Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Croc from Eden’s Garden posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above.
“Have I mentioned,” Doug asked while the two of us jogged down the mostly empty street toward the school, “how weird it is that they’re sending first-year students to check out an active threat? I mean, isn’t it? This guy, if it’s him, he’s killing people. He’s killed people. And they’re trusting a couple first year nobodies to try and deal with it? What—why? Is it just how this Hisao guy does things or what?”
Well, I supposed that actually asking if this was Hisao’s ‘thing’ or a regular Crossroads plan was progress toward the Eden’s Garden substitute’s being accepted. At least Doug didn’t immediately jump to the whole thing being some psychotic plan on the man’s part to kill off some Crossroads students.
“I guess it could be either,” I admitted while shaking my head. “Maybe they think this thing isn’t that much of a threat if we can identify him? And Hisao is right nearby when shit does go down, so it’s not like we’re completely on our own. I guess either way, we’re gonna have to deal with these things eventually, so it’s better if it’s in a semi-controlled environment like this? You know, small town, one clear threat, badass teacher waiting to jump in if we need it. Honestly it could be a lot worse than this.”
I left out the part where I was so used to being randomly jumped by threats that actually weren’t controlled by this point that the thought of how dangerous this would look in the sense of a normal school hadn’t even crossed my mind. But of course, that kind of thing wouldn’t be normal for Douglas.
We reached the parking lot of the combination junior and high school a few minutes later, crossing a small park to approach the back where the football field and track were. There were still a few cars in the parking lot, and we could see a couple guys on the snow-covered field throwing a ball back and forth to each other. Overall, the place looked fairly quiet considering it wasn’t quite five o’clock yet.
“So how do we find the guy’s office?” Doug asked while the two of us stood there staring at the school.
Shrugging, I replied, “I was thinking about that, and I doubt he has an actual office. It’s a small public school, so he’s probably just got a classroom to work in. As for how we find it, if this town wasn’t so small I’d say we ask someone. But, you know, the way it is, they’ll know we don’t belong in there. So they’d probably just call him.”
“And that’d be bad.” Doug frowned. “Wait, Strangers recognize Heretics, right? Shit, does that mean-”
“That if he’s this Aswang guy, our senses won’t ping him until later tonight, but he’ll recognize us immediately?” I finished for him before grimacing. “Yeah, I think so. Safer to work under that assumption, at least. Figure if he sees us, he’ll know what we are immediately. Which means that–”
“We can’t let him see us.” Doug took his turn to finish my sentence, sighing out loud. “That’s just great. I don’t suppose that article had a picture of the damn guy so we don’t go stumbling right into him?”
My head shook. “Nope, sorry. But hang on.” Producing my phone from my pocket, I quickly looked up the school’s website. Even a little place like this had a school website in this day and age, even if it did look like something out of the late nineties. Still, after figuring out the positively archaic website navigation, I managed to get to the teacher directory. And thankfully, that was actually kept up to date.
“Here he is,” I announced, holding the phone out for Doug to see the picture of the slightly balding guy who appeared to be in his late forties. Really, he looked pretty much like the exact image that came into my mind the second I thought of ‘middle-aged junior high science teacher in a small town.’ Which might have been the point, come to think of it. What better way for him to blend in than just like that?
“Right,” Doug nodded slowly, giving me a brief look before continuing. “So now we know what he looks like. Still doesn’t answer the question of how we’re gonna get into his classroom to check it out.”
Considering that for a moment, I smiled slowly. “I’ve got an idea. Hold on a second.” My eyes scanned the area around the school, searching slowly before I spotted the right person. “There she is.” I pointed at a girl that was walking out of the school, heading for a small, beat-up sedan in the corner of the lot.
Blinking blankly at the girl, Doug shook his head after a second of appraisal. “Okay, so who is she?”
Still smiling, I shrugged. “No idea. But she’s about to give me a chance to get inside and find the right office.” As I spoke, I focused on changing my face and hair using the Rakshasa’s face-shifting power. Gradually, I went from looking like myself to looking like the girl who just left. She was about my same size and build, as far as I could tell. Close enough, at least, that a quick in-and-out should be safe.
“Okay,” I announced while zipping my coat closed to hide as much of myself other than my face as possible. “I’ll go find the right room, then tell you what side to come to so I can let you in the window. Just give me your number.” I waved the phone at him to make the point.
Doug looked like he wanted to argue with that, but couldn’t figure out how. In the end, he just gave me the number and added, “Fine, but watch out for that guy. Even with that face change, he’ll probably still figure it out if he sees you.”
Nodding, I plugged the number into my phone before starting to make my way across the lot. It would’ve been better if I could’ve matched my clothes (or at least the coat) to the other girl’s, but this was the best I could do. With any luck whatsoever, considering how few people were around the place, no one would pay any attention to me.
“Erin!” A boy raised a hand and called from one of the hallway lockers the second I stepped inside.
Oh, right. I forgot. My luck seemed to run in the complete opposite direction with this sort of thing.
Coughing, I realized belatedly that my voice wouldn’t match this Erin girl’s either. So I just mumbled a faint greeting while giving him a return wave as I walked past the boy. Please don’t be good friends, I thought to myself. Please, please don’t be good friends. Just let her walk by. Just let her keep going.
Again, my luck meant that he pushed away from his locker and fell into step beside me. “Hey, I thought you were heading home. You know what’ll happen if your mom finds out Jack was there alone again.”
My mouth opened, and then I realized the easiest response. Coughing again, I gestured down before giving the perfect awkward shrug. “Bathroom,” I grunted the word before picking up the pace, speed-walking straight for the labeled restroom up ahead. Girl’s room. He was a boy. Easiest way to lose him.
“Oh, right.” The boy slowed down, giving me a curious look. “Didn’t you just go a few minutes ago?”
Because of course Erin had. Resisting the urge to sigh, I gave a helpless gesture toward my stomach as if to say ‘what can you do?’ before waving. Then I ducked inside the restroom. On my way in, the boy called, “And where’d that coat come from? Erin? Uh, okay then. See you tonight, I gotta go.”
I waited a minute inside the restroom, just to be sure to give the guy enough time to actually leave. Finally, I cracked the door and peeked out. After scanning the hallway and finding it empty, I sighed softly before stepping out. Then I walked down the hall, following the signs to the main office. Not that I wanted anything to do with the office itself, but there was probably something there that I could use.
Sure enough, just outside the main office I saw what I was looking for: a framed map of the school behind a glass cover. It was the sort of thing that most students wouldn’t even notice once they knew the place, but was probably there for guests to figure out where they were going. A quick glance at the map showed where I was, and it didn’t take much more to spot the junior high science classrooms. They weren’t too far away, actually. Just ahead through the cafeteria and then down a hallway to the right.
Moving quicker, I made my way there, passing the cafeteria where only a couple people were sitting with books spread out, apparently studying. Turning down the side hall, I watched the classroom doors, hoping for some other kind of sign of which one was the right one. There were three rooms, but none of them had the guy’s name written outside or anything. And peeking through the windows on the doors just revealed normal science classroom stuff. I saw tables for labs, microscopes, formulas on the white boards, homework assignments, even a partially erased hangman game. But there was no neatly-written note that said, ‘Truman Hyde’s classroom is right here, and by the way, for any Heretics that come looking, check my desk.’
So, without that added hint, I had to make do. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard. More time-consuming than I would’ve liked, but not hard. Looking up and down the hall, I tried the first door. It was locked, so I focused on the Relukun’s power and stepped right through, merging with the wood briefly before separating from it inside the classroom. Granted, it would’ve been easy enough to shove the door open, but this way was quieter and didn’t leave any sign that we’d even been there. Yeah, subtle was better.
It didn’t take long to quickly search the desk at the front of the room. A quick glance at the grade book showed some woman’s name in the margin. Definitely not the guy were looking for, so I moved on.
The second room was a bust as well. Which figured. Finally, after a brief search of the third room, I found what I was looking for. The man’s name was written on a few papers spread out on his desk.
This was it. Moving to the window, I glanced outside and then opened it while hitting the button on my phone to call Doug. It took a minute to direct him around to the right side, but I eventually got him in.
“Guess we spread out,” I announced after he finished clambering into the room. “Look for anything important? We’ve still got a few hours before he turns, if he’s actually the guy we’re looking for.”
Shrugging after giving me a brief, appraising look, Doug muttered, “I’ll check the closet. You can take the desk.” Waving vaguely that way, the boy moved to the back of the room without another word.
Okay then. Still wondering what Douglas’s deal was, I shrugged and walked back to the desk. Tugging the chair out, I sat down and started to work my way through the drawers. Not that I looked that closely other than a quick perusal. This guy, if he was what we were looking for, wasn’t going to leave a signed confession or a map to his secret lair sitting in a drawer where anyone could dig through and find it.
On the other hand, however, there could be a secret compartment or something. And I had the perfect way to figure out if there was. First, I pulled both desk drawers all the way out and set them on one of the tables nearby. Then I quickly pulled everything off the top of the desk, the papers, a framed photograph of some kind of volcano, and a plastic apple, setting all of it out of the way as well.
That done, I moved back to the desk and focused on the skeleblineist’s power. If there were any items still in the desk after I’d removed the drawers and moved everything off the top of it, that would prove there was a secret compartment. Then all I had to do was find it, and I had a plan for that too.
Sure enough, as soon as I focused, the power told me that there were three things still in the desk somewhere. I sensed a pad of paper, a silver coin, and a photograph. I didn’t know what was written on the paper or what the picture was of, but I did know they were there. Which meant they were hidden.
But again, I had an answer for that. And it didn’t involve blindly groping around the desk looking for the right spot. Instead, I put my hands on it while focusing on the wood-merging power again. A moment later, I hopped right into the desk. From there, I just worked my way through it, feeling for open spots that shouldn’t have been there. Which, I supposed, was still sort-of blindly searching in some ways, but it was faster than groping around with my hands for a button or a loose panel, at least.
It only took a few seconds for me to find the hidden compartment in the desk. As I popped out the other side, I traced my path back to the right spot. It was just above the top drawer and a little to the right left, inside the area where the man’s legs would have gone if he was sitting behind the desk. Feeling around there, I knocked against it lightly with my knuckles. Yup, definitely a hollow sound. So that was where the hidden compartment was, but how did I open it? I could just break the damn thing, but there was–
Oh. Right, I was being stupid. Taking a breath, I focused on the wood-merging power one more time. Then I shoved my hand through that spot of the desk and into the open space on the other side. It took effort not to fully merge myself with it, as I felt the pressure building. It was like the wood was trying to suck me in. Blindly, I groped around until my fingers found the pad of paper. Whispering a silent plea to no one in particular, I yanked my hand back out again.
It worked. Just like when I held my weapon while merging with wood (or the clothes on my back), the pad came out with my hand. Without taking the time to look at it, I quickly did the same thing for the coin and the photograph. “Hey, I’ve got something,” I stage-whispered over toward Doug before finally looking at what exactly I had. Focusing on the photograph first, I saw the man in question standing with three others. There was another man, a woman, and a young girl. All four were in front of that same volcano that I’d seen in the other picture, the one that had been on top of the desk. His family, maybe? Except no, the paper had listed him as a single man, a bachelor. So who were these other three? Maybe they were a family and he was a friend? Or a brother. One of the adults could be his sibling.
I didn’t know, and there wasn’t enough information on the photograph to be sure. Turning it over, I saw was a date. The picture had been taken three years earlier. Under that, there was a single word: Remember.
Remember. Remember what, exactly? Confused, I quickly looked at the coin. Sure enough, it was a real silver dollar. On one side, I could see a seated woman holding a stick with something on the end of it in one hand, and a shield in the other. On the shield, the word ‘Liberty’ was written. Under the woman was printed the date of 1836. On the opposite side of the coin, there was an eagle in flight, surrounded by a bunch of stars, with United States Of America – One Dollar written around the outside of it.
A silver coin from the eighteen hundreds. Okay then. But what was it doing hidden away? What was the significance?
Shaking that off, I looked at the pad of paper, hoping to find answers there at least. It was actually a full-sized notebook. As I flipped through it, I found… letters. Deeply personal, emotional letters to… his wife and daughter. They were full of vows about how much he loved them, what he’d do for them, how they were everything to him. It kind of made me feel bad to read, because they were incredibly touching. But why hadn’t he given the letters to them? Why were they all just in the notebook without–
Oh. Oh god. Looking back to the photograph, I realized. The woman and the girl were his after all. They were just… dead. That’s why he didn’t send the letters.
Sure enough, scanning through a bit more of the writing made that clear. He was writing to his dead daughter and wife. But who was the other guy in the picture?
“Okay,” Doug announced while coming out of the closet. “This is really freaking me out.”
When I looked that way in confusion, he held up a leather-bound journal. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here about… us.”
“Us?” I echoed, my eyes widening.
“No, no, not us specifically,” he amended. “I mean us as in Heretics. He’s got the names of both schools, details about that tattoo the Eden’s Garden people have, some stuff about what age we start school at Crossroads, more about how our weapons and stuff work. Even some stuff about the Committee and some group called the Victors, which… I assume has something to do with the Eden people.”
“Stuff about Heretics…” I spoke slowly, looking at the notebook. “And a bunch of letters to his dead wife and daughter. I—oh… oh shit, Doug, I think he’s trying to kill Heretics. I’m pretty sure Heretics killed his wife and daughter and now he’s—I don’t know, out for revenge.”
“Revenge?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Can Strangers even have wives and daughters, let alone want revenge when they die?”
Rather than say the first thing that came to mind at that, I snapped, “Even wild animals care about their own kind, Doug. Yes, I’m pretty sure he can be pissed off that his-that his mate and offspring were killed.”
“No wonder his name was so obvious,” the boy muttered then. “Truman Hyde? It was on purpose.”
“Yeah,” I murmured, looking at the photograph again. “I just wish I knew who this other guy was.”
Moving up beside me, Doug took a look. Then he did a quick double-take. “Wait, I know him. Hold on.” Quickly taking out his phone, he searched for the town’s informational website before bringing it up. “Okay, okay, look. Law enforcement. There it is, Deputy Karl Ulsun. He moved here a year ago. I was looking him up in the library, but he got here too long ago for the murders, so I dismissed him.”
“Moved here a year ago,” I muttered under my breath. “Long enough to make it into the police department and blend in before Heretics showed up looking for the Stranger that was killing people. Because most Heretics that came into town probably wouldn’t go to the library to look up information about murders, they’d–”
“Go to the police station,” Doug finished. “Which is–”
I was already spinning toward the door, digging the alert stone for Hisao out of my pocket. “Right where Russell and Harper went.
“They’re walking into a trap.”