Gabriel Ruthers

Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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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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Interlude 34D – Scout

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The door of the Chinese buffet opened, and Liam Mason ushered his daughter (the one who wasn’t lost in space, anyway) inside. “Come on, kiddo,” he urged the girl while gesturing. “Let’s see how many egg rolls we can stuff ourselves with before we burst, huh?” That bit was added with a wink, before the man moved to the nearby cashier to pay for their upcoming meal.

Scout, meanwhile, silently watched her father from just inside the doorway. He had been acting strangely all day long, as if he really wanted to say something but couldn’t stop beating around the bush about it. He was overly interested in everything she said. Not that he was really ever not interested if she spoke, but now it seemed a little odd. And this trip to eat out in the regular world seemed like it was totally planned, despite the fact that he was clearly trying to act as if it was actually an impulsive, out-of-the-blue idea. Something was definitely going on here.

Once their meal was paid for, the two made their way back through the half-full restaurant, heading a for a rear table. Liam took a seat in a booth before smiling at her. “Hey,” he started, “this is fun, right? We’ll have to bring Sands here as soon as…” He trailed off before giving a slightly forced smile. “… as soon as they get back.” That time, his tone was slightly brittle.

During the years that she had spent in almost complete silence, her sister doing the talking for her, Scout had come to realize that people would often say more than they meant to if you just didn’t talk at all. People were uncomfortable with silence, so they tried to fill it up. With that in mind, the girl simply sat there and looked at her father without outwardly responding at all.

Sure enough, it only took a few seconds of silence on her part before her dad started speaking again. “I know you’re worried about Sands, but it’s going to be okay. We’ll get her back, and then… And then we won’t let anything like this happen again. I promise. We’ll fix this.”

And just like that, Scout knew more than her father clearly wanted her to right then. She knew that this trip had something to do with Sands being missing, and she also knew that her father wasn’t working alone with it. He had said we, as in ‘we won’t let anything like it happen’ and ‘we would fix this.’ He had obviously planned this lunch with someone else. But who, exactly?

To give herself time to think about that, the girl stood up and nodded to her father before moving to pick up a plate and fill it with the food. As she made her way through the line, Scout pondered those questions. Who was her father working with, and why had they brought her out here to get lunch? Was it to get her away from Gaia? That sounded about right. If her father wanted to press her about something, doing so away from the island was probably the best way to do it.

Those thoughts and more worked their way through her mind while she loaded her plate, making her way back to the table where her father was already waiting. His own plate was only about half-full, as if he too had been distracted by other thoughts beyond simply his own hunger. He also seemed to be lost in thought, looking off into the distance with a slight frown.

When Scout took her seat and put the plate in front of herself, the man seemed to snap out of it, almost jumping a little before catching himself. “Oh, hey, kid.” With a grin that was a little too put-on, he reached out with his fork to take a bite off her plate. “Mmm. See, that’s why I should always send you out first. You find the best stuff. I didn’t even see this, where was it?”

The two of them sat like that, eating lunch for about five more minutes before a voice spoke up from nearby. “Liam Mason?”

Turning slightly, Scout blinked at the man who stood there. Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers. The former-Headmaster turned Committee Counselor raised an eyebrow at them. “Now this is a surprise,” he announced, holding a plate of food in one hand. “I know I said you should bring your daughter out here sometime, but I didn’t expect you to do it so soon.” He gave a wink then. “You didn’t actually take that suggestion as an order, did you?”

Coughing, Scout’s father shook his head. “Of course not,” he replied before gesturing to the girl across from him. “Just thought the kid looked hungry, and this was better than cooking. What’re you doing out here? There’s not a problem, is there?” The last bit was added with a glance around, as though he was worried that Ruthers’ arrival heralded some kind of attack.

“No, no.” Waving that off, the older man simply chuckled. “Believe it or not, even Committee members have to eat too. Sometimes, anyway.” He glanced around before continuing. “I like this place. That’s why I told you about it. Believe me, if there was a problem, I never would have let you bring your daughter here.” To Scout, the man extended his hand. “Hey,” he greeted. “I know you’re worried about your sister. But I promise, we are doing everything we can to find her.”

“And the others,” Scout added for him, her voice so quiet it was barely audible. She met the man’s gaze, neither blinking nor looking away as he stared down at her.

“Of course,” Ruthers agreed easily with a slight nod. “We’re working on tracking down everyone. Whoever took Sandoval and the others, our people will find them.”

“I’m sure they will.” Liam took his daughter’s hand briefly, squeezing it before gesturing. “Why don’t you join us, sir? Maybe you can tell Scout a little bit about how the search is going, just to make her feel a little better about it. You know, if you don’t have other lunch companions that we’d be stealing you away from?”

Chuckling a bit, Ruthers shook his head a bit ruefully. “No,” he replied, “I’m afraid I am on my own today. Or I was, before that invitation. If you’re sure this isn’t just a father-daughter date. I wouldn’t want to barge in on something like that. After all, a child’s relationship with their father is too important to waste.” That was added quietly, as the man glanced away with a slight frown.

“Nonsense,” Liam insisted while scooting over in the booth. “Have a seat, sir, we’d love to have you. I know you probably don’t get to take a break very often. You might as well enjoy it.”

Ruthers took the offered seat, and just like that, Scout had two men sitting across from her. Just as they had clearly planned. There was a moment where the two glanced at each other before starting to eat. After a few silent, thoughtful bites, the Committee Counselor tapped his fork against the plate briefly as he regarded the girl across from him. “Maybe I should start by asking what kind of questions you have about what has been happening. I’m sure you have plenty.”

Sure, Scout was sorely tempted to start, why don’t you start by telling me just how incredibly stupid you both think I am to actually believe that this was an accidental meeting?

Honestly, it was absolutely insulting. The fact that her father actually thought that she would believe this hadn’t been planned out, that they could actually have possibly run into one of the Committee members just by chance and have him join them for lunch was almost outrageous.

But she didn’t say that, of course. She had more control than that. Instead, the girl simply asked, “What do you know about where they are?” Belatedly, she added, “Or about who took them.”

Ruthers’ resulting wince looked completely honest, and she believed that he meant it. “I’m afraid that we don’t know very much about any of it,” he answered quietly, his gaze meeting hers. “We’d like to know a lot more, but… unfortunately, answers seem to be in very short supply. We do know that Eden’s Garden does not have them. The rest of the Committee and I have called in enough threats and favors that I firmly believe that they did not have anything to do with the disappearance of Sandoval or the others. It seems to be the work of some…” He paused briefly before continuing. “… some new force. One which, unfortunately, clearly knows a lot more about us than we know about them. That, or it may possibly be an old enemy working in new ways.”

“An old enemy, sir?” Scout echoed, as though she didn’t already know exactly what he was talking about. Not for the first time, the girl was grateful for the watch that Gaia had given her that disrupted lie-detection powers (similar to Flick’s ring), and blocked most of the (already rare) mind-reading powers that were out there. Because of that, Scout wasn’t as afraid of this little ambush-meeting as she might have been otherwise. Not that she was comfortable with it, but still. The watch definitely helped.

For a moment, Ruthers kept staring at her. He took a long, slow pull from his drink before abruptly coughing as he shot it a brief, betrayed glance. Seeming to realize belatedly that it was just water, the man plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over the glass briefly. When he pulled it away, the water had turned to an amber color. Whiskey, Scout realized after remembering what Flick had said about her meeting with him before. The man had turned water into whiskey.

His drink suitably changed, Ruthers took another pull before smiling faintly with satisfaction. “Yes,” he finally answered, “it probably won’t surprise you to know that Crossroads tends to gather enemies who disagree with our methods or our intentions.” Pausing then, he set the glass down while meeting her gaze. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of anyone like that?”

Without batting an eye, Scout simply replied, “Who would want to stop Crossroads from saving people, sir? Those would be bad guys.”

Smiling broadly, the former headmaster nodded once. “Of course they would be. But we’re afraid that people with… let’s say too much stolen information about our school might have come out of the woodwork after laying low for a few years. If they’re the ones who abducted your sister and the others, we need to find out as soon as possible. Which means,” he added pointedly, “that you need to tell us if there’s anything important you might have been keeping to yourself.

“Now, I know,” Ruthers quickly continued, “being loyal to your team and your friends is a big deal. Believe me, I understand that. But so is loyalty to the cause, loyalty to Crossroads. I mean, if you knew that your sister was going to do something very dangerous, but she made you promise to keep it a secret, would you?”

They were clearly waiting for an answer, so Scout gave them one. “If I knew that Sands was in trouble,” she started slowly, “I would tell everything I knew to everyone that I trusted.”

“Of course you would,” Ruthers replied with an easy smile that looked at odds with his normal expression. He took another pull of his drink, finishing the rest of the whiskey inside before starting to continue. “I’m sure that if you–”

Whatever the man had been about to say then was interrupted, as a woman that Scout didn’t recognize moved up to the table. She leaned close, whispering something into Ruthers’ ear. Scout picked out the words ‘Chambers’ and ‘detected’ before the man lifted his hand, using some kind of power that prevented her from hearing anything else that was said.

After a few seconds of that, the man abruptly stood up, with a nod to the woman who had come to speak to him. He gave Scout and her father a brief look. “I… something has come up,” he informed them simply. “I’m afraid we’ll have to have a bit of a raincheck for lunch.”

Liam, who looked surprised enough for Scout to actually believe that this wasn’t part of their plan, quickly asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Of course,” Ruthers replied, a little too quickly. He nodded back to the woman who had interrupted. “Just a little situation that needs to be attended to. Nothing for you to be concerned with. You know how these kind of things go. Never a moment’s rest for people in charge. Actually…” He paused, looking to Scout as though he was tempted to tell her something, before going with a simple, “there may be good news coming sooner than you think.”

With that, the Committee Counselor rapped the table twice with his knuckles before turning on his heel to walk away, leaving father and daughter sitting by themselves once more.

“That was… odd,” Liam muttered, a frown furrowing his brow. “I thought we were…” Pausing then as though realizing he’d almost said too much, the man gave a sharp shake of his head. “I thought we were having a nice lunch.”

Shaking that off, he looked to his daughter, pausing a little at the look on her face as she stared back at him. “Are you alright, baby?”

Chambers. Why had that woman said Flick’s name? And what was that about detecting something? Did something happen? What would have made Ruthers run off like that? It had to be something big. And it clearly involved Flick. But how? What had happened? What did the Committee find out?

Unlike some of her peers, she’d yet to actually try alcohol. But for just a moment, Scout almost wished that Counselor Ruthers had actually left some of his whiskey behind. Steeling herself inwardly, she met her father’s gaze before answering him with a simple, “I’m not a baby. And I’m not stupid.”

“Stupid?” Liam echoed, having the nerve to look surprised. “Of course you’re not–”

“Stop.” Meeting her father’s gaze, Scout shook her head once. “Just stop.” Her voice was flat, as emotionless as she could make it.

As her dad fell silent, the girl took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Probably the hardest thing she’d done. But she pressed on, raising her eyes from the table to meet his. “I’m not stupid,” she repeated before pressing on over her father’s open mouth, before he could interrupt again. The words came quickly, words that she had thought about and almost said for weeks now, but had always held back. Now, however, nothing could stop them. Being lied to like this, her own father helping to ambush her with Gabriel Ruthers in an attempt to either convince or trick her into betraying her friends… it brought everything out in a rush. For a girl who had spent so long not talking, the words flooded out in a tsunami.

“You love me. I know that. I know that you love me.” The statement tasted like ash in her mouth. But she pressed on. As much as it hurt, as awful as it felt, she pushed on. “But you don’t respect me. When… when you love someone, you trust them. You don’t manipulate them. You don’t lie to them. You don’t try to trick them into revealing secrets that they’re not ready to tell you yet. You don’t betray the people who trust you, just because you think you know better than they do. Part of… of loving someone, of trusting them, is giving them a chance. It’s accepting that they might know more than you do about something.”

That was straying very close to what was obviously things she shouldn’t know about (and which she was fairly certain that her father suspected she did know), but Scout avoided saying it out loud. As long as there was that certain level of deniability, her father wouldn’t risk openly asking what she knew. He wouldn’t take that plunge.

“You’re my dad. You’ve taken care of me since I was a baby. You were always there for me. Especially after Mom… after Mom was gone. You’re my daddy. You’ll always be my daddy. But you made a choice. You… keep making choices… that show that it… doesn’t matter how much you love someone. It doesn’t matter how much someone loves you. You will never… trust them the way that they need you to, the way that I need you to. You love and protect and take care of me. And I’ll always love you for that. Always. But you don’t trust me. You don’t believe in me. You lied to me. You tried to trick me with this stupid lunch, because you still think I’m a baby.  

“You don’t love someone by controlling or tricking them, Dad. You love them by trusting them. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against what you think you know. You listen to them. You give them a chance. You love them by not by betraying them when they trust you. And not by… by ambushing them with someone like Counselor Ruthers. You tricked me. You lied to me. If you wanna know something, either ask me. Or ask yourself why you think I wouldn’t tell you the truth.”

“Scout, baby, I–”

“I’m not a baby,” she corrected once more before the man could continue. “I’m not a baby.”

Visibly shaking and unable to stop it or control herself any more than she already was, the girl pushed herself into a standing position. “I’m going to call Aunt Ginny to take me back to the school.”

Looking like he had been struck, Liam managed to shake his head faintly. “Ba–Scout, wait. Look, we can still have a nice lunch. It can be our day. Just you and me, I promise.”

“No.” Scout shook her head, swallowing the hard lump that had formed in her throat. “We can’t. I… I can’t. Dad… I’m sorry. I love you. You know that.” She reversed the statement that she had started this with. “You know that I love you. I’ll always love you. Always.

“But I don’t respect you.”

With that final statement, coming in a voice that cracked with each word, the girl turned on her heel. And then she walked away, blinding tears flooding her eyes as she left her father sitting there.

Alone.

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Mini-Interlude 44 – Davis

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

July 17th, 1838

“Pa! Hey, Pa!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

December 5th, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes,” Ruthers confirmed.

“Our most promising one in decades.”

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Mini-Interlude 31 – Calafia and Ruthers

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

About Ten Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She missed her son.

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