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.”
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.”