Shiori

Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discuss smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.

Asenath.

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-04

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Wood cracked against my arm, drawing a sharp yelp from me that was swiftly followed by a curse.

“You’re still too slow,” Avalon informed me unnecessarily. The pain in my bicep was already doing a fine job of making that point for her. “Keep your guard up. The staff has two ends, and you can use either of them. Don’t forget that. Make me watch both of them, not just the top half. Keep it moving, end over end, back and forth. Vary your speed, vary your rotation. Never let me see a pattern, or—”

Without further warning, the wooden staff that my roommate was holding lashed out to smack my other arm this time. While I yelped, she stated flatly, “Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll regret it.”

“And if I’m not lucky?” I asked while taking a second to rub my arm. “Because this feels not lucky.”

“If you’re not lucky, you won’t have a chance to regret it.” Her stare was intense. “You’ll be dead.”

“Point taken.” Grimacing at that particular thought, I nodded before holding my hand up for a break so that I could walk over a few feet across the beach to where we had dropped our stuff. Leaning down, I grabbed a bottle of water and took a long pull from it while catching my breath.

It was early evening, just a bit before dinner. Two whole weeks had passed since that first little field trip into the holographic crime scene. Two weeks of classes about monsters, magic, vampires, and the occasional alien. Or what looked like aliens anyway. Two weeks of learning how to fight and kill.

On the plus side, no more teachers had died and there hadn’t been another attempt on Avalon’s life. Unfortunately, the negative side was that none of us still had any idea who was responsible for either of those events, or if it was even related. Nor was I any closer to figuring out what had happened with my mother. Not being able to outright ask any of the adults about her was proving to be a pain in the ass. It limited us to looking through the library and other parts of the school for any crumb of information similar to the graduation picture that I’d found. Even with Avalon’s help, it was very slow going.

I’d been tempted to talk to the rest of the team about it, but there was the problem of Sands and Scout. Not that I didn’t trust them. I did. But their father was a teacher and the last thing I wanted was to make them lie to him just to keep what I was doing away from the faculty. I wasn’t going to make my new friends choose between keeping my secret and maintaining their relationship with their father. So it was down to Avalon and me to find out as much as we could, which at the moment, was nothing.

Adding to the list of things I didn’t know was the exact reason that I’d somehow picked out the same items that had been on the last receipt in that gas station. Professor Dare had theorized that there may have been some connection between me and one of the people who had been there, but hell if we knew what that connection actually was. According to her, I could be distantly related to one of the victims or one of my ancestors might have encountered the Stranger responsible for killing them and been left with a strong enough tie to the monster to leave me with a residual link after using the Heretical Edge.

I wondered if my mother was the one who had some kind of connection to the evil piece of shit.

Sighing inwardly at the thought, I took another drink of the water before turning to glance at my roommate. Avalon, as usual, looked perfect. I was a sweaty, ill-coordinated mess in gray shorts and a tee shirt that had seen better days. She, on the other hand, was as gorgeous as ever in black running shorts and a green tank top that had to have been magically enchanted. It was the only way to explain why the cantaloupes she was smuggling around didn’t pop out of it. If she hadn’t been helping me out so much, I probably would have been jealous. Okay, more jealous than I already obviously was.

“If you’re so good with a staff,” I asked curiously while nodding toward the wooden training weapon that she was using to help me, “then why do you use those gauntlets instead?”

For a second, Avalon didn’t respond. She just squinted at me as though going over the question in her head to figure out if there was any way that I might be mocking her. Finally, the other girl shrugged. “Of the weapons I know how to use, the staff is the one I’m the worst with.”

I choked a little on my water, squinting that way. “This has been you being bad with a weapon?”

“Out of the weapons I know how to use,” she repeated pointedly while striding toward me. “There’s plenty of weapons that I don’t know how to use at all.” Leaning down, she plucked up the other bottle of water and took a sip from it. “Now quit whining just because I’ve had more practice than you and get your head back in the game. Do you want to get better or not? Because if you’re tired of this already, I’ve got better things to do than waste my time with someone who’s just going to quit.”

“I’m not quitting,” I promised. By that point, the pain in both of my arms had vanished thanks to the healing gift that I had inherited from the ugly little poodle-roach things. “I said I want to learn to be a better fighter, and I meant it. Heck, I’m already improving. You haven’t insulted me half as much today as you did when we first started. You’re even using both hands now. So, you know, yay progress?”

Her response was a grunt before she dropped the bottle back on the ground. “Fifteen more minutes, then dinner. Think you can keep going that long, Chambers? How are your arms holding up?”

“Sore,” I answered truthfully. “But all that weight lifting you keep making me do in the mornings seems to be helping. It’s not nearly as bad as that first night.” That had been near torture. I had been as close as I ever got to flat out quitting and walking away. My arms had felt like they were going to fall off. Still, I pushed on through it and forced myself to keep at the training. Avalon’s stated certainty that I was going to quit helped with that, considering at the time all I’d wanted to do was prove her wrong.

Part of me wondered just how purposeful that attitude had been. Had she been so hard on me through that first bit, even harder and more insulting than the girl usually was (which was saying a lot), to drive me to stick with it through sheer contrariness? It was hard to tell through the girl’s ordinary prickliness.

“Keep it up, then.” Her voice was firm. “You make me think you’re slacking off or being lazy about this shit one time, and I’m done with you. I’m not going to waste my time if you start fucking up.”

“Yeah,” I replied with a slight smile after translating her words from Avalon-speak into a language that was slightly less inherently angry at everything. “I’m glad we’re training together too, roomie.”

******

The next day was Saturday. After spending an hour in the morning with Avalon doing our by-then standard workout (not having school was apparently no excuse for not exercising), and having a bit of breakfast, I was leaving the cafeteria when my father’s ringtone began to play. It took me a second to maneuver my cell out of my jeans (no uniforms needed on days off), and answer it. “Yo.”

“Hey there, lil bit!” Dad’s voice boomed loud enough that I winced. “How’s my favorite daughter?”

“Oh yeah, that was a hard contest to win,” I replied. “Favorite daughter? Who was my competition?”

He laughed before shooting back, “Hey, for all you know, I might’ve adopted already. I could replace you with an adorable little baby that doesn’t talk back to her old man. Or the new kid next door might have a sister I could latch onto. How long have you been gone for now? Three years, four?”

“Weeks, dad.” I shook my head with a smile. “I’ve been gone for three weeks, tops.”

“Feels like decades.” Dad’s voice was light, but I heard the truth in it. The two of us had been so close since my mother left that I knew this was hard on him. It was hard on me, even as busy as I had been.

Swallowing, I asked, “So what’s this about a new boy next door? Did the Euphrene’s finally move?”

“Seems like it,” my father replied. “Got a new woman in there now. No husband that I know of, but she’s got a little boy. I think he’s about ten or so, named Ammon. Lady keeps to herself, but the kid came over a few times last week. I’m gonna pay him to keep up the lawn and stuff. Poor kid, I don’t think he gets out very much. Sure seemed interested in whether I had any children or not.”

I smiled a little while making my way into the lounge. In the corner, I could see Columbus, Sean, Shiori, and one of the other boys playing Mario Kart on one of the massive televisions. I gave them a wave, then turned slightly to continue my conversation. “Why did he care if you have any kids?”

“Lonely, I think.” I heard the shrug in Dad’s voice. “Seemed interested in you. Hell, I think the poor kid might have a crush on you, Flickster, considering all the pictures he wanted to see.”

I felt a blush creep over my face. “Damn it, Dad, how many pictures did you show this kid?”

He chuckled a little before replying, “Take it easy, I didn’t show him the baby pictures. Just the ones we’ve got up on the walls, and that one of the two of us at the lake that I keep in my wallet. Trust me, we only said good things about you. The kid might want to meet you when you come home to visit. Think you can handle a ten-year-old with a bit of a crush without breaking his poor, innocent heart?”

I rolled my eyes. “He should meet my roommate. He’d forget me in a damn hurry.”

We talked some more, but Dad eventually had to excuse himself to head into the office for a few hours. After disconnecting, I returned my attention to the others and headed over to hop onto the couch beside Columbus. “Who’s winning?” I asked while reaching over to snag a chip out of the bowl nearby.

“Shiori,” Columbus, Sean, and the boy whose name I didn’t know replied flatly. All of them seemed hyper focused on the screen, sitting up straight and leaning forward with looks of intense concentration.

Meanwhile, Columbus’s foster sister was literally laying upside down, hanging off the front of the couch with her head on the floor. Her arms were stretched out in front of her along the floor as she watched the screen from her inverted position. And she was still clearly winning without much effort.

“Wow,” I remarked after watching the race for a few more seconds until the girl had finished lapping them yet again. “Either you guys are seriously bad at this game, or she’s really good.”

“It’s the second one,” Columbus informed me. He wasn’t wearing his uniform, but the tee shirt and khakis was wearing looked as disheveled and rumpled in as his uniform usually did. I wondered if he picked out his clothes the night before, and then slept in them so that he could jump out of bed and go in the morning. It was the only way I could understand how he managed to make his clothes look so messed up from the first thing in the morning. “Shiori’s good at every video game. Seriously. Pick a game she’s never played, any game at all. Give her a couple hours to practice, and she’ll beat almost anyone at it. It’s like some kind of freaky gift or something. I think she killed some kind of video game Stranger and absorbed his skill back when she was six.”

“Did not,” Shiori replied absently while remaining focused on the screen. I could see the slight blush on her cheeks from the attention before she mumbled, “I just like games. It’s not hard once you see how they work. You hit the button, the character does the action. People over complicate them.”

Taking another chip, I smiled. “Sounds like great hand-eye coordination to me.”

“No kidding,” the boy I didn’t know agreed. He was a fairly short guy, stocky in a muscular way, with intense green eyes and a pale face that was dotted with freckles. His light blonde hair was worn long, and he had to shake it out of his eyes before focusing on me as he extended a hand. “Ah, sorry, I don’t think we really met. I’m Andrew. Shiori’s team mentor.”

I did a double take, staring at him in surprise. “Wait, team mentor? As in an older student that’s supposed to help us learn and guide us through first year? That mentor? I thought that was just a myth.”

He chuckled slightly before grimacing. “Yeah, sounds like Deveron’s not excelling this time, huh?”

“More like not even trying,” Sean remarked from where he was sitting. Vulcan lay at his feet, occasionally rubbing up against his master’s leg while looking for a head scratch. I had no idea how scratching helped a dog made of metal, but Vulcan sure seemed to like it.

I nodded while rolling my eyes. “He’s pretty much the worst mentor ever. Has he even said anything to you guys since orientation?” I asked the boys, receiving head shakes from both Columbus and Sean.

Andrew shrugged. “Sorry, wish I knew what to tell you. Dev was a great student last year. Pretty much at the top of everything constantly.”

“That’s what Sands and Scout said,” I muttered before shaking my head. “Why couldn’t we have gotten that guy for a mentor instead of the impostor that’s been wandering around in his skin?”

“You could ask him yourself if you wanted to,” Andrew suggested while nodding toward the doorway. “Considering he just went past.”

After looking that way briefly, I pushed myself up. “I think I will. Whatever his damn problem is, he needs to get the hell over it and start doing his job. We deserve better than this.”

“You want some company?” Sean asked. “Tired of getting my butt kicked here anyway.”

I considered it, but then shook my head. “Let me talk to him first. If I need backup, I’ll let you know.”

Both he and Columbus agreed, and I promised to return to let them know what happened before heading out of the room at a quick jog. I wanted to catch up with Deveron before he disappeared again.

Reaching the hall, I turned the way that Andrew had gestured and picked up the pace. Deveron had been heading out of the building, and if he got too far, I’d never figure out where he went.

Thankfully, the older boy was still in sight as I came through the doors. He was on his way past the staff housing building, walking fast as he turned the corner around the wall.

Wincing, I ran to catch up. No way was I going to miss this chance to give the jerk a piece of my mind.

Just as I reached the edge of the building, instinct made me slow down. Rather than storm around the side and start demanding that he stop and talk to me, the way I’d planned, I instead peeked carefully around the corner.

Deveron was there, crouching near the middle of the building. He had one of the bricks in his hand, and was shoving something into the hole there. Then he pushed the brick back into place and patted it to make sure it was as smooth as possible before straightening.

His head turned in my direction, and I quickly jerked back out of sight, my heart hammering. What the hell was he hiding? Did it have something to do with Avalon or Professor Pericles?

A moment later, I peeked back around and found the area behind the building empty. Deveron had moved on. Forgetting the reason that I’d started to follow him to begin with, I made my way to the same spot he’d been and crouched down to pry at the bricks until I found the right one. It took a bit of work, but I managed to tug the brick out and set it aside before reaching into the hole.

My questing fingers eventually found the thing that Deveron had hidden in there, and I tugged it out, finding a folded up photograph. With a frown, I turned to sit against the wall while unfolding it.

It… was the picture of my mother’s graduating class. I recognized it immediately, considering how long I’d sent staring at it in the awards case. This one was a more worn copy, but it was clearly the same picture. Why did Deveron have it, and why was he hiding it?

Wait. I frowned a little while looking at the photograph. Something was different about it. I’d spent hours staring at the one in the trophy case, and something about this one was off. I just couldn’t tell what it was.

Then I found it. My eyes scanned the picture until they zeroed in on a single figure in the picture that definitely wasn’t there in the other copy. A figure standing directly next to my mother, where there was empty space in the picture that I had studied. A figure that was holding her hand as they cheered for their own graduation from this school. A figure that I had just seen walk away from this spot.

No wonder Deveron had been so good at everything in this place last year. According to this picture, he’d graduated with my mother in 1922.

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First Steps 2-04

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“Flick? Hey, you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s get started.”

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First Steps 2-01

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

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

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

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

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

“Suck ass as a mentor?” I offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This… was not a game.

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Orientation 1-05

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Moments later, Sands and Scout were leading our little group of Bystander-kin out of the lighthouse and back along the trail toward the dorm buildings Professor Dare had pointed out to me. The others were chatting about the things they’d seen, but my mind was stuck on that little revelation.

Right, so the headmistress of this super secret magic school happened to be the woman who had sworn to kill my ancestor however many centuries ago. That in itself raised about a bazillion questions, starting with: how old was she? Was I wrong about how long ago it had been? Their clothing, mannerisms, and everything else said that they were from the medieval era, but she was still alive.

Magic. As soon as I thought the question, the answer came to me. Of course it was magic. Why was I questioning it? I’d just stepped through an empty doorway to be instantly transported literally thousands of miles to a paradise island where I looked into a bright light and experienced a flashback memory from one of my ancestors. Why the hell should freaking longevity trip me up so much?

Hell, humanity’s average life expectancy was getting longer all the time, with just normal technology and medicine. Add magic into the mix, and it really shouldn’t have been surprising at all.

At least I now understood why Professor Dare had just smiled at me when I’d made that comment about how the headmistress must be getting older if she took over the school sixty-seven years ago. With a lifespan like she had, less than seventy years was practically a summer job.

I wondered, briefly, if the woman knew who I was and where I had descended from. It would make sense, considering everything else they knew. Was that, my ancestor’s cowardice, the reason they had taken so long to approve me? But if it was, why would the headmistress have been the one to break that tie in my favor? It was possible that she didn’t hold the coward’s actions against me and wanted to give me a chance. But it was also possible that she wanted me here for another reason.

Stop, Flick. Just stop. You’re being paranoid. Even if Baroness Gaia Sinclaire did know who my ancestor was, she had absolutely no reason to associate me with him. Only a truly pathetic nutjob would treat someone like shit just because of who they were related to. The woman’s been around for centuries. Obviously she was more mature and level-headed than that. I had no reason other than utter batshit paranoia to think she was out to get me. So leave it alone unless something else happens.

“Hey, uhh, what’s your name?” The voice, addressing me apparently, came from the black guy who had spoken up to ask if we were going to find out why we were in that lighthouse. Mr. Porter, the professor had called him. He was fairly tall, just a hair under six feet. His build was athletic, but in a narrow sort of way, more like a runner or a swimmer than a bodybuilder. He was looking back at me curiously.

“Flick,” I tore my attention away from my introspection to speak up. “Flick Chambers.” I extended a hand to the boy. “Sorry for holding everything up and making you guys wait so long.”

“Eh,” he waved one hand dismissively while taking mine with his other to shake once. His grip was firm, his hands strong and calloused. “Don’t worry about it. Sounds like you just found out about all this today, right?” There was a look of sympathy in his gaze. “Trust me, we know where you’re at right now. Me, I met Professor Dare… what… a week ago? What about everyone else?”

There was a general murmur of agreement. Most people had met the professor days ago. I was the only one that had been first contacted mere minutes before orientation. Obviously Professor Dare hadn’t been kidding about how things had come right down to the wire on whether to approve me or not.

“I’m Columbus,” the boy informed me. “Columbus Porter.” He lifted his hand to point to the Asian girl. “That right there is Shiori, my foster sister. Yeah, we both ended up here, go figure, huh?”

I waved to Shiori, listening as some of the other students discussed the things they’d seen. I heard the other black guy, whose name was Travis, apparently, talk about how his ancestor had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and that his vision had been of the man shooting down flying zombie whale monsters in his biplane. This, of course, was met with a boast from one of the Caucasian boys that his ancestor had apparently fought immortal vampire redcoats during the American Revolution. Travis referred to the other boy as Malcolm while scoffing at the idea that something like that was more impressive than his own vision. The two were obviously friends, and they continued talking over one another trying to brag the loudest about their ancestor’s achievements and how amazing they had been.

That little discussion was curtailed as Columbus called up toward the front. “Hey, uhh, Sands was it?”

The girl pivoted, walking backwards beside her silent twin while nodding toward him. “Sup?”

“You guys already had your orientation, right?” Columbus asked. “Did you have to go into the lighthouse and see visions or whatever to unlock your ability to see these monsters and all that?”

Sands shook her head. “Yes and no. See, we do have to look into it and see those visions. But not like you guys just did. When you grow up with this stuff, the ones born in the Knowledge, you go into the lighthouse over the summer before this first school year starts. And you don’t go in with a big group or with Professor Dare. You go with your family, and your parents or guardian or whatever starts it up. Then you talk together about everything you saw. It’s like a… a big family outing.” She swallowed at the end of that, her gaze shooting briefly toward Scout and I saw a hint of a flinch before it went away.

Before anyone could say anything else, we reached the base of one of the two dorm buildings. They were four stories high, and shaped long rather than tall, with the end opposite us pointed toward the beach in the distance. They were placed parallel to one another, with a wide courtyard between them that had several benches and a fountain in the middle, and there was a glass-enclosed bridge connecting the top floor of each. I also saw a couple more of those gargoyles perched at the top of the buildings. In front of the doors we were standing at, there was a gold statue of a knight holding a sword at the ready.

“This is the boy’s dorm,” Sands informed us. “You can tell because of the statue. See, look over there.” We looked the way she was indicating, and found a gold statue of a woman holding a bow and arrow standing beside the door of the opposite building.

“Here, Vanessa was it?” Sands looked to a blonde girl clutching a thick leather-bound book to her chest. When the girl nodded, Sands gestured. “Why don’t you open the door for us?” There was a mischievous glint to the girl’s expression, and she stepped aside.

“I’ll do it,” I said quickly, taking a step that way. I put my hand out toward the door, only to yelp out loud as my wrist was caught in an iron grip. Or possibly golden grip, considering it was the statue that had caught me. The thing had moved suddenly, and I had the feeling that there wasn’t a goofy security guard inside the armor this time. This was something else. I stood still while the thing held my arm, and after a moment, it released me, but continued to stand warily with its head pointed my direction.

“First year boys aren’t allowed in the girl’s dorms or vice versa,” Sands explained. “Sorry, but it’s kinda funny to see the first time it happens. The door statues here will stop you from going in if you’re under age and don’t belong in that particular dorm. Don’t ask me how they know how old we are. Once you’re over eighteen, you can go into the other dorm as much as you want. And trust me, people do. Plus, boyfriends and girlfriends can room together if they make a special request.”

The blonde girl with the book, Vanessa apparently, shot me a grateful look. I shrugged and smiled back at her before turning my attention toward the twins. “Let me guess, four floors, four years of school.”

“Hey, nice catch,” Sands replied with a grin, giving me a thumbs up. “Yeah, first years like us are on the first floor. Next year we move up to the second, and so on. Top floor dorms are completely co-ed. They’ve got a lot of couples living together up there, so the top floor of the dorms are connected by those bridges. They’re also bigger. The rooms up there are more like apartments than dorms.”

“I’ve got a question,” Columbus raised his hand. “Aren’t those uniforms hot?” He nodded toward the clothes that the twins were wearing. “We’re on a tropical island. Actually…” As if it had just occurred to him, he looked around. “Why am I not hot? Hell, why aren’t we all sweating our asses off?”

He was right. The temperature felt just about perfect. Not too hot, and not too cold. It was just right. I hadn’t really noticed it too much before, which made me feel pretty damn stupid, but I’d forgive myself given everything else I was trying to cope with and understand. The weather not being hot enough for a tropical island like this, and the twins not roasting in those uniforms, was just one more thing.

Sands grinned back at the boy. “First, you not being hot is kind of a matter of opinion.” She winked then before continuing. “And as for the rest of it, uhhh, you see those birds over there?” Pointing off in the distance, she indicated a flock of brightly colored parrots flying just above the trees beyond the school grounds. “If you listen really close, you can kind of hear them. But they should be a lot louder. Hell, this whole place should be drowning in noise. That’s a jungle out there, literally. There’s tons of animals in that place, yet, we can’t really hear them. Why? Same reason it’s not as hot as it should be.”

“Magic?” One of the other new students, the Native American girl, asked tentatively.

“Yup!” Sands nodded toward the girl, then hesitated. “Exactly, err, what’s your name, again?”

“Aylen,” the girl answered. “Aylen Tamaya.”

“Aylen,” Sands repeated. “Right, Aylen, it’s magic. See, there’s a big forcefield shield thing all around the grounds. It maintains the temperature in here, and muffles the sound from outside. It also does a few other things, like keep track of when anyone leaves so the faculty always know when someone’s off the grounds. Which sounds like a pain in the ass, but I guess it’s necessary to keep everyone safe and whatever else. Point is, as long as you stay on the school grounds, the temperature will adjust itself to whatever you’re wearing to make you perfectly comfortable. So I could wear a tee-shirt and shorts while Scout wore a snowsuit, and we’d both be comfortable even standing next to each other.”

That… sounded pretty damn useful, actually. I whistled low. “So I guess beyond the shield it’s hot?”

“Hell yeah,” Sands bobbed her head rapidly. “It’s like a ninety degrees out there by the beach today. Step outside the shield and you’ll see how hot it can get here during the day. I think that’s part of why they make us wear these uniforms, to make us not want to go down there while we’re in class.”

There was a little more back-and-forth discussion about the shield and how well it maintained the temperature and sound before Sands pointed toward the boy’s dorm entrance. “Guys, if you go in here and past the stairs, you’ll find the first year dorms. The doors all have the names of who belongs there written beside them. Oh, and you’ll have a roommate. I think they try to pair Silverstones like you guys with a roommate that grew up in the Knowledge like Scout and me so that we can answer any questions you have. Your clothes and everything else you brought should be on your bed in there. And… what else… “

She trailed off, frowning as if trying to remember what she had forgotten. After a second or two of that, her twin leaned up and whispered in her ear. Sands snapped her fingers then. “Oh, right. Thanks, Scout. Yeah, there should be a key next to where your name is written in there.” She dug into her pocket and came out with what looked like one of those old, big cast iron keys, except that it was ruby-colored. “The dorm rooms will be locked unless you’re carrying that key with you. You don’t have to actually stick it in anything, you just have to have it and the door it matches will unlock when the key gets close enough to it. It’s cool, plus it saves you from having to take the time to use them.”

It did sound cool, and it reminded me a bit of those electronic security badges that people wore, the ones that didn’t have to be inserted anywhere, but just worked by getting near the door scanner.

“All right!” Sands stepped back from the dorm. “You guys go in, find your rooms and get sorted. We’ll head over to the girl dorms and then everyone meets back out here by the fountain in… ten minutes?”

There was a general agreement, and the boys headed in to find their rooms while Sands and Scout led the rest of us across to the other building. This time, the golden statue outside remained motionless as we approached and went through the door into the dorm itself.

The floor and walls here were dark hardwood. There was a set of stairs to the right, while an open doorway to the left led into the hallway itself. Doors lined both sides of the hall, with wall-mounted lamps between each pair of them. There were also several paintings of various mythological creatures and warriors adorning the hallway, along with the plaques besides each door with the names listed on them that Sands had already mentioned. Small manila envelopes were attached to the plaques that obviously held those keys.

Everyone spread out to find their rooms, and I did the same. Walking down the hall, I passed the others until I reached the very end, just before a window that overlooked the grounds that led down to the beach. Finally, I found the plaque that had my name written on it. Felicity Chambers. Below that, there was another plaque with the name Avalon Sinclaire.

Wait. Sinclaire? As in Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire? That… couldn’t be a coincidence. Why was I being bunked alongside someone that was obviously related to the headmistress?

Shaking off my confusion, I took the envelope down and slipped the large red key out. Turning it over in my hand, I examined the key but couldn’t see anything overtly magical about it. Not that I knew what to look for. Finally, I held the key in one hand while reaching out to try the doorknob.

It opened easily, and I stepped into the room that I would be living in for the rest of the school year.

The room was pretty damn nice, actually. I’d seen college dorms that were a hell of a lot worse than this one. It was fairly large, about twice the size of my bedroom back home. The floor was a pretty white carpet that felt soft under my feet. There were two queen-sized beds on the opposite side of the room, their headboards each resting on either side of a large window. To the other side of each bed there was a small dresser with a pair of drawers with a lamp and one of those old-fashioned wind-up alarm clocks sitting on top. On the left and right sides of the room there were closets, and on this side of the room on opposite sides of the doorway I was standing in there were a pair of desks with comfortable swivel chairs and actual computers that almost looked out of place compared to everything else I had seen so far.

One of the beds had my bag and a bunch of my clothes laid out on it. The other was occupied by a figure who sat with her back to me, fingers flying over the phone that she was holding. When I cleared my throat, she jumped and turned to face me.

Okay, wow. The girl standing in front of me, my roommate apparently, was drop-dead gorgeous. Seriously, she looked like she belonged in some kind of super model magazine or something, not attending some magic school. She stood several inches taller than me, her hair was long and pitch black, her skin flawless. Plus there was the fact that, well, to put it bluntly, she was stacked. Unless she was smuggling some actual cantaloupes under the school uniform she was wearing, I had to wonder how she was going to avoid having back problems while we did any of this fight training stuff.

“Who’re–” The girl started to say. “Wait, right. My roommate.” She managed to say the word in the same tone of voice that most people would use to describe something they scraped off their shoe.

“Yup,” I nodded, extending a hand to her while looking the girl up and down. She wore the same sort of uniform as the others I’d seen. Hers was the skirt version, similar to Scout’s, though her tie and the lapel was colored light blue rather than purple. “Flick. You must be Avalon.”

The girl regarded my hand briefly, then ignored it and stepped around me. On her way out of the room, she called airily, “Try to keep your stuff on your side of the room, Chambers. Anything I find on my side, you won’t get back.”

Then she was gone, and I let out a long, low breath. Well, clearly I had the best roommate ever. I couldn’t wait to stay up late at night and tell stories while we giggled and shared s’mores.

“Right,” I said to the empty room. “Good talk.”

Shaking that off, I moved to check my bag and all my clothes. Who cared if my roommate wasn’t exactly the friendliest person on the planet? There was an entire island to explore, magic to learn about, and plenty of much more interesting and open people to chat with.

Besides, I had a feeling that a hostile roommate wouldn’t be the most dangerous thing I ran into this year.

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