In the end, it was Sands who spoke up first. “What are we doing in here?” She echoed the question while stepping forward. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl reached up to tug the masker off. Which was fair, since the fact that we were all holding our weapons made the disguises pointless. “You wanna know what we’re doing here? We’re looking for answers, that’s what. Answers about Deveron.”
Professor Kohaku’s eyebrows went up noticeably. Her eyes shifted fractionally toward the silent headmistress before she responded. “Exactly what questions regarding your team mentor did you believe you were going to find inside the security control room, if you wouldn’t mind elaborating?”
“He’s useless,” I put in while taking my own masker off and smoothing out my ponytail with one hand. “He’s a joke, and you guys know it. But you won’t take him off our team. We wanted to know why.”
Yes, my mother’s note had said to trust Gaia. But she hadn’t said a word about trusting Gaia, the security chief, two of her subordinates, the replacement Heretical Magic instructor, and the brand new Stranger Truths teacher. Now wasn’t the time to start confiding. Especially when we still had no idea who had sent those zombies after us.
Columbus, a little bit slower on the uptake, managed to get his own masker off while nodding emphatically. “Seriously, you want us to do all this dangerous stuff, which is hard enough with a real mentor who actually helps out, but with Deveron? You’ve gotta be kidding. He’s the worst mentor ever. Do you wanna know how many times he’s even worked with us outside of your official tests? Zero.”
For the first time, the headmistress spoke. Her voice was calm where Professor Kohaku’s had been suspicious. “Your dissatisfaction with Deveron Adams led you to sneak out of your dorms after hours so that you could break into the security control room? What did you hope to find in there, exactly?”
“The reason for why you won’t demote him or change our mentor,” Sands answered immediately.
I nodded along with Scout (who had already taken her own masker off when her sister had) and Columbus. “Yeah, maybe this was stupid, but what else could we do? Every time we complain about how he doesn’t work with us, it just gets ignored. We thought if we saw his security record, it might explain… why he’s acting this way, or at least why you want him to stay on as our mentor so much.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” one of the security guards muttered under his breath before falling silent as several pairs of eyes looked his way. Closing his mouth, he resorted to staring at us disbelievingly.
Nevada, who had stowed her massive chain-sword by that point and had returned the bracelet to her wrist, bounced up and down a little. “Aww, can you really be that mad at them? Three of them are in the investigation track! They’re supposed to be investigating things that don’t make sense. And you’ve gotta admit, training them to fight monsters and then leaving them with a crappy mentor doesn’t make sense. Are they just supposed to turn off that urge to find answers because it’s inconvenient for us?”
“You have a point,” Gaia conceded with a nod before turning her gaze to us. Her eyes were soft, the concern in her voice obvious. “Before we say anything else, are all of you all right? No one is hurt?”
“Tired,” I replied after glancing toward the others. “Sore. Dirty. But no, we’re not hurt.” The cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries from the zombies that had gotten hold of me were already clearing up.
The red-haired woman gave a soft smile of genuine relief. “Good. Your safety is more important than any wrong you might have done. Yes, you have violated the rules, but we have failed to maintain your safety the way we should have. That is our fault, one that has been repeated more than once this year. For that, and for the lack of a proper response to your ongoing mentor issues, I am very sorry.”
“The headmistress is correct,” Professor Kohaku agreed. “You were where you should not have been, but the fact that someone was able to summon zombies into the school to attack you is much worse. You could have been hurt or… worse.” Her expression darkened a little bit. “I promise you, we will find the person or people responsible for these attacks. But if you know anything about who they might be, we need you to tell us. We cannot do our jobs properly if the people we are trying to protect lie to us.”
Before I could say anything, Columbus spoke up. “Why were the zombies here?” When everyone’s attention turned to him, the boy went on. “I mean, everyone said that those other attacks were focused on Avalon. The peridles in the training room and those guys from Eden’s Garden, they were after her. But she’s obviously not here, so why were the zombies attacking us? Are there two different people or, you know, groups that can summon monsters past your security screens and all that?”
“You were not the target,” Professor Kohaku answered. “There were six other incursions of zombies throughout the grounds at the same time in addition to this one. We were attending to those areas, which is why it took time to get here. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Or someone wanted to make sure it’d take you awhile to get to us so they summoned a bunch of others to distract you while siccing a group on us,” I pointed out without taking my eyes off of Gaia.
It was Professor Carfried’s turn to finally speak up. The magic instructor had been silent up to that point, but now shook his head. “The method with which these creatures were summoned past the security screens is… without going into detail, complicated. It required a good deal of forethought and preparation, including carefully selecting the locations of the incursions far ahead of time. Hours would have been required, at least. If the zombies were meant to attack any of you directly, they would have appeared in your dorm buildings, not here where no one was supposed to be. As Risa said, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever did this was likely attempting to test our security responses and see how many creatures they could push through our defenses at once.”
“Unfortunately for them,” Gaia spoke again, “they have shown their hand. Our security enchantments will be updated and we will strive to ensure this does not happen again. That, however, does not excuse the fact that the four of you were in real danger due to our failure, both in maintaining your safety and in providing adequate response to your mentor situation. You never should have been put in a position where you believed that this sort of behavior was the only way to properly protect yourselves.”
Professor Kohaku was nodding before she spoke. “However, that does not excuse your actions entirely. You could have come directly to one of us and made your position clear. You could have gone through several other avenues to voice your concern that did not involve this level of rule breaking. We failed to keep you safe, but at least part of that responsibility falls to you as well for being where you should not have been. We have failed, but you have compounded that failure through your own actions.”
The urge to speak up was almost irresistible, but I pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time to argue. Especially since most of the things I wanted to say weren’t things that should be blurted out in public.
“For being out of your dorms after hours,” the security head continued, “I believe the standard punishment is two weeks of Saturday detention. For extenuating circumstances, one week is probably sufficient. For breaking into the main building, I believe the last offender received one month of Saturday detention. Again, we will halve that for your reasoning which, while not perfect, does provide you with some excuse. Three weeks of detention. Does that sound fair, Headmistress?”
Gaia nodded. “You cannot simply be left without punishment. The rules exist for a reason, and if they are not enforced, others will believe that going around them is in their best interest. We are here to help you, to educate you, and to protect you. But we can’t do that if our students continue to go around us.”
“Then you will all come to the security office at nine in the morning for the next three Saturdays,” Professor Kohaku informed us. “From there you will be assigned your jobs for the rest of that day.”
Obviously we weren’t going to get a better deal than that, so the four of us mumbled our acknowledgment. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly, what amounted to three days of detention wasn’t bad. It did, however, remind me of just how different this school was than any others I knew from the Bystander world. They were so accustomed to having students fight for their lives, kill, and generally be involved with violence that being attacked by zombies in the hallway barely seemed to faze them.
“With that in mind,” Gaia interrupted my thoughts. “We will take your concern about Deveron into advisement. If he is not performing his job properly, then you deserve a mentor who will.”
Well, at least some good had come out of this whole situation, if it would get us a real mentor.
“I’ll take them back to their dorms,” Nevada cut in, still smiling broadly. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do, Headmistress, Professor.” She nodded to each of the other women in turn. “I’ll take the maskers back too. Might as well get them back to the lab before any of them get… lost again.”
“Indeed,” Professor Carfried agreed. “You take the girls, I’ll make sure Columbus makes it back to his room.”
“Oh,” Professor Kohaku added as we were starting out. “Flick, Columbus, when you get back to your roommates, tell them that they can join you in detention. We wouldn’t want them to feel left out.”
“So it could’ve been worse,” I finished giving Avalon my summary of what had happened a short while later. The two of us were alone in our room, though I hadn’t sat down yet. I wasn’t going to until I had a chance to take a long, thoroughly hot shower to get every trace of zombie stuff off me. “I think your mom’s hands were pretty tied. I mean, with all those other people there, she couldn’t just let us off.”
“We broke the rules,” Avalon acknowledged flatly. “She has to maintain her authority or the Committee will find out about it. Believe me, the last thing you want is to give Ruthers an excuse to shove more of his own stooges in here. I’ve heard about how it was before Gaia took over. You… wouldn’t like it.”
“Oh!” I flinched at a sudden realization. “Damn it, we probably should’ve mentioned that our communications were blocked right when the zombies appeared. I was trying to keep you and Sean out of it. Which was obviously pointless, but we should’ve told them that the pins stopped working.”
“That’s probably relevant information,” the other girl agreed. Her expression softened slightly then more than I was accustomed to seeing from Avalon. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you. I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought someone would actually summon zombies on top of you.”
“Hey,” I shrugged, trying to maintain a casual air. “We killed them pretty good. If you were there, we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to do anything. You would’ve been all, ‘yow chop suey fwapow!’” I mimed a few goofy karate chops. “While the rest of us just stood there basking in your awesome.”
Rolling her eyes, Avalon turned back to the bed. By that point, I knew her well enough to realize that she was using the movement as an excuse to hide her blush until she had her expression under control again. “Take your shower, Chambers. And get some sleep. Even you must need it after all that.”
Grabbing my phone off the desk, I nodded. “I’ll call the security office too. Might as well tell them what happened with the pins. Maybe it’ll help them figure out how assface summoned those monsters.”
Avalon turned back to me, hand on the controls for her privacy screen. “I’m glad you’re all right, Chambers. You’re not the worst roommate I could’ve been assigned.”
“Aww,” I held my arms open wide, beckoning with my hands. “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. Come on, bring it in. Have a zombie-gunk covered hug, you know you want one.”
To my surprise, Avalon took a step toward me, then another. She crossed the room slowly, never breaking eye contact. As she approached, I felt my own heartbeat start to pick up as heat spread over my skin. She was getting closer with each step, staring directly into my eyes the whole time. My teasing voice faltered, and I felt tongue-tied. Further words died in my throat while my arms remained raised and open mostly because I was too distracted to lower them. My mouth felt dry.
Coming straight up to me, Avalon stopped so close I could smell the peach shampoo that she used in her luxurious hair. She stood there, directly in front of me, and cocked her head to the side a little while regarding me with what looked like a curious expression. “You want me to hug you, Chambers?” Her voice was soft, the tone sending a little thrill through me in spite of myself.
My mouth opened and then shut, words failing me entirely. I saw the slight smile, barely noticeable, appear at the edges of Avalon’s mouth as she lifted a finger very gradually. My eyes followed the finger as she raised it… to push against my forehead. Her tone turned abruptly casual, dropping the… whatever she had been doing with her voice a moment earlier. “Too bad you’re covered in zombie guts.” Winking, she stepped back. “Go take your shower. Some of us actually need a full night’s sleep.”
Feeling like a bucket of cold water had been tossed in my face, I stared as she walked back to her side of the room and flicked on the privacy screen, disappearing into the resulting darkness.
Physically shaking myself, I picked out my bed clothes and walked into the hallway while dialing the number for the security office. I’d memorized it after getting back from my house, considering how much help that would have been while everything with Ammon had been going on.
By the time I reached the showers, Professor Kohaku had answered and took the information about the pins. I had the feeling she was restraining herself from dressing me down for not saying anything earlier, but in the end she promised that they would look into it and thanked me for the information. Then she reminded me to show up for detention on time and not to get into any more trouble before hanging up.
Which left me standing alone in the shower room, thinking about how crazy my life had become in the past couple of months that something like a zombie attack seemed so relatively normal. It was practically just another day at Crossroads Academy, a place where you could have legitimate debates about whether nearly being killed by monsters was a targeted attack or just bad luck.
And then there was my roommate. As I raised my hand toward the shower to turn on the hot water, my thoughts went back to what had happened in the room a couple minutes earlier, and I felt another flush cross over my face. Swallowing hard, I moved my hand from away from the H-labeled knob to its C-labeled neighbor.
I’d take a cold shower first.