“So yes, I must say, that was certainly an… unexpected turn of events.”
As he murmured those words, the man known as Fossor strode through the busy suburban mall, looking for all the world like an average, middle class dad out for a little shopping trip with his younger, far more attractive wife. Well, average save for the fact that a small cloud of ash kept appearing in front of his feet for the man to step on. But save for that small anomaly (which no one else seemed to notice), they could have been a hit sitcom. “Unexpected indeed.”
Joselyn, who walked in his shadow, spoke softly without looking at the necromancer. “And just when you thought you had Gaia dealt with and out of the way. Too bad, really.” She could not inject even the slightest amount of sincerity into her words. “You must be so upset.”
Joselyn had experienced the same ‘awakening’ that every other Heretic must have when Felicity and Gaia had triggered that spell. The sudden download of information about her own rebellion, her own situation, that had abruptly flooded into her mind had dropped the woman to her knees.
Gaia. Gaia had destroyed the spell that erased the rebellion. She had brought it back, had restored everyone’s memories. More than that, she had shoved knowledge of it into everyone’s head, even those who weren’t there at the time. Every Heretic, everyone connected to the Heretical Edge, had been given the same rush of information.
They knew her. They knew Joselyn. All of them knew who she was, what she had tried to do. They knew what happened to her, what… what Ruthers had done to her children. They knew the truth. It was a thought that struck Joselyn even harder than the actual information upload had. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone knew the truth. They could accept it or not, but they knew. Ruthers had taken her children hostage, had treated babies as bargaining chips to win a war. And now everyone knew.
She truly, genuinely wished she could have seen the look on his face as it happened.
Pausing to give a brief fatherly smile to a woman who passed by with her two young children, Fossor replied simply, “Upset? Hardly.” Winking at the little boy who looked over his shoulder at them, he gave a jaunty wave before turning to walk once more, his gait one of a man with little care in the world. “As a matter of fact, I feel quite invigorated. It’s not good for a man to have no challenges. That just makes you slow. No, I dare say the good headmistress did me quite the favor here. Bringing you back to the attention of the Heretics, reinvigorating that delicious civil war? That should make for some fun, don’t you think?” Pausing, he pointed to the food court. “Oh, let’s treat ourselves. I do enjoy a good soft pretzel, don’t you?”
As she wasn’t really in any position to argue, Joselyn followed after the man. On the way, she made the mistake of glancing back once more to see that small boy with his sister and mother. Soft blonde hair, pink cheeks, an innocent smile… Her gaze quickly snapped away from him while a hard lump formed in her throat. As her eyes jerked from the little boy, she brought her thoughts firmly with it, forcing herself to not think about… that. About him.
Fossor was already standing in front of the pretzel shop, hemming and hawing about which one he wanted to get. When he noticed Joselyn standing quietly nearby, he ordered two, passing the teenage clerk behind the counter cash for them. Taking the napkin-wrapped pretzels, he held both up. “I just can’t decide. Which one would you like, my dear?”
Barely looking at them, Joselyn took one of the pretzels, holding it loosely in one hand just so that he would shut up about them. Her eyes were on Fossor himself, as she spoke in a low, pointed voice. “Are you done with this game? Why are we even here? You know there’s a chance that there could be Heretics in this place. What if they recognize one of us?”
Fossor’s reply to that was as casual as if he was discussing the weather. “Well, if that were to happen, I’d simply have you kill them, of course.” He took a bite of the pretzel, smiling pleasantly. “Mmmm. That is quite the treat.”
“So you’re saying we’re just here so you can see if anyone comes after you,” Joselyn murmured, not bothering to keep the disgust from her voice. “Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Besides manipulate this whole situation to try to force me to kill one of my old friends, she added silently. Despite not saying it aloud, he would know she was thinking it.
Taking another bite of his pretzel, Fossor simply shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s just call this whole thing a test, shall we?” With those simple, yet also troubling words, he turned to walk once more. “Oh, I do hope there’s a decent sale at Old Navy. I need a new pair of slacks.”
As they walked through the mall, Joselyn remarked, “You did all that to get Gaia out of the way so she couldn’t protect Felicity, and she still managed to paint a giant target on you. If anything, Felicity has even more protection now. She’s with Prosser and his people. You won’t get anywhere near her.” She didn’t truly believe that her daughter was completely safe, of course. But Joselyn hoped that taunting the man about it might get him to reveal something she could use, eventually. And, of course, make him believe that she was actually that arrogant or blind.
For a moment, however, Fossor gave no reaction at all. Well, no reaction aside from stopping in front of the window of a pet store to smile at the little puppies on display. “They really are adorable at that size, aren’t they?” Giving the tiniest dog there a two fingered wave, he added, “Perhaps we should pick up a few. I enjoy having some of man’s best friends around.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Joselyn asked, injecting false sweetness into her voice. “We both know how much you hate anything else getting more attention than you.”
Chuckling seemingly genuinely at that, Fossor tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Nicely riposted, my dear.” He smiled, strolling onward through the busy mall after giving the dogs another brief look. His tone was as casual as ever. “Do you know why I enjoy these little jabs of yours?”
Joselyn sighed under her breath, head shaking as she followed after him. “I don’t know, maybe you’re just tired of being surrounded by nothing but mindless sycophants. Which is odd for a necromancer who kills almost everyone who spends any time with him, but maybe you just don’t think these things through.”
He chuckled again, head shaking. “No, no, no. A good thought, but no. You see, I enjoy hearing every single one of these little acts of verbal spite. Because each is a tiny flower in a garden of rebellion that shows you haven’t completely surrendered, that you still have your spirit. Which makes the fact that you will always do exactly as I tell you even more perfectly delicious.”
With that simple pronouncement, the man began to step onto the escalator, before stopping to allow an older couple who were holding hands to go first. “Oh no, go ahead, I insist.” He gestured for them to proceed, while giving them a disarmingly pleasant smile.
Joselyn stepped beside him, watching the two retirees ride the escalator to the top. Her voice was flat. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me why you wanted the Hangman rope now?” She offered him a humorless smile. “It’s not like I could do anything to stop you anyway.”
“Curiosity is a powerful thing, isn’t it?” Fossor replied while stepping up onto the escalator. He didn’t bother gesturing for her to follow, knowing she would anyway. “It motivates one to such great lengths.” He turned a slight smile her way. “It can even inspire you to make unneeded conversation with someone you truly despise with every fiber of your being.”
Standing two steps behind the necromancer as they rode the escalator to the next floor, Joselyn retorted, “Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of practice talking to people who make me sick. And,” she added while stepping off at the top, “you didn’t answer the question.”
“I have a habit of that,” Fossor agreed, wrapping his empty napkin up in one hand before nodding to her. “Don’t forget to eat your pretzel before it gets cold.” With that, the man turned to walk once more, passing a group of teenagers arguing in front of an arcade. He didn’t speak again for a minute, contenting himself with simply window shopping through the next couple of stores. Finally, he spoke thoughtfully. “The trouble with telling you what the rope is for is that it would spoil the surprise. And I do so love to see your look of surprise.” Glancing from the selection of shoes and boots he had been idly looking over to meet her gaze, the man added slyly, “In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it when we get to the end of today’s test.”
Positively certain that she didn’t want to know what he meant by that, Joselyn took brief look at the group of teens, watching them finally settle on going to see a movie instead of heading into the arcade. As they strode off, she sighed and followed after Fossor while absently taking a bite from the pretzel. She was almost annoyed by how good it tasted.
Since he clearly wouldn’t answer any of her earlier questions, she chose to ask a different one. “You’re doing all of this, all these schemes and risky plans to piss off the Committee and the Seosten, just to get a little stronger. Just to protect yourself a little more. Why bother? You’d be completely safe on your own world. No one could challenge you there. The place is an impenetrable fortress. Why not stay there? You have billions of servants, lives to play with. You have everything you could ever possibly need. Why stay here on Earth, with all the Seosten, the Heretics, and even the random Fomorian? Why risk it?” She paused briefly before adding in a quieter, almost resigned voice, “You could even take me back with you.”
Fossor chuckled at that. “First, my dear, don’t be arrogant. Not everything is about you. I have far more interests than you or your family, even if you are a rather pleasant distraction in… let’s say several ways.” His look made her shudder, as bile rose in her throat.
“Second,” he continued, “I stay because they have tried to drive me away. They have tried so very hard to tell me that I cannot be here.” His eyes hardened then, a dark look crossing them as he continued in a harsh, vindictive tone. “And no one tells me where I cannot be.”
Just as suddenly, the man’s eyes brightened. “Oh, look, twenty-five dollars for men’s slacks. Exactly what I was looking for.” He stepped past her, heading for the Old Navy store.
Muttering about psychotic necromancers under her breath, Joselyn trailed after the man, giving a short nod to the young man who stood just outside the store with a sign advertising the sale. Together, she and Fossor moved through the store. Just like any ordinary mundane couple, they actually shopped for pants. The man hemmed a bit over various brands, holding them up to himself before looking in the mirror. Finding several he liked the look of, he stepped into the changing room to try them on, leaving her with a casual, “Find a belt for me, would you, dear? The old one is rather frayed.”
Left on her own for a minute, Joselyn never thought about walking away and abandoning him. As nice as it would have been, the spell she had taken part in all those years earlier would never allow it. She gave a soft sigh instead before moving away from the dressing rooms, looking for men’s belts. On the way, she passed several people who nodded to her pleasantly. One actually made conversation, stopping to ask if she knew where the summer children’s clothes were, but most simply went on their way with barely a glance in her direction.
Would there be a Heretic in here? Would someone she knew, or who knew her actually approach? Was this the test that Fossor was talking about? Did he want to know what she would do if she encountered someone like that? What would she do if… if ordered to kill them?
She had no choice. The spell would allow her to disobey an order only if following it would put Felicity in direct danger. There was no way around that. She knew all too well just how far Fossor could push his control of her. The things he had already forced her to do…
She snapped out of it, head physically jerking as she found herself standing in front of the belts. Her hand was actually on one of them, gripping it so tightly she’d nearly snapped the thing in half. And yet, she found herself unable to immediately let go of it. As angry as she was, as frustrated and helpless as she felt, all she wanted to do was squeeze harder.
“Oh, good,” Fossor announced as he stepped up behind her, brushing a hand over her shoulder while reaching for the same belt she was holding. “You found one. And just my style too. See now, you know me so well.” With a wink, he took the belt and tried it against the new pants. “Perfect. Why don’t you head to the front and pay. I’ll mosey along after you in just a moment.”
Simultaneously unsure of what the man would be doing in the meantime, and absolutely sure she didn’t want to know, Joselyn took the pants that he offered her along with the belt before moving to the checkout. There, she waited in line, spoke casually with a few customers as well as the employee herself, and then stepped out with bag in hand.
Fossor joined her immediately, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “So,” he began simply, “what do you think? Was today’s test successful?”
Squinting at the man, Joselyn shoved the bag of clothes against his chest while muttering, “What test?” Even as she asked, the events of the entire shopping trip were playing through her mind. Was he expecting her to challenge him more? Had she missed something important?”
Still clearly enjoying himself more than she liked, Fossor replied, “Come now. Play everything back, our entire trip here. Has anything stood out to you? Anything jump to mind?” He could clearly barely contain his giddiness over the whole affair, her obvious bafflement over what he was referring to only making it better for him. “Look around,” he added ‘helpfully.’ “See if anything stands out at all. Take your time.”
Instead of moving immediately, Joselyn met his gaze, trying to read him. Finally, she turned and stepped to the nearby railing. Looking out over the crowd below, she watched for a couple silent minutes. Nothing. Nothing stood out. No one seemed to be paying too much attention to them. No one was following them. She saw no Alters, nothing out of the ordinary. They were just shoppers, employees, random people.
Finally, Fossor spoke up from behind. “Let me give you a hint.”
With a sharp sound, the man snapped his fingers. And everything stopped. Everyone stopped. Hundreds of shoppers on both levels suddenly halted. Conversations ceased instantly. People who were arguing, people who were hugging, chatting, shopping, everything. They stopped. And as one, in the exact same motion, they turned to face Joselyn. Hundreds of eyes were suddenly staring at her blankly. They had no emotion. They had no hopes, no dreams, no fears, nothing of their own. They had nothing, were nothing, not anymore. Because they were…
“Zombies,” she breathed out, eyes widening. “They’re… zombies. All of them. All… the whole..”
“Yes,” Fossor confirmed, the delight evident in his voice. “The whole mall. Every last shopper, employee, man, woman, child, all of them. They are all mine.” He watched her with a bright smile as she slowly turned to stare at him in horror. “They did well, didn’t they? Did you enjoy the show? My puppets did try oh so hard to impress you. Or, not impress you, I suppose. After all, the point was not to stand out.”
“But… why?” Joselyn demanded, feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. The children she had seen, the… the… all of them. They were all dead. All killed and then puppeted by this monster. “All this, just to put on a show for me? Why?”
“A show just for you?” he echoed. “Don’t be absurd. You’re the bait here, not the target.”
Swallowing hard, Joselyn murmured, “You’re setting up a trap.”
The man winked. “One of several, yes. You see, you’re right, now that Heretics know who you are, they will be on the lookout for you. They will try to find you. And this, what you see around us? Let’s just say it’s one of several preparations I’m making. We’ll see if any of your old friends follow you in here. And if they do, we’ll spring the trap.”
Staring at the man, Joselyn pointed out, “Pretty elaborate just to have them killed.”
“Oh no, no no, not killed,” Fossor corrected, shaking his head. “You see, our friends here are very special creatures. Very… special indeed. I designed them myself after watching one of those old Romero movies. You know the whole ‘zombies want to eat your brains’ nonsense. Well, these don’t eat your brain. They infect you. With each bite, each wound, they tear at your willpower, your ability to resist commands.”
Letting that sink in for a moment, Fossor continued. “Of course, the downside of creating these wonderful creatures is that they are limited to a relatively small area. If they move beyond the area of their creation, in their case, this mall, they will disintegrate. Which means anyone I wish to subject to them must come here. But that shouldn’t be hard to achieve. As you said, there will be people coming after you. People who will follow you into this simple, ordinary mall. So yes, a little bit of extra work, but worth it, I believe.
“After all, as much fun as having one Heretic enslaved at my beck and call has been, imagine what I could do with an army of them.”