A Crisis of Leadership (part one)

Even though she’d been expecting it, the knock on the door still startled her. It must be time. The entire clan was depending on her.

The door cracked open. “Rebecca?” Marie stuck her head in the room. “Are you ready?”

Not trusting her voice, Rebecca just nodded.

Marie entered the room fully and closed the door behind her. “Are you okay?” She was only a few months younger than Rebecca, but her smaller frame and carefree disposition always made her seem like a little sister. Marie’s presence usually was a comfort, but today Rebecca’s anxiety was greater than any friendly presence could master.

“Rebecca? You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m sorry, Marie. I’m just feeling a lot of pressure.”

“You’ll do fine. You’re the most talented medium we have.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is so. You work harder than anyone. Besides we’re your family. No one is going to judge you.”

“Phillip and Peter will.”

“Who cares? Those two are the reason you’re in this mess. They have no right to complain about anything.”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m right, and you know it. Now go out there and show those boys who you are.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s go get this over with.”

The two left the room, walked down the stairs, and went out the front door. In the courtyard, the whole clan was gathered around the cairn in the center. Marie left her side to join the audience. Rebecca walked slowly to the center of the group.

She tried to block out all the people standing around and focused her mind on the image of the Elder that she had studied. She spoke the words of the spells out loud and reached out to him. At first, when there was no response, she began to worry that the spell had failed. Eventually, however, another presence approached her.

“Daughter. You have called me?” His image was faint, but he looked like the picture she had. At least she hadn’t failed.

“Yes, Elder. We seek your wisdom, your guidance, one last time.”

“My time has past. Surely I did not leave you all helpless, unable to fend for yourselves.”

“No, Elder, you did not. Yet there is the question of your successor.”

“Oh. Both Phillip and Peter claim leadership. Because they cannot settle the matter themselves, they involved you.”

None of his words sounded like a question, so Rebecca remained silent.

“I suppose we have an audience? The entire clan is watching you?”

“Yes, Elder.”

She never expected to hear a ghost sigh.

“Very well. Permit me to speak through you.”

“Of course, Elder.”

There was always a possibility it would come to this, but it didn’t make it any easier. The spirit entered her body, and it felt as though something was crawling under her skin. Almost instantly, she knew she no longer had control of her own body. The whole experience was nauseating. When her mouth open a voice that wasn’t hers came out.

“My children. I am told uncertainty has gripped you. Phillip. Peter. Come here.”

Rebecca’s vision was hazy; it felt like her eyes were far away. Still, she could make out the two men approach her – or rather their deceased father. Each towered over her, though they seemed cowed by their father’s voice and presence.

“You two cannot decide between you who should lead?”

“No. Father, you . . .” Phillip, the older of the two, spoke until he was cut off.

“So you make this girl bring me here to continue to make up for your failures.”

Every moment the Elder possessed her body increased the terror she felt. She wanted to scream, but even that release was denied her. Without consciously choosing to do so, she was constantly rebelling against the invader. The Elder proceeded as if she didn’t exist.

“The uncertainty was causing . . .” Peter tried, but he, too, was interrupted.

“You have demonstrated your lack of leadership skills, both of you. You have demonstrated to the entire clan that each of you is incompetent. You could not command respect and obedience now, even if I were to declare one of you. Very well. I will return and lead you once more.”

“But, father . . .” Phillip objected.

“Silence! You had your chance, and you squandered it. You asked for my guidance, and now I will give it. Not for your sake, but for our family’s sake. I can see they need better than you. In ten days, the new moon will rise.” Rebecca felt her body turn to face the gathering as a whole. “Make preparations. In ten days, I will return to you. This girl has shown more composure than either of my sons. When I return, I will join her to lead you out of this darkness you have fallen into. Rejoice! And prepare for my return!”

Rebecca wanted to say something, but she was overwhelmed by the physical sense of relief that washed through her body when the Elder left it. The world went black as she sank to the ground.

Moving Forward

Sarah fought to keep herself from screaming in front of Thomas. He had been a friend, which was why she was so angry with him now. He should have confided in her. That he hadn’t, worried her.

“What should we do about Julia?”

At first, his words didn’t make any sense. She blinked a couple of times to bring him back into focus. 

“Julia? I was thinking I should deliver your head to her. Might calm her down.”

“This is no time for jokes. We need . . .” He wasn’t even looking at her.

“Who’s joking?” Through sheer force of will, she kept her voice low and even. “She thinks you betrayed her. And Jason. From where I’m standing, I don’t see how she’s wrong.”

“We can cast blame later. Right now, she has control of our house!” He was unwilling, or unable, to match her calm.

“Do not raise your voice to me.” She drew herself up nearly to his eye level. “You are not my master. We are peers, and you will treat me with respect.” Daring him to contradict her, she glared at him. He met her gaze for a few moments before looking away.

“Fine. But we need to do something about Julia. She’s putting the whole house at risk.”

“Yes. And I will handle it.”

“How?”

“To start with, I won’t treat her like an adversary. She’s upset. With reason.” Thomas started to interject but promptly changed his mind. “She deserves to be heard. And you can’t be involved.”

“But . . .”

The look she gave him was enough to make him stop.

“There is nothing you can do that will help. She blames you. If we’re very lucky, she blames only you.”

“And if she blames everyone?”

“Then we’re in trouble. She’s already let a real demonic bear loose in the house. The hallways are not responding to the sigils. I’m not certain I can even get to her. But I’m going. Alone. It’s the only hope I have of getting through to her.”

“What would you have me . . .”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Stay here, in your rooms. If she sees you leave, she is likely to assume the worst. Just stay put.” Without giving Thomas a chance to argue, Sarah turned and walked out the door.

Once back in the hall, her bravado deflated some. How could she make it to Julia if the house itself wouldn’t let her? Asking Thomas for help was not an option, so she would have to make the attempt.

A possibility occurred to her. If Julia was turning the house against them, she might be using the sigils to track them. Perhaps she had inverted the spells protecting the house. If so, then getting rid of her sigil might give her the freedom to move around.

The chance seemed remote. Julia may simply have removed the exception for the sigils. Sarah didn’t know the details of the spell well enough to know which solution was more likely, or what Julia’s frame of mind would lead her to do. Still it was the only idea she had at the moment.

Sarah opened a small pouch she kept hidden in her clothes and dropped the sigil in it. The pouch was designed to hide its contents from magical detection. In theory, the sigil would no longer function. Then she turned her attention to the wood floor. As she walked down the steps, she tried to focus on the grain in the floorboards to keep herself anchored to this area. If she was careful, and if Julia wasn’t paying attention to her, it might be enough to keep her in the house and out of the long hallway.

Her slow progress was frustrating, but she dared not move any faster. As far as she could tell, it was working. She made it to the second floor and was steadily moving closer to Julia’s room. She rounded the corner and caught sight of Rebecca and the rabbit David possessed. Before she could say anything, the scene shifted, and she was trapped again.

“No!” All of her pent up anger poured out in her scream. “Dammit, Julia! I’m trying to help you!” The only response she got was silence. Unwilling to play along, she sat down right where she was. If she followed the hallway, she would end up with the dire bear again, and she had told Thomas not to leave his rooms. If Julia was keeping tabs on her, she might as well talk to her here.

“Julia, if you can hear me, please listen. Thomas was wrong to keep all his secrets. I can’t bring Jason back, but I still want you to be part of this house. Talk to me so we can find a way forward.”

More silence. Sarah thought about what she had said. Did she mean it? Earlier today, she had been considering leaving the house herself. Why was she now fighting to save it? Why not just wash her hands of this whole mess? 

Maybe she should. Maybe that’s what it would come to. But not yet. Not like this. If she were to leave, it would be by her choice, not because she was driven out.

Another question forced its way into her consciousness. How were Rebecca and David walking around in the house? Why weren’t they trapped in the long hallway with her? Was Julia only targeting her? Or were the sigils working again? She quickly retrieved the sigil from the pouch, and as soon as she had, she was back in the house. Whatever had gone wrong had been corrected. Had Julia even done anything? Was Thomas wrong about her being behind it? She wasn’t going to find any answers just sitting around, so she stood and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Rebecca answered the knock immediately.

“Sarah? What’s going on? We saw you briefly in the hall, but you vanished.”

“Got stuck in the long hallway, but it seems to be sorted out now. Has anything happened?”

“Uh . . . You better come in.”

Rebecca was visibly shaking. Even though Sarah was eager to find Julia, this seemed important as well. “Okay. Talk to me.”

A Place Between Places

He didn’t know where he was. It appeared to be a shop of some sort, its shelves overcrowded with a wide assortment of items. Bottles and boxes, clothing and weapons were all shoved, seemingly at random, wherever they might fit. It reminded him of a used bookstore he used to go to, where there were so many books piled everywhere, each step risked knocking something over. But he didn’t recognize this place.

“Can I help you?”

It took him several moments before he realized there was an elderly man seated behind a desk, itself cluttered with numerous objects.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, can I help you? Find whatever you’re looking for.”

“Where am I?”

The man squinted and stared at him through his wire-rimmed spectacles. “You don’t know? Most people come here on purpose. Looking for something.”

“Honestly, I don’t really know where I am. Or how I got here.”

“Why don’t you look around. Maybe you’ll find something to help.”

He wanted to ask more questions, but the man had returned his focus to his desk. So he began to wander through the shelves, looking for anything that might serve as a clue to why he was here. 

Down one aisle there were all manner of weapons: swords, spears, maces, axes. The next aisle over was a display of armor and shields fit for a museum. He longed to pick up each item and inspect it, but it felt inappropriate to do so. On one shelf, a golden apple sat alone. That itself was an oddity in this place, but it was also the most beautiful piece of fruit he had ever seen. His mouth watered just looking at it. Still, it wasn’t for him.

Amongst a group of clocks sat a silver pocket-watch that mesmerized him. His curiosity finally got the better of him, and he reached out to pick it up. His hand stopped when he heard the old man cleared his throat.

“Please don’t touch any of the time pieces. It can be a pain to get them all synced up again.”

Chastened, he drew his hand back and continued his exploration. Everything seemed heavy with purpose and power. The clothing. The weapons. The miscellaneous items. A crystal bottle caught his eye. It was filled with a red fluid that shone through the individual facets, making it appear to be swirling on its own.

“What’s this?”

“That’s a love potion.” The immediacy of his response suggested he hadn’t even looked up.

“Love potion? Like, you have someone drink it, and they fall in love with you?”

“No. You drink it, and you feel love. Helpful for those who have forgotten how.”

A potion that lets you feel love? Strange.

“Look, what is this place?”

The old man took a moment. “It is a place between places. It is a repository for holy grails and magic swords. It is the end of the quest, and the beginning of the battle. It is the destination of every seeker.”

“What? That makes no sense. Why am I here?”

“You must be seeking something.”

What could he be looking for? He had no memory of being on a quest, of looking for something. Now that he was thinking about it, he realized he had no memories at all. Who we was, what he had been doing before coming here. It was all a blank. His thoughts, however, kept drifting back to the bottle.

“How much for the love potion?”

“That’s not how this works. This is a repository, not a shop. If it’s what you’re looking for, take it. If it’s not what you’re looking for, you won’t leave here with it. Simple as that.”

He carefully lifted the crystal bottle off of the shelf. It was lighter than he expected. Now, however, he was faced with a new problem.

“How do I leave?”

“Same way you got here, just in reverse.”

“Huh?”

“You wake up.”

*     *     *

His eyes fluttered open. He was home, in his own bed. The memory of the dream was fading, yet his hand was wrapped around something. It was a crystal bottle that held a swirling red liquid.