Fossor. He had been here all this time, right under our noses. I had no doubt in that second that he’d been here for months, at least. Maybe even from the beginning of the school year. Or even earlier. Sands and Scout said the food tasted better when they were kids? How long had he been here? And how much had he stepped it up since I arrived? After all, he probably wanted to keep an eye on me once I was brought to the school, and who better to do it through then the school chef? No one ever paid attention to the cook. He just stayed in his kitchen and did his job.
And listened. And watched.
Casually, Escalan touched two fingers against the door behind him, and I saw a couple of red spell sigils appear briefly. Only then did he step away from the door and speak, “It’s good to see you in the flesh again, dear.” He paused, then looked down at the body he was currently puppeting. “So to speak, at least. Unfortunately, I believe my physical presence there would cause more problems than I’m currently prepared to deal with. But then, this wouldn’t be your first dealings with an absent parental figure.”
“Shut up!” I suddenly blurted despite myself. I couldn’t think. My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had to believe that he’d been telling the truth about me being cut off from contact. If my cell phone wasn’t working, maybe Wyatt’s protective spells would let them know what was going on.
Something in my face must have given that thought away, because Fossor, through Escalan, chuckled. “Oh, dear Felicity, your spells are still broadcasting just as they should, and will betray no surprises or trouble. For the moment, at least. Besides, as you well know, I mean you no harm right now.” He winked, the words somehow mocking. “I am utterly incapable of harming you, after all.”
We both knew what he meant by that, and how much he could get around it. My eyes snapped around quickly, looking for anything that could give me an idea what to do. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even get a message to Tabbris back with Dad. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why didn’t I possess someone at the camp? Then I could’ve recalled to them.
Finally, all I could do was snap my gaze back to the nearby man and blurt, “What are you doing here?! What do you want?! What are you— wait. Wait, the food. The food, what did you do to the food?!”
The horror of the possibilities had me already moving. Forgetting myself, I ran for the man, or rather, for the door behind him. I had to warn them.
To my surprise, Fossor didn’t try to stop me. In fact, he had Escalan’s body step out of the way. I knew that should have been a hint, but all I could think about was warning my friends. I got to the door… and suddenly the world swam and I was back on the other side of the room.
It was some kind of teleport spell, short range. When I got near the door, it simply reset me back over here.
My staff was in my hands then, as I went for the man, swinging it hard while demanding, “What did you do?!”
The blow struck home, not that it actually did anything, of course. Escalan’s head simply snapped a bit to the side, before Fossor made him sigh softly, like he was disappointed.
“You are entirely too old for temper tantrums, young lady. But because I understand this is an emotional time, I will indulge you.”
Using two fingers, he gestured, and I felt all of my strength suddenly leave me. It was all I could do to stand up, staggering a bit against the nearby counter before using it to brace myself.
He continued then. “To answer your question, I have been using this time as your chef productively, carefully preparing a very specific poison.”
My eyes widened at that, and I gathered what strength I had to throw myself at him once more with another swing. It meant nothing, as he just sighed and stepped backwards, letting me fall on my face.
“As I was saying, this very special poison required months of very careful testing and work. After all, if it was going to do what I needed to do, there could be no mistakes, no second chances. Fortunately, that meant that I had a ready excuse to stay here and see how you were doing. I must admit, though I don’t know the whole story, I am very impressed by your work this year. You are quite the overachiever. Your mother is proud. I promised her I’d tell you that.”
Using the end of my staff to push myself up a bit, I glared at him. “You’re a monster,” I spat. “What poison? What are you trying to do? You can’t possibly think that you can just poison all these Heretics to death. There’s no fucking way.”
“Well, no,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Heretics are entirely too resilient for that. Particularly the stronger ones. Fortunately, killing them was not my goal at this particular moment. Merely… distraction. And that is something that this particular poison is a very good at creating. You see, it’s not just a poison to make them sick. It’s also an… anchor to a specific spot. When it kicks in, the person who eats it is yanked to that specific spot and, until the poison is purged, they can’t leave. But yes, it also it makes them sick. Or rather, weak. It makes them quite tired. Similar to what you’re feeling now, actually. Which isn’t direct harm, helpfully enough. It’s an ingenious hunting method devised by the Kakaseun people. They would leave food out as bait, and when the bait was taken, their prey would be teleported to the spot they designated, and, conveniently enough, would also be quite tired. Dinner delivered directly to where the Kakaseun wanted them, and left too weak to fight back.
“And even better, every single body that is affected will give off a… let’s call it an aura, which infects those around them. That way, even those who weren’t directly planned for will be, well, dealt with.”
I stared at him. “Nothing that affects all those students without killing them is going to do a thing to Gaia, or the Committee members, or–”
“Of course not,” the man interrupted. “But as I said, a distraction. You see, each of the Heretics who are affected will be sent to one of a dozen different possible traps. Each of those traps is full of… let’s say very dangerous things. Your teachers and such may not be sick, but they will be quite thoroughly occupied with keeping their students alive for the time being.”
He winked then. “All in all, let’s just say no one will be in any shape to interrupt your mother anytime soon.”
“Mom?!” I blurted, eyes widening once more, “What are you talking about? Where’s my mom?! What are you making her do?!”
His response was a slow smile. “What I’ve been planning for this whole year, of course. Actually, for quite a bit longer. But I wanted it to be this year because you were here and, well, call me sentimental. I kind of wanted you to be here for it.
“Your mother is retrieving something very important for me. The rope of the creature who provides all of these people their power.”
“Wh- the rope?” Now I was really lost. “You mean the rope that’s hanging near Bosch’s place? What does that even… I mean… what?”
That smile, the one that I recognized as Fossor even on another man’s face, came back. “That’s right, you did get a chance to see it, didn’t you? Yes, the Heretics keep it under a very close watch, despite how it may have seemed at the time. It is very… protected, let’s say. And there are always plenty of lapdogs ready to come and defend it. But in this case, well, they will be rather distracted.”
The poisoned food, I realized. He was going to distract all of Crossroads by infecting everyone here with that… teleportation plus sickness food, and then have Mom attack that place and steal the rope while they were busy. My mouth opened and shut a few times before I blurted, “What do you even want the rope for?! This is a lot of work to go through just for a souvenir.” I knew it was for far more than that, of course. But I was hoping that dismissing it like that would make the man explain more than he intended to about his overall plan.
Unfortunately, given the look of that the man gave me, he knew exactly what I was trying to do. And he didn’t even indulge me. Instead, he wagged one finger at me a couple times. “Now now, I may be inclined to indulge your curiosity to a certain extent, given our close relationship, but there are limits even to that. After all, we can’t have all the surprises spoiled, can we?” He winked at me.
Damn it, what was I supposed to do?! What could I do? Delaying things clearly only worked in his favor. He was speaking to me through this zombie proxy, so whatever he was really doing, my talking wasn’t stopping it. Besides, he had Mom to do the dirty work. But I couldn’t get past him. I couldn’t get out of the room, and I couldn’t contact anybody. I couldn’t do anything!
Or maybe… maybe I could do something. Refocusing on Escalan, I thought about what I had been learning from Brom. Zombie. Zombie. Escalan was a zombie. So maybe I could control him to let me out of here. Biting my lip, I pushed as hard as I could at making his arm move.
His arm rose, and I felt a brief moment of elation. Which lasted just long enough for me to realize that it was the wrong arm. I’d been focusing on the right one, and the left had risen.
Seeing my expression, Fossor made Escalan laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was this one, wasn’t it?” Raising his right hand, the man chuckled low. “A fine effort. Really, I’m rather impressed. Yes, dear girl, you are developing very nicely. When we’re all a nice, happy family, I’ll teach you.”
“We’re not a family!” I shouted then, unable to help myself. “I’m never going to be some stupid devoted daughter for you, you sick fuck!”
“Daughter?” Fossor had the nerve to make Escalan look sickened and offended by that. “I should hope not. That would make our future engagements quite… creepy indeed.”
The blood drained from my face, and I forced myself back to my feet. It was so hard. I felt more tired than I had pretty much all year, or at least since I’d gotten the Amarok boost. Whatever Fossor had done to me, it took all I had just to stand up, even leaning on my staff. “You… you sick piece of shit. I don’t know why you want that rope, or what the hell you think you’re doing. But you’re going to fail. We’re going to find my mother, and we’re going to kill you.”
Of course, in that moment it was an impotent promise. And Fossor treated it as such, simply inclining Escalan’s head before offering a casual, “I eagerly anticipate your attempts. But in the meantime, perhaps you should be focusing on rescuing a different family member.”
That threw me more than almost anything else he could have said right then. “I don’t–what?”
His expression turned wistful. “I have to admit, I’m rather impressed that Ammon managed to keep her a secret for so long. Months, really. But in the end, the truth always emerges. Whether it’s heard from your lips or has to be read off of your extracted intestines, that part is up to you.”
Before I could say anything to that, he elaborated. “Her name is Karen, isn’t it? No, Koren. That was it. Just like her mother should have been. Very…” He breathed in, then out, smiling. “Very touching.”
My blood had run cold as soon as he said the name, and the man continued while I was still trying to find my voice. “Yes, I must admit, of all the things I expected his little secret to be about, that was not one of them. But it was a pleasant surprise. Our family is even bigger than expected. It must have been quite nice for you, hmm? A living niece and a half-sister. For the time being, at least.”
“What–what do you mean, for the time being?” I demanded, finding enough strength to straighten a bit more. I felt almost numb, my emotions incapable of keeping up the level of horror and disgust that this entire conversation was forcing onto me. The helplessness was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to avoid throwing up.
“Well,” he replied, “you see, that’s the thing. I have no need for a woman who reached menopause before ever becoming a Heretic. What on Earth would I ever need such a useless creature for? Fortunately, she had the foresight to bear a child ahead of time. Quite convenient, that. And now, she will provide sufficient entertainment for your little brother, while her death will motivate your niece to wonderful heights of emotion that will be very useful.”
Oh. Apparently my horror could reach new levels. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Ammon’s with–no! No, they’re with the other–” I stopped. “That–that teleportation sickness thing. You… you made it send them somewhere else. Not with the others.”
Adopting a tone as though he was talking to a small child, Fossor-through-Escalan nodded slowly. “Yes, very good. Very good. Koren and Abigail are spending a little quality time with Ammon, so they can all have some fun.” He smiled then. “He really is a rambunctious boy.”
That was enough. More than enough. The rage and helplessness that I had felt building within me every second since realizing just who I was talking to had reached a crescendo. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, it was time to get past him and stop this. Somehow.
And then Fossor made Escalan simply step aside, gesturing to the door to make the glowing runes disappear. “Well, that should be long enough to get things going.”
Unable to believe it, I stared at him for just a second. “What–now you’re just letting me go?”
That smile returned, as the zombified man replied, “Of course. You have an issue with Ammon, and I prefer to allow my family to work out their own issues amongst themselves. And I do mean amongst themselves. You’ll find it quite impossible to contact anyone else for the time being. After all, this spat is between you and your little brother, not the old king’s remnants. Yes, this will be up to you. It will be interesting, however, to see what you choose.”
“What I choose?” I felt my strength returning. Whatever he had done to me was wearing off. Or maybe he was dismissing it. Either way, it was getting easier to stand up straight.
“Of course.” Fossor’s amusement was plain to both see and hear. “After all, you know precisely where your mother is and what she is doing. You could go to her. How long has it been since you spoke to her in person, since you touched her? Perhaps you could bring her back to you, even save her. Or, you could go and see about Ammon and that entire… situation.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I suppose it depends on what matters more to you right now, hmm?”
“You’re a piece of shit,” I snapped at him, my voice cracking. “And a coward.”
My insults might as well have been water sliding off a duck’s back, for all the attention he paid to them. “You’ll find two portals on the beach. The one on the left will lead you to the same area that your mother is going to. The one on the right will lead you to Ammon’s little game.” He chuckled to himself, his voice turning introspective. “Yes, it will be quite interesting to see what you choose to do. Quite interesting indeed.”
With that, the man stopped talking. Escalan’s body abruptly fell to the floor and lay completely still like the… the corpse that it was. I felt a brief moment of sorrow and loss for the man I’d probably never actually known, before springing into motion. I raced for the door, bracing myself just in case.
There was no teleportation spell. I hit the door and burst through, still moving at a sprint through the empty cafeteria. Portals. Portals on the beach. Could I even trust that? It was stupid. But then again, Fossor’s binding magical agreement with my mother made it so that he couldn’t directly hurt me. So I knew the portals couldn’t actually be that dangerous. But still… still…
This was wrong. It was all wrong. Fossor controlling a body at Crossroads. Why didn’t they detect him? Was he that powerful that he could hide the fact that Escalan was dead and a zombie from… from… all of them, from everyone? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.
And now, now apparently all the Heretics that should have been able to help me were busy being teleported to some other place and wouldn’t be able to get back here until they actually fixed the poison and dealt with all the ambushes that Fossor had arranged. Which was just great.
I didn’t know how much power it took Fossor to make the magical poison… things that he’d used to send that many Heretics away and keep them occupied. It felt like it should have been impossible. But that was kind of the point of magic. Given enough time and effort, it could do a lot. And time was something Fossor had had plenty of in this case.
Magic wasn’t fast, as Professor Carfried was so fond of saying. But it was thorough. The psycho necromancer had had all year to plan for this. All year–hell, more than that, according to him. Years, maybe even decades, he’d spent preparing for this exact moment. He’d just chosen this particular year to do it because I happened to be here.
Boy, didn’t I just feel special.
Sure enough, as I hit the exit and emerged onto the grounds, I found the place empty. Where there had been hundreds of people just minutes earlier, there was now just… no one. Fossor had successfully teleported every last Heretic away from Crossroads. It was perfect timing on his part. Everyone was attending this thing. Everyone at the school, anyway. And a lot of others besides.
Fumbling my phone out of my pocket, I tried using it again. Nothing. Fossor had been telling the truth. I couldn’t contact anyone. Maybe once I went through the portal, but even then I was pretty damn sure that communications would be blocked on that side too. Which was just great.
I had to focus. They were okay. Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, the other teachers, they were all a lot more powerful and capable than I was and they were with my team, with my friends, with… with my girls. They’d be able to deal with wherever Fossor had sent everyone. Dare wasn’t there, of course. She was still with Kohaku and Tangle at wherever they were staying, keeping the pair company through this. Even without her, however, there were plenty of powerful Heretics that could deal with whatever was out there. Not to mention the Committee members who were there and–yeah, they’d be fine.
But there were others who wouldn’t be. And I had to–
Whirling at the sound of the voice, I was just in time to be swept into a tight hug by Avalon. With a gasp, I grabbed on tight. “What–Valley?! How–what?”
She was there. And Vanessa was with her. Avalon and Vanessa were both standing there.
“Mom,” Avalon started shortly, after letting go. “When everything started happening and everyone was disappearing, she said a strange word and then she put this symbol on my arm.”
She showed me her bicep then, where a magical rune glowed. “It burned, but when everyone disappeared, I stayed.”
“Same,” Vanessa confirmed. “Only it was my dad. Err, maybe my mom. I’m not sure who was driving the body right then. It’s some kind of counterspell to whatever… whatever pulled them away.” She looked to me then, frowning. “What pulled them away?”
Oh thank God. Thank whoever. Thank whatever. Avalon was safe. She was here, she hadn’t been sucked away. Well, consciously I knew she would’ve been just as safe with Gaia, if not more so, but still. She was here. She was right here with me. It felt as though a little bit of the weight had lifted from my shoulders. And if Gaia and Haiden or Sariel had the counterspell that readily, maybe they’d be back here sooner than that evil jackass expected.
But still not soon enough.
“Come on,” I blurted, already heading for the beach. “It’s Fossor, I’ll explain on the way.”
So, I did. Running across the table and chair-strewn grounds to reach the beach, I blurted an explanation for everything that Fossor had said about what he was doing and what had happened to the others. “And now Mom’s stealing that rope for Fossor while Ammon has Abigail and Koren. He’s going to kill Abigail just to torture Koren, just to–to break her.”
“We can’t let that happen.” That was Vanessa, as we all skidded to a stop in front of both portals. “But… but your mother.”
“She’ll still be there later,” I announced without hesitation. I’d thought about it the entire time we’d been running. Ever since Fossor had brought it up, really. I’d thought about it, and while there was a bit of… of guilt and disappointment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t even a choice, really. Which showed just how little Fossor actually understood about families and loved ones if he thought it would be. I loved my mother. I missed her. But she would survive this. I wouldn’t throw away Abigail’s life and Koren’s… soul just to get a few minutes face to face with my mother. Fossor… he had no idea how actual people worked.
“But you guys can’t come,” I realized then, my gaze snapping to them. “Ammon’s there. You’re–you’re not immune to his power. If he gets near you–” I stopped myself then, not trusting my voice.
“Chambers,” Avalon announced, “we’re not idiots. Show her, Vanessa.”
Blinking that way, I saw the other girl produce something from her pockets. They were… earplugs? They looked sort of like earplugs. Really tiny ones that would be almost entirely invisible inside of the ear.
“We’ve been working on them ever since you explained what Ammon could do,” Avalon informed me. “She did the research for the spells, I worked on them in the lab. Less so after I switched to Security, but I still tinkered with them. We’ve been finishing them up at the camp while I was recovering.”
“They’ve got six charges,” Vanessa informed me. “Every time they hear ‘My name is’ after they’re activated, it triggers one of the charges. The first five make you deaf for a few seconds. So you don’t hear the rest of it, or the order. The last charge knocks you out for a few minutes. We’ve been working on adding more charges to them, but that’s all we managed so far.”
“So, you can hear Ammon try to use his power six times,” I murmured, “and then it just knocks you out.”
The two of them were already putting the little earbud things in place, both of them nodding to me. Avalon lifted her chin. “So no, you’re not doing this by yourself, Chambers.”
“Your mom?” I asked her before looking to Vanessa. “Your… your entire family. You have a thing with people being teleported away.”
“They’ll be okay,” the blonde girl replied. “They’re together. And they’ve got plenty of others with them. They’re not the ones that need help right now. You are. Koren is. Tristan would say we should stay and help you, if he was here. If we hadn’t already erased his anchor spell thing. And I could go straight to Dad if I hadn’t been practicing with my possession power today.”
She sighed then. “I didn’t think I’d need to hold onto that connection with him because they were home. Great timing, huh? But hey, work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a chance to save Koren and her mom.”
I looked back and forth between the two of them briefly, as Avalon nodded in agreement. “Okay then,” I murmured, looking back to the portal in question. “I think we should all go through together, since it’ll probably disappear as soon as one of us goes.”
The three of us held hands then. I took a breath, murmured a quiet prayer, then took three quick steps forward with the others. This was what Fossor wanted me to do, run off to find Ammon so we could get into a fight. But I had to believe that he didn’t expect me to have help. So maybe that would screw up whatever plans he had. Either way, I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t time to debate anything, and there wasn’t time to wait for the others to get back. There wasn’t time… period. We had to do this, and do it right now.
Together, Avalon, Vanessa, and I passed through the portal, to find Koren and Abigail…
And to deal with Ammon.