Professor Katarin

First Steps 2-01

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I was awoken the next morning by the sound of a knock at the door. Fumbling my way out from under the twisted up blankets that I had somehow managed to tie in knots around myself as I slept, I fell out of the bed with a yelp. Flushing, I glanced to the other side of the room, only to find that the black wall that Avalon’s privacy screen had erected was gone. Equally gone was my roommate herself. The bed was empty and neatly made to what looked like military specifications. Actually, I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t a mint sitting on the pillow, to be perfectly honest.

Another knock reminded me of why I was awake, and I picked myself off the floor. Yawning, I glanced down at myself to make sure I looked vaguely presentable before heading over to open it a crack.

Sands stood on the other side, waving as the door opened. She wore a tee shirt with the name Crossroads Academy written in purple on the front and a pair of black shorts with identical violet trim going up the sides. She was also holding a clothing bag in one hand, offering it to me. “Heya, teammate. Ready for morning exercise? Oh, and here’s your uniforms. They were sitting by your door.”

Blinking, I opened the door the rest of the way and took the offered bag. “Morning exercise?”

The other girl’s head bobbed once. “Sure. You know, that thing that Deveron was supposed to talk to us about, if he didn’t, uhhh…”

“Suck ass as a mentor?” I offered.

“Yeah, that one.” Sands gestured in agreement. “Anyway, we’ve got general exercise every weekday morning before shower and breakfast. You can really do it at any point between five and seven, but you have to get half an hour in. Scout and I figured you might want to go together, since your roommate’s already done.”

“Avalon did her exercise already?” I asked while stepping back into the room. “Come on in.”

Sands came into the room, trailed after by her sister. Scout was munching on a banana, and waved to me without meeting my gaze. Her attention seemed firmly riveted to our apparently fascinating floor. Sands, on the other hand, groaned. “Yeah, Sean said she was in there when he showed up, and she was still there when Scout and I went past. Seriously, it’s half an hour of required exercise and she’s been there for at least an hour and a half. It’s like she’s trying to break a record or something.”

“Maybe she just really likes to exercise?” I suggested while opening the bag that the other girl had brought. Digging through it, I found three different uniform sets with the purple trim, as well as two sets of the same workout clothes that the twins were wearing. “Or maybe she’s really a supervillain and her dastardly plan is to make herself look so perfect that the universe itself collapses out of envy.”

Snorting, Sands shook her head. “C’mon, you don’t wanna miss breakfast on the first day.”

My stomach growled at the very implication, and I quickly changed clothes before nodding. “Right, let’s get this workout done then, before I start eating the weights instead of lifting them.”

On my way out, I stopped to grab Herbie, tossing him up into the air before catching him. “Don’t worry, buddy, I wouldn’t leave you alone in the room all day. You’d get too lonely.”

Before I reached the door, a hand caught my sleeve. Glancing over to find Scout standing there with her hand on me, I blinked. “Oh hey, what’s up?”

In answer, the girl released my sleeve before reaching into her pocket to take out a small box. She presented it to me without ever saying anything, a hesitant smile touching her face.

I took the offered box and opened it, tilting my head at the contents. There were a pair of cute googly eyes and a bottle of super glue. It took me a second before I realized. “For Herbie?”

The other girl smiled faintly, half hidden behind her lowered head, and nodded shyly, still silent.

“Hey, thanks, Scout.” I returned her smile. “I’ll put the eyes on when we get down there. That way he can dry while we’re doing the workout. Where’d you find this stuff anyway?”

Rather than answer, the girl visibly froze. She went completely still for a few seconds before shrugging.

“Yeah,” Sands shook her head. “She wouldn’t tell me either. I guess there’s some secrets even I don’t merit. All I know is that she had it when she came back with that banana.”

Seeing the uncomfortable look on the shy girl’s face, I relented. “Right, you go ahead and keep your secret crafting supplies store or whatever it is. Thanks anyway, Scout.”

She nodded, clearly relieved to have the attention off herself, and the three of us headed down to the gym. We had just left the dorm and were making our way across the grass toward the other building when Sands looked toward me. “So how’d your first night go? Did you and Avalon have a fight or something? Is that why she’s spent all morning in the gym?”

“A fight?” I shook my head. “We didn’t talk enough to have a fight. She showed me the privacy screen and then never turned it off. I don’t think she’s interested in earning any awards for being a stunning conversationalist. But, you know, maybe I’ll win her over with a midnight pillow fight.”

“Now see?” Another voice spoke, and I turned to see Columbus and Sean stroll up. The latter was talking. “This is a conversation that I would like to be a part of. Tell me more about this pillow fight.”

Rolling my eyes, I replied, “We’re just talking about how I can get my roommate to open up.” After hesitating for a second, I added, “She’s got the same last name as the Headmistress, are they related?”

A collection of shrugs went around before Columbus offered, “Maybe she’s her daughter?”

I shrugged back, then focused on the twins. “You guys grew up here, don’t you know her?”

“Nope,” Sands replied. “Never seen her before the last couple days. Sorry. I don’t think she’s Headmistress Sinclaire’s kid though. Like I said, we grew up here and she never said anything about having a daughter. Which, we might miss some things, but I’m pretty sure we would’ve noticed that.”

“Huh…” Columbus frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe the name thing is a coincidence?”

Beside me, Sean shook his head, sending his shaggy hair flying back and forth. “Dude, we’re living at a damn magic school so we can learn how to fight monsters. I’m pretty sure thinking that anything is a coincidence at this point is just begging for a giant, ‘you’re wrong’ shaped monster to come stomping through the campus, breathing fire on everyone who ever says things like ‘how bad can it be?’”

******

“This is not a game. I want every last one of you to repeat that back to me. Say it loud.”

It was a couple hours later. I’d finished the brief workout with the twins and Columbus (Sean had already finished his), then showered and changed into the school uniform before having breakfast. Now we had been joined by Avalon and the six of us were in our first class of the day: self defense.

Professor Katarin, the positively massive teacher that reminded me of the guy that had played the prisoner in The Green Mile, stood at the front of the room. It was a different gym from the one that we had exercised in that morning. This one was larger, with plenty of room for at least four different active sparring matches. Mirrors lined every wall, and the floor was padded to the point that it was kind of fun to bounce up and down on it. There were also a handful of what looked like training dummies spread throughout the room, along with six enormous trunks arrayed behind the man that he had wheeled in two at a time before calling everyone to line up in front of him.

There were about three full teams in this particular class, or eighteen students. I recognized some from orientation the day before, but most were new faces. All of us were clearly still adjusting to this place.

Katarin waited there while everyone dutifully repeated the words back to him. Then he shook his head. “Louder. I want you to say it and mean it! This is not a game! Say it again! This is not a game!”

Finally, after it was all but screamed back at him, the man nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Now that you’ve all said that, there won’t be any excuses when I expel the first one of you that acts like this is a game. And I will, believe me. If I see any of you messing around with the stuff in here, or goofing off while we’re trying to learn, or doing anything that could end with you or one of your classmates getting hurt, you’re out of here. I don’t mean out of this class, I mean out of this school. You will never be a part of this again. Do you understand me? Harkess, do you think I’m kidding?”

One of the other bystander-kin students, Malcolm, shook his head while speaking loudly. “No, sir.”

“What about you, Porter?” Professor Katarin was focused not on Columbus, but his foster sister Shiori.

The Asian girl flushed at the attention before shaking her head quickly. “No, sir, you’re not kidding.”

“Damn straight I’m not.” The big man let his gaze move over all of us. “You do not get three strikes in this class. You fuck around, you’re out. I will not teach students who can’t take this seriously. You’ll be a danger to yourselves, to your fellow students, and to everyone we’re trying to protect. Is that clear?”

After a chorus of agreement, Katarin nodded in satisfaction. “In that case, let’s get started. When I call your name, come up here. The rest of you can talk among yourselves until we get all this sorted out.”

He started with one of the male students from Shiori’s team, calling the boy around to the other side of the large trunks. From the look of things, he was digging through the trunks while talking to the boy.

“What’s all this about?” I turned to ask Sands in a quiet voice.

“Weapon selection,” she replied, staring with wide eyes toward the front of the room. Her voice was hushed with awe. “You have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for our chance at this. Every year, over and over, we just watch everyone else get their weapons. Now it’s our turn.”

Blinking at the awe and anticipation in her voice, I looked toward Columbus and Sean. “Come again?”

“Weapon selection,” Sean repeated Sands’ words while grinning. He was clearly excited too, though he did a slightly better job of keeping cool about it. “See, a heretic’s weapon is like… a big deal. ”

“What they’re trying to say,” the voice of Avalon intoned coolly from behind me. “Is that a heretic’s weapon is their life. We learn to do everything with it, and the weapon helps define who you are.”

I coughed. “Oh, right, of course they’re giving us weapons. Sorry, kind of still getting used to going from a school where making a finger gun at someone was grounds for suspension.”

Avalon’s eyes rolled. “Yeah, people are stupid. Big surprise. That’s not exactly a new concept. Point is, this is a big deal. Whatever Katarin up there matches you with, that’s it. Gun, blade, bow, whatever it ends up being, that’s your weapon for life. It’s bonded to you and only you. It gets stronger as you do. You’ll learn to fight with it, and to channel the powers you gain through it. The weapon is your outlet, your implement to use a lot of the skills that you’ll learn here. That’s why he’s stressing the safety so much. Because they can’t just take it away at the end of classes. The whole point is that you carry it around with you everywhere. It never leaves your side, ever. It’s a part of you for life. Understand?”

Columbus whistled low. “Did you say guns? They actually use guns here?”

Avalon gave him a dirty look for that one. “Of course we use guns. We use everything that can kill those monsters. They may not be the kind of guns you’re used to, but that’s because once humans got to the musket, Developer Heretics went off in their own direction for making it better. They’re not mass produced, every Heretic weapon is hand-made, one at a time by Developers who put their heart and soul into what they’re making. Then they’re put into those crates and brought out to be matched against a new student. Once you’re matched to a weapon, that’s it. Unless something happens, and believe me, it’s really hard to break a Heretic weapon, it’s yours until you die. Then they bury you with it.”

At that point, Katarin called for Sands. The other girl gave me a quick, eager smile before schooling her expression to look as calm as possible as she walked to the front. She could not, apparently, stop herself from skipping just a little bit.

“Guess this is a pretty big deal for you two, huh?” I asked Scout, nudging the girl a little bit. I knew she was shy and didn’t talk much, but I was curious enough to prod her slightly. “Waited a long time?”

The quiet twin hesitated before nodding. Her gaze flicked up to me every so briefly before she looked away, back to the front of the room where her sister was. Even that brief eye contact made her blush. It made me wonder why she was so painfully shy and withdrawn. The curiosity bubbled up in me almost against my will. I wanted to talk to the girl, wanted to ask her about herself and get her to open up. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I wasn’t sure exactly how much I should push or leave alone. There was probably a very good reason that she didn’t do much talking, and curious as I was, I shouldn’t pry.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to. I wanted to pry into that, into why Avalon was always in such a bad mood even though she didn’t really seem to be that bad of a person, what her relationship with the Headmistress was, why Deveron was still our mentor even though he was a completely useless and lazy pain in the ass, what exactly had made the vote about my inclusion in the school so close that the Headmistress had been forced to break the tie, and everything else. I definitely wanted to know what the connection was between the Headmistress and the coward that had been my ancestor. I wanted to know all of those things and more, but I wasn’t yet sure how to go about getting those answers.

If it came down to it, I supposed I could just find the woman and ask her about what I’d seen. I’d wait a few days before trying that though, and give things around here a chance to settle into a routine. Or at least as much of a routine as a school where we were handed deadly weapons on the first day could be.

Scout was called next, and I looked up to see Sands returning with what looked like a heavy-duty morning star held tight in one hand. The handle was black, the head of the weapon silver, and the assorted razor-sharp spikes on it were red. She was holding it like a treasured present, something she had waited most of her life to receive after watching year after year of older students get theirs.

“Construction Mace?” Sean asked, receiving a nod from the clearly proud Sands.

I looked back and forth between them, then focused on the weapon. “What’s a Construction Mace?”

“It makes walls,” Sands explained. “See, it just sort of makes walls, floors, whatever, flat surfaces in any orientation. Smash something while holding the trigger and it sort of, absorbs that type of material to make the walls out of.”

My mouth opened and then shut. “Are you serious? How? Where does the material for the walls come from? What produces it? Where does this thing store the material? What–”

“Magic, Flick,” she intoned with a wink. “It’s magic.”

Before long, Scout also returned with what looked like the biggest freaking sniper rifle I’d ever seen in my life. The thing was positively enormous, dwarfing Scout herself. As Avalon had said, it also looked a lot more… muskety than any modern rifle, though the scope on it was pretty impressive. The best way I could describe the whole thing was that it looked like a steampunk version of a sniper rifle, with all kinds of tubes, coils, and other doodads lining the thing. The scope part had multiple lenses all spaced out along the top of it that raised or lowered into place depending on how far she wanted the scope to reach.

“Wow,” I blinked between Sands and Scout. “So you got a weapon that makes you get right up close to people and you got one that makes you stay far away from them.”

“That’s right,” Sands nudged her sister. “I smack ’em in the face and Scout covers me.”

I started to ask if Scout thought she could even fire that thing, but before I could, Katarin called my name. Under the curious gaze of the rest of the class, I made my way to the front where the man was waiting. “Uh, hi, sir. I just thought you should know, the deadliest weapon I’ve held in my hand up to this point was a steak knife. So, you know, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Good,” the big man rumbled. “You knowing that is the best first step. Keep that in mind and don’t do anything stupid with this thing when I hand it to you. Now… let’s see, do you think you’d be more comfortable with something that let you get close, or something that’s more of a distance weapon? Don’t overthink it, just go with your first instinct and we’ll see what matches you.”

I froze for a second. Go with my first instinct? Easy for him to say, after everything the others had said about how this was a choice that would stick with me for the rest of my life. “Umm, I think I’d feel better with something… close. That feels right.” At least I hoped it did.

Nodding, Katarin turned to open the first three storage trunks. “Take a look. Take out a few, hold them in your hand, see what feels the most natural. Don’t worry, if the weapon that’s meant for you is something else, you’ll know. You’ll feel the connection when it’s there, trust me. And trust yourself.”

Emboldened a bit by his encouragement, I stepped up to the first chest and looked inside. Swords, axes, daggers, staves, and more all lined the interior. Slowly, I ran my hand along them. My fingers found a nice looking scimitar, but when I lifted it from the trunk, I knew it was wrong. It didn’t feel right. I couldn’t really explain it, but the weapon didn’t fit me. It felt awkward in my grip and I put it down almost immediately.

I tried a few other weapons in the crate, but nothing really called out to me. Gradually, I moved on to the second one. More weapons, some of which I didn’t even recognize. There was something that looked sort of like a nunchaku, except that there were three handles instead of two, all with cord between them. Beside that were a couple of weapons that were even stranger. Basically they looked like hand-held sickles with the curved blade, along with a straight blade extending in the opposite direction from the base of the curved one, and a smaller knife-like blade down near the handle.

“Hunga Munga,” Katarin informed me. “African throwing weapon. How does it feel?”

I paused, letting my fingers close around the handle. There was something… almost there, and I let my eyes close to focus on it for a few seconds before shaking my head. “It’s close, I think. I feel… something. But I don’t think they fit me.” I bit my lip and looked up then. “Am I just over thinking it?”

“Possibly,” he allowed. “But let’s see if something else suits you better.”

Slowly, I moved my hands further, trying a couple of different weapons. Nothing in the second chest was perfect, or even felt as close to right as those blades had.

Finally, I moved on to the third chest. My gaze passed over several weapons before landing on a long staff set near the back. As my eyes landed on the weapon, I paused. Something, a feeling of familiarity that I couldn’t explain, came to me. I lifted a hand to carefully pluck it out of the chest to examine more closely.

It was a five foot long staff. The body of it was red, with black ends that tapered into points. As I turned the thing over, I felt something… much more immediate than I had thought. There was no question about it. This wasn’t something vague or uncertain. “It’s this one,” I said quietly, but firmly. “This is mine.”

Katarin didn’t ask if I was sure. Instead, he nodded and put his hand out. Somewhat reluctantly, I passed the weapon over and released it.

Taking the staff, the big man gave it a cursory once over. “Right, I don’t want you actually using this thing until I teach you how to do it safely, but this is a kinetic-burst staff.”

“Kinetic-burst staff?” I echoed, staring at the thing. I already wanted to be holding it again.

“Yeah, look here.” He showed me one of the ends of the staff, then directed my attention to a small depression in the handle where his fingers were resting. “Press this here to charge.” As he pressed it, the black ends of the staff began to glow blue.

“Release the button to stop charging.” Katarin continued. He moved his finger off the button, but the blue glow remained at both ends. “Then you’ve got three choices. First, you smack someone with it and it’ll add the concussive force that you’ve charged into it to your blow. Like this,” he turned to the nearest training dummy and gave a whack of the staff against it. The concussive force that the staff unleashed freaking blew the dummy across the room to crash into the mirror on the far side with a terrible noise that made me along with a few other students yelp.

“Better get used to that kind of thing,” Katarin advised before going on. “Second choice, just touch the thing you want to transfer the charge to. Has to be an inanimate object like a wall or floor or something. Like this.” Again, he charged the staff before touching one of the ends to the floor between us. “Keep holding the button while you do it so it doesn’t go off.”

As he held the point of the staff to the ground, I saw a faint blue bubble of energy appear there, about the size of a football. It turned almost entirely translucent and difficult to notice even when I knew what I was looking for after he pulled the staff away.

“Concussive mine,” he informed me. “You can set it off by pressing this other button here on the staff, or just wait for someone to touch it. Use it for traps or just to give yourself an edge in the middle of a fight by controlling where your opponent can safely step.”

Once I found my voice again, I asked, “And the… the third way of using it?”

“Propulsion,” he replied easily, smiling a bit at my resulting stare. “Once you get good enough with this thing, you can use the concussive force to propel yourself through the air. Make yourself jump higher or longer, move faster, escape when the enemy thinks they have you cornered, and anything else you can think of. Girl your size, an average charge ought to throw you a good fifteen, twenty feet when you do it right.”

He was chuckling at my expression while handing the staff back to me. “Of course, you might want to wait until we get through a few lessons before you try anything like that.”

“Uh huh…” I held the staff tight in both hands, staring at it before nodding to the man. “You know, if you don’t mind, I think I might go for a whole four lessons before I try that whole ‘using a controlled explosion as my own personal taxi’ thing.”

“Good girl,” he replied before gesturing for me to go while he raised his voice. “All right, next we’ve got Avalon. Come on up, let’s see what works for you.”

And then he just let me walk away with a weapon that could probably put a hole in the wall if I set even a tenth of my mind to the effort. For all his warnings and threats, the man still let me take this weapon, just like he’d let the other students walk away with the weapons they were now holding.

It was then, in that moment that it really struck me, even more than seeing the vision of my ancestor had. This wasn’t an ordinary school. Sure, it sounded fun and interesting and cool to see all this stuff. But these weapons were real. The danger was real, and they wanted to teach us to fight it.

The phrase that Katarin had made us repeat came to mind, and I truly, truly understood its significance for the first time as more than just words to repeat.

This… was not a game.

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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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