Ammon

Family Day 40-05

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My feet pounded on the concrete floor as I raced around the concourse surrounding the baseball field. Straight ahead of me was a sign pointing toward a door that apparently led to the announcer’s booth.

There was a guy standing there guarding the door with a rifle of some sort. As soon as he saw me, the man snapped around to bring the gun up, but I was already loosing an arrow that took him in the chest. The concussive force blew the man backward. I hadn’t fully charged it, because I didn’t want to kill the poor guy, but it was enough to put him on the ground for a moment. I went right over him, rearing back to kick the door ahead of me off its hinges.

That fell, and I nearly went straight through. But then I took a hint from Vanessa and gave the doorjamb a quick glance. Sure enough, there were spells written on it. I wasn’t good enough yet to know what they were from memory, but I did know that they definitely weren’t anything good.

I also didn’t have time to mess with them. The others were out on that field right then, in a fight for their lives. Or at least for Abigail‘s life. I had to deal with Ammon now.

To that end, I held my staff out and announced, “Teatime, boys.”

That was another code phrase that I had come up with, and ‘my boys’ (Jaq and Gus) immediately reacted by appearing through their little portal and went straight to the end of my staff, leaping off of it to land on the doorjamb where the spell was. The two of them clung to the wall before each began to vibrate quickly. A second later, there was a burst of electricity from the little guys.

That was courtesy of a little help from Columbus over the past week. The cybermice could disable lower to average quality spells with a burst of stored electricity (just like Sands and Scout had shown us at the beginning of the year), or use it to stun people. Either way, it was another tool in my belt, and it had just come in handy.

Hearing the sound of the man picking himself up behind me, I reared back to kick him in the face, knocking him down once more before heading through the broken doorway while my mice hopped back on the staff. Once through, I went straight for the stairs on the other side, taking them several at a time in a rush. The whole way up, I kept my eyes peeled for any more spells. It was clear that Ammon wasn’t yet good enough to keep his spells invisible, but I was still cautious.

More men appeared as I reached the landing halfway up, and I had to fight my way through them in those cramped quarters. They seemed to be under orders to hurt me but not kill me, which kind of put us on equal footing as far as that went, since I didn’t want to kill them either. I had no idea who these guys were or how much they were involved, but I was pretty damn positive that they had been controlled by Ammon into doing this.

Still, I had to get past them. What followed was what was probably only a few seconds’ (but felt like several minutes’) worth of furious fighting up and down that cramped stairwell as I struggled to get through the mounting crowd intent on keeping me there. More and more of them appeared, from both sides. I was penned in as they kept trying to grab me despite how many times I hit them.

Good. I’d been waiting until I was pretty sure that all the people Ammon could send to stop me were right there. With a grim smile as they tried to grab me yet again, I held one hand up. In it formed the largest ball of that nausea-inducing goop that I could manage. Just as the swarm tried to dogpile me, dragging me down with them, I ducked my head and held that ball up while slamming my staff into it to trigger a concussive blast.

Hearing gagging and choking all around me, I quickly repeated the process. Creating another ball in my hand, I triggered the blast from my staff again and coated more of the people all around me in the stuff that made them fall to their knees, throwing up and gagging. It was pretty disgusting actually, but it was also effective. Within a few seconds, enough of the crowd had been reduced to a non-issue that I could hop over them and continue on my way.

Finally reaching the top of the stairs, I found myself in a short hallway with a few doors. Only one was labeled broadcast, so I kicked that door in as well, already snapping, “Ammon!”

There he was. The boy who was my half-brother was standing right on the other side of that doorway, with the wide glass windows overlooking the field behind him. I could see the fighting still going on, Avalon, Vanessa, and Koren struggling to keep the group away from that button. It had clearly been hit a couple more times as more lights had changed, but so far, Abigail was still alive. But I really needed to finish this quickly.

“I hope you’re happy with yourself,” the boy informed me snippily while crossing his arms. “You just can’t stop cheating, huh? I go through all the trouble of setting up a nice, fun game for everybody, and you have to ruin—”

His words were cut off then, as I slammed into the boy, knocking him back with against the control board. My staff was shoved up against his throat, half-choking him as I demanded, “Call it off! Tell them to stop, Ammon! Tell them to stop right now!”

Fairly unsurprisingly, he didn’t. Instead, he just smiled at me while speaking around the staff. “But we’re all having such a nice time.”

“It’s not a nice time! It’s people’s lives! I know you don’t care about that now, but you used to. You used to understand that. You used to feel things, I know you did. What about Mom? How would she feel about this? You have to stop them!”

And yet, it was clear that he wasn’t going to listen. I didn’t know if knocking him out would end everything, but it was sure is hell a good start. So I focused on applying more pressure with my staff, working to choke him into unconsciousness. All while a part of me said I should just kill him. End it and kill him. But I could knock him out here. I could knock him out and we could solve all this.

Or at least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, Ammon had other ideas. I saw his hand moving, producing some kind of enchanted object. He said a word, and then the world spun around us. A teleportation spell. He’d triggered a teleportation spell.

We didn’t go far. When the spinning faded, I found myself back in the parking lot with Ammon standing a few feet away. And we weren’t alone.

“What—” Koren spun, looking around in confusion. “Flick?! What the hell is going on?!”

“You’re welcome!” Ammon chirped. “We had to bring you with, silly. I didn’t want you to die too when the stadium blows up. See, I can be nice.”

All of the blood drained from my face, and I felt myself grow intensely cold while my heart seemed to stop. “What?”

He was grinning at me, holding up a remote with a button on it. “See,” he crowed, “I was prepared. Three quick pushes of this button and kaboom! No more big sister or mommy.” He nodded to me, then Koren in turn. “And no more stupid, cheating friends. I told you they shouldn’t have come. You should’ve listened.”

His finger went for the button, but Koren was faster in that case. She had already flung one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes. In a flash of steel, a spray of blood, and a scream from the boy himself, the axe sliced right through his wrist, severing the hand that was holding the remote.

Instantly, the other girl used her weapon’s power to teleport herself to it just in time to catch the remote before it could fall.

Ammon, still screaming in disbelief, instantly lashed out. He was clearly a lot stronger than he looked, because his kick took Koren in the side and sent her flying, the remote dropping from her hand.

The boy try to grab it for himself, but I was already there. I couldn’t grab it, but my staff lashed out to smack the remote away, sending it tumbling along the pavement of the parking lot. I held my breath, but as Ammon had said, the button needed to be pressed three times in a rapid succession to trigger the explosives. The remote fell onto its side, skidding to a stop finally.

A hand caught my arm then, Ammon’s strength even with only one remaining hand nearly crushing the bone in it as he turned to fling me bodily into Koren just as she was getting up. We crashed in a heap, quickly disentangling ourselves before rolling apart. Looking up, I saw Ammon reaching for the remote. His hand was already on it. With a cry, I created a portal with one hand while shoving my staff forward through it. A burst of concussive force knocked the boy backward and made him release the remote. I made another quick portal to grab onto it and yanked it back.

I had the remote then, and I immediately started to crush it in my hand. Just as I did so, however, the thing let out a loud warning beep, startling me.

“Go ahead!” Ammon taunted. “If you break it, it sends the signal anyway!” He punctuated this by sticking his tongue out at me, acting as if we were fighting over a television remote and not something that could blow up the entire stadium, killing Avalon, Vanessa, Abigail, and who even knew how many other innocent people.

Even as I was reacting to that, Ammon made a sharp gesture, and the remote flew from my hand, yanked away by an invisible force. Clearly, the boy had been stocking up on more powers than just some enhanced strength while he’d been away.

The detonator flew toward Ammon. But before it could reach him, Koren used one of her axes to teleport beside it, catching the thing in midair. Her reward for that was a blast of water from Ammon that took her in the shoulder with enough force to knock her to the ground as the detonator clattered away from her.

Ammon was going for it, but I created another portal, putting my fist through it and into his face to knock the boy back a step with a yelp. It was obvious that we needed to focus on putting Ammon down. Every time we grabbed the remote, it just got taken back away from us. We needed to deal with him directly.

It was a horrible situation to be in. We had no idea what was going on in the stadium. We didn’t know how Avalon and Vanessa were doing, if they were still managing to keep the brainwashed mob away from the imprisoned Abigail, or if they had been overwhelmed. I had no literally no idea if my friend, my girlfriend, and my big sister were even still alive. I had to trust that they were. But if we let Ammon get his hand on that remote again, that wouldn’t matter.

Already recovered from that punch, the boy himself was diving for the detonator right then. But my staff snapped up and I launched the grapple, which caught the boy by the leg and yanked him back as he let out a cry of frustration, bellowing something about cheating. He managed to jerk his way free in mid-air, landing hard before shooting a glare at me.

“Leave my mom alone!” That was Koren, of course. The girl reared back her fist from over fifteen feet away. When she lashed out, a column of concrete from the ground shaped like a larger version of her arm erupted upward and slammed into the boy, knocking him flying. A power that I didn’t know about, apparently. From the look on her face, Koren was surprised that it had worked.

“Slab!” I blurted, trying to gesture that way to demonstrate. “Cover him. Trap him!”

Thankfully, the other girl understood and held both arms up, focusing on one thing a wide slab of concrete to shove over the boy. Unfortunately, it had only just covered him when he suddenly appeared on top of it, passing through it in some kind of intangible state.

Dammit, I was starting to realize just how annoying it was to fight one of us. I had no idea what powers he had, or what might be effective. And he kept pulling out more of them.

Worse, he was going for the detonator again. His hand was almost there when Koren arrived, using her foot to kick the thing out of the way. Denied his toy, Ammon caught the girl’s ankle instead and flung her aside. As she rolled, he held his remaining hand (the other one was still regrowing) up and and launched a bolt of electricity at her.

But I was there, interposing myself and letting the bolt charge my body with the absorption power before sending it right back at him. The returned jolt knocked Ammon off his feet with a squeal that I had to guiltily admit felt pretty good.

But he just wouldn’t stay down. That continued for a bit more, the three of us struggling to find some winning combination that would let us shut the other down. But it just didn’t happen. Koren and I couldn’t make Ammon stay on the ground, and he couldn’t keep his hand on that detonator long enough to actually use it. We kept struggling, kept fighting and bleeding, but none of us could actually win. The best strategy I had right then was just to keep going until Ammon got tired, but he wasn’t showing any sign of that. Koren was, unfortunately. And I was afraid of what would happen when it was down to just Ammon and me. Playing keep away with the other girl to help was already hard enough.

No, we had to finish this. Somehow, someway, we had to finish it. If Koren was getting tired, I had no idea how Avalon and Vanessa were doing. This couldn’t keep going on forever.

Then I had it. And I also felt like an idiot. The answer had been in front of us the whole time, almost literally. “Koren!” I shouted, “Black Knight!”

She looked confused for just a second, then seemed to realize what I meant. With a quick nod, she spun back toward Ammon, who was starting to duck toward the detonator with a gleeful laugh. It was like he still thought this was a game. A game that we were apparently cheating at, but a game nonetheless. It wasn’t serious for him. Even having (temporarily) lost one of his hands (it was already starting to grow back), he was still treating it as a game.

Just as he was about to grab the thing, I was there. Launching myself that way with a blast from my weapon, I dove at the last instant to snatch the detonator in one hand before rolling back to my feet. Spinning to him, I held the detonator out tauntingly. “You want it, come get it.”

He was still a kid. A psychotic and evil kid, but a kid. Which meant he took the bait. With a shout, the boy lunged with his arm outstretched. He’d forgotten to keep an eye on what Koren was doing.

It was a mistake that he paid for immediately, as the other girl took advantage of his stretched out arm to teleport beside him with one of her weapons. The other was already raised and abruptly cleaved down through his limb at the elbow.

Half of his arm suddenly fell to the ground while Ammon himself let out a horrified shriek of disbelief.

“Push the button now, you little bastard,” Koren snapped, even as she lashed out with a kick that took the boy in the chest and knocked him to the ground.

Grabbing the detonator myself, I held it in one hand while announcing, “Okay, now we just—”

Abruptly, Ammon was standing in front of me. Even with no hands, he snarled a hateful, “Bitch.” Then his foot lashed out, catching me in the side and taking my breath away. I dropped the detonator as I was sent to tumbling to the ground.

The detonator was there. It was right at Ammon’s feet. The boy raised his leg, clearly intent on using his foot to trigger the damn thing.

Koren and I were both throwing ourselves that way, my staff raised to blast the boy away from it. Then there was a flash of white, and a familiar voice called, “Koren, Felicity!”

It was Professor Dare. She had arrived, clearly coming to find us without knowing the exact situation. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, but it was too late.

“My name is Ammon, do nothing except what I say! Put a force field around us!” Standing right beside her where she had appeared, my psychotic little brother took instant advantage of the sudden arrival.

There was the slightest delay, then a glowing force field appeared around the two of them as ordered.

“No!” Koren shouted. “Professor Dare, stop! The bombs! He’ll make you set off the bombs! My mom, Avalon, Vanessa, all those people, you have to leave!”

“Don’t do anything except what I say,” Ammon quickly repeated his previous order. “Pick up the detonator.”

Koren shouted, and both of us hit the force field to no avail. I tried creating a portal through it to grab the detonator, but my power wouldn’t go through the damn thing. We kept hitting it uselessly as the blonde woman reached down to take the remote.

No, no, no! This couldn’t go like this. We had him. We almost had him. We could’ve dealt with this. Dammit, dammit, dammit! What could we do? What the hell could we do now?

I was screaming. Koren was screaming. Yet our voices could not drown out Ammon’s.

“Three times,” he ordered. “My name is Ammon. Push the button three times.”

“I’m sorry.” Professor Dare’s voice was a broken whisper, the woman sounding emotionally destroyed, like her soul was shattering into pieces.

And then she turned. In one smooth motion, the woman’s free hand lashed out. Her sword appeared in her grasp, the blade glowing with power. There was a sickening thunk and a spray of blood.

Ammon’s head hit the ground, rolling a bit as his body collapsed. Then there was silence. Utter and total silence, even as Professor Dare’s magenta kill-aura flared up.

It was impossible. Completely impossible. Ammon had given her a direct order, had even told her not to do anything except what he said. She had to do it. There was no way she could have resisted, no way that she could have been immune to it. No way that she could have done what she just did.

No way, unless we were related. Unless she was my… our…

“Grandmother…”

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Family Day 40-04

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All the people and powers that we had protecting us. People who could face down literal armies. And once again, we were on our own. Fossor had managed to occupy the entire Crossroads Heretic force, and cut off our communications. Given time, we could have restored them. We could have found someone to help us. Somehow. But that was time we didn’t have, and he knew it. He knew that I had to choose to either find my mother, or save Abigail and Koren, and that I wouldn’t be able to wait for help, no matter how fast they dealt with that situation. I had to do something right then.

He hadn’t known that I would have Avalon and Vanessa with me, but even with them, it didn’t change what had to happen. Ammon had to be stopped. Koren and Abigail had to be saved. We couldn’t wait for help. Not now. Not with something like this. I knew what Ammon was capable of. This… we had to deal with it. Now.

Emerging through the portal, the three of us immediately found ourselves standing in an enormous, utterly empty parking lot. There were no cars anywhere. Straight ahead of us was some kind of baseball stadium. Minor league, I was guessing from the size of this place. The area looked abandoned. The sign where the team name was supposed to be was cracked and broken, with graffiti on it. In the distance, I could make out the scoreboard at the far end of the actual field and it was clearly broken as well. This place obviously hadn’t hosted an actual game in quite awhile.

There was someone behind us, and I spun that way, only to find a man I didn’t recognize. He looked homeless, beard grizzled and gray and clothes just this side of falling apart. He was holding something in one hand, and there were lights blinking on his vest.

Vest. Bomb. My eyes and my item sense both agreed with that instantly. The man was wearing a bomb vest, and the thing in his hand was one of those deadman switches that would trigger if he let go of it.

Well, this just managed to get even worse than it already had been. Which was kind of impressive.

“S-stop!” The man blurted the word, looking and sounding completely terrified. “D-d-don’t come any closer. Don’t try to stop me. He said I have to let it go if you try to stop me! Please! I have to do what he says. I can’t stop it!”

Quickly holding up my hands to stop the other two, I shook my head at the man. “It’s okay. We’re not coming toward you. The boy, little boy about this high, blonde hair, he’s the one that told you?”

The man’s head bobbed up and down, his eyes wide with fear. “He made me put it on. He said to wait here and escort you to him. If you do anything else, I have to… to…”

“It’s all right,” I promised, “we’re not going to…” Trailing off, I glanced to the others before looking back at the man. “What exactly did he say to you? Be specific.”

The guy was almost hyperventilating as he whimpered, “He said to stand here, right here, and that a blonde girl would appear. And that when she did, I had to take her to him and if she tried to stop me or take the bomb away or anything I had to let go of the detonator.”

“Right.” Clearing my throat, I held my hands out to show they were empty while carefully enunciating, “I’m not coming near you. I am not going to take the detonator away. I am not going to stop you. I’m going to do everything you tell me to. I am going to do everything he wants.”

The others understood immediately. Vanessa took a few cautious steps that way, moving slowly up to the man while his gaze snapped back and forth between us. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “What’s she doing?!”

I raised my voice to keep his attention. “Hey, see, I’m not coming near you. He said that I couldn’t come near you. He said that I couldn’t take the detonator way. So I’m not. I’m going to do everything you tell me to and I am not trying to stop you.”

Sure enough, Ammon’s orders had been so specific that Vanessa was able to go right up to him and very carefully take the detonator from his grasp. She got her own finger over the button and pulled it out of his shaking hand. Then Avalon moved up to him and began to work on the vest itself. It took her about ten seconds to find the right wires to cut with a small energy blade from her gauntlet, then she simply cut the vest free of him and pulled it away. “It’s safe.”

The man let out a sigh of relief, collapsing to his knees while hugging himself as he rocked back-and-forth a bit. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

Crouching in front of him, I gently put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Where were you supposed to take me?”

He shuddered, looking like he wanted to throw up before answering shakily. “The stadium, the field. He wanted me to take you out to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Okay,” I murmured, “then you should—”

“Down!” That was Avalon. The girl was suddenly right in front of us, snapping her arm up as a shield was projected from her gauntlet. Just as the shield shimmered into view, there was a loud crack of a gunshot, and a bullet ricocheted off of it.

My eyes snapped that way in time to see the sniper laying on the roof of the distant ticket booth. He racked another round and fired at the shield again.

Shifting my staff into its bow form, I notched an energy arrow, took a breath, and then aimed high over the shield before letting loose. The arrow arced up and over before landing close enough to the man that the burst of kinetic energy it released made him roll out of the way with a cry.

“Vanessa!” I blurted while loosing another arrow that way. The poor civilian guy was covering his head and openly sobbing. Which, honestly, was pretty understandable given the situation. Apparently Ammon had thought to have a back-up plan after all. How annoying was that?

“On it!” the other girl replied. She was already shrinking down out of her clothes and into the jumpsuit before that in turn faded into the feathers of her raven form. As a bird, she looked at me and waited for cover.

I provided it. While Avalon focused on keeping her shield up as two more shots ricocheted off of it, I launched a couple quick arrows in rapid succession. They forced the sniper to pull back a bit and gave Vanessa an opening to fly straight up into the air. She shot up quickly, gaining as much height as possible before the man could recover.

From high above and ahead of the man, the Vanessa raven dove toward him, picking up speed as she went. He barely had time to notice her approach before she was passing by directly above him. In that instant, the girl shifted back into her human form, already lashing out with her whip. It wrapped around him, and her momentum carried her past the man while he was yanked off his feet and onto his back.

I couldn’t see what exactly happened next, but a second later Vanessa was standing on the edge of the roof holding the man’s gun, which she tossed aside before waving to us.

Avalon and I both looked around cautiously for a second. Finding no threats, the other girl lowered her shield and looked to the cowering man. “Go,” she ordered with a firm gesture off into the distance towards the road. “Get the hell out of here and keep running.”

Avalon might not have had Ammon’s power to control people, but she might as well have in that moment, because the man instantly shot to his feet and sprinted away like his pants were on fire. Which, I guessed I really couldn’t blame him for.

Vanessa joined us, and I grimaced. “Well, Ammon knows we’re here now. And he knows his plan A didn’t go right. And he probably also knows his sniper didn’t finish the job either.”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “I possessed him to knock him out,” she informed us. “And I read his mind. He doesn’t know anything except what Ammon told him to do. He’s just a SWAT sniper that Ammon grabbed and put there.”

Gesturing to herself, Avalon muttered, “Observe my super-surprised face that Ammon doesn’t have a bunch of loyal friends to recruit for this shit.” Looking to me, she asked, “Did you check your phone?”

“Check my– Oh, right.” Digging it out of my pocket, I replied, “I would die of shock if Fossor didn’t cover his–yeah, it’s not working. What about you?” I looked to Vanessa. “Whoever you were possessing before, with that whole practice thing, could they help?” Belatedly I added, “Though I guess it’s a moot point since you possessed the sniper.” 

“It was Doug anyway,” she informed me, wincing. “We were testing out that whole anti-Whisper spell thing to see if it affected hybrid Seosten. And I’m pretty sure they have their own problems right now, even if I could have still used it.”

“Point,” I agreed, biting my lip. The last person I’d possessed who was still alive was Scout. But she was in the same position as Doug. Not useful in this case. And I didn’t trust myself to project just enough to talk to them without teleporting there, which would totally screw this whole thing up.  “So that’s out, and so are the phones. We could try getting out of range of whatever jammer he’s using, but…

“We don’t know how far that is, or how long they have,” Avalon finished for me. She sighed before starting to move to the stadium. “Right, then we need to get inside and on the offensive before that little puke starts up plan C.”

As three of us jogged for the entrance, I noted, “He’s had all the time he wanted to turn this place into one giant trap. We’re on his turf.”

“On that note,” Vanessa put in while holding a hand out to stop us from passing through the open ticket gate. She knelt, looking at the turnstile before gesturing. “Spells. Lots of them. I think I see one to knock people unconscious if they aren’t a specific person, and this other one over here inflicts pain until a password is said. There’s more, probably on all of these.”

Charging my staff in one hand, I noted, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to make sure those spells can’t work anymore.” With that, I shoved my staff up against the nearest turnstile and triggered a blast that blew the metal off and sent the whole thing careening away from us. “There.”

At the same time, Avalon used the energy blades from her gauntlets to cut another turnstyle open before turning one of the blades into a grapple claw thing that picked up the metal and tossed it away.

Our way sufficiently opened then, the three of us cautiously passed through while keeping our eyes open. Straight ahead of us was the main walkway entrance that led to the field and bleachers. To either side was the gift shop and a couple of food places advertising horrifically overpriced snacks.

“He wants me out on the field,” I murmured. “That’s where our friend back there was supposed to escort me, right to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Which probably means that’s where he has a bunch of traps,” Vanessa pointed out. “He might even have some spell to take you somewhere completely different, or knock you out, or anything.”

Avalon nodded. “We’re not going near that field. Playing into his grubby little hands would just be stupid.”

“Doesn’t that mean that it’s perfect for you?”

The familiar voice came from a nearby PA speaker, one of the things that let people hear the game announcements while they weren’t actually watching the field. It made me jump a bit, before I glared at it. “Ammon,” I spat.

His voice carried on then, addressing the other two as if I hadn’t said anything. “You’re not supposed to be here. This is a family thing. Didn’t you pay attention to the calendar? It’s family day. Family day. You’re not family. You’re cheating. Go away!”

“They’re a lot more family than you are,” I snapped. “Ammon, let Koren and Abigail go. This isn’t going to end well for you. Just let them go and walk away. Fossor is just using you as a distraction. You have to know that. You’re a spoiled kid, but you’re not that stupid. He doesn’t care what happens to you here as long as he gets what he wants.”

There was the ever so brief moment of silence where I was silly enough to think that he might have listened. Then the boy’s voice came back.

“My name is Ammon. Pound your heads against the wall until you pass out.”

This was the moment, the real test. I tried not to visibly react too much, wanting to look confident for however Ammon was watching us, be it cameras, a spell, a power, or whatever. I wanted him to think that I had no reason to think his words might work. Biting the inside of my cheek, I counted to three, then looked to the others. “So, how about it? You guys have any desire to beat your heads against the wall?”

There, now they knew what Ammon had ordered them to do, since the plugs in their ears would have cut off their hearing. I didn’t want him to figure out that they couldn’t hear his words, since that might give him some idea of how to get past it. Giving Ammon as little information as possible while getting him to give up his own info, that was the way to get through this.

Also, beating him into a coma with my stick. That was a good way to get through it too.

“Hey!” Ammon sounded taken aback. “I said, my name is Ammon, beat your heads against the wall until you fall unconscious!”

Okay we couldn’t sit here all day and let him keep trying. But I also didn’t want him to know that there was a limit, so I forced myself to shrug languidly up at the speaker. “You know, we could just wander over and check out that gift shop over there if you’re busy.”

The rage in the boy’s voice was almost worth it. “You’re cheating!” He blurted through that loudspeaker. “You’re not supposed to cheat! It’s a game and we’re playing by the rules! It was supposed to be you and me and my things, not these stupid girls. You’re cheating and that’s not fair. How would you like if I cheated too?”

“Pretty sure I’d die of shock the day that you don’t cheat,” I muttered under my breath before offering a smile. “You sound upset. Maybe you need a hug. Let me come find you and give you one.”

“Announcer’s box,” Avalon said flatly. “That’s where he’s got to be. It gives a full view of the field where he wanted you to go, and control of that PA system.”

I had a feeling that she was right, and the three of us quickly started running further into the stadium to reach it. But before we went too far, Vanessa suddenly struck a hand out to stop us. Her gaze was past the stands, all the way down into the field. “Look!”

I looked, and my day went from bad to worse. The field wasn’t empty, not by a long shot. There were dozens, if not hundreds of figures all around the baseline and back toward the stands. In the middle of the field, right by the pitcher’s mound, there was what looked like an actual guillotine. Yeah, a guillotine. And strapped into it was Abigail.

There was some kind of contraption beside the guillotine that had ten lights on it. Seven of the lights were red and three were green. There was a big red button at the bottom.

Koren was there too, and she seemed to be fighting off two of the crowd that had run out there. But they didn’t seem that interested in fighting her. Instead, they were dead set on reaching that button, and she was equally determined to stop them.

“See,” Ammon’s voice snidely announced from another speaker, “she knows the rules. Every time they hit the button, a light turns green. When all 10 lights are green, fwooshsniiict! Off goes Mommy’s head!”

His voice turned a bit conversational then. “I didn’t really want to throw away a sister like that, but Father says she’s useless anyway. And I guess having a niece to play with is just as fun.”

Then his anger audibly returned. “But you had to start cheating. So maybe I’ll cheat too. We were all playing by the rules until you showed up and ruined it. Now how about we don’t have just two or three at a time? How about…”

His voice suddenly filled the whole stadium and the field below, pouring from every loudspeaker as he vindictively announced, “Stupid sister is a big, fat cheater! So now… my name is Ammon, everybody go push that button!”

The crowd immediately started to surge that way, and I knew there was absolutely nothing that Koren would be able to do to stop them for more than a couple of seconds. Not against that many. I let out a cry of alarm, taking a step that way before a hand caught my shoulder.

“Felicity,” Avalon quickly spoke while pulling me back. “Go. Get to Ammon. We’ll stop them.” She was already moving, sprinting down the steps of the stands to reach the field. Her figure was a blur of motion as she sped to reach the spot in time, slamming right into one of the group who had been trying to get past Koren.

Vanessa gave me a quick nod while following after. “We’ll keep them away from the button, just get to Ammon!” She glanced back for a brief second, meeting my gaze. “I promise,” the other girl informed me solemnly. “We’ll stop them.”

Then she was gone, she and Avalon throwing themselves into the middle of that crazed and mind controlled crowd to help Koren keep them away from the button.

Which left me. I had to trust them in that moment. I had to let Avalon and Vanessa save Koren and Abigail. I had to let them fight out there while I dealt with the actual source of the problem.

Turning, I looked at the sign on the nearby wall that indicated the way to the announcers box. Gritting my teeth, I held tight to my staff and muttered under my breath, ”Okay, you little psycho asshole. Let’s finish this.”

Then I started to run.

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Mini-Interlude 55 – Joselyn

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“Moooooooommmmmy! Momma! Mom-mom-mom-momma Mia Mama!”

The chanting voice drew Joselyn from a deep slumber. Eyes opening as her mind oriented itself away from the dream to the real world, she found herself, as most mornings, waking up in an incredibly comfortable, silk sheet-covered bed. The bed itself was located within what had to be one of the most beautiful bedrooms on the face of the planet. Floor to ceiling glass doors led out to a balcony to her right, while a walk-in closet the size of most apartments was to the left. Paintings, mirrors, entire statues, and more signs of absurd opulence filled the rest of the nearly six hundred square foot bedroom, with a ceiling that was fifteen feet up. It was an absurd size.

As her head lifted from the pillow to look straight across from the bottom of the bed to the double doors that stood open, Joselyn found the source of the call. Ammon. The boy stood there, framed in the doorway with a smile on his face as he announced, “I brought you breakfast!”

With that, he snapped his fingers. Four figures moved past the boy, two to either side as they came into the room. Three of them were carrying trays laden with food, while the fourth carried three different pitchers of fresh juices. They moved quickly and efficiently to stand on either side of the bed. None moved a muscle once in position. And without fail, each looked utterly petrified.

Slowly, Joselyn sat up in the bed, pulling the sheet with her so that it continued to cover her form. She was not allowed clothes when sleeping. Not that Fossor spent many evenings in the same room, or even that many in the same house. He was most often elsewhere, carrying out his plans or enacting his various vengeances. But his rules remained in place regardless, and one of them was that Joselyn was not to wear clothes to bed. She was, in fact, not allowed to dress herself until Fossor himself gave permission, even if he had to do so over the phone.

At a certain point, she had been able to make that particular rule almost meaningless, as she only required perhaps a half hour of sleep per day. But Fossor had begun siphoning energy from her for some project, meaning that she now required at least four. She still wasn’t sure how much of that was because he had an actual project that required her energy and how much was simply because he was amused by thwarting any attempt she made at working around his rules.  

Either way, she had to sleep for at least four hours each night depending on how much his secret project took out of her that day, and during that time she was not allowed any clothes. It was, by that point, just another small indignity that continued to amuse the man who had enslaved her. One more thing that he controlled. One more thing that he made her ask for.

“Ammon,” she spoke carefully, choosing her words the best way that she could while shifting the sheet a little so that it covered more. “I don’t recognize these particular servants. Are they new?” It never ended well to be confrontational with the boy. Not anymore. Particularly as she wasn’t allowed to discipline him anyway. She had to be careful in how she spoke to him. Not for her own sake. His ability wouldn’t work on her, and she could quite easily overpower him if need be. But because he would take his frustration out on others, and she was not allowed to stop him.

“I haven’t decided yet,” the boy replied simply, chewing his lip for a moment in thought as he stepped in and walked slowly up to the end of the bed. Gesturing, he explained. “They were mean when I got to the restaurant, so I had to make them see that they were bad. But now I kinda like them. And it’s not like they have any customers to go back to. Or a restaurant.”

Despite herself, Joselyn flinched inwardly a little bit. Right. No wonder these four looked so traumatized. She didn’t know exactly what Ammon had done. But she had the general idea already, and had absolutely no desire to have any specific details spelled out. A quick glance over the gathered quartet revealed little. They were all dressed as servers in nice black slacks and crisp white shirts. Two were female, the other two male, one of each standing on each side. The females were noticeably attractive, which Joselyn prayed was a coincidence. Once Ammon began hitting puberty, with his… abilities and lack of any kind of remorse or even a basic understanding of empathy… bile rose in her throat, and she had to look away for a moment. But only for a moment. If Ammon thought that something had upset her, he would lash out. Not at her, but at these four. He would think that they had done something, somehow. He was never cruel to Joselyn purposefully. He… in his own way, cared for her. At least as much as he was capable of, after what Fossor had done to warp and mangle his psyche. Some part of Ammon still remembered loving his mother, so he repeatedly tried in vain to recapture that feeling. He tried so hard to remember the good emotions that his father had stripped away from him.

Forcing herself to smile, because to do otherwise would bring tears, and Ammon’s anger at the people around them, Joselyn extended a hand. “Do you want to come up and help me eat this feast?” she asked, trying hard not to let her hand tremble from the rage that she felt at Fossor.

Ammon’s own childish smile was bright, and not put-on at all. He clambered up into the bed, crawling up quickly and settled in next to her before imperiously ordering, “Dessert first!”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn put a hand on the boy’s head. She leaned down, smelling his hair for a moment. God. Oh God. She remembered how he had been. She remembered the boy before… before all this. She remembered his sweetness, his curiosity about everything. Her son. Her beautiful, amazing, wonderful baby boy. And now she had to wonder every time she saw him, how many people he had murdered, how many lives he had destroyed.

He’d asked her enough pointed questions that she knew he knew about Koren. The new Koren, her granddaughter. How much else he knew, she wasn’t certain. But she did know that he hadn’t told his father. Why, she wasn’t exactly sure. But he hadn’t. Not yet, anyway. For whatever reason, the boy was keeping that particular information to himself.

She wished so much that she could believe it was for a good reason. But she knew better. Whatever was driving her son to keep Koren Fellows a secret from his father wasn’t anything good. And the thought of what he might be up to, what his twisted, broken mind might conjure up…

Out of sight of Ammon, with her face against the top of his head, Joselyn allowed a single, solitary tear to fall as the captive restaurant staff prepared to serve their meal.

******

The roar of flames filled the air as the male fire elemental flew straight toward Joselyn a couple hours later. As he approached, his heat scouring the floor it was flying over top of, she dove to the side, rolling before popping up to her feet. The second she was upright, the elemental was already pointing that way, a geyser of flame erupting from his outstretched hand. It came so quickly that all Joselyn could do was jerk her entire body backward as far as she could, allowing the fire to roast the air right above her nose. The heat so so intense that it would have melted her eyes in their sockets if she hadn’t already possessed enough resistance powers.

The room that they were in lay deep in the subbasement of the mansion.It was, essentially, a fighting arena, complete with stands for an audience of at least a hundred people. The arena itself was circular and about a hundred feet in diameter, with a forcefield that contained both the violence and any stray powers. Set right next to what would be considered the ‘owners box’ in the middle of the stands was a screen showing a time that was currently ticking down from ten seconds in yellow numbers.

That had to do with another of Fossor’s rules. He arranged these tournaments, forced her to fight these Alters that he had… acquired. He would throw them into this pit and have them attack her. Sometimes only one, sometimes many. The clock showed how long Joselyn had to survive before she was allowed to use any active powers. Technically, there were two countdowns. When the numbers were red, it meant that she wasn’t allowed to fight back at all, only evade and stay away from her attacker(s). When the numbers were yellow as they were right then, she could fight, but was not allowed to use any active powers. And when the countdown hit the single green zero, she could go all out.

Fossor, for all his arrogance, didn’t want her to become a mindless murder-addict. He wanted her to work for him, wanted her to serve him. But she would be less effective at that if she was addicted to killing, which would happen to any Reaper-based Heretic who killed too easily too often. Kills had to be earned. If he just had her walk from cage to cage killing one Alter after another, it wouldn’t be long before she completely lost her mind and became little more than a beast. He could get one of those from anywhere. But he only had one of her. Hence these tournaments, these actual fights and all his rules about making her earn each victory, each kill.

The stands themselves were about a quarter full. The twenty-odd people who were watching were a mixture of Ammon’s… pets (four of which were the restaurant servers he had just abducted that morning) and a few of the living beings that Fossor himself kept around to serve him. The vast majority of the beings on the grounds were dead, zombies given specific instructions and tasks to perform by their necromancer master. But there were about a dozen of the living variety, those whose tasks were too much to entrust to mindless zombies. The ghosts weren’t mindless, but interacting with the physical world was taxing. So there were the living servants, though they were just as enslaved to Fossor as their deceased companions.

Three quick fireballs were shot through the air at her. She pivoted around one before leaping to twist her body so that the other two would fly past either side of her. In mid-air, the clock hit that green zero, and she inverted. Her fist lashed out, turning blue as a curtain of ice enveloped the wave of flames that the fire elemental had been pushing toward her. The elemental quickly rose high into the air, above the ice wall so that he could fire (literally) down at her.

But Joselyn wasn’t there. Appearing on top of the wall of ice that she had created, almost directly behind the elemental, she extended her hand. As he spun, a wave of cold from her fingers enveloped the figure. His flames were instantly doused, and his red-orange body turned pale white as he was frozen solid.

A quick kick from her shattered his body into a thousand pieces, which rained down over the arena while Joselyn’s golden aura flared up.

There. It was done. Not all of her training for the day, but at least the last one that she had to kill. Joselyn dropped to the floor, looking to the stands as the gathered witnesses began to move away. All save for one of the restaurant employees, a young woman who sat in the stand by herself, staring at Joselyn while looking terribly alone and lost.

With a soft sigh, she approached the girl. The forcefield had lowered as everyone else made their way out to go about the rest of their duties (or find some other entertainment). “My son didn’t give you any instructions?”

The girl had a slight deer-in-headlights look, swallowing audibly while staring up at Joselyn. She was pretty, with short raven-black hair that was cut just past her ears and an innocent, naive face. Joselyn thought that she looked a fair bit like Phoebe Cates in those Gremlin films.

“J-just to stay in the building,” she answered quietly, her voice shaking a little.

“What’s your name?” Joselyn asked, her voice as gentle as she could make it.

The girl answered, whimpering just a little as she did so. “J-Jenna. It’s Jenna.”

“Jenna,” Joselyn repeated, nodding. “Why don’t you come with me? I have a little solo training to get through, then I was planning on visiting the library. Neither of us can leave the building, so we might as well stay together.”

Blinking rapidly in an obvious attempt to avoid tears, Jenna nodded while stammering, “Okay. But… but y-y-your son, he’s… he’s a…”

“I know,” Joselyn spoke simply, her voice softer than ever.

“Believe me, I know.”

******

“Well, my dear, how was your day?” Fossor’s voice was sweet, no different from any other husband and father as he took his seat at the obscenely long dinner table. Beside him, one of his reanimated automatons poured a glass of wine for its master.

“Three,” Joselyn answered flatly, not yet moving to touch her own plate even as Fossor immediately began to dig into his steak. “I killed three of them today.”

Beside her, Jenna moved to copy the actions of her dead counterpart beside Fossor. Joselyn had managed to convince the man and Ammon both to let her keep the girl with her for the time being. She had no idea how long it would last, but she would do everything she could.

The bottle shook a little in the terrified girl’s grip. It would have spilled, which itself would have drawn the ire of the monster at the end of the table, and Jenna would have been killed. But Joselyn carefully and subtly extended just a little of her power, taking control of the liquid as it fell and guiding it to land smoothly in the glass regardless of where the actual bottle was, or how much it was shaking.

“Well, it sounds as though you kept yourself occupied, at least.” Fossor nodded once before launching into his actual point. “I had quite the busy day myself, of course. So many small fires to put out and larger fires to create. Exhausting, really. But…” He paused with his fork in midair, a chunk of meat held in the tines. “The more interesting part is that it seems our girl is making quite the name for herself out in Seosten space.”

Felicity in Seosten space. When she’d first heard that, Joselyn hadn’t been able to contain her panic and terror. The things that those creatures could do, the things they would do in order to get the information they wanted.

Information, apparently, that had to do with why Felicity was immune to them. When that little tidbit had initially made its way back to Fossor, he had taken her straight to his Writing Room and made her answer questions for over an hour trying to find out how that had happened. But the simple truth was that Joselyn had no idea. She hadn’t had to try to hide anything from him about it, because she didn’t know. She had some vague idea that it might have been Gabriel’s doing, of course, but no hard facts. Not that that had stopped Fossor from putting her through the wringer until he was satisfied. And even then, he hadn’t been very happy about it. About not knowing, that was. He found the fact that she was immune hilarious and useful, but not knowing why ticked him off something fierce.

Pausing then, she looked up to meet the man’s gaze as he stared at her knowingly. “You heard something else from Crossroads?” She chose her words carefully, because whether he was getting information from his spy in the school or from somewhere actually within the Seosten Empire was important.

Chuckling, making it clear that he understood exactly what she was asking, Fossor ate three more bites of his steak. He moved slowly and deliberately, obviously enjoying dragging out the conversation now that she was interested. She was always interested in hearing about her daughter, even if it had to come from him. And he knew that.

Finally, the necromancer spoke. “It seems that our little girl has managed to create quite the ruckus. She’s freed a group of slaves from their prison camp. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite good enough to stop that Isaac fellow from subsequently murdering a good number of them. Also, that bothersome… Catsarein man?”

“Katarin,” Joselyn murmured, remembering the man well.

“Of course.” Fossor spoke the words in a way that made it clear that he didn’t consider the name important and had already dismissed it. “He was murdered by that delightful Isaac child. If he survives his trip out there, it might be fun to invite him over for a playdate with our boy.”

Our boy. Our girl. His. Fossor always made a point of claiming ownership over things that he had decided were his.

And now Ulysses Katarin was dead. Murdered by the psychopath that the Seosten had been nurturing and cultivating. The thought of that… thing traveling with any of the others, let alone her daughter, made Joselyn furious. But it also terrified her. Hearing that he had killed Ulysses, that just… It was another loss. Another in a very long line of them that showed no signs of stopping.

She sent a silent apology to the man’s spirit, wherever it may have been, that she had been able to do nothing to help him. The pain… she set it aside, put it into that special lock box deep in her soul where it would wait for her to have time to actually grieve. Not in front of Fossor. She refused to show that kind of emotion in front of him.

So she still had no idea where he was getting his information from. The necromancer played most of that close to his vest, despite his enjoyment of showing off how much he knew about Felicity’s life. Joselyn was reliant on him for almost every scrap of information about her own daughter, and he delighted in that fact.

He was not, however, privy to the information about Koren, either the new one or the woman who was now Abigail. Nor did he know about Wyatt. So whatever his source was, it wasn’t as informed as it could be. And he had not yet managed to ask the right question in their Writing Room sessions for Joselyn to give that information up. Either that or he did know but was deliberately not bringing it up in order to give her false hope. Joselyn had long since stopped trying to guess when he was playing those sorts of games.

But as far as she knew, he didn’t know about those three. For the time being, they were safe from him, though she was sure that wouldn’t last. And the thought of what he would do when he found out about Abigail and Koren in particular… it brought bile to her throat and rage into her heart. If he touched them, if he even threatened to touch them…

“My dear,” Fossor interrupted, nodding toward where she had inadvertently melted half of the fork in her hand, “if the meal is that unpleasant for you, I will have the chef returned to his grave immediately and a new one… selected.”

In other words, he would kill someone else to serve as their chef. Quickly, Joselyn shook her head. “No, the meal is fine. But Felicity, if those Seosten take her…”

“Never fear, my dear,” the man spoke calmly and with a soft smile that one might have taken as fatherly if they didn’t know better, “The Seosten will not be keeping our girl. You can be quite certain of that. There are… plans in motion as far as that is concerned. So rest your little mind about it. Enjoy the dinner. Unless, of course, you do want a new chef?”

Swallowing her initial reaction, Joselyn set the mangled and melted remains of the fork down before touching a finger against it. Summoning the power of an ùruisg, she focused on repairing the damaged utensil. Within a few seconds, the fork was as good as new, and she took a bite of her meal to appease the man.

“You see, it’s good, isn’t it?” Fossor prompted, clearly enjoying just how much he could control her.

“Delightful,” was her single word reply.

******

“Now, you stand right here all night.” Ammon was instructing Jenna late in the evening.

They were back in Joselyn’s room. She had managed to make it clear to her son that she preferred having the girl around, without making it seem like she was giving orders. So now he had agreed to let the girl stay.

“You stand here,” the boy continued, “and get my mom anything she needs. Anything she tells you to, right? You understand?”

From where she was standing, Joselyn offered a careful, “Perhaps if she sits, she can be quicker about moving around if she needs to get something for me.”

Ammon did a quick double take, looking between her and the girl before nodding. “Oh, uh, okay. There.” He pointed to a plush recliner. “My name is Ammon. Sit there and don’t move unless my mom asks you to get her something. Then follow her orders and go back to the chair when you’re done.”

Obediently, the young woman pivoted to walk that way. She seated herself, clearly still confused about why she couldn’t stop obeying the boy’s instructions.

Once she was seated, Ammon looked to Joselyn. “Do you need anything else, Mom!” His smile was bright, his pride at ‘helping’ obvious.

She swallowed a little, shaking her head. “No. Thank you, my little soldier.” Her little soldier. Gods. She had called him that almost from the moment he was born, because of the way he kept putting his hand up near his face in what she thought looked like a salute. Her soldier. Her trooper. Her fighter. Her boy. Her baby boy.

What had Fossor done to him?

Smiling widening, Ammon chirped, “Okay! I’m gonna go play in the garden.”

Play in the garden. She had the feeling that was far less innocent than it sounded. But before Joselyn could say anything, the boy was gone, racing through the door before clomping down the stairs loudly. For a moment, she watched him go, then gestured to make the doors close.

“What… what is he?” The shaky, horrified voice came from the chair, and Joselyn glanced that way to find Jenna sitting with her hands tight against the armrests. “Wh-why can’t I… why can’t I get up? How is he–he… he killed them. He killed all of them. All those people.” Her voice was starting to grow hysterical, which meant that Joselyn needed to get her to calm down.

“It’s– It’s okay.” It wasn’t, but if the girl didn’t get herself under control, it would be a whole lot worse. “I know you’re scared. I know you’re confused. But listen to me. I’ll try to keep you safe, as much as I can,” she promised the young woman. “I know this is all terrifying. And I’m sorry about what happened, what… Ammon did. But I’m afraid that there isn’t a lot that I can explain. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”

The girl gave her a shy smile. “I’m pretty sure that all of this would be pretty hard to forget. And I really want to know. He–the things he did, the things he makes us do. How can he–how?”

Swallowing, Joselyn shook her head. “As I said, you wouldn’t remember even if I told you. And for the time that you did remember, you would just be even more frightened than you are now.”

The little smile remained, but it was… different somehow. The girl shifted, lifting her chin while slowly replied, “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to insist that you tell me everything you know about Fossor, about the boy, about all of it. Everything.”

Joselyn blinked, eyes widening a little as she looked up quickly. Fossor had never introduced himself. She knew that for a fact. He didn’t consider it worth his time to introduce himself to Ammon’s playthings or any of the other servants if he could help it. “How do you know his na–”

The girl slowly stood up from the chair. Stood, despite Ammon’s order. Because she had never truly been under the control of Ammon’s power at all. Because she was the source of that power. 

“My name is Denuvus,” the manipulator announced, her voice filling the room.

“Tell me everything I want to know.”

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Mini-Interlude 7 – Ammon

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“Wheee!” The innocent-sounding, exuberant cry of a child filled the hospital hallway as a wheeled office chair spun and slid its way down the corridor. Its rider, mop of unruly blond hair flying wildly, gave another cheer of excitement that morphed to a groan as the chair inevitably slid to a stop.

The corridor was far from empty. Patients, doctors, nurses, and more were lined up along both walls. They stood rigid, and although it was incredibly late, past midnight even, none of them cautioned the boy to be quiet. They could no more reprimand him than they could move away from the positions that he had ordered each of them into. The boy had demanded silence, and so silence was what he received.

Once the chair had come to a complete stop, Ammon hopped off and spun back the way he had come. His eyes roved over the assortment of brand new friends that he’d gathered, while the boy chewed his lip thoughtfully. “New game, new game, new game… something fun…”

As he was trying to come up with a new way to pass the time while waiting for his newest little project to be finished, Ammon’s thoughts wandered back toward the subject had occupied them for so long.

Felicity. Flick. His sister. She was supposed to be nice to him. She was supposed to be a good person. So why was she so mean? Why was she so rude and obnoxious to him, him, her little brother? It was wrong. People were supposed to be nice to him. Especially his own family. Mother was nice to him. Father was… well, Father was Father. He was different. He was the disciplinarian.

Maybe Felicity had gone too long without someone like Father. Maybe she needed to be disciplined.

Because she was rude! And mean. She obviously cared more about a couple random girls than him. She liked those girls more than she liked her own brother! What kind of terrible, awful person was she?

And who were those girls anyway? Some rude bimbo that she shared a room with, who had threatened to do horrifying things to Ammon until he made her wash her own mouth out with soap. Right, the headmistress’s daughter. That witch was rude too, interrupting when he was trying to have a talk with his sister.

He should’ve taught her a lesson by making the bimbo cut herself open. Or cut her own eyes out. That would’ve been fun.

And that other girl, the one he tried to make drown herself to lure stupid rude Felicity away, the Asian one. Who was she? From the way his sister had reacted, she knew the girl. And knew her well enough to be upset.

Father had told him that people like Felicity would try to stop other people from dying. The idea had seemed… strange to him at the time, and he’d almost expected Father to be wrong for once. Even as he sent the girl running toward the ocean, some part of him had expected Felicity to abandon her and continue chasing him.

Honestly, he was kind of upset that she hadn’t. Wasn’t he, her own flesh and blood brother, more important than some stupid little girl? They weren’t even roommates. They weren’t even on the same team or anything. He knew who Felicity’s teammates were, and that Asian girl wasn’t one of them.

Maybe he’d ask the girl himself if he saw her again. And maybe he’d just find some other way of entertaining himself with her.

Entertaining… oh right, he was trying to think of a new game. Aloud, he muttered, “I need something fun. Something fun with the chair. That chair’s really fun. But I don’t know any other new… ooooh.” Turning back to look at the chair in question, Ammon smiled slowly.

Abruptly, he turned back the other way, pivoting on his heel before striding past all the people. He was looking for the right person, dancing his hand along as he went while calling in a sing-song voice, “Eenie, meenie, miney, no, nope, moooo, no, not you, not you, moe!” Stopping short, the boy kept his hand where it was, pointing toward a small boy. The boy was even younger than Ammon, and he wore a hospital gown with dancing monkeys on it.

“Hi!” Ammon stopped in front of the boy, giving him a wide smile. “What’s your name? How old are you? My name is Ammon, you should answer my questions.”

The little boy stood completely still, just as he had been ordered to. But his eyes betrayed his terror. “U-umm, m-my name is Evan. I’m s-six. Almost seven.”

“Neat!” Ammon announced before stepping back. “If you’re related to Evan right here, take one step forward, okay?”

Peering up and down the rows of people, at first he thought there was no response. Then he remembered, there were people behind him too! Laughing at himself, Ammon turned that way. Sure enough, a teenage girl, about the same age as Felicity, was standing out of line.

“Hi, what’s your name? You should answer my question.”

Tears were leaking from the girl’s eyes. “P-P-Paige. M-my name is Paige.”

“Hiya, Paige.” Ammon waved. “You’re related to Evan?” When the girl nodded, he clapped a couple times. “Okay! Evan, go stand by Paige. We need another contestant!”

Again, Ammon went down the line until he’d found another child. This one was a girl. According to her when he asked, she was five years old, and her name was Ricki. Annoyingly, he couldn’t find an older brother for the girl, which would’ve been perfect. Instead, he found the girl’s grandfather, an old man named Donald.

It would have to do.

“Okay, Ricki and Donald stand over there by Paige and Evan. Don’t move. Everybody wait here!” With that instruction, Ammon dashed off down the corridor to get the rest of what he needed for this game.

He was back a couple minutes later, wheeling a second chair down the hall ahead of him. On the seat, there was a couple thick rolls of duct tape that he’d snagged from the janitor’s closet. So helpful, duct tape.

“Mmmkay, Ricki, you sit right here on this one,” he ordered before pointing to the first chair. “And Evan, you sit right there on that one.” Once they were seated, he held up both rolls of duct tape. “Paige, you tape your brother to the chair. Donald, you get to tape your granddaughter. Both of you make sure it’s nice and tight so they can’t get out!”

While they were busy with that, Ammon whistled to himself off-key while strolling down the hall. Halfway there, he started to skip. Skipping was fun, and darn it, he was going to have fun!

At the end of the hall, he reached the elevator doors. Rather than push the button, Ammon braced his fingers inside the doors and began to pry them apart. It wasn’t that hard, and soon the doors were open. Leaning in, he looked up first, and found the bottom of elevator itself very close, only one floor away. Then he looked down, toward the bottom of the shaft a good six floors away. Giving a low, impressed whistle, the boy straightened up once more and returned to the spot down the hall where the two children had been tightly bound to their chairs.

“Hi, guys!” Waving a hand cheerfully, Ammon fondly ruffled both of their hair before stepping behind them. Positioning the chairs carefully, he grabbed the tape and walked about ten feet away before using it to make a line across the floor.

Satisfied, he popped to his feet and smiled happily. “Okay! Here’s the game. My name is Ammon. Paige, you hold the back of Evan’s chair. And Donald, you hold Ricki’s chair. On the count of three, both of you run forward and shove the chairs as hard as you can, right at the open elevator down there as soon as you reach the tape. You have to push them as hard as you can, and you have to try to be accurate. No fair trying to miss.

“So you push the chairs as hard as you can, and we’ll see who wins!”

Everyone involved was sobbing by that point, and even most of the people who weren’t involved. The latter part was pretty annoying. They were obviously drama queens. Why did they care what was going on? He’d asked if anyone else was related to the kids, and no one had spoken up. If they weren’t family, why were they crying?

Stupid.

Shaking that off, Ammon stepped out of the way. “Okay, on the count of three. One… two… three!”

Sobs, loud, annoying, distracting sobs, filled the air as grandfather and older sister raced forward before shoving their respective relatives down the corridor once they reached the taped off line. The children taped to the chairs shrieked as their chairs went rolling straight toward the open doors of the elevator shaft.

Both came up short. Evan’s chair rolled to a stop about three feet from the edge, while little Ricki’s was only about six inches from tipping over into the shaft.

“Oooh, so close! You almost won, Grandpa Donald!” Ammon gave an encouraging smile to the traumatized man. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get it this time.”

“Th-th-this time?” Paige stammered, eyes going even wider somehow. She looked like an owl, and Ammon giggled a little.

“Yup! You didn’t think I’d only give you one shot, did you? Here, let’s try it again.”

So, he wheeled the crying, pleading, sobbing children back to where they had been and had the two relatives try once more. He ordered them again to try as hard as they could to shove the chairs far enough to fall into the shaft, then stood out of the way to watch eagerly.

It was so close! Both chairs went right down the corridor, rolling perfectly right up to the very edge. Then they got too close and bumped into each other, rebounding in opposite directions to bump into the wall on either side of the open shaft.

“Darn!” Shaking his head lamentingly, the boy strolled that way. “Okay Paige, Grandpa Donald, both of you should come this way. I want you to see something.”

He walked right to the elevator shaft and waited for the girl and the old man to reach him. Then Ammon pointed down the shaft. “See? This is what you’re aiming for. Think about it, if the chairs reach here, they’ll bounce right off that wall right there and tumble aaaaaaaaaaaaall the way down to the bottom. Won’t that be fun?! Look. Look closer, darn it. It’ll be funny!”

Annoyed that neither of the two seemed to be having nearly as much fun as he was, Ammon opened his mouth to tell them to try again. But before he could, another voice spoke up.

“Ah, Mr. Ammon, sir?” A doctor stood there behind them, shifting from foot to foot nervously.

Pivoting that way, Ammon’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Doctor Sang! You finished it?”

The man stood stiffly, holding a computer print-out. “Yes, we have the results. We tested the hair you gave us against the blood sample that you had Nurse Kingston draw from you.”

“Aaaand?” Ammon prompted. “My name is Ammon. Tell me, tell me, tell me.” He was impatient. It had already taken longer than he’d expected, just to find out that Koren girl’s name (which he’d managed by ‘chatting’ with one of the Heretics that he’d found out on a mission), and then working out where her family lived (they’d moved recently, which made things even more complicated). Then he’d had to sneak into their new house while the parents were gone and searched for the boxes of the girl’s stuff until he found the bathroom supplies. But he’d managed to get a used brush that still had some hair left in it.

The uncomfortable man gave a short nod. “It’s all in the report. But yes, you were correct. The tests were conclusive. You are related to the person the hair sample was obtained from. Your DNA was twelve point five percent similar, , indicating a relationship similar to first cousins, great-grandchildren, half-niece or nephew, and… and so on. In this case, the connected relative would be your mother, because you share DNA on your X chromosome. If you shared no DNA on your X chromosome, the parent that you both shared DNA with would be your father.”

Ammon considered that, head tilted thoughtfully. So. His guess was right. He and the girl back at the camp were related. Judging from what the doctor guy said, she was probably his… what was it, half-niece? Yeah, whichever. This… Koren was related to him as well. And this relative he hadn’t been ordered to stay away from. Mostly because he hadn’t actually told his father about her, hadn’t mentioned that there had been another person he couldn’t affect. Which… if he found out, Father would be furious about. But in the meantime, it meant that this one he could play with… any… time… he wanted.

Which meant… he needed to think. He had to leave this place and take his time on this. Couldn’t screw it up again.

“Sorry guys,” Ammon announced. “We don’t have time to finish our game.”

Both Paige and Grandpa Donald slumped a little, expressions of relief crossing their faces.

“Buuuut,” he put in then, a mischievous smile crossing his young face. “If we can’t finish the game, that means you aren’t winners. And you know what you are if you aren’t winners?”

Their mouths opened, but Ammon wasn’t interested in hearing their guesses. Reaching out, he planted one hand against each of their chests before giving a solid shove. Both the old man and the teen girl reeled backwards, cries escaping their mouths before they went plummeting down the elevator shaft.

“Losers,” Ammon finished. “It makes you losers.”

Peering out into the shaft itself, he tilted his head while looking at the still, broken figures below.

“See? I knew it’d be funny.”

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Facing Evil 11-03

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I hit the hallway already facing the exit. Ahead, I could see Ammon just disappearing through the inner set of doors that led to where the exit door and the stairs were. He paused just long enough to smile back at me before shouting at the top of his lungs. “My name is Ammon! Hurt Flick Chambers!”

The first of many curses just had time to spill from my mouth as something slammed into the door directly beside me. Doorknobs up and down the hall were shaking, jiggling back and forth as the occupants tried to join us in the corridor. But they weren’t opening. Gaia’s work? I hoped so.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t hold everyone. Just down the hall, I saw a metal-covered fist literally punch through the door and start to tear a larger hole. A little bit away from that, one of the other doors was engulfed in flames. And even as I took those in, my eyes were drawn to a bit of light red smoke that blew out from underneath one of the doorways. The crimson mist stuff billowed up and grew before solidifying into a human figure: Jazz Rhodes. The tall, dark-skinned girl was in her pajamas, her hair mussed from lying in bed. Her expression was blank as she hefted that falchion of hers. The blade had already split apart to reveal the barrel near the hilt, and I saw the flames starting to erupt from it.

By that point, I was up to my fifth or sixth curse in the running tally. As the fire shot down the hall toward me, I did the only thing I could: I dove for the floor. Rather than just hitting the ground though, I literally went through it. The floor was hard wood, and I was already merging with it as the flames shot through the space I had just been in. It was so close that I could feel the heat singe my hair.

Propelling myself through the wooden floor, I ignored Jazz. She wouldn’t try to hurt anyone except me, and the best way for me to stop that from happening was to get out of her sight. Not to mention avoiding every other person who had just been controlled into attacking me. Yeah, leaving was good.

Ammon was already sprinting again. The boy hit the exit door full tilt, slamming it open before landing on the outside. My brief hope that the security statue that was supposed to stop underage boys from entering our dorm would intervene was dashed as the damn thing remained motionless. Which, I suppose made sense. He had controlled the head of security, so it couldn’t have been that hard for him to make her disable measures like that. Hell, controlling Kohaku was probably the reason none of the security people had already descended upon the scene. Because of course they didn’t. That would be too damn easy.

I was right behind Ammon, and threw myself out of the wood just in time to crash into the psychotic little kid. The impact took my breath away, and the two of us went rolling wildly across the grass.

I tried to bring my staff around while grabbing for his arm. But Ammon managed to twist himself up enough to lash out with both feet, kicking me in the face so hard that I saw stars for a moment while falling backwards on the damp ground. While I was stunned, Ammon eeled his way free before rising.

“No,” I managed to get out while rolling over to lash out with my staff. It took the kid against the legs, dumping him back onto the ground once more. Then I tilted the staff slightly, triggering just a bit of the force that I had stored up. It was enough to throw my body into the air, and I twisted around to kick out, planting my foot hard against Ammon’s chin as he tried to sit up. He fell back, and I landed hard before stumbling. But, miracle of miracles, I managed to stay on my feet. I was up, he was down.

There we were. I was standing while Ammon was on his back. He was panting, I was fine. My staff, still almost fully charged, was pointed down at him. Part of me wanted to stop there, wanted to give him the chance to surrender. Wasn’t that what good people were supposed to do? He was helpless. There was no one close enough for him to control. Not yet anyway. And his powers didn’t work on me.

That was what the typical hero would do. Let him surrender. But, well…. fuck that. I flipped the staff around without a single word of warning, bringing it down while starting to trigger the kinetic bomb. He’d survive. After all, he’d survived falling out of the police station with little damage to show for it. But it’d hurt. It would slow him down. And most important of all, it would be just a little therapeutic.

Except that my staff never reached its target. An instant before both it and the kinetic blast would have slammed into Ammon’s prone form, pain abruptly erupted in one of my hands as something hit the staff so hard that it was torn from my grasp to go flying off into the grass. The agony drove me to one knee while a squeal escaped me in spite of myself, and I stared at the hole full of blood through the middle of my palm. Shot. I had been shot, the staff blown from my grasp just before I could hit Ammon. But there was no one in sight. Which, even through the haze of pain in my hand, told me one thing.

“Scout,” I managed before hurtling myself to the side. The instant I did, my ears caught the sound of one of her bullets tearing through the ground where I had just been. My best guess was that it would have hit my leg if I hadn’t moved. Per Ammon’s instructions, she was aiming not to kill, but to hurt.

A cold fear washed over me briefly. I had no idea where the shots would come from. Thanks to the invisible portals that Scout’s rifle could set up, the attack could come from any direction, any angle.

You know what? Fighting Heretics was awful. No wonder a lot of Alters were so damn terrified of us.

I barely processed that before hurtling myself into a forward roll. Don’t stand still. Don’t give Scout a good shot. Keep moving. Even if I didn’t know where the shots were coming from, I could make myself hard to hit. I had to hope that, even if she was controlled into doing this, the other girl wasn’t giving it her all. Any resistance, any hesitation, would help me avoid getting myself shot again.

Two bullets hit the ground about an inch from the spot where I had thrown myself. Shit, shit, shit. I rolled over as fast as I could, reaching for my staff with the hand that wasn’t busy healing. Unfortunately, it was still too far away. Worse, Ammon was already back on his feet, my momentary advantage lost. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I heard the nearby door slam open as someone emerged.

My head snapped that way, even as I threw myself backwards to avoid the next shot. Falling into an awkward roll, I spotted the person who had come out of the girl’s dorm, twin weapons in her hands. Koren. It was Koren. “What the hell is going on, Chambers?” she demanded, stepping down past the frustratingly motionless statue. “Why the fuck is everyone tearing the dorms apart looking for you?”

“My name is Ammon!” the kid shouted. “You, hurt Flick! Hold her, make her stop, make her bleed!”

Koren just blinked at him, her expression dubious. “What the hell are you talking about, kid?”

While Ammon was still recovering from his obvious surprise and confusion, I managed to shout, “Mind control! It’s mind control! Stop Scout! Koren, go stop Scout, she’s shooting at me!” Yeah, I’d have a lot more to explain later, but as long as Koren wasn’t an idiot, that should tell her enough.

And, thankfully, regardless of how difficult of a person my niece could be to actually get along with, she wasn’t stupid. As soon as she processed the words, the other girl was sprinting back into the dorm.

Praying that it would be enough, I took a step toward my staff, only to scream as a shot tore through my shoulder. God. Fuck. Fuck. It hurt. Even with the way the Peridle healing ability had already taken care of most of the damage in my hand, the two injuries together were still enough to make me want to curl up into a little ball and cry a little. It hurt so much. Yes, the injuries were healing, especially the one in my hand. And I was still lucky that Ammon had told Scout to hurt me. She was doing that rather than just finishing the fight the way she probably could have. If he’d told her to kill me, I might be down already. But of course, he wouldn’t do that. Even if he’d wanted to, I doubted that the kid would risk pissing off his father that much. After all, Fossor wanted to use me for his own sick little games.

Ammon had frozen as well, briefly paralyzed by confusion as he stared after the other girl. I could see the uncertainty on his face as he tried to work out why someone else was immune to his power.

Praying that Koren would be able to stop Scout from shooting again, I ignored my fallen staff and forced myself to run at the kid. He saw me coming, pivoted, and started to book it. The two of us ran across the grounds. I should have been faster than he was, but my injuries slowed me down. It hurt. Fuck, fuck, it hurt so much. But I kept going. I made myself keep going, refusing to allow Ammon the chance to escape. Not now, not after everything he’d already done. I had to grab him, had to hold him. If there was even the slightest, tiny chance that he’d be able to tell us where Mom was, I had to take it.

So, through the pain in both my hand and shoulder, I sprinted after my half-brother. My feet pounded through the grass, one step after another. I let the burning ache where I’d been shot motivate me to keep going. Stay on him. Catch up. Grab him. Stop him. The mantra worked its way through my mind, even as the pain tried its damnedest to make me stop. I ignored it and kept going, kept running, kept chasing.

It didn’t take long for me to realize, even through the haze of anger and agony, that we weren’t heading for the beach, or even the jungle. No. Our destination was becoming more clear with each passing step. Ammon was heading for the lighthouse where the Heretical Edge was. Why? Why was he going there?

The question was still working its way through my mind, with no clear answer, as we neared the building. However, just before he would’ve reached the doors, another figure came around the side. In this case, it was pretty much the last person I wanted to see standing so near my psychotic half-brother.

It was Shiori. I had no idea what she was doing there, why she was all the way over here after everyone was supposed to be in our rooms for curfew, but there she was. She looked surprised, stopping short at the sight of the two of us running almost directly toward her. Her confusion was written across her face.

“Shiori!” I shouted desperately at the girl while simultaneously trying even more desperately to lunge close enough to grab Ammon before he had a chance to speak. “Cover your ears! Cover your ea–”

It was too late on both counts. Ammon shouted over my own voice, “My name is Ammon, freeze!”

The other girl went completely still, just in time for the boy to dive and roll under my outstretched arm. He came up, hand going to his pocket before he withdrew an object that I barely managed to process before he was throwing it toward Shiori while calling out, “Catch this and hold it to your throat!”

It was a switchblade, I realized belatedly. She had it in her hand and to her throat by the time I managed to catch on to what was going on. My eyes went wide and I blurted in horror, “No, stop! Stop!”

“Freeze!” Ammon repeated, and I realized he was talking to both of us. The kid was already back on his feet, panting heavily as he added to Shiori. “If Flick moves from that spot, cut your own throat.”

Needless to say, I didn’t move. The pain in my shoulder and hand was almost forgotten as I focused entirely on the look of terror in the other girl’s eyes. The switchblade was held close to her throat, and I knew there was no way for me to get it from her before Ammon’s power would force her to cut deep.

Panting there, Ammon took a second to catch his breath while glaring angrily at me. “You… see… what… happens…” he snarled in between deep breaths, “when… you… break… the… rules?”

I ignored him, focusing on Shiori. The terror in her gaze was obvious, and I flinched at the idea of how horrified I would be if our positions were reversed. But it was worse for Shiori. She’d already been terrified at the idea of losing control over herself just because of what she was. This had to be reawakening all of that fear and disgust. As she held that blade close to her own throat, I saw a single tear in one of her eyes. She looked at me, mouthing a single word, a silent, desperate plea: Help.

“Ammon!” I shouted. “Let her go! Let her go, and I’ll come play with you. I’ll go with you, I promise.”

Before the kid could respond to that, it was Shiori who spoke. “No!” Her voice was shaking, but she managed it. “You can’t!” The tears in her eyes were worse, somehow. “You can’t go with him. If you try to, I’ll cut myself anyway.” The promise came as she stared at me. “Then you won’t have a reason to.”

My mouth opened, but Ammon spoke first. “Aww. This is like a movie or something. See? I knew my birthday would be fun.” He sounded genuinely excited and happy. This, all of it, was still just a game.

“But,” he went on then. “You really can’t. Stand still, don’t move a muscle unless Flick doesn’t do what I tell her to. If she disobeys, cut your own throat as deep as you can.” With that instruction, the boy turned his attention back to me, his expression triumphant. “See? I can control you, sis. I just have to control someone you care about. Then you have to do what I say. Check it out. Touch your nose.”

My eyes flicked toward Shiori before I slowly lifted my hand to follow Ammon’s instructions. “I swear, Ammon, if you do anything to her…” I warned through even as I tried in vain to think of a way to get that knife away from Shiori long enough to stop Ammon. Nothing came to mind. I didn’t have my staff, none of the abilities I had would do anything from this range, and I didn’t have any kind of magic prepared that would actually help in this case. Nothing to stop Shiori from cutting her own throat.

Ammon rolled his eyes. “That’s the point, ya know. I don’t do anything, you do what I say. You don’t do what I say, and she kills herself. That’s the new rules, and I’m gonna make sure you follow them from now on. Now bend over and touch your toes, big sis. Then we’ll all go on a trip, and we’ll play–”

That was as far as he got before a streak of motion went racing past me. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the metallic figure leap toward Shiori. And just as the warning cry escaped my throat, Vulcan’s jaws closed tight around the girl’s arm. He tore her to the ground, somehow managing to avoid letting the blade cut her in the process. Then the knife was in the mechanical dog’s mouth as he yanked it free of Shiori’s grasp before swallowing the damn thing whole.

Then Vulcan whirled toward Ammon. Belatedly, I realized that Sean wasn’t here. Somehow, he had figured out what was going on and sent Vulcan on ahead to help. Because while Sean himself was vulnerable to Ammon’s mind control, his mechanical dog wasn’t.

“Good boy!” I called, already moving. “Vulcan, sic him!”

The robotic canine gave a loud bark of agreement, then started to lunge that way. Ammon, for his part, was already spinning to run. Unfortunately, just as he reached the door of the lighthouse with us hot on his heels, the kid shouted toward Shiori. “Go drown yourself!”

I froze in mid-step, while Vulcan kept going, tearing into the lighthouse after the boy. My eyes snapped the other way, and I saw Shiori already running for the edge of the grounds. She was heading for the ocean.

I didn’t stop. I didn’t even pause to think about it. Pivoting on my heel, I ran after her. I didn’t even consider doing anything else. There was no question. Saving Shiori mattered more than anything else, even catching Ammon.

She had a head start, and she was faster than I was. Still, I was motivated, and I wasn’t tired. Together, the two of us ran across the dark grounds, past silent buildings. I needed help, I needed someone, but no one was around. No one was there. It was just us.

Shiori hit the beach ahead of me, but I threw up a cloud of sand to slow her down. It tore into her eyes, blinding the other girl. Anything to delay her, to make her hesitate, to give myself just a little more time.

She was at the waves and diving under them just barely ahead of me. Without thinking, I threw myself into the ocean after her. The cold was like a physical blow that took my breath away, leaving me disoriented for a second.

Then I focused. My eyes opened, and I barely saw the girl sinking ahead of me, slipping away through the dark water. Lunging forward, I caught her ankle. She kicked, struggling to free herself, to do what Ammon had ordered her to do.

Clawing my way up the other girl’s leg, I latched onto Shiori. Wrapping one arm around her, I tried to kick for the surface. She continued to struggle, fighting against me in spite of herself. She fought, screaming through the water for me to let her go, to not risk myself.

I ignored her even as I struggled to maintain my grip. It was dark, cold, and disorienting. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know which way was up anymore. I was just clinging to Shiori, holding onto her, trying to help her, trying to save her.

My head lifted enough to see the moonlight just above us, as we sank down deep into the cold, remorseless ocean.

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Facing Evil 11-02

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Confession time. I’ve been a babysitter before, and some of the kids I’ve looked after made me want to strangle them. Not that I ever had, or would, but the fact is that there are kids out there that are so intensely and purposefully annoying that the urge to smack them can be really strong. And yet, I held out. Through gum in my hair, dead flies in my soda, and being kicked repeatedly in the shin (and that was all just one kid), I restrained myself. I showed patience and didn’t lash out. I made gum-storing, fly-sharing, shin-hating boy stay in his room after taking the power cord for his computer and television. I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t think, up until a short time ago, that I was capable of hitting a kid.

But if Ammon hurt Avalon, I swore to every power great and small that had ever or would ever exist, I was going to shove my staff so far down his throat, I’d poke myself in the foot when I kicked his ass. And then I’d detonate the damn thing.

Get-” I started, freeing my weapon and charging it as the words erupted from me. “–away from her!

Ammon shook his head. “You don’t want me to do that, sis. Trust me, it’s a bad idea.” He nodded to the other girl. “She’s really rude, so I told her to shut up. But if she could talk, she’d say the same thing.”

Still charging my staff, I glared, resisting the urge to lunge at him (though it was a near thing). “What the hell are you talking about? Why are you here? What do you want? Didn’t you get in enough trouble the last time you came after me? Because I’m pretty sure your dad made it clear. I’m free for a year.”

My mind was racing. I needed help—but wait, I couldn’t get help. I couldn’t involve anyone else. As far as I knew, I was the only one who was immune to Ammon’s control. Maybe Koren or Wyatt, but this really wasn’t the right time to involve them. Not when I wasn’t absolutely sure they would be immune, and without being able to explain any of this to them. Besides, involving one of them meant possibly exposing Ammon to more people who definitely weren’t immune to him. And the thought of this kid having complete control of a bunch of Heretics was even more terrifying than seeing him near Avalon.

“You ask too many questions,” Ammon complained. “And you talk too fast. Shouldn’t you be happy to see me? You’re my sister. Family’s supposed to care about family. That’s what Mother says. Don’t you believe her? She misses you. She wants to know if you’re okay. Do you want me to tell her anything?”

My hand tightened painfully around the staff. I had to keep myself under control. I knew that. I knew it. But he was sitting there, so close to a motionless Avalon. It was hard to think straight. “What I want is for you to give me one reason why I shouldn’t find out just how good that regeneration of yours is.”

If the boy was intimidated at all, he didn’t show it. Instead, he just smiled at me. “Oh, that one’s easy. It’s because that would make me go away from your friend.” He patted Avalon on the head, a move that made me bristle. “And I told her that as soon as either one of us isn’t sitting on this bed, she should use one of those neat glove things to make a blade and cut her own throat as soon as she gets a chance.”

Announcing that as simply and matter-of-factually as someone describing an order they had placed at a restaurant, the kid actually smiled at me. “See? Pretty smart, huh? You could fight me, or you could rescue her, but either one would make us go off the bed. And then she cuts herself, and that would make you sad.” Slowly, his head tilted sideways, his expression turning curious. “It would make you sad, right? It’s hard to tell sometimes. But that sounds like something that would make you feel bad.”

I stared at him. Honestly, words failed me for a few seconds. I had no idea what to say to that. Would it make me feel bad? Just how fucked up was this kid? What the hell had his father done to him? And worse, what was he doing to my mother? The thought made me cringe inwardly, a sharp sort of shudder escaping me before I focused on the problem right in front of me. “Yes,” I said simply. “It would.”

“See?” He was positively beaming by that point. “I knew I did it right. Father says I do things without thinking, but I had a plan this time. Aren’t you proud of me, sis?” He was honestly, genuinely staring at me as though I should compliment him. There was no hint of shame or mockery in his words or his expression. The kid was absolutely asking if I was proud of him for coming up with a plan to confront me in a way that made sure I couldn’t fight back against him in spite of being immune to his power. He thought threatening someone I cared about was worth a pat on the head for thinking outside the box.

This kid was insane. He was broken. And I completely believed him when he said that Avalon would cut her own throat if either of them were removed from that bed. Nor did I think he’d actually let me call for help, even if there was someone I could contact that could get here in time to do something.

Gaia. She could help. I fully believed that she and probably some of the other teachers had countermeasures to protect against the kind of control that Ammon could manage, particularly if they were aware of it. At the very least, they could hit him hard enough to stop him from being able to give orders. After all, he did have to introduce himself to use his power. And I was sure they could find some creative ways to stop him from opening his mouth to give any actual commands. But that would involve taking the time to contact them and explain things, which Ammon wasn’t going to allow.

“Why are you here?” I managed through gritted teeth. Letting him talk would give me time to think, to come up with something to stop Avalon from hurting herself long enough to take care of Ammon.

“Man, you don’t listen very good,” he complained. “I told you, it’s my birthday. Don’t you know what happens on my birthday?” The boy asked as though it was common knowledge, as if someone not being aware of every nuance of his life was strange. “On my birthday, I get no consequences day.”

I frowned, my gaze shifting from Avalon to the boy and back again. “No consequences day? What?”

“No consequences day,” he replied as though the concept was just that simple and obvious. “I get to do anything I want, and Father won’t stop me or get at me. I don’t get in trouble for it. It’s my present.”

His present, his birthday present from his sick piece of shit of a father, was a day where he was allowed to do anything he wanted with no consequences. I felt sick. “But the day’s almost over. You’re late.”

The kid giggled at that, head shaking. “No, silly. My birthday starts twenty minutes ago. That’s when I was born. And I get twenty-four hours after that to do anything I want to. Isn’t that great?”

Swallowing, I glanced to Avalon, then back again, trying to think. “And you decided to come here?”

Ammon shrugged absently, his voice disturbingly calm. “I wanted to talk to you. But I knew you’d be all silly and try to fight or something, so I made sure you wouldn’t do that. See? I’m pretty smart, huh?”

My staff felt hot in my grip. “Ammon,” I managed to get out, my voice hard. “I don’t care what your psychopath of a father says about no consequences. If you hurt my… anyone here, I am going to–”

“What?” he interrupted, his voice genuinely curious. “Would you hurt me? Would you hurting me make me sad? If I hurt your friend and made you really sad, would you try to make me sad too? Would you try to share your sad with me? Is that what happens if you care what about happens to someone?”

There it was again, that complete lack of understanding when it came to feelings. What the hell had been done to this kid? He couldn’t have been born that way. No. Something awful had been done to him. Something that made him this way, but what was it? And what was I supposed to do about it?

Finally finding my voice, I took a breath before forcing the words out. “You said you wanted to talk to me, right?” When the boy nodded, I went on. “So talk. You could be doing anything right now, no consequences. But you came here. You broke into the school and came to my room. You went through all this just to talk to me. So tell me what you want to talk about. Say what you came here to say.”

Ammon shifted on the bed, absently petting Avalon’s hair in a way that made me want to forget everything I said and take his damn head off, brother or no brother. When he spoke, his tone was as innocent as ever. “I wanted to tell you that I’m not mad at you anymore. Even if you were rude when I came to visit you before. You were mean and you ruined my game. But mother says we’re supposed to forgive family.” Spreading his arms, he gave me that bright, disturbing smile again. “So, I forgive you.”

“You… forgive… me?” Something in my head snapped. “You came here, broke into my school, attacked my roommate, and threatened to have her kill herself, all to tell me that… you… forgive… me?”

“Boy,” he muttered. “You must not be doing good in school if they’ve gotta repeat things so much.”

One thing and one thing only stopped me from losing it right then: the knowledge that it might mean losing Avalon as well. And that was something I just wasn’t willing to accept. So I forced myself to keep it under control, as much as the kid made me want scream at him (at the very least). “Look, Ammon. You’re not the one who needs to forgive me. You’re the one who tried to frame my father for murder. You’re the one that tried to kill a bunch of other people. You’re the one who killed that innocent girl at that gas station, and I’m sure you did a lot of other evil, fucked up things. So you don’t get to forgive me. You are the one who did something wrong—everything wrong. You don’t get to forgive me for stopping you from hurting and killing people.”

He just blinked at that, totally clueless. “But I wanted to do those things. And you stopped me. You were mean and you messed up my game. And I forgive you. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

“What about them?” I demanded, resisting the urge to flail as I stared at the kid who was supposed to share half my genetics. “What about the innocent people you hurt and kill? You destroy lives, Ammon.”

If he was hurt by that, or even felt anything at all, the kid didn’t show it. He just blinked at me once, those eyes bright with curiosity and false innocence. “They’re not me,” the boy answered, as though that explained everything. They weren’t him, so they didn’t matter. They were just toys, just amusements that were there for him to play with and discard. It wasn’t even malevolence on his part. Not really. He literally could not comprehend the idea that other people’s lives mattered at all. He wasn’t a villain trying to take over the world or anything. He was just a fucked up, psychopathic kid.

That didn’t make what he did any less evil, of course. Not in the least. Whatever his motivation, the things he had done were disgusting and vile. But it did remind me of who the true villain was throughout this. Fossor. His father. I knew without at doubt in my mind that Fossor was the one who had destroyed this kid’s mind so much that he ended up like this. It wasn’t his birth. I’d seen too much evidence to believe that any kid, let alone a half-human one, could just be born evil without help.

Of course, there was always the fact that some people really were just born broken. That didn’t require any kind of help. Some people were born psychopaths, regardless of their home life. But in this case, I figured it was safe to lay the blame for all of this, for everything that Ammon did, at Fossor’s feet.

But maybe I could at least get some kind of answer. “How did you get in here? You shouldn’t be able to cross onto school grounds, Ammon. What did you do? Who did you hurt?” I demanded, feeling the tension rise in me again at the thought of my blood relative doing anything to the people that lived here.

In response, Ammon just shook his head at me, still smiling. “Our mom used to come and go from this place any time she wanted to. It’s really not very hard to get past the security stuff if you know how.”

“She wouldn’t have told you how to do it,” I insisted, tightening my grip on my staff while glaring at him. “Why would she tell you how to get through the security? That doesn’t make sense.” I didn’t want it to, anyway. The thought of what kind of position my mom might be in that would lead to her giving up that information almost made me launch myself at that little piece of shit. It was a very near thing.

Ammon had little concept of playing coy, because he answered immediately. It was like he couldn’t wait to share. “She didn’t have to tell me. It’s all in the Writing Room. I just had to find the right book.”

Blinking at that, I squinted. “Writing Room? What the hell is the Writing Room?”

Again, the boy seemed eager to tell me. “It’s great! Father made it. When you go in the room and someone asks you a question, you have to write down the answer, no matter what. It has to be really detailed, and you can’t lie about it. There’s all kinds of books in there. Father puts everyone he can in it and asks them all kinds of questions. It’s–” He stopped, considering. “Oh, but you’ll see when you come next year. I’m sure Father wants to ask you lots of questions. And then we can play together.”

Before I could say anything else to that, there was a cracking sound, and a whip abruptly wrapped itself around the boy’s neck. He made a strangled noise of surprise just as the whip jerked, sending him flying off the bed to crash into a nearby wall so hard it left deep cracks along the wood.

Gaia. She withdrew the whip, standing tall in the middle of my room, between the two beds. “You come to my school,” she spoke darkly. “And threaten my daughter’s life? Your father clearly made a mistake in not giving you sufficient warning to stay away from this place, child.”

Avalon was already sitting up, her hand coming up with the gauntlet to create a blade. I shouted a warning and started to move. But Gaia simply glanced that way, cupped a hand around the side of her mouth, and blew hard. I saw a cloud of yellow fog shoot toward my roommate. It caught Avalon full in the face, making her blink once before collapsing, unconscious.

Ammon, by that point, was back on his feet. “You’re mean!” He called, face red. “You’re not supposed to be here! It’s my birthday! You’re not playing by the rules.” He glared, then blurted, “Watermelon!”

Watermelon? I blinked. What was—And then it happened. A geyser of water erupted from the opposite corner, solidifying into a thick ice spear partway before stabbing right toward the headmistress.

But Gaia wasn’t there. She disappeared and reappeared a few feet away, just as that thick ice spear literally tore through the opposite wall. I could hear a scream of surprise from the room next door.

Professor Kohaku was there. Had she been there the whole time, hidden? Whatever the case, she was there now, already launching another attack at… Gaia. Ammon had gotten to her. She was his failsafe, his protection. Watermelon had been some kind of code.

Just as I processed that, I realized that the kid himself was already running for the door. He was gone by the time I started to move.

“Go!” Gaia called to me while struggling with Professor Kohaku, clearly hindered since she didn’t want to seriously injure the woman (who herself had no such problem). “Stop him from talking to anyone else.”

Looking briefly toward the unconscious Avalon, I narrowed my eyes at the thought of that psychopath, my little half-brother, having his way with everyone else in this school.

No. Not now. Not this time. Holding my staff, I went for the door, sprinting through and into the hall.

Ammon!”

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Facing Evil 11-01

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Once Koren finished telling me about her horrifying childhood experience with the flower-leaving abductor, I stared at her, mouth open. My first impulse was to grab and hug her after hearing something that damn traumatizing. But, well, we didn’t exactly have that kind of relationship yet. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t react well to it. Which meant that I was left staring, tamping down my impulses.

There was, however, one reaction that I couldn’t quite avoid. “You mean your mother dismissed it? What the hell? Believe in the supernatural or not, you don’t tell your kid that something that made her run out of her own house and sleep in the backyard because she was so scared was just a damn dream!”

I was even more disturbed than I would have been, since this was my own half-sister we were talking about. It sounded like she’d ignored and dismissed the terror of her own child, which was just… wrong.

“What else was she supposed to do?” Koren demanded. “Even if she believed me, telling a ten-year old that there really was some kind of man in her room wouldn’t exactly help me sleep at night. She and my father went through the motions for about a month with me, checking under the bed, checking the closet, leaving the hallway light on, the usual. My father even put in an extra lock on the window. It was attached to this big red lever that glowed in the dark. All I had to do was look and I could see that the lever was down, which meant the window was locked. They didn’t ignore the fact that I was afraid.”

That was a little bit better, but still. It didn’t stop me from kind of wanting to shake my half-sister. With that option off the table, I just stood there for a moment before finally managing a weak, “But you never, um, said anything to anyone else about what happened, even after your babysitter disappeared?”

Koren gave me a brief dirty look. “I was ten years old, Chambers. Everyone said I was wrong, that she never existed. I let myself believe they were right. Because, again, I was ten years old. Oh, and I didn’t actually want my parents to think I was crazy. So I just,” she shrugged helplessly, “let it go, I guess.”

I hesitated before nodding, having to accept that. She had a point, what could a little girl actually do? “But what about after you learned about Strangers? Did you realize then that it was probably–”

“Probably a Stranger?” the other girl interrupted impatiently. The sarcasm in her voice was so sharp it could have cut steak. “Nooo, that never occurred to me. I guess the fact that I chose the Investigation track after having a childhood Stranger experience that traumatized me was just one big coincidence.”

“Too bad they don’t have an Acrimony track,” I muttered. “You’d be awesome in that one.” Then I shook myself as something else occurred to me. “Wait, your vision from the Edge. Was it about this thing?” I wasn’t exactly sure whether it was possible or not. Did the vision from the Edge have to be an ancestor’s interaction with Strangers, or could it be one of the same person’s? I needed to ask Gaia.

“No,” Koren replied in a short, sharp tone. She wasn’t looking at me. “My vision wasn’t about my damn childhood. It was about…” The girl trailed off before finally shrugging. “It was about something else.”

Something about the way she said it made me want to ask exactly what her Edge vision had been, but I couldn’t think of a way to present the question without crossing some kind of line. Instead, I simply tried a smile. “Hey, at least you’ll get some kind of closure. Professor Dare said the case was solved.”

Her gaze found mine. “Yeah, and I now I just have to wonder why Dare wanted me to take a case that she had to know happened right around me. Probably even knew it involved me. But investigators usually aren’t allowed to take cases that personally involve them. So why’d she make sure I got it?”

Hesitating, I offered her a shrug. “Maybe she thinks letting you go through the steps of how the case was solved will help you? Like I said, it’s a chance for you to get some closure for a childhood trau–”

“Closure for childhood trauma, yeah, yeah.” Koren waved a hand dismissively while pressing on. “My question is, what’s her angle? What does she get out of it? Why does she want me to get closure? Was she part of the case? Does she know something else important? What’s in this thing for her?”

“She could just think that it’s the right thing to do,” I pointed out. “Not everyone has some deep ulterior motive.” Even saying it, I knew it didn’t sound convincing. Particularly since I knew that at least one motive Dare had was for me to spend time alone with Koren in a way that the other girl couldn’t ignore.

And judging from the way she looked at me, Koren didn’t find it at all convincing either. “Right. Sure.” Rolling her eyes, she opened the folder once more. “Fine, whatever, let’s get on with it then. The file says there’s a couple audio-annotated PAWS walkthroughs. We might as well ask if we can see them.”

I followed after her, and we got permission from Dare to go into the Pathmaker building so we could use the PAWS. Which meant that before long, the two of us were standing in a holographic recreation of the house of one of the families that had been hit by this Stranger. According to the file, the family that lived there had been three children living with a divorced mother before this had happened.

Koren and I were standing on either side of another figure, the holographic recreation of the Runner who originally investigated the case. I was pretty sure that I’d never seen him before, though I couldn’t put any actual money on it, considering how utterly and completely average he looked in every conceivable way. He was the kind of person that you could stare at for a solid minute, and later still not be able to pick him out of a lineup. Absolutely everything about the man made him look utterly bland. Brown hair, forgettable face, eyes that were a sort of forest green but in an unremarkable way, and a slim but not too slim build. This was a guy who faded into the background no matter where he was.

“Case Two-Seven-Venus-Four,” the Runner’s hologram announced. “My name is Runner Kyre Templeton, and I’ll be doing a brief walkthrough of the situation for our records. Jackie, if you’re reviewing this, you still owe me for those Dodgers tickets. Which is pretty bad, since the team doesn’t even live in Brooklyn anymore, man.” Despite the man’s light tone, I could see the tension in his eyes. He may have sounded like he wasn’t taking the situation seriously, but I’d seen enough from my dad to know that wasn’t true. Some cops, and Heretics too, I guessed, had to find any way they could to stay sane while spending so much time peering deep into the depths of human (and inhuman) brutality.

Runner Templeton started to walk slowly away from the front door and deeper into the house then. “The family that lived here was the O’Hannity’s. One mother, Harriet, widowed from Richard O’Hannity three years before this happened. Three children. Twins, a boy and a girl, age nine, and a younger boy, age six. Personal note, look into how the husband died. The record says car accident, but you never know. There could be a connection. Also check the grave, make sure he’s still in there.”

By that time, the man had walked up the stairs. We followed him into what looked like the twins’ room, considering the two identical beds on either side of it. As the two of us watched, Runner Templeton put his hand on what was obviously the girl’s bed. When he spoke that time, his voice cracked a little bit. “According to the mother, she put her twins into bed at nine o’clock on September fourth. Two hours later, she heard music coming from the room while walking past. When she opened the door, she found the twins, Dylan and Dinah, sitting together in the girl’s bed. They had a radio with them. Harriet told the children they had to turn off the music and get back in their own beds, and the children informed her that the music made ‘him’ stay away. The mother told the twins that their younger brother, Max, would stay out of their room even if they weren’t playing music, to which Dinah replied that they weren’t talking about him. According to the mother’s testimony, both twins informed her that the music was to keep away what they called, ‘The Hiding Man.’ Note: try to find out what music the twins were listening to. It might end up being relevant to their belief that it kept this creature away from them.”

The man walked to the middle of the room then, turning in a circle to take in the whole thing. “The mother asked them where the man was hiding. Dylan said he was under the bed, while Dinah said he was in the closet. Harriet turned the light on and checked under both beds, then she opened the closet.”

He followed the same motions, crouching to see under the beds before rising. As he stepped toward the closet, I saw Koren get noticeably tense. She stepped back and away from me to give herself room, her hand moving down to one of the Hunga Munga on her belt, even though we were in a simulation.

“Harriet,” the man continued, “opened the door of the closet.” He did the same, revealing a small space full of children’s clothes and a few toys. “According to the mother, the next thing she remembers is waking up in her bed the next morning to the smell of burning toast. Max, the six-year old, was in the kitchen trying to make breakfast. Both of the twins were missing, and neither of them have been heard from in the three days since this happened. Note: find out if Max had any similar experiences.”

Pausing the holographic simulation, I looked toward Koren, who was even more tense by that point. “I know you’ll probably throw something at me for asking this, but are you sure you’re all right?”

Her gaze snapped from the closet to me, then back again. “I’m fine, Chambers. I’m not some shrinking violet pussy little baby you have to take care of. Just shut up so we can get through this. Believe it or not, I’m more interested in finding out what happened to the Stranger that tried to kidnap me when I was a little girl than I am in playing touchy-feely hug time with you. Besides, don’t you have your own issues to handle without grabbing onto mine? Half the school thinks your roommate is the one who killed Professor Pericles because he found out she’s actually some kind of spy from Eden’s Garden.”

“What?” I did a quick double-take. “She’s been attacked several times already. People tried to kill her. Why would anyone think she was the one who killed Pericles? That doesn’t even make sense.”

“That’s how gossip works,” she replied expertly. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to incriminate someone and make people feel like they’re smarter than the average person, like they know something they shouldn’t. It’s like a conspiracy theory. Jeez, you have gone to high school, right?”

She had a point. I sighed, glancing toward her. “You said ‘half the school.’ Does that include you?”

Koren met my gaze, her own expression unreadable for a moment before she looked away. “Doesn’t really matter. But for the record, no. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense.” Her shoulders raised in an elaborate shrug. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like her. I think she’s a bitch. But she’s not a murderer, and she’s not some kind of spy. Arrogant and full of herself, sure, but she didn’t kill Pericles. The evidence isn’t there and the only proof people are using is the Eden’s Garden thing. Which is stupid.”

“You know,” I started, “you’re actually a lot better at this whole investigation thing than I thought you’d be at the start of the year.” I hadn’t expected Koren of all people to keep her personal opinion separate.

“But I have to ask,” I went on, unable to help myself. “Why the thing with the Pathmaker building back on the first day? I mean, you just found out magic was real, the twins warned us about crossing the line in front of this place, and you were just gonna throw Vanessa over the line to test what would happen?”

She squinted at me before just shaking her head. “For god’s sake, it was just a fucking joke. I wasn’t actually gonna shove the little nerd over the line. I’m not an idiot. I was just kidding, Christ. Then that arrogant bi—your oh-so-pleasant roommate showed up and threw me on the fucking ground.”

Before I could find a response to that, Koren started the recording once again. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk anymore. So I shook it off and focused on following along as the scene reset to a different house, and Runner Templeton took us through the next house on the list of this ‘Hiding Man’s’ victims.

******

In the end, there wasn’t enough time to go over all of the evidence that Templeton had recorded. There were over a dozen missing people, and he had detailed walkthroughs of all their homes. Part of me (and I was sure a large part of Koren) wanted to skip to the end to see exactly what this ‘Hiding Man’ had ended up being, how they caught him, and exactly what had been done. That whole closure thing.

But Professor Dare made us go through things one step at a time. We were supposed to watch and listen to all of the recordings of the initial case, then look through the exact same books that Templeton had used to narrow down what the creature was and how to stop it. It would take more than one night to get through everything. So I made plans to hit the library with Koren the next evening (after my detention), and made my way back up to the dorm since it was time for curfew by that point, and I still didn’t have permission to be out and about while everyone else was sleeping.

I had been planning on asking my roommate how her track meeting had gone, and if she’d had a chance to ask Gaia about visiting Tangle’s hospital. Unfortunately, Avalon’s side of the room was shrouded in darkness as I went in. Which wasn’t surprising. The other girl was always up before dawn, and since I didn’t sleep very much, she spent most nights with the privacy screen active.

So I just tugged out the chair in front of my desk and took a seat, clicking the button on the mouse by my computer. Curious, I started to do a search for ugly, humanoid creatures that liked to hide a lot, manipulated memories, and focused on children. Hey, maybe I wouldn’t find anything useful, but it couldn’t hurt.

I’d just started to squint through the results when the phone that Gaia had given me buzzed from its place nearby on the desk. Expecting Asenath or Miranda, or maybe even my dad (though I wasn’t sure why he’d be calling so late), I picked it up and looked at the number.

Unknown.

Shrugging, I started to hit ignore. Then stopped. How would I know what phone Miranda would choose to call from? Even Asenath or Twister might end up needing to contact me from a blocked phone. It was probably nothing, but just in case, I quickly answered. “Hello?”

“Are you going to visit me?”

The voice was muffled somehow, almost distorted. Yet it was still familiar, even though I couldn’t place it just then. “I’m sorry? Who’s this?”

“I asked if you were going to visit me. It’s my birthday, you know. I visited you on your birthday.”

My chair squeaked as I stiffened abruptly. My throat went dry, and I had to swallow a couple times. Now I knew why the voice was familiar. “… Ammon. How did you—what do you want?”

“Duhhhh, Flick, I told you,” his innocent, childish voice insisted. “I wanna know if you were gonna visit me. I visited you on your birthday, shouldn’t you visit me on mine? That’s the polite thing to do.”

I started to interrupt, but he continued. “Our mom talks about politeness a lot. She wants me to be um, respectful? But how can I be respectful when my own sister won’t even visit me on my birthday? It’s mean. Family is supposed to help each other, but you wouldn’t even help me find out if I care about you or not. You’re a really bad sister.”

“Ammon,” I managed through gritted teeth. “I don’t even know when your birthday is, where you live, or how to get there. How could I visit you even if I wanted to?”

He was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to make me think he might’ve hung up. But just as I was about to check the phone to see if we were still connected, the boy made a noise. After a moment, I realized that he was giggling. “What’s so funny?”

The boy continued to giggle for a few more seconds before the laughter stopped abruptly. Yet there was still amusement in his voice as he answered, “See? We really are related. We thought the same thing. You couldn’t visit me, so I visited you.”

“Yeah, I know,” I muttered. “You came to my house, you tried to have my dad murder someone. That’s not something I consider funny, Ammon.”

“No, no, no,” the kid retorted, still giggling. “I didn’t mean then. I meant now.”

“You mean now, what?” I asked, frowning.

“I mean,” the voice came back. Except this time, it wasn’t coming from the phone. I looked at the device. It was already disconnected. Spinning and jumping to my feet so fast I knocked my mouse to the floor and tipped my chair over as my heart leapt into my throat, I found myself staring at the other side of the room.

The privacy screen was off, so I could see Avalon lying there. Her eyes were open, her arms locked to her sides as she lay completely still. And Ammon, sitting beside her, waved while finishing his sentence.

“… I came to visit you, now.”

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Visitations 5-07

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“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.”

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Visitations 5-06

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“You don’t have to go after that piece of shit all by yourself,” Asenath spoke up as the two of us went back into Dad’s motel room once I had briefly summarized the call with Ammon.

I shook my head at that. “I kind of do. If you go after him, he’ll use his mind control on you. You said yourself that you’re pretty sure I’m the only one that’s immune to it. If he gets you, you’re not backup anymore, you’re the primary threat.” Softening my voice, I added, “I’m pretty sure you’d cream me.”

“I would,” she agreed with a sympathetic nod. “But don’t you have some kind of way to contact your teachers? I’m pretty sure not letting a kid mind control a bunch of cops into mass murder is their job.”

Snorting in spite of myself, I nodded. “I do have a way of contacting them. It’s an emergency beacon. I squeeze it in an SOS pattern once and they come running. The problem is that it’s attached to my phone. That’s why I have to go after Ammon. Once I get my phone back, I can get the cavalry here.”

Her head cocked a little to the side. “You think you can get it away from him long enough to do that?”

“I sure as hell can’t just sit here on my hands waiting for Ammon to murder everyone in town,” I replied while reaching down to yank the phone cord out of the wall and then out of the back of the motel telephone. Tossing the cord to her, I instructed, “Quick, tie up my dad.”

Catching the cord with one hand, the vampire looked at me like I’d grown two heads. “Excuse me?”

“We don’t know what other orders Ammon gave him, or how long the ‘kill Rose’ order will last,” I pointed out while gently easing the woman herself to her feet. “Tie him up before he comes to.”

To Rose, I spoke gently. “Ma’am? We don’t know what Ammon said to you either, and we don’t have time to go over it. So I need you to come over into the bathroom so I can lock you in, okay? You’ll have water in there and the maid can let you out in the morning.”

“Let me… out?” The woman sounded dazed, like she wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. “Where is that nice boy? He, I think I need to find him.” She spoke dreamily, clearly completely out of it. I wasn’t sure how much of that was Ammon’s power and how much was the Bystander inability to remember magic. According to the teachers at Crossroads, a Bystander witnessing magic will either not notice it at all, or will rapidly forget it happened seconds after it stops affecting them directly.

Wincing, I led the woman to the bathroom and sat her down on the toilet seat. “Rose, I need you to stay here, okay? Just stay here until someone comes for you. I’m sorry I can’t do more. Just wait.”

By the time I came out and shoved the nearby chair in front of the door to hold it shut and lock her inside, Asenath had my father’s hands tied behind his back, while his feet were bound by strips torn from a sheet that she had liberated off of the nearby bed. He was still out cold, thankfully.

“You really want to help?” I asked the vampire girl straight out, watching her carefully.

“It’s what I do,” she replied easily after checking the knots again. “As hard as that may be to believe.”

My head shook at that. “I don’t know what I believe anymore. Except that you did come in to save me, and I do need help. You can’t go after Ammon, but you can help stop those cops. Without killing them.”

“You’re right, I can do that. It’s a lot of cops though, they’ll be spread out. It’s probably too late to stop all of it. All I could do is drive around looking for those cop cars and stop them as I find them.”

“Please just do the best you can,” I pleaded. “They’re good cops, they don’t deserve this. And neither do the people Ammon’s sending them to kill. I don’t… I don’t know how much they’ll remember afterward or what they’ll do. But please, please stop them. And take my dad with you. Just put him in the back of your truck. He probably shouldn’t wake up here if that order from Ammon is still in effect, and I don’t want to take him anywhere near that evil son of a bitch again.”

I saw curiosity in her eyes. “You trust me to stay with your father without you around? Even after everything that the Heretics have taught you about people like me?”

Pausing slightly, I met her gaze before responding. “I can think for myself. I make my own choices. And right now, I choose to trust the person that helped me stop my dad from becoming a murderer.”

Her head inclined in acknowledgment. “I’ll do the best I can to help those people. I promise, Felicity.”

“Flick,” I corrected automatically. “Call me Flick. That’s what I prefer.”

“Flick then,” Asenath agreed. “In that case, you should call me Senny. That’s what my friends call me.” Immediately after saying that, she raised both eyebrows. “Unless you can’t be friends with a vampire.”

“Lady,” I informed her while reaching down to pick up the motel provided bible from the table, “I don’t care if you’re Cthulhu’s midwife. If you save those people, I’ll be the best friend you ever had.”

“Okay, future best friend,” Senny replied while nodding to the book in my hand. “What’s that for?”

“This?” I gave the book a wave. “I’m just gonna share the voice of God with someone who needs it.”

******

I took Dad’s car back into the city and headed straight for the police station. Ammon would be there. He wasn’t trying to hide from me, not now. He wanted me to come back to him. He wanted to play.

The thought made me push the accelerator harder against the floor as I gritted my teeth. Who the fuck was this kid? What the hell did he want with me? Why was I immune to his power? Could it be a Heretic thing? I didn’t think so, but what the hell did I know? Clearly there was a lot I hadn’t been told.

Asenath—Senny was a vampire that wasn’t evil. Were there others? How much of the Crossroads ‘Strangers are all evil so kill them on sight’ teaching was bullshit? And why had Ammon failed to set off either my ‘evil Stranger kill it’ sense or Seller’s? I’d felt uneasy around him, but nothing like had happened when I looked at Senny. And Seller hadn’t reacted at all. So why didn’t we sense him?

I had far more questions than answers. Fortunately, I also had a way of getting them. I was going to pin that arrogant, evil little shit down and force him to tell me the truth about everything that was going on.

The sheriff’s office loomed up ahead of me at the end of the street. I could see the brick wall surrounding it, and the lamp that illuminated the main entrance into the parking lot.

I remembered going there with my mother, back before everything had changed. Most of the memories were fuzzy, but I could see myself as a little kid, not even tall enough to see over the front counter. Mom would bend down, pick me up and put me on top of it so that I could chatter at the desk officer on duty while carefully sneaking handfuls of M&M’s from the nearby candy dish. Mom pretended not to notice, yet somehow always managed to pick me up again before I took too many.

My mom had been one of the most amazing women I’d met. As a child, I had adored her. I had worshiped the ground she walked on. Seeing my mommy in her uniform had made me so proud.

Then she left. She had abandoned us, and all of those memories had become awful. Thinking of them during those years had actually made my stomach hurt. Witnessing how miserable my father had been after she left had twisted those memories in my head and made me associate them with pain. It had gotten so I didn’t even like passing the sheriff’s office for a long time because of how it made me feel.

Now I didn’t know what to think anymore. Seeing the building looming ahead of me, I felt that familiar tug of emotion, the memories of time spent with my mother stirring up in me just beneath the surface.

But in the end, the thought of what Ammon was making the deputies do to those innocent people was enough for me to shut the rest of it out. I had to focus. This wasn’t about Mom. It was about Ammon.

I had to assume that Ammon had taken control of everyone I saw. He probably hadn’t gotten to everyone, but assuming every single person was under his influence was safer in the long run. I had to get in, get past anyone he put in my way without hurting anyone too badly, and get that phone back.

Okay, Flick. You can do this. Just remember what Avalon and Professor Katarin taught you.

Stopping the car a block away from the station, I shoved my door open and got out. Without taking my eyes off the building, I tugged my staff from its container and pressed the button to charge it up.

Rather than head straight for the front door, I cut around the side through a nearby alley. Once I was behind the station, I looked at the staff in my hand, then up to the roof and let out a breath. “All right,” I spoke quietly to nobody in particular. “I always wanted to try something like this. Here goes nothing.”

With that, I pointed the staff to the ground and held it with both hands while triggering the kinetic charge that I had built up in it. Instantly, I was catapulted off of the ground, barely managing to restrain my squeal in the process. The kinetic blast threw me into the air about halfway toward the top of the two story building. As I started to fall back once more, I quickly adjusted the staff so that it was still pointed mostly downward, but also slightly toward the wall of the building that was behind me.

The good news was that the subsequent second blast of kinetic force hit that wall and propelled me the rest of the way up and over the edge of the roof. The bad news was that I didn’t make the most graceful of landings. With a yelped curse, I came down on the roof in a painful roll, nearly sliding off one side before finally stopping myself. Then I just laid there on my back for a second, catching my breath. Or, more accurately, letting my brain catch up with what I had just done.

After a very brief pause, I forced myself to roll over and get back to my feet. Grabbing my staff back up from where it had fallen from my grasp as I tumbled, I walked across the roof to a waiting doorway.

Ever since before my mother had been sheriff, the roof had been where the deputies smoked so that they were out of sight of any civilians that didn’t like it. Sure, it was a nasty habit that I would never ever want any part of. But in that second, I wanted to kiss every single smoking deputy on the force.

Pausing at the door, I turned my gaze to the nearby security keypad. In spite of myself, I smiled. My friendship with Scott Utell, former babysitter and current mind controlled deputy sheriff, had been a complicated thing. Mostly it consisted of me repeatedly talking Scott into telling me things he really wasn’t supposed to, or getting him to help me out with things like that situation with Cal at the theater.

And, in other cases, it consisted of me getting the code that unlocked the door onto smoker’s roof so that I could get out there from the inside to talk to him in private about the latest favor I needed.

Keying in the six digit code, I pushed the door open after the light turned green and stepped inside. Once in the stairwell, I quickly closed the door as quietly as I could while listening for anyone nearby.

Nothing. The hall was silent. Which in and of itself freaked me out, because the station was never silent. Even when nothing in particular was happening, there should’ve been televisions blaring, reports coming in from other cities, the clank of coffee cups, and muffled conversation. Silence was wrong.

God, I hoped I wasn’t wrong. Please don’t let that evil little shit have gone somewhere else. If he wasn’t here in the station waiting for me, I didn’t know what else I could do. I had to get that phone back.

Shutting that worry out of my mind, I walked as quickly and quietly as I could down the stairs to the second floor. Poking my head out the door there, I took in the sight of the desks all the way back to the office that had once belonged to my mother. The glass surrounding the office was frosted to stop people from seeing what was going on inside, but I could make out four distinct shapes. The three larger shapes were standing on one side of the desk, clearly waiting at attention. Meanwhile, the smaller shape was obviously sitting at the desk itself, sliding drawers open and tossing things out.

Taking a careful step that way, I paused as something else caught my eye. Turning that way, I saw another figure standing near the top of the stairs that led down to the first floor. Edgar, the janitor who had been around forever. He was crouched low, staring intently toward the front door with one of those beanbag loaded shotguns in his hands. Beyond him if I looked into the glass of the windows above the door, I could see the reflection of three more people, all civilians, hidden behind the front desk down there. Each of them was armed as well, two with stun guns and one with a canister of riot mace. Several pairs of handcuffs were waiting nearby.

Okay, clearly Ammon had told them to ambush me, take me alive, and bring me to him. And now he was just waiting for me to be delivered. What did he think I was, a pizza?

Carefully and quietly, I moved across the large desk-filled room, staying low enough to avoid attracting attention from the sheriff’s office. Every step left me convinced that I was about to hear a shout of warning or a command. Yet aside from a few muffled mumbles of what sounded like Ammon complaining, everything else remained silent. No one spoke. They had obviously been ordered not to.

Crouching just under the large frosted glass window, I took in a deep breath before letting it out again. This was it. This was going to be over one way or another within a few seconds. Time to go for it.

One more breath as I slipped my hand into my pocket and then I was standing. Lifting my staff with one hand, I aimed it toward the glass, directly at the three taller figures. With a whispered apology, I triggered the kinetic blast.

The window exploded inward, spraying glass while the trio of waiting adults were caught by the blast and hurled into the far wall. One, the only woman that I could see, slammed into the awards case.

Ammon was on his feet by the time I leapt through the shattered window and into the office. His mouth opened to say something, to give an order, but my hand was already withdrawing the borrowed motel bible from my pocket.

“Sorry,” I interrupted while throwing the bible at the floor. “This particular god talks louder than you.”

As the book hit the carpet, the flash-bang enchantment that I had spent the drive from the motel instilling into it exploded, filling the whole office with blinding light and deafening sound.

At least, it did for the mind controlled civilians. I was fine. And, from the look on his face, so was Ammon. The flash bang hadn’t affected him at all, just like his power didn’t affect me. But why?

Rather than dwell on that, I forced myself to move. Tucking my staff back into its slot, I ran straight for Ammon. The kid stood there, looking surprised as I came for him. Before he could react, I caught him up, hauling the boy off the floor. Ugh, he was heavier than he looked. Two months of working out with Avalon and Professor Katarin was the only reason I could actually get him off the floor and move.

He didn’t take my abducting him laying down, of course. Ammon was shouting for the others to stop me, to grab me, and for me to let him go. He was screaming his head off.

Still, I managed to haul him up in spite of his yelling, and ran right back through the same opening I had come through. The mind-controlled civilians were still shaking off the flash-bang effect, and the ones downstairs were too far away. The only one I had to worry about at all was Edgar, and the bang part of the flash had been so loud that he couldn’t hear anything Ammon was trying to shout at him.

“Good thing you’re pretty invulnerable, kid,” I informed him while running straight at the nearest window. “Or this might actually make me feel a little guilty.”

With that, and while he was still demanding to know what that meant, I threw the kid straight at the window. It shattered as he crashed into it, and I had the satisfaction of hearing him yelp as he plummeted to the ground.

I leapt out right after him, already yanking my staff back out now that my hands were free. As I jumped from the window, I pointed the staff down, waited a second while falling, then triggered it to catch my fall. Two more gentle, quick uses of the staff and then I hit the ground in what was almost a good landing, only stumbling a little bit.

Ammon, meanwhile, had face-planted directly into the concrete.

Before he could recover, I kicked the kid over onto his back and shoved my hands into his pockets. Where, where, where… there!

Triumphantly, I tugged my phone out of Ammon’s pocket and straightened up. He was still healing as I began to squeeze the phone to send the SOS message. It worked. I had my phone back. I could get the Heretics here and let them deal with this whole situation.

Except not. After the second squeeze, the phone crumbled in my hand, turning into dust that fell to the ground under my disbelieving, confused gaze. “Wh-what?” I stammered.

Only then did I notice the limousine parked at the curb, its windows tinted as black as paint. As I stared at the dust in my hand, the back door of the limo popped open. A pale hand holding some kind of canteen was stuck out, shaking a bit to dump what looked like ashes onto the sidewalk. After that was done, the man that the hand belonged to emerged from the car, stepping where the ashes had fallen.

The man looked… normal. He was a few inches under six feet in height, his skin pale but not unsettlingly so. His average brown hair was average length, parted to one side, and his eyes were hazel. He wore a dark red polo shirt with a pair of black jeans, and dark loafers. He was even a tiny bit overweight, with a noticeable paunch around his stomach. Nothing about him looked dangerous. At first glance, I might have pegged him as a doctor or a dentist. A successful children’s dentist. He looked soft, inviting, and nonthreatening.

Except that, from the very second he appeared, my brain was shrieking about him being a Stranger. If it had been loud about Asenath, with him it was almost painful for those first few moments.

“My apologies for the mess,” he spoke in a soft, polite voice. His hand shook out more of that ash in front of him, and the man took another step to move closer. “Ancient curses trump decorum, I’m afraid. Can only step on the ashes of my enemies, and all that.”

My eyes moved down to the ash on the ground, then back up to him while I took a step back and lifted my staff. “What if you run out?”

He smiled as if I’d told a fantastic joke, chuckling softly. His voice was as welcoming as any family pediatrician. “Well, that’s not really a problem.”

I lifted my staff quickly, trying to take him by surprise. Instead, the man just gave a lazy flick of his hand. As he did so, something cold rushed through me. Simultaneously, I experienced a second of extreme vertigo and nausea, as some kind of fog appeared in front of my face, and a cold hand yanked the staff from my hand.

The fog flew away with my staff before turning. Then I saw that it wasn’t fog at all. It was a person. A translucent figure that floated there next to the limousine with my staff in one mostly see-through hand.

A ghost. A ghost had just stolen my weapon.

“Ammon,” the man with the canteen spoke casually, as if he hadn’t just summoned a dead spirit to disarm me. “Get in the car.

“Your sister and I need to have a chat.”

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Visitations 5-05

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In the end, I made the only reasonable choice, the only one that made sense in that moment. I chose to do absolutely everything I could to make sure that my dad was safe, regardless of other consequences.

“Then where are we going?” I asked the vampire. Part of me was frantically screaming about everything the Crossroads teachers had told me about how Strangers will try anything to ingratiate themselves and appear more human so that they can catch you in a moment of weakness. But quite frankly, I had been in a moment of weakness back at my house, and the vampire had saved me.

And I cared more about my father’s safety than I did about what Crossroads was teaching.

The look the vampire gave me then made it clear that she hadn’t been very certain that I would agree. She arched an eyebrow briefly, then turned and strode to a nearby pick-up truck. “We’ll drive there.”

“That’s Mr. Raphardy’s truck,” I pointed out reflexively, though the thought of my dad on his way to murder someone prompted me to move around the other side anyway. There were times to respect and obey the law, and then there were times when your father was magically mind controlled by some kind of evil little psycho brat to commit murder. As far as I was concerned, the two were mutually exclusive.

“You mean it was his truck” the vampire replied while opening the door. “Now it’s mine.”

That time, I had my staff out of its container and in my hand, pointed at her before she said anything else. “What did you do to Mr. Raphardy?” I demanded flatly, though my voice quivered just a little. Sue me, she was a vampire, and I’d just been attacked, held down, and threatened with torture by some kind of mind-controlling little boy that I happened to have been babysitting all day long. At the moment, the fact that I wasn’t on my knees throwing up in the gutter was pretty damn near miraculous.

Yeah, I wanted to save my father. But if she’d done something to an innocent old man, it kind of spoke toward how much I could trust her not to kick me to the curb the second whatever she was actually after showed itself. I still wasn’t totally ready to just believe that the vampire my senses kept repeatedly screaming ‘danger, danger, danger’ about was actually on my side. Something about that was too easy.

The vampire’s eyes dropped to the staff, then moved up to me. Her hand was still on the door. “This is gonna be an awfully short partnership if you keep pointing weapons at me. Breathe. I didn’t do anything to the guy except buy his truck.” Stepping up into the driver’s side, she leaned over to push open the other door, dangling keys in my direction while jingling them. “For a pretty damn high markup too, by the way. Either he’s racist, sexist or both, because he charged about three times what this piece of shit is worth. Jerk. But I needed something a bit more subtle than my normal ride around this place. Now do you still want to come save your dad, or not?”

I was already getting in the truck before she finished talking, my staff back in its container. Closing the door after me, I buckled up quickly while gesturing down the street. “Okay, okay. Go then, go, go!”

As the truck roared to life and pulled away from the curb, the vampire looked toward me. “Do you need a barf bag? Because I’m pretty sure that Raphardy guy left a baseball cap in the back that you could toss your cookies into. It’s a Phillies hat, so you know, might even improve the value.”

I couldn’t stop staring at her. I’d been right in my first impression. She was definitely half-Asian. The other half I still wasn’t sure about. I was trying to remember what they’d said about vampires so far. It wasn’t much, we hadn’t focused on them yet. All I knew was what I’d ready or chatted with people like the twins about. I knew that some vampires were allergic to the sun, but not all of them. They all drank blood, but the more powerful ones, the ones that tended to be the leaders, were fine in the sunlight.

“Okay, Miyu,” I made my voice as steady as possible. “How did you just happen to show up then? Why are you here? What do you want. What does Ammon want? What the hell is he? Why didn’t I know he was a Stranger? Why did he choose me to come after? What the hell is going on?”

She held a hand up, glancing my way as the truck continued to tear down the street. “First, Miyu?”

I gave a short nod. “Yeah. You know, as in vampire princess? Never mind, what should I call you?”

“My name is Asenath,” she informed me, cranking the wheel to take a sharp turn before accelerating so hard I was thrust back against the seat. “As for the rest of it, I don’t know what he is or what he wants with you exactly. I know he’s obsessed with you and he’s been traveling cross-country to get here, leaving a huge mess behind him. You may have noticed this, but he’s not exactly subtle.”

“Okay, Asenath then. Got it.” I started to nod a little hesitantly, still keeping my eyes on her. “And you’re involved because…? Don’t tell me you were in the neighborhood buying old trucks and just happened to hear the disturbance with your vampire super-hearing. Do you have super-hearing?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed before continuing with a dry voice. “But I can’t fly or outrun a train.” Belatedly, she amended, “Well, maybe for a few seconds on that last one, but the super speed only lasts for short bursts unless I want to get really hungry. And trust me, it’s a bad thing when I get too peckish.”

Blanching at that, I gave a little nod. The thought of a hungry vampire was kind of terrifying, even if she was (at least portraying herself as) on my side. Still, she hadn’t answered the rest, so I waited.

Asenath was silent for a moment, focused as she was on maneuvering the truck around the nearly blind corner and up onto the empty highway at speeds that tempted me to look for Rick Moranis wearing a piece of absurd headgear. “As for the rest of it,” she continued, “I was in the area because I’ve been hunting that psychotic piece of shit. He killed an innocent girl, and her mother asked for my help.”

I blinked at that. “Her mother—wait, what? What do you mean, how do you know this woman?”

“I don’t,” Asenath replied. “I’ve never met her or her daughter. She called and asked for help because she couldn’t go to the police and someone else gave her my number. It’s what I do.”

My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at her. “What, were you cursed by gypsies or something?”

The grin that the female vampire turned on me at that point was feral. “Nah,” she replied. “And there’s no chip in my head prohibiting violence against mortals either, if you were wondering.”

I needed the distraction away from worrying about my dad. So I focused on this one. “I don’t get it. You’re a vampire, a real vampire, but you… help people? As in people call up your phone and hire you to, to fix problems for them?” It sounded absurd when I compared it to what Crossroads was teaching.

Turning her head to lift an eyebrow at me once more, Asenath asked, “You think all humans are totally pacifistic and morally upstanding?” When I shook my head, she continued. “You think all humans are totally evil, violent psychopaths?” Again, I shook my head, and she nodded. “Does that confuse you?”

“No,” I replied slowly. “Some humans are good, some are bad. Mostly it’s just their choice.”

“Then I think you pretty much answered your own question,” Asenath informed me. She paused then before heaving a long sigh “Okay, look. I know what they teach you up there. And sometimes it’s true. There’s plenty of outright evil shit out there. But the problem with making sweeping generalizations is that you miss all the nuance and specifics. Think about it this way, does it make any sense to you that everything that happens to be ‘not human’ is a chaotic evil race bent on dominating all humanity?”

Hesitating, I looked away, squinting at the window beside me before shaking my head. “I guess not.”

She nodded. “That’s because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated. Your people call all of us Strangers. Do you ever wonder why they use that term? It’s because they don’t bother to get to know us. They don’t want to. It’s easier to assume everything that isn’t human is bad, and teach your students to hate and kill on sight.” She lifted a hand off the wheel to gesture. “I understand why they do it.”

Frowning at that, I shook my head. “You do? If, I mean If you’re telling the truth, how can you ‘understand’ them teaching all of us to kill you on sight? It seems… unfair. And wrong.”

“I didn’t say it was fair or right,” Asenath replied. “And I didn’t say I agreed with it. I said I understand why they do it, and I do. It’s like…” She paused, taking a second to gather her thoughts. “Imagine you have a room full of people who all look like normal people. Some are human, others are impostors. Now, not all the impostors are bad. Three quarters are, but about a quarter are just hiding what they are. Now you have these bells that ring every time they get near one of the impostors. It doesn’t tell you anything else. It can’t tell you if they’re good or bad, only that they’re not human. And the second that the bell goes off, the impostor knows they’ve been discovered, and who’s discovered them. If the impostor is good, then everything’s fine. But if they’re bad, they know they’ve just been found out, and the person who caught them is standing right in front of them, in arms reach.”

Turning her attention back to me, the vampire girl continued in a calm voice. “If you were handing these bells out to people that you care about, people that you wanted to stay safe, and sending them out to check everyone in the room, would you tell them about some of the impostors being good and take the risk that they might hesitate when their bell rings, giving an evil impostor time to kill them? Or would you decide to tell them that they were all evil in order to spare the people you care about. Spare them psychologically, protecting them from the guilt of what they’re doing, and spare them physically. If their students think that some of the people they’re killing aren’t evil, they might hesitate at the wrong time. There is no other way for this ‘Stranger Sense’ you’ve got to operate. It tells you I’m not human. That’s it. The people who set up that school of yours decided that it was better if their students didn’t hesitate. Whether they were right to do that or not, it’s what they did. Not out of malice, but to protect their students. They chose not to risk their own people getting killed by hesitating at the wrong time.”

Squirming in my seat as I thought about what she was saying, I started to look at my phone to check the time before cursing. “Damn it, I left my phone back there in my house.”

“We’ve still got seven minutes,” she replied over the sound of the engine roaring as she pressed the pedal to the floor. “And we’re five minutes away from the motel. We’ll get there. Just be ready.”

Trying to focus on anything other than my father, I asked, “You said you were there for Ammon. You’ve found him, but that knife you threw didn’t actually kill him. So now what?”

“Now,” Asenath heaved a long sigh before looking at me as she admitted, “Now I need your help.”

“My help?” I blinked. “What do you need–” Then I got it. “The library. The Heretic library. You’re hoping one of the books they’ve got will have some idea of what Ammon is, and how to kill him.”

“Your people do kind of specialize in killing every kind of non-human on the planet,” she pointed out. “If any group is going to have details on how to wipe that piece of shit out of existence, it’s Heretics.”

“But you can’t go in there, you’ve got no access.” I reasoned. “You can’t even set foot on the island, and if you somehow managed it, every single person there would know what you really were. One glance and they’d all know you were a vampire. So you need someone else, me, to look it up for you.”

She nodded “You want to take this freak down, don’t you? Before he comes after your Dad again.”

Flinching, I swallowed hard. “I want to know why he came after me, why he’s been camped out next door for weeks waiting for me to get home. Why didn’t his power work on me? That is what he was trying to do, right? All that ‘My name is Ammon’ stuff. I thought he was just weird, but he was using his power. That’s his mind control. He kept trying to use it on me but it never worked. And I still want to know why he didn’t set off my Stranger sense, or Seller’s.”

“Seller?” Asenath looked at me, then waved that off. “Never mind, tell me about him later. The point is, I don’t know why it didn’t work. Whatever this kid is, it’s not any kind of Alter that I’ve ever heard of.” Belatedly, she added, “That’s our catch-all term for not-human, by the way. Alter, with an e. As in ‘alternative from human.’ Which, for the record, includes you Heretics.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but we were already turning (or more accurately, sliding) into the parking lot. I saw the large motel stretched out in front of us. “Fuck, how do we find the right room?!” Turning a pleading gaze to the girl, I pressed, “Please, Asenath, save my dad. He can’t be a murderer, please. I’ll help you figure out what Ammon is, I promise. Just save my father.”

She met my gaze. “I would have done it without your promise,” she informed me before leaning in. “Hold still,” the girl instructed as she bent her head close to me and inhaled sharply, sniffing me.

That lasted for a handful of seconds before she shoved her door open, hopped out, and gave another sharp sniff. Cocking her head to the side, Asenath sniffed again before focusing on one end of the motel. She started jogging. “This way. I can wait for you or–”

“Just go!” I called while jumping to the ground. “Leave the doors open, I’ll get there. Don’t worry about me, just stop my dad!”

Without further acknowledgment, Asenath moved. There was a blur of motion, and then all I could see was the open door into the motel that she left if her wake.

I followed at a run, telling myself not to panic. She’d get there in time. She would. She had to. My dad couldn’t be a murderer. He couldn’t be. Please, please, let the vampire girl get there. I didn’t care what Crossroads said about vampires being evil. If she saved my Dad, I’d believe anything.

Sprinting through the open door and into the dingy motel hallway, I spotted a second open door leading into the motel room itself about six rooms down. Without slowing down, I ran straight for it, skidding at the doorway itself before all-but throwing myself inside.

Rose was on the floor with blood around her, and my heart seized up briefly before I realized that the woman was moaning in pain. She was alive. A quick glance confirmed that she’d only been cut on her arm, which she was holding cradled against herself.

My father, meanwhile, was lying in a crumpled heap a few feet away, the knife he had been using haphazardly discarded on the bed.

“Close one,” Asenath informed me. “Sorry, couldn’t stop him from hitting her without taking his arm off completely. But he was aiming for her throat, so be happy he only got the bicep. She should be fine with some stitches. And he’ll be okay when he wakes up. At least I think he will, though you might want to keep him away from her, just in case.”

Before I could respond to that, my father’s phone rang on the nearby table. It was the ringtone he used for me.

“That’s my phone calling him,” I said quietly, looking down at it.

“Ammon,” she replied simply.

I nodded, reaching out to pick the phone up before noticing that it was a video call. Grimacing, I gestured for Asenath to stay where she was before taking it out into the hall and then to the parking lot before I accepting the call once I was sure no one else was around. “You’re too late, Ammon.”

“Hi!” Ammon waved at me cheerfully. He didn’t really look upset to find out I was the one answering my father’s phone. From the background, he wasn’t in our house anymore. The wall pattern looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it before he continued. “That’s okay. You’re the one I wanted to talk to anyway, Flick.” The boy sounded happy.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”

“Well,” his too-innocent voice replied while the boy made an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression. Then his eyes narrowed at me. “What I want right now is to hurt you. Because you deserve to be punished, Flick. You stole two of my pets from me. That’s bad. You’re bad. Stealing things that belong to other people is wrong. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that? You stole from me, so I’m going to punish you. Then we can talk about other things.”

“My father’s with me, Ammon,” I informed him sharply. “You’re not getting anywhere near him again.”

“Okay.” From the sound of his voice and the uncaring shrug that he gave, the boy wasn’t at all upset by that announcement. “That’s not your punishment anyway. You can have your stinky old father. He’s boring. I only like interesting things. Like this!”

The phone turned, and I finally realized why the wall behind the boy had looked familiar. He was in the sheriff’s office. I could see a dozen deputies, including Scott Utell, the guy that had helped me take down my boss at the theater. They were all standing at attention, like toy soldiers.

“Ammon,” I started slowly. “Whatever you think you’re doing–”

“Shush, I’m busy now,” Ammon lectured. Then he addressed the deputies. “Okay, guys. We’re gonna play a game. My name is Ammon, and you should all go find everybody you can. Go into homes, pull people over, whatever you’ve gotta do.

“And every time you find someone, every single time you see any living person, you shoot them in the head. First person to twenty kills wins! Won’t that be a fun game?”

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