It had been on the cusp of night throughout the battle with Fossor, the quarry itself filled with shadows that had grown longer and blacker with each passing minute. Now, as we emerged through the opening in the forcefield, darkness had fully settled around the place. But the quarry itself was filled with enough lights from various bits of magic and powers that it might as well have been the middle of the day. But beyond the quarry, things were pitch-black.
There were also a lot more people here than had been present for the battle. I saw groups from Wonderland, more Fusion school people, and other rebel-aligned groups gathered up on one side. Meanwhile, Ruthers and those few other Committee people had been joined by a small army of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden loyalists. Everyone had formed up onto either side to stare one another down, with hushed, yet clearly heated discussions between groups.
That heated discussion, however, stopped instantly the moment my mother and I emerged with the others. As soon as we came into view, every bit of conversation stopped short, as their eyes turned to us. I felt the weight of hundreds of people staring at us. Some, on the side of the rebellion, were focused on my mother with expressions of joy and welcome, amazement at her presence and her survival. I saw a few raise their hands to their mouths in shock, tears visible.
That was when it really struck me. This wasn’t just about people who believed what my mother said. It wasn’t just about following her words because she was powerful and cunning, or because she happened to be the one in charge. This was beyond anything like that. They didn’t simply believe in her cause. They loved her. They loved my mother more than I could ever have truly understood before that moment. And seeing her right there after all the time that had passed (now that their memories were back) was akin to seeing their savior rise from the ashes. Their true leader, their champion, the one who had brought the original rebellion together, had come back.
Meanwhile, the reaction from the loyalist side was far more mixed than the one from the rebellion. Looking that way, I saw some who looked sad. Whether because they hoped Mom had died, or were lamenting the side she had chosen, I wasn’t sure. There was also plenty of hatred, outright disgust, and other strong, nasty looks. But still others looked confused or uncertain. It seemed like they didn’t know exactly how to feel right then.
That mixture of uncertainty, regret, hatred, and just… sadness made me hesitate, staring that way while the others all formed up behind us. I couldn’t actually feel other people’s emotions, of course. This was all just taken from reading the expressions on their faces. But I had a pretty strong impression that if I could feel what they felt, the sheer force of it would’ve knocked me down. These people, all of them on both sides, had very strong emotions about my mother.
Mom had stopped when I did, her hand moving to touch my arm. Wyatt and Abigail were on her other side (the right), while Koren moved up with me on the left. When I felt Mom’s touch, I swallowed the thick lump in my throat before nodding with a whispered, “I’m okay.”
Movement from the loyalists side was met with a rush of motion from the rebels. Ruthers had taken a step our way, only to be met by a dozen figures on our side who moved to intercept and block him. Which had made more people from the loyalists jolt as though to jump in.
“Stop.” That was Mom, her voice loud and clear. The single word made not only all the people on our side freeze, but also caused those loyalists to stumble a bit. Aside from Ruthers, of course. He just kept walking, albeit gradually, clearly in no rush. The rebels who had moved to stop him parted at a nod from my mother, leaving an opening for the man to walk through.
He didn’t come right up to us, stopping a good twenty feet away. Not that that sort of distance actually meant anything when it came down to it. If he wanted a fight, he would have a fight.
Oh boy. If tensions throughout the quarry had been high before, they were damn near stratospheric right now. The people on Ruthers’ side were clearly only waiting for a single word from him before they would jump into battle. And those on our side, though tired from the fight with Fossor, were just as willing to throw down the instant anyone made a move. The slightest wrong word here could result in a catastrophic battle so soon after we had beaten the monster.
No one said anything at first. No one moved once Ruthers had stopped. All eyes from both sides were on him, waiting to see what he did, what he would say. Whatever happened, whatever came next, everyone was ready.
“I’m sorry,” Ruthers said.
Okay. So I was wrong. We weren’t ready for whatever would come. Because I was pretty sure I was far from the only person who was floored and reeling from those two words. There was a collective gasp throughout both sides. It was clear that no one saw anything like that coming.
But if he noticed the reaction, Ruthers gave no indication of it. He focused solely on my mother, still speaking in a flat, gruff voice. “Not for fighting you. Not for stopping you. Not for trying to make sure you never poisoned any more of our people with your rhetoric and naive thoughts. I will never stop working to make certain you are put away where you can’t destroy our world, where you can’t doom humanity. I won’t stop fighting you until you’re no longer a threat, Joselyn.” There was anger, brittle rage and hate that had built up over the past century.
“But,” he continued, just as I started to think this might go sideways after all. “I took it too far. I let…” He paused, trailing off with a shake of his head before pushing on. “I involved your family. I involved children. Your children.” With that, his gaze flicked toward Abigail and Wyatt briefly, before returning to our mother. “I lost it. I lost… I was no better than the things that want to destroy this world. For that, for them, I am sincerely sorry. It was wrong. It was evil. And I will never allow anything like that to happen again. You have my word. Whatever comes next, however this goes, I will not allow things to go that far.” He was speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear, on both sides. A glance past him showed that the loyalists were whispering amongst themselves, clearly confused as to exactly what he was talking about.
Mom, who had been silent through all of that, finally spoke up. Her own voice was as brittle as his, making it clear that the hatred he felt for her went both ways. “Do you think that’s enough?”
There was a brief pause before Ruthers shook his head. “Probably not. But we all have darkness in our pasts, things we wish we didn’t have to do. Or things we should have chosen not to. You and I, we are alike at least in that.” He took a breath, letting it out. Somehow, the tension in the air grew even thicker. It felt like it was hard to breathe through the certainty that any second, violence would start and blood would fly.
Ruthers, however, kept talking through it, even as people on both sides shifted dangerously. “You are wrong, Joselyn. You have always been wrong. The creatures you court, the ones you believe to be your allies and friends, they will betray you. They cannot be trusted. And the moment you accomplish their tasks for them, they will prove that. The people you love will be killed. Your family will be torn apart. You would sell this world out to those creatures, allow them to destroy humanity because you refuse to see the truth.”
“I see plenty of truth,” Mom informed him in a flat voice. “Between you and Litonya, I think it’s been pretty well proven that it doesn’t take horns, a tail, green skin, or anything like that to make a monster. It just takes someone willing to do monstrous things.”
Ruthers, for his part, dropped his gaze to the ground briefly, then raised it to stare at her. “Stop this now, Joselyn. Tell your people to stand down and for things to go back to the way they were before your daughter restored their memories. We have a chance, right now, to stop this war. I’ll let you come back. We will let you come back. Not just you. Your family, everyone. Things can go back to the way they were supposed to be, before any of this happened. We can end this civil war, we can all go back to fighting the monsters we’re supposed to be fighting.”
Mom, for a moment, just stared at him. When she spoke, her voice was almost awed. “If you believe I would do that, you’ve truly never understood anything about me. And if you believe I could do that, that my words would mean anything to all these people if I betrayed them and everything I’ve ever stood for, then you’ve never understood them either.”
There was a moment of silence before Ruthers exhaled. “You’re going to go back to pushing this open warfare, aren’t you, Joselyn? Look at what was accomplished today. Fossor is dead. His body has been taken apart and disintegrated, just to be certain of that. He’s dead and gone. We have a chance for peace now, a chance to make things better and avoid all the bloodshed and suffering that you know is coming. We have a chance to avoid all of that and for all of our people to stand united against the threats we both know are out there.”
“Are you blind, or just an idiot?” Those words came not from Mom, but from Abigail. She had suddenly spoken up, drawing everyone’s eyes and more than a few gasps. When Ruthers’ gaze settled on her, she continued. “Yeah, hi. It’s me, the grown-up version of the toddler whose head you held a metaphorical gun to. Or maybe it was a real gun, I don’t know how literal you make your threats against children. The point is, look around you. The people who fought that Necromancer, the ones who helped kill him? They weren’t all humans.”
Ruthers was silent, and I had the feeling he was taking a moment to tell himself not to start another war right here. His hand moved before a small flask magically appeared, which he took a sip from before making it disappear again. Only then did the man seem to trust himself to speak. “I’ve never said that Strangers are incapable of working alongside humans for limited times and toward goals that help them. Only that they will always eventually fall back to their baser natures or their own self-interests and hungers. Fossor made many enemies. The fact that these creatures wanted him dead and saw this opportunity as the best way to make it happen does not change anything about what they are and what they will always be.”
“Fossor is dead, Ruthers.” That was Mom again. Her voice shook a bit. “You said it yourself, he’s gone. You’re right, this is a chance. It’s a chance for us to let all of that go. The rage you’ve felt, the hatred you’ve put on everyone who isn’t human since the moment that one man betrayed your trust? Let it go. These people, all these people, they don’t have to be your enemies. We can all be united against the actual threats in this world, human or Alter. We can avoid this entire war. You can help turn the tide and shift the Committee and Crossroads itself to being the force for rightness and good that it should be. He’s dead. He’s gone. Let it go and move on, Gabriel. Please.”
Ruthers said nothing to that at first. Instead, his gaze turned toward me, eyes narrowing. “You,” he said flatly, managing to keep any sort of judgment he had about me out of his voice, “you killed the Necromancer. Your second Necromancer kill, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Um.” I swallowed, offering him a small shrug. “I’d say it was more of a giant team effort. But if you mean I was the one who took the last hit, yeah. I did. It was right there. Believe me, I know you or my mom had a better claim to–”
“I don’t care about that,” the man informed me sharply. “But he is dead. You felt the… he didn’t fake his death somehow, didn’t switch with something else. Our people said the body was his, but you…”
Realizing what he was asking, I quickly shook my head. “Err, no, he didn’t fake it. Trust me, that–he’s dead. One hundred percent dead.”
“You’ve felt his power then,” Ruthers pressed. “You’ve felt an increase in your own strength, your own… necromancy.” He said the word with obvious disgust, making it clear what his own feelings on that particular style of magic were. “You have his gift.” It was perfectly apparent in his voice that he didn’t exactly see it as an actual gift.
“I–” My mouth opened, then shut. Was this a trap of some kind? Was he trying to establish a reason to want to come after me for having Fossor’s power? Was–fuck it. I gave a short nod. “I’ve felt it, yeah. It’s easier to–yeah, I’ve had an upgrade. I mean, it’s nowhere near the sort of things he could do. I mean–”
“Fossor wasn’t capable of the things Fossor did when he first started out,” Ruthers informed me simply. “But he got there. And you–”
“Are different,” Mom snapped shortly. “I’ve told you what we can do here, Gabriel. If you–”
It was his turn to interrupt, cutting my mother off with a short, “We’ll leave.” There was a renewed firmness to his voice. “This is a day for celebration and relief. Fossor is dead. I was… wrong, about you working with him.” That last sentence came with a slight hesitation, but he did at least meet my mother’s gaze through it. “But this–this I am not wrong about. The creatures you call your allies will turn on you, when it is in their best interest to do so. I only pray that it will be when they sense weakness because the humans on your side are about to be beaten, and not when you have fulfilled your purpose by killing enough of ours.”
Mom’s voice was sad. “These people helped kill Fossor, the abomination you’ve rightfully raged against for all this time, the one who began your obsession. And it’s still not enough. You still can’t let go of your blind hatred enough to see the truth.”
“I see perfectly clearly,” the man insisted, starting to turn away from us. “I see that you will drag our people into a war because you are incapable of letting go of foolish naivety that you should have grown out of by now. But for now… for now we’ll leave, as I said.” He paused briefly before speaking again with dark bitterness. “Your obsession with allowing humans to kill humans for the benefit of monsters can wait.”
“My mother!” Beside me, Avalon suddenly called out. I felt her hand grab my arm, gripping tightly as she demanded, “Where is she?”
Glancing back toward us at those words, Ruthers hesitated before answering quietly. “Gaia is safe. She won’t be harmed. I promise you, whatever happens, she will not be used as a pawn or hostage. She is a prisoner and she will stay that way.”
From the way Avalon’s grip on my arm tightened, I had the feeling there was a lot more she wanted to say to that. But she kept quiet, aside from a very quiet snarl under her breath.
Ruthers obviously heard that, but made no comment. Instead, he looked at me. “For your sake and for those you claim to care about, you should go see the Wandering Woman.” His gaze moved to Mom’s before adding, “You know it’s for the best.”
Before I could ask who that was, the man snapped his fingers. A portal appeared nearby. With varying degrees of reluctance, the Crossroads loyalists began to move through it, some making comments about how this wasn’t over. One of the last of which was Liam Mason. He stood by the portal, staring over to where Larissa, Sands, and Sarah were. All three were watching him. There were obvious emotions there, but the girls held firm. For a moment, it looked like Liam might say something. His face was twisted, mouth opening as though to call out. But, in the end, he just sighed visibly and shook his head before turning to step through the portal. I caught the barest glimpse of his face in the process, once he had turned away from his family. It was torn by grief, tears in his eyes as he forced himself to step through that portal. I had the feeling there was more to that whole interaction I hadn’t seen.
In any case, they left. Ruthers, Calafia, and Teach were last, the three standing together to give one last look our way before stepping through.
They were gone. Which left the rest of us standing here, alone in the quarry. For a few seconds, no one said anything. Then I heard Prosser speak up loudly, his voice filling the whole area. “I’d say it’s past time we all got out of this place. Preferably before our friends who just left decide to change their minds about saving our fight for another day.”
Everyone started to disperse, and I looked to my parents. Both parents. Both of my parents. My mom was there. Right there. After all this time, not only the past ten years, but all the time since the moment her twins were taken, she was finally back where she belonged. She was back with her friends, her teammates, her people. She stood with both of her husbands, her three living children, and her granddaughter. Her family.
“What–” My throat caught as I saw them together after all this time. “What now?”
“Now, like Gabriel said, we get out of here,” Mom informed me with a small, yet stunning smile.
“And we move on.”