Sophronia Leven

Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic  to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

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Interlude 8B – Liam Mason (Heretical Edge 2)

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The first time he lost his wife had been the second-worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Second-worst, because at the time, he’d still had his little girls. As traumatized as little Scout had been, as much as it had killed him that he couldn’t erase what she had experienced, she was at least there. He could hold her, he could comfort her. She and her sister were there as reminders of the woman he loved. He’d had that, at least. They’d had each other. 

The second time he lost his wife had been the worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Because he hadn’t only lost Larissa again. This time, he’d lost his girls too. Scout and Sands. He lost all three of them. And not to some monster or a magic spell. No. He lost them to themselves. They willingly left, chose to leave, out of some misguided belief that the monsters who wanted to enslave, kill, and devour humanity itself were some kind of… innocent little fluffy puppies. 

He’d lost his wife and children, his entire family, within months of actually getting them all back in the first place. They chose to walk away, chose to abandon their father, to side with… with… those things. 

Just like Joselyn. Just like Deveron, Lillian, Roger, Seamus, and Tribald. All of them were supposed to be his friends, back in the day. All of them had gone off on this… absurd belief that the creatures who tore human bones from their bodies, devoured their hearts, and used the remains for blood rituals were actually just misunderstood. The creatures they fought were monsters. Jos, Deveron, the rest of them just didn’t understand. Liam had thought that getting the adults involved would put an end to the whole situation, but it had only made things worse. Instead of being talked down out of their insanity, Joselyn and the others had blamed him for exposing their little group, and everything blew up into a full-scale war. A war that had ended with Joselyn’s identity, as well as almost everyone’s memory of that war, being erased so that things could go back to the way they should have been. 

Now the war was back. It was unerased, thanks to Joselyn’s daughter. And while Joselyn had taken his friends away when she started her version of the war. Felicity Chambers took away his wife and children. 

Felicity Chambers was an idealistic child who had no doubt been manipulated by those much stronger and more malicious than she was. Creatures, likely the same or related to those who had first manipulated Joselyn into believing this insanity, had gotten to her. Whether it was before she ever joined Crossroads or after, Liam wasn’t sure. Only that they used her as a weak point, twisting her mind until she believed the same evil lies as Joselyn had. 

Was it the bodysnatchers who had been exposed earlier in the year? It had to be them, right? That was what made the most sense. If they could possess people, it wouldn’t have been hard to bring some onto the school grounds to say the right things to twist Flick and those around her. 

And Gaia. She was fooled by all this too. Fooled or puppeted or… or… Gods, who knew. It was all such a mess. The war was going again, his family was gone, Gaia was locked up for being part of it, and now Liam had been put in charge of Crossroads as its new headmaster. 

Headmaster. He was the new headmaster of Crossroads, and what happened during the first hunt they’d put together, even with all the precautions? One of their students disappeared. Erin Redcliffe had literally vanished in the middle of the hunt. Despite all the extra guards they had, despite the trackers that were supposed to make sure the students could always be found, despite everything, Erin was just…. gone. 

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing outside of a wooden door as he exhaled a long, slow breath. The man inside had already called for him to enter, but Liam took another moment before pushing the door open and stepping through. 

It was a war room. Or at least it looked like one, with a large table projecting a hologram of the Earth with various marks indicating where sightings of certain people had been, weapons lining all of the walls, a heavy oak desk at the back covered in reports and a handful of recording devices, and shelves behind the desk lined with various enchanted objects. There were no decorations, nothing to indicate any kind of personal life or entertainment for the occupant. It was all entirely built and designed around function. 

Gabriel Ruthers stood at the back of the room, looking at the shelf with magic items. His hand casually toyed with one of the metal orbs there, rolling it between two fingers as he spoke in a quiet, somewhat weary voice. “It’s been a long year, hasn’t it, Liam?” 

“Are we counting since three hundred and sixty-five days ago, January, or the beginning of this school year?” Liam asked. Pausing then, he grimaced. “I guess it doesn’t matter. The answer is yes.” 

“It’s going to get longer,” came the gruff response. With that, Ruthers turned and moved closer. “You’re here about the Redcliffes. What’s going on with her father?” 

“We haven’t told Nolan yet,” Liam informed him simply, folding his arms across his chest while he watched the man. “But he’ll figure it out eventually, when we don’t let him talk to her. You know what a shitshow that’s gonna be? The only reason he’s still here and hasn’t gone off to join the idealists is because he thinks we still have his daughter here.” 

A short pause followed that statement, before Liam dropped his gaze to stare at the floor, his entire frame seeming to deflate a bit. “You know what that sounds like when I say it out loud?” 

“I know what it sounds like,” Ruthers confirmed quietly, his hand finding its way to Liam’s shoulder. “But you have to be strong. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel or sound right. Sometimes it’s hard. When it comes to saving humanity, to protecting our world and our people, we don’t always have the luxury of playing nice. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy to make sure even more people don’t suffer. Liam, you know what we’re up against, don’t you?” 

“Idealists manipulated by evil,” Liam murmured, frowning a bit before looking back up to the other man. “There’s already students talking about Erin’s disappearance, and I know there’s a few trying to decide if there’s a way for them to pull the same disappearing act. They play it cool around their teachers, but I just… I know they’re planning something. I can’t just throw them all in holding cells because I suspect they want to defect. I’ve cancelled future hunts for the time being until we find out what happened with Erin, but what… what else are we supposed to do? We can only keep them trapped at school for so long.” 

“It’s a tropical island with a magnificent beach and a jungle,” Ruthers dryly retorted, “they’re not exactly suffering.” Sobering a bit, he added, “They’ll be fine, Liam. Tell them the truth, that we’re protecting them. Tell them that their friends and family have been tricked, but we’re working to bring them back. Tell them about the bodysnatchers. If it scares them… good, maybe it’ll convince them not to trust people they don’t know, and to be critical of anyone they do know showing up with strange new ideas and opinions.” 

“You want me to make my students paranoid about everyone they talk to?” Liam’s voice was flat as he stared at the man he had looked up to and trusted for so long. 

Ruthers, in turn, stared right back at him. “I want you to teach them to be critical and wary of people who might be trying to lead them astray, be that strangers or… strangers wearing the faces of people they think they know. Teach them that people who suddenly change their minds about every truth we’ve known for so long might not be themselves anymore. Whether they’ve been fooled or… or taken over, those are the people we need to lock down if we’re going to get this under control. I want you to use the authority you’ve been given to keep a lid on our students so we don’t lose any more of them to this absurd insurrection. Can you do that?”

Liam was silent for a few long seconds, letting the words sink in before he straightened a bit, meeting the other man’s gaze. “Yes, Counselor. 

“I can do that.” 

*******

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing in front of a heavy, metal door lined with magical runes and radiating power beyond anything even he could actually comprehend. The spells on the door were stronger than he could possibly have deciphered in several years, let alone done anything about. A single one of the multiple incantations could have been studied for decades to get a full understanding of. They had been prepared by the strongest mages in Crossroads. 

“I can’t let you in here for long, you understand?” Sophronia Leven, the beautiful, auburn-haired Crossroads Committee member whose human story was told in the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, reminded him as she stood by the door. “There are rules that all of us have to follow, no matter how… much we may disagree with them. Lines that we have no choice but to toe.” 

Before he answered, Liam gave the woman a brief, curious look. It sounded more as though she was annoyed about something else when she spoke of lines they had to toe. Belatedly, when she squinted at him, he gave a quick nod. “Of course, Counselor. I don’t need long.”

At least, he hoped he didn’t. Even coming here in the first place felt like a betrayal of Ruthers and everything he was supposed to stand for. But then, Liam was well-versed in betrayal. 

Finally nodding with what was apparently satisfaction, Sophronia touched several parts of the door, speaking an incantation. As a few runes lit up, she gestured and the door swung open entirely soundlessly. “Go. Do what you must,” she instructed. “I will warn you before your time is up. Do not linger when I do so, or the security measures will take their own precautions.” 

With a single, somewhat distracted nod, Liam stepped through the doorway and into a small, dark room. He could sense the walls around him, the space only slightly larger than one of those Bystander portable toilets or a closet. More magical runes covered each of them, all lighting up as the door closed behind him. For a full minute, he was scanned and various queries were sent to three separate people in different locations to ensure that he was allowed to be where he was. Only once all three of those had come back positive did the magic unlock, and he felt a quick rush of power as the small room transported him to his actual destination. 

Now, he was standing on a platform in a large, brightly lit room with no doors or windows. The walls, floor, and ceiling were white and lined with even more spells than the previous door and small room had been. There was more magical power on a single wall of this room than Liam could produce on his own, even if given a full century to do so. 

The room itself was empty, aside from a large glass tube directly in the middle. Within the tube floated the reason for all the security measures, the woman he’d come to see. Gaia Sinclaire. She wasn’t actually floating in water, or any other liquid. Instead, the red-haired woman had been frozen in an ongoing stasis field that was projected from the tube and powered by a few of the spells on the surrounding walls. The rest of those spells were meant to make it impossible to find this place, to have any contact with Gaia herself, to keep Gaia contained if she broke from the stasis, and so on. 

For a moment, Liam froze, staring at the tube. A rush of thoughts and memories passed through his mind, before he exhaled and stepped that way. There was a single metal plate in the middle of the tube, and he put his hand against it firmly before speaking aloud. “Headmistress?” 

You don’t need to call me that, Liam, came the response directly into his mind through the mental link that the metal plate established. Not anymore. 

Yes, Gaia’s body may have been frozen, but it was possible, through the spells that kept her that way, to contact her mind. From what Liam knew, the Committee had been using that in an attempt to get any information from her about the bodysnatchers, the rebellion, the Atherbys, anything useful at all. 

“Gaia,” he amended, cursing himself inwardly for the slip. Of course she didn’t have that title anymore. He had her position. She was a prisoner, a traitor. So why had his first instinct been to show deference and respect? 

Shaking that off, Liam pushed on. “I need–I mean… Erin Redcliffe disappeared.” Over the next few minutes, he explained the situation, how the girl had vanished from the middle of a hunt and their thoughts that either she had somehow planned it out and run away to join her roommate and friends in the rebellion, or that they themselves had taken her. 

When he was done, Gaia was silent. Well, she was always silent. She gave no mental response for a few long seconds. Just as he was about to ask if the spell had malfunctioned somehow, the woman finally ‘spoke.’ Let me tell you a story. 

“A story?” Liam echoed. “Is this really the right time?” 

There is no better time than this, she insisted before continuing. Once, very long ago, a man lived happily with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They weren’t rich, but neither were they poor. They were content. One day, while the wife and children were off, a traveling salesman came to the man’s door and showed him a grand mirror, six feet in height and three feet wide. The mirror was a sight to behold, set into a stand of wood that had been intricately carved to look like two beautiful, androgynous figures holding the glass. 

‘This will protect your family, good sir,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Because there are monsters in this world, and the mirror will reveal them to you.’ 

“It was a mirror enchanted to break the Bystander Effect?” Liam asked, curiously. 

So it would seem, was her response. With some hesitation, but an eagerness to protect his family from any threats, the man bought the mirror and placed it in his home. As he stood admiring it, his wife returned, and the man brought her to the mirror. However, to his horror, the reflection showed not the woman he knew, but a foul beast. He saw, in the reflection of his wife, a creature with dark scales, pointed horns, and a wide mouth with many fangs. In a panic, the man killed the beast, before hearing the approach of his son. 

Quickly, he hid the body, resolving to explain the truth to the boy before forcing him to see his mother’s body. But, as the boy entered, the man saw his son’s reflection in the mirror. Again, it was that of a demonic being, a snarling beast that drove a shiver through the man’s heart. In despair, he killed the boy, unable to stand the sight of that creature in the mirror. 

Once more, he heard someone approach. His daughter. Terrified and thoroughly suspicious, the man hid the body of his son and waited. Sure enough, when the girl entered the room looking for her family, the man saw the reflection of a most terrible beast, the worst of all. With a heart laden with sorrow and regret, he killed his daughter. 

“I don’t understand the point of this story,” Liam interrupted. “Is it that evil can be everywhere, even where we least expect it? Because–”

He was cut off as Gaia pushed on as though he hadn’t spoken at all. The man was certain the enchantment hiding his wife and children’s true forms would wear off upon their deaths. But it didn’t. They looked the same as they always had to his naked eye. Worse, when he displayed them before the mirror again, their reflections were as normal as his own. Grieving, he took the bodies behind the house to bury, when the salesman returned. 

‘You!’ the man shouted. ‘You lied to me! You told me the mirror would reveal the monsters in this world!’

‘And so it has,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Can you tell me of anyone more monstrous than he who would kill his wife and children?’ 

“I should’ve known that coming here was a mistake,” Liam muttered. “What is that supposed to mean? What does it have to do with saving Erin?” 

Again, there was a brief pause before Gaia responded. Its meaning is for you to determine, Liam. I cannot tell you that. As for Erin, I believe she is fine. My intention was not to protect her, but to save another of my students. One whom I will never give up on, no matter what mistakes they may make. 

“Who?” he snapped, unthinkingly. 

You, Liam.  

I want to save you

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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 20B – Blackbeard

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Early March, 1718

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am the last of the Argonauts.”

*****

Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 18B – The Committee

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September 3rd, 2017 (The day before school began)

The room was a perfect circle, with a floor of glistening white marble, walls of polished emerald, and a vaulted ceiling that displayed the sky through a holographic representation. In the middle of the room, centered precisely, sat a circular table that was about half the size of the room itself. Twelve chairs were arranged around the table at equal distances from each other, none raised higher than any of the others.

At each of the four compass points in the room, there was a heavy, thick iron door. Softly glowing magical runes of privacy and protection were activated on those doors whenever, like now, the occupants carried on their often heated conversations and debates over the running of their society.

“We have been over this time and time again,” Gabriel Ruthers announced from his place at the circular table. A glass of amber liquid sat in front of him, and he took a smooth pull from it before continuing. “Whether or not the girl is a threat, it would be absurd for us to use our resources to turn her into one.”

Directly across from him, a man who would have looked at home in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as one of the titular pirates sat stroking his beard. His voice was like gravelly thunder that filled the room. “Where I’m from, we don’t go blaming the sins o’the parents on all the little ones. That way lies terrible things. Which of us could stand up to moral scrutiny over not just everything we’ve done, but everything all our ancestors did way back through history? At what point do we draw the line, eh?”

“At the point, Teach,” Ruthers addressed him, “that it risks allowing a girl into our society and among our children who may be an agent conditioned by her terrorist mother to destroy our civilization.”

“Edward raises a fair point, Gabriel.” Beside Ruthers to his left, a pale and pristinely beautiful auburn-haired woman spoke. “We have no evidence that Joselyn Atherby has had any contact with her daughter within the past decade. Conditioning a child like that takes far more than a secret visit now and then that we don’t even have any actual evidence of. And given the reports we’ve received about the girl’s attitude concerning her mother’s absence, I find it difficult to believe that they are secretly allied.”

Before Ruthers could speak, the woman on his other side spoke up. Her darker skin revealed her Native American ancestry, and she looked old. They were all old, but she looked it more so than the rest of them. Her face was lined with more wrinkles than belonged on a normal person. Yet despite that, every motion she made was filled with life and energy. At that moment, she was pointing at the pale woman.

“You have a son in the school this year, Sophronia,” she chastised. “You should want to protect him.”

The other woman shifted in her chair, giving her colleague a hard look. “I do. And I’m the one who decides what Zeke needs protection from. At this point, from what I’ve seen and heard in those reports, being around someone like this Chambers girl may do him some good. Your argument only holds water if we believe that she’s a threat. I don’t happen to believe that, so you’ll have to try something else.”

Another man across the table, sitting beside Teach, cleared his throat. He was an exceedingly handsome black man with finely chiseled features and the smooth voice of an old jazz singer. “I’m sure Litonya wasn’t trying to question your parenting choices, Sophie. We’re all just very close to the situation. Which, if you think about it, is another point against the Chambers girl. If we can’t even agree on whether or not to allow her into the school, how will we agree on what to do if she doesn’t work out?

“Besides,” he added, “blood is blood, and she is her mother’s daughter. Her loyalty will be to her.”

Beside him, Teach twisted a little in his seat to squint at his neighbor with a clearly disbelieving look. “You of all people should know that family doesn’t always mean loyalty, Geta. How long did your brother let you share the throne with him after Septimius died? Less than a year? You really think this Chambers girl is some kind of secret plant by her mother after they haven’t even talked in a decade?”

Geta’s fist came down on the table. “That is immaterial,” he thundered back. “You know as well as I do that Caracalla was manipulated by one of the very same Strangers that we are charged with protecting our world from. His decisions were not his own, and I would not be at this table today if I hadn’t fought against the creature who took my brother’s sanity. Losing my brother was my first sign of the evil of Strangers. And I have seen far too many such signs over these centuries to risk allowing the same kind of dangerous treason to rise up in this society again after we worked so hard to remove it the first time. Do you really want to risk another war, just to allow one girl to enter our society? I have nothing directly against the Chambers child, but she is perfectly safe where she is. There is no reason to bring her into Crossroads. Maybe she is an agent of her mother and maybe she isn’t. But the benefit of her inclusion is far too small when compared to the risk that she either is a threat or may become one.”

Another woman, her Spanish ancestry apparent in her features, spoke from her place to the left of Sophronia. “That’s getting too close to straying from the point of today’s meeting. We aren’t here to discuss the nature of Strangers, only whether Felicity Chambers should be allowed into Crossroads.”

As Ruthers opened his mouth, the man who sat to Geta’s left interrupted. “Well, maybe we should discuss it, Elisabet.” His long blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and the man wore a tee shirt advertising some modern Bystander musical group called the Ramones. “Because as some of us have tried to tell the rest of you for a long ass time now, there’s more to Strangers than we allow to be taught. And if we could just be open to entertaining some of what Atherby was teaching, we might be able to-”

“That is quite enough, Percival.” The disgust and annoyance in Elisabet’s voice was palpable. “This discussion isn’t an excuse to bring up that old lie. Strangers are incapable of living in harmony with humanity. They see us as prey, and any indication otherwise is a trick.” Her hand rose to point at him. “And don’t forget, we may have voted to allow such insane words to be spoken in this room, but if there is ever any indication that you or anyone else has been spreading them to the rest of our people…”

Teach grunted with annoyance of his own. “Sure, sure. Wouldn’t want the people to know that we can’t even agree on whether Miss Big Bad Terrorist Leader was right or not. It might confuse the poor dears.” His words were dripping with sarcasm, even as he grabbed the bottle of rum in front of him to take a long drink from before slamming it back down on the table. “Sure as hells wouldn’t want that.”

To Teach’s right side, a rotund, heavyset man who clearly hadn’t actively fought for many years scooted his chair a short distance away from his neighbor. “Do we need another vote to show you that you lack the numbers to enact any such change, Edward?” he asked while polishing his glasses on his shirt.

“A vote proves nothing, Oliver.” Teach snapped. “Not within this body of stubborn fools. If you want to see proof that there can be decent Strangers out there, you need to get out and interact with them, not sit in this room blowing smoke up each other’s arses. When was the last time any of you lot took the time to talk to something not-human before you shoved a sword in its gut? Never? That’s what I thought.”

Still cleaning his glasses, Oliver made a haughty sound before setting them back on his face. “Careful, old pirate. Keep talking like that and someone might think that you’re going back to your old ways.”

Teach just gave the man a dirty look. “Lucky for me,” he grunted, “as Elisabet already mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with bringing up the subject in this room. And you know full well why we made that rule. Cuz if we didn’t, you’d have a fight on your hands. And the Committee fighting looks bad.”

“It’s a fight you would lose, Edward.” The admonishment came from a young-looking Asian woman who sat to the left of Percival. Her features were more handsome than pretty, though her strikingly violet eyes definitely made her stand out. “The few of you who believe such complete nonsense do not have the numbers to even cause a tie within our ranks, let alone to affect actual change in policy. Which also means that, if we were to engage in combat, your side would certainly not survive for very long.”

Sophronia spoke up while Teach was still starting to react. “Is that a threat, Jue?” Her voice, while calm, was laced with warning as she lay both palms down on the table. “Because I believe you’ll find that, while there may be only a few of us who believe that peace with Strangers may eventually be a possibility, we are far from weak. If you wish to threaten us, you may come to regret such a decision.”

“Enough, enough.” Between Jue and Litonya, a man who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack with his thick beard which rivaled Teach’s, and dark red and black checkered shirt shook his head. “We’re not here to threaten each other. That’s the entire reason we voted to allow this kind of discussion, so that it wouldn’t keep falling to threats and violence. If the people outside this room understood how often we almost go at each other’s throats, they’d lose all confidence in us. So let’s try to stay civil.”

“Davis is right,” Oliver agreed, though his tone made it clear that he disliked the other man. “So we’ll settle this before it gets out of control again. Let’s see a show of hands. Who among us believes that there is any merit in Atherby’s old claims, that Strangers either are or can somehow be taught morality.”

Ruthers tried to stop it, but around the table, three hands were raised: Teach, Percival, and Sophronia.

“You’re all insane.” The words came from the left of Elisabet, where a man who could have stood in as a body double for the mythological Thor if his hair had been red rather than black sat. His fist hit the table hard. “I think the girl should be allowed into the school, because she hasn’t done anything wrong and her rebel mother hasn’t even talked to her for years. But the idea of good Strangers is just… it’s insane. We’ve all seen the depravity Strangers get up to when we aren’t there to hold them in check.”

Next to the big man, to his left, an almost astonishingly attractive black woman laid a hand on his arm gently to stop him from going on. “I don’t think now is the time for that kind of argument, Sigmund. Our emotions already run high because of the Felicity Chambers discussion. Let’s not get off track with insults and threats about a subject that we already know is not going to be settled any time soon.”

“The subject has been settled, Calafia” Ruthers pointed out a little testily. “Not everyone has to agree for a subject to be settled. This committee has long-since established that a majority vote binds all of us to it, since before almost any of us were actually a part of it. We may disagree in here, but out there, we present a united front. It’s the only way to lead our people. And the majority agree that Crossroads cannot afford another Atherby-like rebellion. It would destroy our civilization and allow Strangers to run rampant. To that end, I insist upon a vote. Do we allow Atherby’s daughter into our school? Do we take the risk of subjecting both our students and our entire society to another civil war so soon after the last one was finally put to rest? Like all of you, I hold no personal grudge against the child. But she is a potential threat. And further, there is no particular benefit to her recruitment. She brings nothing of importance to the table, and the potential downsides are far too numerous to explain here. So, let’s vote and get this over with.” As he finished speaking, Ruthers finished the last of the contents of his glass.

The lumberjack, Davis, nodded. “I agree. Let’s have a vote and see where we all stand on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” Litonya agreed. “Let’s say… if you believe that this Felicity Chambers should be allowed to enter Crossroads, despite the dangers related to her mother’s rebellion, raise a hand.”

The first hand to rise was that of Edward Teach, who scowled across the table at Ruthers rather pointedly. It was followed almost immediately by Sophronia’s hand, entirely unsurprisingly. After a couple more seconds of silence, two more hands were raised practically simultaneously as Percival and Calafia joined the other two. And for a moment, it seemed like that’s where the vote would fall, with only four of the twelve Committee members choosing to accept Felicity Chambers into Heretic society.

Then Davis lifted his own hand with a soft grunt and shrug, raising the vote in her favor to five. And a second after that, the count turned to six as the others were joined by Sigmund, the massive viking.

That was where they stood. There may have only been three members of the Committee who held any belief in Atherby’s claims of the potential for Strangers to be good: Edward Teach, Sophronia/Sophie Leven, and Percival. But the other three, Davis, Calafia, and Sigmund, believed that Felicity should be given a chance in the school even if they didn’t believe her mother’s claims.

Ten seconds passed then, as the Committee members looked at one another that way before Jue shook her head. “Is that where we stand now? A vote of six to six? Do we need to go over the facts with all of you again? Do we need to discuss the kind of damage that this Chambers girl could do to our society if she is working with her mother? Might I remind you all that some of your own friends and descendants were killed in the war that Joselyn Atherby started. Do you all want to live through such a thing again?”

Percival, still standing out in his ridiculously modern clothing, spoke up. “And do we need to remind you lot that Chambers didn’t do anything wrong, and hasn’t had contact with her mother for, again, a decade. What the hell kind of long-con game do you think she’s playing?”

That sparked another argument that lasted for a solid ten minutes before things settled enough to vote again. And again, they were tied. So they argued some more.

“It seems that we simply are not going to be able to come to an agreement,” Calafia remarked after their third such vote with absolutely no change in the result. “We are dead-locked, six to six. And from the sound of each other’s passionate arguments, none of us are going to be convinced to switch sides.”

“You know what that means,” Teach pointed out, unable or unwilling to hide his amused expression. “If we’re tied, it’s the leader of the school that gets to decide whether to accept the new student or not.”

“Gaia Sinclaire.” Litonya’s dislike of the woman was evident in her voice and pinched expression of annoyance. “And we all know how she’ll vote. She was too soft on Atherby in school and she’ll be too soft on her child. The woman is too soft in general. We can’t simply pass that kind of decision to her.”

“First of all,” Sophronia spoke up. “I would dearly love to see you call Gaia soft to her face, Litonya. I think the results would be… amusing. And Prosser knows, we could use a little amusement right now.” She smiled a little at the thought before continuing. “And second of all, you can’t simply refuse to follow the rules because you know they’ll go against you. We’ve voted five times now, and all five times they’ve come out to a tie. Therefore, the current head of the school is allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote. And the current head of the school is Gaia Sinclaire, which means she casts the vote, regardless of her established opinion.”

Geta straightened in his seat, letting out an audible sigh. “As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point. I disagree with how this vote will go, but I won’t stand against it. We’ve failed to come to a consensus ourselves, so it’s up to the Headmistress to decide, even if we know how that will end up going.”

“Indeed,” Elisabet confirmed with a look toward Ruthers. “And we all know who to thank for Sinclaire ending up where she is.”

Ruthers, for his part, stared around at the other members of the Committee. His bulldog expression hardened and twisted as he obviously fought to find the right argument. All he had to do was convince one of the others to turn. Teach, Sophie, and Percival were hard set against him, so it would have to be one of the other three. Yet even as his mind desperately sought the right words to change their minds, he knew it would be useless.

The vote would stay tied, which meant that Gaia would make the final decision. And as they all knew, that decision would not be in his favor.

Felicity Chambers was coming to Crossroads.

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