Fossor

Patreon Snippets 11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks to all of the wonderful $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! There’s one more joint 1000 word snippet coming that is set in Summus Proelium and will come at the end of the next chapter of that story. For now, I hope you enjoy these four snippets. 

Fight Club

“You hear about Lorek?” 

The casual question, at odds with the heavy grunting of effort and pain that filled the wide, circular pit of Fossor’s fighting arena, came from a tall, yellow-skinned figure with pointed ears and four arms. His name was Povin, and he held a heavy mace in one hand, which he was idly swinging back and forth in the air, testing its heft. 

The man he was talking to looked like he was made of wood. Most of the uneducated would have referred to him as a Relukun. And in many ways, he was, genetically. But Temmfiel would have stabbed anyone who made that comparison. He and his people considered themselves Herr-Pala, or the saplings of Pala, their ancient leader who had ruled most of the Relukun home planet for so long. Pala was long dead and his teachings forgotten by most, save for those like Temmfiel, who abandoned the other Relukun to form their own society. One far more devoted to ways of war than their brethren. 

They also had their own tricks that they had developed over the centuries, as evidenced when he held up one one arm and focused to make a long bit of bark-like material extend from his wrist in the shape of a blade. It even hardened, becoming tough and sharp enough to pierce most things it could have hit. 

“Lorek?” he asked, glancing around the pit. There were dozens of other sparring partners practicing. It wasn’t time for a major fight just yet, everyone was simply training. 

There were four kinds of people who went into this pit. The first were nothing but victims, marks for Fossor’s pet Heretic to feed on and gain powers from. Sure, the old necromancer promised them freedom or whatever if they managed to survive, but none ever did. The second group were volunteers, either soldiers or random thugs who wanted to make a name for themselves and thought they could impress Fossor enough to be made part of his living army. Because even he couldn’t handle everything with dead troops.  These fights were sometimes against one another, and sometimes against the Heretic. Either way, they weren’t always to the death. Just sometimes, depending on what kind of mood the Necromancer was in. 

It might’ve seemed odd to outsiders that people would risk their lives that way, but being part of Fossor’s living army actually wasn’t such a bad thing. As long as you kept your head down, did your job, and didn’t give him a reason to lash out, it paid pretty well. Not to mention all the benefits that came with looting so many juicy targets. Fossor wanted the bodies and enough wealth to be comfortable. That left plenty for his army to take for themselves. And they did. Living members of Fossor’s army were quite comfortable.

The third type of person who went into these pits were also volunteers. These ones, however, knew they were going to die. They volunteered themselves as food for the Heretic. In exchange, Fossor would provide a reward to their families or designated survivors. The level of the reward actually depending on how good of a fight they made it, so they would genuinely try to take her down. They always failed, naturally, but they gave it their best shot for their family’s reward. 

Then there was the last group who could end up in the pit. And as he walked around at the training soldiers, Temmfiel felt a sinking sensation in his stomach that the missing Lorek, a casual acquaintance, but still a somewhat friendly one, was part of that group. “Don’t tell me…” 

Povin was already nodding, tossing the mace to his other hand. “Yup, poor guy made the mistake of talking back to the boss. He’s in with the scraps.”

The scraps. That’s what they called the last type of person who would end up in the pit. They were people who had once been in favor, but had fallen out of it for whatever reason and were being thrown into the arena to fight until they died.

Before Temmfiel could respond to that, there was a clang from the upper walkway of the arena as Fossor himself walked in. His Heretic followed behind, as always. It was like night and day. Fossor looked utterly unassuming and unimpressive. He wasn’t that tall, had a somewhat pudgy figure and a balding head, as well as clothes that made him look like some random suburban human dad or something. He looked average at best in every conceivable way. 

The Heretic, meanwhile, was beautiful. Not just in appearance, though there was that. She also radiated power and grace. She was like an untamed lioness, and Temmfiel knew he wasn’t the only one here who had a bit of a crush on her. It was fucked up, given how easily she would kill him without even thinking about it. Not to mention what Fossor would do if any of them so much as looked like they might do something about it. But still… the thoughts were there. She wasn’t even his own species and the thoughts were there. Some part of him had thought up the idea of rescuing her. An impossibility, and one he would never even think about actually entertaining, but the thought of how grateful she might be persisted in his darkest, most secret dreams. It was wrong. Wrong in ways he couldn’t begin to describe or list. But it was there. 

Either way, despite their disparate appearances, Joselyn Chambers obeyed Fossor like a dog on a chain. A dog that would gladly devour its master given the slightest chance, but a dog nonetheless. She trailed behind him, ignoring the gathered troops who all stared up at her. Not at Fossor, at her. They were afraid of Fossor’s anger, his power, his vengeance. But they were in awe of Joselyn Atherby.

As soon as the old necromancer assumed his seat, the last bits of training stopped. Everyone made their way toward the exits, while the actual fighters for the next ‘show’ were brought in. Sure enough, Lorek, a werewolf, was among them. He and Temmfiel exchanged brief glances before both carried on their respective paths. 

It was too bad. Temmfiel liked Lorek. But he wasn’t going to risk throwing away his life for the guy. Not when the beautiful Heretic lioness was there. If he was going to risk that kind of wrath for anyone, it’d be her. 

Heh. Maybe someday he could impress her. 

Somehow. 

********

Rebecca

 

Rebecca Jameson stared at Shiori. “Excuse me?” she demanded, “what do you mean most of her life? I asked how long that little girl has been possessing Flick.”

Shiori, in turn, nodded. The two of them were standing out on the dock over the lake in the Atherby camp. “Yeah,” she replied, “most of her life, like I said. Well, okay, I think she was like eight or something? And Tabbris wasn’t conscious for the first few years, she was sort of in hibernation while possessing Flick? Her mom, Sariel, implemented this virtual reality version of herself in her head to keep her unconscious and teach her things for when she eventually woke up.”

Staring at her old teammate, Rebecca open and shut her mouth a couple times, head tilting to the side as the weight of the realization that the other girl wasn’t kidding really struck her. “That kid’s been possessing her all that time? Really? And she was protecting Flick from being possessed just by possessing her first?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “More than that, she protected her with magic and stuff too, whenever the Seosten would try other ways of getting at Flick and… like… spying on her and stuff. It really pissed them off because they couldn’t figure out how this human girl had magic protecting her.”

Still reeling a bit, Rebecca managed a weak, “They’d probably be even more pissed to find out it was a little kid the whole time. Wait, they know about that now, don’t they? Did anyone get a picture of their faces?”

With a regretful sigh, Shiori shook her head. “Nah. I don’t think so, anyway. But hey, Seosten can share memories, so maybe we can get one of those.” 

“I sure hope so,” Rebecca murmured. “I mean, I barely know anything about these Seosten, and I’d be willing to pay money to see something like that. Can you imagine what other people would pay for it? We could make a fortune.”

“Why, Rebecca,” Shiori teased, “how capitalistic of you.”

Flushing a little bit, the smaller girl stuck her tongue out before lifting her chin thoughtfully. “Uhhh, if this Tabbris girl was possessing Flick the whole time, that means she never really had any privacy. Not even when you guys…”

It was Shiori’s turn to blush deeply, giving the other girl a shove. “Gross, Tabbris knew how to put herself to sleep so she didn’t witness anything embarrassing.”

That earned a nod, as Rebecca snickered. “Well that’s good, because I’m pretty sure you’d never be able to look the kid in the face otherwise.”

Still red in the face, Shiori waved her hand dismissively. “Never mind that. Tabbris is really cool. She’s basically Flick’s little sister. When you get to know her, you’re gonna like her.”

A smile touched Rebecca’s face. “Dude, I’m pretty sure I already do. But yeah, let’s go see if they’re busy. And if the kid’s interested in some tutoring.”

Blinking at that, Shiori slowly asked, “What do you think you can tutor her?”

Rebecca shook her head. “No, you’ve got that backwards. Come on, you just spent half an hour telling me about all the cool shit she’s done to protect Flick. 

“Frankly, it sounds like I need to take magic lessons from a ten year old.”

 

*******

Carfried and Mercury

 

“So, are you ready to ask me?” 

It was shortly after dawn, as two men sat on the balcony of a small restaurant overlooking a quaint, quiet little street somewhere in southern New York. They had been silent for the past few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts while sipping their warm tea. That silence had been broken by the voice of one. Mercury, as he called himself. Amitiel, as those who did not know the full truth about him believed he was. And Lie, as those who were not his friends would have called him if they had known that the real Amitiel had been possessed and overwritten millennia ago by the so-called Lie (or Mendacia in their language) who had since posed as him. 

Sitting at the other side of the table, Benji Carfried blinked once. “Ready to ask you?” 

Mercury took a sip of his tea before giving a slight nod. “We’ve been meeting for breakfast or lunch every other day for the past several weeks, ever since you found out the truth about me… possessing you. You’ve… asked some things, but there’s been something else on your mind too. I told you, I’m glad to answer anything you’d like.” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Benji regarded him. The two of them had indeed had many conversations in the past few weeks, enough that he was… at least somewhat comfortable with the fact that he’d been secretly possessed for a year. Or so he told himself. Really, the thought that there had been an intruder in his head for so long creeped him out beyond belief. He wanted to hate the other man. And… to be honest, a part of him actually did. There was part of him that wanted to punch Mercury in the face and never stop. He pushed that part of himself down, but it left him somewhat conflicted.

Thus these private meals. More than anything, Carfried wanted to understand the man who had possessed him. He wanted to push his own feelings of anger… rage, really, down with actual knowledge. Information, data, truth. Those were the ways to smother his feelings of betrayal and… invasion. So he’d asked questions. But there were a few that he’d held back. 

“Yes,” he finally replied. “I’ve got a couple that I haven’t asked yet.” Instead of continuing, however, he fell silent once more. Disguising his hesitance with a sip of tea, he exhaled before finally pushing on. “I need to know exactly how long you were possessing me. I mean… it was since I was a teacher, I know. But I need to know…” 

Mercury watched the other man trail off before finishing for him. “You need to know if you were possessed because you were chosen to be a teacher, or if you were chosen to be a teacher because you were possessed.” 

In a somewhat tight voice, Carfried confirmed, “Yes.” 

“You were chosen to be possessed because you were a teacher,” Mercury assured him simply. “We were looking for a good person to possess to get close to Aylen and… well, honestly, Pericles was our first choice. My first choice. But we were overruled and told he was not a possibility. We didn’t find out exactly why until later. So, I went with my next choice. A young teacher. You’d been chosen by Gaia by that point, so… so I found my way to you.” 

They both went silent then, neither wanting to dwell too much on that. But there was one even more important question that Carfried had. “You knew the Seosten who possessed Columbus Porter.” 

“Charmeine,” Mercury murmured with a nod. “Yes, I knew her. And I know she’s dead now.” 

“Thanks to Felicity Chambers,” Carfried agreed before adding, “and Columbus himself. They killed her.” 

Mercury’s voice was almost inaudible. “After she killed your ancestor.” 

“Josiah.” When he said the name, Carfried’s voice caught a bit, and he grimaced. “He was… he was important to me. Damn it, he was my Greats-Grandfather, of course he was important to me. He was a damn fine man, a fucking good person, and that… that…” He fought to bring himself back under control. 

“And as glad as you are that she’s dead,” Mercury finished for him, “it doesn’t really give you any closure. Your greats-grandfather is still gone, you never got to even see his killer, and you don’t feel like her death actually accomplished anything. At least, as far as your own life goes.” 

Not trusting his voice, Carfried gave a single, slight nod. 

“I’m sorry.” Those simple two words came from the Seosten man before he gave long, low sigh. “I know apologies mean little in this case. But I am sorry that you don’t get that kind of closure.” 

“It’s just as well,” Carfried pointed out, “because even if she was still alive, I couldn’t do anything about it. That would risk our little truce, and something tells me having a truce with you people is more important than my vengeance. But…” 

“But you’re not sure you’d be able to feel that way if she was still running around out there.” Again, Mercury finished his thought once the man waved to him rather than conclude it himself. “You’re probably right. If Charmeine was still there, it would probably make things worse.” 

For the next minute or so, the longest silence of all settled in the air, as Benji mentally fought his way to perhaps the most important question. Mercury waited for as long as he needed until the words finally came. 

“Did I–did you have anything to do with putting Josiah in that position to be killed by Charmeine?” 

Again, silence reigned for a few torturous seconds before Mercury found his voice. “It’s your choice whether to believe what I say now. I will put it before any truth spell or power you like. But right now, right here, I tell you no. Neither I, nor Chayyiel, were a part of that mission. My job was to watch over the Merlin Key. I had nothing to do with the Avalon situation, and I did nothing to either put your greats-grandfather there or to have him killed. Our people operate in cells where we are in need-to-know situations. I didn’t need to know about that plan.” 

But you wouldn’t have stopped it if you did know, would you? 

Benji didn’t ask that last question. He couldn’t bring himself to. Instead, he took a sip of his tea, pushing the thought aside before looking to the man. Some part of him liked Mercury. And another part of him hated Mercury. He couldn’t decide which was stronger right now. So, he would continue having meals with him. Continue talking to him. 

Eventually, he’d figure it out. 

********

December, April, and May

 

Abigail Fellows, Virginia Dare, and Hisao stood in the private transport room, watching the portal ahead of them as it formed. In a quiet voice, Abigail murmured, “This is a bit of a risk, isn’t it?” 

Dare and Hisao exchanged brief glances before the former spoke. “Allowing probable spies into the school so they can report back to Cahethal about everything we’re doing? Yes, it’s a risk. But you already knew that when you decided to go for it.” 

Hisao added, “It’s also worth the risk. She’s being upfront about it. Yes, she wants information about this place in case things go wrong, but them being here also gives us information about her own agents. She knows that. She’s offering to let us know some of how she operates in exchange for reports from her own agents about what’s going on here. Reports she can actually trust.” 

They’d had all these conversations before, of course. They’d had them several times, while Abigail decided whether it was a good idea to allow three of Cahethal’s agents into the school. In the end, no matter the risk, it was the right thing to do. Particularly when she’d learned that those three agents were all SPS Seosten. Or ‘Lies’, as their own people would disgustingly call them. Nothing had changed. This was the best choice. But talking about it was better than fidgeting until–

Three figures appeared in the portal. Two teenagers and…

“A child?” Abigail blurted. Marina had said that one of them was a young girl, but–but she hadn’t fully understood just what–

“Hiya!” the kid in question suddenly blurted the instant the three of them were fully in view and the portal closed behind them. “ThanksforlettinguscomeherecuzitsoundsfunandIknowyou–” 

Before she could go further, the Asian-looking girl put a hand over her mouth in a casual, practiced gesture. “Good morning,” she greeted them pleasantly. “Nice to officially meet you, Miss-ahhh, you prefer Principal now, Marina said? Principal Fellows. I am May.” 

“I’m April,” the red-haired teenager piped up, smoothing down the schoolgirl uniform she wore before adding, “And that’s December. Just tell her to slow down or repeat herself until you get it if you need to.” 

Squirming free of May’s hand, December’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “That’smeI’mDecemberhow’reyou?” 

With a brief look to her two far-more-capable companions, Abigail took a few steps that way, extending a hand. “Abigail is fine when we’re not in school hours. It’s… very interesting to–” She blinked at the looks the three of them were giving her outstretched hand. “Are you okay?” 

“Marina was supposed to tell you,” May informed her. “We…” 

“We’reLiessowecan’ttouchyourhandoranythingelsecuzitmightmakeyouthinkwe’retryingtopossessyouandruinthetruceandwedon’twannadothat,” December explained in a rush of words that came so fast Abigail only caught every other one and had to piece together what was meant from that. 

“I know what you are,” she finally responded once she was confident enough about what the incredibly fast-talking girl had actually said. “I know what you’re capable of. And it’s okay.” She kept her hand extended. “I believe what you said about not wanting to ruin this truce.” 

It was the three Seosten’s turn to look somewhat baffled. The trio exchanged looks, both May and April seeming reluctant even with Abigail’s stated permission. 

December, however, finally extended her own hand, tentatively taking the older woman’s. Her grip was hesitant and she very clearly almost yanked her hand back immediately, only stopping herself at the last second. Visibly unsure of herself, she kept her hand pressed against Abigail’s until the other woman shook it up and down firmly. 

“Are you…” Abigail started before hesitating. Finally, she pushed on. “Are you really part of this… this group? Shouldn’t you be in school? I mean, a real school. Shouldn’t you be in a Seosten school?” 

May spoke up defensively. “We teach her. We all teach ourselves. Besides, Lies like us don’t go to regular school. We…” She stopped, clearly torn between answering the question and not wanting to speak ill of her own people. Finally, she settled on, “We teach each other. We are the Calendar. We take care of our own. December is our own. We stay together. We learn together.” 

Cahethal knew what she was doing, Abigail realized. The Seosten ‘Lies’ were so thoroughly oppressed, so horrifically treated, that being given any freedom for individuality made them… made them loyal to her in a way they would never be loyal to their own people. But even that, even the bit of humanity, for lack of a better word, that she showed them was manipulation. These girls were so accustomed to not being touched by anyone outside of their own little group that the simple concept of a handshake was too much. That was just… it was…

Pushing those thoughts back, she squeezed December’s hand, meeting the girl’s gaze. “We’re glad to have you here, girls.” 

Dare spoke up then. “We certainly are. Of course, we’re going to have to go through a lot of tests before we’re comfortable letting you out into the school population. It may take a few days before all of our security people are fully satisfied that things are on the up and up.” 

“Of course,” April remarked. She looked to May, then shrugged and took Abigail’s still extended hand once December had released her. “We’re not in a rush. Whatever you want.” 

What Abigail truly wanted was to hug December. The girl had leaned into the simple handshake like it was… like it was far more than that. Abigail wanted to hug her and tell her she didn’t have to play soldier anymore. But that would make things worse. She knew that. No, the way to handle this was to show the girls, show all of them, a better way. 

So, she stepped back and gestured. “Come then, 

“Let’s get started.”  

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Denouement 9 – Matres Dimicatio (Heretical Edge)

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The first attack came instantly, as a jet of white-hot fire erupted from Joselyn’s outstretched hand, straight toward Sariel. The Seosten boost kicked in and she threw herself into a sideways roll just as the lance of flame shot through the air where she had been. 

Coming up to one knee, Sariel managed to snap her arms up to deflect the kick from the other woman, who was suddenly in front of her. Despite her Tartarus-enhanced strength, and the similarly enhanced boost, she was barely able to deflect the kick from Joselyn. Instinct very nearly kicked in for her to possess the woman in that moment, but that would be very bad for both Joselyn and the other two prisoners. 

Using the moment it took the other woman to recover from her leg being thrown aside, Sariel came to her feet. “Joselyn, I know you have to do what he says.” She took a quick step back from the blade the woman produced from her arm that swipe through the air, before pivoting away from the follow-up kick. “So I—” 

The kick had been more than a kick. With that same motion, Joselyn brought a sharp spike of metal out of the carpeted floor. Sariel noticed it at the last instant, throwing herself into a backward flip almost too late, as the jagged steel spike lanced up to collide with the ceiling, cutting along her left arm in the process to draw a line of blood. 

Spinning around the spike, Sariel produced several metal throwing daggers. Her hand snapped out to send them flying toward Joselyn, but the woman was no longer there. She vanished from that spot, leaving the daggers to narrowly miss Roger. 

“Ooh, gotta be careful there,” Fossor noted. He was eating a small bowl of ice cream from the shop in the mall, while casually leaning against the door jam. “You kill one of these guys and it kind of defeats the entire purpose. It would be pretty fun for me though. So carry on.”

Joselyn was behind her. Sariel’s head snapped forward and down just as the woman’s blade arm cut through the space there, taking a bit of her hair with it. “I won’t try—” she began again while pivoting to face her as the blade cut close once again. Only her exact motion as she turned made it narrowly miss. “—to tell you to fight it or anything. And—”

Gravity reversed itself, abruptly making Sariel fall toward the ceiling. Joselyn created a dozen balls of green glowing energy and send them flying up after her while snarling a dark and angry, “My children.”

As she hit the ceiling, metal coils popped out of it to restrain her, but Sariel quickly kicked off, launching herself into a flip. She twisted and corkscrewed through the air perfectly to avoid the coils just before the balls of energy exploded. Sariel had managed to evade the worst of them, but the force of what did hit was enough to throw her out of range of the gravity reversal and to the ground, where she rolled and tumbled end over end before coming to a stop with a cough and grunt. 

“Yeah. Your children.” The words were a quiet murmur as she frowned inwardly before pushing herself up once more, just in time to snap her head back from the decapitating strike that Joselyn sent at her neck. She danced backward, head shaking. “Joselyn, I’m sorry. I am so—”

Once more, she was interrupted, as the other woman teleported right beside her, blade stabbing for her stomach. Sariel’s bow appeared in her hand, fully extended as she used the upper part of it to deflect the blade. She blocked several more furious follow-up swipes, backing up the whole time while Joselyn gave chase. Dancing back with a bit of boost to get a couple feet of distance, she quickly nocked an arrow by pulling the string and send a shot at the incoming blade. It bounced off, spinning through the air before cutting into the wall a few inches from Seamus’s cheek on the other side of the room, to Fossor’s obvious amusement as he raised the bowl of ice cream like a toast to her nearly killing the man.  

Grimacing, Sariel quickly ducked under a lunge, pivoting while staying bent over to avoid the follow up swing, before quickly snapping her body upright once more as Joselyn adjusted for a vertical slash. That last was so close it cut along her leg, drawing more blood.  

“I love my children,” she announced quietly while launching another shot that missed Joselyn’s head by a hair’s-breadth, taking a small nick out of the top of the woman’s ear before embedding itself in the wall. “I love them more than anything in this world or any other.” 

Joselyn’s hands snapped out, sending a torrent of fire that singed the other woman as she threw herself backward. Sariel’s back hit the wall next to Roger, and she blinked a bit, dazed for a brief second while Joselyn came for her. At the last possible instant, she recovered just enough to snap her head out of the way as the other woman’s blade cut past her to hit the wall. 

Joselyn tried to snap the blade back and down to cut through Sariel’s side while simultaneously using a telekinetic shove to push her into it, but the Seosten woman was ready for it. A small blue stone appeared in her free hand, the command word leaping to her lips even as she was shoved toward the blade by an invisible force. Instantly, the prepared spell made a glimmering forcefield appear directly behind her. Joselyn’s blade struck that, while the telekinetic shove knocked Sariel into the opposite side of it. Blade and woman were millimeters apart, separated by that simple glowing shield of energy. In the next instant, Sariel used the command to disable the shield, sending the kinetic energy it had absorbed from the blade blow back out the same way it came in. The force knocked Joselyn back a step, her arm snapping out as she grunted. 

Sariel tried to use that, pivoting around while notching three arrows at once. All of them were loosed toward Joselyn… and none reached their target. The one sent near her face was caught in a simple exhale of frost breath that caught the arrow in the air, stopped it short while ice formed around it, and dropped it to the ground. The other two, aimed for her left shoulder, were knocked aside by that blade arm and sent spinning off. One struck the wall across the room, once more almost taking Seamus in the throat. The other went straight for Fossor’s right eye before it was caught in the air by a ghost, who solidified just in time to catch the arrow. The necromancer didn’t blink. He simply took another spoonful of ice cream and smiled faintly. 

With a grunt, Joselyn sent herself up and back. She hovered near the ceiling while summoning a veritable armada of metal spikes, each about four inches long and razor-sharp. They were like Sariel’s throwing daggers, yet there were hundreds of them, all floating in the air around and in front of her. Her chin gave the slightest gesture, and they all flew at Sariel, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the way, they turned white-hot, and a small shield of energy appeared around them. The kind of energy that would allow the blades to pierce any more forcefields Sariel tried to summon on short notice. 

So, she didn’t summon a shield. Instead, Sariel threw herself into a long, backward fall while notching her bow once more. This time, she drew back not one arrow. Not even three arrows. Six. Six arrows were notched onto her bowstring. Two between her pinkie and ring finger, two between her ring and middle finger, and two between her middle and index fingers. As she threw herself onto her back, an instant before landing on the floor, she loosed those arrows toward the incoming swarm of blades. The arrows shot out, spreading to strike six separate incoming blades at seemingly random points. Those six blades were each knocked off course, crashing into six others, then a few more beyond that. The second set that were hit collided with more. Soon, most of the hundreds of hurled blades were sent flying into the floor, against the walls, or even up into the ceiling. 

In the end, only a handful of blades made it through and kept going. Three struck the floor where Sariel had landed, except she had already flipped herself up and over to land on her feet as the trio of blades sank into the floor. One remained, which skimmed past her cheek, drawing a thin red line there while also cutting a lock of her hair on its way past. 

Joselyn was behind her, and Sariel felt a sudden crushing force all but knock the wind out of her as she was slammed into the ground by the woman’s telekinesis. Landing hard, she was held in place by that same crushing force, which stopped her from moving and seemed as though it would collapse her chest and shatter her ribs any second. Standing above her, Joselyn looked wide-eyed and conflicted, her fury fueling the order she had been given, while her very nature and personality made her instinctively try to draw back from following through on this attack. But she couldn’t. Her deal with Fossor had been made. Killing Sariel in no way, as far as they knew, put Felicity in direct danger. And the sheer anger and grief that Joselyn felt so deeply at what had been taken from her so long ago made it nearly impossible for her to even slightly resist the order she’d been given to kill Sariel. Any hesitation, any at all, took a truly Herculean effort. 

So, Sariel didn’t rely on anything like that. As the invisible force continued to push down on her, she focused, summoning a new prepared spell-stone to her hand. As the blue rock with the rune inscribed in it appeared, she immediately spoke the command word while she still had a bit of breath to do so. The spell activated, sending a narrow burst of kinetic force almost straight up in the direction Sariel was looking: directly at Joselyn. It struck the other woman in the chest hard enough to knock her back a few steps, breaking her concentration. Instantly, the telekinetic force vanished and Sariel was able to flip herself to her feet. 

Even as she landed, another geyser of flame was coming at her. A new stone appeared, and she spoke the command to fill the air on that side with a wave of cold that froze the flame. 

Six metal coils popped from the ground like tentacles, attempting to grab Sariel. Yet another stone-summoned spell sent a cloud of reddish-brown dust in every direction. Wherever the dust struck, the metal coils rusted completely through instantly and fell apart. 

More powers were sent at Sariel. But while she was not a Heretic, Sariel had something almost as good in this moment. She had magic. Magic she had spent quite a long time preparing. And the weaknesses most mages possessed in needing to reach for their prepared-spells, she didn’t have. Her Tartarus gift meant that she could instantly summon any small object she focused on to her hand, including her spell stones. Dozens upon dozens of enchanted rocks and bits of paper were stored on Sariel’s person, and she could summon any of them to her hand with a thought. That was the only way she had to counter the powers Joselyn was sending at her. 

Finally, the oath-bound Heretic switched back to a more direct, physical attack. Appearing beside Sariel, she shifted her hand into a blade once more while lashing out for the other woman’s arm. Quick as she was while boosted, Sariel still only barely managed to avoid taking the full cut and possibly losing her arm entirely. As it was, Joselyn’s blade cut deep across her bicep. And the woman didn’t stop there, following up with a dozen rapid-fire cuts, all of them aimed to disable Sariel. She’d worked out that she couldn’t put her opponent down with one well-placed stab, so she was working to wear Sariel down with multiple small injuries, cutting her here and there while constantly forcing her on the defensive. She attacked relentlessly, never giving the Seosten woman time to regroup. 

Then she kicked it up a notch. Suddenly, Joselyn was moving faster than she had before, faster than even Sariel in boost. Her bladed arm snapped out cobra-quick, nearly taking her opponent’s throat in the sudden burst of speed. Sariel, in turn, barely managed to use the body of her bow to deflect the blade off into the wall, her retreat backward stopped as she ran into Roger. 

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn murmured while shifting her hand to a red metal as she slammed it toward the other woman’s stomach with enough force to punch through a stone wall. 

Before the fist could strike her, however, Sariel had already summoned something else to her hand. This was not a spell rock, however. It was a small metal ball that disintegrated as soon as her hands touched it. Within the ball was a tiny chipmunk. The tiny creature had time to look surprised for just an instant before Sariel disappeared into it, possessing the animal just as Joselyn’s empowered blow demolished a good portion of the wall behind them. 

As the chipmunk, Sariel landed on the floor before quickly jumping to bounce off of the woman’s leg then to the wall, parkour style. Clinging to the wall, she ran up and around it, past Roger’s head as the blade struck out multiple times, each cut coming within millimeters of taking the tiny animal’s heart out. 

In mid-run sideways along the wall, Sariel abandoned the chipmunk, leaping out while leaving it to continue running. Her energy form appeared in midair, reforming into her physical body, already holding her bow up and ready. Before landing, she shot off three arrows at once, then rolled and came up to one knee while loosing yet three more. 

The first three were shattered in mid-flight as Joselyn simply waved a hand. The other three were subsequently smacked aside by her blade and sent flying away. Before she could rise from her knee, a pillar of ice erupted from the floor under her, slamming Sariel upward toward the ceiling. She barely managed to fling herself off before she would have been crushed, flipping over in the air as she brought several more throwing daggers to her hand and sent them at the figure below her. Joselyn stopped them all in midair with a hand, while Sariel landed on her feet. But an instant later, the Seosten spoke the command word, making the daggers explode with enough force to stagger the enslaved Heretic. 

Sariel didn’t give her time to recover, instantly using her bow to launch five more arrows at the woman before launching herself into a sprint straight at her. Joselyn, stumbling slightly and off-balance, still managed to smack the arrows out of the way. All save one, which struck her hip. It didn’t do much, aside from draw blood. But Joselyn reacted, ripping the arrow out and disintegrating it into dust just as Sariel reached her, swinging the bow at her face. A thought brought the bow up short, stopping it just before the thing would have struck her. Joselyn could see the sigils glowing on the staff, proof of the spell that would have affected her had she simply allowed it to hit. 

For a moment, the two women stood face-to-face, simply staring at one another. Sariel’s expression softened, as she met Joselyn’s gaze. “I am sorry for what happened to your children. I never intended that. Never. But I did intend for your husband to be used as a hostage to force you to surrender. I was doing my job, trying to end the war and bring things under control. I thought… I thought things could change without everyone killing each other. I thought we could fix things peacefully. I thought…” She breathed in and out. “I thought a lot of things that were wrong.” 

“You keep apologizing,” her unwanted opponent managed to hiss. “But my children were still taken away. I lost decades of my life.” 

Joselyn came after her with the blade again, attacking relentlessly and with incredible speed. As before, even with boost, Sariel could barely keep up. Joselyn was faster, but Sariel had the edge in experience and the added benefit of a perfect knowledge and understanding of her own body’s positioning at all times. She kept moving, alternately ducking and using her bow to deflect incoming swings. Her opponent was like a woman possessed, power coiling around her as she attacked again and again, from every angle, a blur of motion. Sparks flew from the weapons as they clashed, along with the sound of the blade hitting the walls now and then. Back and forth they went, blade and bow clashing and swinging through the air in a wild, yet beautiful ballet of danger and violence. 

Finally managing to throw herself backward, Sariel notched an arrow and loosed it in one motion. The enchanted shot triggered as it hit the floor, sending a burst of kinetic energy. Joselyn was ready for it, raising a shield to absorb the impact. But it did slow her down a couple steps, giving Sariel time to speak as she notched more arrows and loosed them one at a time in quick succession while backing up. Each word came with another arrow. “I thought I could fix everything, if I talked to your husband.” 

Twelve words, twelve arrows. None actually hit Joselyn. They were deflected in one way or another, mostly knocked aside or disintegrated.

They were back to fighting straight on, Joselyn right in front of her as Sariel continued, blocking and dodging. “I thought if he was captured, I could find a way to talk to him privately. Get him to understand the stakes and that you needed to work more quietly, that we could change things from the inside if you negotiated. I thought I could set that up. I thought I could control what Ruthers did. 

“I was wrong. You and your children, your family, paid the price.” 

Thought it all, they were a barely visible rush of motion back and forth through the room. Powers flew, and were countered by spells. The blade came closer and closer, nicking Sariel here and there. Light to moderate cuts were all over her body, and both women were breathing heavily by that point as they put everything they had into this. 

“And I know. I know what that’s like,” Sariel informed the other woman in a soft, somewhat broken voice as they both broke apart briefly to regroup. “I know what it’s like to lose your children, to have them taken away from you. For that, I… for my part in that, I can never, never apologize. Not enough. I can never make that right. I’m sorry. From the depths of my soul and with everything I am or could ever be, I am sorry. I will bring you back. You have my word, my life on it. I will protect your children, and I will find a way to bring you back to them, back to your family, Joselyn Chambers. I swear to you.” 

Tossing his empty bowl aside, Fossor spoke up. “Ah, maybe you should focus on exactly what you’re going to take away from her right now so you can add that to the apology list. Just a thought.” 

Joselyn had stopped for the moment as Fossor spoke, giving herself and Sariel time to breathe. The Seosten woman gave a faint shake of her head without looking away from the powerful Heretic. “Nothing. I am taking nothing away from her. Not this time.” 

A light chuckle escaped Fossor. “You know the rules. You let her kill you, and Seamus dies. You kill her, and… well, you’ve taken her away from her. And also Roger will die, though I suppose that’s more pettiness on my part than anything else. You run away, they both die. So I must say, if you plan on getting out of this without taking anything from her… that would be a very good trick.” 

“Trick?” Sariel quipped. “It’s called an illusion. And the thing you should have remembered through all of this, Necromancer…

“… is that I don’t miss.” 

As she spoke those words, Fossor and Joselyn both looked, really looked at the room around them. The marks, the ones on the walls next to Roger and Seamus. The arrows that had been deflected that way, the thrown daggers, even the marks from Joselyn’s own blade as Sariel had lured her back and forth, they weren’t random. Some were, of course. She couldn’t control every deflection and some weren’t perfect. But enough were. The ones that mattered. The marks from arrows, daggers, and blade had been carefully planned throughout that entire fight, to form a very specific design around each of the men. 

Not just a design. A spell. Sariel had used her own deflected shots and Joselyn’s blade to mark both walls with a spell, while also using her telepathic connection with the other three Seosten to warn them to leave the mall. 

Fossor’s mouth opened, a command leaping to his lips even as several of his ghost servants appeared. But in that exact instant, as planned through their telepathic link, Mercury triggered the spell he had set up. All of the man’s zombies in the mall immediately blew apart or disintegrated, while the force of their destruction was sent back along the connection they had with their creator. Fossor literally staggered against the wall and fell, a cry of disoriented pain escaping the man as blood fell from his mouth and eyes to pool on the ground. Over only a few seconds, all of the fear, pain, and death he had inflicted on the people he’d turned into his zombies here in this mall was shoved right back into the man. He survived through his link to the people on his own world, but was deeply disoriented and hurt by the backlash. 

The oath Joselyn had sworn forced her to both obey and protect Fossor. She did so the only way she could in that moment, by lunging toward the Seosten woman. But Sariel was faster. With three rapid words and a rush of power that she shoved into the runes she had so carefully drawn out, the woman activated the teleportation spell. 

And in that second, she and both of the imprisoned men vanished, escaping safely while Fossor was left coughing up blood on the floor.

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Summer Epilogue 8 – Fossor and Joselyn

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“So yes, I must say, that was certainly an… unexpected turn of events.”

As he murmured those words, the man known as Fossor strode through the busy suburban mall, looking for all the world like an average, middle class dad out for a little shopping trip with his younger, far more attractive wife. Well, average save for the fact that a small cloud of ash kept appearing in front of his feet for the man to step on. But save for that small anomaly (which no one else seemed to notice), they could have been a hit sitcom.  “Unexpected indeed.”

Joselyn, who walked in his shadow, spoke softly without looking at the necromancer. “And just when you thought you had Gaia dealt with and out of the way. Too bad, really.” She could not inject even the slightest amount of sincerity into her words. “You must be so upset.”

Joselyn had experienced the same ‘awakening’ that every other Heretic must have when Felicity and Gaia had triggered that spell. The sudden download of information about her own rebellion, her own situation, that had abruptly flooded into her mind had dropped the woman to her knees.

Gaia. Gaia had destroyed the spell that erased the rebellion. She had brought it back, had restored everyone’s memories. More than that, she had shoved knowledge of it into everyone’s head, even those who weren’t there at the time. Every Heretic, everyone connected to the Heretical Edge, had been given the same rush of information.

They knew her. They knew Joselyn. All of them knew who she was, what she had tried to do. They knew what happened to her, what… what Ruthers had done to her children. They knew the truth. It was a thought that struck Joselyn even harder than the actual information upload had. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone knew the truth. They could accept it or not, but they knew. Ruthers had taken her children hostage, had treated babies as bargaining chips to win a war. And now everyone knew.

She truly, genuinely wished she could have seen the look on his face as it happened.

Pausing to give a brief fatherly smile to a woman who passed by with her two young children, Fossor replied simply, “Upset? Hardly.” Winking at the little boy who looked over his shoulder at them, he gave a jaunty wave before turning to walk once more, his gait one of a man with little care in the world. “As a matter of fact, I feel quite invigorated. It’s not good for a man to have no challenges. That just makes you slow. No, I dare say the good headmistress did me quite the favor here. Bringing you back to the attention of the Heretics, reinvigorating that delicious civil war? That should make for some fun, don’t you think?” Pausing, he pointed to the food court. “Oh, let’s treat ourselves. I do enjoy a good soft pretzel, don’t you?”

As she wasn’t really in any position to argue, Joselyn followed after the man. On the way, she made the mistake of glancing back once more to see that small boy with his sister and mother. Soft blonde hair, pink cheeks, an innocent smile… Her gaze quickly snapped away from him while a hard lump formed in her throat. As her eyes jerked from the little boy, she brought her thoughts firmly with it, forcing herself to not think about… that. About him.

Fossor was already standing in front of the pretzel shop, hemming and hawing about which one he wanted to get. When he noticed Joselyn standing quietly nearby, he ordered two, passing the teenage clerk behind the counter cash for them. Taking the napkin-wrapped pretzels, he held both up. “I just can’t decide. Which one would you like, my dear?”

Barely looking at them, Joselyn took one of the pretzels, holding it loosely in one hand just so that he would shut up about them. Her eyes were on Fossor himself, as she spoke in a low, pointed voice. “Are you done with this game? Why are we even here? You know there’s a chance that there could be Heretics in this place. What if they recognize one of us?”

Fossor’s reply to that was as casual as if he was discussing the weather. “Well, if that were to happen, I’d simply have you kill them, of course.” He took a bite of the pretzel, smiling pleasantly. “Mmmm. That is quite the treat.”

“So you’re saying we’re just here so you can see if anyone comes after you,” Joselyn murmured, not bothering to keep the disgust from her voice. “Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Besides manipulate this whole situation to try to force me to kill one of my old friends, she added silently. Despite not saying it aloud, he would know she was thinking it.

Taking another bite of his pretzel, Fossor simply shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s just call this whole thing a test, shall we?” With those simple, yet also troubling words, he turned to walk once more. “Oh, I do hope there’s a decent sale at Old Navy. I need a new pair of slacks.”

As they walked through the mall, Joselyn remarked, “You did all that to get Gaia out of the way so she couldn’t protect Felicity, and she still managed to paint a giant target on you. If anything, Felicity has even more protection now. She’s with Prosser and his people. You won’t get anywhere near her.” She didn’t truly believe that her daughter was completely safe, of course. But Joselyn hoped that taunting the man about it might get him to reveal something she could use, eventually. And, of course, make him believe that she was actually that arrogant or blind.

For a moment, however, Fossor gave no reaction at all. Well, no reaction aside from stopping in front of the window of a pet store to smile at the little puppies on display. “They really are adorable at that size, aren’t they?” Giving the tiniest dog there a two fingered wave, he added, “Perhaps we should pick up a few. I enjoy having some of man’s best friends around.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Joselyn asked, injecting false sweetness into her voice. “We both know how much you hate anything else getting more attention than you.”

Chuckling seemingly genuinely at that, Fossor tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Nicely riposted, my dear.” He smiled, strolling onward through the busy mall after giving the dogs another brief look. His tone was as casual as ever. “Do you know why I enjoy these little jabs of yours?”

Joselyn sighed under her breath, head shaking as she followed after him. “I don’t know, maybe you’re just tired of being surrounded by nothing but mindless sycophants. Which is odd for a necromancer who kills almost everyone who spends any time with him, but maybe you just don’t think these things through.”

He chuckled again, head shaking. “No, no, no. A good thought, but no. You see, I enjoy hearing every single one of these little acts of verbal spite. Because each is a tiny flower in a garden of rebellion that shows you haven’t completely surrendered, that you still have your spirit. Which makes the fact that you will always do exactly as I tell you even more perfectly delicious.”

With that simple pronouncement, the man began to step onto the escalator, before stopping to allow an older couple who were holding hands to go first. “Oh no, go ahead, I insist.” He gestured for them to proceed, while giving them a disarmingly pleasant smile.

Joselyn stepped beside him, watching the two retirees ride the escalator to the top. Her voice was flat. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me why you wanted the Hangman rope now?” She offered him a humorless smile. “It’s not like I could do anything to stop you anyway.”

“Curiosity is a powerful thing, isn’t it?” Fossor replied while stepping up onto the escalator. He didn’t bother gesturing for her to follow, knowing she would anyway. “It motivates one to such great lengths.” He turned a slight smile her way. “It can even inspire you to make unneeded conversation with someone you truly despise with every fiber of your being.”

Standing two steps behind the necromancer as they rode the escalator to the next floor, Joselyn retorted, “Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of practice talking to people who make me sick. And,” she added while stepping off at the top, “you didn’t answer the question.”

“I have a habit of that,” Fossor agreed, wrapping his empty napkin up in one hand before nodding to her. “Don’t forget to eat your pretzel before it gets cold.” With that, the man turned to walk once more, passing a group of teenagers arguing in front of an arcade. He didn’t speak again for a minute, contenting himself with simply window shopping through the next couple of stores. Finally, he spoke thoughtfully. “The trouble with telling you what the rope is for is that it would spoil the surprise. And I do so love to see your look of surprise.” Glancing from the selection of shoes and boots he had been idly looking over to meet her gaze, the man added slyly, “In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it when we get to the end of today’s test.”

Positively certain that she didn’t want to know what he meant by that, Joselyn took brief look at the group of teens, watching them finally settle on going to see a movie instead of heading into the arcade. As they strode off, she sighed and followed after Fossor while absently taking a bite from the pretzel. She was almost annoyed by how good it tasted.

Since he clearly wouldn’t answer any of her earlier questions, she chose to ask a different one. “You’re doing all of this, all these schemes and risky plans to piss off the Committee and the Seosten, just to get a little stronger. Just to protect yourself a little more. Why bother? You’d be completely safe on your own world. No one could challenge you there. The place is an impenetrable fortress. Why not stay there? You have billions of servants, lives to play with. You have everything you could ever possibly need. Why stay here on Earth, with all the Seosten, the Heretics, and even the random Fomorian? Why risk it?” She paused briefly before adding in a quieter, almost resigned voice, “You could even take me back with you.”

Fossor chuckled at that. “First, my dear, don’t be arrogant. Not everything is about you. I have far more interests than you or your family, even if you are a rather pleasant distraction in… let’s say several ways.” His look made her shudder, as bile rose in her throat.

“Second,” he continued, “I stay because they have tried to drive me away. They have tried so very hard to tell me that I cannot be here.” His eyes hardened then, a dark look crossing them as he continued in a harsh, vindictive tone. “And no one tells me where I cannot be.”

Just as suddenly, the man’s eyes brightened. “Oh, look, twenty-five dollars for men’s slacks. Exactly what I was looking for.” He stepped past her, heading for the Old Navy store.

Muttering about psychotic necromancers under her breath, Joselyn trailed after the man, giving a short nod to the young man who stood just outside the store with a sign advertising the sale. Together, she and Fossor moved through the store. Just like any ordinary mundane couple, they actually shopped for pants. The man hemmed a bit over various brands, holding them up to himself before looking in the mirror. Finding several he liked the look of, he stepped into the changing room to try them on, leaving her with a casual, “Find a belt for me, would you, dear? The old one is rather frayed.”

Left on her own for a minute, Joselyn never thought about walking away and abandoning him. As nice as it would have been, the spell she had taken part in all those years earlier would never allow it. She gave a soft sigh instead before moving away from the dressing rooms, looking for men’s belts. On the way, she passed several people who nodded to her pleasantly. One actually made conversation, stopping to ask if she knew where the summer children’s clothes were, but most simply went on their way with barely a glance in her direction.

Would there be a Heretic in here? Would someone she knew, or who knew her actually approach? Was this the test that Fossor was talking about? Did he want to know what she would do if she encountered someone like that? What would she do if… if ordered to kill them?

She had no choice. The spell would allow her to disobey an order only if following it would put Felicity in direct danger. There was no way around that. She knew all too well just how far Fossor could push his control of her. The things he had already forced her to do…

She snapped out of it, head physically jerking as she found herself standing in front of the belts. Her hand was actually on one of them, gripping it so tightly she’d nearly snapped the thing in half. And yet, she found herself unable to immediately let go of it. As angry as she was, as frustrated and helpless as she felt, all she wanted to do was squeeze harder.

“Oh, good,” Fossor announced as he stepped up behind her, brushing a hand over her shoulder while reaching for the same belt she was holding. “You found one. And just my style too. See now, you know me so well.” With a wink, he took the belt and tried it against the new pants. “Perfect. Why don’t you head to the front and pay. I’ll mosey along after you in just a moment.”

Simultaneously unsure of what the man would be doing in the meantime, and absolutely sure she didn’t want to know, Joselyn took the pants that he offered her along with the belt before moving to the checkout. There, she waited in line, spoke casually with a few customers as well as the employee herself, and then stepped out with bag in hand.

Fossor joined her immediately, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “So,” he began simply, “what do you think? Was today’s test successful?”

Squinting at the man, Joselyn shoved the bag of clothes against his chest while muttering, “What test?” Even as she asked, the events of the entire shopping trip were playing through her mind. Was he expecting her to challenge him more? Had she missed something important?”

Still clearly enjoying himself more than she liked, Fossor replied, “Come now. Play everything back, our entire trip here. Has anything stood out to you? Anything jump to mind?” He could clearly barely contain his giddiness over the whole affair, her obvious bafflement over what he was referring to only making it better for him. “Look around,” he added ‘helpfully.’ “See if anything stands out at all. Take your time.”

Instead of moving immediately, Joselyn met his gaze, trying to read him. Finally, she turned and stepped to the nearby railing. Looking out over the crowd below, she watched for a couple silent minutes. Nothing. Nothing stood out. No one seemed to be paying too much attention to them. No one was following them. She saw no Alters, nothing out of the ordinary. They were just shoppers, employees, random people.

Finally, Fossor spoke up from behind. “Let me give you a hint.”

With a sharp sound, the man snapped his fingers. And everything stopped. Everyone stopped. Hundreds of shoppers on both levels suddenly halted. Conversations ceased instantly. People who were arguing, people who were hugging, chatting, shopping, everything. They stopped. And as one, in the exact same motion, they turned to face Joselyn. Hundreds of eyes were suddenly staring at her blankly. They had no emotion. They had no hopes, no dreams, no fears, nothing of their own. They had nothing, were nothing, not anymore. Because they were…

“Zombies,” she breathed out, eyes widening. “They’re… zombies. All of them. All… the whole..”

“Yes,” Fossor confirmed, the delight evident in his voice. “The whole mall. Every last shopper, employee, man, woman, child, all of them. They are all mine.” He watched her with a bright smile as she slowly turned to stare at him in horror. “They did well, didn’t they? Did you enjoy the show? My puppets did try oh so hard to impress you. Or, not impress you, I suppose. After all, the point was not to stand out.”

“But… why?” Joselyn demanded, feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. The children she had seen, the… the… all of them. They were all dead. All killed and then puppeted by this monster. “All this, just to put on a show for me? Why?”

“A show just for you?” he echoed. “Don’t be absurd. You’re the bait here, not the target.”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn murmured, “You’re setting up a trap.”

The man winked. “One of several, yes. You see, you’re right, now that Heretics know who you are, they will be on the lookout for you. They will try to find you. And this, what you see around us? Let’s just say it’s one of several preparations I’m making. We’ll see if any of your old friends follow you in here. And if they do, we’ll spring the trap.”

Staring at the man, Joselyn pointed out, “Pretty elaborate just to have them killed.”

“Oh no, no no, not killed,” Fossor corrected, shaking his head. “You see, our friends here are very special creatures. Very… special indeed. I designed them myself after watching one of those old Romero movies. You know the whole ‘zombies want to eat your brains’ nonsense. Well, these don’t eat your brain. They infect you. With each bite, each wound, they tear at your willpower, your ability to resist commands.”

Letting that sink in for a moment, Fossor continued. “Of course, the downside of creating these wonderful creatures is that they are limited to a relatively small area. If they move beyond the area of their creation, in their case, this mall, they will disintegrate. Which means anyone I wish to subject to them must come here. But that shouldn’t be hard to achieve. As you said, there will be people coming after you. People who will follow you into this simple, ordinary mall. So yes, a little bit of extra work, but worth it, I believe.

“After all, as much fun as having one Heretic enslaved at my beck and call has been, imagine what I could do with an army of them.”

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Patreon Snippets 5

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The following is the fifth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

Kushiel entered the pristine medical room at a crisp walk, beckoning with her fingers for the child at her heels to keep up. The young girl herself looked to be about five in Earth human years, which would have made her roughly three as far as the Seosten home planet of Elohim was concerned. Her light blonde hair was worn short, almost into a buzz cut, and she wore a simple silver hospital gown, with flashes of a blue Seosten bodysuit visible beneath it as she moved.

The room the two of them entered was taken up almost exclusively by various medical and scanning equipment that lined every wall. In the middle was a single bed, its occupant sitting up and watching them. He was an older man, his long hair gray and his face lined from many millennia of life. Though he was looking their way, he showed no change of expression at their entrance aside from a single blink. Beyond that, his face was empty.

Gazing up at the man, the young girl asked, “This is your husband, Mistress?”

Rather than answer, Kushiel pointed to a single chair that sat in the corner. “Sit, Nihil. Be silent.” She waited until the girl obediently did so before turning to the man. “Puriel,” she announced, stepping that way to take his limp hand. “Puriel, look at me.”

He did so, eyes moving to meet hers and focusing slightly better than they had been. “Kushiel,” he started in a voice that was rough, a testament to how seldom he used it lately. “Are they alive?”

Sighing with obvious annoyance, Kushiel shook her head. “Just like the last time you asked, and the time before that, and every time stretching back to the first, no.” She pulled his hand up to put both of hers around it. “Husband. Love. You have to stop this. It was years ago. The orphanage chose to take you in. They chose to care for your wounds after your transport through the banishment orb. They cared for you when you didn’t know who you were. And yes, you were in no shape to protect them when the Fomorians came. They died, my husband. But you survived. You survived, and now you remember who you are. You have to move on. Your people need you.”

His gaze had gone empty again, as he stared off at nothing. Stared at his memories. Kushiel sighed, dropping his hand as she turned to the nearby counter where various instruments lay. “This is Sariel’s newest spawn.” Her hand waved vaguely to where Nihil sat. “I’ve told you about her. I brought her here because she’s ready for the first experiment.”

Puriel’s eyes focused once more, looking at her. “Experiment,” he repeated the word as though it was entirely foreign to him. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given how much of his mind had been damaged first by the loss (and subsequent return) of his memories about himself through the banishment orb, and then the trauma of every person, adult and child alike, in the orphanage that had taken him in being violently murdered by the Fomorians.

“Yes,” Kushiel snapped a little impatiently. “Experiment. Our daughter, Puriel. We have to fix her. Sariel’s spawn there is a Lie as well.” She smirked. “Even the great Artemis produced a Lie. How shamed must she be?”

“Artemis,” Puriel echoed, head tilting once more. “Sariel.”

“Yes, yes, the one who helped do this to you.” Angrily, Kushiel waved at the man with the laser scalpel she had picked up. “So what justice will it be to make her spawn to whatever experiments it takes to finally find a cure for our daughter? I have… ideas. Ideas I would not put our child through. But that?” She waved to the obediently seated child. “That I will feel no guilt over.”

She turned back to the table then, picking up a vial of red liquid to examine before setting it aside for a glowing green vial instead. Behind her, Puriel spoke again. “Experiment… you will… hurt the girl.”

Sighing long and low, Kushiel kept her attention on the various tools and vials. “To fix our child so that she is not a failure, I will hurt many, yes. You don’t have to concern yourself with it. I have several ideas… such as this.” Holding up what looked like a thin metal rod about three inches long with tiny red glowing spellforms drawn along it, she explained, “Inserting one of these into the spine of two different Seosten should make the first follow the actions of the second while they’re active. Including possessing and then not possessing. If a Lie can’t stop possessing on their own, perhaps they will if they’re remotely controlled by a non-Lie.”

Puriel’s voice came back then. “You can’t hurt the girl.”

Annoyed, Kushiel set the tools down. “For the last time, husband, you must let go of this absurd guilt. Nothing that happened to those–wait.” In mid-sentence, the woman sensed something wrong. She turned, only to find the bed empty. Instead, Puriel was standing next to the chair where the child she had dubbed Nihil was. He had taken the girl’s hand.

“No!” Kushiel blurted, spinning around so fast she knocked over the tray full of vials and tools to crash along the floor. “Get away from–”

It was too late. The girl vanished, reflexively possessing her husband in fear from the loud crash of everything Kushiel had knocked over. With a loud, violent curse, the woman lunged that way to grab her husband by the arms. “What were you doing?! What–Puriel?”

His eyes focused, and the man nodded. “I am here. I… am here. What happened?”

“You just–” Kushiel paused, then sighed once more. “You had one of your fugue states. It… never mind.” Her anger was evident through the way she clenched her fist so tightly, speaking through gritted teeth. “I will just have to find another specimen, since you had to destroy that one.”

She moved to pick up the fallen equipment then, grumbling to herself. Meanwhile, Puriel stared off into the distance, as a small voice spoke in his head.

Where… where am I?

In me, the man thought back. You are a part of me.

But I can’t leave, the child hesitantly informed him. I’m not supposed to touch people. It’s bad. Touching is bad. You… you made me. Why?

Sariel’s child, came the simple response. Her children are Lies. Her…  I remember… children are Lies. I won’t let you be hurt. Not… not this time. Not this one.

I don’t understand, Mister.

Neither do I. But you are safe. I won’t crush you. I won’t… hurt you. I will raise you. I will… show you what I know.

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

“Yo man, chu know I ain’t like saying bad things ‘bout my homeys. It ain’t fly.”

“Mr. Drish,” Klassin Roe addressed the nineteen-year-old, pale and skinny boy across the desk from him. “No one is asking you to say bad things about your friends. I only asked if you still feel as though he is… different than he was last year.”

For a moment, Norbit (not that anyone was allowed to call him by that hated name) rocked back and forth in his seat, considering the words. “Yeah, man, I mean… sure, it ain’t as bad as it was before, but he still ain’t really here, right? He ain’t like– It’s like, he didn’t give a shit about nothing at first. That was bad. Like–lazy or something. Like he gave up. Then all of a sudden it’s like he do care, but he only care ‘bout that Freshman team, right? Like, like, all his effort going that way and the rest of us, we’re just like… not even there for him, you know? I mean, we there, but we ain’t there. Like he don’t really– like he like us, but not like us like them, you know?”

Klassin stared at him for a moment, then turned his head to cough once. “I think I have the general idea, yes. Do you still see him as a good teammate, as a friend?”

“Hey, he’s a solid guy.” Drish shot back, using two fingers to point emphatically. “Deveron’s always got my back. You know, when he’s there. But he ain’t wanna like… he ain’t wanna hang out. He does work. He aces the tests, he’s all over that shit. But he never wants to–ya know, shoot the shit without actually shooting. He never wants to chill.”

Leaning back in his seat, Klassin nodded. “He’s good to have around, he does all the work. But he’s not really much of a friend to you. He doesn’t play games with you, doesn’t hang out.”

“Right, right, yeah.” Drish’s head bobbed up and down as he pointed at the man. “Like that. Like, if you need him, he’s right there. Always count on him in a fight. But like… if you don’t need him, can‘t ever find him. We used to be buds. We was tight last year. So tight, like this.” He crossed his fingers. “Now he just always running off on his own. Doing his own shit, or shit with those Freshmen. I mean, that’s cool and all, he’s working on the next gen and shiz, whatever. But throw a dog a bone, you know?”

Klassin considered the boy thoughtfully for a moment. “He was one of your best friends last year, and now he never hangs out. I understand. People change, and it can be hard sometimes.”

“Psshhh.” Waving his hand unconvincingly, Drish sat back. “Ain’t no big. I gots plenty of homeys to hang with. Don’t really need another one crowding me out. Ain’t gonna cry about it. Nice to have space. Space to stretch, you hear?”

With a nod, Klassin replied, “I do hear, thanks. But tell me one thing. What do you think of Deveron this year?”

“Man…” Starting to dismissively wave that off once more, Drish then hesitated. “It’s like… he’s a great fighter, great Heretic, good at all that shit. But I miss just like…doing nothing, you know? I miss hanging with him. Sitting on the beach just chilling. He never wants to do nothing. Always gots something to stay busy with. It’s exhausting just watching him.” Seeming to realize that he’d opened up too much for his own liking, the boy finally made a dismissive noise. “But whatevs, just chill with some babes. His loss.”

“Indeed,” Klassin agreed with the boy. “But let’s talk about something else. You went home for your birthday last week, right? Why don’t you tell me how that went?”

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

Remember Humility Bennett. Many years earlier, she had been one of the original founding members of Eden’s Garden, before soon becoming one of the Victors of an entire tribe. It went through several names throughout the course of its history, the most recent one being Lost Scar.

She was also the mother of the late Edeva, who had in turn married Lyell Atherby and been mother to Joshua Atherby.

Remember’s great-granddaughter was Joselyn Atherby. Her great-great-granddaughter was Felicity Chambers.

“Victor Bennett?” A soft, hesitant voice interrupted the woman, as a demure young woman appeared in the doorway of her office. “I–I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am. You said you wanted to be informed if there was any news of the missing tribe students.”

Turning from the names that had been scrawled on the wall, Remember focused on her young assistant. “Yes, Aconitum. Did they find Trice?”

“Err…” The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am. It’s about Pace. The… men who were sent to give the warning to the Fellows woman–errr, that is… your… I mean–”

“My great-great-granddaughter, yes,” Remember dismissively finished for her with a wave of her hand. “I am well aware of the nuisance she’s made of herself and the situation surrounding her. Go on.”

Aconitum told her the story, at least as much as they knew, about what had happened back at the Bystander clothing shop. Men were dead, while Abigail, the newly dubbed Stray, and Pace were on the run.

“A werewolf…” Remember murmured under her breath. “No wonder she vanished for so long.” Clearing her throat, she ordered, “Take whoever is needed and find them. Find her. Pace is the priority. I want her brought back here. There may be a lot to learn from the girl if she has been taken into a wild pack.”

Her assistant hesitated before slowly asking, “And your, err… descendent, Victor? Shall we send a request to Crossroads to have her daughter brought in for questioning? They may be amenable to that in exchange for some favors.”

“Yes,” Remember agreed. “Send the request and see what they want in return. Go.”

Waiting until the girl had bowed and left, the old woman turned back to look at the name on the wall once more. Felicity Chambers. No wonder her primitive precognitive power had been pushing her to write the girl’s name. Though Aconitum wasn’t aware of Chambers’ relation to Abigail (or who their mother was), Remember was fully aware of it.

Chambers. The girl had such potential, that much was clear. It was too bad that Remember had failed to follow her first instinct to insist that she be recruited by Garden. Having the potential of that girl under her supervision, before she could be corrupted by Gaia Sinclaire, would have led to great things.

It was a shame, because it was clear that Felicity Chambers had the same great potential as her mother. And just as clear that she had already at least begun to be swayed to the wrong side in this war.

Losing more of her descendants would be a waste. Perhaps there was still time to right the course of things? That may be what her precognition was trying to tell her by making her write the girl’s name so often. A replacement for the loss of Doxer, perhaps? She had been the one to kill the boy, after all. Sinclaire would object, but if she could convince Ruthers that the girl would be better off outside of that woman’s influence…

Hmm. Her descendant… brought back to line as a member of her tribe. It was something to think about. A long shot, of course, and yet… as much as the girl had grown in such a short time, she could be an asset.

It was worth considering, at least. And if she could not be convinced to turn away from the same foolishness that had caused her mother to create such a rift in the Heretical world, then… she would need to be silenced, before she ended up making things worse.

And who better to ensure that happened than her own great-great-grandmother?  

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

It was known as Hidden Hills, a gated off community several minutes drive from the edge of a small town in Idaho. It was set up against a range of hills and reachable only via a partially paved road. To the outside world, it was either a retirement community or a cult, no one was quite sure which.

The truth was quite different. Hidden Hills was actually a collection of barracks and training grounds established by a man who called himself Sheol. A self-styled warlord who had broken and forcibly recruited numerous small bands of previously warring Alter groups, Sheol hammered fear of his displeasure into his troops, tempered against the great rewards they received for obedience. Hidden Hills was only one of his training centers, though possibly the largest. What he intended to do with his rapidly growing army was unknown to any but him.

Unknown, but… in at least one man’s opinion, not worth waiting around to find out. That particular man stood in the middle of the road, facing the gate that led into the community. His unassuming, vaguely husky figure appeared less a threat and more a simple tourist who had managed to get himself turned around on these confusing backroads.

Those who knew him, however, would never believe that the two dozen figures who appeared at the gate with firearms and other weapons raised and trained on the man was an overreaction. Indeed, their questions would more fall along the lines of why those men believed two dozen would be enough. Or perhaps why they wasted time with that when they could have been fleeing.

“Well,” Fossor remarked quietly as his eyes passed over the weapons trained on him. “I suppose this leaves out the possibility of asking to see your real estate listings.”

“Leave, necromancer.” The leader of their band, a jackal-headed figure with a wide shotgun-type weapon, demanded. “The grounds here are warded against your magic. You can raise no zombies, summon no ghosts, manipulate no skeletons. You have no power within two miles of these gates.” Even as the man spoke, another couple dozen armed figures joined them, doubling their initial numbers.

If those words (and the reinforcements) were a revelation, or particularly worrisome, Fossor gave no indication of it. He simply gave the man and his companions what might have been mistaken for a kind smile if one didn’t see the empty coldness in his eyes. “Is that right? Well, in that case… I suppose there’s nothing else to be done.” With an idle shrug, he turned to start casually strolling away. With each step, a cloud of dark ashes emerged from the canteen that had appeared in one hand. The ashes flew down to lead the man’s path so that he only stepped on them, creating a black path along the road.

After a few steps, however, he stopped. With those weapons trained on him, the man slowly tilted his head as though considering something. “Unless,” he murmured while raising one finger thoughtfully, “… there were youth in your stronghold back there.”

Slowly turning back that way, Fossor began to continue, only to be interrupted at the sound of a gunshot. That was followed by three more, as a collection of holes appeared in his chest. A final shot put a hole in the center of his forehead.

The gunfire faded at a shout, leaving the gathered troops staring at the necromancer… who appeared none the worse for wear. Indeed, the holes that had appeared in his body vanished almost instantly as his connection to his homeworld shifted the damage to one of the billions of enslaved life forms who dwelled there. His people were connected to him at all times, and any damage done to him was immediately shunted to them. So long as his connection to that world remained active, they would literally have to kill billions of what amounted to hostages before any damage could be done to the necromancer himself.

When the only evidence of the sudden attack that remained were the holes in his white shirt, Fossor raised a hand, touching a finger against the fabric there before uttering a single word. The holes patched themselves, erasing even that sign.

Then, without seeming to acknowledge the assault in any other way, he simply continued speaking. “If there were youth in there, teenagers… well, they might be a bit rebellious. They might… say… sneak out of your complex now and then, to visit town and… express themselves.”

Slowly, casually strolling back the way he had just come, the man went on. “And these… hypothetical rebellious youths could find themselves over the course of… mmm… a couple weeks being talked into receiving tattoos as a sign of the… I don’t know, unity of their little gang. Tattoos of… let’s just say a particular magical spell which, upon their death, causes them to rise once more to attack and brutally murder everyone they see without that tattoo… well, that’s the kind of spell that wouldn’t be affected by your necromancy blockers. Since they brought it in themselves.”

Regarding the increasingly nervous and skittish soldiers, Fossor gave a thoughtful hum. “Of course, the real question would be how to ensure those deaths all happened at a useful time. One can’t simply depend on even the most morose of teenagers to do something useful like a group suicide, after all.” His finger rose illustratively. “But… if, say… the ink in those magical tattoos happened to be of a particular incredibly lethal poison set to activate at a certain time… such as… say…”

Slowly, deliberately, the man raised his arm to look at his watch. As he did so, the sound of screaming and gunfire filled the air. It came not from the troops assembled before the necromancer, but from the stronghold behind them. Smoke rose from several buildings, as the screams of horror and rapidly rising stench of death grew with each passing second.

“Thirty seconds ago,” Fossor finished, giving an apologetic smile. “Oops.”

Some of the men opened fire, to no avail. Most immediately gave up that endeavor and raced back into the stronghold, to put out fires, to put down their risen children, to save their friends. None of those efforts would prove any more fruitful.

As for Fossor, he calmly adjusted his shirt and gave his thumb a slight lick before using that to polish a smudge off of his watch. A cloud of ashes rose from his canteen to create a path to the open gate, and he slowly, casually strolled that way to enter the compound.

Within the hour, there would be nothing left save empty buildings.

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

A portal opened into a field of grass set beside a wooden cabin. Nearby stretched the crystal clear water of a lake, with a couple of kayaks and other boats tied to a dock.

Through that portal stepped a single, pale figure with brown hair and matching eyes. Appearing to be about fifteen by human standards, the girl set foot on the grass before looking around curiously. Her head tilted back, and she spread her arms to both sides while looking at the sky with her mouth open to taste the air.

The Lie daughter of Kushiel and Puriel had never set foot on Earth before. Nor had she been outside on any planet more than a handful of times. This was… in many ways, a new experience.

She had only stood there for a few seconds like that before the sound of approaching footsteps drew her attention. Lowering her gaze from the sky, she was just in time to spot a small figure running not along the ground, but over the roof of the nearby cabin.

“Hiya!” The call came with a wave, before the figure turned into a blur of motion, going all the way across the roof to hope from one tree to another, then to a third like a some kind of turbocharged squirrel. Leaping from the third tree in the span of less than two seconds since her movement had begun, the small figure rocketed across the remaining distance between them before snapping to an almost vibrating stop directly in front of the newly arrived girl.

The so-called Lie tilted her head, taking in the figure in front of her. She was clearly much younger, appearing to be only nine or ten years old at most. Which, given the fact that Seosten aging didn’t slow for several years after that, meant that Lies was actually over a decade older than her.

The younger girl had dark hair, her eyes so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants, and a white hoody that seemed almost too big for her diminutive figure. And she gave Lies barely a second to take her in before launching into a spiel that came so fast and free of any particular pauses that it was almost impossible to follow.

“Hiyayou’rethenewgirlrightyeahthat’srightwhyelsewouldyoubeheremyname’sDecemberwhat’syours?”

“Breathe, December.” The voice came from the cabin behind them, as a six-foot tall blonde woman emerged. She wore a glittering red gown that made it appear as though she had just stepped from the dance floor of a dinner party for some royal wedding. “Remember what we talked about, leave some space between your words.”

She was joined a moment later by a dark skinned woman who appeared to be in her twenties who wore a very ruffled tan trench coat over a white shirt, and an enormous Hispanic man with heavily patched and fraying clothes.

“Hello,” the blonde woman politely greeted Lies. “We were told you would be coming to pay us a visit while your… group settles in, until a new body can be found for your mission. I am January. You’ve met December already. These are July and September.”

“Julie,” the black woman corrected. “It’s Julie.”

The large man gave a nod. “And you can call me Tember.” He showed a toothy smile. “Like timber.”

Confused, the new arrival tilted her head. “Why are you giving me names? We are all Lies, aren’t we? Lies don’t have names.”

“Hey!” The sharp retort came from a different girl. This one, arriving from around the side of the cabin, appeared to be what the humans would call Asian in her late teens. She wore simple army fatigues with her hair cut short. “We don’t use that word around here!” Clearly bristling with anger, she stormed that way before yet another figure caught her arm.

“May’s right,” that one, a thin man with dirty-blond hair who wore a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, announced. “We don’t use the L word. Like I said, she’s May. I’m November.”

“We,” announced a black man in a white suit whose dark hair fell to his shoulders as he stepped into view, “are the Calendar. And we do not allow others to define our worth with their contemptuous slurs.” To the new arrival, he added, “February. Though I have been known to answer simply to Feb.”

“Only because I won a bet that made him answer to it.” The correction came from what appeared to be a teenage girl around fourteen or fifteen, with long red hair. She wore clothes that were the spitting image of the uniform worn by the Heretical Crossroads students, and introduced herself as April.

Before long, they were joined by the remaining four members of the so-called Calendar. There was the incredibly quiet and apparently very introverted March, who stood as tall as Tember and had green hair fashioned into a crewcut; a Caucasian man in his mid-thirties who wore a lab coat over a Hawaiian shirt and went by October or Otto, another man around twenty or so with close-cropped dark hair in dark clothes and a white jacket who was June; and a much older man called August whose gray hair went well with his perfectly tailored suit.

Looking around at the gathered dozen, Lies blinked twice. “You wear different clothes,” she noted. “You call yourselves different names. You refuse to answer to the name Lie. Why?”

It was August who spoke, his voice a smooth timbre. “We are the Calendar. We serve Cahethal, and in exchange, we maintain our individuality as we please.”

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

As December warp-sped her way through her version of the explanation, April took a step forward to cover the younger girl’s mouth. “Sorry, I’d say she’s just excited to meet you, but she’s pretty much always like this.”

“It’s true,” January confirmed. “She is not one to sit still. Which is why she is never assigned to simple, long-term quiet surveillance. The last time we tried that, the humans were treated to the sight of a raccoon repeatedly performing backflips and cartwheels out of a tree before giving them an intricate dance routine set to music from a nearby stereo.”

“I got bored,” was December’s only defense.  

“You possess animals,” Lies put in then, “not people.”

“Animals are easier to dispose of so that we may emerge without drawing attention to missing people,” Otto explained while polishing his glasses on the end of that incredibly loud shirt. “We keep a veritable zoo beneath our feet here.” He tapped the ground demonstrably. “Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to show it to you before your leader calls for your return.”

“Indeed, perhaps we will,” January agreed. “But for now, come. It’s time for lunch.”

The collection of Lies-who-didn’t-call-themselves-Lies began to walk back to the cabin, leaving Kushiel’s daughter to stare after them. They were… odd. Very odd. What kind of Lie refused to answer to that word?

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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Family Day 40-03

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Fossor. He had been here all this time, right under our noses. I had no doubt in that second that he’d been here for months, at least. Maybe even from the beginning of the school year. Or even earlier. Sands and Scout said the food tasted better when they were kids? How long had he been here? And how much had he stepped it up since I arrived? After all, he probably wanted to keep an eye on me once I was brought to the school, and who better to do it through then the school chef? No one ever paid attention to the cook. He just stayed in his kitchen and did his job.

And listened. And watched.

Casually, Escalan touched two fingers against the door behind him, and I saw a couple of red spell sigils appear briefly. Only then did he step away from the door and speak, “It’s good to see you in the flesh again, dear.” He paused, then looked down at the body he was currently puppeting. “So to speak, at least. Unfortunately, I believe my physical presence there would cause more problems than I’m currently prepared to deal with. But then, this wouldn’t be your first dealings with an absent parental figure.”

“Shut up!” I suddenly blurted despite myself. I couldn’t think. My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had to believe that he’d been telling the truth about me being cut off from contact. If my cell phone wasn’t working, maybe Wyatt’s protective spells would let them know what was going on.

Something in my face must have given that thought away, because Fossor, through Escalan, chuckled. “Oh, dear Felicity, your spells are still broadcasting just as they should, and will betray no surprises or trouble. For the moment, at least. Besides, as you well know, I mean you no harm right now.” He winked, the words somehow mocking. “I am utterly incapable of harming you, after all.”

We both knew what he meant by that, and how much he could get around it. My eyes snapped around quickly, looking for anything that could give me an idea what to do. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even get a message to Tabbris back with Dad. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why didn’t I possess someone at the camp? Then I could’ve recalled to them.

Finally, all I could do was snap my gaze back to the nearby man and blurt, “What are you doing here?! What do you want?! What are you— wait. Wait, the food. The food, what did you do to the food?!”

The horror of the possibilities had me already moving. Forgetting myself, I ran for the man, or rather, for the door behind him. I had to warn them.

To my surprise, Fossor didn’t try to stop me. In fact, he had Escalan’s body step out of the way. I knew that should have been a hint, but all I can think about was warning my friends. I got to the door… and suddenly the world swam and I was back on the other side of the room.

It was some kind of teleport spell, short range. When I got near the door, it simply reset me back over here.

My staff was in my hands then, as I went for the man, swinging it hard while demanding, “What did you do?!”

The blow struck home, not that it actually did anything, of course. Escalan’s head simply snapped a bit to the side, before Fossor made him sigh softly, like he was disappointed.

“You are entirely too old for temper tantrums, young lady. But because I understand this is an emotional time, I will indulge you.”

Using two fingers, he gestured, and I felt all of my strength suddenly leave me. It was all I could do to stand up, staggering a bit against the nearby counter before using it to brace myself.

He continued then. “To answer your question, I have been using this time as your chef productively, carefully preparing a very specific poison.”

My eyes widened at that, and I gathered what strength I had to throw myself at him once more with another swing. It meant nothing, as he just sighed and stepped backwards, letting me fall on my face.

“As I was saying, this very special poison required months of very careful testing and work. After all, if it was going to do what I needed to do, there could be no mistakes, no second chances. Fortunately, that meant that I had a ready excuse to stay here and see how you were doing. I must admit, though I don’t know the whole story, I am very impressed by your work this year. You are quite the overachiever. Your mother is proud. I promised her I’d tell you that.”

Using the end of my staff to push myself up a bit, I glared at him. “You’re a monster,” I spat. “What poison? What are you trying to do? You can’t possibly think that you can just poison all these Heretics to death. There’s no fucking way.”

“Well, no,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Heretics are entirely too resilient for that. Particularly the stronger ones. Fortunately, killing them was not my goal at this particular moment. Merely… distraction. And that is something that this particular poison is a very good at creating. You see, it’s not just a poison to make them sick. It’s also an… anchor to a specific spot. When it kicks in, the person who eats it is yanked to that specific spot and, until the poison is purged, they can’t leave. But yes, it also it makes them sick. Or rather, weak. It makes them quite tired. Similar to what you’re feeling now, actually. Which isn’t direct harm, helpfully enough. It’s an ingenious hunting method devised by the Kakaseun people. They would leave food out as bait, and when the bait was taken, their prey would be teleported to the spot they designated, and, conveniently enough, would also be quite tired. Dinner delivered directly to where the Kakaseun wanted them, and left too weak to fight back.

“And even better, every single body that is affected will give off a… let’s call it an aura, which infects those around them. That way, even those who weren’t directly planned for will be, well, dealt with.”

I stared at him. “Nothing that affects all those students without killing them is going to do a thing to Gaia, or the Committee members, or–”

“Of course not,” the man interrupted. “But as I said, a distraction. You see, each of the Heretics who are affected will be sent to one of a dozen different possible traps. Each of those traps is full of… let’s say very dangerous things. Your teachers and such may not be sick, but they will be quite thoroughly occupied with keeping their students alive for the time being.”

He winked then. “All in all, let’s just say no one will be in any shape to interrupt your mother anytime soon.”

“Mom?!” I blurted, eyes widening once more, “What are you talking about? Where’s my mom?! What are you making her do?!”

His response was a slow smile. “What I’ve been planning for this whole year, of course. Actually, for quite a bit longer. But I wanted it to be this year because you were here and, well, call me sentimental. I kind of wanted you to be here for it.

“Your mother is retrieving something very important for me. The rope of the creature who provides all of these people their power.”

“Wh- the rope?” Now I was really lost. “You mean the rope that hanging near Bosch’s place? What does that even… I mean… what?”

That smile, the one that I recognized as Fossor even on another man’s face, came back. “That’s right, you did get a chance to see it, didn’t you? Yes, the Heretics keep it under a very close watch, despite how it may have seemed at the time. It is very… protected, let’s say. And there are always plenty of lapdogs ready to come and defend it. But in this case, well, they will be rather distracted.”

The poisoned food, I realized. He was going to distract all of Crossroads by infecting everyone here with that… teleportation plus sickness food, and then have Mom attack that place and steal the rope while they were busy. My mouth opened and shut a few times before I blurted, “What do you even want the rope for?! This is a lot of work to go through just for a souvenir.” I knew it was for far more than that, of course. But I was hoping that dismissing it like that would make the man explain more than he intended to about his overall plan.

Unfortunately, given the look of that the man gave me, he knew exactly what I was trying to do. And he didn’t even indulge me. Instead, he wagged one finger at me a couple times. “Now now, I may be inclined to indulge your curiosity to a certain extent, given our close relationship, but there are limits even to that. After all, we can’t have all the surprises spoiled, can we?” He winked at me.

Damn it, what was I supposed to do?! What could I do? Delaying things clearly only worked in his favor. He was speaking to me through this zombie proxy, so whatever he was really doing, my talking wasn’t stopping it. Besides, he had Mom to do the dirty work. But I couldn’t get past him. I couldn’t get out of the room, and I couldn’t contact anybody. I couldn’t do anything!

Or maybe… maybe I could do something. Refocusing on Escalan, I thought about what I had been learning from Brom. Zombie. Zombie. Escalan was a zombie. So maybe I could control him to let me out of here. Biting my lip, I pushed as hard as I could at making his arm move.

His arm rose, and I felt a brief moment of elation. Which lasted just long enough for me to realize that it was the wrong arm. I’d been focusing on the right one, and the left had risen.

Seeing my expression, Fossor made Escalan laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was this one, wasn’t it?” Raising his right hand, the man chuckled low. “A fine effort. Really, I’m rather impressed. Yes, dear girl, you are developing very nicely. When we’re all a nice, happy family, I’ll teach you.”

“We’re not a family!” I shouted then, unable to help myself. “I’m never going to be some stupid devoted daughter for you, you sick fuck!”

“Daughter?” Fossor had the nerve to make Escalan look sickened and offended by that. “I should hope not. That would make our future engagements quite… creepy indeed.”

The blood drained from my face, and I forced myself back to my feet. It was so hard. I felt more tired than I had pretty much all year, or at least since I’d gotten the Amarok boost. Whatever Fossor had done to me, it took all I had just to stand up, even leaning on my staff. “You… you sick piece of shit. I don’t know why you want that rope, or what the hell you think you’re doing. But you’re going to fail. We’re going to find my mother, and we’re going to kill you.”

Of course, in that moment it was an impotent promise. And Fossor treated it as such, simply inclining Escalan’s head before offering a casual, “I eagerly anticipate your attempts. But in the meantime, perhaps you should be focusing on rescuing a different family member.”

That threw me more than almost anything else he could have said right then. “I don’t–what?”

His expression turned wistful. “I have to admit, I’m rather impressed that Ammon managed to keep her a secret for so long. Months, really. But in the end, the truth always emerges. Whether it’s heard from your lips or has to be read off of your extracted intestines, that part is up to you.”

Before I could say anything to that, he elaborated. “Her name is Karen, isn’t it? No, Koren. That was it. Just like her mother should have been. Very…” He breathed in, then out, smiling. “Very touching.”

My blood had run cold as soon as he said the name, and the man continued while I was still trying to find my voice. “Yes, I must admit, of all the things I expected his little secret to be about, that was not one of them. But it was a pleasant surprise. Our family is even bigger than expected. It must have been quite nice for you, hmm? A living niece and a half-sister. For the time being, at least.”

“What–what do you mean, for the time being?” I demanded, finding enough strength to straighten a bit more. I felt almost numb, my emotions incapable of keeping up the level of horror and disgust that this entire conversation was forcing onto me. The helplessness was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to avoid throwing up.

“Well,” he replied, “you see, that’s the thing. I have no need for a woman who reached menopause before ever becoming a Heretic. What on Earth would I ever need such a useless creature for? Fortunately, she had the foresight to bear a child ahead of time. Quite convenient, that. And now, she will provide sufficient entertainment for your little brother, while her death will motivate your niece to wonderful heights of emotion that will be very useful.”

Oh. Apparently my horror could reach new levels. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Ammon’s with–no! No, they’re with the other–” I stopped. “That–that teleportation sickness thing. You… you made it send them somewhere else. Not with the others.”

Adopting a tone as though he was talking to a small child, Fossor-through-Escalan nodded slowly. “Yes, very good. Very good. Koren and Abigail are spending a little quality time with Ammon, so they can all have some fun.” He smiled then. “He really is a rambunctious boy.”

That was enough. More than enough. The rage and helplessness that I had felt building within me every second since realizing just who I was talking to had reached a crescendo. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, it was time to get past him and stop this. Somehow.

And then Fossor made Escalan simply step aside, gesturing to the door to make the glowing runes disappear. “Well, that should be long enough to get things going.”

Unable to believe it, I stared at him for just a second. “What–now you’re just letting me go?”

That smile returned, as the zombified man replied, “Of course. You have an issue with Ammon, and I prefer to allow my family to work out their own issues amongst themselves. And I do mean amongst themselves. You’ll find it quite impossible to contact anyone else for the time being. After all, this spat is between you and your little brother, not the old king’s remnants. Yes, this will be up to you. It will be interesting, however, to see what you choose.”

“What I choose?” I felt my strength returning. Whatever he had done to me was wearing off. Or maybe he was dismissing it. Either way, it was getting easier to stand up straight.

“Of course.” Fossor’s amusement was plain to both see and hear. “After all, you know precisely where your mother is and what she is doing. You could go to her. How long has it been since you spoke to her in person, since you touched her? Perhaps you could bring her back to you, even save her. Or, you could go and see about Ammon and that entire… situation.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I suppose it depends on what matters more to you right now, hmm?”

“You’re a piece of shit,” I snapped at him, my voice cracking. “And a coward.”

My insults might as well have been water sliding off a duck’s back, for all the attention he paid to them. “You’ll find two portals on the beach. The one on the left will lead you to the same area that your mother is going to. The one on the right will lead you to Ammon’s little game.” He chuckled to himself, his voice turning introspective. “Yes, it will be quite interesting to see what you choose to do. Quite interesting indeed.”

With that, the man stopped talking. Escalan’s body abruptly fell to the floor and lay completely still like the… the corpse that it was. I felt a brief moment of sorrow and loss for the man I’d probably never actually known, before springing into motion. I raced for the door, bracing myself just in case.

There was no teleportation spell. I hit the door and burst through, still moving at a sprint through the empty cafeteria. Portals. Portals on the beach. Could I even trust that? It was stupid. But then again, Fossor’s binding magical agreement with my mother made it so that he couldn’t directly hurt me. So I knew the portals couldn’t actually be that dangerous. But still… still…

This was wrong. It was all wrong. Fossor controlling a body at Crossroads. Why didn’t they detect him? Was he that powerful that he could hide the fact that Escalan was dead and a zombie from… from… all of them, from everyone? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.

And now, now apparently all the Heretics that should have been able to help me were busy being teleported to some other place and wouldn’t be able to get back here until they actually fixed the poison and dealt with all the ambushes that Fossor had arranged. Which was just great.

I didn’t know how much power it took Fossor to make the magical poison… things that he’d used to send that many Heretics away and keep them occupied. It felt like it should have been impossible. But that was kind of the point of magic. Given enough time and effort, it could do a lot. And time was something Fossor had had plenty of in this case.

Magic wasn’t fast, as Professor Carfried was so fond of saying. But it was thorough. The psycho necromancer had had all year to plan for this. All year–hell, more than that, according to him. Years, maybe even decades, he’d spent preparing for this exact moment. He’d just chosen this particular year to do it because I happened to be here.

Boy, didn’t I just feel special.

Sure enough, as I hit the exit and emerged onto the grounds, I found the place empty. Where there had been hundreds of people just minutes earlier, there was now just… no one. Fossor had successfully teleported every last Heretic away from Crossroads. It was perfect timing on his part. Everyone was attending this thing. Everyone at the school, anyway. And a lot of others besides.

Fumbling my phone out of my pocket, I tried using it again. Nothing. Fossor had been telling the truth. I couldn’t contact anyone. Maybe once I went through the portal, but even then I was pretty damn sure that communications would be blocked on that side too. Which was just great.

I had to focus. They were okay. Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, the other teachers, they were all a lot more powerful and capable than I was and they were with my team, with my friends, with… with my girls. They’d be able to deal with wherever Fossor had sent everyone. Dare wasn’t there, of course. She was still with Kohaku and Tangle at wherever they were staying, keeping the pair company through this. Even without her, however, there were plenty of powerful Heretics that could deal with whatever was out there. Not to mention the Committee members who were there and–yeah, they’d be fine.

But there were others who wouldn’t be. And I had to–

“Felicity!”

Whirling at the sound of the voice, I was just in time to be swept into a tight hug by Avalon. With a gasp, I grabbed on tight. “What–Valley?! How–what?”

She was there. And Vanessa was with her. Avalon and Vanessa were both standing there.

“Mom,” Avalon started shortly, after letting go. “When everything started happening and everyone was disappearing, she said a strange word and then she put this symbol on my arm.”

She showed me her bicep then, where a magical rune glowed. “It burned, but when everyone disappeared, I stayed.”

“Same,” Vanessa confirmed. “Only it was my dad. Err, maybe my mom. I’m not sure who was driving the body right then. It’s some kind of counterspell to whatever… whatever pulled them away.” She looked to me then, frowning. “What pulled them away?”

Oh thank God. Thank whoever. Thank whatever. Avalon was safe. She was here, she hadn’t been sucked away. Well, consciously I knew she would’ve been just as safe with Gaia, if not more so, but still. She was here. She was right here with me. It felt as though a little bit of the weight had lifted from my shoulders. And if Gaia and Haiden or Sariel had the counterspell that readily, maybe they’d be back here sooner than that evil jackass expected.

But still not soon enough.

“Come on,” I blurted, already heading for the beach. “It’s Fossor, I’ll explain on the way.”

So, I did. Running across the table and chair-strewn grounds to reach the beach, I blurted an explanation for everything that Fossor had said about what he was doing and what had happened to the others. “And now Mom’s stealing that rope for Fossor while Ammon has Abigail and Koren. He’s going to kill Abigail just to torture Koren, just to–to break her.”

“We can’t let that happen.” That was Vanessa, as we all skidded to a stop in front of both portals. “But… but your mother.”

“She’ll still be there later,” I announced without hesitation. I’d thought about it the entire time we’d been running. Ever since Fossor had brought it up, really. I’d thought about it, and while there was a bit of… of guilt and disappointment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t even a choice, really. Which showed just how little Fossor actually understood about families and loved ones if he thought it would be. I loved my mother. I missed her. But she would survive this. I wouldn’t throw away Abigail’s life and Koren’s… soul just to get a few minutes face to face with my mother. Fossor… he had no idea how actual people worked.

“But you guys can’t come,” I realized then, my gaze snapping to them. “Ammon’s there. You’re–you’re not immune to his power. If he gets near you–” I stopped myself then, not trusting my voice.

“Chambers,” Avalon announced, “we’re not idiots. Show her, Vanessa.”

Blinking that way, I saw the other girl produce something from her pockets. They were… earplugs? They looked sort of like earplugs. Really tiny ones that would be almost entirely invisible inside of the ear.

“We’ve been working on them ever since you explained what Ammon could do,” Avalon informed me. “She did the research for the spells, I worked on them in the lab. Less so after I switched to Security, but I still tinkered with them. We’ve been finishing them up at the camp while I was recovering.”

“They’ve got six charges,” Vanessa informed me. “Every time they hear ‘My name is’ after they’re activated, it triggers one of the charges. The first five make you deaf for a few seconds. So you don’t hear the rest of it, or the order. The last charge knocks you out for a few minutes. We’ve been working on adding more charges to them, but that’s all we managed so far.”

“So, you can hear Ammon try to use his power six times,” I murmured, “and then it just knocks you out.”

The two of them were already putting the little earbud things in place, both of them nodding to me. Avalon lifted her chin. “So no, you’re not doing this by yourself, Chambers.”

“Your mom?” I asked her before looking to Vanessa. “Your… your entire family. You have a thing with people being teleported away.”

“They’ll be okay,” the blonde girl replied. “They’re together. And they’ve got plenty of others with them. They’re not the ones that need help right now. You are. Koren is. Tristan would say we should stay and help you, if he was here. If we hadn’t already erased his anchor spell thing. And I could go straight to Dad if I hadn’t been practicing with my possession power today.”

She sighed then. “I didn’t think I’d need to hold onto that connection with him because they were home. Great timing, huh? But hey, work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a chance to save Koren and her mom.”  

I looked back and forth between the two of them briefly, as Avalon nodded in agreement. “Okay then,” I murmured, looking back to the portal in question. “I think we should all go through together, since it’ll probably disappear as soon as one of us goes.”

The three of us held hands then. I took a breath, murmured a quiet prayer, then took three quick steps forward with the others. This was what Fossor wanted me to do, run off to find Ammon so we could get into a fight. But I had to believe that he didn’t expect me to have help. So maybe that would screw up whatever plans he had. Either way, I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t time to debate anything, and there wasn’t time to wait for the others to get back. There wasn’t time… period. We had to do this, and do it right now.

Together, Avalon, Vanessa, and I passed through the portal, to find Koren and Abigail…

And to deal with Ammon.

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Family Day 40-02

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The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

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