Heretical Edge

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 cowards. 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 outsiders 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 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 the 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 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 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 near 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 sheathe 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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Orientation 1-01

The man in the handsome silver shirt lifted his pistol until the end of the barrel seemed as large as a cannon. His voice was gruff, that of a man who had killed many times before and had no intention of stopping any time soon. “When you get to hell,” he said grimly, “tell your brother I said hi.”

He pulled the trigger, and as the deafening boom filled the room, everything went dark. Half a second passed, and then the screen lit up once more as the names of people who had contributed to this latest Lou Devereux action flick began to scroll upwards, accompanied by pounding rock music.

There were a few spots of scattered applause before the house lights came back on, allowing the audience to begin filing out of the movie theater and back to their average, ordinary, dull lives.

I, on the other hand, stood at the doorway, a smile plastered onto my face as I nodded to each person on their way out. “Hope you enjoyed the movie. Good night. Hope you enjoyed the movie. Thank you for coming. Hope you had fun. Good night.” Variations of the same meaningless platitudes rolled off my lips without conscious thought after the three months that I had held this summer job. Not that anyone was really paying that much attention to the words of some skinny little almost-seventeen year old girl with dirty blonde hair that I kept in a loose ponytail.

Yup, unlike the ruggedly handsome star that had just closed out his latest summer blockbuster, I wasn’t an action hero. Or any hero at all, unless there was someone out there who had a deadly allergy to chewing gum. I’d scraped enough of that off the back of seats this summer to be that person’s messiah.

An elbow nudged me, and I realized that I’d zoned out while the last of the audience had been leaving. The boy beside me, a year older and with two summers of this job under his belt to my one, gestured with his own broom. “Hey, Flick, you wanna start down at that end and I’ll meet you in the middle?”

Flick. That was me. Well, technically it was Felicity, Felicity Chambers. But no one ever called me that. Not since my mother, who had loved the name Felicity, had run out on my dad and me back when I was seven. Old enough to believe her when she said she’d be right back, but too young to understand what it had meant when she’d said that while shoving half a dozen suitcases into a stranger’s car.

She had disappeared entirely, and with her had gone any chance of me ever liking the name Felicity. She’d loved the name, and I didn’t want anything to ever remind me of the bitch who had made my father cry when he didn’t know I was watching. So, I’d gone by Flick since the day I went back to school after that. By this point, I was pretty sure most of my classmates thought that was my legal name.

“Sure, Pete.” I finally replied to my coworker while grabbing the nearby dustpan with my free hand. On my way down to the front of the theater, I checked the watch on my wrist. Ten minutes until nine, which meant I had that much time to finish up here before the things started getting interesting.

Not that interesting, obviously. Laramie Falls, Wyoming was, after all, one of the most boring towns on the face of the planet. Actually, the fact that my mother running out on my dad and me a decade previously was still one of the most news-worthy things that had happened in this place said a lot.

The fact that she had been the county sheriff before pulling her disappearing act, and had run off with some out-of-town guy she’d pulled over for speeding probably had something to do with that, but still.

I swept up the trash dropped by the last audience, preparing the room for the next herd of popcorn shovelers. Someone would have to do a more thorough clean later on, after the last showing, but it wouldn’t be me. This was my last shift, and I had to get out early since school started tomorrow.

That and well, to be honest I didn’t exactly expect to keep this job beyond the next twenty minutes anyway. Not with what I had planned. Still, I did the best job I could while keeping an eye on the time.

At two minutes to nine, I dumped the last load of my dustpan and waved to Pete before stepping out of the room. Looking left and then right down the crowded theater lobby, I finally spotted what I was looking for: the tall man with the shock of bushy red hair sticking out in every direction. Almost a dozen people were gathered around, hanging on his every word as he regaled them with a story that made everyone laugh so loudly that people passing by kept turning to see what was going on.

“Cal?” I spoke up after getting close enough.

At the sound of my voice, Calvin Witson, the owner and manager of the theater, turned away from his gathered audience. His smile widened, while his gaze gave me an appraising look up and down that was just a hair too long to be comfortable. “Flick!” He boomed, still smiling. His arm gestured from the group of people he’d been amusing and then to me. “Everyone, this here is Flick’s last night with us. She’s heading back to school tomorrow. What are you, a senior this year?”

“Junior,” I replied absently, still thinking about what I was doing. I was nervous, but I tried not to let that show. I’d planned this out well enough, and the timing was just right. There was nothing to worry about. Everything was going to be just fine, as long as Scott wasn’t late.

“Eh, you could pass as a senior,” Calvin informed me with a wide grin that was probably meant to be charismatic. It certainly worked on his audience, who laughed along with him while agreeing.

Somehow, my stomach found the fortitude to avoid turning itself inside out. Forcing myself to smile, I lowered my voice to illustrate the need for privacy. “Listen, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Oh sure, sure.” The man’s head bobbed in agreement. “Let’s chat in my office.” He excused himself from the group and strolled toward the door behind the snack bar that led to his private domain.

I trailed after him, and the two of us walked into his dingy little office that smelled like smoke and alcohol. Most of the space was taken up by an enormous desk, while an obnoxious painting of poker-playing dogs hung off of the far wall.

“So, did you decide to take me up on that offer to work weekends?” Cal asked curiously while nudging the door shut with one foot. He glanced to me as he tugged a couple of hard candies from his pocket, offering me one. When I shook him off, he popped both of them into his mouth. “We need you here.”

I’d thought about my next words carefully over the past several days. When I finally spoke, they came easily enough. “Well sure, but if I stay too much longer, you’re gonna have to tell me about the drugs.”

Pausing, Cal gave me a funny sort of look with his head cocked to the side. Voice muffled by the candy he was sucking on, he asked, “I’m sorry? What’s that about drugs?”

“You know,” I went on casually in spite of my hammering heart. “The pills you’ve been selling through the snack bar.” I forced myself to smile, though his had dropped entirely. “Took me a few weeks to work it out, but I think I’ve got it now. Someone comes in and asks for a diet root beer. When whoever’s working says we don’t have that, they ask to talk to the manager. That’s you. Then they tell you they want a diet root beer, ‘or the next best thing.’ That’s your cue to grab one of the cups, fill it up with whatever you want to give them, and drop one of those water-proof packets of pills into it. They pay you the cost of the drink and the drugs, and you pocket the extra. Smooth set-up, though pretty convoluted. You probably should’ve stuck with passing them out in the park. Or did the gross pervert society all band together and kick you out of the park for making them look bad?”

Cal’s voice had gone from welcoming to cold. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”

“Eh,” I shrugged. “I have my moments. This time? Nah, it wasn’t hard to figure out. You made it way too complicated. It was bound to blow up on you sometime.”

“Fuck you,” he shot back bluntly. “Who the fuck do you think you are, some kind of junior detective?”

“Reporter, actually.” I corrected him automatically. “For the school newspaper.”

“School hasn’t started yet!” He roared in disbelief, as if that was the biggest thing he had to worry about.

“A good reporter never passes up a chance for a story.” I gestured absently. “Even if she is the only one in the school that cares about the paper. But this was a little bit bigger than some school news story anyway. You sell nasty shit to teenagers, Cal. You belong in prison, and that’s where you’re going.”

“My word versus yours,” he insisted with a dirty look. “Who do you think the cops are gonna believe?”

“Probably you,” I admitted. “I mean, respected businessman, one of the richest guys in town, people love you. So yeah, they’ll probably take your word for it. If, you know, I hadn’t taken all your drugs for evidence already.”

The man shook his head with a disbelieving laugh. “Bullshit, they’re in the safe.”

“You mean the safe behind your ugly dog painting?” I nodded behind him. “The one this extra key goes to?” I dug in my pocket before waving the aforementioned key at him.

His eyes widened, and the tall man spun around. He yanked the painting aside, jammed his key into the lock, and yanked it open. Inside were stacks and stacks of both money and the little clear packets full of pills that I had mentioned. He looked long enough to see that the drugs and cash were there, then spun back to me with a snarl, “You didn’t get in here!”

“Whoops,” I replied lazily, shrugging. “Guess this is just the key to my dad’s shed. My bad. Seriously though, extra key? Does that thing even have one of those, or are you like, just that stupid?”

He stood there with his hand on the safe door, twisting in rage. Before he could speak, however, the door swung open and a uniformed man stepped inside. “Okay, I think we’ve heard enough.”

“Hi, Scott,” I waved cheerfully from where I was standing while he moved beside me. Seeing Scott Utell come in unexpectedly, Cal started to shut the safe, only for the uniformed man to bark, “Don’t move!” The hand on his holstered gun made the other man freeze, and Scott gazed right at the bags of pills and cash. “Well,” he drawled slowly, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what those are?”

Cal froze for a moment. His face contorted a little, reddening from anger before he shook his head rapidly while replying those few simple words, “I want my lawyer.”

“Yeah,” Scott replied. “I kind of figured that’s what you were gonna say. Turn around.” To me, while handcuffing the man, he complained, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to call me Deputy Utell instead of Scott while I’m on duty.”

I shrugged at him. “You were my babysitter for a long time before you were a deputy, Scott.”

“Damn right I was,” he replied. “So don’t start thinking you’re hot shit now just because you helped bust this little drug scheme. I changed your diapers, little missy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back. “You were thirteen, you sucked at it. Dad’s still cleaning crap off the walls.”

“Oh my god.” That was Cal, who suddenly wasn’t in the mood for chit chat. “Would both of you just shut the fuck up and take me to the station so I can call my lawyer and get this asshole shit-canned?” To me, he added, “And speaking of which,you’re fucking–”

“Fired, yeah, I know.” I replied while looking at my watch. “But my last shift ended already. Sooo should I bring my uniform into Theodore tomorrow when I pick up my check or…”

The answer that came was a long series of curses, and I nodded. “Got it, not a good time.”

******

Strolling out of the sheriff’s office with my dad about an hour later once they had all the information they wanted from me, I stretched my arms up over my head and yawned. “I think this calls for ice cream, don’t you?”

“You know,” Dad started in that tone that promised all sorts of lectures, “it’s funny, but I don’t really like rewarding my only child for putting herself in danger by pissing off a drug dealer. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.”

Sneaking a glance sideways at him before lowering my arms, I took in the sight of my father. He was a big guy, like a mountain man from the old days of the American frontier, complete with thick bushy beard and long hair. Usually his eyes were full of life and cheer (except when he was obviously thinking about my stupid coward of a mother), but today he was squinting at me.

“Scott was there,” I protested. “Nothing would’ve happened. I just had to make sure that he opened–”

“Opened the safe,” Dad finished for me. “Yeah, I know. I still don’t like it. Scott could’ve gotten someone else in there. You’re a kid. More importantly,” he added while reaching out to tug me by the arm into a hug, “you’re my kid.” Pressing me tight against his chest, my father murmured a little. “Besides, you should be doing ordinary teenager things like going on dates or screwing around with your friends.”

Yeah, that would involve hanging out with people my own age. Which I didn’t really tend to do anymore. I’d had one real close friend since Mom left, a girl named Miranda. But she moved away a few years earlier, around seventh grade. And after that, I just… getting close to people that were just going to leave felt like a losing proposition. Sure, I still talked to people at school and had people I joked around with, sat with at lunch, or did projects with. But those were just school friends. It wouldn’t matter if they left and I never saw them again.

But I didn’t want Dad to worry even more about me, so I just shrugged while returning the hug. “I like what I’m doing. Besides, it’s Wyoming, remember? Who am I gonna hang out with, some cows?”

Unfortunately, Dad knew me too well to be so easily dissuaded from the topic. “Hah,” he retorted flatly. “You and I both know there’s more to do than that. And plenty of people your own age to do it with.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I mimed writing on my hand. “Dad says I should ‘do it’ with a bunch of people my own age, got it.”

That earned a simultaneous snort and swat to my shoulder. “You know what I meant.” He squinted at me for a second then before his face softened. “I love you, kid. And I’m proud as hell of you. Stopping that asshole from giving any more drugs to kids, the reporter in me wants to congratulate you. But the father in me… I just want you to be a teenager. Don’t grow up too fast. Hang out with people your own age, have fun, make mistakes. Go to those wild parties, just be smart about it. I just… I don’t want you to wake up someday in ten or twenty years and regret any of this.”

Biting my lip, I met his gaze for a few seconds before responding. “I’ll be okay, Dad, I promise.” And just to make him stop worrying so much, I added, “Besides, maybe someone else’ll pay attention to the school paper this year. Lots of new freshmen, you never know. I might get a partner. Or a protege. Oooh, I could do lots of stuff with a protege.”

Chuckling a little, Dad took a moment to stroke his hand over my hair. “Just think about spending more time with people under twenty, and I’ll be happy.”

Smiling up at him, I put on my most innocent face and voice. “Does that mean ice cream’s back on the table?”

Giving me a long look, Dad finally laughed under his breath. “Tell you what, you can have ice cream after I finish lecturing you about how dangerous that stunt was.”

“What, you’re not done?” I teased in spite of myself. “I thought we already had the lecture.”

“Ohhh no.” Dad shook his head. “Trust me, kid, we haven’t even started yet. Now come on, you know how I like to warm up into my lectures.”

So we walked to the car, and I listened as my father did his fatherly thing. Through it all, I smiled and made the right words at the right times.

It was okay. I knew he worried about me, even more than some might have after Mom left. But really, it was Wyoming. What danger could I possibly run into?

******

“You awake, sleepyhead?”

It was the next morning, and I was trying as hard as I could not to collapse into my bowl of cereal. Dad was sitting across from me, already dressed for his day at the paper. Like me, Dad was a reporter. Unlike me, he was a real one that worked for a real newspaper, instead of the dinky little school one that no one paid attention to. He’d worked at the Los Angeles paper for a long time, until he met Mom and they settled down here to have a quieter life.

Yeah, that had lasted a long time. Right up until Mom got a better offer.

“I’m good,” I replied before yawning wide. “I’ll be fine.” Smiling at him, I added, “Can’t call off sick on the first day, after all.”

Nodding, Dad straightened from the table. “You’ve got that right. Now go on. Hurry up or you’ll miss the bus.”

After glancing at my watch to see that he was right, I jumped up from the table. “Crap, crap, crap.” Ignoring the half-eaten bowl of cereal, I grabbed my jacket and bag off of the nearby chair, then checked to make sure my phone was in my pocket before rushing toward the door.

“Hey!” Dad called, and I about-faced to give him his hug. “That’s better,” he remarked before kissing the top of my head. “Go learn. And stay away from drug dealers!”

I flinched. “I guess we’re not done talking about that?” The lecture last night had actually gone on through ice cream and on a bit after we’d gotten home, which was part of the reason I was so tired. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to let me take another job for awhile. At least not one that he didn’t check over to make sure it was as safe and boring as the rest of our small town.

His gaze was serious. “Not nearly done, no. But go on now. Later we can talk about the things you’re supposed to do in those situations. Spoiler alert, they do not involve going alone into a room with the bad guy and provoking him.”

Shrugging as innocently as I could, I headed for the door while calling back, “Can’t wait for that conversation!” Then I was out the door and running to meet the bus at the corner.

I did feel bad about upsetting my father. He was pretty much my hero, and the reason I wanted to be an investigative reporter. But the fact was, he’d already lost his wife back when she ran out on him with no explanation beyond a hastily scribbled note about how sorry she was. So when it came to me, he was a lot more cautious. Too cautious, sometimes, but I still loved him.

I made it to the corner just in time, and climbed onto the crowded bus. Nodding to the few other students that greeted me, I made my way down the aisle until I found an empty seat and then collapsed into it. The bus pulled away from the corner, and I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for long, I knew. The ride to the school was only about thirty minutes. Still, a cat nap was better than nothing, so I let the motion of the bus lull me to a light sleep.

Just for a few minutes…

******

With a sudden gasp, I jerked awake and sat up. The motion had stopped, and the bus sat still and motionless, the engine completely silent.

“What…” Pushing myself off the seat, I looked around. Every other seat was empty. I was the only one on the bus. Even the driver was gone. Did they just leave me here? Didn’t anyone notice that I didn’t get off?

Grumbling to myself about being late, I rushed to the front of the bus. The door was standing open, and I stepped down to the curb before spinning to orient myself. My first class was…

Nowhere near here. There was no school building here. Actually, there wasn’t really a building at all.

There was a door. A single, solitary pure white door that stood alone in the middle of an otherwise completely empty field. There was nothing else around for as far as I could look in every direction. Nothing except grass, weeds, the empty bus, and this door. There were no buildings, no people, and I couldn’t even see any actual road or tracks that the bus could have used to get out here. Nor were there any tracks that showed where it had come from. It was just there, as silent and still as that single door.

“Where…” I spoke aloud while turning in a slow circle to take in everything one more time. Yup, bus, field, door, me. Nothing else.

“… the hell am I?”