Approximately three hundred and forty-seven thousand showers later, I was relatively free of the stink. Even that was partly due to the special soap that Sands had provided. Apparently whatever she and Scout had made that nasty smelling stuff in the balloons out of, it reacted badly with most other normal cleaning agents. So anyone trying to scrub it off that didn’t have the special soap was in for a bad time.
Yeah, the twins and the boys had detention. They had all of the detention. A month worth, not counting the week of Thanksgiving. The headmistress had graciously agreed to a pause in their punishment for that week before it would continue. Partly because the twins had provided more of that special soap.
Gaia had to know what we were actually doing, of course, even if she wouldn’t be sure of the specifics until Avalon found a chance to talk to her in private. But she also had to keep up appearances, and being punished was something the other four had gone into the situation expecting to happen. Even then, however, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Shiori, Avalon, and I had gotten out of the whole thing scot free. It felt more than a little bit wrong. But when I brought it up, they’d mostly dismissed it. Apparently Sands and Columbus had already worked out a plan together to make it not that bad.
Fingers snapped in front of my face, bringing me back to the present where I outside on the grounds early the next day with each member of my team and Deveron. One guess who was snapping at me.
“Crossroads to Chambers, let’s wake up, huh?” the boy goaded. “You’re the ones that complained about me not training you, so pay attention while I am.” His voice just made me want to punch him. And then maybe keep punching him until he told me what the hell was going on and how much he already knew.
Sean spoke up then, his voice a lazy drawl. “Maybe she’s just still in shock that you’re actually here, buddy. I know I’m tempted to run a quick check for shapeshifters, holograms, or hidden cameras.”
Deveron just gave that cocky smirk of his. “Oh, don’t you worry, Sean. By the time we’re done here, you won’t care if it’s really me or someone pretending. You’ll hate my guts all the same. You guys wanted more actual training, you’re getting it.” His foot moved to kick the box at his side, sending it rolling on wheels across the ground to us. “Everybody reach in there. Should be one for each of you.”
The six of us blinked at each other first before looking at the box. Scout was the first to reach in, coming out with what looked like a simple black metal bracelet without any markings or designs on it.
“Put the bracelets on,” Deveron instructed. “One for each of you. Just snap them onto your wrist.”
“Hey, genius,” Avalon waved her own gauntlet-covered hand at him pointedly. “Won’t fit under them.”
He shrugged at her. “It’ll auto-adjust its size, just move the thing higher and put it over your bicep.”
Deveron was right. As I snapped the bracelet into place, it adjusted itself automatically until it fit snugly without cutting off circulation or being uncomfortable. There was also some kind of padding or cushioning on the thing so that it wouldn’t dig into the skin. All in all, it actually didn’t feel too bad.
“Now what?” Columbus asked, after adjusting his bracelet. “Are we fashion buddies or something?”
In response, Deveron held up a small red ball. It was about the size of a baseball. Tossing it up and down in his hand, he made sure we were all looking at it. After a few seconds, the ball turned blue. An instant after it did, I felt a sudden zap of electricity from the bracelet on my wrist. It wasn’t like a stun gun or anything, more like touching a doorknob and getting hit by a bit of static electricity. It still stung a little though, and was surprising enough that I’m pretty sure every single one of us yelped out loud.
And the glaring began. Deveron ignored it, of course, pushing on. “That tiny little shock is what happens whenever one of these balls,” he tossed the blue orb up and down. “Goes from red to blue without being hit by one of you. Of course, the same thing happens if you hit a ball while it’s blue.”
Releasing the ball, he winked as the thing hovered there rather than falling. “Your job is to hit the ball when it’s red, not when it’s blue. Simple enough? Well, let’s make it a little more fun, shall we?”
With that, the boy reached into the bag he had slung over one shoulder, repeatedly producing one ball after another, heaving them into the air until an even dozen floated in front of him. “There,” he remarked, looking quite pleased with himself. “Here’s the deal. These things are going to fly around in this general area.” He made an encircling motion with one arm. “You guys spread out and watch them. Every once in awhile, one of the balls will turn from blue to red. When that happens, you’ve got… let’s start with ten seconds to hit it before you get a little shock. We’ll adjust the time as we go. And we’ll add a few more balls, widen the area, make them move faster, whatever we need to do to give you all the challenge you’ve been craving. Any questions?” The boy produced a canteen and took a long drink.
“Yeah,” Columbus put in. “I’ve got a question. What about those of us with ranged powers? Ever think about what might happen if we, I dunno, miss and end up hitting the school or someone walking by?”
To my surprise, Deveron raised the canteen as though toasting him. “Fair question, buddy. Yeah, since I don’t fancy getting shot or stabbed or exploded, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the school might frown on you kids for the same thing, we have these.” Stepping back, he kicked a foot against what looked like a small wooden totem. “These things are all around the field here. When we get started, I’ll turn them on. They’ll make a forcefield that should contain any stray shot unless you people make some kind of concerted attack against it. Stay inside the forcefield, hit the balls while they’re red, and don’t kill each other. Keep your eyes open and communicate. You see a ball turn red but you’re too far away to hit it, open your damn mouth and tell someone who can hit the thing. Questions? No? Okay. Do it.”
Later that evening, after a long day of being shocked (both by the bracelet and Deveron seeming to actually give a shit about what he was doing) and more classes, I was sitting with Vanessa, Rudolph, and Koren in the library once more, ostensibly to work on our project for Professor Dare’s class.
“Come on, Chambers. You’ve gotta know. Why’d half your team go nuts and stink bomb the faculty?” Koren was leaning forward a bit, her eyes shining with the excitement of someone getting good gossip.
Wait a second. After everything I’d tried, this was the bit that made Koren want to actually talk to me? This was the topic she wanted to bond with me over? A part of me started to flail and sputter inwardly.
Outwardly, I just shrugged at the other girl while replying as dismissively as possible. “I guess Sands and Scout thought they were losing their reputation or something. I dunno. Maybe they were bored?”
“Bored.” Koren echoed the word with sarcastic dismissiveness, her eyes staring at me intently. “In a place like this, with the things we get to do. Listen, if you’re gonna cover for your little friends, come up with a better excuse than ‘they’re bored.’ Make it at least somewhat believable, or everyone’s gonna see right through you. Nah. You know. You know what they were doing, and it wasn’t about being bored. It was about something else. Something…” She squinted at me. “Something in the building.”
Now? Now Koren decided to illustrate why she’d chosen the investigation track? She chose the most inconvenient times to start paying attention to things. Try to subtly hint that she was sort of accidentally insulting or ridiculing someone without meaning to and she was as dense as a freaking boulder. But then she turned around and totally picked apart our ruse about getting into the building. What the hell.
Vanessa interrupted before I could come up with a suitable response to that. “We should start working.” I saw the way she glanced at me, her own expression obviously curious even as she spoke.
“Seriously, bookworm, you’re not even a little curious?” Koren demanded before looking toward the fourth member of our group. “C’mon, Reindeer. You have got to want to know what they’re up to.”
Sighing at the name, Rudolph sat back in his seat before making a single, slow shrugging motion. “Doesn’t seem like she’s in the mood to talk about it right now. Pushing it’s probably a waste of time.”
That was Rudolph. So easy going and slow to anger or even get that excited about anything openly. At first, I’d thought the boy was so lazy that he’d get kicked out or disciplined until he straightened up.
Now, however, I realized that while the boy didn’t go out of his way to get more work, he did do everything that he needed to. He usually worked smarter rather than harder, and he had lots of little shortcuts that let him accomplish as much as he had to without working nearly as hard as others did.
He was, again, a bear. Slow, casual, and outwardly lazy, but fierce when he needed to be.
“Damn it,” Koren muttered under her breath. “You guys are killing me here. I miss my friends.” Though she said it mockingly, I noticed a small hesitation at the end where her expression slipped. It looked like she’d meant to say it dismissively, then realized after it slipped out how true it actually was.
For a moment, I wondered just how Koren probably felt. There didn’t really seem to be that many girls around like her. This wasn’t exactly a good place for gossip queens or the typical high school clique sort of environment. And, I might have been projecting a little, but she seemed kind of lonely.
But damn it, every time I tried to bond with the girl or actually have a real conversation with her, she said something insulting or condescending. Usually it seemed like she didn’t even understand that she’d crossed a line or done anything wrong. The words just blurted out of her unthinkingly, leaving her totally confused when people lashed back at her. She had a surprising lack of self-awareness for someone who was so good at noticing things like the real reason for the stink-bomb prank.
Rather than try to address that then, I just straightened and changed the subject. “Right, so, the Black Death. Plague that killed about a hundred million people. Such a cheerful subject for our project.”
“Yersinia pestis,” Vanessa announced, continuing without looking at any of her books. “That’s the bacterium that causes the plague. There’s three main forms of it. Bubonic is the most common, then Pneumonic, and Stepticemic is the rarest one. And the most deadly. They’re all really bad though.”
“Yeah, they’re… nasty,” I agreed with a sigh. Talking about disease was always depressing. Especially when it was something this awful. “So we know what Bystanders think about it. I mean, generally speaking. What about Heretics? Was there anything… you know, supernatural behind it?”
“They’ve got books about it,” Vanessa replied quickly, her eagerness showing even as she put her hands on the stack in front of her. “”I, um, I didn’t read them yet. I waited for you guys.” The way she spoke made it sound like she was a little kid who had managed to resist opening Christmas presents until everyone else was ready. Actually, knowing the other girl as much as I did, it was probably exactly like that. As obsessed as Vanessa was with learning absolutely everything that she possibly could, stopping herself from pushing on without the rest of us must’ve taken an act of supreme willpower.
Koren, on the other hand, just started to blurt, “You mean you could’ve already had the whole–”
I interrupted. “Thanks, Vanessa. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.” Reaching over, I accepted one of the books that she had collected, glancing at the cover. “Hey, this one looks like a journal.”
“I think it is,” the other girl confirmed. “That’s the best part about this place. They’ve got people alive right now that were here through a lot of that history. So they can like, you know, write it down as eyewitness accounts and then actually update the books themselves. Instead of people generations away from the event translating the book into new languages, we have someone who actually there doing it. I mean, it’s… it’s just really neat.” She flushed a little by that point. “It is to me, anyway.”
Smiling a little bit in spite of myself at her enthusiasm, I nodded. “That does sound pretty useful. Who was this one written by?” I asked casually while turning the book around to look for an author.
“That one?” Vanessa leaned in a little to check which one I’d grabbed a bit more closely. “Oh, look inside the back cover. It was someone named Lyell. Lyell Atherby.”
My head snapped up at that, but before I could say anything, Koren spoke first. “Lyell who?” Her hand snatched the book away from me, opening to the back page before she read out loud. “For my family, my descendants and my friends. May the mistakes we have made in the past be the blocks of the walls that shield our future. Lyell Atherby, originally written May 3rd, 1362, last updated October 10th, 1891.”
I stared at the book in the other girl’s hand. Lyell Atherby? Mom’s… ancestor somehow? Except that I was pretty sure that she had been a Bystander when she first came to the school, so what was going on? Was this Lyell the ancestor that Mom had had her own Edge vision about? Obviously, he was related to Seller in some way, another step back along our family line. Was he dead now? I figured I would’ve heard about him by that point if he wasn’t, but still. What had actually happened to him? 1891 wasn’t that far off from when Mom must’ve been born, if she had been twenty years old in 1922. Had he still been alive while she was a student, or even afterward? Or had he died first? My mind was reeling.
“Um, hey, are you all right?” Vanessa spoke hesitantly. When I looked up to respond, however, she wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Koren, who was still staring at the book intently.
“Huh?” the other girl blinked, looking first at Vanessa, then to the rest of us before flushing noticeably. “Fine. Fine. I’m fine. Let’s just do this. Where does this guy talk about the plague?” She started to flip through the book, turning pages quickly while scanning them. “Blah, blah, blah, rambling…” In spite of her dismissive words, I could tell the girl was actually really interested in what she was reading. For whatever reason, she was just pretending it didn’t matter that much.
Had her vision been about this Lyell guy? Was that how she’d recognized the name? Or maybe it was even about my own mother, her grandmother. Would the whole ‘memory erasure’ thing allow the Edge to give a vision of my mom as long as it didn’t involve the rebellion? I had no idea if that was even possible. And I suddenly really, really wanted to just outright ask her.
Rudolph was talking. “Sounds like this guy was one of the old Heretics. Pre-Crossroads. Wonder what happened to him.”
“You uhh, ever heard the name?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.
He shrugged easily, yawning. “Lyell Atherby? Nah. Never heard of any Heretic with that last name. Maybe he didn’t have any kids. Or he only had a daughter that didn’t keep the name.”
Or maybe he had a descendant who pissed off the establishment so much that they used incredibly powerful magic to completely erase her identity from everyone’s memory, I thought to myself with a scowl.
“Here we go,” Koren spoke then, reading from the book. “Finally talking about the plague. It says: ‘The truth of this horrifyingly devastating curse is yet another cautionary tale for those who read this writing in the future. Do not trust those creatures we know as the Strangers. They are vile and will betray such alliances, as in the case here of the brief and tragic truce between our leadership and the creature known as Fossor. There is–”
“Wait, what?” I blurted, sitting up. “What was that last—what did you say?” I demanded, while grabbing the book out of the other girl’s hand.
“Wow, rude,” Koren muttered, ignoring the fact that she had taken the book out of my hands first.
I wasn’t paying attention. My eyes were scanning the page. “Alliance with the creature known as Fossor?”
“That’s the old term for gravedigger,” Vanessa supplied, trying to help.
Nodding absently, I stared at the passage. “It says that there was this council of Heretics. The old kind of Heretics, before Crossroads. There was some kind of monster or something they were trying to hunt down, and this… Fossor came to offer help. He was… charming and charismatic, but none of them trusted him. They thought he was lying, and they would’ve attacked him except one of them stood up for him. One of the old Heretics believed Fossor could help. So they worked together. And… and he unleashed that plague. This… This Fossor betrayed them and created the Black Death.”
“Holy shit,” Rudolph managed eventually. “They worked with a Stranger and it made a plague that almost destroyed Europe? Fuck… me….”
“Who was it?” Koren asked, leaning closer. “Who was the guy that worked with this Fossor creep?”
My head shook. “I dunno, I’m trying to find it, but he doesn’t really say what–” I froze, my finger on the page as my eyes went wide with shock.
“What? What did you see?” Koren demanded, leaning around to see.
The words came out through a hard lump in my throat. “The person who worked with Fossor, the one that trusted him. The Heretic who made that alliance that led to the Black Death.
“It was Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers.”