Chapter 22: Going where one has gone before
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Realistically, what I should have done next was go to Hannah and request her help in talking with her mother. Penelope Wyatt might be able to tell me not just where Nash was killed, but who killed him. Nothing else could be more important. But I was still spooked by what happened with Hannah the previous day. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d just start acting like I was hypnotized once again.
Instead, I decided to go investigate the secret paths some more. I figured that the more I knew about them, the more I’d be able to narrow down who could have used them to move Nash’s body from the deserted village to Hilltop. It was a stupid choice. If Penelope could tell me what I wanted to know, then it wouldn’t matter what else I learned about the secret paths.
It was a stupid choice. Yet, in retrospect, it may have been the right one.
I went back to the Burns Cottage. Tanya still had not returned. I left her a note saying I might be late for dinner again. And then I set out to survey the secret paths.
My first step was simply to prove I could repeat a journey. Twice I had gone from Milltown to Hilltop. So I walked over to the spot just north of my cottage and looked for the secret path again. As I expected, it appeared again when I focused on it, and I took the path. I ended up in the same clearing at Hilltop, not far from where Stephen Nash’s body was found. I could indeed repeat a journey, no question about it.
My next step was to try to figure out how many secret paths there were from that clearing. So I tried to concentrate on being shown all the paths.
I didn’t quite get it right. Instead of seeing all the paths from that clearing in Hilltop, I saw all of the paths, the entire network. It was weird. It was as if I could see all over the Children’s lands, enough to see the network of secret paths. It was a web, with every intersection a point where you could enter and exit the paths. How I could see this, I didn’t understand. And the first time I saw it, it surprised me so much I lost it immediately, and found myself staring at the clearing again. But I was able to bring it back again, more easily if I closed my eyes. I could see the network. I could see energies flowing through it. All the energy came from one point in the web. And that is where I decided to go. I wanted to find out what created the web.
So I stepped onto the path that would take me directly to the source. It was the path to Sacred Mountain.
The secret path came out at the top of Sacred Mountain. I found myself facing a large open space. There was a plaza here, a plaza made of trimmed stone. It was overgrown at the edges, but not so much that it hid the circular design of the plaza. Most of the stone was a light gray granite. There was a large inlaid design done in black marble at the center of the plaza. It was a pentagram.
I couldn’t have been more shocked if you had put a high voltage line through me. I stared at it and stared at it. The worst of it was, I realized I had seen it before. I’d always thought I’d taken the idea of the pentagrams I stuck on things from the world’s pop culture when I was a teen. But no, I’d seen this first. I argued with myself that I’d never been to the top of Sacred Mountain before. Not knowingly, memory replied. But you have seen this, Emily. You really and truly were here once before. You were here in Selena’s company.
I dredged up the memory as best I could. We had walked here. Selena hadn’t told me where we were going, just someplace special. We had not climbed a hill. Selena must have known about the secret paths. She’d used them to bring me here. Either she didn’t think I could climb the hill at that age, or she didn’t want me to know where I was. I’d bet on the latter being the truth.
She had told me the five points represented the five villages. I’d said there were six, and she told me Hilltop hadn’t been established when this was built. The plaza had been built by North Villagers. And the crown point was aligned with North Village. She asked me if I could find it.
In my memory and in the present, I walked around the stone plaza. The five points were identical. There was no appreciable difference between them. Not a visible difference. But one point was more powerful than the others. I couldn’t explain how I knew that back then, and still couldn’t explain it now.
In the past, I must have walked onto that point. But I didn’t remember doing so. In fact, I don’t remember exactly what happened next, except that I was horribly ill for days afterwards. The rest was gone.
With nothing to lose, I stepped onto the point oriented on North Village, facing outward toward that village.
The moment I was standing with both feet in the point, I could actually see North Village in the distance. And I saw it up close. It was as if I were seeing double. The village was miles away. The village was right here with me. I could see all of it, up close and in detail. I could see every street, every building. It was as if I had panorama vision in every direction. No, more than that, I could even see inside the buildings. I had 3-D X-ray wrap-around panorama vision! I could see what everyone was doing, however public, however secret. And no one could see me.
I was wrong about that, though. One person could see me. I saw Hannah Wyatt talking to Ethan Knowles in her cottage. She suddenly jumped up and turned to face me. She saw me! Somehow she saw me. She looked very alarmed, and shouted something to me. But I couldn’t hear it. She shouted again, and in frustration began waving her hands. I thought she was trying to tell me to move out of the star point.
I stepped backwards, back into the center of the pentagram. And then it truly felt as if a massive electrical current was coursing through my body. I remember gasping for breath, and then nothing more.
I woke up in a sunlit bedroom. It wasn’t mine. I was in a nightgown. It wasn’t mine, either. And there was an unfamiliar woman sitting in the room, reading.
I tried to sit up, felt weak, tried to say something, and found my throat was dry. The woman heard me, observed, “Oh, you’re up,” got up and poured me a glass of water.
I drank it slowly, looking at the woman. She was short, slight woman with long dark hair and black-framed glasses that dominated her face. She looked quite young, but I guessed she was in her mid-twenties. She looked concerned, but friendly.
Once I could speak, naturally I asked, “Who are you? Where am I? And what happened to me?”
She smiled. “You sound sensible now. That’s good. You’ve been raving the last few times you woke up. You are Emily Fisher, I am Regina Lawrence, and you are in Lakeview. I hope that much makes sense, at least.”
Lakeview?? My face must have conveyed my puzzlement, because Regina’s smile changed to a look of concern again. I didn’t want her to think I was off my head, which I hoped I wasn’t, so I said, “Me Emily, you Regina, this Lakeview. Got it. Except the last part. I wasn’t in Lakeview the last I remember. I hope that doesn’t constitute proof I’m raving.”
Regina’s smile returned. “I hope so, too. As for why you’re here, you had a great shock of some kind. Alex can tell you more. I’ll go get him. He wanted to know when you woke up, anyhow.”
If this was Lakeview, then Alex was presumably the Prophesied One, and this was his other girlfriend. She didn’t look at all like Elsie. Or like the fellow named Lawrence who’d been whipped. That I could figure out things like that proved to me I was OK, at least now.
Apparently, when I’d been out of my mind, there was one thing I hadn’t bothered to do, and I needed to urgently enough that I actually got up to try to find a bathroom. This did not seem like such a good idea when I could barely balance on my own two feet without grabbing something for support, but my bladder wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. I staggered to the bathroom, feeling very weak, and relieved one of my worries, while adding another: could I walk back to the bed? I began, and was halfway back to bed when Alex Bancroft showed up and helped me the rest of the way.
Once I got settled I gave him an annoyed look. “You keep cropping up everywhere I go.”
That got him smiling. Either I was a natural comedienne or everyone just thought me nice. Alex replied, “This time it was scarcely my fault. Hannah interrupted a pleasant afternoon swim of mine to have me haul your unconscious body off of Sacred Mountain. It would have been a shame if you’d joined the people who died up there.”
“What happened to me?”
“Hmmm, I was hoping you could tell me that. There weren’t any burrs or the like in your pants legs, so clearly you took one of the secret paths to the top of the mountain. Idle curiosity?”
I thought about that. “A bit. You know about the secret paths?”
Alex gave me a wink as he replied, “Your sister isn’t the only person who uses them to get around. But why Sacred Mountain?”
“It seemed like it was the source of the system of paths, if that makes any sense.”
He nodded to that. “It does. It actually is. And then I suppose you must have stepped on the star point that is oriented to North Village, or else you wouldn’t have scared the living daylights out of Hannah. Maybe you’d done that once before?”
I gave him a sharp glance. “How do you know that? I didn’t even remember that until I was up there.” He didn’t immediately answer, so I added, “I suppose this is just one of those things you know. Huh!”
Alex held up his hand as if to get me to stop. “No, nothing like that. I’ll explain how I know that later. But to get back to Hannah, she saw you, much the same way you saw her, I imagine. She could tell you didn’t understand what was happening to you, and she tried to tell you to get off the pentagram before it was too late. I take it you didn’t hear her.”
“No. I stepped backward instead, into the center of the pentagram.”
“Which is where Hannah found you less than two minutes later.” Alex gave a hearty laugh. “Hannah didn’t know about the secret paths, but when she needed desperately to get up there and save you, she found them. You were sprawled in the center of the pentagram, your body continually racked by convulsions. The moment you saw Hannah, you began cursing her. I gather from Hannah that you have an impressive vocabulary of curses.
“Seeing what was happening to you, Hannah was so terrified of what might happen to her if she entered the pentagram that she actually fouled her clothes, but she went in anyhow and dragged you out. Chops to that girl for courage. Once she hauled you out, you just collapsed. Hannah wasn’t doing much better. It had been a hell of a strain on her to step unprepared into the pentagram. She knew the both of you needed help, and figured that if there was a secret path from North Village to Sacred Mountain, there was probably one from Sacred Mountain to Lakeview. So she came across it to find me and let me know what had happened before it was her turn to collapse.”
Alex paused, so I interjected, “Why you? Why did Hannah hunt you down? I thought she doesn’t like you?”
“Well, more like she doesn’t approve of me, to be exact. However, Hannah seems to think you are under my protection. Must be because of something you said to her the other day.” Alex shrugged. “It doesn’t much matter. Anyhow, I went and retrieved you from Sacred Mountain, and Regina and I fixed the two of you up. Hannah wasn’t really hurt, only badly frightened and a bit ashamed of dirtying her clothes. She left this morning.”
“It’s Sunday afternoon, Emily. You’ve been out of it for a whole day.” Alex reached forward and ruffled my hair as if I were some sort of kid. “Don’t worry. I’ve let Elsie and Sonia know where you are, and told them to keep quiet about it until you’re up and about again.”
One less worry. But that left the big question. “What happened to me up there? Why did I go into convulsions? I’m not an epileptic or anything.”
Alex stopped smiling. He ran his hands through his hair. “No, but much the same thing happened to you the first time you were up there.”
I didn’t hide my exasperation. “I’m asking you again, how the hell do you know that?”
“Selena Sawyer told me.” Alex gave me a pitying look. I was getting a lot of those. It seemed like everyone knew more about me than I did myself. He went on. “Think about what that looked like to Selena, Emily. You were on the mountain where Instruments sometimes still go surreptitiously to be tested. Selena guided you into the pentagram, you fell down in convulsions and began cursing her, just as you did Hannah this time. What would that sound like to the Children, Emily? What would they think it meant about you?”
He’d already all but spelled it out. “It would look like I was an Instrument, an Instrument of Demons.” There are supposed to be demons in the Other World. Instruments don’t try to contact them normally. But spewing curses is supposed to be a sign of being in contact with demons. And there’s only one reason an Instrument would willingly become a mouthpiece for demons: if the Instrument were a demonolater.
All the pieces came together, and I realized exactly why Selena had gotten my family expelled. It really was me, after all. I had repeatedly told Selena I wanted to be an Instrument. Selena must have taken me at my word and brought me to Sacred Mountain to test me. And when I stepped in the pentagram, I fell into convulsions and cursed Selena. She would have thought I had become an Instrument of Demons, proof I was a demonolater. That was why Selena had me expelled. Not because of the Priests of dubious reputation. Not because of demon worship. No, it was because, through no fault of her own, a little girl once had a fit on a mountain top. And I was that little girl.
End of chapter twenty-two