The Next Step 8-01

Previous Chapter            Next Chapter

“Miss Chambers!” The loud voice of Professor Carfried filled the auditorium-like Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom a few days later. “Without consulting your book or any of your peers, can you tell me what the three primary categories of the energy used to create Heretical Magic are?”

The energy used to create Heretical Magic. I knew this one. Considering how much extra time I had for studying in the middle of the night while most people were sleeping, it would have been pretty bad if I didn’t. “Yes, sir, it’s uhh, Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” I recited the names without looking away.

The young teacher, who was still filling in for Professor Tangle (seriously, how badly had she been injured in that giant shark attack?), gave me a broad smile. “Indeed! Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” Turning his attention away from me and toward Rudolph across the room, he asked, “Mr. Parsons!”

Jolting in his seat, the pale, slightly chubby boy’s eyes widened. “Uhh, yes, sir?” A slightly guilty look crossed his face, and it was obvious that whatever he’d been doing, paying attention wasn’t part of it.

“Honestly, Mr. Parsons,” Professor Carfried shook his head. “I could walk into any Bystander classroom in the world, ask who wants to learn some real magic, and do you think they’d be bored?”

Flushing visibly, the boy sank a little in his seat before shaking his head. “No, sir. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“The three categories of magic,” Professor Carfried pressed on after nodding his acceptance of the apology. “Shapeless, Directed, and Forged. I want you to tell me which one we’re learning this year.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Rudolph seemed obviously uncomfortable, but slowly answered. “Um, the magic you’re teaching us right now is Forged. The second years learn Directed magic, and the third years learn Shapeless magic. Seniors, umm, they pretty much know it all by then and just sort of use every kind.”

“Yes, because seniors are essentially active Heretics by that point, and are far more involved in field work than classroom study,” Professor Carfried agreed before turning his attention to someone else again. Koren this time. “Miss Fellows. What exactly are the differences between the three categories?”

The brunette was obviously ready for the question. She promptly replied, “Forged magic is the easiest kind. They’re the spells where you say the exact same specific, established word everyone else does, make the same established gesture everyone else does, and end up with the same established effect.”

Carfried gave a short, pleased nod. “Precisely! Forged Magic, in this case, is like a dog. You teach the dog a trick, and from then on, if it hears the command, it does the trick. Speak the command, add the power, the magic performs the enchantment. Very good. Now, what about the other two categories?” When Koren started to answer, he shook his head. “Actually, let’s hear from… Mr. Levin.” His gaze moved to Zeke. “Since we’ve heard about Forged magic, can you tell us what Directed magic is?”

The boy gave a thin, humorless smile. Which wasn’t anything new. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen the guy act amused or even happy about anything all semester. “Yes, Professor. Directed magic is not quite as open as Shapeless magic, yet it is still more free than Forged. Essentially, a Directed Spell is simply a category of effect. For example, the spell you taught us that turns rocks into flash-bang grenades is Forged magic. The exact same effect every time you cast it. But if you were to alter that effect, such as… for example, making the rock recite the Gettysburg Address while throwing around strobe lights, that would be a Directed spell. You are taking a Forged spell and altering it for your own purposes.”

“A good answer, Mr. Levin, thank you.” Professor Carfried looked around the room one more time, clearly choosing carefully before his eyes settled on Shiori. “Miss Porter, what is the final category?”

Poor Shiori, who looked even paler than the last time I’d seen her, wasn’t looking at the man. Her gaze was fixed elsewhere, and I could see her lips moving a little as if she was mouthing words to herself.

When it was obvious that no answer was coming, Professor Carfried raised his voice. “Miss Porter!”

The response was instantaneous. Shiori bolted to her feet. Her hands caught hold of the table that her team was seated behind, and she gave it a hard shove that sent the table crashing onto its side loudly. Her voice was raised into a near shriek. “Shut up! Just shut up and leave me alone, leave me alone!”

Only then did Shiori seem to realize where she was and what was going on. Her eyes flicked around the room, and I saw the dawning comprehension and horror on her face. “I—I–I mean…” Tears sprang up.

Mutters had broken out all over the room, and Columbus was already on his feet, but Professor Carfried held a hand up, his voice commanding. “Silence, or detention.” The muttering stopped, and he stepped over to where Shiori was. His voice softened. “Miss Porter, can you look at me, please?”

Clearly reluctantly, Shiori slowly lifted her gaze to the man. I could see her trembling openly. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and clearly emotional. “I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Professor Carfried’s voice was calm and soothing. “We’re asking a lot of all of you, and if it wasn’t too much sometimes, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me when I say that I have been exactly where you are. You aren’t the first student to yell at a teacher because you were stressed out and you won’t be the last. So take a couple of breaths. Are you all right now?”

Breathing in and then out, Shiori gave a slight, unconvincing nod. She didn’t speak or move otherwise.

“All right, let’s have a little chat in the hall.” Carfried set a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you are not in that much trouble. As I said, we understand. But I’d still like to talk to you in the hallway.”

The two of them stepped out of the room, while Shiori’s male teammates Stephen and Gavin moved to pick up the table she had knocked over, replacing it back where it had been. They’d just maneuvered the thing into place when Zeke, seated across the way, twirled his finger by his head. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Hey!” Columbus was back on his feet and halfway around the table in what had to be record time. His hand pointed toward the Heretic-born boy. “You’re gonna want to shut up, right fucking now, Zeke.”

Clearly unimpressed, the other boy shrugged dismissively. “Hey, if she can’t handle the stress, maybe she should just go back home. Maybe get an easier job. I bet she’d fit right in at a laundromat.”

Sean leapt up, hooking an arm around Columbus. “He’s not worth it, man.” He kept his voice low and controlled, easily stopping the other boy from lunging across the room at the jerk. “He’s just an ass.”

“At least I can do the job we were brought here to do,” Zeke retorted derisively. “I don’t freak out like some people.”

Next to me, Sands was already starting to stand up, and I could see Avalon opening her mouth.Before either of them could say anything, however, the boy was interrupted by a sharp, scree-noise as Sovereign, Aylen’s metallic bird, flew across the room to land on the table in front of Zeke. As the boy jerked backward, the bird made a loud, angry noise, puffing itself up to look larger while several metallic ‘feathers’ pointed outward, their sharp ends looking an awful lot like daggers.

“Get this piece of shit away from me, damn it!” Zeke demanded, bolting to his feet.

Aylen was frowning at him. “Then stop pissing him off.”

“Fuck you,” Zeke retorted, his eyes locked on the mechanical bird. “I’m just telling the truth. Some people can’t handle the stuff going on here. Your wuss of a teammate obviously doesn’t belong here.”

That brought the rest of Shiori’s team to their feet, their anger obvious. But the person who actually spoke up was still a surprise.

“Oh my god, would you shut the fuck up?” Koren. It was Koren talking. “They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill monsters. Real monsters, the kind that eat people. If that doesn’t mess you up at least a little bit, if that doesn’t make you wanna freak out, then you’re the one with the problem. Not her.”

The fact that it was Koren of all people saying it seemed to surprise everyone into silence for a few seconds, and I thought about the reaction she’d had when we were examining the murder at that gas station (Ammon’s work, I reminded myself. That much had been clear after I spoke to Asenath about what had actually made her start tracking the little psychopath). She’d been pretty messed up by the sight of what happened there. Even if she tended to talk without thinking about what she was saying, and more times than not came off as a gossiping bitch, apparently even she had her layers and limits.

The door opened again before anyone else could say anything, and Mr. Carfried stepped back inside. His gaze took in everyone in the room before he directed his attention to Columbus. “Mr. Porter, would you mind escorting your sister up to the counselor’s office? I think she could use a chat with Mr. Roe.”

Columbus reached down to grab his bag, then stepped over to take Shiori’s too, as Aylen held it out to him. Then he gave the rest of us a quick look before heading out into the hall where I could see Shiori sitting down against the wall with her face buried in her hands. She still didn’t look very good.

“All right,” Professor Carfried began once the door was closed. “We’ll be moving on now, and if I hear about anyone saying a word against Miss Porter, you’ll have detention every Saturday for a month.” Looking toward Zeke, he added, “Mr. Levin, since I hadn’t actually stated that rule yet before leaving the room, we’ll only make it two weeks, starting tomorrow. You still should have known better.” As Zeke’s mouth fell open to protest, the professor pushed on, ignoring him. “One more time then. Where were we… oh yes, let’s see… Miss Moon, explain the last category of magic, if you would?”

“Yes, sir.” Vanessa answered promptly. “The last category of magic is Shapeless. Those are enchantments that are made up on the spot. The Heretic determines the effect they want, and imbues the item with that effect without using any previously designed spell. Shapeless magic is the most powerful kind, and the most prone to mistakes and backfiring. Only the best spellcasters, usually in the Development track, use Shapeless magic regularly. Most get by using Directed and Forged spells. A Shapeless spell can become Directed and then Forged after being cast the same way often enough.”

“Excellent,” Professor Carfried smiled then. “Now then, with that in mind, let’s chat about the next spell we’re going to be learning. A long time ago it was called the Cloth of Steel spell. But when I was in school… which, to be fair, was about a year ago, we called it the Kevlar spell. You will learn to enchant your clothing with a temporary spell that will allow them to resist most bullet impacts.

“So, let’s get started.”


Later that afternoon, after our final class of the day, I was on my way to Mr. Roe’s office. It was time for my own weekly visit to the school therapist, which was supposed to continue for at least for a couple of months. The school staff wanted to make sure that I was getting past what happened back home (or at least, what they knew of it). Sean and Columbus were walking alongside me. Vulcan, of course, was trotting a little bit ahead of us, his mechanical head twisting eagerly this way and that.

“How’s she doing?” I asked the dark-skinned boy, glancing toward him.

Columbus’s response was a long, heavy sigh. “I don’t know. She said she was just tired. I know she’s not sleeping much, but she won’t talk about what’s wrong. I… I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to sit her down and make her talk to me, but I’m afraid that’ll just make her clam up more. But it’s obvious that this isn’t working, so…” Gesturing vaguely, he shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know.”

Biting my lip, I offered, “Maybe try making it clear that you’re not going to just let it go, but let her tell it on her own time? Be there for her, show her that you’re there and you’re not leaving, but you’re also going to let her talk when she’s ready to. Try just… doing other things with her. Spend time with her. Be around her. Show her that she’s not alone without outright demanding answers. I mean, maybe that’s the wrong advice, I’m not an expert. But you know, it’s the best I can think of.”

Sean agreed, and the three of us continued on for a few minutes before the other boy changed the subject. “So I think it’s safe to say that Deveron’s roommate doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s up with him,” Sean reported, keeping his voice low as we passed by a couple of senior students in the hall.

I glanced sidelong toward him. “I take it you gave him a, ahh, thorough interrogation?” Try as I might, I couldn’t help the little smirk that came along with the words. Which, of course, was followed by a blush as my brain caught up with what I was implying and transferred the mental image back to me.

From the look on Sean’s face, he knew exactly what I was thinking and winked back at me as we continued to walk. “Let’s just say, if he knew something, he would’ve shared. Well, okay, he did know some stuff, but nothing useful. Just that Deveron’s different this year. Lazy. Stuff we already knew. Apparently he’s put in for a roommate transfer, but they keep refusing. So yeah, not a happy guy.”

“You think Deveron knows something about who your brother and sister are?” Columbus asked.

I shrugged at the boy, feeling helpless. “I dunno. Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell us.”

Sean just blinked at me a bit blankly. “Won’t tell us what—oh god damn it, are you talking about the security room stuff again?” He demanded, looking toward Columbus and then back to me.

Yeah, that had been fun to figure out. Since Sean and Avalon hadn’t been in the security room with us when we read those files, we weren’t able to actually talk about anything that was in them with the two of them. They weren’t protected from the secret-keeping magic, or whatever it was called. So when we talked about it, their brains just… skipped over it or something. We’d managed to be vague enough to explain what was going on, but any specifics were out of the question. We’d tried writing it down, and they just saw the paper or the screen as blank. We tried sign language, charades, none of it worked.

“Okay,” I announced. “I have a new plan. Let’s try this. Every twenty seconds, I’m going to say a word. You remember every word, then put them in order when we’re done. All right? First word, I.”

“Right, got it.” Sean nodded once easily. “First word is I. God, I hope this shit works. Avalon says she’s got some kind of plan for getting around this, but seriously, this magic secret stuff is getting old.”

We kept walking, as I counted down the seconds before speaking again. “Have. Second word.”

“I have, got it. Got that much.” Sean brightened a little more, clearly encouraged. “Closest so far.”

After another twenty seconds, and as we neared the school therapist’s office, I spoke again. “More. Third word.”

“More,” Sean repeated dutifully. “So far you’ve said ‘I have more’. Shit, this might actually work.”

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I counted down once more and glanced toward Columbus before speaking again. “One more word. Here it comes. Siblings. The last word is siblings.”

Sean met my gaze, started to nod automatically, then asked, “Okay, what is it?”

My heart sank. “Siblings. I just told you. The last word is siblings. Did you get it? Tell me you got it.”

“Get what?” Sean was shaking his head. “You’ve gotta tell me the last word before you can—wait, what was the first—okay, it was I… I have… wait, it was you have… wait, was the first word I?”

Columbus groaned out loud. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. As soon as the sentence is complete, not only do they not hear the last word, but they forget the part of the sentence they already knew? Damn it!”

“Something wrong, Columbus?” The question came from the doorway, as Klassin Roe poked his head out.

The therapist for Crossroads Academy looked… well, as far as I knew, he didn’t look like any therapist I’d ever seen or heard of. For one thing, he looked like he belonged to one of those 50’s greaser gangs. His black hair was always slicked back, he had those high cheekbones, and he actually wore a dark leather jacket along with jeans and a gray tee shirt. I’d seen a tattoo of a sword on his arm once, during our first discussion in his office.

Jumping a bit at the interruption, Columbus finally managed a shrug after a moment. “Nah, just talking about something else. Uhh, wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure do,” Klassin drawled in that simple, casual way he had. “I try to make it a point to know who all the new kids are. Makes it easier if they ever wanna come chat.”

“You mean all the new bystander-kin?” Columbus asked. “Shiori, she came to see you today, right?”

“She did,” the man confirmed without saying anything else about it. “But nah, I mean every student. Bystander-kin ain’t the only ones with problems. Anyone wants to chat without it being some formal thing, my office is open from six to eight on Tuesday and three to six on Sunday. I don’t make appointments then, so if you drop by and the door isn’t closed, feel free to come in and talk about anything that’s on your mind.”

To me, he gestured. “You wanna head on in? Oh, and grab that notebook off the chair there. Shiori left it. Figure Columbus here can take it back. You don’t mind, right?”

Columbus shook his head, and I moved into the simple office, stepping over to one of the padded armchairs. Sure enough, there was a small black notebook sitting there with a pen in the spiral binding, and Shiori’s name written in marker across the front in neat cursive.

As I picked up the notebook, a piece of loose paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I bent to grab it, and started to slip the paper back into the notebook while straightening up when the words on it caught my eye. Or rather, the word on it. There was only one word, and it was written several dozen times. Sometimes it was printed, other times it was in cursive. Sometimes the letters were small, other times they were large and bold. A couple of times there were underlines under the word. One of them had several circles drawn around it. Over and over again the word was written, all across the paper from every angle. Every inch of space on the page was taken up by the single word.

Except it wasn’t a word. It was a name. A single name.


Previous Chapter           Next Chapter

A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-03

Previous Chapter             Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That… was a very good question.

Previous Chapter               Next Chapter

A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-02

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Projection rooms?” I asked with a frown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter            Next Chapter