Edward Teach

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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Triumph 10-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It had been on the cusp of night throughout the battle with Fossor, the quarry itself filled with shadows that had grown longer and blacker with each passing minute. Now, as we emerged through the opening in the forcefield, darkness had fully settled around the place. But the quarry itself was filled with enough lights from various bits of magic and powers that it might as well have been the middle of the day. But beyond the quarry, things were pitch-black.

There were also a lot more people here than had been present for the battle. I saw groups from Wonderland, more Fusion school people, and other rebel-aligned groups gathered up on one side. Meanwhile, Ruthers and those few other Committee people had been joined by a small army of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden loyalists. Everyone had formed up onto either side to stare one another down, with hushed, yet clearly heated discussions between groups.

That heated discussion, however, stopped instantly the moment my mother and I emerged with the others. As soon as we came into view, every bit of conversation stopped short, as their eyes turned to us. I felt the weight of hundreds of people staring at us. Some, on the side of the rebellion, were focused on my mother with expressions of joy and welcome, amazement at her presence and her survival. I saw a few raise their hands to their mouths in shock, tears visible.

That was when it really struck me. This wasn’t just about people who believed what my mother said. It wasn’t just about following her words because she was powerful and cunning, or because she happened to be the one in charge. This was beyond anything like that. They didn’t simply believe in her cause. They loved her. They loved my mother more than I could ever have truly understood before that moment. And seeing her right there after all the time that had passed (now that their memories were back) was akin to seeing their savior rise from the ashes. Their true leader, their champion, the one who had brought the original rebellion together, had come back. 

Meanwhile, the reaction from the loyalist side was far more mixed than the one from the rebellion. Looking that way, I saw some who looked sad. Whether because they hoped Mom had died, or were lamenting the side she had chosen, I wasn’t sure. There was also plenty of hatred, outright disgust, and other strong, nasty looks. But still others looked confused or uncertain. It seemed like they didn’t know exactly how to feel right then. 

That mixture of uncertainty, regret, hatred, and just… sadness made me hesitate, staring that way while the others all formed up behind us. I couldn’t actually feel other people’s emotions, of course. This was all just taken from reading the expressions on their faces. But I had a pretty strong impression that if I could feel what they felt, the sheer force of it would’ve knocked me down. These people, all of them on both sides, had very strong emotions about my mother. 

Mom had stopped when I did, her hand moving to touch my arm. Wyatt and Abigail were on her other side (the right), while Koren moved up with me on the left. When I felt Mom’s touch, I swallowed the thick lump in my throat before nodding with a whispered, “I’m okay.” 

Movement from the loyalists side was met with a rush of motion from the rebels. Ruthers had taken a step our way, only to be met by a dozen figures on our side who moved to intercept and block him. Which had made more people from the loyalists jolt as though to jump in. 

“Stop.” That was Mom, her voice loud and clear. The single word made not only all the people on our side freeze, but also caused those loyalists to stumble a bit. Aside from Ruthers, of course. He just kept walking, albeit gradually, clearly in no rush. The rebels who had moved to stop him parted at a nod from my mother, leaving an opening for the man to walk through. 

He didn’t come right up to us, stopping a good twenty feet away. Not that that sort of distance actually meant anything when it came down to it. If he wanted a fight, he would have a fight. 

Oh boy. If tensions throughout the quarry had been high before, they were damn near stratospheric right now. The people on Ruthers’ side were clearly only waiting for a single word from him before they would jump into battle. And those on our side, though tired from the fight with Fossor, were just as willing to throw down the instant anyone made a move. The slightest wrong word here could result in a catastrophic battle so soon after we had beaten the monster.

No one said anything at first. No one moved once Ruthers had stopped. All eyes from both sides were on him, waiting to see what he did, what he would say. Whatever happened, whatever came next, everyone was ready. 

“I’m sorry,” Ruthers said. 

Okay. So I was wrong. We weren’t ready for whatever would come. Because I was pretty sure I was far from the only person who was floored and reeling from those two words. There was a collective gasp throughout both sides. It was clear that no one saw anything like that coming. 

But if he noticed the reaction, Ruthers gave no indication of it. He focused solely on my mother, still speaking in a flat, gruff voice. “Not for fighting you. Not for stopping you. Not for trying to make sure you never poisoned any more of our people with your rhetoric and naive thoughts. I will never stop working to make certain you are put away where you can’t destroy our world, where you can’t doom humanity. I won’t stop fighting you until you’re no longer a threat, Joselyn.” There was anger, brittle rage and hate that had built up over the past century. 

“But,” he continued, just as I started to think this might go sideways after all. “I took it too far. I let…” He paused, trailing off with a shake of his head before pushing on. “I involved your family. I involved children. Your children.” With that, his gaze flicked toward Abigail and Wyatt briefly, before returning to our mother. “I lost it. I lost… I was no better than the things that want to destroy this world. For that, for them, I am sincerely sorry. It was wrong. It was evil. And I will never allow anything like that to happen again. You have my word. Whatever comes next, however this goes, I will not allow things to go that far.” He was speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear, on both sides. A glance past him showed that the loyalists were whispering amongst themselves, clearly confused as to exactly what he was talking about. 

Mom, who had been silent through all of that, finally spoke up. Her own voice was as brittle as his, making it clear that the hatred he felt for her went both ways. “Do you think that’s enough?”

There was a brief pause before Ruthers shook his head. “Probably not. But we all have darkness in our pasts, things we wish we didn’t have to do. Or things we should have chosen not to. You and I, we are alike at least in that.” He took a breath, letting it out. Somehow, the tension in the air grew even thicker. It felt like it was hard to breathe through the certainty that any second, violence would start and blood would fly. 

Ruthers, however, kept talking through it, even as people on both sides shifted dangerously. “You are wrong, Joselyn. You have always been wrong. The creatures you court, the ones you believe to be your allies and friends, they will betray you. They cannot be trusted. And the moment you accomplish their tasks for them, they will prove that. The people you love will be killed. Your family will be torn apart. You would sell this world out to those creatures, allow them to destroy humanity because you refuse to see the truth.” 

“I see plenty of truth,” Mom informed him in a flat voice. “Between you and Litonya, I think it’s been pretty well proven that it doesn’t take horns, a tail, green skin, or anything like that to make a monster. It just takes someone willing to do monstrous things.” 

Ruthers, for his part, dropped his gaze to the ground briefly, then raised it to stare at her. “Stop this now, Joselyn. Tell your people to stand down and for things to go back to the way they were before your daughter restored their memories. We have a chance, right now, to stop this war. I’ll let you come back. We will let you come back. Not just you. Your family, everyone. Things can go back to the way they were supposed to be, before any of this happened. We can end this civil war, we can all go back to fighting the monsters we’re supposed to be fighting.” 

Mom, for a moment, just stared at him. When she spoke, her voice was almost awed. “If you believe I would do that, you’ve truly never understood anything about me. And if you believe I could do that, that my words would mean anything to all these people if I betrayed them and everything I’ve ever stood for, then you’ve never understood them either.” 

There was a moment of silence before Ruthers exhaled. “You’re going to go back to pushing this open warfare, aren’t you, Joselyn? Look at what was accomplished today. Fossor is dead. His body has been taken apart and disintegrated, just to be certain of that. He’s dead and gone. We have a chance for peace now, a chance to make things better and avoid all the bloodshed and suffering that you know is coming. We have a chance to avoid all of that and for all of our people to stand united against the threats we both know are out there.” 

“Are you blind, or just an idiot?” Those words came not from Mom, but from Abigail. She had suddenly spoken up, drawing everyone’s eyes and more than a few gasps. When Ruthers’ gaze settled on her, she continued. “Yeah, hi. It’s me, the grown-up version of the toddler whose head you held a metaphorical gun to. Or maybe it was a real gun, I don’t know how literal you make your threats against children. The point is, look around you. The people who fought that Necromancer, the ones who helped kill him? They weren’t all humans.” 

Ruthers was silent, and I had the feeling he was taking a moment to tell himself not to start another war right here. His hand moved before a small flask magically appeared, which he took a sip from before making it disappear again. Only then did the man seem to trust himself to speak. “I’ve never said that Strangers are incapable of working alongside humans for limited times and toward goals that help them. Only that they will always eventually fall back to their baser natures or their own self-interests and hungers. Fossor made many enemies. The fact that these creatures wanted him dead and saw this opportunity as the best way to make it happen does not change anything about what they are and what they will always be.” 

“Fossor is dead, Ruthers.” That was Mom again. Her voice shook a bit. “You said it yourself, he’s gone. You’re right, this is a chance. It’s a chance for us to let all of that go. The rage you’ve felt, the hatred you’ve put on everyone who isn’t human since the moment that one man betrayed your trust? Let it go. These people, all these people, they don’t have to be your enemies. We can all be united against the actual threats in this world, human or Alter. We can avoid this entire war. You can help turn the tide and shift the Committee and Crossroads itself to being the force for rightness and good that it should be. He’s dead. He’s gone. Let it go and move on, Gabriel. Please.”

Ruthers said nothing to that at first. Instead, his gaze turned toward me, eyes narrowing. “You,” he said flatly, managing to keep any sort of judgment he had about me out of his voice, “you killed the Necromancer. Your second Necromancer kill, if I’m not mistaken.” 

“Um.” I swallowed, offering him a small shrug. “I’d say it was more of a giant team effort. But if you mean I was the one who took the last hit, yeah. I did. It was right there. Believe me, I know you or my mom had a better claim to–” 

“I don’t care about that,” the man informed me sharply. “But he is dead. You felt the… he didn’t fake his death somehow, didn’t switch with something else. Our people said the body was his, but you…” 

Realizing what he was asking, I quickly shook my head. “Err, no, he didn’t fake it. Trust me, that–he’s dead. One hundred percent dead.” 

“You’ve felt his power then,” Ruthers pressed. “You’ve felt an increase in your own strength, your own… necromancy.” He said the word with obvious disgust, making it clear what his own feelings on that particular style of magic were. “You have his gift.” It was perfectly apparent in his voice that he didn’t exactly see it as an actual gift. 

“I–” My mouth opened, then shut. Was this a trap of some kind? Was he trying to establish a reason to want to come after me for having Fossor’s power? Was–fuck it. I gave a short nod. “I’ve felt it, yeah. It’s easier to–yeah, I’ve had an upgrade. I mean, it’s nowhere near the sort of things he could do. I mean–” 

“Fossor wasn’t capable of the things Fossor did when he first started out,” Ruthers informed me simply. “But he got there. And you–” 

“Are different,” Mom snapped shortly. “I’ve told you what we can do here, Gabriel. If you–” 

It was his turn to interrupt, cutting my mother off with a short, “We’ll leave.” There was a renewed firmness to his voice. “This is a day for celebration and relief. Fossor is dead. I was… wrong, about you working with him.” That last sentence came with a slight hesitation, but he did at least meet my mother’s gaze through it. “But this–this I am not wrong about. The creatures you call your allies will turn on you, when it is in their best interest to do so. I only pray that it will be when they sense weakness because the humans on your side are about to be beaten, and not when you have fulfilled your purpose by killing enough of ours.”

Mom’s voice was sad. “These people helped kill Fossor, the abomination you’ve rightfully raged against for all this time, the one who began your obsession. And it’s still not enough. You still can’t let go of your blind hatred enough to see the truth.” 

“I see perfectly clearly,” the man insisted, starting to turn away from us. “I see that you will drag our people into a war because you are incapable of letting go of foolish naivety that you should have grown out of by now. But for now… for now we’ll leave, as I said.” He paused briefly before speaking again with dark bitterness. “Your obsession with allowing humans to kill humans for the benefit of monsters can wait.” 

“My mother!” Beside me, Avalon suddenly called out. I felt her hand grab my arm, gripping tightly as she demanded, “Where is she?” 

Glancing back toward us at those words, Ruthers hesitated before answering quietly. “Gaia is safe. She won’t be harmed. I promise you, whatever happens, she will not be used as a pawn or hostage. She is a prisoner and she will stay that way.” 

From the way Avalon’s grip on my arm tightened, I had the feeling there was a lot more she wanted to say to that. But she kept quiet, aside from a very quiet snarl under her breath. 

Ruthers obviously heard that, but made no comment. Instead, he looked at me. “For your sake and for those you claim to care about, you should go see the Wandering Woman.” His gaze moved to Mom’s before adding, “You know it’s for the best.” 

Before I could ask who that was, the man snapped his fingers. A portal appeared nearby. With varying degrees of reluctance, the Crossroads loyalists began to move through it, some making comments about how this wasn’t over. One of the last of which was Liam Mason. He stood by the portal, staring over to where Larissa, Sands, and Sarah were. All three were watching him. There were obvious emotions there, but the girls held firm. For a moment, it looked like Liam might say something. His face was twisted, mouth opening as though to call out. But, in the end, he just sighed visibly and shook his head before turning to step through the portal. I caught the barest glimpse of his face in the process, once he had turned away from his family. It was torn by grief, tears in his eyes as he forced himself to step through that portal. I had the feeling there was more to that whole interaction I hadn’t seen. 

In any case, they left. Ruthers, Calafia, and Teach were last, the three standing together to give one last look our way before stepping through. 

They were gone. Which left the rest of us standing here, alone in the quarry. For a few seconds, no one said anything. Then I heard Prosser speak up loudly, his voice filling the whole area. “I’d say it’s past time we all got out of this place. Preferably before our friends who just left decide to change their minds about saving our fight for another day.” 

Everyone started to disperse, and I looked to my parents. Both parents. Both of my parents. My mom was there. Right there. After all this time, not only the past ten years, but all the time since the moment her twins were taken, she was finally back where she belonged. She was back with her friends, her teammates, her people. She stood with both of her husbands, her three living children, and her granddaughter. Her family. 

 “What–” My throat caught as I saw them together after all this time. “What now?” 

“Now, like Gabriel said, we get out of here,” Mom informed me with a small, yet stunning smile.

“And we move on.” 

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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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Homecoming 35-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will tell you,” he promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most Dangerous Game 22-06

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“Flick,” Professor Dare spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Are you alright?”

It was a few minutes later, and the two of us were in a side-room away from where the Committee was still talking to Avalon and Gaia. They had asked me to step outside while they continued to speak to the others. I’d felt Avalon stiffen beside me, and knew that the girl had been about two seconds from launching into a rant. She obviously didn’t care who the Committee were or how powerful they happened to be. But I did, so I had quickly interjected to say that I’d wait.

Call me crazy, but as freaking badass as Avalon really was, I didn’t think that even she could come back in one piece from the kinds of things that she had obviously wanted to say to those people. So I agreed to leave, stepping out of the room while accompanied by Professor Dare.

“Alright?” I echoed, giving her a brief stare. “Some of the most powerful people on the planet think I might’ve had something to do with trying to kill Avalon and being part of some big conspiracy.”

Her head shook at that, slight blonde locks slipping out of place to fall over her eye before she brushed them back. “Only a couple actually think that. The majority don’t believe that you had anything to do with it.” She sighed. “They’re looking for someone to blame, Flick. It makes them look weak that someone can walk onto the island and completely bypass all of our security repeatedly. So they want to blame someone. You…” She paused, glancing around before reaching into the inner pocket of her suit jacket. Coming out with a small, intricately decorated music box the size of my hand, she set it on a nearby table before popping it open. A figurine of a ballerina popped up into view before slowly turning in circles, as a low, quiet hum filled the room.

“Anyone beyond the two of us will not hear anything from this room,” Dare informed me before continuing. “As I was saying, you know exactly why they would immediately look to you for that.”

Biting my lip, I gave a short nod. “Mom,” I spoke flatly while folding my arms. “They remember what happened with my mother. I guess if you spend the better part of a century with your entire society in the middle of a civil war because of one woman, you might squint a little at her daughter when she shows up pretty much at the same time as something like this starts happening.”  

“Unfortunately,” Dare confirmed with a strange look for a moment before she shook it off. “Your mother… there are those on the Committee who are still… unhappy with how that was resolved.”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before asking, “Unhappy? You mean, unhappy that she survived?”

“That,” the woman answered slowly before continuing, “and unhappy that there wasn’t some grand final battle. You see, the fact that Joselyn was able to fight the Committee members on their own terms was always something of a… sore spot for some of them. They have always been seen as being as far removed in power from normal Heretics as we are from Bystanders. Their power is supposed to be unmatched by any save for perhaps the Victors from Eden’s Garden. But the fact that Joselyn, that anyone,  was able to fight them toe-to-toe and survive was a blow against that. So there are those on the Committee who wanted to end the war by… well, ending Joselyn. They believe that not having that final battle where they could prove that their power was stronger than hers left a permanent mark against them. They never beat her on a level playing field. In the end, they only won by…” Her face twisted, and I saw an anger in the woman that she obviously kept suppressed most of the time. “They only won because she surrendered to them.”

“So they want an actual fight,” I murmured under my breath, grimacing. “They want to have that grand final battle that didn’t happen before, so that they can prove once and for all that they’re stronger than she is. That’s why they’re so convinced that she’s still out there, that she got her memory back and is behind all this. Because they want her to be. They want her to be the one doing this so they can fight her, so they can beat her the way they wanted to a long time ago.”

Nodding slightly, Dare put a hand on my shoulder. “They look at you, and they see the war that they never actually won. They see the woman they could never beat, until she surrendered herself to them.  And even if Ruthers was never completely open about how he convinced her to surrender, they have their suspicions… suspicions that make them feel even worse about it.”

“Because he held children hostage,” I stated flatly, not wanting to put any kind of spin on it. “He took innocent children, babies, and threatened them unless Mom surrendered. They have their–they suspect something like that, so it makes them feel worse. Good. They should feel like shit. They should feel like the lowest fucking scum on the planet for not ejecting that son of a bitch ri–” I cut myself off, closing my mouth while shaking my head violently. I couldn’t talk about that.

“You’re right.” Dare’s voice was soft, barely audible even as close as she was to me. “It’s plausible deniability. They know what he did, or at least suspect it strongly. But as long as he doesn’t confirm it, as long as he’s quiet about it, they can pretend they don’t know. They can shut it out and focus on what they see as the important thing: that Joselyn was captured. But even then, even then there’s that part of them that knows how far they had to go to even do that much. So if they can beat Joselyn in a fair fight, if she’s out there somehow and has all her memories and power back, they can make up for that dark stain. The stain of never really beating her, and the stain of what Ruthers did to end the war. They prove they can beat her now, and they fix all of it.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. It took me some time to get myself back under control to the point that I could actually think straight. The urge to walk back to that room and scream at the lot of them was almost overwhelming, despite the fact that everything I’d told myself about Avalon losing her temper with them being a being a bad idea went at least triple for me. I still had to take a few deep breaths and force myself to focus, suppressing the anger that tried to boil out of me.

Finally, I made myself say something else. “It still doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “The whole idea that I could be the one behind these attacks. For one thing, why would I stop anyone else from killing her? If I was really working with my mother and we wanted Avalon dead for some… stupid reason, why would I care who actually did the deed as long as she was dead in the end?”

Giving a long, slow sigh, Dare took a moment before answering. “There are… certain benefits, magically-speaking, toward being the one responsible for someone’s death. Or at least having access to the person who was responsible for it. There are rituals, particularly necromantic ones, that require the person casting them be responsible for the death that you’re using in the spell.”

“Fossor,” I almost spat the name. “They think we’re working with Fossor, and he needs the–the whatever, necromantic-death energy from Avalon’s death for some kind of spell or something?”

The woman nodded slightly. “It makes a twisted sort of sense. I mean, it doesn’t, but if you think the way that they do, it does. If you believe that your mother is working with the necromancer, Avalon’s death would be incredibly powerful. After all, her blood relation to Bosch means that there are a lot of potential magical benefits to being able to use her death. There are ritual spells that could do a lot of damage to Crossroads with the blood of our founder mixed in.”

The words made me feel sick, and I folded my arms over my stomach tightly. “So they think there’s two different groups fighting over who gets to kill Avalon… all because of some necromantic spell crap? Which… Yeah, I didn’t even know they knew about Avalon’s history.”

“I would be interested in learning how they found out,” Dare murmured, her voice thoughtful for a moment. “And how long they’ve actually known. Because they obviously didn’t know before she was taken in by Eden’s Garden. They never would have allowed something like that if they knew who she was. It has to have been something they learned fairly recently. But I have no idea how.”

“But what about when Ammon showed up?” I asked quickly while shaking my head. “I mean, why wouldn’t I just let him kill Avalon if we were actually working together? And why wouldn’t I just–” I stopped, catching myself. “Oh. Right, Wyatt’s protection spells. Gaia said that if someone kills Avalon before the spells are removed the right way, they get permanently marked by them?”

“Essentially, yes,” the woman replied with a nod. “Their thought process is likely that Ammon was being rebellious and trying to prove he could do a better job than you could by eliminating Avalon himself. You had to step in to prevent the boy from getting himself marked by the protection spell, which would have led Crossroads straight to Ammon, and subsequently to Fossor himself.”

I started to say something else to that, but Dare held a hand up to stop me. Her other hand closed the music box, and she had just tucked the thing away when there was a knock at the door on the opposite side of the room (away from the door that led into the room where Gaia, Avalon, and the Committee were). The woman gave me a brief nod of reassurance before speaking. “Enter.”

It opened, revealing… Teach. The man stepped in, closing the door after himself. “Well,” he announced with a nod at the door that led into the Committee’s room. “That’s a hell of a meeting.” Giving me another of gold and silver toothed smile, he added, “Hello there, Miss Chambers.”

“I–you–”  My mouth opened and then shut as I glanced over my shoulder at the other door. “Is the meeting over? You weren’t–I mean–” I stopped for a moment, my confusion mounting.

Teach gave a light chuckle at that, head shaking with amusement. “Nah, we’re still rambling on in there. Probably keep going for awhile yet. But ahh, you really think we’d go on for this long without having a way of being in two places at once?” His expression sobered briefly. “That’s some good information there, Chambers. Never think that just because we’re in one place, that we can’t be somewhere else too. Last I heard, your friend over in Eden could testify to that much.”  

“Miranda…” I murmured before shaking that off. “You guys know a lot more than I expected you to.” It was blunt, maybe. But at that point, I really didn’t want to tiptoe around everything. I didn’t know why Teach was standing there, what he wanted, or how much I could trust anything he said.

“And yet,” he replied easily, “I suspect we know less than you do about a great many things.” Before I could say anything to that, he raised a hand. “It’s all right, no need to see how many denials you can spit out. I’m not actually asking. This isn’t an interrogation, Miss Chambers.”

I was trying to find at least a slightly more polite way of asking what this was then, when Professor Dare spoke. “If this isn’t an interrogation, Counselor Teach, then what is it, precisely?” Apparently she cared less about being courteous at that point than I did. “Why are you here right now?”

In response, the man reached into his pocket to pull out a metal flask. Unscrewing the lid, he took a long pull from it before speaking. “There’s things you know about that you can’t say. And things that I know that I can’t say, because if I do, you either have to pretend to be surprised, which is just offensive to all of us, or… give me the kind of trust that I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna give me right now. So I’m gonna save all of us a bit of a headache and not put you in that position.”

He paused a moment, giving us a chance to say something. But I took Dare’s example and just remained silent. So, after a couple seconds of that, the man continued. “But you know, even if we can’t confirm anything because we’re all playing these secret games, I’m still gonna tell you something. You can take it for what it’s worth. Don’t have to say anything else. Just listen.”

His eyes softened then, and the man spoke simply. “What happened to the woman you’re looking for, it’s bullshit. Everything we did, everything we let happen, everything we didn’t stop, it was wrong. Whatever the intentions of it, whatever we thought we were doing, it was wrong. And she, that woman that we can’t talk about, she was the strongest kid I ever met. And I’ve met more people than you’ve seen stars in the sky, so believe that. And if you ever start to think about everything she’s been through, you just remember… she’s gonna be okay. Because she’s strong.” He paused, giving me a brief look up and down. “And she’s got mighty fine motivation to make it.”

My throat had closed up by that point, and I had to swallow a couple times before giving a flat, “I guess I wish I knew what you were talking about.” My voice was hollow, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone with it. “Sounds like an important person to know.”

“You will,” Teach replied with the kind of certainty that I wished I could feel. “Give it time.”

The door into the room with the Committee opened then, and Gaia stepped out along with Avalon. If either of them were surprised to see the man standing there, they didn’t show it. Avalon just moved next to me, rather pointedly taking my hand before squeezing it right there in plain view. Which was different for her. She didn’t tend to show much affection in public like that, usually. In this case, however, I supposed that her desire to show the Committee just how little of a shit she gave about what they said drastically outweighed her dislike of public affection.

“Edward,” Gaia greeted the man evenly, giving him a slight nod without saying anything else.

“Evening, Headmistress,” Teach returned the greeting with a sly wave of his hand. “I’ll leave you all alone. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to go over.” Pausing then, he added while looking toward me, “And Chambers, don’t you go letting yourself feel guilty about what happened. That boy made his choices. He had every chance to turn them around. Some people just aren’t worth the tears.”

He disappeared then, seeming to fade from existence while smiling faintly. After he was gone, I looked toward Gaia. “Do, um… do I need to go back in there and talk to them some more?”

“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Not today. You’ve been through enough. If they wish to speak with you about any more of their conspiracy theories, they can make an appointment.”  

Biting my lip, I looked at Avalon. “You didn’t try to bite their heads off or anything, did you?”

“I should’ve said a lot more than I did,” she half-snarled, clearly gearing herself up as her hand squeezed mine. “How stu–”

Clearing her throat, Gaia spoke up. “Perhaps we should leave here for now. I’m sure you’re tired of standing around and waiting.” She nodded to the door. “We can discuss everything outside.”

On the way, I glanced toward Avalon. She still hadn’t let go of my hand, obviously deciding that she hadn’t actually made her point yet. Not that I minded. “So they knew about…”

“Yeah,” she replied in a dull voice. “They knew. Tried to tell me about it like it was some grand revelation, like I should be so proud and amazed because of what my ancestor did.”

I coughed at that. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything you shouldn’t have.” Seeing her reaction, I gave her a quick look. “… Valley? What exactly did you say to the obnoxiously powerful people who could probably blow up our entire dorm building by sneezing in its general direction?”  

It was Gaia who spoke, her voice carrying the slightest undercurrent of amusement. “She informed them that they should be happy that her ancestor did not set this society up as a monarchy, because she would have demoted them to muck out the stables, since they were…” She paused then. “How did you put it? Oh yes, since they were ‘so obsessed with shoveling bullshit.”

Choking audibly for a moment, I gave my roommate a wide-eyed look. “Valley! You can’t talk to them like that.”

“Pretty sure I just did,” she replied coolly. “What are they gonna do, try to kill me? There’s a line.”

Dare shook her head slightly. “To change the subject slightly,” she murmured before holding a bag up for me. “I’m afraid protocol means that you’ll have to decide what to do with these.”

Frowning, I took the offered bag, glancing inside to find Doxer’s mechanical mice. They were both staring up at me while huddled together in the bottom of it. “Err, wait, what?” I blinked up then. “Shouldn’t these go back to Eden’s Garden? I thought Heretics were usually buried with their weapons. We… I mean, you are shipping his… his…”

“We are sending his body home, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But when one Heretic attempts to kill another, their weapon becomes forfeit to the survivor. And now that it’s been officially determined that you were within your right to defend yourself with lethal force,  Doxer’s weapons belong to you. What you do with them is your choice.”

The mice were still staring up at me as we approached the door to leave the building. My hand groped out, grabbing the handle. I felt a slight resistance before it pulled open, but the question of what I was going to do with these little guys was distracting enough that I barely noticed.

Barely noticed, that was, until I stepped through the door and glanced back to find the other three openly watching me, standing where they were. “Err… uh, were we not going…”

It was Gaia who spoke. “When the Committee is all together in the building like this, it’s locked down by several powerful security measures. One of those is that all the doors are remotely locked. That door should not have opened for you.”

“It shouldn’t have– but I didn’t–” I started and stopped, blinking a few times as I looked at the door, then back to them. My head started to shake, before stopping short. There was someone else who had done things like that, who had somehow taken control of plenty of security measures that he shouldn’t have been able to.

“…. I… think we just found out what else I got from Doxer.”

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Interlude 20B – Blackbeard

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Early March, 1718

Smoke, shouts, and the terrifying boom of cannonfire filled the salty sea air as the man colloquially known as the pirate captain Blackbeard stood on the very edge of his ship. The Queen Anne’s Revenge shook under the force of another round of cannon shots as several struck home. Almost simultaneously, a shout went up from the opposite end of the ship, where a second opponent had come close enough for its soldiers to toss their grapple-lines over and began pulling themselves aboard.

“Boarded, Cap’n!” one of the crew shouted near his captain’s ear. “The Bastion’s got men coming aboard. We’d best be breaking off pursuit, yeah? Let the prize go for another day.”

In response, the man they called Blackbeard turned and pulled one of five different pistols he wore strapped across his broad chest that were already cocked and primed. Pointing it at the man, he ordered, “Break off pursuit, and I break your dear mother from having a living son. Keep on!” The last words he thundered loudly above the sound of gunfire and swordplay. “If the Steady Swallow escapes,” he named the merchant vessel that they had been attacking when the Bastion arrived to interrupt, “I’ll personally make sure all you lot dance the hempen jig! Stay on that ship!”

A second crewman, since the first was too cowardly to actually speak up a second time, blurted, “But Cap’n, the Bastion’s right on top of us! They’ve got lines across. We can’t catch up with the Swallow, not when we’re towing a whole other ship behind us!”

Grinning dangerously (and some would say a bit maniacally), Blackbeard replied, “You let me worry about the Bastion and those lines. Just stay on the cannons and sails. Give me full pursuit. Stay on the Swallow, it doesn’t escape or it’s all your heads. All your heads!”

With that said, the man raised a hand to wave under his expansive beard. At the gesture, the beard literally turned to fire. A moment later, the rest of his hair did the same. His head was engulfed by flames, leaving his face only partially exposed.

It was a trick that the vast majority who saw attributed to fuses and tiny candles tied into his hair. Despite the fact that every hair on his head and face had actually turned into fire, they never saw it that way. What they saw, what they remembered, was still terrifying, yet explainable.

From where he stood, Blackbeard took three steps forward before launching himself into a leap that carried him clear over the heads of his crew and to the far end of the ship. What they saw him doing, what their brains thought it was, he didn’t know. Maybe they saw him holding a rope to swing. Whatever the lie their minds made up to explain the unexplainable, he didn’t care.

Landing at the aft end of the ship, he brought one gun up and fired off a shot that took one of the soldiers clambering aboard straight in the center of his forehead. The man pitched backward off the ship, crashing into one of his companions as he plummeted to take the other soldier with him.

Without bothering to drop the pistol, he turned to take aim at the next man that dared to climb aboard his ship. When he pulled the trigger, it should, by all rights, have done nothing.

For Blackbeard, however, the pistol was little more than a prop. It was a way of allowing those who saw him to explain away the unexplainable. And as he pulled the trigger of the empty pistol, a white-hot ball of flame summoned by the man himself shot from the end of the barrel to take the second man in the throat. He was killed instantly, a gaping hole left where his neck had been.

At the same time, another man who had already managed to clamber aboard lunged for the dreaded pirate captain, sword coming down in a wild swing that was accompanied by an equally wild scream. The thought of being the man to claim the reward by killing the one known as Blackbeard was too much to pass up. He could obviously already see himself accepting the accolades that would come with such a feat.

It was, however, a feat he would never claim. Without looking at the man, Blackbeard took a step forward and stuck his foot back while dropping the pistol he was holding. The foot caught the charging man across the ankle, sending him crashing to the deck while the pirate captain himself turned quickly to strip his cutlass away smoothly.

Before the fallen man could pick himself up, Blackbeard pivoted. From his own belt, he drew one of the two swords that he himself wore, flipping it around in his hand to drive down through the man’s back, pinning him to the deck. A quick flick of his wrist brought the sword up through the man’s neck, separating his head from his body.

Simultaneously, he gave the soldier’s own blade what looked like a careless toss, sending it flying through the air to collide with the chest of the next threat who thought to charge straight at the most infamous pirate on the seas.

It had all taken only a few seconds. Landing. Shot to the forehead of one man to kill him. Shot to the throat of a second man to kill him. Spinning to trip the incoming third man before skewering and beheading him. Toss of the third man’s sword through the chest of the fourth man. Through it all, less than six full seconds had passed.

Finally turning back to face the grapple lines that had been thrown onto his ship, he raised a hand. At his simple gesture, a wave pulled itself free of the ocean, crashing straight between the two linked ships in order to tear the lines (as well as the men clambering across them) away.

Fire and water; the man currently known as Blackbeard controlled both. His men and those who faced him in battle attributed the former to pistols and strategically-placed candles or gunpowder, and the latter to the seas smiling upon him. Freak storms carried his ships where they needed to be much faster than should have been possible, or slowed and sank pursuers. Yet even the men who witnessed the most unnatural of those events with their own eyes believed there was a truly rational explanation. Their eyes saw it, but by the time the sight reached their minds, it had become something else. They never truly comprehended just what their captain was capable of.

With the lines torn down by the ‘freak wave’, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was free. Pivoting back to the front, Blackbeard shouted orders to bring up the sails to catch the wind. Even then, however, he barely waited for his men to hop to follow instruction before focusing on the water itself once more. Summoning another wave, this one far more controlled, he used it to shove the ship forward in a boost that gave them a head-start at catching up with the fleeing merchant vessel. Then the sails caught the wind, and they were off.

It was a tense thirty minutes, with the Steady Swallow ahead of them trying desperately to stay ahead, while the Bastion fought to catch up. Yet between his skilled crew and the pirate captain’s own semi-subtle manipulation of the ocean itself, they steadily pulled away from their pursuers and caught up with their prey.

“Bring her alongside the lily-livered milk maids!” Blackbeard boomed, already standing atop the railing while using one hand to hold himself steady with a nearby rope. In his other hand, he held one of his pistols. “Tear right into her, the old girl’ll take it for certain!”

Following his order, the crew took the ship straight up alongside the merchant vessel. They came so close that the two ships actually collided, scraping along their sides. Most of his men were shaken to the deck, falling into one another. But Blackbeard himself remained steady, bracing himself before leaping out to land on the deck of the Swallow.

Even as he landed, the man was already pointing his pistol. Again, his finger pulled the trigger of the empty, unprimed weapon as he summoned one of those tiny, white-hot balls of heat. As the unfortunate target had his sword halfway pulled, the heat-ball tore straight through his chest. The way it seared the body in the process might have made some think that it would never be passed off as an actual gunshot wound. Yet somehow, that would be what witnesses described it as.

Beard and hair burning wildly, drawing everyone’s attention to his demonic-seeming presence, the dreaded pirate legend drew his sword and bellowed, “I be searching for one man! Owen Patrick Lock. Lock be my target. Stand aside and live for all your days, or stay in place and burn beside the coward himself!”

Dramatic, yes. But it was one way to convince those that weren’t loyal to the man named Lock to retreat, and hopefully force Owen himself into the open so that he could be dealt with before the Bastion caught up and made this entire thing far more complicated than it already was.

A sudden commotion toward the rear of the deck drew his attention that way. The sight of the man who was shoving his way past two of his mates to escape up the short set of stairs there drew a smile to the old pirate’s flame-framed face. “Ahoy, if it ain’t be the man o’the hour!”

He began to stalk that way, his heavy footsteps clomping against the wet wooden deck. The other men, terrified of his visage, scrambled to get out of the way. By that point, the target had reach the top of the short flight of stairs and was trying to rush toward the aft end up the ship in order to throw himself off. Though before he could take more than a couple steps, the pirate made a subtle gesture to summon a new wave, which rocked the ship. Unprepared, the fleeing man was knocked to the deck with a grunt.

Clomping his way to a stop by the fallen man, Blackbeard reached down to grab the back of his neck before hauling the man up so that the two of them were face to face.

There it was. The man’s face was wrong. His skin was a pale green, with hard reptilian scales, while his amber eyes were slitted vertically like a snake or a lizard. The ordinary humans in the ship’s crew couldn’t see it, didn’t recognize it for what it was. But Blackbeard recognized it. He knew what it meant, just as he’d known since before he’d begun to chase the Steady Swallow.

“Heretic,” Owen Patrick Lock hissed, showing his thin snake-like tongue as it briefly flicked through the air to taste it. “You think this changes anything? You think it’ll bring those girls back?”

“I imagine,” Blackbeard began in a low, dangerous tone that rolled like distant thunder back over the ship, “that wherever their spirits be resting, they’ll have to content themselves with knowing that your damned soul burns for an eternity for what you done to them.”

“Burn–” the reptilian-creature started, before Blackbeard simply drew his saber and ran the not-man through the chest. Super-heating the blade until it literally cooked the figure’s insides, he drew it down and out before easily heaving the dead body over the deck.

There, the man–the creature who had so brutalized and destroyed those girls in port was gone. They had their justice, for what it was worth.

Turning back, he saw the rest of the ship’s crew staring at him. Fear was live in their eyes. Yet, after taking a brief moment to scan the people, he was assured that no more hidden monsters lurked among them. The rest were innocent.

Yet, even then, he couldn’t be sure that it was safe to leave them. Not yet. They had to pass one more test.

From his belt, the man withdrew a wineskin. Giving it a shake, he tossed the thing to the nearest sailor. “Take a sip,” he instructed, “And then be passing it around. All of ya drink up, steady yer nerves.”

It wasn’t the real reason he wanted them to drink, but the excuse worked well enough. Especially after he doused the flames in his hair and beard enough that only glowing embers remained. It left him a frightening sight still, yet not quite the full-blown terror that his flame-engulfed head normally invoked.

Still, he was frightening enough that none of the men dared argue. The wineskin was passed around, each man taking a gulp from it until all had drank some.

He watched, his careful eyes studying each of them for a reaction. The truth was that there were necromancers and other sorcerers among both the New World lands and those of the Old World. Some of those foul magical creatures were attempting to send their diseases and curses to the other continent or neighboring lands to spread their power. They did so by infecting various sailors, hoping that one would make it through and begin spreading the malady to new people.

That was the truth of why the dreaded pirate Blackbeard sometimes killed entire crews while other times letting them go. When he found a ship infected by one of the curses or magical diseases, the only option was destroying the entire crew to ensure that their infection didn’t spread. Killing the crew of a ship was better than seeing one of those creatures manage to spread their power to a new population.

That was the duty that the one now known as Blackbeard had assigned himself. He stalked the seas, searching for the non-human monsters who preyed upon the weak. And for curse-afflicted crews who were being used to spread disease to an unsuspecting populace.

In this case however, none of the crew showed a reaction to the magic-laced wine. Satisfied that they were safe enough, the pirate captain bid them a good journey and returned to his ship. Not, however, before sending his men aboard to loot the hold of half its contents.

After all, the only way he could maintain the crew that he needed to continue these operations was by ensuring that they were well-fed and given enough loot to keep them happy.

Stepping aboard his own ship once more, he paused before slowly turning. His eyes found the figure standing at the back.

“Yer not one of mine,” he rumbled in a low voice. “If ya were, the crew’d be a lot happier.”

The pale, auburn-haired beauty stepped forward with a soft smile. “Correct,” she announced. “But I had to come and see your deeds for myself before we extended our invitation.”

“I don’t need no invitation,” the man dismissed her words flatly. “And I don’t need you or whoever you represent.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” the woman allowed. “Yet I believe we can all help one another. My name is Sophronia. And I represent… a collection of people not unlike yourself. We see monsters as you do. And we have worked to contain them, just as you have.”

“That right?” the heavily bearded figure replied slowly after giving the beautiful woman another brief look. How had his men not seen her? “What do you want?”

“What we want,” the one called Sophronia began patiently, “is for you to join us.”

His rough, coarse chuckle filled the air. “I ain’t been much for the joining type, of late.”

Her smile returned, brightening just a little. “Of course. We are very aware that you’ve spent… shall we say, many years laying low and not exposing yourself. You were content to live a quiet life for so long since your… initial adventures. The adventures which resulted in your…” She coughed. “… abilities.”

Lifting his chin, the man stared at her with dark eyes. “You are well-informed,” he allowed while giving her another examination. “You’re right. I found a sea monster, some volcanic beast that controlled water and fire. It killed a dozen men before I put it to the blade. Not that the blade did much before it skewered me. Suppose it left me to die then. But when I woke up, I was… like this. I had the same power it had. And I put that power to use.”

“Its blood mixed with yours,” Sophronia explained softly. “You awakened as a Heretic because its blood and yours were mixed and you survived the process.”

“Heretic,” the man repeated thoughtfully. “That’s what the monsters call me, aye.” His eyes continued to squint at her. “But the question is, how do you know so much about me? No one else does.”

She chuckled softly at that. “You’re right, they don’t. You’ve done a good job of hiding your lack of a true past. The Standers-By have no idea just how old you actually are.”

Frowning, Blackbeard looked at his crew on the other ship for a moment before turning back. “Standers-By?”

“What we call humans who don’t see as we do,” Sophronia explained patiently. “The innocents that we fight to protect, just as you do. They know nothing of your true past. The last I heard, they believe you were born in the year 1680.”

He laughed aloud at that, his large form shaking a bit. “Aye, they be off slightly in their estimates.”

“By about three thousand years,” the woman replied quietly.

“About that, aye,” the pirate captain confirmed after taking a moment to consider. His head shook. “Don’t seem like it’s been that long.”

Lifting her chin, Sophronia continued. “As I said, you were content to live a quiet life for so long after the end of your previous adventures. Why suddenly show yourself once more? Why build yourself into such a legendary figure when you showed no desire to do anything more than live your long life for the past several millennia?”

After giving the woman a long, careful look, the bearded man shrugged. “I’ve done more than you think. Sometimes I get involved, sometimes I don’t. Figure I get bored after enough time living alone. A man needs some adventure. But yer right, mostly I just… keep to myself. I earned my retirement.” Pausing then, he heaved a sigh. “But I suppose the real reason I’m out doing this now is that damned necromancer.”

“Fossor.” Sophronia spoke the name in a low, hateful voice. “I assure you, we have been doing all we can to oppose him.”

Curling his lips in a snarl, the one called Blackbeard shook his head. “I had a run-in with the monster. Found out he was one of the ones trying to send his damned blood curses into other parts of the world, spreading them over these ships. So I involved myself. But to do that, I needed a ship. I needed a crew. I needed a reputation.”

“So you built one,” the woman finished for him.

“So I built one,” he confirmed. Looking back to her, he started slowly, “If the people you represent are truly going after that necromancer, you can count on my aid. But I’ll be wanting to know more about it.”

Sophronia nodded. “Anything you want to know, of course. But first, what do I call you? Blackbeard seems a little… dramatic. The Standers-By believe your name is Edward Teach.”

“Teach, Thatch, suppose I couldn’t make up my mind when I was telling ‘em who I was to start with,” the man replied dismissively. “Teach is good enough. It’s a fine name. Edward Teach.”

“I suppose that means you don’t wish to be known by your birth name?” the woman asked with a raised eyebrow.

His head shook then. “Nay. It’s been far too long since I was that man.” Pausing then, he gave her another look. “But you don’t ask for my convenience. You ask because you don’t know which one I am. Not for sure.”

She nodded then, echoing his words. “Not for sure. We know that you’re one of them, just not which one precisely. Are you–”

“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted. “They’re all gone now. I’m the only one left. The only one who survived.

“I am the last of the Argonauts.”

*****

Present Day

“You seem distracted, Edward.” Sophronia Leven stood beside the man she had helped to recruit so long ago. The two of them were alone (for the moment) in the Committee’s meeting room. “Are you thinking about the past, or the future?”

He paused, gazing out the window for a moment before replying, “A bit of both, I suppose. Remembering the past, dreading the future.” Turning slightly, he eyed her while adding, “We can’t stop this vote, you realize. They’re going to push it through.”

“Maniacs,” she retorted, her expression cross before the woman sighed. “But you’re right. They’ll be here any minute. The vote itself is a formality. The warmongers have the numbers.”

Head shaking, Teach asked, “I don’t suppose the Garden people might acquiesce.”

Snorting in disbelief, Sophronia replied, “No, they won’t. They’re not going to give up just like that. They’ll go to war first.”

The man made an annoyed growling sound deep in his throat. “That’s gonna complicate… everything.”

“They’re all stubborn asses,” Sophronia confirmed. “Every last one of them, on both sides. Some of them wanted this excuse, any reason to lay out a demand. Gaia pulling in that Garden Heretic to teach classes just made the hardliners think they had to do something to make this confrontation happen.”

“They voted to allow that,” Teach pointed out with an annoyed growl. “We voted on it, majority ruled in favor of letting Gaia hire him.”

Sophronia nodded. “But you saw how close the vote was. Some of our… colleagues think that with Hisao here, Eden’s Garden can be… bullied more easily.” Pausing, she amended, “Maybe bullied is too harsh. They believe that with a closer connection, we have to establish ourselves as the dominant party, not an equal partnership. So, they want to use this excuse of Ruthers’ to make the demand and hope that Garden blinks first.”

Her expression darkened then. “Of course, there’s others who were afraid we were all starting to get along too much. Can’t have that, so they have to manufacture a new reason to fight.”

Pressing his hand against the window, Teach breathed in long and slow before letting it out. “They’ve got their excuse now, flimsy as it is.”

“Maybe we can delay them,” the woman suggested. “Try to make them give Garden more time to comply. Or give someone more time to find a way to stop this whole thing.”

Shrugging then, Teach replied, “We can delay as much as we want. But eventually,  Ruthers and the others are gonna decide the only way to get what they want is to get nasty.”

Sophronia sighed once more. “How are they going to explain why she’s important?”

Head shaking, the man lowered his gaze while muttering, “They’ll make something up. They’re good at that. But whatever they tell people, the fact remains, Ruthers has convinced enough of the others that it’s too dangerous to leave her out there, out of our custody.

“So if Eden’s Garden doesn’t hand over Abigail Fellows, there’s gonna be a war.”

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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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