Davis

Interlude 10B – Committee Meeting (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who do not read Summus Proelium to have already gotten this notice, the non-canon chapter for Heretical Edge was released over the weekend and can be found right here. Wanna see Haiden end up in the world of superheroes? Feel free to check it out!

Deep within an ancient forest, whose trees had stood since before humanity had truly understood the concept of civilization (though that understanding had yet to come for many), a small clearing held twelve figures, who stood in a perfectly formed circle facing one another. Each remained equidistant apart by several feet, far enough that they could all stretch their arms in every direction without coming close to touching one another. The figures stood in pitch darkness. Not even the moon or stars penetrated this clearing despite their existence and the clear sky. Yet despite the lack of any actual illumination, each of the twelve gathered there together could see one another as perfectly as though they had been standing in broad daylight. 

“You should have called the rest of us in.” At the eleven o’clock position, Litonya’s voice spoke up, holding traces of disgust and admonition. “Defeating the Necromancer was a triumph. Yet allowing the traitors to do the bulk of the work, then gathering them up once the deed was done? That would have been a master stroke. Ending both threats in one fell swoop.” 

Directly across from the ancient Native American woman, at the five o’clock position, Edward Teach spoke up. “Why does it not surprise me that the concept of honor entirely eludes you?” 

Geta, who stood to Litonya’s left in the exact twelve spot, gave a low and humorless chuckle that filled the pitch-black space around them. “Are we to be lectured on honor by the old pirate? What’s next, shall we look to Calafia for an explanation of the Bystander staryacht program?” 

Calafia herself, who stood at the six o’clock spot straight across from the old Roman Emperor, spoke in a dark voice of her own. “Perhaps your jibes would strike home more if you knew they referred to such things as spaceships, not staryachts.” She gave a slight smile, teeth visible to all around her. “Just a suggestion. Knowing less than I do about such a subject does tend to detract from your overall point.” Pausing pointedly, she added in a curious tone, “Which was?” 

One of their two newest members, the gigantic (he topped out at a full seven feet) bear of a man called Antaeus, with his thick dark mustache, long dark hair peppered with gray, and piercing gaze, spoke up from his position to Geta’s left at one on the clock. “His point,” he rumbled in a voice that was boiling over with derision and impatience, “was that we don’t need to hear about honor and loyalty and whatever the fuck from some old pirate bastard. What we need to do is talk about why this whole rebellion thing is still a problem after we could’ve put a stop to it.” 

His words were met by a scoff from Percival. The former knight was standing to Calafia’s left, at seven o’clock and across from Antaeus. “So you people are suggesting that we respond to the Rebellion’s aid in defeating one of the most evil, monstrous threats that has ever faced humanity, by betraying and descending upon them in an ambush once they were exhausted. What a remarkably brilliant way to demonstrate our virtues as the true saviors of our people.” 

Sigmund, the enormous ancient Norseman, made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, spitting at his own feet from where he stood at three o’clock. “Betray? You wanna talk about betrayals, nobleman? Those fucking rebels are the gods damned traitors, and they deserve anything they get.” He jabbed a finger that way, his voice darkening even more. “Let’s be clear. This ain’t Camelot. And I don’t see any King Arthur around anymore. We’re here to protect humanity, not get praise and play shining beacons of light and goodness. You see the monsters out there. You know what we’re dealing with. You know what those things are gonna do when they see the opportunity these traitors are handing them. They’ll help tear our entire society apart, break us, and turn humanity into their feasting grounds. You wanna make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we have to stop the traitors soon. Whatever it takes. Even if that means doing the dirty shit that makes us look like the bad guys. We end it, period.” 

From the eight o’clock position to Percival’s left, Sophronia cleared her throat. “And in so-doing, undoubtedly drive even more of our own people away as they see the depths to which we are willing to stoop. Do you not see how the simple factual information of how we acted to end the previous rebellion has driven even more potential allies to be our enemies? You cannot end this sort of situation with a hammer. You cannot force every person to be too afraid of rebelling, and still count on them to stand against true evil. You cannot put a whip to the backs of those we are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with. It will not work. It cannot work.”

“You’re right.” That was Ruthers, who stood to Litonya’s right at ten o’clock. “The worse we can be perceived as acting, the more it will push others to join the Rebellion. Especially with their… allied Strangers playing nice. If those on the fence between our two sides see Strangers behaving honorably for the Rebellion while we act as monsters, it will tear our society apart even more than it already has been.” 

To his right (and Sophronia’s left), Davis Neal, who was dressed in a modern black suit rather than his usual lumberjack outfit (he’d even shaved his beard, making the man look almost unrecognizable), raised an eyebrow toward the man beside him while speaking in an even voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost sympathizing with them, Gabriel.” 

His words were met by a sharp glare from the man in question. “Hardly, Davis. I am not sympathizing with traitors. But nor am I blind to the mistakes of the past. I see how those among us have reacted to the flood of information given to them by Sinclaire’s spell.”

“Speaking of which.” The next pointed words came from the handsome Asian woman known as Jue, who stood at the two o’clock spot to Antaeus’s left. Once everyone’s attention was on her, she continued. “It occurs to me that our entire purpose behind recruiting and promoting our other newest member was to handle that particular situation.”

“Yes,” Davis agreed, looking across the circle to the sole remaining figure, who had yet to speak. “That’s what we got her for, and as far as I can tell, there has been no actual movement on that point. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps she can address that?”

The question was met with a moment of silence, as all attention moved that way to follow her gaze. Finally, the single newest member of the Committee straightened. The crimson hood with gold trim that had covered their head to leave their face in even deeper (supernatural) shadows than the already extant darkness fell back to reveal an olive-skinned figure of dark, curled hair and mismatched eyes, one green and the other blue. It was impossible, whether through a glance or extended evaluation, to entirely discern the sex of the person. They were either a quite handsome woman or a beautiful man, a fairly androgynous figure, all told. 

The newcomer spoke toward Davis in a voice that possessed a remarkably dream-like, echoey quality. “I am not he, nor she, but they. On this, I insist no sway.” 

“But there’s still only one of you, right?” Antaeus put in as the Committee’s other newest admission. “You’re not keeping some kind of rabbit in your pants or something, magician? Sorry, I just don’t know how to keep up with all this new shit.”

Regarding their fellow newcomer coolly, the cloaked figure replied, “You are no older than I, and what I am has always been. There are those who pretend we don’t exist, whether now or way back when.” 

Davis cleared his throat, shooting a glance toward the larger man before speaking. “Let’s try to focus on the matter at hand, huh? Jue’s right, we did recruit and promote our newest friend here for a specific purpose. One which… they are supposed to be quite adept at. Perhaps they can explain the situation?” 

Beside the androgynous figure, Teach spoke calmly. “They wanna know why you haven’t given us the keys to mind-fuck our entire population, Hecate. Cuz that worked out so well the last time.”

Litonya sharply interrupted, “No one is suggesting any… mind-fuckery.” She over-enunciated the last word, making her distaste for the tone apparent. “In fact, we specifically involved her–them,” she corrected belatedly, “to prevent the mental manipulation that Sinclaire has already engaged in.” 

Geta spoke in agreement, “That was the point, wasn’t it? We needed help erasing the spell that Sinclaire put on the Edge so we don’t get any more nasty surprises.” 

That had been an unpleasant realization, to find that not only had Gaia’s spell filled the minds of every living Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretic with her assorted collection of propaganda about the Rebellion and everything the loyalists had done to stop them, but it also did the exact same thing for all new recruits. Every time a person either went through the Lighthouse or ate one of Garden’s apples, their heads were flooded with that same rush of information. It was cheating, is what it was. Gaia Sinclaire, despite literally being magically frozen and utterly incapable of interacting with the outside world, was still managing to twist the minds of Crossroads students. If some of them hadn’t been so frustrated with the woman, they would have admired her for that. And some admired her anyway. 

Hecate spoke again, their voice still retaining its echoey/distant sound that made those who heard it feel as though they were listening through a dream. “Your requests have been clear. You seek a return to yesteryear. A wish to see Morgan’s magic revoked. A pity, such effect may not be retroact?” 

Shaking his head with a grunt, Geta flatly retorted, “We want you to use that mental magic you’re such an expert at to turn off Gaia’s spell. Stop it from interfering with our new recruits. They don’t need to get… all of that shoved into their heads right from the start, before we can even ease them into things. They are students. Don’t know why people keep romanticising how much the old traitor actually cares about the kids when she’s shoving magical propaganda in their heads. Seems to me if she actually cared about them she’d leave the kids out of it.” 

Ruthers cleared his throat, arms folded across his chest as he pointedly put in, “Her reasoning is immaterial. The point is, we need the spell either removed or modified. And you’ve now had weeks to examine it with the power boost being a member of the Committee provides. Tell us, is that something you can do? Can you erase the spell Gaia created so we can create new Heretics without shoving all that propaganda in their heads at the same time?” 

After a brief moment of silence, Hecate inclined their head before answering. “Such is perhaps possible. Yet it is your people who are suasible. Such efforts may spare the innocence of newer recruits, but the words are out there, and erasure never refutes.” 

“In other words,” Teach translated, “erasing the information isn’t going to make it magically better. Maybe you can stop them from having all the information about the Rebellion shoved into their heads the moment you put them through the lighthouse, but then what? You think they won’t find out about the Rebellion another way? Older students will talk. Other adults will talk. You think we don’t have Rebel sympathizers within the school right now, people who agree with them to one level or another but didn’t leave for whatever reason? Because if you do, you’re a fool.” 

Litonya started to respond to that, but Ruthers spoke up first. “I believe we’re all well-aware that this is a losing prospect. We need to get ahead of the curve and tell the students the story from our point of view, not allow Gaia’s words to get to them directly. We need to tell them that there are those who think… who believe differently, but they’re being manipulated.” 

“I’m sure that’ll go well,” Percival retorted in a dry voice. Shaking his head in obvious distaste, he sighed before turning to their newest member once more. “You said you can stop Gaia’s spell, turn it off? How long is that going to take? And what do you need to pull it off?” 

Hecate answered simply, their voice rising just a bit so that the ever-present echo grew to surround the assembled group throughout the clearing. “What is needed is time and much work. Fortunately, such ought not to irk. The spell’s damage for these students is wrought. Now a year to have a solution be sought.”  

“Yeah, you’ve got some time,” Sigmund confirmed with a grunt. “Personally, I’d prefer to get it dealt with sooner rather than later. But whatever. Do your job. What about the other business?” 

“There’s still no sign of Elisabet,” Sophronia announced. “And no indication of how or why she disappeared. She’s been entirely cut out of the Committee link. Whether that means she’s dead or not, I don’t know. But she was alive when the link was severed, we’ve put that much together. Beyond that, we have nothing, still. Months of investigation, and we have nought to show for it.” 

The heavy sigh in response to her words seemed to come from all of them at once, though it was Calafia who spoke. “She hasn’t left to join the Rebellion, we’d know about that by now. And they haven’t killed her. We would… know about that as well.” 

“What, then?” Jue demanded. “Some other player has stepped onto the board, only to remove one of our members with us having no clues of the who or how?” 

“The bodysnatchers, perhaps,” Geta put in. “It’s possible Elisabet found out more about them than they expected. Maybe they tried to take her and it went wrong, so they had to eliminate whatever was left.” His words were matter-of-fact, ignoring the looks he drew from a few of the others. 

“If she is alive, she will be found,” Litonya put in, sounding impatient that they were even bringing it up. “Continue putting resources toward locating her. In the meantime, there is still the pressing issue of the Rebellion. Which, it must be stated again, could have been ended by now had our people been alerted in time. I have heard that there were already those among the few who were brought there who were ready and willing to do so, yet were stopped.” Her eyes were on Ruthers to her right. 

With a sigh, the man shook his head. “I will not stand here and defend my choices again and again, Litonya. It would have been wrong to taint the victory over the necromancer with a betrayal. They are our own people. If we want to change their minds, we need to change them, not wait for them to be worn down fighting a battle against a greater evil and then take advantage. We will fight this war properly. If they engage us, we will defend ourselves. We will continue to hunt the monsters, and if the rebellion gets in the way, we will deal with them. But I will not be party to that sort of underhanded tactics against our own people.” 

“Is this a good time to bring up that we still have the option of the blood curse?” Sigmund started. “It would–” 

“No.” That was Ruthers, the single word snapped. “We are not going to use magic to enslave our own people.” 

Before responding to that, Sigmund and Litonya exchanged glances. The man moved his gaze around the circle to see the reactions of everyone present. Hecate remained impossible to read and a nearly complete unknown. But of the others, it appeared that the only ones who were for such a measure were himself, Litonya, Antaeus, and Geta. The last had been against the blood curse during the previous war, but apparently something had changed. 

Regardless, it wasn’t enough. Ruthers had shifted his opinion, and a total of four being in favor of using the curse would never pass. Even if they tried to explain it as a temporary measure… better to drop the issue. 

“Of course not,” he settled on replying smoothly after taking in the temperature of the group. “Best to ensure we’re all on the same page, that’s all. But if we’re reduced to arguing about what we could have done differently after the necromancer’s death, and have no further real information on Elisabet, I think we’re about done here for now.” 

There was a murmur of agreement, a few last exchanged words, and then the group broke apart. Litonya, Geta, Antaeus, Ruthers, Davis, Jue, Sigmund, and Hecate moved off together before splitting into smaller groups to begin leaving. 

Which left Sophronia, Percival, Calafia, and Teach standing alone, watching the group go. 

“We’re outnumbered,” Percival noted after ensuring they weren’t being spied upon. 

“At least they don’t have enough to push for the curse,” Teach pointed out. “Not sure what we’d have to do then.” He looked over to Calafia, adding, “What about your half-siblings? Any word from them?” 

The dark-skinned woman, in turn, offered him a slight smile. “According to Alexander and Cleopatra, the rebel Gardeners are still attempting to make their liberated vines work properly. There was an… issue with our friend deep under the sea.” 

That drew a collection of grimaces from all four, just as the approach of another drew their attention that way. After a moment, the approaching figure emerged from the surrounding trees to reveal themselves. 

“Hecate,” Sophronia greeted the newest Committee member in a faintly cautious tone. “You’ve returned. Done speaking to the others so quickly? Let me guess, they want you to use your mind magic to find out where the rest of us stand. And what we might be doing.”

There was a brief pause before the androgynous figure offered a simple nod. Their voice was dry. “They spoke, of course, only hypothetically.” The tone of their words in that last bit was tinged with amusement, a clear quote from the others. “And, in their eyes, always empathetically.” 

Clearing his throat, Percival spoke up carefully. “You’ve had time now, what do you think?” 

Hecate met his gaze, their own mismatched eyes studying him briefly before casually responding, “You were right, to allow your rivals to recruit me. They have given their trust absolutely. To their eyes I am working to erase Morgan’s magic. So sad, their assumptions prove tragic. This thing you ask will, in time, come to pass.”  

Teach let out a sigh of relief then. “You can really do it? I mean, I know you’re good, but it’s asking a lot.” 

“Morgan has opened the route,” came the response, “with the spell she brought about. Her magic touched the minds of all connected to that power, all of which I am now told to scour. The work I do to end the effect will do far more than they suspect. It will cease the feeling of fear and rage, stuff such manipulations in a cage. I will mute the urge to kill, to hunt. But not, perhaps, to be affront.” 

“They’re saying what I believe they’re saying, right?” Sophronia carefully asked, her voice quiet. 

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The others think Hecate’s working with the Edge to undo Gaia’s spell. They’re really using the opening to pass another effect through it. One to dampen the sensation all our people get when they see an Alter. If it works, Bosch Heretics won’t get the Stranger sense anymore, and Alters won’t get a sense when they see us either. 

“And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t have a fucking soundless voice screaming in our heads about what a threat the thing we’re looking at is, some of us might just have to start talking to each other.”

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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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Mini-Interlude 44 – Davis

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the character of Davis, the Committee member who is commonly referred to as ‘the lumberjack’ for his habit of wearing flannel shirts and his impressive beard.

July 17th, 1838

“Pa! Hey, Pa!”

Sixteen-year-old Davis Neal, a tall yet scrawny youth with gangly arms and ears that he had yet to grow into hopped the fence at the edge of his family’s property. They lived in the heart of Arkansas, the twenty-sixth and most recent territory to be granted statehood in the United States (Desoto had beaten them by only a few months), several miles outside of the tiny (and just recently incorporated) capital city of Little Rock.

With his fishing rod in one hand, and the day’s catch (three good-sized trout!) in the other, Davis called for his father once more while jogging up the path, past the paddock where Goodheart, the family’s lazy mare, was munching her food. He wanted to show off the fish.

Moving around the corner of the house toward the front porch, the boy stopped at the sight of three strange horses tied to the railing there. They were big, strong beasts, flanks sweaty from a long ride and laden down with a lot of supplies.

Blinking at the animals for a moment, Davis turned to look at the house, listening for a moment. He didn’t hear any voices coming from the window of the nearby parlor, where his father always entertained any company that came by. Maybe they were in the kitchen.

Knowing that he’d be due a whuppin if he went tearing in like a banshee in front of guests, Davis carefully opened the door, mindful of the squeaky hinge as he slipped through the gap. Now he could hear voices. But they weren’t coming from the kitchen as he’d assumed. Instead, they were coming from the room that he and his brother shared.

Davis’s heart sank a bit at that realization. The only times that his parents took guests into the boys’ bedroom was when they would be staying for awhile. Did this mean that he and Peterson were going to have to share a room with strangers?

With a sigh, he set the fish and rods down before carefully creeping that way. He was hoping to overhear something that would tell them how long the guests would be sticking around and praying it would only be for one night. As he reached the short hallway that led to his room, Davis leaned around the corner and listened intently.

The only voice that Davis could hear at that moment was that of his younger brother. Peterson seemed to be in the midst of a prayer. But why was he praying in the middle of the day with their parents and guests in the room? Squinting, the boy put his hand on the edge of the doorframe for balance and leaned in a bit more.

Unfortunately, the bit of wall where he put his hand felt sticky and wet. Blinking back that way to see what he’d put his hand into, the boy saw something horrific. The entire wall, from the doorjamb leading into the hallway, clear past the doorway into his bedroom, was smeared with fresh blood. Blood which led all the way into the dim corner that he hadn’t bothered looking toward when his focus had been solely on hearing what was going on in the other room. And as the boy’s eyes moved that way, he saw the body of his father, lying in a pool of what remained of his blood. His chest had been ripped open, leaving bits of bone and organs strewn about.

Before he could catch himself, Davis’s hand reflexively jerked away from the blood on the wall, and a strangled cry escaped him as he fell to the floor on his side. He landed hard, head just within sight of the open doorway into his room.

His mother’s body was there, lying next to his bed. It was torn open, identical to his father’s. A little further in, twelve-year-old Peterson knelt with three men crowding around him, mocking the boy as he continued to desperately pray for divine intervention.

Men. They didn’t look human. Two seemed part-wolf, with beastial features, extended claws, and visible fur. The third, meanwhile, had rough, scaled green skin like a lizard, and his solid red eyes were twice the size of a normal person’s.

All of their eyes, both Peterson’s and the three murderous monsters, turned toward Davis as he landed on the floor while crying out. At the sight of him, all three ‘men’ started to chuckle. Their predatory smiles grew, and the boy could only lie there, staring in horror as the lizard-man began to walk toward him. In the background, he could distantly hear his younger brother screaming his name, but it seemed to be coming from far away. All of Davis’s attention and focus was centered on the creature stalking his way.

He was going to die. He was going to die like his father and mother, torn open by these… these…

Thunder like none that Davis had ever heard filled the air. The lizard-man was blown backward, a good chunk of his upper body missing. A figure stepped over the prone boy, that of a man holding what looked something like a rifle with two wide barrels and an attached blade in between them that stuck out several inches beyond the barrels.

The two wolf-men were reacting by then. Abandoning their torment of Peterson at the sound of the gun, they spun that way. Seeing their companion’s body, the pair made unearthly howling sounds, lunging toward the attacker. One blurted a single word: Heretic.

A second deafening blast from that gun took one of the beast-men in the stomach. He staggered backward, while the other continued on. The man with the gun pivoted, snapping his rifle down and out. As he did so, the barrels flipped backward while the blade extended, turning the weapon into a sword with two gun barrels pointed back as if to act as handguards.

Continuing his pivot, the man allowed the charging figure to rush past him. It nearly reached the spot where Davis was lying, before that blade suddenly appeared as it was thrust into the creature’s back and all the way through his chest.

By that point, as that wolf-man stumbled to his knees, the other had risen once more despite the shot it had taken to the stomach. Instead of charging, it twisted to run for the window. The man, the Heretic, was ready for that, however. He twisted, yanking his gun-sword from the back of the first wolf before hurling it that way.

The wolf-man leapt out the window, disappearing from sight. But the sword didn’t simply fall to the ground or embed itself in the wall as Davis had expected. Instead, those gun barrels pointed themselves down, and some strange purple flame-like energy shot out of them. Rather than burn the floor, the energy lifted the sword over the edge of the windowsill. Once it was at the correct height, the barrels adjusted themselves to point fully backward, and then propelled the sword through the window. Then they adjusted themselves yet again to turn the sword, sending it out of sight.

A few seconds passed before a terrible squelching sound reached them, cutting off what had sounded like a scream. The Heretic made a noise that sounded a bit like enjoyment. Then the sword returned, covered in more blood. He caught it, pivoting back just as the wolf-man that he had gutted struggled back to his feet. A quick slice of the man’s blade took the creature’s head from its shoulders.

Almost before the body had finished falling, Davis was up and lunging for Peterson. He caught his little brother around the waist, pulling the sobbing boy against himself tightly. Both boys knelt there, practically lying in the blood of their dead mother, while the Heretic pushed the headless body of the wolf-man to the floor contemptuously.

“Evil beasts,” the man snarled, lowering his gun-sword as he turned to face the boys. His expression softened slightly, though he had the kind of face that made it impossible for him to ever actually look inviting or friendly.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured quietly then. “I am so very, very sorry, boys. I should have gotten here sooner. But I promise you, these things will not harm you or anyone else again.”

Peterson was too busy sobbing and clinging to Davis to actually say anything. The older boy stared up at their savior, stammering, “Ma…. Pa… those… those th-th-things. They were… they were…” He trailed off, frowning. The men… the men who had killed his parents. There was something off about them, wasn’t there? Why… ? Were they Mexican or Negroes? What was… what had they looked like? Why was it so hard to…

“Monsters,” the Heretic finished for him with a sigh. “Yes. Yes, they were. Come, let’s get you cleaned up. I won’t leave you alone here, you have my word.

“My name is Gabriel Ruthers. And I swear on my life, I will not let anything hurt you.”

******

December 5th, 1918

“This is impossible,” Davis, now a fully-grown man (yet still appearing to be in the prime of his life despite being nearly a hundred years old) announced. “They’re making a mistake.”

“No, my boy,” Gabriel Ruthers assured him, “it’s no mistake.” He beamed with pride, rubbing a hand over his own chin. “You’ve earned your reputation.”

Davis shook his head. “But I’ve only been a Heretic for about eighty years. How could the Committee possibly want to recruit me? They should want you. You’ve been around since before there was a Crossroads.”

Ruthers smiled, shaking his head. “My place is here, making sure the school runs smoothly and protecting the students. You’re the one who’s been making such a name for yourself, hunting down every target they give you. What was it at last count, an eighty-nine percent success rate? That’s extraordinary. And it’s why they want you. The Committee will put you in charge of tracking Strangers that have been eluding everyone else, and they’ll want you to teach others how to do what you do.”

Davis flushed at that. “I just do what you taught us, that’s all.”

“You do far more than that,” the other man insisted. “Don’t you be selling yourself short.” Tapping Davis against the head, he added, “So you go right back in there and tell them you accept the invitation. Do you understand? You’ve earned it.”

Swallowing hard, Davis lifted his chin. Despite being old enough to be a great-grandfather in human terms, he still saw Ruthers as a father-figure. Though not nearly as much as Peterson, who basically worshipped the ground the man walked on, did. Peterson would do anything for Ruthers after the man had saved their lives and killed the monsters who murdered their parents.

“Do you think I’m ready?” he asked, a little hesitantly.  

Ruthers gave a short nod, grunting, “Yes. You are. Now let’s go, they’ll be wondering what’s going on out here.”

The two turned, only to almost run into a first-year student. She was a pretty blonde with short hair, who came up short with a gasp as the two men nearly ran right into her. “Oh! Sorry, um, Headmaster. I was looking for Professor Pericles.”

Giving the girl a short look, Ruthers replied, “I believe he was down by the beach, the last time I saw him, Miss Atherby.”

“Oh!” the girl perked up, giving a little wave. “Thank you, sir!”

As she pivoted and darted off, Davis kept watching for a moment. “Did you say Atherby? That would make her–”

Ruthers gave a slight nod. “Yes, it would. With her onboard, we may be able to coax more of the clan to join us. Maybe even Prosser himself, given some luck. It would be… encouraging.”

Davis glanced back that way once more, watching the girl disappear in the distance. “I know it’s only been a few months, but do you think she’ll be a good student?”

“Oh yes,” Ruthers confirmed.

“Our most promising one in decades.”

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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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