It seemed to take forever for the doctors to move on. Yeah, it was really only a couple minutes or so. But with the information that I was sitting on, those two minutes felt like several dozen eternities.
I used the time as wisely as I could, quickly checking through the files for what I knew had to be there. Sure enough, now that I knew what to look for, my eyes quickly found the note about a third blood sample that had been taken a year before the first one. It had been taken from a different subject than either of the first two. Three different subjects, three different blood samples, all connected. I knew why they existed, and that realization made me want to tell the doctors in the hall to hurry the hell up and stop blocking Tangle’s room. But I restrained the impulse, since it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I also took the time to type out a text and an e-mail on my phone, just in case anything went wrong. Finally, just after hitting send on the second one, I heard voices and footsteps. Peeking that way, I saw the chatty doctors moving past me, all of them deep in conversation about some kind of miracle fruit.
As soon as they were gone, I slipped back out of the room without ever waking up the elderly guy who was still slumbering away in his bed. Which was good, because on top of everything else that was going on, I really didn’t want to add ‘disturbing the rest of a heavily burned grandfather’ to the list.
Making my way quickly down the hall, I was almost there when Sands and Avalon emerged. Seeing me, the two of them picked up the pace. Avalon was almost as fast on her crutches as she had been without them, and I was briefly distracted by the sight of her motion before managing to snap myself out of it. “What’s going on?” I asked blankly. “What’d you guys find out? Is it really her in there?”
“I found her treatment schedule,” Sands explained, already gesturing for me to keep walking with them. “They’ve got specialists on the way right now, so being here when they show up is a bad idea.”
“And yes,” Avalon added, her voice flat in that way that told me she was doing some pretty heavy thinking. “We attempted every test that Gaia told me about. They all say that the person in the bed is really Giselle Tangle, and that she really is in a coma. She was unresponsive to everything we tried.”
Nodding, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Well, I just found a whole lot of diddly squat.”
Both of the other girls looked at me briefly. It was code. Using the words ‘diddly squat’ meant that I had found something important. So important, in fact, that I was afraid of anyone overhearing what it was, so I didn’t want to say it until we were sure that it wouldn’t happen. Preferably when we had the use of one of those magic private conversation coins that Deveron had been teaching us to make.
And that fact in and of itself had to tell the two of them just how important what I’d found out was, considering we’d risked talking out loud about running blood tests and such on a comatose professor.
Unfortunately, it also meant getting back to Scout, since she was still the only one who could manage it consistently. I’d made it work a time or two, as had all the others with varying degrees of effectiveness. But Scout was the one who could do it every single time, so we trusted her the most with the spell.
The whole way back down to the cafeteria, I could barely restrain myself from spitting out what I had learned. The words kept almost popping out of me, and I was squirming with each step to the point that it was obvious that both Sands and Avalon had noticed. They kept giving me long, searching looks. Well, Sands did anyway. Avalon mostly just told me to stop acting like an overly excited puppy that needed to use the bathroom. But it was the way she said it. I could tell she was as curious as Sands.
Somehow, despite the secret boiling up inside me, I managed to contain myself and we made it into the cafeteria. The three of us had just managed to get a few drinks and sit down before the others came back, so we made some polite noise about how much better Avalon was feeling. Then the rest of the team moved to get their own drinks while Doctor Therasis went over her muscles a bit with a hand. He asked her questions about what she was doing to exercise them responsibly, and ended up producing a bottle of pills that he told her to take one of every night until it was empty, even if she felt better.
Personally, as competent and trustworthy as the man seemed to be as far as medicine went, I made a note to make sure that Gaia checked them before Avalon took any. At this point, paranoia ruled my life.
Still, we finished out the tour, each minute seeming to take months considering how much I wanted to tell the others about what I had found out. I was pretty sure even the others had figured out that I had something big to talk about, considering the looks that I was getting from Scout, Columbus, and Sean.
But finally, we finished up and went through as brief of a question and answer session as we could manage without coming off as too rude or ungrateful. I really didn’t want Therasis to think that he’d done anything wrong, so I made an effort to show as much interest as I possibly could, considering the situation. Besides, the stuff that he was telling us about really was interesting. It just didn’t hold a candle to what had been in that file. So I asked questions and tried my best to listen to the answers.
Then we were heading back to the receiving room to go through the portal. As we stepped inside, I felt Doctor Thersais put a hand on my shoulder, his voice quiet. “Oh, Miss Chambers? Hold on a moment.”
Well this wasn’t surprising. Clearly everything had been going entirely too well. He knew what we did. There were cameras. He was in on everything. The whole hospital was just an elaborate front for a–
“I was wondering if you would mind taking this to my great, great, great, grandson.” The man was holding out a small present in blue wrapping paper. “Rudolph? I believe he is in your grade level.”
… It’s slightly possible that I may have been just a little bit too paranoid at that particular moment.
Coughing, I accepted the package. “Oh, right. Of course, I know Rudolph. Sure, I’ll give it to him.”
“Excellent,” the man gave me a broad smile with a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make it to his birthday party last night. So much work to do. Please give that to him and let him know that I promise I’ll take him out next weekend, just the two of us. I’ve already scheduled the time off.”
Nodding quickly while tucking the package under one arm, I promised the man, “I’ll make sure he gets it, and tell him about next weekend. Did you, um, was there anything else you wanted to say, sir?”
Doctor Therasis shook his head. “No, I believe that was everything. If you have any more questions, or if you’d like to visit again, feel free to come by. We can always use more healing-oriented Heretics.” The man’s smile was a little sad then as he added in a quiet voice, “It’s not exactly the most glamorous of the possible professions to aim for when you leave school, but I assure you, it is quite important.”
“I believe it.” Nodding, I hesitated before looking up at him. “Thank you for the tour, Doctor Therasis.”
His hand squeezed my shoulder reassuringly for a moment. “You’re a good girl, Felicity Chambers. I really hope you get what you want out of school, even if it’s not to be a healer. Good luck to you.”
Thanking the man again, I stepped through the portal along with the others. As the image of the room inside of the Pathmaker building appeared around us, I let out a low whistle. “Holy crap, you guys.”
The rest of the team’s eyes turned to me, and I managed a weak little smile. “Don’t you get it? We’re back. We made it back. You know what that means? We went through a whole trip and nothing bad happened. There was no sudden interruption, no one was abducted, the whole thing went just fine.”
Columbus cleared his throat. “We’re not out of the building yet, don’t jinx it. And do you mean ‘just fine, absolutely nothing interesting happened,’ or ‘just fine, we found exactly what we needed to?’”
“Tell you later,” I got out just before the opposite door opened, revealing one of the security guys from the school. I didn’t know his name, but he had been with Wyatt and Reid Rucker when we had taken that field trip to visit ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From what I could tell, the guy didn’t tend to talk very much.
He kept up that record by looking us all over for about two seconds before grunting a simple, “All good?” When we nodded, the man pivoted back around and made a gesture with two fingers for us to follow. Then he led us out of the Pathmaker building, escorting us onto school grounds once more. When Sands asked where Professor Kohaku was, he gave the incredibly succinct answer of, “Busy.”
“Well,” Sean remarked idly once the man left us out on the school grounds to return to his normal patrol without a single backward glance or another word to us, “isn’t he a regular Chatty Cathy?”
Avalon grunted before pointing to Scout. “We need the coin spell, as fast as you can make it,” she said simply. Then she looked at me, her curiosity obvious. “And then you explain everything you found.”
“Oh, no problem,” I assured the other girl. “This, you guys are definitely going to want to hear.
“But first, I need to get the other phone back from Koren for awhile. There’s something I’m gonna want to check up on, and I’d rather keep it… quiet.”
A short time later, we were all sitting out on the grass at the back of the grounds, as far from everyone as possible. It was an added layer of security on top of the privacy spell that Scout had just finished, though she had put it on a rubber ball rather than a metal coin. Apparently, the object didn’t matter.
Then it was done, and with the added assurance of privacy, everyone was looking at me expectantly. I had already texted Asenath with the secret phone and asked her or Twister to call me back as soon as they could.
“Oh, wait,” Columbus interrupted just as I started to explain. “Are we sure that whatever you’re about to say wasn’t—you know, that your memory wasn’t altered somewhere in there? They do love that.”
I coughed. “Trust me, if they were going to change my memory, they wouldn’t make it anywhere near this interesting. And besides,” I waved my regular, non-secret phone at him. “I texted some of the details to Miranda and e-mailed myself. It’s not a perfect system, but I think we’re pretty much as safe as we could possibly be right now.”
No one else interrupted so I was able to finally get on with my explanation. “Valley,” I addressed the other girl, meeting her gaze. “I know why people have been trying to kill you since you were born.”
A frown touched her face then before her head shook. “The attacks only started this year.” After a brief pause, she amended that with a simple, “I mean, besides my father. But that’s… personal, between us.”
“No, it’s not,” I corrected her as gently as possible, knowing this was going to be a lot to take in. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, I looked through the files.” I produced the scanner that Sands had given me from my jacket pocket before waving it around. “There’s this part about these blood tests that they did.”
Sean raised an eyebrow at that. “Pretty sure they’ve done a lot of blood tests on Tangle by this point.”
“Not on her,” I corrected him. “They were blood samples that she brought to the hospital for them to test. Three different blood samples that were taken about twenty years ago. Well, one taken nineteen years ago, then another one taken eighteen years ago, and the third one about six months after that.”
Columbus frowned uncertainly, glancing toward the others. “I don’t get it. Why would Tangle take them three different blood samples to test over the course of about a year or so? What was she doing?”
“Okay, this part I kinda need help with,” I admitted. “I asked Vanessa, but I think you should explain it, Sands.” When the other girl looked at me with confusion, I asked, “Could you explain blood vaults?”
“Blood vaults?” she blinked once before shifting her position on the grass. “Uh, sure. They’re just these, well, vaults full of money, weapons, supplies, magic stuff, whatever a family’s got stockpiled away. They can only be accessed by the closest living blood relative of the person who set up the vault. It’s magically enforced and there’s no way to break in. It’s pretty much the most secure place in the world. If you’re not the closest living blood relative, you’re not getting in, period. I mean, unless the person who is allowed in takes you. But other than that, it’s completely impenetrable.”
“What does that have to do with people trying to kill me?” Avalon asked with a squint before adding a belated, “And why do you think they’ve been trying for longer than just this year?”
“The blood tests,” I explained. “The first one was taken a little over a year before you were born, and it had a somewhat decent genetic relation to the sample they tested it against. Then they tested the second sample just a few months before you came along, and it had a much closer connection. Like, second cousins versus grandfather and granddaughter difference between the two. Much, much closer. And then, a few months after you were born, there was that last test. It was almost as close as the second one. Just one more generation removed. I’m positive that the last one was you. And the second one–”
“My mother,” Avalon stated flatly, her eyes flicking away thoughtfully. “My birth mother.”
Bobbing my head up and down, I continued. “The sample they were testing the blood against, according to Vanessa, they’ve got a huge blood vault, one that no one’s been able to get into for… for a really long time. They’ve been looking for the closest blood relative, someone who could open it. I think Tangle was working with whoever that first blood sample is from. They tested it and thought they won the genetic lottery. But they couldn’t get in the vault, so they knew there was someone else.”
Glancing to Avalon, I added a little more quietly. “Your mother. I don’t think her dying in the hospital was an accident. I think they meant for both of you to die, to clear the way for whoever that first sample belonged to to become the closest living relative and get access to the vault.”
“But I didn’t die,” Avalon’s voice was even more monotone by that point, her eyes focused somewhere else. “I survived. For years.”
Nodding, I hesitated. “I don’t know what made them back off. Maybe they didn’t want to kill a little kid after you were born, or maybe they were pushing your father to do it and that’s why he was such a… piece of shit to you. I don’t know. But—hold on. Perfect timing.”
The secret phone was buzzing, and I clicked the answer button before holding it up to my ear. “Hey, it’s Flick. Twister? Yeah, I figured Senny’d be asleep. Thanks. I just have one question. In your, umm, line of work, have you ever heard of a shark-toothed guy named Fahsteth?” I paused, listening to her answer. “Right, thanks. That’s what I thought.”
Thanking her again, I disconnected. “Remember how my mom said to check on why Fahsteth was there? Yeah, according to Twister, he’s a mercenary, a hired gun. He’s not just some random spree attacker, he goes places because he’s paid to. And I think he was paid to kill you that night, Avalon, and make it look like a random accident.”
“Why?” Columbus asked the question everyone else was clearly thinking.
“Because Gaia was on her way,” I pointed out. “Remember, she said she was planning on talking to Avalon already. So these guys panicked and hired Fahsteth to kill her before Gaia spent too much time with her and maybe figured out this blood connection. I don’t know, exactly. We’ll have to ask the headmistress exactly how that went down. But I’m pretty sure that’s what they were doing.”
Sands straightened then. “Wait, this is the year that Eden’s Garden starts teaching about magic, isn’t it? You said that before. There was a whole thing about that, like they teach you how to fight before, but this is the year they start magic lessons.” When Avalon nodded, her eyes widened as she got the same connection I had. “That’s why they had to get you out of there. Because when they teach magic, they’ll start teaching blood magic too. That involves taking your blood and testing it. And when they did that…”
“They would have figured out about her blood relation,” I finished. “That’s why they panicked and had to have you kicked out of Garden. And it’s why they’ve been trying so openly to have you either killed off since then, or just driven out of this school too. That’s why they’ve been trying to make everyone else turn against you, to pressure Gaia into taking you out of the school without revealing why they don’t want you here.”
“But why are they going so psycho about this?” Columbus pressed. “What’s in this blood vault that’s so important? Whose blood were they testing all those samples against.”
“I had to ask Vanessa if she knew the name,” I explained. “Let’s just say, she did.” Taking a breath, I looked to Sean and the twins. “Liesje Aken.”
The reaction was instantaneous. Sands jolted upright, Sean cursed under his breath, and even Scout’s eyes widened.
“Holy shit, dude,” Sean muttered again, looking from me to Avalon.
“What?” Columbus demanded. “Who the hell was Liesje Aken?”
“It’s not so much who she was,” I informed him while the others were still staring open-mouthed. “It’s about who her father was. See, Liesje Aken used her father’s real, birth surname. Probably to hold onto some kind of privacy or something. The man was born Jheronimus van Aken.
“But we know him better as Heironymus Bosch.”