Fossor

Eighteen 6-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As usual, there is a summary of this chapter at the bottom for those who would like to avoid direct Fossor… stuff. 

I ended up spending twenty minutes talking to Miles’s father, Caleb. And it was definitely him. According to the Kejjerfiet man, he had no idea if his wife was still alive or not, given how long they had been separated. Apparently Fossor had her stationed at some other home or base of his or something. Which, I supposed, made it easier to threaten one with death if the other acted up. Is that what would eventually happen to my mother and me if we didn’t find another way to escape? Would he put us in separate homes to make it impossible for us to coordinate? Thinking about it like that, I was almost surprised he hadn’t done so already, to be honest. 

I just managed to tell the man a bit about his son, that he was still alive and with the rebellion after spending a couple years at Crossroads. It was obvious that Caleb would’ve stayed right there for hours just hearing me describe every single second I’d spent with his son. And I definitely would’ve kept talking to him, but we didn’t want to make anything look too suspicious. Mom stood just outside the room, keeping an eye on things and making sure we weren’t interrupted or spied on, but all three of us knew that pushing things right now wasn’t a good idea. So, I promised to talk to him some more, considering I’d obviously be spending time in this place if I was going to be practicing with the… the dead people. Then we excused ourselves, after I made sure that Gavant was out of the way, stored with the other Meregan… bodies. More guilt for me to shove down and try to distance myself from until a better time. I started to leave then, only belatedly remembering to have Kendall follow. She was, after all, supposed to always be with me. 

As Mom and I (and Kendall) were walking out to have lunch, I found my voice once we were a good distance from the ‘stable.’ “Fossor’s not sure about how good I am yet, is he?” Glancing to her, I explained, “He didn’t put me in against any actual… intelligent enemies. I bet all those people in there would’ve loved to fight me. Or my… golems. But he just had me fight some Chamrosh. So he wanted to show off that he had me, without actually putting me in too much… I don’t wanna say danger, because he wasn’t protecting me. He was protecting his investment. He’s not positive I’m good enough to actually beat any of the people who might actually try to win. Because if he goes through all this and I end up losing the first match, he looks like an idiot.” 

Mom’s smile was humorless. “I’m afraid to be proud of you for understanding that,” she replied in a quiet voice that said all it needed to about how horrible this entire situation was for her. 

I, in turn, gave a very short nod. “It’s pretty obvious. I mean, he also had to make sure I was motivated to win by threatening all those kids. He had to make sure I cared about the fight so I wouldn’t embarrass him by losing. He was showing off, either… for the whole group or one in particular.” That thought made me pause briefly. “Do you know which one it might be? Who was there that he might’ve wanted to show off for?” I wasn’t exactly sure if that was important, but it seemed like it might be. Someone Fossor wanted to impress, or even had some kind of semi-friendly rivalry with, was someone I wanted to know more about.

“Good question,” Mom agreed, hand moving to squeeze my shoulder affectionately. Her voice was quiet. “That’s my little reporter. Always asking the important questions. Noticing things. Pushing for answers.” There was a mixture of pride and sadness in those words. It was obvious she was mourning all the years she had lost, the years we could have spent together. Basically my entire childhood and teenage years. She had been missing since I was seven years old. That was a lot to be gone for, a lot to end up losing out on, for both of us. It was years we would never actually be able to get back, no matter what happened at the end of this whole situation. 

After briefly lamenting that, mostly silently, Mom pushed on with answering my question. “I’ve seen a lot of the people in that audience come and go. I’ve put names to a lot of faces, figured out which groups are connected even when they don’t come to the same matches. Some of them are… closer to Fossor than others. I don’t think he has any actual friends, no one who would be upset if he lost. But he does have varying levels of acquaintances. Some would step in to fight for him just assuming they’d be rewarded. Others wouldn’t spit on his corpse if it was on fire.” Her head shook. “There’s plenty of people in that crowd who hate him almost as much as we do. But someone he might be showing off for? Someone specific he wants to impress?” There was doubt in her voice. “Maybe, but I can’t think of who it might be.” 

I tried to think back, picturing that whole scene. Had Fossor been paying particular attention to any group or area of the stands? It probably wouldn’t have been obvious, because that just wasn’t how he did things. But maybe… or maybe I was just inventing things in my head because I wanted to have an answer. I was going to have to play that whole situation back. Maybe I could ask Shyel if there was anything there that I was just overlooking. 

I missed my little sister. That’s who I needed. Tabbris riding copilot with me, keeping track of things, noticing things, reminding me with that perfect Seosten memory. I needed her. 

But I didn’t have her. I was going to have to make do. Heh, right, ‘make do’ with my mother, a mental copy of one of the most powerful and dangerous little girls in existence, and the ghost of Fossor’s sister. Yeah, I could’ve been a lot more alone than I actually was. 

Still, I needed to figure out if there was someone Fossor was working to impress with all this, or if it was just some normal ‘play to the crowd’ thing. Even in the latter case, that could still mean that he was building up to something. The thought that wandered into my head was that Fossor had to be doing all of this for a reason. He had the Hangman Rope, an artifact he’d gone through a lot of work to get. He’d killed a member of the Committee and blamed Gaia for it. He wasn’t doing all of that just for shits and giggles. And given how much work he’d put into grabbing me, into having both my mother and me together like this, teaching me necromancy, having the Hangman Rope, an artifact itself associated with death…

These were all important pieces of a puzzle, but I still wasn’t sure what the picture on the box was. I had no idea what exactly the puzzle was supposed to look like when it was all put together. Only Fossor knew that, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t answer if I straight up asked him what it was supposed to be. Or maybe he would, just for the hell of it. 

I wasn’t going to ask him, of course. I was going to figure this out, put the pieces together and figure out how to scramble his fucking puzzle for good (and hopefully his brains in the process). 

Shoving down the thought of just how good stabbing Fossor repeatedly in the head (and actually having it do something to him) would feel, I instead focused on my mother once more. “I’m surprised he didn’t have you fight at all today.” Was it wrong to think about how I’d almost looked forward to seeing it? Obviously, only if she’d been fighting any of those people in the arena who had been absolutely fine with seeing a bunch of middle schoolers threatened like that. Any of those people in the stands who wanted to challenge Mom? Hell yeah, I wanted to see her in a fight with those people. 

“He doesn’t have me fight on days like this,” Mom informed me. “These are build-up days. He… saves me for what he calls ‘the main event.’” There was derision, and also a little bit of shame in her voice. She hated what she had become under Fossor’s directive. She had obviously been forced to kill people she didn’t want to. And that was what I was afraid of, what I was really terrified of. Everything that happened in that arena today was bad enough. But what would happen when Fossor pointed me at a living, breathing, thinking target, someone who was sapient, scared, and only fighting because they were ordered to. What would I do if it was me or someone else who was innocent? What would I do if Fossor ordered me to kill someone who didn’t deserve to die? 

That was a question I was afraid of facing. And I knew it would come up. It hadn’t today. Not so far. But it would, eventually. I would have to deal with it when the time came. 

I just hoped it wouldn’t be soon. 

******

It turned out that I still had one more horrible thing to go through that day. Well, at least one. It was still only barely afternoon, after all. But I was going to try to be optimistic about this. Which might have been harder than it sounded, given the fact that the one more horrible thing I had to do was go through Fossor’s Writing Room. Yeah. That place that could make me answer truthfully about anything he asked, assuming he asked the right question in the right way. 

As soon as the ghost (it was the same ghost who had been amused after startling me yesterday, a male humanoid figure with a neatly trimmed goatee and eyes that seemed just slightly too large for his face) showed up and let us know that Mom was supposed to go and visit the gardens while he escorted me to the Writing Room, I felt the slight tension in my mother. She hid it as well as possible, glancing to me before outright saying, “Just remember what I said, Lissy.” She then thanked the ghost (calling him Jorsher) and set off after squeezing my hand tightly one more time. Clearly, she knew anything else she said would be reported. 

Right, I did remember what she’d told me. Fossor had to ask very specific questions, or I could just bullshit him with plenty of random answers. And I could put the answers I gave in any order I wanted. Apparently it took substantial power to run this whole Writing Room thing, so I could run out his patience for using it before he actually got anything too useful out of me. Hopefully.

With a deep breath, I nodded for Jorsher to lead me through the place, with Kendall trailing behind silently. On the way, I hesitated before asking, “Is it crossing any lines for me to ask where you come from, how long you’ve been part of Fossor’s… umm… force, anything like that? For you or for me,” I added belatedly, unsure which of us would actually get in trouble if I wasn’t supposed to get that kind of info. 

There was a brief moment of silence before Jorsher answered, “I’ve served Lord Fossor for two hundred and three years, since the moment he sliced my neck so that I would lead him through the building I was stationed in and aid him in disabling the security spells protecting my people from his incursion. He found my reactions to being forced to end the lives of my family and friends amusing, and kept me on as one of his permanent household retainers.” He spoke all matter-of-factly, as if it wasn’t one of the most horrifying things he could possibly have said. 

“I–” Opening and shutting my mouth, I paused there in the enormous corridor while staring at the ghost. A rush of different emotions ran through me, before I finally managed a weak, “I’m sorry.” It was a harsh reminder that my family wasn’t the only one that had been hurt by the necromancer piece of shit. Some had been destroyed in ways that would never be fixed. And what else was I supposed to say? What else could I say? It had been hundreds of years ago. But still, his family and friends. Fossor forced this poor guy to not only let him in, but also made him kill his whole family and the other people he cared about. Then kept him around on a permanent servant basis just because he found the guy’s reaction to all that amusing. 

For his part, Jorsher just watched me seemingly impassively for a few seconds before speaking up. “If we make Lord Fossor wait too long for you to pull yourself together, he will make his annoyance known.” The way he said it, I wasn’t sure if he meant that Fossor’s annoyance would be targeted at him or at me. Either way, I suddenly didn’t want to be responsible for that. 

“Right, sorry.” Shrugging helplessly, I started to move again as Jorsher continued down the hall. God, this was just one ghost. What about all the others? What kind of stories did they have? Because there was no way that this was some kind of isolated event. Something told me that the ghosts Fossor kept around on a permanent basis were all people he had some kind of horrific backstory with, one that amused him. And anything that amused Fossor was pretty bad.

And then I understood why Mom had genuinely thanked Ahmose earlier, why she had seemed warmer to him than I would’ve been. Because she had been here for so long, she probably knew all of their stories. She knew whatever it was that Ahmose had been through to become Fossor’s favorite ‘torture ghost.’ She knew all the ghosts well enough to feel compassion for them. It was a sobering thought, given how easy it was for me to see the ghosts serving Fossor as my enemies. Especially the one who had inflicted so much pain on me with a simple touch. Obviously, there was more to him. More to all of the ghosts. I was afraid to think about how many atrocities Fossor had visited simply on the people who served him in this home. 

Eventually, we made it to a simple wooden door in the dungeon area, a section of the manor deep underground that looked like the interior of a medieval castle. The door was curved at the top, with two vertical metal pieces in the middle that had runes inscribed on them. The runes were glowing faintly red as we approached. Before either of us said or did anything, the door opened, and I heard Fossor’s voice speak from within. “Enter, my girl. Leave the golem outside.” He said nothing to Jorsher. Nothing aloud, anyway. But the ghost simply turned away from me and faded out. Yeah, because Fossor wasn’t going to waste his time speaking aloud when he could just instill his orders into his ‘minions’ automatically, of course. 

With a sigh, I parked Kendall where she was, then stepped through the door and into the infamous Writing Room. It was, at a glance, an ordinary study or small library. The ceiling was sloped up on one side, there was a blue carpeted floor, a single ‘window’ showing a sunny day and grassy field outside (obviously an illusion of some kind considering we were underground), several comfortable-looking armchairs, and a few tall shelves packed full of books. But despite its outwardly ordinary-looking appearance, there was obviously more to this place. The hum of powerful magic was spread through the room, to the point that it almost made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. 

Sitting there in one of the armchairs, Fossor smiled as I entered. The door closed behind me. “Ahh, there you are, dear.” His voice was warm and inviting, as he picked up a notebook from the arm of the chair beside him, holding it out. “Come, let’s have a little chat. I’m sure your mother’s told you all about this place. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.” His eyes met mine. “I’m quite positive you have both discussed various ways of escape. It’s understandable, really. I want you to know that while I will, of course, prevent this, you won’t be punished for discussing it. I know what kind of people my women are, after all. I’d be shocked if you didn’t try to find a way out of here.” 

Despite myself, I retorted while moving that way, “And yet, I suppose you’re still not just going to let us go.” 

He didn’t dignify that with any response other than a slight smirk. Gesturing to the chair next to him, he waited until I reluctantly sat before putting the notebook in my hands. Then he handed me a pen. “Come now, let’s just be as pleasant as possible about all this. Write your answers down. First, were you genuinely surprised by how soon I… made my move to take you?”  

I felt the urge to write, as the room worked its magic on me. I had to answer, and the longer I took to put the answer on the page, the more uncomfortable and even painful it would be. Hurriedly, I scrawled, ‘yes’ on the page. The pressure eased. 

The questions continued, and grew gradually more complicated. He wanted to know if Mom and I had done anything that would lead directly to our escape. I answered truthfully to that, because neither of us had done anything like that. Then he asked for any plans Mom had shared with me about escaping, any plans either of us had for hurting him, that kind of thing. Those I mostly derailed by (somewhat gleefully) writing down very elaborate ideas I’d had about how I would like to kill him. And as for ‘plans about escaping’, I had dozens ready to go. None would work, of course, but the Writing Room didn’t care about how valid the plan was. 

He tried to head off cheating like that by strictly asking about plans I had ‘thought about that day before entering the room.’ But I was ready for that little trick with one of my own. Specifically, I’d actually spent time genuinely considering all these insane and absurd plans. I’d thought up as many ridiculous scenarios as possible and focused on them long enough for the Writing Room’s magic to allow me to write them down. Just as Mom had said. 

Finally, Fossor stopped me. He seemed torn between being impressed at my preparation and annoyed that I had thought ahead for this. But he also didn’t want me to know that he was in any way annoyed. Because that would mean he wasn’t one hundred percent in control. 

It wasn’t all perfect, of course. He made me share some personal details with him about my reunion with my mother. He made me write down feelings I had, things that Mom and I had said to each other, things I didn’t want to share. Things that made me tremble with anger when he forced me to record it all clinically like that. He made me write down feelings I’d had about my mother during the years I’d grown up without her, hateful and… and awful things I’d thought and said. Things that I couldn’t explain now, because that wasn’t the question. 

He made me write down such awful, personal things. Finally, the man took the notebook from me and smiled. “Good enough for now. Thank you, my dear. We’ll come back to this soon enough.” He looked at the notebook, starting to flip through it before giving a dismissive wave of his hand. “You’ll be escorted to your mother now.” 

So, after a momentary hesitation, I picked myself up, wiped my eyes, and forced myself to walk out of the room. As promised, there was another ghost, one I didn’t recognize, waiting there to glide ahead silently. I moved after him, still working to collect myself. Belatedly, I remembered to summon Kendall to follow.  

On the way through the building this time, I happened to glance out one of the windows and saw an actual line of living people moving toward a glowing portal out on the grounds. It surprised me enough to hesitate, staring that way. “Who are–” I started, before realizing. “Are those the people from the arena? They’re just now leaving?” 

The ghost turned to me, pausing before answering simply, “Lord Fossor is quite particular about how people must come and go from his residence. It takes a certain amount of time to ensure no one brings or takes any objects that could be used to locate this place, and his guests must only use his established transportation magic.” 

Right, of course. It was just like I’d been told earlier, Fossor didn’t like anyone to know where this place was. It had all those protective spells, magic he’d spent centuries perfecting in order to keep people out. There was no possible way I could beat that. No way… I… could…

Wait a minute. 

You there, Rahanvael?

I got a positive response from the ghost girl. She was still right there, had been there the whole time and Fossor, as promised, had no idea. 

Good. Because I figured it out. I know how we’re getting out of here. I know how to beat Fossor. 

But we’re gonna need a lot of bugs. 

 

SUMMARY

 

After speaking with Miles’ father Caleb for awhile and discovering that his wife/Miles’ mother is in some other location, Flick has lunch with her mother and talks about the fact that Fossor was clearly not putting her in actual danger because he isn’t exactly sure what she’s capable of handling just yet. She then has her first visit to the Writing Room. On the way, she asks Jorsher, one of Fossor’s ghosts, about his past. Jorsher explains that he has served Fossor for over two hundred years, ever since the necromancer slit his throat when he was on guard duty and used his raised body to kill the people he was supposed to be protecting, including his family. In the Writing Room, Flick manages to keep the actual critically important secrets through the tricks her mother taught her about giving the room too much information, but still has to write down embarrassing and emotional moments anyway. Upon being escorted out of the room, she notices people from the arena still leaving and is told that very specific and often time-consuming actions have to be taken to ensure that the visitors don’t have any chance of leading anyone to Fossor’s home. Upon hearing that, Flick mentally reaches out to Rahanvael and tells her that she has an escape plan. A plan which apparently requires many bugs. 

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Eighteen 6-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There is a summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who would prefer to avoid Fossor. 

Powers. I could kill with these golem things and then… and then what, collect the powers/boosts they’d gained with those kills just by touching them afterward? What–how did that even–what? 

Clearly amused by the look on my face, Fossor stepped back and gestured for the audience. “You see?” he started in a sly voice, prompting a few assorted chuckles throughout the stands, “even now, after everything she went through over the past year, my girl can still be surprised. Isn’t that adorable?” 

Yeah, there were definitely a few things I wanted to say to that. But all of them would have gotten me in trouble, and the van with those Chamrosh wasn’t so far away from the school that an annoyed Fossor couldn’t have them turn around and go back. So, with a little bit of effort, I managed to clamp down on the vicious retort that jumped immediately to my lips. Later. There would be a time and place when I could tell Fossor everything I thought about him. Not now. 

Instead, I simply looked back to where my mother was watching intently. She seemed just as uncertain as I was, but gave me a short nod of encouragement. She mouthed something I didn’t quite catch, but I was pretty sure she was telling me to go ahead and ask about what happened. 

Right, I might as well. Fossor clearly already knew I was confused. So I looked to him and flatly spoke up. “What just happened? How did the… how?” That was all I could manage to get out. 

“A fine question, dearest,” Fossor patiently agreed, “but now is hardly the time for such things. My friends here have been quite patient already, waiting through all the training we’ve done simply for one little warm-up match. I believe it’s time for the main event to get started.” He waited through the roars of approval those words were met with, clearly loving the reaction. After a few seconds, he raised one hand and the cheering instantly stopped, the arena going silent as he pointedly raised an eyebrow at me. “So, unless you’d like to continue fighting, I suggest you join your mother over there and simply enjoy the rest of the show for the moment.”

Right, of course all these people wouldn’t be gathered for a bit of training and a single practice fight for me, no matter what the stakes had been. Actually, given who these people were and the fact that they were willingly associating with someone like Fossor, I was pretty sure the ‘stakes’ being the lives of all those innocent young students basically meant nothing to them. And, from glancing around the arena, I could see that they were quite eager to get the real fights underway. My entire thing had essentially been a warm-up act, which made me feel… strange. 

Still, no way did I want to be involved in the fighting anymore. So, I started to turn and walk away before stopping myself. A thought took control of Kendall and I made her walk to the gate. Then I directed my focus over to Gavant and made the enormous man stand up before moving to join Kendall. Once the gate was opened for them, I sent both out. They might’ve been dead already, sure. But I still wasn’t just going to leave their bodies standing in the arena to be torn apart. I was… responsible for them, in a way. I felt bad enough about the fact that Fossor had killed them just to give me what amounted to puppets to work with. Letting their bodies get torn apart in some arena fight that they had nothing to do with felt pretty damn disrespectful. 

After directing the two of them outside of the arena, I followed suit and walked out. Mom was already there, standing in front of Gavant with a solemn look on her face as she reached up to touch the side of his arm. I could see the pain there. She knew the man, and clearly knew how much his people had already suffered. When I got there, her voice was quiet. “I’m sorry, one-of-honor,” she whispered to the dead figure. “You deserved far better than this.” 

Behind us, more people were entering the arena, to the assorted cheers and boos of the crowd depending on who liked which person. No one was paying attention to my mother and me anymore, which was just fine as far as I was concerned. I could definitely deal with being ignored right then.

With her hand still pressed tightly against Gavant’s arm, Mom turned to me. Her voice cracked just a little bit as she quietly announced, “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve this, any of it.” 

“I know,” I agreed, forcing myself to look up into the man’s dead eyes. “I’m sorry, Gavant. I’m sorry you got dragged into all this again. I’m sorry your people were just…” Exhaling, I shook my head while looking away, my voice dropping into a mutter. “I’m sorry about everything.” 

Mom and I both let that sit for a minute, each of us looking toward the arena without actually paying much attention to what was going on in it. People were being divided up into teams or something to fight each other. Whatever. They could all just go ahead and die as far as I was concerned. They willingly worked with Fossor. They willingly participated in his little games, including the one where a bunch of innocent school children would have been killed if I didn’t win my match. At that moment, I didn’t really care if they all just spontaneously combusted. 

Finally, I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. When I looked that way, she asked, “Who is this?” There was still very obvious pain and grief in her voice, her eyes directed toward the other golem Fossor had forced on me. “I don’t… she’s familiar. I used to know her. Who is she?” Even as she asked that, I could tell that my mother was dreading the answer. “You said Kendall.” 

Reluctantly, I nodded. “Kendall Harver. The… the Harvers, from back home. We were sort of… we didn’t get along.” No way was I going to say that Kendall was my enemy. I’d basically forgotten about her even before going to Crossroads, and now I knew what real enemies were. “I guess Fossor thought that meant more than I did. I…” Fuck, even saying that sounded wrong. Flinching, I managed a weak little, “I didn’t want anything like this to happen to her.” God, was that even inadequate. Of course I didn’t want this to happen, what the hell was I even saying? 

“The Harvers…” Saying that name made Mom cringe, her eyes closing briefly. I felt her grip on my shoulder tighten a bit. “Sasha and Kevin. Those poor…” Cutting herself off, Mom opened her eyes to look straight at me. I could see the grief there still, but also anger, righteous rage. She was furious to a level that I wasn’t sure Fossor fully understood. That anger was going to boil out at some point. My mother was holding it in, keeping track of each and every one of the necromancer’s transgressions. And someday, he would have to pay for them. 

For the moment, however, she pushed it back down, giving a slight headshake at me. Now wasn’t the time. Angry as we both might have been, we had to control it and wait for the right moment. Instead, she simply asked, “The aura flare. Did you actually…?” 

“I think so,” I confirmed. “I mean, it felt just like when I kill something myself, just delayed until I touched her. You don’t know anything about it?” 

“No.” Mom’s head shook once more, eyes narrowed thoughtfully at the arena where the fighting had started between two groups of three (much to the excitement of the crowd). “But he was obviously expecting it.” 

She was right. Me gaining powers from Kendall like that had clearly not exactly been a surprise to Fossor. And that made me wonder if that wasn’t the whole point of the exercise to begin with. Had he actually been testing to see if it would happen that way and hiding the test behind all that extra bullshit just so he wouldn’t look bad if he was wrong? Frowning thoughtfully at that consideration, I turned my head to look up toward the man himself. 

Fossor was looking at me from that throne of his. Ignoring the fight that was going on, he was instead staring directly into my eyes when I looked up. A slight smile curved at his lips, and he gave me one single nod. 

Shuddering despite myself, I turned away from him, folding my arms over my stomach uncomfortably. Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I forced myself to pay attention to the ongoing fight. 

I might not have been interested in how it went, but I was pretty sure I would have to fight at least some of these people at one point or another. Either in the arena or otherwise. So I might as well watch to be ready for when that inevitably happened. 

******

Hours later, the fighting was finally over. A team consisting of a weresnake, a troll, and a little pixie-creature that used electricity magic or powers had won in the end. Fossor presented them with some kind of heavy wooden chest with a complicated set of runes on it which, to my limited understanding, were spells that would do very terrible things to anyone who opened it without the counterspell. Whatever was in that chest, the trio acted really happy about getting it while the teams who had lost (those who were still alive) looked pretty disappointed and annoyed. 

After handing over a parchment that was apparently the spell to unlock the chest, and informing them that they should do so somewhere safely away from where others might grab their treasure, Fossor dismissed the rest of the crowd. He played it up like a true showman in front of them, informing the crowd that they could come back for another round of fights soon enough, and that by that time his ‘new girl’ would be practiced enough to give them a real show. 

While the group filed out, Mom and I just stood there with the Kendall and Gavant bodies nearby. A few of the people passing offered congratulations to me, others offered jeers and insults. I ignored all of them, focused on watching Fossor in the middle of the arena. He wasn’t looking at us. Instead, he seemed to be deep in conversation with that ghost who had seemed so amused when he’d startled me yesterday by popping up to inform us that it was time to bathe. I was really curious about what those two were talking about, considering Fossor appeared to be pretty distracted by it (and maybe even a little annoyed). Anything that annoyed that psycho fuck was something I wanted to know more about. And possibly write a ballad about.

Beside me, my mother murmured, “He’s using magic to prevent eavesdropping. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t want either of us to know anything about it.” After saying that, she looked to me, her hand finding its way to my shoulder to squeeze reassuringly. “I’d take that as a good thing.” Despite her words, however, I could see the pain in Mom’s face. The Meregan. She was barely holding it together after seeing what had happened to all those Meregan people. The Meregan, who were already so close to being entirely wiped out. Now their world had apparently been taken over by Fomorians and this group was just… dead. After living through so much, after surviving so much, they came for help and… and Fossor had just…

Yeah, no wonder Mom wasn’t doing very well at holding back her emotions. She was barely keeping it together enough not to throw herself (utterly uselessly) in a screaming, frothing rage at the arrogant piece of shit standing right there. She knew as well as I did that it wouldn’t accomplish anything, and yet… and yet I really couldn’t blame her for being one inch from doing it anyway. I was pretty sure that only the fact that I was standing there held her in check. Just like I didn’t want Fossor to take anything I did out on her, she didn’t want me to end up hurt because of something she did. Fossor had each of us very well in hand just by threatening the other. 

Finally, Fossor’s clearly intense conversation with the ghost ended, and he waved a hand to send the transparent figure away. Then the man pivoted, looking straight to us. I had the briefest glimpse of a troubled, not-very-happy expression before it vanished and was replaced with a smile. Casually, he raised one hand and beckoned for both of us to come with two fingers. 

Resisting the urge to reply with one finger, I sighed and started out that way with my mother right behind me. Belatedly, I reached out with my necromancy power to urge the bodies of Kendall and Gavant to follow behind us.

Reaching the man himself (or rather, as close as I was going to get), I stopped and folded my arms. My voice was brittle as I made myself meet his gaze. “Are you going to tell me what happened back there with Kendall and the… the Heretic thing?” I didn’t want to learn about that from him any more than I’d wanted to learn about using my necromancy power in the first place from him. But Mom clearly had no idea what was going on there, and he did. He was my only choice. 

And, of course, he was amused by the fact that I had to ask him despite clearly not wanting to. Adopting the look of a kind professor (which just made me feel even worse about the whole thing), Fossor gave a short nod. “Yes, of course. I would love to explain it to you, my brilliant girl.” 

I didn’t know how Mom reacted to that because she was behind me, but it must have been something, because I saw the way his eyes flashed briefly to her. His smile was infuriating, and I was kind of surprised that she stopped herself from hurling something (like a fireball) at him. In the end, she did manage to restrain herself and Fossor continued. “You remember the term I used for the magic power you have… weaved around the bodies of the golems?” 

Squinting that way, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, of course I do. Web. You called it a web of power.” It wasn’t a bad term, obviously. I pulled at strands of the web to make them do things. According to Fossor, eventually I would get good enough to simply give the slightest poke at one bit of web to cause more complicated actions to happen. He’d said that it was like learning an instrument. Right now I was a novice, but if I kept at it, a real ‘artist’ (as he put it) could produce an entire symphony by plucking at various strings. He’d sounded super-excited by that possibility, which just made the whole thing even worse for me to consider. 

“That web,” Fossor was already explaining in his professor-voice, “seems to hold the death energy from the things they kill. When you touch the golem, it transfers that energy into you. I had heard of certain Reapers using golems to feed themselves, and yet this… I was afraid to hope this would work as well as it seems to have.” 

Mom blurted, “So you’re saying she can just continue gaining powers from things her golems kill?” 

“Well,” the Necromancer infuriatingly patiently corrected, “if it’s anything like how the Reapers work, the death energy will fade relatively soon when not in active combat. And it will fade incredibly quickly as soon as our brilliant girl takes her attention off of it. In layman’s terms, within a very brief time of Felicity turning her attention to something else, either her own fight or controlling a different golem, the death energy will fade. But yes, so long as she focuses on controlling a singular golem and touches that golem very soon after its fight, she will gain powers from it.” His smile was broad. “Isn’t that delightful?” 

A few words immediately leapt to mind that I really wanted to spit at him, but none of them were any synonym for delightful. So I kept them to myself, with a little effort. Instead, I simply demanded, “What happens to Kendall and the rest of the Meregan now?” 

“Well, you will be responsible for them, of course,” Fossor informed me in the same tone of voice a father would tell a child that they would need to take care of the family pet. “There’s a stable one floor down from the rooms you and your beautiful mother are staying in. That’s where the rest of the Meregan are. I believe Joselyn can show you the way. Take this Meregan there to join his people. As for the human girl, I expect you to keep her with you. Consider her an extra set of hands. Get accustomed to having her around. Keep her clean, clothed, and anything else she needs. I don’t want to ever find you somewhere without your little golem near enough to help out. Understand?” 

Waiting until I murmured an acknowledgment, the man then gestured. “Good. Joselyn dear, show our girl where to take the Meregan, then the two of you can have some lunch. I’m sure she’s worked up a big appetite.”

With that, Mom and I left, with my two…. golems following. My voice trembled a little once we were out of the arena area. “I hate him,” I whispered. “I hate him so much.” 

“I know, baby,” Mom murmured, taking my hand to interlock our fingers. “I know.” 

Together, we made our way through the palatial mansion, where the halls were so large Gavant didn’t even need to duck. Eventually, we reached an enormous set of double-doors that Mom said led into the ‘stables’, which were apparently just open-air rooms where Fossor kept various groups of his dead troops. 

As promised, the rest of that group of Meregan were here. I recognized some, a fact that made me feel even worse about the whole thing. But there were also others who weren’t Meregan, other dead bodies standing around waiting to be controlled. One in particular drew my attention, a tall, fur-covered man who kind of looked like a Wookie. Or like Bigfoot with very long arms. His back was to me, and with dread in my stomach, I stepped that way. My voice was a whisper, “Oh God, Caleb…” 

He turned around, looking at me with a startled expression. I was just as taken aback, blurting, “You’re alive! I–what–” 

“Yes,” the fur-covered man confirmed. “I… take care of the dead here. That’s my job, it’s why I get to live.” His voice was flat, but still tinged with a mixture of sadness and bitterness.  

“You–is… is your wife alive?” I reflexively asked, my eyes widening. 

The man looked confused, his brow knitting together. “How do you know my wife?” 

“I don’t.” My head shook. “I’ve never met you or your wife, sir.

“I know your son, Miles. And I know that he’s been looking for you for a long time.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick asks Fossor what just happened with the Heretic kill-absorption activating after she touched Kendall. However, he declines to answer the question immediately, instead telling Flick to leave the arena so that the full tournament can start. Flick takes Kendall and Gavant out of the arena, where Joselyn reacts to Gavant’s death and then asks about who Kendall is. Joselyn recognizes Kendall’s last name of Harver from living in Laramie Falls, and is sad for the girl’s parents. They then watch the day’s tournament battles for a few hours, before the guests are dismissed to leave. Fossor has a brief interaction with one of his ghosts, using privacy spells to ensure that Flick and Joselyn can’t hear what’s going on. He then informs Flick that the ‘web of energy’ she uses to control the golems is what absorbs the death energy and allows her to later gain the powers/boosts by touching them as long as she does so relatively soon and without being too distracted from her control. Finally, Joselyn and Flick take Gavant to the ‘stable’ room for dead things to stay in, where Flick finds the (living) caretaker of the dead… Miles’s father.

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Eighteen 6-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There is a summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who would rather avoid any direct contact with Fossor. Flick envies you. 

 

Sixteen chamrosh versus a school full of preteens. Ordinary human preteens. It would be a slaughter in every sense of the word. It would be a massacre the likes of which I couldn’t comprehend. Each and every one of those kids would be dead. All of them. And the teachers. And… and…

No. I couldn’t let that happen. The fact that Fossor had chosen one of the first monsters I’d ever fought to threaten a bunch of innocent children with, in my hometown, did not escape my notice. And it definitely wasn’t a coincidence. He was doing that intentionally, and probably amusing himself to no end. 

But it worked. He’d wanted a way to ensure that I would take this fight seriously and genuinely try to win, and he’d found it. I couldn’t just half-ass this, not with the lives of those innocent kids at stake. Which I knew meant that he’d just keep doing this same thing any time he needed to. He didn’t have to threaten my mother or my own life to make me cooperate, he could threaten anyone he wanted to and keep me playing nice with him that way. And we both knew it. 

Worse, I couldn’t even fight my normal way. I was supposed to win this thing by controlling Kendall, by puppeting some other body. And not even in the possessing way that I was (somewhat) accustomed to. No, I was supposed to remote control pilot the body from over here, which… yeah. This was going to be complicated. And if I lost, all those kids would die. Because I knew it wasn’t an idle bluff. Fossor meant what he said. This wasn’t some ‘oh you tried as hard as you could, so that’s good enough’ sort of deal. If I lost this fight, all those kids would be murdered. 

But sure, it wasn’t like there was any pressure or anything.

In a practiced, casual voice, Fossor warned the crowd that any interference to help or hinder me would be a foul. And the way he said it made it clear that he had very specific ideas about what would happen to someone who committed such a foul that did not include simply putting them in time-out or ejecting them from the arena. Not to mention the fact that the ‘help’ part was clearly directed to my mother. She was going to have to sit this out as well. This one was all up to me. 

I was pointed to a raised platform area just outside the arena where I could look down and see the whole thing from an elevated position. The four Chamrosh who were actually here were still spread out, crouched low as they glared at Kendall, feathers and fur bristling. It was obvious that they were right on the edge of lunging to tear her apart, waiting only for the word to go. Four Chamrosh versus one zombie girl whom I had learned to pilot five minutes ago. Just fantastic.

Fossor, to his infinitesimal credit, did seem to at least be trying to make this ‘fair,’ to an extent. He waited until I was on the platform and settled, then gestured to a tall (almost ten feet) figure covered in gray-green fur nearby. The big guy picked up a large bucket full of swords, axes, daggers, hammers, and assorted other weaponry, tossing it over the wall of the arena. It shattered, sending all those weapons sliding along the ground behind the Chamrosh. Which meant they were all on the opposite side of the arena from where Kendall was, of course. 

Once the weapons were in place, Fossor looked my way. “Are you quite ready, dear?” 

Ready? Was I ready? A lot of words sprang to mind just then. Words that I wanted to scream at him, preferably while driving a dagger repeatedly through his ear and into his brain. Instead, I exhaled long and low, clearing my mind as much as I could. I looked down at Kendall. I felt the ‘net’ of power over her body, testing it from here to make her raise both arms, kick out once with each leg, and turn in a circle. No, I really wasn’t ready. But from Fossor’s point of view, I knew the answer to the question. So, I made her give a thumbs up while I simply said, “Whatever.” 

“Very well,” Fossor announced, his gaze moving over the arena as though silently warning everyone once more against interfering with this event. Then he added, casually as ever, “Go.” 

As calm as the actual word and voice speaking it were, the response from the Chamrosh was anything but. All four of them instantly leapt into action, lunging toward Kendall with a cacophony of shrieks and screams clearly intended to shock their victim into freezing up. 

I didn’t freeze up. But still, thinking about reacting and then directing that thought toward the dead and puppeted body down in the arena had an inherent delay. Especially given how unused to this whole sort of thing I was. So I barely managed to make Kendall twist aside before the Mastiff with the hawk head would have impaled her on his beak. As it was, the thing still managed to cut along her side. But, I supposed, at least she couldn’t feel pain anymore. 

Yeah…somehow that didn’t actually make me feel any better. But I had to shove that down. 

The Mastiff-hawk was already spinning back toward her, while the wolf-owl came right up from behind her with a loud, terrifying screech. The border collie-vulture and terrier-woodpecker leapt up and over the girl, landing on the far side before spinning back. Surrounded. Not even ten seconds into this whole thing and she was already surrounded, with no actual weapon to fight back because they were still all on the far side of the arena. This was just fucking fantastic. 

Focus. I had to focus on this. Kendall was already dead, I couldn’t do anything for her. But those other kids back in Laramie Falls weren’t. It was four Chamrosh, I could do this. I had to do this. 

I had the training for this. I had the instincts for this. I just had to stop overthinking it and put my actions into Kendall. I had to make her body an extension of my own. Stop thinking and act

I acted. Kendall’s fist lashed out to slam into the side of the Mastiff-hawk’s beak just before it would have torn into her arm. Given the power I had pumped into her, she was a fair bit stronger than she would have been as a living person, and the fact that she obviously didn’t really care about any pain meant I could make her hit even harder against the thick beak. The impact was enough to knock it off-course, even making the animal stagger sideways a little bit. 

At the same time, Kendall’s foot snapped backward to kick the wolf-owl in mid-lunge, sending it sliding to the side while only getting a bit of a nip into her ankle. Okay, that nip was enough to draw worrying amounts of blood, but still. Zombie. Or Golem. Whatever, she could take it. 

Unfortunately, there were four of these things. The collie-vulture leapt, slamming into her chest to knock her to the ground through the sheer force of its lunge. Meanwhile, the terrier-woodpecker was already waiting where her head had fallen, lunging to gouge that long, wicked-looking beak straight at her throat with a trilling shriek of its own that almost sounded like a laugh. An evil, nasty, horrible laugh. 

But I wasn’t done yet. Or Kendall wasn’t done yet. Whatever. Her hand snapped down, catching hold of the collie-vulture by the scruff of its neck. Or feathers, or–the back of its neck. The instant she had a good grip there, I made her yank the thing up over her own face, using the body of the monster as a shield from the incoming terrier-woodpecker. From my own point of view while Kendall’s face was covered, I saw the woodpecker beak tear into the side of the collie-vulture, making the latter screech. 

The fact that I was here and not there also meant that I could see the wolf-owl trying to sneak up from the side, going for one of Kendall’s knees. I let it come within range, then abruptly had the dead girl yank the collie-vulture off her face (it had left a ton of claw marks along the skin there and bloodied her nose), to slam as hard as possible into the incoming monster. There was a scream (mostly of anger, I was pretty sure) from both of them. 

But it also meant that I had something of an opening. Throwing Kendall into a sideways roll to avoid the woodpecker beak just in time, I made her wait there in that brief crouch while the Mastiff-hawk came charging up from behind. I knew it was there. That was one definite advantage of being in this position. Difficult as it was to be removed from the fight, it still meant that I could see things that even my item-sense power couldn’t have told me. So I knew exactly how long to wait until the Mastiff-hawk had committed to a lunge before launching Kendall into a backflip up and over the thing so it would plow into the others and buy me a few more seconds. 

Immediately, I used those seconds by making Kendall sprint backward toward the nearest weapon from the pile that had been scattered across that end of the arena. I didn’t bother taking the moment it would require to turn her around, because there was no point. She didn’t need to see where she was going because I could see where she was going. I was controlling her body, directing her into a backward sprint while the Chamrosh disentangled themselves. The smallest, the terrier-woodpecker, was the first to manage it. With a sudden shriek, the thing launched itself across half the length of the arena like a furry, feathery missile aimed at Kendall’s throat. It was so fast in that moment that a normal person would’ve been taken completely by surprise at how fast and far it managed to hurl itself off of a single jump. 

But I saw it coming. I saw the thing gathering to lunge, and though it was really fast, I had pretty good reaction times (thanks, werewolf in Wonderland), and managed to throw Kendall into another sideways roll an instant before the thing would have put its beak straight through her jugular. In the roll, I made the girl’s hand snap out to grab the nearby weapon. It was a mace, a weapon I wasn’t really familiar with (it did make me miss Sands even more, for sure), but that would have to do. I had time to make Kendall grab the mace while the terrier was pivoting and orienting for another lunge. With a grunt (from both of us, as I reflexively pushed that action into Kendall as well), I made the mace come swinging up and around as hard as I could. I shoved power into the power webbing that enveloped her form to push her strength as high as possible in the instant before the head of the mace slammed into the bird’s side. 

The result was instantaneous. There was a visible explosion of feathers, fur, and blood, accompanied by a horrifying, bloodcurdling squawk that was cut off right at its height, as if someone had just pressed mute. The limp remains of the thing’s body went flying a good ten feet before bouncing along the ground. At least, the parts that weren’t either smeared across the mace or drifting through the air. Or splattered over Kendall’s face, I realized, as I turned her back to face me. 

There was a mixture of cheering and boos. Obviously, some of the audience thought the fight itself was awesome, while others wanted to see me lose. Whether that was because they hated my family, hated Heretics, or just wanted to see a bunch of innocent kids get murdered was up for debate. Actually, probably a mixture of all of the above depending on the person. 

Okay, one down (yeah, it was the smallest, easiest one, but still). Three left, and I had a mace. Not the best weapon, but it was something. And I could maybe use that to work my way to something I was more familiar with, like that spear I could see in the distance. I just had to get close enough to grab it, then I’d have a weapon with a little reach to it, which would go a long way to helping me get more control over this fight. 

Unfortunately, those three Chamrosh that were left weren’t exactly leaping to help me do that. Actually, they were leaping to stop me from doing that. The wolf-owl threw itself to that side, eyes glaring my way as though daring me to try to get past it to any of the weapons there. The mastiff-hawk was on the other side (Kendall’s left and nearer to where I was physically standing), while the collie-vulture came stalking straight forward. Gradually, the three moved closer, one slow step at a time, shrinking the area I had to work with. They were operating as a pack, keeping Kendall penned in. I could tell from the way they were half-crouched that each was ready to leap if I tried to make her jump over them. This was going to be tricky. 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I just had to focus and not let myself (or Kendall) get overwhelmed. To that end, I made her abruptly pivot on one foot to face the opposite way and sent her running toward the wall at that end of the arena. Unlike the first time, I actually did make her turn her back on the monsters, because I wanted them to think she was vulnerable, triggering their instincts to chase after fleeing prey. 

They took the bait. All three immediately lunged to pursue, hurling themselves after Kendall in a wild rush, an assortment of shrieks, trills, and snarls filling the air from their excitement. They were going to run down the prey who had been so rude as to kill one of their packmates. If they caught Kendall, they were going to tear her apart and feast on everything inside. 

Except she wasn’t actually running scared. I sent her straight to the wall, watching intently as the Chamrosh gave chase. I was checking to see who the closest one would be… there! It was the wolf-owl. The thing was almost right on top of her. In another instant, with Kendall two steps from the wall, it would lunge. From the way it had positioned itself, I knew what the thing’s tactics were. It was going to throw its body at Kendall to knock her sideways into the mastiff-hawk coming from the other wide. The two would bodycheck her between them, trap the girl, and rip into her. That would be the end of this fight. 

Fortunately, I was ready for all of that. At the very last instant, just as the wolf-owl committed itself to the lunge, I made Kendall throw herself toward it. At the same time, her hand lashed out backward to hurl the mace into the face of the also-lunging mastiff. It wasn’t nearly enough to put the thing down, but it did make it stumble briefly. Meanwhile, Kendall’s other hand caught the leaping wolf by the throat. Its head snapped down to slam that wickedly sharp beak into her wrist. But she didn’t react at all, of course. The Chamrosh’s instinct to cause pain to make her grip loosen accomplished nothing. Nor did its scrambling feet raking across her chest and stomach do anything more than cut deep rips through the shirt and into the skin.

Pivoting while still running sideways along the length of the wall, I made Kendall hurl the scrambling, flailing wolf-body into the face of the collie-vulture. They were both caught up with each other while Kendall’s foot kicked a sword up into her hand. Before they could recover, she hurled it as hard as I could manage, with another boost-like burst of strength sent into the control webbing. 

The sword struck home. It went straight through the wolf-owl’s side and through the collie-vulture, impaling them both like some kind of kebab. They squealed and writhed, doing even more damage to themselves in trying to separate. They weren’t quite dead yet, but they weren’t in fighting shape either, and it wouldn’t take long. 

One left on its feet, and obviously it was the most dangerous one. The mastiff-hawk had managed to shake off being momentarily stunned by the mace it had taken into the side of its head, and was reorienting to come after Kendall once more. 

But there was distance between them, and Kendall was close to the spear I’d seen. Shoving everything I could into her speed, I made the now-dead girl throw herself that way, fingers outstretched to snatch the spear off the ground just before turning it into a roll. The remaining Chamrosh was right on her heels, so close that when the head snapped down, it actually tore into her ankle a bit. The same one that had been injured before, actually. It was enough that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to stand on it normally. 

Damaged or not, she had the spear. And I used that immediately by making Kendall twist around, offering her arm that way while skidding to a stop on her knees.  

Once more, the bait worked. The Chamrosh snatched hold of it, tearing into the arm with a vicious bite that went all the way down to the bone. It snarled, jerking its head back and forth to do as much damage as possible. 

And then it stopped, because Kendall had driven the spear up through its flailing body. I saw the thing’s eyes widen, while the spear was twisted and shoved from side to side. Then the blade came out the thing’s back, and it went limp, falling to the ground with a whimper. 

Pushing Kendall to her feet (I could barely make her stand somewhat properly on that damaged ankle), I ignored the traumatic damage that had been done to her arm. Instead, I made her stab the spear down through the skull of the dying Chamrosh to finish it off. 

After that, with the crowd mostly quiet save for a few scattered mutters, Kendall limped over to the still-impaled pair of ‘surviving’ Chamrosh and killed each of them with two more quick thrusts. 

They were dead. The four Chamrosh were dead. As soon as that was clear, I jumped off the platform, landing in the arena while the crowd gave a fairly evenly mixed assortment of cheers and boos. My eyes were on Fossor as I raised my voice. “Deal’s a deal, send the van away!” 

There was a brief pause before the necromancer nodded once. “You’re right, a deal is a deal.” His hand waved, and I watched the monitor as the van started up before driving out of the lot. Only once it was out of there did I breathe again. 

“An excellent showing, dearest,” Fossor all-but purred, making my entire body simultaneously tense up and also dry heave. “But you should touch your soldier there.” His eyes shone with amusement. “Take her hand and hold it high for the crowd.” 

I had no idea what game he was playing, but did so anyway. With a sigh, I reached out to take the less-damaged hand of the… the… dead girl gingerly, intending to raise it above her head. 

I didn’t get that far. The moment we made skin-to-skin contact, there was a flash of golden light, and I felt a sudden rush of pleasure that made me stumble a bit.  

It was the Heretic killgasm. I was experiencing it at that moment for all four Chamrosh that Kendall had killed. I felt the rush of pleasure and power from the four deaths, even though they’d happened much earlier. Somehow, the… result of their death, the energy or whatever, had stayed in Kendall until I touched her. Then it reached me. 

The crowd was roaring with a mixture of cheers and laughter at my reaction. And through it, I heard Fossor’s voice. “Well, that’s one hypothesis proven. 

“This could become quite interesting indeed.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick fights the four Chamrosh using Kendall and, through a difficult battle, manages to kill them all thanks to her own skill, the benefit of standing above it so she can see everything that’s going on, and the fact that injuries and pain don’t slow Golem-Kendall down. After the fight, Flick takes Kendall’s hand at Fossor’s suggestion, and immediately gains the boosts from killing the four Chamrosh, revealing that she will gain powers from what her golems kill once she physically touches them.

 

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Eighteen 6-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As Fossor is quite active in this chapter, there is a summary at the bottom. 

There was a high-pitched roaring somewhere in the back of my head. A rush of anger, of disbelief, helplessness, and grief all welled up within me while I stared at the puppeted dead body in front of me. The dead body of a man I’d barely known, but had really liked and admired.

And that was, in some ways, what made this whole thing worse. I hadn’t even considered the Meregan as potential targets to worry about. I hadn’t been thinking about them, because they were off on an entirely different world in a different universe. They were safe from this. 

Except they weren’t, of course. Because Gavant was a Meregan, and the Meregan had already been almost wiped out by Fossor to begin with. They had offered to help when the time came to deal with him. Of course they were still a potential target, regardless of anything else. They were people Fossor already wanted to deal with, who had made him angry and then still offered to help me. The few who remained, who survived Fossor’s purge, still wanted to help stop him.

And now look. Fossor had already said there were other Meregan here beyond this one. How many, I didn’t know. But more than one. And Gavant… poor Gavant. He was dead, and turned into a puppet for Fossor to manipulate. 

No. Worse. He was a puppet for me to manipulate. That was what this motherfuckeeehhh boy that was a title I didn’t want to finish. That was what this asshole wanted. He wanted me to puppet the Meregan man, wanted me to use him as a toy soldier. Just like he wanted me to use Kendall, an innocent (overall) ordinary human girl who had definitely not deserved to die like that. Kendall and Gavant, ‘enemy’ (as far as Fossor understood) and friend. Both killed just so this Necromancer piece of shit could use them to train me into his fucking protege or whatever. 

“You see?” Fossor himself spoke up, his cruel, horrible voice cutting through that roaring in my head. “Your old friend did offer to aid you when the time came. And now, here he is, fulfilling that promise. Never say that I don’t find a way to help old friends when they need that extra push.” 

Swallowing hard, I stepped over slowly. My gaze passed over Kendall and I whispered an apology under my breath. Why, I didn’t know. She was long gone. She was dead and no apology was going to bring her back. Same went for Gavant. Poor Gavant, and poor whatever other Meregan had come with him. 

What about Tristan? Gavant being dead would have happened years earlier for him, but he still hadn’t mentioned it. Was that to preserve some kind of time thing, or because he didn’t know, or because he thought it was something other than Fossor? My bet was one of the latter two. Actually, the second one. It was possible that Gavant just wasn’t there while Tristan was flying around with Nicholas, that he had stayed behind on his world to help rebuild. That was really the only way I could understand Tristan never mentioning Gavant’s death, because he didn’t know about it. That was the only… yeah, that had to be it. 

All those thoughts ran through my mind as I reached up to put a small, trembling hand against the chest of the nine-foot-tall, gray-haired figure. There was a thick lump in my throat, tears stinging my eyes. I didn’t care about all the people around me and how they were reacting to this. I didn’t care about Fossor perched above on his throne. All I cared about was the two dead figures in front of me. Two people who had died for such stupid, meaningless reasons. 

My eyes closed, and I murmured softly under my breath. “I’m sorry.” With my right hand still on Gavant’s unmoving chest, I moved the left to Kendall’s equally-motionless shoulder. “I am so sorry. I’m sorry I… “ My voice trailed off, words stuck in my throat. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to do right now that wasn’t utterly meaningless? They were dead. I couldn’t bring them back. Not in any real way. They weren’t even hearing any of this. Talking to them was pointless, it served no purpose other than to let me express my feelings. And that was stupid to do right here in front of everyone. None of these evil fucks deserved to know how much Fossor’s bullshit right now had affected me. Least of all the necromancer himself. No, I had to get myself under control and deal with the things that I could actually affect at the moment. Not just stand there apologizing to a couple dead people who couldn’t hear me. 

Apologies would come later. I would deal with that, with both of them, when the time came. When I wasn’t standing here in front of an audience full of psychotic evil fucks who were no doubt amused by this whole thing, then I would work my way through it, psychologically. 

But for now, I wasn’t going to give them any more of the satisfaction. Instead, I turned on my heels, arms falling to my sides as I lifted my gaze toward Fossor. “And if I tell you that I’m not going to use them?” I asked flatly, watching his expression. Not that I expected that to fly. 

Sure enough, Fossor met the question with a slight, humorless chuckle. As he did, others around the room chuckled as well, as though his reaction had given them permission to do so. They stopped instantly when he began to speak. “Well, dearest girl,” the man casually informed me, “if you are not happy with the tools I have provided, I suppose I would be forced to work my way through others in your past life until we find a pair of subjects whom you are satisfied by.” 

Others. He would keep killing people I knew until I accepted and worked with the people he gave me. Who else? Who would he see as a valid target to kill and hand over to me? Given he’d used Kendall of all people, I was pretty sure there was a very long list for him to draw from. A long list of people who would die just so Fossor could make a point about his control over me.

I couldn’t do that. As much as I loathed the idea of using my power to control Gavant and Kendall, if I didn’t, Fossor would just kill more people I knew. Many of whom wouldn’t be targeted by him otherwise. No, I had to do this. As much as it killed me on the inside, as much as it made me want to throw up and shove these stupid Necromancy powers into a deep dark hole and never use them again, I had to. Not only because of the threat to others, but also because it wasn’t the fault of the power itself. It wasn’t its fault that Fossor and Manakel had both tainted it like this. It was a power, like a gun or a sword. It could be used for good or evil. Either way, I had to do this. I had to use the power to control Kendall and Gavant. 

Logically, I knew all that. But it still took me a moment to force the words out. “No,” I finally managed. “They’ll do just fine.” I had to bite my lip to avoid adding anything nasty onto the end of that. Given the situation, I didn’t want to provoke my… host any more than I already had. Not with my mother right there and all of his guests watching this entire exchange between us. If Fossor thought he was taking too many insults and being seen as too weak in front of these people, I really didn’t want to think about how he might retaliate. Now was the wrong time for bravado, as much as it might have made me feel better for a few seconds.

From the look on his face, Fossor knew everything that I’d been thinking. He gave me a slight nod, one eyebrow raised thoughtfully. “Good,” he announced. “Then we’ll begin your training. First, you’ll learn to manipulate the smaller one. Then the larger one. Once you have the basics of moving them around and working your will through them, we’ll move on to the first match.” He gave me a slow smile, his eyes briefly moving away to look at someone off in the audience. Mom. He was looking at my mother. I knew that without even glancing that way. The expression on his face made that much clear. He was looking over to see her reaction to this whole thing. 

Then he looked right back to me, that slight smirk remaining. “I do hope you’re not a slow learner, Felicity. All of the fine people here came to see a good show. It will be very disappointing to them if we spend the entire time watching you learn to make a corpse wave.” 

I had a few thoughts about what the people around me could do with themselves if they ended up being disappointed in my performance. But I kept those words buried. Instead, I simply cleared my throat and flatly retorted, “Then I guess you should show me what to do.” 

The smile that appeared on his face when I said that made me really uncomfortable. Wearing that smile, the man stood from that throne of his. As he did so, a ghost appeared, floating in the air in front of the throne on his hands and knees as though placating himself before the necromancer. Then another appeared slightly ahead of and below the first, and another lower than that. They were forming a staircase out of ghost bodies. A staircase that Fossor casually strolled down until he was in the arena with me. While I watched, the ghosts disappeared and he moved until he was directly between Kendall and Gavant. “My dear girl,” he all-but purred. 

“All you had to do was ask.” 

Before I could shrink back, he stepped forward. His hand found its way to my shoulder, and I had to seriously work to suppress the urge to lash out. But what was I going to do? There was no way Fossor would let me get away with slapping his hand away, insulting him, or doing anything that might make him look less than perfectly in control in front of this whole audience. He would take any insult seriously personally, and while I absolutely did not care about his feelings of all things, I did care about the fact that he would likely hurt my mother in front of all these people just to punish me for acting out. So, I stayed as rigidly still as I could with that disgusting, horrible hand gently squeezing my shoulder. It felt like a venomous snake was coiled up next to my ear. Except that a snake would have been infinitely preferable to this.  

From the look on his face, Fossor was fully aware of the thoughts and impulses that had been running through my mind. He waited calmly, before smiling faintly when I managed to suppress my instinct. Our eyes met, and he actually winked at me. Yeah, that made it even harder to resist the urge to punch him in his smug fucking face. Or, better, stab him right in the throat. 

But that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Well, nothing other than killing some innocent person on his world. Which was sure would amuse Fossor to no end, but other than that. After hearing Rahanvael’s side of the story, I was even more loathe to do things to Fossor that would hurt the people on their world. Those people had been through so much for literally thousands of years. 

Honestly, I had to think about that to truly comprehend it. They had been enslaved for three thousand years. That was like if Earth had been under the sole control and power of one psychotic despot since 1000 BC. Three thousand years of being enslaved and forced to do his bidding. Three thousand years of anyone at any time just… randomly dying, or simply being injured or crippled, as Fossor passed any damage given to him off to them. Three thousand years. How many generations was that? Too many. Too fucking many. I wasn’t even sure how long their people generally lived or how similar to humans they were in that regard. But either way, it was too God damned many. They had all suffered more than any world should have. No wonder Rahanvael wanted her people to be freed from her brother. 

Stepping behind me, Fossor kept one hand on my shoulder while his other hand took my arm, lifting it to press a hand against Kendall’s forehead. Kendall. The dead… dead Kendall. Now I really needed to throw up. Or cry. Or scream. Or hit something. But I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t do anything except let this evil fuck touch me, his voice quiet as he murmured about closing my eyes and reaching out to sense what he called a web of power that had been woven around Kendall. He described it as similar to a net, one that had been woven around every part of the girl in front of me. Slowly, reluctantly, I closed my eyes and reached out that way, sensing through the hand that was pressed against Kendall’s head. 

I felt it. Fuck. I felt the web, felt the way the power was wound around and… and through her form. A slight tug at the web binding her arm made that arm lift, rising above her head. Then I tugged the other one up and made her hands clap together. 

Cheers filled the arena, clearly urged on by Fossor. God. No. No, God, I was going to be sick. I couldn’t do this. I had to–had to stop. I had to–

“Felicity.” It was my mother’s voice, somehow right next to my ear, a whisper that, as far as I could tell, even Fossor didn’t pick up. My head snapped that way to see her. She was standing flanked by others in the outer ring of the arena. Her lips moved, and I heard her voice once more. “I love you. It’s okay. You can do this. You can’t help either of them now. You can’t help them. You have to play along.” Her hand lifted very subtly, and I felt her touch brush down the side of my face very gently. “Please, Lissy.” 

I exhaled, giving a short nod to both her and Fossor. My voice cracked a little, but was at least audible. “I… think I get it.” Closing my eyes, I focused on tugging at the invisible webbing to make Kendall turn in a circle. It was easy. It was so easy, and that, somehow, made the whole thing worse. 

With a smile in his voice, Fossor squeezed my shoulder and arm. “You see? Very good. You are such a remarkable student, my dear. Now then… let’s see a bit more.” 

We continued that way, and… to my incredible disgust and hatred, Fossor was actually a good teacher. Yeah. Being near him was one of the most truly awful moments of my life. Listening to his voice, feeling his hands touch my shoulders and arms, having him so… fucking close and not being able to do anything about it made me want to shove my fingers through my own skull and tear my brain out. But, even with all of that in mind, he was still effective. He was patient, careful to explain things properly, made sure I understood one thing and could duplicate it before moving on to the next concept, even linking what I knew to what he was teaching me so he wouldn’t lose me after all that. 

He was a good teacher. I hated him. I loathed him. I wanted him dead and buried in the ground. But he was still a good teacher, at least of necromancy. Even (or maybe especially) in front of this audience, Fossor was so disturbingly good at just… teaching me how to control Manakel’s power. Everything he said made sense, and he weaved together the various parts of the lesson in how to move the bodies properly, how to push my own strength into them, how to essentially boost the so-called golems to be faster and stronger than they should have been. 

I hated it. I hated every single second. But I was going to use it anyway. I was going to use every little thing he taught me and be the best possible student he could ever have. Because somewhere in those lessons might possibly be something that would someday help me kill him. 

Through it all, the audience watched. They called out advice now and then, and I had the feeling that they couldn’t hear what Fossor was explaining to me. He was using some kind of magic to ensure that only I could hear his actual words. Which I supposed made sense, given he wouldn’t want to be explaining the nuances of even one part of necromancy to a whole audience. Either way, I was surprised they weren’t getting bored or complaining about the lack of fighting and blood. Maybe they just knew better than to do that in front of their host. 

Whatever it was, eventually Fossor stepped back. He gave a satisfied nod. “Now then, the best way to test what you’ve learned so far is a nice little match. Let’s have you control the little one for now. Just to start.” With a gesture, he sent Gavant to sit in the corner of the arena, leaving me standing next to Kendall. Across from us, four figures entered. Four familiar figures, at least as far as their species went. Chamrosh, they were all Chamrosh, the things that the rest of my team and I had fought for our first hunt just before the Amarok showed up. They were the younger, smaller cousins of a Griffin, each with the body of a canine and (oversized to fit the dog body) head of a bird. Of these four, one was a huge Mastiff with the head of some kind of hawk, the second had the body of a border collie and the head of a vulture, the third had the body of some kind of wolf and the head of an owl, and the last one had the body of a smaller dog like a terrier matched to the head of a woodpecker. 

The four Chamrosh spread out, staring and growling at Kendall and me. Meanwhile, Fossor took the ghost-stairs back up to his throne while informing me, “You don’t fight, my dear. Step out of the arena. You control your minion to do the fighting.” 

Turning to settle himself into his seat while his ghosts vanished into nothingness, the man added slyly, “Oh, and let’s make this a bit interesting, shall we?” With that, he snapped his fingers, and one wall above and to the left of the arena lit up. It was like a jumbotron monitor. On it, I saw… a school? Wait, my school. It was a view of the front doors and parking lot of my old middle school back in Laramie Falls. A middle school full of students walking around, heading for classes, stopping to chat, or just goofing off. It was a bunch of middle schoolers. 

There was also a moving van parked in the lot. Even as the moving van came into focus, the wall turned somewhat insubstantial, revealing the interior. An interior full of over a dozen of these same Chamroshes. 

“If you win this fight using only the girl,” Fossor’s voice informed me (and the audience), “the van drives away and nothing happens.

“But if you lose, those doors open, and we’ll see just much damage sixteen Chamrosh can do to a school full of preteen children.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick apologizes to the (already dead) Gavant and Kendall for Fossor dragging them into this, and reluctantly agrees to use them as her golems to stop him from simply killing more people from her life. Fossor then instructs and guides her in how to control the golem bodies, and turns out (much to Flick’s annoyance) to be a very good Necromancy teacher. To test her new skill, Fossor tells Flick that she will use Kendall to fight several Chamrosh (the same animals from the first hunt way back in the first book, canine bodies with bird heads). He then adds that if she doesn’t win, a larger group of Chamrosh will be unleashed on her old middle school to kill all those innocent students.

 

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Eighteen 6-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fossor does appear in this chapter. For those who would prefer not to read chapters with him, there is a summary at the bottom.

Mom took my hand, squeezing it while leading me that way. “You can do this,” she assured me. 

Then we passed through the doors, emerging into a circular fighting pit surrounded by raised stands for people to watch. Fossor’s seat, of course, was above everyone else’s. But there was also a surprising number of onlookers. He had brought on an audience. Showing off his new Heretic? Or was this just a normal event for him? I wasn’t sure. Either way, I was honestly surprised that he had so many living people willing to come to his home like this. Though I probably shouldn’t have been. Necromancer or not, he obviously had living allies. Or at least living people who were willing to risk being around him. After all, there were people willing to go into his arena, and they couldn’t all be dead. There wouldn’t be any way for Mom to get stronger if they had been. So, obviously Fossor had living people either allied with him or willing to be paid to stick around. I wondered briefly if they all had some connection to the people in the arena. Was there a gambling system going on? Were they bringing in their own fighters to face Fossor’s? I wasn’t sure how the whole thing worked, but I was sure I would find out soon. 

I also wondered if any of the fighters in here were either or both of Miles’ parents. I’d talked with the older boy a little bit over the past few months, enough to know that his birth father was a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman) while his mother was a Natural Kejjerfiet Heretic and had been since she was a little girl. If they were here, I had to make sure they knew their son was okay. And try to get them out, while I was going about the already impossible task of getting myself and Mom out. Adding two more onto that list wasn’t so bad, right? Like tossing a few more rocks onto the mountain I was trying to lift.   

We weren’t actually in the main arena part just yet. There was a fairly narrow space (just large enough for something like a troll to squeeze through sideways) all the way around the fighting area, with various tunnels leading out to it. I could see several figures hanging out both in the main arena and at the ends of the tunnels. All of them turned to look as Mom and I emerged, and I immediately sensed the hostility. Yeah, no one was happy to see us, that much was for sure. 

Before I could say anything to Mom, a trio of ghosts appeared hovering above the arena. They had trumpets. Literal trumpets (which looked physical rather than ghostly, raising more questions in my mind) raised to their lips. They blew the trumpets, sending a loud cacophony of sound throughout the room which drew everyone’s attention to Fossor, who had stood up. I had no doubt that everyone would have immediately looked at him anyway without the help of the trumpets, but he had to make a whole big production out of it just to show off. 

Only once he was absolutely sure that every eye in the room was on him did Fossor speak. “Welcome, friends,” he finally began in a broad, commanding voice that easily filled the room. “It’s so good to have all of you here on this momentous occasion, when my Joselyn is joined by her daughter.” As he said that, the vile fucker gave a broad gesture toward the spot where Mom and I were standing, directing everyone to stare at us. I resisted the urge to flip all of them off. Good as it might’ve made me feel for just a moment, it either would have annoyed or amused Fossor, and I didn’t want to do either. Instead, I simply stood silently next to Mom and watched while the audience and other fighters alike stared at us like we were animals in the zoo. Animals they really wanted to kill. 

Fossor was still talking. “Of course, we know how eager some of you are to pit your champions against either of mine.” He said that pointedly while looking at me with a little smile that made my stomach turn over. “And that will come in due time! But for today, I promised my girl a very special birthday present to start things off, and I do prefer to keep my promises. So, Felicity, come to the center of the arena. Joselyn, stay where you are. That’s a good girl.” 

Feeling my mother’s hand squeeze my shoulder, I glanced that way briefly. She met my gaze and nodded while speaking in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You’ll be okay. Whatever he does, just let it wash over you. Focus on surviving and getting out of here. We can deal with things later.”

Deal with things later, right. I knew what she meant. Any trauma, horrible feelings, regret, guilt, any of that I would have to bottle up and talk through with her later, once the fighting was over and we were safely out of the arena. She would help me cope with whatever I ended up having to do. But for now, I had to actually do it. 

So, with a deep breath, I started walking that way while my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. I was terrified about what was going to happen in that arena, what I was going to see. A heavily scarred rat-like man with three long prehensile tails used one of those tails to open the gate leading into the arena before he stepped aside. His arm was raised in a grand gesture for me to go ahead. As I passed him, the man whispered, “Gonna cut you later. See what your blood tastes like, pretty girl.”

“While you’re at it,” I retorted without thinking, “could you maybe try to come up with a less cliche threat to taunt the next girl with? Because that was pretty weak, dude. Two out of ten, would not recommend future fight banter with. It’s like you’re not even trying to be intimidating.”

The rat-guy looked like he wanted to say something else to that, but I was already moving on. I stepped over to the middle of the arena, ignoring all the people staring at me. I was being assessed from all sides, both by the fighters in and around the arena itself, and by the spectators in the stands. I was pretty sure most, if not all, of them wanted to see me die, though how much of that was personal against me or my mother (or Heretics in general) and how much was just them wanting to beat Fossor in his own house was up for debate. Briefly, I pondered what would happen if one of their people actually killed Mom or me. It was an incredibly morbid thought, but still. I was curious about what kind of things they were gambling with. Also, I wondered if Fossor would actually let them live long enough to collect any prize they were owed. 

Once I was in the middle of the arena, I stopped. Taking a moment to push down as much of my uneasiness and fear as possible, I slowly raised my gaze to look up at the spot where Fossor was sitting on his throne-like seat. A few pithy comments had jumped to my mind on the way out there, but they all vanished as soon as I actually looked at him. My voice stuck in my throat. From the outside, it might have looked like stoic silence. But inwardly, I was just terrified. I had no idea what he had in mind, what he was going to do right then. I didn’t know what this present was going to be, what he was going to make me do, what… any of it. My imagination was running wild. It was all I could do to keep myself upright, stop my legs from collapsing out from under me, and keep staring at the man. Saying something witty or insulting was completely beyond me. Actually, not saying anything at all was probably for the best, considering any attempt to talk probably would have resulted in my voice shaking and cracking. Being silent was the only chance I had at not being seen as the terrified little girl I was.

I was pretty sure Fossor knew exactly why I wasn’t speaking, because he gave me a small smile before gesturing. His voice was… ugh, fond as he announced to the gathered audience. “My brilliant girl. She was a reporter in her hometown, you know. Not for any of the more… official publications, of course. Though she did have a few short articles published in the local paper under the junior reporter byline. Her true work was in the school newspaper. Those I had to have brought here specially, as its online presence was sadly quite lacking. Not even a proper Facebook page?” 

Somehow, I found my voice. “I already totally believed you were an evil, remorseless, soul-crushing irredeemable psychopath without literally trying to push Facebook. Don’t oversell it.” 

There was a short bark of laughter from Fossor. That was the only reaction, at least at first. The rest of the audience seemed to wait to see how he would respond, before chuckling softly. Meanwhile, I was busy telling my mouth to shut the fuck up or get off my face so the rest of me didn’t get hit with the blowback from what it insisted on blurting out. 

“Yes, well,” Fossor casually drawled, “I suppose it’s time for your presents, isn’t it?” 

“Presents?” I echoed warily, frowning. I’d been worried enough about one present. But multiple? Yeah, the idea of that didn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies. “I think I’m good. What’s that religion that doesn’t do presents on your birthday? Jehovah’s Witnesses? I converted like… three minutes before you grabbed me, and I really don’t think I should push things this early. It’s not good for my growth.” 

A very slight smile touched the man’s face, as he watched me. “But if you don’t take your presents, dearest child, you’ll have no golems to fight for you in the arena.”

Confused, I ignored the snickers around me to slowly ask, “Why do I need someone to fight for me? And what do you mean by golems?” 

“Because that is your training today, of course,” Fossor patiently informed me. “You are my budding apprentice. What good does watching you get your own hands dirty do? You will learn to manipulate your necromantic powers properly. Part of that involves learning to control and empower golems. Zombies, of a sort. Dead who are raised and enhanced by your power, directed by your own tactics. Puppeted, if you like, to act as an extension of your will. You are not here now to roll in the muck with the filth. I could have pulled any fool off the street for that. My apprentice is far more special. You are here to learn to weave our power through those who have already fallen, to raise them up and put them to work serving their betters.” 

“You… you want me to fight with zombies?” I couldn’t keep the faint disgust out of my voice. 

“No,” Fossor informed me in a patient, patronizing voice. “I want you to fight using golems. As I said, they are similar to zombies. But think of them as… super-zombies. Their power, strength, all of it depends on your own power. The stronger of a necromancer you are, the better you can make your golems.” 

“My… present isn’t just teaching me about these things, is it?” I carefully asked, watching the amused reactions all around me. That fear I’d been feeling the whole time? It wasn’t getting any better. 

Fossor, meanwhile, gave a low chuckle. He was clearly enjoying himself immensely right now. “Hardly,” he replied. “I have acquired and prepared two golems for you to work with. One from your previous life, and one from your present life. One an enemy, one a friend. The enemy first, perhaps?” 

Enemy? What did he– Then I saw a figure march robotically through the crowd, step into the arena, and stop in front of me. It was… a cheerleader. There was a blonde cheerleader in front of me, which was giving me all new revulsions about what Fossor had meant when he’d said that this present was ‘perfect for me.’ 

Wait. Hold on. I knew this cheerleader. 

Kendall?!” I blurted out loud, my eyes widening. Kendall. It was that girl from Laramie Falls, two years older than me. Miranda and I had caught her stealing from a school carnival that everyone had been using to raise money for a field trip back when we were in sixth grade and she was in eighth. 

“That’s right,” Fossor agreed, while Kendall simply stared blankly at the floor. She was dead. I could sense it. I could feel it, could practically taste it. She was a zombie. Or at least something similar to one. A ‘golem’, as he had put it. There was no life or personality inside her. 

“What the hell is she doing here?” I demanded, my eyes widening. “What–you killed her?!” 

With a courteous bow of his head, the necromancer intoned, “You’re very welcome. You see? Things can be very different between us. Your enemies can be my enemies. And we can settle old feuds.”

Old… feuds… I’d barely thought about Kendall at all since leaving Laramie Falls. Actually, the only time I could even think of her coming up was when I was telling Deveron about her that one time. Sure, I’d disliked her in school. But honestly, I’d moved on basically even before ending up at Crossroads. She was just some stupid older girl who always got what she wanted because she was some smalltown princess soccer star. She left for college the summer before all this happened. She was gone, and I barely thought about her, months before I’d ever known anything about Heretics. What old feud was he…

And then I understood. I understood something important about Fossor. Something that had occurred to me somewhat before, but had never truly and fully clicked in my head until this moment. He never let anything go. Never. He didn’t understand how to move on from things. Why would he? He was a necromancer, his entire being was based around keeping things long past death. But more than that, he kept grudges going back millennia. His reaction to being cursed to stay off of Earth or risk losing all his power was to find a workaround and continue risking it just because he could not stand being told no. 

Fossor never let anything go. He never accepted being denied anything he wanted, not for long. He might temporarily retreat to attack something from a more advantageous position, sure. But he would never really abandon it, would never just move on. More than that, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that I could have some random girl I didn’t like in school and then just… move on with my life without thinking about her, without obsessing over her. Because that was just the type of person he was. 

“I see you’re overwhelmed by the generosity,” Fossor easily and casually announced, drawing chuckles and snickers from the audience. “But yes, your old rival from school, the girl who dared cause you unhappiness, will be your tool from now on. You will learn to empower and control her, to manipulate her body to fight for you.” 

Swallowing, I stared at Kendall, guilt welling up in me. If I hadn’t made… No. Push it down. I shoved it away and left those feelings for later. “You… said two,” I reminded him, my voice cracking a little. “You said there were two. One from my past life and one from… from my present life. An enemy and…” I couldn’t say it. 

“And a friend, yes,” Fossor confirmed. “You will have two bodies to practice with. This girl is the first, and the second… well, he and several more of his people came, I believe, with the intention of taking both of my girls away. I’ve put the others he came with to work on my own projects. But I decided you should have at least one. After all, they did come here because of you.”

Because of me. A group came… to save Mom and me. A rush of horrible possibilities ran through my head. Except Fossor had said more of ‘his people.’ Did that mean… what did that mean?  

While my panicked brain was trying to sort its way through everything Fossor had implied, a new figure entered through the same opening that Kendall had come through, moving the same way, as a dead puppet before stopping in front of me. I wasn’t watching them come in. I was staring at the ground, afraid of what I would see. Terrified of what… who would be in front of me. 

Finally, I exhaled and slowly lifted my gaze, steeling myself as much as I could. I looked up… and up… and up a bit more. Then I saw the person, the friend, whom Fossor had… recruited for me. And I immediately realized that this wasn’t just for me. It was also for my mother. 

Because the figure in front of me, the figure who was only one of apparently several of the same people who had tried to help us and paid the ultimate price, was one of the first friendly Alters I had met. He was someone who had remembered my mother from so many years earlier and whose beacon had originally summoned Shiori and me to their world when they sought help from Joselyn Atherby. 

The man in front of me was the nine-foot tall Meregan named Gavant. 

 

SUMMARY

Flick and Joselyn enter the arena and find it full of onlookers and other fighters. Fossor plays up to the crowd a bit, then informs Flick that she will not be physically fighting today. Instead, she will use what he calls ‘golems’  or ‘special zombies’ that she can personally direct and empower with her own strength. He has brought two so-called ‘golems’ for her to use. The first is referred to as an ‘enemy from her old life’, and turns out to be Kendall, the human girl from Laramie Falls whom Flick had several altercations with, including the time she and Miranda busted her for stealing from a school carnival. From this, Flick realizes that Fossor is incapable of understanding that someone could move on from an old grudge without being obsessed with it.

Fossor then introduces the second golem, referred to as ‘a friend from her new life.’ This turns out to be the Meregan known as Gavant, while Fossor notes that more Meregan came with him and are all his dead servants now.

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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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Interlude 5B – Fossor (Heretical Edge 2)

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Four Years Ago

Jefferson Coalbright missed his family. Yes, the trip up here to fish and camp in the Canadian wilderness with his buddies was important. It was tradition, one they had kept alive for the past twenty years, even through the deaths of a few of their close friends. And now, not taking the trip would feel like dishonoring that memory. To say nothing of how much he’d hate himself for letting his living buddies down. But still, two weeks was a long time to be away from his wife, his father, and all six of his children. He missed them more than he could say. 

Still, this trip was just about over. Then, he supposed, he would spend most of the year looking forward to the next one. That was how it always went. The grass was greener, and so on. 

At the moment, Jefferson was washing his hands in the restroom at the edge of the campgrounds he and his friends had chosen this year. Hearing the squeak of the door, he glanced up at the mirror, only to smile at the reflection. “Well, hey there, Freddy. You haven’t gone home yet, huh? I thought you were taking off yesterday?”

“Oh, not just yet,” the slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a soft, inviting expression that made him look like that friendly uncle everyone knew replied easily. He crossed the restroom with something in one hand, setting it up on the sink between them. “Just can’t bring myself to leave this beautiful place.” ” He inhaled and exhaled with pronounced satisfaction. “It was Astrid’s favorite place to come, you know.” A lost, faraway expression crossed the man’s face. 

Biting his lip, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “I know, buddy.” Fred was a man he’d only met a few days earlier, yet the man was so friendly, so full of wonderful stories of his late wife (who shared a name with Jefferson’s own lost mother), that he felt as though he’d known the former stranger for a much longer time. “She’d be glad you were still coming up here, I know she would.”  

Changing the subject then, he gestured to the object that had been placed up on the other sink. It was a white-red rose in a flower pot. “Now that’s just gorgeous, where did it come from?” 

“Hmm?” Glancing to the flower as though he’d forgotten about it for a moment, Fred paused. A somewhat sad smile crossed his face briefly. “Oh… there’s a grove of them a few hours’ hike from here. Astrid… Astrid loved them, so I always make sure to take one to her grave after one of these trips.” Shaking his head, he noted, “And then I went and forgot I’d already picked the one for her earlier. Took a second one and didn’t even… notice…” Trailing off, he seemed to lose himself in memories (happy ones, Jefferson hoped) for a few seconds before coming back to the present. “Ah, actually, I’m glad I found you. You’re heading out this morning, aren’t you? Why don’t you take that one home to your own wife? Let her know just how much you missed her.” 

After briefly considering, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “You know what, I think I might take you up on that. Here, let me buy it off you.” He reached for his wallet. 

“No, no, no, don’t be ridiculous.” Shaking his head, Fred took the flower pot and pressed it against Jefferson. “You take this and make the missus happy, you hear me? It’s plenty enough payment just thinking about the feelings this little plant here is going to give your whole family.” 

Thanking him again, Jefferson Coalbright took the flower, sniffing it curiously before the sound of a familiar horn honking drew his attention. “Right, that’s the guys. I’ll see you next time, Freddy! Maybe next year.” 

Watching the man leave with the flower under one arm, ‘Fred’ slowly straightened. His cheerful expression remained, but it seemed decidedly less friendly in that moment. “No, Mr. Coalbright,” Fossor murmured under his breath while standing on the ashes he had magically spelled to be unnoticeable by the humans around here. 

“I don’t think you will.” 

*******

Three Years Ago 

 

Clipping the badge that identified him as a doctor onto his white coat as he strolled out of the elevator onto the children’s wing of the psychiatric care hospital, Fossor gave a polite wave to the woman behind the desk who knew him as Alvin Carver. She barely looked up from the phone, too busy with her own work to even say hello as he passed by. She certainly didn’t notice the ashes that sprayed out of the canteen he held in one hand and coated the floor in front of him before just as quickly vanishing after he had stepped on them. 

It was late enough in the day that things were pretty quiet, save for the rapid babbling coming from the nurse’s station, as Fossor neared the room belonging to Dakota Coalbright. One quick visit, in and out, just to continue fulfilling his end of the bargain with the creature known as Kwur. The plant-being had grown particularly fond of this girl and wanted her checked in on now and then. 

Fossor, of course, could sympathize with growing somewhat attached to a child that he saw as his own. Young Felicity, of course, would be… fourteen now? Just entering high school. He’d have to pay her another visit soon. It had been a couple years since that time in the dentist’s office, and he was certain her mother would appreciate some new pictures. 

The things he did to show his affection for that woman, honestly. He was clearly growing soft. 

Just as he reached out for the door to see how Dakota was doing, it opened on its own. The old necromancer was taken slightly by surprise, stepping back as two figures emerged. One was a very heavy-set, round-figured beachball of a man with a broad smile. The other was a young blonde girl. Both emerged from the room together in mid-conversation. 

He hadn’t heard them before. Magic. There had to be magic involved. It had kept their presence in the room as well as their conversation secret, likely to avoid being overheard by nosy nurses. And now, they both looked up to see the man who had just been about to go into the room. 

The girl was nothing. She simply smiled absently, starting to excuse herself with a polite apology. She didn’t know him, had no idea that anything was wrong. She would go on without another thought about it. 

The man, however, was a different story. The moment their eyes met, Fossor knew. This was a man who knew him, one who recognized him. He too, vaguely recognized the other figure, though the specifics were escaping him at the moment. But that hardly mattered. What did matter was that the man knew who Fossor was. And that was something that couldn’t be allowed. He’d seen Fossor about to walk into Dakota’s room. That was a story that would get out, and the entire point of this charade was that when the time came, people couldn’t know that Fossor had any connection whatsoever to the girl in that room. Otherwise, the whole game would be ruined. And it happened to be a game that Fossor was determined to win. 

Yes, this was definitely a problem. One that he needed to take care of now. 

The fat man was already reacting, recovering from his own surprise as he reached for something in his pocket. His mouth was open, starting to blurt a warning while his other hand moved to shove the blonde girl behind him for protection. 

But Fossor had been doing this for a long time, and had been reacting even before he fully understood the situation. A thought manifested several ghosts surrounding the pair. One yanked the door into Dakota’s room shut before the girl could notice anything wrong. Another covered the blonde girl’s mouth and yanked her up, while two more covered the fat man’s mouth and held his arms down before he could grab whatever he had been reaching for. 

The ghost who appeared next was different from the others. He was larger by over a foot, and purple rather than blue-gray, with burning red eyes. His name was Ahmose, and both hands covered the fat man’s eyes. The resulting scream of agony from the man as the torture-spirit used his power was only barely muffled by the other ghost’s hands over his mouth. Within a few seconds of that, he had collapsed. 

Gesturing for his spirit troops to gather up the fat man, Fossor gave a look toward the blonde girl, who was giving her own muffled scream while struggling against the ghost holding her. The scream, at least, stopped as Fossor waved a hand, focusing his flesh-crafting magic to seal her mouth. He’d have to kill her, of course. But he’d first like to at least… wait…

Frowning, Fossor looked up and down the hall. Something about the girl was off. Things still looked clear, so he directed the ghosts to carry the unconscious fat man and the still-struggling (even more now that her mouth had been temporarily sealed) girl into one of the other rooms. The patient in that one was safely asleep, knocked out every evening by a very strong cocktail of drugs, so Fossor was quite certain they wouldn’t be interrupted. Giving one last glance toward the nurses station, he waited until he was also certain that no one had noticed anything. Then he crossed the hall. Near the door, he glanced toward Ahmose. “Watch for intruders,” he ordered. “Stay out of sight.” 

That said, he stepped into the other room, where the ghosts were just depositing the fat man on the floor. Ignoring him, Fossor stepped up to the struggling blonde girl, extending a hand to touch her shoulder before frowning. “Hmm… someone… very powerful is keeping a bit of an eye on you, aren’t they? Well, that makes this a little more complicated. You see, I would simply make you disappear. But… that would attract this person’s attention, and attention is a bad thing for me.” 

His frown turned to a smile. “I suppose we’ll just have to make sure neither of you remember any of this.” 

******

Several Weeks Ago

 

The door of a small hole-in-the-wall bar in the Alter-filled town of Strangefield swung open as the blue reptilian-skinned man known as Azlee Ren strolled out. On the way, he called over his shoulder. “Now don’t you even think about staying out too late, Minnsy! We’ve got that brunch date with Carolina in the morning and if you make me listen to the old lady’s stories all by myself, you’re gonna wake up with a shaved you-know-what, I swear to Pete and his dragon!” 

Whistling, the only member of the Gehenna guard who actually spent a fair amount of time in the town their outpost was near (there was a reason he was put in charge of interacting with outsiders) strolled off around the corner of the building to the small parking lot. On the way, he plucked the communication device from one pocket. To outsiders, it would look like a cell phone, but was actually capable of much more. For the moment, he simply used it to compose a quick message for his sister. She was stationed at one of the other outposts, but the message would be sent along through the Gehenna intergalactic communications network and she would get it within a day or two. He had to let her know that they’d both been wrong about who had written that book they were both obsessed with as children. It was the Benestean, Tuuv R’ken. 

“So… I… guess… we… both… owe… each… other… dinner.” With that typed out, Azlee clicked the device shut, dropped it in his pocket, and reached out to grab the door of his car. He could have called for a teleport in and out of town, of course. But Azlee preferred to drive. It gave him time to think. Or not think, and just let his mind wander. Besides, the scenery was gorgeous here on Earth. Much better than the place Tala was stationed. He’d have to send her more pictures. Or would that be considered rubbing it in her face? Hmmm… it was a fine line. 

Stepping down into the car, he hit the button to turn it on while shutting the door. For a moment, he fiddled with the radio to find a station playing something he could groove to. Then the man shifted the car into reverse and turned to look over his shoulder to back up out of the lot. He was met with the sight of a man in his back seat holding a small spray bottle up. Before Azlee could react, the man triggered the spray into his face. Instantly, he felt his throat close up, his heart bursting. As darkness filled his vision, he collapsed sideways into the passenger seat with a violent spasm, blood gushing from his mouth while Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight played. 

Sighing, Fossor set the spray bottle aside. He listened to Patsy’s song for a few seconds while waiting for the poison to finish its job. About halfway through it, he felt the death complete, and sent a bit of his power into the body. Immediately, Azlee sat back up, and Fossor gestured. “Let’s go get you cleaned up, my friend. And pick up the pace, hmm? There’s much to do, and we can’t have anyone notice you going missing yet. Not until you acquire a few things for me.” 

Without speaking, the dead Azlee pulled the car out of the lot before starting to pull away from the bar, all while Fossor casually hummed along with that old song.  

*******

Several Days Ago

 

Back when he was alive, the man known as Randall Puzler had been a detective for the Las Vegas police department while secretly working for the Three Ruling Families of Akharu, Oni, and Vestil. For months now, however, he had actually been a dead man being puppeted by Fossor toward one end: becoming friendly with the Vestil man who was, at that very moment, punching the wall of the precinct on his way out. 

“Hey!” the puppeted zombie called out toward the glass-like man full of colored smoke and liquid. “Something wrong, Bol?” 

Bol Sampson sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Puzler. Turns out your people can’t really help me after all.” 

“Well, what happened?” Adopting a concerned expression to the zombie’s face, Fossor directed it to hold a hand out. “Maybe I can do something, you know? It’s not… the Oni acting out?” 

“Not yet,” Bol confirmed darkly. “But they will soon enough. It–” He sighed once more. “Princess Rowan’s missing, and none of our people or your people have any idea how to find her.” 

“Hmm.” Pretending to consider that, ‘Puzler’ snapped his fingers. “Hold on, what you need is outside help. You heard of that Heretic rebellion thing, right?” 

Bol sounded doubtful. “Something tells me they have their things to deal with.” 

Offering his ‘friend’ a smile, the zombified police officer shook his head. “Trust me, they will if you have the right thing to offer in exchange. See, I was ahhh… I was angling to get some help of my own from one of those vampires who works for them. I hear she’s pretty good. Asenath?” 

“Heard of her too,” Bol confirmed. “But she’s got a direct connection to the Akharu, Tiras. Which means she is not going to have happy feelings about my people.” 

“She doesn’t have to have happy feelings,” ‘Puzler’ pointed out. “Not if you’ve got something to trade for her help. Like I said, I’ve been looking for a way to get some help from her myself, but if it’ll save that little girl and stop what’ll happen to this place if you don’t get her back, it’s all yours.” 

“You really think you’ve got information that could get her to drop everything and bring the cavalry to save Princess Rowan?” Bol asked, curious by that point. 

The dead man smiled encouragingly. “Oh…

“I’m pretty sure she’ll trade just about anything to find out where her father disappeared to.” 

*******

Four Hours Ago

 

The unmarked yellow van pulled to a stop in front of an ordinary-looking suburban house on the edge of Las Vegas. The man standing by the fence watching the van arrive raised one hand in greeting, while the doors slid open to allow a handful of Gehenna agents to hop out. Their leader addressed the man waiting for them. “You’re the representative of the Three Families?” 

“Nah,” the man drawled, not moving away from the fence. “I’m the dead guy making sure you end up right on top of the spell the stunningly handsome and brilliant necromancer who made me his puppet set up for you.” 

“Wh–” That was as far as the Gehenna agent got, before the promised spell abruptly ignited. All six of the van’s newly-emerged occupants were engulfed in white-blue flames that reached ten feet into the sky and stayed that way for a full ten seconds before fading. The men looked outwardly unharmed. But their vision was totally vacant, and all six collapsed lifelessly to the ground a moment later.

Once they were down, Fossor emerged from the house. A cloud of ash sprinkled the ground ahead of him as he casually ambled his way out to stand on the sidewalk, watching over the dead bodies. “Well,” the necromancer announced while rubbing his hands together, “we should get busy. 

“So much to do before someone notices that you’re late to saving the day.” 

 

********

Present

 

In one of several dungeon-like rooms deep within his own home, Fossor watched several projected holographic images against the wall. The one he focused on showed the view through the eyes of the leader of the Gehenna field team he had ambushed and… prepared. 

“I can’t tell you how much I hate those motherfuckers.” The announcement came from the Akheilosan mercenary Fahsteth, who stood behind Fossor with his arms folded. “You sure I can’t have some popcorn for this?” 

“I’ll send you a copy,” Fossor assured him. “Feel free to enjoy it on your own time with any snacks you like.” 

That said, he turned his attention away from that particular projection, allowing things to proceed mostly on what the humans would call auto-pilot as the field team leader and his companions made their way toward the Gehenna outpost. In the meantime, Fossor focused on the other two projections. One showed the view through Azlee Ren’s eyes as he was escorted by the Seosten with the phoenix tattoo, while the other revealed one through the eyes of one of his other zombies, a slaver who was already working with his companions at the junkyard to line up what they thought would be a delivery of fresh cannon fodder for Fossor’s battle arena. 

Hearing Fahsteth snarl, Fossor glanced over to the first projection. Azlee was looking at the girl, Hannah. Or Avalon, as she went by now. “You’ll have your turn,” he calmly told the man. 

A couple of things happened almost simultaneously in two of the projections then. Up at the Gehenna base, the one called Prelate came into view as the group entered the lobby, approaching at a brisk pace. “Kwur’s escape attempt has been halted, then,” the Gehenna outpost leader declared, a smile touching his blue-scaled face. “Good. Things can get back to normal. What else do you have to report? Where is Azlee? And what of this potential alliance with the Heretic rebellion to track down our other wayward prisoner?” 

“Well,” Fossor began, his voice traveling through his power to make the puppet in front of Prelate say the same thing. “Turns out we have two things to report. First, we really shouldn’t let ourselves get so distracted. And second, we are shit at identifying when people are already dead.” 

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Azlee had looked at Felicity. And Felicity had looked at him. In that moment, Fossor saw the recognition in her eyes. She knew. She knew the man was dead. And she proved that by immediately taking control of him. She made him stop. She made him sit down. And then, then she started to shout a warning. 

In the Gehenna base, the field team leader and the other five members of his team all moved as one to yank their shirts open. This revealed the intricate spellwork that had been carved into their chests. A single spell that continued through all five men. Prelate had time to see that much, his eyes widening and a shout coming to his lips. 

But Fossor was faster, reaching out to touch the nearby wall while speaking the single command word. Instantly, all of the slaves and slavers in the junkyard shown in the third projection were killed. Their life forces went to power two spells. The first half of the energy went to the spell carved into the flesh of the men in the Gehenna base. The resulting explosion would annihilate the entire Gehenna outpost and leave a one mile wide crater in every direction.

Meanwhile, the other half of that energy went to Las Vegas, into a very different spell that had been etched into the skin of Azlee Ren’s corpse. As with the others, the result blew the man apart, literally making him explode in a burst of white energy. But the point of the spell was not destruction. Instead, the energy that erupted from the dead man literally enveloped its single target, Felicity herself. And in the next second, she was gone. 

As all three projections went white and faded, Fahsteth’s laughter filled the room. The man could barely keep himself upright, he was so amused. And obviously delighted by the destruction of the Gehenna base on Earth. 

“Well,” Fossor announced happily. “That’s over with. Shall I lead you out?” 

“What–hey,” Fahsteth muttered, “What about the girl? Isn’t she about to show up?”

With a chuckle, Fossor started out of the room, shaking his head. “We have some time to wait. Remember, thanks to my… agreement with dear Joselyn, I cannot allow harm to come to her daughter until she is eighteen years old and no longer a child. That’s not for another month.” 

Fahsteth paused, looking back into the room they were leaving. “Uh, sure looks to me like you jumped the gun a bit.” 

“Nonsense,” Fossor insisted. “I have not allowed any harm to come to her. In fact, she will be safer through these next few weeks than she could ever possibly be.” He smiled faintly. “Considering she will not experience them.” 

Squinting at him for a moment, Fahsteth got it then. “You sly motherfucker. You’re using time travel. You’re cheating, jumping the girl straight to her birthday. Why the hell didn’t you just do that years ago?” 

“You know as well as I do that time travel magic is expensive, particularly done against one’s will,” Fossor reminded him. “Besides,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m not entirely certain the oath spell will actually work this way. There’s always the chance that it will read from her physical age, not the calendar date. In which case, holding her without harming her for a few weeks will be much easier than it would be to hold her for years without being able to harm her. Like trying to raise a child without ever being able to resort to physical discipline. This way, if the oath works off the calendar date, everything will be just fine. And if it works off her physical age, well, then I just wait a few weeks while she sits here nice and safe. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and give Joselyn the good news. 

“She’ll be so excited to know that her daughter is on her way.”

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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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