Professor Carfried

First Steps 2-04

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“Flick? Hey, you okay?”

A hand gently shook my arm, and I jumped a bit in the heavily cushioned easy chair that I had been sitting in for the past two hours, ever since the announcement had come that morning classes had been canceled. I’d been so lost in thought that I’d missed Sean’s arrival and subsequent attempts to get my attention until he had to physically touch me. Eyes wide, I blurted, “Huh?”

“Sorry,” the boy raised both hands and took a step back. “Just thought I’d check on you. Everyone else is outside and you missed breakfast. So uh, here.” He produced a plate with a couple of muffins on it. “It’s not a lot, but you know, I wasn’t sure what you liked, or if you were even hungry but… yeah.” Trailing off awkwardly, Sean hesitated for a moment before setting the plate on the arm of the chair. Beside him, his mechanical dog whined a little until the boy laid his hand on its head, giving it a pat.

Straightening up in the chair, I put a hand on the plate. “Thanks, I was just… thinking.” Yawning, I glanced around briefly around the lounge. There were two student lounges in the building. One for the first and second years, and the other for the third and fourth years. I wasn’t sure what the one the upperclassmen used looked like, but if this one was anything to go by, then Crossroads Academy was getting something like seventeen bajillion times the amount of funding that my old school had gotten. I could go on for hours about opening the door to find the three pool tables, the arcade machine in the corner, the foosball table, the enormous aquarium full of tropical fish taking up most of one wall, the multiple televisions at either end of the room complete with headphones so students could pay attention to whichever set they wanted to, and on and on.

But honestly, that wasn’t fair. My old school hadn’t been that bad. They did what they could without the benefit of magic and thousands of years of history. And they weren’t responsible for training a bunch of mostly teenagers to go out and protect humanity from literal supernatural monsters, so they deserved a little slack.

Plus, they definitely had the bonus that none of my teachers there had ever been murdered.

“Thinking about Professor Pericles?” Sean winced. “Sorry, that had to be hard. You uh, didn’t, um…” He blanched a little, looking almost ill at what he was saying. “You didn’t see the body, did you?”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “He wouldn’t let us. Professor Mason, I mean. He um.” My throat was dry, and I had to swallow a couple more times. “He made us go back inside. I tried to talk to Avalon about it, but she just… wanted to be alone.” That was putting it mildly, Avalon had stormed off the moment that I had said another word, cursing under her breath and making it clear I wasn’t wanted.

After that, I had just waited for everyone to get up. We were given the information about no morning classes and then directed here, to the common area and cafeteria, but I hadn’t been hungry. I’d split off from the others and come in here to sit and think for a while. That little while had turned into hours.

“Yeah, apparently it was pretty bad.” Sean sat down in the easy chair opposite mine, running his fingers back through his hair before resting his face in both both hands. “Fuck, just… Heretics dying isn’t new, you know? That’s a fact of life. But it’s usually the younger ones. Once you live long enough to be as old as Pericles was, that’s… okay, he wasn’t the strongest guy out there. Just being old doesn’t make you strong by itself. But this guy was up there. Not the Baroness’s level, but probably one of the top three or four Heretics here in the school. And to get taken out like that? It’s scary, man. Real fucking scary.”

Biting my lip thoughtfully, I nodded. “That environmental seal, that should have told them if there was anyone on the grounds that shouldn’t be, right? Especially any mon-err Strangers.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Hell yeah. Not just the seal. Half the faculty and some of the students have so many detection spells between them that if a Stranger so much as got within eyesight of the whole island, there’d be alarms ringing all over the place. They’ve tried. And if the Strangers had a way to get on this island undetected?” He whistled. “They’d do more than kill one teacher.”

I unwrapped the first muffin and took a bite, thinking while I ate quietly. After a few more seconds of that, I asked, “What about Eden’s Garden? You know, the ‘Dark Heretics’ or whatever they’re called.”

“Heard about those guys, huh?” Sean took a moment to pat Vulcan’s head, the mechanical dog apparently enjoying it judging from the sounds it was making. Finally, the boy sighed. “They’d be noticed too. Anyone not authorized to be here sets off an alarm. There’s no way anyone that isn’t faculty or a student could have been on these grounds last night without the teachers knowing about it.”

I gave a long sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that. That means that whoever killed Professor Pericles…”

He nodded back at me, finishing the thought. “Had to be a teacher or a student. One of us. That’s why everyone’s freaked out. Like I said, Heretic dying in the line of duty is normal. Heretic dying here on the grounds of the school when everything else is fine? That’s fucked up. Beyond fucked up.”

I had finished the first muffin and was halfway through the second before I spoke again. “What about that professor that died last year, the umm, Memon? You know, the one that the headmistress said that Professor Insil… Inliss… Inslick was taking over for. And the other one, the one that’s ‘recovering’”

“Inisclic,” Sean corrected me. “Professor Inisclic is taking over for Memon. My brother had him for a few years. Memon died on vacation over the summer. Heart attack while he was at some anniversary dinner.”

“A heart attack,” I echoed doubtfully. “What about the other one?” Snapping my fingers as the name came to me, I blurted, “Tangle. Professor Tangle, that was it. What happened to her?”

Brow furrowing a bit, Sean shrugged. “I’m not sure, sorry. I heard about Memon because my brother liked him. I remember hearing something about Tangle and some kind of big shark, but I dunno.”

Before I could respond to that, the door to the lounge opened and Columbus entered, accompanied by Shiori and a couple of the students from her team. All four were deep in conversation, but Columbus broke off once he noticed the two of us. After saying something to his sister, he came over, lifting a hand in greeting before taking one of the nearby seats. “Hey.” Sighing, the boy slumped in the chair. His uniform was so rumpled I would have guessed that he’d slept in it. “What’re we talking about?”

“The rapidly rising teacher casualty rate,” I replied a bit darkly. “One injured, two dead in the past few months? Wait, what about that third teacher that the headmistress mentioned? She said there were three new teachers. Inisclic replaced Memon because Memon died. Carfried is ‘filling in for’ Tangle while she recovers. But she never said why the other new teacher was here. Professor Armstrong, I mean.”

Sean’s head was shaking. “They just brought Armstrong in to replace Professor Pether after he retired last year. It was a whole big thing. They had a party, everyone signed a card, the works. Ian said they were all sad about it, cuz Pether was around for a long ass time. Then last year he just up and said he was retiring out of the blue. The headmistress tried to convince him to stay, but he said he was done.”

Four teachers gone within the past year. One unexpectedly retired, one injured to the point of not being able to come back this year, one died of a heart attack, and the fourth was murdered right on school grounds in the middle of the night, and was left there for anyone to find. Call me paranoid, but I was detecting a certain trend.

Running a hand over his wrinkled blazer, Columbus frowned at me. “What’re you thinking?”

Before answering, I pushed myself out of the seat, balling the muffin wrappers into my hand in the process. Then I glanced to the boys. “I think there’s something really wrong going on in this school.

“And I’m going to figure out what the hell it is.”

******

At any other school I could think of, the murder of a teacher right on the grounds would have meant that classes were canceled at least for that day. But here at Crossroads, they resumed right after lunch. I supposed that, as unusual as it apparently was for faculty to be killed right here, death was something Heretics lived with every day. It was still a tragedy, but it didn’t stop them for long. It couldn’t. In the mundane world, taking time off to cope with a loss didn’t really affect that much in the long run. Here, it was literal life and death. Not just of the students, but of everyone they were being trained to protect.

I understood that. I got why it was that way. And yet even then, I couldn’t help but feel a little sick to be sitting inside a classroom so soon. I had only known Professor Pericles for a couple days. I’d only had a single class with him, and my stomach still rolled at the thought that he was… gone. Dead, I reminded myself harshly. He was dead. There was no sense in beating around the bush about it.

Headmistress Sinclaire had announced during lunch that any student who felt that they were unable to continue classes that day because of the tragedy were excused, and that there would be people available to talk to. But as far as I could tell, no one had taken her up on it. None in my own grade level anyway. Things were probably different among the students who actually knew Professor Pericles better.

Either way, classes were still on, and this particular room looked pretty full. There were four other teams besides ours, leaving thirty students gathered in what looked an awful lot like smaller auditoriums at the zoo where the handler brings out little animals for the audience to either coo over or hiss and squirm at. The floor was cement rather than carpet or wood, with several drains located at strategic sections, and rather than normal desks, several long tables set in a square formation with an opening in one corner leading into the central stage area that the tables were surrounding.

Sitting on my right side, Sands nudged me while leaning in to whisper, “Did you hear about Deveron?”

I shook my head a little, frowning while whispering back to her. “No, what about him?”

Lowering her voice even further, Sands replied, “They said he was one of the last ones to see Professor Pericles.” When I shot a look at her, she nodded rapidly. “Yeah, the professor took him aside last night while we were at the beach. He was trying to talk to Deveron about why he’s been so… off lately. You know, trying to connect with him. But Deveron wasn’t listening and they got into an argument. Deveron shoved him and then walked off. The Runner pulled him out of class to talk to him.”

“Wait, Runner?” I echoed, frowning uncertainly. “What Runner?”

“You know, BSR?” Sands replied, looking back at me blankly, like I was the one being confusing.

On the other side of me, Avalon spoke up abruptly without looking at us. “Bow Street Runner. They don’t exist in mundane land anymore. Not since they were recruited by the Heretics in the mid-eighteen hundreds.” Finally looking toward me, she went on. “First official police force of London. They didn’t call themselves Runners back then. That’s what the public called them. The Runners thought it was rude or something. But now it’s something to be proud of. Being a Runner is a big deal. Means you run down the worst of the worst. They sent a Runner here to find out what happened to Professor Pericles.”

“Right…” I hesitated. “It’s like being an FBI agent or something. And they sent a Runner here because someone like that being murdered on school grounds is a big deal.”

“You think?” She retorted while looking away. Arms folded over her stomach, Avalon went silent just as the doors on the other side of the room opened, admitting the guy that I had thought looked too young to be a teacher. Professor Carfried, the one that was ‘filling in’ for Professor Tangle.

He came striding in the doors, carrying a thick walking stick over one shoulder and a heavy duffel bag in his other hand. When he spoke up, his voice was about as bright and chipper as I could remember any adult ever sounding, let alone right after a tragedy like the one that had happened that morning. “Good afternoon, class!” He chirped. Yeah, chirped. That was the best word for it. “I know this morning was… awful.” Passing right by the tables to enter the central area, the man lowered his voice just a hair, his head dipping in acknowledgment. The bright perkiness was gone, replaced by sincerity. “And if any one of you feel the need to sit out, don’t worry. You won’t miss anything, because I will work with you later to get you caught up. Do not think that you need to stay for your grades, because you don’t. I will make sure that anyone who needs to step out, for a few minutes or for the rest of the period, gets caught up with everything they need to know. Take your time, and if we’re going too fast, or if you get overwhelmed, just leave. It’s perfectly all right. There are people here to talk with any of you who would like to. They know what they’re doing, and they’re going to be here all day.”

“That said,” Straightening up, the young teacher gave a smile that showed his teeth. “We’re going to move on. Not because the good professor didn’t matter. Hell, he taught me when I went here. You know, a few months ago. We’re moving on because that’s what we do. We push on, we survive. And if you believe anything, believe this. The coward who murdered Professor Pericles will be found. They will be dealt with. They will brought to justice. Our justice.”

Carfried’s gaze moved around the room, seeming to take in everyone in turn before he breathed out. “But for now, until that happens, we have to continue our classes.” His smile brightened once more. “So, let’s learn about magic, shall we?” To punctuate his words, the man tossed the heavy walking stick behind him. It flew a few feet, then seemed to catch in midair, hovering there in the exact center of the room. Slowly, the stick began to turn in a circle, rotating around like the blade of a fan. It gradually spun faster, until the stick was nothing more than a whirling blur of motion that was impossible to track. Then it wasn’t just a blur anymore. An image appeared, like a television screen. It showed an apple orchard, the fruit ripe and ready for plucking on the trees.

Cracking his neck to either side, Professor Carfried took a step that way. Rolling up his sleeves, he showed us his bare arms and empty hands before turning so that the whole class could see as he stuck his hand right into the image that had formed from the spinning stick. His arm appeared in the orchard, a part of the view. He plucked one of the apples from the nearest tree, withdrew his hand, and showed us the fruit sitting in his palm. Smiling at the reaction, he took a loud bite from it, chewing in satisfaction before reaching out with his other hand. The image was disrupted by his hand that time, as he snatched the spinning stick out of midair and held it up.

“This is what I will teach you,” Carfried announced. “This is the magic of the Heretics. Our magic. It is not simple magic. It is not all fireballs and magic missiles. Heretical magic is not fast. Remember that. Learn it. Know it. Live it. Heretical magic is not fast. You could live for a thousand years and you will never learn magic that will let you point your hand, say a couple words, and throw a lightning bolt at your enemies.” Coughing, he added, “Now, you might inherit that ability from a Stranger that you kill, but magic itself will not do it. Because magic is not what, Miss Tamaya?” He looked toward Aylen, the Native American girl that I remembered from Orientation.

“Fast?” She offered after realizing he genuinely wanted an answer.

“Yes,” the man smiled and straightened. “It is not fast. Our magic is based around Enchantment. You will never wiggle your fingers, say a couple words, and throw lightning. You can learn to spend hours of time and energy enchanting a stick with a command word that will then produce lightning when that command word is spoken. But even then, it’s not an unlimited thing. You put the energy into the object, you train it to perform the action that you want, and trigger it. After the effect takes place, the item can’t do it again until you invest your energy and time back into it. The more often a single object is enchanted the exact same way, the easier it becomes for that object to ‘learn’ the effect that you’re teaching it. But even then it still requires time. Minutes rather than hours, perhaps, but in the heat of battle, minutes do not exist.”

“A-are you sure that everyone can do it?” Aylen asked, her voice a bit tentative.

Carfried nodded. “You’ve used the Heretical Edge. You have the connection to the same energy that the Strangers use to come to this world, and you can use that energy for this enchantment magic.”

I raised my hand, and when he looked to me, I asked, “But what about magic things that do seem to last forever. Like umm…” Shifting, I pulled the holster for my staff off my belt and held it up, tugging the stick in and out a couple times. “I’m pretty sure no one’s sneaking up to refresh this every time I pull it out. Or the shield over the school.”

“A very good question, Miss Chambers,” Carfried nodded easily. “Indeed, in the case of your weapon sheath, and others that I’m sure many of you have, those are what we call ‘passive effects.’ An object may be enchanted, by someone of sufficient skill, with a passive effect such as the extra-dimensional storage space that will be permanent. Doing so requires vast amounts of experience and skill. And you cannot make an active effect permanent. No fireballs that last forever, I’m afraid. Again, there are inherited Stranger traits that may mimic what you think of as magic, but true Heretical Magic is based only on Enchantment, and that requires time and energy to create. And as for the shield over the school, that is refreshed every morning and provided power by every faculty member in order to keep it going for another twenty-four hours.”

“But doesn’t that mean that someone could get through the shield while it was being recharged, if they knew when it was happening?” I asked, frowning in thought.

Carfried’s head shook. “I know what you’re thinking, Miss Chambers. But it wouldn’t work that way. Even if someone somehow managed to time their entrance to the grounds for the split second when the shield went down, it would be up again within a bare handful of seconds. And when it is, the shield runs another scan over every being on the grounds, making sure that both the quantity and the identities of those present match what it was before the previous shield was dropped.”

I was silent then, even though more questions about how the shield worked kept popping up in my head. Rather than voice them, I kept the questions to myself. There would be other, more private ways to get the answers I wanted other than blurting out a bunch of demands in the middle of class.

“Now,” the young teacher pressed on. “Who’s ready to learn how this magic works?” Gazing around the room, he smiled as pretty much every hand was raised. “Fantastic.

“Let’s get started.”

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Orientation 1-07

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For a meal that had been both quicker and more convenient than anything my good old friend, Mr. Microwave could have whipped up, the food here was pretty damn good. Scratch that, it was good regardless of how quickly it had come out. Dad and I had gotten to be decent at putting meals together, but we were still dependent on boxes with things like ‘ready in fifteen minutes’ written on the label.

I scraped the plate clean entirely and was just putting the fork down when the collective scraping of chairs drew my attention back toward the front. The Headmistress was standing again, though she seemed fairly content to wait until everyone looked at her before she began speaking. She drew attention not by demanding it, but simply by expecting it to be given. Force of personality, rather than loud words eventually drew the eyes of every student until the whole school was once again watching.

“Another wonderful meal provided by our dear Chef Escalan,” Headmistress Sinclaire announced with a graceful smile and nod toward a man standing near the doorway that led into the kitchen. I couldn’t see him that well, but from here he looked like a squat, portly man in a red and white striped apron. Stray bits of straw-yellow hair stuck out from under his flattened chef’s hat. Unlike the headmistress, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, it pretty much looked like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but here.

Either ignoring or not noticing the man’s ugly scowl, Headmistress Sinclaire pressed on. “I know that he enjoys feeding you students almost as much as you enjoy his concoctions. But alas, we must press on if we are going to meet our deadline for the evening.” Clearing her throat then, she clarified, “Not a literal dead line, mind you. The team that was sent to clean up the last of those Thanatosis Marks from last year has assured us that the top floor of the academics building is now perfectly safe.”

Well my attention was caught in a stranglehold by those words, but the headmistress continued by listing several rules that seemed pretty common sense. No going into the beach or the jungle while you were supposed to be in class (with a reminder that the environmental seal, as she called it, would detect if anyone passed it), no fighting between classes, no food in the classroom (though drinks were allowed), the Pathmaker was off limits on threat of horrible things happening to your stomach until the staff arrived to cure you and assign detention, curfew was eleven on school nights, at which point we were expected to be in our dorms, and so on. She also mentioned that there was to be no truth about where we were or what we were doing in messages sent to those ‘outside of the Knowledge.’

Finally, the headmistress smiled. “But enough of our rules. I assure you, we spend less time obsessing upon such things than some would assume given their placement at the start of each semester. For now, it is my pleasure to introduce three new faculty members this year. Professor Inisclic will be taking over for the unfortunately deceased Professor Memon in the general histories courses.” She indicated a thin man in a tweed suit that seemed to be paying more attention to his empty plate than the students.

“Next,” the woman continued, “we have Professor Armstrong, who will be heading up our languages department for the time being, and Professor Carfried, who is filling in for poor Professor Tangle while she recovers from her recent ordeal.” In turn, an older woman with a severe overbite, and a jolly looking younger guy in his twenties that looked too young to be a teacher both stood. I had to both sit on my hand and bite my lip to stop myself from calling out questions. One former teacher that was unfortunately deceased, and another who was ‘recovering from her recent ordeal?’ Was that normal?

Whether it was or not, the headmistress wasn’t saying. She simply made those introductions and then pressed on. “Also, while we happen to be on the subject of introductions, allow me to introduce your specialization instructors for this semester.” Lifting her arm, the woman indicated several of the faculty who stood briefly to be counted, including Professor Dare. “If you have any questions regarding your chosen track, feel free to speak with one of them after we finish here, or at any other time. Their job is to ensure that you are in the correct track for your skills and interests.”

That started a flurry of whispered discussion, and the headmistress chuckled slightly. “As I said, such questions should come when we are done. Be careful, the question you whisper to a neighbor may be one that is answered while you are so distracted.” With that minor bit of chiding done, she continued.

“But I believe that means we have come to the end of what is relevant to our returning students. Class schedules will be delivered during breakfast in the morning, which will be provided, as always, between six am and eight am. Other than that, second years and above, if there are no questions, you are excused. Except, of course, for our team mentors.”

Deveron, who had started to stand with three quarters of the students, sighed and dropped back into his seat. The look he shot toward me made it clear that he somehow blamed us for not being able to leave.

Annoyed, I whispered, “So tell the truth. Which was more important for getting this mentor gig. Was it your stunning and helpful personality, or was it your devotion and strict work ethic?”

He answered me with a fairly infuriating smirk and shrug. “If you must know, I pulled a sword out of a stone. Some people get to be king, I get to babysit a bunch of lemmings.” Patting the table, he added, “At least my round table’s loaded with babes instead of dudes though.” Pausing, he waved a hand toward Columbus and his roommate Sean while adding, “No offense, dudes. Sure you’re quite the conversationalists.”

Rolling my eyes, I leaned over to Herbie, who was still sitting on the table. “Sic him, boy. Bite him.” Herbie, sadly, was far too well behaved to take the suggestion. He did, however, glare menacingly.

By that point, the second, third, and fourth years had all filed out. Left with the smaller audience, Headmistress Sinclaire continued. “Ahh, yes. Our first year students. Another welcome to each of you, whether you have grown up within the Knowledge, or are Bystander-kin. I’m sure many of you have a lot of questions, but let’s see how fast we can get through this first and save those inquiries for afterward, shall we?” She waited for any objections, then continued.

“Good. Now, many of you have already chosen your track for the semester either by attending early orientation last week or by sending your request forms in over the summer. For those who haven’t and do not know what we are talking about, allow me to explain. There are five types of what we call specialization tracks in this school. Those are: Development, Investigation, Security, Hunters, and Explorers. These are indicated by the color provided on your school uniform: blue, purple, white, green, and red, respectively. Those same colors may be found outside of specialization rooms, to indicate that you are in the correct location when you attend those classes.”

That matched up with what the twins had said earlier. They were in the investigation track, which was purple. A glance toward Avalon confirmed that she wore the light blue of the so-called ‘development’ track, while Deveron’s uniform trim was red for the ‘explorer’, whatever that was. Frankly, as lazily as he was coming off, I had my doubts about whether that sounded like the right specialization for him. On the other hand, none of what had been listed sounded like a ‘sit around and eat Cheetos’ career track.

Headmistress Sinclaire went on. “I’ll let our track advisers explain a bit about each specialization while they introduce themselves. Afterward, a sheet will appear in front of you if you have not yet chosen a specialty. Circle the track you are most interested in beginning. This choice may be changed for one week at the beginning of each semester while you attend this school. Indeed, some careers require a certain number of semesters spent under more than one specialty track. All of this information will be available to you at any point as you continue your education here. Professor Pericles, would you mind starting us off?”

A man who looked so old I was surprised he hadn’t been declared legally deceased stood up from the table. In spite of looking positively ancient, he moved without apparent effort. “Good evening!” His voice boomed loudly, another contrast with his deceptively decrepit appearance. “So glad to meet new students every year. I’ve been around for quite awhile, let me tell you, and every year I think I’ll get tired of meeting you young newcomers. But don’t you know, it never happens. I’d tell you how absolutely wonderful it is to see each and every one of you, but we’d be here all night and while I may be old, I am vaguely aware that there are other activities you whippersnappers would rather focus on that don’t include listening to some old coot ramble on. So let me just inform you of the very basics.

“My name is Zedekiah Pericles, and I teach mechanical engineering and a bit of science within what we call the general education courses, and on the other side of things, I’ll be instructing you in how these Stranger sons of bitches are put together and what kinda stuff they can do, as well as a bit about the old magic doodads we’ve whipped up in the time since our ancestors started poking at the creeps with their sharp sticks. Specialization wise, I’m the man that runs the Development track. In layman’s terms, that means we work on making up new toys, new magic, new everything to either kill these things, or just clean up the messes they leave behind. Any of you ever seen those old Bond flicks, we’re Q. ‘Cept we use magic as much as tech to make our little gadgets and doodads. Those of you wearing or soon-to-wear the blue uniforms, you’re all mine.”

I glanced toward Avalon, who was busy watching the man intently with an unreadable expression. She had joined his track, which clearly meant she was interested in the research side of things. Or maybe she really liked building things and putting stuff together? Maybe that was how she’d known so much about that circle surrounding the Pathmaker building. Assuming, of course, it wasn’t just something she’d learned from whatever Headmistress Sinclaire was to her. I still needed to find that out.

After Professor Pericles sat down, it was Professor Dare’s turn. She introduced herself again, stating that most there already knew her. Then she added that she taught fencing and American History, and that she ran the Investigation specialization track, which focused on interacting with those ‘outside of the knowledge’ to determine whether unexplained events in the mundane world were supernatural in nature or not. Usually those investigations were conducted under some false authority, the Heretic posing as a member of a legitimate law enforcement body. In other words, they lied a lot and used those lies to find out whether any random strange or outlandish event was a Stranger or not, and attempted to deal with it if possible. They were also the ones most responsible for keeping ‘bystanders’ out of the way, concocting the lies that prevented ordinary law enforcement (or say, random snoopy reporters like I aspired to be) from learning too much about this shadow world full of monsters. They were, of course, purple. The same color that Sands and Scout both wore.

Next there was the previously mentioned Professor Carfried, the young-looking teacher who had apparently taken over for Professor Tangle while she ‘recovered,’ from whatever she was recovering from. He was clearly nervous, stammering a fair bit but cheerful enough as he explained that he would be heading up the red-trimmed Explorer track. Their job, apparently, was to actually go into breaches between our world and the ones that these Strangers came from, documenting various information about their origins, the lands and homes they built, and more.

Professor Katarin, a male professor with very dark skin and the sort of bodybuilder look I associated with professional football linebackers, stood briefly to say that his classes were gym, general self defense, and that he was the specialization adviser for those in the Hunter track, those with green-lined uniforms. They were, to put it simply, those that actively fought against the Strangers. Unlike the Investigators, Hunters focused on areas where we knew for a fact the Strangers were coming through. They dealt with known and established threats, and were basically the straight up combat troops.

Finally, an Asian woman who appeared to be either in her late twenties or very early thirties stood up and introduced herself as Professor Kohaku. She spoke in carefully measured tones, her voice never rising above what felt like a whisper even though we could hear her just fine. She taught art classes and was responsible for the security of the school. Conveniently, she was also the adviser for those that were a part of the Security track itself, those with the white-lined uniforms. They were essentially responsible for keeping various places safe from Stranger infiltration. Hunters openly attacked, while Security protected.

And that was it. Development, Investigation, Explorers, Hunters, and Security. Once the advisers were done introducing themselves, a bit of plastic not-unlike the menu that had appeared previously popped up out of thin air in front of me. Columbus and his roommate received their own, and the three of us looked at one another while the rest of the table’s occupants either watched curiously (Sands and Scout) or ignored us completely (Deveron and Avalon).

“Hey,” Columbus whispered across the table toward my roommate. “Can I ask you a question?”

Slowly, the beautiful brunette turned her attention to him. She remained silent for a couple of seconds while obviously gathering herself before she spoke. “If it’s about the specializations, yes. Otherwise, you are seriously barking up the wrong tree.”

“Right, it’s about this.” The boy waved his sheet. “The Development track, is that, you know, interesting?”

Again, Avalon was silent. I had a feeling she was trying to determine how serious Columbus was. Finally, she breathed out a long, low sigh. “If you are told about a career that is focused on creating weapons and researching the weaknesses of monsters and have to ask if it’s interesting, either you weren’t listening to begin with or your line for what is interesting sits far beyond what humanity can measure.”

“Gotcha,” Columbus just grinned while circling that with his finger. “Just making sure.”

“What are you going for, Flick?” Sands asked, leaning a bit over the table to watch me as I tapped the sheet a few times.

“Well,” I answered. “Honestly, Explorer sounds pretty interesting. Seeing all those new worlds and stuff? Really cool. And Avalon’s right, so does Development. But I’ve wanted to be a reporter my whole life, one of those people that goes out and finds out the truth. So I think Investigation is pretty much the only real choice for me.” I used my finger to circle that, and my sheet disappeared a second later.

“Hell yeah,” Sands held her hand up, and I gave her five. “Though I guess this makes us kind of Investigator heavy. You, me, Scout. Plus we’ve got two Developers and one Explorer.” Glancing toward Deveron, who appeared to be daydreaming, she rolled her eyes. “Sort of.” To Sean, she asked, “What about you?”

Columbus’s roommate was a Hispanic boy with shaggy hair. He stared at the sheet for another fifteen seconds or so in silence before running his finger around one of the options. “Security.”

“Cool, guess all we’re missing is a Hunter then,” I frowned. “I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Should be okay,” Columbus pointed out. “They said we could change every semester if we want to, right? So we’ll probably go back and forth. I don’t know about you guys, but I wanna check out each track at least once.”

There was a little more conversation, and the headmistress spoke again. But eventually, we were dismissed. As everyone started to file out, I grabbed my rock off the table and stood up. “C’mon, Herbie, time to give you a bath.”

******

A couple hours later, I was exhausted. I’d spent the time using the computer in the dorm room to write an extensive e-mail to my father. Honestly, I felt really bad about the lies I had to tell him. Part of me wanted to put it off because of how… icky the idea of deceiving my own dad felt. Especially since I was apparently going to have to continue doing it not only for the next four years, but forever.

On the other hand, I couldn’t tell him the truth and end up putting him in danger. And I couldn’t just ignore him either. My mother had abandoned the man. The last thing I was going to do was avoid writing to him. It was bad enough that I wasn’t living there and couldn’t see him every night.

So no, there would be no delaying. I was going to write my father a message every day. Sure I’d have to rephrase things or tone them down, and leave out a lot of details. But I told him about Avalon and the rest of my new teammates (I called them an assigned study group), and about some of the school. I did, of course, leave out the part about being on a tropical island. That probably would have earned me a few questions.

After sending the e-mail, I stood up and turned at the sound of the door opening. Avalon was coming in with a damp towel over her shoulders. When I’d asked where she was going earlier, she’d simply said that her body didn’t just magically appear and that she had to work for it.

“Did you have a good work-out?” I asked.

“No,” she retorted flatly. “Too many people. Hey, what the hell is that stupid rock doing up there?”

Adopting a surprised expression, I turned to see where she was looking. The rock in question was resting up on top of large window, balanced on the rim. Gasping out loud, I moved past the scowling girl. “Herbie!” Jumping up, I caught the rock with one hand. “Be careful, buddy, I know you like to see what’s going on, but you could fall. Here, see anything interesting?” Holding the rock in my palm, I aimed it at out the window toward the grounds outside before speaking over my shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s just feeling adventurous after his bath. See?” Turning, I showed the other girl that the stone had been scrubbed clean in the restroom sink.

My roommate just stood there for a moment, then sighed before crossing over to her side of the room. She disappeared into the closet before returning with a nightshirt, which she quietly changed into. “Hey, Chambers, put down the fucking rock and pay attention.”

I set Herbie on the windowsill and looked toward the girl as she moved to a spot on her desk. “See this button? Look at the one on your side.”

Interested, I leaned over to look at side of my desk. Sure enough, there was a small red button there that I hadn’t noticed. “Got it.”

“Great,” her tone was even. “Now watch. You push it and…” A second later, that side of the room was plunged into pitch-black darkness. I couldn’t see any sign of the girl or any of her furniture. It was as if a solid wall had appeared to block it off.

The darkness went away then, and I asked, “So it’s a light switch?”

Avalon snorted. “No, that’s a light switch.” She pointed to the wall. “This is a privacy switch. Press it once, wait, then press it again.”

I shrugged and followed her instructions, pressing my finger against the button. As soon as I did, the same blackness seemed to appear. This time, however, it appeared right on the edge of my own space. It was a wall, I realized. A non-solid wall made out of darkness that prevented anyone outside from seeing in and anyone inside from seeing out.

Flipping the switch off again, I coughed. “That’s cool. Privacy switch.”

“You can’t see through it, you can’t hear through it, and you can’t walk through it unless you’re a faculty member or you have permission,” she explained. “Otherwise, they can’t hear you at all. Understand?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I get it. Do you think–”

“Good,” she interrupted. “Because I wanted you to know exactly what this means.” A second later, her side of the room was plunged into darkness again as she activated the privacy screen. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be taking it down for the rest of the evening.

So much for asking Avalon what her relation to the headmistress was. Sighing, I crossed to my own bed, picked up my rock, and set him on the dresser next to me while laying down. “Guess it’s you and me tonight, Herbie.”

I lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling for a few minutes while letting my mind wander. So much had happened today. So much was still incredibly confusing and more than a little frightening. Yet even with that uncertainty, I knew I’d made the right decision to go through that mirror when Professor Dare had offered me the choice. It… felt like I was where I belonged.

In the morning, classes would begin. Classes that would tell me more about this world I had suddenly become a part of, that would explain what these ‘Strangers’ were and how we were expected to combat them.

I’d never been more excited for school in my life.

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