Professor Pericles

Interlude 24B – Nevada

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Spring, 1985

In all of her life, the being who now chose to refer to herself as Nevada had never known true freedom. Whether it was at the hands of her malevolent creator, Denuvus, or the myriad of other masters who had come and gone over the years before she was reclaimed, someone was almost always in control of her. She may have escaped for brief periods now and then, but there was always someone right around the corner waiting to use her.

That was the nature of being a Djinn. Even when she wasn’t actively under the control of an owner, there were many Alters out there who could see or sense her for what she was. More specifically, they saw her for what she could do for them. They saw the power that she represented. The power of a Djinn to grant wishes was almost unparalleled.

Then there were the Heretics. They didn’t care about the power she had to offer, they just wanted her dead, along with every other non-human being on the planet.

All of which meant that, between being sensed for the power she had as a Djinn, and being sensed as what the Heretics called a Stranger, Nevada had been hunted by both sides for all of her existence. She had never known what it was like to be truly free, to not have to constantly look over her shoulder for the next person who wanted to enslave or kill her.

But now, well, now she wasn’t a Djinn anymore. She was a normal human. Okay, not really normal. She was a Heretic. After using her power one last time to change the Heretical Edge so that it could turn human-Alter hybrids into Heretics as well, she had changed her appearance just enough that she wouldn’t be recognized, and then wished herself into being a normal human. And because turning herself human had been at the request of her final ‘master’, Gaia, it was permanent. She was human, she was free and clear. No one would ever be able to enslave her for her magic again. No more wishes. No more being bound to one master or another. It was a feeling that was as intoxicating as she could imagine.

Of course, she couldn’t actually explain any of that to the people that were now her classmates. Which meant that they thought she was… maybe a little, tiny bit eccentric.

“Nevada, has anyone ever told you that you are completely, certifiably fucking insane?”

Looking toward the boy who had spoken, Nevada gave him a wide, bright smile. “Sorry, Reid, do you mean like, today, or in the past ten minutes? Because the answer is yes for both, but if you want exact numbers, I’ll need you to be more specific. Besides,” she gave him a little push with a wink, “what’s so crazy about this?”

Reid Rucker, her teammate, and one of the first friends that she had made in the school, gave her a look before gesturing in front of them pointedly. Specifically, his hand was indicating the edge of the cliff that lay directly in front of them, and the ocean water about eighty feet below.  

“Oh, I dunno,” the boy drawled slowly, “maybe it’s got something to do with your plan, and in this case I mean ‘plan’ in the loosest definition of the word, to jump off this here cliff when, unless you’ve been killing one of those bird Strangers without me knowing anything about it, you can’t actually fly.”

“Dude!” Nevada grinned, choosing to ignore the implication of killing another creature who might not necessarily deserve it. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?! Flying? That would be way better than just falling with a little bit of pizzazz. Trust me, if I could fly, you’d know. Because I would be using that shit everywhere.”

“Seriously, Nevada.” Reid touched her arm, concern in his eyes. “I don’t know what kind of stuff you learned in that Hunter group, but this is completely nuts.”

Part of the backstory that Headmistress Sinclair had helped Nevada come up with was that she had been raised by an independent group of Heretics after her parents had been killed. It explained how she knew so much about what Strangers were, and any slips that popped up in what she was supposed to know about would be explained by being raised by Heretics that weren’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden connected. And the lack of any living blood relatives would head off any number of potential awkward conversations later.

“Reid,” the blonde former Djinn intoned gently and patiently while gently moving the boy’s hand from her arm. Then she moved back a few steps. “You’re right, stepping off this cliff would be a dumb idea.”

The boy exhaled a little, slumping over. “Thank God. For a second there, I thought you were really going to–wait, stepping off?” Catching her exact words a little too late, he quickly looked up again.

Nevada was already dashing forward. “But flipping off of the cliff is the best idea ever!”

True to her word, she leapt forward into open air and twisted, flipping over several times as she plummeted toward the water below. Behind and above her, she heard Reid shout something about needing a new teammate when his current crazy one  got herself killed. An instant later, she pointed her feet down and dropped straight into the cold water, her momentum carrying her deep below the surface.  

It was so cold, and so sudden, that it instantly took her breath away. But Nevada didn’t care. She would’ve done the same thing a thousand times over, from much higher, into much colder water. Because it was her choice, because she chose to jump. It was all her, all her choice. Her decision.

Nevada would never be anyone’s slave again. She was free.

******

“Miss ah, Nevada,” Professor Zedekiah Pericles spoke gently the next afternoon. “Do you know why I asked you to stay after class?” The old-looking man stood at the front of the room, leaning slightly against his own desk while watching Nevada sitting at hers.

“Is it about the Şüräle report I turned in?” Nevada asked. “It’s totally not my fault Lennis bet me fifty bucks there was no such thing as a tickle monster. He really should’ve known better than to bet against me on that kind of thing by this point.”

The man coughed at that, working to hide his tiny smirk. “Yes,” he agreed flatly. “He should have. But no, this isn’t about that.” Straightening up, he watched her for a moment before continuing. “I wanted to ask how you were feeling about… next week.”

Biting her lip, Nevada hesitated. “You mean family day.” That was the day where everyone whose family knew the truth about Strangers and Heretics could come look around at the school and visit. It was apparently a pretty big deal, and all of the other students who weren’t Bystander-kin had been talking about it for several days now. Most of them couldn’t wait to see their families and show them what they have been learning. And, of course, the powers that they had gained throughout the year so far.

Nodding, Professor Pericles watched her carefully. “I know that with your… particularly unique situation, it can’t be that fun to hear so many of your peers planning out everything they’re going to do when their families visit.” After pausing briefly, he shook his head lamentingly. “No, not fun at all.”

Nevada’s eyes widened at that. “Oh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, Professor. I know I’m supposed to be doing better about keeping all that stuff secret. I’m trying, I swear. They asked me if I had anyone coming to visit, and I didn’t know what to say. So I just said I don’t know. I think they knew something was up, even though I tried to change the subject. I won’t mess up again, I swear. I’ll be more subtle. I’ll come up with a better story. I’ll-.”

The man raised a hand to stop her. “Nevada,” he spoke gently, “It’s alright, this isn’t a reprimand. I just want to know how you’re feeling about everything.”

“Feeling?” Nevada hesitated before giving a little shrug, her eyes on the floor. “It’s not like me not having any family is new or anything. I mean, I guess I sort of have a creator who is kind of almost family, but…” Trailing off, she shrugged again. “Believe me, he made it clear that he doesn’t see us as family. I don’t have a family.”

She couldn’t actually say Denuvus’s name, or give that many details. The woman herself had ingrained her creation with very strict magical laws that, even now, she couldn’t break. Hell, she had to use the male pronoun instead of the female one, just as another layer of protection against revealing too many details. But she had been able to say enough that Gaia, and her allies, such as Professor Pericles, understood the gist of it. They knew that her creator was not someone she thought of fondly, even if the specifics were rather murky.

Before the man could say anything to that, the door at the back of the room opened and a particularly harried-looking Asian woman stepped in, already speaking while her eyes remained locked on the walkie-talkie in her hand. “Zedekiah, you have got to help me with this dumb thing. Please, please, please, I’m so screwed. You won’t believe what-”

Finally looking up, the woman stopped short at the site of Nevada. “Oh my gosh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were busy. I was just, um, well, panicking. I’ll come back later, after you’re done.”

“It’s alright, Risa,” Pericles assured her. “We were simply discussing Miss Nevada’s rather unique situation.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Professor Kohaku,” Nevada put in. “It’s no big–err, is that radio smoking?”

“Crapsticks!” Professor Kohaku blurted as her eyes snapped back to the smoldering radio in her hands. “I thought I got it to stop doing that! Hey!” She shook the walkie-talkie. “Are you listening to me? Stop it. Stop it right now!” She looked up then, despair in her eyes. “See? The damn thing’s entire purpose is to take your voice somewhere else, and it still can’t listen to me. Technology is all completely evil. It’s already taking over the world.  Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned carrier pigeon? Pigeons are cute, and they can do tricks. All this thing does is-” As she spoke, the smoke that was coming out of the radio turned blue. “Oh come on! Now you’re doing it on purpose! What is even in you that could make blue smoke?!”

The woman raised her hand as though to throw the radio against to the nearby wall as hard as she could, but Pericles stopped her with a soft cough . and shake of his head. “I assume that your recent promotion to head of security is proceeding well then.” He smiled faintly while gesturing with one hand. “Why don’t you let Miss Nevada take a look at it? She’s already proven herself quite adept at our little devices. I’m sure she can sort out the issue in no time.”

Clearly eager to get the device out of her hand, Professor Kohaku quickly offered it toward Nevada. “You want to take a crack at it?”

“Oh, um, sure!” Nevada smiled while bobbing her head up-and-down as she took the radio. “ I think I can figure it out.”

After thinking her profusely, Professor Kohaku looked back toward Pericles. “And as for how it’s going, well, I guess it could be worse. it’s just a lot to take care of. I know, I know, Gaia can’t trust anyone else in the security position after what happened to Ignatius, but… it’s just a lot. I’m afraid that I’m going to mess something up.”

Stepping over to put a hand on her shoulder, Pericles smiled. “You’re doing fine, Risa, I promise. You’ll get the hang of balancing your new duties. And anytime you have any more trouble with the equipment, I’m sure that either I, or Nevada here can help. You’ll get there, just remember to take a breath whenever you need to. And if breathing doesn’t work, try finding a private spot and screaming. I find that tends to help.”

Breathing out, Kohaku nodded. “Thanks, I’ll try the screaming thing later. At least being head of security means I know where all the private spots are.” Smiling a little bit then, she looked toward Nevada. “And thank you. You know, for um, looking at that monstrosity.”

“No problem Professor,” Nevada chirped. “I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out what’s wrong with it.”

“What’s wrong with it,” Kohaku grumbled under her breath while giving the thing a dirty look, “is probably that no one’s made the appropriate virgin goat sacrifices to its lord and master recently.”

She made a face at the thing before straightening. “Oh, but while I have you here, Nevada, I have your art project.” Reaching into her suit jacket for a moment, the woman felt around a little before withdrawing a large poster that looked too big to have fit in there. “I just have a couple questions before I hand it back to you.” She paused, glancing toward Pericles. “Unless you prefer this to be private?”

“Oh, no,” Nevada shook her head. “That’s okay, you both already know the truth about me. Did I do something wrong with the project?”

Kohaku’s head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to ask you about it.”

She held up the poster then so that they could all see it. The image itself was of a pair of eyes that seem to be watching the observer, and an extended hand.

“The assignment,” Kohaku noted. “was to draw a picture of something that makes you feel safe. You wouldn’t believe how many students drew a picture of their weapon, or one of their teachers. But you drew this. Is it someone in particular? And why just the eyes and hand?”

Nevada found herself blushing as she shifted back-and-forth on her feet a little bit. “Uh, yeah. It’s um, you know. It’s Deveron, from back when he saved me. That was sort of the first time anyone ever saved me. I didn’t want to do his whole face, because that would probably be really bad if the wrong people saw it  and happened to recognize him. But I thought just his eyes and hand would be okay. That’s mostly what I think about when I remember what happened anyway.” Those eyes, the soft, kind eyes that had met hers right when she had been so certain that her life was about to come to an end. The eyes that had saved her life, and then offered her a new one.

“It’s a wonderful picture,” Kohaku assured her. “I just saw it and, well, I kind of wanted to know more. Which is really good for art, believe me.” She paused then, studying Nevada for a moment. “Deveron really did a lot for you, didn’t he?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Nevada replied. “Both literally and figuratively. I wouldn’t be here in the school if he didn’t ask for my help, and help me change. And I wouldn’t be alive if he hadn’t saved me.”

Kohaku smiled at that, and offered the poster back to her. “I think it’s safe to say that you got an A on this project. And I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see Mr. Adams again, even if he is persona non grata around here.”

Blushing, Nevada thanked her and the woman excused herself before stepping out of the room with a promise to give her ten million hugs if she could figure out what the hell was wrong with her radio.

Once they were alone, Pericles gestured to the device in her hand. “I do believe that if you can help Risa with her technology issues, you will have found an ally for life, come what may.”

He paused then, before looking to her a little quizzically. “It must be very interesting to be in your position.”

“Interesting,” Nevada echoed curiously, “why?”

The man explained, “You are going through the motions now as if you are a student, and in some ways you are. Being human, having choices, making a life of your own, in that regard, you are a child. But you have been alive for much, much longer than that.”

Again, Nevada blushed. “I prefer to think of this as Version 2.0 of me. And in that regard, I’m only a few months old. I’m still figuring out who I am, and who I want to be.”

The elderly man put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes soft and understanding. “In that regard, my dear, you are already very human. But,” he added after giving a quick glance toward the watch on his wrist, “you should probably go now while there’s still time left in the lunch hour. I wouldn’t want to starve you while you’re still figuring out what kind of person you are. That wouldn’t do at all.

Picking up her bag and tucking the broken radio and her poster away inside of it, Nevada’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah, I guess I’m still not used to that either. Humans get hungry a lot.

The man chuckled, quipping, “Practically every day, it seems.”

He watched her start to leave, before holding up a hand. “One more thing before you go, Nevada.”

“Yes, Professor?” She turned back to look at him.

His voice was soft, yet firm. “You are very, very wrong when you say that you have no family. You may have no living relatives, true. But here, in this place, as far as I am concerned, you will always have family.”

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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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First Steps 2-02

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“I feel like Mary Poppins,” I announced a few hours later while walking down the hall alongside the rest of my team. We were just leaving lunch and heading for the first afternoon class of the day.

There had been two more periods after that first class: Trigonometry and Chemistry. Nothing had happened in either one that stood out nearly as much as the act of literally choosing lethal weapons to bring around with us for the rest of our lives. Though, to be fair, that was a hard act to follow.

“Mary Poppins?” Sands, walking alongside me, asked with a tilt of her head. “You mean because of–”

“Yup.” I reached down, brushing the jacket of the school uniform aside to reach what looked like a small canister about the size of a cell phone case that had been clipped onto my belt. Flipping the cap open with my thumb, I caught hold of the top couple inches of the object within and tugged it up a bit. Those inches were followed by several more, until the first foot or so of my new kinetic-burst staff was drawn into view. This, despite the fact that the canister on my belt was entirely too small to contain it. Somehow, the five foot long stick just… kept going when I slid it inside, until only enough stuck out to get hold of with my fingers. It was, to use the scientific term, completely fucking amazing. Seriously, just… seriously! How did it work? I had peered into the thing, only to see what looked like the bottom. I had stuck my finger into it and felt the bottom. But when I put my staff in it, somehow the thing fit. How?! I had spent a good portion of lunch pulling the staff in and out, trying to figure out what it did.

Giggling, Sands nudged me. “I guess that probably looks weird to someone who didn’t grow up with it, huh?” Her own hand strayed toward her own hip, where she wore a somewhat wider version of what I had to contain her own spiked mace. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it eventually. Right, Scout?”

Her twin nodded without looking up from her close examination of the floor that we were walking over. Rather than anything on her belt, Scout was wearing what looked like a camera bag over one shoulder. The enormous rifle (seriously, the thing was as long as she was tall) was stored safely within.

“When Katarin said that we were gonna have to carry these things around, I was expecting it to be a bit harder than this,” I admitted. Glancing over my shoulder then, I added, “And a lot harder than that.

Columbus just grinned back at me, his eyes hidden behind a large pair of goggles with dark green lenses. “You’re just jealous,” he replied, while the lenses shifted color to blue.

I just sniffed pointedly at him. “Nobody mentioned that goggles were considered weapons now.”

“They are when those goggles can shoot out a beam of light that can punch through a brick wall,” he retorted good-naturedly while taking a few steps ahead of us to open the door. “I mean yeah, all the extra stuff like seeing in the dark, seeing invisible things, seeing magic lines, that’s all probably useful. But I’m pretty sure it’s the bazooka eyes that kick these things over into the weapon category.”

He stood there holding the door open while we passed through one at a time to enter the amphitheater that was our next classroom. Sean, the last one in, took the other boy by the shoulders and kissed him grandly on the cheek. “Muah! Chivalry is not dead! My dearest of roommates has proven it so!”

We were the last team to enter, which meant that the eighteen members of the other three teams that we were sharing this class with all stared at the shaggy-haired boy. Unbothered, he simply waved at them and snapped his fingers toward his leg. “Here Vulcan, c’mon, boy.”

The dog that scurried through the door in response to his words might have looked like an ordinary doberman if it hadn’t clearly been made out of metal. The robotic animal took a moment to seemingly ‘sniff’ at his master’s hand before peering up excitedly, silver tongue lolling out of its mouth.

Grasping an almost completely hidden handle set near the dog’s backside, Sean gave a tug. Immediately, there was the sound of grinding gears as the robot animal was lifted off the ground. Its paws and legs were drawn up into the body, disappearing within. Its head flipped over, the snout also disappearing into the main body while the back of its head, newly emerged, revealed six barrels spaced equally apart in a circle. By the time the ‘dog’ had been fully lifted up, the second handle appearing near the front once the head was locked into place so that Sean could hold it at both ends, its true nature as a fairly massive minigun was revealed.

“Man’s best friend,” Sean intoned with an easy smile before hefting the huge weapon with him up to the last set of seats that were still open. Setting it next to him, he let the gun revert to its dog-shape. “One more chance, boy. But if you can’t keep quiet through the lecture, you’ll have to stay in gun mode through the whole class again. You don’t want a repeat of Trig, do you?” The dog whined, and Sean nodded pointedly. “That’s what I thought. So shhhh. Got it?” The dog lay on its stomach and went still.

A mechanical dog that transformed into a minigun. Goggles that shot out concussive energy blasts. Seriously. This whole school was just… amazing. Also terrifying in a lot of respects, but still amazing.

Finally, the last member of our group (and the most antisocial one) brushed past me on her way to the seat. Like Columbus, Avalon wore her new weapon as an accessory to her uniform. In her case, however, it was a pair of sleek, silver-blue gauntlets rather than goggles. A small upraised slit in the back of each gauntlet would, at her command, project a solid-light energy construct of various blades and other melee weapons, as well as various tools that she would need in her work as a Developer.

And that was all of us. Kinetic staff, construction mace, sniper rifle, enhanced vision laser goggles, dog-minigun transformer, and gloves that projected solid light tools and weapons. A bit of a difference from my last school, where sharpening a key against a locker was almost enough to get you kicked out.

“Right, right, right!” The trio of repeated words came with the rapidity of automatic gunfire, and were punctuated by an equal number of loud hand claps that filled the air of the amphitheater. I spun to find the ancient-looking, yet super-energetic figure of Professor Pericles enter the room. “Let’s have a seat and get started, shall we? So much to go over, so very much to do.” He bustled past us toward the front stage, dropping a heavy briefcase on the desk there before whirling back around. “Are we all here?” His eyes, bright and lively against his heavily wrinkled face, scanned the room. “Yes! No one’s late. Good news. Excellent news in fact. I hate giving lectures about tardiness. It’s just dreadful for everyone involved, so let’s try to avoid it for the whole year, shall we? So much to do, so little time to waste! Everyone’s here, all twenty-four of you. Keep it up, keep it up indeed, congratulations all around.”

Pausing only long enough to draw breath, the man then continued. “Without looking anywhere but straight at me, what is the name of this class, Mister… Kinder!” He pointed to a pale boy with red hair.

“Uhh, umm,” the boy stammered briefly before managing a somewhat weak, “Stranger Truths 101?”

“Yes!” The instructor beamed as though the boy had given a brilliant response while grabbing a black marker off the desk. He crossed to the white board and wrote that in large letters. “Now, can anyone tell me what we’re supposed to learn here? Anyone at all?” He looked over everyone. “Don’t be shy.”

Several hands went up, most of them from students that had obviously grown up ‘in the knowledge.’ One, however, I knew for a fact was a Silverstone like me. Vanessa Moon, the blonde girl that Koren had almost thrown over the magic circle line the day before, sat front and center with her arm raised.

“Miss Moon,” Professor Pericles pointed to her. “What is the purpose of this class?”

When Vanessa spoke, it became obvious that she was reciting words from a book, though she wasn’t actually reading anything at the moment. “To provide an introduction to the most common types of Strangers currently known, including their habitats, strengths and weaknesses, and how alike or dissimilar the truth of their nature is from how they are portrayed in common bystander media.”

Professor Pericles chuckled. “Clearly someone has read the introduction of the text book already. Which is interesting considering I haven’t actually handed that book out yet. Err, have I?” He sounded genuinely curious. “Oh gods, did I forget a day again? I knew I shouldn’t have tried that cookie.”

A blush touched the blonde girl’s face and she spoke a little more quietly. “You didn’t miss a day, Professor. I just found the book in the library and read some of it during lunch.”

“A girl ahead of her time and well after my heart!” Pericles was smiling broadly once more. “Alas, you’ve chosen to pursue a career in Exploration rather than Development.” Vanessa’s uniform was highlighted with red. “Still, a good answer. Yes, this class is an introduction to the truth. Here, you will learn about the monsters that lurk under beds and within closets, the beasts that crawl from the swamps, the creatures hidden within shadows, whose eyes watch the world of unsuspecting humanity and see not peers in intelligent thought and potential companions, but a buffet of flesh and blood. You will learn the truth of what bystanders call vampires, zombies, werecreatures, and many more that haven’t been served quite as popularly by the advent of television and film. You will learn how these creatures use their gifts to hunt, kill, and often but not always devour our unsuspecting fellow humans. Within this class, you will learn the bare essentials of what these creatures are, where they come from, and how they do the wicked and evil things that they do.

“I ask that you all pay attention through these lectures, because the content within them will quite literally become a matter of life and death for you and those you care about. Failure to pay attention, or any attempt to treat this subject with anything less than the seriousness that it deserves, will unfortunately be met with severe disciplinary action.”

His smile returned after that bit of seriousness. “There! Now my warning is out of the way, so we can continue. And I trust that each of you will heed it. If there are any questions about that, or about anything I ever tell you, my office is right down the hall.” He pointed out the door. “You’ll find my name written beside it, just on top of a chalk board where I will list my schedule for that day so that you will always know where to find me at any given time. Please, do not let yourself fall behind. If you have questions, ask. If you’re concerned about something, tell me. If you for any reason feel as though you should know something that I haven’t covered, speak up. I will always be ready to chat.”

After looking around the room to let that sink in, the man continued. “Now, if that’s clear, let’s start discussing our syllabus for the year. I thought we’d begin the semester proper tomorrow with an in depth look at the truth behind those most popular of mythological creatures, the zombie…”

******

A few hours later, I was lugging a bag full of books from the library on my way back to my dorm room. I’d scoured the shelves for forty-five minutes, looking for anything that seemed to mention the current headmistress or the history of the school in general. Maybe I could get some answers there about what relation my ancestor had had with the Baronness, and whether or not she was even aware of who I was. It meant doing extra reading on top of all the classes, but I had never been the kind of person who was content to sit and wait for answers to come to her. I had to drag them out myself.

Speaking of classes, this school was a bit odd in that respect. Rather than having a single schedule every day like most if not all high schools that I was aware of, the schedules here differed each day, more like a college. Some classes had only two periods per week, while others were a daily occurrence. As a result, I was technically taking about a dozen actual classes rather than six or seven.

Hauling the bag of books with me to the door, I reached for the knob, only to nearly get smacked in the face by the door as it was shoved open from within. Yelping, I stumbled backwards and nearly fell over.

Avalon’s hands shot out, catching my wrist as well as the bag before it could fall. She yanked me back upright, her eyes a little wide. “Hey!” She blurted, seemingly reflexively. “Watch where you–” In mid-sentence, the other girl stopped talking. She went silent for a handful of seconds before breathing out noticeably. “No. That was my fault.” Her voice was stiff and uncertain, clearly unaccustomed to speaking the words. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

I blinked once, then again. “Yeah, I’m… fine. Uhh, thanks? Hey, are you heading for the showers?” The girl was wearing a pair of drawstring pants and a tanktop, and she had a towel under one arm.

She paused once more before giving a single somewhat stiff nod. “I thought I’d try to be clean before dinner. Is that a problem?” There was that same challenging tone to her voice that I was used to by now, as if she was accustomed to defending every choice she made.

Shaking my head quickly, I replied, “Nope, not a problem. Just thought I’d go with you if you hold up a second. I—hey, is that a tattoo?” I squinted closer at her bicep. Sure enough, there was an image of a small red apple with a dagger cleaving it in two.

Instantly, Avalon’s expression clouded once more and she brushed past me on her way into the hall. “Take your own damn shower, Chambers. And mind your own business.”

Then she was gone, stalking off down the hall while leaving me utterly bewildered. To her retreating form, I asked, “Uhh, what did I say that time?”

“What’d you say to who?” Sands spoke up, and I turned the other way to see her approaching with Scout at her side. “Hey, we were just coming to see if you wanted to check out the beach before dinner. What’s up?”

“Just making more mistakes with my roommate,” I replied with a shrug. “Apparently I’m not supposed to ask about the apple and dagger tattoo.”

Both of the twins froze at that. After looking to each other briefly, Sands asked with an obvious careful tone, “Was the dagger cutting the apple?”

“Umm, yeah?” I shook my head in confusion. “Why, what’s the big deal?”

Sands whistled. “Okay, look.” Glancing around as if to make sure we weren’t being overheard, she lowered her voice. “This isn’t something they like to get into so early, but this place? Crossroads Academy? It’s not the only school for… for our kind. There’s another one. Eden’s Garden. Only they’re… different.”

“Different?” I echoed. “What do you mean, different?”

“Crossroads Heretics work to fight the Strangers, to drive them away from humanity,” Sands answered, her voice even lower. “But Eden’s Garden Heretics, they… they’re sort of the other way around. They’re humans who actually help the Strangers do the bad things they do. They’re awful people, trust me. They just do really, really horrible stuff. Human experimentation, Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments, nasty things. They’re evil. And all their students have a tattoo.”

“Let me guess…” I bit my lip, looking over my shoulder.

“Yup,” Sands confirmed. “A tattoo on their bicep of a dagger cutting an apple in half.”

“Maybe it’s a coincidence?” I offered a little lamely.

“No,” Sands shook her head. “Trust me, Avalon wasn’t a bystander. She grew up with this stuff. And no one who grew up with it would ever have a tattoo like that. Not unless…”

“Unless she was a part of that school,” I finished, still looking back the way Avalon had gone. “Unless she was from Eden’s Garden.”

“Yeah…” Sands trailed off for a moment before breathing out. “Flick, I think your roommate was one of the bad guys.”

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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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