“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 are 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.”