Carpet adhesive. Carpet adhesive and pleather. Those were the smells I would always associate with the first day of college. Well, not college really, because that didn’t start till Monday and this was only Saturday.
Still, it was move-in day and the first day of being away from home and the first day of whatever this was. X-Men academy or Hogwarts, or maybe just the school for the freaky and furry kids.
Caeco was sitting next to me, absolutely still, reclining in the plush pleather cinema seats of the classroom, re-reading the material we had received along with our ID cards and room keys. Not sure why she bothered, as I’m certain she’d memorized the whole damn thing the first time she read it. Having nano-sized computers in your bloodstream is useful that way.
The room was brand new, as were the dorms, the student lounges, and every other room and hall in the place. The building itself wasn’t new, just completely redone and redesigned. The shell was an old industrial building on Pine Street in Burlington, a remnant from the city’s youth. There were numerous old factory and warehouse buildings along Pine, now converted to artists studios, architectural salvage and recycling stores and, of course, restaurants. In Vermont, everyone is a foodie, and new restaurants pop up all the time.
The building stood a bit apart, surrounded by what might have once been storage yards but were now newly paved parking lots. Beast, my trusty ‘72 Toyota Land Cruiser, was safely parked between the gleaming white lines of a secluded spot, well away from the other students’ cars.
It was so bizarre—just a few weeks ago, I’d been in high school, a place my friends, Rory and Jonah were still stuck in, and here I was about to begin college.
Despite the smell of adhesive, which was strongest in the carpeted tiers of seats, the room wasn’t classroom typical. The brick walls and overhead steel beams had been left exposed and the floor of the room, at the teacher’s level, was concrete that had been polished to a gleaming shine. The effect was much warmer, more of an artsy marketing firm vibe, like everything here was balanced to enhance the creative juices. The halls and even our dorm rooms were similar.
Aunt Ashling, her partner Darci, Levi, and Caeco’s mom had all left after helping unload our stuff in the freezing January cold and then taking us to warm up for lunch downtown at the wood-fired pizza place. Since coming back, we had barely enough time to meet our respective roommates before all four of us headed to the largest of the three classrooms in the building, following the instructions of the staff. It was time for a mandatory welcome meeting with the program director, Gina Velasquez. Caeco and I had met her once before. She was just a weary, distraught mom then, excited and relieved beyond measure to get her daughter back. But that’s a whole other story.
Caeco’s an on-time kind of girl, no doubt the result of her military programming, so that meant all four of us were almost the first into the meeting room. With all seating options open, we had mutually decided on the middle of the three sections, third row from the top, with nobody above us. From there, we watched the others file in.
It looked like about forty of us, in a room that would seat a hundred to a hundred and twenty with ease.
Caeco was on her third time through the brochures, policies, and other propaganda, so I occupied myself studying my classmates.
My new roommate, Mack, was sitting one row below me with his sister, Jetta, who was Caeco’s roommate. They seemed really close, which made sense as Mack had told me they were orphans. He was nineteen, a lean five-ten or so, with a surprisingly deep voice and messy brown hair. His sister was two years younger, sporting bottle bright red hair and brown eyes. Standing about five-six in leggings and a Lycra performance top, she looked athletic—and serious. Cute though. My initial opinion was that she might be a good fit as Caeco’s roomate. In fact, even her bracelets were those paracord survival things that you see being sold in outdoor stores and surplus catalogs. Her belongings were minimalist and she appeared to favor practical over flashy. Much like her brother. Mack hadn’t brought much stuff, either. All of their personal gear had fit in their older compact Chevy pickup truck. But everything was clean, well cared for, and functional.
Caeco and I had each brought a dorm-style fridge and small microwave, gifts from Levi. When I extended fridge rights to Mack, he had seemed both surprised and cautiously pleased.
Mack was a freshman like Caeco and me, but Jetta would be finishing out her high school degree here while taking college courses too. I never heard of that before, but what the hell… anything to get out of high school.
Most of the kids in the room seemed to be just kids—human, that is. I know that because I scanned them with my Sight and their auras were the solid blue of normal humans. They sat in pairs or quads, looking around at their peers with expressions of curiosity. But a couple groups stood out to my Sight.
Sitting several rows below us was a small group of weres. At least I was pretty certain they were weres. Chris Gordon had told me that weres had an aura of blue flecked with green, which matched theirs exactly. Six males, spread out over twice that many seats, lounging. Talking and joking among themselves, they were studying the other students, particularly the females. One kid was a giant, maybe six-five or so and built like a wall. He was the loudest, having draped himself over three seats, demanding that people notice him. I already didn’t like him. Much of his attention was centered on the four girls one section over, but that was understandable, as mine was too.
Attractive yes, but it was more the fact that they were all witches that had me studying them, their auras flecked with black. A pair of tall, curvy identical blonde twins who had a Nordic look going on, a girl of obvious Native American ancestry, and another dark-haired girl I hadn’t been able to get a good look at all sat in one row.
Above them sat a very pretty Asian girl and a small brunette who didn’t look old enough to be out of high school yet. Those two had normal auras.
Sitting even further above them was another young brunette, but this one had a white aura. The only aura I had seen like it before belonged to Tanya Demidova and her two vampire teammates, so I was pretty certain this girl was a vampire. She was strangely isolated; the three seats next to her and the row above and below her were all empty. Maybe some deep-seated instinct warned the other kids not to get too close to a dangerous predator. She suddenly swiveled around and locked eyes with me. I jerked my gaze down toward Caeco’s reading material as if I, too, found it fascinating. Smooth, O’Carroll, smooth.
“Stop creeping on the other kids, Declan,” Caeco said in a quiet voice, not looking up. “Especially the vampires and werewolves.”
Below us, a brown-haired boy in the wolf pack snapped his head around to look up at us and I could just about feel the vampire still watching. The boy started to turn back around, but noticed Mack and Jetta giving them a shy wave before facing forward.
“You know they probably have hearing as good as yours,” I said in a whisper.
“Maybe,” she allowed, finally looking up at me and smiling.
Five adults filed into the room, led by a pretty woman with very dark hair and deep brown eyes. She was in her thirties and wore a genuine smile and a blue aura. She looked much different than the scared mom I had met several months before. Her name was Gina and she was the director of this school for monsters and maniacs.
One of the two men following her had the green and blue aura of a were, giving possible explanation to the deep scar that trailed from his lower right jawline, down his neck, and under his blue golf shirt. He was muscular and fit, also looking to be thirty or so, with a decidedly military air about him.
The woman behind him was a witch, and possibly forty years old. She was tan, with dark hair and dark eyes.
The other male was even tanner than the witch, with flashing white teeth and a bald head. Maybe fifty to fifty-five. The last person was a woman, the oldest yet, with unabashedly grey hair, but thin and healthy looking.
All four sat in in the very front row of the room facing Gina.
“Good evening everyone and welcome. I’m Gina Velsaquiz, the Director of this little experiment, and I sincerely hope you are feeling at least a little excited about our futures together.
“For most of you, this is your first time away from home and that’s an unsettling thing, so please, please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you acclimate.”
She smiled through the whole thing, looking honestly happy to be there. Her right hand tapped the big white board next to her and words appeared, stacked vertically.
“Oracle, one of the two sponsors of this program, is inordinately fond of acronyms. So we have this little beauty.”
She tapped the board again and the first letters of each word self-highlighted, the rest of the words dissolving away and the letters swirling about to form ARCANE.
“Welcome to College Arcane, an educational experiment funded jointly by the Occult Research Alternative Combat League, also known as ORACLE, and the Demidova Corporation. Our purpose is to provide you, the children of the supernatural world, with a unique blend of college education and training specific to your own unique natures.
“Some of you were born into families with long histories of exposure to the paranormal. Some were born to normal families that had no idea how to handle your special gifts. And some were just exposed, early and often, to the darker side of life. Whichever path you come from, the hidden world has left its stamp on you, perhaps making it harder to fit into normal society, to find your place. That’s our mission: to help you fit into this world.
“We’re also going to develop your skills, help you achieve the most you can get from your gifts while learning to control them. So although I’m sure you’ve all read your welcome packets as well as the information we mailed to you last month, let me layout the structure of our program.
“You will all pursue the educational direction of your choice, attending either the University of Vermont or Champlain College or, in some cases, both. Most of you are starting as freshmen in the spring semester. Several of you are technically still in high school, but you will be finishing your traditional education here, taking college courses and receiving a diploma from your hometown school while advancing toward a college degree.
“I won’t lie. College is hard work and to make matters a bit more difficult, you will also be taking a few classes here. Three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, all of you will be taking Supernatural Survival, taught by Mr. Jenks.”
The tough-looking werewolf stood up and waved at the group before sitting back down.
“This class will be taught in the morning, before your regular classes begin up the hill on the campuses. Specifically, six a.m. You will meet in our gym facility.”
There was a collective groan, although we all should have known this from the packets.
“Your survival class is a combination of personal self-defense, situational awareness training, modern survival skills, and a honing of any particular personal abilities that you have.
“Additionally, following the same Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, you will each have an evening class that has already been selected for you. The majority of you will take Explorations of Power with Miss Berg.” The tan witch stood up and smiled, giving a little wave and even nodding toward the four witch girls.
“Those of you with more volatile natures,” she said, smiling at the weres below us, as well as at a boy and girl sitting to our left who looked like a brother and sister. “—will be taking Control, also taught by Mr. Jenks.
“Control will teach those of you with physical gifts not only how to manage your tempers, but to better use your strength and speed. If you Shift, it will teach you to gain the third form, the midway mode.”
The were boys looked excited at that, but the brother and sister combo seemed unimpressed.
“Explorations is a carefully constructed curriculum designed to help you build control and skill with your gifts of the mind while exposing you to other facets of the supernatural world. Some of you have gifts that we term psychic for lack of a better classification, with maybe one or two specific abilities. We will hone those. Some are more broadly endowed with abilities. Witches, as it were. We will explore the spectrum of your Craft and share various approaches.”
She looked at the four teenaged witches as she said this. One of the blondes smiled broadly and tossed her hair. Her twin blinked like she’d been daydreaming and the native girl looked… blank. The one on the far end leaned forward and I finally got a good look at her.
Black hair, light-colored eyes that I knew for a fact were green. Ryanne, one of the Sisters Eeire. An unsettled feeling of anxiety flooded me, mixed with a thrill of excitement. I tried to squash the thrill part but damn, she was pretty. Immediately, I felt guilty, looking away from her. I had thought about her occasionally over the last several months, but I honestly never expected her to be here. She had told me she would be attending this program, but what did that mean for me? Ryanne and her three sister witches knew I wasn’t just a regular warlock with weak powers, not since I had squared off with them in a back alley not far from where I was now sitting. But I wasn’t ready for everyone to know just how different I was. College was supposed to be a chance to start over, wasn’t it?
“A few of you fall outside either of these categories and so you will audit both classes to broaden your understanding of the other world you’ve found yourselves a part of.
“Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the entire group of you will spend some time with me. We’ll be discussing the recent events in Washington and across the planet and what it means for each of you. The supernatural races have been exposed, permanently, to the normal world. Demons have gotten the greatest exposure, but weres and vampires are out as well. Witches and psychics won’t be far behind. How will governments and societies respond? How should you conduct yourselves? Who do you tell, and when do you hide your abilities? We will analyze all of these topics and more, using both oral and written techniques.”
There was a smaller collective groan at that.
“In just a bit, we’ll adjourn to the dining room for dinner. I think you’ll be pleased at the quality, variety, and quantity of food that we have here for you. I’m quite confident it exceeds anything that any of the colleges provide. The dining area is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with snacks available at any hour for those with accelerated metabolisms. Your ID cards also work at either college in any of their eateries for those times when you are stuck on campus between classes.
“Speaking of classes, in the next few days, please introduce yourselves to Malcolm Tessitori, our in-house counselor and liaison to the colleges. He is the one who will help guide your college careers and facilitate your schedules and classes. “
The bald guy stood up and waved.
“Tomorrow is Sunday, the day before classes start. You can spend it as you wish, but I would suggest finding your classrooms on campus and picking up your books. They are all bought and paid for, but you will need to visit the college bookstore and show your ID to get them.
“Next to last, let me introduce our on-site medical specialist, Dr. Rosewell. She is a gifted general practitioner with years of experience at Oracle. Please, please see her if any of you experience any change in health.
“Finally, I’m going to turn the floor over to one of our sponsors for a few words on behavior.”
Beside me, Caeco suddenly stiffened, as if startled, then almost instantly relaxed. Her reaction and my instant awareness of it were the only reasons I didn’t crap my pants when an iron hand clutched my shoulder. Almost as fast as Caeco, I knew who it was, maybe by the aura of power or the steely feel of the hand. The real issue was that I was dead certain that absolutely no one had been behind us when we sat down.
“That’s my cue. Sorry for the scare, but I wanted to get a covert look at the group. Kind of hard to do these days. I’ll chat with you two after,” said a soft voice, one I recognized immediately. That’s when the most famous man on the planet stood up from the empty seat behind us and started down the stairs to the floor below.
Chris Gordon stepped lightly down the rows, reaching the bottom before the rest of the kids fully understood who was among them. Wearing jeans, running shoes, and a loose-fitting green long-sleeve t-shirt, he nonetheless commanded attention.
He hugged Gina, then turned and looked at the audience, who were either stunned or excited or both. He seemed edgy, not nervous or anxious, but there was something there, an undercurrent. He smiled as he looked around the room.
“Hi, I’m Chris Gordon and I represent one half of the partnership that is responsible for this opportunity,” he said, as if no one in the room had seen a television screen, newpaper, or magazine cover in the last few months. “I’ll go ahead and apologize upfront. I believe I’ve met many of you before but I’ve had a little accident. It seems that my brain met a bullet a while ago and I haven’t gotten all my memories back yet. They’re coming slowly, but please don’t be offended if I don’t remember you.
“With that out of the way, let me welcome you to college or, as Oracle likes to call it, College Arcane.”
A hand shot up and Chris looked at its owner, a brown-haired girl with glasses and a super excited look on her face.
“Ah, yea?” he asked.
“What do the words mean? The ones that make up ARCANE?” she asked.
“Good question. I had to ask to find out for myself. Oracle loves this acronym shit… hmm, excuse my language… oh what the hell, you’re all in college now, right?” The kids all laughed.
“Anyway, anomalous means rare or aberrant. Recondite has several meanings: hidden from sight, not well understood, obscure. Combatives… well, to be frank, we’re hoping to teach you how to protect yourselves and others. Lastly, Oracle ranks talents and abilities among the trained and untrained. The highest untrained ranking is Noble echelon—sort of a guess at your potential. There, clear as mud, right?”
“What are the trained rankings?” the same girl asked.
“Gina?” Chris turned.
“Paladin, Knight, and Champion echelons. We will go over this as we progress throughout the year,” she said.
“So there you have it… you’re in an academy. For what? To learn to survive and thrive as representatives of the supernatural realm. Why would we do this? That part is simple. At the end of your education, you will be prime candidates for recruitment by Oracle as operatives, should you chose that route, or recruitment by the Demidova Corp. Personally I’m more than a bit biased for the corporate path. But if you prefer the government path, you have Oracle. You are also completely free to pick neither of those choices, but to forge your own path.”
“Would you recommend Oracle even after what they did to you?” Jetta blurted out, loud enough for everyone to hear. The room froze, all noise stopping instantly. I’m not sure anyone was even breathing as the room waited for his response.
Chris stood still for a second, his jaw muscle jumping a bit. Then he turned to look at his questioner and I swear to God his purple eyes flashed lighter for a second. Ah, now I understood the undercurrent… he was pissed… deeply, thoroughly pissed and I was pretty sure I could guess the direction of his anger.
“You’re Jetta?” he asked. She nodded. I couldn’t see her face but her shoulders and neck betrayed her sudden tension.
“Well, I not sure that I’m the one to give Oracle a rousing endorsement, but if you’re determined to go government, there are much worse choices. See, Oracle answers to the President and at the end of the day, they were just following orders. And while I will not be telling you exactly what happened, I will tell you that it will never happen again,” he said. The teachers in the front row were frozen and the Oracle agents near the doors had turned to stone.
“But there are good people in that organization, some of whom I owe big time,” he said, turning and looking at the witch girls. Or rather at the pair sitting above the witch girls. The young-looking brunette blushed and squirmed just a little bit. I studied her for a moment before looking back at Chris, only to meet his eyes straight on. He gave me the tiniest of nods before continuing. Bewildered, I nonetheless was aware that several people in the audience might have caught that little exchange.
“Your teachers come from Oracle as well and represent a tremendous amount of experience,” he said with a smile, his eyes still hard. “Experience that you all need.”
The anger was still there, just buried, simmering. “So, to sum it up, you may get a job offer from our company or the government or both or neither. Our real goal is to see that you all have the skills to stay alive and prosper. Our world, the one that till recently has been confined to the shadows, is a very dangerous place. Exposure has not changed that, but it has changed some of the dangers. We want you to be prepared and we want you to find your way. Now, you all are under an obligation to follow the rules of conduct here. You all have power to some degree or another. Some small, others great. And with great power comes… Anyone?”
“Great responsibility,” about six different kids all said more or less simultaneously.
“Nope, that’s Stan Lee. The word I was going for was temptation. Temptation to use your advantages against those without advantages. Now, this isn’t like using a talent for singing to win a contest or allowing a naturally high IQ to achieve the highest grades. I’m talking about using your strength or telekinetic power or telepathy or ability to shift into a veritable killing machine to intimidate or bully your peers.
“Don’t. Period. When we find you doing it, we’ll send you home, no second chance, no matter who you are.
“There’s also a second reason. Not to steal Mr. Jenks’s thunder, but let me kick off your survival lessons with one of my own observations. The supernatural world is a violent and dangerous place. It is also a murky, mysterious place where things aren’t always what you think. Assuming you are superior to someone else and using your abilities against one of your peers might result in them kicking your ass. It’s one thing to be physically imposing like… what’s your name?” Chris asked the giant werewolf boy.
“Delwood,” he said, tying to be cool about it but just looking smug.
“Right. So Delwood is an imposing guy. What you might not know is that he is also a werewolf. That makes him strong and tough with a second form about the size of a black bear. You might be thinking he is the most dangerous student among you. But you would be very, very wrong. There are at least a couple students here who are vastly more dangerous… and you probably won’t be able to point them out for a least a few weeks, if even then. There are also those among you who have yet to fully develop their abilities. So no bullying, no use of magic against each other unless supervised, and no violence.”
Delwood the werewolf looked seriously displeased. In fact, he started looking around the room like he was going to find whomever Chris was talking about and take back the title of most dangerous right then and there.
“Sorry, Delwood. I didn’t mean to pick on you. But my warning is valid. Let’s say one of the twins over there,” Chris said, waving at the blonde Viking witches, “—got ahold of a strand of your hair. She could cast a spell on it and pretty much make you her bitch. Not that she would, I’m just making a point. As time goes on, you will all learn more about your classmates. I guarantee you will be surprised.”
I glanced at the twins and the one I had begun to think of as a bit stuck up was blushing furiously and looking embarrassed and her sister first went wide-eyed, then glanced at her sibliling with an I told you so look.
“So I might suggest you work with each other and not against one another. Look at it this way. As Gina said, the supernatural cat is out of the bag. Which is my fault, by the way. The world knows you exist. And people, no matter what race or species they are, tend to be intolerant at the best of times. You’ll do better together rather than separately. The connections you make here might just change your life… or save it.
“That’s it. So now we can eat. Right Gina?” he asked. She nodded and flashed a quick smile, but her eyes studied him even as she was standing up. Before she could speak, Chris turned back to us.
“One last thing. Your welcome packet has a contact number in it for the Demidova Corp. If you need me, really need me, call that number, give your name, and ask for me. You will be patched through to myself, Tanya, or one of our team. But that’s for serious problems and emergencies because Gina and her staff more than have things under control.”
“I think we can manage,” Gina said dryly but still smiling. “All right, if you will all file in an orderly fashion out this side door and down the hall to the first left. Dinner tonight is a buffet style and I think there is something for everyone.”
The other teachers stood and moved to the bottom of the steps, covering all the sections and herding the students toward the doors that Gina and Chris had already walked through.
Mack and Jetta stood up, shared a glance, then both looked our way. “So, he was sitting behind us for how long?” Mack asked. There was no question who he was speaking about.
“Not sure, maybe the whole time. He has lots of… skills,” I said.
“You know him, don’t you?” Jetta asked.
“Yes, and it appears so do you,” Caeco replied.
“True. He intervened and saved our lives just before he got shot. But that’s a long story,” Mack said, following his sister toward the stairway. “How about you?”
I looked at Caeco and read agreement in her eyes. “You know that whole thing with the missile silo in New Hampshire?” I asked. They both nodded. “We were there. With his goddaughter. But it’s a bit of a story too,” I said.
“Wow, understatement much? Maybe later we can trade stories,” Jetta offered. I nodded, then looked toward the end of the row where our stairway was. The vampire girl was still sitting and making no bones about staring at us curiously. I gave her a nod, but she just tilted her head slightly, then looked down at her phone and started texting or something. Odd or snobby or maybe just normal by vampire standards. I was mildly curious, but my brief interactions with the vampires of Tanya’s group had taught me serious respect for the species’ abilities. Keeping our distance would be a really, really good idea.
She was still sitting there when we filed out the door and into the hall. Sitting and texting. Wasn’t she coming to dinner? Oh wait, if she did, then who would be her dinner?
Copyright John Conroe