Betrayed?

Sarah was downstairs in the living room when Julia and David returned.

“Where are they?” Julia stormed in. The tone in her voice was unfamiliar.

“Who?”

“Bailey.”

“They should be in their room. What’s going on?”

As Julia fell silent, David entered the room. In response to a look from Sarah, he merely shrugged.

“They’re not in the house,” Julia said after a moment.

“That should be impossible.”

“After David and I left, did you walk them back to their room?”

After thinking for a moment, Sarah realized she hadn’t. “No.”

“That must have been when they left.”

David finally spoke up. “So Bailey is responsible for Rebecca’s disappearance?”

“I’m not sure, but there was a delayed spell that was triggered somehow. Nothing in the cafe showed evidence of enchantment, which suggests something was brought it. I assume it wasn’t Rebecca, so . . .”

“But why?” Sarah asked. “Bailey seemed genuinely concerned. And Rebecca agreed to meet with her. Why would she do that if Bailey was a possible threat?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I had hoped to talk with them. We need to find them.”

“Maybe Thomas can help?” Sarah made the suggestion even though she knew it was likely to upset Julia. Now was not the time to worry about that.

“Thomas . . .” Julia sounded thoughtful rather than angry. “Didn’t he vouch for Bailey when they first arrived?”

Sarah had forgotten that detail. “You’re right. He did.”

“Are you suggesting he had something to do with this?” David sounded genuinely shocked.

“No.” That response from Julia surprised Sarah. “I don’t trust him, but if he really wanted to do something to Rebecca, there were simpler ways of going about it. I’m just wondering how he could have been wrong about Bailey.”

“Hold on. We don’t know that it was Bailey.” Sarah felt compelled to point out that all they had was speculation at this point.

“Fair enough. So what do we do now?”

There were too many unknowns. How could they keep from just chasing shadows? 

“Julia, will you try to find Bailey?”

“You didn’t even need to ask.” Julia turned around and walked out.

“David, would you back me up? I want to check something out. Back up would make me feel a little better.”

“Sure. You want to tell me about where we’re going?”

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get ready.”

Cafe Interlude

Now that he was alone with Julia, David found himself searching for the words he had wanted to say for awhile. They were sitting at a table in the cafe where Rebecca had disappeared. Julia was turning a green crystal over and staring at it intently.

“So what did you want to talk about?” She didn’t look up as she asked the question.

“What do you mean?” It was a reflexive response.

“You volunteered to come with me, even though there wasn’t anything for you to do. I’m assuming it was because you wanted to talk.”

Maybe it was because she always seemed aloof, or maybe it was the anger that was lurking just beneath the surface, but David was still unable to shake the way she intimidated him. Still, there wasn’t likely to be a better chance than this.

“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry.”

“For what?”

“That I was unable to protect you from . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not your job to protect me.”

“But, if I had . . . then Jason . . .” As soon as he said it, he regretted it.

“Stop.” She looked up from the crystal with fire in her eyes. “What happened, happened. Thomas screwed up. Put you in an impossible situation. Put us both in harm’s way. Nothing else needs to be said.”

David looked down at his hands. “Sorry.”

Julia did not respond, instead pouring all of her attention back into the crystal. It was impossible to read her, and, according to Sarah, Jason was the only one who had known her much at all. He wanted to find a way to connect with her, but mentioning Jason seemed to make that even more unlikely now.

Instead, he watched her examine the crystal. Whatever it showed her, he was unable to see it himself. The realm of magic was impossibly large, and he doubted anyone had even the most superficial familiarity with the whole of it. Nonetheless, he wanted to learn all he could. This did not seem like a good time to ask.

Without warning, Julia stood up. “We have to go. We need to get back to the house. Right now.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Not now. I’ll explain when we get there.”

Family Meeting

Sitting around the dining room table, everyone looked to Sarah. It may have been Thomas’s house, but all the residents recognized Sarah as the de facto leader. It had been she who called them all together.

“Rebecca is missing,” she began, without preamble.

“I thought she had already left?” David hadn’t been happy upon hearing of her departure.

“She had,” Sarah replied. “But Bailey and I went to meet with her.” She gestured towards Bailey, who ducked their head sheepishly. “During that meeting, she vanished amid a bright flash of light.”

“So you think she was abducted,” Julia said, rather than asked.

“I don’t really think she would have agreed to meet if she was just going to leave in the middle of it.” Sarah tried not to sound defensive.

Julia held up her hand. “I’m not doubting you. I just want to understand what happened. Was there any sign before she disappeared? Any indication of what sort of magic was used?”

“No. I wasn’t actually there. I had gone outside to give Bailey and Rebecca some privacy. I saw a flash, and when I ran back inside, Rebecca was gone.”

“Bailey? What happened? Tell us everything you can remember.”

Clearly nervous and upset, Bailey looked up at Julia. “We were just talking, catching up a little. I think she was scared, but not of me. I was asking her for help with my living situation. Next thing I knew, a bright flash knocked me backwards. When my vision cleared, Sarah was standing over me, and Rebecca was nowhere to be seen.”

Julia sat back in her chair and began chewing the inside of her lip.

“So that’s it?” David asked. “We don’t have any leads?”

“Peter,” Sarah replied. “He has already tried to get her once. Maybe this was him again.”

David looked at Julia. “Could he have escaped wherever you sent him?”

“Yeah. I mean, I just got him out of the house; I didn’t imprison him.”

“Who’s Peter?” Bailey asked.

“Someone from Rebecca’s past, before you. Did she tell you anything about her life back then?” Sarah found herself surprised that Bailey didn’t seem to know.

“No. She never wanted to talk about that.”

“Oh. Well, he had tried to get her to leave with him about a month ago. Are you sure you didn’t see anyone else?”

“It was just me and her.”

“This is a waste of time.” Thomas finally spoke up. “Rebecca left the house. She isn’t our responsibility any longer.”

Before Sarah could respond, Julia leapt to her feet. “Just abandon her to fate? Do you already know? Is that why you are so quick to give up on her?”

Thomas stayed in his seat and kept his voice even. “First, you get mad because I tried to save you. Now, you are mad because I am not trying to save Rebecca. You need to be a bit more consistent.”

“You are avoiding my questions.”

“Alright. I do not know what happens to Rebecca. My point is simply that she left. If she had stayed, we could have helped her. And she knew that. She must have had reasons for leaving, for not relying on our help. I simply believe we should respect her choice.”

“I’m not comfortable with that,” David said. “She is still our friend.”

“Beyond that, I feel responsible for her being there in the first place. I tracked her down and got her to come meet us. I want to make sure she’s safe, even if she doesn’t want our help.”

Thomas stood and shrugged his shoulders. “You do not need my permission. You are each free to pursue whatever you wish, as long as you do not endanger the house. I choose to return to my studies.”

As he left, Julia glared at his back.

“That . . .”

Sarah cut her off. “Let him be. I understand your frustration, but let’s focus on Rebecca.”

Julia slumped back down into her chair. “Fine. But we need to deal with him at some point, and soon. Otherwise, I don’t think I can stay.”

“We will. For now, would you please check the cafe?”

“Sure. What am I looking for?”

“Since you specialize in spatial magic, I was hoping you might be able to figure out what was used, how she was spirited away.”

“I’ll go with her,” David volunteered.

Sarah looked at Julia, who simply nodded.

“Okay, while you two are gone, I’m going to retrace some of the steps I took finding Rebecca in the first place.”

“What can I do?” Bailey looked at each of them in turn.

Sarah thought for a moment. “If you can remember anything, either from the cafe or from your past with her, that might give us something to go on. Anything at all.”

“I’ll try.”

“Okay.” Julia stood up again. “I’ll let you know if I find anything. Let’s go, David.” The two headed towards the front door.

“Be careful,” Sarah called after them before leaving the room herself.

Being Useful

It felt good to walk outside under the open sky. Of course, there was danger as well. Since coming to the house, David had been attacked by astral beetles and a mana worm, neither of which he had even heard of prior to leaving Samuel’s side. Today, though, the risk seemed seemed worth it, just to be outside, to reconnect with the world.

Samuel had sent him away to learn, but so far his magic had proven useless. Everyone else had contributed in some way. Jason had even sacrificed his life. David had failed to protect Julia, the one thing he had been asked to do. Staying inside was not likely to change the feeling that he wasn’t making any progress, so a trip outside felt like a step toward something, at least.

He had set out with no destination in mind, and now found himself wandering through a quiet residential neighborhood. The yards were big and the houses were set back a ways from the street. A couple of children were playing outside near one of the houses, but otherwise there was no one around.

As he reached the end of the block, he heard someone yelling. A woman stood outside a house around the corner. She was looking into the house while crying and screaming. Smoke had begun to drift out of the open front door. David didn’t stop to consider the situation; he simply ran up to the woman. Samuel had taught him that magic was for helping people, and it was a lesson he had learned well.

“Is anyone inside?” He stood right in front of the woman so she would realize he was talking to her.

Between sobs, she managed to say, “ . . . my son . . . upstairs . . .”

David turned to run into the house. Through the doorway, he could see that much of the first floor was already engulfed in flame. Elemental creation was the easiest form of magic for him. Control was trickier, but he had worked hard to master it. Elemental destruction was the hardest. His inclination was toward bringing new things into being, not eliminating what was already there. Putting out the fire would be difficult, and unless he understood it well enough, the unintended consequences could be worse than the fire itself.

A couple of spells created safe passage through the fire and reduced the overall heat as much as he dared. Once those spells had taken hold, he created a swirl of air centered on him, so that he wouldn’t be overcome by the smoke. Then he entered the house.

After several seconds that felt much longer, he found the stairs. Taking two with every stride, he reached the top quickly. The flames still hadn’t made it this far, but smoke obscured everything. Behind the second door he opened was a young boy sprawled unconscious on the floor. David quickly picked up the child and extended the pocket of air to encompass both of them.

With the boy successfully retrieved, he began to retrace his steps. Halfway down the stairs, they collapsed under the weight. The fire must have weakened them. David fell through to the basement and lost consciousness.

When he came to, his spells had collapsed. Luckily, the basement was relatively cooler than upstairs, and only a little smoke had invaded. With the exception of some scratches and bruises, he appeared to have survived the fall unscathed. Even though he was still unconscious, the boy, too, seemed free of serious injury. The real problem now was how to get out of the basement.

Looking around, he noticed a couple of small windows at ground level. Standing on a crate put him close to the ceiling, and he could feel the heat of the fire above. He was able to get the window open, though. Yelling got someone’s attention, probably a neighbor. With the other person’s help, he managed to get the boy outside.

“The window is too small for me. Get the boy to a paramedic!”

“Okay. Stay here. I’ll send someone over to help get you out.”

David nodded. If he only had himself to worry about, he could rely on his magic to keep himself safe.

Just as he began weaving a new spell, a portal opened up in the basement. Julia stood on the other side.

“Quite a predicament you seem to be in.”

“How did you find me?”

“I keep track of everyone in the house. Now come on back. Rebecca is in trouble, and we need you.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up. He had helped someone. His house needed him. Maybe he could learn some things here after all.

Confessor

“How are you doing?”

“You again. Why do you keep coming back?”

“Just to chat.”

“That summoning ritual was the worst mistake of my life.”

“Remember, I’ve seen your entire life. Performing the ritual isn’t even in the top ten.”

“Every time you come by ‘to chat,’ I feel like it moves up a notch.”

“You don’t like our chats?”

“I thought I had made that pretty clear.”

“Well, you’re really the only one I can talk to. Everyone close to me is just looking for an excuse to overthrow me. Bunch of backstabbers.”

“Isn’t that normal for demons?”

“Yeah, that’s why I don’t trust them.”

“Why do you trust me?”

“You can’t hurt me.”

“Ah.”

“You know, I didn’t want this job.”

“Really?”

“Really. Who wants to be in charge of torturing souls for all of eternity?”

“I thought you enjoyed it.”

“I’m not a psychopath.”

“So how did you get the position?”

“It was a misunderstanding. It led to an argument that escalated, and I stormed off.”

“Why not apologize?”

“Don’t you think I tried? I was told this work was necessary, and if I was truly sorry, I would continue. Typical catch-22. If I leave, I’m not sorry and deserve to stay. If I stay, I am sorry but also stuck here.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know! I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

“No. I mean, that story is ridiculous. You expect me to believe all that?”

“It’s true!”

“Aren’t you the Lord of Lies?”

“No. People often confuse the two of us.”

“Still . . .”

“Yeah, yeah . . .”

“Why are you bothering me?”

“I told you. I need someone to talk to, and you’re a good listener.”

“I’m really not.”

“Good enough for me.”

“I’m so lucky.”

“I have to go now. Can I get you anything?”

“The key to get out of here?”

“Haha! That’s one of the reasons I like you. Good sense of humor. You know you belong here. I’ll drop by again soon.”

“Take your time.”

Everything Has a Price

The witch’s cottage was a ten minute walk from the village. I made it in less than five. Madame Wood’s body was gnarled, and her skin had a distinct bark-like quality to it. Whether her name or her appearance came first, no one left alive knew. Yet she had a friendly demeanor and was always willing to help.

Despite my own sense of urgency – even panic – I retained enough of my wits not to barge into a witch’s cottage uninvited. Knocking, I paced anxiously. It took only a moment for the door to open, seemingly on its own, and I heard Madame Wood’s voice from within the gloom inside.

“Come in, Ser Johns.”

“Madame, you know I’m not a knight.”

“You protect the village. You’re a knight in the ways that matter.”

As much as I usually enjoyed our verbal sparring, there wasn’t time for it now.

“That’s what I’ve come to see you about. While I was out this morning, I came across armed men heading straight for us. I rushed back, but the hunting parties had already left. I know this isn’t a usual request, but is there anything you can do to help? I need to hold them off.”

My eyes were beginning to adjust, and I could tell she was looking at me.

“Are you sure they mean the village harm?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Can you evacuate everyone?”

“Even if I could, there is no where for them all to hide.”

“There must be . . .”

“There isn’t.” I was getting more desperate by the minute.

“I do not think . . .”

“Please, Madame.” I refused to let her deny me. “Our need is great.”

She continued to stare at me. “I am sorry . . .”

“Madame, if you really do think of me as a knight, then help me safeguard the people.”

“It is because of your position that I do not want to . . .”

“Please.” I had to leave. They would be at the village soon, and I needed to get back before they arrived.

“Drink this.” She handed me a vial. I could not see what color the liquid inside was, but I didn’t hesitate. It tasted like nothing.

“Now you will not die at the hands of another. You may fight without fear of injury.”

“Thank you, Madame.” It was more help than I had dared hope for.

“Do not thank me. And if at all possible, do not kill anyone.”

“Don’t kill anyone?”

“If you can avoid it.”

“Is there anything else?”

“It can wait until later. For now, you must go.”

I hurried back to the village. There was still time before the attack, and I made sure everyone was inside. Mostly, there were just children and the elderly; everyone else who might have helped was on the hunt.

When they arrived, i fought with abandon. I tried to heed Madame Wood’s caution, but they had spread out. Even I could not be hurt, others could. So I had to dispatch opponents as quickly as possible in order to get to the next. I had worried that killing someone would break the magic, but it continued to work. In the end, I had killed one shy of a dozen, and no villagers were harmed.

The hunting parties did not return until after the sun had set, so I stayed in the village to guard against another attack. None came. When the hunters returned, I informed them about what had happened. Sleep would no longer be ignored, and I headed off to bed. It was the next day before I made my way back to Madame Wood.

The door again opened by itself after I knocked. This time, there was no friendly banter.

“How many?”

The question was abrupt and serious. “What?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Eleven, by my count.”

She nodded, as though that answered a question she hadn’t asked.

“Well, come in. Have a seat.”

“Thank you, again, for the help yesterday. Without you, the village would have been lost.”

She set a cup of something hot in front of me before sitting down herself. Exhaustion appeared to weigh on her.

“I should tell you about the curse you now have.”

“Curse?”

“The potion you drank.”

“It was cursed?”

“That is why I did not want to offer it to you.”

A loud roar filled my ears as I felt the world falling away. All thought was crowded out of my head.

“You can avoid its effects as long as you do not kill anyone.”

The roar lessened just enough for me to hear her. “But I already . . .”

“I know. Each death takes a year off your life. Do not kill any more.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have refused it? Sacrifice the village to save your own life?”

She asked the questions but already knew the answers. I would have accepted the curse. And knowing may have caused me to hesitate, to avoid killing blows. That hesitation might have cost lives. She was right not to tell me.

“How many years do I have left?”

“I do not know. We have know idea how many years anyone has. Taking eleven years from an unknown future still leaves us with an unknown.”

“But the curse must know.”

“After a fashion, but it cannot tell us.”

“Is there a cure?”

“None that I know of. Everything has a price. You cannot be killed by another person, and the village was saved. But every life you take shortens your own.”

And that is the story of how I came to be cursed. The village still needs me. I just do not know how much of myself I have left to give.

The Forest

The night was darker than usual when the two sisters unwittingly stepped through the portal. There were hints indicating the dangers, but they were not looking for them and wouldn’t have known what they meant even if they had found them. No one can say why they were out at night walking in the woods; it may be that even they did not know. Whatever their purpose was, they did not see it through.

The younger girl ran ahead of her older sister and passed through the stone pillars without even noticing them. A brief flash of light marked her passage, and the older sister could no longer see the younger. She began to run to catch up and passed through as well.

Portals such as this were not common, but they do exist. One may appear for just a few hours before vanishing again, so they were difficult to find if you were looking for them. A few lead to fantastic realms. The dimension the sisters stumbled into was not one of those.

They now found themselves in a denser forest that managed to be even darker than the one they had just left. The younger sister, sensing something was wrong, turned to run back the way she had come. Unfortunately, this portal, like so many others, was only one way. Running through the stone pillars had no effect.

While the older sister wanted to stay near the pillars, in case they became active again, the younger wanted to look for another way out. She would take a few steps and then look back to make sure her sister was still in sight. Several times her sister admonished her to return, each time growing more insistent. She did not listen, until finally she turned around and could no longer see her sister.

Overcome with fear, she ran back towards the pillars, but she must have gotten the directions confused because she could not find them. Nothing looked familiar. Calling to her sister produced no response. Off in the distance, she caught a glimpse of a pale light. Hoping it might represent help, she walked towards it.

As she drew nearer, she could see that the light came from a lamp at the top of a tall pole, which stood along side a wide dirt path. Underneath the light, a man was bent over, digging a hole. Hope sprung up and drove her forward. That same hope died just as quickly when she got closer and saw that the man had the head of a bull. She screamed and turned to run away from the monster, only to be picked up by a large, vaguely human looking creature whose face seemed to be melted half off.

Every being in the forest existed for one purpose, to kill anything that made its way inside. I would like to tell you, dear reader, about the uniquely kind creature who helped the girls and guided them back home. I wish I could tell you that story. Sadly that isn’t what happened. There was no such kindly creature.

Her older sister, who had been looking for her, heard the scream before it was abruptly cut off. The terror was unmistakable, and concern for her sister overrode any sense of self-preservation. By the time she made her way to where the scream had originated, it was too late; her sister was quite obviously dead.

Before she could run away, she too was grabbed by the ogre. It was about to snap her neck like it had her sister’s, when the minotaur stopped it. He explained his plan, and the ogre agreed.

The minotaur was not a monster with a good heart. Like every creature in the forest, he hated all living beings and only knew how to kill. But there was one thing that made him different: he hated his own life as much as he hated the lives of others. More than killing, he wanted to die. He had lived longer than he could remember, and he longed for oblivion. Yet the forest let nothing within its boundaries die. This was the curse that every creature in the forest suffered, and the minotaur had had enough.

Alongside the path, nearly hidden by overgrowth, was a motorized metal carriage. There were artifacts like this scattered around the forest. Like the sisters, they arrived in the forest seemingly at random and by accident. Generally, the inhabitants of the forest ignored them. Since these items were from elsewhere, the minotaur believed they might inhibit the rules of the forest.

The minotaur and the ogre climbed into the carriage, dragging the unconscious girl with them. They made sure the doors were locked from the inside so that no one could get in. Once they were secure, the minotaur lit a fire. They didn’t need to burn to death; suffocation would be an easy way to go. And if they died in here, away from the forest, they should stay dead. The girl’s death should seal their own.

The minotaur’s plan had been a good one, but the girl’s death was unnecessary and involving her undermined it all. The minotaur and ogre had stopped breathing when she woke up. She shouldn’t have. There was no oxygen left in the carriage. The pain of being on fire was somehow enough to overcome that obstacle, and she woke screaming in agony.

Truthfully, she was already dead, but her body continued to struggle to escape. Fumbling through the flames, she managed to get a door open and fell out. Her screams persisted until her body finally gave up.

Much later, the forest revived the minotaur. Climbing out of the carriage, he saw the girl’s body on the ground. In his anger at finding himself still alive, he bent down to take out his rage on what remained of her. When he turned her over, he saw that her head had been changed. It looked like the head of an octopus with tentacles where her mouth should be. Her eyes opened suddenly, and she began screaming again. This time, the sound was in human. The forest had made her one of its own.

Animals

I hope you will all forgive me a little self-indulgence. I have been thinking about death a little more than usual of late. It is distracting me and keeping me from my usual writing routine. (And several other routines, if I’m being honest.)

I have had a few animals die in my life, and each time it breaks my heart anew. I’ve thought a lot about why it affects me so much. Our animals depend on us. For everything. And when things go wrong, it’s not a simple matter to explain it to them. They struggle to let us know that they’re suffering, and we struggle to reassure them and to make decisions in their best interests.

It’s all a crap-shoot. All we can do is try our best to give them the best lives possible and hope that they feel secure. And when the time comes to say goodbye, all we can do is hope that we’ve made the best decision for them. None of it’s easy. And yet, life would feel so empty without them.

Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) once said “I’m crying because out there he’s gone, but he’s not gone inside me.” Our animals give us so much. All we can do is hope to be worthy of their love and affection.

Reunions (part five)

Several hours passed before Marie – or rather, the Matron – came to Rebecca’s room. As if to make Rebecca’s situation clear, she entered without knocking. She crossed the room quietly and sat in the other armchair, across from Rebecca.

“Have things changed much since you’ve been gone?”

She must have heard about her walk earlier. “Not really, though you being in charge is different.”

Marie’s face smiled; the effect was unnerving. “I heard you ran into Phillip.”

Was that a threat? Marcus had said Phillip would get in trouble if he was seen with her. “It wasn’t his fault. I ran over to him; he tried to avoid me.”

“It’s alright; I know. He won’t be punished. We want him to stay away from you for your safety. We don’t want him to frighten you again.”

Would it help to explain that she had asked him for help? That her leaving wasn’t his fault? Rebecca decided it didn’t matter. Phillip helped her leave; who instigated it wouldn’t change anything. Did they really think he convinced her to leave, though? Did they really not understand that she had been trying to escape?

Marie said nothing until Rebecca’s attention returned to the room.

“Now that you’ve come back, when should we perform the ritual? I don’t want to rush you, but it wouldn’t do to wait too long.”

“What?” Even though she had expected something like this, it still surprised her.

“The ritual. You and I will join, and Marie can once more fulfill her role as your . . . excuse me, our assistant.” There was no pretense now; it was certainly the Elder’s voice.

“But why? You and Marie are already joined.” Rebecca felt guilty as soon as the words left her mouth. Her friend did not deserve this fate. But neither did she.

“She has been an acceptable substitute, but she isn’t really an ideal host. You and I will be a much more fruitful pairing.”

Rebecca tried to focus on all she had gained, all she had accomplished in the last decade. “I refuse. I do not want this. I will not become your puppet.” It was a resolve she had carefully nurtured for years, something the Elder would not recognize.

It did not take very long for him to recover. “I, I, I… You seem to have forgotten that we are all family. It’s not all about what you want. It’s about what is best for the everyone. You won’t be my puppet. We will guide our family together.

Rebecca had to bite back a humorless laugh. “Still… I am my own person now. I will not simply cave in to your demands.”

He considered her words for a moment. “You have changed. I wonder how much. For instance, do you still care about Marie? Or have you left your feelings for her behind, too?”

A knife appeared in the Elder’s hand . . . Marie’s hand. Slowly, the tip was pressed into Marie’s left forearm and drawn upwards to the elbow. Crimson followed as blood welled up along the cut. It didn’t look very deep, but the scene was horrible.

“Stop!”

Immediately, the knife pulled back.

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?!”

“A simple demonstration of what will happen if I remain in this girl. And rest assured, you will watch every moment.” Marie’s mouth smiled as the rest of her face was twisted with terror. The Elder was letting enough of her through to drive home his point.

“Why?” It was a plea, but Rebecca already knew it wouldn’t reach the Elder.

“I’ve already told you. You and I will be much better partners. I would prefer not to lose someone who has given so much for our community, but I need you to know what is at stake.”

There were many things Rebecca had prepared herself for in this moment. She had been certain she could resist the Elder. However, she was not ready to watch Marie mutilate or even kill herself. 

“Alright. I’ll join with you. Just leave Marie alone.” Her voice was little more than a whisper.

“Good girl. When you see everything we will do together, you’ll be glad you made this decision.”

With those words, any hope she might have had, died.

Reunions (part four)

Rebecca opened her eyes to find herself in a familiar room. At first, she was convinced it had to be a nightmare. This scene had invaded her dreams more than a few times over the last decade. However, the memory of meeting Bailey and the note they had given her attested to the fact that this was all too real.

She wanted to sink into the bed and jump out of it all at once. The room looked very much like it had when she had last been here, when she was preparing to become the Elder’s vessel. It was quiet and clean, as though the place had been kept ready for her return. There were no restraints, so she was able to sit up. That’s when she discovered her clothes were gone, replaced with a simple white shift. Her first and only goal was to get out before anyone could arrive. Halfway to the door, however, the sound of the handle turning sent her diving back under the sheets. The person who came through shut the door immediately and walked over the bed before sitting at the foot.

“Rebecca?”

She knew the voice better than her own. Peeking out from the covers, she saw Marie staring at her.

“Rebecca? Are you okay?”

“Marie? What is going on?”

“You’re home. Finally. I’m so relieved to see you again.”

“How?”

“Don’t worry about that right now. I’m just glad you’re back. I don’t know why you left.”

“Peter . . . He . . .”

“Peter is gone. As soon as we found out that he had threatened you, he was expelled from the community. If only we could have found you sooner and cleared all of this up. You didn’t need to be alone for so long.”

Rebecca looked at Marie with uncertainty. Had it all been a mistake? “So when Peter came to take me . . .”

“We didn’t send him. We didn’t know where you were. Or where he was. Now that you’re back with us, we can protect you from him.”

“And Phillip?”

Marie sighed. “Phillip’s betrayal couldn’t be ignored. We don’t know why he frightened you into leaving. He remains, unspeaking and disgraced. Rest assured, he also poses no threat to you.”

“But . . .”

“I know you have many questions. A lot of time has passed. Still, you are back and safe. I thought this room might make you feel a little more comfortable.” Marie stood and walked closer to her before bending down to embrace her tightly. Rebecca froze at her touch, but the other seemed not to notice. “I have missed you. Get some rest. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Before she could respond, Marie turned and walked out of the room. Except it wasn’t Marie. No matter how much time had passed, Rebecca didn’t think she could ever forget the Elder’s touch.

*     *     *

When Rebecca became conscious again, she kept her eyes closed for a little while. The thought that she might really be back in her old room frightened her, though refusing to look wasn’t accomplishing anything. Eventually, opening her eyes confirmed that it hadn’t been just a horrible nightmare. The Elder now inhabited the body of her oldest friend and had gotten Rebecca back.

Thoughts of escape flitted through her mind, but she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to leave again. The only thing she could do was to find out what the Elder wanted from her. Whatever it was, she expected to hate it.

Quietly getting out of the bed, she made certain that her shift was on straight and walked over to the door. To her surprise, the handle moved easily under her touch, and the door opened without a sound. Any glimmer of hope that the unlocked door might have given her evaporated as soon as a figure stepped in front of her from the side.

“Mistress. The Matron is otherwise occupied at present and will visit you later. She asked me to look after you in the meantime and provide anything you might need.”

The man’s face and voice seemed familiar, and after a few moments, a name rose to the surface.

“Marcus, right?”

“The Mistress honors me.” He bowed his head slightly.

“Marcus, knock it off. We used to play together as children. There is no reason to be so formal.”

His look gave the impression that he was trying to decide if she was serious. After coming to some sort of conclusion, he replied.

“Mistress, you’ve been gone a long time. Perhaps you have forgotten your importance, but we have not. You will have to forgive us if we treat you with the deference you deserve.”

Less formal, but clearly uncomfortable, he stood quietly. She didn’t have the energy for this fight on top of all her other worries.

“Fine. But when it’s just the two of us, keep it to a minimum. Please?”

“I will try.” He smiled, but it felt uneasy.

“So did Marie tell you to keep me here? Or can I go for a walk?” Before she could do anything else, she needed to figure out how short her leash was.

“The Matron thought it might be best if you rested, but she did not order it.”

“Why do you call her ‘Matron’? Why not ‘Elder’?”

That question took him by surprise.

“Mistress . . . Rebecca, you are to be the Elder. For now, she is merely filling in until you can take your position.”

“Oh.” That was unsettling. Was this really the plan? Or did Marcus just assume she would join with the Elder now that she had come back? Panic began to well up, but she forced it back down. “Well, some fresh air would be nice, so I think I will go for a walk.”

The shift was a little less clothing than she was accustomed to wearing, but she thought it might help her fit in with the rest of the community. As she headed downstairs, Marcus fell in step behind her. She was free, as long as she had a chaperone.

Outside, a few people were standing and chatting with one another while others walked with purpose on some errand or other. The faces may be different, but the village seemed largely unchanged. Any time they walked near any of the groups socializing, the talking stopped as the people stared at her. She smiled and nodded, but the feelings of awe – maybe even adoration – that emanated from them made her want to flee. That was impossible as long as Marcus was hovering over her. So she began trying to ignore the others as much as possible. Any feelings of belonging that she once had were gone; she had been away too long.

The walk was making her feel worse, so she decided to go back to her room. As she was turning around, a figure that she recognized disappeared around a corner. Without thinking, she ran after it. Marcus gave a surprised shout, and she could hear him chasing her. Upon turning the corner, she collided with Phillip. His head was shaved, and he wore a plain brown robe, but there was no mistaking him.

It must have been the years, but he no longer seemed as large and imposing as he once had. His face couldn’t hide his shock, and he seemed to be looking for some place to run. She grabbed ahold of his arms.

“Phillip! It’s me. Rebecca. I need your help.”

Still looking like he desperately wanted to be anywhere else, Phillip shook his head. Marcus caught up to them, and Rebecca turned toward him. Phillip took the opportunity to begin running away. She tried to chase him again, but Marcus prevented her.

“Stop. Let him go. If anyone catches him with you, he is likely to be punished again.”

“Why?”

“Because he made you leave and kept you hidden. I’m actually surprised they didn’t drive him away like his brother. Don’t make it worse for him.” Marcus sounded like he felt sorry for the older man.

Phillip was already out of sight. “Okay. Let’s go back.”

“Good idea. I wouldn’t want the Matron to think I had run off with you.” It sounded like it should have been a joke, but there was real terror in his voice. Rebecca began to wonder just how much had changed during her absence.