Koren

Begin Again 10-03

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“Can anyone tell me when the unification of Germany officially took place?” Professor Dare spoke while standing beside her pristine white board. Her eyes moved over the class, and I saw the small smile cross her face as she focused on the single hand that was in the air. “Besides Miss Moon, that is.”

Two seats in front of me and one over, Vanessa lowered her hand. As usual, it had shot into the air the very instant the professor (almost any professor really, not just this one) finished her question. It had gotten to the point where they had to give the rest of us a chance to answer something before letting her do it. Because when it came to anything academic or from a book, Vanessa Moon knew it. She remembered everything she read like it was still right in front of her, and she read freaking everything.

It was Tuesday, the fourteenth of November, about a week after our little adventure. We still hadn’t figured out how we were going to break into Professor Tangle’s room. Yeah, we could ask Gaia for help, but I wanted to avoid involving her as much as possible unless we absolutely had to. She had gone out on way too many limbs as it was. Especially if Ruthers was really paying as much attention to what was going on in the school as I figured he was.

Basically, she told people that she had taken us on a special excursion of her own as our monthly hunt, to make up for the fact that the last one had been sort of waylaid by Trice and his friends. Shiori, supposedly, came along by accident since she and Columbus had been together at the time. It was supposed to help explain why we had those new Stranger gifts so that we could actually use them in school without confusing everyone about where the hell they’d come from. Plus, there was the not-so-subtle hint that the headmistress had been trying to protect us in case anything like that happened again.

So no, if we got in trouble, we’d see if she could help. But I wasn’t going to let us start relying on having the headmistress take care of everything for us. No, there had to be another way into that room.

I was absently playing with a small wooden block that I’d brought in. Focusing, I could push my hand all the way into it, making my fingers effectively disappear. Or I could push them through and out the other side. It made my skin tingle, and I’d forgotten that I was doing it before starting to raise my hand.

There were giggles around me, and I looked up, belatedly realizing that I hadn’t pulled my fingers out of the block first. It was sort of fused into several of my fingers as I held my hand in the air. Blushing a little bit, I lowered my hand and shook it to make the block fall off, hurriedly tucking it into my bag with the other hand. Then I looked back to where Professor Dare was watching me with a raised eyebrow. When I kept my hand up while giving her a sheepish shrug, she nodded for me to go on.

Coughing, I started. “Um, I think it was… eighteen seventy… tw—wait, one. Eighteen seventy one? I don’t know the whole date, sorry.”

“No apologies necessary, Miss Chambers,” the woman replied with a shake of her head. “Eighteen seventy-one is correct. January eighteenth, to be absolutely precise. Very good. Now, here’s an easy one for you guys. First hand up gets to answer. What was the name of the first German Emperor?”

A few rows away, Zeke Leven raised a hand before asking, “You mean the real leader or the guy all the Silverstones think was in charge?” His tone made it pretty clear how little he thought of those people.

Professor Dare regarded him before clearing her throat. “I’m afraid that I must apologize, Mr. Leven.”

That threw him. The boy blinked, shifting in his seat as his hand lowered. “Err, apologize, Professor?”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before gesturing with a hand. The red marker nearby lifted off its perch and floated there in the air before starting to write on the white board while she continued. “Clearly, I made the very terrible mistake of beginning this class three months ago without even providing its name.”

On the board, the marker wrote, ‘Bystander History’ before capping itself. Professor Dare nodded in satisfaction before returning her gaze to Zeke. “Mistake rectified. Do you need more clarification?”

The boy’s mouth opened and shut before he shook his head, clearly struggling to maintain a completely civil voice. “No, Professor Dare. I know what class this is.” His teeth were clenched as he spoke.

“Excellent,” the woman replied simply, still smiling. “I’d hate to think that I’ve failed so spectacularly that you still have no idea what the very subject of this class is. That would be unconscionable.”

She looked toward one of the other students who had their hand up then, Travis. “Yes, Mr. Colby?”

The boy, another of my fellow Bystander-kin, gave Zeke a long look before replying. “Yeah, wasn’t it that Kaiser… uhh.. Kaiser Wilhelm dude? The guy that looks like Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica only with the epic sideburns and mustache. They’ve got a picture of him in the hall outside my room.”

“Hey, yeah, that guy,” one of the other boys put in. “There’s a picture in the library too. Dude looks mad strict. Jazz made me cover it up cuz she thought the guy was staring at us while we were–” Cutting himself off, the boy glanced toward Professor Dare. “Uh, you know, while we were studying.”

Shaking her head in obvious amusement, the professor simply moved on. “Yes, thank you. The first official leader of the German Empire was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig. Or William Frederick Louis if you prefer the English version. And he did, indeed, possess some rather impressive facial hair.”

Stepping away from the wall then, she tapped her fingers against Zeke’s desk a few times. “I also have to thank Mr. Leven for providing me with a very impressive segue into our next group project.”

She smiled through the groans that prompted before speaking up over them to make everyone quiet down. “He’s right, there are certain aspects of history that are remembered one way by Heretics and another way by the majority of the world’s population. Can anyone provide another example of this?”

A few rows back, Malcolm Harkess sat up abruptly, his well-muscled arm rising. “Vampires,” he quickly answered after Professor Dare turned her attention to him. “They were helping the British during the American Revolution. Which should, you know, sort of prove who the good guys were.”

Oh, right. He was the one I’d heard talking about seeing his ancestor fight those very same vampire redcoats during his Edge vision. I had to bite my lip to avoid arguing with his latter point. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that there were people who would take anything I said to that effect right back to Ruthers and his contingent of people who were convinced that I was spying for my mom.

Still, my eyes glanced toward Shiori. The other girl was staring intently down at a paper on her desk, hand clutching her pen. Apparently feeling my eyes on her, she looked up. Our gazes met, and I gave her a thumbs up. She smiled a little bit, a soft pink blush touching her face.

“That is one example, yes,” Professor Dare confirmed before looking for another. They came in here and there from a few other students, until she eventually waved off any more. “Thank you, everyone. Yes, there are many examples of this contradiction between Bystander and Heretic histories. Those of you who were raised by Heretics will witness that fact more in this class, while those of you raised out of the knowledge will have already seen several such differences in your classes with Professor Ross.”

There was some general noises of agreement before she continued. “With that in mind, she and I have decided to have you each work in small groups on a little project. With your group, you will choose an event from history and give a short oral presentation detailing that event from the perspective of Heretics and from the perspective of Bystanders. It should be five to ten minutes long. You will compare and contrast how that event affected both societies. These presentations will be given in front of both myself and Professor Ross Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday next week before the Thanksgiving break. The order will be decided by depositing the names of each group into a hat and choosing one at random each time a new presentation is needed. So I suggest that you be prepared on the very first day, just in case. You may, of course, get lucky and be able to wait until the last day, but I doubt any of you have had the opportunity to absorb any kind of fortune manipulation gift yet.”

There were some groans about doing a project just before a holiday vacation, but I was actually pretty intrigued. There was obviously so much different between Heretical history and the history that I had grown up with, and this sounded like an easy way to get a quick overview of some of those differences. Along with, of course, a more in depth bit of knowledge of whatever event my eventual group chose. Hell, I was already thinking through some famous bits of history that I’d kind of like to get a Heretical take on.

Yeah, I liked learning things, so sue me. Hearing a bit about a various points in Heretical history sounded like pretty much the best way to finish out the semester before going home for Thanksgiving.

Sands had her hand up and was called on. “How are we gonna make up our groups, Professor?”

Dare nodded to her. “Good question. I know you usually do this sort of thing by roommates, but we’re going to do something a little different this time.” Turning back to her desk, she reached into a drawer, producing a pretty snazzy looking green top hat. “This,” she explained, “is the same hat that we’ll be producing the order of your presentations from. Each of your names is already in it. I’m going to select one name. That person will then come up and select three more. Those four will be a group. Then I’ll select another name, and we’ll continue. Does anyone have any other questions before we get started?”

There were none, and she drew the first name. It ended up being Travis, and he chose Erin Redcliffe, one of the other boys that I didn’t have much experience with whose name was apparently Douglas, and Zeke. After him, the next person to draw names was Aylen. She got Shiori, Scout, and Malcolm.

The third name that Dare drew was mine. She nodded for me to come up, then held the hat out. When I got up there and glanced in it, I saw a pile of folded papers. Shrugging, I reached in to grab one before reading it out loud. “Ah, Rudolph?” Glancing toward the pale, somewhat heavy-set boy, I found him giving me a quick, nervous nod.

The next name that I drew was Vanessa. The second I read the note out loud, the entire class that wasn’t part of a group yet let out a long, low groan. Clearly, they wanted the genius girl for their own team. Vanessa, for her part, seemed fairly oblivious to the reaction. She just gave me a faint, distracted smile.

Finally, I reached for another paper for the last member of our group. However, this time, the paper that my fingers moved to touch actually slipped out of my grasp and literally flew to the other side of the hat. A second later, another paper lifted slowly into my hand, pressing into my palm until I took it.

When I looked up, confused, I saw Professor Dare meeting my gaze evenly. Then she winked before her expression returned to normal. “Having any trouble picking that last name, Miss Chambers?”

“Um,” I hesitated, then shook my head before straightening. “No, Ma’am.” Still uncertain about what was going on, I unfolded the paper and looked at it with a frown before my eyes abruptly widened.

My gaze flicked back to the professor before I coughed and read the note out loud. “Koren Fellows.”

The girl in question looked up from where she’d been whispering something to Rebecca. “Huh, what?”

The professor ignored my stare. “Congratulations, Miss Fellows. You’re part of a group with Mr. Parsons, Miss Moon, and Miss Chambers. I’m sure the four of you will put together a good project.”

******

“So she put you in a group with Koren on purpose?” Sands asked later that day. She and Scout had come to find me on my way out of the cafeteria after dinner. Now they were leading me out of the main building and over the grounds. Apparently they had an idea about how to get into Tangle’s apartment.

I nodded, keeping my voice low. “Yeah, I mean, the first paper moved. Not just a little bit, like, completely. It flew away. And the new paper just picked itself up and went into my hand. Then she winked at me. It was totally purposeful. She set it up to put Koren and me in the same group together.”

“So obviously she knows about the,” Sands started before dropping her voice to a whisper, “relation.”

Scout, who was playing with a borrowed Herbie by flipping him back and forth between her hands (obviously to scare off any extra-dimensional kidnappers with the threat of tasting our stony savior’s sharp steel), looked up at that. Her eyes met mine before the girl nodded, speaking a single word quietly, “Helping.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Definitely trying to help by getting us together. Which means the headmistress has been talking to her. They probably noticed my… umm, less than fantastic attempts to strike up a conversation so far.” I’d tried a few more times since that first, none of which were more successful.

“So basically,” Sands put in with a tiny snicker, “they’ve set you up with the cue ball of friendships.”

I blinked sidelong toward the girl at that, suddenly confused. “Wait, what? Cue ball of friendships?”

“Sure, you know,” she replied with a gesture. “Like that game Bystanders play that’s basically baseball only with all the challenge gone. Where they put the ball on the stick and cue the player to hit it?”

In spite of myself, I giggled. “Oh. Oh, no. You mean tee-ball. The thing the ball sits on is called a tee. Just like a golf tee, where they put the ball on that little thing so it’s not just sitting on the ground.”

Sands squinted at me. “If that’s tee-ball, then what the hell is a cue-ball?”

Still trying to hold back even more giggles, I explained. Through it all, Sands gradually blushed more with each word. When I was done, she shook her head, eyes rolling. “Okay, yeah, I’d laugh too.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I replied casually. “That’s pretty much how I feel every time we find out more about this whole true history of the world and Heretics thing. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on this stuff, you guys surprise me again. And with that in mind, why are we at the faculty building?” I had belatedly realized where the twins were leading me just before we cut across the path toward the back entrance. “Wait a second, we’re not going for Tangle’s apartment right now, are we?”

“Course not,” Sands replied while Scout shook her head. “We’re just going in to show you around. Trust us,” she added while grabbing the door to pull it open. “It’s cool. Go on in.”

I don’t know what I expected to see inside, but a simple hall way with blank doors on either side wasn’t it. The place kind of looked boring and utilitarian. And it was definitely… smaller than I’d thought faculty apartments would be. The doors leading into each weren’t even that far apart from each other. “Eesh,” I muttered, “don’t become a Crossroads teacher for the living space.”

“Tell me about it, right?” a voice spoke up from a little to the right, where a stairway led up.

I yelped, turning to find Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s dad, standing there with a tiny smirk. “Girls, you weren’t working your way toward any more trouble, were you?”

“Working our way toward, old man? We swim in trouble and you know it,” Sands shot back before shrugging. “But right now we’re just showing Flick our old room.”

“Oh right,” Professor Mason snapped his fingers. “You mean the place where I keep all my fishing stuff now.”

Sands made a face at him. “You do not.”

“Oh yeah, yeah.” The man was nodding seriously. “Had to put up an anti-stench enchantment and everything. You’d be surprised how nasty some of that bait smells. Whoooeeeeee, it’s some awful stuff.”

“You’re a jerk,” Sands informed her father before sticking her tongue out at him while trying to talk at the same time. “Toal ‘erk.”

“Toal Erk, huh?” Professor Mason smirked, reaching out to ruffle both their hair at the same time. “Well, okay then, Erk one and Erk two. Fight amongst yourselves about which one is which, and show off our place to your friend. You know the rules. Don’t go anywhere but our apartment. Got it?”

Each of them gave him a thumbs up, and he headed out the nearby backdoor to cross the grounds, apparently on his way to his own dinner.

Through it all, I had been staring at the man who had gone through so much effort to retrieve my mother’s weapons. Why? Was he one of her friends or silent allies, or had he just wanted a trophy? Maybe he hadn’t been able to stand the idea of her weapons being among Alters.

“Okay, come on,” Sands started by heading for the same stairs that their dad had come down. They led me up to the second floor and to one of the other blank doors in that seemingly too-small hallway. “This is our place. Err, Dad’s place now, I guess. Anyway, come on in.”

When I stepped through the door, I found myself standing in a living room that was clearly much too large considering how close the other doors were. Seeing that, I coughed. “You know, at a certain point I’m going to get used to the Heretic love of TARDIS technology.”

“Tar-what now?” Sands asked blankly.

I gave her a wide eyed, wide mouthed, appalled look. “Okay, well. You guys have unbelievable magical abilities, the ability to inherit special powers from things normal humans can’t see, and the technology to instantly transport anywhere in the world. Bystanders have Doctor Who. So we’ll call it a tie.”

Sands stared openly at me, then turned to stare at her sister before speaking. “She’s crazy.” Turning back to me, she repeated the point. “You’re crazy. Anyway, we can talk about your favorite hospital shows later. Right now, you wanna know how we’re gonna get you into Tangle’s apartment, right?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “On a scale of one to ten, how much am I gonna hate this plan?”

Sands cocked her head to the side to consider the question. “That depends. How long can you hold your breath? Oh, and how sensitive is your sense of smell? I mean, you don’t pass out around, say, manure or anything, do you?”

“Right,” I muttered, “So eleven then. Fan-freaking-tastic.”

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Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discuss smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.

Asenath.

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-03

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Before he moved with my mother to the much smaller and quieter Laramie Falls, my father’s work in Los Angeles had sent him to a lot of disturbing scenes. He wasn’t a cop, but in some ways, his job had been almost as dangerous. He had investigated serial killers, arsonists, child abductors, and worse, all without the benefit of a badge. He’d carried a small gun for protection after an incident where a man followed him home, but for the most part, it had been up to him to keep himself out of too much trouble.

Of course, he’d gone right into trouble, because that was where the story happened to be. Dad’s primary purpose and goal had been to expose those monsters, to drag them into the light of day and tear away the shadows of mystery that kept people terrified of them. He used his writing to shine a spotlight directly on the sick pieces of shit, not to simply scare his audience but to educate them.

After changing cities and mostly settling down, he had kept boxes full of all his old work hidden under camping equipment in the attic. To this day, he had no idea that I had found those boxes back when I was twelve. I’d pored through them, seeing all the stories he’d written, all the pictures that had been taken of those awful scenes, even the reports filed in such dry and concise language by the police.

Most of it had made me physically sick, but I had gone through it anyway. I’d looked at the pictures of violent, soul-crushing death and human misery, not for the thrill, but to inoculate myself against the horror of it. My thought, as a child, had been that if I saw those things through the pictures, it wouldn’t be as hard to see it when I grew up. Because even back then I had known that I wanted to do the same job that my father had. I wanted to help people by exposing the monsters as the humans they were.

And now I had found out the truth. Many of those monsters weren’t human at all. They were things that no amount of light would bring answers to, not for the vast majority of humanity. There were creatures, foul, evil monsters who could not be held by any human prison. Their crimes would go forever unsolved by human authority, the families of their victims left without any real closure. They would escape any and all justice and be left to freely prey upon the innocent, treating humanity as toys.

Except for one thing. The Heretics. These were the people who could bring those monsters to justice, who could stop them from preying upon the innocent. That was why I had chosen so easily to join them, to set aside my desire to be a reporter. My goal all along had been to stop the monsters hiding in the shadows. I just hadn’t realized how literal that term was. And now that I did? Now that I had some idea of what creatures were out there, I was going to learn everything I could about how to stop them.

All of that and more passed through my mind as I stared at the projection of the crime scene. The hologram, if that’s what this could be called, was so realistic that I almost forgot we were in a room. From all appearances, we were standing on the edge of an actual gas station parking lot. It looked absolutely real, and I would have believed that we had teleported here. Even the sky above looked convincing. Behind us, the door we had come through appeared to be a simple doorway standing right in the middle of an empty street. When I put my hand out toward what looked like empty air beside the door, I found the wall. There was no indication of its existence until I touched it.

Turning back, my eyes found the poor girl on the ground with the gas nozzle duct taped into her mouth, and I felt that familiar taste of sick rising up in my throat. Even looking through my father’s old files and pictures hadn’t prepared me for seeing this sort of thing as up close and personal as this was.

Beside me, I heard a girl gasp the words, “Oh my god….” Then a hand caught my arm and squeezed. When I looked that way, I found Koren of all people. She was staring at the dead girl. Her eyes were wide with shock, and I saw a bit of dampness leak through the corners. She worked her mouth with a small, barely audible whine, and I could almost see the bile making its way up her throat.

Wincing, I turned to grab the girl’s arm, turning her away from the scene and bending her over slightly even as her body started to heave. When she puked, it hit what looked like pavement beneath our feet.

Once she had finished, Koren spat at the ground a couple of times to clear her mouth, then gave a little shudder before straightening up. Her eyes found me and I saw a look of confusion and uncertainty touch her gaze for just a moment before she pulled away with a mumbled, “I’m fine.” Her face was flushed with embarrassment, which stood out a lot against her naturally pale skin.

“Here,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up, and I saw her extending a glass of water to Koren, along with a napkin for her face. “If you need to take a break, you can go back through the door and sit down for a few minutes.” Raising her voice then, she added, “That goes for everyone. Go back to the other side and give yourself a break if you need it. No one is going to shame you for it. The fact that seeing something like this makes you sick is a good thing, and is not to be mocked. Any person that I see doing something like that will be in my office every day after classes for the rest of the month.”

Once that was acknowledged, the blonde woman gestured. “Look around, trust your instincts and see what you can find. You can touch things in here and move them around. The scene can be reset by the lead investigator, in this case that would be me, so do not worry about disturbing things. Look around as much as you like and then we will all discuss what we believe happened here.”

“Um, Professor?” I raised my hand before pointing. “What about the cameras?” They were clearly covering not only the lot, but the inside of the store. The whole thing should have been recorded. “I mean, is there any way to make that work?” Not being able to view footage would have made any investigation a lot harder than it had to be, and I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t have a way around it.

Smiling faintly, Professor Dare gestured. “The PAWS system automatically copies any recordings within the area and will play them accordingly, yes. I suggest you look inside the office for that.”

Most of the group spread out, the majority going to look either at the girl’s body, or the one inside the store. I hesitated before looking toward the twins, who seemed to be waiting for me. “Video then?”

Sands nodded, and the three of us made our way inside, moving through the almost obnoxiously bright store. My eyes tracked the trail of blood to the back coolers, where the second body lay in a heap. Remnants of both the glass of the coolers, and their contents covered the body, mixing with the blood.

Swallowing, I forced myself to look away, returning my attention to the twins. “Are you guys okay?”

Sands actually seemed to be the more affected of the two. Her lower lip trembled slightly while she stared, clearly unable to look away. It was Scout, her expression sad but controlled, who moved in front of her sister to block her view. It was a subtle thing, the girl turning her body as though reacting to me, which maneuvered her directly into Sands’ eye-line. Subtle, yet I had no doubt it was purposeful.

Scout looked at me, meeting my gaze before giving a slight nod. She was okay. She had seen worse.

Back under control, Sands breathed out before nodding as well. “L-let’s go see this video.”

We found our way to the manager’s office, and it only took a few seconds to spot the computer in the corner. I shrugged at the others before reaching out to hit a key. For a hologram, it certainly felt real. The key brought up the computer screen, and it only took a minute to find the security footage.

Unfortunately, it was spectacularly useless. Though the cameras were clearly high quality, capturing both the interior of the store from several angles, and the parking lot including the pumps, none of it mattered, because the actual scene itself was completely missing. I was able to set the video to show the doomed clerk standing in her spot behind the counter, with the equally doomed man in the back of the store, glancing nervously around as though waiting to be sure the place was empty. Then, without warning or apparent reason, the view jumped instantly to show the scene we had just walked through. One second everything was fine, and then there were two dead bodies on camera.

“Whoa, whoa, what?” I clicked the button to send the footage back, then let it play. Again, the scene jumped. According to the video details in the corner, it had jumped almost twenty minutes.

Professor Dare spoke up from behind us. “Most Strangers project a field that inhibits being recorded by ordinary human technology. The strength of this field varies. Some are so weak that details of the event or creature can still be made out. Even the quality of those best videos, however, are rendered so poor so that almost any Bystanders dismisses it as a poorly made edit, a prank. Others, like vampires, simply don’t appear on video at all while allowing it to continue recording other subjects. In this case, it would appear that the Stranger who was responsible for this… situation was sufficiently powerful that the entire recording was simply frozen from the moment they arrived, and did not resume until they left.”

“But why?” I asked with a frown. “Why would creatures of magic have an effect so specialized as messing with technology like that? Cameras are a very new thing, I mean, as far as the Strangers go. How did they develop that kind of defense so quickly? And why? Would humans be a threat to them?”

“A united humanity, joined in power against the monsters that stalk the darkness?” Professor Dare gave a single nod. “Indeed. That would be a genuine threat. Unfortunately, that is not what would happen.”

Frowning, I glanced to the security footage (or lack thereof), and thought for a second before responding as I turned back to the teacher. “Because humans don’t tend to unite like that?”

“Precisely.” Professor Dare met my gaze. “If humanity as a whole knew about the Strangers, they would fall on each other. Paranoia would run rampant. Every disagreement would be magnified to the point of absurdity. Ordinary disputes would be tainted by the fear that the person they were arguing with was a monster posing as a human being. You believe that humans have treated each other horribly throughout history simply due to a difference of belief, skin color, or economic status? Add in the fear of monsters posing as humans, and society would tear itself apart. Trust outside of close acquaintances would quickly fall apart, and even friendships and families themselves could be strained.”

Biting my lip, I looked back to the useless computer monitor once more with a frown. So much for getting anything here. “I guess we should look around the rest of the scene,” I said quietly.

“Do not feel bad,” Professor Dare urged. “It is never a waste of time to examine such footage, even if it rarely pans out. Sometimes, as I said, enough of the video remains to identify the creature responsible. Or there may be clues and evidence before or after the event itself that can help. It is always a good idea to check, just to rule out an easy solution before moving on to the next possibility.”

“Before and after…” I murmured under my breath before turning back to the computer. Sands had been about to close out of the footage. “Wait, send it back to right before the scene jumps and pause it.”

With a shrug, the other girl complied. After two clicks, the ordinary scene returned, freezing in place.

Lifting my hand, I indicated the vehicles that were in the lot or on the nearby street, committing them to memory. “Remember all these cars that are in view. Okay, let it skip ahead, then pause again.”

Sands did so, freezing the image as soon as the newly horrific scene returned. This time, rather than focus on the dead bodies, I scanned the scene for any of the same cars that had been there before.

It was Scout who raised her finger, pointing to a sedan on the road to the right of the station. Her finger touched the screen, and then she gestured to her sister. Getting the point, Sands rewound the footage once more. This time, Scout moved her finger down to one of the other camera views, which showed the left hand side of the station lot. In that view, the same car was just pulling in. Unfortunately, it was impossible to make out the occupant in either case. The angle was wrong.

I smiled in spite of myself. “Good eyes, Scout. Look, Professor. That car pulls in right before everything skips ahead. When the cameras come back, it just pulled out.” Turning a bit, I asked, “The license plate is right there. Can you send it to the Heretics that are actually investigating this?”

Her head dipped in acknowledgment. “An excellent use of resources, Miss Chambers. And well-spotted, Miss Mason. You’ve done well so far. And… precisely what the investigators assigned to this case have already done.” She gave a smile at our collective wince. “Do not feel bad. The fact that you’ve done precisely what the Runners on this case have done should not be a cause for embarrassment, but pride. Our investigators know their jobs. Of course they would think to do exactly what you just did. Be proud that you thought the way that they do, not ashamed that you have not single-handedly created a whole new avenue of investigation.”

She was right. The Heretics that were looking into this were trained professionals. The best of the best. Of course they had already thought of something as simple as comparing the before and after footage. Just because we were being tutored using this crime scene didn’t mean we were going to spot anything that the actual professionals missed. Not that easily, at least.

Sands was already straightening up, her voice as confident as ever. “Let’s see what else we can spot out there. There’s gotta be something the investigators missed.”

Professor Dare stepped aside, saying only, “I am here to answer any questions that you have.”

The three of us walked back out into the main part of the store, and the professor moved to help Travis and Rudolph over by the cash register. The two of them had apparently found the dead girl’s purse.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be any answers there,” I murmured under my breath to the twins. “I doubt she was a planned target.”

“Why not?” Sands asked, glancing my way with a raised eyebrow.

Shrugging, I replied, “It just doesn’t feel like that, I don’t know. I can’t explain it. But everything here says it was a crime of opportunity. Think about it. A twenty minute jump? Whoever or whatever did this was having fun. They took the time to enjoy themselves before… somehow forcing that girl to kill that man and then… I don’t know, kill herself? Strangers can have mind control powers, right?”

Both girls nodded, and Sands spoke up. “Some of them, yeah.”

“I think… someone was playing.” After hesitating, I started to pace while thinking about it for another few seconds. “They didn’t care about making a scene. There was no attempt to cover this up at all. Part of that was relying on the whole camera-futzing thing, but they didn’t even try to make the scene look realistic. What kind of girl commits suicide like… like she supposedly did? Plus, look at the difference between the two deaths. That one there was sudden and simple. Shot in the back. The one out there was elaborate and nasty. This was powerful, but also… immature. Unplanned. It’s almost like they were… I don’t know, testing their power or playing with it?”

“You know that stuff isn’t real, right?” Sands asked, gesturing. “Can’t really take it with you.”

Blinking down in confusion, I found myself looking at a candy bar and a bottle of orange soda. “Huh?”

Sands snickered. “You picked them up while you were talking. Need a snack when we get back?”

Shaking my head, I set both the soda and the candy down, squinting at them briefly. “I guess so. Sorry, I didn’t know I was doing that.”

Shrugging, Sands tapped the bottle. “Your subconscious makes good choices, anyway. But yeah, holograms probably don’t taste that good.”

Before I could say anything else, a voice spoke up from nearby. “Heh, guess you saw it too, huh?”

Looking back, I saw Koren standing there. She still looked a little flushed, but was clearly doing her best to hold it together. “Saw what?”

“The receipt?” She offered, the tone of her voice implying the unstated ‘duh.’

I shook my head at that. “What receipt?”

“Oh for the love of…” Trailing off, the girl spun around, making her long brown braid fly as she stomped back toward the registers to where Travis and Rudolph still were. Without ceremony, she snatched away a paper that the two were examining and brought it back, thrusting the paper into my face. “This receipt. You know, the one you saw before you picked those things up, like they’re gonna tell you anything.”

It took me a second to focus on the words on the receipt, but when I did, my throat closed up. Orange soda and a candy bar. The same candy bar I had picked up. “What… where was… this?”

“Seriously?” Koren squinted at me. “Back there, on the counter. It was the last thing on the register, so it was obviously the last thing that dead girl out there sold before all this shit happened.”

Her head tilted at me, her squint turning suspicious. “If you didn’t know what was on the receipt, then how the fuck did you just happen to pick up exactly what was on it?”

That… was a very good question.

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-02

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“Trust me, Dad, I’m probably eating better here than at the old school. Yes, I know the rules about staying away from anyone suspicious. I’m almost seventeen, not four. Yeah, I’m sure the school runs enough background checks. No, I don’t need help and you don’t need to run any names past ‘your guy in the department’. Trust me, everything’s fine. I’m okay, I just wanted to hear your voice. I miss you.”

Leaning against the side of the athletics building a little bit after dinner the next day, I smiled while listening to my father’s response. I really had missed the sound of his voice, just like I missed spending every evening listening to his stories. Sometimes they were about what he’d done that day, the people he’d talked to or leads he’d followed, while other times they were about his past. Dad had spent a lot of time working for one of the big newspapers in Los Angeles back before I was born, and he had a ton of stories about the people he’d encountered back then. I was pretty sure he exaggerated a lot of it, but it was still fun to listen to. And hearing my dad reminisce had been one of our traditions for a long time.

While listening as he started in about something one of his friends had said about the governor, I glanced down at my free hand and examined the smooth skin. Leaning a bit closer to see my index finger in the light from one of the nearby windows, I noticed that the tiny scar that I’d had there ever since cutting it badly on a nail when I was a little kid had smoothed over, leaving unblemished skin.

Huh. Still listening to Dad talk, the sound of his voice comforting in a way that I couldn’t explain, I switched the phone to my other hand so I could look at my arm. Sure enough, the other scar that I’d gotten as a kid, a long, thin one about two inches down from my wrist had disappeared as well.

Apparently the healing ability granted by killing those few peridles had extended as far as removing old scars. That was going to make things a little awkward if Dad ever happened to notice. Not that he paid close attention to my hands all the time, but still. He was my father and he knew every mark I had.

Shaking that off, I waited for a lull in his stories. “Hey, Dad, I wanted to ask you something else.”

“Sure, kid, what’s up? You need more snack machine money or something? Care package to bribe the RA’s with? Wait, do they have resident assistants there? I’m not sure how private high school works.”

“We’ve got a mentor. Sort of.” I replied with a roll of my eyes. “But he’s worthless. He’s just lazy and doesn’t actually do anything. I don’t think any of us have even seen him since that first night.”

“What?” Dad sounded annoyed. “What kind of adviser is he then? If he won’t do his job, they need to replace him. Do you know who to talk to about that, or do you want me to give them a call?”

“I definitely do not want you to call anyone.” I shuddered at the thought. “I’ve got it, Dad. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Dad was clearly reluctant to let that go. “This school is a big deal, Flicker. I don’t want you getting screwed out of getting everything you can out of it because this kid won’t do his job.”

Smiling a little in spite of myself at his protective instincts, I shook my head. “I promise, it’s okay. I’ll deal with it, Dad. Just let me take care of things, okay? It’ll just be better that way, trust me.”

“Yeah, I guess you don’t really need your old man anymore,” Dad teased. “Just promise you’ll give a good eulogy at my funeral in thirty years or so. You can start with, ‘This guy was my dad, I sort of paid attention to him once in awhile until I turned seventeen. Then I ignored the old fart for the rest of his life. I wonder if he ever bought that cat he was talking about.’”

I laughed out loud in spite of myself. It felt good. “I’m not going to ignore you for the rest of your life!”

“That’s what they all say.” Dad teased, though there was a note of sadness not fully hidden behind it.

Swallowing slightly as I realized what he was thinking about, I closed my eyes. He was still hurting so much from Mom abandoning us. Even now, a decade later, I could hear the hurt in his voice when he thought about it. He and Mom had been very much in love, and the next thing he knew, she was gone.

I had to find out the truth. If there really was anything unnatural about Mom’s disappearance, or if it had anything at all to do with Strangers or Heretics, I was going to find out. And then… well then I’d find a way to give Dad closure. I wasn’t sure how, but I would figure it out when the time came.

“I’m serious, Dad. I’ll visit, you know I will. And we can talk any time you want. I love you.”

Dad’s voice was softer then, the emotion in it making him almost whisper. “I love you too, Flicker.”

We were quiet for a few seconds, and I used the time to wipe a damp spot under one of my eyes. As I rubbed it away, my father was the first to break the silence. “So, what was it you wanted to ask about?”

Well now this was even more awkward than it was always going to be. I flinched and took in a long breath before letting it out, steadying myself as much as possible. “It’s about Mom. Is that okay?”

There was silence for a second before my father responded. “Flick, have I made you think that it’s not okay to talk about your mother? Because if I did, I am very, very sorry. Of course you can ask me about her. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Anything I can. I know we don’t… I know it’s hard sometimes, but I don’t want you to ever feel like you can’t bring her up, okay? She’s your mother.”

“No, I just—you didn’t do anything.” I flushed a little. “I just didn’t want to make you upset or sad.”

“Listen to me, Flick,” Dad’s voice was firm. “It’s all right. I will always answer any questions you have that I can answer, okay? I will never hide things about your mother from you, and you can ask me anything you want, any time. Never, ever feel like you have to avoid that subject, is that understood?”

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I quickly spoke up. “Y-yes, Dad. I was just… it’s probably wrong, but I umm…” This was the tricky part. I kind of wanted to just tell my father that I’d found a picture of Mom here, but I was afraid that doing so would make him want to visit. While the Heretics would probably find a way to fix his memory of that if it came down to it, I really wanted to avoid that entire situation if at all possible. Especially since I didn’t want them to know that I was looking into my mother at all. Which meant that I had to lie to my father. Again, after everything he’d just said.

Sighing at the thought, I pressed on anyway. This was too important. “I sort of think I remember something about her. But I can’t figure out if I’m just making it up in my head or if it’s a real memory.” For a second, I bit my lip and hesitated before pushing through the lie. “I keep thinking that I remember hearing Mom talk about being at a private school. You know, one like this, with uniforms and everything. I just have this sort-of memory of her talking about it, and I can’t figure out if it’s real or something I just invented in my head because I’m here now. Do you remember anything about that?”

“About your mother going to a private school?” He echoed before considering for a moment. “Well, I met Joselyn when she was twenty-four. She’d been out of college for a couple years by then, but you know she just went to the University of Wyoming. Before that, ahhh, I don’t think I can remember all the high schools, but I don’t remember her mentioning any private ones. They were all public.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, Mom went to a lot of schools? Why?”

“You know about that, don’t you?” Dad sounded surprised, and a little guilty. “Your mom moved around a lot as a kid because of your grandfather’s work. He was in the military or something, I never really had a clear idea of what it was. They weren’t really talking by the time we met, but it was something to do with the government. That’s part of why Joselyn wanted to settle down here in Laramie Falls, because it was quiet and stable.” There was a pause then before Dad let out a long sigh. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. Mom had wanted stable, and then she’d abandoned us.

Still, I had to focus on something else he had said. “My grandfather? Mom’s dad? Do you… still have any contact with him?” It was a long shot, I knew, but if there was any chance of getting more information, where better than from my mother’s father? Even just a name would be nice, since looking for every person with the last name of Atherby (mom’s maiden name) would take way too long.

“Sorry,” Dad replied, obviously wincing. “Like I said, he and your mom weren’t on speaking terms. She never told me what happened there, but that was why none of your mother’s family came to the wedding. I had the impression that it was some kind of major disagreement.”

I heard his fingers snap. “Oh, hang on, I almost forgot. We still have the birth certificate. One second.” There was the sound of the filing cabinet in Dad’s office being opened and ruffled through until he found the paper that he was looking for. “Here we go. Your mom’s parents were Dustin and Fiona Atherby. Born at that University of Utah Hospital. Hey, that’s funny.” He went silent for a few seconds.

“Dad?” I frowned, pushing off the wall again before looking around. “What’s funny?”

He coughed. “Sorry, just the name of the doctor that delivered your mother is kind of amusing.”

“What is it?”

“Pericles,” he answered. “Zedekiah Pericles.”

******

Talk about ending up with more questions than you started with. Poor Professor Pericles had been the one who delivered my mother at the hospital where she was born? Was that real, or just part of the Heretic cover they’d given her later? How much of my mother’s history was real and how much was an invention after she’d either left or been kicked out of the Heretics? If it was just a cover history, why would Professor Pericles have his name on the birth certificate at all? What the hell was going on?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t dwell on those questions at the moment. Since it was Friday evening, I had to get to my Investigation track meeting. Unlike every other class, track meetings were only attended by students in that particular track rather than everyone on the same team. Apparently each grade level had their own meeting nights and times with their track adviser. For first years, they were held twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays in the evening. We had still been in the middle of orientation on Monday, so tonight was my very first one. I had no idea what to expect, but I was crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t end with me having even more questions about my family’s history for once.

Sands, Scout, and I were walking together. Apparently the meeting was taking place on the grounds in front of the Pathmaker building, which was intriguing enough to sort of distract me away from the riotous cacophony of thoughts that had been flooding my mind ever since Dad said that name.

There were already other students there when the three of us arrived, including the other black guy from my orientation group that wasn’t Columbus. Travis, that was it. He was standing with another boy that I’d seen him around with, a shorter, still kind of chubby guy with pale skin and even paler blonde hair. I thought his name was Rudolph or Randy or something. There was also (sigh) Koren.

I would have made a point of trying to ignore the other girl, but she already seemed to be pretty busy focusing on her chat with a couple of the guys who had grown up ‘in the knowledge.’ She kept bending slightly to ‘accidentally’ give them a good look down the front of her shirt while they chatted, and they were taking thorough advantage of the opportunity, flirting back and forth.

I rolled my eyes, but whatever. Her life. I was just glad she was leaving the rest of us alone for the moment. Instead, I looked toward Sands and Scout. “You guys excited?”

“Hell yes,” Sands blurted, head bobbing up and down. “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been waiting for this? Classes were one thing, but track training? Scout and I decided what we wanted to be when we were four. Then we changed it when we were six. Then we changed it again when we were seven. And then… well, you get the idea. But we’ve wanted to be in the Investigation track at least half of all those times, and for the longest. It’s gonna be so awesome.”

Even Scout was smiling in agreement by that point, and I couldn’t help but return it. “Well, here’s hoping it’s as interesting as you think.”

“Indeed,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up from behind us. “I shall do my best to meet expectations.”

Turning to look at the woman with a slight flush, I wondered how much she knew about the situation with my mother. Probably all of it. The urge to blurt out a demand for the truth was almost impossible for me to resist, but I managed it. Barely. “Sorry, Professor.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” the blonde woman informed me before looking to the rest of the group. “Good evening. You all know me, so I shall skip the introduction. It is now seven o’clock, the time that you will be expected to be in the location that I give you for this meeting every Monday and Friday from now on. I will not say that excuses for being late will not be accepted. However, I will say that if you give no excuse, the punishment for your tardiness will be less severe than if you attempt to give one and I find it lacking. For those who find that confusing, allow me to simplify. If your excuse for tardiness is a valid and reasonable one, I will accept it. If it is not and you attempt to use it anyway, your punishment will be worse than if you had said nothing. Is all of that understood?”

We agreed, and Professor Dare nodded in acceptance. “As you all know, this is the Investigation track. Here, you will learn to investigate possible Stranger incursions and other situations, identify both new and established threats, and deal directly with the Bystander law enforcement. We have multiple ways of doing this, but one of our most important tools is lying. You will lie a lot. You should not feel ashamed of this. Lying keeps these people safe, and prevents them from making our jobs far more difficult.”

She looked around at all of us, eyes lingering slightly on Koren before moving on. “Tonight, you will be given an opportunity to witness one of several ways that the Pathfinder building is used to aid us in these investigations. You will stay with me, you will touch nothing that you are not told to touch, and you will not disturb the people who are working. Is that understood as well?”

Once we again chorused our agreement, she turned on her heel and walked right up to the edge of the circle. Giving us all a careful look, she put her hand out and spoke a quick series of words that were impossible to follow. The air seemed to shimmer a little, and she gestured. “Come through, all of you.”

After the warnings that Sands and Avalon had given, I was a little afraid of getting too close, even if it was obviously okay now. I slowly walked over the line with the rest of the group, shaking my head in a failed attempt to stop the warning hum.

Thankfully, the sound faded once we were a few feet past the line, and Professor Dare walked up to the door, tugging it open before lifting a hand to indicate that we should precede her.

As a group, we filed into the building. This first room was fairly small and circular, obviously a lobby of some kind. There was a desk with a woman sitting behind it in one corner, and she smiled as we entered. “Good evening, Virginia. This is the new class?”

Before Professor Dare could respond, a group of men came right through the same doors we had just entered from, bustling straight past us in a rush. They barely slowed long enough to nod an acknowledgment to the secretary before moving on to one of a handful of doors that lined the circular wall.

“Hey, where the hell did those guys come from?” Koren spoke up. “Seriously, we were just out there.”

The woman behind the desk glanced down at something before responding, “They came from Indiana, actually.”

Professor Dare explained. “The Pathfinder building exists within multiple locations at the same time. Its existence on the island is only one of a dozen or so locations across the world that it simultaneously occupies.”

My mouth fell open and I made a slightly strangled noise. “Wha-how—huh?”

It was the receptionist who spoke up, her tone simultaneously amused and gentle. “Magic, sweetie. You’ll get used to it. Basically it means that if you enter the building you see in Crossroads, the place in Indiana that those gentlemen came from, our location in Tokyo, London, Calgary, or any other place it exists, you will enter there and appear here. One building, one interior, a dozen exterior locations. Magic.”

I was still staring, trying to wrap my mind around that as Professor Dare started walking to one of the doors. “Come, I will show you one of the reasons that the Pathfinder building is so important to our work.”

Together, we trailed after the professor, following her through a series of hallways and up two flights of stairs. We passed about another dozen people that were hard at work doing… whatever they were doing before we finally reached a short, out of the way hall with a single door.

“This,” Professor Dare announced, “Is one of several projection rooms in this facility.”

“Projection rooms?” I asked with a frown.

She nodded. “In situations where it may be impossible to retain an untouched crime scene, where Bystander authorities make it impossible for us to effectively take over the situation and ensure that the view remains exactly as it was when we arrived, the Heretic may deploy one of these.”

From her pocket, the woman produced a small silver and violet orb, about the size of a golf ball. “This is called a Panoptic Analysis Window System, or PAWS. The PAWS, when deployed, will cloak and take a full scan of the entire designated area. Later, it can be connected to one of these rooms, which will allow the room within to project a three dimensional holographic view of the crime scene, untouched so that our own investigators may see what occurred. But the PAWS does more than take pictures. Its scan runs deep enough that objects within the room may be manipulated and moved around. If, for example, the view is of a motel room and the end table drawer is shut, the investigator may open the drawer within the hologram and see what was inside at the time that the PAWS was deployed. This allows a full investigation of the crime scene to take place, even if the authorities shut off the area and tromp all over the evidence.”

We were still staring at the little orb in her hand for a few seconds after she finished. For my part, I couldn’t help but think of how useful something like that would be to the legitimate law enforcement agencies.

“Now, as a group, we are going to investigate one of these recorded crime scenes.” Professor Dare gazed at us briefly before continuing. “Together, we will see what we can determine as a group before reviewing what conclusions the assigned investigators have come to.”

“What kind of crime scene is it, Professor Dare?” I asked with a raised hand.

She paused, glancing to me before responding. “An incident that occurred at a gas station. A man, who was believed to have attempted to rob the store was found shot in the back multiple times, presumably by the clerk. The clerk herself then exited the store, duct taped the gasoline nozzle into her own mouth, and proceeded to kill herself by choking on the gas.”

Collectively, we stared. I felt sick inside, and somewhere nearby, one of the boys muttered a curse under his breath. Beside me, Scout gave a soft whimper.

“These are the situations we will be dealing with. I will not coddle you from them because to do so would be a disservice to your education and training. If you do not wish to continue, you may at any point speak up and be excused to re-evaluate your track.” Professor Dare spoke seriously, then put her hand on the doorknob. “Now, come. Let us see how much information you can find as a group.”

She opened the door, allowing us to enter the horrific scene. I took a breath, steeled myself, and then stepped through.

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First Steps 2-03

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“Not anymore.”

The silence that had stretched on for several long, empty seconds in the wake of Sands’ announcement had been interrupted by a new voice. It took me a second to orient myself, looking to the source of those two words. Scout stood there, looking up at me with her gaze only partially hidden by that long brown hair, face slightly flushed. This was the first time I’d actually heard her voice.

“Wha—oh. You mean she’s not a bad guy anymore, if she ever was one.” When the other girl nodded, I smiled faintly. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s not like she could sneak into this place without them knowing about her history, whatever it is. Hell, she’s got the tattoo pretty much in plain sight.”

“Plus there’s her name,” Sands pointed out. “It’s too much of a coincidence. There’s no way the headmistress doesn’t know everything about her, even if they’re not related.”

“Even if who’s not related?”

The unexpected voice, not Scout this time, made all three of us jump. Turning, we found the girl from the orientation tour, Koren. She was the one who had acted like she was going to throw Vanessa Moon over the magic line, the one that Avalon had thrown to the ground and chewed out. Now she stood there looking between the three of us with a suspicious squint, as if she was trying to read our minds.

“Oh, uhh, nothing.” I shrugged. Knowing that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the girl, I added, “We were just trying to figure out if my roommate and the headmistress are related or not. You know, same last names.” I figured that was common enough knowledge that I wasn’t throwing Avalon under the bus.

“You mean Miss Stick In The Ass?” Koren’s eyes rolled. “Of course she’s the Headmistress’s daughter.”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “What do you mean, of course?”

“I mean,” Koren replied with the tone that made it clear that she thought we were idiots. “Even if I hadn’t heard them talking, it’s obvious that she thinks she’s better than everyone else. Why? Because she’s totally the Headmistress’s crotch spawn, so she thinks she can do anything she wants to.”

Sands started to retort something nasty, but I stepped on her foot as subtly as I could manage. Yes, Koren could be a bitch. But on the off chance that she actually knew something, throwing away the chance to hear it was a bad idea. “You heard them talking? Avalon and the Headmistress?”

The other girl gave me a look before shrugging. “Uhh, yeah? That’s what I said. You know, last night when I had to wash all the tables because that stupid shit with the Pathmaker building? I was getting a new rag from the kitchen. When I came out, those two were like, hugging and shit. It was gross. The Headmistress was all, ‘I know this is hard on you, but you’re my daughter and I know you can do this.’” Koren made a gagging sound while rolling her eyes dramatically again. “How lame is that?”

Without speaking, I looked at the twins. Both were looking at one another before turning their gazes to me. By mutual, silent agreement, we turned and walked into my room. Scout, a look of satisfaction on her face, closed the door on the bewildered Koren as the girl demanded to know where we were going.

“Beach, you said?” I asked while walking over to look through my clothes that had been delivered to find something appropriate. I’d never been to a real beach, but I had pool wear, and that would do.

Leaving the bag full of books on my bed, I changed into a bathing suit with a long tee shirt over it as well as a pair of sandals before heading out with the twins. They stopped by their own room to change as well, and then the three of us grabbed towels from the bathroom before continuing out of the dorm.

The subject of Avalon’s parentage had faded until we were outside, walking along the path that led away from the school buildings. Finally, I spoke up. “Maybe she grew up with her dad? I mean, maybe Headmistress Sinclaire and whoever Avalon’s father is are like, rivals or whatever. He’s at that school, she’s at this one, and Avalon grew up with him until the Baronness got her back?”

Sands nodded thoughtfully. Before she could speak however, a booming voice filled the air around us, demanding, “And where do you girls think you’re going?!”

The man who stepped into our path was one of the teachers that I’d seen at the staff table the night before. He hadn’t been introduced since he obviously wasn’t new or a track adviser, but I was pretty sure that he taught English Literature. Which was kind of funny, considering how little he resembled what I thought of when ‘English Lit Professor’ came to mind. The man was tall and broads shouldered, with long, shaggy hair that was such a dark blond it was almost brown. He wasn’t as big as Professor Katarin, but the man still looked more like a football player than a teacher.

Gazing up at the man, Sands replied dryly, “Anywhere we want to, old man. You got a problem?”

The big guy squinted down at her, drawling, “You know what? You’ve got a big mouth, little girl. Your dad let you get away with talking to your elders like that?”

“Pffft,” Sands made a dismissive noise and waved her hand. “He’s old. Who cares what he thinks?”

Making a strangled noise, the man quickly stepped forward and snatched Sands right off the ground while demanding, “Who cares, huh? I’ll show you who cares!” He was clearly playing up the outrage as he swung around in a rapid circle with Sands tossed over his shoulder. “You care now?”

“Ahhhhhh!” Sands squealed in reply. “Noooooope! Don’t ahhhhh caaaaare! Aaaaaaaaahh I’m gonna be sick down the back of your shiiiirt, then you’ll be aaaaaaaaahhh soooorrry! Leeeemme goooo aaaahhh!”

Instead, the man only slowed enough to catch hold of Scout with his other hand. There was an audible yelp from the other girl as she was hauled up onto his other shoulder. Then he spun even faster while they squealed out loud, limbs flailing helplessly. “You’ll care, oh yeah you will!”

Finally, after several long moments of that rapid spinning, the man stumbled a bit to the grass before dumping both girls off his shoulders. He kept his grip on them just long enough for their feet to touch the ground before releasing them so that he could stumble backwards, sitting down hard on the grass with a grunt. The twins each immediately collapsed as well, yelping in unison.

Smirking a little in spite of myself, I cleared my throat. “So, this is your dad, huh?”

“Mmmhmm,” Sands, eyes closed, waved her hand absently. “Da, this is Flick. Flick, that’s Da.”

The man, who had collapsed onto his back, gave me a thumbs up. “Nice to meet you, Flick.” Lifting his head, he squinted at me blearily. “Could you tell your fifteen identical sisters to go home though?”

Snickering, I reached out a hand to help the man to his feet. “Nice to meet you too, Professor Mason.”

The man took the help, climbing to his feet with a groan before moving to help Scout up while I went to do the same with Sands. “I take it you girls are heading down to the beach then, huh?”

“Yeah, Da, we’re gonna show Flick how to have some fun.” Sands shook her head sadly. “She grew up in Wyoming. So, you know, I’m not sure she knows how to spell it, let alone have it.”

I scoffed at that. “Hey, Wyoming might not be a tropical island, but we have our own fun.”

“I bet!” Grinning at me, Sands asked, “So when you’re playing ‘find your nearest neighbor’, can you use the bullhorn right from your front porch, or do you have to drive around for a bit first?”

In spite of myself, I laughed, hiding it with a cough before retorting, “It’s not that empty!”

“Dude, I looked it up,” Sands informed me. “Your entire state is about a hundred thousand square miles, and it’s got like five hundred thousand people in it. You know what that is? That’s less than a quarter of the population of Brooklyn, which is about a hundred square miles. Your state is a thousand times the size of Brooklyn, and it has less than a quarter of the population!”

Sniffing, I shrugged. “We go for quality, not quantity.”

Sands lifted an eyebrow at me curiously. “Are you sure it’s not because the animals have become sentient and are secretly killing off all the humans?”

I coughed again. “Sapient.”

Sands blinked at me. “Huh?”

“You mean sapient,” I explained. “Sentient just means they feel things. Lots of animals are sentient. Sapient mans they can reason and logic things out, plan things. You know, like homo sapiens?”

Professor Mason grinned. “I like this one. You girls stay friends with her, you might learn something.”

“Meh,” Sands snickered, grabbing my arm. “We’ll corrupt her. Come on, time to hit the beach before it’s too late. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught out after curfew. It is not pretty.”

“Damn straight it’s not pretty,” Professor Mason confirmed. “So don’t push it. You girls are real students now, you’ve got an example to set. Make sure you’re back in your rooms on time. You’ve all got me first thing after breakfast tomorrow, and I want you there bright tailed and bushy eyed.”

I blinked at that. “Don’t you mean–”

Sands was already pulling me away. “Never mind that, inside joke. C’mon, Scout!” She called to her sister, and the other girl quickly gave their father a hug before moving to join us.

At the edge of the school grounds, Sands slowed to point at a shimmer in the air. It was almost like looking through very clean water, a slight distortion that made it clear something was there. “This is the border. They could make it harder to notice, but they don’t want to give any student the excuse of not knowing where they were if they cross it when they’re not supposed to. See, come closer.”

I did so, stepping right up to the edge of the barrier. As I came within a couple feet of it, the sound of gently ringing bells was audible. It was a pleasant sound, but definitely one that stood out.

“Same idea,” Sands confirmed. “No one gets to cross the border and then say they didn’t know. As soon as we go through here, reports get put out. I think they go to umm, our track adviser and the security office. If we’re not back by the time curfew starts, they’ll get a report about that too. They get a list of all students that are past the border after curfew, and trust me, you do not want to be one of those students. Scout and me saw what happened to the ones that tried to beat the system, and it is not fun.”

“The security office,” I echoed with a nod. “You mean like that guy I met earlier. Uhh, what was his name. He was really intense—oh, right, Rendell? Wyatt Rendell?”

Both girls giggled at that. Sands was nodding. “Yeah, Wyatt’s really intense all right. I’m not sure what he did before this, but he showed up at the end of last year. The headmistress brought him in personally. He’s… yeah, really into his job. But he’s just one of the normal security guys. He reports to Professor Kohaku. She’s the one that gets the reports about who’s out when they shouldn’t be.”

“Who do we report the abysmal failure that is our team mentor to?” I asked a bit darkly.

Sands rolled her eyes. “Deveron? Yeah, he kinda sucks, doesn’t he?”

“I don’t get it,” I spread my arms questioningly. “How did he really get to be a mentor? I know the sword in the stone thing is bullshit, but why would they take a guy that lazy and make him a mentor?”

Sands shrugged helplessly at that. “He didn’t used to be that bad.” In response to my doubtful look, she pressed on. “I mean it. Look, last year when he was a freshman here, Deveron was like… a star student. Seriously, believe it or not, he won pretty much every first year award there is. He was everywhere. He did everything. He was the school all-star. We’re talking straight A’s, community service, extra credit, advanced courses, all of it. The guy was on fire. Hell, in the fight tournament at the end of the year, he came in third. Third. That’s out of the entire school. Do you know how impossible it is for a first year student to come in third out of the whole school?”

I stared at her, mouth open. “We’re talking about the same Deveron Adams, right? You didn’t develop a concussion and start rambling about some other, actually useful guy? What the hell happened?”

Both of the twins shrugged. Scout leaned over to whisper something in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “He changed. He was gone for the summer, and when he came back, he was… well, he was a jerk. A lazy jerk. It’s like whatever reason he had to push himself before doesn’t exist anymore and now he doesn’t care about anything. Who knows. But that’s why they made him a mentor. I think they’re hoping that something will snap him out of this… dick phase and he’ll actually contribute again.”

I kicked at the ground a little and sighed. “Well I hope he snaps out of it soon. I’d like to have a mentor that I could actually talk to.”

“You can talk to us!” Sands grinned, grabbing my hand. “We’ll tell you everything you need to know. Like right now, what you need to know is that we are going down to the beach. So no more talking about Deveron or anything else depressing, okay?”

“Right,” I smiled in spite of myself. “Let’s go see this beach.

“But I’m telling you right now, the first one of you that makes the Jaws music is gonna get buried in the sand and left there.”

*******

“Mind if I go with you?”

It was the next morning, and I had woken up to the sound of Avalon getting ready to head out again. Just like the day before, she was up early. So early, in fact, that the sun wasn’t quite up yet.

She stopped, pausing to look over at me before reaching out to turn the light on so she could squint at me. “What?”

I sat up, sliding out of bed. “I was just asking if you mind if I go work out with you. You know, keep you company?”

Her suspicious glare didn’t relent. “Why?”

Shrugging, I started to get dressed while suppressing a yawn. “Seems like you have good habits. If I’m gonna make it around here, I should probably follow your lead.”

Avalon was silent for a moment before letting out a sigh. “Whatever, just hurry up. And don’t expect me to coddle you the whole time. I’m not your babysitter.”

Giving the girl a thumbs up, I finished dressing in the exercise clothes before turning in a circle as though looking for something. “Now where is—Herbie? Herb, where are you buddy? Did you—ohhh.” Pointing to the spot near the door, I walked over to pluck the rock off the floor where it had been sitting as though waiting to go out. “Hey there, need to go potty, huh?”

Avalon stared at me. “It has eyes now?”

Turning the rock for her to see, I shook it a bit to make the the googly eyes roll. “Yup, and he thinks you’re cute too.”

That time, I swore I saw the tiniest hint of a smile. It was barely a flicker before she schooled her expression back down while pivoted on her heel to stride out the door. “You’re a freak, Chambers.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I trailed after her. The two of us walked together down the stairs and outside.

“What the–” I blinked at the sight of what had to be two dozen people, half of them adults standing in our way. They were faced away from us, attention directed toward the ground.

Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father, turned to us. His face was pale as he took a step our way. “Inside, girls. You don’t need to be out here right now.”

“What happened?” Avalon demanded, not letting herself be herded away yet.

“It’s not–” The big man hesitated, clearly reluctant to say anything. “I’m sorry, girls, this isn’t a good time. Go back inside and wait. It’s…” He paused before sighing. “It’s Professor Pericles.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Mentioning Avalon’s track adviser made the girl’s eyes widen and she stopped abruptly. “What about him?”

“I’m sorry, Avalon,” Professor Mason’s voice was as gentle as he could make it. “There’s no better way of telling you this, but his body was found about ten minutes ago. It… doesn’t look like an accident.”

My own voice sounded empty to me, my head ringing almost painfully. “You mean he… he was…”

“Murdered,” Avalon finished flatly, her voice actually shaking a little. “Someone murdered Professor Pericles.”

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