The entire Committee. We were going to have to talk to the entire Committee. Oh god. This was going to be… interesting, I supposed was one way of looking at it. We had expected that one of the Committee members would show an interest and want to talk to us, but the assumption had been that it would be Ruthers, not all of them. Now we were going to have to walk in front of that entire group, and give them our version of what had happened to lead to Doxer’s death?
I must have gone pale, because Dare reached out to take my arm. Her voice was soft, her expression concerned. “Hey, you didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, there’s people on the Committee who will disagree with that, but just explain what happened. Tell them that you were defending yourself, and everything will be alright. Doxer and the others have a record of attacking you, and the Committee knows that. Okay? They aren’t a bunch of monsters waiting to throw you to the wolves. They’ll understand.” She paused before amending, “Enough of them will understand.”
Swallowing, I glanced toward Avalon. The other girl gave me a slight nod, her expression unreadable. I wondered how she felt, going in front of the Committee like this. After all, she had been part of Eden’s Garden for a long time. They must have told her some pretty bad stories about the leadership of Crossroads, just like we heard bad things about Eden’s Garden over here.
Still, she took the first step toward the door that would lead in to where the Committee was waiting. “Come on, Chambers,” she muttered flatly, “Let’s get this thing over with already.”
The other girl opened the door before stepping inside. After giving one last glance toward Dare (and fervently wishing that I knew for sure I could trust her), I followed suit. Moving through the doorway, I found myself standing in an enormous semi-circular room. In front of me was a crescent-shaped wooden table, the inner curve of which was facing the door. Twelve high-backed red-leather chairs were spaced evenly around the far side of the table, facing us. And in each of those imposing chairs sat an equally imposing figure. Seven males, five females. Twelve leaders.
For a moment, I let my gaze pass over the Crossroads leadership, knowing that they were judging me with their gazes as well. I saw Ruthers first, in the third seat from the left. To his right (my left) sat an incredibly good-looking black guy, whose handsomely chiseled face looked like it had been carved from marble. And to his right was a Spanish woman, her full, dark hair cascading past her shoulders in waves. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, but I knew better than to really trust that.
Meanwhile, the first three figures to Ruthers’ left (my right), before the center of the table were a young-looking Asian woman with piercingly violet eyes, a rotund man with glasses and an impressively thick mustache, and a Native American woman who actually looked old, her hard face lined with wrinkles that seemed to multiply as she stared at me with hard intensity.
Right, that had to be Namid’s Great-Great-Something-Great Aunt Litonya. She looked like fun.
On the other half of the table, I saw an almost-ethereally beautiful auburn-haired woman whose pale skin somehow made her look even more mysterious and untouchable. To her left, there was a man with an incredibly thick, long dark beard full of braids and beads. His eyes, peering out from that thick hair, were intelligent and quick as they appraised me with an expression I couldn’t read.
Continuing on along the table, to the pirate-man’s left there was another guy with long, blonde hair that had been fashioned into a ponytail. Unlike the others, who were mostly dressed in more formal wear, he wore a black Nirvana tee-shirt, complete with the band’s iconic dazed smiley face.
Then there was a dark-skinned woman whose incredible attractiveness made me wonder not just if she’d killed a succubus and inherited their unnatural beauty, but how many she had killed. Beside her, there was a guy with a beard just as impressive as the pirate’s. He was also the only other one dressed semi-casually, with a nice, yet unimpressive red-and-black checkered shirt.
Finally, on the end of the table, I saw an enormous, heavily-muscled man with long black hair that made him look like a viking. His gaze was not on Avalon or me, but on his peers down the table.
“Virginia,” Ruthers spoke up after those few seconds. His gaze was leveled past the two of us to where the blonde woman stood by the door. “Thank you for escorting the girls here. We’ll send them out to meet you as soon as we’ve… finished.” His tone was unmistakably dismissive.
Dare, however, was shaking her head when I looked that way. “I’ll be staying here. After all, every student who meets with the Committee is expected to be accompanied by a teacher-advisor. I’m sure you remember that, from your long and distinguished career as Crossroads Headmaster.”
Ruthers looked like he was going to say something else about that, but the pretty, auburn-haired woman spoke up first. “Of course. I’m sure Gabriel didn’t mean to imply that they should be left alone. He probably simply assumed that the headmistress would be returning to stand with them.”
No sooner had she said that, than Gaia’s voice announced from the doorway, “I am here.” She entered, gesturing to make the door close behind herself before moving beside Avalon. “To avoid confusion, Virginia and I decided that I would stand with my daughter, while she counsels Miss Chambers.” She smiled faintly. “I trust that won’t be an issue. After all, you still outnumber us.”
The big viking guy gave a loud roar of what I only belatedly realized was a belly-laugh. “Yeah, I suppose we do, don’t we?” Looking tickled by the comment, he gestured. As he did so, four chairs that were identical to the ones that the Committee were seated on slid away from the nearby wall to arrange themselves on the opposite side of the table. “Come then, let us discuss the battle.”
“Introductions first, I believe.” That was the Spanish woman on the far end of the table, who raised a hand to indicate herself before moving to the people down the line, in order. “I am Elisabet. Beside me is Geta. You obviously know Gabriel. Then we have Jue, Oliver, and Litonya. On that side of the table, we have Sophronia, Teach, Percival, Calafia, Davis, and Sigmund.”
Teach. The man with the big bushy black be–oh. Ohhh. I stared briefly, before the man himself gave me a knowing smile, showing an impressive collection of gold and silver teeth.
Dare’s hand touched my shoulder, and I snapped out of it to move over with the others. Together, we took the offered seats. Gaia sat at one end, with Dare at the other, while Avalon and I sat between them. All of us faced the Committee. Twelve people who might just, together, be the most powerful figures on the face of the planet. Twelve people who had, together, imprisoned my mother before erasing her memory and putting her in a position for Fossor to abduct and torture.
Somehow, I kept my expression flat, resisting the emotion that thought raised. Because I knew that Ruthers, and probably others, were just watching for any sign of my mother’s rebellion in me.
Instead, I focused on the auburn-haired woman. Sophronia. From Gaia, I knew that she was the one who was Zeke’s mother. She had invented the spell Heretics put into public areas like airports that forced Alters to use the restroom, herding them into easy kill-zones. Sophronia was the Committee member in charge of the so-called ‘tourist-busters’. For a second, I wondered how many innocent Alter families she had been responsible for destroying, just for going on vacation.
Once everyone was seated and ready, she was the one who spoke. “First, apologies are in order.” She focused on me. “Miss Chambers, I’m very sorry for what you have gone through this year, and more specifically, today. And sorry that we had to bring you into what you can only see as an interrogation so soon after you were…” She paused then, taking in a deep breath before letting it out. “After you were forced to kill a fellow Heretic, regardless of his origin or his actions. We know that it could not have been easy to do, and sitting here in front of us as we barrage you with questions must seem like the start of a very long punishment. Or the continuation of it.”
“Yes,” the Asian woman, Jue, agreed with a simple nod. “We understand that you would most likely prefer to wait before speaking with us. And given the choice, we would grant you that time. But given the severity of the situation, it was imperative that we have this discussion immediately.”
“Because of Eden’s Garden,” I finished for her. “Their leaders want answers too, don’t they?”
“That’s right,” Geta, the handsome, dark-skinned man confirmed. “Their Victors already want to question you both about what happened. We denied them, of course. But we have to show that we’re taking this seriously, if we’re going to prevent the situation from deteriorating. That means getting the entire story straight from the two of you before we present it to them. We will act as your ambassadors in this regard, but you must tell us everything, from beginning to end.”
“Yes.” Litonya didn’t exactly sound happy about the situation. But then, looking at her, I had to wonder how many centuries it had been since she had sounded happy about… anything. Her expression was hard, her eyes even harder. “You need to tell us the truth about what happened.”
Percival, the guy in the Nirvana shirt, spoke up then. “You’ll have to, ahh, forgive my fellow counselor. She has a tendency to forget that not everyone is under one of her trials.”
“She meant no accusation,” Calafia, the beautiful dark-skinned woman sitting next to him added. “Only that we have to hear the whole story, no matter how… obviously painful it may be.” Looking to me, she added a little quieter, “If you need to take a break at any time, do feel free to say so.”
After glancing toward Avalon, I shrugged. “Well, you guys already know what happened on our team’s first hunt, when Trice, Doxer, and Pace ambushed us. They were, umm…” I hesitated.
“They were trying to kill me,” Avalon put in flatly, not bothering to sugarcoat anything. “Trice is Torv’s brother, the boy who attacked me at Eden’s Garden. I killed Torv, now Trice wants revenge so he dragged his friends into it and they keep popping up to attack me. It’s that simple.”
It really wasn’t anywhere near ‘simple’, but I guessed that trying to tell the Committee that this whole thing was really the result of a bunch of dickish wannabe angels that happened to have created their entire society (and were probably possessing at least a couple of them) wouldn’t go over that well. And adding that those very same faux-angels were now desperately trying to kill Avalon in order to access the blood-vault belonging to her ancestor, who himself was the man they thought had created their society, would probably convince even the Committee members who happened to be on our side to decide that we had completely lost our minds.
“But it’s not actually that simple, is it, Miss Chambers?” That was Oliver, the nearly beachball-shaped man, who had apparently been watching me rather intently. “After all,” he added after letting that sit for a moment, “They didn’t simply ambush your first hunt, they also managed to block any of your teachers from coming to your rescue for quite some time. Hardly something achievable by simple students with a vendetta, regardless of how skilled they may be.”
They were all looking at me then, so I gave a hesitant shrug. “This is all new to me,” I pointed out. “I was a Bystander until a few months ago. But uhh, yeah, they do seem to have adult help. Maybe some of the um, adult Heretics are, you know, giving them a hand. Secretly, I mean.”
It was Sigmund who spoke then. “Are you accusing adult Heretics from Eden’s Garden of being behind the attempts on Miss Sinclaire’s life, rather than their misguided students?” His tone was curious, but he wasn’t actually looking at me. Instead, his attention was focused toward Ruthers.
My head shook. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” I pointed out. “Mr. Um… I mean Counselor… wait, Counselor Oliver? I’m sorry, sir, what should I–”
“Brockett,” the man answered for me. “Oliver Brockett.”
“Counselor Brockett,” I continued with a quick nod, “said that what Trice and his friends did seemed to be beyond their skill. I’m just agreeing and offering an option. We heard that the Victors at Eden’s Garden refused to sanction an attack on Crossroads to take Avalon back. But maybe some of Trice’s tribe disagreed with them, so they’re doing it anyway. Just… quieter.”
A brief, silent conversation seemed to pass between the Committee members at that before the guy who looked like a lumberjack, Davis, spoke up. “That’s very possible, Miss Chambers. And yet, that wasn’t the only attempt on Avalon’s life, was it? Besides this most recent one, I mean.”
“No, sir,” I confirmed. “They sabotaged our second hunt too, somehow. The explosives we used were tampered with. And someone attacked Avalon on the beach during Thanksgiving break.”
“Well,” Teach announced in a voice that was a low rumble. “They’re persistent, if nothing else. But you know, that first attack could’ve been just some Garden punks with some adult help. Those other two though?”
“Enough of your conspiracy theories.” Litonya sounded annoyed as she gave the bearded man a hard look. “We have no evidence that any of our people were involved in these attacks.”
“No evidence?” Sophronia sounded incredulous. “Can you explain the attack on the island then? Or how their explosives were sabotaged during the second hunt? Because it sound to me as though we must either accept that someone from our side is part of these assassination attempts, or that our security has been thoroughly compromised by Eden’s Garden to the point that they are capable of entering the island at will.”
“Not to mention,” Percival added, “the murder of Zedekiah. It might not be connected. But then, as close as it was to all of this stuff, I’d be kind of surprised if it’s not. Maybe he found out who was working with Eden’s Garden.”
Before anyone else could say anything, Jue quietly spoke up. “I think that we’ve gotten off-track.” Her hand gestured toward us. “Continue with your explanation, please.”
Avalon shook her head. “Like we said, it’s simple. They attacked us before, so we knew they’d probably attack us again. I asked Gaia for something to make sure they couldn’t run away if they did. They attacked, we used the shield to keep them there. It worked, but they managed to break through it just as our… help got there. But not before Chambers killed Doxer. The end.”
Quickly, I gave a slightly more detailed version of what had happened. Leaving out certain key details (like the fact that we had Trice locked up in a cell at the moment), I described as much as I could of the fight. When I got to what happened at the end right as Doxer had me on the ground, I trailed off, looking away as I fought to keep my stomach under control.
“I think we get the point.” That, surprisingly, was Ruthers. He gave me a brief look before clearing his throat. “I believe we can all agree that this was textbook self-defense. The boy called Doxer was responsible for at least one, if not more attempts on their lives before this one. He initiated the attack, and would have killed Miss Chambers if she hadn’t defended herself. This,” he added, “was obviously not an act of Hereticide.”
Dare’s voice was quiet, barely audible against my ear. “That’s when one Heretic purposefully kills another for the sole purpose of taking their powers. Anyone guilty of Hereticide is hunted by everyone, Eden’s Garden and Crossroads alike. It’s… bad.”
“Of course not,” Litonya agreed. “No one really believed it was. But we needed to have the whole story.” She paused, clearly letting us think that was the end of it before slyly continuing. “Of course, there is the other question.” Slowly, the woman turned her gaze toward me. “Miss Chambers, you have a… friend who is currently a student at Eden’s Garden, correct?”
My mouth opened and then shut. “Uh, yeah, Miranda. She was recruited while I was still a kid, and I never saw her again until I was at home for my birthday. Why? What does she have to do with anything?”
Oliver spoke then. “Perhaps nothing. But she is your friend, and you did encounter her during the… events of your birthday. And more than that,” he continued, “you don’t simply have a friend who attends Eden’s Garden. You yourself have been there. In fact, you convinced one of their people to take Koren Fellows’ injured mother into their number. Interesting, that you didn’t bring her here.”
I decided to tell part of the truth. “Seller’s my ancestor. He said he felt bad for not being around before. So I asked him to make up for it by saving my classmate’s mother. I didn’t think you guys–I didn’t think Crossroads made adult Heretics like that. I knew he could because of what happened when Avalon was a… when she was young.”
There was another brief, silent conversation as the Committee glanced to one another. Then Geta cleared his throat. “Yes, Seller… Your ancestor is an important member of Eden’s Garden, and your childhood friend is one of their students. It’s rather… interesting that–”
“That’s enough.” Sophronia quickly interrupted. “We already agreed that this line of thought was utterly preopos–”
“Oh, my God.” The realization blurted its way out of my mouth before I could think about who I was talking to. “You people think I’m the one who’s trying to kill Avalon?!”
“What?!” Dare sounded just as shocked as I felt, her gaze snapping from me to the Committee.
Elisabet raised a hand. “We are simply attempting to get to the bottom of this situation. That’s all. But you have to admit, the connections are there.”
“No, they’re not.” Avalon snapped. “You think she’s more likely to kill me because her ancestor is Seller? The man practically raised me. He’s not one of the people who wants me dead.”
“The man who now calls himself Seller has always been a mercenary who serves the highest bidder.” Litonya’s voice was sharp, and clearly unapproving. “He may very well care for you. But then, he has shown himself to willingly side against those he should care for in the past if it saved his own hide.”
“She could’ve killed me anytime she wanted to,” Avalon pointed out, sounding dangerously close to ranting at them. “We sleep in the same damn room.”
Sigmund nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “And if she did it that way, it would have been blatantly obvious that she had.”
“She killed Doxer!” Avalon all-but shouted at them, clearly barely keeping herself calm enough to speak normally. “Why the hell would she kill Doxer if she had anything to do with the attacks on me?”
Straightening up as much as his rotund-figure would allow, Oliver answered. “We believe that there is more than one faction attempting your… murder, Miss Sinclaire. Under this theory, Miss Chambers and Trice’s group would be on opposing sides. Opposing sides which, nonetheless, leave you in the middle.”
Gaia shifted then, speaking for the first time in awhile. “Miss Chambers is not on trial here.”
“And she never will be.” That was Professor Dare, who had risen to her feet. “Because this is utter insanity. After what she’s been through, after what she just had to do to save her own life, you want to drag her in here for some conspiracy theory that not even–”
“Be careful, Virginia.” Litonya was the one speaking, her tone measured and dangerous. “Do not forget who you happen to be speaking to. Or your place.”
“My place,” Dare retorted, “is to protect my students. And I will never forget it.”
This was all going so fast. My mouth opened and shut as I shook my head. “I don’t–what–why do you think there’s two different factions trying to kill Avalon? And why do you think that I’m one of them?”
“Most of us,” Teach pointed out, “don’t think that you’re one of them, Chambers. Only a few had… questions in that regard. As for there being multiple factions, that’s the best explanation we’ve got for why some of the attacks are blatant and others are more subtle.”
“You were there for the explosion,” Sigmund put in, watching me carefully. “And conveniently away when it went off.”
“She wasn’t there for the attack over Thanksgiving,” Avalon testily snapped.
“As far as we know,” Ruthers muttered in response, clearly thinking about how my mother had repeatedly entered the school grounds without their knowledge or understanding.
“Why?” Avalon’s arms were spread wide. “We know why Trice wants to kill me. Why would there be some great conspiracy about it that involves multiple groups? Why would Chambers be involved at all? Why would Seller? This is ridiculous.”
“Watch yourself, Miss Sinclaire,” Litonya harshly rebuked her. “We are trying to help you. There is… more to this situation than you understand. More to your history than you understand.”
Oh. Oh, they knew about Avalon’s heritage, knew about who her ancestor was. I started to nod to myself before freezing. Wait, that was it. My mother, I realized. They thought that my mother was still doing her… thing. They thought she was after whatever was in Bosch’s vault. What would convince Seller to turn against Avalon? His actual descendant. They thought that my mother had recruited him. And my… my getting my sister sent to Eden’s Garden to be turned into a Heretic had probably just convinced them even further. They thought this whole quieter assassination attempts were from my mom. And from me by extension.
That was why they couldn’t really explain their reasoning that well. They didn’t want to openly bring up Mom like that, even if they thought I already knew everything about her. Hell, they thought I was part of her little plot now. They thought I was trying to kill Avalon to get into that vault, while also trying to stop Trice and his group from doing it.
I wasn’t sure of the specifics, of course. But I was sure that was their basic thought process. Plus, those on the Committee that actually were part of the Seosten conspiracy were probably encouraging this, because it both distracted from their own efforts, and brought more pressure against me (and against Gaia by extension). It was the perfect excuse, especially since Ruthers would have readily jumped on it.
So not only was the Committee not going to be able to help us find whoever it was that was really trying to kill Avalon…but for some of them, I was actually their primary suspect, for a reason that I couldn’t even defend myself against without revealing that I knew more about my mother than I was supposed to. The Seosten infiltrators had found the perfect patsy to direct Committee resources toward and away from their own efforts… me.
Well, this just kept getting better and better, didn’t it?