It was known as the Chamber of Victories. The room, located in the very center of the very top of the tree that served as the home of Eden’s Garden, was a mixture of beauty and danger. Perfectly circular, the wooden walls, as well as the floor and domed ceiling, held thousands of intricate carvings in the polished wood. Those carvings told the stories of not only the history of Eden’s Garden itself, but of each of its leaders. Every Victor, past and present, had the main points of their history carved into the wood. If one knew where to look, they could follow the story of any of the Garden leadership, with their battles, their losses, and their triumphs.
At least, normally one could do such a thing. Currently, there were dark scorch marks, acid burns, and deep gouges from various blades cut deep throughout the room from some recent battle.
In the center of that room was an enormous table, large enough to allow each of the sixteen Victors ample room to sit without being too close to their neighbor. Not only for the sake of simple comfort, but because many of those Victors, if put too close together, would resort to violence at the first provocation. More marks of damage lined the table itself.
Meanwhile, above the table was the main tree canopy, each leaf large enough to serve as the sail of the largest wooden Bystander ship from the ancient days of exploration. And below those leaves, lighting the room itself, were glowing vines and fruits, the latter of which gave the Garden Heretics their power. They only grew in that specific spot, the fruit-bearing vines themselves carefully cultivated to appear here, above the Chamber of Victories, where they could be monitored, counted, and divvied up between the tribes as needed.
The glow from both the fruit and the vines they were attached to wasn’t nearly as bright as it should have been. Several full vines with their attached budding fruit had been severed recently, in the same battle that had left the room beneath them so damaged.
Around the edges of the damaged room, nine figures stood, eight of them in pairs of two while one stood alone. They watched one another carefully, eyes roaming from one to the next as a palpable tension hung in the air like an oppressive mist that clogged the senses. No weapons were drawn, but it was a near thing.
“How about it?” The one who spoke was a tall, heavily muscled man with long white hair that fell to the middle of his back. Despite the color of his hair, he seemed young, appearing to be in his early thirties at most. His face would have been handsome were it not for the long hook-shaped nose that curved out a bit too far. Brown eyes, peering out from a deeply tanned face, scanned the room. “Anyone else want to make a play for more fruit so they can follow the others?”
Beside him, a much smaller, black-skinned man with white-lensed sunglasses gave a single nod. “As Lorenzo said, would anyone else in this room like to turn traitor?”
Straight across from both men stood two more figures, one male and one female. The latter was a very slight and slender woman with incredibly pale skin and soft brown hair. She appeared almost china doll fragile.
The man, meanwhile, stood around five foot ten inches in height, his skin almost rosy white. His black hair was elaborately styled with curls and a single long braid. Some might have called him soft-looking at a glance, but the glare he was shooting across the room at the first two who had spoken was anything but soft. “You’re looking at me,” he declared. “It wasn’t funny the first dozen times, Prestor. It will never be funny.”
“Never?” the small black man named Prestor Cannon asked with a note of curiosity. “I don’t know, assuming that the great Benedict Arnold, whose name is quite literally synonymous with traitor, would be up to his old ways? That seems a little funny to me. And, you know, maybe a little bit common sense too.”
“My great-uncle is not a traitor,” the small woman beside Benedict Arnold spoke up then. “Watch your mouth, Prestor.”
On the far side of the room, to Prestor and Lorenzo’s left, stood another male and female pair. The man was an elderly Native American, who stood alone with no apparent counterpart. “Hannah,” the man spoke, addressing Benedict’s grandniece. “No one trying to claim anyone here is a traitor.”
“Aren’t they, Quevias?” Hannah demanded. “Because it sure seems to me like that’s what they’re doing.”
“Enough.” The snapped word came from the elderly, severe-looking woman with the tight gray bun who stood opposite Quevias and his partner. Remember Humility Bennett, looking somehow even more like an angry schoolmarm than usual, stood next to her own Victor partner, a much younger-looking Indian woman who did not look old enough to have even graduated Bystander high school.
It was that younger woman who looked at her supposed ‘partner’ while speaking simply. “Of course, while we’re talking about traitors… maybe we should bring up the big ones.”
“Zoya,” Remember spoke through gritted teeth. “Now is not the time for your games. Victors are to present a united front.” She turned sharp eyes to her. “And you know that I hold no allegiance toward either Joselyn or Felicity. Nor they to me, clearly. We are strangers to one another.”
“Either way, we should stop pointing fingers at one another,” a new voice grumbled from yet another male and female pair. In this case, it came from a somewhat heavyset Middle Eastern-looking man with dark skin and a full beard. He stood beside the smaller, light-skinned and dark-haired female figure who was known to those present as Ikita, and to very few as the woman currently possessed by the Seosten named Cahethal.
Most of those present had their own Garden-based names that they went by amongst their own tribes. But here, in this room, they used their real names. That was part of being equals within the leadership of Eden’s Garden. Only Ikita, her real name of Lydia Smallwood almost completely forgotten by all but a select few, used her tribal name here. None were really sure why she was allowed to get away with such a thing, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that she had been going by Ikita since long before Garden had ever been a thing.
“Kyril has a point,” Zoya agreed with a nod to the Middle Eastern man who stood next to Ikita/Cahethal. “I’m sorry, Remember. We should be united now.” Her eyes flicked over to the damaged walls. “There’s been enough fighting.”
“Enough?” Prestor demanded. “Or not even close? Because from where we’re standing, the traitors still escaped with a third of the apples for this year.”
“Don’t forget the Stranger resources they released,” Zoya put in. “Thousands of cages and magical prisons were broken. Some went with the traitors, some simply fled through other portals. They’ve scattered by now. It will take quite some time and effort to collect the ones who went on their own, to say nothing of those who are now accompanying the traitors.”
Hannah, still standing close to her great uncle Benedict, nodded. “The escaped Strangers are irrelevant compared to what was stolen from this room. Because it’s not just the apples. They have the vines. They could technically find a way to grow more with the vines.”
“Doubtful,” Remember disagreed with a frown. “I suppose it could be possible. But without the Children of Bosch…” Her gaze moved to Prestor and Lorenzo, the Victors of that tribe. “It is not likely.”
These, who had spoken and stood facing one another, were the Victors of the five Eden’s Garden tribes who had remained loyal after the spell from Gaia Sinclaire and her pet student Felicity Chambers, the daughter of the first great traitor, Joselyn Atherby, had reawakened the rebellion. Five tribes.
Remember Bennett and the incredibly young-looking Indian woman Zoya Dalal led Lost Scar.
Ikita, secretly Cahethal, and Kyril Shamon, the heavyset Middle Eastern man, were the leaders of the Eternal Eye tribe.
The Victors of the Children of Bosch, known for their scientific experiments, were Prestor Cannon and Lorenzo Hunt.
The tribe known as the Reapers took their name from those same powerful creatures from which all Bosch Heretics drew their power. Unlike the other tribes, their Victors had been split on their loyalty. The elderly Native American known as Quevias Quarter had stayed, along with roughly half of their number. Their other Victor, the woman named Aniya Keita, had left with the remaining half.
Finally, the eponymous American ‘traitor’ himself, Benedict Arnold, led the so-called Remnant Guardians alongside his great-niece, Hannah Beckman.
Kyril looked toward Prestor and Lorenzo as well. “How about it?” he asked in a voice that rumbled through the room. “How many of yours went with the traitor tribes? Enough for them to work on planting those vines?”
Three and one half of the eight tribes had turned almost fully traitor, rebelling nearly as one. But not all of those tribe members left with them. Some stayed behind and would be taken in by the remaining tribes once their loyalties were assured. Unfortunately, as Kyril’s words implied, some from the loyal tribes’ members had left as well.
Four and one half loyal tribes, versus three and one half traitors. An almost even split. The loyalists had considered it a win that they retained control of the tree while the rebels left, but that would not be nearly as much of a victory if the traitors actually managed to use their stolen vines to grow new fruit. It was a process that should have been impossible, or at least too slow to be useful anytime within the next few decades. And yet… more unlikely things had happened. Losing any of the fruit, let alone entire vines, was a dangerous blow to the loyalists.
In response to Kyril’s question, Prestor and Lorenzo looked to one another, before the latter spoke. “We don’t believe that any of those who left are… advanced enough to succeed at such an attempt.”
“Belief is not knowledge,” Ikita/Cahethal pointed out flatly, letting her gaze move over the assembled group, her eight fellow loyal Victors. “We cannot be certain until we retrieve the vines. That should be our primary goal, above all else. We take the vines back, before the traitors manage to defy expectations by finding a way to make them grow.”
Benedict gave a firm nod at that. “Agreed. We track down the traitors. First priority is to take the vines. Second is to apprehend our… counterparts. This rebellion must be stopped before they ally themselves with the Atherby camp. You know what happened the last time, how far we had to go to ensure that war was ended.”
“It will not get that far,” Kyril stated firmly, his dark eyes blazing with anger at the very idea.
“I certainly hope not,” Remember murmured, her soft voice drawing the attention of the others. “As Benedict said, we all remember what happened during the last rebellion, when entire tribes abandoned the tree. We need to nip this in the bud.
“Before it’s too late.”
“This… is a very long way from the Chamber of Victories.”
The man who was speaking was small and relatively thin, though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with green eyes and hair that was cut short, its natural blond color turned dark blue.
His hands gestured to the room around himself and his companions. Like the aforementioned Chamber, it was a large room with a single table in the middle. But that was where the similarities ended. In this case, rather than being at the top of a magically gigantic tree, this was the private dining room in the back of a small buffet restaurant in a medium-sized town somewhere on the west coast of the United States.
“Yes, Carseus.” The Asian woman who sat beside the man who had spoken looked equally young, save for her incredibly ancient pale eyes, which looked as though they had been through many centuries. Given the woman was well over three thousand years old, the eyes were a far more accurate representation of her age than her flawless skin and hair were, in this case.
She looked to her male partner, adding, “It is very different. Yet I… cannot find too much fault in it.” She offered a very slight smile. “I rather enjoy it more than the Chamber, personally. So much food variety. I am planning on trying that… what is it called? Spawgetshe?”
“Spaghetti,” the man sitting across from her who spoke up then looked very old and very weathered, like an ancient cowboy, his skin wrinkled and leathery. He even wore a leather duster and the wide-brimmed hat most associated with the old west. Or normally wore them, in any case. Currently, the duster had been draped over the back of his chair, while the hat sat in front of the man on the table. “They call it spaghetti.”
“Thank you, Jack,” the Asian woman, known as Fu Hao, gratefully murmured with a slight bow of her head. “Yes. I am looking forward to trying this… spaghetti. It shall be an adventure.”
Beside the cowboy, known as Jack Childs, sat his own partner, a man who appeared to be in his early forties, with short black hair and a wide face. His expression looked almost permanently surprised. Since the days when he had served at the command of King Arthur with the other Knights of the Round table, he had been known as Lamorak.
Now, Lamorak the knight sat in quiet meditation, his eyes closed as he let the words of his fellow Victors wash over him. Arthur’s words had guided him this far. But what would come next? And would he know what to do when it did?
Near Lamorak, close enough to touch him (which she did, occasionally), sat a lone woman. Aniyah Keita, the Reaper Victor who had taken half of her tribe away from her own actual partner to follow her knight lover, had long red hair with one part at the front that was midnight black. Her skin was quite tanned, particularly for a red-head, and she had gray eyes with flecks of black.
Finally, on the far side of Fu Hao and Carseus, sat two figures whose similarities revealed their close relation. Each had equally olive skin, on the somewhat darker side, with black hair and brown eyes. Their noble, regal facial structures came from literal royalty, as the siblings, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, were the direct children of the latter’s namesake. Their mother had been the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, while their father was the Roman general and leader Mark Antony. The twins had, in all their many centuries of Heretic life, remained a near-constant in each other’s lives. Including now, as they led the tribe known as the Dust Striders.
These were the leaders of those who had rebelled from Eden’s Garden following the removal of the memory spell. Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (or Cleo as she preferred) Selene had taken all of the Dust Striders who were loyal to them. Carseus Elsen and Fu Hao had taken their own Vigilant Sons (and Daughters), Jack Childs and Lamorak had taken the ones known as Fate’s Shepherds, and Aniyah Keita had taken roughly one half of the Reapers tribe.
From her seat, Cleo looked toward Fu Hao. “Don’t forget,” she murmured, “we aren’t here solely for the enjoyment of new tastes. Our people are depending on us.”
“And the Alters we took out of that place,” Lamorak quietly pointed out. “The ones who stayed with us.”
“That’s right,” Childs agreed with both while rubbing a hand over his heavily-lined face. “We’ve got ‘em all spread out pretty well between here and the border with Canada, so we probably won’t attract too much attention just yet. But we need to find a place to settle in and start building up defenses. And we can’t go any further north than that.”
He was right. Even the seven of them together did not want to risk angering the one who called themselves the King of Canada. That place was off limits to Heretics. It was entirely too dangerous to make an enemy of that… being.
“What about Seller?” Childs asked then, addressing his question toward Carseus and Fu Hao, the Victors of Seller’s tribe. “Is he joining us? And what of the others in his… group, Atherby’s oldest daughter, and the Eternal Eye girl.”
“Miranda,” Fu Hao informed him. “And we believe he will come to meet us. But she… she will likely stay with the Atherbys. As will Abigail and the other girl, Gia. Or ‘Pace’ as she is known.”
Childs coughed. “Then there’s the elephant in the room. Hannah Owens. Bosch’s descendant. We really screwed up there, didn’t we?”
Fu Hao was quiet for a moment before simply replying, “It is doubtful she will have any interest in returning either. Most probably, she and the others will choose to stay with the descendants of Camelot.”
“Are we sure we shouldn’t join up with them too?” Childs considered, head tilting curiously. “Linking up with the remnants of Arthur’s kingdom might just be exactly what we need to do to win the war that’s coming.”
Eyes still closed, Lamorak murmured, “Not yet. It’s not the right time. We need to be able to stand on our own first.”
Cleo gave a nod of agreement. “He’s right. The Atherbys and Prosser may be a great help, but we must come as allies, not dependants. We will create a new place for ourselves and defend it.”
Carseus spoke then. “We have the vines too. They’re safe enough in the storage dimension, but they’re not going to grow like that.”
“As far as we know,” Alexander Helios put in, “they will not grow at all. We do not know how to make them work.”
“We have some ideas,” Aniyah corrected him, moving a hand to gently squeeze Lamorak’s leg while she amended, “Some of our people do, and those who came with us from the Children of Bosch.”
Fu Hao gave a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. “Yes. Yet this is not something we will have more chances to get right. We must be absolutely certain that the vines will thrive and grow before we risk losing them. If we do not have the vines to create more of our people, the other tribes will soon hold an insurmountable advantage.”
Drumming his fingers along his hat, Childs pointed out, “Maybe we should’ve stayed then. If we had the tree and drove them out…”
Opening his eyes, Lamorak shook his head. “We didn’t have the numbers, old friend. Better to take what we could hold and leave to fight again another day. We will find a safe place for our tribes. And we’ll grow the vines.”
“You sound confident of that,” Alexander noted, his dark eyes watching Lamorak curiously. “Is there something you want to tell the rest of us?”
For a moment Lamorak was quiet. “I’m… not entirely certain. But… yes, I think so. Arthur, when he was alive… he told me a lot of things. Some of it had to do with visions he had of the future. I’m not entirely sure how it all fits together. I don’t think even he was. But one of the things he said was that the seeds would grow near the Lost Territory.”
“Lost Territory?” Cleo echoed. “That… sounds like Desoto.”
Aniyah leaned back a bit in her seat. “You think the old king saw all of this and wanted you to take the vines and plant them near what used to be Desoto?”
“I don’t think he understood much of what he saw,” Lamorak pointed out quietly. “It was all just images and thoughts jumbled together. But yes, I think that’s what he was saying. Even if he didn’t understand it then.”
“Well then,” Fu Hao announced, “we will begin taking the tribes south-east, toward what was once Desoto.
“But for now, let us eat. I wish to try this… spaghetti.”