Roman didn’t remember falling asleep after testing out the interesting additions to his room, but woke up at eight the next morning none the less. Today was the day that Mr. Garretson would have his adoption forms in, when Roman would be assigned his mentor, and when he would meet the rest of the Talismen. An uncomfortable mixture of uncertainty and excitement stirred inside of him.
He nervously got out of bed to find that all of his possessions from St. Jefferson’s had already been brought over while he slept. His trunk was lying beneath the stand where the television was, and a new laptop computer was on the desk, plugged in, with an added mouse pad. Its screen was flipped open, and shone pleasantly with cleanliness. The paint stains on his trunk had been wiped off, revealing wood which Roman didn’t remember being there. Opening it, he saw all of his old pictures and projects that he had kept from school. Roman figured that he would’ve had to go with Mr. Garretson to be adopted, and he had missed curfew yesterday, which didn’t occur to him until now. Not only would the Haldrige’s be worried about him, but Ms. Callous would’ve been angry as well. She would not have been worried, but Roman would have been in deep trouble if he had showed up at eleven o’clock, several hours after he was due back. Roman was very grateful to Mr. Garretson and the other Talismen not only for taking him in, but also making it much easier than he expected it to be.
Roman checked his wardrobe, and all of his clothes were there. All of them took up not even a fourth of the space available on the first shelf. He grabbed his best set of clothing, a red shirt and grey shorts, and then took a shower. Hair still wet and dripping onto his collar, he slid outside, half expecting someone to be waiting outside of his door like Treaver had been.
With no one in the hallway, Roman started to head towards Mr. Garretson’s office, him being the only one he knew where to find. When he had climbed the last stair to the fourth floor, a door opened at the end of the hall. Roman had the instinct to hide, but knew that anyone that lived here would still find him very easily.
He breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Sarah. She was wearing a purple shirt with white outlines of flowers and blue jeans. Her hair was already washed and dry. She spotted him right away.
“Hey, new kid. Have a good night’s sleep?” she called out to him, obviously not concerned with anybody else hearing.
“Yeah,” Roman said more quietly, “I was just going up to Mr. Garretson’s office…”
“What for? He said that he already took care of your adoption and all this morning.” She moved past him, pausing to look back at the stairs.
“I was hoping that he could walk me through the day,” Roman explained lamely.
Sarah shook her head, giggling. “He already spent a good portion of his time getting you adopted. Do you really think that when he’s running a mansion slash training center that he’s got time to take an off day for the new kid when everyone else is available? C’mon, I’ll show ya around.”
Roman, half wanting to make a retort, followed her when she started down the stairs. She wasn’t going at the same pace that she had gone the last time Roman had seen her, and Roman had trouble keeping up. By the time that they were in the entrance hallway, Roman was panting.
“For future reference, you’re going to get into very good shape with all of the training. Most of the junior high and high school kids here are in the athletics gym period. That’s including me.”
“Sounds fun,” Roman commented sardonically.
“It will be eventually,” Sarah concluded.
I was being rhetorical, Roman thought, holding his tongue.
Sarah headed towards the lounge. Inside were more people than last night; Elliyo, Gabriel, Tyler, Stacy, Cole, Mary Beth, Richie, and a boy that Roman hadn’t met before. The boy had dark skin, black hair, a red Rockets t-shirt, and long jeans. He looked around high school age.
Elliyo and Gabriel were playing Mario Cart on the Wii, Tyler was floating in midair next to Stacy at one of the tables while she was reading a magazine, Cole was talking to Mary Beth- who was petting the paper cat again- on the couch, Richie was on one of the computers, and the boy that Roman didn’t recognize was working on something with a textbook at a table adjacent to Stacy and Tyler’s. His head was resting in his right palm. When he was reading a passage from the textbook, his free hand twirled a long, sharp blade that kept changing design and size. He turned around at Roman and Sarah’s entrance.
“Hey, are you—” the boy started to ask.
“The new kid? Yeah, that’s me.” Roman cut him off before he could finish.
“Roman, this is Ringo. Ringo, Roman,” Sarah introduced them.
“Nice to meet you, Roman,” Ringo smiled. He stood up and went over to shake hands with Roman. By the time he reached him, the blade was gone.
“Yeah, Ringo’s got more manners than most teenagers,” Sarah told Roman. “But everybody knows that he’s just a big kiss-up.”
“Curses, foiled again,” Ringo chuckled before going back to his homework.
“So, new kid, are you ready for your new mentor?” Tyler wondered, dropping back to the ground again.
“One thing first,” Roman stopped him. “Stacy, how much longer are people going to be calling me the new kid?”
“They stopped calling me the new kid once you got here.”
Roman moaned. “Fine then, do any of you know who my mentor is?”
“I do,” Tyler replied.
“Oh yeah? Well don’t be shy, who is it?”
Tyler smiled and winked at him. Roman had to keep back another moan when he remembered Treaver’s words from the previous day, if it’s someone like Tyler, then you might have some trouble keeping up. Tyler’s my mentor, and he’s such a jerk. And whenever he’s not showing off to Stacy by lifting weights, then he’s looking at himself in a mirror.
“You?” Roman inquired politely.
“Uh-huh. So, Pixie, it would be my job to get him into the zone.”
Did he just call me a pixie?
“And you’re actually going to do your job for once?” Sarah responded.
Oh, so she’s Pixie.
Tyler laughed. “I’ve decided to be more responsible.”
Everyone in the room except for Richie burst out laughing, but Richie was using the headphones. When Elliyo started laughing, Gabriel took the time to throw a banana peel in his way in the game.
“Really, Tylacker, you’re too much,” Mary Beth shook her head.
“So where’s Treaver?” Roman asked Sarah.
Once again, nearly everyone in the room laughed.
“It’s not even nine o’clock, and it’s a Sunday. It would be a miracle if he even woke up today. Speaking of Sundays, it should be nice outside. I’ll show you the fields.”
Sarah led the way outside. There was a cool breeze blowing in from the east, there were clouds in the sky, and it was still obviously winter time.
“Can we go back inside and get jackets?” Roman begged.
“Because it’s freezing out here!”
“Boy, you don’t know the meaning of the word freezing. But since you’re new, I’ll go easy on you. Tough luck getting Tyler as a mentor in the middle of winter; you’re gonna die.”
Roman hoped that she wasn’t being literal.
After Roman retrieved his hoody and Sarah had demanded what had taken him so long, they headed back outside in time to see Renaldo arriving.
“Hey there, Renalda. Here for more free-loading?”
“You know it, Saro,” he replied. Renaldo was wearing a much thicker jacket than Roman. Roman could just barely make out a green minivan at the gates.
“So where do you want to go first, new kid?” Sarah asked him. “The lake, the fields, or the courtyard?”
“Which one’s the shortest?”
“The lake it is.” Turning right, Sarah took Roman to the lake that he had seen yesterday from the helicopter. This lake was like every other natural lake that Roman had ever seen, opaque with soot.
“Are there fish in there?”
“Are there birds in the sky?”
Then, going around the back of mansion clockwise again, they headed towards what Sarah called ‘the courtyard’. They passed by another door in the side of the mansion.
Directly in front of the back entrance to the mansion was the black gate surrounding the courtyard. It was open, casting an uneven shadow that clawed at the ground Roman and Sarah walked on. Roman put his hands in his pockets as he saw his own breath flowering ghostlike in front of his face.
The tall gate was circling around two rows of healthy green-colored hedge-growth. Each hedge was about five feet tall, three meters long, and a meter wide. There were sections inbetween the hedges on the outer layer roughly two feet wide.
Roman could see walkways in-between the inner and outer layers of hedge. One had what looked like an empty flower bed on one side and a birdbath on the other. He could see that there were birds in the birdbaths, but no flowers in the flower beds, just piles of chocolate-colored dirt held in place by small marble bricks. A puddle of rainwater had collected in the middle of one.
“No birds in the sky,” Roman commented.
They strolled in-between two rows of bush parallel to each other. There was a block of stone that formed a kind of bench with a design of different strange animals etched into the side. One animal looked like a griffin with tusks and a club tail. Another looked like a tapir with angelic wings. Some Roman could more or less recognize as normal, like a deer or a ferret, but not many.
There was a fountain in the center. On top of its platform was a sort of gigantic, stone-carved crystal. Many little spikes jutted out of the sides of what seemed like nothing more than a mass of needles. Water poured from the ends of various bristles and into the clear pool of the fountain. Some of the water turned into vapor and floated through the air from the cold. There were a few leaves floating in the fountain’s water, and Roman was disappointed to find that no one had thrown in any coins. Four wooden benches with green, metal railings surrounded the fountain on all sides.
Roman decided that he liked the courtyard more than the lake. They left the courtyard and headed clockwise around the mansion again, this time to the fields. Roman wondered why it would be so important to see fields of grass, but didn’t protest. When they rounded the corner, Roman saw the pathway to the parking lot. The gravel slid under his feet as Roman shuffled across it, but Sarah made no audible sound. They walked down the path that led into the bayou, which didn’t remind Roman of fields of grass at all.
Entering the forest, the path was nicely worn, almost as well-worn as a hiking trail. It wound its way clearly through the trees. When they rounded a bend, Roman was surprised the see a clearing large enough to fit five football fields directly in front of them. It seemed like it had popped out of nowhere, but since it could’ve held five football fields, it was obvious that the Talismen had taken that into consideration.
Roman saw a white goal post a hundred feet away, a soccer goal standing underneath. To the left of that was a baseball diamond, full size, with a backstop made of chain-link.
“The soccer field and the football fields are mixed together to save space,” Sarah told him.
“As if you need it. Seriously, how big can this place get?”
“You still haven’t seen the lab. Plus, we’ve got quite a few acres of bayou before the point where the boundary is.”
“And how is it that the military isn’t concerned about you guys throwing swords around at each other out in the open?”
“They don’t know about it.”
“All they’d have to do is look down through this ‘barrier’, aren’t you worried about that?”
“You’re cute, but don’t ask questions that stupid around anybody else if you want them to stop calling you the new kid. If the Strayers could just look through that force field then we’d be dog food. The military’s no exception.”
“Right…So if I don’t want a sarcastic answer I shouldn’t ask you?”
“Ah, see? That’s the type of quick thinking that’ll get you far in life. If you’re so cold, then let’s go back inside. There’s nothing else to see.”
“Alright, listen up, maggots,” Tyler ordered. “We’ve got a dead weight with us today, so let’s try to pick up the slack in the RAA.”
RAA, that’s Random Animal Attack, Roman told himself.
“With all due respect, tall, dark, and loathsome,” Treaver interrupted Tyler’s speech. “There’s only me and the ‘dead-weight’ here.”
Tyler had pulled aside his two students to the far end of the kitchen before that night’s training session. Roman felt like he was going to be sick. It was five in the afternoon, and they were going to go back outside for today’s RAA. Before, Tyler and Treaver had shown him the basics of the available weapons; arrows, mechanical spiders (which were metallic, spider-shaped contraptions roughly a torso wide that latched onto a target and electrocuted it), blankers (which were much like guns but with air instead of bullets), swords, knives, and some first-level fighting techniques.
“Actually, maggot,” Tyler poked Treaver in the chest. “We’re going to be practicing with Jay’s students today, so there’s more than one of you.”
“Shh! Don’t question your commander,” Tyler said, smiling. “Now why don’t you show me some respect?”
Treaver, gritting his teeth, recited what Roman took as another form of torture Tyler had concocted for them. “Because, due to the unpredictability of the Island, and all of the useless bones in my body…” Treaver paused, as if hoping for Tyler to take pity on him.
But Tyler was no such person. “There’s an effect for every cause. Continue, please.”
“Mister T, the holy reincarnation of all that is magnificent in this cruel world, has taken mercy on my hopeless form in an attempt to make me something worth looking upon in valor.”
Tyler clapped his hands approvingly, “Roman, you’ll learn that pledge soon enough. Except, it’s getting kind of old, don’t you think?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Treaver growled, curling his fists.
“Yeah…we should add onto it. I’m thinking…how about ‘messiah of the worthless’ and some motions added, like bowing. Oh! Or groveling…”
Jill’s students were Jacob, Millo, Chris, and Renaldo. Each day, there were two mixed sessions, where two mentors and their students had one big practice together. Jace was in charge of the mixed sessions, so they trudged out to the parking lot to meet up with Jace, Jill, and his students.
Jace was leaning against the helicopter with Jill, while Jacob, Millo, Renaldo, and Chris stood in front of them while they were explaining something.
“Well, look who finally decided to show up,” Jace called out as Tyler came within earshot. “We were starting to worry about you.”
“Sorry to worry you,” Tyler apologized. “But we do have a new kid to look after, and I wanted to make sure that he was clear on everything.”
“Is that so?” Jace turned to Roman, making him feel uncomfortable, “Well then, Roman, what do we do to simulate the wild animals in this scenario?”
“Umm, our imagination?” Roman guessed lamely. Roman blushed when chuckles escaped from Jill’s students, aside from Millo.
“Nice excuse, Tyler. All right, let’s get started,” Jace said.
“Wait. What do you use for the animals?”
“The mentors,” Treaver whispered gravely. “And that includes Tyler.”
“What about the paper animals?” Roman wondered.
“The ones we have are too cute, and if we made more dangerous ones they’d be too dangerous, at least for new trainees like yourself.”
“Today, we’re having a race,” Jace explained. “This is for when you are unable to fight off wild animals and need to get to safety quickly. We’re going to split you into two teams, and you’ll race each other to a destination point while being run down by the ‘animals’ chasing you.”
“Which animals are they going to be?” Chris asked.
“Well, since Roman’s new today, we’re going to let you all pick your own animals.”
“Yes!” Treaver, Chris, and Renaldo cried at once, while Tyler did not look happy in the slightest bit.
“Each team will have a different animal. The first team is Renaldo along with Tyler’s students. And team number two is the rest of Jill’s students. Now, decide your animals with each other. There’s no limit to what kind of animals you can have except that they must be dangerous.”
Renaldo stalked over to Treaver and Roman, and Tyler went over to Jace and Jill.
“As if we need to race,” Renaldo muttered. “We all know that our team’s going to lose.”
“Why?” Roman wondered.
Renaldo raised his eyebrows and gave Roman a look of contempt, “You honestly can’t guess, new kid?”
“Is it because we have a dwarf with an attitude on our team?” Treaver replied. “Or just because you’re insecure?”
“Shut up Serapher, or I’ll see to it that you go down along with the fresh-meat.”
“Are we going to decide on our creature or not?” Treaver sighed.
“How about a dragon?” Roman suggested.
Treaver covered Roman’s mouth, glancing over at Jace. Renaldo shushed Roman after slapping him.
“What?” Roman demanded as soon as Treaver let go of his mouth and took the left wheel of his chair off of his foot.
“What are you thinking?” Renaldo sneered. “We can’t take down a you-know-what-fire-breathing-thing with a new kid! Even Treaver and I’d have difficulty with that.”
“Roman, it’s hard enough for me to get around outside, in a muddy bayou with logs and rocks and streams, but I don’t need to worry about a you-know-what-fire-breathing-thing.”
“Right, sorry.” Roman felt very uncomfortable. “How about pixies?”
“That’s more like it,” Renaldo congratulated him, turning to Jace. “Jace! We’re ready!”
“I heard,” Jace responded. Which animal had he heard?
“So,” Jace raised his voice so that everyone could hear. “We have pixies for Jacob’s team and chimeras for Treaver’s team!”
“What?” Treaver and Renaldo burst out, “We’re the pixies!”
“You got that right,” Tyler said. “But I suggested that y’all switch creatures to make things a little more interesting.”
“Now do you want to go with dragons?” Roman asked Renaldo.
“Shut up, newbie. We don’t need your sarcasm.”
“Actually it’s more like irony than sarcasm,” Treaver corrected.
“Alright,” Jace announced. “Everyone, back inside and pick your weapons! Be back quickly because it’ll be dark soon, and we’d be wasting precious moonlight!”
“Wouldn’t it be better if it were light outside for a training session?” Roman wondered.
Jace grinned. “Inside!”
Treaver and Roman were at the ball closet in the basketball court while Renaldo was scavenging through the supply closet downstairs. The walls of the court had blue padding, and the floor was well waxed, but not immediately slick. Along with the regular two baskets and backboards, there were four more in between and along the sides.
The ball closet itself could’ve fit two Romans and two Treavers along with their chairs at the same time, except for all of the shelves. The interior was made of the same teal metal as the outside, and on the very bottom shelf was a collection of four swords, two mechanical spiders, a bow with seven arrows, and three blankers. Roman couldn’t count how many knives were in a drawer right above the shelf. The upper shelves held regular things like baseballs, helmets, and air-pumps. The basketballs were on a rack at the entrance to the court.
“Knives won’t be good in this situation, because you’d either have to get up close or be able to throw them. And you’re not good with arrows…” Treaver muttered.
Roman had failed to get his arrows more than a foot forward, had been too nervous to hold his knife steady, was blown backwards when he tried to fire the blanker, and had mediocre, toddler swinging a light-saber, sword skills. He could fling the mechanical spiders well enough, much better than he could’ve done with a knife. They were simply shaped like spiders, with eight arms that would wrap around a target and shock it with an electrical current. But he had to switch the electricity off to keep from shocking himself, since he didn’t know the proper way to hold it, and couldn’t aim it straight enough to make the arms snag onto anything.
“Maybe traveling light would work,” Roman suggested.
“No, you’d be too slow,” Treaver said passively, thinking hard. “I normally might be able to talk to a chimera, but this is supposed to be when we can’t beat it any other way. I’ll be the one looking out for you, so we’re reliant on Renaldo’s jinxing to get us out of this.”
“You think that I’m going to lose this for you guys, don’t you?”
“I never said that. But yes. Either way, we need to find you something now. We can’t just skip a session because we might lose a game.”
“Whatever. Just give me a sword.”
“Are you sure?”
“At least I can give you tips on how to use it during the race, ’cause I’m taking one, too, along with a spider.”
“Because those each only need one hand, once you’re good enough at it. I’ll also take a knife.” Treaver reached in to grab a random sword from the closet. Out of the four, he chose one with black wrappings on the handle, and the blade was longer on one side than the other. Roman looked at it skeptically. Earlier he’d chosen one with an odd orange blade, and hadn’t liked it. He didn’t like the look of this one either.
Roman glanced back at the shelf that held the swords. A glint of gold caught his eye. He pulled out a sword that was relatively light, with brass-colored wrappings and an even blade. There was a design on the hilt that reminded Roman of dragons, though they didn’t have wings. He wondered what they were and why they were on there, but he only wondered vaguely. He liked this sword better than the one that Treaver was offering to him.
“This way I won’t have to flip it to keep balance.”
“Suddenly an expert, huh? Whatever.” The final touch to their collection was three pen-sized, white flashlights for the dark winter night. Treaver, using his lap to carry their supplies, led the way out of the basketball court.
“It’s funny that you chose that one, actually,” Treaver said once they were inside of the elevator.
“That one’s from Mr. Garretson’s trip to the Island. It’s one of the oldest that we have,” he said.
“Mr. Garretson can’t be more than forty, how’s this one of your oldest swords?”
“Well, no one really likes to talk about it very much, since it can give you some pretty awful nightmares.”
“Nightmares? I don’t get scared.”
“Is that so? Then you’ll fit in just fine. But anyone that’s gone to the Island always has nightmares on most nights, so this story’s a walk in the park for most mentors.”
“Bring it on,” Roman challenged.
“Well, at least the race will get your mind off of it once you know it,” Treaver sighed. “The shield that we have is run by the main computer down in the lab. You’ll know that when you see it. So you might wonder why we don’t just use that shield to our advantage, advance it, and somehow use it to protect people or hide ourselves most thoroughly.”
“Um, I actually wasn’t. But I’ll bite. Why don’t you?”
“Because it’s too easily breached. Right now the only adults at this center are Mr. Kyle and Jace, who were in training together.”
“What happened to the ones who trained them?”
“Exactly. Normally we have about as many students as we’ve got right now, but twice as many mentors. Mr. Kyle and Jace were students when they had too many mentors to have each one training a student. Some even shared mentoring. That was a good thing because it meant more Talismen. But Mr. Kyle’s younger brother changed all that.”
“He has a brother?”
“Yeah, but we don’t know where he is. The Strayers got to him. He hacked the computer- No, he didn’t need to hack it; he had full access. He shut down the shield long enough for the Strayers to get information on where the mansion was. He also deleted or burned any files that we had on the Strayers, which is why we know pretty much squat about them right now. Things like known areas for attacks, weapons, strategies, and even some people that were identified…We couldn’t memorize all of it. So, before anyone realized what was going on, one by one, when people left the mansion without proper protection, they never came back. Once everyone caught on to Mr. Kyle’s brother, he left, and they did a lock-down. No students were allowed to leave the mansion, and mentors couldn’t leave without heavy guard. Then the story gets really fuzzy. Mr. Kyle hates talking about this part in particular.”
The elevator doors slid open and Treaver’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Mr. Kyle went out to find his brother. He says that he’s the new leader of the Strayers. Something happened between them, and the attacks stopped. At first we were edgy, but there have hardly been any attacks lately. And there have been more students. As soon as a lot of us go to the Island, then we’ll have as many mentors as before. That’s what Jace says. I’ve only been here for a year, and I already know how often Genedeaues are found.”
They paused in the hallway. It was the hallway that went right out of the entrance hall, next to the main stairs. The lost and found bins were behind them, with the supply closet across the hall.
“How do you know that you can trust Mr. Garretson?” Roman asked. “If he didn’t tell you what went on between him and his brother?”
“We’ve tested him countless times. Lying tests, scans for probing…and he’s as clean as we keep the kitchen. No doubt about it.”
“Now I know why you were worried about me getting nightmares,” Roman said, head throbbing slightly.
“Yup. It’s not that the story’s scary. It’s that we aren’t positive if the Strayers are going to come for us again or not.”