Travis Colby

Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.

At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”

As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.

A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.

Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”

Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”

Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.

Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.

A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”

“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”

Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.

For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.

“You already are one.”

******

It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.

“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”

“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”

“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”

As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.

It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.

Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.

“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”

Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.

There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.

“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”

Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”

Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was  because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.

Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”

Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”

That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”

Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”

The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”

“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”

The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”

“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”

Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.

Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”

Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”

Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.

Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”

“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”

Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.

In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.

“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.

“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”

“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”

“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”

“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”

Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”

A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”

“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.

“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”

For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”

“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”

Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”

Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.

“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”

Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.

Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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Begin Again 10-03

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“Can anyone tell me when the unification of Germany officially took place?” Professor Dare spoke while standing beside her pristine white board. Her eyes moved over the class, and I saw the small smile cross her face as she focused on the single hand that was in the air. “Besides Miss Moon, that is.”

Two seats in front of me and one over, Vanessa lowered her hand. As usual, it had shot into the air the very instant the professor (almost any professor really, not just this one) finished her question. It had gotten to the point where they had to give the rest of us a chance to answer something before letting her do it. Because when it came to anything academic or from a book, Vanessa Moon knew it. She remembered everything she read like it was still right in front of her, and she read freaking everything.

It was Tuesday, the fourteenth of November, about a week after our little adventure. We still hadn’t figured out how we were going to break into Professor Tangle’s room. Yeah, we could ask Gaia for help, but I wanted to avoid involving her as much as possible unless we absolutely had to. She had gone out on way too many limbs as it was. Especially if Ruthers was really paying as much attention to what was going on in the school as I figured he was.

Basically, she told people that she had taken us on a special excursion of her own as our monthly hunt, to make up for the fact that the last one had been sort of waylaid by Trice and his friends. Shiori, supposedly, came along by accident since she and Columbus had been together at the time. It was supposed to help explain why we had those new Stranger gifts so that we could actually use them in school without confusing everyone about where the hell they’d come from. Plus, there was the not-so-subtle hint that the headmistress had been trying to protect us in case anything like that happened again.

So no, if we got in trouble, we’d see if she could help. But I wasn’t going to let us start relying on having the headmistress take care of everything for us. No, there had to be another way into that room.

I was absently playing with a small wooden block that I’d brought in. Focusing, I could push my hand all the way into it, making my fingers effectively disappear. Or I could push them through and out the other side. It made my skin tingle, and I’d forgotten that I was doing it before starting to raise my hand.

There were giggles around me, and I looked up, belatedly realizing that I hadn’t pulled my fingers out of the block first. It was sort of fused into several of my fingers as I held my hand in the air. Blushing a little bit, I lowered my hand and shook it to make the block fall off, hurriedly tucking it into my bag with the other hand. Then I looked back to where Professor Dare was watching me with a raised eyebrow. When I kept my hand up while giving her a sheepish shrug, she nodded for me to go on.

Coughing, I started. “Um, I think it was… eighteen seventy… tw—wait, one. Eighteen seventy one? I don’t know the whole date, sorry.”

“No apologies necessary, Miss Chambers,” the woman replied with a shake of her head. “Eighteen seventy-one is correct. January eighteenth, to be absolutely precise. Very good. Now, here’s an easy one for you guys. First hand up gets to answer. What was the name of the first German Emperor?”

A few rows away, Zeke Leven raised a hand before asking, “You mean the real leader or the guy all the Silverstones think was in charge?” His tone made it pretty clear how little he thought of those people.

Professor Dare regarded him before clearing her throat. “I’m afraid that I must apologize, Mr. Leven.”

That threw him. The boy blinked, shifting in his seat as his hand lowered. “Err, apologize, Professor?”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before gesturing with a hand. The red marker nearby lifted off its perch and floated there in the air before starting to write on the white board while she continued. “Clearly, I made the very terrible mistake of beginning this class three months ago without even providing its name.”

On the board, the marker wrote, ‘Bystander History’ before capping itself. Professor Dare nodded in satisfaction before returning her gaze to Zeke. “Mistake rectified. Do you need more clarification?”

The boy’s mouth opened and shut before he shook his head, clearly struggling to maintain a completely civil voice. “No, Professor Dare. I know what class this is.” His teeth were clenched as he spoke.

“Excellent,” the woman replied simply, still smiling. “I’d hate to think that I’ve failed so spectacularly that you still have no idea what the very subject of this class is. That would be unconscionable.”

She looked toward one of the other students who had their hand up then, Travis. “Yes, Mr. Colby?”

The boy, another of my fellow Bystander-kin, gave Zeke a long look before replying. “Yeah, wasn’t it that Kaiser… uhh.. Kaiser Wilhelm dude? The guy that looks like Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica only with the epic sideburns and mustache. They’ve got a picture of him in the hall outside my room.”

“Hey, yeah, that guy,” one of the other boys put in. “There’s a picture in the library too. Dude looks mad strict. Jazz made me cover it up cuz she thought the guy was staring at us while we were–” Cutting himself off, the boy glanced toward Professor Dare. “Uh, you know, while we were studying.”

Shaking her head in obvious amusement, the professor simply moved on. “Yes, thank you. The first official leader of the German Empire was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig. Or William Frederick Louis if you prefer the English version. And he did, indeed, possess some rather impressive facial hair.”

Stepping away from the wall then, she tapped her fingers against Zeke’s desk a few times. “I also have to thank Mr. Leven for providing me with a very impressive segue into our next group project.”

She smiled through the groans that prompted before speaking up over them to make everyone quiet down. “He’s right, there are certain aspects of history that are remembered one way by Heretics and another way by the majority of the world’s population. Can anyone provide another example of this?”

A few rows back, Malcolm Harkess sat up abruptly, his well-muscled arm rising. “Vampires,” he quickly answered after Professor Dare turned her attention to him. “They were helping the British during the American Revolution. Which should, you know, sort of prove who the good guys were.”

Oh, right. He was the one I’d heard talking about seeing his ancestor fight those very same vampire redcoats during his Edge vision. I had to bite my lip to avoid arguing with his latter point. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that there were people who would take anything I said to that effect right back to Ruthers and his contingent of people who were convinced that I was spying for my mom.

Still, my eyes glanced toward Shiori. The other girl was staring intently down at a paper on her desk, hand clutching her pen. Apparently feeling my eyes on her, she looked up. Our gazes met, and I gave her a thumbs up.She smiled a little bit, a soft pink blush touching her face.

“That is one example, yes,” Professor Dare confirmed before looking for another. They came in here and there from a few other students, until she eventually waved off any more. “Thank you, everyone. Yes, there are many examples of this contradiction between Bystander and Heretic histories. Those of you who were raised by Heretics will witness that fact more in this class, while those of you raised out of the knowledge will have already seen several such differences in your classes with Professor Ross.”

There was some general noises of agreement before she continued. “With that in mind, she and I have decided to have you each work in small groups on a little project. With your group, you will choose an event from history and give a short oral presentation detailing that event from the perspective of Heretics and from the perspective of Bystanders. It should be five to ten minutes long. You will compare and contrast how that event affected both societies. These presentations will be given in front of both myself and Professor Ross Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday next week before the Thanksgiving break. The order will be decided by depositing the names of each group into a hat and choosing one at random each time a new presentation is needed. So I suggest that you be prepared on the very first day, just in case. You may, of course, get lucky and be able to wait until the last day, but I doubt any of you have had the opportunity to absorb any kind of fortune manipulation gift yet.”

There were some groans about doing a project just before a holiday vacation, but I was actually pretty intrigued. There was obviously so much different between Heretical history and the history that I had grown up with, and this sounded like an easy way to get a quick overview of some of those differences. Along with, of course, a more in depth bit of knowledge of whatever event my eventual group chose. Hell, I was already thinking through some famous bits of history that I’d kind of like to get a Heretical take on.

Yeah, I liked learning things, so sue me. Hearing a bit about a various points in Heretical history sounded like pretty much the best way to finish out the semester before going home for Thanksgiving.

Sands had her hand up and was called on. “How are we gonna make up our groups, Professor?”

Dare nodded to her. “Good question. I know you usually do this sort of thing by roommates, but we’re going to do something a little different this time.” Turning back to her desk, she reached into a drawer, producing a pretty snazzy looking green top hat. “This,” she explained, “is the same hat that we’ll be producing the order of your presentations from. Each of your names is already in it. I’m going to select one name. That person will then come up and select three more. Those four will be a group. Then I’ll select another name, and we’ll continue. Does anyone have any other questions before we get started?”

There were none, and she drew the first name. It ended up being Travis, and he chose Erin Redcliffe, one of the other boys that I didn’t have much experience with whose name was apparently Douglas, and Zeke. After him, the next person to draw names was Aylen. She got Shiori, Scout, and Malcolm.

The third name that Dare drew was mine. She nodded for me to come up, then held the hat out. When I got up there and glanced in it, I saw a pile of folded papers. Shrugging, I reached in to grab one before reading it out loud. “Ah, Rudolph?” Glancing toward the pale, somewhat heavy-set boy, I found him giving me a quick, nervous nod.

The next name that I drew was Vanessa. The second I read the note out loud, the entire class that wasn’t part of a group yet let out a long, low groan. Clearly, they wanted the genius girl for their own team. Vanessa, for her part, seemed fairly oblivious to the reaction. She just gave me a faint, distracted smile.

Finally, I reached for another paper for the last member of our group. However, this time, the paper that my fingers moved to touch actually slipped out of my grasp and literally flew to the other side of the hat. A second later, another paper lifted slowly into my hand, pressing into my palm until I took it.

When I looked up, confused, I saw Professor Dare meeting my gaze evenly. Then she winked before her expression returned to normal. “Having any trouble picking that last name, Miss Chambers?”

“Um,” I hesitated, then shook my head before straightening. “No, Ma’am.” Still uncertain about what was going on, I unfolded the paper and looked at it with a frown before my eyes abruptly widened.

My gaze flicked back to the professor before I coughed and read the note out loud. “Koren Fellows.”

The girl in question looked up from where she’d been whispering something to Rebecca. “Huh, what?”

The professor ignored my stare. “Congratulations, Miss Fellows. You’re part of a group with Mr. Parsons, Miss Moon, and Miss Chambers. I’m sure the four of you will put together a good project.”

******

“So she put you in a group with Koren on purpose?” Sands asked later that day. She and Scout had come to find me on my way out of the cafeteria after dinner. Now they were leading me out of the main building and over the grounds. Apparently they had an idea about how to get into Tangle’s apartment.

I nodded, keeping my voice low. “Yeah, I mean, the first paper moved. Not just a little bit, like, completely. It flew away. And the new paper just picked itself up and went into my hand. Then she winked at me. It was totally purposeful. She set it up to put Koren and me in the same group together.”

“So obviously she knows about the,” Sands started before dropping her voice to a whisper, “relation.”

Scout, who was playing with a borrowed Herbie by flipping him back and forth between her hands (obviously to scare off any extra-dimensional kidnappers with the threat of tasting our stony savior’s sharp steel), looked up at that. Her eyes met mine before the girl nodded, speaking a single word quietly, “Helping.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Definitely trying to help by getting us together. Which means the headmistress has been talking to her. They probably noticed my… umm, less than fantastic attempts to strike up a conversation so far.” I’d tried a few more times since that first, none of which were more successful.

“So basically,” Sands put in with a tiny snicker, “they’ve set you up with the cue ball of friendships.”

I blinked sidelong toward the girl at that, suddenly confused. “Wait, what? Cue ball of friendships?”

“Sure, you know,” she replied with a gesture. “Like that game Bystanders play that’s basically baseball only with all the challenge gone. Where they put the ball on the stick and cue the player to hit it?”

In spite of myself, I giggled. “Oh. Oh, no. You mean tee-ball. The thing the ball sits on is called a tee. Just like a golf tee, where they put the ball on that little thing so it’s not just sitting on the ground.”

Sands squinted at me. “If that’s tee-ball, then what the hell is a cue-ball?”

Still trying to hold back even more giggles, I explained. Through it all, Sands gradually blushed more with each word. When I was done, she shook her head, eyes rolling. “Okay, yeah, I’d laugh too.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I replied casually. “That’s pretty much how I feel every time we find out more about this whole true history of the world and Heretics thing. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on this stuff, you guys surprise me again. And with that in mind, why are we at the faculty building?” I had belatedly realized where the twins were leading me just before we cut across the path toward the back entrance. “Wait a second, we’re not going for Tangle’s apartment right now, are we?”

“Course not,” Sands replied while Scout shook her head. “We’re just going in to show you around. Trust us,” she added while grabbing the door to pull it open. “It’s cool. Go on in.”

I don’t know what I expected to see inside, but a simple hall way with blank doors on either side wasn’t it. The place kind of looked boring and utilitarian. And it was definitely… smaller than I’d thought faculty apartments would be. The doors leading into each weren’t even that far apart from each other. “Eesh,” I muttered, “don’t become a Crossroads teacher for the living space.”

“Tell me about it, right?” a voice spoke up from a little to the right, where a stairway led up.

I yelped, turning to find Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s dad, standing there with a tiny smirk. “Girls, you weren’t working your way toward any more trouble, were you?”

“Working our way toward, old man? We swim in trouble and you know it,” Sands shot back before shrugging. “But right now we’re just showing Flick our old room.”

“Oh right,” Professor Mason snapped his fingers. “You mean the place where I keep all my fishing stuff now.”

Sands made a face at him. “You do not.”

“Oh yeah, yeah.” The man was nodding seriously. “Had to put up an anti-stench enchantment and everything. You’d be surprised how nasty some of that bait smells. Whoooeeeeee, it’s some awful stuff.”

“You’re a jerk,” Sands informed her father before sticking her tongue out at him while trying to talk at the same time. “Toal ‘erk.”

“Toal Erk, huh?” Professor Mason smirked, reaching out to ruffle both their hair at the same time. “Well, okay then, Erk one and Erk two. Fight amongst yourselves about which one is which, and show off our place to your friend. You know the rules. Don’t go anywhere but our apartment. Got it?”

Each of them gave him a thumbs up, and he headed out the nearby backdoor to cross the grounds, apparently on his way to his own dinner.

Through it all, I had been staring at the man who had gone through so much effort to retrieve my mother’s weapons. Why? Was he one of her friends or silent allies, or had he just wanted a trophy? Maybe he hadn’t been able to stand the idea of her weapons being among Alters.

“Okay, come on,” Sands started by heading for the same stairs that their dad had come down. They led me up to the second floor and to one of the other blank doors in that seemingly too-small hallway. “This is our place. Err, Dad’s place now, I guess. Anyway, come on in.”

When I stepped through the door, I found myself standing in a living room that was clearly much too large considering how close the other doors were. Seeing that, I coughed. “You know, at a certain point I’m going to get used to the Heretic love of TARDIS technology.”

“Tar-what now?” Sands asked blankly.

I gave her a wide eyed, wide mouthed, appalled look. “Okay, well. You guys have unbelievable magical abilities, the ability to inherit special powers from things normal humans can’t see, and the technology to instantly transport anywhere in the world. Bystanders have Doctor Who. So we’ll call it a tie.”

Sands stared openly at me, then turned to stare at her sister before speaking. “She’s crazy.” Turning back to me, she repeated the point. “You’re crazy. Anyway, we can talk about your favorite hospital shows later. Right now, you wanna know how we’re gonna get you into Tangle’s apartment, right?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “On a scale of one to ten, how much am I gonna hate this plan?”

Sands cocked her head to the side to consider the question. “That depends. How long can you hold your breath? Oh, and how sensitive is your sense of smell? I mean, you don’t pass out around, say, manure or anything, do you?”

“Right,” I muttered, “So eleven then. Fan-freaking-tastic.”

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Basic Training 7-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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