April 3rd, 1919
“Three days, Joselyn,” Gaia Sinclaire spoke crisply as she entered the classroom, her eyes already directed toward the lone student sitting in the middle of the front row. The girl wore a security track uniform, which seemed to be directly at odds with the reason she was there. “Three days in a row that you have found yourself drawn into an open brawl, this time in the middle of the school courtyard.”
“To be fair, Professor, I wasn’t drawn into this one.” Sitting casually in her seat, ankles crossed at the end of her stretched out legs, Joselyn Atherby drummed her fingers along the desk with an air of dismissive lack of concern. “That bimbo didn’t even see it coming until I put his ass on the ground.”
Giving the girl a long look, Gaia let out a breath before moving to sit on the edge of her own desk directly in front of Joselyn. “If that is your best attempt at sounding penitent, I would strongly suggest that you not get your hopes up when auditions for the end of year musical begin.”
Drawing her legs back under the seat, Joselyn sat up a bit straighter, the casual expression falling from her face. It was replaced with an intense look. “You always said to be honest with you, Professor. You want honesty, you’ve got it. I’m not sorry I hit that asshole the first time, and every time I’ve hit him since then, I’ve been even less sorry. You want penitent? Fine, I’m sorry he’s still conscious.”
“Joselyn,” Gaia spoke sharply. “Talking like that is going to get you into trouble with the Headmaster.” After a brief pause, she amended, “Even worse trouble. Which, in your case, is saying something.”
“Headmaster Ruthers already wanted me gone anyway,” Joselyn replied, though she at least looked a little less flippant. “If it weren’t for you, I’d already be back out on the streets, just another clueless dame waiting to hook up with some drugstore cowboy and pop out a few kids. He’d wipe my memory so fast I wouldn’t know from nothing. That’s how he deals with people who don’t toe his line.”
“Insisting upon carrying out this vendetta against his son is hardly going to make things better, Joselyn.” With a sigh, Gaia reached across to take the girl’s hand, squeezing it. “Listen, the headmaster cannot have you banished just because he disagrees with you. That requires authority from the Committee with a two-thirds vote. But if you keep doing this sort of thing, if you don’t show that you are capable of following the rules, the headmaster will have a much easier time gaining those votes.”
“You mean pretend I don’t know the truth.” Joselyn’s voice was hard, and she extricated her hand from the older woman’s. “Pretend they’re not full of shit. Pretend this whole school isn’t lying to us.”
Without breaking the girl’s gaze, Gaia shook her head. “What we teach here are not all lies, Joselyn.”
“Yes, they are!” The girl stood from her seat, kicking the chair back in the process. “I know what I saw. That werebear wasn’t hurting anyone. She was protecting people, innocent people. She was protecting them and we stopped her. We killed her. We took away their protector, and now most of those people are either dead, or enslaved by those mobsters. That werebear was protecting them until we killed her. Now a lot more innocent people are dead. So you tell me, Professor, who’s the monster now?”
“That is a harder question than you realize,” Gaia admitted in a soft voice, still meeting the eighteen-year old girl’s intense stare. “Allow me to speak frankly, Joselyn. No, you are not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible that the creature you and your team were taken to fight was no threat to any humans.”
“Then why did we have to kill her?!” Joselyn’s voice rose so loud that Gaia was glad for the sound dampening spell she’d already cast on the room before starting this conversation. “We’re supposed to be the good guys, the heroes! We should be working with the Strangers that aren’t evil, not killing them! What the hell is killing the ones that aren’t evil going to accomplish other than turn them all into the complete monsters that you people keep trying to tell us they are? It’s wrong, and you know it.”
For a moment, Gaia admired the fire in the girl’s eyes. In this as with all things she was actually interested in, Joselyn Atherby was extraordinarily passionate. There was no middle ground, no demure politeness. The girl said what she meant, and damned the consequences. It was an admirable quality, one that would get her far in life and attract others to her. If she managed to survive long enough.
Joselyn continued, the heat in her gaze only growing as she went on. “Killing an innocent is wrong, Professor. It doesn’t matter what they are. If humans can be monsters and innocents, then so can Strangers. And if we kill the ones who are innocent, that makes us the monsters! I won’t do that. I don’t care what the consequences are. I won’t be a part of murdering innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s evil.”
When Gaia began to respond to that, it was with a voice whose softness was at odds with Joselyn’s loud, brash demands. “It is. Listen to me. Killing an innocent is evil, there is no question about that. But dear girl, please, listen to me. Did you think that you were the first person to notice this?”
Joselyn’s mouth opened and then shut, a frown knitting across her forehead. “What do you mean?”
The red-haired woman gave her student a gentle smile. “I mean, you are hardly alone. There are others who share your… opinion, that we should not be killing every Stranger we find. There are those of us who are well aware that there are some who are as innocent as any human Bystander, who pose no threat to anyone and could easily be left alone to live out their lives without ever harming a soul.”
Joselyn was staring at her in disbelief. “Then why do you let it happen?! What the hell is wrong with you!?” Her voice had risen to a shout, and she stepped around the desk to openly glare at her teacher.
Gaia took in a breath before letting it out again. “Joselyn, what do you think would happen if we openly stated the same views you have about working with Strangers? If those very few of us who believe this way were to be open with those beliefs, what do you believe would be accomplished?”
“Well,” Joselyn’s retort came immediately. “Maybe we’d stop murdering innocents, for one thing.”
Shaking her head at that, Gaia corrected the younger girl. “No. We’d simply be identified and removed from duty by the majority who do not see things the same way. In the long run, the only thing making such opinions known would do, is remove our ability to actually accomplish anything useful. And, in the end, it would actually cause many more innocents to die that wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Joselyn was simply staring at her in silent, yet obvious disbelief, so Gaia continued. “If these arguments were to become public knowledge, it would cause our people to hesitate in the face of possible danger. Our Heretical Sense does not discriminate between those that would kill or enslave us on sight and those who would not. It tells us nothing else, Joselyn. Many have wished that it did, that it would only alert us if the creatures we are facing are genuine threats. But it does not. It simply tells us that they are not human. And at the exact same time that we learn that, they are learning that we are the ones who hunt them. They know that we are Heretics. It is the actions in the seconds beyond that moment of identification that are most crucial. If we hesitate then, and the Stranger that we are facing is truly one of the monsters that so many of them are, the best case scenario is that we will die.
“If we teach our students that the creature they’re looking at when that alarm goes off in their head might be perfectly innocent, they will hesitate. They will pause and if that Stranger is not of the innocent variety, our student will be murdered. Or worse, captured and enslaved. Believe me, Joselyn, such a case would be worse than death. So, what do we do when given the choice between sending our students out to potentially kill Strangers who were guilty of no real crime, or sending them out to be massacred by the ones who were guilty, simply because our teachings made them hesitate at the worst possible time? Even worse, if such opinions were to become common knowledge, it would start open fighting between those who believed that way and those who do not. Our students, our people, would be fighting each other instead of the enemies. We wouldn’t be protecting anyone at that point.”
“There has to be a third option,” Joselyn insisted, the fire in her eyes hardly diminished at all. “You wanna know what you do? You find another way. You fix the problem. The Edge isn’t doing its job right. Someone built it, right? So find someone who can fix it. Don’t just accept it because it’s always been that way. You damn well do something about it. You change it! Make it better. It’s magic. Change it so that the damn thing will tell you whether the creature we’re looking at is evil or innocent.”
“If only it were that easy,” Gaia lamented. “We have been searching for a method to do just such a thing for many years, Joselyn. It is not as simple as you may believe. But that does not mean we have given up. If such a solution can be found, it may become possible to change things the way that you wish they would be changed. For now, however, we do the best we can. Those of us who share your opinion have spent many years, decades even, organizing a method of protecting certain communities of Strangers whom we know are truly innocent from our more… enthusiastic companions.”
Blinking once, Joselyn started in surprise. “What, you mean like an underground railroad?”
Gaia chuckled just a little bit. “Of sorts, I suppose. We don’t actually send them anywhere, unless we happen to know of an imminent patrol or investigation within the area. Instead, there are a few of us in positions of authority who simply ensure that such patrols rarely happen within areas where we have sent those innocent Strangers to stay, or that they are carried out by those who share our opinion.”
“You mean you’ve agreed with me this whole time?” Joselyn demanded. “You gave me detention last week just because I said not every Stranger is evil, and now you’re telling me you already knew that?!”
“As I recall, you spent that detention reading a book that you’d been meaning to get to for a long time,” Gaia pointed out mildly. “And I gave you that detention because if I had not, news of it would have reached the headmaster, and you would be in a much worse position. Both of us would be. As it was, when he asked after the situation, I informed him that you had already been punished for the mistake.”
She saw the way the younger, far more impetuous girl’s mouth started to open to blurt that it wasn’t a mistake. But Joselyn stopped herself at the last second, setting her face into an unhappy expression. “There has to be a better way. All that stuff, it’s just temporary, and it’s not enough. There are still innocent people dying. There has to be a way to fix it, to make things better for both sides.”
“Perhaps there is,” Gaia acknowledged. “I truly hope so. But until that solution is found, you must stop presenting yourself as a target. Stop attacking Jonathan. Continuing to draw the Headmaster’s attention by assaulting his son will end very badly for you, and I cannot protect you from that for long.”
If she was cowed or frightened, Joselyn didn’t show it. “Like I said, Johnny boy had it coming. He’s a bimbo and a thug. He thinks just because his father’s the headmaster, he can do whatever he wants. I don’t let people like that push me, or anyone else around.” Her face was set in a determined stare. “And I’ll figure out how to make it so that we don’t have to fight every Stranger we see.” The words were stated flatly and with utter conviction. “I’ll find the way to fix the Heretical Edge.”
“I hope you do, child,” Gaia replied in a soft, barely audible voice.
“I truly hope you do.”
October 29th, 2017 (Present Day)
“You’re entirely too soft on that girl,” the man in the luxuriously padded leather armchair announced. “Just like you were too soft on her mother. And we all know how that went, don’t we, Gaia?”
Standing on the other side of the obscenely ornate metal desk, Gaia simply inclined her head. “It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, Counselor Ruthers. I’m sure you of all people recognize the need to respect the title of the office that you personally held for so many years. And as far as Felicity Chambers goes, she was cleared of any wrong-doing by Professors Dare and Kohaku, as well as Runner Kine.”
“All of them your people,” Counselor Ruthers pointed out with a note of disdain in his voice. He was very nearly as old as Gaia was, yet like her, didn’t look anywhere near his age. Indeed, he could have passed for a man in his early forties. His straight brown hair was worn just past his shoulders, while his face resembled a heavyweight boxer who had gone a few too many rounds with people stronger than he was. His nose had been broken repeatedly and now sat a bit off-center in spite of his healing abilities, and his muscular frame had packed on more than a few extra pounds in the time since he’d been an active fighter. Gaia had heard students who met the man for the first time describe him as a bulldog in a fancy suit.
“They’re your people too, Counselor,” she reminded the man. “After all, we are all on the same side.”
The man waved that off. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, G—Headmistress Sinclaire. You’ve gone out of your way to ignore each and every suggestion for new faculty members since you took over that place. I’ve sent you the files for six very qualified candidates to teach there and yet you continue to use the people who don’t know how to do what needs to be done.”
Yes, Gaia thought to herself, I’ve ignored your suggestions. But I’m not stupid enough to believe that you don’t have some of your minions on staff already, even if I don’t know who they all are yet.
Aloud, she simply demurred. “I examine each candidate carefully and make the most informed choice that I can. Your words do carry considerable weight, I assure you.”
They carry all the weight they need to make it from my desk to the garbage can across the room, in fact.
She pressed on before the man could get bogged down on that subject again. “The fact is, as far as we have been able to determine, Felicity is very lucky that she is neither dead, nor a slave of this… Ammon. You know why she’s immune to his power, what it means.”
“Oh do not start with that conspiracy garbage,” Ruthers all but spat. “Atherby regained her memory because your bleeding heart group wouldn’t go all the way with what needed to happen. She got her memory back and went on the run. It’s got nothing to do with any Stranger abducting her, especially not… him.”
“You may disagree with Joselyn Atherby on many issues, Counselor,” Gaia spoke through gritted teeth. “But the very thought that she would abandon her husband and child for over a decade of her own free will is patently absurd.”
The stubborn fool shook his head. “Not if she wanted to keep them out of her little rebellion.”
Restraining the urge to openly sigh, Gaia met his gaze. “If Joselyn returned to her rebellion, why have we not heard from them in years?”
“They got smarter,” Ruthers claimed. “Every set back we’ve encountered, every time one of those damned Strangers gets away when we should have had them, it’s them. They’re still out there, it’s just that they’re quieter now. They know they can’t win an open war, so now they’ve resorted to this petty campaign. But believe me, if you and your softhearted crap keep getting in our way, keep stopping the rest of us from doing the right thing, Atherby and her ilk will tear our whole world apart. They’re too gods damned blind to see the evil right in front of their faces. They’d rather have a tea party with the monsters than kill them, and if they get their way, this whole world will become a damn open buffet for every piece of sub-human trash out there.”
Once again giving thanks to every possible power in the universe that the man had only managed to convince half of his fellow committee members to vote to exclude Felicity from the school (they held an absurd belief that she would function as a spy for her missing mother), Gaia managed, with some effort, not to openly glare at him. “Dismissing the evidence that Ammon is the offspring of Joselyn and the Stranger who abducted her is extremely unwise.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ruthers put his fist down on the desk hard enough to rattle the random knick-knacks collected there. “Strangers don’t breed with humans. Next you’ll be trying to tell me that you think parrots have been mating with people. This Ammon, if he exists, is obviously one of Atherby’s pet Strangers trying to get a message to their Mistress’s daughter and fucking it up.”
The urge to argue with the man was great, but Gaia resisted. It wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Try to consider the evidence fairly before the committee votes next week,” she replied a bit stiffly. “We need to put resources toward finding Ammon, no matter where he comes from.”
“I agree completely,” Ruthers informed her with a smirk. “We find the kid, we find Atherby. And when we find Atherby, we’ll put an end to this entire charade. She’ll be brought to justice and punished the way she should have been the first time. No more half-measures.”
Taking that as the best she was going to get, Gaia excused herself a moment later and strode from the man’s office. In the hallway she was met by Virginia Dare, who had been waiting patiently for the past hour.
“Any luck?” the blonde woman asked as they started down the corridor.
Gaia shook her head once. “It’s like talking to a brick wall. He’s convinced that Felicity either knows where her mother is, or that Joselyn is trying to communicate with her through Stranger servants.”
Virginia let out a long, low sigh. “Flick knows more than she’s telling us. We have pretty good evidence that a very powerful necromancer was there that night. I think we both know what that means. But she’s not talking. Which means she doesn’t trust us.”
“I don’t blame her,” Gaia replied. “Not after everything that’s happened. Are the Runners any closer to determining who was responsible for Zedekiah’s death?” The loss of Professor Pericles had been a harsh blow.
“They checked the timing again.” Virginia sounded just as tired as Gaia felt. “No change. The murder happened before the shield was brought down. Even if it was possible for someone to get on the island and kill him in that tiny window through some kind of speed awakening, Zedekiah had already been dead for ten minutes by the time the shield came down. And the Pathmaker was shut down at the time, specifically to avoid interfering with the shield recharge. Which means it has to be one of us. Faculty or student, someone who lives at Crossroads killed Zedekiah.”
The two women exchanged sober looks before Virginia asked, “What about those Garden students that came after Avalon? They said something about having a mole on the island. If it wasn’t empty boasting, it’s probably related.”
“Indeed,” Gaia agreed. “And it’s something I would very much like to speak with the three of them about, but their leader is being quite stubborn about the whole affair. I doubt he’s going to let us have a conversation. It’s been… very frustrating.”
Virginia heaved a long sigh before nodding. “I’ll talk to Hisao and see if he can come up with anything subtle. No promises, but he does owe me.”
“Oh, I’m quite certain he does.” Gaia gave the other woman a sidelong look, and was gratified to see her blush.
Clearing her throat then, the headmistress spoke before Virginia was able to find her voice. “We’ll track down the person responsible for Zedekiah’s death, stop whoever is targeting my daughter, and find Joselyn. Once we do, things are going to change. Because Ruthers was absolutely right about one thing in there.
“It’s time to put an end to this entire charade.”