I was inspecting the statue, impressed by the incredibly detailed likeness (or at least, as much of the detail as I could make out in the light from the stars and the dual moons), while Shiori stared at me for a solid thirty seconds or so. When she spoke, her voice was dull with surprise. “Um, new question. What exactly did your mother do that made someone build a statue of her on another world?”
Shrugging at her while glancing that way, I replied, “Like I said, she was part of some big rebellion. As far as I can tell, she was fighting for the rights of Alters, trying to prove they weren’t all evil monsters.”
Something caught my eye then, and I stooped to find my phone where it had apparently fallen when I went tumbling down in here. Brushing the sand off it, I started to put the phone away before reconsidering. Sure, the SOS signal wasn’t supposed to work across worlds, but there was no harm in at least trying, was there? I took the time to trigger the alert, just in case it might help, before looking back to the other girl. “Are you okay?”
A slight frown had furrowed itself onto Shiori’s brow. “Alters are—oh, right, you said that’s what they call themselves instead of Strangers.” She fell silent, shifting herself from foot to foot with a hesitant look.
“Technically, the term includes Heretics too,” I pointed out while brushing my hand over the statue. It felt like polished metal. “They consider us to be Alters. Just, you know, incredibly violent ones. Not that,” I amended, “there’s a lack of incredibly violent Alters already. They just see us as another set.”
Another thought struck me then, and I flinched, closing my eyes for a moment. “Like those sand-goblins. What if… I don’t know, what if they were just protecting this place? What if we could have talked things out with them somehow, explained things to them? I mean, they saw Heretics and attacked, but we don’t know if that’s because they were evil or because they were scared of us.”
The other girl was silent at first before speaking up. “They attacked us first. We protected ourselves.”
My head nodded quickly. “I know, I get it. We have to protect ourselves. And just because some Alters are good, doesn’t mean they all are. Asenath made that pretty clear. But if there was any way to talk to them, any way to… to actually communicate and tell them that we weren’t here to fight…”
When Shiori spoke, her voice was thoughtful. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you? You really don’t think Strangers—Alters, whatever, you don’t think they’re evil. You’re not just saying that.”
“Of course I mean it,” I replied quickly. “My mother believed it. She thought it was worth going to war over. I… I guess I just wish I knew more. I wish I knew how Mom talked to them, how she pulled them together into some big rebellion. I feel like there’s this whole person I never knew about until now, a person who fought other Heretics to protect the… people that she thought of as innocent.”
Shiori approached then, pressing her hand against the statue of my mother. There was still a hesitant, uncertain look in her eyes while she gazed upward. “But why did your mom do all that? Why did she fight them? They were her… classmates, her teachers, her friends. There’s no way that everyone she cared about actually joined her. Turning against them, fighting a war? That would’ve meant fighting a lot of those people, even killing them. How could she do that without… without going insane?”
I shook my head at that. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about her to say. I wanna say she did it because it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know what led her to it. I wish I did. I wish there was some book I could read that would tell me what made my mom start leading a rebellion.”
She looked away, clearly thinking about something briefly before turning back. “Us showing up here, it has to have something to do with her, right? There… this can’t be a coincidence.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “The odds of us just happening to be teleported to another world right on top of a place that has a statue of my mother in front of it… I don’t think there’s a word for how unlikely of a coincidence that would be. Someone wanted us to show up here. Which, okay, but where are they?”
Shiori shrugged helplessly at that. “Maybe something happened? Or maybe someone wants to show you something here.”
“Well good,” I acknowledged. “Because I really want to know more about my Mom. But you didn’t ask to be dragged along with me. Hell, the last time I went looking for information, my team did ask to go with and I nearly got half of them eaten by zombies just so I could find out Mom’s got a couple other kids running around out there somewhere. Not that you’ll even remember me saying that, because–”
“Your mom’s got other kids? You mean besides that… that Ammon freak that you were talking about?” Shiori interrupted, her eyes snapping from the statue to me. “You didn’t mention that part before.”
Blinking, I opened my mouth and then shut it. “Err… you remember me saying that? Hold on. My mother had two other children, twins, a boy and a girl. They were taken in by the Heretics after she was imprisoned.” Staring at the girl with wide eyes, I pressed, “You actually heard me say all that?”
Shiori was looking at me like I was crazy. Which was probably fair. “Yes? What’s wrong with you?”
I slumped sideways against the statue, thinking about that. “Remember how I said that there’s a spell that erased my mother from people’s memories? It also takes certain details, like what I just said, and makes anyone who doesn’t hear about them inside a protected area like the security room immediately forget as soon as they hear it. Which means either this place is protected, or the spell doesn’t reach across worlds. We couldn’t even tell Avalon or Sean about Mom’s other children, since they weren’t in the security room when we read the files. Every time we tried, the memory was just erased instantly.”
“Does that mean my memory’s going to be era–” Shiori stopped, shaking her head. “I guess not. You remember it. So the spell only works if you learn the information within the area it’s affecting?”
Nodding, I pushed away from the statue. “That’s the way I understand it, anyway.” Turning, I looked at the entrance into the formerly buried building. “There’s gotta be more information about my mom in there.” Part of me wanted to rush inside immediately, but I glanced back to my companion. “I’m going to check it out, see if I can find anything. But if you want to stay out here, just in case, I get it.”
For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. She just stood there, biting her lip as a plethora of emotions played out across her face. I could see the turbulent thoughts going on behind her eyes as she debated inwardly with herself before finally letting out a long breath. “No.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “I–” She trailed off, searching for the right words before finally managing a weak, “I’m tired of being scared. You… I dunno if you’re right, but…” The other girl trailed off, mouth working a few times as she tried to express what she was trying to say. In the end, she just shrugged. “I’ll stay with you.”
She looked embarrassed about her inability to put her thoughts into words and say what she felt, but I just nodded and gave her the best encouraging smile I could. “Okay, but I get to be Indiana Jones. I called it. You can be–” My head tilted curiously. “Wait, would calling you Short Round be racist?”
Looking down at herself and then back up again, Shiori actually managed a tiny little smile. It really made her face look even prettier when she wasn’t so scared and nervous. “Maybe. Are you sure you don’t want to be called Lara? This place does sort of look like it might be a tomb, after all. Then I could be Samantha.”
“Ain’t neither of us got the boobs for that,” I retorted. “We need the Queen of Cleavage.”
“Yeah,” Shiori agreed easily, though her voice was still a little shaky. “It’d be nice if Avalon was here too. She’s a badass. Or Aylen and Sovereign. Or Gavin. Even Koren. I–” She looked a little stricken then, for just a second. “They’ve been trying to help me, but I haven’t listened. I think… I’m pretty sure they think I don’t like them. But I do, it’s just that, every time I started to think about being friends–”
“I get it,” I said quietly, fuming inwardly about what this girl had been going through, how much the teachings from Crossroads had messed her up. And the odds of her being the only one like this, the only half-Alter who was turned into a Heretic were pretty low. How many students had gone through the whole four years feeling the same way Shiori had for just a few months? How many had gotten themselves killed, or even done the job themselves, just because Crossroads told them they were evil?
Forcing that anger down so that I could focus on what was important right this moment, I reached out and caught the other girl’s hand. The right words wouldn’t come, so all I could do was squeeze a little.
We stood there like that for a few seconds before Shiori turned to point at the doorway. “If we’re going in there, you should probably move that.” There was still a pile of sand in the way. There were gaps here and there that we could see through into what looked like a wide room, but they were too small to actually fit through. We were going to have to clear the path a little more before we could get inside.
I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you killed some, didn’t you? So you should be able to do it too.”
She blinked at me. “You mean you didn’t—oh, right, you didn’t see.” Stepping back a bit, she explained, “I umm, I got a different upgrade than you.” While I watched, she bit her lip in concentration. After about ten seconds or so, I saw her figure blur a bit, before her skin turned rough. Before long, it looked like a sand-statue of Shiori was standing there. She looked at me, brought her hand up and waved it around, then shifted back into her own self. “See? Not the same thing.”
“Same or not, it’s pretty damn impressive,” I pointed out with a laugh. “God, you turn your body into sand, Shiori. I’m controlling sand. How? Because we both just killed a few sand-goblin creatures after being transported away from our Island School to a new world. How absurd are our lives right now?”
I was rewarded with another tiny smile before Shiori coughed. “You should move the sand now.”
It took me a minute to get all of it out of the way. There was a lot of sand piled up in front of that doorway, and it seemed like I could only lift about fifty pounds at a time. Which was still freaking amazing, and I might have spent some of that time making the sand do loops in the air just to show off. Because seriously, come on, I was making sand move with my mind. It was insane, and awesome.
It was the thought of actually finding out more about my mother inside that building that made me focus in the end. Pushing the last of the sand out of the way, I took a breath, glanced toward Shiori to give the other girl an encouraging thumbs up, and then stepped through the uncovered entrance.
Shiori joined me, and the two of us found ourselves standing in what appeared to be an enormous room. I had to guess a bit at the scale, since the small bit of moonlight (moonslight?) that was coming in through the doorway wasn’t nearly enough to reveal all of it. The cavernous space in front of us was still mostly engulfed in shadows, leaving a single line of light from the entrance that revealed a pristine floor that looked like it was made out of polished crystal or something. Even with the small amount of light hitting it, the floor gleamed. Throughout the parts of the room that the light strove to illuminate, I could see the shapes of what looked like pillars. And far off in the distance, so far the moonslight couldn’t hope to reach it, there was something glittering, another tiny source of light in the pitch darkness. It almost looked like a single star set against an otherwise totally empty night sky.
Beside me, Shiori shivered, her hesitant voice breaking the silence. “This place looks creepy.” Her voice echoed through the room, the effect making it sound like there were whispers all around us.
Glancing toward the other girl, I quickly asked, “How much can you see? I mean, you heard those sand-goblins a long time before I did, so I’m guessing your night vision is better than mine too.”
Even now, I saw the way she flinched. Calling attention to her exceptional senses still made the girl at least somewhat reflexively panic. Her mouth opened with what would obviously be a quick denial before she caught herself. I watched quietly while she fought back the urge, still looking worried.
“Hey,” I put a hand on her arm. “Your senses are amazing. That helps us now, Shiori. Are we alone?”
Biting her lip, the Asian girl steeled herself for a second before looking around once more. I saw her eyes scan over the entire room before she nodded. “As far as I can tell. I mean, it’s not perfectly light for me either. There’s still shadows and stuff, but… I think it’s clear. For now anyway. I’m pretty sure there’s doorways over that way, that way, and that way.” She pointed three different directions.
I nodded. “As long as we’ve got a little time to work with. Because,” Digging into my pocket, I felt around before producing Herbie. “There’s more than one way to see what’s going on in this room.”
I could see Shiori’s eyebrow raise in the dim light that cast shadows over her face. “Your pet rock?”
Smiling, I gave the rock a little pat with a couple fingers. “Remember the light spell we’ve been learning? There’s no reason it shouldn’t work on my little buddy.” Closing my eyes then, I focused.
The words that directed the spell came easily. “Ilecus duven seran.” I had no idea what the words actually meant, since they were apparently from some alien language. But even as I spoke them, I could feel the power tug its way out of me, searching for a target. I directed it into the rock in my palm.
Saying the words, starting the spell, that was only the start of it. Enchanting something meant opening a connection between yourself and an object. In this case, me and Herbie. The spell itself determined the effect that the target was being enchanted with. In this case, I wanted Herbie to glow. From that point, the brightness of the light would depend on how much power I put into it, and the duration would depend on how long I kept charging it. If I only let out a little bit of power, a trickle from the hose, the light would be dim.
On the other hand, if I kept that trickle going for several minutes, that dim light would last for hours. If I invested a lot of power all at once, turning the hose up to full blast, the light would be very bright. But I only had so much energy that I could put into enchanting things, especially as new as I was.
Which meant that it was a balancing act between making the light bright enough to see, and making it last long enough to matter. I settled on making it about as bright as a normal flashlight, and made it last about twenty minutes. If we weren’t done looking around by then, I could redo the spell. This was good enough for a start.
Eventually, I finished the spell and triggered it with a thought. Herbie immediately began to glow like a lantern, and I smiled while holding him up over my head. “There we go. Now let’s see what we’ve got.”
My impression had been right. The room, itself so enormous it was probably bigger than an actual football field, was lined with floor to ceiling pillars that divided the room into thirds, with the middle part being some kind of walkway that led straight from the doorway to the back of the room, where something that looked an awful lot like a throne sat.
“We’re in some kind of royal court or something,” I announced slowly, listening as my words were bounced around by the room’s acoustics, creating that whispering effect from both sides.
It really was a royal court, or the equivalent. The whole room, dim as it might have been even in the light from Herbie, radiated wealth and power. The pillars looked like they were made out of some kind of highly polished jade, and the ceiling that stretched high above our heads reflected the light from Herbie back down at us. All throughout the room, I saw various statues of people I didn’t recognize, though they looked human.
And in the back of the room, there was that throne. The tiny twinkling light I’d seen earlier was even more apparent now. The throne itself had some kind of diamond embedded in the back of it that seemed to produce a little bit of its own light.
“Well,” I started, looking around the room a bit more to see the various doorways that Shiori had mentioned. “I guess the only way we’re gonna find out what brought us here and how to get home is by exploring this place. Ready, Short Round?”
“Sure thing, Dr. Jones,” Shiori shot back in a decent impersonation of the character.
“But if we run into a guy ripping people’s hearts out of their chests, I am leaving.”