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.”