Okay. So I liked boys. And I liked girls. I understood that much. I was kind of confused as to why I’d never noticed my attraction to girls before, but maybe that sort of thing happened. It wasn’t like I was some kind of expert at maturing romance feelings. So whatever. Boys, girls, I like them both. Great.
But how exactly was I supposed to tell anyone that? Like right now. I was practically walking arm in arm with both of my female crushes. Both of the girls that I actually liked liked were right next to me and I had less than zero idea of what to do about that. I kind-of-sort-of thought that Avalon might have been purposefully teasing me, and I knew that Shiori saw me as at least a friend. But every time I tried to turn my brain toward whatever the next step should be, it came up blank. I wanted to say something to one of them, wanted to figure out what I was supposed to do next, but I had no idea what.
I liked both of them. Avalon was drop-dead gorgeous, while Shiori was pretty in a quieter, more mysterious and shy way. Avalon was a badass pin-up model while Shiori was essentially a cute ninja. Avalon was smart and brave and snarky, and for all her grumbling, incredibly loyal. Shiori was absolutely freaking adorable, brilliant with her word-play, and just as brave. They were both incredible. And not only did I not know what to say to either of them about how I felt, I was also horrified by the very idea of hurting either of them. As unlikely as it might have been that I would have a chance with both of them, the very thought of choosing one and hurting the other was practically paralyzing me.
“Chambers,” Avalon’s annoyed voice broke through my cloud of distraction as she waved a hand in front of my face to get my attention. “We’re here. What the hell are you thinking about so much?”
Right. We were there, waiting by the building for the twins and the boys to get into position and start their stink-balloon bombardment. And I had just been staring off into space for who knew how long.
Thanks to my new facial shapeshifting power, I didn’t blush. Powers were the best. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an anti-babbling ability yet. “Oh, me? I was just thinking about the, umm… the quest.”
“The quest,” she echoed, her voice so dry you could probably start a forest fire with it.
“Yup!” I chirped in spite of myself, head bobbing. “You know, this whole thing is like an RPG. Dude, we even get actual experience by killing monsters. And now we’re advancing part of the story quest.”
Shiori eagerly put in, “Oh, oh! Investigate Professor Tangle’s apartment. And we even went on a whole character-related sideque—ohh my god! I was the extra unlockable character! You did my sidequest!”
“I know, right?” I grinned back at the other girl, and the two of us literally bounced up and down a bit. “Extra unlockable character and a quest on a whole new world semi-unrelated to the previous plot but that expands the story a bit and gives you both a new character and new, previously unseen abilities!”
“Gabriel shoot me,” Avalon muttered under her breath. “The dorks are multiplying now.”
That, at least, got my attention. I hesitated before asking, “I’ve heard you say that before. Is that like Gabriel the angel? Do Heretics worship him or something? Or is that just an Eden’s Garden thing?”
“Isn’t that the former headmaster’s name?” Shiori was looking back and forth. “Gabriel Ruthers?”
For a second, I wasn’t sure whether the girl was going to answer or not. She regarded me briefly before speaking quietly. “It’s a Vigilant Sons thing. The tribe I was a part of. Seller’s tribe. It doesn’t have anything to do with any angel. And it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with Ruthers. The Gabriel we’re referring to isn’t either of them. It’s the one they call Gabriel Prosser, even if that’s wrong.”
I blinked, thought about it, then just blinked again. “I feel like I should know that name, but I’m not sure. It’s… sort of familiar? I know I’ve heard it somewhere, but it’s not coming to me,” I admitted.
Shiori just shrugged. “Sorry, I dunno either. I kind of wanna say he invented something?”
Shaking her head, Avalon explained, “No, he didn’t invent anything. Gabriel was a slave back in the seventeen hundreds, a literate slave who was also a blacksmith. And brilliant. He tried to lead a slave revolt, but was betrayed and captured. The slavers dragged him back to Richmond and went after him hard, but they couldn’t break him. So they tried to hang him, his two brothers, and twenty or so others.”
“Wait,” I interrupted in spite of myself, fascinated by the story. “They tried to hang him?”
She gave a slight nod. “Exactly what I said, tried to hang him. Bystanders even think they managed it, actually. Then again, they couldn’t exactly remember what actually happened that day.”
“An Alter attacked them while they were trying to hang him?” I asked hesitantly.
“Not just any Alter, Stranger, whatever,” Avalon corrected me. “A Hangman. It attacked the proceedings, killed a bunch of people in the process, and would have kept going through a whole lot more. Except Gabriel managed to hurt the thing with one of the shovels that the men were going to use to dig his grave. He saved the town that was going to execute him. In return, the Hangman almost ripped him apart. It threw him into a tree, impaled him on one of the branches, and broke his spine. It would have used its rope on him, just to finish the job. But it was hurt. So when the thing heard more people coming to see what was going on, it retreated. Gabriel fell right there on the ground next to the shovel that he tried to kill the thing with. The shovel that had the Hangman’s blood on it.”
My eyes widened at that, and I straightened. “Wait, that sounds sort of like how–”
“–Bosch became the first Crossroads Heretic and started this whole thing,” Shiori finished for me. The two of us glanced to each other, then looked back at Avalon.
“Yup,” Avalon confirmed. “The blood from the Hangman got mixed into Gabriel’s wound. It made him a Heretic, and because it was a direct blood upgrade, some of the Hangman’s own power. It wasn’t like when we get turned into Heretics, the diluted form. This was the full, original, human-connected-to-Alter power upgrade. So the men came up, found everyone dead, thought that Gabriel was dead too, and buried him along with the others. They buried him while he was unconscious. When he woke up after the Hangman’s own healing fixed him up enough to escape. He broke out of the grave and accidentally met up with the Heretic that was investigating the site of the Hangman’s attack.
“After that, he sort of became a legend really fast. He didn’t join either Crossroads or Garden. He just did his own thing, sort of a lone wolf, wandering hero. But a lot of people at Garden, especially my old tribe, think convincing him to join them, to join Garden, is the only way to win what they see as an inevitable war against Crossroads. He’s basically a nuclear missile by now. A nuke that a lot of Garden Heretics spend their whole lives looking for. If he’s still out there, he hasn’t shown himself for decades. There’s rumors of sightings and the aftermath of fights that could be him, but nothing definitive.”
My mouth opened, but before I could find any kind of words to respond to that, an ear-splitting alarm abruptly went off. I practically jumped ten feet into the air despite the fact that I’d been waiting for it, turning to see Scout in the distance lob another stink-balloon. It arced up perfectly before dropping through the slightly open window on the side of the building. In another life, Scout would’ve made an awesome pitcher. And the alarm was still going off. Through the windows, I heard one of the faculty shout some kind of curse that I could only hope wasn’t a spell. Any second now, the grounds were going to be filled with ticked off adults. We had to hurry up and get this show on the road.
To that end, Avalon was already reaching up to the stone wall of the building. Her hands pressed against it, and as I watched, the wall gradually turned into wood. It spread as much as she dared before the girl gave me a quick nod. “Go,” she whispered urgently. “Get in, I’ll be fine. Just hurry up.”
Obliging her, I jumped while pushing my hands against the wood. At a thought, my body merged into the newly-created wood. It felt like… swimming, and I forced myself to go in and out, straight through the other side. The awkward, cramped feeling went away and I fell bodily onto the carpeted floor of Professor Tangle’s apartment. The living room, to be exact, judging from the furniture around me. And it was definitely hers, since I could see several pictures of the dark-skinned woman on the walls. I recognized her from other pictures that I’d seen inside the school over the past few months.
It also stank like hell. God, I nearly threw up right then. The smell was permeating in from under the doorway. Sands had said it would be bad, but uuuggghgnn. Would this scent ever wash out? My eyes were practically watering.
Rather than focus too much on the view just yet (or the stench), I focused on using my sand-control power to reach through the wall to where I knew Shiori was waiting, already transformed. It took some effort considering I couldn’t actually see the sand, but I managed to somewhat blindly grasp onto her with the power and pull the girl up to the nearby vent. She came through faster than I expected, a cloud of sand that briefly filled the room before shrinking back in on itself, turning back into a solid figure just in time for Shiori to come crashing straight into me before I could throw myself out of the way.
We hit the floor and rolled with a pair of embarrassing yelps, and I was really glad that Tangle apparently wasn’t the type to have a bunch of end tables or something all over her living room. The carpet was mostly empty, and surprisingly comfortable to fall onto.
Also comfortable: Shiori. We sort of landed half-tangled in a pile of limbs, and it took the two of us a few seconds to extricate ourselves from one another. Maybe a few more seconds than were strictly necessary, considering the time crunch we were working on, but we managed it in the end.
Shiori was blushing. “Okay,” she spoke while looking absolutely anywhere but at me.”Where first?” Then she made the mistake of sniffing, and I saw her eyes water as she jerked while making a gagging noise. My hand moved quickly to cover her mouth before she could cry out and draw attention to us.
Once she was calm, I nodded. “Just try not to sniff too much.” After the girl nodded while still making a face, I bit my lip, thinking about her question briefly. “You start in that hall closet, I’m gonna check for an office or her bedroom. Just look for anything related to me, Eden’s Garden, or anything that stands out. You’ve got your phone, right?” Really should’ve asked that before we got in here, Flick, I reminded myself.
She waved it at me with a smile. “I shudder to think what we’d do if I had forgotten the camera.”
That smile again. The one I recognized. Mentally running the sentence back through my head with the Shiori-pun filter, I found it after a second. “Shutter. You shutter to think. God, you’re adorable.”
Focus, Flick. Pivoting on my heel, I ran out of the living room and down the short hallway. The doorway on the left led to a bathroom, while the two on the right led to a bedroom and… an office. Yes.
Saving the bedroom for later, I went right into office and looked for the computer. There it was, a rather modern-looking thing. She even had a flat screen and a wireless keyboard with lights on the keys.
Oh my god. There was a stack of video games on the nearby dresser, and two different consoles in a corner next to a large screen television. Whoever Tangle was, she liked to play games. Of the board variety too, considering the large number of them all piled up on one of the bookshelves. So many games of so many types. She had more different games in this room than a lot of toy stores.
After taking in the sight of all the games for a few seconds, I moved to the computer and hit the mouse. The formerly dark screen lit up with a password prompt, and I muttered an ugly curse under my breath. Great, of course there was a password. Why couldn’t the teachers of this ancient magic school write down all their secrets on easily pilfered parchment or something? It would’ve been so much simpler.
Okay, so look around. I opened both of the desk drawers, sorting through random papers and other things to find something that might have the password written on it. Nothing. Nothing at all.
“Hey, Flick, look at these,” Shiori spoke from the doorway. When I glanced that way, she had a large stack of envelopes in one hand while pushing her other arm across her face to block out some of the scent. Waving one at me, she explained, “They’re like… love letters.”
Frowning, I straightened from the desk, taking a step that way. “Love letters?”
She nodded easily, showing me one after another. “Yeah, really mushy love letters with the same person, from what I can tell. But all the envelopes look different, see? They’re all from different locations, and most of them look like they’re junk mail. See, this one says it’s from some library in Minnesota. This one is from one of those online banks. And here’s another one from some college.”
“Right,” I took one of the envelopes, examining it. “So someone was sending love letters to Professor Tangle, only they were disguised as junk mail or just ordinary mail. Obviously, they didn’t want people here to see where the letters were coming from, or how many letters she was getting. But why?”
“Maybe it was someone from Eden’s Garden?” Shiori suggested. “You know, a secret romance that they had to hide.”
Immediately I thought of the looks that I’d seen between Professor Dare and Miranda’s teacher Hisao, and the way the woman had been smiling after spending time with him. Yeah, I could believe that there would be a secret romance between a Garden and Crossroads teachers. “If so, that has to have something to do with what Miranda heard about Tangle being Trice’s contact over here.”
Shiori was shaking her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Tangle hasn’t been here all semester, has she?”
I hesitated, thinking about it. “Maybe she can still give them information, tell them about a secret way into the school grounds or something, ways to beat the security.” I thought of my mother briefly.
While thinking about that, I looked through one of the letters that Shiori had been holding. Like she’d said, it was mostly a lot of lovey dovey stuff. Promises to always take care of each other, oaths of devotion and protection, that kind of stuff. They mentioned dates that they’d been on, most of which had obviously taken place while Tangle was supposed to be doing other things. It was a secret affair.
Then, at the bottom of the letter, I noticed something else. Holding it up, I read aloud, “I can’t use the phone for awhile. Pretty sure the old man’s getting suspicious. I think he’s setting traps for anyone using a phone that bypasses the island’s security. As soon as it’s safe, I’ll call you, my beloved. But right now, I have to hide the phone. After all, the heat of our passion will never cool.”
“So she had a phone like yours,” Shiori pointed out with a frown. “A phone that gets around security. Be nice if we could find that thing.”
Nodding slowly, I squinted at the letter. “You know what? You’re right, it would be nice. Come on.”
Hurrying out of the room, I led Shiori back down the hall and to the small kitchenette, waving the letter back at her, repeating the last words. “Heat of our passion will never cool.” With that explanation, I tugged the freezer door open and rooted around inside through the frozen dinners, ice cream, and other things. I ended up dumping out a couple boxes on the counter to no avail. But just as I thought maybe I was wrong, my grasping fingers moved up and under the slot that the ice tray went into, and I felt plastic.
“Jackpot,” I muttered before yanking. There was the sound of tearing tape, and then my hand came out with a taped up Ziplock bag with a cell phone inside it.
Shiori was staring at it, biting her lip. “Wouldn’t being in the freezer damage it?”
I shrugged back at her. “Magic?” Unzipping the baggie, I fished the phone out and held it up. “It’s not frosted over or anything. Actually, it feels a little warm.”
Hitting the power button, I waited while the phone booted up. Please don’t have a password, please don’t have a password, please don’t have a password.
Okay, the good news was that it didn’t have a password. The bad news was that it had one of those facial recognition unlock systems.
Wait. That wasn’t bad news. Turning to Shiori, I pointed past her. “Quick, grab that picture of Tangle off the wall and bring it here.”
After the other girl had done that, I looked down at the picture. It took me a few seconds to focus enough on my new power (especially since I kept getting distracted by that awful stench), but gradually, I felt my face shift and change, as well as a tingling sensation as the skin darkened. Doing my best to match the image in the picture, I looked up eventually. “How do I look?”
“Like Tangle’s head on Flick’s body,” she answered honestly. “It’s weird.”
“Weird is good,” I replied with a thumbs up before holding the phone up. Hitting the button to unlock it, I stayed still while the camera checked my new face.
It unlocked. Resisting the urge to cheer, I gave it a quick look. We could go more in depth later. Right now, I was mostly interested in what the most recent messages looked like.
There was only one text conversation on the phone. There was no name given, only a phone number. And the majority of the conversation was more of the same from the letters, just texts back and forth. Plus some, ahh, intimate bits I kind of skimmed over quickly while blushing.
Then there was the last message received by Tangle’s phone, which read, ‘It worked. She killed him. Whole place hates her now. Seller got her out before they could lock the bitch down. She won’t have any friends here though.’
And the last reply from Tangle’s phone, ‘Good. Start pushing the brother. Get him ready to kill her. Do it right and they’ll never trace any of it back to us. Then she can rot in hell. I love you, baby.’
For a few seconds, Shiori and I both stared down at the messages. Finally, I managed a weak, “I’m just gonna say it. Some people’s pillow talk is just plain weird.”