“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Shiori asked Avalon pensively about an hour later, her face tense with worry and uncertainty as she looked between my roommate and her newfound pet on the ground.
We needed to make sure that Choo was safe in the jungle. It was just too easy for the little guy to get into trouble in there, especially since we couldn’t be sure we’d be able to easily go into it without being seen often enough to take care of him. He needed a safe space to live, but we couldn’t exactly take him onto the school grounds with us without setting off every single alert that had ever been invented.
As for the beach, well, other Heretic students spent a lot of time there wandering around unescorted. And letting one of them find him while they were wandering around the beach would pretty spectacularly defeat the entire purpose of taking him out of the jungle for his own protection.
So the jungle it had to be. But we weren’t just going to leave the poor guy there to fend for himself. Luckily, we had come up with a solution to that particular problem. Or, to be specific, Avalon had.
“Yeah, Porter, I’m sure.” Avalon’s reply came without the girl even looking up from the device that she was tinkering with using a solid light screwdriver that she had conjured from one of her gauntlets.
The thing that she was working on looked a lot like one of those big old walkie-talkies, except that it had two antennae on each side (so basically one on each corner) and the bottom of the thing had what appeared to be an upside down snow globe attached to it. Except instead of a model of a town or a building and fake snow inside the globe, there were three tiny smoke stacks that kept pumping up and down. First, one of the stacks would extend fully, puffing out a little white cloud. Then another would extend while that first withdrew. The second little smoke stack would spit out its own tiny cloud before drawing the one that the first had sent out into itself. Then it would sink back down again and the third smoke stack would push out to repeat the process before it went back to the first one once more.
It was kind of fascinating to watch, even if I didn’t have the slightest clue why it was doing that. Or how the little stacks managed to suck back up only the cloud that the previous one had sent out, not the ones that they themselves produced. Even after staring at the thing for going on ten minutes, I couldn’t figure it out beyond acknowledging yet again to myself that Heretic stuff was really freaking weird.
“This,” Avalon continued after shutting down her gauntlet-created screwdriver and turning the little device over in her hand, “is something I was working on to get a little privacy whenever people start getting too pushy and annoying. When you turn it on, this part right here,” she gestured to the speaker area, “will start giving off a very specific sound. The pitch is too high for anyone to hear it themselves, but it’ll still affect them. Long story short, it makes the person or animal not want to be around the sound. All we have to do is set the range of it, and any animal or wandering student that comes near will get the urge to leave without ever really understanding why they don’t like it around this spot.”
Shiori started to smile before blinking. “Wait, there is a way to stop it from affecting specific people, right? Or Choo himself. Keeping him safe is one thing, but I wouldn’t want to make him hate it here.”
Avalon rolled her eyes, snorting a little before answering. “Yes, Porter, there’s a way to stop the sound from affecting specific people. It’d be pretty damn useless if it didn’t. I wanted privacy to avoid being annoyed, remember?” She turned the device over to show us the globe on the bottom. “Come here.”
After Shiori stepped that way, Avalon lifted the device. Her hand moved to the other girl’s chin, turning her head a little before putting the orb near her left ear. She pressed a button on the radio part, and I saw a bit of the glass open up. The next time one of the tiny smokestacks sent out a little cloud, it left the orb and went into Shiori’s ear, making her gasp. She then duplicated the same thing with the girl’s opposite ear before releasing her. “There,” Avalon announced. “You’re attuned to the sound now.”
She did the same to me, sending that weird smoke stuff into my ears (it tickled) before it was Choo’s turn. The poor little guy was so confused about what we were doing, he kept trying to turn his head to look at the glass orb thing (especially once he caught sight of his own reflection). But Shiori managed to distract him with a bit of candy, and Avalon got the stuff in his ears. Clearly he thought it tickled too, since it made him sneeze several times in a row, each sending tiny sparks of electricity shooting off.
Then it was done, and Avalon found a hole partway up the nearby tree where she could secure the device. It was shielded from the elements there, and away from where Choo might, well, chew on it.
“There,” the girl announced after flipping a switch on the back of the device and hopping back down to the ground. “I gave him just enough room to explore a little bit. As long as you build him some kind of barrier to stop him from going too far, he should be safe in this area. The radio will make sure anything that isn’t attuned to it leaves pretty quick. So just give him food and a place to sleep and he’ll be fine.”
She started to say something else then, but was interrupted as Shiori abruptly grinned and threw herself that way to embrace the other girl. “Thank you, Avalon!” she managed while hugging onto her tightly. “I know you didn’t have to help this much and that you’re this cool, aloof, and untouchable badass that probably wants to strangle me for hugging you right now, but thank you, thank you, thank you.”
For her part, Avalon blushed slightly before working her way free of the girl, looking a little awkward. “It’s fine, Porter. Like I said, protecting innocents is our job. And maybe I miss some of the animals from Garden, like Salten. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s not a big deal. Calm down.”
Chuckling at the two of them, I cleared my throat. “I guess we should set up those barriers to make sure the little guy stays where he’s supposed to. It’ll be lunch soon, and then I’ve gotta meet Koren by the lighthouse so she can tell me exactly what she saw when Ammon went in there. Which should be fun.”
“Hey, that reminds me,” Shiori turned to look at me while scratching Choo behind the ears. “How did you tell her the truth about your mom and all that? What about that whole memory erasure spell thing?”
It was Avalon who answered. “Gaia explained it to me earlier. There are two spells. First, there’s the one that erased the memory of Joselyn from everyone that was involved, and stops the ones who were shielded by the spell from talking about her. Anyone who finds out the truth from some other source, or just figures it out based on other evidence, can share what they know. It’s like… a person censored by the spell would be someone who had personal knowledge and was trying to share an actual memory. The spell won’t let them. But someone like Chambers who just happened to figure it out isn’t sharing an actual memory of the specific censored person. She’s just telling a story, so it gets past the spell.”
“Let me guess,” I put in. “The other spell is the one that stops us from sharing what we found on those papers in the security room. Specifically, the bit about Mom having other children. Which, I guess means Koren is immune to it for… some reason? Wait, is it because we’re related or something?”
“Because she’s related to the subject of the spell,” Avalon confirmed. “That’s why she can retain the information without going to some other world to share it like you did with Porter over here.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured before adding under my breath, “At least as much as this Heretic magic stuff ever makes sense.” Clearing my throat then, I looked to the other two. “So, building Choo his safe area? I bet we can find him a couple little bowls for water and food.”
Shiori nodded before looking down at the Alter-warthog as he tore ravenously through the last of the candy she had given him. “Yeah,” she replied slowly. “Only… maybe not so little.”
After refueling in the cafeteria, I left Shiori and Avalon to continue setting Choo up with his new food and water bowls and all that stuff. Meanwhile, I made my way across the grounds (passing even more people who were just staring at me and whispering to each other) to where the lighthouse was.
A couple of the security guards were stationed in front of the entrance. I didn’t know their names, but both of them were watching me pretty intently as I moved past them. I just waved, not even bothering to hide my curiosity. Not looking curious at that point would have looked a lot more suspicious. They clearly had to expect everyone, especially me, to want to know what was going on in that place.
Once I was well past the pair and out of their sight, I doubled back around, taking the long way to loop up to the back of the lighthouse. Koren was already there, sitting in the grass while eating a taco.
“There you are,” she whispered while pushing herself up and brushing taco crumbs off her hands. “Come on. And be quiet,” the girl added the last bit with a nod toward the front of the building.
Before I could ask what she was doing, Koren produced her Hunga Munga and stepped back. She looked up to judge the distance, then hurled one of the throwing axes up high. As I watched, the thing actually passed through the wall of the lighthouse. As it did, she held her hand out with the other weapon. “Grab hold,” the girl instructed flatly. “And stay quiet until we’re sure it’s clear.”
Unsure of what she was doing, I reached out to hold onto the handle of the axe anyway, fitting my hand just under hers once she choked up on it a little. As soon as I did, her thumb moved to push something higher on the handle. An instant later, the air around me swirled before we were abruptly standing somewhere else. Now, the two of us were inside the lighthouse, about halfway up the stairs. The second Hunga Munga was floating there in mid-air, suspended without anything visibly holding it up.
Tugging the handle of her other weapon out of my hand, Koren reached out to take the one that was floating. She tucked the two of them away before silently gesturing for me to move up the stairs. Together, the two of us hurried to the top of the building before carefully and silently closing the door.
Finally, I breathed out and looked across the wide platform toward the light fixture itself. I kept my voice as quiet as possible, speaking under my breath. “You followed Ammon all the way up here?”
Koren nodded before pointing back to the entrance. “He didn’t bother shutting the door when he came in. I was there, hiding at the top of the stairs and he came over to this thing. Then he, um,” she looked back to me, actually looking a little hesitant for a second before pressing on. “He used his power on it.”
I blinked at that, opened my mouth, then blinked again. “He did what in the who where huh now?”
The other girl smirked just a little at my reaction before admitting, “Yeah, I thought it was fucked up too. It’s like I said, he used his power on the light thing.” Gesturing to the contraption in the middle of the platform, she added, “He said, ‘My name is Ammon, take me back to where I was before.’ A second later, he wasn’t there anymore.”
I stared at her, squinting in spite of myself. “But who was he talking to? His power works on living things, doesn’t it? Who, or what, could he use his power on in here that could—oh my god.”
Koren just raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh your god, what? What the hell did you just figure out?”
Slowly, I turned my attention to where the light fixture was. “… it’s not dead,” I managed weakly.
“What’s not—wait.” Koren stepped that way, looking at it, then back at me. “The skull. You’re trying to say that the skull in there, the one they’ve been using to give Heretics their powers, isn’t fucking dead?”
“I—I’m not sure,” I admitted with a tiny shrug. “But think about it. My mom—your grandmother somehow figured out a way to repeatedly get past all their security and onto the grounds no matter what they did to stop her. Now we know that it had something to do with this.” I gestured to the light fixture. “Which means that there’s something about this thing that no other Heretics figured out in all the time they spent examining and fiddling with it. I’ve been trying to figure out what Mom could have done that was different than anything else any of the other Heretics ever did with this thing.” Staring at the other girl intently, I went on excitedly. “She spoke to it. She talked to it, Koren. That’s what she did that was so different, and why Ammon was able to use his power on it. She talked to it. She… I don’t know, convinced it to help her? Made friends with it? I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that has to be it.”
“The skull,” Koren repeated dully, looking from me back to the thing. “The skull inside that thing… is alive.” She sounded a bit dazed before slowly shaking her head. “That’s… that’s…” Trailing off, the other girl seemed to consider for a moment before finally shrugging. “Sure, okay, whatever. I guess it’s no more fucked up than half the other stuff they’ve told us about since we got here. Why not a skull of a reaper thing that’s not actually dead after all. A skull that isn’t dead, and that somehow made friends or allies or whatever with my grandmother while she was playing rebel leader. Let’s go with that.”
Looking away from the girl and to the thing itself, I took a step that way. “Maybe we should try talking to it? It might be able to… I dunno, help?” Trailing off uncertainly, I gestured. “Worth a shot anyway.”
Before I could actually do anything else, however, the sound of footsteps on the stairs drew both of our attention. It sounded like several people, and we could hear loud arguing going on. Koren immediately stepped over to where I was, producing her Hunga Munga again. She reared back, throwing the first one off the platform and off into the distance before holding the other one up for me to grab onto.
The footsteps and voices were getting closer. Just before they reached the doorway, Koren activated her weapon. Instantly, we disappeared from where we were, and found ourselves a few feet up in the air above the ground. We sort of Wile E. Coyote’d there for half a second before proceeding to continue falling, crashing down into the grass on the far side of the building. We rolled with the impact, sliding along the ground before ending up laying on our backs, looking up at the sky while we caught our breath.
“Nice… weapons…” I finally managed in between panting.
“Still getting used to them,” the other girl admitted. “Katarin said that people who are really good with them can… like… use them to teleport around the battlefield. You throw one, teleport after it and catch the thing in mid-air before throwing the other one. There’s a rhythm to it, I haven’t–”
In mid-sentence, Koren fell silent, looking a little embarrassed as she sat up. “I mean, I’m working on it.”
I nodded before turning to look back up at the lighthouse. “Something tells me it’s not going to be quite as easy to get in there anymore. They’ll probably set up guards to make sure Ammon can’t come through like he did. Even if they don’t understand how he did it.”
“Yeah,” the other girl muttered. “Guess you’ll have to find a way to talk to Bob later.”
I blinked at that. “Who?”
“You know,” she gestured. “The skull that you—you know what? Never mind.”
Pushing herself up off the ground, Koren stared at the lighthouse. She looked indecisive at first before glancing toward me. “Right, well, I did my part. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my family back again and pretend to be surprised when they tell me all about whatever excuse the headmistress used to get them to move.”
“Good luck,” I offered uncertainly, hesitating briefly before adding, “I’d still like to meet your mother. I mean, just… to meet her.”
At first I thought Koren was going to snap something insensitive. But she stopped herself, shrugging a little. “Yeah, I’ll see if I can make up some kind of excuse for a visit. I dunno.”
She stood there awkwardly for another few seconds before pivoting to walk away.
“See you on the hike tomorrow!” I called before she got too far away.
“It’s gonna be… interesting.”