My first temptation, to grab the picture and run after Deveron so I could shove it in his face and demand answers, was almost impossible to resist. I had to physically will myself not to, repeating in my head several times why it would be a bad idea to show my hand so easily. Even then, it almost wasn’t enough. My muscles tensed up, and I stared down at that picture of Deveron beside my mother.
In the end, I carefully spread the photograph on the grass and took out my phone. Lining the screen up just right, I used the camera app to take a picture of it, checking afterward to make sure it looked right.
With that done, I folded the photograph up once more and put it back inside the hole before replacing the brick. After taking a second to make sure it looked like it had when I found it, I picked myself and glanced around to make sure no one was watching before heading back the way I had come.
I needed answers, but blurting out demands to Deveron probably wasn’t the way to get them. No, I needed to talk to someone else about this. The only person who knew as much as I did. My roommate.
Eventually, I found out from another student that Avalon was practicing the newest bit of magic that Professor Carfried had us working on. It was essentially a minor step-up from the whole turning a rock into a firecracker noisemaker thing that Columbus and I had been practicing a couple of weeks earlier. This one was supposed to supposed to work like a flashbang, with the added trick that the person using it could designate people to be immune and only the ones that weren’t would be affected. Apparently many Heretics used it or spells like it to blind a room full of innocents while dealing with a Stranger. They may not be able to see magic or monsters for what they were, but people still tended to object to seeing someone stab, shoot, or abduct what they thought was a normal human being.
I’d asked about civilians recognizing Heretic magic, only to be told that our abilities fell under the same haze effect that stopped Bystanders from understanding it as Stranger’s abilities did. That was… enough to raise some questions in my mind, but I hadn’t yet sorted out exactly what those questions were.
The room that Avalon was in was one of several set aside for magic practice inside the physical training building. These rooms were each about sixteen feet by sixteen feet, with floors and walls that were reinforced metal of some kind that was resistant to most spells and damage that any of the students could manage. The doors were so heavy they were hard to move even when they weren’t barred with the three different locks that were meant to make sure no one blundered into the path of spell practice, and they each had one of those small rectangular view ports at eye level that could be slid open or shut so that the person inside could look out and see who was trying to talk to them.
Stopping by the door, I reached up to press my thumb against the button next to the door. It looked like a doorbell, and essentially worked in a similar way. Instead of making a loud ringing noise, however, which could potentially be devastatingly distracting to someone working dangerous magic within the room, it simply made the ceiling glow in a way that was obvious but less potentially catastrophic.
Even then, it took Avalon a minute or two to answer. Knowing my roommate the way I did already, however, I didn’t bother to press the button again. Instead, I simply waited, trying not to squirm too anxiously. As hard as it had been to avoid running after Deveron, it was even harder not to bang on the door and shout for Avalon’s attention immediately. Patience was hard, especially in this situation.
Finally, the little viewing hatch slid open, and I saw Avalon’s brown eyes staring at me in silence for a second before her irritated voice demanded, “What do you want, Chambers? We’re done for the day.”
“I found something,” I informed her flatly, meeting her hard gaze. “You’ll want to see it, I promise.”
Still, she waited for a few seconds before heaving a sigh. The view window slid shut with a clang, and a moment later the door was hauled open. My roommate stood there, looking me up and down briefly before stepping aside as she gestured for me to enter. “I suppose you want privacy for this then?”
Nodding, I stepped into the training room and glanced around briefly. The walls were covered in scratches and various marks from previous spell training sessions. I knew that they tended to scour the training rooms completely clean every week, so most of these marks had to have been made recently. Obviously, these rooms ended up being used a lot, if the marks all over the place were any indication.
After shoving the door shut heavily and resetting each of the locks, Avalon simply folded her arms over her stomach and stood there, silently waiting for me to explain just what the hell I wanted.
Rather than try to find the words to explain, I took my phone, brought up the picture, and handed it to her. Avalon accepted the phone, glanced for half a second at the screen and then returned her attention to me. “What’s your point? It’s the same fucking picture we’ve looked at for the past two weeks.”
“Keep looking,” I instructed. I wanted to see her reaction when she finally noticed what was different, without warning her or guiding her attention toward it. “There’s something new this time.”
The other girl squinted at me briefly, then returned her gaze to the image. I saw her eyes move over it carefully, scanning the people in it. When she finally spotted what I had seen, it was obvious. Her eyes widened considerably, and her mouth actually dropped open before she let out a strangled curse.
“Yeah,” I informed her as dryly as possible. “That’s pretty much what I said.”
“Where the hell did you get this?” Avalon demanded, returning her stare to me. “Does he know you have it? What happened? How did you find it? Who gave it to you? What the actual fuck?”
Holding up my hands to stem the tide of questions, I explained, “I was following Deveron to bitch him out for being such a useless mentor. I saw him go behind the staff building. When I got there, he was putting that photograph into a little hole in the wall hidden by a brick. I looked at it after he left and that’s what it was. It was that picture. Same as the one in the trophy case except for that little… change.”
After staring at the picture for another minute, Avalon shoved the phone back at me before spinning to start unlocking the door. She was cursing rapidly under her breath, clearly working herself up.
“Wait, wait.” Catching the other girl by the arm, I flinched back a bit when she whirled on me. But I didn’t let go. “We can’t just go stomping up to him and demand he tell us the truth, Avalon. I know you’re good at the whole ‘tell me what I want to know or face damnation to hell’ glare, but I’m pretty sure it won’t work on Deveron. All it’ll do is tip him off that we know something, and he’ll be even more careful than he already is. We’ll get nothing out of it except for appeasing your urge to yell.”
Her eyes narrowed, and for a moment I thought that she might direct some of that aforementioned yelling at me instead of her original target. In the end, however, Avalon let out a long, low breath to take control of herself back. Then she carefully, but firmly yanked her arm free of my grasp. When she spoke, it was obvious that she was making an effort to control her tone. “Then what do you suggest?”
“We investigate him,” I replied without breaking her gaze. “Before this, he was just an annoying, lazy jerk who wasn’t worth the time. Now? Now I want to know everything about him. I want to know where he came from, everything he did here last year, all those awards he won and who his teachers and teammates were. I want to know where he went over the summer and why he’s so different this year. I want to know what kind of fight he had with Professor Pericles, why he shoved the guy, and what else those Runners talked to him about. I want to know who his family is, who his friends are, and most importantly, why the hell he’s standing in that picture with my mother from ninety years ago.”
Swallowing hard, I continued. “He’s the closest thing to an answer we’ve found so far about who my mother really was, or is, or whatever. I don’t want to tip him off until we’ve found out everything we can. I want to know everything we can possibly know before we say anything directly to him. I want answers, but I want to do it the right way, the smart way. So no warning him until we’re ready. Okay?”
She didn’t answer at first, simply regarding me for a few seconds before nodding. Her tense body relaxed somewhat, and Avalon spoke in a quiet tone. “That’s probably the smart move.”
It was pretty much the closest the other girl had ever gotten to actually complimenting me, and I treated it as such. In spite of the situation, I made myself smile brightly at her. “Aww, thanks, roomie. You know, you’re not so bad yourself. We make a good team after all.” Holding my fist out to her, I grinned. “Magical roommate detective friendship power is go?”
Her voice as she responded was as dry as the Sahara. “You have got to be kidding.”
With my free hand, I slapped my forehead. “Crap, sorry, you’re right. What was I thinking?” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced Herbie and set him on top of my outstretched fist. “Can’t forget our other roommate and team mascot! He’d never forgive me.” Still grinning, I waggled my eyebrows at her teasingly. “Now magical roommate detective friendship power is go?”
“Oh my god, Chambers,” Avalon was shaking her head rapidly, but not fast enough to hide the little smirk that had crept over her face in spite of herself. “You must have been born magical.”
Blinking at that, I let my head tilt slightly, curious. “You really think so?”
“I know so,” she informed me. “Because magic is the only conceivable way that anyone could fit that much dork into such a small package.”
Snickering, I continued to hold my fist out. “Do it, do it, do it. You know you want to. Go ahead. Do it. You know you wanna. Fist bump, fist bump, fiiiiist bump! Please? Pretty please with cherries on top?”
Her eyes rolled heavily, but Avalon finally reached out to touch her fist against mine as lightly as possible before dropping her arm back to her side. “There,” she replied. “Are you happy now?”
“Yaaaaaaaay!” I tossed Herbie in the air to celebrate, then caught him while bouncing up and down, smiling as brightly as I could manage. “Best. Roommates. Ever.”
Turning on her heel, Avalon finished unlocking the room while muttering under her breath, “Biggest dork in the world. No, in the universe. What’s bigger than the universe?”
“Multiverse,” I informed her helpfully, still bouncing up and down with my pet rock. “Right, Herbie?”
She spared me a brief glance, then shoved the door open before stepping out into the hall. “Multiverse. Multi-multiverse. Omniverse. Biggest dork that has ever dorked. My roommate is the progenitor from which all dorks have spawned throughout any and all creation, reality, and time.”
Laughing easily, I followed her into the hall. “At least you think I’m the best at something.”
“Speaking of something you’re supposed to be good at,” Avalon changed the subject. “Where do you think we’re going to start with this whole ‘investigate the pile of excrement that is our mentor’ thing?”
I paused to think about that briefly while the two of us stood there in the hall. “We need to find out everything we can without letting Deveron know that we’ve seen the picture or that we suspect anything about it. So whenever we actually talk to anyone about it, we need to make it look like we’re just trying to figure out why he’s such a useless mentor, why he’s so lazy. We don’t ask about ninety years ago, we don’t show anyone the picture, we keep it subtle for as long as we can.”
Nodding slightly, Avalon added, “Shouldn’t be hard to get everything his roommate knows out of him.”
“Really?” I blinked once. “Why, do you know him that well?”
“Nope,” she replied. “I’ve never seen the guy before. Don’t even know who he is.”
Frowning a little, I asked, “Then how do you know it’ll be so easy to get information out of him?”
It was Avalon’s turn to smile knowingly, an expression that was more predatory than happy. “Just trust me, Chambers. We ask him some questions, he’ll answer. You just have to ask in the right way.”
Flushing slightly at the implication, I coughed. “Okay, we’ll get answers then. So we’ve got the roommate, anyone of his team we can talk to, maybe his old adviser—wait, who’s his adviser again?”
“He’s in the Explorer track,” Avalon replied. “So his adviser is Professor Carfried, which means-”
I cursed. “Which means he won’t know anything about Deveron from last year, since he took over for Professor Tangle.” Then I blinked. “Wait, do you think that shark attack had anything to do with this?”
“Would it really surprise you?” The other girl shot back. “Does any of this seem like a coincidence?”
“Point,” I replied. “Do you think there’s any way we could talk to Professor Tangle?”
“Maybe send her a message?” Avalon offered with a shrug. “I doubt any of the teachers here will give you her phone number, but maybe one of her old students has it.”
“Like Deveron’s roommate,” I finished her thought. “Sounds like he’s the first one we should talk to.”
The two of us started to walk down the hall, and I spared a glance toward the other girl. This was pretty much the best we’d ever gotten along openly, and I took a chance by saying, “Thanks for helping me. You know, with this and with everything else.”
“You’re a teammate,” she replied flatly. “Making sure you’re good enough to pull your weight is in my own best interest. I’d rather not lose points because you’re lagging behind.”
“It’s more than that,” I insisted. “You’re going above and beyond, even if you complain about it. So.. thanks. And… and I wanted to ask you something. I’m sorry if it pisses you off, but I’m really not trying to. I’m just curious. If you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to. You don’t even have to respond. You stay silent, and I won’t ask again, I swear.”
For a moment, I thought she might bite my head off. Her glare returned as she looked at me, before stopping herself. I saw a myriad of emotions pass through her gaze before she finally shook her head, voice flat and emotionless. “What do you want to ask, Chambers?”
Even as worked up as I was, as much as I had practiced this in my head, I still faltered. It took me a moment to find my voice. “Your tattoo,” I finally managed quietly. “Is it really–”
“Eden’s Garden.” Avalon’s voice was harder than before. “Yes, I was a student there. They start earlier than this place does. Yes, I did some bad things while I was there. No, I’m not spying for them. Yes, I’m here by my own choice.”
“What… what was it like there?” I asked after a second of bracing myself. “Is it really that different from this place? Do they work with the Strangers? How is that possible? Did you ever talk to any of them? What are they like? What–”
Holding her hand up to stop me, Avalon pursed her lips. Her eyes were glaring at me, but the anger in them didn’t seem to be directed my way. It took her a few seconds to find her voice. “You… look, you want me to answer your questions? I’ll tell you my story once, just so you stop asking me, understand? I’ll tell you where I came from and what happened to me one time. And if any of that story gets out, I’ll know that you’re the one who talked about it. If that happens, I’ll come after you, got it?”
Bobbing my head up and down, I promised, “I won’t tell anyone anything, I swear.”
Still staring at me for another few seconds, Avalon finally let out her breath. “Fine.” Cracking her neck to both sides, she started, “You want to know my story? You want to know why I was at Eden’s Garden, and why I’m here now? You want to know the truth? Well shut up and listen then, because here it is.”