Alexander Helios

Summer Epilogue 21 – Avalon and the Victors (Summer Epilogue End)

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A/N – This is the second chapter posted today. If you have not read the previous one, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above to check that one out first. 

Through the light, yet steady drizzle of rain, a red, nondescript SUV pulled into the parking lot of an old motel several blocks from the beach in Panama City, Florida. The vehicle rolled to a stop just inside the driveway, as a tall man in a raincoat emerged from under the nearby stairwell. He crossed to the driver’s side as the window came down. Several words were exchanged back and forth before the man pointed to a spot. It was the only empty parking space on that side of the motel, sandwiched between two heavy-duty vans with delivery service decals. 

The driver’s side window went up once more, and the SUV pulled up to that spot. There was a brief moment of silence as the engine shut off, save for the patter of rain against the vehicles and the roof of the motel. Then the doors all opened at once. Four pairs of feet hit the ground almost as one, as Avalon Sinclaire and Flick Chambers stepped from the back, and Seller and Abigail Fellows emerged from the front. Wyatt Rendell, Miranda Wallbern and Gordon Kuhn emerged from the back a moment later to join the others, and all moved to the rear of the SUV. 

The seven came out to stand directly in the rain, but no rain actually seemed to hit them. Avalon gave a glance toward the water-repellent enchantment badge clipped to her jacket. Wyatt had passed them out to each of them just before they got out of the vehicle. It made the rain divert about an inch around them as they stood watching the big man from before approach.

His name was Croc, one of the Unset. Avalon had seen him around before she was forced to leave Garden a year earlier, though she hadn’t really spoken to him, of course. Flick had had more interaction with the man in her own short visit there than Avalon ever had. 

“Glad you could make it,” the large Native American man rumbled as he stopped in front of them. He hadn’t bothered with any kind of spell to keep the rain off, simply allowing it to run off his short-cut black hair and enormous arms. “Hope the runaround wasn’t too much.” 

Realizing after a second that the others were waiting for her to respond, Avalon cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sudden lump that had formed in it. Being here now, coming to see the leaders of the organization that she had loved so much before they had all turned their backs on her when she needed them the most, it brought up… feelings. Feelings that were best left bashed over the head with a shovel and buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Five false destinations in two different cities,” she managed after another second of collecting herself. “Not too bad. Wyatt thinks you should’ve gone with at least eight and three to be safe.” 

Wyatt himself gave a short nod. “And one of the spots before this should have seemed to be the right one. You could have had us get out of the vehicle, even go as far as meeting body doubles or illusions just to weed out any possible pursuit or deception.” Though his words were the same as he’d normally say, Avalon noticed the man actually seemed a little more… flushed than normal. He wasn’t really looking directly at Croc, but more toward the man’s abs. 

With a wink, Croc replied, “What makes you think that’s not what this is?” His tone was a bit teasing, making Wyatt flush before he looked back to Avalon. “Ah, do you mind if I ask, is it Avalon you prefer, or Miss Sinclaire? Or ahh, your old name? I’m not quite sure what you–” 

“Avalon,” she quickly put in after giving Flick a brief glance. The blonde girl had smiled reassuringly but silently at her, making Avalon’s own heart flip over before she forced herself to focus on the man in front of her. “Avalon’s fine. That’s my name.” She didn’t mind Hannah, honestly. Hannah Aken was also who she was, as she had so defiantly informed her father in his last few moments alive. That was a part of her that she wouldn’t let others take away. But to keep things relatively simple, Avalon would be fine. Besides, it was as close to a Garden name as she had ever received, and she wanted the Victors to use it. 

Also, it was the name Gaia had given her, and she was damn sure going to hold onto that now.

“Avalon it is, then,” Croc agreed. “And Flick, how’re you doing?” He nodded to the other girl before looking over to the one next to her. “It’s Miranda, isn’t it?” Receiving a nod, the man’s attention moved to the woman at the back. “Abigail,” he greeted her easily, getting a small smile in return.

Finally, the man looked to the remaining member of their entourage. “Sorry, you I don’t know.”  

“This is Gordon,” Avalon informed him, gesturing to the boy. “He’s here to ask the Victors something too. You know, while they’re feeling talkative.” She said the last bit with just a hint of the vast reservoir of resentment and anger that she felt toward that group. It was enough to make Croc raise an eyebrow, his gaze seeming to give her another thorough once over. 

Abigail spoke up then. “We’re all here to see what the Victors have to say. Some of us have questions. Others simply want to judge just how honest and forthright your leaders are ready to be.” Her voice was far more diplomatic than Avalon’s, though hers too had a bit of an edge to it.

Giving a slight nod, Croc turned to walk. “I’ll take you to them. They’re waiting in the dining room around the side.” With that, he led the seven through the rain. On the way, they saw a dozen more people standing around. There were two near a bus stop, a couple walking past with a dog, several more across the street seemingly arguing over a map, and more. Though they appeared to be civilians, Avalon knew better. They were Heretics, Eden’s Garden people who were watching for any kind of attack from their own former friends. Where the rest of what had to be hundreds of people were, she wasn’t certain. Probably still spread out up and down the Florida coastline to avoid drawing attention. And these, the ones they could see, were probably only the tip of the iceberg in the area. The Victors would be heavily protected. 

While she was considering all of that, Croc led them to a door with an unlit open sign. “They’ve cleaned the place out so you can have some privacy, but there’s food waiting.” With a small smile, the big guy opened the door while looking to them with a quietly murmured, “Turns out they really like having a chance to eat at actual Bystander restaurants.” 

Letting out the breath that she hadn’t even noticed she was actually holding, Avalon moved through the doorway first. The restaurant behind was fairly dimly lit, though whether that was for ambiance or just to save a few bucks, she couldn’t say. Behind her, the others came through, and Avalon walked toward the only real source of somewhat brighter light in the room, a series of long tables where seven figures sat, clearly waiting for them to approach. 

It wasn’t Avalon’s first time seeing them, but most of those instances had been either from a distance or very briefly. She’d never been important enough for the Victors to pay attention to until… well, until they had believed Trice and his cronies over her and refused to listen to her explanation. That flash of resentment boiled up once more before she pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time for dwelling on that. Not when there were much more important things. 

Instead, she focused on examining the group while Croc moved around to speak to them in a hushed (clearly kept private through powers or magic) voice. Her gaze moved over the group. In the middle of the table sat the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleo Selene. Their somewhat darker olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes made their relationship to Egypt and their more famous mother even more clear than the name of their tribe. The Dust Striders had gone through several names in the past, but they always in some way related to ancient Egypt or the desert. They were also, to Avalon’s recollection, one of the only tribes whose leadership had not changed the entire time that Garden had been a thing. Most of the others had at least varied it up somewhat over time, but the twin children of Cleopatra had kept a firm command over their tribe since its first inception. 

To the right of Alexander Helios sat the old cowboy, Jack Childs. To his right was his partner, the dark haired, wide-faced man called Lamorak. Both leaders of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe were watching Avalon with expressions she couldn’t read. The two men watched her like that for a moment, before Lamorak leaned over to whisper something in his partner’s ear. They too were obviously using something to prevent anyone from overhearing, because Avalon couldn’t make out any of it. 

The woman who sat next to Jack, at that end of the table, had long red hair, with a single bit at the front that was jet black, which matched the faint black flecks in her otherwise gray eyes. She looked young and beautiful, though Avalon knew she had been alive at least since before the black plague. Her name was Aniyah Keita, and she was one of the leaders of the Reaper tribe. The other Victor, the old Native American called Quevias Quarter, had apparently stayed with the loyalists. Their tribe had been split between their leadership. 

Finally, to the left of Cleo Selene, sat the also young-looking Asian woman known as Fu Hao, and her partner in leading the Vigilant Sons tribe, the small man with dark blue hair (dyed from its natural blond) known as Carseus Elsen. It was to those two that Avalon looked and focused on the most. They were the leaders of the Vigilant Sons, the tribe that she was supposed to belong to. The tribe who should have backed her up against threats both outside of Garden… and within. It was they who she felt the most resentment toward, despite herself. 

They were both staring right back at her, and she felt their gazes sizing her up, likely in more ways than she could possibly comprehend. For a moment, as Croc spoke in magically protected privacy, there was silence from Avalon’s perspective. Through that, she stood still, her gaze locked on the Victors of her old tribe. She would not be the first to look away. Not now. 

Finally, Fu Hao stood. The ancient-yet-young-looking Asian woman silently stepped around the table. All eyes moved to her as she moved smoothly and gracefully to where Avalon stood, stopping in front of her. 

“I am told that you prefer the name of Avalon Sinclaire now, after she who has stood by you.” The voice was loud, filling the room to ensure that all heard it, yet also somehow soft. There was incredible power and strength there, along with a soft reassurance that came from a hundred lifetimes of raising and caring for children, grandchildren, and all who came beyond. It was gentle now, but with a clear sharpness lying just behind that cotton coating. 

“Yes, Victor,” Avalon managed past the lump that had formed in her throat. How she had longed for this voice to reassure her before, the days and nights she had spent wishing that Fu Hao would speak up on her behalf when it had really mattered. She fought to keep her own voice, and her gaze, as steady as possible. She would not show any reaction. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing how they could still affect her. Not that it mattered, given how easily they could read her emotions using any number of their powers. But still, how much she willingly showed was her choice. 

“Avalon Sinclaire,” Fu Hao started then, the sound of her voice dropping to a far more personal level. “We… I… am sorry. I failed you. I failed to stand by one who belonged to my tribe. Not through any fault of yours, but because I did not see one person as being worth antagonizing the leadership of the Lost Scar tribe. Whether you were guilty or not… I did not put the time, effort, or resources into determining that I should have. And I certainly did not give you the aid to gain a fair trial that you deserved. That is my failure, and it was one made not from a lack of capability or by any mistake. It was a deliberate choice, one that I should not have made. I put maintaining relations with Victors Bennett and Dalal over you, because you did not matter to me. You were simply one more recruit. I was wrong. Not because of who your ancestor happens to be, but because if we do not stand up for our own, we have no reason to exist.

“I cannot promise to never make such wrong actions again, but I will, to the best of my ability, remember this. I can offer you nothing better than my deepest, most sincere apologies. I am sorry. I was wrong. I will not insult you by assuming you would desire a return to membership within the tribe, though if that were to be something you would like, it would be yours in a heartbeat. I believe, however, that you have moved on. So I offer you instead a promise that anything you need, should it be within my power to provide, I will do so. 

“You have my apology, my promise to remember this moving forward when it comes to others, and my oath to you that I will provide whatever is within my capability to provide. I was wrong to treat you the way that I did. I was wrong not to care, to see you as a simple number. I do not ask your forgiveness, not now. But I will strive, in the future, to be the sort of person who you deserved to have when you needed her, for others who come after.”  

That… was a lot to digest. As Avalon stood there in silence born more of surprise and uncertainty than the stoicism she had originally been going for, Fu Hao was joined by Carseus Elsen. The short man with his heavily muscled arms stepped around to stand by his partner, also watching Avalon. “She’s right,” he agreed. “We treated you like shit because you didn’t matter, because we didn’t see one person as worth risking conflict with the Lost Scar tribe. She’s also right that we can’t make up for that, and that the timing here, you being spoken to now because of who your ancestor is, that’s just… worse. It doesn’t help anything. So… yeah. I’m sorry too. Not that I expect it to change anything, but I am. Truly and genuinely, I’m sorry. We should have been your tribe leaders, we should have been your tribe, your family. We should have had your back and at least made sure you were given a fair shake. We didn’t. No if’s, and’s or but’s. We failed. I… I’m glad you found someone who you could count on. And I hope she ends up alright at the end of this.” 

“You want to make up for what you did by not being there when I needed you?” Avalon finally managed. “Then promise to help the person who was there for me. Gaia. She took care of me when you didn’t, when you wouldn’t. You want to make up for it? Promise you’ll help free her when we get the chance. They’re going to have more security and protection on her than on anything else. We’ll need really big guns, big guns they might not be expecting, to save her. Be those guns. Help us figure out where she is, and help us get her out when we do. That’s what you can do. That’s how you can make up for it.” 

The two exchanged brief glances and silent communication before Fu Hao bowed slightly to Avalon. “You have our word. Our power and resources will be put to freeing Gaia Sinclaire and returning her to you.” 

That done, the two returned to their seats, and Cleo Selene spoke. “Avalon Sinclaire–Avalon. We’re told that you have something quite important that you would like to tell us. Something that will change quite a bit of how we see this entire conflict.” Her eyebrows were raised, as she sat back in her seat and watched the girl. 

For a moment, Avalon was silent. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing both Seller and Flick standing together. They gave her encouraging nods, and she swallowed before turning back to the assembled seven. 

“Yes. Yes, I do. But first, talk to him.” She gestured to Gordon, watching the group’s eyes move to the boy. “He’s got a question for you. Maybe you can answer.” 

With everyone’s attention centered on him, Gordon hesitated before taking a small step forward. His voice was mostly flat, with a very slight tremble of emotion. “Where is my father?” 

That made the group of Victors exchange glances, Jack Childs slowly speaking up. “I’m sorry, we weren’t aware that the father of a Crossroads student was one of our–” 

“Slaves,” Gordon interrupted before the man could finish referring to him as one of their Heretics. “My father is one of your slaves.” 

Cleo Selene stood from her seat, her gaze laser-focused on the boy in front of the tables. “Are you saying that–” 

“I’m a Hybrid,” Gordon interrupted. “Yeah. My dad is a Hrimthur named Sindri Koraug.” More quietly, he added, “If you know their names. If not, I can–”

“He’s not here.” The answer came from Aniya, as she tapped the table a couple times thoughtfully. “I know the Hrimthur you’re speaking of. Now that I think about it, I can see him in you.” 

Gordon’s eyes focused on the woman, as he swallowed hard. “You–you know him? He’s your–”

Her head shook. “Not mine. He was never part of the Reapers. He’s one of the Lost Scar’s… slaves. But I have seen him. We needed a group of cold-acclimated workers for the world known as T9T2 a year or so ago, and he was there. As far as I know, he’s still part of their workforce.” 

“How is it,”  Alexander Helios began, “that Crossroads has come to have Hybrid students? And how long has–”

“I’m quite certain those questions can wait,” Fu Hao murmured pointedly before looking to Gordon. “We will seek information about your father’s current whereabouts and condition. Anything we find out will be passed to you.” She waited for him to nod before returning her attention to Avalon. “Is that acceptable enough for you to deliver this important news?” 

Avalon hesitated, then inclined her head. “Yeah. And.. yes, I do have news. News that a lot of you and your people probably aren’t going to like. I want to tell you about people known as the Seosten. The people who caused all this. I want to tell you about the people who created this entire situation, who made the Bystander Effect, who use us as their meat puppets in their war against the Fomorians. I want to tell you about them, and… and about my ancestor. I want to tell you the truth about the man you see as a savior, the truth about Hieronymus Bosch and how he was used as much as anyone else.”

“Now hold on just a second,” Jack Childs interrupted. “Just what exactly are you going on about? What’s all this about Sausten?” 

“Seosten,” Avalon corrected. “Say-oh-stun. They’re the alien empire that rules half the universe, created the Bystander Effect so they could make us kill everything not-human we could find in order to make us strong so we’d be good soldiers for them to possess and take against the Fomorians, who control the other half of the universe.” 

“Yeah,” Flick finally put in, “the race of Imperialistic bodysnatchers who manipulate our entire society from behind the scenes and manipulate us into murder-machines are technically the de facto good guys in this situation. I mean, in comparison to the ones who just want to genocide the entire universe.” 

Alexander Helios looked from Flick to Avalon and back again. His mouth opened, but his sister leaned forward to whisper something in his ear, and he remained silent. 

When it was clear that neither he, nor any of the others, were going to say anything, Avalon pushed on. “It’s a lot, I know. The Seosten have been setting up Crossroads from the beginning. They have the ability to possess people, to control them completely, change their memories, all of it. We already know that there is at least one possessing one of the Eden’s Garden Victors. We don’t think it’s one of you, but…” This was going to be even harder. “… but we had to be sure.” 

“Excuse me?” Fu Hao started with a frown. 

Instead of responding, Avalon looked toward Croc. The man gave her a nod, tossing something her way while speaking up. “They’re all clear.” 

Catching it, Avalon showed them the choker in her hand. “This… used to be the ring of Anuk-Ite. It’s one of the only things that can identify when someone is possessed by a Seosten. Croc just checked each of you in the past few minutes while we were talking. You’re clear. Which means the Victor being possessed is one of the loyalists.” 

For a moment, the Victors all turned narrow eyes toward Croc, examining him carefully as they worked through whether they were offended by the duplicity or not. In the end, they chose to let it go, turning back to Avalon as she continued. “So you’re clear. Which means we can move on. And… and for the record, I know none of this is going to be easy for you to hear. No one likes to be told about how they’ve been manipulated at all, let alone for so long. But you need to hear it right now. Because most of all, I want to tell you about how we’re going to change things. About how we have one year to fix this whole situation. We have one year to pull ourselves together.” 

With a frown, Jack Childs spoke up. “Okay, wait. What are you talking about now? First you’re going on about these body snatchers and now you’re trying to–no. No, I think we need to go back to the start. Because with all due respect, this sounds like paranoia born of–”

“Quiet, Jack.”  The words came from Aniyah, the lone Reaper Victor, as she kept a hand on the arm of Lamorak. “The girl’s right about the Seosten.” 

“Yes,” Lamorak himself agreed, rising to his feet. “She is. Aniyah and I have been keeping stuff from all of you until it was time. Now it’s time.” He looked to Avalon, his eternally-surprised expression at odds with the knowing look in his eyes. “I guess if I was waiting for a sign to start talking about Camelot and who our true enemy was, having someone named Avalon show up is a pretty big kick in the pants.” 

“Lamorak?” Alexander Helios started slowly. “You have something to say?” 

“Yeah,” he confirmed, glancing to Avalon once again. “From the sound of it, we have a whole lot to talk about to get everyone caught up and on the same page. 

“So maybe we should go ahead and fill our plates before we get too far into it. Because this is gonna be a long night.”

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Summer Epilogue 11 – Eden’s Garden Victors (Heretical Edge)

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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.”

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