The benefit of having finally gotten the hang of the privacy spell that Deveron had taught us was that I only had to feel moderately paranoid as I caught hold of Shiori’s arm and pulled her with me into a storage room once we left class. Holding a hand up to stop her from talking, I tugged the pre-prepared coin from my pocket and activated it so that no one would be able to listen in. Then I nodded to her.
“Did you hear?!” she instantly blurted, grabbing both of my hands before proceeding to jump up and down a few times. “Tiras! She said Tiras! And he was a vampire! Well, she said a heretic that took power from a vampire, but course she’d say that! But Tiras! She said—and he—and that was—and-”
Laughing, I tried not to be too distracted by the cute Asian girl bouncing in front of me. “I heard,” I replied once it was possible to get a word in edgewise. “Shh,” I squeezed her hands. “Shiori, it’s okay.”
“Okay?” she echoed in disbelief, head shaking. “It’s better than okay. It’s amazing! No, it’s better than amazing. It’s… it’s… what’s bigger than amazing? Bigger than a maze—labyrinth. It’s A-Labyrinth-ing!”
“Oh, my god.” I didn’t know whether to hang my head and groan, or hug the girl. Eventually, I settled on coughing to (sort of) hide my snicker. “I take it you’re um, happy about Dare knowing Tiras?”
Her head bobbed quickly. “Of course! Do you know how long it’s been since Senny even talked to her father? She was eight years old! She was human. Well, you know, vampeel… but still! It was—hang on—two hundred and fourteen years ago! Two hundred and fourteen, Flick. You know how many times she’s gone over every single memory and story about her dad in those years? It’s like—like–let’s say you were totally alone in a room for two hundred years and you only had ten different movies to watch. Two hundred years of the same ten movies. Hearing about Dare and her father, that’s a brand new movie, Flick. It’s something new! She hasn’t had anything new about her dad for centuries, but this is!”
Her smile and excitement was infectious, and I found myself nodding along with her. “You’re right, it’s a big deal.” Pausing then, I asked, “Think you can hold off on telling her about it for just a few days?”
“Hold off?” Shiori blinked a little, head tilting there in the dim light of the storage room as she stared at me. “Err, why would I need to wait? I mean, other than not talking about it on anything other than your special phone—which if you wanna wait before you share—or don’t share at all—I totally get it!”
Chuckling in spite of myself, I shook my head. “No, no. I don’t mean you have to wait. I just—it’s kind of a big deal, like you said. So I was thinking you might want to wait and talk to her about it in person when you come over and visit during Christmas Break. Wouldn’t that be better than over the phone?”
Eyes widening, the other girl made an adorable little squeaking noise of excitement before actually hugging me. Her arms went around me and suddenly I was being squeezed tight. “Hey, good point! If I wait, I can tell her in person, and then I can… I can…” Her voice trailed off a little before she released me, stepping back against the wall. I thought I could see the pink of her blush. “Um, I mean, thanks.”
“Okay, this is just silly.” I shook my head. “Shiori, we should probably at least try to talk about our–”
The door to the storage room swung open, revealing a pair of older students. The boy had long, shaggy blonde hair with red tips and sort-of a sheepdog look. With the look and the tinted hair tips, he looked a bit like Thieter (the junior medical assistant I’d met back at Eden’s Garden who took us to see Abigail), though his tips had been white rather than red. Meanwhile, the girl looked Native American, like Aylen. Except her hair was cut short, and while Aylen managed to constantly look regal and dignified no matter what she was doing, this girl looked like the stereotypical thug in an after school special.
“Whoa,” the boy blurted as soon as everyone was through jumping in surprise. “Hey, don’t let us inter-”
He made a noise of pain then, though I didn’t actually see the girl move at all. Instead, she made an impatient gesture. “Go experiment somewhere else, Freshmen, we’ve gotta do actual work in here.”
Well, if Shiori had been blushing before, she was beet red by that point. While I quickly disabled the privacy spell, she was already ducking under the girl’s arm to escape the storage room before hurriedly making her way down the hall with a hasty, “See you later, Flick! Good luck with your stuff tonight!”
My mouth opened and shut, and I raised my hand to give her departing form an awkward and pointless wave when the older girl abruptly demanded. “Wait, you’re that Flick girl people keep talking about?”
Damn it, Flick, don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. I repeated the mantra to myself a few more times while forcing my shoulders to shrug. “Why would people talk about me?”
She snorted at that with obvious disbelief. “You’re kidding, right? You’ve been a Heretic all of three months and you’ve already pissed someone off enough that they break onto school grounds and mind control a bunch of people to attack you. And that’s just like, one thing. I mean, this ain’t exactly a boring school, but you’re kind of over-achieving a bit. Slow it down, you’ve got three more years.”
Her words may have been more teasing than confrontational, but I could tell the girl was sizing me up with more than simple casual interest. Finally, I managed a weak, “I’m not doing anything on purpose.”
The girl continued to stare at me contemplatively for a moment before shrugging as she took a single step out of the way, just enough for me to pass. “Just saying, you might wanna prioritize a little better.”
Unsure of what that was supposed to mean, I slipped past the two and kept going. Before moving out of earshot, I managed to overhear the girl turn her attention to the boy. “You know, dude, the last time I checked, the Baykok files weren’t stapled to her ass. So maybe look in the storage room instead?”
“Aww, Namid, don’t be like that,” the boy protested while I fought the urge to turn and walk backwards. “It’s not my fault we ended up on file duty. How was I supposed to know that a place called Colorado City was in god damn Arizona? It was a trick question, and you know it. I was set up.”
I could hear the eye roll in Namid’s retort. “Of course it was a trick question, Hue. When someone asks, ‘Hildale and Colorado City are border towns located in Utah and what other state’, either they think you’re an incompetent moron who shouldn’t be trusted with anything more dangerous than a coloring book, or the answer isn’t actually Colorado. Here’s a tip, try another state that borders Utah!”
Then I managed to make my way far enough that I couldn’t hear the two of them anymore. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Shiori either. She’d disappeared. Looking up and down the hall full of students (though not the one I was looking for), I finally sighed and slumped a little. Figured. I finally decide to try to talk about at least part of what was going on between us, and we get interrupted.
At least I still had Gaia’s tutoring to obsessively count down the minutes toward.
Somewhere along the way, the feeling of intense anticipation had morphed into nervousness. By the time I found myself standing in front of the office labeled ‘Headmistress’ in the middle of the night after curfew had started for most of the other students, I was a big bundle of nerves.
In a somewhat detached way, I thought it was a little weird that there was just an ordinary-looking office door with ‘Headmistress’ written on it. Something about the whole magic school of monster hunters thing made it seem like Gaia’s office should be hidden behind a false wall and protected by a fierce guardian, accessible only by passing some kind of great trial of strength and cunning. Or possibly by answering a riddle. Something out of the ordinary and worthy of the level of person she was.
Barring that, I just reached up and knocked three times, rapping my knuckles against the wood.
The door itself dissolved before my eyes, like a waterfall that gradually stopped to reveal the room beyond.
Okay, I guess that fit my desire for the entrance to Gaia’s office to be something out of the ordinary.
After hesitating for a second, I slowly stepped through the open doorway and looked around. Behind me, the door returned, fading back into existence in a reverse of how it had disappeared before.
First of all, the place was enormous. Entirely too large for the amount of room it seemed to take up in the school, so obviously there was some kind of extra-dimensional shenanigans going on. Not that that was surprising, since I already knew that they did the same thing for the teachers’ apartments. The ceiling itself stretched up thirty feet above my head, sloping into a dome shape that I couldn’t remember actually seeing in the exterior of the school. Across the dome I could see a holographic globe of the world, rotating at a slow, steady pace. Here and there random flares of green, yellow, or red would pop up at various spots, and once in awhile, the flare would turn gold before disappearing.
Meanwhile, the room itself was divided into two equal levels. On the level I was on, the floor was covered in a thick, soft white carpet. The walls were wood with several paintings that seemed to be an equal mix of brilliant artists that were probably worth thousands if not millions of dollars, and the kind of amateurish stuff that could have come straight from my family’s fridge while I was in preschool.
The upper level was accessible through two different sets of stairs that led to a sort of landing that ran all the way around with a waist-high guard rail and open space in the middle that allowed someone to see the domed ceiling from the lower level. Against the walls of that upper level I could see bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves, all heavily laden with their contents to the point of sagging a bit.
Gaia’s desk sat on the lower level at the back of the room, about sixty feet away. It was directly in front of a series of floor to ceiling windows that stretched the entire eighty foot width of the room. Each window was about four feet wide, and each displayed a completely different view. One showed the middle of a jungle, while the one directly next to it showed a busy street in what looked like New York City. Meanwhile, another showed a quiet suburban neighborhood that… actually looked familiar.
“I know that you already have protection for your father,” Gaia’s voice spoke up from the higher level, and I turned to find the woman standing by the railing as one of the bookshelves steadily slid shut behind her, closing on what looked like another hallway. “But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do what I could to keep an eye on him as well. I… apologize for the intrusion.”
“Intrusion?” I echoed before my head shook rapidly. “No, I mean, it’s okay. My dad… I don’t want anything to happen to him.” The words sounded lame as they came out of my mouth, and I flushed a bit but pressed on anyway. “I’m not going to object to someone else protecting him. Especially you.”
Gaia smiled faintly before walking to the nearest stairs. Making her way down the spiraling steps, the red-haired woman didn’t speak again until she was in front of me. “How are you feeling, Felicity?”
My mouth opened and then shut before I shrugged helplessly. “How do I feel? I feel nervous, scared, excited, angry, terrified, grateful… I could go on for awhile, but it’s probably a waste of time.”
That soft, encouraging smile returned. “It’s never a waste of time to analyze one’s own feelings, contradictory as they may seem to be.” Her hand came up to settle on my shoulder before she squeezed gently. “I was… incredibly glad to hear that you were given the opportunity to speak with your mother.”
Flushing a little, I bit my lip and glanced around nervously before asking, “Should we really be talking this… um, openly about all this stuff? I mean, this was Ruthers’s office, wasn’t it? And he’s kind of a-”
“It is safe,” the headmistress assured me. “I have taken the appropriate precautions for our meeting.”
Relaxing just a little bit then, I let out a breath before glancing up at the woman again. “So you, um, still don’t know anything more about the whole Ring of Anuk-Ité thing that my mom mentioned?”
Regretfully shaking her head, Gaia replied, “As I mentioned to Avalon, I have heard of such a thing, but only in whispers and rumors. There isn’t even a firm description of what it actually does. The rumors vary as wildly as you can imagine. I could ask twenty different experts and receive twenty entirely different answers as to what the Ring of Anuk-Ité actually does. As for how Avalon’s father could be using it to go unrecognized at Eden’s Garden, I couldn’t possibly accurately guess. Some say that the ring allows one to possess others, others say it allows them to be seen as friend or enemy no matter who they appear to, while others say that it allows the wearer to change their appearance at will. And there are even more possibilities. We would need a much firmer understanding of the ring before we make any attempt at a plan to counter it. I have… aid on that front, people who are able to ask questions in areas that I cannot, but it will take them some time to come up with any results.”
She straightened then, hand falling away. “And in the meantime, we should proceed with ensuring your safety. After all,” Gaia added with a knowing look and a teasing tone, “it wouldn’t do to spend all this time protecting Avalon, only to have her never forgive me if something were to happen to you.”
My face went a bit red then and I shifted awkwardly. “Oh—um, well, I… uh, where do we start then?”
Chuckling at my reaction, Gaia turned and walked toward her desk while gesturing for me to follow. “We will alternate night by night. One night we will focus on your physical training, and the next, your mental and magical strengths. I would like to meet Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings like this. Would that be all right with you?” she asked then, turning back toward me once we reached the desk.
“Um.” Coughing, I bobbed my head up and down a few times rapidly. “Y-yeah, I mean, I’m not exactly going to object to extra training, Headmistress. I’m not stupid enough to throw that chance away.”
She chuckled lightly, leaning back against the desk. “Please, while we’re in here, simply call me Gaia.”
“Uh, okay…” Shrugging, I tried it out. “Gaia, can I ask you a question that’s been bugging me?” When the woman gestured for me to go ahead, I asked, “What’s the deal with the whole aura color thing that shows up when we um, when we kill things? What do the different colors mean, exactly?”
Laughing, Gaia eyed me for a moment. “Do you have any guesses about what it might mean?”
Hesitating, I thought about it briefly. “I thought it had something to do with relations, since mine is gold and my mom’s is the same. But um, yours is gold too, so… unless we’re—oh my god are we related?!” The words blurted their way out of me as my eyes widened.
That smile softened, and the woman shook her head. “I feel a great connection to you and your mother, Felicity. But no, we have no genetic relation.”
I bit my lip then while shaking my head. “I don’t know then. Why do we have the same color aura, and what do they all mean?”
She straightened, returning my gaze while explaining, “Each Reaper or Hangman is connected in some way to a… sort of central archive of power and information that they can all draw from. Whenever they gain such power or knowledge, it is sent back along their connection to that archive. In that way, each of them is also connected to one another. When we… when the Heretical Edge is used, or when they partake of one of the apples in Eden’s Garden, we open a connection to that archive. And each person who connects to it is linked in some way to one of those other Reapers or Hangmen.”
Blinking rapidly at that, I blurted, “So each color represents a connection to a different Reaper? I thought we were all just connected to the um, the one in the lighthouse.”
“It would not have nearly enough power to grant every Heretic their abilities,” the headmistress pointed out. “The Hangman connected to the Heretical Edge is simply the one that holds the door open to allow the connection into the central archive that the rest of them use. We… tap along that connection to gain access to one of the other, living Reapers. Then they and the new Heretic are connected in a way similar to the blood mixing of a natural Heretic.”
Thinking about that, I hesitated before managing a weak, “So, I guess family members tend to be connected to the same Reaper and so they have the same color aura because it’s… closer to them or something?”
“Correct,” Gaia confirmed with a nod. “You and your mother are both connected to the same Reaper that I was connected to when I was exposed to the Edge. One Reaper or Hangman per color, as there… are not that many of them, for an entire species. They are quite rare, relatively speaking.”
Rocking back on my heels at that, I thought about the implications before giving a little shudder. “Um, Headm—Gaia, I mean. Speaking of the whole aura color thing, could you umm… could you teach me the spell that my mother used to talk to me? The animal projection one. I—I think it would be useful to be able to communicate if anything else goes wrong.”
Gaia watched me for a few seconds in silence then before bowing her head. “Yes, Felicity,” she answered quietly. “I believe that would be a good idea. It is not an easy spell, but if you’re quite sure that you want to put the effort into it.”
“I am—I do.” I nodded firmly, meeting her gaze. “I want to learn it. I’ll work for it.”
She smiled just a little bit at that. “I believe you will, Felicity…
“I believe you will.”