Felicity Chambers

Eighteen 6-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey guys, there is no summary for this chapter as Fossor does not appear in it. If people would still prefer summaries for all the chapters while Flick is held captive just on the principle of it, feel free to let me know in the comments and I’ll keep it in mind.

My mother and I walked together in silence. Neither of us said anything else for a few minutes as we moved further away from the dining room. My gaze was on the floor, my heart somewhere down in my stomach. Why? Why did this son of a bitch have to ruin what should have been the single most joyful moment of my life? I was with my mother. I should have been happy! I should… I should have been happy. 

Instead, I was silent, not trusting my voice. I didn’t even know if I should say anything. Fossor would probably eavesdrop on everything, and I didn’t really feel like letting my emotions at finally finding my mom be some kind of obscene entertainment for that fucking piece of shit. 

I didn’t really pay attention to anything about where we were going until I felt open air and looked around to see that my mother had led me outside. We were moving through one of the flower gardens and I found myself looking toward the blossoms while wondering just how long the necromancer had been working with Kwur to pull this whole thing off. It was a bitter thought, the knowledge that Dakota’s family had been killed and she herself had been so thoroughly traumatized just as part of a plan to eventually kidnap me. As if I didn’t owe that fucker enough pain already. The fact that I’d gotten through an entire meal without uselessly hurling everything in sight at him, including myself, while he was so close had to be some kind of miracle.  

To be honest, if there was one thing I really needed right about now, it was an actual miracle. But something told me that my mother and I were on our own in that regard. Tabbris couldn’t get to us. None of the people on the outside had any chance of helping. Not in any reasonable timeframe, anyway. Dare, Deveron, Avalon, Gwen, Tabbris, Sariel, Gabriel, Athena, none of them could help this time. Whatever came next, unless I wanted to sit here as Fossor’s prisoner for years and suffer through whatever his idea of a good time was, would be up to us, not them. 

Finally, Mom stopped. Her hand found my shoulder, making me come up short before she simply stood there beside me. Glancing over, I saw her look toward the mansion. Her eyes were on one window in particular, and stayed there for a few seconds before she slowly stepped around to face me. Our eyes met, and I saw… something I didn’t expect. There wasn’t sadness, or pain at the fact that I had been brought here and was now a prisoner as well. In her eyes, I saw… power. I saw determination, the kind I had tried to show Fossor when I told him he would regret starting this whole thing, but so much stronger. I saw certainty, power, and utter fearlessness. I saw the Joselyn Atherby who had once inspired a rebellion that nearly tore apart the entire Seosten-created Heretic civilization when she was still barely more than a child. 

“Felicity,” she began in a soft, tender voice. But that tenderness wasn’t weakness. There was a strength in it that I couldn’t yet begin to truly understand. My mother had, for so long, stood as a titan in my thoughts. Only now, seeing her like this, did I really see how she could be that same titan to others. The strength in her, the gift she had for raising others so high, was there now. After ten years as Fossor’s prisoner, after he’d had so long to break her, so long to destroy that spirit in an effort that had culminated now with the abduction of her daughter, she was still here. After having her first children stolen from her just to make her surrender, she had survived. After choosing to have her life, her family, her memories, her very self taken away in order to save her people from generations of blood-curse induced slavery, she had survived. 

After choosing once again to sacrifice her own freedom to this monster in order to protect another of her children, and spending over ten years as his slave, forced to bear him a child who had been corrupted, destroyed, and eventually killed, she still survived. 

Joselyn Atherby, Joselyn Chambers, her name didn’t matter. She was and would always be the woman who had taken Bosch Heretic society apart at the seams. She was and would always be a leader, a titan, a hero. 

She was and would always be my mother. 

Swallowing hard, forcing down the lump that had taken over my throat, I straightened a little and met her eyes. “Mom.” I said that single word, before stepping forward. I’d hugged her before, but this was different. This was us, together and in as much privacy as we could possibly have in this situation. My arms wrapped around her tightly, and I felt hers do the same. I felt that same strength I’d seen in her eyes, the way it held me up. She gave that strength to me, from that seemingly endless well within her. 

“Whatever happens, whatever comes next,” Mom quietly, “You are not going to be alone. Do you hear me? Wherever I am, wherever any of us are, you’re never alone.” 

Unlike her, I realized. Mom had been alone here for so long. Almost no one had remembered her. Dad and I thought she abandoned us, and I had spent most of those missing years hating her. She had been here, alone save for her son, whom Fossor had eventually turned into the monster that I had known. 

“I’m sorry.” The words felt empty and worthless as they left my mouth. But I had to say them anyway. “Mom, I wanted to save you. I wanted to fix everything. I thought I was ready for him, he told me he was coming on my birthday and–and I thought we could stop him and plan for… I didn’t think he’d…” My eyes closed, and I felt the tears rush to them before I forced them back. 

Mom’s grip tightened around me. She held me up as my own legs felt weak. “My sweet, brilliant little reporter,” she murmured before kissing my forehead. “Maybe not so little now. But brave. My brave girl. Are you dead?” 

I paused, frowning a little before shaking my head as I leaned back to look at her. “Dead? No.” 

Meeting my uncertain look with a soft smile, Mom quietly confirmed, “Of course not. You’re alive. That, Lissy, is what matters. Whatever happens, survive. Live. Come what may, every day that you open your eyes is a day when things might change. Every moment you survive is another moment when he can make a mistake. Especially now. Fossor believes that having you here gives him the edge. But it also means that our deal is ended. And while he has his magic and his threats against you to keep me in check, the power of that binding arrangement is over. He may find that to be more trouble than he realizes.” 

Tilting my head, I found a hesitant smile to match hers. “You know he’s probably listening to everything we say? Or at least recording it for later somehow.” 

“He knows how I feel about him, and I would say it to his face,” Mom replied simply. Her hand touched my cheek. “But in this case, he’s not listening. We have privacy, for now.” 

“But how… how do you know for sure?” I pressed uncertainly. 

Stepping back, Mom took my hand and started walking. “Because while I may not be strong enough to physically challenge that man at this point, returning my memories returned many important spells I learned in the old days. Believe me, if that magic is enough to stop members of the Committee from eavesdropping, I would know if any of Fossor’s ghosts were spying on us.” Pausing then, she shrugged before adding. “And he will simply force one or both of us to tell him of any actual plots we might make against him anyway.” 

Turning a sharp look to me with that, Mom pointedly continued, “Which is why any plan either of us come up with cannot last longer than it takes for him to force the truth. He has a place called the Writing Room, which forces you to write the truthful answers to any questions he asks. And he will use it often, particularly now, until he feels that he has a handle on you. You will be forced to write only the truth to his questions, but you can be as specific about that truth as you wish. Do you understand? He can’t just ask general, all-encompassing questions and get anything helpful. They have to be somewhat specific. If he does not ask the right questions, his ability to force the truth to them is less useful. Also, the Writing Room does not force you to put things in any particular order, especially with more open questions. If he asks if you have any plans of how to break out of this place, you can start by writing down any random plan you like no matter how unlikely it is to ever happen. If he asks you to write down every plan you have, just put more and more absurd plans until he stops you, because the Writing Room has limited power. You see how it works? If he’s too general, you can waste time and the room’s power by listing far more useless examples and including intricate but meaningless details before it gets to the parts you don’t want him to know about.” 

Right. Ammon had mentioned the Writing Room and told me about it back when he showed up at Crossroads, I remembered, slowly nodding. “I get it. I don’t know how much good it’ll do, but at least it’s something. I’ll… try.” There were a few things I really did need to keep secret, that was for sure. Though ‘I was contacted by your dead sister but she disappeared and I haven’t seen her in a long time so I guess that didn’t amount to much now that I’m here’ might just be worth seeing the look on his face. To say nothing of the fact that I had a miniature virtual Chayyiel slumbering in the back of my head. Even if she hadn’t left anything too dangerous in her virtual self considering she was just supposed to tutor me, the idea of Fossor having any access whatsoever to her was still a horrific thought.

Still, it was unlikely that he would think to ask something specific enough to draw that out. At least I hoped not. But honestly, I was afraid of any question he might ask. I didn’t want to tell that monster anything at all. Nothing. But I was pretty sure he had an extensive list of questions for me that would dip into the extremely personal. Either because he thought it might actually give him important information, or just for the hell of it. Because he was an evil son of a bitch and would get so much satisfaction from making me share personal details about my life. 

“I never wanted you to come here,” Mom informed me gently, her hand cupping the side of my face. “But we don’t obsess over regrets and wishes. We live in the world that exists. We change the future, not the past. You understand? We will get through this. We will survive. Whatever it takes, whatever we have to do, we buckle down and we survive. We move on. We wait for our moment, because it will come. Take the hits, let him think he’s won. Because we only need one moment. He has to be careful every moment of every day. All we have to do is watch for the one time when he’s not careful enough.” 

I knew that a big part of this was just Mom trying to make me feel better. But I also knew that she really believed it. She had to. It was both who she was and the only way she had stayed sane through all of this. She couldn’t let herself surrender to doubt and despair. And frankly, if she could keep herself going through all this time, including seeing me dragged in here to join her, and not give up, I could do it too. 

“Watch for the moment,” I echoed with a slight nod to my mother. “I can do that. I… I will do that, Mom.” Staring at her, I felt tears rush to my eyes once more. Blinking them away so I could keep seeing her, I swallowed hard and quietly added, “I love you.” 

Her fingers gently brushed over my face, and my mother leaned in to kiss my forehead once more, with a softly whispered, “My sweet girl. I love you more than I could ever tell you.” 

“You have told me,” I assured her, my voice cracking a little bit. “Mom, are you crazy? Look at what you did for me. Look at what you’ve done for me this whole time! if I didn’t know you loved me after all of this, I’d be the world’s biggest… idiot.” It was hard to force those last few words out past the lump that had returned to my throat. “You’re right. No more apologies. No more… regrets. I’m here, you’re here. And we’re gonna get through it. You and me, we’re together, right?” After a brief pause, I admitted in a barely audible voice, “But I’m still scared.” 

“Oh, my girl.” Embracing me once more, Mom quietly assured me, “It’s okay to be scared. But we’re stronger than the fear. We’ll push past it. We’ll deal with it. We’ll face it.” 

With that, she released me and took my hand instead, squeezing it as she started to walk with me through the flower garden. “Well now, you had an interesting first year, didn’t you?” 

“Oh… yeah, you got that upload about the war and all that too, didn’t you?” Looking to her, I quickly added, “Gaia did most of that. It was her big idea and… and she set it up.” 

“Gaia is very smart,” Mom agreed. The account of her voice, I was pretty sure she was thinking of examples from her own childhood. Then she looked at me. “But your little magic tell-all didn’t actually tell all. I want to know everything that happened last year. Can you do that for me?” 

I knew what she was doing. Mom needed to clear her head and think. And at the same time, she wanted me to calm down. So, she was trying to get me to tell her stories that would make me focus on other things besides our current situation. Not only would that give her time to think and collect herself, it also allowed her to listen to me, hear my voice, and watch me. 

And I was okay with all of that. So, I took a breath and started with, “I guess the best place to start is my last night at my job at the theater…” 

******

Obviously, I didn’t get through the entire story that day. If I was actually going to write down everything that happened to me last year it would probably take at least a million words. Maybe two. There was no way Fossor would leave us alone for that long. So I just got as far as I could before we were interrupted by a ghost that popped right up out of nowhere. Mom was fine, but I jumped, and I saw the way the ghost smirked a bit. He’d definitely done that intentionally. But did that mean Fossor had done it on purpose, or was this just this particular ghost’s personality? 

Either way, the ghost actually spoke. It was in a voice that was low, yet somehow still boomed and echoed around us. Which was… weird. It also gave off a chill through the air. “Lord Fossor has requested that the two of you be escorted to your room for the evening, Missus. He has graciously decided that you may sleep together for now.” The ghost looked to Mom then before adding, “Your normal nighttime dressing rules have been suspended for the time being. Now come.”

We walked and I looked at my mom with a frown. “What does he mean, normal nighttime dressing rules?” I had some ideas but I was really hoping that they were completely wrong.

I saw the slightly pained look that crossed my mother’s face and she was silent for a few moments as we walked. Finally, she answered in a quiet voice, “As part of his effort to remind me of his total ongoing control, I am to wear only what he decrees at any given time. In the bedroom, that is nothing.” 

Well, now I just wanted to throw up again. Mom admitted that humiliation in such a simple, dismissive voice. But I could see beyond that. I could see and hear just how frustrated, angry, and… and helpless that made her feel, even if she had brought it under control. Having to admit the situation to me had probably just brought those long-buried feelings roaring back to the surface. Which, of course, was obviously the entire point of the ghost being told to say that in front of me so I’d ask about it. Fossor was enjoying himself with all this, even in his pretense at being gracious.  

Yeah, I didn’t believe for one second that Fossor was allowing my mother to wear clothes at night out of the goodness of his heart. He was playing an angle. He made sure I knew about the rule, ‘graciously’ suspended it rather than extending it to me (oh God, I was gonna be sick), and expected gratefulness. I was fairly certain that either tomorrow or very soon, he would bring up reinstating the rule unless one or both of us did some kind of favor for him. We would have to earn that kind of leniency.

And that was just one small manipulation. I had no doubt there would be more, and worse. This was what my entire life in this place was going to be like. Fossor was just getting warmed up. Unless my mother and I got out of here soon, things were going to get very bad, very quickly. 

We stopped in front of a door and the ghost who was escorting us pushed it open to reveal a very nice bathroom complete with a large whirlpool tub. “The child will bathe here and dress in the nightclothes provided on the counter,” he ordered. “The mother will bathe in the room across the hall.” He pointed that way, to a matching door. “When either is done, they will wait in the hall for the other, then the mother will take the daughter to her room for sleep.” 

Mom gave me an encouraging nod, squeezing my hand and leaning in to whisper that we’d be okay. Then she, clearly reluctantly, released me. I sighed, giving her a wave before stepping into the bathroom and turning to close the door. 

“Funny…” A voice from behind me spoke up, prompting me to nearly jump out of my skin and spin that way. I saw a young girl, her figure greenish-blue and partially transparent. Another ghost. A special ghost. 

“My brother always said he wanted to live in a place with a lot of bathrooms, because he was tired of waiting for his turn,” Fossor’s dead sister, Rahanvael, informed me. 

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Eighteen 6-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note that there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above. 

As previously, the summary is at the bottom of the chapter for anyone who does not want to read the chapter. 

We had dinner. It was… bad. Well, maybe the food was okay. I didn’t really taste it. Actually, I’m sure it was technically delicious because Fossor wouldn’t have settled for anything less than his own definition of perfect. He had laid out a feast of epic proportions, the kind of meal that kings would have been proud of, with only the most succulent meats, fresh breads and vegetables, and so much more. 

And I tasted none of it. It was all just… sand in my mouth. My body was hungry. Famished, really. Something about time travel and possibly spending the whole day (technically weeks ago) dealing with Kwur. My body needed fuel, but I just… I couldn’t taste it. I didn’t want to taste it. I could barely keep it down. Every bite made me want to double over and throw up. Every bite made me want to grab the plate and hurl it into Fossor’s smug face. Every bite made me feel like a traitor who was just lying down and rolling over for this son of a bitch’s own amusement.

But I ate. Because I’d meant what I said to him earlier. I was going to beat him. I was going to ruin his life even worse than he had ruined mine or my mother’s. I was going to make him regret ever finding her back then and definitely regret taking her away and enslaving her for over a decade. I didn’t know how I would do any of that, but it started with not letting myself die of hunger. It started with keeping my strength up, no matter how awful eating this shit made me feel. Starving myself would accomplish nothing. So, I forced the food down almost mechanically, lifting the fork to shove it in and swallowing without thinking about what I was actually eating or who was sitting across from me.

Instead, I focused on who was sitting next to me. My mother. My mom was here. Her hand had settled against my back the moment I sat down and hadn’t moved. She ate with one hand while keeping the other against me. She squeezed my shoulder, brushed my hair, and in general just kept touching me throughout the entire meal. I wasn’t sure if she was doing it more to remind me that she was there, or to convince herself that I was real. Maybe it was both. Either way, I focused on her presence. I hated Fossor with every ounce of my soul. I wanted him to die more than I had ever wanted anyone dead. But my mom was here. She was here, she was touching me. After all these years, after so… so much had happened, I was actually with my mom. 

Whatever came next, I would handle it. We would handle it. My mother and me. I was going to get out of this evil place with my mom. No matter what we had to do to make that happen.  

Yeah. That was what I told myself while mechanically shoving food into my mouth and swallowing. Because it was the only way I could make myself eat, the only way I could force down the food instead of throwing up, the only way I could… avoid the creeping feeling of despair and hopelessness that had been trying so hard to engulf me since the moment I appeared in this place and saw Fossor in front of me. The touch of my mother helped with that, but I also had to focus on my own blindly stubborn insistence that I would get through this. 

Because if I gave in to that feeling of despair, if I let the thought that I would be trapped here forever get the slightest foothold, it really would be over. Fossor would have won. And I would rather light myself on fire and jump into a fucking volcano than lay down and let that happen. 

Unsurprisingly, while my mother and I were silent through all of the meal, Fossor kept talking. He was in a very good mood, enjoying his meal while regaling us with a story about some time back in the eighteen hundreds when he had been hunted by a Heretic with some kind of personal vendetta that Fossor didn’t bother explaining. He ended up letting the man live for a couple decades while constantly killing anyone he got close to until the man finally took his life. At which point, Fossor reanimated him and set the now-risen Heretic to wiping out the town he had grown up in and erasing it entirely from the map. Now, the Heretic, or his zombified body, still worked for Fossor. Apparently he’d been made into one of the gardeners for the estate, trimming hedges and generally keeping the grounds as immaculate and perfect as possible. 

I had the funniest feeling that Fossor was telling this story to show us the lengths he would go to in order to destroy us if we gave him a reason. It was an implied threat of what would happen to the people we cared about, and of what he would make one or both of us do if we pushed him. 

That and I was also pretty sure he also simply enjoyed the opportunity to gloat about what he’d done to someone who’d had the nerve to bother him. He liked having my mother and me as a literal captive audience to hear anything he wanted to say. Which made me wonder just how often she had already heard this story and those like it. She’d been here over ten years now, forced to sit quietly and listen to his horrific stories. How did she even survive those years? How were we going to survive this when neither of us could possibly stand up to him? We were on Fossor’s turf. The entire Committee couldn’t get past his ability to transfer anything they did off to his literal billions of human shields back on his world. Anything that Fossor was hit with, he could simply ignore and make one of his own people suffer the effect. Kushiel had been bad enough as someone who could reflect damage to any person or creature she had looked at recently. But Fossor? Fossor was that times a million, times a billion. He had literally an entire planet’s worth of hostages that he could shove damage off onto. What in the living hell could my mom and I possibly hit him with that could get past something like that? Even if my mother was no longer technically bound to obey his every word by the oath she had taken, what could we do that hadn’t already been tried? She wasn’t strong enough to fight him even if it was just her, let alone with me to protect. And I certainly couldn’t stand up against him. 

We had to do something unexpected, something outside the box. I just… had no idea what that could be. Not yet, anyway. That was why I had to keep eating, why I had to keep my strength up and watch for an opening. I had to believe it would come. I had to believe that one of us would think of something. Because believing that was the only way I could go on like this.

Startling me out of my private musings, Fossor abruptly raised his voice. “But don’t you go thinking that I’ve forgotten the most important part of tonight’s meal!” There was a broad, knowing smile on the man’s face when I glanced reluctantly up at him once it became clear that he was waiting for that. “After all, what kind of man would I be if I neglected my girl’s birthday?”  

His girl. He kept calling me that. Every time he did, I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to throw up, scream, throw myself at him, claw at his eyes, rip his throat out with my teeth. I wanted to make him bleed and suffer for that, for all of the insinuations behind it, for what he’d done to my mother, for… for everything. I wanted to make him suffer and die almost more than I wanted my next breath. I hated him. I hated him even more than I’d thought was physically possible.  

My mother’s hand squeezed tight against my shoulder. I could feel the tension in her, the way she too wanted to lunge across the table and bash this psychotic piece of shit’s face against the table until there was nothing left of his head but mush. I could almost see it happening. Not that she’d ever get that far, but still. I could see it. I could dream it. 

Apparently amused by whatever he saw in our faces, Fossor gave a soft chuckle before raising his hand to snap his fingers. As he did so, the doors on one side of the absurdly large and ornate dining room we were in (the table would have been large enough to seat thirty people comfortably, as the three of us used one end of it) opened up, admitting a man in a white chef’s uniform and hat. He came in pushing a large silver cart with one of those trays with the lid. Once he neared Fossor, the chef plucked the tray off the cart and set it neatly on the table in front of us, in the only empty spot that wasn’t already taken up by food. At a nod from his master, he took the lid off the tray to reveal… a cake. It was a huge, gorgeous, delicious-looking chocolate raspberry birthday cake. Written on it were the words, ‘Happy Eighteenth Birthday, Felicity!’ 

Okay, now I didn’t just want to throw up, I also wanted to make sure to do it all over this fucking cake that Fossor was clearly so proud of. He smiled at me knowingly while holding his hand out expectantly toward the man who had brought it in. Promptly, the man set a package of red and blue candles in the waiting hand. Then, as Mom and I watched, the necromancer calmly and carefully placed eighteen of them one by one into the cake. He did it without taking his eyes off of me, obviously wanting to watch my reaction. The man was getting a real kick out of this. It made me want to grab the large knife from the table and shove it right into his throat, for all the good it would have done.

Instead, I simply stayed silent and motionless. I felt Mom’s hand on my back, her fingers brushing down my spine. When she spoke, it was in a tight, barely constrained voice. “You shouldn’t have done this.” 

Did she mean the cake? Or did she mean abducting me? Or did she mean taking her all those years ago? Something told me that she meant the latter two, and was using the cake as the best opportunity to actually say that. She was telling Fossor essentially the same thing I had, that he was going to make sure he regretted starting this whole thing. 

More than ten years. My mother had been his slave for over a decade, and she wasn’t broken. She had seen his entire plan succeed, keeping her and abducting me even after giving me a warning about his intentions. She saw all that, and yet she hadn’t given up. She saw her son be corrupted into the monster he’d become and then… and then found out that he had been killed, but she wasn’t broken. She was here. She was here with me. So, I could do this. I could stand up for as long as it took. I would get through this with her. Please. Please let me get through this with her. 

I wanted to be stronger, smarter, better. For my mom. I wanted to be the person who could help her get out of this. I wanted to help my mother. I wanted to be more than I was. I wanted to turn this around. 

But I had no idea how to do that. 

Once all the candles were in the cake, Fossor raised a single finger. As he did so, a new ghost appeared. This one was so much smaller than the others I’d seen. Really, it looked like the ghost of a pixie or something, only a few inches tall as it hovered in the air above the table. It was also red, with orange flaming wings. At a look from Fossor, the pixie-ghost extended a hand toward the cake, and all eighteen candles immediately lit up with tiny flames. 

The ghost disappeared, and Fossor gestured with a proud smile. “There we are. Now, dearest heart, let’s sing to our girl, shall we? Then she can blow out the candles and make a wish.” With those words, he winked at me, clearly knowing exactly what I would wish for if I had that kind of power. This was all a game to him. He was playing this up, relishing in his ability to force Mom and me to go through the motions of this charade. He knew how we felt, what we wanted to do to him. And he knew we were helpless to actually do any of it. 

This was the kind of thing Mom had done for the past eleven years, I realized. She had to indulge his whims, play out his stupid games. There was worse stuff too, I knew that. The fact that Ammon had existed proved that much worse things had happened to my mother in that time. But this, this whole… constant playing along with his pretenses, that… that couldn’t have been easy for her. She had sworn to obey him, and I was starting to get a very slight idea of what that had meant. Even if I was sure we hadn’t really scratched the surface yet. This was simply yet another thing added onto the list of reasons this piece of shit needed to die. As if there weren’t enough already. 

With that same knowing smile, Fossor started to sing Happy Birthday. After the first few words, Mom joined in. I felt her hand gently stroke my back, the song somehow twisted by Fossor’s voice and the fact that she was being forced into this. Even this small, oh-so-familiar tune, innocent and… and nothing, was corrupted and ruined by this moment. From now until the day I died, whenever that was, I probably wouldn’t be able to hear this song without thinking of this moment. 

Which was the entire point. It was just Fossor twisting things again, tainting an innocent song and ruining it. He was enjoying all of this, enjoying the fact that he had this much control. He was relishing the simple idea that he could take something this innocent and carefree and turn it into something awful. 

But it was more than just the song. It was my birthday. It was my reunion with my mother, and the fact that he’d managed to turn even that into something bad, by forcing it to happen in front of him and on his terms. It was the fact that he was ruining, twisting, corrupting all of those things. It was the fact that he was completely in control of all of this, and all three of us knew it.

As the song finished, Fossor watched me expectantly. I was supposed to carry on this absurd charade by blowing out the candles. A half-dozen possible other actions ran through my mind, each one of which would be satisfying in the moment, but would also make things worse. Just like my mother had to worry about how the necromancer would punish me if she acted out, I had to think about what he would do to her in retaliation to something I did. Much as I wanted to do something else, I slowly leaned forward, watching the man before giving a short blow to put out the candles. I did not, however, make a wish. The thing I wanted most of all wasn’t going to happen because of a wish. It was going to happen because my mom and I made it happen. 

Smiling broadly, as if this was actually just a totally normal family birthday celebration, Fossor plucked up the large knife that had been sitting there and began to cut out pieces of the cake to put on clean plates. “I do hope you’re still hungry, girls. I’m sure you’ve been waiting quite a long time for this one.” 

A long time for this one? Something about the way he said that made me blink at the cake. It took a second, then I realized. The cake. It was chocolate and raspberry. That was the exact kind of cake I had told my mother I wanted for my next birthday back before she was taken. It was… it was the cake we talked about way back when I was that innocent little girl. I… he had clearly gotten Mom to tell him about it. That fact, the idea that he’d been able to get something so… mundane and ordinary out of her somehow made it even more clear just how much control Fossor had over my mom. 

We ate the cake. Like the rest of the meal, it was probably delicious. But also like the rest of it, I didn’t care. I couldn’t taste it. All I could focus on was the violation I felt, and the understanding of just how far Fossor would go, of how much he clearly knew about my childhood.  

Finally, mercifully, the meal was over. As several ghosts took away the used plates, the psychotic monster who had gone so far to tear apart our family sat back with a smile of satisfaction. “There we are. Now, what do we say, girls?” 

Feeling Mom’s hand against my back, brushing gently, I glanced to her. She gave me a nod before speaking up. “Thank you for the meal.” Her voice was flat, with no real meaning behind it. But Fossor seemed satisfied that he’d made her say it. 

Then he looked toward me. Again, the rush of things I wanted to say was almost overwhelming. But I forced it down and quietly thanked him through tightly gritted teeth. 

“That’s my girls,” Fossor announced with a broad smile, gesturing. “I would say you’ve earned a little time together. It is Felicity’s birthday after all. Go on then, take a walk. Enjoy yourselves for awhile. You know the rules, Joselyn. But don’t stay up too late. We’ve got a very busy day tomorrow.” Even as he finished saying that, the man was snapping his fingers as though he’d just remembered something. “And don’t you worry, Felicity, I haven’t forgotten about presents. I have the perfect one in mind. But you’re not getting it until tomorrow morning. And don’t try to get the secret out of your mother either, it’s a surprise for her too.” 

A present… that Fossor thought was perfect for me, and that he was keeping as a surprise even from my mother. 

“I really don’t want that present,” I informed my mother in a quiet voice as we stepped into the hallway. “But… is it weird that I expected that whole thing to be worse than it was?” 

“He’s distracted by something,” Mom informed me flatly. “I don’t know what. But… something. And even then, he knows you’re worried about when the next shoe will drop. You expected it at the dinner, and it not dropping while you worried about it the whole time was amusing for him. It’s all part of his game. In this case, defying expectations.”

“Any idea what this present is?” I asked tentatively, even though Fossor had said she didn’t know. 

“None,” came the answer. 

“And that is what frightens me more than anything.”  

SUMMARY

Flick and Joselyn have dinner with Fossor while he tells them a story about being a psychotic asshole to a Heretic he eventually killed and made into a zombie who tends the gardens. Flick worries about how she and her mother are going to get out of this before Fossor presents them with a birthday cake. They sing Happy Birthday and Flick blows out the candles before Fossor dismisses Flick and Joselyn to take a walk by themselves with a reminder not to stay up too late. But not before he promises Flick a special birthday present tomorrow.  

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Eighteen 6-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – As before, there is a brief summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who do not wish to read details here. 

The room I had awoken in may have been a dungeon, but beyond that first doorway was what looked like a literal palace. We were in a corridor that ran to the left and right. Straight ahead, the wall was white and lined with enormous windows overlooking a beautiful garden full of exotic flowers, with a small footpath that led down to what looked like a crystal clear lake with very pretty and exotic-looking multicolored duck and geese-like birds peacefully floating on it. 

The floor under my feet was gleaming white marble, with intricate blue and silver swirling patterns throughout that were almost hypnotic. Those silver-blue patterns actually glowed a bit in the areas that I stepped on, extending out a few feet ahead and fading behind me a couple seconds after my foot lifted away from that particular spot. If you were walking down the corridor in the middle of the night, the floor would continually light the way without any assistance.

Slyly, Fossor remarked, “It makes reaching the bathroom without a flashlight so much easier.” As he said it, the man stepped over, raising a hand as though to touch my shoulder. 

Obviously, I wasn’t going to have that. Twisting away, I took a quick couple steps backward, facing him. “Touch me,” I snapped, “And I swear to God one of us is gonna fucking die.” 

Fossor, in turn, gave me the kind of look a vaguely amused father-figure might at a particularly obstinate child. “Hmmm, you know, I think that you and I might have to make sure you understand the definition of necromancer if you’re going to keep throwing those kinds of words around as if they’re an actual threat. Honestly, what were they teaching you in that school?” 

My mouth opened to snap a retort, before I glanced down to see the man standing on the marble floor. Belatedly, I muttered, “Ashes. You’re not standing on ashes.” 

I wasn’t looking at him, but I still heard the smile in his voice. “Yes, well, the land this building stands on was torn from my own world. The building itself was created with materials from that planet. Between that and some very extensive spellwork, I am able to walk comfortably in this place that I call home. This place that all three of us will call home for quite some time.” 

Oh God, there was so much I wanted to say. Bile rose to my throat, while sharp, vindictive words were right on the tip of my tongue. But what could I say? I was here. I’d had a year to prepare for this and Fossor had completely undercut all of my preparations just by cheating. I was in his house and I had… I had nothing. I didn’t have Tabbris, I didn’t have Dare, I didn’t have Avalon or Shiori or anyone. My mom. My mother was here, but she’d had ten years to find a way to escape and couldn’t do it. The two of us were trapped here and… and I honestly didn’t know how we would get out of it. I felt lost and afraid, and so very alone. I was moments away from being face to face with my mother again and yet I had never felt so far away from her. 

Because I’d failed. Everything I’d tried, every thought I’d had, every moment I’d been given, and I had utterly and completely failed. Fossor won. He tricked us. He cheated, for what that mattered, and he got me here. And now… now I had no idea what I was going to do.

Wait, wait, I could do one thing. Maybe Tabbris’s connection to me was broken, but I had Seosten powers too. And even if the time travel had broken the link I had to the last person I possessed (that random thug in Vegas, I thought?) I  should still be able to connect to my own default recall anchor: my father. 

Once again, it was like he’d read my mind, seeing my face. Fossor cleared his throat. “Ahh, just in case any ideas are popping into that pretty little head, you should know that one of the spells I connected to you when you showed up in that room happens to be a monitoring spell linked to your mother. See, if that spell detects that you’ve used either version of the Seosten recall ability, physical or mental, it’ll end your mother’s life. There’s similar things on her end to keep her here at the price of your life. But by all means, if either of you want to sacrifice the other…” 

My voice was low as I mumbled a quiet, “Just take me to my mother already, asshole.” Everything. He thought of everything.

The words had barely left my mouth before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked different than the others. It was taller, and more of a purple color instead of grayish-blue or silver. He had a long beard, with eyes that were pure red. As I looked up at him, his hand reached out to touch my face. Instantly, pain beyond anything I could possibly have prepared for coursed through my body. A scream tore its way out of my throat, and I fell to both knees, catching myself on my hands just before I would have face-planted against the marble floor. 

It only lasted for an instant, but that instant was enough. Every part of my body was torn through with blinding agony for that brief moment, until I knelt there staring at the glowing floor and panting heavily. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t even think beyond the memory of that agony.

The strange purple ghost with the red eyes spoke in a voice that rumbled up and down the hall. “In this place, you will show respect to the host. Or you will be appropriately punished.” 

I didn’t respond to that. I wouldn’t have been able to make my mouth work properly even if I could have thought straight enough to have words. Which was probably for the best, because I doubted that anything that would have come to mind would have satisfied the monstrous torturer ghost. I probably just would have ended up being… touched again. In a way, being put through so much agony (however briefly) that I couldn’t think saved me from even more pain. 

Yeah, lucky me. As it was, I just knelt there, breathing in and out in long, gasping shudders. Meanwhile, Fossor waved a hand and the strange ghost disappeared, before casually announcing, “You’ll have to forgive Ahmose. He tends to be somewhat… eager to prove his loyalty and earn favor. Although, on the other hand, perhaps you should take some lesson from that.” His voice lowered a bit, almost like he was confiding. “It may serve you well in this life.”

It took everything in me not to say something in that moment that probably would have brought Ahmose right back out again. I stared at the floor and caught my breath before pushing myself to my feet while ignoring the hand that the Necromancer had extended to me. With a grunt, I got up, biting my lip before forcing out the words, “I thought we were going to see my mom.” 

Fossor gave an amused chuckle before stepping past me. He started to walk down the glowing corridor without looking back. He wasn’t worried about literally putting his back to me and walking away. Probably because he had so many spells and ghosts and who knew what else in this place watching my every move that they’d take me to the ground before I finished taking even one step toward him with the intent of attacking the sick bastard. I wasn’t even the slightest bit of a threat to him. Not out on the street, and definitely not right here in his own home that he’d had literal centuries to prepare to withstand assault from people much stronger than me. So yeah, I couldn’t exactly blame him for not being worried about me. 

But it still pissed me off. 

With a low sigh, I forced myself to follow after him. I needed time. I needed… I needed to think. I was tired, lost, afraid, and… and just… alone. I wanted to see my mother, even considering how ashamed I was that I had been trapped here. So, I trailed after the monstrous necromancer as he led me through the corridor, past more doors that led who knew where. I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have the chance to find out. Eventually, we reached a much wider circular foyer-type room. To the right were several curved sliding glass doors leading to a patio, while a circular staircase led up to the left. Fossor went that way, ascending the stairs with a quick flick of his fingers as though beckoning me to keep following. Much as I hated all of this, I did so. 

Ascending two stories, past another corridor similar to the one we had just been in, we reached a wide open area at the top. This was some kind of entertainment area. The floor was carpeted, with plush couches and chairs surrounding a massive television and… video games? Yeah, Fossor had a bunch of video game systems laid out in front of the television, with shelves of movies and the games themselves lining the nearby wall. 

Was this Ammon’s area? I wondered that briefly, before my eyes moved past the games and furniture to yet another sliding glass door leading to another balcony. And on that balcony, I saw… my mother. She was there, wearing dark green pants and a black turtleneck while faced away from us as she gripped the railing and gazed out over the vast grounds of this place. 

Seeing her there, even from behind, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. The bitter shame and disgust that had lurked in the back of my mind roared to the forefront, and I… I almost didn’t want to see her after all. What was I going to say? What could I say? She had spent ten years being this bastard’s slave just to keep me safe, and I let him take me that easily. When I looked into her eyes, how much disappointment would I see there? 

I froze. Standing there, staring at her back, I couldn’t bring myself to move another step. A thick lump had formed in my throat, and it was all I could do not to sink to my knees in utter despair. This moment, more than any other, was when the true futility of this entire situation came to me. I was empty. I had nothing. What was I? What chance did I have to accomplish anything now? 

In the midst of my moment of anguish and self-doubt, I abruptly realized that I wasn’t staring at my mother’s back anymore. She had turned around. She was looking at me. Our eyes met, and the next thing I knew, she was in front of me, teleporting across the room to end up right there. 

The heavy pit in my stomach, the dark hole in my heart, the ugly whispers in the back of my mind, all expected her to demand to know why I hadn’t tried harder, why I didn’t use the year I’d had more effectively, why I wasn’t smart enough to guess that Fossor would try something like this. I expected her to say all the things I’d been assaulting myself with since the moment I’d ended up here. I deserved it. I–

“My Felicity.” My mother said those two words, before both of her arms enveloped me. She pulled me close, clutching me against herself. And in that moment… I thought nothing. All of my recriminations disappeared. Everything I’d been saying to myself since the moment I’d seen Fossor, every bit of doubt, fear, and self-accusation faded in an instant. All of it was gone, replaced in that moment by only one thing, a single overriding thought above and beyond everything else. 

“Mom!” The word, almost more sob than actual vocalization, tore its way out of me, before my arms were suddenly wrapped around her just as tightly as she was hugging me. The tears that came then were different from the ones that I’d been on the verge of since arriving here. Ten years. A decade apart, most of which had been spent hating my mother for supposedly abandoning my father and me. Ten years of loss, of being separated from the woman I had spent my early childhood idolizing. A decade of being adrift, of having my beacon and anchor torn away. Thousands of nights of wondering, worrying, unfairly hating, of burying feelings and wishes beneath a hard shell of bitterness. A shell that had spent these past months cracking apart with the realization of just what my mother had truly sacrificed for me. 

I didn’t care where I was. I didn’t care what else happened. In that moment, in that second, nothing else mattered. My feelings, my thoughts, my universe centered around only one thing. 

My mother was here. My mom was hugging me. 

I was seven years old, the night after my mother disappeared. 

It was two months later, the day I’d found my father crying over Mom’s sweatshirt and had viciously torn and cut apart my stuffed raccoon, Taddy. 

I was eight, seeing the newly elected sheriff sworn in, the moment the full understanding that my mother was never coming back had truly hit me. The night I had told my father I hated the name Felicity and to always call me Flick. 

I was nine, Christmas morning just shortly after midnight when I’d heard a sound and snuck out to find my father wrapping presents as he watched an old home video of him and Mom setting up the Christmas tree for the first time after they’d been married. The curtain of tears had blinded my eyes as I peeked around that corner and saw him touch Mom’s face on the television screen.

Ten years old, I was at Miranda’s house, staring at the mother’s day cards that had been set out on the table. My small hand reached out to brush over the words my best friend had scrawled in her sloppy, barely legible handwriting about hoping her mom would have a great day and could they please make more cookies together? 

I was eleven, sitting in the ER clutching my injured leg and whimpering while my father filled out forms with the nurse. My eyes drifted over to see another girl almost the same age as me, tightly holding her own mother’s hand as she too waited to be seen by a doctor. 

I was standing in the school bathroom stall at twelve years old, tears streaming down my face as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do with my first period. What was I supposed to do with my underwear? Who could I talk to? Was the… the stuff supposed to be kind of brownish? I thought it was red. Was it really blood? Should there be more? 

Thirteen. I was alone. Miranda had just left, taken away by her family’s move. Everyone left. Nobody stayed. Everyone always left. I was in my room, staring at a picture I’d hidden in my dresser of Mom and me at the beach. In a fit of rage and grief, I broke the picture, slamming it over and over again into the dresser before pitching it away and collapsing into a ball in the corner. 

Fourteen years old, I was walking home from the first day of high school when a couple idiots caught up and started taunting me about how my mother couldn’t hack it as a sheriff and took off to be a slut for some rich guy. I didn’t defend her. I… didn’t defend her. 

I was fifteen, doing research online for a school project about the history of Laramie Falls when I saw her face. My mother. It was an article about her disappearance, and how she had never been found after taking off with an unidentified guy from out-of-town. Her eyes, staring out at me as I sat in the school computer lab, bitter and hateful words spilling from my lips before I quickly closed the article and covered my face with my hands. 

Sixteen. I was sixteen, teasing Scott about being a deputy sheriff and how he could help me catch all these bad guys. We walked past the desk… her desk, the one I’d sat on top of as a child all those times while I watched my mother do her work. 

Years, so many years. So much lost time. So many bitter memories and thoughts of what might have been. I saw it all. It washed over me in that moment, the images, sounds, smells, the taste of my own tears and hateful words. I experienced every moment.

And none of it mattered. Because my mother was here. I was holding her. She was holding me, her grip so tight I thought she might never let go. And that was fine, because I never wanted to let go of her either. 

“Mom,” I choked out, my body shuddering heavily. I was crying, unable and unwilling to control it. “I love you. I love you, Mom. Mom, I love you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I love you.” 

I wasn’t saying it for eighteen-year-old Flick. I was saying it for sixteen year old Flick, fifteen, fourteen, all the way down to seven-year-old me. I was saying it for all of me, for every single second I’d lost, for every moment that had been torn away from us, for every time I could have said it throughout those lost years. 

“Baby, my sweet baby. My Lissy.” Mom’s voice shook just as much, her own body shaking as she clung to me. “I love you, Felicity. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted–” 

“I know, Mom.” I bobbed my head quickly, not wanting to waste time on those kinds of words. Pulling my head back without letting go, I stared at her, our gazes meeting. “Mom, I know. I love you. I love you.” 

We stayed like that for another few minutes, neither of us letting go. We said a few things, but what was actually said didn’t matter. The only thing that did matter was that I had my mom. I was there with my mother. 

Finally, Fossor spoke up. I’d… honestly almost forgotten he was there. “You see? I knew this reunion was the right thing. Joselyn, come with me. We have a few things to discuss. You can visit with our girl in a little bit. I’ll have her escorted to her room in the meantime.” 

Mom clearly didn’t want to. But in the end, she gave me a very tight squeeze, kissing my forehead and promising we would catch up. It was obvious that neither of us had the power to challenge Fossor, especially right then. And she didn’t want to get me in trouble by acting out. Now that I was here, Fossor could still hold my physical safety over her head to coerce her into following orders. 

So, Mom started off with him. He said something in her ear as she passed, and I saw the way she tensed up. But she said nothing, simply starting down the stairs. 

Fossor started to leave with her, but paused at the top of the stairs to look back at me. “You will be safe here, Felicity,” he promised. “So long as you follow the rules and listen to my instructions. I believe you’ll find that we can be a very happy family together.” With that, he turned to leave. 

“I’m going to beat you.” 

I muttered the words under my breath. Still, I knew Fossor had heard me. He stopped with one foot on the stairs, slowly turning around to face me. His eyebrows were raised when I looked up to him, repeating myself as I met his gaze. “I… am going… to beat you. Not right now. Not today. But, I promise, there will come a moment when you look at me and realize that you’ve lost everything. You’ll look at me and you’ll know that everything you had is gone, that you have failed, and that you are going to die. You’ll look at me then, in the moment before you are wiped off the boots of history like the stain that you are, and you’ll realize that right here, right now, is when you truly fucked up. Because I have spent the past year being distracted by every single threat and problem that wanted to throw itself in my way. I have been on the other side of the universe. Every single time I wanted to focus on you, something else got in my way, some other threat who thought they were going to beat me down. But now, you won. You brought me here. Congratulations. You have my full and undivided attention. 

“And before this is over, I’m going to make you wish you never found my mother that day.” 

 

SUMMARY

Led out into the hallway, Flick thinks of using her Seosten Recall to either get back to her father or at least contact him. Fossor informs her that there is a spell linking her to her mother that will detect if she does either of those things and kill her mother in retaliation, as well as one linked from her mother to her that will kill Flick if her mother leaves. She insults Fossor and is given intense pain from one of Fossor’s ghosts before being led to her mother. They reunite, Flick is very emotional about her memories while hugging her mother. After Joselyn is told by Fossor to go with him to do something while her daughter is left alone for the moment, Flick informs Fossor that because her full attention is now on him without any distractions, she is going to beat him.

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Eighteen 6-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note, for people who are potentially sensitive about issues revolving around Fossor, I have included a very brief summary of the events in this chapter at the bottom if you would prefer to scroll down and skip over reading details. That said, I can say right up front that there will *never* be any on-screen depictions of sexual assault in this story, nor will there be any ‘fade to black’ moments where the act is implied. It will not happen, at all, whatsoever, in any kind of present tense/current events thing in-story. There have been and may be implications of *interest* in that regard as well as possible character histories that involve it, but you will never see it happen, nor will you ever see a moment where it is clearly going to happen and then the scene cuts away. There will be nothing like that regardless of what any villain may imply at any point.  

That said, for those who are still sensitive about how creepy and nasty Fossor as a villain can be, feel free to scroll to the bottom to read the quick summary (marked in bold and underlined) of the events in this chapter.  Thank you very much. 

“No… no,” I spat the words, starting to scramble to my feet as a blinding rush of panic enveloped me. “No, you’re not–I still have a month! I still have a month!” 

“Correction,” the man in front of me replied. “You had a month. After all, I did say that I would cause no harm to come to you until the day you became an adult.”

Fossor smiled, most of his face in darkness with only a bit illuminated by the glow surrounding me. “And what better way to ensure that no harm comes to you in the weeks you had left than to make you skip over it entirely with a short time jump?” 

“Happy birthday, Felicity. And welcome home.” 

The next thing I knew, I was on my feet, a wordless scream escaping me as I threw myself at the necromancer. Not that it did me any good, because he simply exhaled and shook his head before two ghosts popped into existence and yanked me back to the ground. I struggled, but they held me there while the man stepped forward and reached out. His finger found my chin and I snapped at him with my teeth. But he was too quick, pulling his finger back while giving a soft, amused chuckle.

“My girl,” Fossor began simply, “I would have thought that, precarious situation aside, you would at least be happy for the prospect of seeing your mother again. I know she’s been so… excited by the prospect of having you with her. You wouldn’t want to make her feel bad, hmm?” 

My mind was spinning completely out of control. No, no, no! This couldn’t happen. Time travel? He’d cheated me out of the rest of the time I had to prepare by using time travel to send me  straight to my birthday? I wasn’t ready! This was wrong! No, no!  I struggled even harder, tilting my head back to spit at him. But it wasn’t just spit. I’d summoned my nausea-inducing liquid with it and spat that into his face, hoping against hope that it would make him lose his control over the ghosts for just a second. Long enough for me to use my own power to force them to let go.

It did not. Actually, it didn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever. The man simply produced a handkerchief from his pocket, flipped it out a bit, and used  a corner to wipe the saliva off his cheek. Then he folded it up and calmly tucked it away before regarding me with a raised eyebrow. “I have given you most of a year to prepare this, Felicity. Most of a year to be ready for my move, and the best defense you can mount is the equivalent of a toddler throwing food? I’m honestly disappointed. Please tell me you have something more interesting than that in mind.” 

My eyes narrowed at those words, and I threw all my focus onto one of the ghosts holding me. Its cold fingers let me go and it suddenly grabbed the other ghost, knocking it away. I came to my feet, staff appearing in my hand from its storage place. Hitting the button to summon a cloud of sand that superheated as it flew into Fossor’s smug fucking face. At the same time, I used the staff to launch myself past him. One second of distraction. That was all I needed. My pass through even magically locked doors power would let me escape the room. Then I could find my mom and the two of us could work on getting the hell out of this place together. I just had to stay a tiny bit ahead of him. 

It didn’t work. No sooner had I gotten within a couple steps of the door, than half a dozen more ghosts appeared, grabbing various parts of me before bodily pushing me to my hands and knees in front of an apparently unbothered Fossor. There was a puddle of blood around him in a circle. Belatedly, I realized that he had actually summoned the blood from somewhere and used it to catch the sand before allowing both to fall to the floor. 

I didn’t just give up then, of course. I fought like a wildcat being taken to a bath. Nothing I did worked. I wasn’t ready now, not for something like this. I was already tired from the fight against Kwur’s minions, from the entire Kwur thing in general. Yes, I had almost endless stamina. But the key word there was almost, and I had been going for a long time by that point. Too long. There was no gas left in my tank. It was all I could do to keep getting back to my feet and throwing myself against that brick wall. I tried my powers. I tried my magic. I tried attacking Fossor and I tried avoiding him. I tried focusing on contacting Tabbris. Nothing worked. I might as well have been a fly repeatedly throwing myself against a car windshield in a futile effort to bully it into submission. Nothing I did, nothing I tried, had any effect on the man, who continued to stand there without much care. Occasionally, he would offer some light words of advice. And that was the single most humiliating and awful thing about all this. He didn’t care that I was fighting him. He was even a little bit amused by it. Because he knew that it wouldn’t matter. I didn’t have my friends or anyone here to help me. I was tired, and he knew that. He knew I was wiped. This whole thing was even more of a foregone conclusion than it already had been thanks to all the effort I’d already put into dealing with Kwur. On my best day, with a full night’s sleep (or as much as I ever really needed), weeks more training and preparation, and everyone who wanted to help protect me, I might have stood some sliver of a chance. Might. But like this? No. 

Finally, I stood there, leaning on my staff to keep myself up while I stared at the man. I hadn’t even managed to make him budge at all. He’d simply stood there calmly through all of that, letting me tire myself out even more. Nothing worked. Nothing hit him, and none of my efforts accomplished a damn thing. Spitting on him and making the man wipe it off with his handkerchief was basically the most direct effect I’d managed. For all the good that actually did. And now I just couldn’t do anything else. I had to pause. I had to breathe, my panicked, terrified mind working a million miles an hour. But it wasn’t working toward anything. I wasn’t thinking of anything productive. My brain wasn’t a bird in flight, it was a bird in a cage throwing itself against the walls wildly, doing more damage to itself than its prison. I accomplished nothing with all of my wild flailing. The cage was here, it was already around me, and I couldn’t escape any more than that bird could have.

“You,” I snarled the word while glowering at the man across from me with every ounce of hate I could summon. My breath came out in a shuddering gasp, partly from my own exhaustion and partly from that bottomless swelling of rancor. “How… how much of all of that was you?” 

In contrast to my own voice, Fossor’s was quite casual and conversational. “Oh, just about all of it, I would say. You forget, Felicity, I’ve known that the time would come for me to collect you for quite awhile now. I’m not one to sit idly by and simply… hope for the best. It’s my nature to stack the deck, as it were. Come now, don’t look at me like that. I did warn you that I would be coming for you. I gave you nearly an entire year to get your affairs in order. I dare say that’s more of a courtesy than I extend to most. But then, I do like your spunk.” 

At a vague gesture from him, the ghosts all disappeared. Though I knew that meant nothing. With a thought, he could bring them all back. And more. He could flood this entire room–hell, the building we were in– with zombies, ghosts, and any other kind of dead creature that he wanted to throw at me. He could drown me in corpses without breaking a sweat. Dismissing them like that right now was nothing but a show. Still, I watched as he continued. 

“To be specific, several years ago, I procured a piece of the… creature known as Kwur. That was an adventure in and of itself.” Smiling faintly at whatever memory he was reliving, the man eventually shook it off. “In any case, we made an arrangement, and I ensured that the piece was given to a man who lived in an isolated area with a large family. A family in a house that would make an excellent site for hauntings.” 

“You set them up,” I managed, my voice cracking a little at the realization that everything that had happened to Dakota and her family was just one step in Fossor’s plan to capture me. “Why?” I spat the word. “Why did that entire family need to die? What did that even gain you?” 

“Plausible deniability, of course,” came the response. “Felicity, if all of this had started up just now, you and your minders would have immediately seen it as one of my machinations. You would have been on your guard. But this? Something that apparently began three years ago and was connected to some other massive threat? It blinded all of you.” He paused then, his eventual next words thoughtful. “Ensuring that you and your friends found out about that situation was as easy as a few whispered words here and there arranging for the farmhouse to be used as a shelter for your wayward lambs. I wasn’t certain at the time of the original deaths how I would bring it to the attention of the people watching over you, but this… underground railroad they’ve been running was a great help. I pointed the strays to it and then gave the ghosts a little bit of a poke to attack them, while ensuring they found the hidden basement holding our plant friend. After that, it was a simple matter of making certain someone close to you was given the job of checking that out. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that the whole… ghost thing didn’t give away the game, to be perfectly honest. Not to mention the coincidental timing of someone who happened to be close to you finding that information right when they did.” 

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “You just… this whole thing, all of it, was just to catch me and the others off-guard. You made us exhaust ourselves fighting Kwur and his minions. Azlee, he was a zombie the whole time. You were the one controlling him, and you planted that.. that time travel spell in him, ready to go off as soon as he saw me. As soon as you saw me through him. All of that, all of it, just to grab me? How did Kwur feel about being your distraction?”

“Careful,” the deceptively normal-looking man idly warned me. “You don’t want to get a big head. Not everything is entirely and solely about you. Yes, this did allow me to, let’s say, acquire my property. But it was far more than that. It also lured many of Gehenna’s people to a place I knew they would go. A place which I could prepare ahead of time for their arrival, when they were quite distracted. They were prepared for a threat from Kwur, not from me.” 

The calm mask on Fossor’s face twisted for just a moment into an ugly expression of hate and loathing beyond anything I had seen from him, or almost anyone for that matter. “Gehenna was my hell, Felicity. Do you honestly think I’d allow them to operate here, in my own backyard? Let’s just say, Azlee Ren wasn’t the only dead puppet I filled with a very powerful spell before sending him on his way. When those who went to Vegas returned to their home, they carried enough destructive power within them to level that outpost and destroy everyone and everything inside.

“Which is precisely why Kwur didn’t care that he was used, in your words, as a distraction. If he succeeded in his own mission, he would gladly have spread across this world. If not, plan b still resulted in his imprisoned core being destroyed, leaving him free to grow back from one of his many scattered seedlings. Either way, he escaped. Which, in my case, has the added benefit of ensuring that Gehenna is quite occupied at the moment. They won’t be coming back to reestablish their outpost any time soon.” 

Talking, I had to make him keep talking. Something would occur to me. I would think of something. Or Tabbris. Tabbris would contact me. Surely they would have realized I was teleported into the future, narrowed down how long it would take me to reappear, and my little sister would be letting me know what was going on any second. Quickly, I blurted, “What about Vanessa? Were you the one who erased her memory of Harn? Wait, what did Harn have to do with all this?” 

“Honestly?” Fossor sounded amused. “Nothing, at least originally. He was just an old man who was helping that poor little girl. It actually took me by surprise when I went to the facility to check on the girl, as Kwur requested, and found Harn and the Moon girl leaving her room. Harn recognized me and… things grew complicated. In the end, I was forced to wipe their memories of the encounter, and of the girl herself. One moment, please.” 

As he said that, I found myself suddenly grabbed by several more ghosts. They held me completely still, one forcing my hand out. Before I could even react, Fossor’s hand snaked out with a little scalpel, and he cut my finger with it. It was little more than a nick, but it did draw blood. Fossor immediately made the ghosts disappear, examining the scalpel curiously while I held my finger. “Ah, good. It seems my guess that the oath preventing me from harming you was tied to this date rather than your physical age was correct. Good to know.” Finished with his test, the man seemed to realize he’d interrupted himself. “What were we saying? Oh, yes, Harn and the Moon girl’s memories. You’d be surprised how skilled in such magic you can become after spending so much effort learning ways of combating it so that your own memory is never erased.” 

“And you needed Dakota alive and ready to tell her whole story so the distraction would work,” I muttered, watching my finger heal up as though nothing had happened. “But if anyone remembered seeing you at the hospital around her, the entire thing was pointless.” Pausing, I frowned. “But you said you were checking on her because Kwur wanted you to. Why would Kwur care about what happened to her beyond your fucked up plan?” 

He offered me a shrug. “Apparently, the diabolical plant has taken something of an interest in the girl. I think he sees her as a wayward child, one with great potential should she only be… molded properly.” A thoughtful brief pause came, then, “I suppose he and I do have that in common, after all.” 

“What,” I snapped, “that you’re both utterly amoral pieces of shit who deserve to be thrown into the sun? Cuz yeah, you’re definitely pretty fucking similar in that way.”

“I do enjoy these chats,” the man informed me in a voice that was just as casual as ever. “And we’ll have time for many more now that you’re home where you belong. But I should probably inform you that if your curiosity happens to be fueled by a hope that your Seosten tagalong will be connecting with you soon, you should set such thoughts aside. An aftereffect of the… particular time-travel I happen to have put you through breaks down the connection those bodysnatchers use to send themselves back to a previous host. She can’t contact you, or come back to you, until she physically possesses you again. And that, I’m afraid, just isn’t going to happen.” 

He knew. He’d known the entire time what I was doing, and it was all pointless. Tabbris couldn’t recall to me, she couldn’t help me. Nobody could help me. We had plans and defenses, of course. But they all revolved around how to stop Fossor from taking me once he tried. But I was already here. He’d completely bypassed everything by–by skipping me ahead weeks ahead of schedule. There was nothing that any of our training or plans could do about me already being here. We weren’t ready for that. We weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t… I… I was afraid. I was more afraid in that moment than I’d ever been. I was here, I was alone with the worst monster I’d ever met, I didn’t know what to do. 

I didn’t know what to do. 

Seeing the expression on my face, Fossor gestured. “Now, let’s not dwell on the bad things. After all, this is your chance to see your mother. Wouldn’t you like that?” 

“What I’d like,” I snarled at him, “is to see you turn inside out and fall apart.” Yes, I wanted to see my mother. Of course I wanted to see her. I was desperate to see her, to touch her, to really talk to her. But him taking me to her right now was just… it was him ruining that, marring it and putting his own twisted stink all over it. Just like he did to everything he touched. Seeing her now wasn’t going to be the reunion we wanted. It was going to be him gloating about taking both of us.  

And maybe part of me didn’t want my mom to know that in the end, I had failed. Fossor took me just like he said he would, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was exhausted, I was alone, I was out of ideas. One of the biggest chances I’d had, Fossor’s dead sister, hadn’t panned out because she still hadn’t shown up again. Was that my fault? Was I just that bad at being a necromancer? I had Manakel’s powers, so I should have been able to summon her. I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t work enough. I didn’t try enough. I fucked up and now I was here.

What was I going to do about that? Fossor won. He pulled me away just like he’d said he would, had taken me from every bit of support I had. And now he’d proven he could hurt me if he wanted to. Mom’s oath didn’t protect me anymore. Next to Fossor and the power he could wield, I really was a child throwing a tantrum. That was the fact of it. That was the cold truth. So what was I going to do? 

I didn’t know. I had no idea. I had… nothing.

“Take me to my mom,” I finally managed, swallowing hard after forcing the words out. 

Like a gracious host, Fossor turned and gestured to the door. One of his ghosts appeared to pull it open. “Come, my dear,” the vile necromancer piece of shit urged. “I promise, in time, you will come to accept these new circumstances. You, your mother, and I, are going to be one big happy family. Maybe not right away. But now that you’re here, we have time to work all that out. 

“And I am nothing if not patient.” 

SUMMARY

Flick tries to fight Fossor but can’t harm him, considering his own power and her exhaustion. He tests that he can physically hurt her now with a tiny cut to her finger, and explains how he manipulated the situation with Kwur to end with the destruction of the Gehenna outpost and her brought into the future straight to her eighteenth birthday. He also explains that the specific time-travel spell he used erased Tabbris’s recall connection to her, leaving the Seosten girl unable to come to her aid until she physically possesses her again. Left with no allies or choice, Flick agrees to have Fossor escort her to see her mother. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Mom!” Shiori blurted, already starting to take a step that way as her eyes widened at the sight. 

My hand snapped out to stop her, but Asenath was there first, catching her sister by the arm. “Wait,” she said quickly. “Don’t get close to her.” As she said it, Senny was staring hard at their mother, a heavy, smoldering rage visible in those suddenly intense, dark eyes. “Let… her… go.” 

“Oh, don’t be like that!” Jiao blurted in a voice that I knew was entirely uncharacteristic. “Don’t be spoilsports! You’re all finally here, and we’re gonna have so much fun together!”  She sounded cheerful, energetic, like some kind of perky cheerleader hyped up on coffee and school spirit or something. This was absolutely not Jiao talking to us right now. Not even a little bit.  

“You really wanna have some fun?” Sands all-but snarled while clenching her hands as she stood next to Sarah. “How about we tell ghost stories and toast marshmallows around a bonfire. There’s a lot of fuel for it in this place.” With one tight fist, she indicated the plants around us. 

Instead of Jiao, it was Julius Harn who spoke next (or rather, he who Kwur spoke through). “Oooh, you’re just so precious with the threats and the angry little fist! Probably should have paid more attention in wilderness survival when they taught you about dead wood being better for making fires, but still! You’re adorable, I could just pinch your little cheeks!” That same broad, probably uncharacteristic manic smile was on the old man’s face, as he beckoned. “Come! Come, let’s not dawdle any further, we have so much to talk about. So many things to prepare!”  

“Listen, you chlorophallic weed!” That was Shiori, and she had both of her disc weapons out, as they sparked with electricity. “The only thing you need to prepare for is letting go of my mother!” 

Absent of any apparent feeling of intimidation, Kwur-Jiao spoke up. “Sweetie, as adorable and precious as your fleshy anger is, there is no need for it. Everything’s going to be just fine. Come, let me show you.” She pivoted, starting to walk deeper into the forested area before calling back in a slightly darker, yet still fairly cheerful voice. “That is, unless you’d prefer to see how well my having control of your mother can serve as a motivator, or as a punishment?” Even as he said it, Jiao’s hand moved to pull part of her jacket away, revealing some kind of explosive securely strapped to her back. “She was good enough to bring the party favors, after all.” 

Fuck. He was right, unfortunately. We couldn’t chance anything or he’d use those explosives. And I was pretty sure even an old vampire like Jiao couldn’t survive something like that. 

So, with a collective sigh and an exchange of looks promising each other that we’d find an opening, Sands, Sarah, Miranda, Asenath, Columbus, Bobbi, Shiori, and I reluctantly followed after Kwur-Jiao. Behind us, I heard and felt Kwur-Harn trail after, whistling cheerfully to himself as if nothing was wrong at all.

There was a narrow trail through the trees and bushes. Narrow enough, that was, for me to feel the leaves and branches gently brushing over me as we passed through. I didn’t think too much about that until I caught Kwur-Jiao glance back at me with a little smile just as one branch in particular brushed over my arm. Then I realized it was intentional. The plants were sticking out just far enough to touch us on the way past on purpose, like a… like a caress or something. It was enough to bring bile to my throat, before I turned sideways to avoid them. The others must have either picked up the same, or realized what I was doing, because they followed suit. 

The path led us in a loop, and we mounted a set of stairs that had been placed against the edge of the tracks to reach the platform. Not that it was easy to tell exactly where we were just from looking around. The entire platform was even more overgrown than the tunnels, with thick grass under our feet, along with bushes and trees all around. Enough of the latter were so tall and thick that they entirely blocked out the ceiling. It was like being in an actual jungle. Except for the whole lack of animal sounds. Which, in some ways, seemed even more eerie. The whole place was uncomfortably quiet, raising the hair on the back of my neck. I wanted to demand that Kwur stop this, that he tell us where we were going. I wanted to do a lot of things that might have made me feel better, or at least less useless, for a few seconds. But I kept quiet, for now. 

On the way, I focused a bit on seeing through Marian’s eyes. Jason, April, and the Alters who had been guarding our actual bodies before we were switched around looked completely baffled. There were bodies of other attackers lying around, some alive and some not. It was clear that Kwur had sent more people after us, but our new friends had pulled through in keeping us safe. Until we were switched. Now they clearly had no idea what to do. Especially considering, from the sound of things, they were still being attacked now and then. Before long, they’d be in real trouble. 

Quickly, I moved Marian, getting their attention as I had her paw touch the ground and focused on my image inscription power. Using that, I created a message on the pavement in bright red letters, giving them the phone number to contact Dare and tell her where they were so they could get help before they were overwhelmed. It was the best I could do just then.  

By then, we’d mounted the steps and moved across the subway platform. There was a hole in the wall ahead of us, one that had clearly been added for all this. The concrete there had been punched through, leading to a smaller, clearly more recent tunnel through the dirt and rock beyond. Without hesitation, Kwur-Jiao led us into the tunnel. It was just wide enough for us to pass through in a single-file, and Asenath went first. She was followed by Shiori, then the twins, Bobbi, and Columbus, with me bringing up the rear aside from Kwur-Harn. A quick check through my connection to Marian showed that April was already on the phone. Hopefully Dare would get to that group soon, because it kind of sounded like they were in trouble. Kwur wasn’t exactly reacting well to so many of his little puppets being freed from his control, apparently. 

As we walked through the tunnel, there were actual windows along either side. The windows peeked into large, hollowed-out caverns. But they weren’t just caverns. They looked like rooms in a house or apartment, complete with carpet, furniture, lights, everything. It was like… like a television or movie set, I realized. Or like the stage of a play. The rooms were sets, with the windows being where the fourth wall would be. And on those sets were people. Some Alters, some human, but just… people. They seemed to be carrying about their lives as if totally unaware of the windows looking in on their fake apartments and houses. Like… like a tv show. That’s what it was. That’s what all of this was, a living, breathing tv show. 

Even as I came to that realization on my own, Kwur-Jiao reached out to touch a button by one of the windows. Suddenly, we could hear sound coming from within the ‘house’ there, and it was… yeah, it was a TV show in real life. The human woman was lecturing some kind of amphibian boy who was apparently ‘playing’ her son about his grades and how if he didn’t get them back up, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the picnic the next day. The Alter kid even said ‘gee willikers.’ It was fucking bizarre. 

We moved on and watched a couple more for a minute. They were all just like that. They were people being controlled by Kwur into acting out these ridiculous scenarios. And belatedly I realized that there were plants in every one of those scenes. Usually just house plants or flowers. He was watching. He was watching them play out these insane living television scenes. 

What in the serious living fuck was wrong with this monster? 

“You see?!” Kwur-Jiao cheerfully urged after muting the most recent scene and beckoning for us to keep following her through the tunnel. “We can all have such a wonderful time working together. I just know you’ll be fine additions to the cast, and we’ll have your friends join in soon enough. With all of you here, the show will be better than it ever was!” 

Through gritted teeth, Columbus demanded, “Are you seriously acting like this whole thing is just a bunch of tv shows, or… or movies or whatever for you to watch?” 

“Puppet shows,” Miranda corrected in a flat voice. “He’s making puppet shows for himself.” 

She was right, of course. This whole thing, all of it, was one big collection of puppet shows. And from the sound of it, that’s what he wanted to do with all of us. Maybe the whole world. He wanted to start this entire war in Vegas in order to get strong enough to spread his plants everywhere and turn the whole world into his own personal living puppet show to act out these stories. All of which made this quite possibly the strangest, most fucked up thing I’d ever seen. And that was actually a pretty long and exhaustive list of strange, fucked up things at this point. 

Kwur-Harn was talking from behind us. “So many of your people misunderstand me. They think I hate you flesh-things. Absolutely not! I think you’re amazing. You’re such wonderful creatures. But you waste it so much. You waste your lives on such frivolous, boring things. Surely you must agree by now. Look at how many wars there are on just your world. Look at what the Seosten have turned all of your species into. Nothing but fighting and killing. You ignore so many of the wonderful stories you could tell. Television and movies are your greatest achievements, you should embrace them. Act out the stories you like and then move to another!” 

Sarah spoke up quietly then while taking her sister’s hand. “You’re a little insane.” 

With a shake of her head, Kwur-Jiao insisted, “My methods may seem harsh, but I am trying to free all of your people from this endless cycle. There will be violence first, enough to give me the power I need to spread over this planet. But once I am strong enough, I will take the people of this world in hand, and give them better stories to tell than the ones they have been trapped within for so long. I know that may be very difficult for you to accept, but it really is for the best. You will be happy. Well, not always. Sometimes you’ll be sad, when the story says you should be. But I’ll make sure to give you happy stories too. Some of you may even see each other again. Sometimes you’ll be enemies, sometimes friends. It will be wonderful. And so very interesting!” 

“You want to play with us like the fucking Sims?” Shiori blurted. “You want to treat the entire world like a bunch of Sim games, movies, whatever. You think you can puppet our whole population into being your entertainment?!” 

That eerie, creepy, disturbing smile stretched across Jiao’s face once more, as Kwur made her respond with an enthusiastic, “It’s just as I said! So many think I hate you fleshy things. But I love you all. I love you all and I will protect you. I will give you much better lives. You’ll just have to trust me a little bit. There will be some harsh growing pains, but it will be wonderful in the end!”

With that, Kwur-Jiao turned back to us. More lights came on behind her, and I saw that the tunnel stretched on for what seemed like miles. There were dozens more windows that we hadn’t seen yet. How long had he been doing this?! How many people were down here? This was insane! Well, that much was obvious, but still! 

“You see?” he asked through Jiao, “I am not really your enemy. In fact, I believe we can all be quite good friends. If you cooperate, I will make absolutely certain that you get the best stories. We can even negotiate on keeping you together with those you care about! You won’t have to fight for your lives anymore. You won’t have to worry about all the bad things that could happen. Everything will be just fine.” Kwur-Jiao looked straight to me. “You won’t have to worry about all the terrible things that are waiting for you.” 

“Sorry,” I shot back, “I never really wanted to be an actress. I think we’re gonna have to pass.” 

“You’ll change your minds,” Kwur-Harn knowingly insisted, smiling the whole time. “Maybe if you see a few more of our shows down here, you’ll understand that it’s not a bad thing at all.” 

“Actually,” Miranda put in, “I think we’ve seen just about enough.” With that, she glanced toward me, hand rising with the Kwur-tracking stone cupped in her palm. She’d used a spell to summon it from her Theriangelos. It was giving off an intermittently bright green glow. “Getting dimmer here, it’s the other way!” 

Even as she said that, Asenath and Shiori were moving. The two sprang at their mother, Shiori lashing out with a fist that hit Kwur-Jiao in the face and rocked her head backward. At the same time, Senny’s blurred form rushed past her before pivoting with something held up in one hand. It was a piece from the explosives strapped to Jiao. “As if my mother didn’t make sure I knew how to disarm her bombs,” the vampire snarled. 

“Well then,” Kwur-Harn began in a voice dripping with that same false-kindness. 

“We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way,” Kwur-Jiao finished. 

Suddenly, a pair of stone walls shot out up from the ground as Sands raised her mace. They wrapped around Harn while the girl blurted over her shoulder toward Miranda, Bobbi, Columbus, and me. “Go!”

The four of us went. On the way, two duplicate Mirandas split off from the original and went to help Sands and Sarah with Harn, while yet one more raced back to where Shiori and Asenath were still trying to contain Jiao. 

Meanwhile, we sprinted back through the tunnel. And it wasn’t exactly a peaceful trip. Suddenly, the people in those glass enclosures weren’t acting out scenes anymore. Instead, they were pounding at the glass while screaming at us. It was creepy as hell.  

Then it got worse. Because the glass retracted, and the tunnel was suddenly filled with a bunch of random figures of all ages whose entire focus was on stopping Columbus, Miranda, Bobbi, and me. And we definitely couldn’t fight them. 

“Flick!” Randi blurted, tossing the stone underhanded to me before creating half a dozen quick duplicates. “Go, just go!” The seven of them quickly moved to block for me, the main one snapping, “Ears!” As soon as we all (including her six duplicates) covered our ears, she let loose with a deafening scream that filled the tunnel and made all of our attackers stumble. Then another Miranda extended both hands, summoning some kind of three-inch thick metal poles from each palm that shot out a good thirty feet before snapping to either side to knock the deafened figures out of the way.

Bobbi, Columbus, and I shot through the briefly cleared path, sprinting down the tunnel as fast as my feet could carry us. On the way, Columbus snapped at Bobbi to go, and she was suddenly gone, using her superspeed to get a hell of lot further than we could. As soon as she did that, the boy reached out to catch my arm, teleporting the two of us as far down the tunnel as he could see. He did that twice more in rapid succession before we reached the platform where Bobbi was waiting.

As we landed, I checked the stone in my other hand. The glow was getting brighter. The main part of Kwur. That was the important part, the most important part. I had to get to the main part of Kwur. Once we destroyed that, the rest would be a mop-up. 

But first I had to get there, and Kwur was not going to make that easy. I realized that as I looked out over the platform and saw even more guys coming for us. It was a mixture of people in the same ‘normal life’ costumes from those plays going on back in the other tunnel, and people in actual armor with weapons and such. Clearly, he was throwing everything at us. 

“Flick, get to Kwur,” Columbus told me sharply. “You’re the one with the–just go.” He looked to Bobbi. “We got this, right, kid?” 

“Sure,” she replied, already cracking her knuckles. “We got this.” 

I didn’t argue with them. There wasn’t time. As Columbus teleported into the midst of the incoming group and Bobbi created a wall of energy to clear a path for me, I took off running once more. 

Unfortunately, I’d barely crossed half the platform before seeing an even thicker, incredibly dense wall of plants in the way. They were growing in my path, even as I got there. Within seconds, there were three new trees blocking my way that simply grew up out of seemingly nothing. 

“Oh,” I snapped under my breath, “we’re playing that way, huh?” With that, I snapped my staff down, using a burst to launch myself into the air. I went straight toward the nearest tree. It was tempting to use my wood-traveling power, but given the warning against possessing people who were infected by Kwur, I really had no idea what traveling through one of his plants would be like. Too risky. 

Instead, I landed feet first on one of the branches, my staff already converted into its bow form. Drawing back an energy arrow, I quickly muttered a word to activate one of the spells Shyel had taught me. It turned my blue-ish arrow red. When I released it, the energy shot out, colliding with the thickest set of bushes and trees in my path before exploding into a burst of red-hot fire. 

Before the plants could grow back, I launched myself that way, sailing through the opening before rolling as I hit the ground. More plants. More plants everywhere, and none of them the actual one I was looking for. But the stone said to keep going that way, so I did. I raced through the thick jungle, avoiding more and more bushes and trees that kept growing in my path to slow me down. 

A figure appeared from behind one of the trees, gun raised. I didn’t even hesitate before snapping my staff out to slam into the side of his head. Another two emerged from a bush, and I hit them with an energy-arrow that knocked them flying before they could take aim. Kwur was getting desperate.

Which meant I was getting close. 

There! I saw another tunnel opening on the opposite side of the platform from where Kwur had taken us. That had to be it. Even as I saw it, an enormous, thick tree sprang up to block the tunnel. But I didn’t care. A simple redwood wasn’t going to stop me from getting where I needed to go. Not now. 

More people were emerging to stop me, but I ignored them aside from tapping my staff against the ground as I ran, leaving a few concussive mines for them. Most of my focus was on that tree, even as plants sprang up all around me. One tree burst out of the ground right at my feet, making me stumble and nearly lose my footing before catching myself. 

But I kept going. Just before reaching the tree, I sent a cloud of sand ahead. But this wasn’t just any sand. It was super-heated. The sand itself was protected from turning to glass because it gave off heat rather than being hot itself. I wasn’t sure how that worked, exactly, but it did. Somehow. 

In any case, the super-heated sand cut through the tree in a brief few seconds. As it fell, more were growing into its place, branches twisting around like hands reaching out to grab me. But I used that open moment to dive through the opening, rolling as I ended up in an open cavern. 

There. There was a single pine tree sitting in the middle of this cavern, attended by warming lamps and a sprinkler system keeping it warm and damp. 

Unfortunately, before I could even recover from my dive, something caught me by the arm. It was a thick root growing from the wall. The root yanked me back against the wall, before half a dozen more popped out and secured me there. I couldn’t even budge. 

“It’s too bad.” The new voice came from the far corner of the cavern, before an emaciated-looking figure stepped into view. It was a human (or looked human anyway, and didn’t set off my Heretic-sense) man who looked like he was barely this side of dead. “We could have had so much fun together. But the shows will go on without you. Still, unfortunate.” 

He paused then, head tilting a little. “Why are you smiling?” 

“Because you lost,” I informed him. “You let me find your heart right there.” As much as I could from my pinned position with a dozen different roots holding me in place, I nodded toward the tree. The one the enchanted stone, now bright red, had led me to. 

The emaciated-man looked that way, then turned back and shook his head. “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do anything about that now. And your companions are already being brought into line.” 

“See, a lot of people have thought that they had me under control,” I retorted. “You think you’re the first? Hardly. They always get a little surprise. Heretics have super powers, you know.” 

“No powers that will let you get out of this,” he noted. “We know what you are capable of.” 

My eyes narrowed. “Buddy, you have no idea what I’m capable of.” 

After letting that settle, I turned my tone conversational then. “See, awhile back, I picked up a little power from something called a Blemmye. Long story short, it lets me know exactly where places I know about are, in relation to where I am. Like, right now I know the Vestil casino is exactly sixteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven feet north-north-east of here. Or three point two miles. I know exactly how far this place is from my old house, or my elementary school. I know exactly how far we are from our new base.” 

“Curious, how exactly does that help you now, in this position?” the thin figure asked. As he said it, a couple more roots crept out of the ground to hold me even tighter, just in case.

“Three reasons,” I replied slowly. “First, because I know exactly where something else is. Last spring, a few friends and I traveled on a prototype ship to get back to Earth from Seosten space. Some of our people have been spending months fixing that thing up to get the cloaking device working, and now it’s hovering above Vegas. It’s been waiting up there. 

“Two, you may think you’re close to people when you infect them, but my little sister is closer to me than you’ll ever understand. Right now, she’s on that ship. 

“And three, the fact that I know exactly where things are down to the inch works both ways. It means I know where I am exactly in relation to where they are. Or, in this case, where a certain little tree is, exactly sixty-three feet and seven inches east of me.” 

As I said it, dawning comprehension appeared on the Kwur-infested man’s face, and he spun that way. But it was too late. My eyes snapped shut, as a terrifying, deafening, blinding flash suddenly filled the cavern. 

The six-foot wide laser from the ship-mounted cannon tore through the pavement, the ground underneath, blew into the cavern itself, and obliterated Kwur’s special tree. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So here we were. Everyone else was busy with their own situations, leaving Sands, Sarah, Miranda, and me to trudge our way through the secret subway tunnels under Las Vegas. And we weren’t even using our own bodies for it. No, we had to use our Theriangelos animals because those same tunnels were filled with plants that may or may not turn our normal selves into crazy mass-murdering monsters. Four of us were down here looking for the largest concentration of Kwur’s consciousness, so we could destroy it and get the hell out of here.

We also couldn’t bring most of our regular powers into this. I’d learned to channel some of my abilities through Marian, thanks to Shyel. And the other three had a couple gifts of their own they managed to use through practice. But for the most part, what we could do was very limited. 

Long story short, this was going to be a pretty… interesting time, particularly if Kwur had as many people guarding his main consciousness as I was pretty sure he did. Four of us, limited powers, using animal bodies, against an evil plant monster and all his minions. Fan-damn-tastic. 

There were so many plants in here, trees, bushes, flowers, vines crawling up the walls, and more, that it was like moving through a very narrow jungle. But there were at least a couple things in our favor. Firstly, we knew for a fact that while Kwur was aware enough to know we were somewhere around his plants, he didn’t know exactly where. Those guys from before hadn’t been able to pinpoint my location. I had the feeling it was sort of like a human having a tiny germ inside their body. They might feel the effects of it being there, but narrowing down its exact location was harder. He was generally aware that we existed, but he didn’t have enough of his consciousness in these plants to point his people to a specific spot, thankfully. 

And beyond that, the other positive was that between my fox and Miranda’s raven, we could pretty easily scout ahead without giving away our position. The two of us stayed close to the top of the trees and the ceiling of the tunnel as we took turns, swapping between scouting ahead and watching behind just in case a group tried to sneak up behind us. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino and Sarah’s crocodile moved over the ground. They were the muscle, while Randi and I were the eyes and ears, alert to the point of paranoia as we all moved together through the tunnel. 

And yet, even with that level of alertness, we were still almost taken by surprise. I had Marian perched at the top of a tree, carefully watching the silent, vegetation-filled tunnel ahead for any sign of movement ahead of us. Seeing nothing, I was about to jump to the next tree, when something made me stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, aside from some vague feeling. I hesitated for an extra couple of seconds, asking myself what exactly had made me freeze like that. 

There. Ahead and a bit to the right, near the ceiling of the tunnel. A portal opened, and a lithe, thin figure dropped out of it before catching themselves on the branch of the tree. The figure was humanoid, but with an extra leg on each side and a very long neck with a small, ball-shaped head on the end of it. They were also carrying a very long rifle, already setting themselves up with it from their perch as they used the scope to scan the ground. 

Stay back, I quickly warned the others. Sniper in the trees. Maybe more than one, they’re really quiet and came through a portal, so there might be more in other spots. I’ll deal with this one. 

Right, ‘deal with this one.’ I was glad my telepathic voice sounded so damn confident. Now all I had to do was actually follow through. Not to mention doing it without letting Marian ‘die’, and hopefully without alerting any other snipers that may be in the area that they were under attack.

To that end, I quickly shifted Marian’s colors to match the wall of the tunnel before hopping over to the very small, decorative bar near the ceiling. Keeping my eyes on the sniper, who was panning his gun from one side of the tunnel to the other, I thought about what powers I had access to in this form. It took a lot of practice and effort to channel Heretic-gained abilities through the Theriangelos. At that point, I was able to use my shifting power to change Marian’s colors, the imbuing power to use instant spells, my enhanced dexterity, agility, and reflexes making the fox even more of a crazy acrobat, some of the enhanced strength making her stronger than she should be for her size, my ‘sense all objects around me’ power, and the ability to copy any sound I heard into an object and make that object produce that sound. 

So I was a tiny fox who was faster, stronger, and more agile than she should be, who could instantly create images and words (and thus spells) with a touch, sense all objects around me, change my colors like a chameleon, and make anything I touched produce any sound I heard.

Oh, and I had that whole ‘see through stealth powers and camouflage’ ability I’d gotten from the Pantler back in Seosten space. Which, come to think of it, was probably how I saw this sniper guy to begin with. 

So, I didn’t have anything too flashy. I didn’t have my weapon, and I was in the body of a tiny fox. But I could deal with that. I could take this guy down before he knew what hit him. Hopefully.

Moving slowly along that bar, resisting the urge to rush and give away my position, I kept my eyes focused on that sniper. He was still totally focused through the scope, intent on waiting for our group to blunder into his line of fire. He had no idea I was there, gradually getting closer.

Orrrrr maybe he did. Suddenly, the figure snapped that gun up to point directly at me. Only the fact that I’d been paying so much attention, combined with those enhanced reflexes, saved Marian from being blown to pieces. The instant the barrel was pointed my way, I lunged sideways off the bar. Behind me, a chunk of the wall about as wide around as Marian’s entire body was blown apart by some kind of totally silent and invisible shot. It was like a blast of air or kinetic force or something. Whatever, it was strong enough that one hit would have completely obliterated my fox. So avoiding being hit was probably a pretty good idea right now. 

Cursing frantically in my head (and probably aloud back with my body), I sent Marian lunging from one branch to the next, leaping quickly through several trees while Mr. Sniper kept shooting, totally destroying every branch an instant after my tiny paws left it. I barely had time to focus on evading the next shot, let alone try to figure out how to get closer to the bastard. It took everything I had just to keep Marian ‘alive’ through those brief handful of seconds (which felt like an eternity). I dropped to the lower bushes, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t stay still for a single second, or the next shot would have destroyed my Theriangelos. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would still be a pain in the ass to create a new one and meet up with the others. Especially in a situation like this, where every second counted, considering the rest of our people in Vegas were in the middle of their own battles to take out Kwur. 

Somewhere in the midst of that, the shots abruptly stopped. It took me a moment to realize that it had been a hot second since the last invisible blast had blown apart part of the ground where my furry butt had been an instant earlier. Even then, I figured it was a trick or he was just taking more careful aim. That was, until Miranda’s silent telepathic voice reached me. Got him, Flick. 

Stopping short, I blinked up that way. Sure enough, the sniper was stretched out unconscious across the high branch. His rifle was dangling from another part of the tree lower down where it had fallen. And Miranda herself, or her raven anyway, was perched beside the man. You make a really good distraction, you know? Her voice was very slightly teasing. 

Right, distraction, I muttered silently. That’s totally what I was going for. 

After reporting to Sands and Sarah that the first threat was taken care of, Miranda and I joined up at the top of that tree (I took it a bit slower to catch my breath from the panicked rush of adrenaline that those few moments of being shot at had been), watching for any more snipers. 

There were none immediately in view, and we called for the other two to move forward. Then the two of us kept going. This time, Miranda and I stayed together. If there were people ready to ambush us, we really needed both of us to deal with them. That much had just been proven. 

We moved back and forth as a pair, checking behind our small group, then ahead. A couple times we found more snipers waiting, but we dealt with them. Mostly by Miranda or me causing a distraction, before the other would move up behind the would-be ambush to knock them off their perches to the ground below. There, Sarah, whose crocodile form was almost as stealthy as the two of us despite being much larger, would make sure they weren’t in any shape to fight.

It was slow-going, to say the least. But it was also the best shot we had at making our way through these tunnels without ending up with our Theriangelos blasted apart. Which wouldn’t exactly be useful as far as reaching the main part of Kwur (that wasn’t already in the prison) and burning him went. 

Finally, Miranda and I both stopped. Ahead, the tunnel opened up into what looked like another station. And there were definite defenses there. The snipers spread through the trees may have been fairly subtle up to that point, but this was anything but subtle. Six literal turrets with dual-linked cannons that looked like they had come off an actual starship were set up along the entrance into the station, facing out into the tunnel toward us. They were each manned by a figure who watched the small jungle intently. What I could see of the station beyond them was even more filled with plants than the rest of these tunnels had been, the vegetation incredibly thick. I couldn’t see all the way through it to where the opposite tunnel was, but I had no doubt that they had cannons facing that way too. 

Yeah, it may have been a stretch, but I was pretty sure this was the spot. A guess that was proven as the enchanted stone hung around Randi’s raven gave off a firm, steady glow. It wasn’t flickering anymore. Whatever else was in that station, it was definitely where Kwur’s strongest presence in Vegas was. Now we just had to do something with it. Because not only were those cannons enough on their own to totally destroy each and every one of us (probably with one shot), but they undoubtedly weren’t the only defenses in this place. Kwur knew we were in the area. He knew we were looking for him, and he’d had time to prepare. Our only real saving grace here was that all those other groups were hitting more places where he had extended other parts of himself. Which might, maybe stretch his resources too thin. Even then, he’d have plenty of defenses if this really was his main… self here in the city (dealing with a being who could stretch himself through millions of plants and had multiple levels of consciousness was really complicated to even think about).

You ever miss being kids in school, investigating silly things? Miranda asked while the two of us stared at those turrets and tried to think of a way past them. 

Hey, a lot of that stuff was totally important, I retorted. 

Sure, Randi agreed. But we never had to deal with giant laser cannon turrets while we were working out the case of the missing crate of chocolate milk. 

Smiling inwardly despite myself at that particular memory, I replied, And just like Alison Kotters, Kwur’s gonna get exactly what’s coming to him. There was a brief pause before I added thoughtfully, Maybe not the head covered in sour milk, but hey, the day is young. 

Passing information about what we could see back to Sands and Sarah, the four of us held a brief conversation about what we could do. In the end, we went with the best plan we could come up with. Which amounted to me sneaking my way up to the turrets and using magic to secretly disable them while Randi provided overwatch support with her literal bird’s-eye view, letting me know when it was safe to move and when to remain still. Once the turrets were down, the four of us would crash the party inside the station, find the main plant, and make sure it burned.

Okay, so, stealth. I could do this. Never mind that only a few minutes earlier, that sniper had seen me. This was different. These guys were talking to each other, chatting back and forth while manning their cannons without scopes. And I had Miranda watching to tell me when it was safe to move. I would be okay. I could absolutely, definitely do this. 

Repeating that to myself as I crept as carefully and silently as possible through the underbrush, I kept to the corner of the tunnel. Camouflaging Marian with the same colors as the bushes she was moving through, I froze whenever Randi said to, not moving again until she gave the word. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I moved closer to the cannons.

Eventually, I was close enough to hear the men’s conversation. They were fairly tense, but chatting about some ball game or something. I wasn’t sure. The point was, from the sound of their voices, they were afraid of something. But whether that something was more our group, or the thing they were guarding, I wasn’t sure. Hell, I wasn’t sure how much these guys were actually themselves and not mind-controlled. Though the fact that they were chatting about sports implied there were still at least some of their own thoughts. 

Whatever, if we got through this and managed to destroy the Vegas portion of Kwur, I’d make sure to ask these guys what it was like. But for now, I had to make this work. So I kept moving whenever it was safe, inching my way up to the edge of the first turret. I was basically right under the wooden platform that the guy manning the turret was standing on. Peeking up, I could see him, an orc figure standing there, leaning against his enormous weapon while chatting about someone or something covering a spread. 

Carefully, I stuck one paw up through the cracks in the platform. Finding the bottom of the starship turret, I focused on one of the spells that Shyel had taught me. Essentially, it was a ‘jamming’ spell that would prevent any electronic equipment it was applied to from working for a short time. Hopefully, that would be long enough for all of us to get through. 

I didn’t activate the spell just yet, of course. Instead, I worked my way down through the line of turrets, carefully reaching through the gaps in the platforms with Marian’s tiny paw to apply it to each of the weapons in turn. 

Finally, they were all marked. I crouched in the corner, still hidden. You guys ready for this? 

Born ready, came Sands’ reply. I didn’t know exactly where she was, but she and Sarah had both moved into position and were apparently just out of sight. Miranda was still high above, hidden at the top of one of those trees. 

Counting down from five, I hit zero and activated the spell. At the exact same time, there was a sudden thunderous crash as one of the trees literally fell over when Sands’ rhino ran right over and through it. She tore through the entire tree like it wasn’t even there, charging directly at the line of turrets. 

Obviously, the guys manning those turrets reacted. First they laughed. But that laughter turned to confusion as none of their weapons worked. Soon, they were cursing out loud, just as the rhino (its strength and speed temporarily raised by Sands’ Seosten-gained boost ability) slammed into the middle turret. The guard there went flying with a scream, while Sands demolished that weapon, then turned to slam her horn into the one to the left. Meanwhile, Sarah, whose crocodile was perched on the rhino’s back, leapt off and crashed into the guard to the right. 

I made my move then, quickly lunging up to climb the leg of the man on the far left turret, using the same electrical-shock spell I’d used on the guy in the first station to put him down. On the far end of the line of turrets, Miranda’s raven was dealing with the last guy. 

We were through. The four of us basically blew right past these guards, rushing into the jungle-filled station. 

Then all four of us stopped short. Because a man was standing there between two trees. He was alone, and recognizable. It was the guy from the painting in the casino. The one who had apparently posed as a doctor to help Dakota seal Kwur’s flower away, or tried to. Julius Harn, that was his name. He was just standing there, as if he was waiting for us. 

“Oh, hello, girls!” the man called pleasantly as we came up short. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face. Or… well, I suppose not quite. Let’s try that again.” 

With that, he snapped his fingers. As he did so, I felt a sudden twisting sensation. My whole body shook, bile rose in my throat, and then I was there. My real self was there. I was sprawled across the ground at the base of the grass-covered subway tracks in my real physical body. Around me, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were there too. Focusing briefly, I could see our new Alter friends up above staring at Marian and the other animals in confusion. He’d used some kind of… spell or power or something to swap our bodies, putting our real selves where the Theriangelos were and vice versa. 

The four of us scrambled to our feet, while Julius continued. “Isn’t that better?” 

No. No, it was definitely not better. The bushes, the plants, they were all around us. Even at minor strength, how long would it take them to completely leave us mindless as Kwur’s emotional manipulation took over? How long did we have? Minutes? Seconds? Far too short to get anywhere. The entire tunnel system was filled with these plants. And besides, we still had to destroy Kwur. 

Destroy Kwur? No, why would we do that? That was silly. Kwur was our friend. Why would we try to burn our friend? He was the most helpful friend I had, the best friend any of us had. He was going to help me deal with Fossor. He’d gone out of his way to make sure we could–

“Flick!” The voice suddenly cut through all the bullshit in my head in that second, and my gaze jerked just in time to see a blur of motion as a figure rushed right up to me. Something grabbed my arm, then a small pill was shoved into my mouth and my head was snapped backward to make me swallow it. The next thing I knew, my thoughts cleared up. 

Asenath. It was Asenath. She gave me a quick wink, then blurred her way to Sands. Another super-fast figure was with her, already shoving a pill into Miranda’s mouth. It was Bobbi. The two of them made all of us swallow those pills, and our minds cleared up. 

Shiori was there too. She and Columbus came rushing out of the same jungle the four of us had just passed through. Moving right to me, Shiori quickly blurted, “Are you okay?! The Gehenna people, they came through with the pills. They’re supposed to protect from…” 

She trailed off then, staring at the man who had greeted us. Asenath had already stepped over in front of us, with Columbus and Bobbi a bit behind her. 

If he was intimidated by facing the eight of us, or even annoyed that we suddenly had protection from Kwur’s powers, Julius Harn (however much of him was really Harn and not just Kwur) didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled broadly, arms outstretched as though he could just hug all of us at once. “What wonderful timing! I’m so glad you all got the invitation!” 

“Invitation?” Asenath echoed, her voice snarl. “How about I invite you to tell me where our mother is, before I–” 

“Senny,” a new voice interrupted. “Don’t be rude, dear.” With those words, Jiao appeared. She came from the thick clump of trees nearby, moving to stand next to Harn with a totally fake, plastered-on smile. Like a pod person. 

“After all, our host has gone to such lengths to bring us all together. The least we can do is be polite.”

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