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.”
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.