Lucilla wrinkled her nose as stepped out to the Pick Up/Drop Off area of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. "This is what city air smells like? Bleh."
It was only her second time in a big city – unless one counted the brief times in Palermo to board her flight and in Rome to change flights, and both of which she had spent very little time outside – and already she was longing for the rural villages and open fields of Grárheim. Even the refugee camp in Italy had smelled better.
"I hope the shuttle gets here soon," she said impatiently, looking from side to side. "I wonder if any of the others are here yet."
The cell phone in her pocket vibrated, as if to answer her curiosity. She dug it out and answered the call, sliding the device under the large blue scarf that covered her ears.
"Buongiorno, Signore Chairman (Good morning, Mr. Chairman)," she chirped into the phone.
There was a brief moment while he greeted her.
"Si, I just got outside. I haven't met with any of the other students though. You said there are three of them, right?"
She listened again while he responded.
"No, I haven't yet. How will I know them?"
She listened again, raising an incredulous brow at his response.
"They'll probably find me? What does that mean? Hey, wait, don't hang u-"
The line went dead. She stared down at the device in disbelief before letting out a frustrated groan. "Gah! That guy's always so annoying!" she shouted before letting out a long sigh. "Oh well. He's never been wrong before. Guess I'll just have to wait and see."
She glanced around the curb again, hoping to maybe pick out anyone that might be at least one of the other three she was supposed to be meeting.
Jack Turner was sweltering as soon as he stepped out of the airport's air conditioning into the open Atlanta air. He had always lived in the northern states where the climate was milder; places where fifty degrees was shorts and tee shirt weather. It was his first time traveling to the south, and already he was longing for the cold.
"This humidity is suffocating," he complained, holding his hand up to block the sun from his brick-red eyes. It hadn't taken him for than a few moments to start perspiring, and he didn't like it. He hoped that the shuttle to school had good AC.
"I wonder if any of the others are here yet," he mumbled, looking around the sidewalk. It was a noisy place, a cacophony of sounds and voices that assaulted both his ears and his mind. Normally Jack would've avoided somewhere so crowded and busy.
He searched the curbside area again, focusing his attention on anyone that looked roughly his age. Ever since learning that he was a nephilim last November, Jack had been working with both his father – the fallen angel Baraqiel – and his World Literature teacher Dante Alaker – also a nephilim – to learn more about his half-angelic heritage. From their teaching he had learned to better utilize his ability to read the minds of others. He had learned how to better tune out the voices in his head, and that focusing on a person specifically he could hear their thoughts more clearly.
His eyes roved over the crowd of people coming and going, affixing to a few teenagers and turning up nothing. He was supposed to be meeting three others, but had no idea if any of those three would be together or not. When he'd checked everyone he could see from where he stood he started walking down the sidewalk, looking for anyone he couldn't hear from afar.
'Where's grandma?' a child's voice was complaining.
'I'm not going to make the meeting at this rate,' thought a businessman in a suit.
'Why does summer have to be so short?' griped a boy slightly younger than him, maybe thirteen.
'Stupid, annoying chairman.'
Jack stopped and focused on that voice. The word 'chairman' stuck out in contrast to the mental voice that had uttered it. It was too young to be a businesswoman's – for it was definitely female – and had a distinct European accent to it. Italian, maybe?
He trained his eyes on the owner of the thought; a girl that looked about his age with two large suitcases next to her, just like the one he had. She wore a navy-colored top with a large powder blue bow on the chest under a white jacket, along with a white skirt that ruffled at the hem and black boots that came up to her knees. Her head was covered by a white sunhat with a wide brim over a large blue scarf that was tied around her head and covering her ears.
'How is she not melting?' Jack wondered. Even in his simple khaki shorts and blue tee shirt he felt like he was about to succumb to heat stroke. 'Must be from somewhere equally warm.'
He tried to remain inconspicuous as he watched the girl, feeling intrusive and stalkerish for monitoring her thoughts.
'I wish the shuttle would get here so I could at least sit down. Where is it? But then how will the others find me if I'm hiding on a shuttle? So annoying!'
'She's waiting for people,' Jack thought. 'I wonder if she's one of them… I hope so.'
Working up his nerve, he dragged his suitcase toward the girl. The rumbling sound of the wheels rolling against the concrete gave his approach away. She looked up at him from behind a pair of wide sunglasses before he even got to her, making him feel even more self-conscious.
"E-excuse me," he mumbled when he was standing next to her, his cheeks flushed from both the heat and a little awkward embarrassment. "Are you one of the students waiting for the shuttle to Hale?"
'Finally!' the girl exclaimed in her head. 'And he's kind of cute, too.' She smiled up at him from behind her glasses. "Finally!" she repeated out loud. Her voice rang softly like bells. She extended one hand to the boy, using the other to pull down her sunglasses just a little. The eyes behind them were large, almond-shaped, and a sparkling peridot color that caught Jack's breath short.
"Sono Lucilla Selvaggio, piacere di conoscerti (I am Lucilla Selvaggio, nice to meet you)," she said in fluent Italian.
"Um… hi…" Jack responded, not understanding as he timidly shook her hand. "So you are a Lionheart student then?"
"Si, e tu sei? (Yes, and you are?)"
Jack scratched his unruly sandy hair. "Um… do you speak English?"
'Oops,' the girl thought with a little gasp. "Scusi! (Sorry!) Yes, I'm a student starting at the Lionheart Institute this semester. My name is Lucilla Selvaggio, in case you didn't catch that. Are you a student too?"
Jack breathed a relieved sigh that he wouldn't have to try translating her thoughts. "Yeah, my name's Jack Turner. I'm from Maine. You're Italian?"
"Si," the girl replied with a smile. "Have you seen the other two? There's supposed to be four of us I was told."
Jack shook his head. "Not yet. What about the shuttle?"
Lucilla shook her head back. "Nope, nothing."
"Well, I guess we can just wait here for the others. I just wish it wasn't so hot."
"You don't like the heat?"
"Just not used to it."
"Vedo… (I see…)" The girl gave a surreptitious look around, as if she wanted to make sure no one was looking, and then whispered under her breath, "Bacio Artico (Arctic Kiss)." She put her hand to her mouth and blew a kiss in Jack's direction.
Jack flushed a deep red at the gesture. He was momentarily confused, until he felt the air around him begin to steadily cool down and realized was she was doing. "Is that your talent?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"Not exactly," the girl replied, still smiling at him. "I'm not a talent."
Jack blinked, confused. Mr. Alaker had explained to him that the Lionheart Institute was a school for young talents – humans with supernatural abilities. Then again, Jack wasn't a talent either. He was a nephilim. Could this girl be something else too?
"What are you then?" he asked, keeping his voice hushed.
She just continued to smile, though Jack thought he picked out a wink from behind her glasses. "Let's not talk about it here and just wait for the others. We'll all have plenty of time to talk on the way."
Jack glanced around again at all the people, scanning their thoughts to make sure no one was paying them any close attention.
"Here." She wheeled one end of her large suitcase forward so that it was laying on the ground and sat on top of it, patting the spot next to her. "At least we can sit and wait."
'Aw, he's shy,' Lucilla thought as he sat next to her, flushing even more than before. 'I didn't think American boys would be so cute.'
Jack swallowed nervously and tried to tune the girl's mental voice out. Not listening to her was the only way he'd keep from making a fool of himself.
"Hurry up Corey; I can hear the other's waiting outside."
"How do you know it's them?"
"They're talking about the Institute."
"I can't rush the baggage return," the boy told his cousin. "Besides, the shuttle is supposed to pick up four people. It's not like they'll leave us behind."
"Maybe, but it'll be more difficult to find the others if they're hiding on a shuttle," Skye retorted indignantly.
"All right, all right, just focus on that voice you heard."
Skye did as she was told, bouncing impatiently from one foot to the other as she listened to the conversation going on outside. She was pleased that she'd learned to widen the range of her talent in the few months since the fire; it was proving very helpful.
"Is that your talent?" a male voice was asking.
"Not exactly," a girl replied. "I'm not a talent."
"What are you then?" the boy asked.
"Let's not talk about it here and just wait for the others. We'll all have plenty of time to talk on the way there."
Skye blinked her aqua eyes in confusion. "Weird."
"What's weird?" Corey asked, hauling Skye's large violet suitcase off of the carousel.
"They're talking about how they're not talents."
Surprised by her answer, Corey dropped the bag on his foot, letting out a loud curse of pain. 'What do you mean not talents?' he thought at her, ignoring the annoyed stares of the people around them.
"I'm not sure." Skye's forehead creased, as if she were trying to concentrate. "They stopped talking; both their minds are just wandering now. Oh no!"
"What?" Corey asked, the shock and horror on his cousin's face making him anxious.
"One of them is a mind reader."
Corey's blue eyes widened. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. I can hear her thoughts echoed in his head. And he keeps making mental notes and comments about the things she's thinking. What am I gonna do Corey? If he reads my mind he'll know my secret."
Corey immediately dropped all of the bags he held and moved in to embrace his cousin, stroking her long dusty brown hair that matched the color of the spikes on his head. Having her deepest secret, even more private than her ability to read minds, revealed was Skye's greatest fear, and something Corey had sworn to protect at all costs. "Shh, it'll be okay," he cooed to her reassuringly. "What about a Block? Maybe it works both ways."
Skye hadn't thought of that. "I could try, but what if it doesn't work? And what about your mind?"
"We'll just have to not think about it and hope that his ability is the same as yours; that he can only hear what we're thinking at any given time."
Skye bit her lip nervously. His idea wasn't very reassuring, but she didn't have much choice. "All right; I'll try Blocking him as soon as I see him."
"And I'll keep my thoughts from wandering."
With their plan set, Corey picked their bags back up and went back to paying attention to the carousel. He found his own bag quickly and yanked it off. Even though it was a fully stuffed large twenty-seven inch roll-along he slung it easily over his shoulder that already carried his own loaded duffle and back pack.
"Ready to go?" he asked, grabbing Skye's bag by the handle to wheel along.
"You're going to attract attention," his cousin pointed out. She was carrying her own backpack and duffle as well.
'What's the point of super strength if you can't make use of it?' he thought at her with a sly grin. "Lead the way."
She shook her head as she walked ahead of him, though Corey knew he saw her grin. They entered the revolving door and walked around it into the muggy Atlanta air. It didn't bother the cousins from Louisiana. Corey wore a pair of jeans and white tee under an open black shirt while Skye wore a long forest green skirt and an earthy-yellow tank top with copper-colored sleeves on her forearms. Her hair was worn down today, held back by a brown headband.
She followed the mental voices she'd heard inside along the curb, trying to pick a path that would be easy for Corey and his load of luggage to navigate. It took less than a minute for her to find the source of the voices. A boy and girl, most likely their age, were sitting on a large suitcase like the ones Corey was hauling. Another one stood next to them, surrounded by a couple of duffels and backpacks.
"That's them," Skye said, pointing the duo out.
Corey followed her finger until his eyes landed on them and nodded. "Better Block 'im out now that you can see him. We don't know his range."
Nodding, Skye focused her attention entirely on the boy, visualizing a brick wall being built in front of him. It was the mental tool she'd learned almost a year ago to block out the voices of other peoples' minds, both to alleviate some of the background noise in her head and escape from the hurtful things a certain former friend of theirs – one who also knew her deepest secret – used to think about her. She'd gotten much better at creating the Block since the fire, able to build it up almost instantly. She just hoped that the wall worked two ways.
"Well, I can't hear him," she said when it was done. She tried to make her voice sound confident, but there was a slight tremble in it. "Let's go put it to the test."
Corey nudged her gently with his elbow. "It'll be okay. No matter what, you'll always have me."
Skye looked up at her cousin – so much like a brother – and nodded, smiling. She continued leading the way as they approached the two seated teens. "Excuse me?"
The boy and girl looked up at cousins.
"I'm Skye Rayle, and this is my cousin Corey Ayers. You guys are new students going to the Lionheart Institute, right?"
"Yeah, that's us," the boy answered, rising to his feet and shaking Skye's hand. "I'm Jack Turner."
Skye noted as they shook that he furrowed his brow, as if something were bothering him.
'I think it's working,' Corey thought at her as he set down one of their large bags and shook the sandy-haired boy's hand.
"What's working?" the boy asked.
Skye shot her cousin a hard look, but Corey just smirked. "So you are a mind reader."
Jack blinked, taken aback. "How did you know?"
"Skye can do the same. She heard you guys thinking about the Institute from inside."
At that Jack's brick eyes widened, turning to gawk at the girl. "You heard me from inside? That's crazy range. But how come I can't hear your mind?"
"I can't hear yours anymore either. I taught myself to target and block certain people's thoughts; cuts down on mental background noise. I blocked yours to see if it worked both ways, and it looks like it does."
"Wow, that's impressive. Can you teach me?"
Skye blushed at the compliment. "I can try."
The sound of a clearing throat cut in to the conversation. The three all looked at the girl in sunglasses, who had risen as well and stood behind them.
"Oh, sorry Lucilla," Jack said, stepping aside to include the girl. "This is Lucilla Selvaggio."
"Piacere di conoscerti," she greeted them, extending her hand to shake each of the cousins'. "Skye, right? You have such pretty hair."
"Thank you!" Skye exclaimed excitedly. "I love your outfit. Where did you get those sunglasses; they're so cute."
Corey and Jack both rolled their eyes as the girls settled in to classic girl-talk.
"You play sports?" Corey asked conversationally.
"Um… no, I don't," Jack replied, feeling intimidated. He wondered if the boy he'd just met was another jock with a superiority complex that would look down on him.
'Didn't think so. You look more like a bookworm-type,' Corey thought.
"I do like to read a lot, yes," Jack replied indignantly. "Bookworm's a bit of a stretch. Hey, wait, why did you only think that?"
'I'm used to it with Skye,' Corey thought in reply. "Saves time. I play some sports for fun – baseball mostly – but nothing serious. I'm more into comics and manga."
At this Jack brightened up. "You like manga? What's your favorite?"
The two boys went off on that while the girls continued talking fashion, the two conversations occasionally intertwining and then deviating again. None of the four even noticed the shuttle van that pulled up next to them until a loud voice interrupted them all.
They all jumped and turned to see who had addressed them. Leaning against the side of the long black van was a young man dressed all in black. He wore black cargo shorts with studs lining the pockets and bright green straps that looped from the front of his waist to the back, a sleeveless hooded black shirt with a cartoonish skull on the front, and black Chuck Taylors. An assortment of studded bracelets and bands decorated from his wrists to his elbows, and around his neck he wore a dog collar and a chain with three pendants hanging from it; two of them were swords – one gold and one black – and the last was a gray set of crossed angelic wings. He had chestnut-colored hair down to his waist tied back in a ponytail, and his eyes were hazel with a little gray around the edges.
"You're the brats going to the Lionheart Institute, right?" he demanded in a distinct Georgia accent. "I ain't got all day. Load your stuff up." He jerked his thumb to the rear of the van where the doors were wide open. "I'll be inside." He disappeared around the van then, which vibrated in time to the loud music blaring from inside.
The four teens looked at each other skeptically.
"Skye, what's his deal?" Corey asked, annoyed by the young man's attitude.
"I'm not sure," his cousin replied with an incredulous expression. "I couldn't read his mind."
"Me either," Jack verified. "I guess that means he's our guy."
"Should make for an interesting ride then," Lucilla declared, already loading her things into the back of the van. For whatever reason, she didn't seem off-put in the least by the young man's attitude.
The inside of the twelve-seat van was dim, cool, and comfortable. It was all black as well, making it seem much later in the day than it was. A partition rose up from the floor behind the front seats, separating the kids from their driver.
Jack sighed as he settled into the leather seat. "Air conditioning is definitely man's triumph over nature."
"You're from up north, aren't you?" Skye teased, leaning over the back of the seat. She sat on the bench behind Jack, next to her cousin, who sat on the driver's side behind Lucilla.
"Maine, born and raised," Jack replied. He sprawled himself over the seat, the heat having left him feeling drained.
"Everyone peed, right?" the driver called from the front as he pulled away from the curb. He'd turned his music down when the teens had gotten in to let them talk. "It's about an hour, forty-five to Hale – assuming traffic's good – and then another thirty to the Institute. I have a half tank, so we'll have to stop sooner or later, but I don't want to spend all day on this."
His phone rang then and he grunted, digging the device out and answering. "Midnight Crow here."
He paused while the person on the other end spoke.
"Yes, I just picked them up. We'll be there in about two hours, so have her ready."
He let the caller speak again.
"Copy that. Laterz." He ended the call and scoffed. "Bossy prick."
"Are we stopping in Hale?" Corey called from the back.
"We have to pick up another student," the driver replied. "Shouldn't take more than a minute. S'not like Bacalou likes to stand around and chit-chat."
"Are you from Hale, Mr. Driver?" Skye called up to him.
"Call me Midnight," the driver instructed. "Yeah, I was born in Hale, but I left when I was nine. Didn't come back till I was nineteen."
"What happened?" Jack asked.
Midnight looked pointedly at the teens in the rearview mirror. "My father couldn't tolerate having a freak for a son."
A somber mood fell over the shuttle as Midnight rolled through the tollbooth to leave the airport.
"You kids are lucky," he went on as he started toward the highway. "I didn't have anything like the Lionheart Institute. That place is going to revolutionize the way young talents and mythicals are introduced to the Mythical World."
"What do you mean by mythicals?" Corey asked. "And Mythical World?"
Midnight shrugged. "That's what the Institute is for. I could explain it, but the mind readers are probably already picking the information out of Pointy Ears' head back there." He directed his eyes in the rearview to Lucilla. "You can take all that off in here. The tint on these windows is dark enough; no one can see in."
The other three teens all looked at her curiously, wondering what the nickname meant.
Lucilla didn't say anything in response. She reached up slowly and pulled her sunglasses off. Next she removed her hat, setting them both slowly on the seat between herself and Jack. Finally, she began to unwrap the scarf that was wound around her head, letting a wave of long strawberry blonde hair tumble down. It wasn't her hair that caught the other threes' attention though. They were all staring open-mouthed at her ears. They were at least six inches long, roughly leaf-shaped, and stuck slightly out from her head. When she looked up at them again it was with wide, almond-shaped eyes of a peridot color none of them had ever seen before.
"An elf?" Jack asked in surprise. "That's what you are?"
"Ulfan, to be precise," Lucilla corrected. "A race genetically engineered by splicing the genes of elves with those of humans."
Jack, Corey, and Skye all looked to the driver, as if seeking confirmation that such a thing could be true.
"What? Surprised that in a world where kids have powers there might be things that aren't human?" Midnight asked, his tone implying that it should be obvious. "Spoiler Alert: Any paranormal, supernatural, or mythical creature or race you've ever heard a legend about does, in fact, exist. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, elves, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, demons, angels…" he looked directly at Jack in the mirror on that one. "Right Jack?"
It was his turn to be the center of attention as the other three teens shifted to look at him.
"You're an angel?" Corey asked.
"Half," Jack admitted sheepishly. "Half fallen angel. I'm a nephilim."
Corey and Skye were gaping at him now, while Lucilla didn't show the least bit of surprise.
"Those are the people and beings that make up the Mythical World; a society separate from that of humankind," Midnight went on explaining. "It's kept secret from the Human World because humans tend to panic about things like monsters."
"So… are you a talent, Midnight?" Skye asked tentatively. She was still trying to read his mind to no avail. It was a little frustrating.
"I was born one. But thanks to a series of certain events I'm one hundred percent mythical now."
"So then what are you?" Jack asked, equally perturbed by the driver's mental silence.
Midnight shrugged dismissively. "I'm just a driver, nothing more. And I've already said more than needed. Things like this are the reason you're all going to the Lionheart Institute; so you can learn about the Mythical World and how it and the Human World are expected to co-exist without interfering with one another. And learn how to properly use your powers of course. Anyway, they don't pay me enough to pass on this kind of information. If you need me just throw something at the glass."
"What glass?" Jack asked.
Midnight flipped a switch on the dashboard and a pane of glass slid out from the partition, sealing him off from the rest of them. As soon as it was closed the kids could hear the bass from the front, Midnight having turned his music back up.
"He's friendly," Corey remarked. He put the driver out of his mind, other things piquing his interest. "So guys aren't even human?" he asked the two in front of him.
"I'm half human," Jack said indignantly. "I've pretty much always been human. I didn't even learn about the whole nephilim thing till back in November. My World Lit teacher, Mr. Alaker, is one too. He's been helping me learn more about my angelic side and teaching me how to better use my powers. He's the one that recommended me to Lionheart."
"What about you Lucilla?" Skye asked. She did so mostly for Corey's benefit, seeing as she and Jack would hear the answer the second the other girl thought it. "You probably grew up in the Mythical World, huh?"
She regretted asking as soon as the reply came into Lucilla's head. Flashes of the ulfan girl's memory played in her head. Constantly on the run, living in hastily set up camps, fearing for her life every minute of the day. Yet, despite the painful memories playing in her mind, Lucilla was smiling at them all so sweetly.
"Si; this is my first time in the Human World," she answered happily.
"But if you're already a mythical, why are you even going to Lionheart?" Corey wondered.
"I was selected by the chairman of the Lionheart Institute himself. He thinks that teaching talents – in other words, humans – about the Mythical World isn't enough; that mythicals need to learn about the Human World too. A lot of mythicals live in and blend in with the Human World pretty well, but not all of us have that option. I could never pass for human with ears like these. Lionheart is a chance for me to learn more about the Human World."
"Where did you come from though?" Jack asked her now. "Your race was genetically engineered? Does that kind of technology even exist?"
Lucilla nodded. "The Mythical World is far more technologically advanced. That's because mythicals generally have higher intelligence capabilities. Most major technological breakthroughs of the last several decades were by mythicals. The UGMW regulates what's allowed to be shared with the Human World."
"UGMW?" Corey asked.
"United Guilds of the Mythical World," Skye answered, having heard the thought in Lucilla's mind. "They're the only real governing body of the Mythical World. They control all of the paranormal agencies in the world; like that Black Sun Group Agent Charleston works for."
Corey nodded, remembering the visit from the man in black a few months ago.
"Actually, BSG belongs to another organization; The Pack."
"The Pack?" Jack questioned.
"They're like a rebel organization that opposes the UGMW. Well, maybe opposes isn't quite right." She stopped for a moment and put her finger to her lip, pondering how to phrase what she wanted to say.
"Oh, I get it," Jack said, listening to her thoughts. "They serve the same basic purpose – protecting the Mythical World – and they work together a lot of the time, but they have some differing views."
"Exactly," Lucilla agreed. "Having mind readers is kind of neat. The UGMW feels that Silent Unity and the Complete Separation of Worlds, both laws in the Mythical World that prevent interaction with the Human World, are the best way to keep the peace. The leader of The Pack, on the other hand, believes we should be working toward a unified world, where humans and mythicals can live openly side-by-side. The leader of The Pack is also the Founder and chairman of the Lionheart Institute."
"What?" the other three teens shouted.
"So, we're on the rebel side?" Corey asked.
"I guess you could say that," the ulfan girl replied. "That's why the chairman wants some mythical kids to attend the Institute, not just talents. It's an experiment to see how well they can co-exist."
At that Corey scoffed. "We ended up as lab rats anyway."
"It won't be like that," Skye assured him.
"Okay, my turn to ask some questions," Lucilla declared enthusiastically. "We know that Skye and Jack are mind readers, but what can you do Corey?"
He perked up at being asked about his power. "Check it out."
Skye rolled her eyes at her cousin as he made a show of raising his right hand, careful to position it in a place that wouldn't hurt anyone, and concentrated on his palm. A few tiny spots of gray light sparkled there before a flash of gray light shone.
The van swerved, tossing them all to the right.
"What the hell are you brats doing back there?" came Midnight's angry voice over the blare of his music. The partition had slid open and he was glaring at them all in the rearview.
"Sorry," Corey apologized quickly. "They wanted to see what I could do."
"Well kill the light show! It's distracting, and just because all of us could walk away from a car crash doesn't mean people in the other cars can."
"Sorry, it won't happen again," Lucilla said quickly, hoping to mollify the driver.
"Damn kids," Midnight scoffed before closing the partition back up.
The teens all breathed a sigh of relief.
"Smooth," Jack snarked.
"Shut up!" Corey barked back at him. "Just look." He raised his right hand again, which was now wrapped around a pixelated two-dimensional baseball bat with a red grip. "I can make 8-Bit objects."
Jack's expression said he was clearly impressed. "That's awesome. Lemme see it."
"Can't," Corey replied. He released his grip on the bat and it vanished, not even having time to drop a centimeter in the air. "I have to be touching whatever I make, or it disappears. But the things I create have all the properties of the genuine article. Even though it was flat, that bat was just as heavy and just as solid as a real one. It even had that same metal feeling to it. One time I made fire too. It wouldn't burn me for some reason, but it did burn down that warehouse."
"That's not something to be proud of," Skye scolded him, giving a little shove that made Corey laugh. "What can you do Lucilla?"
"You guys missed it. She can use magic," Jack told them. "She cast a spell that cooled me off while we were waiting outside."
"Hardly a spell," Lucilla declined. "That was more of a trick. I haven't learned many spells yet."
"That's still pretty cool," Corey told her. "I'd ask to see some, but I doubt Mr. Driver there would appreciate them."
They all glanced at Midnight, who was headbanging to the beat of his electronic metal music, and laughed.
"What do you guys think he is?" Jack asked them all.
"Vampire," Corey answered immediately.
"During the day?" Jack asked doubtfully.
"Vampires don't actually disintegrate in the sun," Lucilla informed them. "Their skin is just really photosensitive. A high SPF sunscreen is all they need. But no, his eyes don't have that gemstone look to them. Incubus, maybe?"
"I thought Incubi were supposed to be sexy," Corey griped.
"I think he's kind of cute," his cousin teased, earning a return shove from before. "But you're right, he doesn't have that air of seduction Incubi are supposed to have. No, going off his personality, I'm gonna guess he's… a werewolf. He likes to bark a lot."
They all laughed until something banged against the glass partition. When they looked up there was a crack in the glass, though Midnight didn't seemed to have moved. They all snickered, hoping he couldn't hear that.
They spent the rest of the trip talking and getting to know one another better. Jack and Corey further bonded over their love of manga. Skye would chime in every now and then, but she spoke mostly to Lucilla – who'd never read any kind of comics – about clothes and music. They all laughed and joked with one another, playing the license plate game and slug bug.
"I'm glad we got this chance to meet and get to know one another Skye," Lucilla said at one point. "It'd be cool if we end up roommates in the dorms."
Skye smiled nervously. "Um… yeah, that would be nice…" It would've been too. Being able to room with another girl her age would've been one of the greatest things that could've happened to her. It would be her first chance to really experience what it was like to have a really close girl friend. It wouldn't happen though. In their never-ending effort to protect Skye's secret, their fathers had already made special arrangements with the school to allow Corey and Skye to room together. It would normally be against the rules, a boy and a girl rooming together. They were family though and, given the nature of Skye's secret, wasn't really breaking any rules.
When Midnight pulled off to get gas they all went in to use the restroom and buy refreshments. They snickered quietly to themselves when Midnight lost his temper with the gas station clerk for ringing up his soda twice.
"Definitely a werewolf," Skye whispered as they climbed back into the van. She sat in the back next to Lucilla now while Corey and Jack took the bench in front of them.
"Or some kind of dog demon, like Inuyasha," Corey added.
Forty minutes later they were crossing into the tiny town of Hale. The buildings on Main Street were picturesque and quaint, carried over from another day and age. Cars were an eclectic blend of modern sedans and rusted old pick-ups. In the center of the town was a roundabout with a large bronze statue in the center. None of them could read the placard on the side from the car, but it was a fairly typical Soldier-on-a-Horse affair. They drove around it and headed toward an industrial end of town, driving alongside a rail yard and passing several seemingly empty warehouses and factories.
"Brings back memories, huh?" Corey said to his cousin, making her roll her eyes.
"Just don't burn any of them down," Jack jabbed at him, earning a playful punch on the arm. "Hey Midnight, we're not here to perform any kind of illicit activity are we?"
The driver guffawed. "You wish kid. Black Sun Group's facility is out this way. We're not going all the way there; Bacalou is meeting us… there."
He pointed out the passenger side window to one of the empty warehouses. It had large hanger doors that were wide open. Parked inside was a shiny, nondescript black sedan, its windows tinted just as dark as the vehicle they rode in. He slowed the van down as he turned toward the building, parking just outside the hanger doors.
"You all get out too," he said, taking off his seatbelt.
"Why us?" Corey asked.
"Because I said so!" the driver barked before climbing out his door.
The four teens gave each other curious looks that turned to expressions of "why not?" and got out as well. They walked around and stood in line in front of the van while Midnight advanced toward the sedan as the front passenger door swung open. Out stepped a dark-skinned man wearing a black suit and sunglasses.
"Agent Charleston!" Skye exclaimed, waving.
The dark-skinned man smiled back at her and gave a little nod before turning grave. He closed his car door and walked forward to meet with their driver, reaching out to shake his hand.
"Bacalou," their driver greeted.
"I thought I told you not to address me by my true name, Midnight Crow," the agent retorted curtly. His tone was one of hostile reverence, something that surprised the teens. It was like the agent was speaking to a boss he didn't like, but Midnight had said he was "just a driver." Unless he'd lied.
Curious, Skye delved into the agent's mind.
'Twenty-three years later and he's still a little brat.'
She raised a brow at that and looked at Jack, who was looking at her. He'd obviously been listening too, and found the thought just as odd.
"You may have said something like that," Midnight replied disinterestedly, scratching his nose. "You got the other brat with you?"
Agent Charleston's nostrils flared infinitesimally. "She's in the car, but I still disagree with this method."
"What's wrong? You said the girl was stable."
"For now, yes. We haven't had an incident since we brought her in, but that means we haven't had any chance to collect valuable data. We don't know what might set her off."
"She's been isolated at HQ for the past four months; the poor kid needs to socialize. Besides, I've got two mind readers, – one of them a nephilim – a materializer with high potential, and an ulfan magic-user. If anything happens, I'm sure we can handle it. It's not like I'm useless either."
All four of the teens looked at one another, all of them thinking the same thing. True, having them all arrive in Atlanta and transported to the school together might have been convenient, but it was for more reasons than they'd known. This other student they were picking up was dangerous, and they were there to act as a sort of guard.
A smile spread across Agent Charleston's face, but it wasn't a kind one. Even behind his sunglasses, the teens could tell it didn't touch his eyes. Skye and Jack both tried to read his mind, but his thoughts were oddly blank.
"He must be trying to hide his thoughts about Midnight," Skye hissed to the other three.
"What's with this guy?" Corey wondered. "Is he really just a bus driver?"
"I'm finding that harder to believe," Jack agreed.
"He is indeed molto misterioso (very mysterious)," Lucilla added. She was the only one that didn't seem perturbed by the driver. Maybe because she was already a part of the Mythical World. Maybe people like Midnight were common there.
"C'mon, we ain't got all day," Midnight went on impatiently. "Get her out here already. Corey, Jack, get the bags from the trunk."
And now the teens understood why he'd asked them to get out. Guard duty and manual labor. The boys rolled their eyes and headed toward the sedan just as Agent Charleston turned and nodded at someone in the driver seat. The trunk popped open and then the rear passenger door did too. A small pair of feet stepped out, but the owner of them was too small for more than the very top of her head to be seen over the top of the door.
Very slowly the owner of the feet shut the door and turned to face the crowd, walking forward timidly. She was a small girl, younger than the other four teens, probably about thirteen. Her sleek black hair barely reached her shoulders, and she was dressed in a simple sleeveless black dress with ruffled shoulders and a lacy collar with plain black sneakers. Around her neck was a silver star pendant with a deep blue gemstone in the center.
She walked toward them until she stood next to Agent Charleston, whom she clung closely to. When she turned her alabaster face up at the girls and Midnight it was with wide and forlorn sapphire blue eyes. This close, they could also see that she wore a black choker with a blue star around her little neck.
"It's okay Rachel," Agent Charleston said gently, patting her shoulder reassuringly. "This is the man I told you about."
Rachel looked up first at the agent and then at Midnight, nervous.
Moving calmly, Midnight took two steps forward and knelt down in front of the little girl. He reached his hand out to her and, after a moment of frightened uncertainty and another reassuring nod from Agent Charleston, she walked forward and placed her tiny hand in Midnight's. As soon as she did the driver yanked her forward, startling everyone as he wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace.
"I'm sorry for what happened to you," he whispered to her. His voice quavered and his whole body seemed to tremble. "It'll be all right now."
For a moment the girl was shocked frozen. Then her sapphire eyes glistened and she wrapped her own arms around the driver's broad shoulders, burying her face in his shoulder.
Lucilla had no words for what was happening in front of her. She looked to Skye, as if the other girl had some answers. Skye in turn looked at Jack, who had just finished loading the little girl's bags into the van with Corey, and they both nodded. Each of them reached out and glimpsed into the girl's mind only to recoil instantly. What they'd seen there was too gruesome, too horrifying to exist in such a young mind.
Skye covered her mouth with her hands and buried her face in Corey's chest. Jack grimaced and turned toward Lucilla, seeking anything more pleasant to erase the disturbing images from his mind.
"Jack?" the ulfan girl asked, wrapping her arms uncertainly around him.
"What did you see?" Corey asked his cousin, but she didn't answer. She just shook her head, too shaken to speak the words.
After several long moments of silence, Midnight drew in a slowed breath and released the little girl. He held her at arm's length, touching his forehead to hers. "Will you trust me?"
Rachel stared back at him, their eyes meeting. What it was she saw there, none of the others could be sure. Whatever it was must have been powerful though, because the girl nodded to the shuttle driver.
"I trust you sir," she said in a tiny voice, nodding her head ever so slightly.
Midnight nodded back at her. He rose to his feet and took one of her hands before turning back to the rest of the teens. "Corey, Skye, Jack, Lucilla; I want you guys to meet Rachel Bluestar. She's a talent, and she'll be joining you at the Institute this fall. I want to ask you all to look after her. She's a… special case."
The teens all looked at one another, wondering what that might mean. It was Skye that broke away. She walked forward and offered her hand to the little girl.
"Hello Rachel; my name is Skye."
The girl looked up at her, her sapphire eyes as wide and deep as an ocean. When not prompted to remember, her mind was much clearer and peaceful. One thought in particular stuck out in her mind.
'She's so pretty.'
Skye smiled at the mental compliment. "C'mon. Let's go to school."
There was another slight moment of hesitation. Then, ever so carefully, Rachel reached out to take Skye's hand. Looking up at the older girl, her face shifted into a shy, tiny smile as she let Skye lead her back to the other three.
"Hi Rachel," Lucilla said when she was brought over. She didn't offer her hand to the younger girl, but rather drew her into a tight embrace. She felt Rachel's rigidness but kept up her hug until the girl thawed and then melted in her arms. When she released the girl again Rachel was blushing and looking away shyly.
"You guys get in the van," Midnight called to them. "I wanna get there before evening." He waited for all of them to climb back into the shuttle before turning and walking back toward the driver's seat. "You can stop worrying Bacalou," he said over his shoulder, pulling the door open. He focused on the agent as he stepped halfway into vehicle. "The Institute's been a success so far."
"With all due respect Midnight Crow," the agent replied with noticeable contempt, "the students you've gathered are getting stronger with each class, and this year's are quite a step up from last year's. You of all people should know what happens when this many empowered adolescents are brought together."
Midnight just gave a dismissive wave. "You worry too much. I'll call you when I make the drop." He climbed the rest of the way into the van and slammed the door loudly.
'Don't take this so lightly, you brat,' Skye heard in the agent's mind as Midnight put the van in reverse.
"You and Agent Charleston don't get along?" she asked.
"Me and Bacalou got off to bad start." He swung the van around and started away from the warehouses. He focused on Rachel in the mirror. "Are you ready to meet a lot of new people Rachel?"
The girl, seated between Lucilla and Skye on the bench behind Midnight, looked around as the teens that surrounded her apprehensively. "What if… it happens again?"
Skye and Jack both shuddered, neither trying to see or hear the thoughts in the girl's head.
"The Institute won't let that happen," Midnight said in a tone of such certainty. "They'll make sure it never happens again. By the time you graduate you'll be able to live a normal life again."
The girl smiled at the drive, but it was a lie. It was a placating smile to mask her true thoughts from him. She couldn't hide those thoughts from the mind readers.
'You're wrong, Midnight Crow. My life can never be normal again. Not after that day.'
Skye and Jack looked at one another, both of them hiding the overwhelming sadness that permeated every corner of the girl's mind. Their lives had already been altered in indelible ways. They knew that their coming school year would be different from any other, but their brief look into the girl's mind had showed them more than they would've cared to see. They weren't just stepping into a new school; they were stepping into a whole new world. And, after what they'd seen, they had better be ready for anything.
"All right kiddos," Midnight said as he pulled back onto the highway. "Next stop, the Lionheart Institute."