“It’s a trap.”
Those three simple, definitive words came from Sariel, as she and the other three Seosten sat at a table in a park somewhere far from the Committee Headquarters. They had left their briefly hijacked bodies back at a restaurant with no idea of what had happened to them, before coming here so that Mercury and Larees could explain what they had heard while doing their part.
“A trap?” Mercury echoed, raising an eyebrow as he looked toward the woman he had, so long ago, begged to risk her job, everything she was, and the future of the Seosten war effort in general, to save one little girl. “You think the Atherby woman being seen was bait?” As he spoke, the man scribbled in a small notebook that he’d pulled from a pocket.
“Chambers woman. And she’s been missing for what amounts to a decade,” Sariel pointed out. “And in all that time, there have been rumors here and there, but nothing definitive. Fossor has been careful to either keep her out of sight, keep her disguised, or kill any and all witnesses who could give any idea of her condition or location. Except, of course, when he wanted her to be seen.” She exhaled then. “The point is, she’s seen now, while all this is going on? It’s not a coincidence, and it’s not a mistake. Fossor made sure she was seen by someone to lure them in.”
“Oh, it’s certainly a trap,” Jophiel agreed. “It’s not a coincidence that she was seen while Crossroads is distracted. The damned necromancer was probably waiting for something like this, waiting for a distraction big enough that Crossroads would only be able to spare a smaller group to check out a Joselyn Atherby–pardon me, Chambers sighting. She was put out there as bait, but very precise bait, to lure a very specific amount of investigators. Crossroads is too busy with all this going on right now to send everything they might to a possible Joselyn sighting. They will send a group to follow up and confirm. Fossor is fishing for victims. Most likely to use as food to give his personal leashed Heretic more powers.”
“Makes sense to me,” Larees muttered with a shrug. “That Ruthers guy is a damned nutjob from what everyone’s said. Especially when it comes to this woman. Even if this was a minor sighting, he’d probably be right on top of checking it out. Unless there was something else keeping his attention. Something like what our people are doing right now.”
Frowning, Sariel nodded. “Right, he’s using our attacks as a distraction to pull only a limited response with his Joselyn sighting. But there must be more to it than that. If he only wanted random Heretics, it can’t be that hard to arrange an ambush. He wants specific Heretics sent to investigate a Joselyn sighting. Maybe for certain powers they might have? Maybe because he knows about specific individuals that would be sent and wants them dead? Something like that.”
“Well,” Jophiel started, “I suppose you’ll be going to check in on your family and all, now that we’re done.” Her eyes narrowed a bit. “Before you get to the important work of finding Elisabet.”
“They aren’t done yet, and I’m not interrupting a plan in motion,” Sariel replied, her voice somewhat tense. “If they call for reinforcements, that’s when I will go in. The entire point of my not participating in the initial assault on the prison, beyond helping you, was so that I could help if things go wrong. As far as we know, things haven’t gone wrong yet.”
“But you still want to go,” Larees observed casually, after giving Mercury a brief look.
“Yes,” Sariel admitted. “But that’s why it’s a good thing we have a distraction to look into.”
Jophiel squinted at her. “Don’t say you want to rescue the Crossroads people going to that mall. Not that I have a particularly large stake in what happens to them, but yours should be even smaller. They are no doubt very deeply ingrained Committee loyalists, handpicked by Gabriel Ruthers to never listen to anything Joselyn Chambers or any of her allies say. They are a threat that you or one of yours will have to deal with at some point. Why expend the effort to save them from their own folly of walking into an obvious trap? Why risk such a thing for them?”
Sariel straightened from the table. “Because I have made a lot of mistakes over the years, several of them related to Joselyn in some way. If there’s a chance of finding her, of even finding out anything more about her… I feel like I have to take it. And even if those people are hand-picked Ruthers loyalists, they don’t deserve to be murdered by that monster.” She paused before adding, “And the trap wasn’t meant for us. Fossor had no way of knowing we would be in that specific place to hear that specific bit of information. The odds of him expecting us are low.”
“Us?” Jophiel echoed, rising from the table with a pointed squint at the other woman. “What’s this you say about ‘us’? I don’t recall volunteering to embark on this fool’s errand.”
“Well, no,” Sariel replied. “But I am going to see about a very dangerous, unpredictable necromancer and a Heretic who is bound to obey him. Along with any other threats who might present themselves. So, if something were to happen to me before we find Elisabet…”
A sigh escaped Jophiel. “Fine. I will accompany you on this… terrible idea. But the moment we run into something too difficult to handle, we are recalling out of there. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” Sariel agreed. “Now come on. We need a fast way to get to Iowa, and I know just the thing.” Belatedly, she blinked back at the other two. “Ah, you don’t actually have to–”
“Oh shut the fuck up,” Larees snapped. “Of course we’re coming with you. Or I am.”
Mercury rose with a nod, putting away the notebook he’d been writing in. “Naturally. But if we are planning to avoid falling into this necromancer’s trap, we’re going to have to try to work past our species-wide arrogance problem.”
“Pffft,” Larees objected. “We don’t have an arrogance problem.
“It’s one of the things we’re best at. We’re fucking amazing at arrogance.”
Some time later, after using one of the transport spells Apollo had left lying around for emergencies, the quartet stood in an alley, shrouded by invisibility spells as they watched the nearby mall.
“There’s magic all over that place,” Sariel announced while taking a small green gemstone away from her eye. “It’s subtle. I can see how Heretics would miss it. But it’s there. Containment spells, communication spells, some other bits I can’t quite follow, even some magic that I believe is supposed to sap the target’s willpower, draining their drive to do anything, much less escape.”
Larees grimaced. “Well, as much fucking fun as that sounds like, how about we don’t walk in there like that? Damn necromancers and their prepared defenses. Fuck off.”
“He’s definitely ready for most incursions,” Mercury agreed. “So this wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. He’s been setting this up for a long time. Even someone like him wouldn’t be able to prepare a layered defense like this in a few days. Not even a few weeks. This was months.”
Letting out a long, low sigh, Jophiel announced, “Then Larees is correct. We best not bumble our way into it. I do not plan to leave Elisabet without the help she needs just because I made the mistake of underestimating this creature.”
Sariel shook her head. “It’s OK, you don’t have to go in. If I point out where the nexus of these spells are along the outside of the mall and the parking lot, you should be able to disable them.” She turned a very slight and tense smile to the woman. “That is, if you’re okay with messing up someone else’s emotion magic.”
Jophiel’s eyes rolled. “I do not believe that will be a problem, Sariel. But are you certain that you don’t need more help inside?”
“I’m certain,” Sariel replied, “that if we send everything we have in there right away, we will come to regret it. Charging straight in without an extraction plan it is precisely what he expects the Heretics to do. And it’s what many of our people would do against a single underestimated necromancer. We need to be better. You stay out here and make sure we have a way to escape that place. And that his spells don’t break our will to leave in the first place.”
That settled, Sariel took a minute to show the other woman where each of the nexus points of the spells were. They went over what to do to disable them, Jophiel being quite skilled, but not a magical researcher the way the other woman was. In the end, they added a few emergency plans just in case. Sariel and Mercury both insisted that it was better to be over-prepared than under, particularly in cases like this.
Then the three other Seosten left Jophiel to work on that and sheathed themselves in disguise spells. Taking an innocent civilian into a place like this would have been an astoundingly bad and even evil idea, given the circumstances. So, they simply used magic to change their form before heading across the parking lot toward the mall.
“You feel that?” Mercury murmured on the way..
Sariel nodded. “Protection magic. It’s trying to tell us to forget what we’re doing here, that there’s a lot more important things to deal with somewhere else. It’s an ‘I left the stove on at home’ spell. Something to make Bystanders turn around and go home instead of going into the mall.”
“Okay,” Larees muttered, “so does anyone want to explain to me how there is an awful lot of humans going into and through this place as we speak? They can’t all be immune to that spell, right? This Fossor guy’s supposed to be a big deal.”
They had just passed through the entrance into the mall proper when Sariel exhaled. “Zombies. They’re all zombies, following some kind of pre-written path, a script, probably on a loop.” As she said it, her eyes flashed toward a young mother pushing a baby in a stroller, and she felt her heart seize up, while bile rose to her throat. It was all she could do not to be physically ill right there.
Larees frowned. “Does that mean we are already blown? If all these things are actually Fossor’s troops…”
“No,” Sariel replied. “Even he can only do so much. These zombies are on an automated loop. They’ll react to his commands or certain stimuli like the perimeter alarm going off. But I disabled that before we came in. If he happens to take control of one and sees that we’re here, he could direct them to attack us.” She looked around at the completely innocent, normal looking scene. “Something tells me he hasn’t noticed.”
“This place really is a trap,” Mercury said quietly. “Not just the building, the people in it. They’re all part of the trap. When those Heretics bumble into it, they—”
Even as he spoke, the crowd of zombies around them abruptly turned in a single direction. Their heads snapped that way and they began to walk. Not toward the Seosten, but deeper into the mall.
“It’s happening,” Sariel whispered. “The Heretics are here, and our new friends are heading off for the ambush.”
“Well,” Larees snarled, “what are we waiting for? Let’s go join the party.”
Sariel, however, shook her head. “Mercury, Fossor isn’t keeping these things animated all by himself. He’ll have a battery of sorts powering them.” She produced a small blue gemstone and flipped it to the man. “Use that to find it. You remember Wenspek?”
A slight smile appeared on the man’s face. “I remember. Feedback?”
She nodded. “Same spell from before. Force feedback on him through the connection he has with his little friends. That should give him a bit of a surprise.”
“What are we gonna do?” Larees asked.
“We,” Sariel replied, “are going to save those Heretics.”
The two of them followed the zombies, heading deeper into the mall. They moved casually, keeping pace with the puppeted creatures. Until Fossor noticed them himself, most likely by trying to take control, the horde would ignore them.
After walking that way for a bit, Larees looked at Sariel. “You hear that?” As she spoke, the creatures around them broke into a run, stampeding in the same direction they had previously been walking.
“Fighting,” Sariel replied. “Let’s go.”
They went. The two Seosten ran along with the horde, blending into even better as they sprinted to keep up with the mad rush. There was a crowded set of escalators and stairs, but they avoided all of that, simply hopping over the edge, dropping to the floor below, and continuing to run.
The swarm of zombies was clustering around the entrance to a fitness gym attached to the mall. The sounds of fighting were coming from inside. As the pair made their way toward it, both abruptly spun, avoiding the lunge from zombies that had been coming up behind them. A pair of knives appeared in Sariel’s hands, and she put them through the eyes of the creature that had leapt at her, while Larees beheaded the other with a luxensis (what the humans would call a lightsaber) she had produced. The laser sword hummed with energy as she stood over the fallen body.
Ahead of them, a group of zombies had turned away from their efforts to get into the fitness gym and were coming back their way. Meanwhile, a larger group was approaching from deeper in the mall. The rest of the horde had arrived, and did not look at all happy about their presence.
Larees flipped the luxensis around in her hand before announcing, “I think he noticed us.”
With a terse nod as they were approached from both sides, Sariel asked, “You got this?”
“Hell yeah,” Larees confirmed. “This’ll be fun. Go.” With that, she held her hand out, summoning the Phoenix from her tattoo. It gave a loud, petrifying screech as it erupted to life, a giant bird of flame that decimated the zombies it flew through, creating an opening straight to the gym.
Before more zombies could fill that hole, Sariel boosted herself and ran through it, ignoring the creatures around her as she rushed to get into that room.
She arrived, passing right through the entrance lobby before coming to a stop in the main gym proper. Coming to a stop, she was just in time to see what was obviously one of Ruthers’ Loyalist Heretics falling to the floor as a blonde woman pulled her arm, currently transformed into a blade, from his body.
She turned to face Sariel, and the Seosten woman recognized her. “Joselyn.”
“Oh, now then,” Fossor, emerging from a side room with a cloud of ashes marking his arrival, announced, “you know her. Maybe this could be interesting after all. Because I’m pretty sure I don’t know you.” He paused, standing on those ashes as he looked her up and down with a frown. “Or do I?”
“Please,” Joselyn pleaded with Sariel, “I don’t know who you are, but you need to get out of here.”
“Stop,” Fossor ordered, making the woman’s mouth snap shut. His attention was on Sariel as he added in a louder voice, “Bring them.”
There was a bit of commotion, as more zombies dragged in a pair of heavily manacled and gagged men. Sariel knew them immediately. Seamus and Roger Dornan, Joselyn’s other two teammates. They had been reported dead quite a while ago, but here they were.
“I was planning on having my lovely, wonderful woman here choose one cousin to live and one to die,” Fossor announced. “It was all going to be very appropriately dramatic, I assure you. But right now, I believe I am more interested in what and who you are. So why don’t we say, reveal yourself in the next five seconds, or the gentlemen here each lose about seventy-eight percent of their throat? Give or take a trachea.”
With a sigh, Sariel dropped the disguise spell. Her gaze was focused on Fossor.
“Ohhh,” the necromancer murmured, “we are in good company. Yes.” He glanced slyly to the side. “Joselyn, I do believe that we are looking at the woman responsible for convincing our old friend Gabriel to abduct your children.”
Joselyn’s gaze snapped toward Sariel then, with a dark, angry, “Ruthers did that.”
“Eh,” Fossor replied, “he had some help. Didn’t he, Sariel?”
The Seosten woman gave a slight shake out of her head. “I didn’t tell him to do that. I would never tell him to do that.”
Fossor chuckled, clearly amused by all of this. He sent a new cloud of ashes ahead of himself with a wave of his hand, using the path he created to walk closer to Joselyn. His voice was equal parts pointed and casual. “And yet, what you did say, did lead him to do what he did. Can you deny that?” After a moment of silence, he nodded. “I didn’t think so.”
He continued then. “Tell you what, why don’t we play a game? First, if you use your little recall ability or anything else to get out of here, or possess either of these gentlemen, both will be killed. So you’ll be responsible for killing two people who are important to her. If Joselyn kills you, ahhhh, Seamus dies. If you kill her, Roger dies. So either you’re responsible for killing both of them by running away, or she kills you and one of her friends, or you kill her and destroy dear Felicity’s dreams of ever being reunited with her mother. Yes, I think that works well.” Pausing, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, and that lovely tattoo there on Joselyn’s neck…” His hand idly gestured toward a small image of a bird in a cage. “If you possess her, that spell will activate and kill her before you can do anything. That should cover all the bases, I believe.”
Sariel gave the man a look. “You’d risk losing your prize like that?”
He just shrugged idly. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s been quite useful. And either she or her daughter will be in the future. But if you think she’s the be-all-end-all of my plans, you’ll be disappointed. Besides, imagining you explain to her children and husbands exactly what you did… well, that’s an image that just might make up for it.”
He looked to the woman beside him then, reaching out to pat her on the stiff shoulder as a single tear ran down her face. “Now then, Joselyn, my lovely pet, I have new orders for you.
“Kill that woman. And make it entertaining.”