Matt’s hobbies, however, were not restricted to drugging unsuspecting wildlife. In his abundance of time, the so-called clairvoyant went on nature-walks, searching for edible native plants to pick and boil into teas. He had Ed set up a personal computer and makeshift DJ equipment in his room, and started working on making his own remixes and music sets. He requisitioned canvases, paints, pencils and clay under the guise of “better expressing” his “clairvoyant visions” and began teaching himself to draw, sculpt and paint – a fruitless venture, it turned out, as Matt had literally zero artistic talent and his hideous creations all ended up being gifted to the ranges for target practice.
He exercised, going for runs around the grounds and lifting weights in the Academy gym, which earned him enthusiastic encouragement from James and permanent envy at how much the Senior could bench. He mastered the art of the Rubix Cube, learned how to knit, and even tried his hand at computer coding – although that last one he gave up after Ed informed him (somewhat snobbish and narrow-mindedly, in Matt’s opinion) that a window full of two hundred identical Exit buttons where only one of them actually closed the program was not, in fact, a “real” game.
Ed was fast becoming Matt’s best friend at the Academy – a real friend, the type of guy who’d try your nettle tea and then tell the Infirmary nurse that his vomiting was due to a “virus”. The genius was funny, easy-going, slightly cynical, and unpretentious – something which couldn’t be said for a lot of other Acolytes. Almost without meaning to, the pair began hanging out more and more, gaming together or with Matt just playing single player while Ed worked on whatever he was doing. Ed’s mind, far outpacing his own, did tend to veer into moods and tangents which Matt struggled to follow, sometimes plunging into lingering, incomprehensible unhappiness – but these always seemed to pass and Matt genuinely felt like his presence helped them do so. Ed had actually been a bit more social since the night of the party and although he still rarely left his computer nest Matt at least managed to badger him into getting some fresh air or having a public meal every once in a while.
Outside of his growing range of hobbies and the hours he spent with Ed, Matt had also unexpectedly fallen into the role of illicit Acolyte activity organiser – a role he hadn’t necessarily anticipated, but which he nevertheless enthusiastically embraced in his ongoing and ever-increasing efforts to be expelled. Every day Matt lingered increased the chances of Cross figuring out his true identity, and so when people he barely knew came up to him in the corridors asking (with the kind of giddy nervousness Matt would have associated with children sneaking cookies) the finer points of delinquency, Matt was only too glad to openly and loudly point them in the right, morally wrong, direction.
Matt did find it a bit weird that they needed him to do this – they were, as Jane had said, all adults – but it seemed that many Acolytes, coming from uncompromising backgrounds, still needed someone to tell them that it was alright to relax and occasionally have a good time. That person, apparently, was him, and so almost without trying Matt found himself as the Academy’s unofficial party liaison – telling Acolytes which booze to buy, arranging impromptu gatherings and explaining that, arguably, you weren’t really committing a crime if you didn’t get caught.
Any day now, Matt thought as he directed three Acolyte girls to the fact that three Acolyte boys had acquired two cases of beer for the coming Saturday, after selling them a box of fireworks and subtly dropping the little-known fact that mixing Styrofoam with gasoline made napalm. Surely the administration would get fed up soon.
While Matt was busy wasting his life and corrupting her peers, Jane was training harder than she’d ever trained before. This had its positives and negatives. On the one hand, the physical exertion was enormous. Every day she collapsed into bed with aching joints, burning muscles and more than once untreated wounds that she was just too tired to get fixed. In each session, the Academy’s trainers pushed her mercilessly, indifferent to what she could do or what she’d already done. She blasted through collapsing tunnels, ran laps through a self-contained hurricane, performed push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups while enduring psychic assault. That last one Jane especially hated – although none of the telepaths assigned to assault her during training ever actually invaded her mind, they all broke down her defences laughably easily and many (with the exception of Natalia, who for some reason seemed wary) clearly relished beating her.
On the other hand, Jane could feel herself improving – and seeing progress was exhilarating. Her barriers of fire, ice and lightning no longer wavered after the first thirty seconds, her pain tolerance was through the roof, and she was – almost – able to confidently hover. Her muscles, already strong, were becoming bands of iron – helped, no doubt, by the fact that she was actually eating properly now. Jane was still wary of the Hall, especially during peak times when it filled with crowds who stared at her with open contempt. In theory she knew the Ashes’ commandment prevented anything worse than staring, but in reality, even amongst budding heroes, rules only restrained resentment for so long. However, Jane soon found her caution ruffled by the ongoing presence of Giselle Pixus, who had seemingly decided – without the empath’s input or consent – that they were going to be friends.
The first time Giselle had asked Jane to sit with her, she’d been too stunned to say no. The second time she’d tried to argue and lost. The third time Jane had simply started walking away, but before she could blink there’d been a rush of wind and suddenly she’d found herself sitting on a bench on the other side of the Hall with Giselle chatting animatedly away beside her as if nothing had happened. After times four and five had the same outcome, Jane resigned herself to the speedster getting her way.
At first Giselle’s presence and the presence of the droves of people who flocked to her made Jane incredibly wary, and she held firmly to the belief that at any moment Giselle’s “friendship” would be revealed as the elaborate prank it logically had to be. But as the days passed and no ambush came, Jane reluctantly had to consider the uncomfortable possibility that this pretty, popular girl was genuinely trying to be nice to her – an idea she approached with the same enthusiasm one might approach suspiciously old meat.
It wasn’t that Giselle wasn’t fun to be around – on the contrary, she was amazing. That was the problem. Giselle was gorgeous and bubbly and affectionate and funny and never seemed to wear the same outfit twice, and all those things were so incomprehensible to Jane, who had spent most of the last decade without any meaningful female interaction, that the speedster may as well have been an actual alien. Day after day, Jane found herself sitting beside her half hypnotised, staring at this beautiful, elegant creature as it talked about makeup and politics and boys and a thousand other topics on which the empath had nothing to contribute – and all while somehow, impossibly, not trying to extricate itself from her presence. One morning, without warning, Giselle even braided Jane’s hair.
But it wasn’t just at meals. Although running an incredibly tight schedule and seemingly involved in everything the Academy had to offer, Giselle’s assistance to Jane quickly grew unrelenting. She talked her through lecture concepts, ran over tips and tricks enemies with various powers might pull, and in particular drilled Jane on combat theory, lecturing extensively about how the empath was fighting defensively (an assertion that initially rankled Jane to no end) and needed to concentrate on dictating the terms of her battles. She then demonstrated this concept in practice fights which, although arguably educational, were also universally humiliating – the speedster moved so fast and so without warning that by the time Jane knew they were fighting she was already dazed, confused and defeated on the ground. Giselle Pixus looked like a cheerleader and hit like a line-backer, and Jane couldn’t help wondering if the former was partially to disguise the latter.
True to his word, Wally Cykes had also been helping Jane. The red-haired psychic had appeared out of nowhere one morning as she’d been filling up a plate at the buffet and reiterated his offer from the party. “You’re no good to anyone if you crumple the first time a telepath touches you,” he’d insisted. Initially Jane had wanted to argue, but then she’d remembered how upset Matt had been at the thought of her mind exposing his secret, so she’d agreed and they’d started meeting, once every Saturday in an unused classroom. Unlike combat with Giselle however, mental defence did not come naturally to Jane – or at all.
“Nope,” came Wally’s ethereal voice. Once again, he brushed aside her ramshackle defences with a single sweeping thought. “No good.”
“Urgh!” swore Jane. She opened her eyes, feeling his billowing presence, the engulfing summer storm cloud, retreating away from her exposed mind. It was their fourth session; the fourth Saturday in a row where the empath had failed miserably to keep the psychic out. She let out a flurry of swear words that would have offended an ex-convict.
“You got distracted,” said Wally, not unkindly, “You panicked.”
“Of course I goddamn panicked,” she snapped, “Greatest psychic in the goddamn world going through my head, what would you… URGH!” She wrung her hands together, shudder-shaking her arms, trying to throw off the wretched, sickening feeling of someone scraping inside your mind.
“Mental defence is about discipline,” Wally stated calmly, “Concentration.”
“I know,” she replied, shaking her head like it was full of spiders, “I know I know I know.”
“It’s ok,” he assured her, “Focus on your breathing.”
“Why does it have to be breathing?” Jane spat, petty and annoyed and angry at herself for sounding petty and annoyed, “Why can’t I think about something else?”
“You can think about whatever you want,” Wally shrugged, “Controlled breathing just helps you stay calm. And it’s easiest for most people to concentrate on something about themselves.”
“Why?” asked Jane, still angry and shaky and mostly just talking to delay their next bout, “Why is that easier?”
“I assume it’s because most of us are self-obsessed,” mused Wally, “Why? Don’t you like thinking about yourself?”
“I don’t know,” Jane replied through gritted teeth, “I’m fine. Whatever.”
“Hmm,” said Wally, looking unconvinced, “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe you need to do a little soul searching. Come to terms with yourself. Figure out who you really are.”
Stupid idea, thought Jane, as she readied her mind. Pointless. She knew who she was.
“You’re an idiot,” said Matt politely, pointing out the spot on her take-home where she’d mislabelled the skeleton’s anatomy with the tip of his pencil. “In what universe is the tibia in the arm?”
“Shut up,” Jane snapped, though not particularly harshly, “I knew it was one of the limb bones.”
“I don’t know if Professor Lun gives marks for half-answers.”
They were in his room, Jane having brought her chair around so they could sit side-by-side at his desk. Theoretical work not being her strong suit, Jane found it helpful to bounce her answers off someone and despite not attending the lectures Matt was happy to be a sounding board.
“I don’t get why I have to know first-aid,” she sighed, running her hands through her hair. Her tattoo was itchy today. Matt raised an eyebrow at her and after a moment she relented. “Alright, I get why I have to know, it’s just-”
“-a lot to take in,” Matt finished for her. He was leaning back in his seat, thumbing through her criminal psychology reading. “I can’t make heads or tails of this.”
“Well maybe if you came to class-”
“Expelled, remember? Besides, why do I need to know how crazy evil people think? Will it help me run away better?”
“Maybe you could outsmart them,” Jane smirked, erasing the incorrect answer and writing ‘ulna’.
“I’ll leave that to the smart people,” said Matt.
“It’s better than sitting around playing with songs.”
“What is, outsmarting people?”
“No, going to lectures.”
“That’s only because you haven’t heard my latest mix,” Matt said, putting down her assignment and turning enthusiastically to his computer. “Do you want to hear it?”
“No,” replied Jane with genuine disinterest. Matt looked a little crestfallen. She sighed.
“Okay, fine, play your stupid song. God, I cannot believe you’re an Acolyte.”
“Well it’s not my fault,” scowled Matt. He moused over to the DJ program, then paused and muttered darkly, “Though we know whose it is.”
After they’d made up at the party, Matt had filled Jane in on his visit from the mysterious child. Beyond Matt slowly descending into lunacy, neither of them had been able to brainstorm an explanation for the boy, or how he’d managed to get in and out of Matt’s room. Matt’s mental defence was too good for it to have been a psychic projection, and Jane had been quick to point out that Morningstar’s security systems prevented anyone teleporting or phase-walking through the walls.
“Cross didn’t bite then?”
“Not an inch,” Matt sighed. They’d come up with the idea of dropping a reference to the kid to Cross to see if somehow she’d been responsible, but the hint had got them nothing. “And I would’ve noticed something. She’s not half as subtle as she thinks she is.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Jane said, for about the millionth time, “If it’s a prank it’s not funny. If it’s a test, what’s it testing? And if it’s seriously a warning-”
“Then why be so obtuse,” Matt finished heavily, again for what felt like the millionth time, “Why not say who’s supposed to be dying or what I’m meant to be hiding from.”
Matt shook his head. They’d been round these circles enough to carve tracks in his brain. But with no further sign of the blue-eyed boy and no more clues about his meaning, all they could do with his words was worry.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).