A/N: For those who do not read Summus Proelium to have already gotten this notice, the non-canon chapter for Heretical Edge was released over the weekend and can be found right here. Wanna see Haiden end up in the world of superheroes? Feel free to check it out!
Deep within an ancient forest, whose trees had stood since before humanity had truly understood the concept of civilization (though that understanding had yet to come for many), a small clearing held twelve figures, who stood in a perfectly formed circle facing one another. Each remained equidistant apart by several feet, far enough that they could all stretch their arms in every direction without coming close to touching one another. The figures stood in pitch darkness. Not even the moon or stars penetrated this clearing despite their existence and the clear sky. Yet despite the lack of any actual illumination, each of the twelve gathered there together could see one another as perfectly as though they had been standing in broad daylight.
“You should have called the rest of us in.” At the eleven o’clock position, Litonya’s voice spoke up, holding traces of disgust and admonition. “Defeating the Necromancer was a triumph. Yet allowing the traitors to do the bulk of the work, then gathering them up once the deed was done? That would have been a master stroke. Ending both threats in one fell swoop.”
Directly across from the ancient Native American woman, at the five o’clock position, Edward Teach spoke up. “Why does it not surprise me that the concept of honor entirely eludes you?”
Geta, who stood to Litonya’s left in the exact twelve spot, gave a low and humorless chuckle that filled the pitch-black space around them. “Are we to be lectured on honor by the old pirate? What’s next, shall we look to Calafia for an explanation of the Bystander staryacht program?”
Calafia herself, who stood at the six o’clock spot straight across from the old Roman Emperor, spoke in a dark voice of her own. “Perhaps your jibes would strike home more if you knew they referred to such things as spaceships, not staryachts.” She gave a slight smile, teeth visible to all around her. “Just a suggestion. Knowing less than I do about such a subject does tend to detract from your overall point.” Pausing pointedly, she added in a curious tone, “Which was?”
One of their two newest members, the gigantic (he topped out at a full seven feet) bear of a man called Antaeus, with his thick dark mustache, long dark hair peppered with gray, and piercing gaze, spoke up from his position to Geta’s left at one on the clock. “His point,” he rumbled in a voice that was boiling over with derision and impatience, “was that we don’t need to hear about honor and loyalty and whatever the fuck from some old pirate bastard. What we need to do is talk about why this whole rebellion thing is still a problem after we could’ve put a stop to it.”
His words were met by a scoff from Percival. The former knight was standing to Calafia’s left, at seven o’clock and across from Antaeus. “So you people are suggesting that we respond to the Rebellion’s aid in defeating one of the most evil, monstrous threats that has ever faced humanity, by betraying and descending upon them in an ambush once they were exhausted. What a remarkably brilliant way to demonstrate our virtues as the true saviors of our people.”
Sigmund, the enormous ancient Norseman, made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, spitting at his own feet from where he stood at three o’clock. “Betray? You wanna talk about betrayals, nobleman? Those fucking rebels are the gods damned traitors, and they deserve anything they get.” He jabbed a finger that way, his voice darkening even more. “Let’s be clear. This ain’t Camelot. And I don’t see any King Arthur around anymore. We’re here to protect humanity, not get praise and play shining beacons of light and goodness. You see the monsters out there. You know what we’re dealing with. You know what those things are gonna do when they see the opportunity these traitors are handing them. They’ll help tear our entire society apart, break us, and turn humanity into their feasting grounds. You wanna make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we have to stop the traitors soon. Whatever it takes. Even if that means doing the dirty shit that makes us look like the bad guys. We end it, period.”
From the eight o’clock position to Percival’s left, Sophronia cleared her throat. “And in so-doing, undoubtedly drive even more of our own people away as they see the depths to which we are willing to stoop. Do you not see how the simple factual information of how we acted to end the previous rebellion has driven even more potential allies to be our enemies? You cannot end this sort of situation with a hammer. You cannot force every person to be too afraid of rebelling, and still count on them to stand against true evil. You cannot put a whip to the backs of those we are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with. It will not work. It cannot work.”
“You’re right.” That was Ruthers, who stood to Litonya’s right at ten o’clock. “The worse we can be perceived as acting, the more it will push others to join the Rebellion. Especially with their… allied Strangers playing nice. If those on the fence between our two sides see Strangers behaving honorably for the Rebellion while we act as monsters, it will tear our society apart even more than it already has been.”
To his right (and Sophronia’s left), Davis Neal, who was dressed in a modern black suit rather than his usual lumberjack outfit (he’d even shaved his beard, making the man look almost unrecognizable), raised an eyebrow toward the man beside him while speaking in an even voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost sympathizing with them, Gabriel.”
His words were met by a sharp glare from the man in question. “Hardly, Davis. I am not sympathizing with traitors. But nor am I blind to the mistakes of the past. I see how those among us have reacted to the flood of information given to them by Sinclaire’s spell.”
“Speaking of which.” The next pointed words came from the handsome Asian woman known as Jue, who stood at the two o’clock spot to Antaeus’s left. Once everyone’s attention was on her, she continued. “It occurs to me that our entire purpose behind recruiting and promoting our other newest member was to handle that particular situation.”
“Yes,” Davis agreed, looking across the circle to the sole remaining figure, who had yet to speak. “That’s what we got her for, and as far as I can tell, there has been no actual movement on that point. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps she can address that?”
The question was met with a moment of silence, as all attention moved that way to follow her gaze. Finally, the single newest member of the Committee straightened. The crimson hood with gold trim that had covered their head to leave their face in even deeper (supernatural) shadows than the already extant darkness fell back to reveal an olive-skinned figure of dark, curled hair and mismatched eyes, one green and the other blue. It was impossible, whether through a glance or extended evaluation, to entirely discern the sex of the person. They were either a quite handsome woman or a beautiful man, a fairly androgynous figure, all told.
The newcomer spoke toward Davis in a voice that possessed a remarkably dream-like, echoey quality. “I am not he, nor she, but they. On this, I insist no sway.”
“But there’s still only one of you, right?” Antaeus put in as the Committee’s other newest admission. “You’re not keeping some kind of rabbit in your pants or something, magician? Sorry, I just don’t know how to keep up with all this new shit.”
Regarding their fellow newcomer coolly, the cloaked figure replied, “You are no older than I, and what I am has always been. There are those who pretend we don’t exist, whether now or way back when.”
Davis cleared his throat, shooting a glance toward the larger man before speaking. “Let’s try to focus on the matter at hand, huh? Jue’s right, we did recruit and promote our newest friend here for a specific purpose. One which… they are supposed to be quite adept at. Perhaps they can explain the situation?”
Beside the androgynous figure, Teach spoke calmly. “They wanna know why you haven’t given us the keys to mind-fuck our entire population, Hecate. Cuz that worked out so well the last time.”
Litonya sharply interrupted, “No one is suggesting any… mind-fuckery.” She over-enunciated the last word, making her distaste for the tone apparent. “In fact, we specifically involved her–them,” she corrected belatedly, “to prevent the mental manipulation that Sinclaire has already engaged in.”
Geta spoke in agreement, “That was the point, wasn’t it? We needed help erasing the spell that Sinclaire put on the Edge so we don’t get any more nasty surprises.”
That had been an unpleasant realization, to find that not only had Gaia’s spell filled the minds of every living Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretic with her assorted collection of propaganda about the Rebellion and everything the loyalists had done to stop them, but it also did the exact same thing for all new recruits. Every time a person either went through the Lighthouse or ate one of Garden’s apples, their heads were flooded with that same rush of information. It was cheating, is what it was. Gaia Sinclaire, despite literally being magically frozen and utterly incapable of interacting with the outside world, was still managing to twist the minds of Crossroads students. If some of them hadn’t been so frustrated with the woman, they would have admired her for that. And some admired her anyway.
Hecate spoke again, their voice still retaining its echoey/distant sound that made those who heard it feel as though they were listening through a dream. “Your requests have been clear. You seek a return to yesteryear. A wish to see Morgan’s magic revoked. A pity, such effect may not be retroact?”
Shaking his head with a grunt, Geta flatly retorted, “We want you to use that mental magic you’re such an expert at to turn off Gaia’s spell. Stop it from interfering with our new recruits. They don’t need to get… all of that shoved into their heads right from the start, before we can even ease them into things. They are students. Don’t know why people keep romanticising how much the old traitor actually cares about the kids when she’s shoving magical propaganda in their heads. Seems to me if she actually cared about them she’d leave the kids out of it.”
Ruthers cleared his throat, arms folded across his chest as he pointedly put in, “Her reasoning is immaterial. The point is, we need the spell either removed or modified. And you’ve now had weeks to examine it with the power boost being a member of the Committee provides. Tell us, is that something you can do? Can you erase the spell Gaia created so we can create new Heretics without shoving all that propaganda in their heads at the same time?”
After a brief moment of silence, Hecate inclined their head before answering. “Such is perhaps possible. Yet it is your people who are suasible. Such efforts may spare the innocence of newer recruits, but the words are out there, and erasure never refutes.”
“In other words,” Teach translated, “erasing the information isn’t going to make it magically better. Maybe you can stop them from having all the information about the Rebellion shoved into their heads the moment you put them through the lighthouse, but then what? You think they won’t find out about the Rebellion another way? Older students will talk. Other adults will talk. You think we don’t have Rebel sympathizers within the school right now, people who agree with them to one level or another but didn’t leave for whatever reason? Because if you do, you’re a fool.”
Litonya started to respond to that, but Ruthers spoke up first. “I believe we’re all well-aware that this is a losing prospect. We need to get ahead of the curve and tell the students the story from our point of view, not allow Gaia’s words to get to them directly. We need to tell them that there are those who think… who believe differently, but they’re being manipulated.”
“I’m sure that’ll go well,” Percival retorted in a dry voice. Shaking his head in obvious distaste, he sighed before turning to their newest member once more. “You said you can stop Gaia’s spell, turn it off? How long is that going to take? And what do you need to pull it off?”
Hecate answered simply, their voice rising just a bit so that the ever-present echo grew to surround the assembled group throughout the clearing. “What is needed is time and much work. Fortunately, such ought not to irk. The spell’s damage for these students is wrought. Now a year to have a solution be sought.”
“Yeah, you’ve got some time,” Sigmund confirmed with a grunt. “Personally, I’d prefer to get it dealt with sooner rather than later. But whatever. Do your job. What about the other business?”
“There’s still no sign of Elisabet,” Sophronia announced. “And no indication of how or why she disappeared. She’s been entirely cut out of the Committee link. Whether that means she’s dead or not, I don’t know. But she was alive when the link was severed, we’ve put that much together. Beyond that, we have nothing, still. Months of investigation, and we have nought to show for it.”
The heavy sigh in response to her words seemed to come from all of them at once, though it was Calafia who spoke. “She hasn’t left to join the Rebellion, we’d know about that by now. And they haven’t killed her. We would… know about that as well.”
“What, then?” Jue demanded. “Some other player has stepped onto the board, only to remove one of our members with us having no clues of the who or how?”
“The bodysnatchers, perhaps,” Geta put in. “It’s possible Elisabet found out more about them than they expected. Maybe they tried to take her and it went wrong, so they had to eliminate whatever was left.” His words were matter-of-fact, ignoring the looks he drew from a few of the others.
“If she is alive, she will be found,” Litonya put in, sounding impatient that they were even bringing it up. “Continue putting resources toward locating her. In the meantime, there is still the pressing issue of the Rebellion. Which, it must be stated again, could have been ended by now had our people been alerted in time. I have heard that there were already those among the few who were brought there who were ready and willing to do so, yet were stopped.” Her eyes were on Ruthers to her right.
With a sigh, the man shook his head. “I will not stand here and defend my choices again and again, Litonya. It would have been wrong to taint the victory over the necromancer with a betrayal. They are our own people. If we want to change their minds, we need to change them, not wait for them to be worn down fighting a battle against a greater evil and then take advantage. We will fight this war properly. If they engage us, we will defend ourselves. We will continue to hunt the monsters, and if the rebellion gets in the way, we will deal with them. But I will not be party to that sort of underhanded tactics against our own people.”
“Is this a good time to bring up that we still have the option of the blood curse?” Sigmund started. “It would–”
“No.” That was Ruthers, the single word snapped. “We are not going to use magic to enslave our own people.”
Before responding to that, Sigmund and Litonya exchanged glances. The man moved his gaze around the circle to see the reactions of everyone present. Hecate remained impossible to read and a nearly complete unknown. But of the others, it appeared that the only ones who were for such a measure were himself, Litonya, Antaeus, and Geta. The last had been against the blood curse during the previous war, but apparently something had changed.
Regardless, it wasn’t enough. Ruthers had shifted his opinion, and a total of four being in favor of using the curse would never pass. Even if they tried to explain it as a temporary measure… better to drop the issue.
“Of course not,” he settled on replying smoothly after taking in the temperature of the group. “Best to ensure we’re all on the same page, that’s all. But if we’re reduced to arguing about what we could have done differently after the necromancer’s death, and have no further real information on Elisabet, I think we’re about done here for now.”
There was a murmur of agreement, a few last exchanged words, and then the group broke apart. Litonya, Geta, Antaeus, Ruthers, Davis, Jue, Sigmund, and Hecate moved off together before splitting into smaller groups to begin leaving.
Which left Sophronia, Percival, Calafia, and Teach standing alone, watching the group go.
“We’re outnumbered,” Percival noted after ensuring they weren’t being spied upon.
“At least they don’t have enough to push for the curse,” Teach pointed out. “Not sure what we’d have to do then.” He looked over to Calafia, adding, “What about your half-siblings? Any word from them?”
The dark-skinned woman, in turn, offered him a slight smile. “According to Alexander and Cleopatra, the rebel Gardeners are still attempting to make their liberated vines work properly. There was an… issue with our friend deep under the sea.”
That drew a collection of grimaces from all four, just as the approach of another drew their attention that way. After a moment, the approaching figure emerged from the surrounding trees to reveal themselves.
“Hecate,” Sophronia greeted the newest Committee member in a faintly cautious tone. “You’ve returned. Done speaking to the others so quickly? Let me guess, they want you to use your mind magic to find out where the rest of us stand. And what we might be doing.”
There was a brief pause before the androgynous figure offered a simple nod. Their voice was dry. “They spoke, of course, only hypothetically.” The tone of their words in that last bit was tinged with amusement, a clear quote from the others. “And, in their eyes, always empathetically.”
Clearing his throat, Percival spoke up carefully. “You’ve had time now, what do you think?”
Hecate met his gaze, their own mismatched eyes studying him briefly before casually responding, “You were right, to allow your rivals to recruit me. They have given their trust absolutely. To their eyes I am working to erase Morgan’s magic. So sad, their assumptions prove tragic. This thing you ask will, in time, come to pass.”
Teach let out a sigh of relief then. “You can really do it? I mean, I know you’re good, but it’s asking a lot.”
“Morgan has opened the route,” came the response, “with the spell she brought about. Her magic touched the minds of all connected to that power, all of which I am now told to scour. The work I do to end the effect will do far more than they suspect. It will cease the feeling of fear and rage, stuff such manipulations in a cage. I will mute the urge to kill, to hunt. But not, perhaps, to be affront.”
“They’re saying what I believe they’re saying, right?” Sophronia carefully asked, her voice quiet.
“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The others think Hecate’s working with the Edge to undo Gaia’s spell. They’re really using the opening to pass another effect through it. One to dampen the sensation all our people get when they see an Alter. If it works, Bosch Heretics won’t get the Stranger sense anymore, and Alters won’t get a sense when they see us either.
“And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t have a fucking soundless voice screaming in our heads about what a threat the thing we’re looking at is, some of us might just have to start talking to each other.”