“Not that I’m one to cast stones,” the man’s voice drawled a few long seconds later. “But you probably shouldn’t stand there with your mouth open for so long.” He reached into his pants pocket with his free hand and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. Maneuvering it into his palm, he tugged one of the cancer sticks out with two fingers before gesturing around the air with it. “So many disgusting bugs around here, one might fly right in and choke you to death, and then where would we be?” He gave a lamenting sigh then before tucking the cigarette pack back into his pocket. “I don’t like wasting things.”
My mind was reeling, thoughts, questions, and denials coming at me from every side. Sister? What the fuck was he talking about? Ammon wasn’t my brother, that was ridiculous. That was impossible!
Except… was it? Even in my shocked state, little things were coming to me. The way that I had known something was off about Ammon as soon as we met. The fact that we both seemed to be immune to each other’s powers. The obsession he had with me to the extent of living next door for weeks while waiting for me to come back from school. All of those things that didn’t make sense before added up.
And then there was his age. My best guess was that he was around nine or ten years old. Putting that together with the date that my mother left us… it fit. I hated it, loathed the very idea, but it fit. And everything I had ever learned said that just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it not true. I refused to let myself be willfully blind against something simply because it made me uncomfortable.
On the other hand, just because I believed the guy (as sick as it made me to think), didn’t mean I had to let him know that I believed him. As long as he thought he still had to convince me, he might let something else slip. Plus, the longer he spent talking about it, the more time I had to find an escape.
“Wh-what? No.” It wasn’t hard to fill my voice with denial and emotion. I was feeling a hell of a lot of it. “What are you talking about? He—that thing isn’t my brother, I don’t have a brother! You’re insane!”
The ordinary-looking man just shook his head at me while extending the hand with the cigarette toward his ghost companion. The translucent figure turned red briefly, and the end of the cigarette lit up after touching it. “Felicity,” he spoke calmly before taking a drag of the cigarette. “You remind me of your mother at that age. Has anyone told you how much you resemble her? How do those teachers of yours handle seeing you in their classrooms after everything that happened back then, after what they did?”
Wait, what? My mouth opened of its own accord, and I blurted, “What do you know about my mom?”
“Quite a bit more than you, it seems,” the man replied with a thin smile. “Have they really not told you? Ah, the life of a hypocritical Heretic. Everything they do is for someone’s own good. Lies on top of lies on top of lies. After everything that Joselyn did, they keep lying to her daughter. Some people never learn. Some people,” he added thoughtfully, “are doomed to forever repeat their mistakes.”
“Stop it!” I snapped, my face a little red. “Stop being cryptic. If you’ve got something to say, just say it. What do you know about my mother? How do you know her? What makes you think Ammon is my brother? How—how is that possible? Who are you? What do you want from me? Just answer!”
Ammon, by that point, had struggled off the broken pavement and back to his feet. His face was almost fully healed. “Father,” he started with what looked like a genuinely frightened look. “I can–”
His words (Protest? Apology? Maybe a bit of both?) were interrupted as the man, his father apparently, waved a hand lazily in his direction. At that single gesture, Ammon’s mouth snapped shut.
No, I realized a second later with horror. It wasn’t that his mouth was shut, it was that his mouth had disappeared. Where it should have been was simply smooth skin, like that scene from The Matrix.
“I think you’ve spoken enough for awhile,” Ammon’s father declared. “I told you to get in the car. That’s twice that I’ve had to tell you to do something, on top of your previous disobedience.”
Rendered mute and powerless with a gesture, Ammon shot me a… was that a frightened look? He looked like the little boy he was supposed to be before hurriedly climbing into the back of the limo.
Meanwhile, I was still processing and coming to terms with what I was witnessing. This was Ammon’s father. Ammon was supposed to be my brother. If that was true, then this guy had to be…
“You stole her,” I blurted out loud, pointing at the man. “You’re the one who took my mother. It was you. You’re the guy she pulled over, you—what did you do to her?” I demanded unthinkingly, plans forgotten as emotion filled me. I very nearly stepped that way to take a swing at the man.
His response was to raise an eyebrow. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be nearly as upset about what I did as I would be at what they did. After all, my beautiful Joselyn wouldn’t have been in that situation if it wasn’t for them. It seems to me that your true complaint should be with those who left her helpless.”
“That’s the thing about anger,” I shot back in spite of myself. “There’s not really a limited supply.”
“Touche,” he took another drag of the cigarette, blowing out smoke before speaking again. “To address your accusation, yes, I spirited Joselyn away. How could I not? Once I discovered where she was, and how her former talents and powers were no longer an issue, it was impossible to resist.” His tone turned mocking. “I have half a mind to accuse them of entrapment. Why, they might as well have planted a six layer chocolate fudge cake in front of a dieting man. She was…” His eyes met mine. “Irresistible.”
Before my horrified mind could come up with a response to that, the man made it worse. “Not that I actually came for her, anyway. Not at first. Oh, she was tempting, but I was after a much better prize.”
My mouth opened and shut, no sound coming out for a moment before I managed, “What?”
“You, Felicity,” the man took another puff of his cigarette before shrugging. “Sure, Joselyn was a tempting target. Almost too tempting. But the opportunity to play with her daughter? The chance to mold, shape, and raise the child of the amazing Joselyn Atherby, leader of the revolution? That was almost too great of an opportunity to resist.” He sighed then, lamenting, “Perhaps I should have gone with my first instinct. You’ve grown into a beautiful young woman. Shaping that growth would have been very intriguing. And to see their faces when the child of Joselyn was made a weapon against them? It would’ve been poetic, in a way, after all they did to remove her as a threat to their status quo.”
Leader of the revolution? Threat to their status quo? My mother? What the hell was he talking about? I couldn’t think or process this. All I managed was a weak, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He smiled once more. “Of course you don’t, Felicity. They didn’t tell you, because if they had, you would have known the truth. You would have known what your mother did to make so many enemies.”
“So why didn’t you take me then?” My voice was thick with emotion, despite my efforts to control it.
“Why?” He echoed, his own voice clearly amused. “Because of your mother, of course. I ensured that enough of Joselyn’s memory returned just so that she would know what I was going to do to her daughter. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if she didn’t know what was coming. When she remembered, when she understood, she begged me not to take you. She offered herself in your place. And the things she promised, the binding oaths she swore to take, all of it intrigued me. So, I accepted her proposal. The safety of her child in exchange for her servitude and obedience in all things.”
I shrank backwards, mouth open as a cold chill washed over me. “No… no, no.” I shook my head rapidly. My mother, my mommy, the woman I’d hated for so many years. No, please no, no. I felt sick.
“The funny thing is,” the man continued, sounding amused by my reaction. “The way that particular agreement was phrased, you are protected as long as you remain a child. And that, Felicity,” he tapped the cigarette against his hand and palmed the ashes. “That ends when you turn eighteen years old. At that point, you are no longer a child. You’ll officially be an adult. So happy birthday, and enjoy this year.” He raised the canteen in his other hand as though toasting me. “When you turn eighteen, maybe you can join your mother. Wouldn’t that be fun? Mother and daughter, united in service to me.”
That was the end of my control. With a scream that was half-denial and half-vocalized emotion, I lashed out with a kick. My foot smacked the canteen out of the man’s hand, sending it tumbling down the street end over end, clattering loudly on the pavement. Then I lunged forward, shoving the man back as hard as I could. If he couldn’t step on anything but ashes, we’d see what happened when he did.
He stumbled under my hard shove, but just as his foot came down toward the empty cement, that ghost of his flew straight down beneath his foot. The transparent shape turned solid for a brief instant before collapsing into a pile of ash that the man’s foot came down on, safely protecting him.
“My dear, amusingly optimistic girl,” the man spoke with a chuckle after adjusting himself. “Did you think it would be as easy as taking that container away from me? After all these years, did you believe that I would leave such an obvious weakness sitting out for you to simply take advantage of?”
In response, I lunged for my staff that the ghost had left lying on the ground after it had collapsed into ash. As my hand closed around the weapon, the man gestured again. Two more ghost-figures appeared, catching my arms before hauling me up and backward to the wall that surrounded the sheriff’s office.
“When I told you that stepping only upon the ashes of my enemies was not an issue,” the man began lazily, tossing his cigarette down before stepping on it. “I didn’t say it because I have made enemies with a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million.” As he spoke, the man gestured. A line of ghostly figures appeared between the two of us. Each apparition knelt down as though bowing to their sovereign before collapsing into dust, forming a path of ashes that the man walked along to reach the spot where I was being held prisoner by the two ghosts who kept my arms trapped.
“My enemies include everyone upon the world that I clawed my way out of,” the man continued. “Their souls belong to me, their existences are mine to erase. Your leaders thought to bar me from ever setting foot on this world. Yet their magic left a loophole. For all others of my world are capable of stepping upon it. And so my own feet may step upon their ashes. That is my curse. They thought I would not so easily sacrifice the lives of all those who serve me, simply to walk where I wish.” His eyes turned hard. “They were very mistaken. I will not be prevented from doing as I please.”
His hand plucked the staff from mine with an impossible strength, taking it as though I was a child. Tapping the end of it against my forehead gently, he continued to speak in a low voice. “This is your weapon, Felicity. Learn it well. Practice daily with it, and make yourself strong. After all,” he smiled broadly, “taking that strength from you will be the most fun I will have had in… many years.
“So learn. Practice. Gain all the power you wish. In one year, when you are eighteen and no longer protected by the arrangement with your mother, I will return. I will see your strength and I will break it. I will break you until you serve me as your mother does, in all things. Your strength and power will be mine to put to whatever use I determine it should be. Mother and daughter, united once more.”
Turning away then, the man strode toward the car. With each step, another of his ghosts appeared and sacrificed themselves to create a path for him to walk on. He remained silent until he’d reached his limo, at which point he gestured toward the abandoned canteen. A ghost appeared to bring it to him, and the man spoke to me one last time. “Don’t disappoint me, Felicity. I want you to be strong enough to amuse me for a few minutes before you submit. Anything less and I will be… disappointed.”
Then he stepped into the back of the limo, and tossed my staff out to the sidewalk. A moment later, the car pulled away from the curb, driving down the street. When it reached the corner, the ghosts holding me captive abruptly disappeared, and I stumbled forward with a yelp.
I stood there, staring at the spot where the limo had disappeared for several long minutes. My mind was spinning, my thoughts a complete jumble. What the man had said, what he’d told me, what he’d promised to do… I was left utterly incapable of thinking straight. My mother, my mom. Everything he’d said, if it was true, if it was all true…
“Flick,” a voice spoke up, and I turned to see Senny step out of the nearby alley, approaching me. “What’s wrong? I smell… bad things. There was a necromancer here, wasn’t there?”
“A necromancer?” I echoed, my voice weak. “I guess so. I… guess that’s what he was.”
“Are you okay?” she repeated, stepping closer before bending to pick up my staff. Offering it to me, she frowned in obvious concern. “What happened?”
Shaking that off, I looked to her. “Wh-what about you?” My voice cracked, but I pressed on. “What about the cops? Did you—did they…” I could barely make myself ask, fearing the worst.
Senny flinched. “I couldn’t stop all of them. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Flick. I tried. I stopped as many as I could. But they were spread out and… and some people died.” She looked sick to her stomach. “I stopped them as soon as I found them, but there were just too many.”
“How many?” I asked, feeling hollow inside. “How many people died?”
“Fourteen,” she answered, her own voice quiet.
Cringing, yet telling myself that it could have been a lot worse, I asked, “Where are the deputies?”
“Unconscious,” she answered. “And handcuffed inside their cruisers. They should be able to call for help when they wake up. Hopefully the power will have worn off by then. They won’t remember what they did, or what they tried to do.”
Closing my eyes briefly, I nodded, letting the emotion wash over me. I let the feelings of despair, grief, rage, confusion, all of it pass me by. I let myself feel them, and then I opened my eyes. “Can you show me where my dad is? I… need to see my dad.”
Senny nodded and turned, starting to walk back the way she’d come. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”
I was silent for a few long seconds, walking along with my staff held tight in one hand. Finally, I nodded. “Yeah. I think I do need to talk about it. But mostly I need answers… about a lot of things.
“And I’m going to get them. No matter what it takes.”