Zeke Leven

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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A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for a day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting a long time for, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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Medical Leave 15-02

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Hours later, after the regular school day had ended, the sound of my staff hitting sticks filled the air.

“Again, harder this time. Don’t be afraid of your new strength, Flick. Trust me, the staff won’t break.”

After giving me those instructions, Deveron stepped back along the sandy beach while holding a pair of escrima sticks up in the defensive position. “It’s meant to stand a lot more force than you can put on it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded and tried to stop holding back. Ever since I’d killed that werewolf and taken on his strength, I’d felt like I always had to watch what I was doing. Sure, being able to lift a thousand pounds (barely) wasn’t an unbelievable amount in the grand scheme of super powers. But it was about ten times what I was accustomed to being able to lift, so pretty much everything felt a lot more flimsy. Everything I did throughout the day required so much less effort to accomplish the same amount. It was taking a lot to get used to. And that meant it was harder for me to stop holding back while we trained.

Still, this time I tried to put my actual strength behind the blows as I swung the staff at my… god, what was Deveron? My tutor/sort-of step-father? God, this was really weird. And the thought of it distracted me enough that he simply slid my staff out of the way with one of his sticks before giving me a swift smack against the stomach with the other one. It didn’t knock the wind out of me or anything, but it did sting enough that his point was made without him having to say anything. Focus, Flick. Think later.

Abandoning my thoughts, I let my body work automatically, swinging high, then low, then bringing the staff around in a spin for momentum as I pivoted to go for his opposite leg. Each time, one of Deveron’s sticks was there. He was fast enough to easily keep up with everything I was doing, and it didn’t seem that difficult for him. I felt like a child wrestling with… well, her dad. In a way, it was reassuring. Especially since it meant that I didn’t have to worry much about accidentally hurting him.

We continued that way, moving back and forth through the sand. Sometimes he took the lead and made me defend, showing me where I messed up whenever I was inevitably hit. But mostly he had me attack him, playing defense while occasionally correcting my stance, or the position of my hands. Now that he was actually paying attention and trying to teach us, Deveron was actually a good tutor. I was already learning a lot from him, and between his efforts and Avalon’s, I was becoming at least halfway decent.

Finally, after an intense session of that, we took a little break. I stooped and picked up a water bottle, gulping it down for a second as I looked up and down the beach. We were the only ones in the immediate area, though there were others spread further apart. I could see about a dozen second years playing some kind of soccer game up away from the beach on the end of the school grounds. I considered it ‘some kind of soccer’ because there were clearly several added rules that I didn’t recognize. I mean, the last time I checked, soccer didn’t include flying remote drone robot things firing stunning lasers at whoever had the ball. And people definitely weren’t allowed to use weapons in the normal game. Plus, I was pretty sure that the ball wasn’t supposed to occasionally electrify itself.

Well, that was one way to train. Beyond the murderball, there were several other groups along the beach itself. Most of them were swimming, or just walking through the sand. A couple guys from my year were throwing a frisbee around. And, of course, there were more people training, like we were.

I took all that in for a moment before looking to Deveron. “I— I’m sorry you didn’t get to see Abigail.”

The boy was drinking from his own bottle, and froze a bit at my words. For a moment, he didn’t say anything. Then I saw him swallow noticeably before lowering the bottle. His eyes came up to find mine. “I believe you when you say that she’s all right. I just…” He hesitated, trailing off awkwardly.

“She’s your daughter,” I said for him. “And—and you haven’t really had a chance to see her in person.”

His eyes closed, and I saw him give a slight shudder at the reminder. “Yes,” Deveron said quietly. “And I would… I would give almost anything to be there with her, to be with my daughter.” He swallowed hard before pushing on, his voice weaker. “Except her safety. That’s the one thing I won’t risk to be with her. I won’t put any of you in more danger than you already are, just to make myself feel better.”

Wincing, I stepped that way, reaching out to take his hand. Squeezing it, I was quiet for a moment while searching for the right words. “Hey, I… you’re a very different person than I thought you were, when we first met.” I finally managed a little weakly as I cursed myself for not knowing what to say.

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me briefly before giving me a smile, one that actually reached his eyes, unlike his earlier mocking smirks. “That’s funny, you’re exactly the kind of person I thought you were.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I squeezed his hand a little tighter reflexively. “I’m… I’m glad I don’t have to hate you anymore.” It sounded awkward, but I felt like it needed to be said. “Don’t be a jerk again.”

“Scout’s honor,” Deveron replied, holding up two fingers. “And I’m glad you don’t have to hate me too.”

“Well, okay,” I shot back quickly. “But I’m not sure how Scout would know if you’re lying or not?”

Snorting, Deveron started to say something else, but before he got anywhere, I saw Avalon approaching. She was already moving pretty easily on those crutches, and for a second I was distracted at the sight of how graceful she was even as she navigated her way across the sand. If it was me, I was pretty sure I’d already have managed to get both crutches stuck before falling on my face. And yes, I was including my control over sand in that assessment. I’d used them briefly when I’d sprained my ankle pretty badly in middle school. But, well, let’s just say I didn’t get the hang of them.

“Chambers,” Avalon spoke up once she was close enough. As Deveron turned that way as well, she leaned on the crutches and dug through the pocket of her uniform jacket that she had yet to change out of before producing some kind of pendant on a chain. She tossed it toward me. “Congratulations.”

Blinking, I caught the necklace before looking down at it. “Aww, presents? And here I thought you weren’t even going to pay attention to the all-important three-month roommate anniversary.” The pendant itself was silver, with the letters CRA for Crossroads Academy written across it in red on one side, and some unfamiliar runes on the back in elaborate blue script that seemed to glow a little bit.

Easing up the last few steps with the crutches, Avalon rolled her eyes a little too pointedly, obviously hiding her amusement. “It’s from Gaia,” she explained, pushing on before I could do more than open my mouth. “And no, she doesn’t care about the roommate anniversary either. People who wear those aren’t targeted by the security and alarms after hours. It means you don’t have to listen to curfew.”

My eyes widened and I turned my attention back to the thing once more. “Wait, really? The request finally went through?” I rubbed my thumb over the runes curiously before muttering a little under my breath, “I thought I’d end up with less privileges when I got back from that trip, not more of them.”

“Gaia made sure it happened,” Avalon replied. “She pointed out that locking you in the room all night isn’t going to do anything, and that if you’re going to be getting in trouble, you should be able to use all the extra time you have to train instead of sitting in the room twiddling your thumbs for eight hours.”

“Well, that should be useful,” Deveron smiled faintly and nudged me. “Now we’ll have plenty of time for extra training sessions. You better be ready, because I’m gonna use it to put you through your paces.”

“Oh good,” I shot back while making a face at him. “Cuz I was afraid I’d be bored.” After that reflexive retort, I blinked as something occurred to me. “Wait, are you saying you have curfew clearance too?”

He winked before waggling his fingers at me. “We mentors have many vast and mysterious powers.” Shrugging then, Deveron added, “Besides, I already spoke to Gaia about what’s going on. She agrees that you need a lot more training. And since I’m available, I’m afraid you’re kind of stuck with me.”

Heaving a long, dramatic, put-upon sigh, I made myself nod sadly. “I suppose I’ll just have to deal with it.” Glancing up to give Avalon the best puppy-dog eyes that I could, I added, “See what I deal with?”

“You’ll survive,” the other girl replied in a voice that was so dry it was probably flammable. Then she looked toward Deveron with a pointed gaze. “And if you don’t train her right, I’m coming after you.”

He smiled easily then. “Well, then I’ll just have to make sure I make her good enough to protect me.”

“Pfft,” I made a dismissive noise. “If she comes after you, I’m gonna be on the sidelines with popcorn.”

Before he could find a response to that, Avalon nodded past us and murmured quietly, “Incoming.”

Turning to glance over my shoulder, I found Malcolm Harkess approaching. The big Bystander-born boy was still the only person in our grade besides Shiori who had a chance of keeping up with Avalon during training. I didn’t know what kind of life he’d had that let him know how to fight so well even before we’d gotten here, but he was clearly incredibly competitive. He hated the fact that Avalon constantly beat him no matter how close he seemed to get, and kept challenging her to another match.

And Zeke was with him. Joy of joys. The Heretic-born boy gave me a brief, considering look as the two of them approached before speaking up. “Still trying hard to get the hang of that big stick, I see.”

Making a considering noise, I pretended to examine my staff critically. “Yeah… but you know, I don’t think it’s long enough.” Looking to him, I added brightly, “I know, could I borrow the one in your ass?”

The pompous boy stiffened at that, giving me a hard squint. “I’ll tell you what you can do with that sti-”

“Damn it, Zeke,” Malcolm interrupted with obvious annoyance. “Flirt with blondie on your own time.”

I don’t know whose outraged ‘WHAT?’ in response to that was louder: Zeke’s, Deveron’s, Avalon’s, or mine. They all came in a single chorus as the four of us whipped our attention toward the big jock.

Personally, I was going to need an entire session with Klassin Roe just to wash away the dirtiness of that insinuation. But if Malcolm even noticed the glares he was getting from… well, everyone, he didn’t acknowledge them. Instead, his focus remained fixed on Avalon. “Sens—I mean, ahh, Professor Katarin says he wants you to meet him in the gym for a few tests. Has to make sure you’re healing up right.”

Smirking, Zeke nudged his teammate a little. “Well, I bet you could beat her if you fought now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm shot back with clear disgust and annoyance. “Because that’d mean a hell of a lot. Just like if I beat her while she was tied up and unconscious. Shut the fuck up, Zeke. I don’t wanna beat her because she can’t fight back. I wanna be good enough to beat her.” Turning his attention to Avalon then, he added pointedly. “And I will be. One of these times, I’m gonna beat you. After you’re all healed.”

“Good,” my roommate replied coolly. “I can’t get any better without a challenge. Keep training.” Then she looked to me. “See you later, Chambers.” Her mouth opened like she was going to say something else, but a glance toward the three boys stopped her. Instead, she just gave me a nod before turning.

Malcolm and Zeke left then too, going back the way they’d come. That left me alone with Deveron again. He looked at me curiously before asking, “You heard anything about Roxa yet?”

Biting my lip, I replied, “According to Sean’s uncle, the pack was spread out for the holidays. But they’re supposed to be introducing her to them… today, I think.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “From what I know about them, that should be interesting.”

Nodding slowly, I sighed. “I wish I could be there. I wish I could… do anything to help. I wish–”

He stopped me. “You didn’t mean for her to be pulled along. And as for what those assholes did, it’s on them, not you.”

“I know…” I frowned despite that. “But I still wish…”

“Yeah,” Deveron’s hand squeezed my arm briefly. “She’ll be okay. Just give her time. You focus on taking care of yourself right now. And that means…” He tugged the escrima sticks back out of his pocket, tapping them against each other. “Let’s go.”

Tilting my head from one side, then to the other to crack my neck, I nodded. “Right.” Readying my staff, I took a breath and watched him for a second before throwing myself into another series of attacks. The sound of our weapons clashing against one another filled the air once more.

Throughout the rest of our training, however, I couldn’t help but be distracted. I hoped Roxa was okay. I wondered what she was doing, what being around that pack of werewolves was like, and how she was handling all of it. I meant what I’d said to Deveron: I wished I could be there with her, help her in at least some… small way.

Good luck, Roxa, I thought to myself while hoping yet again that the girl’s meeting with the werewolf pack was going all right. Just give us a little time. We’ll find Pace’s necklace.

I promise.

******

Then it was the next day, Saturday. The rest of the team and I were following Professor Kohaku toward the Pathmaker building for our little field trip to the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies.

“I thoroughly disagree with this entire endeavor,” the security chief was informing us. “The six of you are students, not investigators. You should be kept here where it’s…” she paused. “All right, I was going to say safe, but I’m well aware of how you would rightfully react to that. But it is still safer than sending you out on some orokana mission to investigate a woman that has been in a coma for months.”

“Maybe we won’t find anything interesting,” I admitted. “But you guys can’t go because it would draw too much attention. Right now, they’ll just see us as students on a field trip. You know, for training.”

The woman looked at me briefly before letting out a sigh. “Be careful,” she instructed firmly. “That goes for all of you. You’ll be meeting with a Doctor Therasis. Listen to what he tells you and do not get in anyone’s way. There are plenty of security measures in the hospital itself, but you also have the emergency beacons I’ve given you. If anything happens, anything, we’ll be right there. Understand?”

She waited until the six of us confirmed her words before ushering us into the building. “Fine then,” the woman spoke under her breath while still not sounding very happy about it. “Let’s get this over with.”

As promised, after we stepped through the Pathmaker portal a few minutes later, we found a man in a doctor’s lab coat waiting for us in the receiving room. He was a short, older man who kind of looked like Colonel Sanders with his neatly trimmed, pointed white beard and mustache. He was also smiling broadly as we appeared, his face jolly. “Welcome! Welcome. Good to see you.” Stepping forward, he proceeded to shake all our hands enthusiastically. “I’m Doctor Therasis. Thank you for coming.” He even took the time to rub Vulcan’s head, and produced some kind of treat from his pocket that the robot dog quickly devoured.

“Uh, thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” I managed, surprised by the man’s cheerfulness. “Sorry if we’re, you know, interrupting. We know you guys must be really busy here.”

The man just smiled even more broadly. “Of course, of course. We work hard to save lives, and it’s a never-ending process.” His smile faltered just a little and I saw the toll that working in such a place must have taken on him before he shook it off. “But the point is, we need as many new recruits to our little medical haven as possible. So we love when Crossroads students show an interest in our work.”

To Avalon, he asked, “And how are your muscles feeling, dear? Everything coming along all right?”

“Not fast enough,” she muttered with clear annoyance.

“Ahh, well, we can’t rush these things.” Doctor Therasis smiled at her like a kindly grandfather. “Your muscles have to heal correctly. Better to do it slow and right than quickly and wrong. Don’t you worry, Miss Sinclaire, you’ll be in full fighting shape before you know it.”

Clapping his hands together once, the cheerful man pivoted. “Now then, shall we start with a standard tour? After that, we’ll move into the more interesting and specific areas of our work.”

We were going to have to go through at least the first part of this before finding an excuse to slip away and look for Professor Tangle. So, we agreed and began to file out of the room after the man as he led us on a tour of the hospital.

I just hoped that, by the end of this visit, we’d have some actual answers.

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Medical Leave 15-01

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“I swear to Prosser, Chambers,” Avalon’s grumpy voice insisted as the two of us walked down the hallway, “if you ask me one more time if I’m all right, I’m going to be forced to hurt you very, very badly.”

It was about a week after the events of Thanksgiving. Friday morning, to be specific. Breakfast was over, and we were both on our way to our first class of the day: Introduction to Heretical Magic.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I held up both hands apologetically while walking backwards so I could face the other girl. “It’s just that, well… you know.” Trailing off weakly, I looked up to see her glaring at me.

“Just what?” She leaned on her crutches (yeah, crutches) and squinted at me pointedly. “Even with these things, I could still kick your ass up and down this corridor. You want me to prove it?” In spite of her actual words, I could tell she was just lashing out at the very idea of feeling weak in any way.

Because as it turned out, things back at Crossroads didn’t completely freeze while I wasn’t there to see them. Apparently, someone had tried to kill Avalon again while we were gone. This time, it had happened while she and Scout were on their way along the beach to feed Choo. Someone had knocked out Scout before hitting Avalon with some kind of… of drug or poison. The drug had completely paralyzed the girl’s limbs. She could move her head, but her arms and legs were helpless. Then that person had dragged her the last few feet to the ocean and shoved her head under the water.

Thinking about how that must have felt, how terrifying it had to have been, made me feel sick to my stomach. No matter how okay Avalon pretended she was, I knew how much taking care of herself, defending herself, meant to her. The fact that someone had managed to paralyze her limbs so she couldn’t, and then tried to drown her… I thought of how I would feel with my head forced under the water and held there while I remained completely incapable of moving my arms or legs in any way.

With that in mind, was it any big surprise that I had really wanted to hug the other girl all week long?

Anyway, whoever had tried to kill Avalon might have finished the job if the protection spell (the one that I now knew Wyatt had put on her) hadn’t done its job. Professor Kohaku and Gaia had both shown up within seconds of each other. But as soon as they had arrived, the shadowy figure had vanished.

They had pulled the nearly drowned Avalon out of the water and took her to medical. She recovered, of course. But apparently whatever magic poison she’d been hit with was going to take time to completely flush out of her system. Which meant that she’d be walking with crutches for a few more days, since her legs weren’t responsive enough to walk normally. Needless to say, she was even more grumpy than usual over the situation, especially since certain people (like me) kept asking if she was okay.

Now, I shook my head. “No, no. That’s okay. You don’t have to prove it. I get it, you’re still a complete badass. If anything, you’re even tougher now because you’re already holding a couple things you can beat me with.” I gestured to the crutches before reaching out to open the door that led to the classroom.

“Damn straight,” she assured me before making her way past and into the room. I heard the murmur of conversation beyond dip a bit as the people noticed her before gradually picking up again. Still, as I followed her, I saw several other students still staring at my roommate as the two of us made our way across the miniature auditorium-like room to the table where our team was set up. And that, of course, was another source of Avalon’s annoyance. People wouldn’t stop staring at her. I mean, people stared at Avalon all the time. Especially when she was running or working out. Because duh, look at her. But this was different. Now they were either looking at her with pity because she’d almost died, or with suspicion because yet again she had (supposedly) been responsible for bringing a threat to the school.

It was annoying. I was annoyed, so I couldn’t even begin to guess how Avalon felt about the situation. But she mostly ignored people unless they actually confronted her. Zeke Leven’s nose had already been broken once (it healed quickly, of course) from one of the nasty comments that he had made. After that, most of the other students had backed off and limited themselves to staring and obviously talking behind her back. Which was still annoying and stupid, but at least they weren’t pushing her further.

On the way to the table, I noticed Koren looking at us as well. When she saw me glance that way, the other girl held her hand close to her chest to make her motions less obvious before extending her pinkie and thumb out in the pantomime of a phone. Then she formed a circle with her thumb and index finger, with her other fingers raised above it. The ‘okay’ sign. She’d called her mom and things were still okay.

The sign made me let out a breath of relief. Of course, Koren was calling several times a day, but she always let me know when she’d checked in. She was using the phone that I’d gotten from Gaia to check in. I’d let her borrow it over the week since, to be completely fair, Abigail was her mother. She deserved to be able to check on her any time she wanted to. Anything to make her feel better about not being able to be there with her constantly. I had a pretty good idea of how that felt, and it sucked.

Obviously, Abigail was too old to be one of the normal Eden’s Garden students (though Seller had said he was going to work with her on at least basic knowledge of how to protect herself). Fortunately, this apparently wasn’t a completely unheard of situation. There had been older people made Heretics before, both accidentally or purposefully. So they had other plans of what to do in those situations. In this particular case, Seller had taken her on as essentially an apprentice. In addition to teaching her to protect herself, he was going to help her find another job within the Garden itself. Abigail had several choices. There was taking care of the various Alter-animals that they kept around, being a teacher of one of the Bystander-type subjects, taking care of the kids that were too young to be students, and a few other possibilities. Apparently Abigail hadn’t actually decided which one of them she was going to do.

Well, to be completely accurate, Abigail did know what she wanted to do. She wanted to change everything about Heretical society. She wanted to free all the Alters that the Garden was basically keeping as slaves, rewrite their laws, and essentially bitch-slap everyone involved in perpetuating the ‘every Alter is an evil abomination that needed to be massacred’ lie. So yeah, she knew what she wanted to do. But it was taking time to figure out what she would do for the moment.

When Avalon and I reached the spot where most of the rest of our team was (Sean hadn’t arrived yet), we found Shiori there as well. She was perched on the end of the table, talking to her brother. As the two of us approached, the cute little Asian girl glanced up before blushing just a little bit. “Oh, uh, hey, Flick. Hi, Avalon.” Her gaze lingered slightly before she flinched and looked away. I knew she felt guilty about the fact that Scout had been hurt and Avalon almost killed on their way to feed her little friend. Both of the girls had told her repeatedly not to worry about it, that they could’ve been out for any reason and the attack could have happened at any time. But it clearly didn’t stop all of her guilt.

In spite of that, she still smiled a little bit after taking a moment to collect herself. Returning her gaze to me, the other girl asked with that entirely too innocent tone that came whenever she was trying to tell one of her jokes, “Hey, Flick. What kind of coffee do incredibly pregnant cows like to drink?”

Despite groans from the others, I willingly took the bait. “I dunno, what kind of coffee do they like?”

Her frankly adorable smile widened even more then, and Shiori promptly answered, “Decalf.”

Our giggles were drowned out by the chorus of groans from Columbus, Avalon, and Sands. Scout just sat there smiling quietly to herself. Then another voice spoke up. “Hey, what’d I miss this time?” Sean was there, with Vulcan in tow. The boy stood at the other side of the table, already pulling out his chair.

Rather than explain the joke, or even say it again like she usually would have, Shiori just looked at Sean for a moment. Her face flushed a little for an entirely different reason before she pushed herself off the table. “I’ll—uh, I’ll see you guys later,” the girl spoke a little awkwardly before walking away.

I sighed inwardly in spite of myself, noticing the way Sean winced. Yeah, Shiori wasn’t exactly happy with him. Actually, she was kind of pissed. Apparently, he’d unthinkingly mentioned her little secret to his uncle and the man’s boyfriend, the one who had come to help Roxa. Both of them were fine with it, of course. But the fact remained that Sean had spilled her secret without actually asking her first. And as scared as the other girl was about the wrong people finding out about her, she hadn’t taken the news well. Ever since the initial scene where she’d pretty much laid into him about telling people things that weren’t his to tell, Shiori hadn’t really spoken more than a couple words directly to the boy all week.

Sighing, Sean took his seat before looking at his roommate. “Sorry, man. I deserve it. I should’ve asked her if it was okay before I went to see my uncle. I just thought it was okay since, well, you know.”

We did. His uncle was dating a werewolf. Obviously he wasn’t going to start blabbing about Shiori’s half-vampire state. But I also knew why Shiori was upset. Trustworthy or not, it was a big secret. And it was hers. It was her life. She should be the one who had control of it, who got to decide who knew. Sean had told two men that Shiori herself had never met. I didn’t blame her for being upset about it.

But I did hope that the two of them worked it out soon. I really didn’t like it when people I cared about were mad at each other. It made me feel sick inside despite myself. Which I guessed stemmed mostly from a childhood of believing that my mother had willingly and maliciously abandoned Dad and me.

Meanwhile, Columbus just shook his head at Sean. “Hey, it’s between you and her. Don’t worry though, I think she’ll be okay. Just apologize whenever she gives you a chance, and leave her alone until then.”

Sean was nodding while the door to the class opened and Professor Carfried entered. The young teacher was carrying a bag over one shoulder, whistling as he headed for the middle of the little pit area. “Good morning, class!” the man announced once he’d reached the center of the room, next to some kind of huge empty fish tank that had already been sitting there. Holding the bag up, he let his gaze pass over the students quickly to make sure we were all present and accounted for. “Everyone here? No one missing in action or still asleep in their breakfast? Perfect, let’s get started then, because we’ve got a lot to go over today.” He grinned at us. “It’s time to learn a brand new spell!”

With that, Carfried opened up the bag and dumped it out on the nearby table. Several dozen silvery metal collars fell into view, scattering over the surface. Necklaces, I realized after a second.

“All right, one person from each team come up and get necklaces for the rest of your group,” Carfried announced. “Don’t be shy, there’s one for everyone. And yes, boys, you’ll be wearing them too.”

Sands went up for us, and I let my gaze flick over toward another of the tables, where there were only five people instead of six. Paul, Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and Isaac. Roxa’s team. As far as the five of them knew, Roxa had had some kind of family emergency that required her to take a leave of absence from the school. Gaia was trying to make it easier for Roxa to rejoin the school if (no, when, I sternly reminded myself) we managed to get that necklace from Pace so that her werewolf-side would be hidden. Her team wasn’t happy about losing her, but at least it would be safe for Roxa to come back.

As I glanced that way, I saw that one of them, Douglas, was staring at me. He was a skinny little guy that I had never seen without his black baseball cap with the New York Rangers logo. As far as I knew, he was Heretic-born, so I was curious about how he’d become a fan of them. Then again, Scout really liked the Minnesota Twins, so I supposed it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary or anything.

At the moment, the boy was kind of staring at me. I met his gaze, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then it seemed like he thought better of it and looked away, returning his attention to the rest of his table just as Paul, the tall, charismatic boy from Kentucky, came back to their table with a handful of the necklaces and started to hand them out. Doug took one and ignored me.

“What was that all about?” Columbus asked, drawing my attention back to them. He was looking between me and the other table where Douglas was, his eyebrows raised with obvious curiosity.

I shrugged. “Beats me. I don’t think I’ve said more than three words to Doug all year while we weren’t in class. Maybe he wants to ask me what it’s like being the roommate of the most gorgeous girl in school.”

A sharp pain in my ankle then reminded me that while Avalon didn’t have full use of her legs or feet, she did have a pair of crutches that she could use quite well. She was squinting at me, though I could see a slight pink color to her cheeks. “Knock it off, Chambers,” she muttered before shifting in her seat.

“Yeah.” Columbus grinned. “Besides, it doesn’t have to be her he’s interested in. I mean, you’re the one he’s staring at, and you’re not exactly an ugly hag yoursel–” That was as far as the boy got before I saw Avalon make a jerking motion under the table with her crutch, and his words turned into a yelp.

Thankfully for both my embarrassment and Columbus’s shins, Sands returned with the necklaces then and spread them over the table. I picked one up, trying once more to actually focus on class.

“Everyone have their chokers?” Carfried asked, glancing around the room curiously before nodding in satisfaction. “Excellent. Now, we’re going to turn them into not-chokers.” The man smiled at his own joke before clearing his throat. “Ah, what I mean is, we are going to use magic that will allow you to use the choker to breathe, even if you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If you’re wearing one of these after they have the appropriate spells on them and you activate it, you will be able to breathe through poison gas, under water, or in any environment where oxygen is unavailable. With your skill and strength levels as far as magic goes, you should all be able to make a necklace that lasts about one hour after activation.”

Around the room, I saw several students glance toward our table. Specifically, toward Avalon. And I heard Zeke mutter sarcastically, “Gee, I wonder what prompted this lesson.”

“Well,” Professor Carfried spoke up clearly and loudly, addressing the boy. “I was going to ask for a volunteer to demonstrate, but it seems like we already have one. Thank you, Mr. Leven. Come on down here.” He gestured with a hand. “Come on, come on. Don’t be shy all of a sudden. And don’t worry, I’m not going to choke you. We’ll start with something much safer: terrible smells.”

With that, Carfried pointed a hand to the nearby empty fish tank that I’d noticed earlier. From his pocket, he withdrew two stones with writing on them. “Smell of rotting eggs,” he announced before dropping the stone in the tank. “And smell of full baby diapers.” Then he dropped the second stone.

“Come then, Mr. Leven. We’ll start by letting you poke your head in the tank to take a nice big sniff. See how long you can last. Then we’ll see how very helpful the oxygen spell actually is.”

Zeke looked like he wanted to do absolutely anything else, including possibly punching the teacher. But he did what he was told anyway, despite his disgust. I almost felt a little sorry for him.

Class went on that way, and we all learned to make the magic collars. Personally, I was actually really happy about the lesson. Because it meant that I’d be able to spend more time with my sharks and really get down where they liked to swim.

Still, throughout the class and the rest of the day, one thing stayed on my mind. Tomorrow was Saturday, which meant we would be going to the hospital to see Tangle.

Hopefully, we’d find actual answers there about why she or someone was so obsessed with killing Avalon.

One way or another.

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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 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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The Next Step 8-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, let’s get started.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asenath.

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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 of 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, though 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 the 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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