Ammon’s Father

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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