Calafia

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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