Chapter 28: On top of Sacred Mountain
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I couldn’t sleep that night. Sonia and Stacia had left not long after Alex Bancroft. I’d sat up for a while reviewing my situation. It looked hopeless. I was no closer to finding Stephen Nash’s killer. And I was beginning to feel completely at sea among the Children. I had expected to be put off by their attempts to recruit me back, while finding life among them familiar, like it had been when I was young. Instead, they’d made no attempt to take me back, and everything was turning into a mystery which resembled nothing I had recalled from my youth.
It must have been after midnight that I finally got up and decided I had to do something, anything, just to clear my head. I felt like a walk. The problem was that the Milltown Watch was still at my door, and I didn’t want company. So I took a page from Stacia. I dressed in dark clothes and escaped out my bedroom window while the Watch was around the other side of the house. I came down hard, and thought I’d twisted an ankle at first. For once I wished I was petite, like Stacia.
I didn’t feel like doing too much walking after that. So I decided to take the secret path to Sacred Mountain. A lot of the mysteries clung to that place. Maybe if I went there I could solve a few.
It was a short walk to the place where the secret paths picked up, and within a minute I was on top of Sacred Mountain. At least that was where I had planned to come out. But this was not the plaza I remembered. The landmarks around the plaza were the same, but the plaza had radically changed. It looked as if it were made of a cloudy white quartz. The bulk of the plaza had a faint glow as if illuminated from beneath. Not the pentagram, though. It was lit up in a dark red that resembled nothing so much as blood.
There was a figure sitting in the middle of it. It seemed as if the moonlight and the red glow clashed over the figure, for the light on it shifted from so dark a red as to be black, to the purest white, and back, over and over again.
After a while, I made out that it was Stacia. But at the same time, it wasn’t. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. It was so clearly her. And yet, the figure looked even shorter than Stacia, with a rounder face and body, and darker hair. Her eyes were closed, and her face bore that dreamy expression, which looked so like her without quite being her.
I approached to the edge of the plaza. It still looked as if it were made of illuminated quartz, but I could see shadowy patterns moving underneath it. And then as I watched the shapes it came to me what they were: they were people, whether spirits or wraiths or something, swarming under the surface of the plaza.
Then in an instant they were gone. The plaza reverted to its normal appearance. A voice called to me, “Come join me, Emily.” It was Stacia’s voice, I looked up, and it was Stacia, really Stacia, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the pentagram and looking at me as if she was happy to see me. She shifted back a ways to make room for me in the center.
I walked up to the edge of the pentagram and stopped there. “If you don’t mind, Stacia, this is as close as I’ll get. I had a bad experience or two here, as you know.”
She giggled, a sound that reminded me of Jezebel this time. “Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t ask you to join me if it wasn’t safe. C’mon.”
I debated. Well, I’d asked for answers to mysteries, and I might just get some. Of course the last time I’d made a decision like this, Hannah had played hob with my mind. Still, this was Stacia, who was my (half-)sister and who appeared to be on my side. (Ignore the fact that I didn’t understand her.) I stuck a toe over the line into the center, then a whole foot, then leaned forward, and then just went for broke. Nothing happened. So I stepped in and sat down, also cross-legged, facing Stacia. She had the good grace not to say, “I told you so.”
There was something disturbing, even frightening, encountering Stacia up here, even apart from what I had first seen. There had been no wind in Milltown, but up here there was a hot breeze that blew her long blond hair back from her face, which now looked abnormally pale in the moonlight. Save for her eyes. It had to be some trick of the light, for they were perfectly black, reflecting no light at all, as if they were empty holes.
I decided to try to break the spell by engaging in the commonplace. “What are you doing here, Stacia?”
She replied, “Oh, three reasons. First, I come here fairly often. It’s easier to see the Other World here. Second, at the moment I don’t really have any place to stay.”
Oh, yeah, her house had been torched. “Where’s the rest of your quad staying?”
Stacia twisted her face to indicate a distasteful topic. “The others are in Center Village for now. We will not be reuniting. I need to fashion a new quad. As for my third reason, I was waiting here for you.”
It was an odd way to put it, “fashion a new quad.” But I overlooked that because of what she had said last. It implied something I hadn’t considered up to this point. Thinking out loud, I said, “I’m sitting here in this pentagram where I should be going into convulsions, talking to my half-sister who knew I was coming before I did. Stacia, are you an Instrument?”
She shook her head. “No.” After a few moments, she went on. “I suppose I must explain myself, or you will come to wrong conclusions, Emily, and it will be my fault. I love my siblings, all of them, even you and Elsie, though you have not been with us all these years. But I love my sister Sonia most of all. We love each other completely and unconditionally. You do not really know her, Emily. She is very religious, but her religion is that of the written word. She has no spiritual gifts, no way to experience the Other World directly. It gnaws at her soul that she is so limited.
“I live in the Other World, as much or more than I live here, Emily, but I am not an Instrument. Instruments use the Other World, or they are used by the Other World, to deliver messages to this world. I do not use the Other World or let it use me. I live there. For me it is a better place than here. For here people do not say what they mean or mean what they say. In the Other World there is no such duplicity.
“Because I do not communicate messages from the Other World, the Children count my spiritual gifts for naught. And I do not speak of my experiences in the Other World in front of Sonia, if I can help it, for it would embitter her to know I have access to spiritual matters that she can never have. As I said, she loves me unconditionally, and so she deliberately suppresses any knowledge she has of my spiritual gifts, lest it affect our relationship. And I make it easy for her by minimizing and even lying about my experiences when she must hear of them. Yet she knows in the depths of her soul that I have such experiences, and she defers to my judgment in spiritual matters.”
It was a staggering picture of both Stacia and Sonia. And it raised a question I had to ask. “So if you are in the Other World so much, do you speak to the Divine often?”
That caused Stacia to giggle again. “Here you do not believe, but that is the question you ask. Yes, I speak to the Divine all the time, make of that what you will. I said otherwise in front of Sonia to spare her feelings and dignity. The sound of the Divine’s voice is as familiar to me as my own.
“But the Divine is the Divine, and must be treated appropriately. When I speak to the Divine, I am usually careful not to ask questions or express wishes. As I told you last night, that is dangerous. And sometimes guarding one’s self is not enough. My deepest wish, when I first became as I am, was to become even closer to Sonia. The Divine saw that, and granted that wish without my ever asking for it. This has been a great joy to the both of us, but also a great sorrow to me. For I know everything about Sonia, but there are things about me she can never know.”
I did not know what to say to that, and Stacia had stopped talking, so silence descended on Sacred Mountain. And then through another trick of the light, I suppose, Stacia’s eyes became visible as two bright orbs, even the dark pupils seeming to shine. She looked at me as if she could see though me and asked, “So why are you here, Emily? I mean, it was obvious you were coming here, but I don’t actually know why.”
That last statement gave me pause. However weird though she often seemed, and this was one of those weird times, Stacia had a reputation for being intelligent, to the point even Sonia deferred to her. (I did not care to consider exactly why, in light of what Stacia had just said.) I definitely needed to talk with somebody I trusted. At the moment, Stacia was probably the best I could do. So I plunged in. “I’m beginning to think I’m in way over my head, Stacia. I don’t know who killed Nash. I don’t understand what’s going on among the Children right now. I sure as hell do not understand Hannah Wyatt or this place. And, sorry to say this, but even though I’m telling you all this, I’m pretty sure I don’t understand you.”
“And you came here because?”
“A lot of mysteries seem to start here, everything from why my family got expelled to this ludicrous idea that I’m the Prophesied One.”
Stacia mulled over what I said. “The idea may not be so ludicrous. You are connected to many of the troubles that have arisen. There is a pattern here.”
I shivered, recalling that Hilda Strong had said much the same. Stacia didn’t notice, but just kept on speaking. “I would not be surprised if there is some specific connection between yourself and the murder of Stephen Nash that is yet to emerge.
“And then there is Alex Bancroft himself, our official Prophesied One. He is a mystery, and he is deeply involved in all of this. I had not met him before this night, but you have been in his company a good deal. Tell me what you know of him.”
It was safe ground, or at least safer ground than me being at the center of a pattern, so I responded without even wondering at Stacia’s reasons for asking. I recapitulated all of my encounters with Alex, and told Stacia what Bonnie and my agency had found. Stacia listened intently, but she did not speak a word until I finished.
Save once. When I mentioned Alex’s relationship with Elsie, Stacia surprised me by remarking, “Elsie must be something special. By all accounts, Alex could have an entire harem of young women if he wanted.” It not only made me feel a bit better, but had me wondering just what Alex did see in Elsie. I would have to spend more time with my sister and find out.
When I concluded, Stacia sat there silent for some time, unmoving, a puzzled look on her face. “What you’ve told me explains a great deal, Emily,” she finally said. “Alex Bancroft is playing some sort of game here. What the game is, I don’t know yet. He is very good at it. But somehow Hannah, or you, or someone else has upset his game. He is worried and frustrated, though he tries to conceal it. He spoke perhaps more freely than he intended this evening, and revealed some important clues.”
“Well, I can’t figure out what those clues are,” I replied.
Stacia looked baffled by my reply at first, then got a knowing smile on her face. “Of course. You came here looking for the solutions. But you are not equipped to solve the mysteries here, Emily.”
All I needed to hear, my bewildering half-sister telling me I’m inadequate, as if I didn’t already know that. “Thanks.”
Stacia heard the dejection in my voice. “No, no, you’re taking this the wrong way, Emily.” Stacia stood up, and I joined her. “Look about you, Emily. Although this site is supposed to be off-limits, this really is the spiritual heart of the Children. This is not your world. You are not of the Children anymore, and you do not have sufficient spiritual gifts to be an Instrument. Left to yourself, you cannot solve the spiritual mysteries here.
“But this is my world, Emily. Not yours, not the High Council’s, not even Hannah Wyatt’s, Instrument of the Divine though she is. This is my world. I paid for it with my body and soul. You come to me with your questions about this world, and I will find you your answers. And that will free you to do what you must on your own.”
Stacia paused to give me time to think about what she had said, and then went on. “This is the first mystery I will explain to you. Although he tries to hide it, Alex Bancroft has spiritual gifts. I knew Selena, Emily, to our mutual regret, and I am certain she would not have selected Alex even to be a fake Prophesied One if she was not convinced he had gifts. Everything he has done since confirms it. He has waged few battles, but he has won everything he has seriously tried for. The wonder is not that people oppose him, but that he had been so successful despite denying the very title he has been given.
“And this is the second mystery I will explain to you. Alex has often stated he brought you here to solve Stephen Nash’s murder. But his words this evening are but one proof he has been trying to get you back for some time. The effort to reopen your family’s case before the High Council is yet another proof. Whatever his plans for you, he has been working on them for years. And that suggests that he foresaw a crisis, too, even if he is no believer in prophesying. How that is possible, I do not yet understand. Perhaps the clue is in Lavinia Priest’s prophecy. I will go to him in the morning and demand to see it.”
Stacia had just told me nothing, nothing at all that I shouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own. And yet, she was right. I was no longer of the Children, and their theology and spiritual powers were too foreign for me to readily understand. Hell, I didn’t even understand how some of what I’d seen was even possible. And I did not understand Stacia herself, or what price she had paid to be the authority here on Sacred Mountain. But Stacia did understand these things, all these things, and she had put her understanding to my service. Things now began to look a lot clearer.
I felt hope return. Hope, Alex Bancroft had said, was what religious leaders provided. And if that were so, then Stacia was at this moment my religious leader. The religion we shared had no name, it was not that of the New Revelation nor my own casually indifferent belief. Perhaps it was nothing more than in a belief in ourselves and our odd family. But it was our faith and our hope, and it would do for now.
Without really thinking about what I was doing, I turned and walked to the rim of the plaza, looking out toward the Children’s villages. There’s a murderer out there, I thought to myself. And he may have all the hocus-pocus the Children somehow command. But he’s still human. And I may not be a detective, but I have more training to solve this kind of problem than anyone else here, save probably Bonnie.
Stacia had quietly joined me. She broke the silence by asking, “What are you thinking, Emily?”
I turned and smiled. “I was thinking about what I should do next. Bonnie told me the only way I’d solve this murder was to go among the Children. I may need your help to understand them, but they are people, people with needs and wants and desires just like people elsewhere. The more I understand them, the better I’ll be able to solve Stephen Nash’s murder.”
“I’ll do what I can to help,” Stacia told me. For an instant, it seemed as if we slipped back to that other plaza, the plaza of quartz, and that other Stacia was facing me. And then everything reverted back to normal.
I wasn’t sure as if I imagined the change or not, and Stacia took no notice. But it gave me an odd feeling, as if the world had shifted slightly. So I said to Stacia, “I’d best get back and get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day.”
Stacia nodded and added, “And I’ll have to start by trying to talk Alex Bancroft into letting me see Lavinia’s prophecy.”
Though she was clearly my superior in the Children’s spiritual matters, I could not help but caution her on that. “It took Selena years to decode Lavinia’s prophecy.”
Stacia didn’t bat an eye. “Then it should take me days at the most.” She gestured out to the pentagram, a smile on her face. “Besides, if I have to, I can always talk to Lavinia’s ghost.”
End of chapter twenty-eight