I didn’t realize that I’d spoken aloud until Koren repeated the word, looking to me then over to Professor Dare. Her mouth was open, the girl gaping pretty much like how I assumed I was.
For her part, Professor Dare was staring down at the body that lay at her feet. She was silent and motionless. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the expression on it.
My mind was reeling. Explanations for so much that had happened over the year and even before that were flooding into my brain.
Mom… her parents had sacrificed themselves, each in different ways. Her father, my grandfather, had sacrificed his life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sacrificed her identity, everyone’s memories of her. Everyone had forgotten who she was, her life erased in a way that was very different than her husband, yet still just as potent.
Dare knew Prosser. She’d said things about him that couldn’t come from just a casual acquaintance.
She’d even said that she missed my mother. She said she missed her as a student. But, as the realization thundered its way into my head right then, she hadn’t been a teacher when Mom was a student. Gaia had brought her in as a teacher after she became headmistress, which happened after Mom already left the school. How could Dare possibly miss her as a student?
She had been the one to come and pick me up at the start of the school year. She had showed over and over again that she cared about me. The things she had been so close to saying, but had repeatedly stopped herself from. I had thought that she was simply trying to maintain a teacher-student distance, but it was more than that. So much more.
It made sense. It made sense in a way that I should have figured out before. Was I just blind to it, or had the memory spell been making it hard to put those pieces together until it was made patently obvious?
My mouth opened, and the ground suddenly shook beneath me. It was an earthquake, yet somehow more than that. I felt the rough shaking, and I also felt something else. It was like magic itself was protesting violently. There was a dizziness in my head that made me stumble. Beside me, Koren fell to her knees with a yelp. Bright colors appeared in the sky above us, and a stickiness on my face made me realize that my nose was bleeding. So were the others.
There were clouds in the sky, only they weren’t normal clouds. They were thicker, more full and solid. They looked almost like gigantic, misshapen… body organs. They looked like a twisted, demented versions of a heart, or lungs, pulsating right there in the air above us, beating as though they were alive. Yellowish orange lightning streaked across the sky, cutting through the odd colors while the ground continued to shake. There were fires between the clouds, but it was more than fire, the flames seeming to burn the sky itself away to reveal visions beyond that my brain refused to acknowledge. Horrors lurked through those wounds in the sky, horrors that would have brought tears to the eyes of even the bravest amongst us had they been forced to see them for more than a few seconds. Living terror peeked through those cuts. Peeked through… and saw us. It met our gaze, its hunger… its amusement… its power swelling.
And then it stopped. The sky faded back to its regular color. The ground went still once more. The lightning stopped, and those weird organ clouds disappeared. Everything was still and quiet once more.
“It didn’t break.” There was relief in Dare’s voice, and I saw her slump just a little bit. “It didn’t break. The spell held. They’re not coming back.”
The Fomorians. That was what all of that was. It was the spell that had banished them from the world reacting to us finding out the truth about her. It had been damaged, it had nearly shaken itself apart, nearly failed. But not permanently. It held, though by what strand I had no idea. There was no way of knowing just how close we had just come to the Fomorians having a new open invitation to invade the planet.
No way of knowing just how close we had come to complete destruction, except too close. Entirely too close. If that was the spell’s reaction to just Koren and me learning the truth, I had no questions about why Dare had kept it secret for so long. If the Fomorians made it back here, if they managed to invade again… it would basically end society as we knew it.
And then I realized exactly what the position Dare had been in right then. She could either press the button to kill innocent people as well as Vanessa, Avalon, and one of her own grandchildren, or risk the spell breaking and thus condemn a lot more people to death. No wonder she had sounded so tortured, so broken when she made her decision.
But it was even more than that. Not only did she risk the spell breaking, to do so, she had to kill another one of her grandchildren. Ammon may have been a psychotic creep, but he was still her grandson. And the way he had been was forced on him by Fossor. That was why I had been so hesitant to just straight up kill him. For everything he’d done, he was still a kid that could maybe have been fixed if we could just stop him long enough. But now… now…
“I had no choice.” Dare’s voice still sounded empty, hollow. “He had so much protection, so many other ways to escape. And it was the only way to be sure it would end his orders to the people in the stadium. If he survived and figured out the truth…”
Koren spoke up then. “It would be three people figuring out the truth of who you were. Four, if he got back to Fossor.”
Dare nodded silently before looking up to us. There were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
My head shook quickly. “No, don’t apologize. You don’t have anything to apologize for. We get it.” Glancing to the girl beside me for confirmation, I waited until she nodded and then repeated, “We get it. We both get it. If that’s how the spell reacted to adjust to that… You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Koren nodded. “Do… do you need to erase our memories? To protect the spell.”
Dare looked taken aback, her mouth opening and shutting briefly. “You… you would both…” Then she took a few quick steps, her arms moving out to grab onto Koren and me, pulling us into a tight embrace. I was pretty sure that she had been waiting to do that for a very, very long time.
We hugged her back, while the woman whispered both of our names. Then she shook her head. “No. The damage to the spell has been done now, and it held. There’s no reason to erase it from your memories.” Pausing, she looked to us seriously. “But—”
“We can’t tell anyone, or it’ll damage the spell even more.” Even as I said those words, my eyes widened. “Wait, what about Tabbris? The next time she possesses me…”
Dare shook her head. “She will not know. She won’t be able to read your thoughts on the subject. Or it will just replace those… specific ones. That’s the way the spell works. The information can’t be involuntarily pulled from your head like that. Not even through possession.”
I really couldn’t tell Tabbris, or anyone, I realized. If the spell had reacted that badly to the two of us finding out, the risk of anyone else knowing, even my little sister were… no. I couldn’t endanger everything like that. When the time came, if it came and Tabbris or any of the others found out that I had kept that secret, I had to believe that they would forgive me for it. They would understand. In this particular case, lying really was the best thing to do. As much as I might’ve loathed doing so to Tabbris, my father, or any of the other people I cared about… I had to.
Koren swallowed hard before speaking my own thoughts aloud. “Then we’ll keep it secret. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not going to risk…” She trailed off then, going silent as her eyes moved to the body on the ground. “Oh my God. That means that… that he was…”
My eyes followed hers. Ammon. Ammon was dead. The shock of realizing who Professor Dare really was had completely overshadowed that fact. But it was true. The threat who had been lurking in the background of my thoughts for so long was… was dead. Just like that. My own half-brother, raised by a monster who in turn had made the boy into one as well. He was… he was dead. It didn’t seem real. But it was. His body was there. His body was… was… there.
Staring down at him for a second, I felt bile rise up in my throat. Mom… Mom, what was I going to tell her? What would Fossor tell her? Oh God. His body was… was practically dismembered. He looked almost like a… victim that way, like… the little kid he was supposed to be. A little kid whose head had been… had been…
I turned, falling to my knees to throw up there on the ground. It felt like I was heaving my entire stomach out, as tears stung my eyes. Nearby, I could hear Koren in basically the same position.
Dare moved to kneel between us, putting a hand on each of our backs, repeating herself from earlier. “I couldn’t… risk him realizing the truth. If he did, and he told Fossor…” Her fingers tightened against my back almost painfully, and I heard her make a noise that sounded like a barely restrained, choked sob. As hard as it was for me to see that, she was the one who’d had to actually do it. She’d been the one to make that awful, impossible choice to kill her own grandson. Evil or not, psychotic or not, he was still her grandson. And a part of me would always wonder if he could have been saved.
Just as, I was sure, she herself would wonder the same thing.
We knelt there like that, the three of us turned away from the terrible, disgusting sight behind us. I was just trying to get myself under control when Koren abruptly jerked upward, blurting, “Mom!”
Oh God, oh fuck. Right, the distraction of everything we had just learned vanished in an instant. Both of us scrambled to our feet, while Dare quietly informed us, “The fighting inside is over. Ammon’s control disappeared the moment he–the crowd stopped fighting. The others are alive, but… confused. We should go to them.” She paused then, picking herself up before looking to us. “I know you have a lot of questions. Now that… that you know, I can answer them. But it will have to be later, okay? We need to get out of here. And you can’t… you can’t act differently in front of others.”
The two of us nodded. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to say. But at the moment, making sure that Avalon, Vanessa, and Abigail were okay was all I could really focus on, all I wanted to focus on. So we promised to keep acting as normal as possible (given the situation), before Dare gestured to create a portal that would take us back to the baseball field.
On the way to the portal, I hesitantly asked, “What about everyone else? Fossor, he was—“
“Controlling Escalan,” Dare finished for me. “Yeah. And we didn’t know you weren’t part of any group until I went around and checked them.”
Pausing at the portal, I asked, “How did you find us to begin with? I know he had this whole place blocked off from communication and monitoring spells.”
It was her turn to be quiet for a moment before shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just heard a whisper by my ear that told me your latitude and longitude and that you were in danger. I don’t know who it was, or how they knew where you were. It sounded like a girl’s voice, and… familiar. But other than that…”
Great, more mysteries. Then again, if they had sent Dare to save us, maybe they weren’t so bad. Or maybe it was Jophiel? I could see that.
Either way, we passed through the portal and I immediately saw Avalon, Abigail, and Vanessa. The other two girls had just finished helping my sister out of the contraption holding her down. When we appeared, they spun toward us. Avalon and Vanessa had their weapons up before stopping short. Disabling her gauntlets, Avalon rushed to me, arms going around me tightly as she basically lifted me off the ground. She didn’t say anything, but then again, she didn’t need to.
“You saved her,” I murmured while returning the hug as tightly as I could. “You saved my sister.”
Looking around, I saw a lot of unconscious and injured civilians, along with others who were awake and incredibly confused. I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would convince them had happened, but it was probably going to be a doozy of a story.
Seeing all those people and thinking about what Ammon had said, I had no doubt that it had taken everything Vanessa and Avalon had to save Abigail without killing any of them. If they hadn’t been there… My body shuddered fully at the thought and I hugged Avalon even tighter. Then I hugged Vanessa and thanked her as well before moving to look to Abigail. Koren was still hugging her and didn’t look like she was going to let go anytime soon.
So I simply met her gaze and nodded to her with a very slight, kind of sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Boy was that ever an understatement.
Dare’s head was tilted, as if she was listening to something. Then she straightened a little and nodded. “We’re going back to the school. They’re sending people in to deal with the bombs here and to get the civilians home. They’ll be okay.”
She paused then before adding, “Gaia has someone collecting the body.”
So she created another portal, and we passed through it together. Avalon and Vanessa were both giving me and Koren confused looks about what had happened, but it wasn’t until we were back on what turned out to be the school grounds outside of the main building that they finally spoke.
“Where’s Ammon?” Vanessa asked. “What happened? What bombs? What body?”
Answering the last question first, I swallowed before looking toward Abigail as I quietly explained, “Ammon, he… he’s dead.” Even saying it out loud didn’t make it seem real. I felt hollow inside. The idea that the psychotic little boy who had been my little brother and a threat lurking in the background of my mind for so much of the year was just dead now didn’t really compute.
All three of the others look taken aback by that, eyes widening as their mouths fell open. It was Abigail who found her voice first. “What? Dead? But he was… he was just… it wasn’t…”
“There was no choice.” That was Dare. There was guilt, resignation, and sadness in her voice, all for reasons beyond what Abigail could possibly have understood in that moment. I had far more of the story and even I wasn’t sure I actually comprehended the things that the woman was feeling right then.
She continued, telling them about how Koren and I had been fighting to stop him from detonating those bombs and that she had shown up right at the end. She told them that there had been no other choice when he had started to order her to detonate the bombs. We wouldn’t have been able to stop her, and she’d had no idea exactly what would knock him unconscious or not with all his powers. The only choice she’d had was to kill him to save them and everyone in that stadium.
Glancing around while listening to that, I could see pockets of people here and there already popping in all over the grounds, appearing either through portals or coming out of the Pathmaker. More and more kept arriving, bloodied, injured Heretics trying to understand what they had just been through. It was pretty much total confusion. From what snippets of conversation I could pick up here and there as people moved past, no one knew exactly what happened. And it didn’t seem like anyone was looking our way.
Abigail looked torn, her face ashen as she shook her head back and forth. “There was supposed to be a way to save him, to change him. He was just a little boy. Just–”
“A boy whose soul Fossor destroyed,” I pointed out softly, wincing at the look on Dare’s face. Yeah, I definitely couldn’t imagine the guilt she was going through. “I have to think that the boy Ammon could have been would have rather died than let you and all those other people die in his place. Maybe that’s childish and naïve, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. It’s the best any of us have got.”
Before any of us could say anything else, the others all started to arrive. The rest of the team, Deveron, Tristan, Haiden (with Sariel still possessing him), Larissa, even Gaia. The latter looked harried, but just as relieved as everyone else when she saw us (especially Avalon in her case) with her own eyes.
As we all took turns exchanging embraces and greetings, Sands blurted, “What the hell happened? Are you guys okay? What was that? What—”
Gaia interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best to have this conversation somewhere more private and comfortable.
“I have a feeling it will be a long one.”
“Does Gaia know?”
It was hours later, as I sat out on the beach watching the ocean. Next to me was Professor Dare.
For once, I actually wasn’t the center of the Committee’s focus. They apparently had no idea, as a group, what had happened. They didn’t know Fossor was the one behind it, just as they didn’t know that I hadn’t been transported along with everyone else. I wasn’t a suspect, and I was kind of glad about that. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t have dealt with another Committee interrogation right then. As far as they were concerned I had just been part of another group that was transported somewhere and had to be rescued. Which, to be fair, was kind of the truth in some ways.
They did know that the rope had been stolen, and several Heretics killed in the process. But they didn’t know who was responsible for it, since no one who had seen anything had survived to give an explanation. All they knew was that all of this had been a huge distraction so that whoever was behind it could steal that rope.
I’d heard a few people trying to blame Eden’s Garden for it, which I really hope it was a theory that wouldn’t gain too much traction. All we needed right now was war with them. Fossor would probably find it hilarious.
Fossor. The thought of him made me think of my mother. How was she doing with the news about Ammon? Yet again, I desperately wanted to talk to her. I wanted to be there with her. Not there, come to think of it. I wanted her to be here with me. I wanted us to be somewhere safe. I wanted to be able to hug her. How was she dealing with Ammon’s death?
Dare had been quiet for a moment after my question about Gaia. Finally, she spoke up. “Does she know that I am Joselyn’s mother? Yes. She learned it shortly before she brought me to the school. She’s the only one. Her, and now you two.” She looked to me then, face softening. “I know this must be very confusing.”
“Actually, it answers a lot of questions,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Err, except one really. You were Grandma Atherby, so you should’ve known about the Seosten. And if Gaia knew about you… why…”
Dare winced. “Simple answer? I forgot.”
I stared at her. “You… forgot…? Wait, you mean it was a–”
“Memory spell, yes.” She nodded. “Or rather, part of the same memory spell that erased my identity. The… Seosten who helped us with it didn’t want someone who was going to be completely erased from all of their memories to be running around with all that information about them. So part of the deal for their help with it was that I would allow all knowledge about them to be erased from my mind. And it was, until we found out about the Seosten without any help from me. After that, it started coming back. And I told Gaia what I could.”
That made sense, I supposed. And it also confirmed that the Seosten were definitely helping during the Fomorian invasion, though I did wonder what kind of nerve they had to be setting terms when they’d wanted the Fomorians gone as much as everyone else did.
There was a lot I wanted to get to on that subject. But another one came to mind right then. “The prophecy that said your blood would destroy the world or whatever it was. Could they have been talking about Mom and her revolution? That’s kind of destroying the world if you think about it.“
Dare nodded slowly. “Trust me, I’ve thought about that a lot. It could be. I don’t know, but it might be that. Or it could be something that Fossor does.”
Biting my lip, I admitted, “I don’t really want to think about that right now. Could you… Could you maybe tell me a little about you? And about my grandfather… and my mother when she was little.” By the end of that, my voice was a whisper.
Dare gave me a soft smile. “Yes,” she murmured, “It has been quite a while since I was able to talk about it with anyone other than Gaia. But I think I would like that very much.”
She started to talk then, and I tried to shut out all of the other thoughts that were swirling in my head. Ammon was dead. But Fossor had still gotten his hands on the Hangman’s rope. What was he planning to do with it? Something that powerful, that important, it had to be pretty bad. Especially given the lengths to which he’d gone to get it. And I had the feeling we were going to find out just how bad at the worst possible time.
But there was nothing I could do about it right then. Nothing I could change immediately.
Later, there would be time to deal with everything else. But for that moment, I simply listened to Dare telling stories. Honestly, I had the feeling that she needed it as much as I did.
I couldn’t help my mother yet. I couldn’t go to her, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.
But for the first time… I could be there for my grandmother. Not answer anything, not solve anything, but just be there.
And sometimes… being there was enough.