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 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 rushed 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 Sandova—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 be 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.