Fossor

Eighteen 6-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait. Hold on. I knew this cheerleader. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SUMMARY

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

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

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Eighteen 6-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I had no idea how to do that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None,” came the answer. 

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

SUMMARY

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

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Eighteen 6-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it still pissed me off. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother was here. My mom was hugging me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to beat you.” 

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

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

 

SUMMARY

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

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Eighteen 6-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy birthday, Felicity. And welcome home.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know what to do. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I am nothing if not patient.” 

SUMMARY

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

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Interlude 5B – Fossor (Heretical Edge 2)

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Four Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think you will.” 

*******

Three Years Ago 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

Several Weeks Ago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Several Days Ago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dead man smiled encouragingly. “Oh…

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

*******

Four Hours Ago

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

********

Present

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azlee sat down. 

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

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

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

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

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

Fossor.

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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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