Julius Harn

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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