Professor Ross

Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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The Third Degree 21-02

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Please note, if you haven’t seen it yet, there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday that started off this arc. You may want to use the Previous Chapter button to check that out if you happened to miss it. 

“Have you ever wondered why they’re all first-year teachers?”

Blinking across the library table at Vanessa as the blonde girl finished speaking, I asked hesitantly, “Wondered why who are all first-year teachers?”

It was Tuesday, January 16th, a couple days after Avalon, Shiori, and I had met with Seth and Calvin (and Buddy, of course). They had promised to get in touch once they actually had a meeting set with Fahsteth. So on that front, all I could do was wait as patiently as possible.

In this particular case, waiting patiently partly involved working on a project for a Heretical Geography that Vanessa and I had been assigned to do together by Professor Vandel. He’d said something about me being one of the few people outside of her own team that he could believe wouldn’t just rely on Vanessa to do all of the work. Which was either flattering for me or really disparaging toward the rest of the class. Probably both.

Looking around briefly, the blonde girl leaned closer while lowering her voice. She had already put a special privacy coin between us (apparently Scout had taught her how to use it). Yet, like Koren, she was still smart enough to be cautious. “Headmistress Sinclaire, all the teachers she said we can trust, the ones in her inner circle, they’re all first-year teachers. What about the ones that teach the older grades? Does she… not really trust any of them?”

Lowering my own voice, I shrugged. “I thought about that, and I’ve got a couple options. First, maybe she just plays her cards close to her chest. You know, like she doesn’t tell us everyone she trusts. We are students, after all. She told us people in the first-year staff that she trusts because those are the teachers that we actually interact with. Why would she tell us about someone we hardly ever see, let alone talk to? How many of the upper-year teachers could you even name?”

The other girl’s mouth opened, but I stopped her with a raised hand. “Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. All of them, obviously. My point is, how many of the upper year teachers could the average first-year student name? Someone without a perfect memory.”

After the other girl conceded that point with a nod, I added, “It’s, um, compartmentalization. If someone like Ruthers finds out something from us that they shouldn’t find out, her entire network isn’t taken apart. It makes sense that she wouldn’t tell us everything. Especially if they believe that those are the only people firmly on Gaia’s side in the whole thing. There’s a better chance they’ll slip up and someone else that’s loyal to her, someone she didn’t tell us about, can warn her.”

“That… yeah, that makes sense.” Vanessa agreed. “What about the other option you mentioned?”

I looked at the table for a moment before answering. “The other option is that the teachers she trusts are all at the first-year level because it’s easier to hire new teachers, people she can personally vet or already knows, for the younger grades. It makes sense, doesn’t it? A new teacher comes in and they go for the younger students while the more experienced faculty move up to teach the older students. So if Gaia wanted to hire more people, they’d be at this level.”  

Vanessa tilted her head, clearly considering that for a second before slowly nodding. Her voice was quiet and thoughtful. “It makes sense for another reason too. Maybe she was preparing.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Preparing for what?”

“For new students like–” The other girl paused before gesturing back and forth. “Like you and me. Like Shiori. Like Tristan. Like Koren. Students who need extra… guidance. Extra help, from people who understand, people who can tell them–us the truth. Maybe that’s why she stacked the deck for the first-years. Because from second year on, we can still talk to the first-year teachers. They can still help. But you said it yourself, most of us don’t even know who the upper-class teachers are, let alone have any idea of how to get advice from them. She puts the people she trusts in the younger years and lets us bond with them earlier instead of spreading them out.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “That does make sense. So… I guess the answer is probably a little bit of all of the above. Gaia has her reasons for not telling us about everyone she might trust, but she also puts most of them in the first year staffing positions because it gives us people to talk to.”

“I guess so.” Vanessa looked thoughtful for a moment before focusing. “But umm, changing the subject, Scout said you guys were trying to find out everything you could about Avalon’s mom.”

Surprised that Scout had said anything at all about that, I hesitated. “Oh, uh, I guess, but it’s–”

“A secret,” she finished for me. “I know. Don’t worry, Scout said she talked to your roommate first and got the okay to ask me.”

Well that was also a little surprising. “Avalon gave the okay to talk to you about her mom?”

She nodded. “I just had to promise not to tell anyone about it. Not even Tristan. Which…” Pausing, Vanessa made a face. “It feels weird, but I get it. My brother’s not… subtle.”

“Yeah, he has a lot of good qualities,” I agreed. “But keeping things quiet isn’t his strongest suit.”

Shrugging, the girl pointed out, “He’s kept the whole hybrid thing quiet so far. And your secrets.”

Quickly nodding in agreement, I pointed out, “Sure, but there’s a difference between not blabbing secrets and being subtle. Tristan stands out. He loves standing out. He’s um, how do I put this?”

“He’s a show-off,” Vanessa finished for me. “I know. Not subtle. But that’s not why I didn’t tell him anything about how you guys are looking into Avalon’s mom. I didn’t tell him about it because Avalon and Scout asked me not to. I owe you guys. I… you helped get my brother back. So you ask me for help, you ask me to keep a secret, ask me for anything and I… I’m there. Promise.”  

Swallowing, I met her brown-eyed gaze. “And I promise that I’ll find a way to help get your mom and dad back, Vanessa. We’re not done with just your brother. We’re gonna find your family.”

There was a look in her eyes for a moment before she glanced away. Her voice was even quieter than it had been the whole time, to the point that I could barely hear her. “I’m not used to having anyone to talk to about this stuff. The whole time  I was growing up, no one believed what I told them about what happened… until I realized that I had to keep quiet about it or they’d keep sending me to…” She paused, biting her lip as she finished a little hoarsely. “Special homes. So having Headmistress Sinclaire, you, Scout, Tristan, I… I don’t know how to deal with it.”

That was why she came off as so shy most of the time, why she didn’t tend to interact much with people. Besides the fact that she had been busy desperately looking up anything she could to find her parents and brother, she’d also conditioned herself to keep quiet about what she knew so that the people who were supposed to take care of her wouldn’t think she was crazy and lock her up.

“Well,” I coughed, shifting in my seat. “I know we’re not like, best friends or anything. But any time you wanna talk about… anything, I wouldn’t mind. Even if Tristan isn’t magically glued to me anymore.” I said the last bit with a tiny smile, since Gaia had finally succeeded in switching the anchor spell from me to Vanessa just the other day. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a stranger.”

Her brow knitted as she looked at me. “Was that last part a joke?”    

“Was what a–” I stopped, flushing a little. “Right, don’t have to be a stranger. Uh, no, just a coincidence. But can I take credit for it anyway?” Giving the other girl a smile, I added, “Sorry, you were saying something about Scout telling you about looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom.”  

Nodding at that, Vanessa reached down into the bag on the chair beside her. “Yeah, so I um, I looked into it too. I wanted to help, especially since Scout was already helping Tristan and me by looking into anything she could find about the… um, my mom’s people while they were in Europe.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked curiously, “Did she find anything important?”

“Maybe,” the other girl replied slowly, frowning thoughtfully. “She found some books and journals and stuff that mention beings that can possess others. I’ve gotta read all of them and compare it to the stuff we have in this library. You know, Strangers that were already identified and catalogued.”

Squinting then, Vanessa muttered, “I would’ve been through all of them already, but Tristan and the others keep distracting me. And,” she looked back up while pulling a folder out of her bag. “I wanted to keep looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom. You know, because I sort of have experience with…” She trailed off briefly before amending herself. “I know what it’s like to try to hunt down information about your parents and have everything end up being a dead end. Before I came here, I couldn’t find anything about mine.”

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I nodded. “A lot of us seem to have at least one missing parent. I guess it makes us part of the cool club or something.” The words sounded hollow even to me, and I shook it off before gesturing for her to go on. “I take it you actually found something? Wait, are you sure you shouldn’t tell Avalon about it?”

“You can tell her,” Vanessa quickly replied while blushing slightly. “She um, she kinda scares me.”  

I coughed. “I guess she can have that effect on people. But she wouldn’t hurt you or anything.”

“I know, but um, still. You can talk to her better than I can. I get nervous and um, then I start to babble and she gets impatient and it’s a whole thing.” Laying her hand on the folder, she opened it to show me the first page. “Her name was Ophelia Penn. Before she was married to Avalon’s dad, I mean. And before that, her name was Adelind Jaspers. That lasted about two years, and before that one, she was Francesca Dumont. And–”

Holding up a hand, I frowned. “She kept changing her name? How far back does that go?”

“As far as I can tell?” Vanessa hesitated before flipping through some papers in the folder. “The earliest name for her I can find is Giselle Meyer, when she was sixteen. That’s when it was changed to Kaia Pierce. Before that, I dunno. There’s some school records, but they’re spotty, like someone went through and started getting rid of them, but didn’t finish.”

“She was hiding,” I murmured under my breath. “She and her family, I guess. It doesn’t go any further back than that? What about her mom and dad?”

Flinching, the other girl shook her head. “Sorry. All I’ve got for them is a couple names that popped up on her school records. Kinsley and Brennan. Last name Meyer, just like the name she used when she was sixteen. If it was anything else before that, I dunno. There’s no birth certificate, nothing like that. The earliest thing I could find was a note in her freshman year of high school about being excused from gym for the semester because of a broken leg. Before that, there’s nothing. It’s like she just poofed into existence.”

“Or like whoever went back and erased her identity did a really good job up to that point,” I muttered under my breath. “It sounds like they were working on scrubbing everything about her and just didn’t finish.” Thinking about it for another moment, I added, “Maybe it was her. Maybe she was the one erasing her past and it stopped when she… when she died.”

“There’s something big about her, isn’t there?” Vanessa asked, her eyes squinting at me. “Someone’s trying to kill Avalon. And now you guys are looking into her mom’s history and there’s all this stuff?” Before I could say anything, she held up a hand. “I know, it’s secret. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me. I just…be careful, okay? It sounds like they were trying really hard to hide from someone. If it’s the same someone that’s after Avalon now, that means it was Heretics the whole time. And if Heretics were after Avalon’s family for that long… it’s something big.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It took me a second to find my voice. “Trust me, we know. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got enough to focus on. I’ll umm, I’ll look through this stuff you found and see if anything jumps out. Did you notice anything else?”

“There was one big thing,” Vanessa started slowly. Glancing at me, she reached out to shuffle through the papers before coming to a single page. It was blank, but I could tell there was something on the other side, from the colors that bled through. “She visited the high school counselor a few times. Most of the file’s gone, but this was in there. It’s a watercolor she made when he told her to draw what she was dreaming about.”

Watching my expression, she turned the paper over, and I found myself staring at Avalon’s mom’s painting.

It was the lighthouse, the one here on the island. That much was obvious. But surrounding the lighthouse there was a pair of folded, half-visible angel wings. And above it, there was a face topped by a halo. It was like there was a giant, mostly invisible angel guarding the lighthouse. Yet the expression of the angel was… dangerous. It looked menacing.

Seosten. Avalon’s mother had made a painting of the Seosten and the lighthouse when her counselor told her to draw what she dreamed about. But she hadn’t been a Heretic, had she? I had to believe that if she was, Gaia would’ve said something.

Unless that part was erased from her memory too, of course. But that was just… we needed to know more. Maybe one of her parents was here and told her stories about it. If it was… I started to talk out loud to work it out. “Maybe whichever one of her parents wasn’t being… chased originally used to go here. Maybe they were part of the group looking for the other parent, and they found them. But instead of bringing them in, they… fell in love and started running away. Then the parent that went here told Avalon’s mom stories about this place.”

It was little more than a guess, really. But I had to believe that Gaia would know if Avalon’s mom had gone here. But if one of that woman’s parents had gone here before leaving, that might have been enough for Gaia to not make the connection. I’d have to see if she recognized the names Kinsley or Brennan, though I doubted either were their real names by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked up again. “Vanessa, thanks for this. You didn’t have to do all this work. It couldn’t have been easy.”

She shrugged. “It’s like I said, I’m used to digging into people’s pasts. And you–you helped bring my brother back. I owe you.”

My head shook at that. “No, you don’t. We don’t have to get into the ‘who owes who what’ game. But helping each other because we can? That I’m good with.”

The other girl watched me for a moment before nodding. “Okay. But um, we should probably help each other by doing that project so we don’t fail Professor Vandel’s course.

“Because that would be really embarrassing.”

******      

“Revolutions,” Professor Ross began the next morning. “There’s been a lot of them throughout human history. Some the Bystanders know about, others they don’t. But one in particular stands out both within the Bystander world and our own. The American Revolution.”

Standing in front of her desk, the elderly woman watched us for a moment before continuing. “Can anyone tell me why the American Revolution is important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

Vanessa’s hand went up immediately, of course. And in this case, so did most of the other Heretic-born students. On the other hand, my fellow Bystander-kin looked as confused as I felt.

“Mr. Gerardo,” Professor Ross nodded toward Sean. “Why is the American Revolution important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

The boy shifted in his seat and straightened while laying his hand on Vulcan’s head. “Because what the Bystanders call the American Revolution, we call the Splinter-Rebellion.”

Before my brain could finish summoning the image of a giant mutated rat directing his turtle pupils to wage war for independence, Professor Ross continued. “Very good. Yes, and what was formed from the Splinter-Rebellion, Mr. Leven?”

Zeke all-but snarled the answer. “Eden’s Garden.” He was pointedly looking in Avalon’s direction.

That brought my head up and around, as I blurted, “Wait, what?”

“If you have a question, Miss Chambers, raise your hand,” Professor Ross admonished before answering anyway. “But Mr. Leven is correct. What began as a war between Crossroads and those who splintered off to create what eventually became Eden’s Garden bled into the Bystander world. However, where the Bystander war was about the American colonies fighting for independence from Great Britain, the Splinter-Rebellion centered around a… violent disagreement over which Heretic group should control the territory of the new world.

“Small and young as they were, Eden’s Garden possessed a good deal of influence over the British Parliament and leadership. They had begun to use that influence to immediately begin giving themselves advantages in the colonies. Crossroads could not directly combat those kind of connections. So, we went for a different tactic.”

Raising my hand until she nodded to me, I managed a slightly weak, “… Revolution. Crossroads pushed for the American Revolution to separate the colonies from Great Britain so that all that influence Eden’s Garden had wouldn’t mean anything.”

The woman smiled a little at me. “Yes, very good, Miss Chambers. Exactly. It’s slightly amusing if you think about it that way. Eden’s Garden staged their own revolution in order to be independent from Crossroads. Then, in order to combat their new political power that would have given them a great deal of influence over the shape and direction of the new continent, Crossroads helped to stage a revolution in the Bystander world. That revolution resulted in the formation of the United States, and helped cut a good deal of the power away from Great Britain.

“Of course,” she added then, “There were other wars going on at the same time with the same intention. Eden’s Garden had firm control over Great Britain, which meant that Crossroads had to attack them from multiple fronts, using different proxy countries.

“You might say that without Crossroads working to neuter Great Britain’s power, and thus the power of Eden’s Garden, the United States never would have been formed.

“And wouldn’t that have been a very different world to live in?”

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Basic Training 7-03

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Soon, we were all making our way into the Pathmaker building. The class consisted of about a third of the first year students, which amounted to six teams, or thirty-six of us. Apparently the remaining sixty-six would get their field trip the next time they had Heretical History. We were the first group.

We were met at the entrance by a couple adults I didn’t recognize, and that Wyatt guy that had been hired as one of the security guards. They were all wearing the same uniform, so I assumed the other two were his co-workers, though they also looked like they were only a year or two out of school, as opposed to Wyatt, whose age I still guessed to be around forty. Then again, it was still impossible to guess how old anyone in this place was, no matter how much my brain kept reflexively trying to.

Regardless of their ages, all of them wore serious faces to the point of looking downright dour. Apparently the last couple incidents had been bad enough that we were being sent with escorts.

I was walking alongside Sean, while Vulcan trotted on his other side. As we moved into the building (and I still thought that whole ‘it exists in multiple locations all at the same time’ thing was kind of crazy), I glanced sidelong toward the boy. “So how much do you know about this Hieronymus guy?”

He shook his head. “Not that much more than you do, really. Unless you’re a big Renaissance artist buff, in which case you probably know more than I do.” Cracking his neck to one side, he continued. “Pretty much all I know is that he created the Edge, he’s one of our Founders, and without him there’d be a hell of a lot less Heretics in the world today. Oh, and there’s that thing about the treasure.”

“Treasure?” It was Columbus’s turn to pipe up from behind us. “What treasure?”

That sparked a series of groans from several of the Heretic-born students, and Gavin, the tall, thin boy who was one of Sean’s fellow Security-track students, reached out to swat the Hispanic boy. “Damn it, dude, did you have to mention that old rumor? Now no one’s gonna shut up until they hear the story.”

Sean just waved a hand and chuckled. “Oh, they’d hear about it anyway, and you all know it. It’s Bosch’s Treasure, everyone fucking hears about it. Shit, I’m still surprised it isn’t a common bystander myth already. God knows they’ve already got enough myths that did start out as just ours.”

One of the boys I didn’t know, from a team I had barely paid attention to spoke up then. “Well, go on then. Tell them all about Bosch’s Treasure. I wanna see if anyone’s dumb enough to go looking for it.”

“Hey, hey!” The high pitched voice, almost like the yapping of one of those small, annoying dogs, interrupted just as Sean was opening his mouth. Wyatt, security badge gleaming on the front of his pristine white uniform (it sort of looked like one a formal officer’s uniform from the US Navy), came striding up. “What’s all the commotion? What’s all the yammering, huh? You planning some kind of prank, huh? You kids think it’s funny, you think we’re playing around now? I bet you got some prank planned, don’t you? Yeah, you’re planning something. You think you’re hiding it, but I can see right through ya. You think you’re so funny. Funny, huh? You think you’re funny, punk? Do ya?”

“Sir, no sir,” Sean replied with the air of a military cadet. “I am fairly confident that you’re providing the majority the humor in this particular moment, and I wouldn’t dream of stealing your thunder, sir.”

“You think I’m kidding?” Wyatt demanded. “You know what happens to traitors out here? I think you-”

“Yo, Wyatt,” one of his fellow security guards, a younger guy who looked like he was about twenty-three or so with sandy blonde hair and an earnest expression, stepped up. “I think Professor Ross might need your help with the portal room door. You know how finicky those things have been lately.”

Distracted, the older guard went off to the front of the group to ‘help’ the teacher. As he left, his coworker turned an broad, easy smile toward us. It was a look that spoke of a childhood full of mischief. He had broad shoulders and the tanned face that made me think of long days on a farm. He reminded me of Captain America or something. That kind of earnest optimism.

“Sorry about that, folks,” he drawled easily, going so far as to tip an imaginary hat. “We do try to keep Wyatt entertained, and he’s a damn good security enchanter. But ahh, maybe not the best to have around actual people. Don’t take it personally, he’s pretty ornery with everybody. Hope everyone’s okay. He didn’t go assigning detention for looking at him funny or anything this time, did he?”

Everyone shook our heads, and the man’s smile broadened. “Great, great. Good to know. Well, if you look at him cross-eyed or whatever and you need to get something off your record, just find me. My name’s Rucker, Reid Rucker. I’ve been Professor Kohaku’s second in command of the Security division for about twenty years now. Usually those of you outside of the security track wouldn’t even see me except in passing unless something went awfully wrong. But well, given a few events this year… well, let’s just say we’re doing things a little bit different until everything calms down.”

“You mean until you find out who killed Professor Pericles,” Koren, blunt as always, spoke up.

Rucker nodded easily. “Ain’t no reason to be coy, I guess. Yeah, that’s one of the major issues we’re dealing with right now. But don’t worry, we’ll nail him. Or her. Everyone makes a mistake sometime.”

With that promise, Rucker smiled before stepping away to say something to his partner. As he left, I took a moment to wonder why Wyatt had only been hired this year, and what he’d been before. Seriously, he was one of the newest members of the school staff, and he had access to all the security details. Not being suspicious of him would be stupid, even if he did come off as a big paranoid goof.

It was worth looking into, especially since I needed to find a way into the security office anyway. But for now, I had to focus. As I turned away, Sean caught my gaze with a raised eyebrow. Before he could say anything, however, we were being ushered through the now-open door and into the portal room.

It was a bit crowded in the waiting room, and Professor Ross spoke up while shifting her way through the mass of students to reach the other side. “I know, I know it’s uncomfortable, guys. Just think of it as if you’re standing in a really big elevator. Sixty seconds, then we can go through to the other side.”

While we were waiting, I saw the twins. Sands had been pretty much as quiet as her sister. Her gaze was on the ground, and she was standing with her shoulders a bit hunched, obviously wanting to be left alone. When she felt my gaze on her, she looked up. I expected a bit of anger or wariness, but she just looked a bit lost and even a little confused. And tired. She definitely looked tired. We locked eyes for several long seconds before the other girl looked away once more, turning her gaze to her sister.

I wanted to sigh out loud. I didn’t blame her, not really. This was a lot to expect someone who had grown up with this stuff to just accept on the word of someone they met a few months ago. Actually, I was kind of surprised that Sean was taking it as well as he was. Sands’ reaction was understandable. I just hoped that when she was ready to start talking about it again, she would let me know.

Before much longer, the temperature in the room had dropped somewhat to match wherever we were going. There was a definite chill in the air even before the door opened, and once it did, I felt a cool breeze that made me shiver a little bit. Around me, I could see most of the others react similarly.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Professor Ross assured us while standing by the open door, having produced a small box from somewhere that she was holding in one hand. “Everyone just file through here and take one of these buttons on your way. Attach the button to your uniform, then press your thumb against the center circle and activate it the same way you’ve used those flash enchantments.”

One by one, we moved on through the doorway and to the other side. When it was my turn, I dipped my hand into the box and took out what appeared to be a simple blue button about two inches across. There was, as she had promised, a red circle in the middle of it, about the size of my thumb. I used the pin on the backside of it to attach the thing to my uniform jacket, then pressed my thumb against the circle while focusing on channeling power the same way we’d learned to do for those flash bangs.

By that time, I had stepped through the door, finding myself standing in the middle of a grassy field with some trees to my right. Ahead of me there was more of the admittedly very pretty grass field, and in the far distance I could see the skyline of a city with a few tall buildings, including what looked like a very impressive church. The city was clearly visible even from this distance.

Oh, and it was cold. Eesh. Just as my thumb was pressing against the button, I felt the chill wash over me. It wasn’t quite snow-cold, but it wasn’t much warmer than that. I’d put it at forty degrees or so.

The button activated a couple seconds after I pressed it, and the cold suddenly vanished. Once again, it felt like we were back at school under the weather-controlled magical shield. Clearly, these buttons were the portable, hand-held version of that. Useful. I wondered how hard they were to make.

Curiously, I turned to look at the door we had come through. Just like that day back in a very different field when my only other landmark had been an empty school bus, there was a doorway standing there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing. Through it, I could see more students coming and the interior of the room that I had just left. But when I peered around the other side, it was, again, empty.

Actually, come to think of it, I’d been wondering why Professor Dare’s portal had brought me out of those mirrors in the main school building rather than through the obviously more commonly used Pathmaker building. Was there a reason behind that? If I asked her, would she tell me the truth?

“Welcome,” Professor Ross intoned as soon as we were all through and most of the shivers had stopped as students activated their provided buttons. “If you all look a little bit that way, you’ll see the lovely city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, or as the locals usually call it, Den Bosch, including St. John’s Cathedral. Crossroads maintains several safehouses in the city, and the Cathedral is one of them. If you are ever in the area and need help, go there and use the phrase, ‘Peasant Bruegel lost his H for Pieter.’ Try to remember that. Peasant Bruegel lost his H for Pieter. You will probably learn a lot of these phrases, and remembering as many of them as possible will end up helping you eventually.”

The older-looking woman sighed a bit wistfully. “Actually, this place is very beautiful, and is… essentially our holy place, for all intents and purposes. The city is wonderful, and I strongly suggest that all of you take the time to come here at some point on your own. Walk around the city, try to experience it as our forefather must have, through it has moved on far beyond his time. See the statue of Bosch. Climb the many, many steps in the cathedral to look out over the city from its highest point. Believe me, such a trip is well worth it, and getting away from all the… insanity is good for you.”

Turning away from the city skyline then, she twitched a finger. “Come. The city of Hieronymus Bosch’s birth will be there for you when you wish to visit. For now, we have something else to see.”

We all started walking again, and the three security guards spread out. Wyatt and Rucker moved to flank the group on either side, while the third guard (an Indian man whose dour look had not disappeared once we started on the trip like Rucker’s had) took up a position at the rear.

As we walked through the beautiful green countryside, I was about to ask Sean to finish what he’d been saying earlier when Malcolm spoke up. “So what country are we in anyway, Holland?”

It was actually Koren of all people who corrected him. “Holland isn’t a country, dude.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Malcolm demanded. “You got your wires crossed, babe. Of course Holland’s a country. You know, the land of windmills and dikes and stuff.”

“She’s right,” Vanessa piped up then. “Holland isn’t a country, it’s a region. It’s part of the Netherlands.”

“It’s like California,” Koren explained. “It’s not a country, it’s part of a country. They just tend to use the name interchangeably because Holland is where almost everything anyone who goes to the Netherlands wants to see is. Like Amsterdam. Holland is the famous area, so some people use the term Netherlands and Holland interchangeably. But it’s kind of insulting to the people that live there. Like, you know how you’re from Iowa? How would you feel if someone came there and called it New York?”

Blinking at that, I leaned closer to Sean and whispered under my breath, “Did Koren just explain why something was insulting to someone else without any prompting or cue cards or anything?”

“I know,” Sean replied in a dull, stunned voice. “Now I’m really scared.”

“Right,” Malcolm shrugged. “Holland, Netherlands, whatever. Point is, are we there? Better question, exactly how far away from Amsterdam are we? You know, just in case we get some free time.”

It was Vanessa’s turn to answer. “We’re outside ‘s-Hertogenbosch, so Amsterdam is about ninety kilometers….” She turned in a slow circle before pointing. “That way. North.”

“Okay, now you’re just making stuff up.” That was one of the other students, a girl I didn’t recognize. “How could you possibly know which way is north from here already without doing anything?”

Vanessa just blinked at her once before answering. “Because you can see the cathedral from here. It’s on the south side of the city, which means we’re south of the city. Which means north is that way.”

By that point, we had apparently reached the area that Professor Ross wanted to show us, because she stopped walking and gestured for us to come closer and circle around. “This,” she spoke in a hushed voice. “Is the spot where Hieronymus Bosch encountered the creature whose death led to the creation of the Crossroads Heretics.”

I looked. In the middle of this small grove, there was a single white tree. On that single tree, a rope had been tied. The rope was in the shape of a noose. It hung there rather ominously.

“The creature,” Professor Ross continued, “a hangman demon of sorts, attempted to kill Bosch using the very same noose that you see before you. Fortunately, Bosch managed, through sheer luck, to kill his attacker. When Hieronymus put his knife in the monster’s neck, its blood sprayed him in the face. Blood which happened to be one of very few things which is capable of eliminating the memory fog ability that all Strangers possess. Thus, Bosch was literally baptized in blood to his new calling. Later, he took that creature’s blood and mixed it into his paints. Every painting of Hieronymus Bosch that exists today possesses a bit of this hangman demon’s blood.

“Before long, Bosch found that he could see all manner of creatures, and remember their existence in ways that others could not. Eventually he met another man, an early Heretic, who told him of what now was, and that there were very, very few of them. This man, whose name has been lost through our stories, taught Hieronymus how to use his new abilities, how to kill to protect himself and others.”

“So what’s the light in the lighthouse, then?” Travis Colby demanded. “Cuz I don’t remember getting any blood on me or anything. Just that blinding light.”

Professor Ross smiled. “Yes, Hieronymus was a brilliant man even before his encounter and awakening. Afterward, he realized that even this genius was not enough. Indeed, for what he had planned, he needed to be even more intelligent. So he sought out and killed not just the warrior Strangers, the ones who did the most damage and looked most ferocious, but the cunning ones. Any Stranger whose abilities might grant him greater intelligence or understanding was a target. Hieronymus hunted them down to give humanity an opportunity. You see, his mentor had taught him that only a few humans could become Heretics at a time. But Hieronymus felt that, for humanity to have a chance of survival, there must be a way to create more, many more.

“Eventually, he learned that the answer to his question was within the very same blood that he had been putting into his paintings. The blood granted him knowledge, because this creature, this hangman demon was of a race which shared their memories through blood. From father to son, they bleed on one another in order to teach, spreading their memories through their people. This is what erased the Stranger memory effect. More than that, it’s also what allowed Hieronymus to gain the powers of other Strangers. The power of the blood overwrote his own genetics, allowing his body to ‘learn’ some of the powers wielded by each of inhuman enemies that he subsequently killed.”

Several hands went up, but the woman went on, anticipating our questions. “Through his acquired genius, Bosch was able to create a device which he then plugged the head of the long-deceased hangman demon into. That device does the same thing as the creature’s blood. It takes the power of the creature’s memories and broadcasts them in the form of light. All who see that light are granted the same gift, which manifests itself as a memory experienced by one of their ancestors who has had an encounter with a Stranger.”

“You mean the thing in the lighthouse that gives off that light is… a monster’s head?” one of the other girls demanded, looking a bit ill.

“What about Eden’s Garden?” That particular question came from Sands. “How do they make new Heretics if they don’t have the skull light?”

Professor Ross started to answer, before realizing that Sands wasn’t talking to her. Her attention was directed toward Avalon. The other girl’s connection to the Garden had become fairly common knowledge, considering she wasn’t doing much to hide it. Still, I could feel the tension in the air as soon as it was brought up.

My roommate paused, turning her head fractionally toward the teacher for a moment before answering. “The founders of the Garden…” she stopped as though considering her words. “… took the paintings that Bosch left in Crossroads which used to tell this story. They extracted the blood from the paint and used it to seed a tree in the middle of what became the Garden. From that point on, the fruit borne by that tree gained the same ability as the skull light created by Bosch.”

“You mean they stole the paintings that our founder left as part of our heritage and desecrated them to make their own offshoot branch,” Zeke, the boy who had been so annoyed at me for bringing Herbie along during the first hunt, spoke up in a nasty voice.

“No wonder they’ve always hated each other,” Columbus murmured quietly from nearby.

I thought there might be an argument for a second, but Avalon just shrugged one shoulder and looked away as though it wasn’t worth debating.

“Come then,” Professor Ross spoke briskly, interrupting the mood that had begun to settle over the group. “We have much to see and too little time to see it in. Next, we’ll visit the area where Hieronymus and his mentor trained and lived while he was still learning the truth of what he had become.”

I started to follow along with the others, but something, a sensation that I couldn’t explain, made me stop and turn around to look at that tree again. My eyes found the rope that hung there, centering on the noose. How long had it been there? How was it still in one piece, and why had no one moved it?

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m… not sure,” I admitted even as a little shiver ran through me. “That rope, there’s something about it. It’s… I can’t explain it. Maybe nothing.”

Before the other girl could retort to that, the Indian security guard interrupted. “Is there a problem here, girls?” His voice was severe, though his eyes had softened somewhat.

We both shook our heads and moved to follow the group. Still, as we walked, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder toward that dangling noose. The uneasy feeling that it had given me wouldn’t go away.

Somehow, I knew two things. First, there was something wrong with the story that we’d been told. Something off about it.

And second, the answer to what that something wrong happened to be was connected to that rope.

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Basic Training 7-02

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“Do you really think Sands’ll be okay?” I asked a little bit later as Avalon stepped into our room after a post-ocean shower. I had been sitting on my bed, entertaining myself by playing with Herbie, tossing the little guy up and down from one hand to the other while thinking about everything that happened.

The other girl paused, then walked over to her side of the room to get dressed, a process that would have left even the absolute straightest of girls bending a bit because yeesh. “Mason’s pretty into the Strangers are evil, Crossroads Heretics are saints, rah rah, go team paragon stuff. But she’s also really close to her sister. Right now, I’m pretty sure she’s trying to figure out how to reconcile both of those.”

Biting my lip, I straightened a bit on the bed while setting my pet rock down, mindful of his little sword. “Do you think I did the wrong thing by telling everyone about what happened?”

Her eyes rolled and she moved over to sit on her own bed, drawing her legs up beneath her. “I’m not gonna play backseat driver with you, Chambers. It was your call to make, because it’s your mom. It’s your family, your choice. You wanna know if I would’ve made the same choice? No, probably not. But that’s me. That’s my choice, my family, my deal. No way to know if either of us would be right until it plays out. And even then, different situations. Different people. You and me, we’re very different.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” I pointed out while sliding across the bed to sit straight across from her. “Peanut butter and jelly are different too, and they go perfectly together.”

“Chambers,” the brunette started with a raised eyebrow. “Are you trying to hit on me?”

“Wh-what?” I squeaked, eyes widening in spite of myself. Avalon was smirking, and I cleared my throat with a blush. “No. I mean, that’s not what I—no, listen. I meant that we can work together pretty well as a team. As part of a team. As partners. As, whatever, you know what I mean. It’s not a bad thing to be different. If we were both the same, we wouldn’t bring anything new to the team.”

“You’re not wrong,” she admitted. Then Avalon fell briefly silent. Her face twisted a little like she was going to ask something but kept stopping herself before finally managing, “Seller’s your ancestor.”

I nodded, watching her face. “Yeah. I was kind of wondering when you were going to ask about that. You guys were pretty close, weren’t you? You said he was the one that picked you up from your old house and got you out of Eden’s Garden after all that stuff went down.”

Once again, she rolled her eyes. “After I killed the guy that tried to rape me, Chambers. Don’t be coy about it, just say what you mean. I’m not some fragile little glass bird that’ll shatter. Yeah, we’re close. I trust Seller more than pretty much anyone else in the world. He practically raised me after all that. He’s the one that taught me how to take care of myself, how to care about what I look like. He taught me to improve myself for me, not anybody else. He’s even the one that taught me how to groom myself. Pretty much everything I have, everything I am, is because of him. So yeah, we’re close. And now you’re related to him. Wonder if Gaia knew about that when she set us up.”

“I wouldn’t be that surprised at this point,” I mumbled toward the bed before blinking up at her. “Actually, that reminds me. That note from my mom in the scrapbook, she said I could trust Gaia. Do you… think we should tell her everything too? I mean, everything about what we know?”

The other girl thought about that for a moment, clearly torn. She obviously cared a lot about her adopted mother, which was understandable considering what her home life had been like before Gaia came along. Even if they had spent years apart, there was a strong connection between them.

“Yes,” she finally answered a bit slowly. “But not yet. Let me think about how to approach her, how much to—what we should say. Give me a little time to work it out, all right?”

I nodded to her, holding up my fist. “Sure, what are super-teammates for?”

Her eyes dropped to my fist, then back up to my face before she stood. “You,” she announced, “are a dork, Chambers.”

“At some point, you are going to call me by my first name,” I reminded her of my earlier vow. “Before the semester’s over, you’ll call me Flick. This I swear.”

“Keep dreaming, Chambers,” she replied while walking toward the door to leave the room.

I smiled sweetly then while retorting, “To be fair, it’s probably the most innocent dream involving you that anyone in this school has had since the semester started.”

Then, just before she managed to close the door after herself, I crowed, “Hah! Made you blush! I so win!”

*******

“So, why did you choose the goggles, anyway?”

It was the next morning, and I was sitting across from Columbus at the breakfast table. Sean had some kind of security track project he was finishing, while Avalon was spending a little time with her mother. And the twins, well, Sands still wasn’t ready to talk to us just yet, and Scout was staying with her.

Which left the two of us sitting at the table, eating our food. Pancakes and sausage in my case, biscuits and gravy with a side of toast in his. I still wasn’t used to this kind of breakfast, after years of cereal. But hell if I was going to complain. The kind of work they put us through most days obviously necessitated a slightly more elaborate and filling meal than what Captain Crunch could provide.

“What do you mean?” Columbus asked while pouring himself another glass of juice from the pitcher.

I took the pitcher from him when he was done. “I mean, they had all kinds of weapons in those trunks. Guns, swords, battleaxes, everything. What made you choose the goggles? Did they just… feel right?” I was curious about how the weapon choosing thing had gone for other people, especially bystander-kin.

Columbus paused with the glass halfway to his mouth, clearly considering the question before he shrugged. “Yeah, I guess they did. Sort of. Plus after Professor Katarin said what they were, I wanted them because uhhh…” He trailed off, looking a little embarrassed before mumbling under his breath.

Intrigued, I raised an eyebrow, putting a hand to my ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

Yeah, his face was definitely flushed a little bit. Clearing his throat, Columbus spoke a little louder, just enough to be audible. “I thought they’d make me be like Cyclops from the X-Men.”

“Cyclo—ohh, the laser beam eyes,” I realized with a smile as I took another bite of my pancakes.

That earned me a sharp look and a shake of his head. “They’re not laser beams. They’re concussive force, on both counts. Concussive force, well, concusses. It’s physical force in light form, not a laser.”

Chuckling, I raised a hand in surrender and acknowledgment. “Right, got it. Definitely not laser eyes.” After finishing up the last of my sausage, I added, “So you wanted to be like Cyclops, huh?”

Columbus shrugged. “Yeah, he’s sort of always been my favorite X-Man. Hell, favorite comic character period, really. It’s like, uhhh, I dunno. Maybe it’s dumb, but I guess I always felt kind of close to him.”

“Close to him?” Blinking at that, I asked, “Why, did you also marry a hot red head that dies a lot?”

He snorted before shaking his head. “No, it’s just that, you know… his parents died in a plane crash. Well, okay, no they didn’t. They were actually abducted by aliens and his father became a space pirate after his mother died when the—look, comic books are really fucking weird sometimes, okay? The point is, they were believed to have died in a plane crash. That’s what everyone thought, anyway.”

Realizing what that implied, my eyes widened a little. “Wait, does that mean that your parents–”

“Yeah,” he interrupted with a little nod. “They went on this trip to Egypt for a week. My dad had some kind of business meeting there, so I was staying with my buddy Max that lived next door. They were on the way back and uhh, well, their plane went down in the middle of the ocean. No survivors.”

“Oh god, Columbus, I’m sorry.” I straightened a little, unsure of what to say to him just then.

“It was a long time ago,” he replied, his voice a little quiet. “And you’ve got more problems than I do right now anyway. Don’t worry about me. Max’s parents couldn’t keep taking care of me, so I had to go into the system. Got bounced around a bit, but then I was adopted by the Porters the same year as Shiori. We’ve been pretty tight ever since.” He gestured to the table where the other girl was sitting.

When Shiori noticed his attention, she raised a hand in what looked like an automatic response before quickly looking away. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she looked pretty stressed about something. There were dark circles under her eyes that I could see even from where I was sitting, and when one of her teammates tapped her on the shoulder, the poor girl physically jumped as if she’d been shot.

“Uh,” I leaned closer to Columbus. “Is Shiori okay? She seems kind of… not very calm.”

I could see the worry in the boy’s expression as he shook his head. “I dunno. I tried to talk to her about it, but she just keeps saying she’s fine. I think she’s having really bad nightmares about this whole monster hunting thing, cuz she’s obviously not sleeping much. And unlike you, she actually needs it.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before asking, “Do you think she should see the counselor about it? I mean, about whatever’s keeping her up. Professor Dare did say he specializes in talking to Bystander-kin.”

“Ehhh,” Columbus looked doubtful. “Lemme talk to her again, see if there’s anything she wants to get off her chest. I don’t wanna go running to teachers and make them think she can’t handle stuff here.”

“It’s not about not being able to handle stuff here,” I corrected him. “It’s about the fact that the crap we have to deal with here can be really nasty. We’re being taught how to kill monsters, Columbus. They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill things. Evil things that look human an awful lot of the time. If they didn’t realize that we might need to talk to someone about that stuff, they’d be the worst teachers ever.”

Sighing, the boy gave a little nod. “Okay, okay. You’re right, but I still wanna talk to her about it first.”

“You got it.” I took the last bite of my breakfast. “Just try to convince her to talk to someone, even if it’s not you. Whatever’s really bothering her that much, she should get it off her chest.”

Columbus nodded in agreement once more. “Anyway, I was sort of a geek when I was a kid. Tall for my age, really thin and lanky. Wasn’t really good at any sports and I really into comic books, cartoons, everything superheroes and shit like that. Seriously, you would’ve called me a nerd.”

I coughed at that, denying his words with a shake of my head. “I would not have called you a nerd.”

“Mother Theresa would have called me a nerd,” he insisted. “And might’ve given me a swirlie.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Well, maybe. She was pretty into that whole suffering builds character thing. Actually, Mother Theresa was kind of a bitch when you actually look into the stuff she did.”

He just gave me a strange look then before clearing his throat. “The point is, I was a geek. Massive, enormous geek.”

“I kind of find that hard to believe,” I informed him while gesturing up and down. “Trust me, geeks and nerds do not look like… well, that.” Sure, he wasn’t quite as overtly jaw dropping as either Avalon or Sean, but geek? Hell no. “I bet those weren’t bullies chasing you around, they were people trying to get your phone number.”

He laughed and insisted. “Total nerd, I swear. Well, for a long time, anyway. Freshman year I went out for track and got really into that. Running was something my lanky ass long legs could actually do. But yeah, complete geek. And my biggest geek thing was Cyclops, cuz his parents went down in a plane crash like mine. I guess I sort of started hoping that maybe… you know, my parents might’ve been abducted by aliens too and I’d see them again. I had a few dreams about my dad being a space pirate.” Straightening, he shook his head and blinked a few times, clearly forcing back his emotions. “Like I said, just dumb kid things.”

“Hey,” I reached across the table, catching his hand briefly. “Trust me, it’s not dumb.”

He looked embarrassed, taking his hand away after a second before lowering his voice to a whisper. “What about your thing? You got any idea how you’re gonna break into that security office?”

I winced, letting out a long, low breath. “Not really. I need to find the office first and then figure out how to break into it while nobody’s there. I don’t even know what kind of alarms they’ve got.”

“Well,” Columbus replied, “Whenever you figure it out, I’ll try to help. Not sure how, but I’ll be there.”

Smiling at that, I nodded. “Thanks, Columbus. I’m glad, uhh, I’m glad that I told you guys the truth.” Most of it, anyway. I had left out the fact that Asenath was staying with my father, and I left out Twister’s existence entirely. Maybe it was a bad idea, but I didn’t think either of them would appreciate me blabbing about their exact location to people when I’d had no idea how they might react.

“Me too.” The boy stood, taking his own tray and mine. “Guess we should get to class now.”

“Yeah…” I stood slowly, managing a little smile. “Let’s go learn our Heretical History.”

******

A short while later, Professor Erica Ross stood at the front of the classroom, gazing out at us. The woman looked like one of those amazing Amazon warriors if they happened to live to be about ninety. Seriously, she looked really old, but somehow simultaneously amazingly powerful and strong too. Her face was incredibly lined from her age, yet her eyes were sharp as they looked around the room.

One thing that Crossroads had taught me was that it was completely impossible to tell a person’s age by how old they looked. Gaia and Seller were probably the oldest human beings I had met, yet they still looked like they were in the prime of their lives. Meanwhile, Professor Ross looked quite old, yet as far as I had been able to find out, wasn’t as old as the other two. The same went for Professor Pericles before he’d died. It all depended on what kind of powers they inherited, and how much they managed to kill. It was just completely impossible to judge based on appearance. Part of me wondered how that had affected personal prejudices when it came to Heretic society, and I made a mental note to look it up in the library.

“How many of you,” Professor Ross began, “can tell me who it was that created the Crossroads Heretical Edge and subsequently founded this particular school and our entire organization?”

Several people raised their hands, including (big surprise) Vanessa. My hand was up too, remembering what Professor Dare had said. Professor Ross, however, pointed toward one of Shiori’s teammates. I was pretty sure her name was Rebecca. She was a tiny girl, even smaller than Sands and Scout at less than five feet.

“Yes, Miss Jameson?” the teacher prompted.

“Hieronymus Bosch,” she promptly answered. “He’s the guy that created the Edge. The Bystanders know him for being this really important painter. But he was a lot more than that. He made this place. He made the lighthouse. Well–” she amended, “He made the light that was eventually turned into the lighthouse, I mean. Before it was in a building down here and they just took people into the room that they wanted to turn into Heretics.”

“Very good,” Professor Ross commended. “But how many of you know how Hieronymus became our founder? After all, there are others who are older than he was and are still alive today, such as our very own headmistress. Obviously there were other Heretics before. So what is it about him that made him different?”

This time, only Vanessa’s hand was up. When the professor nodded to her, the blonde girl answered, “Heretics were mostly accidents before, the very, very rare person who gained Heretic-like abilities through some other supernatural means. There were only a few in the world at a time. Hieronymus was the first one to create a way of mass producing Heretics on demand. It’s still not perfect and it can only make so many each year, but it was the first opportunity to let Heretics have an actual civilization.”

Professor Ross smiled broadly at that. “Excellent, Miss Moon. Yes. Now, who can tell me anything about how Hieronymus was able to build this light and subsequently change the world?”

This time, every hand stayed down.

“Very well,” the older woman gave a single nod. “Then I suppose none of you will be bored by our field trip today.”

“Field trip?” Aylen, the Native American girl who was also on Shiori’s team, raised her hand. “Where are we going?”

Professor Ross raised an eyebrow at her. “Why, to see the spot where Hieronymus became a Heretic, of course. It’s time that we visit the place where the formation of our organization truly began.

“You all deserve to know where we come from, and what our true legacy is.”

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