Hard as it was to believe, even after everything that had happened, it was only around noon when we got back to Crossroads. Something about that seemed absurd. We’d visited another world, befriended an alien race, helped them prevent their own genocide, invaded a fortress stronghold, and discovered part of the secret behind the Bystander Effect itself. And now, after all of that, it was just barely lunchtime?
Apparently Gaia had covered for us by saying that she was going to be taking us on a little field trip. I wasn’t sure how many details she provided, but in the end what it amounted to was that we weren’t in trouble for missing classes. She also made sure we had the rest of the day off to recuperate. Which was good, because even with my enhanced stamina, I was wiped by that point. I ended up crashing hard and slept for longer than I had ever since I’d gained this power. So, about four hours or so. Hey, to me at that point, it was practically like sleeping sixteen hours straight. My body was utterly exhausted.
Finally coming to around mid-afternoon, I wiped away the drool that had accumulated on my pillow before sitting up with a yawn. My eyes blinked a few times before focusing on the figure sitting on her own bed across from me. Avalon. She was just sitting there, staring without talking. “Wha—oh, um, hey,” I managed to get out through the blush that threatened to take over my entire face. “What’s up?”
For a very brief moment, there was a mixture of uncertain emotions on the other girl’s face. It was immediately clear that she was about to say one thing, but thought better of it. “I–” Coughing, she shook her head before straightening. “I was just wondering how long you were going to sleep for.”
Stretching, I rolled off the bed, stumbling a little from a cramp as I came to my feet. “Sorry, I guess even the Energizer Bunny needs to recharge.” Yawning, I added, “Did I miss anything important?”
“No,” Avalon answered coolly while turned away from me to walk around the other side of her bed where she leaned down to grab a box off the floor. My eyes dropped down reflexively before going back up quickly as my blush renewed itself guiltily. Bad thoughts, bad thoughts. Focus, Flick.
“Gaia wanted you to have this,” the other girl announced calmly while tossing the box toward me.
“Gaia?” I echoed after catching the box far more smoothly than the old me would’ve. Turning it over in my hands, I examined it. The box was only about eight inches long by four inches wide. “What is it?”
Rather than answer right away, Avalon just waited until I opened the thing. Inside there was a pale blue cell phone with a red crystal design along the back. I blinked and held it up. “Another new phone?”
“She says it’ll bypass the security restrictions,” the other girl explained. “In other words, you can talk to that vampire girl or anyone else you need to off of the island without security recording or overhearing your conversation. Obviously, keep it secret or we’ll all be in a lot of trouble. Don’t let the security personnel see you using it or they might figure out they don’t have that conversation recorded. Get it?”
I nodded quickly. “Right, secret phone, don’t run through the halls blabbing about it. Totally understood.” This was big, actually. If I could talk to Asenath and Miranda both without using a bunch of double-speak and coded conversation, it would be an enormous boost toward staying in contact.
“Good,” Avalon allowed before pointing to the nearby dresser. “Now get dressed. We’re getting something to eat and then meeting the others on the field for some exercises. They’ve been waiting.”
“Exercises?” I coughed before tilting my head at her. “Damn, you really are into this whole working out thing, huh? Most people would’ve considered everything we did this morning to be, you know, exercise enough,” I teased her a little while quickly changing clothes. “But no, Avalon needs more.”
Avalon’s response was to roll her eyes at me. “Not that kind of exercise,” she retorted. “We just killed a lot of Strangers. I assumed you might be interested in going through some tests to see what abilities you inherited. But if not, I can always go without you while you sit up here and snore some more.”
Flushing at that, I shook my head while hurriedly dressing the rest of the way. “No, no, you’re right. Testing for new powers and all that, good idea.” Grabbing my brush off the desk, I ran it through my hair a few times to work out the knots before grabbing a black rubber band. After twisting my dirty-blonde hair into a quick ponytail, I held my arms out to either side and did a spin. “So, how do I look?”
That time, it was Avalon’s turn to blush. It was only a little, and she hid the reaction almost immediately. But it was there, and I had to resist the urge to do a quick victorious fist pump. Tempting as it was, that probably would’ve ruined the effect that I was going for. Still, I was gratified to see the girl take a moment to collect herself before turning toward the door. “You’re fine, Chambers. Let’s go.”
“Yup, yup,” I chirped, collecting Herbie from his place on the windowsill before following Avalon out of the room. “I wonder if I have laser eyes now. Or the ability to talk to birds. No, no, cocokinesis!”
Ahead of me, Avalon stopped walking. Her head dropped and shook a little as if bracing herself before she turned to look over her shoulder at me with a raised eyebrow. “What, exactly, is cocokinesis?”
I grinned brightly at her. “You know, the ability to summon and mentally control chocolate! Tell me that wouldn’t be the coolest super power ever.” Adopting a heroic tone and pose, I pointed at the empty hallway ahead of us. “Aha, Mr. Rabid Werewolf, you think you can rampage through this city and kill these people? I think not! Eat hot fudge, you vile beast!” My hands shot forward, fingers wiggling as if I was blasting the imaginary monster with streams of melted dessert topping. Then I lifted my hand, blowing at my finger like imaginary gun before giving it a quick lick. “Mmm, justice is delicious.”
For a few seconds, Avalon just stared at me. Her mouth opened and shut a few times before she managed a single word. “Dork.” Turning on her heel, she strode away, muttering the whole time. “Impossible, unbelievable, indescribable dork. How the hell did I become roommates with the living incarnation of dork-kind? The avatar of geek sleeps in my room. What am I supposed to do with her?”
Snickering a little in spite of myself, I hurried to catch up. “You know you love it, you gigantic faker. You wouldn’t want anyone else. I bet you’d fight anyone that tried to make us switch roommates.”
Avalon didn’t respond. Not verbally, anyway. But she did slow down and turn her head a little until I caught up. Then she kept going, and we walked on to meet the others, side by side.
Testing which Alter-gifts we had inherited took most of the rest of the afternoon and early evening. As it turned out, I’d been wrong about getting that blood sensing power from the shark-man, because Sean had gained the same ability without ever killing one of them. We’d narrowed it down to the harpies. We had each killed one of them, and their blood-magic stuff meant the tracking bit actually made sense.
Beyond that, the cat-person that I’d killed had apparently given me the ability to somewhat alter my facial appearance. I could change my eye color as well as the length and color of my hair. I was able to reshape the general contours of my face, though my general build and all that remained the same.
And I still hadn’t figured out what the shark person had given me. Even submerging myself in water didn’t help. After hours of testing and suggestions, we were no closer to figuring out what it was. I wondered if I’d gotten anything at all. Maybe I had just gotten a crappy draw and ended up with nothing.
Besides the same blood power I’d gotten, Sean was now also able to hold his breath for a long time. At last count, he was up around eight minutes. Plus he’d killed one of the Harabeold sand goblin things. Rather than turning into or controlling sand like Shiori and I had gained, he was able to touch solid, non-living material and transform it into sand. We were already talking about ways to work together.
Like his sister, Columbus was able to manipulate about twenty pounds or so of metal. Unlike Shiori, however, he wasn’t able to hear or see through it, only control it. Plus the orc that he’d killed had made him a hell of a lot tougher than he’d been before. I smacked him with my staff a few times to no effect.
Then there were the twins. Sands was now incredibly dexterous. She had been showing off by working a silver coin through her fingers like some kind of expert magician, and then topped that by working four separate coins, two in each hand going in opposite directions. It was really cool. Plus she was now strong enough to manage a bench press of about four hundred pounds. It wasn’t quite outright super-strength, but still. She could now hit with that mace of hers a heck of a lot harder than she could before.
Scout, meanwhile, had ears like a freaking wolf now. The girl could hear an entire conversation from a hundred feet away. And like Sean, she could hold her breath for a long time. Five minutes in her case.
On the other hand, Avalon had also gained a power that would mesh well with my own. In her case, it was the ability to turn solid material into wood by touching it. Added to my own apparent power to meld with and transfer myself through wood made for a potentially potent combination. Beyond that, she could now run much faster than she could before (Sean timed her at about thirty miles an hour down on the beach). There was also another Alter that she’d killed, a big guy with three heads facing in different directions that, like my shark guy, we had no idea what she’d inherited from. Not yet anyway.
As for Shiori herself (she’d shown up a couple hours after we started, since she had a lot more sleep to catch up on), beyond the metal control and senses along with her sand form, she had also developed the ability to make some kind of pretty whistle noise, almost like wind chimes. Anyone she directed it at just sort of stood there dumbly listening to it. She’d tried it on me, and I’d just zoned out, thinking about how the sound was so pretty. That thought had quickly shifted toward how pretty Shiori herself was. Shifting back and forth, I’d felt my mind drifting until Sean snapped his fingers in front of my face.
At least now we all had a basic idea of what sort of powers we’d gained from our little excursion. Which meant that it was now time for me to focus a little on the other thing I’d gained. Namely, family.
Obviously, I wasn’t just going to run up to Koren and Wyatt and blurt out that they were actually my secret blood relatives. I wasn’t sure how that would go over, but I was guessing the answer started with Not and ended with Well, with an assortment of possible curse words sprinkled into the middle.
No, I had to take this gradually and carefully. Gaia had left it up to me to decide what to do with the information she’d given me, while noting that caution was likely the better way to go about it.
So, I was going to start by simply trying to spend a little time with them. Sure, I’d gotten a fairly… not good impression of Koren (and still thought Wyatt was kind of insane), but still. I was pretty confident that if certain people judged me by initial impressions and let it stick forever, I’d look pretty bad too.
The biggest question was, which one of them should I try to talk to first? Koren and I clearly weren’t in the best of places, but it was a little weird to try and track down one of the security team members. Especially if I couldn’t actually tell the guy why I really wanted to get to know him. Not yet at least.
In the end, Koren made the most sense to start with. She was easy to track down since we were generally allowed into the same places, and though we weren’t friends, having a chat with her would look a lot less weird than randomly striking up a conversation with a member of the security team.
It was almost eight in the evening by the time I made up my mind and found the girl I was looking for. As it turned out, Koren was in the cafeteria, enjoying a bowl of ice cream while watching videos on her phone. I didn’t know what the videos were of since she was listening through earbuds, but they were apparently pretty amusing because the girl kept snickering the whole time she was watching. Occasionally she laughed so much she’d miss her mouth with the spoon and end up shoving ice cream against her cheek. Then she’d quickly wipe her face off and look around. The first time, I was able to lower my gaze to my own phone quickly enough to avoid attention. But the next time, she noticed.
“You got a problem, Chambers?” She demanded from two tables away, having tugged the earbuds out. Her gaze was locked on me, and I couldn’t help but take a second to examine the other girl. My niece. I had a niece, and she happened to be Koren freaking Fellows. My sister (I had a sister!) had a daughter, and that daughter was Koren Fellows. God, it was a lot to take in. Every time I thought I had a handle on the news, it seemed to strike me for the first time all over again. A niece. Koren was my niece.
“Hey, what–” Looking a little disturbed, the girl in question stood up then. Her eyes were narrowed suspiciously. “What are you staring at me for, you freak? Don’t you have something better to do?”
Freak. Right, there was that whole ‘not having the best relationship’ thing rearing its head already. I coughed twice before shrugging. “No, I mean, I was just… wondering if you might wanna… I dunno, do something?” Wow. Okay, that sounded lame even to me. “You know, for fun.” Not. Any. Better. Brain.
“Fun,” Koren echoed in a flat, disbelieving voice. She continued to stare at me while putting her phone and earbuds in her pocket. Taking a step away from me as well, she gave a little shake of her head while putting away her ice cream bowl. Then she turned to walk out of the room while I was still trying to figure out what I should say next.
Aaand she was gone. Well, that had gone swimmingly. Clearly, I was the best at connecting with long lost family.
My sigh was interrupted by a sharp buzz from the phone that I had been pretending to pay attention to while secretly (or not-so-secretly, apparently) staring at Koren. When I glanced down at it, I saw a new text message from Miranda, asking me to give her a call. It was phrased casually enough, but reading it through our little code made it clear that this was one step shy of an outright emergency. She needed me to call her as soon as physically possible. Which meant she’d found something.
Shaking off my total whiff at connecting with Koren, I picked myself up and headed back outside. Despite the urge to immediately start dialing, I waited until I was all the way out on the beach. There were a bunch of second and third year students out there playing some kind of night time volleyball tournament, so I steered around them, as well as the three students I could see practicing with some kind of ice generation power out on the waves.
Eventually, my route took me far enough away from everyone to avoid being overheard (I gave it as much extra space as possible, just for anyone else with enhanced hearing like Scout had gotten), and I took out the phone that Gaia had sent me. Looking between each of the two phones quickly, I transferred Miranda’s number to the new phone. Then I sent her a text from it in our code, telling her to call me at that number as soon as she got it.
Two minutes later, the phone lit up and buzzed in my hand. I quickly flipped it open, looking out at the waves while answering with, “Hey, Randy-Pandy, what’s up?”
“What’s with the new phone?” she asked quickly. “Did you, uhh, lose the other one again?” As casual as she tried to sound, the tension in her voice was obvious.
“Nah, it was a gift,” I replied. “We can talk safely on my end at least. I… have it on good authority that this phone bypasses the security restrictions. They aren’t recording.” While talking, I couldn’t resist making my hair grow and then shrink repeatedly, extending it down to my waist, then retracting it all the way into a near-buzz cut and back out again. It felt funny.
“Are… you sure?” Miranda sounded uncertain for a second before clearly shaking that off. “I mean, if you say so… good, I… are you okay? Because it sounds like you’ve been attracting attention again.”
“I do have a habit of that,” I admitted. “Trust me, I’ll tell you all about it as soon as you tell me what’s going on. What happened over there, did you find something?” The next time I extended my hair out, I started changing the color, cycling it through blonde, brown, black, red, then back to blonde again before starting in on more exotic colors like green and purple.
“Well,” she replied hesitantly. “I was looking for info about that Fossor guy. And um, I didn’t actually find anything yet. But while I was looking in the archives, err, that’s what we call the library. Anyway, while I was in there, I saw Doxer and Pace. They were talking in the corner, really involved. I managed to get close enough to overhear some of what they were saying.”
“Should you be talking about this?” I asked quickly. “I mean, do they monitor your calls at the… wherever that garden thing is?”
“Probably,” she acknowledged. “But I’m not at the Garden right now. I’m with Hisao. Well, not with him. I’m watching the backdoor of this warehouse while he goes in the front. Long story, not relevant to the current situation. Plus there’s another me doing the actual watching, so we’re good.”
Smiling at that, I shook my head in wonder. “Okay, Riot Girl, what’d you overhear?”
“Do you know a teacher out there named Tangle?” she asked then, sounding tentative.
“Uh, I haven’t met her, but I’ve heard of her,” I replied. “She’s been out all semester because of some shark attack or something. Which sounds really weird considering the healing abilities we’ve got, but I figured it was some kind of magic super-poisonous shark or something. Why?”
The answer came quickly. “Doxor and Pace were talking about a Professor Tangle, and I knew she wasn’t one of ours. It… um, it sounded like she was their in over there at Crossroads.”
I shook my head needlessly. “That doesn’t make sense. She hasn’t been here all semester.”
“How much do you know about that shark attack, or her situation?”
Frowning a little at the question, I thought about it. “Not much, honestly. They’ve been pretty… vague.”
“Well,” she replied, “maybe you should fix that.”
My head nodded absently as I watched the ocean. “Yeah… I think you’re right.
“And I’m pretty sure the best place to start is in Professor Tangle’s faculty apartment.”