Fossor does appear in this chapter. For those who would prefer not to read chapters with him, there is a summary at the bottom.
Mom took my hand, squeezing it while leading me that way. “You can do this,” she assured me.
Then we passed through the doors, emerging into a circular fighting pit surrounded by raised stands for people to watch. Fossor’s seat, of course, was above everyone else’s. But there was also a surprising number of onlookers. He had brought on an audience. Showing off his new Heretic? Or was this just a normal event for him? I wasn’t sure. Either way, I was honestly surprised that he had so many living people willing to come to his home like this. Though I probably shouldn’t have been. Necromancer or not, he obviously had living allies. Or at least living people who were willing to risk being around him. After all, there were people willing to go into his arena, and they couldn’t all be dead. There wouldn’t be any way for Mom to get stronger if they had been. So, obviously Fossor had living people either allied with him or willing to be paid to stick around. I wondered briefly if they all had some connection to the people in the arena. Was there a gambling system going on? Were they bringing in their own fighters to face Fossor’s? I wasn’t sure how the whole thing worked, but I was sure I would find out soon.
I also wondered if any of the fighters in here were either or both of Miles’ parents. I’d talked with the older boy a little bit over the past few months, enough to know that his birth father was a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman) while his mother was a Natural Kejjerfiet Heretic and had been since she was a little girl. If they were here, I had to make sure they knew their son was okay. And try to get them out, while I was going about the already impossible task of getting myself and Mom out. Adding two more onto that list wasn’t so bad, right? Like tossing a few more rocks onto the mountain I was trying to lift.
We weren’t actually in the main arena part just yet. There was a fairly narrow space (just large enough for something like a troll to squeeze through sideways) all the way around the fighting area, with various tunnels leading out to it. I could see several figures hanging out both in the main arena and at the ends of the tunnels. All of them turned to look as Mom and I emerged, and I immediately sensed the hostility. Yeah, no one was happy to see us, that much was for sure.
Before I could say anything to Mom, a trio of ghosts appeared hovering above the arena. They had trumpets. Literal trumpets (which looked physical rather than ghostly, raising more questions in my mind) raised to their lips. They blew the trumpets, sending a loud cacophony of sound throughout the room which drew everyone’s attention to Fossor, who had stood up. I had no doubt that everyone would have immediately looked at him anyway without the help of the trumpets, but he had to make a whole big production out of it just to show off.
Only once he was absolutely sure that every eye in the room was on him did Fossor speak. “Welcome, friends,” he finally began in a broad, commanding voice that easily filled the room. “It’s so good to have all of you here on this momentous occasion, when my Joselyn is joined by her daughter.” As he said that, the vile fucker gave a broad gesture toward the spot where Mom and I were standing, directing everyone to stare at us. I resisted the urge to flip all of them off. Good as it might’ve made me feel for just a moment, it either would have annoyed or amused Fossor, and I didn’t want to do either. Instead, I simply stood silently next to Mom and watched while the audience and other fighters alike stared at us like we were animals in the zoo. Animals they really wanted to kill.
Fossor was still talking. “Of course, we know how eager some of you are to pit your champions against either of mine.” He said that pointedly while looking at me with a little smile that made my stomach turn over. “And that will come in due time! But for today, I promised my girl a very special birthday present to start things off, and I do prefer to keep my promises. So, Felicity, come to the center of the arena. Joselyn, stay where you are. That’s a good girl.”
Feeling my mother’s hand squeeze my shoulder, I glanced that way briefly. She met my gaze and nodded while speaking in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You’ll be okay. Whatever he does, just let it wash over you. Focus on surviving and getting out of here. We can deal with things later.”
Deal with things later, right. I knew what she meant. Any trauma, horrible feelings, regret, guilt, any of that I would have to bottle up and talk through with her later, once the fighting was over and we were safely out of the arena. She would help me cope with whatever I ended up having to do. But for now, I had to actually do it.
So, with a deep breath, I started walking that way while my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. I was terrified about what was going to happen in that arena, what I was going to see. A heavily scarred rat-like man with three long prehensile tails used one of those tails to open the gate leading into the arena before he stepped aside. His arm was raised in a grand gesture for me to go ahead. As I passed him, the man whispered, “Gonna cut you later. See what your blood tastes like, pretty girl.”
“While you’re at it,” I retorted without thinking, “could you maybe try to come up with a less cliche threat to taunt the next girl with? Because that was pretty weak, dude. Two out of ten, would not recommend future fight banter with. It’s like you’re not even trying to be intimidating.”
The rat-guy looked like he wanted to say something else to that, but I was already moving on. I stepped over to the middle of the arena, ignoring all the people staring at me. I was being assessed from all sides, both by the fighters in and around the arena itself, and by the spectators in the stands. I was pretty sure most, if not all, of them wanted to see me die, though how much of that was personal against me or my mother (or Heretics in general) and how much was just them wanting to beat Fossor in his own house was up for debate. Briefly, I pondered what would happen if one of their people actually killed Mom or me. It was an incredibly morbid thought, but still. I was curious about what kind of things they were gambling with. Also, I wondered if Fossor would actually let them live long enough to collect any prize they were owed.
Once I was in the middle of the arena, I stopped. Taking a moment to push down as much of my uneasiness and fear as possible, I slowly raised my gaze to look up at the spot where Fossor was sitting on his throne-like seat. A few pithy comments had jumped to my mind on the way out there, but they all vanished as soon as I actually looked at him. My voice stuck in my throat. From the outside, it might have looked like stoic silence. But inwardly, I was just terrified. I had no idea what he had in mind, what he was going to do right then. I didn’t know what this present was going to be, what he was going to make me do, what… any of it. My imagination was running wild. It was all I could do to keep myself upright, stop my legs from collapsing out from under me, and keep staring at the man. Saying something witty or insulting was completely beyond me. Actually, not saying anything at all was probably for the best, considering any attempt to talk probably would have resulted in my voice shaking and cracking. Being silent was the only chance I had at not being seen as the terrified little girl I was.
I was pretty sure Fossor knew exactly why I wasn’t speaking, because he gave me a small smile before gesturing. His voice was… ugh, fond as he announced to the gathered audience. “My brilliant girl. She was a reporter in her hometown, you know. Not for any of the more… official publications, of course. Though she did have a few short articles published in the local paper under the junior reporter byline. Her true work was in the school newspaper. Those I had to have brought here specially, as its online presence was sadly quite lacking. Not even a proper Facebook page?”
Somehow, I found my voice. “I already totally believed you were an evil, remorseless, soul-crushing irredeemable psychopath without literally trying to push Facebook. Don’t oversell it.”
There was a short bark of laughter from Fossor. That was the only reaction, at least at first. The rest of the audience seemed to wait to see how he would respond, before chuckling softly. Meanwhile, I was busy telling my mouth to shut the fuck up or get off my face so the rest of me didn’t get hit with the blowback from what it insisted on blurting out.
“Yes, well,” Fossor casually drawled, “I suppose it’s time for your presents, isn’t it?”
“Presents?” I echoed warily, frowning. I’d been worried enough about one present. But multiple? Yeah, the idea of that didn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies. “I think I’m good. What’s that religion that doesn’t do presents on your birthday? Jehovah’s Witnesses? I converted like… three minutes before you grabbed me, and I really don’t think I should push things this early. It’s not good for my growth.”
A very slight smile touched the man’s face, as he watched me. “But if you don’t take your presents, dearest child, you’ll have no golems to fight for you in the arena.”
Confused, I ignored the snickers around me to slowly ask, “Why do I need someone to fight for me? And what do you mean by golems?”
“Because that is your training today, of course,” Fossor patiently informed me. “You are my budding apprentice. What good does watching you get your own hands dirty do? You will learn to manipulate your necromantic powers properly. Part of that involves learning to control and empower golems. Zombies, of a sort. Dead who are raised and enhanced by your power, directed by your own tactics. Puppeted, if you like, to act as an extension of your will. You are not here now to roll in the muck with the filth. I could have pulled any fool off the street for that. My apprentice is far more special. You are here to learn to weave our power through those who have already fallen, to raise them up and put them to work serving their betters.”
“You… you want me to fight with zombies?” I couldn’t keep the faint disgust out of my voice.
“No,” Fossor informed me in a patient, patronizing voice. “I want you to fight using golems. As I said, they are similar to zombies. But think of them as… super-zombies. Their power, strength, all of it depends on your own power. The stronger of a necromancer you are, the better you can make your golems.”
“My… present isn’t just teaching me about these things, is it?” I carefully asked, watching the amused reactions all around me. That fear I’d been feeling the whole time? It wasn’t getting any better.
Fossor, meanwhile, gave a low chuckle. He was clearly enjoying himself immensely right now. “Hardly,” he replied. “I have acquired and prepared two golems for you to work with. One from your previous life, and one from your present life. One an enemy, one a friend. The enemy first, perhaps?”
Enemy? What did he– Then I saw a figure march robotically through the crowd, step into the arena, and stop in front of me. It was… a cheerleader. There was a blonde cheerleader in front of me, which was giving me all new revulsions about what Fossor had meant when he’d said that this present was ‘perfect for me.’
Wait. Hold on. I knew this cheerleader.
“Kendall?!” I blurted out loud, my eyes widening. Kendall. It was that girl from Laramie Falls, two years older than me. Miranda and I had caught her stealing from a school carnival that everyone had been using to raise money for a field trip back when we were in sixth grade and she was in eighth.
“That’s right,” Fossor agreed, while Kendall simply stared blankly at the floor. She was dead. I could sense it. I could feel it, could practically taste it. She was a zombie. Or at least something similar to one. A ‘golem’, as he had put it. There was no life or personality inside her.
“What the hell is she doing here?” I demanded, my eyes widening. “What–you killed her?!”
With a courteous bow of his head, the necromancer intoned, “You’re very welcome. You see? Things can be very different between us. Your enemies can be my enemies. And we can settle old feuds.”
Old… feuds… I’d barely thought about Kendall at all since leaving Laramie Falls. Actually, the only time I could even think of her coming up was when I was telling Deveron about her that one time. Sure, I’d disliked her in school. But honestly, I’d moved on basically even before ending up at Crossroads. She was just some stupid older girl who always got what she wanted because she was some smalltown princess soccer star. She left for college the summer before all this happened. She was gone, and I barely thought about her, months before I’d ever known anything about Heretics. What old feud was he…
And then I understood. I understood something important about Fossor. Something that had occurred to me somewhat before, but had never truly and fully clicked in my head until this moment. He never let anything go. Never. He didn’t understand how to move on from things. Why would he? He was a necromancer, his entire being was based around keeping things long past death. But more than that, he kept grudges going back millennia. His reaction to being cursed to stay off of Earth or risk losing all his power was to find a workaround and continue risking it just because he could not stand being told no.
Fossor never let anything go. He never accepted being denied anything he wanted, not for long. He might temporarily retreat to attack something from a more advantageous position, sure. But he would never really abandon it, would never just move on. More than that, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that I could have some random girl I didn’t like in school and then just… move on with my life without thinking about her, without obsessing over her. Because that was just the type of person he was.
“I see you’re overwhelmed by the generosity,” Fossor easily and casually announced, drawing chuckles and snickers from the audience. “But yes, your old rival from school, the girl who dared cause you unhappiness, will be your tool from now on. You will learn to empower and control her, to manipulate her body to fight for you.”
Swallowing, I stared at Kendall, guilt welling up in me. If I hadn’t made… No. Push it down. I shoved it away and left those feelings for later. “You… said two,” I reminded him, my voice cracking a little. “You said there were two. One from my past life and one from… from my present life. An enemy and…” I couldn’t say it.
“And a friend, yes,” Fossor confirmed. “You will have two bodies to practice with. This girl is the first, and the second… well, he and several more of his people came, I believe, with the intention of taking both of my girls away. I’ve put the others he came with to work on my own projects. But I decided you should have at least one. After all, they did come here because of you.”
Because of me. A group came… to save Mom and me. A rush of horrible possibilities ran through my head. Except Fossor had said more of ‘his people.’ Did that mean… what did that mean?
While my panicked brain was trying to sort its way through everything Fossor had implied, a new figure entered through the same opening that Kendall had come through, moving the same way, as a dead puppet before stopping in front of me. I wasn’t watching them come in. I was staring at the ground, afraid of what I would see. Terrified of what… who would be in front of me.
Finally, I exhaled and slowly lifted my gaze, steeling myself as much as I could. I looked up… and up… and up a bit more. Then I saw the person, the friend, whom Fossor had… recruited for me. And I immediately realized that this wasn’t just for me. It was also for my mother.
Because the figure in front of me, the figure who was only one of apparently several of the same people who had tried to help us and paid the ultimate price, was one of the first friendly Alters I had met. He was someone who had remembered my mother from so many years earlier and whose beacon had originally summoned Shiori and me to their world when they sought help from Joselyn Atherby.
The man in front of me was the nine-foot tall Meregan named Gavant.
Flick and Joselyn enter the arena and find it full of onlookers and other fighters. Fossor plays up to the crowd a bit, then informs Flick that she will not be physically fighting today. Instead, she will use what he calls ‘golems’ or ‘special zombies’ that she can personally direct and empower with her own strength. He has brought two so-called ‘golems’ for her to use. The first is referred to as an ‘enemy from her old life’, and turns out to be Kendall, the human girl from Laramie Falls whom Flick had several altercations with, including the time she and Miranda busted her for stealing from a school carnival. From this, Flick realizes that Fossor is incapable of understanding that someone could move on from an old grudge without being obsessed with it.
Fossor then introduces the second golem, referred to as ‘a friend from her new life.’ This turns out to be the Meregan known as Gavant, while Fossor notes that more Meregan came with him and are all his dead servants now.