their footsteps, or anything else as they hurried about their business.

Second, they weren’t anywhere except in the doorway. The space to the left of that solitary door standing in the middle of nowhere was completely empty, as was the space to the right. These people were walking on from one side of the doorway, passing through my sight, then moving on to the other side of the doorway. Yet as soon as they passed the frame, they vanished entirely.

That, of course, led to the next problem with what I was seeing. The space that I could see beyond the door, the area these people were walking through, was not the space that had been on the other side of the door. I knew that, because I’d walked all the way around the door while I was examining it. I should have been looking at the same empty field that was on this side of the thing.

Instead, I could see a wide corridor that the students were bustling their way through. The hall looked wide enough to drive the bus that was behind me through it and still have room for another one to drive next to it. The floor was some kind of silver and black marble that was so clean it shone, while the walls looked like polished wood that was as white as the door itself. On the far side of the hall, past all the students rushing by, I could see a massive floor-to-ceiling mirror with a gold border all around it.

After taking all of that in, I worked my mouth to say something, but no sound came out. I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak. It took me another couple of tries before I managed to make a sound vaguely reminiscent of a crashing airplane. Several long seconds of that eventually segued into actual words. “Heeeeeey! Hello?” I called toward the open door, yet there was no reaction from the crowd. Clearly, they couldn’t hear me any more than I could hear them. But could they see me? If they looked my way, would they see a scrawny little blonde sitting in a grassy field?

Scrambling to my feet, I rushed to the door, but stopped in front of it rather than going through. Standing there, I leaned around to peer behind the doorway. Empty field. I leaned back again and looked through the doorway. Beautiful, ornate corridor full of bustling students in uniforms. Lean around, empty field. Lean back, dozens of people. I repeated that a few more times, my brain screaming its protest about the entire situation the whole time.

Taking in a long, deep breath before letting it out, I walked around to the opposite side of the doorway to look through it from that angle. Unfortunately, that didn’t so much fix my confusion as compound it several times over. Looking through the doorway from here, I was seeing the same hallway, but from the opposite side. There was another mirror across the hall, this one surrounded by a black border rather than a gold one. It lay exactly where my view from the other side of the doorway would have been from, and I had no doubt that I was seeing this through the first mirror that I had noticed.

Closing my eyes, I shook my head rapidly to clear it. Then I positioned myself right on the edge of the door frame. Leaning around to the left, I stared through at the people in the corridor. One group in particular, a trio of girls that my brain immediately pegged as cheerleaders for no reason that I could outright describe, had stopped to face the doorway. Now I knew they were looking into the mirror that stood there, which made it easier to ignore the faces they were making.

Leaning back around to the right side of the doorway, I could see the same girls from the back, across the wide corridor as they examined themselves in the giant mirror. Lean to the left, see the girls from the front. Lean to the right, see them from the back. I was literally looking through an empty doorframe from one side and then the other, and seeing opposite sides of an enormous hallway.

A prank. That’s what it had to be. It had to be a prank. As soon as I thought that, my brain came up with the perfect explanation. Obviously, there was some kind of very thin video screen inside the doorframe itself. It was projecting video image onto both sides of the screen to make it look like, well, what I was seeing. That made sense, right? Well, at least it made more sense than… than anything else I could come up with. And it made my brain stop screaming for a second.

My hand reached out to touch the screen and prove my theory, but something stopped me. I hesitated, biting my lip while my hand hovered a few inches away from the doorway. My eyes slowly moved to look at my fingers, which were trembling a little bit. I was breathing a little harder, and at first I couldn’t understand why. I’d solved the mystery, hadn’t I? This wasn’t magic, it was just a trick. A complicated trick, but still. It was a video screen strung up in the doorway. It had to be.

And yet, as I stood there, staring at my shaking hand, I realized why I had stopped. I knew, in that moment, why I wasn’t pushing my hand forward to find the screen and prove to myself right.

I wanted it to be real.

It made no sense. What I was seeing was impossible. This whole situation was absurd and ridiculous and… kind of wonderful. It was interesting and… and I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to tear the curtain down and find the man fiddling with the machine. I wanted to believe in the giant floating head. I didn’t want to tug on the fake beard and find my dad’s old friend was the one in the bright red suit. I wanted to believe that one man could deliver gifts to every child in the world in one night.

I wanted to be wrong. I wanted, almost desperately in that moment, to reach through that open doorway and see my hand appear inside that beautiful corridor with all of those students.

But if I was right, moving my hand to touch the video screen that I thought was there would shatter the illusion. It would tear away the magic of what I was seeing and, for once in my life, I didn’t want to do that. Something deep inside of me desperately wanted to go on believing that this could be real.

“Okay then,” I finally spoke aloud to myself. “Let’s do it this way.” Turning away from the door, I searched the ground for a moment before prying up a dirt-covered rock about the size of a baseball.

I wasn’t sure why, but somehow I thought that a bigger gesture would reduce the chance of this being a trick. It made no sense, but I’d decided that throwing the rock through the space where the screen should have been was better. If this… whatever it was really was what it looked like, the rock would go into that hallway. If it was a trick, the rock would break the screen.

So here went nothing. Turning back to the doorway, I saw that the corridor was pretty much empty by that point. The last few stragglers were running by, paying no attention to the mirrors on either side of them. I took a breath, held it, then underhand tossed the rock straight at the opening.

The rock hit the doorway… and kept going. It flew right into that corridor, fell to that pristine marble floor, and bounced a couple of times while trailing bits of dirt and grass after it.

My gasp turned into a yelp as a sharp voice abruptly spoke up from behind me. “Young lady, I do hope that you are prepared to clean that floor should you accept our invitation.”

Whirling around so fast I nearly fell over again, I stared with wide eyes at the woman who had spoken. She stood only a few feet away in spite of the fact that there was no way she could have crossed all that open field in the time that my back had been to the space she was now occupying. I guessed her age at her mid-thirties, and her features were sharply aristocratic, with high cheekbones, blonde hair tied into a tight braid, and piercing green eyes. She wore a pitch-black suit with an equally dark shirt beneath it, and a thin red tie. Her hands were covered by dark red gloves, and there was an actual sword in a sheath on her left hip.

“Wh-what?” I blurted out loud after taking all of that in. “Who are– what is—how are—what–” My gaze kept flicking back and forth between the woman and the open doorway as my confusion mounted.

“My apologies, Miss Chambers.” The blonde woman dipped her head in acknowledgment. “I had intended to be here to greet you when you woke. Unfortunately, I was unavoidably detained. I hope that you are all right.”

“All right?” I echoed in disbelief. “Where am I? Who are you? What the hell is that?!” I pointed to the door, realizing that my voice had risen nearly to the level of obvious hysteria but not really caring.

“Please try to calm yourself, Miss Chambers,” the woman coaxed me in her calm yet regal voice. “I will answer your questions as well as I can. My name is Virginia Dare. I am the instructor of both fencing and American History in Crossroads Academy.” She nodded past me toward the corridor that was still visible through the open doorway. “And it is also my privilege to retrieve the new students who come without a prior explanation or family history with our facility. Students such as yourself.”

Something about the woman’s name ticked at my memory, but I couldn’t think about it right then. I just stared at her, mouth working a few times before I managed to find my voice. “Crossroads Academy?”

“Quite right,” Virginia Dare gave a sharp nod. “The Academy is a school unlike any other you will find within your lifetime. And believe me, I have had quite the lifetime to prove that true.”

“That– that doorway can’t exist!” I blurted, pointing back at the door in question. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

I thought I caught a hint of a smile on the woman’s face. “You are correct, it does not. And yet, there it is.” Her chin inclined slightly. “Miss Chambers, do not mistake my words. You are not being invited into Crossroads Academy merely to continue your mundane education of arithmetic, physics, and the like. You are being invited to witness and understand the truth that very few ever even glimpse from the corner of their eyes. Those people who catch the hint of movement within the darkness, who hear a sound behind them yet turn to find nothing, who spend their lives searching for answers for all of those things which simply do not add up, will never find what they are looking for. They will never learn the truth about this world and the things that live around it. Should you accept this invitation, you will see what they never will: the truth.”

Before I could even think of responding to that, the woman continued. “Yet I wish to be very clear, Miss Chambers. This is no ordinary school, and the threats facing our students are far stronger than a poor report sent home. I will not understate the fact that the lives we lead are dangerous. Because knowing the truth will make you a target. And it will also make you incapable of not seeing the things that so many carrying on their ordinary lives pass by without ever noticing. You will see the evil that permeates this world, and you will not be able to pretend it does not exist. Because just as you will see and recognize it, it will see and recognize you.”

She stepped to the door, standing to one side of it. “It is, then, your decision. You may step through this doorway and accept the danger, the answers, and the life that all of that entails. Or you may step back onto your bus. If you do that, you will find yourself at your ordinary school, within your ordinary life, and we will never trouble you again. This, all of it, must be your decision. No one else can make it for you.”

My mouth worked a few times. “What… what about my dad?” I shook my head rapidly. “I can’t just leave him. I can’t abandon him. After my mother—I can’t do that to him. I won’t.”

That slight smile returned for a fraction of a second. “Do not fear, your father will be quite all right.” She gestured. “Should you join us, he will be made to remember and believe that you have been provided a full scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. You will be allowed to visit home during holidays and certain weekend events, and you may call or write to him whenever you wish. Though, he must be kept ignorant of your true education. As I said, knowing the truth will make you a target. And if he were to know the truth, he would become one as well. I doubt you want that.”

Shaking my head silently, I turned to look back at the bus. I could get on it, go back to my normal life, and everything would be fine. Nothing would change, and I wouldn’t be in danger.

And yet… was it ever really a question? The doorway was real. The magic that I’d been so desperate to believe in was right in front of me. All of my life, I’d been looking for the truth of everything. I’d been looking for answers, for excitement. I’d wanted so badly to find something amazing. Now that a literal doorway to the extraordinary was standing in front of me, I was just going to get back on that bus and go back to my old life?

No. Way.

Turning on my heel, I let out a long breath once more. “Miss-err…”

“Professor,” she provided with a faint smile.

“Professor Dare,” I continued. “I… I accept your invitation.”

Her head bowed slightly in acknowledgment of that, and the well-dressed woman lifted an arm to indicate the door. “Once you pass through,” she warned, “you cannot change your mind.”

I took a step that way and then stopped, biting my lip as I stood right on the edge of the doorway. Turning slightly, I looked toward the school bus once more. An ordinary life, one of no real danger, or one with real answers, real mysteries, and real excitement.

Making my final choice, I closed my eyes, turned… and stepped through the doorway.

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