Please note, this is the first of TWO chapters that will be released today. Come back in a couple hours to see the next one, which will finish out the regular summer epilogues we’ve been having, leading into the final rescue arc before the next book.
With a hum of power, a blue energy blade flashed through the air. It was caught against a black metal shield with green gems adorning the front.
Avalon Sinclaire and Miranda Wallbern stood facing one another in the middle of the forest on the far side of the lake where the Atherby camp was. Both were sweating, and the signs of their exertions were visible in scorch marks, deep gouges in the trees and rocks around them, and trampled bushes.
It had now been seven weeks since that fateful night back at Crossroads. Things were gradually building up at the camp, as more and more former and brand new Crossroads rebels made their way in. The cabins had expanded all the way around the lake, a few almost visible from where the girls were sparring. For the most part, things were limited to making sure as many rebels found their way to the camp as possible and setting up in new places for them to live. That and training. Lots and lots of training.
And letting those who were ready to see for themselves meet the camp’s Alters. Not all of those who came were quite that far along. Some only came to the camp because of their friends, or because of what they’d heard the other side do. Or they wanted to believe that not all Strangers were evil, but a lifetime of indoctrination made that more difficult to accept in person and they weren’t quite there yet. Whatever their reasoning, the Atherby people took it slow. The time would come when they would all need to work together, but they couldn’t rush it too much.
Breathing heavily, Miranda grinned at her sparring partner. “Any time you want to call it a tie, we can go get some lunch. Mmmm lunch. Doesn’t that sound good?”
A short distance away, Salten stood watching the pair. At Miranda’s words, the Peryton made a very clear scoffing sound before grabbing a mouth full of leaves. Porthos, standing between Salten’s antlers, chirped a long and rather detailed rant that most likely explained just how he felt about that suggestion. The words may have been indecipherable, but the general point was made.
Avalon gave her an unimpressed look as well, after letting her eyes flash very briefly toward the animal and her cyberform partner. “If you want to quit, Wallbern, just say so.”
“Me, quit?” Miranda scoffed. “I can do this as long as you can. Or, you know…” Abruptly, the girl threw herself backwards, while leaving a force field where her shield was. In the next instant, a duplicate spawned in front of her, continuing the original’s words. “One of me can.”
Giving a very faint, predatory smile, Avalon ignited her second gauntlet. This one formed a long warhammer shape, which she swung hard at the newly-summoned duplicate while darting in closer.
The new Miranda blocked the incoming hammer with her shield while making a pulling gesture with her other hand. The small hovering forcefield that Avalon had bypassed suddenly flipped around in the air and flew at the dark-haired girl from behind. At the last possible moment, Avalon shut down her gauntlets and dropped, letting the flying force field go right over her head as she spun into a low leg sweep that caught Miranda Two just as she was still recovering from the hammer blow.
Even as she fell, however, the black girl managed to catch herself on one hand, using that to spring back up and over to her feet just before Avalon would have put her reignited (though ‘dulled’ for training purposes, of course) energy blade at where her chest would have been if she had landed on her back.
Their training fight continued in much that vein for several more minutes. Various Miranda duplicates took turns stepping in to keep Avalon occupied, though only one fought at a time. They moved back-and-forth through the stand of trees, neither really pressing that hard to win, as they were simply enjoying the exercise.
Finally, by silent yet mutual agreement, they stopped. The extra Mirandas disappeared, and the one who was left reached into a bag placed against a nearby tree, taking out two bottles of water before tossing one to Avalon. She twisted the top off her own and took a sip before approaching as she spoke up. “You know, it’s kinda funny.”
Catching the tossed bottle, Avalon took a sip as well before raising an eyebrow. “Funny?” Salten had come forward by then, and she ran a hand along his back before pouring some water out into a large cup that she projected from her gauntlet. The Peryton made a noise of thanks before loudly slurping from the bowl.
“Well,” the other girl amended, “not that anything about you having to leave Garden under the… circumstances that you did was funny. But still, you left and yet you still ended up taking on a pretty Gardeny name. It’s like you kept up the tradition anyway.”
For a moment, Avalon didn’t respond to that. She simply took a long, silent pull from the bottle while watching Miranda. Finally, she admitted quietly, “I kind of saw it like that too. I was looking forward to changing my name for so long, to taking on the Eden’s Garden identity, it felt like that was ripped away from me along with everything else.”
Porthos made a soft, almost mournful noise before hopping from Salten’s head to Avalon’s shoulder. The small metal lizard reached out a hand to pat the side of her face while giving an encouraging chirp.
Avalon, for her part, reached up to rub two fingers over the little guy before squinting at Miranda. “I’m not sure if I felt okay telling you that because you’re Chambers’ best friend, or because you had to leave too.”
“I prefer to think it’s because of my trustworthy face,” Miranda primly informed her before shrugging as she sank down to a sitting position against the nearest tree. “You’re kind of right though. We have a bit in common. We both had to leave Garden as traitors, and we’re both close to Flick. Just… in different ways.”
From the look on her face, Avalon was making an effort to restrain the slight smirk at the other girl’s choice of words. “Different ways indeed.” She sat down beside Miranda, breathing out in a long, low sigh while letting Porthos climb down to her lap. “Chambers has a way of getting… into your head.”
“You should’ve seen her as a ten-year-old,” Miranda retorted. “Every bit as determined to expose the truth and right wrongs, without being nearly as tempered by things like common sense and respect for adults.”
With a small smile, Avalon murmured, “I would have liked to know her back then.”
Miranda shrugged. “Well, I can tell you all the stories you’d ever want to hear. I know lots of embarrassing ones too, and cool ones. Some that are cool and embarrassing. Like, I remember one time—”
She was interrupted in mid-sentence as a portal opened up nearby. Both girls snapped their attention that way, only to see a familiar figure step through.
“Seller?” Miranda blinked, head tilting as she looked at the emerald-suited man.
Avalon stepped over that way, embracing him. It wasn’t the first time that he had been at the camp since everything went down, but he had been very busy, and wasn’t around that much.
After embracing the girl, and then giving Miranda her own hug as well, Seller asked, “You girls keeping yourself busy out here? He glanced around at the signs of their sparring. “Looks like you haven’t gotten too bored, at least.”
Salten bumped up against the man until he obediently rubbed the brilliant animal’s head.
“We make our own fun,” Avalon replied dryly before squinting at him. “What about Gaia?” There was a slight tremor to her words. Though she had been trying to keep herself busy and distracted from worrying about her adopted mother, Avalon still felt a near constant pit in her stomach at the thought of what Gaia could be going through. The fact that she had absolutely no way to help the woman had not been easily accepted.
With a wince, Seller’s head shook. “You know about as much as I do on that front. According to Sariel, she’s still being kept in that magical coma or stasis or whatever it is. If the Seosten lady can’t wake her up, then we’re going to have to go in the long way. And that means figuring out where she is being held. Not to mention how to get past all the defenses. And we haven’t even got the first part yet. We don’t have the faintest clue where they’ve got her.” He sighed. “Sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front. I swear, we’re working on it. I’m trying to get more help. Which is… tangentially related to why I’m here.”
The two girls blinked at one another before turning back to him. Miranda raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What, you want our help finding allies to save Gaia? I’m not sure how much good we could do.”
“No,” Seller started before amending, “well, sort of. The thing is…” He stopped, considering for a moment before letting out a breath. “Okay, well, where I just came from… it’s Desoto. I mean, where Desoto used to be.”
Avalon blinked at that. “Why were you in the gulf of Mexico?”
Meeting her curious gaze, he replied, “Because that’s where the tribes who left Eden are. Well, most of them are staying up in the border states, spread out as much as possible to avoid drawing attention. The leadership and some others have been spending a lot of time out on boats in the water.”
Miranda was the first to speak up. “What the hell are they doing down there? And wait, tribes? Like… entire tribes? Who… who left?”
For a moment, Seller didn’t answer. He was watching Avalon‘s reaction. But her expression remained unreadable, and she herself was silent. Finally, he glanced toward Miranda while replying, “Yeah, it’s… well, just under half of the tribes have rebelled. That includes the Victors. Vigilant Sons, Fate’s Shepherds, Dust Striders, and… half of the Reapers. One of their Victors left.” He shrugged then. “Obviously there’s some from all those tribes who stayed behind, and some from other tribes who went with. It’s a mess. But for the most part, that’s where it stands. Three and a half tribes left, four and a half tribes stayed.”
Miranda sighed heavily. “Including the Eternal Eyes.” The news that her own (former) tribe had been one of those to remain part of the system even after the Gaia and Flick’s revealing spell made her flinch. She’d had a lot of friends back there, people she wished she could talk to again.
Seller nodded. “Yeah, sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front, but, well… sorry. As far as your tribe is concerned, you’re still the enemy. But hey, you’ve got a lot more company now.”
Miranda twirled a finger. “Yaaaaay.” Belatedly, she amended, “Sorry. Having a lot of people who know the truth now, who accept the truth now, it’s a good thing. I know that. It’s just…”
“They’re not your people,” Avalon finished for her. She looked over to the other girl. “Your people have consistently let you down ever since this started, and you were hoping that would change now.”
“It’d sure be nice,” Miranda agreed before looking toward Seller once more. “But whatever. What are the ones who did leave doing around Desoto?”
Taking in a long breath before letting it out again, Seller slowly answered, “They stole some of the fruit-bearing vines from the tree. Apparently, they have some idea from somewhere that the vines will work and grow if planted where Desoto was. They just haven’t quite figured out how they’re supposed to do that when the place doesn’t exist anymore.”
Avalon squinted. “Plant them underwater? That doesn’t really sound right.”
The man nodded. “That’s kind of the problem they’re having too. But they’re convinced that something will turn up. I guess that’s why they’re out there on boats, looking for a good island or something to plant on. They kind of need to get that going if they’re going to stand a chance against the loyalists. As long as the loyal tribes can make more Heretics and the rebels can’t, they feel pretty outmanned.”
“The Crossroads rebels can’t make more of that kind either,” Miranda pointed out.
Seller nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and that’s kind of even more of the problem. As long as one side can make as many as they want, whenever they want, for the most part, they’ve got the advantage.”
Avalon was quiet briefly before speaking up. “The rebels can make natural Heretics. We have Alters on our side. Maybe it’s not the same as a Bosch Heretic. They don’t gain more powers from killing. But it’s not nothing.”
“You’re right,” Seller agreed. “It’s definitely a long way from nothing. But there is a reason Crossroads and Eden’s Garden became the de facto most powerful Heretic forces in most of the western world pretty fast once they got things going. It’s fast, easy power gain. And the loyalists have the advantage there.”
Avalon gave a very soft smile then. “Maybe we should focus on getting Aylen’s grandpa away from Crossroads. That’d stop their advantage.”
Seller gave a wry smirk at that. “First of all, the idea that that girl is actually related to the Heretical Edge itself? That’s pretty damn mind blowing, even considering the world we live in.” He paused, considering before asking, “What’s going on with meeting her parents and all that, anyway?”
“It’s happening,” Avalon replied, “Aylen’s still setting it up. Apparently her mothers and grandfather had some big thing to deal with and they’ll be back… eventually.” She shrugged helplessly. “All she could tell me is that it’s something important off-world.”
Seller blinked. “Grandfa— oh, other grandfather. Her… other mother’s father? Or… what about her father? Does he…”
Avalon shrugged. “She says that whole thing is really complicated and that she’ll explain when we meet them.”
“Complicated seems like a pretty common thing anymore,” Seller noted. He shook his head then, putting a hand on Salten’s back before moving on. “Anyway, that’s not the point. And it’s not why I came. I came because, ahhh, they’d like to talk to you.”
Realizing he was looking at her, Avalon blinked. “What? Why do they want to talk to me? Wait, who? The Victors?” Perched on her shoulder, Porthos made a sound that was suspiciously close to someone blowing a raspberry at the suggestion.
Seller nodded. “That’s right. They’d like you to come down to where they are and talk to them. They said that you will have a completely free pass to come and go as you like, and that you may bring whoever you like with you. They’ve given their words that you will be safe, as well anyone who accompanies you.”
Avalon was staring at him, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before she managed a weak, “Why the hell do they want to talk to me now?”
Miranda spoke up. “Because you’re Bosch’s heir. They probably don’t know about, well, Dries. So you’re the descendent.”
Avalon‘s head shook. “So what? I don’t—” She sighed. “They don’t know about the Seosten situation. They don’t know the truth about my ancestor and what he really did. They still think he’s this great, amazing guy who created this whole civilization.”
Seller reached out a hand, resting it on her shoulder. “That’s why I brought their offer to talk to you. I know how you feel about this whole situation, about how you’ve been treated. Believe me, I know. But Fu Hao promised that she and the others are ready to hear anything you need to say. They really want to listen. I can’t promise they’ll believe everything, but this might be the best chance we’ve got to get them to hear the truth. if we can get the rebel Victors to understand what’s really going on, it’ll spread from there.”
Avalon swallowed hard. “You want me to get in front of the leadership of the people who… who… treated me like a monster when I needed them most and convince them that their entire civilization is built on even more of a lie than they already thought?”
The man met her gaze evenly, giving a slight nod. “Yes. I know it seems pretty screwed up. But like I said, this is the best chance we’ve got to bring them on board the whole thing. Remember, we’ve only got a year to convince the Seosten leadership to be allies instead of enemies. Seems like we have an easier job of that if half of Eden’s Garden knew what was really going on. Maybe they have ulterior motives in wanting you to come talk, but at least they’ll be a half-willing audience for you. This right here really is our best shot. You are our best shot.”
Miranda was nodding. “He’s right, Avalon. It sucks that they didn’t listen to your side of the story before. And it sucks that they’re probably mostly only willing to talk now because of some kind of political thing for who your ancestor was. But whatever the reason, you can talk to them. You can convince them about what’s really going on, about what’s been going on this whole time. If we can get half of Eden’s Garden to know about the Seosten and spread the word from there, that might even bring in more. Hell, it might help drive out the Seosten still hiding there. There’s got to be some in among the rebels, right? So we need to get the truth to them.”
Avalon was still quiet for a few seconds before letting out a breath. “Okay. Let me think about who to take. But fine.
“I’ll go talk to the Victors.”