Chapter 24: Visitors
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I had voicemail from Bonnie on the landline when I arrived back at the Burns Cottage. So I called her up. She was in a testy mood because the High Council wasn’t keeping her informed of what was going on, despite their informal understanding. And she was puzzled as well, because, as she put it, “there hasn’t been anything like this among the Children that I can remember. Of course, there hadn’t been a murder up there, either, until Nash got killed.” So I briefed her on what I knew, based on what Stacia and Hilda had told me. In exchange, she was able to tell me that my half-sister Gail was recovering over in Hanover, while Ben had been flown to some hospital in Boston.
Bonnie frankly asked me if I felt threatened or wanted to be pulled off the Children’s lands. “Fighting a mob single-handed is a stupid way to be killed,” she told me. I told her that I was being guarded by the Milltown Watch, which made her almost happy. She rang off, promising to give me a call after my trial.
I was reconciled to being stuck at the cottage until this “trial,” but it really irked me that there wasn’t much of anything I could do. At least my Internet connection was still up, so I spent some time catching up on the news in the rest of the world. Same thing with cable news while eating my dinner.
It was still sunny out when I heard an altercation at my front door. With relief, I recognized one of the voices and went and opened the front door. There was Elsie, looking as if she was ready to assault both of the guards at my door. She saw me and exclaimed, “Would you tell these idiots I’m your sister, and I don’t need anyone’s damn permission to see you?”
One of the Watch guards standing between her and the door turned to me and apologetically said, “We were just going to call you and ask you if we should let her come in. Those are our orders from the treasurer, to ask you first before letting anyone in.”
It took me a moment to remember that Sonia was the Milltown treasurer. I sighed. “This is my sister Elsie Fisher. She may come and go freely.”
“Right, miss.” The two guards stood aside, and Elsie marched in, after giving them a disdainful glance. I was about to step inside myself, when the guard who had spoken said to me in an undertone, “Pardon me, miss, but is that your sister that’s supposed to be possessed by a demon?” Fearing where this was going, I reluctantly nodded. The guard considered the matter a moment, and then said, “She lives up to her reputation, miss. No offense intended.”
Time to sigh, again. “I know. None taken.” I went in.
We’d barely had a moment to speak when the door opened again and Alex Bancroft came walking in. I suppose I expected to see my sister rush into his arms. Instead, she looked him up and down, and then asked in an offended tone, “How come the Watch didn’t stop you from coming in?”
Alex had on his usual grin. “Remember I’m the Prophesied One? Rank has its privileges. They’d no sooner think of stopping me than Sonia. Besides, I told them I’d come here to exorcise the demon out of you.” And then in the accepted manner of young lovers, Alex swept my sister up in his arms, and they billed and cooed at each other for a bit. It was kind of odd to see them like that for the first time. I felt uncomfortable, then got after myself for being a prude. I normally wasn’t like this. Guess it must have been because I still thought of Elsie as my little sister, though she little resembled the sister I once knew.
We settled down around my kitchen table with coffee or warmed cider, and I asked Elsie, “Not that I’m not happy to see you Else, but why are you here?”
Elsie curled her lips, sat back, and said, “Your Defender called me in to give me the third degree on how I’d been corrupting your slave Tanya. Is Sonia really our half-sister, Em?”
“Dad says so. You heard him.”
“Yeah, well I guess that makes sense. She’s got that same ‘I’m always right’ character. Phew!” Elsie downed some coffee before continuing, and as she spoke she turned to Alex. “Regina told me she’s about the worst patient imaginable. So she got beaten by a mob?”
Alex nodded. “Along with two of your three other half-siblings. Speaking of which, I ran into the only uninjured one, Stacia, just outside of West Village. She’s the one who told me you were back here, Emily.”
Considering that she’d almost been killed in West Village yesterday, this was either brave or foolhardy of her, I wasn’t sure which. I was having trouble figuring Stacia. “What was she doing there?”
“Seeing what was left of her home.” When Alex saw the blank look on my face, he added, “I take it you’ve not heard that a quarter of West Village burnt down late this morning. Someone torched the house where Stacia lived, and the fire spread. The West Village Watch was in no condition to respond, even to a fire in their own village, so Watch members from North, Center and Milltown were called in. About the only good to come out of this is that the High Council met again this afternoon and not only suspended both the West Village council and Watch, but made it stick as well. Watch members from Center and Milltown are patrolling West Village. North Village also sent Watch members, but they had to be withdrawn after they were attacked repeatedly. Pity, that: the Center Village Watch is seriously undermanned thanks to the casualties they took rescuing your siblings.” By the time he finished this, Alex had lost his usual smile and looked quite grim.
All this violence and turmoil of the last two days seemed to come out of nowhere to me, as it had to Bonnie, and I said so. “What the hell is going on, Alex? I’ve never heard of anything like this among the Children.”
“Not in your lifetime, that’s true.” Alex shrugged, then leaned forward on the table facing me. “It looks as if someone’s been stirring up a lot of old animosities and fears, and then directing them against you, Emily, you and anyone associated with you.
“Normally that would include me, too; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this broke out in a True Believer stronghold. But the Children have been really shaken up by what happened in West Village. Bad enough it was a lawless mob, worse still that they attacked a prominent member of a village council. Sonia may not be much beloved, but she commands respect, both for her office and her character, and it sticks in people’s craw that she was treated like a criminal. Even the West Villagers who were in the mob don’t understand what’s happened to them. To the Children I’m the Prophesied One, or at least I may be the Prophesied One, and one of the jobs of a religious leader is to provide comfort and direction. So I’ve been able to walk and minister freely anywhere on the Children’s lands. Today, no one, not even any of the True Believers, wanted to argue with me. They wanted someone to make sense of things, to give them hope.
“I did what I could. For the moment things are quiet. But it’s not over. There are still a lot of ugly tensions waiting to erupt. And I suspect it will be your trial, stupid idea though that is, that will set them off, Emily. So you keep those Watch guards.” Alex sat back in his chair, smiled, and stifled a sudden laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Oh, Sonia assigning the Watch to guard you,” Alex replied. “Not that it isn’t a good idea, mind you. It’s just that, even though she’s Milltown’s treasurer, Sonia does not officially have the authority to order the Watch around on her own. Still, I don’t expect them to question her orders any time soon.” And this time he didn’t bother stifling a chuckle.
I decided to switch topics to yet another mystery. “I have several hundred questions to ask you about Sacred Mountain and what happened to me up there, Alex.”
Elsie chimed in, “That makes two of us.”
Alex rubbed his eyes, looked back and forth between us, and then sighed. “And I don’t have all the answers you want. But let me offer an explanation first, and see how many of your questions it answers.
“You have these people, Instruments, among the Children. There are similar figures in many other religions, people with spiritual powers. Well, it turns out almost everyone has a trace of what makes an Instrument in their make-up, but it’s usually so little they never notice and they will never become Instruments or their equivalents in their culture. And then some people have much more of this, well, call it spiritual capacity, and they become Instruments either spontaneously or under the appropriate influences. Got it?
“Sacred Mountain is, among other things, an Instrument-making place. Most people are unaffected when they go up there, because they don’t have enough spiritual capacity. But people who do, they go up there, get activated, so to speak, and come back down as Instruments.
“Unfortunately, there are some people who have enough of this spiritual capacity to be affected by Sacred Mountain, but not enough to actually become Instruments. The mountain keeps trying to change them into Instruments, but it can’t succeed. The effect on the people in question is traumatic. Typically, they suffer hallucinations, extreme pain, and convulsions. Eventually they just collapse and die.”
We all sat there in silence for a bit. I figured I had to say it. “That’s what happened to me? The mountain tried to kill me?”
“In a manner of speaking. Intention has nothing to do with it, though. That’s just the way someone like you is affected when near something like that. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons the upper parts of Sacred Mountain were declared off-limits by the High Council. After Lavinia Priest perished, they didn’t want any more people dying up there.”
It was disturbing to realize I had been almost killed by . . . well, what? A mountain? I was lost just thinking about it. So it was Elsie who asked Alex the next question. “Why did Lavinia die up there? I thought you told me she was an Instrument.”
Alex thought a bit about that one before replying. “Oh, she was. In fact, she was a self-proclaimed Instrument of the Divine, and she sat on the High Council.”
I had to object. “Instruments can’t sit on the High Council.”
Alex shook his head. “There is no such rule. It’s only a custom that began after Lavinia’s death. Exactly why it happened that way has to do with the theological and political conflicts that broke out between the refugees who settled North Village and the rest of the Children, as well as what happened with Lavinia herself. The disdain the other villages have for North Village, the particularly bitter relationship between North and West Villages? They all date from that era, even though the original causes are long forgotten.
“But I digress. Lavinia knew she and the North Villagers were losing in the theological and political controversies of the day, and she came up with a master plan to turn the tide. She had the plaza on Sacred Mountain constructed, and from there created the secret paths, which incidentally demonstrates that Lavinia was an Instrument of a very high order. But the secret paths were only a preliminary step. As near as I can tell from the manuscript she left behind, Lavinia’s ultimate goal was to use the secret paths and the energies on Sacred Mountain to transform all of the Children into Instruments of the Divine.”
My jaw dropped. “That’s . . . that’s . . . you mean there would have been thousands of Instruments?”
Alex nodded, turned to Elsie. “It’s hard to appreciate just what that means unless you grew up among the Children, or have studied them as much as I have. Just think of it as everyone you know turning into a combination of your father and God.”
Elsie winked at me and said to Alex, “For once, love, I’m sorry I’ve never introduced you to my father. He already knows he’s God.”
I had to smile at that, but told Elsie, “You may find this hard to believe, but if he were an Instrument of the Divine, he’d be even worse.” And then I asked Alex, “How was this supposed to settle the disputes between North Village and the rest of the Children?”
Alex sat back, a thoughtful look on his face. “I’ve often wondered that myself, Emily. Lavinia never explained. Best guess is that she figured that when everyone was an Instrument of the Divine just like her, they’d think just like her.
“Anyhow, it was a bold and brilliant idea, the like of which I’ve never heard of before. And there’s a good reason for that. It was also barking mad. Lavinia’s plan never could have worked. The best guess is that she tried to carry out her plan, and unleashed forces she couldn’t control that killed her and everyone else who was up there on Sacred Mountain with her.
“Lavinia’s death doomed North Village’s attempt to remake the Children in their image. But it left a lot of the disputes unresolved and a legacy of tensions that broke out again in the schism that destroyed Aurora in 1932, and which look like they’re emerging once again.”
Elsie asked, “What’s Aurora?”
“It was a village on the Sacred Lands north of the present North Village.” Alex turned to me. “I hear children from North Village sometimes go play among the ruins.”
I tried to sound offhanded. “Oh, yeah, we called it the deserted village. Never even knew it was called Aurora.”
Alex kept looking at me as if he expected me to say more, as if he knew more. I tried to keep an unconcerned appearance on my face, but could feel myself starting to blush with embarrassment, and looked away.
Alex took that as his cue to leave. He stood up. “End of history lesson. I need to get back to Lakeview tonight. Come on, Elsie. I’ll tell the Watch that I’m bodyguarding you off the Children’s lands.” And the two of them departed laughing.
Alex’s little lecture had given me a lot to think about. I still had trouble making sense out of the idea that a mountain could kill me. But it almost had, twice apparently.
That I might have some sort of limited spiritual capacity made just a little bit more sense. The Priests weren’t notorious for nothing, and Lavinia was only the first who troubled the Children with weird ideas and strange deeds. But apart from almost getting me killed, I could see no evidence for it.
Alex’s suggestion that the current tensions reflected an older struggle made considerably more sense. West and Center Villages had always been more traditional, while North and Lakeview always had a whiff of heresy clinging to them. But why was the conflict reemerging now? Just because of me? Or was it Nash’s murder? Or the coming of Alex Bancroft? Why the hell did Selena ever name Alex the Prophesied One? Why does he deny it, and still stay here?
I got to spend the rest of my afternoon and evening with such profitless speculations. At one point, I got up to raid the kitchen, and saw that the bottle of festival spirits had been replaced with a new one. I was almost tempted to drink the stuff at this point. But I stuck to the root beer.
There were no further knocks on my door, but I was not through with visitors for that day. At about nine in the evening, I was sitting in the study, thinking and drinking root beer, more the latter than the former. Without warning, I heard a voice behind me softly calling my name. It caused me to jump a bit in my chair. I turned around, and there was Stacia sitting there.
All I could think to say was, “The Watch let you through?”
Stacia was in her hyper-aware state again (or maybe still, for all I knew). She shook her head. “I wanted to test how securely you were guarded, so I tried to find a way in that they weren’t watching. I came in through one of the windows in your bedroom upstairs. And then it was a challenge to see if I could sneak into the room you were in without your noticing. So here I am.”
My half-sister the ninja. I had to wonder how she’d scaled the wall to my second-story bedroom window.
Stacia went on. “I would have come sooner, but I had to go all the way to the top of Sacred Mountain to find Hannah Wyatt. She was standing in the middle of the pentagram when I found her. She told me that she has not made any accusations of demon worship against you, and in fact thinks you are being directed by the Divine.”
I was happy to hear that Hannah was not involved. Apparently she really meant her pledge to me that she’d do me no harm. “What was she doing standing in the pentagram up there?”
Stacia shook her head. “If you’re smart, you don’t question an Instrument of the Divine, Emily. You might get an answer that you just won’t like.”
End of chapter twenty-four