In the year and some odd months since I had been officially introduced to this life, I’d seen a lot of crazy things. I’d heard even more crazy things. I had experienced and been told a lot that stretched my capacity to be surprised. I wasn’t going to say that I couldn’t be shocked, because that would obviously just tempt the universe into making it happen.
But if the past year–hell, if the past couple days hadn’t made me immune to being left completely speechless, they had at least given me a pretty strong resistance. Which is why it was so impressive that, with one sentence, Mom had managed to leave me so utterly astonished, I actually literally stared at her with my mouth open while strange noises escaped me. They weren’t words, that much was for certain. At most, they were a random assortment of vowels and consonants with no real rhyme or reason. It felt like my entire brain took several long moments to entirely reboot itself. For those seconds, there was nothing of note going on in my head. Nothing aside from that last sentence from my mother playing on a repeating loop. It was like she had spoken in a completely foreign language and I was trying desperately to decipher the meaning. But I understood the meaning. Well, I understood what the words in that order meant, generally speaking, even if I couldn’t comprehend basically anything else about it.
My only real consolation in that moment was that I wasn’t the only one left standing there in shock. Asenath and Twister seemed equally affected, both of them actually taking a step back reflexively as they too stared at Mom. None of us found actual words to say for those few seconds, simply looking at my mother while opening and shutting our mouths like a trio of baby birds. It probably looked pretty funny from the outside, if anyone else had been watching.
In the end, it was Twister who managed to speak first. Specifically, she blurted a quick, “I’m sorry, you did what with a Pooka respawn power? What the actual fuck are you talking about?”
“Uhh, yeah, what she said.” I pointed to her without looking away from my mother, actual vaguely coherent words finally finding their way to my lips. “What’s going on, Mom? What did–what the–what?” Yeah, I did say vaguely coherent. At least they were actual words.
Asenath didn’t say anything at all. She just stared at Mom silently, apparently satisfied enough with the verbal questions that Twister and I had managed to wait for an actual answer.
As for Mom herself, I could tell there were a lot of emotions running through her. Many of them conflicting with one another. She seemed sad, yet also proud. Lost, yet determined and focused. She was in deep mourning, but she was also happy in a sort of bittersweet way. There was regret, peace, grief, and acceptance. I had the feeling that she had gone through all of these feelings in much more separated detail for a long time, and what we were seeing was the abbreviated form jumbled together as she was in the situation of finally explaining what had actually happened.
Finally, after a long, heavy silence, Mom started to speak. She didn’t look at me, or either of the others. Her gaze was fixed off into the distance, voice thick with emotion. “No mother should ever have to plan for her child’s death. Not in any way. Not in the sense of preparing for a terminal disease. And not in the sense of ensuring that should he ever die, he would not come back.”
Silence returned for a moment while my mother’s eyes closed, and she took a long, deep breath in an attempt to steady herself. It didn’t seem to work that well, as her voice still cracked when she continued. “No mother–no parent who has ever lived should ever be put in the position of making certain that if their son dies, he will stay dead. I have hated some people in my life. I have loathed some of my enemies, those who have hurt me or those I love. But I would not wish such a fate on anyone I have ever quarreled with. No one should ever be in a position where they have to look at their child and not only plan such a thing, but–” Her voice broke then, and it took her a moment to force the words out. “–but actually enact it themselves.”
Part of me wanted to reach out to her, but it felt as though this whole story was something she needed to get through without my interruption or distraction. So, clenching my hands, I watched and listened in silence. Of all the things I owed my mother, the absolute least I could pay her with right now was patience. I could stand here and wait for her to get through this on her own terms.
“And yet,” Mom eventually continued, “That is the very situation I was in. My son… my son was corrupted, changed irrevocably by that… thing. He took my sweet boy and he broke him. Magically, permanently broke him. He destroyed his sense of morality, took away any chance he had of being a good person. He was, at one point. He was my sweet boy, so curious about his–about everyone. He would have been good. He would have been a good boy, a good man.” Eyes closing tightly, Mom folded her arms, hugging herself as she continued in that lost, broken voice. “Fossor took that away. He destroyed my son. His magic was–the experimental spells he performed to erase Ammon’s conscience–his morality, there was nothing anyone could do to fix it. I tried–I looked–I asked–I did… I did everything I could. But there was nothing. There was no way to restore him, no way to make him what he once was. There was no way to fix him. And with his power–with the abilities he had… he would have done so much more terrible things as he got older. As a child, his evil was bad enough. But if he got old enough to become truly cruel, with the power he had to force people to obey his commands, the things he would have done…” Mom physically shuddered, mouth tightening a bit as her head shook. I could see the tears in her eyes as they opened once more, but she blinked them away stubbornly, forcing herself to focus on telling the story.
“And then Fossor manipulated a situation that would make things so much worse. He ensured that Ammon killed a Pooka, Scott, and inherited his respawn power. Now, no matter what happened, Ammon would be a threat forever. Every time he died, he would simply come back as a child. Unless he was killed again before the Pooka’s respawning gift recharged, he was effectively immortal. Free to ruin people, free to torture and kill as much as he or his father wanted, with almost no consequence. He would grow up, destroy innocent lives, traumatize and break them. Then, if he was killed, he would simply wait in safety, grow up, and do it again. That was the future Fossor described to me, a future where my son would be an immortal monster who would never stop ripping innocent souls apart. That would be the legacy of my little boy.”
The deep hatred for the monster who had done that, who had planned all of that and gloated about it to her, filled my mother’s voice in a way I had not actually heard her fully express before. This was something far worse than possibly anything else he had done, in a personal sense. Because this forced my mother to do something so repulsive to her, so wrong, that it had torn a bit of her own soul out to even consider it, let alone to actually do it.
“I couldn’t let that happen,” she murmured, eyes closing once more as she folded her arms against her own stomach as though holding in the deep, horrible pain. When she spoke again, her voice cracked even more than before. She could barely get the words out. “I couldn’t–wouldn’t let my son become that. I loved him. Gods forgive me, even with the terrible things he did, I loved him. I remembered him as he was, as he used to be. I remembered the boy that Fossor killed, not the evil, empty shell he brought back to me.
“But if I let it happen, if I let my love of who my son used to be stop me from doing what had to be done, then the things he did would be my fault. Every innocent life he destroyed, every person he killed, everyone he tortured and traumatized, every family he ripped apart would, in some way, be because of me. It would be because I couldn’t get over my love, because I couldn’t do what had to be done. Parents would lose their own children, and children their own parents, because I refused to do the thing that only I could do. I could save them from that. I could save all those future victims, could stop all those horrific things from happening.”
Slowly, Mom lowered her head, staring at the ground as she almost inaudibly whispered, “All I had to do was condemn my son to permanently die. ”
Okay, now I couldn’t resist. Seeing my mother like that, hearing her strained voice, I moved that way and reached out to take her hand with both of mine. “Mom.” I meant to say more than that, but the single word was all that managed to come out before the lump in my throat took over and I couldn’t speak anymore. Not that I really had any idea of what to say. It just felt like I should have something, like I should have a way of making my mother feel better. But how was I ever supposed to do that in this situation? I still wasn’t sure exactly what she had done or how she ever could have ‘given the Pooka power’ to this other girl. But everything she was saying, hearing the pain and loss in her voice as she remembered not the Ammon that we had known, but the one she knew before Fossor had turned him into… into that, made me want to resurrect that evil piece of shit just so we could all kill him again. And again, for good measure.
After a few long seconds, Twister spoke. “Jos… how did you give this human girl Pooka resurrection? Especially after she’d already been dead for a long time. It doesn’t–how?”
Mom’s hand squeezed both of mine before she straightened up a bit, squaring her shoulders. It was clear she was bracing herself, drawing strength from me, to push on through the story. “There are spells used to temporarily share or transfer the powers that Heretics have to someone else. Normally that’s just another Heretic. The Committee and the Victors for Eden’s Garden are two examples of massive versions of one of those spells. The Committee share all of their powers amongst one another, and the Victors share small portions of the powers that belong to every single member of their tribes. They’re similar spells. But another version allows for one or more Heretic power to be shared with any other person. It’s very complicated magic. And normally, impossible to do with an ordinary human. After all, most magic requires that you be a Heretic of some kind. But do you know why?”
After exchanging brief looks with Asenath and Twister, I shook my head. Mom, in turn, offered a very faint, humorless smile. “It’s the Bystander Effect. The enchantment drains all magical potential from any normal human in order to sustain itself. That’s why it’s so hard to get things like healing spells to affect a normal human, because the Bystander Effect is draining their magical potential so the healing spell can’t find a foothold. And it’s the same thing in this case. Trying to magically share any Heretic powers with a normal human will fail because the Bystander Effect will suck up that energy for fuel to keep the worldwide enchantment going.”
Falling silent for a few seconds as she clearly worked her way through several conflicting emotions, Mom finally pushed on. “But there’s one difference between a normal human and Denise that made the Bystander Effect no longer a problem.”
“Was she a–no.” My head shook. “Ammon didn’t turn her into a Natural Heretic or anything. What–”
“She was dead.” Asenath’s voice was quiet, yet certain. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t affecting her anymore. It wasn’t part of her. Because she was dead.” She reiterated the last part with what sounded like pointed wonder as she looked toward the phone in my mother’s other hand. The phone that had shown us the video of an alive Denise.
“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t targeting her anymore. So, I asked Fossor for permission to visit the grave. He thought my witnessing Ammon’s victims was a good thing. It amused him. So he allowed it, with very specific rules, of course. But those rules didn’t prevent me from doing what I needed to do. I used an old spell, one similar to the Committee power sharing ritual. It… it was taught to me by the reaper inside the lighthouse. He was–is my friend. I used the ritual spell to share one single power with Denise’s… body for one single moment. That was all I was capable of doing. A Pooka’s resurrection gift is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the strongest abilities imaginable. It’s so strong even the Committee can’t share it amongst themselves. But… using power that I stored up for months, I was able to create a spell that would transfer that specific power for exactly three seconds. Just long enough to work. The spell was set to trigger at one very precise moment.”
“When Ammon died,” I quietly put in, realizing the truth. “You set the spell so that it would transfer his Pooka power to… to Denise for three seconds at the exact moment that he died.”
Mom’s gaze met mine as she gave a slight nod. “Months of preparation, and even then, I could only transfer it for three seconds. Which, for any other power, would have been almost useless even for a living person. After all, how much use can a person get out of a power transferred to them for three seconds, using magic that’s stored up for months and requires a ritual that takes several hours to perform? Even more useless for a… for someone who’s dead. Taking that much magic and time to transfer almost any power to a dead person for three seconds would be basically the biggest waste of time and effort you could ever imagine.
“But not the Pooka resurrection. For three seconds at that exact moment, when Ammon was killed and that respawn power activated, it was transferred to Denise’s body. She resurrected, not him. And then the power transfer faded, but Ammon was–he was already dead.” Once more, my mother’s voice cracked and sounded like her soul was breaking. “He won’t… he won’t come back. The power activates upon death. Now that he’s gone, it won’t activate at all. It’s gone forever. I–” Her hand pulled away from mine so she could clutch her arms around her stomach. It looked like she was going to be sick. “I killed my son.” There was a horrible, soul-wrenching sound in those words.
“Mom, no,” I quickly insisted while stepping that way to put my arms around her tightly. “Don’t you see? You didn’t kill him. You freed him. You said yourself that what Fossor did to him couldn’t be undone. Do you really think the innocent little boy you remember would ever want to be the thing he was turned into? He wouldn’t want to hurt and kill those people, Mom. Fossor thought he found a way to enslave that little boy into being his monster forever. That’s what he was gloating about, because he thought he beat you. He thought he made your son into a monster who would never die, who could never escape. But you stopped him. Mom, you saved him. You freed Ammon and let him move on.”
Asenath spoke up. “You did a lot more than that. You made the hard choice, Joselyn. You sacrificed whatever small hope you might have had to eventually change Ammon back, to save everyone he would have killed in the meantime. All of the victims he would have tortured and killed, all those innocent people who would have been his targets. You saved them all. And you did it by making the hardest choice a parent could ever have to make. You chose not to save your son. You chose to let him die, so all his future victims would live. You freed your son from Fossor’s control, you gave up any hope you had of turning him back to the way he was, you saved every future potential victim, and… and you brought one of his victims back to life.” She still sounded completely floored by that last part. Which, yeah, no kidding. So was I.
“One of his victims.” From my mother’s voice, she sounded more guilty about the fact that she had been limited to that single resurrection than proud that she’d managed it at all. “He had a lot more than that. But I couldn’t do anything for the rest of them. I had to pick one. And Denise was… she was the innocent person he killed on his way to meet Felicity. Because of the stories I told him. He wanted to meet his sister because I told him about her. About you.” She glanced toward me, eyes blinking back a rush of obvious tears. “I–I couldn’t let that stand. When I saw her mother–when I looked at that woman and thought of how she felt having her daughter ripped away from her like that, I… I had to give her back. I couldn’t do anything for most of my son’s victims. But I could do that. I could fix that one thing. I could save one person. I could stop one mother from feeling that… that grief. I could fix one family.”
“But what about her memories?” I put in, confused. “Her and her mother’s. Wouldn’t they remember her being dead and all? Not to mention everyone else’s memories. Everybody knew she was dead. But then she’s suddenly alive again? Oh, and all the news about it, the paperwork, the–everything. All the stuff that would’ve happened to show she was dead. I mean, did the Bystander Effect just magically take care of all that? And where did she respawn? Cuz if she woke up in a coffin underground….”
Holding up a hand to stop the barrage of questions, my mother confirmed, “For the last part, no, she did not wake up in the coffin. The spell moved her back home. And for the rest of it, the Bystander Effect is very powerful. There’s a reason why it has to constantly feed itself with the magical potential of every ordinary human. Billions of living beings are providing power for it. So yes, it changed things. It fixed people’s memories, changed the news reports, fixed the evidence, everything it had to do to erase the fact that Denise had ever been that old, ever worked there, ever died there. It changed all of it. As far as anyone affected by the Bystander Effect is concerned, Denise was always born several years later than she actually was, and has never been that old. And, since the Pooka power transfer was temporary, Denise herself is also affected by that. She doesn’t remember anything about what happened with Ammon. She’s a normal, happy little girl growing up in an ordinary household. She doesn’t remember any trauma, and neither does her family. It–I couldn’t do much. There were so many of Ammon’s victims who I… I couldn’t do anything for. But her–her I had to. I had one chance to help one victim. So I did. I freed my son. I killed my son. I let him die so she could live. She has a chance now. She can live her life, grow up, have everything she would have had if she never met him. It was all I could do.”
Swallowing hard, I took a second to let all of that wash over me. It wasn’t enough, of course. It was going to take a hell of a lot longer than a second for me to fully understand and process everything my mother had given up simply to save the life of one girl she would probably never meet. But I did know one thing for certain. It was something I had known for a long time, but kept being reiterated. And now that realization, that feeling, was even stronger than it had ever been.
“Mom,” I managed in a quiet voice, “you’re the bravest, strongest person I’ve ever known.”
A rush of emotions passed through my mother’s face at that. In the end, all she could do was pull me to her. I felt her strong arms hold me close, pressing me against herself protectively while she gave a very slight, yet powerful shudder. “My Felicity,” she whispered.
For a long moment, we just stood there like that. Nothing else had to be said about it. We all knew what my mother had sacrificed, what it had cost for her to do what she did. We knew how much it cost for my mother to give up any chance she might have had to get back the little boy she loved, what it had taken for someone like my mother to let her own son die. I had never known the Ammon that she knew. But I did know, in this moment, how much choosing to let him go had torn my mother apart. And I knew something else.
I had never been more glad that that evil piece of shit Necromancer was fucking dead.