We stopped at a wooden door, the woman’s hand on the doorknob as she prepared to open it.
“We do not tolerate misbehavior at assembly, Maggie. This is your only warning.” The woman said this plainly, as if she couldn’t care less whether I caused a disturbance or not. She was focused on a mission. In fact, they all seemed to be.
Then I recognized the word she’d mentioned: assembly.
“Eran and I were kidnapped in order to be at the assembly?” I was in shock. “Why didn’t you just ask us?”
“You aren’t here to vote,” she snapped, scornfully. “You’re the defendant.”
That message sunk in as she opened the door revealing something I had least expected.
An underground circular chamber had been dug below the fortress with steps and seats running the entire circumference of the room from ceiling to floor. Candled chandeliers hung above, casting an eerie light on the hundreds of Alterums mingling loudly below. A thunderous hum of unintelligible noise nearly shook the walls, immediately quieting as the woman led me to the center of the room.
Collectively, those in attendance took their seats, preparing to watch the proceedings to come. While the men released me, the stern woman took a seat at the edge of the stage I now stood on.
A man of twenty stood almost immediately and stepped to the center, though he kept his distance from me.
“Maggie, you may retract your wings. There is no need for them here.”
I wasn’t so certain and when I kept them extended, he shrugged and turned towards the audience.
“We have been in discussion for nearly twenty-four hours. As time has passed, we can be assured that our enemies are amassing. In an effort to come to a decision quickly, Ms. Barrett has suggested we hear directly from the one who has caused the trouble we are in discussions over.” He motioned towards the woman who had brought me to the chamber.
I felt my anger flare again and my eyes become slits as I evaluated the woman. She sat proudly defending her decision to take Eran and me as prisoners. Worse, those around her patted her shoulders, supporting her efforts.
“Maggie,” said the young man, prompting me.
I stood silent, searching the crowd for Eran, Ezra, Rufus, Felix, anyone who might be in support of me. What I saw instead were frowns, scowls, hatred from my own kind. They were of all ages, all ethnicities, and both genders. Their dress was just as diverse with a smattering of business suits, jeans and sweatshirts, sarongs, Rasta beads and dreadlocks, ushankas, Native American shawls. Every walk of life was represented. The one unifying commonality was that they were all Alterums.
Fernando Vega had been correct. My hunting had drawn attention to myself. Thinking back to his other warning instantly made my wings snap straighter in reaction. He’d mentioned a rumor to deliver me to the Fallen Ones, to sacrifice me for the safety of the rest.
“Maggie,” said the young man again, standing briefly to urge me to speak and then taking his seat again beside Ms. Barrett.
“It may help Maggie to hear why she has been brought to the assembly,” suggested an older woman whose hair was graying and whose eyes held the sense of mature experience.
Ms. Barrett stood and entered the stage, glaring briefly at the older woman who’d just spoken as if Ms. Barrett had been directly criticized. Loudly and firmly, she recounted, “She is here before us to defend herself. Alterums are dying at an alarming rate by the hands of Fallen Ones directly because of her actions. Her killings have caused our enemies to unite and attack our kind. We are in danger because of her.”
She strolled back to her seat where a book, even from this distance, was easily recognizable to me.
She picked up the Fallen One dossiers, the one the Beedinwiggs had spent generations compiling, and held it up for the chamber to see.
“What I have in my hand is information on every Fallen One ever to have existed. It is Maggie’s information source, her way of finding her enemies and destroying them. Its very existence is a danger to us all, an undeniable threat when in the hands of someone like Maggie.” As she reeled off her speech, she spun around theatrically until she was again facing me.“And that is why it is better off that we destroy it before it destroys us.”
She lifted herself into the air then, swooping up with her arm holding the book high over her head, her legs bent out behind her. When she reached a chandelier above, she did something that spurred equal amounts of panic and rage in me.
She placed my book in the flames.
Thoughtlessly, I soared towards her, thinking of only one objective: retrieve the book.
My body had never moved so fast and yet, despite my incomparable efforts, I didn’t reach it, her guards catching me well ahead of time and dragging me back to the earth.
My voice reverberated off the walls, something I didn’t consciously identify as coming from me. I released only one word, thick with horror in watching the only thing that gave us an advantage over our enemies become entirely consumed in flames.
Ms. Barrett spun towards me. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
When I didn’t respond, my chest feeling as if it had caved in from the loss of such a valuable resource, she stepped forward to within inches of me. “Nothing?” she beseeched, and it was clear she was almost content with my silence. Again, she addressed the audience. “Maggie has no defense, proven by her refusal to speak up. Yet she has endangered each one of us, provoking our enemies and sparking a war. There is only one solution to this problem. They have told us they will retreat if we give them what they desire, what they have always desired. Give them their nemesis…” Immediately the crowd began to murmur, steadily growing in volume until Ms. Barrett concluded her message in which the chamber erupted in commotion. “Give them Maggie!”
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