Fu Hao

Reception 13-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It turned out the Victors did like the pizza. Well, Childs liked it. Fu Hao loved it. Seriously, between all the different kinds the woman tried, she put away the equivalent of two full pizzas all by herself. Even if she did insist on carefully eating all of it with a knife and fork. In a day that was already jam-packed with incredibly surreal things, watching that Asian woman (who looked like she was in her early twenties despite being astronomically older than that) carefully and daintily eat slice after slice after slice of pizza with a pair of gleaming silver utensils was still pretty extraordinary.

The pair of them also asked Persephone a lot of questions throughout the meal. They seemed fascinated by what she was. From context, I knew they had killed Revenants before, but they obviously never actually sat down and talked to one. They seemed surprised that she was capable of holding an intelligent (if somewhat weird) conversation, and kept asking her questions about how Revenants were born or created, what sort of society they had, and more. The answers basically amounted to Persephone having no idea. She cheerfully explained that she had no memory of any others like her. She had always been instinctively aware that they existed, but had no idea about any family structure or society. Her earliest memory was in passing through a sort of alien cemetery searching for a body that ‘smelled right.’ 

Of course, there was no telling yet if her experience was universal, or if she was the equivalent of an orphan left at the side of a road or something. Both Fu Hao and Childs insisted that, while they were on the side of believing that not all Alters were inherently evil, neither they nor anyone they knew of had ever had any encounter with a Revenant that amounted to anything more than psychotic murderous violence. And when my mouth opened, they immediately reiterated that the violence was often started by the Revenant. Heretics were called to the scenes of massacres that the Revenants perpetrated to create a cache of bodies for themselves. As to the question of what they needed a large supply of meatsuits for, the answer always seemed to be ‘so they can keep killing more people.’ It all seemed a bit… circular. They needed to kill people to get more bodies to inhabit, and they needed more bodies to inhabit so they could kill more people. 

Pushing my empty plate away, I squinted. “You mean you’ve never found out what they want? They just kill someone, take over the body, run it down killing more people, take more bodies, and do that until someone stops them? Why? What’s the point? Do they get anything out of it?” 

Childs pointedly replied, “As it happens, you seem to be in a better position to get an answer to that than we’ve ever been. Like we said, never met a Revenant who bothered chatting.” 

Carefully cutting herself another bite of bacon, chicken, and onion pizza, Fu Hao added, “Indeed, I am not certain that you truly comprehend the magnitude of the opportunity for learning and study that has, ahem, fallen out of the sky for you. I hope it is not wasted. But then, if all I have heard of you is true, then I cannot imagine that it would be.”

Naturally, before I could respond to that, Persephone herself happily piped up with, “Oh yes, my wife is quite wonderful, and intelligent, and beautiful. She is–” 

“Okay, okay, that’s enough.” My face was red as I shifted to squint at the white-haired woman. “Just, uhh, well, do you have any idea why the rest of your people are so crazy murderous? And do you know why you’re not? Wait, did you used to be that way before you got that body right there that doesn’t run out? Does it have something to do with searching for the perfect body or something like that? Or did something about the body being a Tartarus-enhanced Seosten like… change you? Except, wait, you said you were drawn to them because you sensed Manakel’s power and you possessed Kore because you thought making her body move again would make him happy. So, you were like, actively trying to please him before you ever possessed her, right? What, uhh, what’s the deal there?” Belatedly, I added, “Sorry, do you mind me asking stuff like that? I mean, I don’t know how, uhh, private or whatever it might be.”  

“Oh, I’d just love to answer all the questions you have!” After that bright, cheerful assurance, Persephone’s head tilted sideways. Seriously, her cheek was touching her shoulder. It was like those overly exaggerated body expression things in anime or whatever. “But I dunno that much. It’s like I said, I don’t know anything about other Revenants, and I’ve never talked to any. I just woke up by myself in the graveyard looking for a body so I could stretch. I never really felt like killing a lot of things though, even when I was in other bodies. I liked to run around. I liked to jump, jumping’s really fun! Oh, and swimming. It took me a long time to figure out swimming. Especially when people kept interrupting me with the screaming and the fire. I had to find quiet places to practice, but it’s hard to find dead bodies that aren’t near places with a lot of people that get mad when you borrow them. Oh, maybe you could ask one of the creators.” 

I had been blankly nodding through all of that while struggling not to focus on the adorable and horrifying (adorifying was the word, right?) imagery of a young Persephone possessing various corpses and trying to learn how to swim before angry villagers attacked her. Which meant that it took a moment for the last thing she’d said to really hit me. With a quick glance toward the Victors, whose intense gazes made it clear that they too had picked up on it, I hesitantly asked, “Uhh, what exactly do you mean, ‘ask one of the creators?’” 

Her response was as simple as it was confusing. “Oh, you know, ask one of the beings who created me.” 

Childs apparently couldn’t contain himself, and immediately pointed out, “You said you didn’t know who your parents were, or even how your people reproduce. And you also said that you don’t know anything about your society, so how would you know about any religious belief?” 

With a giggle, Persephone replied, “I don’t know anything about my people. But I know who made me. I don’t know why, or how, or what makes the rest of my people do the things they do, or why I don’t, or anything like that. But I know who created us. Revenants us, not you and me us. I mean, I don’t think they created humans. I just… know. I’ve always known, right here.” Her hand indicated her stomach. “Deep inside. I know where I come from. Nothing else, just who our creators were.” 

After letting that run through my head for a moment, I took a breath and nodded. “Maybe some kind of genetic memory or something? Anyway, I’ll bite. Who created the Revenants? Anyone we know about? And I swear to everything that calls itself a god, if you say the Fomorians…” 

Looking positively delighted that she could answer one of my questions, the woman promptly replied, “Nope, not Fomorians! But you do know them. In fact, you’re already connected to them!” She spread her arms wide while brightly announcing, “You call them Reapers!” 

Yeah, it was a good thing I had finished eating already, or I probably would have choked on pizza. My eyes widened as I stared at her in confusion. “Wait, what? You mean Reapers created Revenants? But–” Glancing toward the Victors, I managed a stammered, “I sort of got the impression from talking to others over the summer that Reapers don’t exactly like necromancy, or anything connected to it. I mean, I know it’s not the same when you take over a body, but I didn’t know if they’d see it that way, or–I mean…” Realizing my rambling wasn’t getting anywhere, I gave a quick headshake. “You’re serious?” 

“No, silly,” she immediately shot back, “I’m Persephone, we already met!” With that, she doubled over laughing at her own joke before giving a rapid nod. “But yes! Those are the creators. They made us a long, long, long time ago. I dunno what they wanted us for, or why they don’t have anything to do with us anymore, or… anything else. Just that the Reapers created us. So uhh, whatever the rest of my people are doing is probably because they were told to.” 

Following that, my eyes caught movement as the two Victors both slumped back in their seats. Childs was staring not at Persephone, but me. “Well, I’ll be damned. You truly do find yourself tripping over the answers to a staggering number of old questions, Miss Chambers.” 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “and as always, those answers lead to more questions. Not to mention danger, violence, usually explosions and fire, and plenty of screaming.” 

Fu Hao was speaking thoughtfully, mostly to herself. “If it is true that the Revenants were created by the Reapers so long ago, it was likely their more… violence-oriented selves. Though long before any of our times, the Reapers were once all far closer to their so-called Hangmen versions than what we know now. They were a true scourge upon the universe, and committed truly heinous and abominable acts. It is quite possible that they created the Revenants as foot soldiers, and that the way they behave now is a result of following their creation-level instructions. They are, in short, doing what they were created to do in the first place.” 

“But the Reapers aren’t like that now,” I pointed out. “I mean, most of them aren’t. Unless they–never mind. The point is, why haven’t the umm, not-omnicidal Reapers hit the off switch or whatever? Why haven’t they stopped them, if the Revenants are their weapon?”  

“That’s a good question,” Childs agreed. “A few thoughts come to mind, but most of ‘em aren’t very good. I think the bigger point here is… what makes this one different?” Picking up the bottle of whiskey he had pulled from somewhere, the man used it to indicate the nearby Revenant. “She’s ahh, not like any of the others we’ve ever seen.”  

As though to prove that point, Persephone was currently leaning back on the table she had been sitting on, to the point of almost laying down entirely. She had two very different pizza slices, one in each hand, and was holding them above her face so that the slowly dripping cheese made it to her open mouth. Every couple of seconds, she would make a loud, exaggerated chomping sound as she took a bite from one of the slices. Then what sounded like a happy purr would emerge before she took a bite of the opposite slice and repeated it. 

“Uh, Persephone?” I somewhat awkwardly managed after watching that for a moment. “I know you said you don’t know why you’re different from the rest of your kind. You’ve never really interacted with them. But, it also took you a minute to bring up the whole Reaper connection. And I get that, it’s because you assumed we knew already, or whatever. But can you… umm, can you think of anything else that might be related to why you’re different? Even if you assumed it was something we already knew. If we haven’t outright, expressly talked about it right here, I mean. Anything at all, no matter how obvious it seems to you.” 

From the corner of my eye while the Revenant considered that, I noticed Fu Hao giving a slight, approving nod. Apparently I’d asked the right question. 

Meanwhile, Persephone tilted her head from one side to the other before sitting up straight. She shoved what remained of the pizza slice crusts into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing it all before finally announcing, “Well, you know the one who created me. I can smell him on you. On all of you.” Her gaze moved to look at the two Victors. “You’re all connected to him. Could you tell me what he’s like? I always wondered, and I thought I’d be able to ask him when dearest beloved Mannikens asked all those questions before about finding him. But then I never got to talk to him, even though I helped find him before. My sweetest cupcake said it was too dangerous.” She sighed, not in annoyance but almost dreamily. “Isn’t it sweet, how much he cared about what happened to me? Even worried I’d get hurt if I met my creator.” 

Okay, that was a lot to process. Which was obviously the motto of this day. Before I could actually respond to that, Childs grunted. “The Reaper connected to the… huh. Well, I’d say that explains a lot, but not really. ‘Cept for how they targeted the thing in the first place, I suppose.” 

“Him,” I immediately corrected, thinking of how Aylen and Bastet would react to that. And my mother, come to think of it. “Not ‘the thing,’ him. But yeah, I guess they used her connection to find him and…” Trailing off, I grimaced. Boy was all that complicated. It was obvious that Persephone hadn’t intended to help lock up her creator and have him put in the position he’d been in for centuries. Manakel had used her. He’d–yeah. And I wasn’t sure how much of that I should point out, or how soon. She still called him her beloved, even if it was all connected to his power, which I now had so she wasn’t mad at me for killing him, yet she still referred to– ugh. Complicated. The whole thing was really complicated, and I couldn’t focus on that now. 

Of course, Persephone simply asked, “Is anything wrong, sweetest frosting on the cake of my new life?” 

Feeling my cheeks burn with embarrassment, I shook my head. “I’m not–I mean that’s–never mind. Just… yeah, I’ll talk to my mom about… your creator. She might have some thoughts.” 

The silence after that stretched on for a moment before Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Well, you’ve certainly given us plenty to think about. And a pleasant meal in the process. This pizza was very… delightful, Miss Chambers. And to you, Miss… Persephone, I would simply like to say thank you for the information you’ve volunteered. As has been well-established now, you are very different than the rest of your kind, and I believe we would all be delighted to hear more from you at some point.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Once everything has had a chance to settle in, of course. But, for the moment, I believe we should take the time to process all of this.” 

Childs nodded once. “And like we said, we’ll look into our old colleague, see if we can figure out where he might be keeping this Tiras guy. That’s gonna take a while. You know, if we don’t want Shamon to hear about it. Gotta be subtle and careful, so he doesn’t just move the guy.” 

“Yes,” Fu Hao agreed. “But we will do what we can, you have our word on that. Let this Asenath know that we will pay her back for everything she has done and risked to bring us to this point. It may take a few weeks to get any real results, but we will not forget. In the meantime, perhaps use this opportunity to do what it seems you have not managed in quite some time. Relax. Enjoy time with your family and your friends.” Pausing then, she looked toward Persephone before adding, “Both old and new. Embrace these breaks when they come, Miss Chambers.” 

After that, the two absurdly powerful and old Heretics excused themselves, wishing me luck while giving meaningful glances toward my new… companion. Rather than simply walking out of the room, they both literally vanished from where they were sitting. One second they were sitting at the table, and in the next, there was no sign of them. 

Which, of course, left me sitting there with Persephone. She was looking at me curiously, already slipping down off the table before popping up onto her tiptoes. “Did I do good?” 

“You, umm…” I nodded, rising to my feet. “Thanks, Persephone. I know this is all probably pretty different and new for you too. And that the way we react to things is just as confusing to you as you can be to us. I get that you’re trying, and that you think about things differently than we do. So thanks for that. And for being patient about all this.” Pausing, I added with a cough, “Oh, and thanks for not being a murderous revenge-obsessed monster trying to kill me.” 

“You’re welcome!” the Revenant chirped happily. “I’m glad I’m not a murder-monster too. But I wish I could tell you more about why. Like I said, I’ve just always been this w–oooh.” She practically dove over to the other table, having spotted one last slice of pizza with garlic, sausage, and green peppers lying in a corner of the otherwise empty box.

Watching her devour that, I half-smiled before blinking as something she had already said tickled my brain. Considering for a moment while gazing off into the distance, I finally looked back to her. “Hey, actually, I do have a question. The umm, the Seosten you took over was named Kore. And you said you never interacted with your own people. Plus, I doubt all the people who thought you were a monster took the time to name you. So where did ‘Persephone’ come from? Was that just what the Seosten decided to call you once you were on the Olympus?”

She, however, shook her head while correcting me. “Actually, it is what the people who saw me used to call me. It means ‘bringer of death.’” She said that perfectly cheerfully, before her hand snapped out to grab a piece of bacon from a nearby pizza box so she could pop it into her mouth, offering me a bright smile. “See, remember how I said that it was hard to find bodies I could use that weren’t around a lot of people? Most of the ones I found were either living all by themselves and didn’t have anyone to check on them when they died, or they were murdered by someone and the bodies were hidden. When people saw me control the bodies of the ones who were murdered, they thought I killed them. Same for the ones who didn’t have anyone to check on them to find out they were sick, or depressed, or had an accident. They didn’t know why the people died, so they thought I did it. That’s why they started calling me Persephone. Bringer of Death.” 

Once she finished explaining all that, I bit my lip and tried to think of what that was like from her point of view as well as from the point of view of all those people who had apparently seen her puppeting the corpses of people they cared about, even if she didn’t really understand what was wrong with that. Finally, I asked, “I don’t want to sound doubtful or… or anything, but you’re not actually saying you never killed people back before you were in Kore, right? I mean, I know you’re different from the rest of your people, but–”

“Oh, no.” Her head shook quickly. “I defended myself. If they tried to kill me, I fought back. Not just to wound them. I killed them, so they’d stop trying to kill me. I got really angry sometimes. But I don’t like to be angry. It makes my insides feel funny when I’m angry.” 

There was probably a lot more we could have gotten into with all that, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I turned and started to walk. “Well, come on. We should probably get back and see what’s going on with the others. And…” Grimacing, I murmured, “And I can explain just who you are and what you’re doing here. Not to mention all this stuff about Bob. And if you’re really connected to him–err, the Reaper, I’ve got someone you should meet. It’ll probably be a whole–” 

By that point, we’d reached the exit and stepped out of the restaurant. As I did so, with Persephone happily trotting behind me, we both stopped at the sight of two figures a few yards away. They were both standing there on the curb next to the parking lot, clearly patiently waiting for us to emerge. Once we did, their gazes swept over us, lingering on Persephone before returning to me. 

“Hiya, Flick!” Shiori called, giving me a wave. 

“Yes,” Avalon agreed, “hey there, Chambers.

“So, anything new going on with you?” 

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Reception 13-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once I briefly explained the situation, both of the Victors agreed to talk to me in private for a few minutes. Or rather, they agreed to talk to us. Yeah, Persephone wanted to come along. I felt a little awkward about that, naturally. But she had been a really good sport through the whole putting a binding spell on her thing, and I didn’t want to push it too much. Besides, I really did need to get to know her if I was going to figure out how to deal with this whole thing. And with the spell making certain that if she did betray us, there’d be immediate consequences, there really wasn’t a good reason to tell her no. After all, being allowed to spend time with me was the reason she’d agreed to have the spell put on her to begin with. I’d look pretty bad if I didn’t keep up my end of that bargain, even if it was awkward. Not to mention, I needed to get to know her as much as she wanted to know me. Not because I had any interest in this whole wife business, but because if she was going to be around, I needed to know more about her. 

So, strange as it felt, I agreed to have the woman come along. Mom looked a bit hesitant too, but didn’t object. She did, however, turn toward Sariel and Mercury as soon as the Victors started leading me to the door. I had the feeling she was about to demand a very in-depth explanation on absolutely everything they knew about my new… whatever Persephone was. 

We didn’t go too far after leaving the room. Fu Hao and Jack Childs simply led the two of us over to the restaurant attached to the motel, asking if we wanted something to eat. 

“Is there Earth Pizza?” the white-haired figure trotting along slightly behind me immediately piped up. “I have heard many wonderful things about it, and would like that to be the first meal I enjoy on this planet with my sweet darling.” 

Wincing inwardly, I turned, walking backwards as I faced the woman. “Look, it’s just Flick, okay? Flick is fine. You don’t need to call me darling, or wife, or beloved, or–yeah, any of that. The point is, we barely know each other. I’m not Manakel. You were married to Manakel, not me. I’m still figuring out who you are, and you’re definitely still figuring out who I am. So let’s just stick with names. It’ll be… less awkward, somewhat. Could you do that for me, please?” 

With a bright, cheerful smile that somehow reminded me of a puppy despite really having no similarities, Persephone eagerly nodded. “Of course, Flick! It will be very nice to get to know my…” She seemed to consider her words before ending with a simple, “My Flick.” 

Yeah, somehow even that was enough to make my face turn pink. My mouth opened to say I wasn’t exactly her Flick, but by that point we’d reached the restaurant, the doors opening to admit the four of us. 

The dining room was almost empty, save for a couple scattered groups at different tables spread out pretty far apart. They all looked up as we entered, but just as quickly turned back to their own conversations and studiously ignored us. It was clear that none of them wanted to look as though they were eavesdropping on a couple Victors, as if that was even possible. 

Fu Hao spoke as we all moved together toward the back corner of the room. “We have been attempting to expand our palette beyond what we had grown accustomed to in the Garden. I too have heard fine things about this so-called pizza. The concept intrigues me. How shall we have it brought? 

After a brief moment, I realized that all three of them were looking at me. Both Victors and the Revenant were staring, waiting for me to answer. Because, of course, I was the only one there with that kind of experience. I was standing next to this table with three indescribably powerful and incredibly old people on the planet, and none of them knew how to order a pizza. 

I’d gotten accustomed to a lot over the past year and a half, but sometimes the surrealness of this life still really struck me. Because this was really weird, wasn’t it? It felt really weird. 

Still, I pushed all of that aside and found myself nodding. “Oh, uhhh, yeah we can just order a pizza. Or a couple pizzas. Pretty sure when you guys taste the first one you’ll want more. Besides, we’ve gotta get a bunch of different kinds and find out what you like, there’s so many different top–right. Uhh, hold on.” Fumbling a bit to get the new phone that my dad had provided that morning out of my pocket, I brought up a list of nearby pizza places and called the one with the best reviews. I ordered six large pies, trying to get as much variety as possible so the other three (and whoever else ate them) could find something they actually liked. 

Once they confirmed the price and said it would be about forty-five minutes, I started to thank them, then I blinked at the phone in my hand and asked the guy to wait for a second before looking to the others. “Oh, right. We need money to pay for this.” Frowning, I slowly turned to the other three. “I, uhh, don’t suppose any of you carry cash. Or have credit cards. This uhh–” 

I had been about to say that this might be a problem, but Childs reached into his old dirty jeans before producing a rather clean and new-looking Visa card. “We’ve figured out it’s a bit easier to get around down here if you’ve got one of these.” 

As my hand rose to take the card, it occurred to me just how different this was from my first experiences with people this powerful the year before. Fu Hao and Jack Childs were Victors, the Garden equivalent of the Crossroads Committee. And I could still definitely sense the power coming off them. They were both strong enough to basically snap their fingers and kill me if they really wanted to. Or even if they had the vague notion to. As strong as I had become over the time since I had become a Bosch Heretic, I was still barely a bug to them. Strength-wise, at least. 

Yet, here I was holding a credit card from one of them while having a normal conversation, just like they were ordinary people. They were still powerful and potentially terrifying, but they weren’t mythical figures atop a mountain or whatever anymore. After everything that had happened, everything that I had been through, things were different. I was different. They could still scare me, quite easily in fact. But I wasn’t going to let that make me shake in shoes in front of them. 

Of course, maybe the fact that there was a millennia-old Revenant standing beside me who wanted to call me honeybuns and sweetums or whatever contributed to that. I was so busy being confused by that whole situation, that I didn’t have time to focus on how dangerous the Victors could be. They were the relatable/understandable figures in this situation by comparison. Which was really wild if you thought about it. 

The point was, it had been a very long year-and-a-half. A year-and-a-half that had been filled with so many people who were so much stronger than me that it honestly didn’t affect me as much anymore. I was still awed by the things they could do, of course. But I wasn’t like… overwhelmed as much. I could handle it. If they meant to do anything bad, I’d… well, I’d probably get squished like a little bug. But I wasn’t going to spend all my time bowing in terrified reverence, treating them like gods. They were people. Incredibly powerful people, but still people. They made mistakes, had prejudices, often ignored common sense, everything those less powerful than they happened to be did at times. They weren’t infallible. Which, in many ways made them even scarier than they already were, to be fair. 

But I’d deal with it. These guys were on my side–okay to be fair it was more that I was on their side. Either way, they didn’t leave me shaking and staring nearly as much as they would have a year earlier. I’d been through too much, with Fossor, with the Seosten, meeting literal Olympian gods like Artemis and Athena–fighting against those like Ares, Hephaestus, and Hera, meeting the King of Canada only to find out he was the Fae King Oberon, finding out silly, goofy Harper was actually literally Guinevere and Lancelot, or even that big Uncle Al was Hercules

Yeah, that list could go on. When it came down to it, I’d been through so much that sitting here ordering pizza for two of the Eden’s Garden Victors just wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list. 

So, holding the card, I read off the name and number for the pizza guy who was waiting patiently. The name literally said Jack Childs. Which made me wonder what sort of name someone like Ikita or Childs’ partner Lamorak used on things like this, or anything where they needed to put their name. Or Benedict Arnold, who was apparently one of the Victors as well, for the Remnant Guardians tribe. Yeah, that Benedict Arnold. Ironically, he was not one of those who had joined the rebellion. Actually–wait, that wasn’t ironic. Him being a loyalist was completely in-character. 

Shaking off those strange thoughts, I disconnected and gave Childs his card back before focusing on the beautiful, white-haired woman who was simply sitting on the edge of one of the tables nearby with her gaze intently locked on me. She had been staring my way the entire time I’d been ordering the food, never blinking as far as I could see. It made me feel weird, even the way she offered a broad, cheerful smile as soon as I looked at her. Her voice was chipper. “I’m glad that my first meal on this planet after so many years will be pizza with you, Felicity! I have heard that it is a very common food for first dates!” 

Oh boy. Coughing, I managed to keep my face mostly straight while replying, “It’s a really versatile food, that’s for sure. I uhh, hope you like it.” Hey, this was weird. I was being courted–wait, did it count as being courted in this particular case? I was… umm, getting to know Manakel’s widow, who was this cheerful, happy, sorta-kinda-undead woman that–yeah. Yeah, it was weird. No wonder I was barely fazed by the whole being around two Victors thing. Who had any time to focus on how powerful those two were with this girl sitting right there saying things like that? 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind as much as I could, and focused on taking a seat at the table where Jack Childs and Fu Hao had already sat down next to each other. The two of them looked fairly amused as they glanced from me to the woman who was still staring my way. Of course, I was sure this whole situation was pretty hilarious to people who didn’t have to find a way to navigate it. Someday, I was going to be the one on the outside watching someone else deal with something this absurd, and I was going to be just as amused, damn it. 

“Uh, thanks for doing this,” I managed, my attention centered on the two incredibly powerful Heretics sitting across from me. “I just umm, I guess you guys probably know at least a little bit about Asenath by now? She’s kinda been involved in a lot of this stuff.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Persephone produce some kind of pocket computer, mouthing ‘Asenath’ to herself as she typed the name in while kicking her legs back and forth like a little kid from her perch on the next table over. Belatedly, I realized what was going on. She was taking notes, like she was preparing for a test or whatever. She was studying my life, taking notes on people I knew or talked about. Not for anything nefarious (apparently), but just because she wanted to know everything she could about… about me. The test she was studying for was just about getting to know me. Eesh, that was an odd feeling. Then again, basically everything surrounding that woman had given me an odd feeling since the moment she showed up. Before she showed up, come to think of it. That whole sensation I had gotten before, with the hair on the back of my neck standing up, it wasn’t about the monster. I didn’t have some magic Nuckelavee detection power. But I did have a pretty strong Necromancy power, and I’d obviously felt the Revenant-possessed Olympian body rapidly approaching. 

Meanwhile, as those thoughts ran through my mind, Fu Hao had shifted slightly in her seat. The deceptively young-looking Asian woman gave a slight nod, her gaze flicking between Persephone and me curiously. “Yes, we are aware of her, thanks in large part to our discussions with Miranda and Ha… Avalon. She was the one whom Gaia Sinclaire sent to obtain the piece of rope, which was used to power the spell that reminded everyone of your mother’s rebellion.”

“That’s her,” I confirmed. “She’s been a lot of help. Not just with getting people’s memories back, but with plenty of other things too. And now she’s the one who needs help.”

Childs, leaning back in the seat a little, lifted his chin while regarding me. “I know a little bit about this vampire girl. Not much, only came close to crossing her path once before. Missed her by about thirty seconds, as I recall. Had something to do with an old ranch down in Oklahoma. When I heard she was there, looking into the same situation I was, I poked around a bit to find out what I could about her. Needed to know if she was trying to hide anything out there. From what I heard, she’s pretty capable on her own. So if you’re asking for help on her behalf, either it’s about something pretty goddamn strong, or something pretty goddamn personal.” 

“Quite,” Fu Hao agreed. “And suffice to say, we do not believe that you would be asking us to provide physical strength. You have other sources for such aid. Between that and your mention of this help involving one of our ‘old colleagues,’ I would say the girl is searching for information about someone close to her. A family member or friend, whom you believe one of the Eden’s Garden Victors has… imprisoned?” 

From a few feet to the side, Persephone piped up, “Yay! I read lots of Earth books. The ones about the private detectives are Andi’s favorites. We love the parts when the smart detective people explain how they detectived things and go through the suspects. Oooh, can I be a suspect?!”

The Victors waited for me to respond to her, naturally. Glancing that way, I hesitated (briefly wondering who Andi was) before shaking my head. “It’s not exactly that kind of situation. It’s more…” I paused to consider. “It’s the part where the detective goes to the police to find out if they know anything important that could help his case.” 

Nodding sagely at that, the white-haired woman replied in a stage-whisper while glancing toward the two indescribably powerful people sitting across from me, “Which one of them is going to turn out to be the bad guy’s secret lover and which one is going to die dramatically while they’re giving you the last clue you need to figure out his identity?” 

Before I could say anything, Fu Hao spoke up, sounding completely serious. “I would like to call–I believe the word is dibs? Dibs on the latter. I have always enjoyed acting, and a grand, dramatic death scene is quite an accomplishment.” 

Leaning sideways in his seat, Childs gave a look that way. “So you just leave me to be the traitor, hm?” After a pause, he added, “And the bad guy’s lover, come to think of it.” 

Without looking at him, Fu Hao flatly replied, “Well, you do have a mustache. I’m told that qualifies you for both.” 

Mouthing a silent, ‘wow’ toward the floor, I gave myself a firm shake before pushing on. “Yes, you’re right. Err, I mean about what she’s doing. Asenath’s looking for her father. His name is Tiras and he’s an Akharu. Apparently Kyril Shamon had him as a prisoner, at least for awhile. He gave him to that Desmoterion prison place about thirty years ago for seven or eight years, then came and took him back. That’s the last time those guys saw him. So we’re trying to find out if he, you know, still has him. Or even why he put him in that prison.”

From where she was sitting, Persephone cheerfully announced, “Sounds like he was hiding the prisoner. Did he only hide that one, or were there others?” When I looked that way, she added, “You know, that way you know if he was hiding one specific prisoner, or the fact that he had any of them.” 

“That…” Trailing off, I tilted my head, considering. “That’s a good point, actually. I don’t think they asked.”

“Yay!” Throwing both hands triumphantly in the air, the Revenant-woman declared, “I’m being helpful!” Her gaze met mine earnestly. “Would you like me to kill them for not asking the right questions?” She asked that in the same manner she might have asked if I wanted her to pick up milk or something. If getting milk had somehow become dangerous and violent enough to require someone as strong as an Revenant-Possessed Olympian. And I really didn’t want to know what sort of situation would lead to that. 

As it was, my head shook so fast I was almost afraid it might fall off. “No! You’re not killing Asenath for— why would you even ask that?!” 

“Well,” came the simple response, “That is the sort of thing my prior dearest beloved would have asked for someone who had failed him.” Pausing, she considered. “Not at first, but recently. In the past few hundred years.” She leaned closer then, putting a hand up beside her mouth to continue conspiratorially, “He got really grumpy for awhile, before you helped kill him.”

There was so much I wanted to say to that, but all of it was jumbled in my head. All I could manage was a choked noise in the back of my throat before holding up a hand. “Look, I don’t want you to kill anybody, okay? And whatever you do, unless I am in immediate mortal peril, don’t just assume I want you to kill someone at all. Ask first. Always ask first.” 

After she cheerfully agreed, I turned back to the two Garden rebel leaders. “So, do you know where Shamon might keep his slaves now? Or maybe you’ve seen this Tiras guy. Or do you know why he sent Tiras, and maybe others, to this private prison for a few years? I just–anything. We really need to find Asenath’s father. He’s been missing for a couple hundred years.”

Childs and Fu Hao exchanged glances before turning back to me. The latter spoke. “Roughly thirty years ago, the tribes of Eden’s Garden faced a unique threat on one of the colony worlds we had settled over fifty years earlier. Specifically, the invasion of alien beings who seemed drawn to humans and were uniquely suited to hunting us. They projected a sound that was debilitating to all but the strongest Heretics. The Victors agreed to a plan. Any combat-capable beings among the… slaves would be given the choice to fight these creatures and drive them from that world to save the colony. If they did and survived, they would be released. The agreement was made, and magically enforced, that should they do their best to defeat these creatures, they would be brought back to Earth safely and released to go free with no attempt to harm or track them until enough time had passed for them to safely disappear. If they were found later, that would be different. But they would be allowed to leave safely and given that single pass.” 

My mouth opened to ask what that had to do with Tiras, before I stopped myself. “Shamon didn’t want to give Tiras that chance. Let me guess, you guys all brought your combat-capable people together and asked them in a group? You gave them the choice together, and this Shamon guy didn’t want Tiras, and maybe others, to have the chance to say yes. So he snuck them out to this private prison. And that war of yours, I bet it lasted through the exact time that Tiras was in there.” 

“It ahhh, does seem to line up,” Childs agreed. 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so we know why he was in the mercenary prison. But not where he is now.” 

“Actually,” Childs corrected, “we might be able to get something else for you when it comes to that. Give us a little time, we’ll see if we can find out where he’s been keeping his prisoners lately. He tends to put them on secret projects, but we have… people who could poke around back at Garden.” 

“You’d really do that?” I asked. 

Fu Hao gave a single nod. “Of course. As you said, we owe this Asenath for everything she has done. Aiding in the retrieval of her father would be a pleasant change from what we have had to do in the past.” 

“What she’s saying,” Childs translated, “is that it’d be nice to be the good guys for once.

“Now is that pizza here yet? I’m ‘bout to eat my damn belt.” 

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Reception 13-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Summus Proelium were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

“You remember when we were little kids back in school?” Miranda’s voice oh-so-innocently asked as the girl herself sat beside me at a table. I was pretty sure she was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure, considering my head was down against said-table. “And we all used to make jokes and–uh, well fantasies for some of them about which of us would get married first?” Yeah, she was definitely smiling. Or smirking. “I seriously never thought you’d be the one to take that pot. Congratulations, I’m pretty sure there’s like twelve bucks in change, a handful of hair scrunchies, two stuffed animals, three tubes of the good chapstick out of the Laramie Falls Junior High vending machine, and that sweet Lego watch waiting for you back home.” 

Raising my head from the table, catching a glimpse of Koren, Sands, and Sarah sitting on the other side collectively snickering in the process, I turned toward Miranda next to me and squinted at the innocently-smiling girl. “You think this whole thing is just super funny, huh?” 

Randi, of course, gave a quick nod, even adding a thumbs up. “It’s fucking hilarious, dude. Come on, this immortal Revenant girl comes out of nowhere and says she’s your wife because you killed her husband and inherited his Necromancy power, which is the real thing she made her wedding vows to? Exactly how many people would something like that happen to? This has ‘Flick’s Life’ written all over it. And for once, it’s not something horrific or sad. Yeah, it’s funny.” 

“She’s got a point, Flick,” Sands put in while reaching across the table to gently poke my shoulder. “Seriously, how often does something insane happen to you that’s just… weird and kind of hilarious instead of terrible and violent? I mean, yeah the way she showed up was violent, but she saved us from that Nuckelavee! That’s gotta put her in the positive column, right?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely positive,” I confirmed. “She showed up and took out the monster, fantastic. She says she’s friendly, double-fantastic. She also says she has no interest in getting revenge for the whole killing her husband thing, which is just extra bonus fantastic levels. But…” 

As I trailed off, Miranda asked, “Are you afraid she’s just playing the long game and is more into the whole revenge thing than she’s letting on? You know, stab when no one’s looking?” 

Koren spoke up. “From what Mercury and Sariel said, that doesn’t really sound much like her either. It kinda sounded like what you see is what you get with that chick. She’s really straightforward. If she was pissed at you, she’d say so. Which uhh, kinda goes with what we saw, you know? She doesn’t really seem like the tricks and subterfuge type.” 

My head started to shake, then I hesitated before continuing to shake it. “No–I mean, yeah, you’re right. From what those two said, that didn’t really sound like her MO. Besides, they’re checking all that.” Turning my head slightly, I looked away from the table on the playground next to the motel where we were sitting, gazing off to the main building itself. In one of those rooms was where the Seosten, along with several others (including my mother), were having a long, magically assisted chat with this Persephone chick. They’d insisted on doing a full rundown without me present, just to make sure everything really was on the up-and-up with her. 

Behind me as I was looking toward the building, Sarah spoke quietly. “Avalon and Shiori.” 

Turning back and settling once more, I nodded. “Yeah, them. I’m not sure how they’ll react or how she’ll react to them. I mean, she says she doesn’t mean me any harm and that she’s in love with the power I have and loyal to it and all. But does that extend to being nice to the girls I love? Or anyone else I care about? I just–how much is she actually going to listen to me or care about what I care about? What if she decides only she gets me and turns violent against them?” 

The other four exchanged looks for a moment before Koren spoke again. “Uncle Wyatt’s in there, and Grandma. If she’s a danger to anyone here, they’ll sniff it out. And uhh, I’m just gonna guess she won’t really mind, Flick. Seriously, I’m gonna be super-surprised if she’s the strict monogamous sort. I mean, she’s definitely not the ‘til death do we part’ sort.” 

Snorting despite myself while the others outright snickered, I waved that off. “Right, yeah, okay. Point. And yeah, they’ll probably find anything wrong in that whole interrogation thing. I just… this whole thing is weird. Better weird than usual, but still weird.” My foot was tapping nervously against the floor. “She’s… she made an oath or a vow or whatever to Manakel’s power, and now it’s my power so she thinks it extends to me. It’s like inheriting an old grandfather clock in a will, and then finding out some other person has an arranged marriage with that clock, so now you’re married.” 

With a cough, Miranda offered, “Can I give you a little advice, old best friend? Maybe don’t tell the immortal Revenant chick the comparison about her being married to a clock.” 

Blanching a little, I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything. I mean, she seems fine. She saved us, she was friendly, I just–I’m worried about where this is going. Everything Sariel and Mercury said makes her out to be super-loyal to Manakel. Or, you know, to his power. Which I guess maybe translates into being loyal to me, or something? But she also seems, I dunno, unpredictable? I guess I’m just afraid that this ‘not a problem’ is going to turn into ‘very big problem’ as soon as she finds out I’m already romantically involved. Yeah, you’re right about the whole multiple loves thing being pretty accepted and all, I just… I’m really confused. And maybe just a little pessimistic that this totally random thing won’t find some way to turn out to be terrifying after all. Especially if I stop worrying about it.”

Miranda put her hand on my back, squeezing it. “Don’t worry, we get it. Everyone here knows why you might be… uhh, pretty hesitant to believe this isn’t some huge problem, believe me.”  

Sands nodded. “Yeah, totally. But I’m pretty sure this is more like Tristan showing up out of nowhere while you were on that jungle hike with Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren, you know?” 

“And hey,” Koren quickly put in, “He fell out of the sky too, remember? So it’s totally like that.” 

A very slight smirk found its way to my face as I looked around at all four of them. “You guys are pretty good at the whole encouragement thing. Thanks, I–I guess I really needed that.” Letting out a breath then, I straightened and gave a firm nod. “Kay, I’ll try to believe that this whole thing isn’t about to blow up in all of our faces, but I reserve the right to scream I told you so if it does.” 

“Thankfully,” Miranda pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if it does turn into a problem, we’ll all be too busy to listen.” Coughing, she added a flat, “Anyway, are you sure you’re not just hoping it turns into a problem so you don’t have to tell Avalon and Shiori that you’re freaking married?” 

Face flushing deeply, I gave a quick shake of my head while the others snickered. “Oh come on, I am not married. If anything, my Necromancy power’s married. Hell, only half of that’s married, just the part I got from Manakel. Half of one power I have is married. So like, that barely even counts as anything, right?” Saying that, I found myself looking around at a group of pretty dubious-looking friends, before muttering under my breath, “Well, it makes sense to me.” 

“That’s good!” Koren teased, “get your excuses and explanations ready before Avalon finds out.” 

That prompted another round of snickers while I extended my leg to kick her under the table, my face still pink. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Believe me, someday you’re gonna be in a situation like this, and I will totally take advantage.” Without missing a beat, I added over my shoulder toward the person my item-sense power had just detected, “And you’re not allowed to protect her from my eventual cunning revenge, Wyatt.”  

Stepping closer, my (much) older brother sniffed while stopping at the end of the table. “You’re very capable,” he informed me primly, “but you can’t stop me from protecting my family.” 

Squinting that way, I pointed out, “I’m your family too, you know. You could’ve been here protecting me from all this awful teasing and mockery.” 

There was a very brief pause as the gangly-looking man seemed unsure of how to respond to that. It was a little awkward, as if he knew he wanted to say something teasing back, but wasn’t quite to the point of knowing exactly how to do so. Wyatt had gotten a lot better over the past year with all this family and friend interaction, but there were still times he just lost it a bit. 

However, that only lasted for those momentary seconds before Koren whispered something into her hand, then made a flicking motion toward Wyatt. I heard nothing, but the way the man reacted made it clear that she had somehow… thrown the whisper to him? New power, obviously. 

Sure enough, Wyatt gave a very short nod toward Koren before focusing on me once more. His voice was calm as he spoke the retort she’d given him. “Tough diddies.” 

“That’s not wh–oh never mind,” Koren waved it off before asking, “So how’s it looking over there? Is she a secret murder-assassin just waiting to jump Flick?”

“Or,” Sands put in, “is she just waiting to jump Flick.” That made her and Miranda snicker. 

Sarah, kindly stepping on her sister’s foot, pointedly spoke up. “They mean, is she safe?” 

It took a moment for Wyatt to answer, while he collected his thoughts. Finally, the man confirmed, “She didn’t trip any guilt spells, or make any of the threat-indicators light up, and the danger-gel I made her hold stayed completely calm. Everyone checked her and she…” The next words looked like it took a lot for him to say. “She appears to be on the up-and-up.” Looking straight to me, he added, “Our mother is making her take a binding oath spell to do no intentional harm, nor intentionally allow harm, to you or anyone you care about. It’s being prepared right now by Mom, Sariel, Mercury, and two of the Victors on our side.”  

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “You’re not there helping?” 

Wyatt, in turn, folded his arms, looking a little annoyed at himself. “I… might have gone a little overboard with the truth and danger sensing spells. They didn’t want to wait for me to recover. They said they have enough power to make them binding as it is.” 

Right, that made sense. He’d used so much magic making sure this woman wasn’t a threat, that he didn’t have enough left at the moment to contribute to the oath-making spell. Was it weird that I found that a little adorable despite everything? My brother really cared about what happened to me. 

As I was thinking about that, Wyatt continued. “They need you to come talk to her. The oath magic works better if you’re there for it.” His tone turned serious as he reached out to touch my arm. “But if she makes any funny moves or makes you feel uncomfortable, you say the word and she’ll be buried under so many trap spells it’ll take her a month to dig her way out.” 

“Good to know,” I replied easily while pushing myself up. Thanking the others and promising to let them know what happened, I headed off with Wyatt toward the motel building. On the way, I glanced over to him and asked, “So, what do you think of this woman? I mean, I know she’s really intense and all. And potentially dangerous, obviously. But what do you really think?”  

Wyatt didn’t answer at first. He was quiet, clearly considering the question. Which did a lot to show how much he had really changed over the past year. Before, he would have ranted on for an hour about how she was obviously plotting to kill all of us, and probably wear our skins or something. But now, while he was still suspicious, he was a lot more reasonable about it. He thought things through more and was much more in control of himself. Finally, as we were about halfway to the building, he answered. “You’re right, she could be dangerous. She’s very strong and hard to stop.” His long, beak-like nose had scrunched up a bit. “But I’ve learned two things about you this year. Okay, more than two. But two specific ones now. The first is that you’re really good at making enemies. Really horrible, strong, vicious enemies I can’t always be there to help with. Even with magic. They find a way to get past it if they have to.”

My mouth opened to say something, but he waved me off and continued. “The other important thing I’ve learned is that you’re also really good at making friends. So, my instinct is to say this girl is dangerous and just get rid of her. That’s what my brain wants to do. It’s what my heart wants to do. Just throw her out and be done with it. But we wouldn’t be done with it. Either she’d be angry and turn into a threat herself, or she just wouldn’t be here to help you with a different threat. She–she’s strong, capable, terrifying. And I’d rather you make her into a real friend, than me make her into an enemy. Even if she scares me. I… I trust you to handle it.” 

We had stopped outside the motel room by that point to finish all that. I didn’t speak at first, just looking at my awkward, wonderful, gangly, incredible brother. Then I stepped over and put both arms around him to hug tightly. “You’re pretty cool, you know that?” My voice was quiet, yet still audibly choked up. “I’m lucky to have someone like you.” 

Despite all the progress he had made, Wyatt was still reflexively stiff when I hugged him. But, after a brief moment, I felt his arms move down to return the embrace. His voice was a bit thick as well. “Be careful, okay? Not–not just because she’s dangerous. But because… because I think she’s fragile too. Not– she’s different. You could really hurt her if you wanted to.” 

That… yeah, that wasn’t at all what I’d expected him to say. Still, I nodded while releasing the man and stepping back. “Trust me, I’ll keep it in mind. The last thing I want to do is traumatize the millennia-old ghost-creature possessing an immortal dead body. Yeah, immortal dead. I said it.” 

With that promise, I turned to the motel, took in a breath before letting it out, and moved to knock on the door. Before my knuckles could actually make contact, however, it opened seemingly of its own volition, with nobody nearby. So, I shrugged before stepping in. The door closed behind me, leaving Wyatt to head back to the others. 

The motel room had had all the furniture taken out of it. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in various magic runes that were all centered around a single figure who stood in the middle. Persephone, of course. She stood there calmly, wearing only a sleeveless version of the Seosten bodysuit, arms extended out to either side with more spell-runes drawn along them. 

Meanwhile, Mom, Sariel, and Mercury were on one side of the room, with the two Victors opposite them. They were Jack Childs, the old cowboy from Fate’s Shepherds, and Fu Hao, the Asian woman who looked very young except for her ancient-looking eyes that had clearly seen an incredible number of years. She was one of the leaders of the Vigilant Sons. Seller and Avalon’s tribe, whom I might have had a pretty big problem with given how they had treated Valley. But apparently Fu Hao had already apologized and openly admitted fault for that. Which, given how old and powerful these people were, the fact that any of them were willing to admit when they were wrong meant a lot. I still wasn’t happy with what happened, except that if they hadn’t kicked Avalon out, I wouldn’t have met her the way I did, and–god, that same thing kept coming up, didn’t it? Bad things led to good things. It was all so complicated. 

Eyes lighting up when I entered the room, Persephone called out without moving, “Hello, beloved! Did you eat something yet? Was it good? I’ve heard very nice things about something called pizza on this planet. I’m very interested in trying it once we’re finished with all this.” She spoke so casually, as if she was just waiting for something like… toast to pop up rather than being put under an intense set of spells meant to ensure she wouldn’t kill any of us. 

Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “Felicity, come right up in front of her. It’s okay. Put your hands on her shoulders and we’ll finish the spell. Persephone, you know how it works.” 

The white-haired woman remained completely motionless, even as she cheerfully confirmed, “Don’t move an inch or the spell gets messed up! You got it, no moving. I am a tree. Except I smell better.” Her eyes found mine as she amended, “Not that trees smell bad, but you should sniff me, Honeycakes.” After a brief pause, she noted, “I smell like honeycake.” 

Moving that way, I hesitated uncertainly before putting both hands on the woman’s shoulders. She was taller than me by a couple inches, but shorter than Avalon. Speaking… completely academically, she was also incredibly beautiful. Like any Seosten, really. She had that totally snow-white hair and tanned skin, with a slim figure that– yeah. And yes, she absolutely smelled like vanilla cake and honey. It made me blush a little. Especially when she smiled brightly at me, clearly knowing exactly how I was reacting to all that. Oh boy, because this whole thing hadn’t already been awkward enough.  

So, for the next few minutes, I stood there basically face to face with this woman who kept calling herself my wife. Which would’ve been so much easier to deal with if she wasn’t so attractive. And cool. Seriously, she flew down out of the sky and completely exploded a Nuckelavee to introduce herself. It was–no, Flick. Knock it off. Firmly telling myself to push those thoughts aside, I focused on just looking at Persephone. 

Okay, scratch that. I focused on closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else. Somewhere with cake and honey. 

Damn it. 

I knew why the spell was taking awhile. Even with two strong Seosten, my mother, and a couple Victors, a Revenant was incredibly hard to target with magic that would actually stick. And one like this, who had found a body as powerful and long-lasting as Persephone had, took even more effort and time. Oh, sure, they could’ve hit her with a teleportation spell or something quite easily, shifted her somewhere else. But for an ongoing effect like this, one that would give even her enough trouble if she started to turn against us, it took a lot. According to Sariel, when they were back on the Olympus, only two people had been able to tell Persephone what to do. The first was Manakel, with the very same Necromancy power that attracted her to him in the first place. And the other was Puriel, who was basically a god when it came to magic. 

But in this case, we had enough power to put the spell on her. Plus, she was willingly cooperating, which helped. She could probably break the spell, but doing so would alert basically everyone Mom was including in the spell, so Persephone going bad would result in a whole bunch of people jumping in, while the Revenant herself was buried under a heap of targeted trap spells. They wouldn’t stop her forever, but they would, with any luck, slow her down. It was the best we could do. Between that and my own ability to sort-of control or at least push her with my Necromancy (I wasn’t as good with it as Manakel had been, so I couldn’t just order her around), this whole thing was as safe as we could make it.   

Finally, with a rush of power that even I felt closing in all around us to culminate in a burst that made my ears pop, it was done. Mom stepped over, putting her hand on my arm to tug me back. “There,” she said quietly, her eyes on Persephone. “You say you want to spend time with my daughter. You can do that, but… when she tells you to back off, do it. Sariel has an extra room you can use. You live with her, not with Felicity. You give her space when she needs it.” 

“Of course, Mother!” the woman cheerfully replied, “we wouldn’t want to rush things.” 

Oh boy. Yeah, Mom had her own reaction to that. But before she could get too into it, I quickly turned to the two Victors, who were starting to leave. “Uhh, um, excuse me?” 

Fu Hao and Childs exchanged brief looks before turning to me, the Asian woman curiously asking, “May we help you with something else?” 

Pushing aside the thought that it was really weird to ask them for anything else after they’d already done this much, I nodded. “Yeah, I uhh, I sure hope so. 

“Let’s just say I have a friend who really needs some help when it comes to one of your old colleagues.”

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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 is 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 Aniyah 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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