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 mad 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 about what 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.