“Mr–” I stopped, making a show of frowning slightly at him. “Err, sorry, I’m not sure what honorific I’m supposed to to use for someone that’s on the Crossroads Committee. Is there a special title or…”
The man’s eyes watched me carefully, which gave me an easy excuse to meet his gaze without looking away. He looked like one of those old heavyweight prize fighters, a big, beefy guy who had put on just a little more weight than he’d had in his youth (whenever that had been, considering he was old enough to have witnessed the Black Death). His nose had been broken so often it was permanently crooked.
“Counselor, Miss Chambers,” he finally answered after the silence had carried on for a few seconds. “When referring to a member of the Committee, we use the title of Counselor. After all,” the man added with a very slight smile. “What is the purpose of the leaders of Crossroads if not to counsel?”
I really didn’t think he’d appreciate a truthful answer to that from my point of view. “Counselor Ruthers. I knew this was pretty bad, but I didn’t realize it was bad enough to bring someone like you.”
“You know who I am.” He said the words as if they were some kind of challenge. “I’m surprised.”
Shrugging, I glanced toward Peterson, who was busy pretending we didn’t exist. “Well, you know. Your picture is up all over the school, Counselor. I’d be pretty bad at my track if I didn’t recognize you.”
“That is fair,” he conceded before gesturing to the nearby door. “Why don’t we step into the commissary while you explain what exactly happened. It should be private enough for our purposes.”
Thinking fast, I let my head bob. “Oh, sure thing. One sec.” Pivoting, I faced the door that I’d just come out of. Peterson was standing close enough to stop it from opening. But I didn’t need to open it. Instead, I just took a step that way and shoved my head right through it while focusing on that wood merging power. Sure enough, my head popped through to the lounge where the other three still were. Keeping my voice loud enough for the two outside to hear exactly what I was saying, I called, “Hey guys, when Koren gets here, could you just tell her I’m over in the cafeteria with Counselor Ruthers?”
I saw the widening eyes just before pulling my head back, turning to face the two men with a bright smile. “Sorry, but you know, she did kind of save my life tonight. I’d kinda like to thank her for that.”
If Ruthers was annoyed, he hid his reaction well. The man just smiled. “Of course. I’d like to commend her for her actions as well, in that case.” Turning then, he began to walk to the other doors, clearly expecting me to follow. Peterson stayed where he was, simply folding his arms while watching me.
Since there was no better option, I trailed after the man who was basically the face of everything my mother had been fighting a war to oppose. Briefly, I wondered if putting his back to me while he walked away was supposed to be some kind of statement about how little of a threat I actually was.
In the cafeteria, Ruthers stepped to the nearest table. His big, meaty hand slid a chair back with a scraping noise before he gestured for me to take a seat. “Would you like anything, Miss Chambers?”
Shrugging while sitting down, I lifted the mug of hot chocolate in demonstration. “I’m good, thanks.”
For a moment, the man just stood behind me. I couldn’t see him, and it felt like he was waiting to see if I’d twist my head around to check what he was doing. I resisted the urge, not wanting to give the man that kind of power. Instead, I just took a sip of the drink. “I have a confession to make, Counselor.”
That got him to walk around to take a seat as well, his eyebrows raised curiously. “A confession, Miss Chambers?” As casual as his tone was, I could see the intensity in his gaze as he stared through me.
Meeting his stare while using the shapeshifting ability to keep my expression as neutral as possible, I nodded. “Yes. I sort of know who you are because of something else too. Not just your picture.”
His chin raised a little, and I saw the way his lip twitched a bit into the barest hint of a smile. “What would that be, Miss Chambers? I assure you, any confession you’d like to make right now would-”
“We’re doing a project,” I interrupted rather than let him go on. When he stopped talking and blinked at me, I continued. “Koren and I, actually. Oh, and Vanessa and Rudolph too. Professor Dare put us in groups and assigned projects to report on some big event in history and to show the difference between what Bystanders know about it and what Heretics know. We chose to do ours on the Black Death.”
Either he had the same kind of power I did (well, he probably had every power I did, only much stronger), or the guy was naturally good at concealing his reactions. He barely blinked, shifting his weight in the chair. “Ah.” His eyes took me in briefly before he nodded. “And what have you found?”
I continued to meet his gaze. “You were there. That… Stranger, he pretended to be an ally. But he wasn’t. He tricked you and the other Heretics, and a lot of people died.” After letting that hang in the air for a second or two, just long enough to make the point, I added with all possible sincerity, “I’m sorry.”
Ruthers’ eyes squinted as he reached into the pocket of his perfectly tailored suit, plucking out an embroidered violet handkerchief before laying it flat on the table with his hand over it. “You’re sorry?”
This part, I didn’t have to fake. As angry and upset as I was with this man, I was completely honest. “Yes, Counselor. Of course. I… when that… boy, Ammon, when he attacked the police station back home, I was trying to save everyone. But I couldn’t. People still died. I tried to help them, and they died anyway. I feel…” Swallowing hard, I glanced away before continuing. “I feel like shit about it. I try not to think about it, but if I’d been faster, if I’d been smarter, if I’d been stronger, maybe those people would still be alive. They’re not, because I wasn’t good enough to save them. I… can’t even imagine how it would feel if I was in your shoes. If I ever made an alliance with a Stranger, and that many people died… I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know how I’d go on living. It would destroy me every single time I looked in the mirror. So yes, Counselor Ruthers, I am very sorry that happened to you.”
The man was completely motionless and silent for a few seconds. His gaze seemed to stare right through me with an intensity that was disconcerting. Finally, he sat back in the chair, leaving his finger pressed against the handkerchief. I saw the tiniest bit of focus in his eyes before he lifted it off the table. As the cloth came up, it revealed a shot glass sitting there with some kind of amber liquid inside.
He took the shot in a single pull, setting the glass on the table again before speaking carefully. “Tell me what you know about this boy who came here tonight, Miss Chambers. Tell me about this… Ammon.”
“They told you what he said,” I replied as flatly as possible. “What he said both times I’ve seen him.”
His reply was terse. “The report says the boy claims to be your brother. Why do you think he believes something like that?” Even as he asked the question, the man was laying his handkerchief over the glass. His hand pressed down on it, and the cloth went flat against the table as the glass disappeared.
I let my eyes lift from the table to meet his gaze again before answering simply. “Maybe he really is.”
“Excuse me?” Ruthers squinted, lifting the cloth after obviously taking the time to invest more power in it. He didn’t say any actual words. His magic was strong enough that all he needed to renew the spell on his handkerchief was a brief second of invested energy. Then he lifted the cloth to reveal another full shotglass before he downed it as well. “Perhaps you should explain why you think this creature could possibly be related to you, Miss Chambers. After all, the last time I checked, you were not a Stranger.”
I coughed at that, managing a slight smile. “I’m pretty sure I’d be the dumbest Stranger in the world if I came to be a student in this place. There’s overconfidence, and then there’s just plain suicidal stupidity.”
He said nothing, so I went on. “My point is, maybe he’s really my brother because he’s not a Stranger.”
I felt the man’s heavy sigh as much as I heard it. “If you are going to start babbling about half-breed–”
“Maybe he’s a Heretic,” I interrupted him again. I’d been doing that a lot, and it felt good every single time.
Ruthers gave me a look like I’d just sprouted—like I’d suddenly turned into—like I—okay coming up with a suitably absurd event was suddenly a lot harder when you knew about Strangers and magic. He stared at me like I was insane, and possibly a little dangerous. And stupid. “Would you explain that?”
“Well,” I started with a shrug. “I don’t know how much you’ve read about me, but my mother left when I was little. She abandoned us, my dad and me.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound bitter about that still. I just made myself think about how I had felt before learning the truth. And knowing that the man sitting across from me was a very big reason for why my mother had been in trouble to begin with made it even easier. “She took off with some guy, and you know, dropped off the face of the planet.”
When the man replied to that, his voice was even gruffer than usual. “It’s hard to lose a family member. Harder when you don’t understand why it happened.” Shifting in his seat, he cleared his throat roughly. “But what, exactly, does that have to do with this ridiculous claim that the boy could be a Heretic?”
“I’m a Heretic,” I pointed out. “So obviously my mother must’ve had the potential too. Isn’t that how it works?” When the man reluctantly and silently nodded, I continued. “So what if my mother didn’t just disappear on her own? What if she was recruited, and never came back. What if she was taken by that other Heretic school, Eden’s Garden? Or some other group. There’s supposed to be other Heretic groups out there too, right? So one of them, maybe. What if they recruited her, and she had a son with some other guy? That son isn’t right in the head, they screw up his training or something because they don’t know what they’re doing, and he ends up killing something with a mind control power. So this crazy, half-trained son goes off on his own and starts trying to track down the sister that his mom mentioned.”
There was no response at first. The man just sat there, brow furrowed as he watched me in silence while he absorbed that. “You believe this little boy was some kind of… broken, half-trained Heretic?”
“It fits, doesn’t it, Counselor?” I pointed out. “I mean, which makes more sense, that or the idea that there’s some Stranger out there who has that kind of power, doesn’t register as a Stranger to anyone, claims he’s my brother, and everything else? It explains his power and the whole brother thing. And if some other group screwed up his training, it might explain why he became so psychotic. Maybe it was a splinter group from Eden’s Garden or something. Whatever it is, being a Heretic makes more sense.”
“And how,” Ruthers finally asked after processing that, “would you explain his entrance here? How did this eight-year-old boy make his way onto the school grounds and compromise the head of security?”
“Maybe he had help,” I pointed out. “Someone did kill Professor Pericles, and those guys from Eden’s Garden did come after us on that hunt. Maybe it’s connected and someone else is using this kid’s particular brand of psycho to throw another problem at the school. Maybe he’s just a pawn.”
Yet again, Ruthers was quiet. He seemed to be thinking intently while staring at me. Once or twice, his mouth opened, but he kept stopping himself. Finally, the man found his voice again. “Miss Chambers-”
Whatever the man had been about to say just then was interrupted as the cafeteria door opened. Rather than Peterson Neal or even Koren, it was Gaia who stepped into the room. “Good evening, Counselor,” the woman greeted him with a polite nod before stepping aside to let someone else come into view.
“Avalon,” I blurted, rising reflexively to my feet. I took a step that way before stopping myself at the thought of the man behind me. Still, I didn’t care all that much. My focus was on my roommate, who stood there with her arms folded tightly over her stomach. But she wasn’t looking at me. Her gaze was focused with laser-like precision on Ruthers. It was like she was trying to stare a hole through him.
“Thank you for keeping Miss Chambers safe and in good company, Counselor.” Gaia’s voice was calm, yet firm. “I think you and I should talk about what happened here tonight and how we’re going to avoid any future incidents. Risa and Ulysses are waiting in my office while some of the other teachers look after the girls back in the dorm. I took the liberty of telling Peterson he could return to his apartment.”
“My conversation with Miss Chambers was just getting interesting,” Ruthers commented flatly.
Gaia’s response was a smile. “I’m sure you’ll have many more opportunities to speak with her. After all, she’ll be around for a long time.” To me, she added with a gesture to the door, “I’m sure you have questions, but Counselor Ruthers and I need to discuss some things first. We’ll talk later, I promise.”
Looking back to the man, I extended a hand toward him, “Thanks for talking to me, Counselor Ruthers. I’m glad Crossroads is taking what happened tonight seriously enough to send someone like you. Whatever the deal with Ammon is, I’m sure we all want to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
He looked at my hand for a moment, then rose to accept it. But just before our hands would’ve touched, I snapped my fingers. “Oh, right. There is one other thing I wanted to say. If I’m right about Ammon, there would have to be a really powerful person or group behind him, wouldn’t there? A Heretic that could hide like from you guys for so long without you knowing, and get Ammon a power that strong?”
The man squinted at me briefly before nodding once. “Yes. If you are correct, that would be true.”
“Before, when you mentioned losing a family member, it sounded like you knew it personally.” I met the man’s stare while pressing on. “If the person that hurt someone you cared about that much, someone that hurt your family, was more powerful than you were, would it matter to you? Even if the person who hurt your family was so powerful that they made you look like a measly little ant in comparison, would you let that stop you from making them pay for what they did to the person you loved?”
“I have not met such a person in a very long time, Miss Chambers,” Ruthers replied softly without looking away from me. “But no, I don’t suppose that I would let something like that stop me.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I guess I won’t either.” Letting that hang for a moment, I added, “Whoever’s behind Ammon, I’m going to figure it out and stop them.”
Pivoting on my heel, I walked away then, my attention focused entirely on my roommate as she nodded to Gaia before stepping out of the room. I was right behind her.
The door closed behind us, leaving Gaia and Ruthers in there alone. I waited just long enough to hear it click shut, then turned toward the other girl.
“Chambers, I–” Avalon started.
That was about as far as I let her get before I lunged at her. She made a strangled noise of surprise, but I didn’t care. I embraced the girl, wrapping my arms around her before holding on as tight as I could. “Valley,” I managed after a few seconds. “You’re okay. You’re all right.” Somehow, I was shivering in spite of myself.
For a few seconds, Avalon just stood there, stiff as a statue. I thought she might push me away, or just stand completely still until I let go like some kind of weird attempt at playing possum. Eventually, however, I felt her hands somewhat awkwardly pat my shoulders, then my back. Finally, she returned the hug.
“Chambers,” she spoke in a somewhat halting voice. “I’m fine. It’s fine. Pull…” She cleared her throat. “Pull yourself together.”
Without letting go, I retorted, “Considering what’s been happening, I’m doing just peachy.” Still, I let go eventually, releasing the girl before stepping back. “Are you…” Hesitating, I searched for the right words to say. “I mean, did he…”
Avalon’s voice was still quiet. “I told you, I’m fine. I’m not made out of glass, Chambers.”
My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know. It’s just… it was Ammon. He was here, and… and if he’d… if he tried to—if you were…” Breathing in and out a little shakily, I forced myself to stop.
We just stood there for a moment like that, facing each other. The other girl finally broke the silence by reaching behind herself to the nearby wall. When she turned back, my staff was in her hand as she held it out to me. “You really should hold onto this, Chambers. How are you supposed to protect yourself without it?”
“Yeah, I guess I’ve got a lot to learn,” I replied while taking the staff. “How do you put up with me?”
One of her shoulders raised in a half shrug while she answered dryly. “I am a very patient person.”
Smiling in spite of myself, I took another breath before tucking the staff away. “Sands and Scout?”
“Still asleep,” she informed me. “But Fellows is in there with the others. She looked… well, you should probably talk to her.”
“Right.” Biting my lip, I stepped that way. “Time to talk to Koren then.
“And I thought being alone in a room with Ruthers made me nervous.”