“Are you sure you still wanna be Cyclops? Because I’m starting to think you’d make a better Q.”
It was the next evening, about twenty minutes after our individual track training classes had finished, and Columbus and Avalon had ushered all of us to the beach with promises of new toys. Upon arrival, the boy had dumped out a dufflebag full of equipment that was supposed to make our mission easier.
“Wrong franchise,” the boy replied to me. “Though I would not object to a Forge comparison.” He paused then, obviously considering. “Actually, you know, he’s got that whole mysticism thing going on besides his inventions. And a cool robot leg. Yeah, I could get used to—oww.” Avalon had silently reached up and flicked him in the forehead with her index finger. “Fine, fine, I get it. Focusing.”
“Hey,” Sean spoke up then from where he’d been poking through the pile of stuff. “Isn’t this one of those communication badges that they let us use during that hunt out at the lake?”
“Seriously?” Sands stepped that way, leaning over to pick it up out of the sand. Sure enough, it looked just like the ones that we had used back then. The thought of that night just reminded me that I wasn’t the only one on the team with problems. Avalon still had people from her old school trying to kill her for the crime of defending herself, and someone here at Crossroads was actually helping them.
Columbus nodded quickly. “Oh, yeah, they’ve got a whole box of those in the lab. You just have to mate them together with this thing they’ve got down there. Thought they might be useful, so I uhh, distracted Nevada and the rest of them with a tiny explosion while Avalon grabbed a few for us.”
Avalon rolled her eyes. “Is that what you call mixing up ounces and grams? Making a distraction?”
“It distracted them, didn’t it?” Columbus pointed out before gesturing with both hands. “Anyway, there’s one for each of us. They’re only connected to each other so we should be able to talk without anyone overhearing. But that’s not even the best part. Here, everyone take one of these babies.”
He tossed something my way. Catching it, I turned the thing over in my hands. “Just a ski mask?”
“Yeah, and a Rolls Royce is just a car,” Columbus retorted while stepping up to take the mask from me with a huff of indignation. “Watch this. Watch my face.” While we all watched, the boy tugged what still looked to me like an ordinary ski mask onto his head and down over his face. The second it was in position, however, the mask vanished and left me looking at Columbus’s—wait, no. That wasn’t Columbus’s face. It was the face of someone else, a complete stranger that I’d never seen before.
“Dude,” Sean blurted in obvious surprise and awe. “You actually got your hands on maskers?”
The not-Columbus face smile. “We did. We’ll have to get them back in the lab as soon as we’re done, but for now… well, even if someone sees us, they won’t actually see us. Are we cool or what?”
Avalon reached out to tug the mask off Columbus, revealing his real face once more. “Don’t get too full of yourself,” she warned flatly. “They still have to get into that room and out without being caught.”
“Hey, that’s what we brought most of the rest of this stuff for,” Columbus pointed out with a gentle kick at the remaining pile. “So that you and chiseled pecs over there can do your whole distraction thing.”
Sean gave a long, contended sigh while spreading his arms to either side in an accepting gesture. “See, you call me that like it’s an insult, but all I hear is that you’ve noticed how very, very pretty I am.” He batted his eyelashes with disorienting effectiveness and skill.
“Oh, go flex at someone else,” Columbus retorted, clearly unimpressed. “I’m immune. If spending two months as your roommate hasn’t made me switch sides, nothing will, Captain Allergic To Shirts.”
Judging by the tingle that particular mental image gave me, I certainly wasn’t immune. And I was pretty sure that Sands and Scout felt the same way, considering the expressions that both of them had.
Avalon, however, just rolled her eyes. “If everyone is quite finished talking about shirtless teammates?”
Columbus raised a hand. “You know, before we change that subject entirely, I wouldn’t object if you were the one who—okay, okay, okay!” He took a quick step back with his hands raised defensively as Avalon gave him a clearly threatening look. “Got it, not finishing that sentence. Ever.”
And that gave me a little mental tingle too. Huh… Slowly, I looked from Sean to Avalon and back again. The mental images were… well, they were pleasant. They both made me feel…
Before I could examine that thought too closely, Sands interrupted. “Okay, so what else you got in there? Anything useful?” She was crouched there by the pile, poking at a couple things curiously.
“Oh, we’ve got lots of useful things,” Columbus assured her. “Have you heard of Blinder Fog?”
“Nope. But you, sir,” Sands informed him, “have my full and undivided attention.”
“You ready for this, Chambers?”
A few hours later, Avalon and I were sitting in our room. I’d been watching the clock tick silently toward two-twenty in the morning, our agreed upon start time, when the other girl broke the silence.
“One thing’s for sure,” I replied after thinking about it for a second. “I am absolutely beyond ready to get a few answers about my mom. If this is the only way to get those answers, then so be it.”
For a second, I thought Avalon was going to say something else. Before she could, however, the sound of Sean’s voice came from the communication pins that we were both wearing. “You guys all set?”
Sands was the first to respond. “Yup. Hall’s clear, we’re good to go. See you guys in two minutes.”
Pushing myself up, I grabbed the masker that I’d left beside me on the bed while trying to contain my nervousness. I wasn’t very successful, and it took me a minute to fumble my feet into my shoes.
Avalon’s hand caught my arm. “Chambers,” she spoke quietly, yet firmly. “Calm down. Breathe. Look at me.” Her other hand moved up to my chin, forcing me to meet her gaze. “You want to help your mother? Then take in a breath and hold it. Hold it. Now let it out. Again. Okay, put your shoes on.”
There was a light, almost inaudible tap at the door, and we opened it to find the twins waiting there. Together, the four of us moved as quietly as possible down the hall, past all the closed doors. The maskers stayed in our hands. We didn’t want to actually use them until we were out of the dorm, since getting caught coming out of our rooms with them on would kind of defeat the entire purpose.
As promised, the boys were crouched down in the space behind the girl’s dorm. Columbus had the dufflebag with him, though he was already passing it to Sean when the rest of us arrived. Above in the upper grade’s dorms, I could still hear music and loud conversations coming from a few open windows. Even as late as it was, Friday night was Friday night, and apparently some of the partying hadn’t finished yet. That was okay though. As long as it stayed in the dorms, it shouldn’t affect our plan at all.
“Okay,” Avalon announced. “Gerardo and I will head for the athletics building. That should be far enough from the security office to give you a chance if things go sideways. If anything goes wrong, abort.” Her eyes found me. “I mean it, Chambers. If we have to go back later, we can. As long as they don’t figure out what the person who broke in was looking for, the files should still be there if we have to try again. You got it? This is not a one-chance thing. If it looks dangerous or someone shows up early, you abort and get out of there. We’ll just do it again once things calm down. You got it?”
I swallowed before giving a short nod. “I got it.” I did. As much as I wanted to know the truth about my mom (or any clue that would get us a little closer to that truth), I didn’t want to risk my friends to get it.
“Maskers on.” Avalon suited action to word, sliding it over her own head to change her appearance into an unremarkable looking red-head. It did not, however, do a lot to alter her… ahh… general shape. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be all that hard to pick her out of a line-up later if things went that far.
The rest of us had our own maskers on a moment later, and then we were moving. At the front of the building, the other two split off to head the long way around toward the athletics hall while Sands, Scout, Columbus, and I made our way to the main building. Once we were away from the dorm building, the sound of partying died down quickly (probably another enchantment), and we were left moving through near-silent darkness. It was obvious that none of us wanted to risk even as much as a whisper, and there wasn’t much reason to anyway since we knew where we were going.
A minute later, we reached one of the side doors. The main entrance was entirely too exposed, so we’d chosen this one on the far end. It was further from the security office, but much safer to use. We’d talked about it and figured it was worth the trade-off. Especially after Sands pointed out that there were two of those ‘hidden rooms’ on the way to the office that we could use if we had to get out of sight.
At the door, Columbus knelt while adjusting his goggles with one hand. “All right, I’ve got this. Hold on a second.” Playing with the lense with one hand, he pointed with the other. “Okay, just one alert line here. Looks like it’s connected from the door here to the wall there. Open it, break the line, and… well, whatever it is goes off. An alert, I guess, but probably just a little one. I mean, people have to go in and out of this door even at night, right? So it probably just tells security someone went through.”
“Which is a bad thing if none of them are the ones doing it and they don’t know who is,” I pointed out.
Sands nodded. “That’s why we’re here. Just hold on. There?” She pointed to the spot beside the door frame and waited for Columbus to nod before digging a bottle of clear nail polish out of a pocket.
“Nail polish?” I whispered with a raised eyebrow. “Are you serious?”
Holding up a finger to forestall me, Sands passed the bottle to her sister, who used it to begin very carefully dabbing at the spot that Columbus had pointed out. Meanwhile, Sands produced something else from her pocket: a stun gun. She waggled the instrument at me. “Juuuust trust us, Flick.”
She waited until Scout had painted over the whole spot with the nail polish, then pressed the prongs of the stun gun up against it before pushing the trigger. There was a jolt of electricity, and she tugged the gun back. “Once more,” she informed us while Scout started dabbing with the polish again. “It fizzled a little, then came back, right?” When Columbus nodded, she smiled. “See, those goggles make this a hell of a lot easier. I wish we had a pair of those back when we spent a month tracking down all the spells that Professor Pericles put over those gliders they had on the roof a couple years ago.”
As soon as Scout was done with the nail polish, Sands gave the spot another jolt with the stun gun.
“That’s it,” Columbus announced. “The spell just disappeared. Wait, that won’t alert them, will it?”
Sands was shaking her head even as she tugged the door open. She kept her voice low. “Nope. It’ll come back in about an hour, so we’ve gotta get out of here before then or we’ll have to do it again.”
We made our way through the door and into the English and History wing. The hall was dark save for a few individual lights here and there along the ceiling, and the silence felt almost stifling in its entirety.
Once we were sure that no one was around, the four of us hurried down the hall toward the stairs that would lead up to the security office. The fact that we were trying to move quickly while simultaneously remaining as quiet as possible meant that we probably looked like a small herd of tiptoeing gazelles.
On the way, Columbus had us stop twice more when he spotted random alarm spells, and the twins took the time to disable them. By the the time we reached the top of the stairs, with the security office in sight, Avalon and Sean had already reported that they were in position and ready to play distraction.
The security room wasn’t empty yet, however, so rather than go straight there and end up walking right into the guys we were avoiding, we ducked into one of the empty classrooms nearby (once Columbus verified that it wasn’t alarmed, obviously). From there, the four of us crouched down out of sight and waited with what I was choosing to call patience since it sounded better than ‘near-crippling anxiety.’
Crouched there, with an eye on the hall and our ears alert for the sound of any of the security personnel heading out, we began to whisper under our breath to each other. Sands started. “Remind me again why we can’t just take pictures of the stuff in there and look through it later? I mean, I get not taking the stuff itself. They’d probably notice that. But it’d be a lot faster to just take pictures and leave.”
I nodded emphatically. “I know. I’d love to. But as far as I understand the secrecy spell they’ve got going on, if we take the records out of that protected room, they’ll be subject to the spell that stops people from learning anything about whatever the deal with my mom was. So we have to read them in there, where the spell can’t affect it. Apparently once you actually know the stuff, the spell doesn’t take that knowledge out of your head. Though it obviously did when they first cast it so… I dunno, probably some kind of energy limitation? When they first cast it, it had the energy to remove those memories from everyone’s head, but now it just acts like a wall to stop anyone from getting them?”
“There’s another simple explanation,” Columbus pointed out. “They wanted to protect their own memories. Shielding people from the effect has gotta be pretty draining too. So if they didn’t want to constantly devote part of their energy to that, they’d want the spell to stop actively targeting the memories of people who already, uhh, you know, actually knew what it was trying to hide.”
Scout leaned over to whisper something to Sands, who spoke up then. “Scout wants to know what about the yearbook then, or that picture you found, or the one that Deveron has. If we can’t take documents out of here without the spell stopping us from reading them, why can we see the pictures and read the book? Even after that… ummm, Merchant?”
“Seller,” I corrected with a slight smile.
“Seller, right. Even after that Seller guy ‘fixed’ the book, shouldn’t the spell stop us from actually seeing what it says?”
I made a face briefly. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My best guess is that the spell has a specific target. It’s stopping us from reading information about specific things my mother did, like this rebellion thing. The fact that she existed isn’t that level of top secret. Like I said, conservation of effort and energy.”
Before we could say anything else, Scout held a hand up to stop us. In the hall, the sound of an opening door and a voice explained her response. We froze, but the two voices we could hear sounded relaxed and casual. The two security guards obviously weren’t stressed, and they strolled easily down the hall in the opposite direction from the back stairs that we’d come up. They were headed for the main entrance.
It made sense. Most of the actual security work was done by the shield surrounding the school grounds. As long as that was up, the guards themselves mainly had to deal with students sneaking out after curfew.
Or it had been that way, before a professor had been murdered on school grounds with no one having any clue who had done it.
Shaking off that thought, I nodded to the others before quietly opening the door. We slipped into the hall, and I moved quickly past the security room to keep an eye out on the way that guards had gone while the other three worked on the door itself.
“Avalon and Sean. Two guards on their way out the front door,” I used the pin to contact the others.
“We see them,” Sean’s casual reply came back. “Don’t worry, if they start to head back early, we’ll get their attention nice and quick.”
The alarm spells set up around the security room were obviously a bit trickier than the previous ones. Even with Columbus pointing out where each bit of enchantment originated, it took the twins almost ten minutes to disable them. The whole time, I kept stressing about how long it was taking. Every minute that took us to get in was another minute that we couldn’t spend actually reading the files. But, of course, they were working as fast as they could. The fact that I had nothing to contribute and no way to help was just making me antsy.
Finally, after what felt like hours, Sands pushed the door open and we hurried inside. Avalon and Sean were giving us constant updates about what the security guys were up to, and it sounded like we still had plenty of time. Still, I had no idea how long it was going to take to find what we needed. For a school this old, how many hundreds and hundreds of files must they…
“Errr…” I paused, frowning at the single small filing cabinet sitting in the corner. Seriously, there were only three drawers on the thing. “Wait, are we screwed now? There’s no way they keep all the files in that little thing.” As soon as I said it, my own hand went up to smack my forehead. “Wait, never mind. I’m an idiot. Big thing, little space, big thing, little space. Like the staff. How do we get what we want though?”
Scout giggled, hiding it a bit behind one hand while Sands shook her head mournfully. “Man, being a Bystander must make things take forever. Watch this.” As I watched, she stepped to the cabinet and then looked back toward me. “What was your mom’s name again?”
“Joselyn,” I answered quietly. “Joselyn Atherby.”
Laying one hand on the filing cabinet, Sands spoke clearly. “All records related to Atherby, Joselyn.”
There was a hum from the cabinet, and then it jolted somewhat. Both drawers sprang open, revealing hundreds of folders. There were too many to actually fit inside the cabinet.
“Crap,” I muttered. There was too much to read. “Uhh, just grab anything that looks important. Try to scan them quick. If we get out of here without getting caught, we can come back for details later. Right now, just look at as much as possible.”
Taking my own advice, I grabbed the nearest of the folders and looked through it quickly. “Detention records. Eesh, Mom sure earned a lot of those. Headmaster Ruthers?”
“He was the head guy before Headmistress Sinclaire took over about seventy years ago,” Sands replied while quickly scanning through a folder of her own. “Now he’s part of the Committee that makes all the rules about everything Crossroads Heretics do. And wow, he did not like your mom. This is a request he sent the Committee before he was part of it to have her expelled when she was in her third year. And it says it’s the fourth request. Second one that year.”
“I guess we know which way he voted on the whole ‘should I be allowed to come here or not’ thing,” I muttered under my breath before setting the folder aside for another one.
“Okay, wait,” I quickly realized this one was more important. “Listen to this. It’s dated six years after Mom graduated. ‘Joselyn Atherby and her band of malcontents raided a Crossroads safehouse yesterday. They stole research data and supplies. Worse, the woman was able to convince one of our own men to join her, bringing their ranks up to nine. Nine fully trained Heretics who have turned their back on their own kind and now seek some kind of alliance with the very beasts we have sworn to kill.’”
“I guess this one happens after that then,” Columbus said quietly, gesturing to the folder he was looking at. “It says that Joselyn and a dozen of her strongest troops attacked the Pathmaker building. They had Strangers with them.”
“She brought Strangers into the Pathmaker building?” Sands was bristling with indignation.
Columbus read quickly. “Apparently they got far enough to reach one of the portal rooms and took it over. It uhh, it sounds like they were using the portal to get into some kind of… prison? It says they freed a bunch of ‘research specimen’ and escaped with them, and then it has a list of Strangers.”
“Research specimen?” Sands frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. Eden’s Garden does Stranger experiments. We just kill them.”
Rather than get into that debate, I grabbed another folder at random. “Okay, okay. More attacks. More raids. This was a full blown war. It went on for decades, damn. Look at this, Mom came… wait, that doesn’t…” I frowned.
“What?” Columbus asked, while he and the other two watched me.
“This says that my mother broke onto the school grounds ‘again’. It’s dated umm, in the fifties. It says that she comes and goes as she pleases and that no one can figure out why she doesn’t set off the shield.” Looking up at the others, I stared at them with my mouth open. “Mom knew how to get past the shield without setting it off. It says they even brought in experts. Ruthers sent in his own men to examine it, even stationed them here, and she still got in and out. He thought the Headmistress was helping her, but even his experts couldn’t figure it out. Gaia wasn’t doing anything. Mom just… knew a way to beat the shield.”
“The same way someone managed to beat it to kill Professor Pericles,” Sands said quietly. “I bet they think you’re involved somehow.”
I was busy blanching at that thought when Scout poked me with a folder before handing it over. I glanced at it, then did a double-take. “Wait, hold on. This mentions Joselyn’s daughter.”
“Uhh, yeah?” Sands pointed. “That would be you.”
My head shook. “It’s dated in the sixties. Plus it mentions a son. Twins. A boy and a girl. Mom had a boy and a girl while she was still a Heretic. After she was umm, captured, they took the twins in.”
“Whatever happened to them?” Columbus was frowning thoughtfully. “Did they keep them, or banish them along with her?”
“I dunno, it doesn’t say.” My mind was reeling. A brother and a sister? Actually, another brother and a sister? Hopefully less murderous and psychotic than Ammon.
“Guys,” Sean’s voice broke in. “You need to get out of there. We’re about to set off the distraction, but you need to move. Something just spooked these guys.”
“Was it us?” Columbus asked quickly.
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “We need to go. Hurry, put it away.” We scrambled a bit, shoving folders back into the cabinet before manhandling it closed. As soon as the drawers shut, the cabinet stopped sagging as the files were transported… wherever they were transported.
I really wanted to stay and read more, but we’d pushed our luck too far as it was. Especially if Sean was right about something spooking the security guards.
“Distraction’s on,” Avalon’s voice announced. From the sound of it, I could tell she was running. In the background I could hear what sounded like loud voices and banging doors. “Get out of there, now.”
We moved to the door, and I stepped out, turning back to whisper to the others. “Okay, if we go back the… what?” They were staring past me, and I turned to see a single figure standing there a bit down the hall. They were mostly obscured by shadow, leaving it impossible to make out any details.
“Crap,” I said aloud while thinking quickly. Should we run back the other way? Would that do any good? “Uhh… wait…” Something was wrong. The figure wasn’t moving. It was just standing there, motionless and silent.
The hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up when the figure took a single step forward, putting itself into the light.
Immediately, I realized that whoever this was, they wouldn’t be answering questions any time soon. Half of the guy’s head was caved in. His body was clearly rotting. A zombie. He was a zombie. And apparently one with a Master that was conscientious enough to mask the scent of the literal dead body, explaining why we hadn’t smelled the thing.
I had seen dead bodies before, mostly from looking at Dad’s files when I wasn’t supposed to. Plus we’d done an entire unit on zombies in Nevada’s class. Still, seeing one standing there in front of us… it would have freaked me out even if my Stranger sense hadn’t started screaming at me the very second the thing stepped into the light. As soon as I got a decent look at the figure, it started blaring alarms.
Columbus cursed. “Oh fuck me, a Stranger.”
“Yeah, dude, we kind of see it,” Sands replied tersely. “H-how the fuck did it get in here?”
“No, not that one,” Columbus raised his voice. “That one.”
Turning the way he was looking, I saw another of the motionless figures standing behind us. Another zombie.
“This is wrong,” Sands was saying. “They can’t be here. They can’t. How? How… how?” Even as she spoke, I could see more figures walking into view to join the formerly solitary Strangers on either side of us.They moved slowly, but with purpose until they were in sight, then went completely still, standing motionless just within our view. Like whoever was controlling them was intentionally trying to freak us out.
My mind was screaming about how impossible this should have been, how none of this was right. Part of me was terrified that Fossor had managed to find a way past both the deal he made with my mother and the shield that should have kept him away from the island. Inwardly, I was freaking out. Outwardly, I grabbed for my staff. “Avalon, Sean, get help. We’re being att–”
The zombies stopped being motionless.