Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”
The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.
“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.
“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”
“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”
The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”
With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”
As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”
“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”
Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”
Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”
“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.
Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.
And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.
“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.
I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.
One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.
Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.
Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”
She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.
With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”
“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”
“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”
“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”
That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.
“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.
Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”
“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”
Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”
“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.
The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”
Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”
Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”
Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”
It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”
Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”
With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”
“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”
“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”
Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”
“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”
“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”
So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.
Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.
It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.
Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”
“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”
Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.
I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.
“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”
“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”
“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”
“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.
“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”
“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”
Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”
That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”
That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.
Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.
Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”
She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”
“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”
“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”
Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.
If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.
Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.
Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.
“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”
“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”
“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”
“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”
“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”
Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.
“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”