“Right, well, you kids have fun,” Koren announced to Shiori and me as we stepped out onto the grounds a minute after our brief meeting with Wyatt. “I’ve got some… things to think about.”
Glancing at Shiori and then back to my niece (which was still weird), I spoke quickly. “I still need to know what you told Gaia about what you saw. I need to know what Ammon did in the lighthouse.”
Koren raised an eyebrow before shrugging at me. “Sure. Why not. Meet me around the back of there after lunch. Then I’ll tell you what I saw. And you can tell me all about my grandmother.” After giving Shiori a quick glance, she added, “And, preferably, let me know who else in this school already knew everything about my family before I–” She stopped in mid-sentence, letting out an audible breath. “Never mind, just… I’ll meet you behind the light house after lunch. Is that good enough for you?”
I nodded, and the other girl took off without another word. Which left Shiori and me alone, since the twins were spending some time with their dad, and the boys were sleeping, apparently. I suppose that’s what happened when they were up late working on Columbus’s super-special telescope thing before spending the rest of the night dealing with Ammon and the aftermath of all that. They needed a nap.
As for Avalon, she was… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure where Avalon was. The last I knew she was with her mother, but that had been awhile ago since I’d spent the past couple hours being interviewed by the actual investigators (rather than my interaction with Ruthers) about what had happened.
Strangely, it wasn’t Kine who spoke to me, but a couple other Runners who seemed much less… personable. They kept sending question after question at me, often before I had time to answer the previous one. And they backtracked, repeating the same questions in different ways or requesting seemingly irrelevant details like what color shirt Ammon was wearing. All different ways, I knew, of figuring out if someone was lying about their story. They were trying really hard to catch me in a lie.
But I kept my story straight, telling them everything I could about what happened. Afterward, Gaia said she would talk to them as well. When I left, she, the Runners, and Ruthers were all talking in her office.
Which meant that I really needed something to take my mind off what kind of discussion they were all having, especially since I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to Gaia about what Ruthers had said (and what he knew). So spending a little time with Shiori felt just right. Even if I had no idea what we were doing.
“So would you mind telling me where we’re going?” I asked her as soon as I realized we weren’t heading toward any of the buildings. Actually, we were moving past everything. “Or is it a surprise?”
“Uh,” Shiori paused, thinking about it for a moment. “It’s kind of a surprise. But just um, trust me?”
I nodded easily, following after the girl as she led me across the rest of the grounds. After another few seconds, I blinked. “Wait, are we going to the beach? I thought you’d uh, want to stay away from the ocean for awhile. You know, after…” I trailed off uncertainly, thinking about what had happened earlier.
Shiori just shook her head at me. “It’s not the ocean’s fault. I think I’d be more likely to have a phobia of innocent-looking little boys, not the ocean. Besides,” she added then, “we’re not staying on the beach. We’re going to the jungle. I just want their security to think that we’re going down to the beach.”
She had a point. Still, I was confused. Why were we going to the jungle? “Better not let Wyatt find out,” I teased lightly. “He’ll think that I’m not going on that jungle tour with him tomorrow anymore.”
The other girl smiled sidelong at me, though it was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she promised. “We’re not going that far. They were only a couple hundred feet past the treeline when I left them.”
“Them?” I asked, as we stepped down onto the always gorgeous beach. But Shiori wouldn’t say anything else about it. Probably because there were about a dozen other students on the beach playing some big volleyball game or swimming out in the water. She remained silent as we walked past them.
Also mostly silent were the other students. Most of them were second years, though there were a few from my own grade mixed in. They all turned to stare as Shiori and I passed, stopping their game to watch and whisper to one another. I picked out a little bit of it, mostly centered around pointing out that I was the one the ‘intruder’ had been after, and that it wasn’t the first time something had happened.
I ignored it. What else could I do or say that wouldn’t just raise more questions? I just looked back at them, then turned away and kept walking. Maybe I should’ve said something, made a joke, or somehow eased their minds. My mother probably could have, knowing what I knew about her. But I had no idea what to say. I was better in smaller, confined and more personal groups. Being stared at and whispered about by people I didn’t really know made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of how people had acted when Mom disappeared. The crowds at school, even as young as I was, had been all but unbearable.
No one said anything directly to me, or stopped us, so we walked on down the beach. Shiori was silent until we had passed far out of their line of sight along the beach. Finally, however, she glanced toward me while biting her lip. After a few seconds of that, the girl asked, “How do you feel, Flick?”
“You mean about the fact that everyone obviously wants to know why some Stranger kid managed to infiltrate the school grounds and mind control a bunch of students for the sole purpose of attacking me?” When the other girl nodded, I let out a long, low sigh. “I dunno. I mean, obviously I wanna beat Ammon’s head in until it collapses for being a psychotic, evil little piece of shit. But other than that, I… I don’t know. Part of me just wants to tell everyone the truth. About Ammon, about Mom, about what the other Heretics did to her to end their little civil war and all the rest. Part of me wants to get all of it out in the open so there’s no more secrets. I mean, I know it’s a bad idea. Especially right now. But I still kind of just want to get all of that out in the open.” Coughing then, I added a little more quietly, “I’ve wanted to be an investigative reporter pretty much my whole life. Just like my dad. This whole keeping secrets from everyone thing, especially secrets that are this big, goes directly against that.”
Shiori flinched slightly at that, shaking her head a bit sadly. “I’m sorry, Flick,” she said quietly while moving her hand to take mine. “I guess I’m one of those secrets, huh? I mean, my whole… situation.”
I quickly interlaced our fingers while shaking my head. “Not like that. I don’t like keeping that secret because I don’t want anyone to think that you must be evil just because of who your mom is. You shouldn’t have to hide like that, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of anyone finding out. It’s not fair.”
She didn’t say anything to that at first, remaining contemplatively silent for another few steps before finally speaking. “I’m just glad the people I care about know that I’m not evil. And,” she pointed out with a tiny smile, “I even got a new sister out of the deal. That’s—” Stopping in mid-sentence, she gasped. “Oh—oh crap, I should probably call her, huh? Senny, she should, um, know what happened.”
I nodded to that. “Yeah, she’ll probably kill both of us if we don’t let her know what’s going on. As soon as you show me what this big secret is, you can borrow the phone that Gaia gave me and call her.”
After giving a quick, grateful nod, Shiori pointed. “In here, it was right off from that boulder.” She gestured to a large, jagged rock sticking up out of the nearby water. It sort of looked like a tiger’s head.
The two of us left the beach after making sure we were alone. The treeline was thick with gnarled branches and fallen logs, with what looked like a man-made barrier of rocks in a sort-of wall that was clearly meant as a visible division between the safe beach and the more dangerous and wild jungle.
My first impression after stepping over the wall of stones and squeezing between an enormous tree and its fallen neighbor was that there had to be some kind of environment shield over the beach as well, because the jungle was even hotter. Not to mention the humidity. My shirt was almost immediately soaked through. It was almost like walking through the spray of a waterfall. And the sounds… I’d thought the jungle noises were loud before. Once we crossed that knee-high rock wall, the noises were unbelievable. There were insects, birds, monkeys, and every other possible creature (and no doubt impossible ones too) calling back and forth at one another. It was incredible. Everywhere I turned, there were more sounds. Creatures were warning each other about our presence, or alerting their pack to new prey. Or maybe just chatting (as much as animals did that sort of thing). The screams, squeals, and other noises reminded me of seeing movies with those crowded markets where everyone was shouting at each other.
It didn’t go on forever, but seemed to rise and fall now and then. As the two of us made our way quickly but carefully through what appeared to be a very narrow path, the jungle noises came and went, ebbing and flowing. They never really disappeared entirely, but I could definitely tell the difference between the ‘quiet’ times and the much louder ones. One of the main constants was the steady drone of insects.
Whatever Shiori wanted to show me may have been only a couple hundred feet or so away from the beach, but moving that far through the thick jungle foliage (while keeping an admittedly paranoid eye out for snakes either on the ground or hanging from branches because I am sometimes a ninny) made that seem like a much longer distance than it would have been over open ground. Shiori moved more easily than I did, seeming to instinctively know where to step. She flowed ahead like water, or, probably more accurately, some kind of native predator. I doubted she realized what she was doing.
I was just about to ask how much further we had to go when a figure stepped into view from around the tree in front of us. My eyes snapped from staring at the mossy ground for the ever-elusive snakes or other creepy crawly things, and what I saw made me do a quick double-take before blurting, “Avalon?”
My roommate was standing there, watching me briefly before her eyes moved to Shiori. “He’s awake.”
I blinked, confused as I looked back and forth between them. “He who? Wait, you mean Avalon was the one we were meeting? You guys talk to each other?” Somehow, that surprised me, and I blushed.
“Yes, Chambers,” Avalon spoke dryly, “Believe it or not, I am capable of having a conversation that you don’t actually witness.” She was mocking me, but I could see the amusement behind her eyes.
“I needed help with… the thing we’re about to show you, but you were busy with those investigators,” Shiori pointed out. “And Columbus was asleep. So I sort of went to Avalon instead. Actually, she helped a lot.” She gave the other girl a quick, grateful smile that just made me blush a little more.
Then, of course, I focused on the important part. “Okay, so what’s this thing that she helped you with?”
Again, the two of them exchanged brief glances. Then Avalon stepped aside while Shiori led me up and around the tree that the other girl had been waiting behind. I followed, unsure of what I was about to see. “What, did you make some kind of new friend that you can’t bring onto the school grounds?”
Before Shiori could answer, there was a high, tiny squealing noise that sounded an awful lot like a mouse or squirrel’s attempt at mimicking a threatening growl. Something shot out of the hollow at the base of the tree that we had just come around, before stopping in front of Shiori’s feet. The thing positioned itself between the two of us, bouncing on all four legs as it glared up at me and continued to make that adorable little squeaky growl that I belatedly realized was its attempt at being intimidating.
I stared down at the thing, my mouth opening and shutting while no actual words emerged. Inwardly, my Heretic sense was confirming that yes, this was indeed a Stranger. It wasn’t quite screaming at me or anything, but it was definitely making itself known.
Before I could find anything to actually say, Shiori had crouched to pick it up before straightening. The thing nestled in her hands, its growl turning briefly into a slight coo before it looked back at me and hissed. Tiny sparks of electricity came from the thing’s mouth, looking almost like someone testing a stun gun.
“That… that’s…” I stared a little more before managing to continue. “That’s one of those Jekern things.”
Shiori nodded, bringing her cupped hands up to whisper a little soothingly to the thing while it continued to glare at me and make those hissing noises. “Shh, it’s okay, Choo. She’s a friend. Friend.”
“Choo?” I echoed uncertainly, blinking from the tiny, adorable pig-thing to the girl holding him.
She looked briefly embarrassed, shifting her weight. “Well, yeah. See, his name is Porkachu. That’s what I started calling him, anyway. But then I figured that calling him ‘Pork’ might be a bad idea, cuz… well, yeah. So I’ve been abbreviating it to Choo. It’s shorter, and he eats like… a lot, so it fits that way because he’s always, you know, chewing. Plus there’s the way he–” In mid-sentence, the little guy jerked his head back and then forward, giving a loud sneeze that sent sparks of electricity spraying out everywhere. “–sneezes. See? So he’s Choo.”
Choo, for his part, shifted on his little legs while staring at me. The reassuring noises that Shiori was making (I wasn’t sure if he understood her words or not) at least seemed to calm him down, but he still looked a bit wary. At least until Avalon lifted her own hand with some kind of food crumbled up in her palm. The tiny electric-pig thing leaned in to sniff briefly before happily eating out of her hand.
“Something on your mind, Chambers?” Avalon asked, her voice flat as she watched my reaction.
“You um,” I coughed a little. “I just didn’t expect you to get along with something like him so quick.”
She didn’t respond at first, staying quiet while Choo continued happily eating out of her hand. Finally, the girl spoke in a soft voice that was different from her normal tone. “We kept animals at Garden, what they call ‘acceptable Strangers.’ Basically it’s just magical animals that they can use in some way to help the cause or get something out of them. They’re slaves, basically. But I…” She bit her lip visibly before going on. Her voice was a murmur that made me unsure of whether the girl even realized that she was still talking out loud. “There was this little Peryton fawn that I helped raise. His name was… I mean, is Salten. Seller promised he’d take care of him when I had to leave, but…” she paused before shrugging, looking uncomfortable. But she still didn’t move her hand away from the tiny piglet.
“What’s a Peryton?” I asked after a moment, when it was clear that she’d stopped talking.
Avalon glanced up at me briefly before answering. “Sort of like a Pegasus only with a deer instead of a horse. When it’s grown up, it looks like a stag with the wings and plumage of a bird.”
“You had a… a deer Pegasus?” I stared at the other girl in awe for a moment. “That’s… oh my god, that’s–”
“Don’t say it, Chambers,” Avalon warned.
“That is so-”
“Do not even think about it.”
“–freaking adorable!” I all-but squealed, moving to grab my roommate by the arms. “Did you get to fly on it? Did you? Did you? Did you?”
Oh wow, Avalon was actually blushing by that point. She looked at me, lifting her chin while I held onto her arms. The two of us stood there like that for a long few seconds, staring at each other. “Chambers,” she finally said quietly while raising an eyebrow. “First, yes. Second, breathe.”
Exhaling sharply and then inhaling at the reminder, I felt my own blush rise before focusing on the situation at hand, turning my attention to Shiori while somewhat reluctantly letting go of Avalon. “And you have a pet electric-pig thing.”
He sneezed at me, sending sparks into the air.
“Choo,” she confirmed with a little giggle. Then she looked guilty. “I couldn’t kill him. We killed all the other ones, but he was hiding and he was just… scared. He was terrified, Flick. I couldn’t kill him. And I couldn’t let anyone else do it either. I just… I couldn’t.”
“Don’t worry, Porter,” Avalon interrupted before I could speak. “Like I said before, we’ll keep your little pet safe.”
Shiori’s eyes turned to me then, and I didn’t hesitate. “Of course we will.” Reaching my hand out very slowly, I let the little guy sniff them curiously. Once I was sure he was calm enough, I reached into my pocket and produced my own little friend.
“Choo, meet Herbie,” I introduced the two with a smile. “Don’t worry, Choo. He’s the strong and silent type, but I’m sure you guys’ll get along just fine.”
The girl gave a beaming smile then that made my heart flip itself over a few times. “Thanks, you guys, for, you know, keeping it secret. And for helping. I know it’s dumb, I just… I needed to protect him.”
Avalon’s voice was quiet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was scared and innocent and you saved him. You’re talking about protecting the helpless, Porter. Which, I’m pretty sure, once you strip past all the bullshit that’s built up over the years, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. Protecting the innocent.
“Anyone who says anything against that… fuck them.”