"[The] Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of perversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy…with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments." –Percy Shelley

"Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light." –from Paradise Lost

The good news was that nobody had been killed in the explosion, but the bad news was that seven students had been sent to the Emergency Room ward, three of them in critical condition. Fire Marshall Drake Jekowksi was too much a professional to let this tragic and bizarre turn of events affect him as he filled the report in, but the surrounding teachers, students, parents, and investigators could be excused for breaking down. He had seen plenty of horrors in his life, including the World Trade Center bombings and the conflagration of Frenchman Lawrence Stephan, the mad arsonist. This explosion, while devastating and mysterious, was simply a footnote to him, little more.

After speaking to everyone involved, he completed his report and handed everything over to the paramedics, the police, and his subordinates, giving the stunned onlookers a glazed-over expression. They were just teachers and students, he had to remind himself, people that never saw this thing in their daily lives. Even a simple chemistry lab accident was rare, so something on this scope would surely shake them to their very core. He had to keep holding onto his sympathy; otherwise he'd end up burned alive as well, his spirit lost in the ashes.

There was one thing that raised his curiosity and furrowed his brow. Most of the students in that fire had escaped unharmed, thanks to the stickler attitude of fire safety-conscious teachers. The seven that didn't would be in horrible pain, but there was one who had borne the brunt of the flames, yet walked away unscathed. Her clothes were darkened with smoke and ash, and some stray embers had fallen and ate away at the fabric, but otherwise she was without a mark. This was especially strange considering that she had been in the center of that blaze—and if Jekowski's suspicion was correct, the cause of it.

A doctor attended to her just to be safe. They tested her vision, they looked into her mouth, they felt her pulse, they took her to a private room and examined her body…everything checked out normal. Aside from the singed clothes, this girl was as healthy as the next. Baffled, the doctors dismissed her and revealed their findings to the Marshall; school was let out early, since there didn't seem any point in dragging on after everyone had witnessed this trauma. For the girl, though, this was just the beginning.

"Mr. Tanners," she said, looking up at her science teacher, "did I really cause that fire?" A lump formed in his throat. He tried to smile and touched her shoulder, wishing to pass on some fatherly comfort. Little good that would do; nobody would ever look at her the same again after this incident.

"No, of course not."

Al Kristopher presents

With thanks to all involved, past and present

"The Promised Land"

"MERKAVAH take me into the lands of those lost to this mortal realm;

My soul rides upon the Chariot of the Lord, destined for eternity"

Four years later…

Only two suitcases. It was a humbling sight. Her entire life was packed inside.

"I guess I'm all set. Hope I didn't forget anything. Mom, dad! Did I forget anything?"

"No, honey! Oh, wait—did you remember to bring spare towels?"

"Yes!" she shouted; then, muttering to herself, "I read Douglas Adams, thanks." Now, in a louder voice, "Anything else?"

"Bathroom effects?"

"Check!"

"A few books to read on the way there?" She felt around for the three textbooks she had packed, and that damned pair of reading glasses forced to tag along.

"Roger!"

"Honey, you didn't bring any of your kid's things with you, did you?" The girl tittered mischievously. Her adopted mother would never notice the dog and teddy bear plushies smuggled inside.

"I don't think so!" she called. She was forgetting something, she was sure of it…

"Honey," her adopted father called, "did you forget your tickets?"

"No, of course not; they're in my hand."

"Some money for lunch?"

"Enough for a week!"

"Makeup?"

"Mom, I'm going to school, not a date!"

"You never know!"

"It's an all-girls school," she muttered. I guess mom's right, though any girl worth her salt would never be pulled in by a ruse like that. I guess it doesn't hurt to bring a little…

"Honey," her father called, "did you remember to bring your 'special underwear'?"

"DAA-AAAD! Do you know how EMBARRASSING that is?"

What's really embarrassing is that I did forget it. I knew I had missed something…

Fifteen minutes of finagling later, Hebe Zheng Fuery was really and truly ready to begin her new life in Canaan Academy for Extraordinary Ladies. All she had to do was board a train.

A railway station, embedded in my mind, some ancient far-off era where lovers would be parted as the engine groaned to life, steam clouded all sight, and the roar of the train drowned out any last-minute confession. This is a place that has broken many hearts, and seen many sons go off to war, never to return. Here, a movie director down on his luck will find the starlet he has been seeking, her hands buried in her pockets as her silver-screen face bemoans the loss of her love. Here is travel, here is change, and now, here am I, embracing these two kind people who are no relation of mine, telling them goodbye as I leave, stepping aboard this mechanism of cars and steam and loneliness. Even though they're not my parents, I still call them Mother, Father, I love you, I'll miss you, I'll write you every week. Mom gave me a diary. I'll cherish it with my life.

And just like that, Hebe was on her own, watching the countryside slip away. She resigned herself to reading her books, finding the décor tepid. Canaan supposedly welcomed people like her, people who weren't normal, people who were dangerous, freakish even, the spawn of fallen angels. Canaan was, literally and metaphorically, a promised land for all who sought refuge from harm and adversity. Hebe only wished she had heard of this place before, but then again, you don't exactly go from school to school, claiming to be some monster in human form, hoping for a generous scholarship. They had found her. They had invited her, after receiving a letter of recommendation from her adoptive parents, or so the acceptance letter said.

It went something like this; Hebe read it slowly, several times over the course of her journey:

To: The gifted young lady to whom this letter is addressed

From: The desk of R. Hathoway, Headmistress of Canaan Academy for Extraordinary Ladies

Subject: Admissions to the school

A generic greeting, with some mystery inside. And using the words "gifted" and "extraordinary" in place of "unusual" or "abnormal"? It sounded condescending.

Greetings, Miss Hebe Z. Fuery

Her name had been hand-written; the rest was in type. Miss R. Hathoway probably mass-produced these and filled them out as the prospect of new students came to her. Fuery was her adoptive parents' name, so she took it as her own, since her own family, the Zhengs, no longer existed.

I am very pleased to inform you that you have been invited to attend the Canaan Academy for Extraordinary Ladies, a private school where gifted women such as yourself are welcomed and encouraged to develop their talents for the betterment of all. I have been referred by Mr. and Mrs. Fuery, and would be honored to have you as one of our students. Let me explain the concept of this Academy to you more clearly, in case you may have questions.

Again, more patronizing. The Head was doing a fairly poor job of dancing around the obvious, peppering her letter with positive connotations and proclamations of joy and honor. "For the betterment of all"? Where did that come from? Hebe had nearly spewed as she read that part; now, it was treated as little more than comedy.

Surely you must understand that, within our society, there exists a small group of people who are beyond the normal limits of other men and women around them. The traits they exhibit are not monstrous or evil, but—as I personally believe—positive signs that we as a species are ready to make the next leap forward. However, in society at large, you may feel isolated or despised, and out of place in a world where people do not usually have such gifts.

Well, that much was true at least. Ever since that incident in the science lab, Hebe had been an outcast, and people didn't approach her unless it was to tease, to joke, or, rarely, to comment on how "cool" she was. Thankfully she had grown out of despair and was once again radiating with teenage normalcy, if anything from the teenage spectrum could be called Normal. As she read this part, Hebe wondered just what the Head considered a "small group of people". A dozen? A hundred? Several thousand? Just three or four? Hebe didn't think she'd create an entire Academy to house only a few students, so odds were that she'd meet many people just like her—maybe even one she could love.

Therefore, I have created the Canaan Academy, in hopes of teaching young people (specifically young women) not only about the world and their abilities, but about themselves as well. Our school is a safe haven where nobody can criticize anyone else for standing out—we are all equals here.

Fair words, but she was suspicious. Even the most optimistic person couldn't possibly believe in complete equality for all; there had to be a system of class, rank, and order, and schools were hardly different. They were the exception and not the rule, so perhaps this was just delusion on the Head's part. But why, Hebe wondered, was this school only for women? Surely there were young men with similar problems—or did they get their own "special academy"?

If you choose to attend, please forward a letter of reply, including the information printed out in the enclosing page. A response will be delivered the following week; you will then be escorted to the campus, where a guide shall answer any questions you may have. If you do not choose to attend, there will be no hard feelings on my part, though I assure you I will regret the loss. I have high hopes for you, and all of our students. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

This part caused Hebe to laugh every time. "I assure you I will regret the loss"—yeah, right! "I have high hopes for you"—as if the Head were really speaking to them individually, and not as a massive group! Maybe Hebe was just being too critical of the woman. She was trying to make girls like her feel better about themselves, and if any of them had the kind of history Hebe carried around with her, they'd need the encouragement. She knew her thoughts were too harsh, and so with a little mental prayer, she asked forgiveness. R. Hathoway, whoever that was, appeared willing to lend a hand and guide all wayward travelers to a sanctuary, free from anger, isolation, bitterness, and despair. The promised land, indeed.

"Is this seat taken?" Hebe was so lost in her thoughts and studies that she never even noticed the presence of company. Looking aside, she spotted two girls younger than her, one clutching the other's hand with sisterly need. Not one to keep someone standing or searching for other places, Hebe smiled and scooted over, making as much room as possible.

"No, sit right down, make yourselves comfortable."

"Thanks." The two girls sat side-by-side, their hands still clutched, their expressions polar opposite. The younger one was clearly apprehensive and anxious about this ride; the other looked as if she lived on this train. Neither one paid much attention to their neighbor, as strangers were wont to do, so Hebe figured it was up to her to make acquaintance.

"Umm…so, where are you two going?"

"There's no reason to tell you," sniffed the elder. The younger one seemed to agree.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to butt in. Um, have either of you two heard of Canaan Academy?" Their reactions indicated they had.

"We're actually going there," squeaked the younger girl. She was scrawny but very cute, and had rich purple hair like the royal mantles of kings, with shimmering eyes to match. They seemed to glow with an otherworldly light, drawing Hebe into them. "How do you know about it?"

"I'm going as well."

"You are?" Hebe was now the center of attention: the cute girl and the other one, the curt one, looked at her as if she now mattered, as if she had become more than just a face in the crowd.

"What a small world," spoke Miss Brevity. She loosely resembled one of Hebe's countrywomen, though she looked more Laotian, or Cambodian, or maybe Indonesian. Her skin was quite dark, indicating long hours spent outdoors, and she was smaller than most girls her age. "I," spoke she, "am Minh. This is Lorian."

"Will Lorian." The cute girl smiled and stretched her skinny arm out; Hebe took it and pumped accordingly.

"Will, huh? Short for Wilma, or Wilhelmina?"

"No, just Will."

"It's really Winty," Minh interrupted, earning some scorn from her companion, "but as you can see, she doesn't like that name. What about you, stranger?"

"Uhh… Hebe, Hebe Fuery." Will and Minh both snickered, little surprise. Most people did when she introduced herself—even her adoptive parents had grinned, though they apologized afterwards and said they knew the sting of having an odd name.

"That's cool!" Will squealed. "Hebe as in 'the heebie jeebies'?"

"Yes," she groaned, "just like the heebie jeebies."

"And Fuery as in 'rage and fury'?"

"The same," she moaned. Will laughed out loud; Minh did her best to compose herself.

"Please excuse her. She's usually not this immature."

"Hey!" Minh took her companion's other hand and squeezed it gently.

"Behave yourself, Winty. If she's going to Canaan with us, we can't treat her improperly. Remember, she's just like us."

"So you two…are really like me? I mean, you have strange gifts as well?"

"Everyone that goes to Canaan has been blessed or cursed with unusual traits, ranging from minor things like extra fingers or toes, tails, even third eyes…to more severe problems, like mine."

"What are your…I mean…" Hebe turned red and apologized. She had to remember that it wasn't her place to pry.

"I can't feel pain," Minh replied, reclining in her seat, cuddling Will close to her. "I consider it my greatest weakness. I envy those who know when they're hurt. No matter what's thrown at me, I'll still keep going until I'm dead. I won't even be able to tell if it's severe or minor damage; it's all numb to me. That is, of course, the downside. I don't mean to brag, but having this 'skill' and a few others causes me to be quite the accomplished fighter."

"It's true," Will exclaimed. "Minh is very strong, and she has never lost a match."

"Oh, I've lost plenty of matches," she replied, her eyes turning glassy. She held Will closer, smiling eerily. The younger girl chuckled nervously as she realized her companion was scaring their new friend.

"Um, so! Is this your first year at Canaan?" she asked, quick to change the subject.

"Uh, yes, I was just accepted. What about you two?"

"This is our second. Me and Minh met last year, and we've been together ever since, living with each other. She doesn't have a family, so I let her stay over at my house during the summer. We're practically sisters now!"

"The family I never had," Minh sighed, eyes conveying a sense of regret—"nor asked for."

"Now Minh, behave."

"No." Will snapped at her as she grinned; Hebe smiled warmly. Yeah, they were definitely acting like sisters. She could tell they already cared for each other deeply, even though they had known each other for little over a year. She let them squabble for a few minutes before interrupting with more questions.

"So what's Canaan like? I mean, are there lots of students? Are the teachers nice? What sorts of classes are there?" Minh gently pushed Will away before answering, seeing as how she represented the more mature voice of the duo.

"Well, Hathoway tries to simulate a real school environment, so it's basically a normal educational facility at its core. There are a few classes that deal with us trying to bring out, use, or control our abilities, but for the most part, it's standard fare. A lot of the teachers have abilities too, so they're very understanding. Of course, there are a few that are a bit psychotic, even masochistic."

"Don't scare her!" Will snapped. Hebe smiled warmly.

"Oh, it's okay. I've dealt with weirdo teachers before. I attended public school before all this. It was actually attending public school that led me down this path…" She trailed off, shedding her cheerful exterior for but a moment. Will and Minh noticed this, but decided not to pry, since Hebe had been polite enough to do the same. They changed the subject and talked about nonsense for several hours, becoming well-acquainted with each other as the train led them out of the cities, across the countryside, and straight to the sea, where they would get off the train and board a private ferry that would take them the rest of the way.

"I thought Canaan Academy was going to be someplace nearby," Hebe said as she and her new friends stared at the impressive ferry. Skinny little Will led the way, with Minh willingly carrying the heavy luggage. Hebe was overjoyed that she was already making friends—what were the odds of meeting two people just like her on that train?—but she still felt like she didn't belong, an outsider standing on the edge of a bubble.

"Its locations is part of the whole idealistic aspect," Minh replied, standing close to Hebe so she could hear her over the noise of the port. "Hathoway bought a small island in the Pacific, and that's where she set up her school. It doesn't follow any nationality, so she's granted freedom, political neutrality, and a bundle of other luxuries. Of course, a whole lot of problems go with it, but since it's none of my concern, I never bothered to look into it. Over there."

Will was already at the ship, impatiently waiting for the two older women. Minh explained that although she was a kind and affectionate person, Winty Lorian was socially inept and very needy, sometimes even becoming clingy. Minh didn't mind so much as it gave her world some much-needed levity, as well as the opportunity to think about somebody other than herself for a change. She allowed little Winty to shout at them as they took their time, noticing Hebe absorbing everything with great intent.

"The ferry is owned and operated by Canaan's staff," explained the younger woman. "There are many influential people in the world that agree with Miss Hathoway's beliefs, and they would go to great lengths to support her. I have a feeling that not all of them are as genuine as they seem, but that's just my usual suspicion flaring up. Sorry we made ya wait, kiddo," she said, ruffling Will's lavender hair. The young girl slapped Minh's arms playfully and took Hebe instead, shoving her onboard and squealing the entire way.

"There's something else about this ship!" she exclaimed, her thin face alight with new wonder: it was the thrill of meeting a new friend and classmate, and the vigor of youth flowing through her body. "That train we all rode in was a normal one, and normal people use it to commute between places. But this particular ship is special, because only people from our school are allowed onboard. If you don't have a pass, you can't come along."

"Isn't that kind of restrictive?"

"It's a measure for safety and privacy," Minh said, walking up beside them. "Hathoway doesn't want any uninvited guests on her island. She trusts everyone that sets foot on this vessel, to some extent or another, and she likes to keep things that way. Think of this as a chance to get really acquainted with other people like you…though I wouldn't even bother trying until we set sail. Most everyone here doesn't really get active until we're far apart from civilization."

"Makes sense," Hebe murmured. "I wouldn't want to flaunt my 'unique traits' around the general populace either. You think you two could introduce me to some other people while we're here?"

"Sorry," they both shrugged. "Neither one of us made that many friends, and most of the people we did know have graduated. Any familiar face we see will probably only be an acquaintance, but we'll keep our eyes out."

"Thanks. Mind if I hang with you for awhile longer?"

"Sure, we'd love to have you around!" Will squealed. "But don't get too attached, okay? Since you're new, you'll have to branch off with the other first-timers and attend orientation once we arrive. You'll probably be the oldest one in the group."

"Yeah," Hebe muttered playfully, "it does kinda suck that I figure out this place exists so late. I really wish I had known about it sooner."

"Don't feel too hard," Minh told her, smiling in support. "Hathoway only started this place about seven or eight years ago. I don't know anybody that's been there for a full six years, which is the maximum program length."

"So there'll be twelve year-olds?"

"Yeah," Will giggled, "lots of them. And you'll be right there with em'!"

"I don't have a problem with that. I'm just a big kid myself. I'd fit right in."

My dream was always to buy a nice house on the beach and live there all my life, surrounded by the things I love. There's just something so romantic about golden shores caressed by frothy waves, the bright white sun above or the silvery moon swinging across a starry sky that brings out so much more of myself. I've only been to the beach a few times, but those experiences influenced me to my very core. Now that I was actually sailing on the wide open ocean, my past behind me and my future uncertain, I can feel the spark of adventure welling up, and my true self emerging as a bloom in springtime. The experience is all the better with friends beside me.

"Isn't it great?" Will exclaimed, raising her nose to the salty air. "Last time I came, I puked for hours. But now I'm a regular maiden of the sea!"

"There wasn't much for you to vomit out," Minh reminded her. "You never eat as much as you should, Will. That's why you're all scrawny and bony. No man will ever marry you if you look like a skeleton."

"Nya!" she groaned, sticking her tongue out. "I don't care; I don't need men as long as I have Hebe Jeebie here!" She flung herself at the older woman, who shirked back and nearly toppled as she was overcome by the sudden burst of energy. Minh rolled her eyes and tried to pry the two apart; another person laughed at them from afar.

"You seem to be having a lovely time. Every year I see somebody acting like an excited little child, and every year I laugh and laugh. I suppose schooling does that to a person." The speaker approached them and curtsied; Hebe smiled warmly, wondering if she would soon be studying with this beautiful young woman. Minh and Will both waved.

"Hey Naolin. Sorry to bother you."

"It's no bother. I'm on break anyway. Is this a new friend of yours?"

"Yeah, we met her on the train."

"That's wonderful! I'm glad you two are finding new friends! Pleased to meet you," said the woman, thrusting her hand out. "I'm Naolin Stone; I work on this ship whenever school lets out. I love sailing, so it's really a dream come true."

"Oh, really?" Hebe's smile grew, and her cheeks turned rosy. Naolin's hand was cool, almost cold, as if the woman spent most of her life in a freezer, though she looked dark enough to be Mediterranean. "I'm Hebe Fuery. Yeah…go ahead and make fun of it."

"Hebe Fuery?" Naolin tried very hard to suppress a giggle, but even her politeness could hardly contain it. "Forgive me, it's a very lovely name. And actually, my full name is Elphinstone. Naolin Elphinstone." Now she turned red; Hebe's embarrassment died as she smiled broadly.

"Heheh, that sounds like something out of a fantasy book. But it's very pretty."

"Thank you. See, she likes it!"

"I never said I didn't," Minh replied bluntly. Will followed up by exclaiming, "I like it, Nao!"

"So all of you know each other?" Hebe said. Naolin nodded and subtly drew her away from the younger two.

"Yes, naturally. I met them both on their first trip over to the school. I've been working on this ferry ever since my first year, when I was Will's age, and I've seen all sorts of people coming and going. I usually don't make friends with very many of them, though. I tend to keep to myself once we're all on school grounds. I really just know them by way of association."

"Oh." Then, feeling bold, "Do you think you and I could be friends?"

"I'd like that," Naolin said, her face lightening up. They shared an intimate smile and touched hands, both of them a little unsure about these new waters. Minh and Will, feeling forgotten already, decided to ditch these two and check out their rooms. The trip to Canaan Academy took between a day and a week, depending on which part of the world the girls were coming from, and so they would have to figure out rooming arrangements anyway. They assumed, from the way they were looking at each other, Hebe and Naolin would share the same room.

"What?" Minh said as she noticed Will staring at her. "I'm happy for her. You don't see Naolin hanging around other people very often, so it's good she's making a friend."

"I think Miss Nao sees Miss Fury as more than just a friend, Miss Minh."

"Careful, or you'll miss our room."

"GAH! Pun police, scramble to vector 16! We have a perpetrator on the loose—repeat, a perp on the loose! Suspect is armed and very dangerous! Proceed with caution, over!"

"Winty, our room is over here." Lorian growled, her nostrils flaring like an angry steer, and with the indignation of a spoiled brat she returned to her room, crashing on the bed and refusing to get out. "Fine," Minh said, unpacking her suitcase with the usual nonchalance. "You'll miss out on lunch, then. I hear they're serving margherita pizza and crab cakes."

Will was up and out the door before Minh could say another word.

"I'm starved!" Hebe exclaimed, sitting down at the circular table with Naolin, Minh, and Will. Aside from the pizza and the cakes, there were all sorts of exotic dishes, created for a wide variety of tastes and cultures. The vegetarian selection was particularly thorough; Hebe had the lasagna Florentine, Naolin the potatoes au gratin. As they all ate, Hebe looked around the large dining room, getting glimpses of her future classmates. Aside from a few men who were members of the crew, the entire ship was populated by women, some younger than Will and a few old enough to be her grandmother. She asked her new friends if the Headmaster was there, but they said she stayed on the island, living there in a cabin away from campus.

"That sounds like a lonely life," she commented, picking out the zucchini first.

"Well, Miss Hathoway is never lacking for company," Naolin explained. "There are a few girls who have no family, so they stay on the island and live in their dorms year round, usually with roommates who share a similar loss. A couple members of the staff stay there too, and there are always people who visit once a week to deliver equipment, supplies, and post. Oh, the post! Hebe, the post comes once a week every Saturday. All students are asked to write letters and send them to their family and friends on that day, and in turn, we receive letters as well. It's really one of the best days of the week."

"Isn't there email?"

"Not completely. Our computer lab is still under heavy renovation, and they're still trying to assign the students their own email accounts and such. They have to take into consideration that not everybody has or even knows how to use email, so there are a lot of problems. I find hand-delivered mail to carry a certain intimate charm to it anyway."

"Oh. Well then, I guess I'll start writing right away. What about your family, Naolin? Do you get a lot of letters?"

"Only from my little sister," she replied, sounding melancholy. "Actually, she's my stepsister, but I'd like to think of us as being close family. She's a very arrogant and outgoing girl, but very good at heart. She was there for me when nobody else wanted anything to do with me."

"Because of your…abilities?" Naolin nodded sadly, causing Hebe to reach out and take her hand. This act of support and friendship brightened her up, and she thanked her with a warm smile. Will cooed at how cute it was; Minh just tried to get her milk down without gagging.

"Hey, there you are!"

"Is this seat taken?"

"Too bad, we're roosting here anyway!"

"What the…" It happened so fast, Hebe barely had the time to register it. Two other girls had swept in and took the last two empty chairs at the table for themselves, grinning as if they owned the whole place. They were both very pale and a little gangly, so Hebe thought at first that they were sisters.

"Well hello to you too," Naolin said, an air of offense barely audible in her voice. "And what brings you girls to our side of the world?"

"Oh, we just wanted to visit," said the one on the left.

"To see how Naolin Elphinstone, the famous corsair of Erin's Isle, has been faring since last we saw her," replied the one on the right.

"We also couldn't pass up the chance to see cute little Willy."

"Or her sharp-tongued fierce bodyguard, sweet Minnie."

"Or the new girl," exclaimed Righty, drawing her companion close to her and pointing. "Eda, is it just me, or does she bear a very striking resemblance to Tifa Lockheart?"

"It's not you, dear friend River! That girl is the spitting image, right down to the bosom." Everyone turned around to stare; Hebe quickly crossed her arms, covering the breasts she hoped would remain invisible. They were indeed generous, maybe slightly too big for a girl her size and age, and Will gasped as she realized the two other girls were right.

"Hey…yeah! She does have huge knockers!"

"Will!"

"I'm sorry, but she does! Jeez Louise, are those real?" Luckily, Naolin came to her new friend's defense, and held her hand as she fought all these vultures off.

"Please, everyone, stop staring at her! Can't you see you're making her uncomfortable? Eda, River, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Can't you make a good first impression just once?"

"We did," they insisted, "when we first met each other."

"We got bored with them after that. Sorry there, stranger. It's just that we're both very insecure, jealous, and frankly stricken."

"Dumbfounded, even. Sorry about that." They both stuck their hands out, and while Hebe was still humiliated, she wanted to get things started on the right foot. These girls would probably end up being her most cherished friends, so she wanted to bury all hatchets as soon as she could.

"Umm…don't worry about it, I get it all the time. I'm Hebe Fuery."

"Oh," they sang, grinning at each other. Then to her: "We're gonna have a lot of fun with you, Hebe Jeebie!"

"Hey!" Will exclaimed, "That's my pet name for her!"

"All of you shut your fucking mouths now!"

A silence, a gawp, a gape. Naolin turned red and Will giggled. The entire room was staring right at Minh, but she didn't seem fazed.

"Sorry you had to hear that," she muttered. "I've been trying to drop that habit, and it hasn't been going well. I just needed you clowns to be quiet for awhile. Now. Let's all settle down and behave like civilized people. Introduce yourselves and get on with the whole friendship thing." The two pale girls, best friends from the look of it, giggled nervously and rubbed their hands.

"Jeez, she hasn't changed a bit. Well, except for the whole swearing thing. Usually she's cussing up a storm," she explained to Hebe, "but I'm amazed at her restraint. I'm River, by the way, River Maye. I have a funny name too, so I know we'll be great friends."

"I'm charmed," Hebe answered honestly. Between the two of them, River looked the healthiest, and her skin seemed pale only because of lack of time spent outdoors. She seemed more confident and interested in Hebe, and her reddish eyes sparkled with more of a glimmer of hope than her friend's. That wasn't to say the other girl was any lesser than River; she just seemed to have a slight edge in terms of enthusiasm.

"And I'm Eda Evol Sylvestre," said she. "This has now officially become the table of People Who Have Weird Names."

"Weird?" Will shrieked.

"Yes, weird," Minh replied, finishing her milk. "I don't recall Winty or Will being common names for a girl. Minh, on the other hand, is a very ordinary name, and I'm very glad I have it."

"Don't excuse yourself from our circle yet, sweetheart!" River exclaimed. Minh ignored her; Hebe started to laugh quietly. Both River and Eda smiled at her sweetly; she definitely radiated an attractive warmth.

"I haven't even been traveling a day, and I've already made five friends. I can't wait to get there now!"

"You say that now, but wait until classes start," Eda said, her voice a little more depressed than River's. "You'll wish you had stayed at home. Some of the teachers are really cool, but some are just dopes, and two of them give me the chills."

"The two of us run the school newspaper," River said. "We apprenticed under the last editors until recently, when they graduated. We're definitely up for the challenge, although I wouldn't mind a few extra helpers."

"Sorry, I'm not that great of a writer, but I'll definitely subscribe. What's it called?"

"Nothing flashy: just The Canaan Reporter. We wanted to go with The Canaan Report, but we figured the other name was a little more down-to-earth. It's the tiny differences that make our paper great."

"Then I'll definitely look into it." Hebe felt herself glowing from the inside, so glad that she came along for this. It was a prime chance for her to get away from her troubles, to explore new sights and to see new people—but most importantly, to find a place where she was welcomed and accepted, where she would be among people just like her, people hurt and suffering because they were unlike anyone else around them. Minh, Will, Naolin, River, and Eda were already special people to her: they could look at her and, while they joked about things at first, they definitely welcomed her into their lives and saw her as just another normal girl. She couldn't ask for anything else.

Three days passed. Hebe tried making as many friends as she could with the other passengers, but many of them were very private people, and some so sociopathic that she decided to completely forget about them, at least until they had arrived. One in particular stood out as being especially aloof: she didn't even speak when Hebe approached her, and in fact only said a few hushed words when she was asked questions.

"Why are you here?" she whispered as Hebe drew near.

"I noticed you standing there all alone, so I wanted to come talk to you."

"Why?"

"Because you look like you need company."

"Looks can be deceiving. You don't wanna talk to me."

"Yeah I do. We'll be going to the same school soon, right?"

"Seems that way."

"Then maybe we can be friends. How about it?"

"You don't mean that."

"Sure I do! What makes you say that?"

"Nobody means anything they say anymore," snorted the girl, jerking her head to the side. "You'll just forget about me in a few weeks anyway. It'd be better if you spent your time elsewhere." The girl was being rude, but Hebe didn't want to give up, not yet anyway.

"I'm Hebe Fuery. Can I at least have your name?"

"No. My name is my identity; it tells other people who I am, and it's very precious to me. If you want me to tell you anything, you'll have to give me something equally precious."

"Like what?" The girl smiled, pale skin clashing eerily with dark hair. It reminded Hebe of a freakish phantom.

"You'll have to pay me the value of any person's life: when we all get settled in, you have to buy me lunch."

"Deal," she said without hesitation, "although I don't think lunch is—"

"Then we're agreed. See ya at school, maybe." The girl left Hebe in the cold, and to her dismay, she didn't see her again for the rest of the day. When she was alone in her room again, Amiya Eldrid chuckled to herself, thinking this was the last she had seen of that innocent little idiot.

Pale misanthropes weren't the only ones Hebe had trouble finding; she lost Minh and Will several times during the journey, but they always appeared in the least likely places and the most peculiar times. Hebe might've suspected them of doing something strange, but she gave them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, most of her time was spent with Naolin, who she had developed a cute little crush on.

"You're really Irish?" she asked her as they explored the deck. Naolin nodded.

"I know I don't look it, but it's true. I think this Mediterranean look is from my mother's side, but I'm not sure since my father never told me and she couldn't."

"Why?" The younger woman smiled sadly.

"She's…not with us anymore."

"Oh. Oh, I'm so sorry… I know what that's like, believe me."

"You do?" Hebe nodded. "Oh, I see. Then we're alike. There's nothing for you to be sorry about. You're a good friend. I've just had a very rough life. Working on this ferry and going to Canaan have really been my only means of escape. Hard as it is to believe, being amongst all those other girls is the closest I've been to a normal life."

"But I've noticed you're not all that social. I mean…sorry." Naolin smiled and edged closer, taking Hebe's warm hand into her own.

"You're right, I'm not. I never had any friends growing up, and I'm not even that close to the few people I do know. Minh, Will, River, and Eda are just people I saw on a regular basis. I really can't call them friends; I barely know any of them."

"They seem to know a bit about you, though."

"Just a bit," she sighed. "Not enough to count. Frankly, you know more than they do!" She smiled sweetly, and Hebe blushed, unable to look at such a radiant face for long. Naolin drew even closer and squeezed the hand of her dearest friend, when suddenly, a gasp of awe arose from the quiet ferry, carried by the voices of hundreds of young women. A tiny spot of land was coming upon them, growing ever larger with each passing minute. Naolin's smile turned bright as she indicated the land.

"That's the island. On there is Canaan Academy, a fully-equipped school campus dedicated to guiding people just like us. We'll be arriving shortly, from the looks of it."

"Great!" Hebe exclaimed. "I can hardly wait!"

INTERLUDE

(shadowy images of Hebe and Naolin appear behind a curtain, then erupt suddenly, shrinking to chibi form)

Hebe and Naolin: WELCOME TO THE PROMISED LAND!

Hebe: We hope you enjoy this special Interlude!

Naolin: We made it just for you!

(scene shifts to chibi-Hebe walking across an idyllic countryside)

Hebe: Wow, I can't believe I'm going to attend Canaan Academy! That's where I'll find lots of people who have the same freaky powers as I do! I just hope they don't learn about my terrible secret…

(meanwhile, a shadowy evil watches Hebe from afar!)

Shadowy Evil: A terrible secret, eh? Hmm, the plot has suddenly become as thick as an unchopped watermelon, with all the seeds planted inside! And speaking of melons… (the shadowy evil is overcome by the size of Hebe's generous endowment) Ahh…beautiful bountiful bouncy breasts! Surely God has smiled down upon me this day! IT'S GROPIN' TIME! (the Shadowy Evil emerges and leaps at Hebe) BOOBIES!

Hebe: Gaah, it's a shadowy evil pervert! FLAME ON! (she incinerates him) Uh-oh. Uh, sorry! (sweat-drop) You shouldn't sneak up on people like that!

Crispy Evil: Now she tells me…

(scene changes to chibi-Hebe standing on the ferry)

Hebe: Ah, what a beautiful day for a boat ride! I just hope that strange pervert didn't come along for the ride.

?: Did somebody say "strange pervert"? (chibi versions of Minh and Will appear suddenly)

Will: Oh, big sister! Your knockers are divine! Why is it that I am not blessed like you! (she buries her face in Hebe's chest)

Minh: (sweat drop) Probably because you're only thirteen?

Hebe: Thirteen? Gaah! (SHOVE!) Pedophilia! Don't touch me again, you lolicon love-struck piece of jailbait!

Will: (weeps uncontrollably)

Minh: (sigh) Oh well, at least she's not clinging to me anymore…

KER-GLOMP!

Minh: (angry pulsing veins) I spoke too soon…

Will: Minnie!

(chibi versions of Naolin, River, and Eda watch from afar)

River: (sweat drop) What is this garbage? And why aren't we in it?

Eda: Time and budget restraints?

River: Oh yeah. I blame the economy. And soap.

Eda: What IS it with you and soap, River?

River: (happy sweat drop) Oh, nothing! Can't a girl have strange fetishes? Hahahahaha…

Eda: (sweat drop) Weird…

Naolin: (dreamy eyes) Oh Hebe, someday it will be my face buried in your heavenly cleavage! I just know it!

Eda and River: (gawking) Uh…okay…maybe we should just go somewhere else…

(unbeknownst to our brave heroines, a shadowy figure climbs unseen aboard the ferry)

Shadowy Evil: Aha! I made it! The bananas of wickedness and the mangos of wrath shall never be stopped, as long as my heart thrums with the nectarine of evil! For I…am Ramses, villain extraordinaire!

Man: Look out! Tidal wave! (Ramses is suddenly swept off the boat)

Ramses: Aaah, my pomegranates of cruelty! They scatter!

Hebe: And now, back to the main story!

Naolin: See ya later!

END INTERLUDE

Hebe stayed close to her new friends as she walked down the gangplank onto dry land, marveling at the scenery. The island was much larger than she had expected, easily able to accommodate an entire campus and students to match, yet there was enough space for privacy and exploration, if such a thing were permissible. The sea enveloped the island delicately, gulls and lapping waves fighting for harmonious supremacy against the cacophonous babbling of girls and women. Minh, Will, River, and Eda were nowhere to be found; they had already gone off with the other veteran students, leaving Hebe to part with Naolin.

"Sorry," said the dark-haired girl, "but since this is your first year, you have to attend orientation. Maybe we'll run into each other again."

"I hope so. Bye!" They embraced—it didn't feel unusual hugging Naolin, and frankly Hebe wished it could go on—and parted with a wave. A sudden sense of loneliness overcame her, even though she was still surrounded by students, a few of them her own age. Hemingway was right, she sighed to herself. "I'm always loneliest in a crowd of people." Gingerly, she wedged her way through the multitude, following those who seemed to know what they were doing.

"Excuse me. Sorry. Pardon—whoops, sorry about that. Excuse me. Thanks!" Her face was red by the time the group stopped: what seemed to be a teacher stood before them on a platform, smiling and bright, her clothes resembling a gardener and not an instructor. She waved and bleated into a megaphone, deafening those who were sensitive to loud noises.

"GOOD MORNING!" screeched the woman, inevitably accompanied by feedback. "WELCOME TO CANAAN ACADEMY, NEWCOMERS! WE'RE GLAD TO HAVE YOU ALL WITH US!"

"Teal, honestly! Give me that!" Another teacher came by and snapped the device away, giving the first woman an intense glare. She adjusted the machine accordingly and spoke into it, having considerably greater success. "Ahem, pardon us, ladies. It seems Ms. Farroway still has her mind on other things. Please excuse her lack of consideration."

"Shut up, Shannon! And gimme that! I saw it first!"

"Over my dead body! You'll kill them if you screech into it any more!"

"No I won't! I'll be quiet, I swear! Now give…me that!" The two fully-grown women fought relentlessly over the megaphone, causing most (if not all) students to burst out laughing. They were finally silenced when a third instructor came onto the stage, calming everyone with but a stare. She had a very frightening aura about her, and looked like she had just spent the last century sleeping in a coffin. Her voice was silky smooth, though, and it helped settle everyone down.

"Good afternoon, ladies and future students of Canaan Academy. Please excuse the vulgar acts of immaturity on behalf of our staff members. They're just eager to see you, and willing to make a good impression. I am Miss Miles, the psychology teacher, and it's my honor and privilege to welcome each of you here." She went into all kinds of speeches, about how this young generation could help the world, how proud they all were, how that in spite of their abnormality they could still lead a wholesome life, et al.

She concluded by dividing the new students in several groups, entrusting their initiation to the whims of several teachers who were just now arriving on the stage. Hebe got stuck with the woman who couldn't operate a megaphone properly: Ms. Teal Farroway, mathematics and botany teacher. True to her name, Teal had dark greenish hair, a healthy glow to her tanned skin, cute little green eyes, and a smile to die for. What surprised Hebe the most was that she was in her early thirties, yet still acted childish.

"Sorry about before," she squeaked. "Shannon and I usually get along so well. I don't like having Hera interrupt us like that, but oh well, it got the job done! Now first of all, I'd like for each of you to introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about you. Then we can go and have a look at the school! Umm…let's go in a clockwise direction, you first." There were six other girls in the group besides Hebe; the one on Teal's left spoke first.

"Akeelah Reese Marshall, charmed I'm sure. Just to set the record straight, if I see any of you picking on anybody else, you're gonna get it! On the other hand, if you've got bully problems, come to me and I'll rip their faces apart!"

"Now-now," Teal laughed, "let's not get violent on the first day. Next, please!"

"Saki, Sif Saki. I guess I'm pleased to meet you all."

"That's a cute name!" Teal exclaimed. The young girl shrugged nonchalantly.

"My parents were just lazy. So what's your story?" she asked of the girl next to her.

"Maya Rose Ellison. I, uh…hello." She stammered and backed away; Hebe found herself staring. What a beautiful, vulnerable girl! Her heart went out to her.

"Ira Matthews," the next one said. "Uh…how's everybody doing? I'm glad we didn't have rain, right? …This isn't going so well."

"It's okay," Teal grinned, "you'll get used to it. Next!"

"I am Elena Skye. I'm glad to meet you all." Teal shook her head.

"That's it? Isn't there anything else?"

"What do you want to know?" she asked.

"Oh…anything! Just tell them something nice about you!"

"Well…" She rubbed her chin in thought. "I'm…very…glad to meet you all."

"Never mind," sighed the poor teacher. She pointed to Hebe, who stammered as she usually did when revealing her name.

"I'm Hebe Fuery. Yeah, go ahead and make fun of it." Akeelah, Elena, and Ira laughed, but Maya smiled quietly, locking eyes for a moment. Hebe nearly melted; her eyes were like the ocean, deep and hypnotic, secrets and riches buried deep inside…

"Ruxandra Mondragon," muttered the final girl, her voice dead and her eyes gloomy. "There's…nothing interesting about me. Nothing at all." She stared at Akeelah, but not in a negative way; it was like she could read into the girl's thoughts. Akeelah, feeling like she was being challenged, stepped up with a balled fist.

"You lookin' for somethin', lady?"

"Just things that can't be seen. Ms…Farroway, right? Let's begin the tour."

"Huh? Oh, right! Okay girls, follow me!" She skipped ahead, leaving the others to follow at a more mature pace. Akeelah returned Ruxandra's glare and kept a considerable distance from the girl; Ira hung out in the front, whistling gaily, her hands in her pockets. Elena and Saki minded their own business and seemed content to do so; Hebe noticed Maya trailing behind, and slowed down to meet her. Another girl unaccustomed to crowds, apparently, one that may have needed a guiding hand…

"Maya, right? Nice to meet you. I'm…well, you already know my name." Ellison nodded. She could only squeak at best.

"Hebe? Am I…saying it right?"

"Yeah." She giggled.

"It's a cute name."

"Thanks! Maya is very pretty too."

"If you say so," she sighed. Hebe made sure to stick close to this one. She always did have a soft spot for the meek, the quiet, the mousy, and the bashful. Somehow she believed it was her duty to bring them into the light, if only to bask in a little of its glow.

Teal may have been immature (she insisted everyone call her by her first name, even in the classroom), but she was an excellent guide, and such an upbeat one, too! She began by divulging the school's history, which went back about eight years ago, when the Headmaster erected an institution that would be sympathetic to the unusual and the strange. Everyone that attended, staff and student, had some abnormality that set them apart from others, be it subtle or clear, and Teal was no exception. She proudly bragged about her amazing botanical abilities—a "maniac super-ultra shiny magnificent green thumb", in her words—and even demonstrated by taking her crew to a greenhouse, where she erected a fully-bloomed rose from a humble bud.

"Over there is the cafeteria," she pointed. Teal led them inside, where the entire school had gathered for a lunch. She paid for their meals and found a nice table to sit at; the woman she had fought earlier found a seat next to her, and they started chatting like old friends, which Hebe later found out they were. She wanted to use this time to further interact with her fellow students, but the noise was so loud that she could barely hear herself, let alone others. She noticed someone joining her and thought for a moment it was one of her friends from the ferry, but this was a new girl.

"Hiya. I see you're with the Farroway Patrol."

"Huh? Oh, uh, yes; I'm new here."

"I can always spot the newbies," said the girl as she started eating. Her accent was distinctly American Southern, slow and steady like a rippling river. "It's their faces. They can't help but look all over the place. I'm Bella, Bella Richards." She laughed when Hebe introduced herself, but since it wasn't the first time, Fuery let it slide and kept the conversation going. "You like it here so far?"

"Yeah, it's nice. Definitely better than I expected. I don't see too many people staring at me."

"They're mostly mature about it," Bella pointed. "Everyone here knows what it's

like to be a freak, myself included. I don't see why anyone would ever give anybody a hard time about it, but fights do start, just like in any other school."

"Ugh. Has anyone ever been seriously hurt?"

"No, the Headmaster and her security handles them. It's strange, but Miss Hathoway seems like she's able to spot a fight a mile off. Anytime she interferes, the conflict just stops and the girls are punished. I've been in a few myself, so take my advice when I say you don't wanna to get into one."

"Advice well taken," Hebe smiled. "I have a question. How does the food program work? Do we have to pay for our meals, or what?"

"Farroway didn't tell you?"

"No, not yet."

"Oh. You'll have to excuse her; she's a scatterbrain. I love her to death, though—she's one of the cool teachers. Most people here are just jerks waiting for some innocent little maiden to come around so they can dump all their troubles on them. But I digress. The kitchen staff is usually made up of students who are in culinary studies, or those wantin' to make some extra cash. Meals will be free for the first two weeks, but everyone'll have to pay for them the rest of the year. Don't worry, you can find a job almost anywhere: the library, the gym, the computer or science lab, teacher's aide—for squares like me," she chuckled. "I help around with the art teacher. She's really spacey and not all 'there', but an entertaining person nonetheless."

"I have another question," Hebe said, blushing. "Are any of the students, like…involved with each other? In a relationship?"

"You mean, is this really the fabled Isle of Sappho or just another private school?

Well, I can't say for myself since I've never been in one, but I wouldn't say it doesn't exist. A girl's gotta find love somewhere, and I'm sure there are a few people here who are gay, or bisexual at least. Why do you ask?"

"No reason. Just curious." Bella laughed.

"Right, sure you are!"

After lunch concluded, Teal led them into the library, where several students were already hard at work studying for future exams. Since the world was now in the 21st century, most books had been traded for computers, although the portability of tomes was still the popular norm. As Bella had mentioned, a few students were employed there; even the head librarian was a student. She greeted them like she would an unwanted guest.

"I suppose it is that time of year again," she said, stressing some words more than others. "I have many rules for this place, but if you can only remember one, think of this: do not under any circumstances leave books lying around, or in their incorrect space. Either put them where they belong or give them to me when you're done. There is nothing more annoying than a careless student, flinging books wherever she pleases."

"Literi, please, you're scaring them!" Teal giggled. She introduced the girls, saying that although Literi Alohi Argus was a strange, stiff, unfriendly character, she was one of the most brilliant students in the school, and generally a good person once they got to know her. Literi just snorted and told the girls it was a lie: she would never be good no matter how much anyone got to know her.

"Pardon me." A girl slipped past their ranks and began conversing with Literi. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm looking for this sacred Hindu scripture, and I've forgotten the name."

"Probably the Bhagavad-Gita," Literi said. "Shall I write it down?"

"Thank you." The girl looked at Teal's assembly and bowed, very proper. "I strayed from my group. I hate big crowds. Don't tell them, all right?"

"Uh…sure, not that we'd know which group you belonged to."

"All the same, if you hear somebody looking for me, don't tell them where I went. I'd much rather be alone. Ah, thank you." She studied the card Literi gave her, which also included the book's precise location, and wandered off to go look for it.

"Another new student?" Maya whispered. Teal shrugged.

"I guess. Some people just don't like crowds…"

"Who was it?"

"How should I know?" Literi was generous enough to tell her.

"She is Xing-En Lee, from Fujian, China. She's been in the library for one hour and thirty-seven minutes, and so far, she's the only person I like. Miss Farroway, if you see Headmaster Hathoway, please give her my appreciation for selecting a proper roommate. I have not felt so comfortable in all my life." She grinned, a rare occurrence, and watched the girls cautiously walk away.

Teal was just about to guide her group into and around the dorms when a fight broke out, first by way of verbal warfare, then actual physical contact. Both girls were students by the look of things, and both had clearly been in fights before: they seemed to know their way around punching, kicking, and grappling well enough. Teal groaned as she recognized them, and excused herself to break it up.

"Kory Tensho, Heidi Moore, you two stop this at once! Can't you girls wait until after the first week to start a fight? Break it up! Break…it…up!" Hebe and a few of the others winced as they watched the two girls slug each other; Akeelah had to forcefully stop herself from interfering. Whoever started this fight was going to pay—that was her mission in life! Defend the weak and crush the oppressive—but which was which? They both seemed completely capable of taking care of themselves.

"Dummkopf!" yelled the black-haired girl. "I wouldn't have started this fight if you weren't such a gigantic hypocrite!"

"Well I wouldn't have started this fight if you hadn't been so effing sarcastic!" spat the blonde. "What's your effing problem, anyway?"

"It's your loser attitude! What's yours?"

"That black gaping void you call a personality!"

"Girls!" poor Teal yelled, "Enough already! You both know what'll happen if—"

"Stay out of this!" They shoved the green-haired woman aside, knocking her to the floor with their combined strength. Feeling incensed, Akeelah bent down to help her and started yelling at the "two bull-headed idiots", but the fight concluded suddenly before she could get more than a few syllables out. There was no explanation: Heidi and Kory just stopped, right where they were, as if their energy had been drained all of a sudden. They snorted and glared, but didn't raise a fist. Teal knew what that meant.

"Girls, you know I don't like anyone fighting on my school grounds. I don't understand why you can't cooperate and why you insist on breaking the rules so early in the year—especially in the presence of newcomers! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Hebe and Ruxandra felt their stomachs flip as the speaker presented herself: it was a gorgeous blonde, late twenties perhaps, with radiant skin and the kindest, darkest, deepest eyes imaginable. She dressed very properly and had a feminine grace about her; her voice reminded Hebe of a mother's song. She was very gentle and peaceful, and hardly raised her English-accented words even when reprimanding the two would-be warriors.

"Ah, it's you two," said she as she recognized them. "It seems that no matter how hard the rest of the staff and I try, nothing ever gets through to you. I'm just about at my breaking point, you know. This is not a wrestling arena; this is an educational facility!" With a sigh of regret, she declared their punishment: "It seems I have no choice in the matter. I'm going to assign both of you community service for a month, and you'll be forced to work alongside each other until you can straighten out whatever problems you may have."

"But Miss Hathoway, she's a hypocritical mess!"

"She's a douchebag and a spoiled brat!"

"Then think of this as an opportunity to get to know one another better. If you fail to report to my office for a complete list of your chores in twenty minutes, I'll send you over to see Miss Miles. And I don't think you want that." Both the young women turned pale, and shook their heads. They'd rather be with each other than with Miss Miles, though none of the newcomers knew why. Taking a deep breath, the blonde woman smiled at the audience that had gathered and apologized.

"Return to your normal activities, please. Oh, Ms. Farroway, good to see you this afternoon. Are you giving a tour?"

"Yes ma'am!" Teal grinned and introduced her cadre of students: "This is the Headmaster of the school, Romia Hathoway. I didn't think we'd see you out this early, ma'am!"

"Well, I needed to take a walk, and I wanted to personally greet some of the new students. I won't get many chances to see them during the semester, so…"

"Oh, yes, you're right. Well, hate to be in a rush, but we've got lots of ground to cover!"

"I understand. Take care, Ms. Farroway!"

"You too! Ah, what a nice woman. She sure handled that fight well! Shall we go?"

"Um, Miss Farroway?" Ira had her hand up, and a look of concern to go along with it. "What just happened? I saw those two just stop fighting, and they didn't strike me as the type to give up like that. What gives?"

"The Headmaster radiates a great peaceful influence," Teal quoted, her eyes glazing over with seriousness. "All those around her are compelled to lay down their arms and come to diplomatic solutions to their conflicts. I hear that's actually what sets her apart from everyone else. She has the most powerful skill in the world, the ability to take away people's will to fight."

"That doesn't sound so great," Saki snorted. Teal gave the young woman a look of disapproval.

"When you think about it, nothing can beat it. How can you fight someone when you no longer feel compelled to? In any case, I've stalled our tour. We should head over to the dorms."

There was more than enough room to house all the students; Hathoway and the staff had apparently prepared to receive hundreds of women with strange abilities. Teal explained that every dorm had between fifteen and forty rooms to it, with two students per room, no exceptions made. That meant that those who sought solitude had to find it elsewhere: everyone was required to have a roommate, and they were all decided randomly when the student arrived. This was supposed to promote social skills and friendships, but oftentimes it led to disaster, even animosity.

"Once we finish the tour, we'll go to the auditorium and hear a few boring speeches from the staff," Teal joked. "After that, you're free to do whatever you want for the rest of the day. Since this is a Saturday, you'll have all of tomorrow to get adjusted; school starts at 8:00 am sharp, from Monday to Friday. We give the students the weekend off for religious and recreational purposes, and we also send them home for winter and summer break. Let me take you to the gymnasium next; I'll tell you the weekly schedule once we're there."

The gym had a basketball court, a swimming pool, a weight room, a tennis court, a track, a lounge area, even an ice rink (of course, many of the rooms doubled and tripled as other functions). There didn't seem to be any particularly athletic girls in Teal's group, but they were impressed enough with the surroundings. Teal treated the seven girls to a light snack in the lounge area, which was run by one of the students, a deathly pale girl who introduced herself as Raye Morgana.

"Hard to believe it's been a year already," she said to Teal. "It seems like just yesterday that I was right there with them, lost and confused. Welcome to Canaan Academy, everyone, and its excellent recreational and athletic facility. The lounge area is, sad to say, not exactly a highlight. Right now we only have the barest essentials, but we're sure to get a few supplies come this Monday."

"Yeah," Ira said, taking a good long look around the place, "it's really deserted. Is it normally like this?"

"No. Usually it's very loud and upbeat. The gym lounge is a popular place for people to hang out. I got assigned here against my will," she added with a giggle, "because the staff thought the interaction would do me good. Needless to say, it hasn't done any wonders for my complexion!" She showed off her milky-white skin, apparently not too ashamed about it. Akeelah raised her eyebrow as she got a good view.

"Jeez, lady, you look like a ghost! And I know my ghosts…"

"Oh, well, I almost turned into one before I got here. I really can't help being pale; it's just my cross to bear, or one of them at least. Stay here as long as you like." Teal thanked her and staked out a large table for her crew, each of them bearing a snack and a drink. Hebe hadn't eaten since lunch, so the little repast would do until dinner was served.

"Okay, here's the breakdown of days," Teal began, drawing a large rectangle on the back of a flier. She divided it into seven segments, labeling them M, TU, W, TH, F, SA, SU. "Since we know that Mondays are the pits, the Headmaster decided to make those casual dress days. Every other day, you're required to wear an outfit that would be acceptable in the professional world, but on Mondays you can wear whatever you want, provided it's tasteful. Tuesdays are outdoor class days, weather permitting. Wednesdays will be mandatory fitness days, so for you lazybones out there, it's something to dread. Thursdays are weekly review and catch-up days, and Fridays are movie nights. Saturday is when the post comes, and Sundays are just to relax and enjoy. Any questions?"

"What about holidays, like Christmas and Thanksgiving?"

"Winter holidays will be abroad," Teal said, "but this school does not celebrate most holidays since so many of its students come from different backgrounds. We do give everyone time off to observe Thanksgiving and Spring Break, and of course all summer holidays are spent at home, or here if the student decides to stay. Any others?"

"Yeah," Ruxandra grumbled. "Can't we pick our own roommate?" Teal giggled apologetically.

"Sorry, no can do."

It was almost time to head back to the auditorium, but there was one other place Teal needed to show her group. After saying goodbye to Raye, she led them across campus grounds into wild territory, where arbors had been created for the benefit of students more prone to natural surroundings. Hebe saw some resting underneath the shade, reading or talking, and she swore she could see a few secretly making out in the far distance. She tried keeping her mind focused as she followed her leader/teacher, each step bringing them further away from civilization, into the unknown.

There was nothing haunting about the cabin nestled in the woods. It looked rustic and pleasant, the perfect place to stay for a week if you needed to recharge your batteries. A merry creek was nearby, and further away was a lake, which students were prohibited from entering without supervision. The cabin, though, was expressly off-limits, and Teal emphasized this several times over the course of her speech.

"I say once again," she said, "you are absolutely forbidden to enter this cabin without permission from the Headmaster herself. You won't be able to get in anyway; she's the only one that has the key."

"What's inside there?" Teal laughed politely; she expected that question.

"That's the one new students always ask me. It's no Pandora's Box, I can guarantee that. It's just the private records of all the students, and it's also Miss Hathoway's home. She has to live somewhere, so why not a cute little cottage in the woods?"

"Their records?" Ruxandra perked up suddenly, a spark igniting flames.

"Yeah, personal records of every student we accept, and some from students past. That's why nobody's allowed in here, to protect everyone's privacy. You wouldn't want somebody thumbing through your life dossier, would you?" Everyone, regardless of their morality or belief, resounded in the negative. They definitely didn't want that happening. "All right; sorry to get all creepy on you, but I have to go through with it. This way, nobody can say they haven't been warned if they get caught sneaking in here. Oh!" The cabin's door opened, and for a very brief moment, the girls could see inside. A woman their age and one younger than Teal stepped out and shut the door before any of them could study the interior.

"Whoops," said the girl, her voice lazy and weak. "I'll just be on my way."

"Miss Evans, what were you doing in there?"

"I needed to retrieve my medical records. Don't worry, I had an escort." To verify her claims, she brandished a manila folder with her name tacked on it: EVANS, KALI G. Her escort was none other than Hathoway's second-in-command, the only other person authorized to enter the cabin. Her smile was so charming, it left the girls giddy and excited.

"At ease, Greenie," said the woman, extending a hand to brush Teal's shoulder. "There's nothing wrong here. Kali just needed her medical history. Dr. Kite is a woman who demands to know everything about her patients before examining them."

"I know," she growled, feeling insulted. "You didn't let her see anything else, did you?"

"Would I have reason to?" Teal just snorted, but she was polite enough to make introductions.

"Ladies, this is our history teacher and Vice-Head, Katarina Miaha Castillo. Kat, these are—"

"Teal, apologize!" Her voice became raw and forceful, like a leather whip; Teal shirked back, her legs wobbly.

"God," she murmured, "sor-ry! I forgot how sensitive you get, jeez! Excuse me, Katarina—"

"Thank you."

"…but this is my tour group, and I'm on assignment. If you and Miss Evans will excuse us, we need to get to the auditorium."

"Of course, of course. You take care now, sweetheart." Castillo laughed quietly as Teal shivered and led the girls away at a hasty pace. Elena turned around to stare at Kali Evans, the girl with the teacher, and nearly stumbled on a rock. Maya and Saki helped her up, both explaining how she needed to watch where she was going.

"I think I was," she whispered mysteriously. Both girls stared quizzically. The return trip felt colder and more serious the first time around, probably because everyone had a sinking feeling about that cabin and the teacher. Never mind the apathy of Kali Evans; Miss Castillo was almost scary with her boldness and charisma. A few of the girls already had harmless crushes on her; Hebe noticed Maya drifting further away, and brought her into the fold, keeping a solid smile on her face. They reached the auditorium early, so there were plenty of seats left for them.

A young woman who was later identified as Penny Davis opened the ceremony with a very quiet song. It was clear to everyone that she had the voice of a siren, and could probably stir the heavens themselves. Just like Miss Castillo, she had a hypnotic presence, and the audience found themselves drawn to her the longer the song went on—that is, until some people's glasses started to break. Penny Davis's voice was powerful, all right, and she stopped herself before she could do even more damage. She walked offstage looking dejected; Hebe assigned herself the task of talking to her once all this was done.

Castillo came up first and welcomed everyone, then gave the podium to Hathoway, whom she called "my dearest friend, and the greatest visionary of our time", lacing every voice with admiration and love. Hathoway blushed humbly and went into the standard greeting; she spoke just as she wrote, pleasant and forceful while keeping her gentle touch. Hebe still felt like she was being patronized, but at least this time she could see how genuine the blonde was. Maybe she really did mean all that stuff she wrote in the letter…

Teal assigned everyone their rooms as soon as she could, and while most of the newcomers had nothing to complain about, a few exchanged deadly looks. Akeelah and Ruxandra were in the same room; this caused the soft-spoken Mondragon to smile in satisfaction, and Marshall to snort. Ira would room with Heidi Moore, one of the two girls in the fight; Maya would stay with Raye, who she had met in the gym lounge. Elena would go with Bella, Hebe's new friend from the cafeteria, but Saki didn't say where she'd go. Hebe's roommate was a girl her age, thankfully, and quite a sweet one by the sound of it.

She didn't know whether living on the first floor was a good thing or a bad thing. There was no view to speak of, but she didn't have to walk up that long flight of stairs either, and she was practically next to the dorm entrance. A note had been taped to the door, greeting any potential roommate and welcoming them inside (the current occupant was in the shower). Hebe found the door unlocked and called out to the other woman, not wishing to alarm her. There was only one bathroom, one kitchen, and one small den, but two bedrooms and four closets, all of them furnished well. Hebe discovered another note on the doorway to "her" room, and attached were two keys, one for the room and one for the mailbox. If anything, her new roommate was certainly considerate. Feeling exhausted from her day, Hebe sprawled out on the living room couch, staring at the ceiling as her mind caught up with her body. She ran through the emotional gauntlet in that time, but at least it was peaceful and quiet, with only the distant sound of running water to accompany her.

She sat up as she heard the bathroom door open, wanting to start this relationship on the right foot. Her roommate had an ample blue terry-cloth robe on and a towel wrapped around her hair. She let out a sigh of relief when she came into the hallway, and smiled as she noticed Hebe. Cheerful, dark-skinned, and full-figured, she was quite the beauty, and had already proven herself an excellent hostess.

"Hey there!" she exclaimed. "Sorry about my state of affairs. I didn't know when they'd get finished with orientation, so forgive me for looking like this. I'm Daria."

"Nice to meet you, and don't worry about anything. Thanks for the, uh, notes."

"Yeah," Daria giggled, "it's kinda cheesy, isn't it? But what could I do? Anyway, make yourself at home. I need to get changed, so…"

"Of course, of course. I'm Hebe, by the way."

"Cool!" she exclaimed. "Awesome name. Sounds like a Greek goddess!" Hebe laughed and felt herself growing warm on the inside. The rumors were definitely true: her roommate was a sweet girl, the perfect choice for her first and only year at Canaan (too bad she isn't blonde, though, Hebe thought to herself. Oh well!). Hebe explored the place while her roommate got dressed, and marveled at just how tidy everything was. She didn't know whether Daria was a neat-freak or if she just spent way too much time outside to wreck anything, but she loved it. The kitchen was about halfway stocked with food, and Hebe's room, while bare for the most part, had all the essentials packed inside, including her luggage, which she had abandoned at the pier.

"I'm back!" Daria was breathtaking; she glowed with a warmth and cheer Hebe hardly ever saw in her normal life. She looked just like any typical American girl, eyes blue and mischievous, hair black and curly, clothes suitable for a woman of great aspirations. Her hands were soft and cool as Hebe shook them. "Sorry that took so long. How do you like the place?"

"I love it!" Daria grinned.

"I hoped you would. Jeez, I must've spent hours cleaning this place! I've had way too much time on my hands since my last roomie moved away. You can help yourself to some food if you're hungry."

"No thanks, I already ate."

"Oh yeah, the tour. Who'd you get as your guide?"

"Miss Farrow—I mean, Teal."

"All right! She's the best. Never a dull moment with her."

"Yeah, I noticed. So, um…"

"Yeah," Daria whispered slowly, "we need something to break the ice. Why don't you tell me about yourself first, then maybe I can find something that'll help us along. How long are you staying, anyway?"

"Just this one year. Next year I'll be in college."

"Yeah, me too. It's a shame they don't have programs like this after you graduate…but maybe they do. Well, since you're going first, I may as well make official introductions. I am Emelia Daria Irwin, but please, for the love of God, don't call me by my first name. It makes me sick." Hebe laughed playfully and introduced herself; Daria loved her name and wished she had something like that.

By the time Daria and Hebe finished introductions, it was already dark. The two had split a leftover casserole for dinner and continued talking long after the dishes were washed. They only stopped because Daria insisted: there was going to be fireworks that evening to celebrate the beginning of a new semester, and new students.

"If anything," she said to Hebe, "the staff sure does know how to make us feel welcome." They packed for the cool night air and went outside together, both of them glad to have someone they already liked as a roommate. Hebe saw plenty of familiar faces once she joined the crowd, and even reunited with Naolin, who gave her a hug.

"I see you made it okay. Let me introduce my roommate." The sullen yet intelligent Sif Saki had been chosen to share quarters with her; Hebe's reception was much warmer than hers. She also introduced Daria, who Naolin did not know, and the two talked about their day until the fireworks started. The girls all sat down, either on lawn chairs or blankets, and stared up at the starry sky as a rainbow of explosions welcomed them to their new life. Quietly, Hebe reached for Naolin's hand and covered it with her own, keeping her eyes to the sky and her heart higher still. This was definitely going to be a memorable school year.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I've made it safely to Canaan Academy, and already I've met several new friends. They all have their "unique traits", but I think that the bonds I make today will become very precious to me later on. I want to know each and every one of them.

The teachers are nice for the most part. My favorite is definitely Ms. Farroway, who lets us call her by her first name. She's best friends with Miss Lune, the Literature and Writing teacher, but you wouldn't know it by the way they fought earlier! The history teacher, Miss Castillo, is very breathtaking, but something doesn't seem right about her. Our psychology teacher is definitely creepy, but at least the Headmaster seems nice enough. She's so gorgeous!

My roommate's name is Daria Irwin, and she's such a sweetheart! She's a good cook and a great housekeeper, and really friendly too. I know I'm going to like it here, so don't worry about me. The post comes here every Saturday, so I'll be waiting eagerly for your letter. Well, that's all I have time for now—it's been a long day, and I'm wiped out! Talk to you later, bye!

Love, Hebe

P.S. I think I'm in love with somebody already. More on that later!