Calafia

Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place. I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Interlude 36C – Percival and Gaia

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1670

“Gaia, is it? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days?”

As the red-haired woman entered the house and heard the voice, she paused. Without turning around, she replied, “It is better than some alternatives.”

Percival, of those legendary knights trained and empowered by her half-brother, spoke up once more while stepping out of the shadows of the alcove he had been waiting in. “You are very right. There are a lot of things those who knew you back then could call you which would be worse than Gaia Sinclaire. Or even Scáthach. I heard you took that name for a while.”

Finally, the woman turned to face him. Her voice was soft. “You may believe this or not, but it is good to see you.” She paused then before adding, “It is good to see anyone from then. It has been quite some time.”

“I wish I could say it was good to see you in return,” the man informed her in an even voice. “Because that would mean, well, a lot of things that happened didn’t happen. And if they hadn’t happened… maybe things would be very different now.”

Gaia met his gaze without flinching. “You mean to say that had I not betrayed my brother, he might still be… with us. Arthur could still be king and the world itself would be much better off than it is now in our current circumstances.”

Percival’s voice was flat. “That is what I mean to say, yes. You weren’t the cause of all of our problems. Not even close. But if you had stayed on our side, if you had been a true ally and friend, things could have turned out very differently than they did.”

There was silence for a few, long seconds before Gaia slowly nodded. “You are correct. I had so much rage toward what I saw as injustice and oppression that I inflicted it myself in my zeal to eradicate it. I hurt people who did not deserve to be hurt. I killed those who did not deserve to die. I betrayed my brother because I did not feel he went far enough for my own sense of justice.”

She swallowed hard then before continuing in a softer voice. “I think about that day a lot, you know. The day when Arthur and I finally broke. When he refused to execute the men for burning the village… for everything they did before setting the flames… I could not let it stand. I could not walk away from it. They had to die.”

“They had already surrendered,” Percival put in then. “They had thrown down their arms and were on their knees. Arthur accepted their surrender because he was a man of honor. It wasn’t about whether they deserved eventual execution or not. They would have faced judgment. But not in that second. Not after they surrendered. Especially not when there were those in their number who may not have been involved.”

Swallowing once more, Gaia gave a very slight nod. It was a point she had argued against for a long time. But not right now. “Perhaps. But I couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t wait. You were there, Percival. You saw the village, what they did. You saw the people they burned, the women they raped. You saw the carnage. You heard the children crying. I could not let it go.”

Percival’s voice was as soft as hers. “So you killed them yourself, while they sat in cages waiting for judgment. You judged them yourself. You told Arthur you would back off. Then you doused all of the men in oil and set them ablaze while they were helpless. You broke Arthur’s word for him. He promised those men a fair trial and judgment, The chance to speak in their own defense. They had families too, and he promised those people their fathers would be given a fair trial. Some of them may not have been directly involved. We didn’t know the whole story. The ones who claimed innocence, who claimed their comrades had gone off without them, they may have been truthful. It could have come out with a proper investigation and trial. But you killed all of them, even after promising Arthur you would leave it alone. You gave him your word. He asked you to swear you would leave it alone, and you agreed. Then you killed them anyway.

“And that was the problem. Because if Arthur could not trust his own sister, if his own sister could betray him and pursue her own justice against his orders, what were the odds of others respecting his word? The things you did that day and afterward hurt Arthur’s ability to lead. Because they knew. The people knew you were out there, knew you were playing your own games. You created your own army, pursued your own sense of justice. Arthur needed loyalty. He needed the people to trust him. He needed his sister to trust him.”

He sighed then, slowly shaking his head. “To be quite honest, we moved on to bigger threats after you were gone. We were so… young back then, so incredibly new to things. You were only a threat for a few years, maybe twenty at the most. A blink of an eye, really. You were with us for a little while, then you were against us for a little while. Then you were gone. Arthur mourned for you. He even looked for you, for a long time. It distracted him, searching for you.”

Gaia flinched a little, her hands tightening and loosening once. “He truly should not have bothered.”

“It’s who he was,” Percival replied, “who he is. Even after everything that happened, he still wanted to forgive you. He still wanted to bring you back, wanted to bring his sister back. And that’s kind of the point. Arthur trusted you. He needed you. More than almost any of us aside from Gwen, he needed you. If none of it had happened, if you had still been there, had still been loyal and everything hadn’t gone wrong…”

Again there was silence before the woman quietly replied, “I am well aware of my own sins. And all of those which came after that moment. It was the breaking point. But it was hardly my worst action once the flint had been struck. I did a great many terrible things in the name and pursuit of what I saw as justice. Some of them I would stand by today. Many I would not. Especially…” She stopped then, emotion flickering into her eyes as her arms reflexively closed around her stomach.

For the first time, the man’s gaze softened noticeably as he spoke for her. “Mordred, your son.”

Even after all the time which had passed since that terrible day, the name brought tears to her eyes. The woman shuddered and then spoke in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, and cracked with emotion. “He died because of me. Because of my actions. I lost my son. My little boy. Not so little at the time, but still. Always my little boy. Always and forever. He’s gone forever because of me. I can never undo the things I did, the mistakes I made. Just as I can never see my son again. I would have done anything to save him, anything to change what happened. I would have sacrificed myself a thousand times over if it would have saved him. But I could not. Just as I cannot change my other mistakes. All I can do is be a better person now than I was then. Maybe it will never be enough for any kind of redemption. I truly doubt it will. But it is all I have, all I can do. Be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am today. I have nothing else.”

Slowly stepping forward, Percival extended a hand to rest on the woman’s shoulder. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you this then, but I am very sorry about your son. I know you loved him. And he truly loved you. What happened to him was a tragedy.” He paused then before adding, “Some of us thought you might have ended yourself after that. You disappeared for a long time. Then you just showed up again after hundreds of years, and it turns out you time traveled. The rest of us, we took the long way around. But you found a shortcut.”

There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Gaia’s face. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask about that. It is a very long story. And I did not come alone.”

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The Green Knight, I am well aware. He was with you when you were turned the first time, wasn’t he? He took the being’s nature-based gifts, while you gained the control over machines and inventions that made the people of our time call you a sorceress.”

The woman nodded once more. “He was with me then, yes. We have been acquainted for quite some time, off and on. I would not call us friends, but we do seem to be bound to one another in some way. I could not say why. Perhaps the future will reveal why we are so connected.”

Her head a shake then. “But he is not the only companion I had in that trip. Though perhaps the only one closest to an ally.”

Percival nodded. “Yes, I know about the creatures you brought through with you. Believe me, if I hadn’t convinced myself it was not your intention, we would have had this conversation much earlier. And it would not have been nearly as pleasant.”

“Yes,” Gaia murmured, “it was most certainly not intentional. I did my best to contain them, and stopped them from killing a boy in the village where I arrived, though not before he had already been bonded to it.” She glanced to the man then. “I am told that boy became one of yours. One of theirs, rather. Ruthers, I believe, was his name.”

Percival winced a little. “Gabriel Ruthers, yes. He used to be a lot different than he is now, a lot more optimistic. He was the one who pushed to make a deal with the necromancer. And we saw how that turned out.”

She looked to him then. “They don’t understand, you realize. This hatred of everything not human. They are pushing it too far. Arthur would not agree with it.”

There was a slight flinch from the man at that, before he gave a faint nod. “He would not. There’s something else to it, something…” He paused before settling on, “I have a purpose for being here. But it may take quite some time to come to fruition.”

The two of them stood there together in silence for some time, both contemplating all of that before Gaia looked to him. “As we have quite firmly established, my trip through time was long ago. I have been in this time, so to speak, for quite some time now. Far longer than I spent an our original time. It must have been over five hundred years by this point. Five hundred years. If what you wanted was answers, or even justice for my past, you could have sought me out then, at any point. You have had quite a long time to do so. I am sure it did not take you long to understand who I was. You could have come while I was with the Sinclairs. I would hardly have been in any shape to stop you. Yet you wait until now. After all this time, I would say you were openly avoiding me.”

“You’re right,” Percival agreed. “I could have come to find you before. I almost did. But I wanted to give you time to show what your intentions were. Arthur would have wanted me to give you time. He would have given you a chance to prove yourself again.”

“Is that why you’re here now?” she asked him then. “Because you’ve come to a decision?”

“I am here now,” the man replied easily, “because they recruited you. They brought you into this, made you part of their new group. So I had to come see if I could actually trust you.”

Rather than follow on that immediately, Gaia asked, “Are you here with these people because of your own choices, or because of something Arthur asked you to do? Is your presence a coincidence, or a mission?”

He met her eyes. “That is something I could only explain to someone I trust.”

“And do you trust me?”

In response, the man was silent for a few seconds. Then he looked back up and squared his shoulders. “Truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. Mostly because I don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you get angry. You may have the best of intentions now, and then lose your mind and all sense of proportion later. But, you know what? The fact that I haven’t decided I don’t trust you is a significant step up.”

The woman gave a slight nod of agreement. “Given our past, yes, it is. But where do we go from here? How do we move forward?”

Rather than immediately answering, Percival asked, “What about your apprentice, the girl who travels with you. Where is she today?”

Smiling just a little at the question, Gaia replied, “Virginia is pursuing one of her own interests. I don’t expect to see her again until quite late.”

“In that case,” the man put in, “perhaps we could take a walk somewhere private, and you could tell me more about how you and the Green Knight traveled in time. You could tell me a bit more about all of that. And by tell me more, of course, I mean tell me anything at all.”

Gaia chuckled very softly. “A walk in the woods then, and a bit of conversation to sate your curiosity?”

Percival moved to open the door. “We shall see how much of my curiosity is sated by how much you deign to tell me. I warn you however, my curiosity has a voracious appetite. Particularly when it comes to this issue.”

With a slight smile, the woman moved after him. “Then I do hope it is a long walk.

“Because it is a very long story.”

*******

Present Day

As the red-haired woman strode across the seemingly barren Wyoming field, a small army of men rushed to stop her. More than a two dozen strong, the men might as well have been wheat to the thresher. With a single wave of her hand, Gaia Sinclaire encased all of the men in cocoons made of dirt drawn from the ground. The cocoons turned to metal, before being flooded with heat as intense as any drawn from the furnace of a crematorium. All of the men were instantly incinerated, and Gaia kept walking without even breaking stride as her own aura briefly flared.

She was slowed, however, as Percival appeared in front of her. “Gaia,” the man announced with one raised hand, “stop.”

“Stop?” The woman echoed incredulously. “You know what’s going on down there, what they’re probably doing. They have Joselyn’s daughter. They have my daughter. We know that’s where she is. They’ve got my daughter, Percival.” She pointed to the ground where, two hundred feet below, the roof of the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies lay. “If they think that the shield they have erected around it will keep me out, they are sorely mistaken. I will rip up this entire field and tear the building apart.”

“I know who is down there,” the man confirmed. “And I know what they’ve done. Probably better than you do. But you can’t rip up the field, Gaia. You have to stop.” As the woman opened her mouth to argue, he continued. “They’ve tied that shield into the life forces of every innocent person inside. Hostages, Gaia. They have hostages. If you go slamming your way through to save the people you care about, everyone else in there whom other people care about will die in the process. You don’t want that. I know you don’t want that.”

His words made the woman pause, taking in a long breath before letting it out again as her face tightened. “They could be killing her in there,” she snapped. “We don’t know how soon the protective spells will wear off. They could be killing her right now. They could kill Felicity, or any of the other students. They could be killing them now, while we stand here.”

Swallowing slightly, the man gave a faint nod. “I know,” he replied softly. “We will get inside, I promise. But we have to do it carefully. We have to find a safe way to break through, not just by force. If you break through by force, you are condemning all of those other people to death.”

There was silence for a few seconds then, before Gaia met his gaze. “The Seosten. You know about them.”

“For a long time,” the man confirmed. “Let’s just say Arthur and the rest of us have a unique and extensive history with them. He was about to bring you in on that when, well, when you proved untrustworthy.”

Again, Gaia was silent for a moment before straightening up. “Is our privacy ensured here?”

“Yes.” The voice came not from Percival, but from Calafia, as the beautiful, dark-skinned woman appeared nearby. “Our colleagues are involved elsewhere. We have privacy now.”

For a moment, Gaia exchanged a look with the man nearby. As Percival gave her a slight nod of confirmation, she turned back to Calafia. “We obviously have much to talk about soon. But for now, our enemies are clear.”

“The Seosten,” Calafia confirmed. “We handle this situation and then we can talk about everything that needs to be discussed.”

“We can provide a lot of raw power,” Percival put in then. “But safely breaking through the shield is going to require more than that. Their magic is intricate, hard to understand. We don’t have time to learn enough about it.”

After another brief pause, Gaia replied, “We don’t have to. We already have someone.”

With those words, a glowing figure stepped out of the other woman before turning solid. As she turned to the two Committee members, both tensed before easing slightly.

“Artemis,” Percival announced flatly.

“Sariel now,” she corrected him quietly. “And you were trained by Auriel.”

“Nimue to me,” the man returned. “And now I have a great deal more questions.”

“To be answered later.” Once again, the voice came from someone new, as Gabriel Prosser stepped up to the group. “For now, we have the raw power to handle the Seosten magic. And,” he added with a glance toward Sariel, “the expertise to deal with it safely.

“So let’s rescue those kids.”

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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Mini-Interlude 31 – Calafia and Ruthers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on a conversation between Calafia and Ruthers shortly after Joselyn’s disappearance. Please enjoy. 

About Ten Years Ago

“Do you ever stop and look at what they’ve built?”

As she spoke, the woman known as Calafia dipped her hand into the cone-shaped paper bag, coming out with several kernels of popcorn. She popped the buttery, salted treat into her mouth without ever looking behind her toward the man who had just walked across the grassy park to meet her. She kept her gaze on the ducks steadily swimming across the pond.

Gabriel Ruthers, the bulldog masquerading as a man, stepped beside her. He had no popcorn. Instead, he held a newspaper under one arm. His voice was a grunt. “I assume you’re not talking about the ducks.”

Taking another small handful of the popcorn that she had purchased from the vendor at the edge of the park, Calafia nodded slightly. “Humanity, Gabriel. They’ve advanced so far, so quickly. Look at their buildings, their cities compared to just a few hundred years ago.”

“Compared to when we began nudging them, you mean?” the man replied simply. “I wasn’t in on your conversations then. But I heard enough. And I recall hearing that you objected to it.”

Her head bowed slightly. “I did,” she confirmed. “I thought that we should allow humans to develop naturally, rather than providing our little… hints to guide them.”

Ruthers watched the pond for a moment, his brow knitted in a frown before he replied, “We owed it to ‘em. After what happened with the necromancer…” He squinted, fist tightening at his side before continuing. “They deserved a little help. If we hadn’t… if I hadn’t… if…” Pausing, the man shook his head, setting on a flat, “Things could’ve been different. We owed them a little help. Taking a little bit of the technology we scavenged from some of those Strangers and using it to help give humanity a little push is the least we could’ve done. It helped give them a fighting chance.”

For a few seconds, neither of the two said anything. They continued to watch the simple, swimming ducks in silence. Eventually, however, it was Ruthers who spoke. “It’s official,” he declared, passing the newspaper to her without looking away from the water.

Calafia didn’t need to look at the paper to know what it said. After all, she’d already read the article herself. But there was no sense in telling him that. No sense in giving the man any idea that she paid any more attention to the situation than was absolutely necessary. If the time came that he ever had cause to think back over their interactions, looking for hints that she knew too much or was too involved, she wanted to give the man as little as possible.

To that end, the woman carefully took the paper in one hand and glanced at the headline. “Local Sheriff Still Missing,” she read aloud. “I take it they haven’t found a body then.”

Because of course, the subject was Joselyn Atherby. The subject was almost always Joselyn Atherby when it came to Ruthers. The woman hadn’t even been a Heretic for over a decade, and yet she was still the first thing on his mind. He was as obsessed as… well, usually when she gave examples of someone being obsessed with something, ‘Ruthers and Atherby’ was her go-to. It was more difficult from the other end of it.

And now that Joselyn had disappeared, he had begun talking to every Committee member separately. She’d already heard about what he wanted to ask. But again, Calafia remained silent about it, letting him bring it up.  

“Of course not,” Ruthers snapped. “You know they won’t. Not unless she decides to manufacture one to give the husband some kind of closure.”

Counting silently to five in her head, Calafia used the time to eat another handful of popcorn before responding. “The husband, you say,” she observed. “Not the daughter as well?”

He was quiet for a moment then before clearing his throat. “Yes, well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

There was no sense in appearing to be completely obtuse. Even if she hadn’t already been aware of what the man wanted, Calafia would have been able to put it together. “You want to take the girl.”

“Take her?” Ruthers echoed, glancing away from the pond and to her. She felt his eyes study her for a moment before he spoke again. “What I want–” He stopped, taking a breath before letting it out. Then he started again, softer that time. “What I want is for that girl to have a chance.”

Pausing at that, Calafia quietly asked, “What do you mean by that?”

His response was soft. “What I mean is… we can argue all day about whether Atherby regained her memories and took off, or if someone else found her. You know what I think. But this isn’t about that argument. We can save it for another day. This is about the girl, the child. And here’s the thing, whatever happened to Atherby, her daughter is going to have a rough time.”

She thought about that briefly before looking back to the ducks. “Because if Atherby went back to her old ways, she’ll come back for her daughter.”

“And pull her into… that,” Ruthers confirmed. “She’ll have that girl mixing up with Strangers and–” He cut himself off, clearly avoiding going down that line of thought. “She’ll get her daughter involved in her war. And if she was taken by someone else, that person must be strong enough to avoid the mnemosyne spell, which means–”

“They’re powerful, and dangerous.” Calafia sighed then. “And you think they’ll come back for the girl.”

“One way or another,” he replied, “she’s in danger. That girl is either going to be recruited by her mother, or abducted by the same being who was powerful enough to ignore our memory spells and take Atherby. Right now, at this moment, it doesn’t matter who’s right. I’ll set that aside. What matters is the girl. If we don’t take her in, she’ll be in danger.”

That was… he had a point. Not that she thought for a moment that the woman would actually have abandoned her family in the first place, but that second option, that whoever had taken her would come back for the child… Calafia frowned a little bit to herself, watching the pond for a moment as she collected her thoughts. “It would involve taking her away from her father.” She glanced that way. “One would think that you would be against that sort of thing. After all, the man already lost his wife.”

His response was a sigh. “You’re right, most of the time, taking a Bystander child away from her Bystander father would make me sick. But this? Either Atherby is going to drag her daughter into this and the man will lose his kid anyway, or this mystery force that took her is going to take her and kill him in the process.

“That’s what it comes down to. No matter who’s right, the kid and the dad are both in danger if she stays. I mean–” Ruthers sighed once more. “I know that I’m the bad guy here when it comes to this sort of thing, all right? I understand that. It’s okay. Most of the time, I don’t give a shit, as long as we can all do our jobs and keep this fucking world spinning. But this time, it’s not about that. It’s about that girl and her dad. And yeah, separating them’s gonna hurt in the short term. But if it’s between hurting them now so they both survive, or leaving them alone and letting them die just so we don’t have to feel like the bad guys… shit, I’ll go ahead and be the asshole. I’ll be the monster. Yeah, I think we should take her in. I think it’s the best way to keep the kid and her dad safe.”

Decades ago (a drop in the bucket of her life), Calafia had made the choice to allow Joselyn Atherby to take her son away from her, to hide him so that neither she, nor any of her fellow Counselors, would know where he was. Not that Ruthers knew that. As far as he and all of the others were concerned, Calafia’s son had been killed. That was the way it had to be. Since he had been turned by that weretiger, everyone would have known the truth. And they would have killed him, would have killed her son if she didn’t send him away and cut herself off from him.

So she did have some experience when it came to deciding that it was better to separate the parent from the child. When it came down to it, what mattered more, Felicity Chambers’s immediate happiness and that of her father… or their lives? Ruthers did have a point. Sometimes what appeared to be the callous, unfeeling solution was best in the long run.

And yet… losing contact with her own child, that had been her choice. She knew that wherever he was, Joselyn had ensured that he had a chance. She had given Calafia her word that they would keep him safe.

What was the right answer here? Was she betraying Joselyn by entertaining the idea of taking her child away from her husband? Or would it be more of a betrayal to leave the girl where she was, as a target for whatever had taken her to begin with?

Damn it, why couldn’t Gabriel Prosser have given the woman her memory back so that she could find a way to actually disappear, with her husband and child?

Thinking about it for a few more long seconds, Calafia finally came to a decision, shaking her head. “The best I can offer you is a compromise as part of the vote. We maintain the surveillance, maybe even establish a stricter set. If we see anything that indicates that the girl’s either in danger, or being contacted by her mother or any of her people… then we take her in.

“I’m sorry, Gabriel, I can’t agree to taking a girl away from her only remaining parent. Not like this. Not… yet. When–if there’s any sign of any of that, then yes. You’ll have my vote. But until then… higher security, continued surveillance, monitoring the girl… it’s the best I can do.”

For a moment, the man said nothing. She thought he was gearing himself up for an argument. But in the end, he put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was gruff.  “I’m sorry about your son. Losing him, it was… That–this must…” For once, the man seemed to realize that he shouldn’t say anything else. And he also chose not to argue any further, saying only, “I won’t give up trying to change your mind.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you did, Gabriel,” she replied quietly.

For a few minutes, they stood on the edge of the pond like that, watching the ducks. Eventually, his hand slipped from her shoulder, and the man stepped back. “I have more people to talk to, but if you need–”

“I’m quite all right, Gabriel,” Calafia informed him. “I’m going to stay here and watch the ducks for a while though.” A pause then, before she added, “Thank you.”

He grunted in response, watching her for a moment before turning on his heel to walk away. The man was clearly disappointed by her answer, but tactful enough at least to avoid pushing the issue.

Many different thoughts swam through Calafia’s mind then, much like the ducks in the pond ahead of her. Like them, there was far more going on beneath the surface than her still and stoic demeanor betrayed. But one thing above all else, above the thought of what Ruthers would do next, or who had taken Joselyn, or what would happen to her daughter, one thought was louder than all of that.

She missed her son.

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Interlude 22C – Joselyn

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of Pace posted yesterday (Sunday). If you missed it, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

July 10th, 1950

“My son, they would have killed him.”

Two women stood facing one another, their appearances within the illumination of the city street lights starkly contrasting. One was white, with blonde hair that stood out in the night. The other was black, her skin and hair both dark enough to fade easily into the shadows lurking just beyond the street lamps. Overhead, the moon was at its dimmest, a bare sliver that did little more than confirm its existence, while clouds ended any light that might have come from the far distant stars. The city itself, aside from the streetlights above these two women, was as dark as it was silent.

“You’re right, Calafia,” Joselyn Atherby replied to the much-older woman across from her. “They would have killed him. Because he was different. Because he wasn’t human. One little scratch. One scratch from that weretiger and now every plan, every dream, every goal you had for your son is gone. Everything you wanted to do for him, everything he was going to be for you is gone.”

Calafia bowed her head slightly, giving an almost imperceptible nod. “I know,” she murmured quietly. “I know, believe me, I know. But he’s… you… you made sure that he–”

“He’s okay,” Joselyn assured her. She didn’t know what it was like to be a parent, but she did know that the idea of having a child and being separated from them, not knowing if they were okay or what was happening to them, was the worst experience she could possibly imagine. So as angry as she was at the things that the woman in front of her had allowed to happen up until it was personal for her, she wouldn’t hold that reassurance away from her. “He’s safe, I promise.”

The relief in the other woman’s body language was obvious, as a great deal of the tension left her. “Don’t tell me where he is.” The words seemed to almost break her even as she said them. “Just… just promise you’ll make sure he stays safe, that none of our people will find him.”

“They believe he’s dead,” Joselyn replied, her tone turning a bit softer at the woman’s continued concern. “And they’ll keep believing that. No one’s going to find your son, Calafia. You have my word. I told you when you first made contact that we’d keep him safe, and I meant it.”  

For a moment, Calafia closed her eyes. Tears leaked from them, though if they were more from the relief that her son was safe or from the agony of the realization that she would never see him again, Joselyn couldn’t say. She just waited while the woman worked through her emotions.

Finally, Calafia straightened a little, her eyes finding Joselyn’s as she steadied herself. “You never said what you wanted in return for the aid of your people. You saved my son’s life.”

“Calafia,” Joselyn answered simply, “if you think that I need something in exchange for saving your son from the people who would kill him just for being a were, then you’ve missed the entire point.”

Pausing for a moment to take that in, the dark-skinned woman eventually spoke once more. “If there’s nothing else, you should leave this place. I owe you my son’s life, but the others do not. Gabriel has been fully accepted into our ranks. You must already understand what that means.”

“It means that he’s as powerful as you are now,” Joselyn confirmed. “And the first thing he’s going to do with that power is try to pay me back for making him look like such a fool for so long.”

“He won’t just try,” Calafia cautioned her. “If he finds you, he will win. You are here alone, Miss Atherby. Don’t be a prideful fool and throw your life away by waiting for him here. You might have been able to face him as he was, though even that was debateable. But now that he is a part of the Committee, you would be nothing more than a bug against a windshield. You would fail.”

“Maybe,” Joselyn allowed. “But if I don’t do something, he’ll keep coming anyway.” Her hand lifted to gesture at the empty, dark streets around them. “Why do you think I chose to meet here?”

Slowly, she turned in a circle as though taking all of it in. “It’s actually one of the most impressive things the Heretics have done, you know? An exact one-for-one replica of New York City, set down on a world far from Earth, yet almost identical to it. The perfect place for Heretics to practice fighting and hunting in an urban area. Yet devoid of any innocent civilians that might get hurt.”

Calafia took a moment to look around as well, as though seeing how impressive the recreated city really was for the first time. But soon, her gaze locked onto the much younger woman’s once more. “My… son’s condition has made me… think about the things that our society stands for. I don’t know yet how I feel about all of it, but in this case…My son would be dead if it was not for you, Miss Ath– Joselyn. I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I will attempt to do so. If you ask, I will put myself in the path of Gabriel Ruthers. I will stop him from harming you.” Left unsaid was what that would mean. In exchange for the life of her son, Calafia would put herself against the Committee, would stand openly with the rebellion in defiance of Crossroads laws.

Joselyn smiled slightly, but shook her head. “If you really want to know what you can do to make it up to me… keep thinking about what it means. Think about all the mothers like you who have lost people like your son. Think about the people who have been killed for doing nothing more than being born. Think about all of them. But the most important thing you could ever do for me is… think about the monsters that we hunt and kill. Think about all the monsters you’ve ever killed or ordered killed. Think about them…. And stop thinking of them as monsters. Think of them as people. People with lives. People with families. People with loves, dreams, hopes. Just… people.”

Her voice had softened throughout that, but rose then, firm and confident. “But right now, the best thing you can do is leave. You’re right, Ruthers is gonna be here soon.” Her smile was humorless. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And the best thing you can do is stay on the Committee. There might be a time that we need you, a time that we need help. You being on the Committee, that’s what we need right now. Just keep thinking. Not just about what I said, but about how you feel. Think about that. Feel it. Let yourself feel it, for once, without shutting it down. Keep feeling.”

“If I leave,” Calafia spoke quietly, “you will die.”

The blonde shrugged. “Messages outlive the messenger, Calafia. And you might be surprised.”   

Obviously realizing that she wouldn’t be able to change the rebel leader’s mind, Calafia bowed her head. “I wish you luck. And if you survive this encounter, we will speak again.”

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. But by the time she finished with, “we will,” the other woman was gone.

For a few seconds, she just stood there. Eventually, however, she turned and began to walk slowly down the middle of the street. Streetlights came to life as she reached them, while the ones behind her doused themselves, creating a sort of roving spotlight that kept her illuminated.

Ten minutes after Calafia had left, Joselyn rounded a corner to find a man standing in her path. A man she knew far too well, from the years she had spent in what had been his school at the time.

“Shall I call you Headmaster still?” she asked, “Or would you prefer the term Counselor?”

Ruthers stood, his bullish, prizefighter-esque body lit by the lamps above him as he glared at the woman he loathed so thoroughly. “Atherby,” he snarled. “I already checked the city. You’re alone. Your husband isn’t here, and he’s not coming. Neither are any of your people. There’s a lockdown in effect. No one teleports in or out of the training city until this is over. So I’m going to give you one chance. Surrender, and you’ll go to trial. On the honor of my blood, I won’t harm you if you give up now.”

Joselyn shook her head, lamenting. “Aww. And here I thought you’d be excited to show off all your new tricks, like an eager little bulldog. All that power, all that strength, and you want me to surrender without letting you show me any of it? That doesn’t sound like you, Gabby.”

Gabby. She knew he hated the name, loathed it almost as much as he hated Joselyn herself. That was why she used it. Getting under his skin, making him stop thinking straight, it was part of the plan. This night, this moment, had been building since the moment she had decided that she would never be able to live in this society without pouring everything she had into making it better.

His smile was more like a grimace, like the man himself had never fully learned how to make that expression. “We both know you won’t surrender,” he replied flatly. “But now that I’ve offered you the chance and you’ve turned me down, you can feel even worse when this is all over.”

Lowering her gaze to look at the ground, Joselyn gathered her strength for what she had to do next. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. But she had to try. For everything that she was attempting to change about Heretic society, she had to try.

“Ruthers, it doesn’t have to be like this. None of this has to happen. Things can change. We can be better. You saw that yourself once. You took a chance. It backfired, but that doesn’t make the intention wrong. Trusting the wrong person doesn’t make every person evil. We can work together to change things. We can make Crossroads be the real heroes, the champions we should be. Not just for humans, but for everyone. We can protect them all.”

“You,” Ruthers snarled without a moment’s hesitation, “are a fool. And you are letting yourself and your followers be used by monsters. Yes, I worked with them once before. And what came of it? Humanity was nearly erased, you ignorant child. That is a mistake I will never make again. And I won’t let you drag humanity into extinction by making the same one. This ends now, Atherby.”

“On the contrary,” the blonde woman replied simply. “I think you’ll find that it’s just beginning.”

He was on her then. In the span of less than one hundredth of a second, the man went from standing a hundred feet away, to being directly in front of her. His fist lashed out, tearing through the air faster than sound itself. It was a blow that would devastate mountains. Several windows in the buildings surrounding them shattered from the force and speed of the punch. It was meant to end this entire conflict in a single, solitary blow. A punch meant to end Joselyn herself.

She caught it in the palm of her hand.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. The sheer force that was put into the blow meant that the kinetic energy had to go somewhere. She absorbed it, dissipating the excess into a wave behind her that shattered more windows and sent several cars flipping up and over each other. But for the most part, she simply put a hand up and caught a punch from a man who was now one of the most powerful beings on the planet.

“Come on, Gabby,” Joselyn’s voice was a taunt, as Ruthers stared at his fist pressed firmly into her palm. “I thought you were gonna bring something new to this.”

With a growl, the man yanked his fist back. His other hand lashed out, then the first. That continued for another eight strikes. Ten full blows, each powerful enough to go through concrete like it was rice paper. And all ten so quick that it defied not simply human comprehension, but seemingly physics itself. They came in the span of less than one tenth of a second. It was motion so fast that to the human eye, it wasn’t simply a blur. It was nonexistent.

Joselyn evaded them all. Her body twisted, turned, ducked, and stepped aside to avoid each blow, no matter how fast they came. He was fast, but she was just as fast as he was.

That was the entire point. Not that he understood that. Not that he had any idea.

As his flurry of punches failed to make contact, Ruthers seemed to realize that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that he expected it to be. He had come expecting to smack her down like a dog with his new power. But that wasn’t going to happen that easily. And in that realization, he finally unleashed.

A wave of the man’s hand caught all of the glass that had been shattered and now lay along the ground. The shards flew into the air, driving in toward Joselyn from every side, each moving as fast as a bullet. And even as they flew, each tiny shard of glass was transformed into jagged metal, which itself was superheated and surrounded by a tiny arc of what looked like purple electricity. Ghost-fire, as they called it. Energy that was able to burn ghosts, or anyone who was in a ghost-like, non-solid state. Hundreds of shards of glass, all simultaneously turned to burning metal with their own ghost-fire, just to make sure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible to avoid them. And all coming at her from every possible angle.

Grimacing, Joselyn threw both hands up and out. With her motion, a circular wall of concrete two feet thick rose from the ground to surround her, capping itself off in a dome just as the electrified, super-heated metal shards buried themselves in it.

Feeling the top of the concrete dome yanked from her control, Joselyn turned herself into an insubstantial, ghost-like state and leapt backward through the wall. She was just in time, as the roof of the dome slammed down with enough force that it would have crushed her in a solid state, and covered in ghost-fire to burn her in her current intangible form if she hadn’t moved.

In the next instant, she was gone. Her blinding speed carried her forward, before a leap took the blonde woman up and over the concrete structure. The leap would have carried her a good fifty feet into the air, except that as soon as she saw the man below her, Joselyn instantly changed the direction that her momentum was carrying her. Now, instead of leaping up and forward, she was suddenly leaping down, without actually touching anything to change direction.

Her fist lashed out. And with it, she summoned not only her own strength, but a literal lightning bolt. It shot, jagged and crackling with power, out of the sky. Her figure was enveloped in the lightning, its power wrapping itself around Joselyn just before both collided into the pavement with enough force to leave a ten-foot wide, three-foot deep crater in the street where Ruthers had been. Had been, because the man had teleported aside at the very last possible instant. Any windows within several blocks that hadn’t already been broken were shattered by the thunder that had accompanied the lightning.

“How?” the man demanded once the echoes of the thunder had faded, his voice dark. “You’re not this strong. Not this fast. Not this powerful.”  As he spoke, a flick of the man’s hand animated one of the cars that had been tossed aside earlier. It rose on impossibly articulated wheels to lunge for Joselyn like a mechanized jungle cat, its front half opening to reveal jagged teeth-like shards of metal as the thing went for her.

It came within a foot before a thought from Joselyn opened a portal directly in front of herself. The mechanical beast flew through the portal to be dumped out somewhere else in the city.

“Guess we both got an upgrade, didn’t we?” she shot back, rising from her crouch to face him.

His head shook. “It doesn’t matter. A few tricks won’t save you, Atherby. I’m putting you down before you destroy our entire society, before your naivety dooms humanity.”

In answer, Joselyn raised a hand and twitched her fingers, beckoning him to keep trying.

With a blur of speed, he was on top of her once more. That time, as his fist lashed out, the concrete beside the man tore itself up and into a giant approximation of his arm and hand that was twice as large as the man himself. Both his real fist and the one that had been summoned from the pavement covered with ghost-fire to ensure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible. And each flew with a speed that would have made bullets in mid-flight seem to be standing still.

Joselyn’s hunga munga were abruptly in her hands as she dove forward and down, passing just beneath the swinging, ghost-fire covered concrete fist before popping up in time to catch Ruthers’ against one of her weapons. The other lashed out toward his throat, but he jerked his head back just in time.

The concrete fist was coming for her from the back, but a thought from Joselyn froze the thing solid, covered in a thick layer of ice. At the same time, she followed up her attack with another rapid series of swings from her throwing axes, forcing her opponent onto the defensive for a moment.

A snap from the man’s fingers froze time.

A blink from her restarted it.

A wave of his hand summoned a tornado of fire that tore its way through the street, melting steel and concrete alike.  

A flick of her finger turned the inferno of wind and ash to stone in the middle of the street.

The ground tore itself apart under her feet, revealing a pit a hundred feet below that was instantly filled with lava. The lava itself erupted into the air, sending a shower of molten rock flying up toward her even as Joselyn herself began to fall.

With a roar of triumph, Ruthers concentrated the lava into a single, powerful geyser. He sent it right up through the spot where Joselyn was. For ten full seconds, the former headmaster kept that up. The spray of molten rock rose a solid hundred feet into the air, and was at least twelve feet wide. It completely enveloped the woman throughout that time, even as the man surrounded the geyser with ghost-fire and several other measures to prevent her from escaping.

Finally, he released it, letting the geyser of lava fall back into its pool.

“Oh,” Joselyn announced as she hovered there in the air, looking utterly unsinged. “Did I forget to mention that I’m immune to heat? And that I can fly? Oops.”

Giving a bellow of frustration and disbelief, Ruthers launched himself into the air. He was a nearly invisible blur, flying so fast along the edge of the tallest nearby building that he created a miniature sonic boom in his wake.

And as he flew, the skyscraper itself ripped up out of the ground. The building tried to fall apart, but Ruthers held it together through sheer force of will, his telekinesis wrapping itself around the structure to keep it intact even as the thing was torn from its foundation to rise up with him.

High in the air above the city, the man inverted. The building hovered there beside him. With a thought, he sent it flying like a missile… straight… back… down. Fast enough to crack the sound barrier by itself, the four hundred foot tall, multi-hundred thousand ton structure careened toward the ground… toward Joselyn.

A point had to be made. So she launched herself straight at the building. Flying toward the thing, Joselyn let herself crash through the bottom, then through floor after floor until she had punched through the top.

She joined the hovering man in the air, even as the building-turned-missile hit the ground with enough force to collapse most of the structures around it.

“Impossible,” Ruthers spat the words, his disbelief at war with his blinding rage. The man was literally shaking. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This was wrong. It was all… all wrong.

“Remember this, Gabby,” Joselyn informed him, hovering thirty feet away. “As long as you keep murdering innocent people, as long as you keep blaming people who have done nothing wrong for your mistakes, as long as you destroy lives and turn families into terrified orphans and grieving parents, this will never end.

“And,” she added while raising a hand. “Anything you can do…” Her fingers snapped, erasing the anti-teleportation shield that had been erected around the city.

“I can undo.”

Then she was gone.

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Interlude 22B – Asenath and Lincoln

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“Now that,” Lincoln Chambers announced while sitting back in his seat at the kitchen table, “was a good gyro.” Tapping his cleared plate, he winked at Asenath, who was sitting across from him. “What do you think? They just opened last week, think they’ll stay in business?”

Senny nodded with a slight chuckle. “If they keep making food like that, for sure.” She winked at him then. “Now we just need some ice cream. Or are we supposed to go with Greek yogurt just to keep up the theme?”

“Actually, before we get to dessert, there was something else I wanted to try,” the man replied. He reached under the kitchen table, lifting up a metal box with a padlock on it to set on the table between them. After putting in the combination, he carefully opened the box to reveal several guns inside. The man silently ran his hand over the weapons with an almost reverent look before withdrawing a nine-millimeter pistol, turning it over in his hands.

Shifting slightly in her seat, Asenath raised an eyebrow curiously. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. I don’t think there’s a gun range that’s still open this late.” She smiled faintly. “At least, not in this town.”

He chuckled, head shaking. “I told you, it’s Lincoln, not Mr. Chambers. And it’s okay. I don’t need the gun range. What I want…” He paused, looking up to meet her gaze. “… is to test a theory.”

With those words, the man abruptly raised the pistol to point the thing at his own head. His finger tightened on the trigger as Asenath’s reactions kicked her up and out of the seat. She didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know if he had been enchanted, possessed, or if Ammon had gotten to him somehow, impossible as that seemed considering how much she and Twister were watching. But she couldn’t let this happen. She couldn’t let Flick lose her father, whatever it was.

With a blur of motion, she went up and over the table. Her hand snatched the pistol out of the man’s hand an instant before he would have finished pulling the trigger. The girl went from sitting in her seat to standing on the opposite side of the table with the gun in her hand in a split-second.

It wasn’t until then that Asenath felt the weight of the weapon that she was holding. The weight was wrong. It was light–too light. There was… Pausing as the realization came to her, she held the gun off to the side before pulling the trigger, once, twice, then a third time. Every pull resulted in a simple, definitive click. It was empty. There were no bullets in the magazine or the chamber.  

“Yeah,” Lincoln announced calmly as her eyes moved up to him. He hadn’t moved from his seat except to turn his head so he could watch her. “I kinda figured something like that would happen.”

“You… you were testing me,” Senny realized as she carefully laid the empty pistol on the table. Her stare never left the man. “Why? How did you–what?” For once, the vampire-girl was in uncharted waters. She’d never seen anything like this, not from an ordinary human, a Bystander.

In answer, Lincoln first reached into his jacket pocket before producing a small notebook. He tossed it onto the table and flipped the thing open, revealing that it was completely full of scribbled notes. As the man flipped through the pages, Asenath could see where parts had been scratched out, erased, amended, and more. She saw words and phrases like, ‘Immortal’, ‘Time-Traveler’, and where ‘Hostage’ had several lines drawn through it, with ‘Protected’ scrawled in beside it.

There were more, clearly the result of the man hurriedly scribbling notes here and there, every time a thought came to him. It was stream-of-consciousness writing, from a man who was clearly aware that he could lose his train of thought any moment. Or have the thoughts taken from him.

“I kept forgetting,” he announced quietly, patting the notebook. “Things I saw, stuff I noticed here and there. Conclusions, guesses, whatever you want to call it. It kept  going out of my head. But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. And when you’re a reporter, you know what you learn to do real quick if you’re gonna be any good at the job? Write stuff down. Oh, and–” Again, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a silver voice recorder. Hitting the play button, he held it up as his voice emerged from the thing to say, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”   

Pressing the stop button, Lincoln quietly added with a glance at the gun. “Guess I was right.”

Asenath was still reeling as he continued. “But I guess the thing that really made me wake up was probably this.” Picking up his nearby cell phone, the man carefully cued something on it before holding the phone up for her to see. On the screen, a video began to play. It was clearly an ancient video, at least as far as human technology was concerned. There were dark lines running through the screen and there was no sound in it. Even then, however, the view it was showing was clear enough. There was a hospital waiting room full of people watching a news report of the Kennedy assassination. And there on screen was a woman holding two infant children. Joselyn Chambers. Or, to be more accurate at that point, Joselyn Atherby. She was there, clearly shown in a video that had to have been taken at least ten years before she had supposedly been born.

“So like I said,” Lincoln went on once Asenath had seen enough of the video. “This is the one that really got me thinking. I started recording things, thoughts, ideas, everything. Then I kept forgetting them, but I’d find my notes later and remember. I started using this thing,” his hand indicated the voice recorder, “just to keep track of every thought I had. Started leaving notes for myself on my pillow, in my car, everywhere that I’d run into them. Thought I was going crazy for awhile. I mean, how could Jos be… how could she be that old a decade before she was born? It didn’t make sense. It was obviously fake. Obviously. Had to be fake. But I couldn’t figure out why. What was the point? So I sent it to a friend of mine in LA, a computer guy. I figured he’d tell me how it was fake, maybe pull some actual information off the video that might lead to answers about Jos. Like maybe she sent it, maybe she was trying to tell me something. There could be a message in it.”

He paused, raising his gaze to her again.  “But you know what he told me after he looked at it?”

After a moment of silence, Senny answered, “He said it was real, that it wasn’t tampered with.”

Lincoln gave a faint nod. “Yeah. He said he went over the whole thing backwards and forwards. And trust me, if there was anything fake in it, he would’ve found it. He’s good. Really good. So if he said it was real, it was real. Which is just…” his head shook quickly, “insane. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be real. Joselyn could not have been there in 1963. It just–it was wrong. Impossible. So how could the video be real? How? It couldn’t be real, because she wasn’t alive then, let alone that old. Back and forth, I just kept going back and forth. It couldn’t be real. But it was. It was. It was real, so I had to accept it. And to accept it, I had to figure out why. I had to figure out how.

“Then I started thinking that’s why she disappeared, you see? I figured that’s why Jos vanished, because she went back in time. She time traveled.  Yeah, I know, insane. That’s what I thought. But…” He waved the phone with the video on it. “It’s real. The video’s real, so there has to be an explanation. Time travel. It explains why she disappeared, why no one’s been able to find her.”

“You think your wife… went back in time?” Asenath asked slowly, her brow furrowing a bit.

“No.” Lincoln shook his head. “Not anymore. See, even then there was just too much that didn’t make sense. I mean, not that time travel itself made sense, but even within the context of that, there were too many questions. Too many things it didn’t answer. Especially when it came to you.”

“When it came to me?” Asenath echoed, head turning slightly as her curiosity rose even more.

He nodded. “You see, I know when Flick is keeping things from me. I know when she’s upset and won’t talk about it. I know when she’s… lying. She’s been getting better about it, but I can tell. I know my daughter.  And every time she talks about that school she’s going to, she’s lying. She doesn’t want to. I can tell that too. But she is. She’s lying about a lot of it. So if she’s lying, why?”

The man pushed himself back from the table then, finally standing as he let out a breath. “And the thing is, what are the odds that some mysterious school on the other side of the country suddenly recruits my daughter, full scholarship, she starts lying about it, and it’s not related to this video? I’ve seen her teacher, talked to her. I’ve seen all the pamphlets about this Crossroads, seen the website all about their campus. So if my kid is lying about it, then they’re all lying about it. And that kind of conspiracy, convincing Flick to lie, faking all of that, it’s too big not to be connected to this video. You see? Two things that big, an entire fake school and my wife being in this video, they had to be connected. Had to be. Because two things that big, that insane, couldn’t be separate.”

Standing there, he folded his arms across his chest while watching Asenath. “But if they were connected, then you had to be connected. You were here because of Flick.” He raised his chin to her. “But see, that’s what didn’t fit for a long time. I thought you were here to keep me in line, make me a hostage while… whoever’s behind that school convinced Flick to keep lying. But that didn’t make sense. Because she likes you. She really does, I can tell. And Shiori, Columbus, all of them. Even that professor of hers, the one that visited. She likes all of you, but she’s still lying.

“None of it made sense. She likes the school, at least, some of the people in it anyway. She’s obviously learning how to take care of herself. She’s stronger than she was. But she’s lying to me. Doesn’t want to, but she is. And then I figured it out. I realized why she’s been lying. It’s because she can’t tell me the truth.” His finger moved to touch his own head. “Because I’ll forget. Hell, for all I know, she has tried to tell me the truth. Me forgetting and her lying, they’re connected.”

The man let that sink in for a moment before he went on. “So the school, her teachers, her friends, all of that couldn’t be connected to time travel. But you know what it could be connected to?” He paused briefly, meeting Asenath’s gaze before answering his own question. “Immortals.”

That made Senny’s mouth open and shut a few times. “… immortals?” she managed weakly.

“Virginia Dare,” the man replied. “She’s not named for the girl at all. She is the girl, the woman. And the reason Jos can look like she’s the same age ten years before she was supposedly born as she was when I knew her, is because she is the same age. Dare, Jos, probably everyone at that school, they’re all immortals. Or, if not immortal, they live a long time. My guess is so that they can fight people like you.” He paused, his eyes taking in her reaction. “… vampires, that is.”

Before she could even start to form a coherent thought, let alone reaction to that, Lincoln continued. “Super speed, you’re really strong, and an allergy to sunlight? Yeah, even with the doctor’s note, that one wasn’t hard to pick up on. So the way I see it, there’s these people that Jos comes from. Immortal or just live a long time, I don’t know. Whatever it is, she was part of them. And they fight, well, people like you. Vampires, maybe other things, I don’t know. Only bad ones. Jos was part of it, but she ran away. I don’t know why, but she left. She took off. Maybe the kids she had back then, the ones in the video… maybe something happened to them and she couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know. Either way, my guess is that she came here and made a new life, the life she had with us. But one of those people she used to fight found her. They took her away.

“Fast forward a few years, and those people, Jos’s people, they come and recruit Flick. They take her into their school, start teaching her how to take care of herself. And they tell her about her mom. They tell her that this bad guy has her. That’s why she’s there. That’s why she’s so much stronger now, because they’re teaching her, they’re training her. And that’s why she’s suddenly… that’s why she’s not mad at her mom anymore. Because she knows that Jos was abducted, that she didn’t choose to leave. So Flick’s there because she wants to save her mom. And she’s not telling me about it because she thinks I’d just forget all of it. That’s why she’s been lying about it.”

Slowly, the man reached up to the nearby fridge to take down a newspaper article that had been clipped there. “And you’re here… because of this.” He showed her the article. It was about the supposed ‘terrorist attack’ in the city several months earlier. “Flick’s birthday. It’s her birthday, she’s back from that school, and something like this happens? It had to be connected. Had to be. So the way I see it, it’s this guy.” From his pocket, he drew out another picture. It was the picture that Senny and Flick had seen pinned up on the board in Lincoln’s office, the one that had been taken from the bad surveillance footage that showed Fossor himself.

“That’s the guy who took my wife,” the man announced flatly, confidently. “And he came here on Flick’s birthday to threaten her. All those attacks, those were warnings. Telling her to back off. And that’s why you’re here now. You’re part of the school, whatever it really is. You’re part of it, and Flick asked you to come and stay with me. You’re not keeping me hostage. You’re protecting me.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were holes in his assumptions, yet other conclusions that he had reached relatively correctly with very little to go on. And yet, none of it made sense. He shouldn’t have been able to remember any of what he was doing. It shouldn’t have been that easy. The shock of it, the utter confusion of a Bystander being able to both retain enough information to know that something was off and to put it together as close to accurately as he had, was enough to stun the two-hundred year old vampire into silence. For a moment, Senny just opened and shut her mouth. “What–how did… how…”

“I told you,” the man replied simply, “I’m a damn good reporter.”

Again, her mouth opened. But before she could actually say anything, something else caught her attention. Footsteps. They were coming from outside, yet from more than one direction. The house was being approached from both sides. A moment later, her nose caught the scent.

Werewolves. At least four of them, maybe more. They were approaching the back door and the one at the front. And from their pace, they weren’t exactly planning on stopping to knock.

She moved. Even as the terrible crash came as the two sets of werewolves kicked either door in, Senny was already in the front hall. Her foot caught the door there, slamming it back the other way just as the massive figure there tried to stomp his way inside. The door took him in the face, making him snap backward. It only gained a couple of seconds, but seconds mattered right then.

“Twist!” she shouted while blurring her way back through the kitchen to the back door. “Code fur!”

Two werewolves were there, already pushing their way in through the shattered door. One of them saw her and snarled, “Vampire bi–”

That was as far as he got before Senny reached the kitchen knives. Her hands snatched two from the wooden container, and she gave them a quick toss that left one embedded in the scraggly-haired man’s shoulder and the other in the arm that he was reaching for her with.

He screamed, jerking backward with a look of disbelief at the knives embedded in him. Knives that were actual silver, since Asenath had spent her time in the house gradually replacing the old stainless steel knives with new ones that would actually get the job done if they needed to. Just in case.

“You got real bullets for that thing?” she snapped over her shoulder at Lincoln. “Load it!”

Even as she finished talking, one of the other wolves behind the one she had put the knives in shoved his companion out of the way. He gave her a brief smile that showed a mouthful of fangs before lunging forward. At the same time, fur began to sprout up over the man’s exposed skin, and he grew taller, shifting into his half-man, half-wolf form.

By that point, Senny had two more knives in her hands. She met the werewolf’s charge by leaping up and backward onto the far side of the table. An instant later, she kicked it forward, sending the table into the werewolf’s stomach with enough force that the table itself was broken. But it also doubled the man over enough that she was able to drive one of the knives up through his throat and into his brain.

Four deafening gunshots, all fired in rapid succession, filled the air then. From the corner of her eye as the wolf she had killed collapsed, Senny saw the one from the front door standing there in the kitchen entrance with four bullet holes in his chest. Unfortunately, the bullets themselves weren’t silver or magic (she really wished they had some Heretic bullets right then), so the wounds were barely enough to make the big werewolf pause. Then, with a snarl, he started forward.

That was when the bear showed up. Taking up most of the front entranceway, the enormous shaggy creature lashed out a furry paw that caught the wolf across the face and sent him flying sideways.

Twister. She was up, which made this whole thing a little easier. Survivable, at least.

Another werewolf from the front, this one in actual wolf form, joined in the attack, rushing in to save his partner even as the Twister-bear turned to face them both. At the same time, two more wolf-men shoved their way in. They saw their dead partner while the one with knives in his arm and shoulder bellowed, and came for Senny.

One werewolf dead, one injured. Two more there at the back. At least two at the front. Six werewolves. This was a full scale assault. They were there to either kill Lincoln, or take him.

Senny wouldn’t let that happen. Even as the first wolf reached her, she jerked sideways to avoid his claw-filled hand as it lashed out. A quick swipe of the knife drew a line of blood from the arm, as well as a snarl of pain from the wolf himself.

The second wolf went for her from the other side, forcing the vampire to keep an eye on both of them. They were fast, impossibly so. But so was she. And she had far more experience than either. Probably more experience than both combined.

But they were still werewolves. And she had to keep half an eye on Lincoln, making sure he was behind her. One of the wolves, after a flurry of blindingly quick swipes, managed to smack the girl upside the head. It was a glancing blow, but from the wolf, it still knocked her back a step. And that was enough for the second wolf to nail her in the stomach with a kick that knocked her right into Lincoln. Both stumbled, falling against the counter.

“Werewolves?” he blurted, staring at the girl while catching her arm. “And is that a fucking bear?!

“Oh sure,” Senny retorted. “You’ve figured out I’m a vampire and you think your wife and daughter are some kind of immortal hunters, but the bear startles you.” Pausing, she added, “Anyway, the bear’s on our side.”

“Look, vampire bitch.” The wolf that she had injured had entered the room then, making it three werewolves facing her. “We’re taking the Bystander. You can let us do it and keep breathing–or whatever you cunts do, or you can–”

“I think that’s enough.” The voice came from the open doorway at the back. As everyone’s eyes turned that way, a lone figure stepped through. A figure that sent all of Senny’s danger senses about Heretics into a screaming fit.

She was an almost achingly beautiful black woman, who radiated power as she stood there. “You may run,” she informed the gathered werewolves, “or–”

They lunged for her. With a collective howl, all three of the werewolves there in the kitchen went for the woman as one pack, rushing her together.

Unfortunately for them, all that meant was that they failed together.

The woman pursed her lips and blew out a white cloud that enveloped the wolf directly in front of her. In an instant, he was frozen solid, a statue of ice.

At the same time, she moved, her form flowing as smoothly as if it was water flowing through a river. Gracefully sidestepping the second wolf, she brushed a hand over his side. At her touch, he turned to stone.

By that point, the third wolf was leaping up and into the air with his claws raised. The Heretic gave a quick nod of her head, and the figure was caught by an invisible force that sent him flying backwards. Just before he would have hit the wall, a half dozen sharp, clearly silver spikes emerged from it. The wolf-man gave a pathetic yowl as he was impaled through on all of them.

Impossible as it seemed, through all of that, the first werewolf hadn’t yet hit the ground. Frozen solid, he was still in mid-fall at the moment that the third wolf was impaled on the wall.

The Heretic turned, catching the falling, frozen wolf by the back of the neck before using her considerable strength to slam him into the counter. He hit with enough force that his frozen head exploded.

It was at that moment that the wolf who had been turned into stone at her touch landed on the floor. In the same motion that she had used to turn while shoving the frozen wolf-man’s head against the counter, the Heretic brought her foot down hard on the stone-wolf. The blow shattered the figure into dozens of pieces.

“Or die,” she finished her earlier statement, the entire ‘fight’, if it could even be called that, having taken roughly two and a half seconds.

“Wolves at the front are done!” Twister announced, having shifted back into her human form as she came into the kitchen. “How are we–” She paused, taking in the sight around them before her eyes found the woman. “What… the he–oh shit!” Jumping back, she shapeshifted into a squirrel before landing on Asenath’s shoulder.

“Uhhh…” Lincoln was shakily holding the gun up, pointed at the woman. “Okay. Okay, those were werewolves. Werewolves. And you–you’re…”

“Heretic,” Asenath finished for him, her eyes on the woman. “And not just a Heretic. You’re…  you’re a…”

“Part of the Committee,” the woman confirmed. “My name is Calafia. And you are Asenath. And Twister, I presume.”

“Flick,” Lincoln quickly put in. “You–you’re part of Flick’s school, part of Jos’s people, the immortals.”

“So close, Mr. Chambers,” the woman spoke easily. “You are so very close right now. I’m impressed. I thought it would take you longer to reach these conclusions, even with the weakened Bystander Effect.”

“Weakened Bystander Effect?” Asenath’s gaze snapped that way. “How do–wait… you. You did it. It’s you–you’re the reason he’s remembering. You weakened it, you let him… you let him remember, but why? What the hell are you doing?”

The profoundly dangerous woman simply inclined her head. “Let’s just say I owe Joselyn Atherby a great deal, and leave it at that for now. But yes. I was the one who informed Gabriel Prosser of where he could locate Joselyn to begin with. I also sent him the video of Joselyn in the hospital from our secure archives and asked him to make sure that Mr. Chambers received it.”

“But… but…” Asenath was floundering. “You’re–you’re part of the… you’re one of… you’re…”

“As I said,” Calafia spoke calmly, “I owe Joselyn more than I can ever repay. But to start, allowing her husband to learn the truth, that was something that was within my capability. Yet, to ensure that none of my… colleagues recognized what was happening, I could not break the Bystander Effect. I could only weaken it. He had to work through the rest of it himself, on his own. As I said, I expected it to take longer.” She turned slightly to look at the man. “You are a very surprising man, Lincoln Chambers. Joselyn chose well, even under… her circumstances.”

“My wife.” Lincoln took a step that way, the pistol falling to his side. “You know what happened to my wife. You know the man–you have Flick, you have–tell me what–tell me–” He seemed choked up, frozen and incapable of deciding what he wanted full answers to first.

“I’m afraid I cannot stay here,” Calafia informed them. “My presence will be noticed before long. You need to leave. The wolves will return, in greater numbers. I’m afraid Felicity has… angered them. They were retaliating, and it’s not a retaliation that will stop any time soon. You need to leave this place, stay on the run until the pack and those behind it are dealt with.”

“But I need to know!” Lincoln snapped. The poor man’s face was red as he fought to cope with everything he was seeing, everything that was being revealed to him. “I need to know about my wife, about my daughter, about what’s really going on! I want to talk to Felicity.”

“Go,” Calafia repeated, before her eyes fell on Asenath. “And tell him the truth. He’s close, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. You can tell him the rest of it. He’s broken through the Bystander Effect enough to retain it by this point.

“Tell him everything.”  

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Interlude 18B – The Committee

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September 3rd, 2017 (The day before school began)

The room was a perfect circle, with a floor of glistening white marble, walls of polished emerald, and a vaulted ceiling that displayed the sky through a holographic representation. In the middle of the room, centered precisely, sat a circular table that was about half the size of the room itself. Twelve chairs were arranged around the table at equal distances from each other, none raised higher than any of the others.

At each of the four compass points in the room, there was a heavy, thick iron door. Softly glowing magical runes of privacy and protection were activated on those doors whenever, like now, the occupants carried on their often heated conversations and debates over the running of their society.

“We have been over this time and time again,” Gabriel Ruthers announced from his place at the circular table. A glass of amber liquid sat in front of him, and he took a smooth pull from it before continuing. “Whether or not the girl is a threat, it would be absurd for us to use our resources to turn her into one.”

Directly across from him, a man who would have looked at home in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as one of the titular pirates sat stroking his beard. His voice was like gravelly thunder that filled the room. “Where I’m from, we don’t go blaming the sins o’the parents on all the little ones. That way lies terrible things. Which of us could stand up to moral scrutiny over not just everything we’ve done, but everything all our ancestors did way back through history? At what point do we draw the line, eh?”

“At the point, Teach,” Ruthers addressed him, “that it risks allowing a girl into our society and among our children who may be an agent conditioned by her terrorist mother to destroy our civilization.”

“Edward raises a fair point, Gabriel.” Beside Ruthers to his left, a pale and pristinely beautiful auburn-haired woman spoke. “We have no evidence that Joselyn Atherby has had any contact with her daughter within the past decade. Conditioning a child like that takes far more than a secret visit now and then that we don’t even have any actual evidence of. And given the reports we’ve received about the girl’s attitude concerning her mother’s absence, I find it difficult to believe that they are secretly allied.”

Before Ruthers could speak, the woman on his other side spoke up. Her darker skin revealed her Native American ancestry, and she looked old. They were all old, but she looked it more so than the rest of them. Her face was lined with more wrinkles than belonged on a normal person. Yet despite that, every motion she made was filled with life and energy. At that moment, she was pointing at the pale woman.

“You have a son in the school this year, Sophronia,” she chastised. “You should want to protect him.”

The other woman shifted in her chair, giving her colleague a hard look. “I do. And I’m the one who decides what Zeke needs protection from. At this point, from what I’ve seen and heard in those reports, being around someone like this Chambers girl may do him some good. Your argument only holds water if we believe that she’s a threat. I don’t happen to believe that, so you’ll have to try something else.”

Another man across the table, sitting beside Teach, cleared his throat. He was an exceedingly handsome black man with finely chiseled features and the smooth voice of an old jazz singer. “I’m sure Litonya wasn’t trying to question your parenting choices, Sophie. We’re all just very close to the situation. Which, if you think about it, is another point against the Chambers girl. If we can’t even agree on whether or not to allow her into the school, how will we agree on what to do if she doesn’t work out?

“Besides,” he added, “blood is blood, and she is her mother’s daughter. Her loyalty will be to her.”

Beside him, Teach twisted a little in his seat to squint at his neighbor with a clearly disbelieving look. “You of all people should know that family doesn’t always mean loyalty, Geta. How long did your brother let you share the throne with him after Septimius died? Less than a year? You really think this Chambers girl is some kind of secret plant by her mother after they haven’t even talked in a decade?”

Geta’s fist came down on the table. “That is immaterial,” he thundered back. “You know as well as I do that Caracalla was manipulated by one of the very same Strangers that we are charged with protecting our world from. His decisions were not his own, and I would not be at this table today if I hadn’t fought against the creature who took my brother’s sanity. Losing my brother was my first sign of the evil of Strangers. And I have seen far too many such signs over these centuries to risk allowing the same kind of dangerous treason to rise up in this society again after we worked so hard to remove it the first time. Do you really want to risk another war, just to allow one girl to enter our society? I have nothing directly against the Chambers child, but she is perfectly safe where she is. There is no reason to bring her into Crossroads. Maybe she is an agent of her mother and maybe she isn’t. But the benefit of her inclusion is far too small when compared to the risk that she either is a threat or may become one.”

Another woman, her Spanish ancestry apparent in her features, spoke from her place to the left of Sophronia. “That’s getting too close to straying from the point of today’s meeting. We aren’t here to discuss the nature of Strangers, only whether Felicity Chambers should be allowed into Crossroads.”

As Ruthers opened his mouth, the man who sat to Geta’s left interrupted. “Well, maybe we should discuss it, Elisabet.” His long blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and the man wore a tee shirt advertising some modern Bystander musical group called the Ramones. “Because as some of us have tried to tell the rest of you for a long ass time now, there’s more to Strangers than we allow to be taught. And if we could just be open to entertaining some of what Atherby was teaching, we might be able to-”

“That is quite enough, Percival.” The disgust and annoyance in Elisabet’s voice was palpable. “This discussion isn’t an excuse to bring up that old lie. Strangers are incapable of living in harmony with humanity. They see us as prey, and any indication otherwise is a trick.” Her hand rose to point at him. “And don’t forget, we may have voted to allow such insane words to be spoken in this room, but if there is ever any indication that you or anyone else has been spreading them to the rest of our people…”

Teach grunted with annoyance of his own. “Sure, sure. Wouldn’t want the people to know that we can’t even agree on whether Miss Big Bad Terrorist Leader was right or not. It might confuse the poor dears.” His words were dripping with sarcasm, even as he grabbed the bottle of rum in front of him to take a long drink from before slamming it back down on the table. “Sure as hells wouldn’t want that.”

To Teach’s right side, a rotund, heavyset man who clearly hadn’t actively fought for many years scooted his chair a short distance away from his neighbor. “Do we need another vote to show you that you lack the numbers to enact any such change, Edward?” he asked while polishing his glasses on his shirt.

“A vote proves nothing, Oliver.” Teach snapped. “Not within this body of stubborn fools. If you want to see proof that there can be decent Strangers out there, you need to get out and interact with them, not sit in this room blowing smoke up each other’s arses. When was the last time any of you lot took the time to talk to something not-human before you shoved a sword in its gut? Never? That’s what I thought.”

Still cleaning his glasses, Oliver made a haughty sound before setting them back on his face. “Careful, old pirate. Keep talking like that and someone might think that you’re going back to your old ways.”

Teach just gave the man a dirty look. “Lucky for me,” he grunted, “as Elisabet already mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with bringing up the subject in this room. And you know full well why we made that rule. Cuz if we didn’t, you’d have a fight on your hands. And the Committee fighting looks bad.”

“It’s a fight you would lose, Edward.” The admonishment came from a young-looking Asian woman who sat to the left of Percival. Her features were more handsome than pretty, though her strikingly violet eyes definitely made her stand out. “The few of you who believe such complete nonsense do not have the numbers to even cause a tie within our ranks, let alone to affect actual change in policy. Which also means that, if we were to engage in combat, your side would certainly not survive for very long.”

Sophronia spoke up while Teach was still starting to react. “Is that a threat, Jue?” Her voice, while calm, was laced with warning as she lay both palms down on the table. “Because I believe you’ll find that, while there may be only a few of us who believe that peace with Strangers may eventually be a possibility, we are far from weak. If you wish to threaten us, you may come to regret such a decision.”

“Enough, enough.” Between Jue and Litonya, a man who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack with his thick beard which rivaled Teach’s, and dark red and black checkered shirt shook his head. “We’re not here to threaten each other. That’s the entire reason we voted to allow this kind of discussion, so that it wouldn’t keep falling to threats and violence. If the people outside this room understood how often we almost go at each other’s throats, they’d lose all confidence in us. So let’s try to stay civil.”

“Davis is right,” Oliver agreed, though his tone made it clear that he disliked the other man. “So we’ll settle this before it gets out of control again. Let’s see a show of hands. Who among us believes that there is any merit in Atherby’s old claims, that Strangers either are or can somehow be taught morality.”

Ruthers tried to stop it, but around the table, three hands were raised: Teach, Percival, and Sophronia.

“You’re all insane.” The words came from the left of Elisabet, where a man who could have stood in as a body double for the mythological Thor if his hair had been red rather than black sat. His fist hit the table hard. “I think the girl should be allowed into the school, because she hasn’t done anything wrong and her rebel mother hasn’t even talked to her for years. But the idea of good Strangers is just… it’s insane. We’ve all seen the depravity Strangers get up to when we aren’t there to hold them in check.”

Next to the big man, to his left, an almost astonishingly attractive black woman laid a hand on his arm gently to stop him from going on. “I don’t think now is the time for that kind of argument, Sigmund. Our emotions already run high because of the Felicity Chambers discussion. Let’s not get off track with insults and threats about a subject that we already know is not going to be settled any time soon.”

“The subject has been settled, Calafia” Ruthers pointed out a little testily. “Not everyone has to agree for a subject to be settled. This committee has long-since established that a majority vote binds all of us to it, since before almost any of us were actually a part of it. We may disagree in here, but out there, we present a united front. It’s the only way to lead our people. And the majority agree that Crossroads cannot afford another Atherby-like rebellion. It would destroy our civilization and allow Strangers to run rampant. To that end, I insist upon a vote. Do we allow Atherby’s daughter into our school? Do we take the risk of subjecting both our students and our entire society to another civil war so soon after the last one was finally put to rest? Like all of you, I hold no personal grudge against the child. But she is a potential threat. And further, there is no particular benefit to her recruitment. She brings nothing of importance to the table, and the potential downsides are far too numerous to explain here. So, let’s vote and get this over with.” As he finished speaking, Ruthers finished the last of the contents of his glass.

The lumberjack, Davis, nodded. “I agree. Let’s have a vote and see where we all stand on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” Litonya agreed. “Let’s say… if you believe that this Felicity Chambers should be allowed to enter Crossroads, despite the dangers related to her mother’s rebellion, raise a hand.”

The first hand to rise was that of Edward Teach, who scowled across the table at Ruthers rather pointedly. It was followed almost immediately by Sophronia’s hand, entirely unsurprisingly. After a couple more seconds of silence, two more hands were raised practically simultaneously as Percival and Calafia joined the other two. And for a moment, it seemed like that’s where the vote would fall, with only four of the twelve Committee members choosing to accept Felicity Chambers into Heretic society.

Then Davis lifted his own hand with a soft grunt and shrug, raising the vote in her favor to five. And a second after that, the count turned to six as the others were joined by Sigmund, the massive viking.

That was where they stood. There may have only been three members of the Committee who held any belief in Atherby’s claims of the potential for Strangers to be good: Edward Teach, Sophronia/Sophie Leven, and Percival. But the other three, Davis, Calafia, and Sigmund, believed that Felicity should be given a chance in the school even if they didn’t believe her mother’s claims.

Ten seconds passed then, as the Committee members looked at one another that way before Jue shook her head. “Is that where we stand now? A vote of six to six? Do we need to go over the facts with all of you again? Do we need to discuss the kind of damage that this Chambers girl could do to our society if she is working with her mother? Might I remind you all that some of your own friends and descendants were killed in the war that Joselyn Atherby started. Do you all want to live through such a thing again?”

Percival, still standing out in his ridiculously modern clothing, spoke up. “And do we need to remind you lot that Chambers didn’t do anything wrong, and hasn’t had contact with her mother for, again, a decade. What the hell kind of long-con game do you think she’s playing?”

That sparked another argument that lasted for a solid ten minutes before things settled enough to vote again. And again, they were tied. So they argued some more.

“It seems that we simply are not going to be able to come to an agreement,” Calafia remarked after their third such vote with absolutely no change in the result. “We are dead-locked, six to six. And from the sound of each other’s passionate arguments, none of us are going to be convinced to switch sides.”

“You know what that means,” Teach pointed out, unable or unwilling to hide his amused expression. “If we’re tied, it’s the leader of the school that gets to decide whether to accept the new student or not.”

“Gaia Sinclaire.” Litonya’s dislike of the woman was evident in her voice and pinched expression of annoyance. “And we all know how she’ll vote. She was too soft on Atherby in school and she’ll be too soft on her child. The woman is too soft in general. We can’t simply pass that kind of decision to her.”

“First of all,” Sophronia spoke up. “I would dearly love to see you call Gaia soft to her face, Litonya. I think the results would be… amusing. And Prosser knows, we could use a little amusement right now.” She smiled a little at the thought before continuing. “And second of all, you can’t simply refuse to follow the rules because you know they’ll go against you. We’ve voted five times now, and all five times they’ve come out to a tie. Therefore, the current head of the school is allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote. And the current head of the school is Gaia Sinclaire, which means she casts the vote, regardless of her established opinion.”

Geta straightened in his seat, letting out an audible sigh. “As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point. I disagree with how this vote will go, but I won’t stand against it. We’ve failed to come to a consensus ourselves, so it’s up to the Headmistress to decide, even if we know how that will end up going.”

“Indeed,” Elisabet confirmed with a look toward Ruthers. “And we all know who to thank for Sinclaire ending up where she is.”

Ruthers, for his part, stared around at the other members of the Committee. His bulldog expression hardened and twisted as he obviously fought to find the right argument. All he had to do was convince one of the others to turn. Teach, Sophie, and Percival were hard set against him, so it would have to be one of the other three. Yet even as his mind desperately sought the right words to change their minds, he knew it would be useless.

The vote would stay tied, which meant that Gaia would make the final decision. And as they all knew, that decision would not be in his favor.

Felicity Chambers was coming to Crossroads.

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