Chapter 32: The Battle of Sacred Mountain
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I woke up standing in the pentagram on top of Sacred Mountain in the Other World next to Grandmother Lavinia. It was night, and lightning cracked repeatedly across a cloudless sky. Stacia Fletcher, Alex Bancroft, and Hannah Wyatt were planning to attack Lavinia, and I needed Emily’s gift to fight them, so I took Emily over.
Alex was standing at the apex of one of the points. “Well done, Lavinia,” he said. “Regina told me Emily should be out for another half hour. I’m impressed by your power.”
I ignored him. The creature that called herself Stacia Fletcher was the greatest danger to me. She knew this place too well and had great power. I turned to find her standing at the apex of the North Village star point. Of course, Stacia always took the lead on those rare occasions she did anything. She was as Eliza had once been, back when Eliza was alive.
In this world Stacia’s bastard genesis was obvious from her appearance. She looked neither like Stacia nor her mother Emma, but an intermediate form of both, as befit her true nature. Oh, well I knew her from all the time she spent here on Sacred Mountain. She had spoken with me several times before, never realizing I was studying her to see how I could bend her to my purposes.
It was clear from how she looked and spoke that she had never come to terms with what she had done to herself. She hid her nature in the normal world. And so her wants and aims were petty. She had no desire to use her power, for to use it she would have to admit what she was.
That vulnerability would be her undoing. I reached out with Emily’s gift to find the chinks in her mind, to grasp her uncertainties, doubts, and fears as I spoke to her. “You seek to judge me, you abomination? Which are you, Eustacia or Emma?”
Stacia shuddered and almost stepped out of the star point, so surprised was she to learn I knew her true nature. Trying to deal with what I was saying was making her confused. Oh, I’ve only started, Stacia. I reached in deeper into her mind, hunting her guilt and self-loathing. “Did you kill your mother, Eustacia? Or did you kill your daughter, Emma? There’s blood on your hands either way, isn’t there?” Her confusion gave way to horror, as I forced her to remember what had happened to her when she first came here. That opened the floodgates of her self-hatred. I rubbed it in further. “Just what are you anymore? A freak, something that shouldn’t exist. People treat you with contempt, ‘Spacy Stacy,’ but they’d loathe you even more if they knew what sort of monstrosity you really are.” Good, I could feel despair seizing her mind. I intensified that, and then struck the final deadly blow. “Even Sonia would hate you, if she weren’t ashamed of her love for you, too.”
That’s all it took, as I knew it would. I’d struck at that creature at the one thing she couldn’t accept about herself. Worse, I’d made her believe Sonia would betray her, Sonia who she loved above all others. Stacia crumbled, falling out of the star point onto the plaza, crying uncontrollably, curling up in a ball as she desperately tried to hide her face from the world, so deep was her shame. The spell the three of them had woven to contain me fell apart. I was free. It was that easy.
The Instrument of the Divine was next. Oh, she thought she was invulnerable, but like most people she lived in denial of her own feelings. I could sense how she was still young and insecure about her role. I needed to unsettle her, to make her vulnerable. She thought of the Other World as being a glorious, wonderful place, where she could peacefully commune with the Divine and forget her fears. That is what she’d done when she came here. It was so typical of younger Instruments, particularly Instruments of the Divine. Temperance Bell had been like that before she dared oppose me when I first came to Quasopon. But there was more to the mountain than that. I had shown Temperance the dark side of her Divine, and Temperance, unable to accept what she had been shown, had fled Quasopon, never to return.
This Hannah Wyatt was no Temperance. She was younger, weaker in character, malleable. I would show her what she refused to see, and when she crumbled I would take her in hand and shape her to her proper role.
I called up the ghosts of those who had died here. I had them appear to Hannah as horrid wraiths: wasted bodies, expressions of madness on their faces, curses and nonsense in their voices. The wraiths took Hannah by surprise. In her inexperience, she cowered in fear, rather than order them down as she could have. That made the rest easy. I reached into her mind and intensified her fear, until it spiraled out of control. And then I applied the finishing touch: I brought up an eidolon of her mother at the worst of her madness, gibbering nonsense, behaving like a subhuman animal. That’s what spawned you, I made her believe, and with the belief, Hannah imagined her conception and birth as hideous caricatures, all the more revolting for Hannah’s own ignorance in such matters. It was too much for the girl, she’d lived ashamed of her mother for so long, and she fainted rather than confront what she had brought up in her own mind.
Only Alex Bancroft was left. To my annoyance, I could not reach into his mind. Somehow he was protected against me. But no matter. If I had to, I could completely take over the two I had struck down, and together we could harness the lightning. “You’ve lost your allies, Alex Bancroft. Leave, and I’ll spare your life. Stay, and I will slay you, if I do not treat you as I have treated these two.”
Alex looked unconcerned. “You mean those three; what you’ve done to Emily is no better, far from it.” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t think you understand your position, Lavinia. So let me explain it to you. You have a choice. Release your hold on all three of them. I’ll persuade Emily to be the Prophesied One voluntarily, and save the Children from self-destruction. You get what you want, I get what I want. Or else you’re the one who will be destroyed.”
The man was too cocksure, another Ebenezer Harrison. One cannot lie in the Other World, but somehow Alex Bancroft had to be lying. Perhaps, like Ebenezer, he was self-deluded. I gave him one last opportunity to see the truth. “You don’t have the power to destroy me, while I do have the power to destroy you.”
My threat did not seem to bother him at all. Far from it, he looked amused, as he did so often. “You don’t really understand what you’re up against, do you, Lavinia? Do you know what my most important spiritual gift is?”
So much like Ebenezer, damn him. And he had a point: I did not know what this man could do. So I offered a jibe, in hopes he would reveal his vulnerabilities. “Probably boring people with talk while you delay your doom.”
That brought a smile to his lips. “I take it that’s a ‘no.’ Then I’ll tell you. I can see the present.”
What folly, what conceit! I could not restrain the contempt in my voice. “Everyone can see the present, save the blind.”
“And in this, you’re blind yourself, Lavinia.” Alex sat down on the plaza and gestured that I should do the same. I did not. He would not catch me off-guard.
Now sitting, Alex continued speaking. “When I see the present, when I study the present as it is before me, I see it in great detail, in all of its complexity. I can take that vision, and run it backward or forward in time, with high reliability. You’ve heard of the idea that the universe could be modeled as a clockwork machine, one that could be run back and forward in time? That’s how my vision works. So in effect I can see the past and future. Oh, people with spiritual gifts make it harder. Stacia there threw my plans way out of whack, because she’s so powerful but uses it so little. Just look what she did to Hannah and Emily without even thinking about it.”
“So you’re trying to scare me by telling me you foresaw this situation? It appears your abilities exceed your judgment. Apparently your vision couldn’t deal with me, either.” I let my scorn for this man show in the tone of my voice.
Alex shrugged. “That was a possibility. But you underestimate me, Lavinia, by thinking me as foolish as yourself. Naturally, with a gift like mine, I had to become good at planning things. I don’t make a move without seeing the consequences, and planning accordingly. And that includes planning for failure, something you never learned, else you’d not have died up here and your grand scheme come to ruin.”
The words stung. I lashed out. “Soon you’ll be joining me among the dead. Such a plan you have, Alex.”
“I’m not dying here, Lavinia. Or, at worst, if I do, you’ll be destroyed for certain.” Alex paused, looked up at the lightning in the sky, returned to facing me. “I presume you have access to Emily’s memories, at least. She knows I’ve read much of the history of the Children. But I didn’t confine myself just to what happened to the Children here in Quasopon, Lavinia. I went looking into the history of those who came to North Village, such as yourself. I went looking into your family history, Lavinia, the history of the Priests.
“What you call spiritual gifts generally don’t pass on from generation to generation. They are only weakly inherited. But for some reason, they pop up frequently in the Priest family to which you belong. They’ve turned up frequently in your heirs, including the three right here. But they also turn up frequently among the Priests who didn’t join your cult back in Massachusetts, the ones who remained there when you and your fellow worshippers fled here.
“As I said, Lavinia, I plan for every eventuality. So I put in place a failsafe plan for a situation like this. A few years ago, I ran across one of your cousins from back in Massachusetts. She’s a powerful magician, certainly more powerful than you or I. I did her a favor, so I could call on her for a favor if I ever needed one. And that is what I’ve done. I called her up earlier today. Unless she hears from me, and knows I’m unharmed, she will come here to avenge me. And I tell you truly, Lavinia, that when she sees what you have done to these three who you hold in your thrall, I have no doubt that Sarah Priest will destroy this plaza and end your power here forever.”
That wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be done. “You lie.”
The only answer Alex gave was to say, “You know better than that.”
I knew no lies could be told here. But what if I were wrong? I had to be wrong. And I detected a flaw in Alex’s reasoning that might yet prove he was lying. “You have to be lying somehow. If you were so certain this woman could destroy me, you’d not offer me any terms at all.”
Alex sighed. He leaned forward, fixing me with his stare. “Try to understand, Lavinia. When you see the world as I do, you stop caring about who wins any particular struggle. All I care about is the eventual outcome. My giving you terms is the easiest way for both of us to get what we want. I want you to release your hold on these three friends of mine. We both want to keep the Children from tearing themselves apart. Accept my terms, and we both get what we want. Otherwise, I might end up dead, and you certainly will be destroyed. It’s that simple.”
To Sheol with this one. He was as slick-tongued as Ebenezer. There still had to be a trick. “How do I know you’ll get Emily Fisher to agree to be the Prophesied One? She refused me.”
Alex threw up his hands. “Obviously, I can’t guarantee it. But don’t underestimate the persuasive abilities of a man who can see into the future. For that matter, I can’t guarantee that Sarah Priest will destroy you. But I’m sitting here in the Other World telling you I see these things in the future. Do you really want to gamble that I’m wrong, and throw away your chance to get what you want without a fight?”
Pride told me to fight. If I brought the Stacia creature and the Instrument fully under my control, we could make short work of this Alex Bancroft. At least I thought so. But I noted that Alex implied that his gift indicated I might not even be able to kill him, and that I’d still lose, ultimately. His gift had to be wrong. He had to be lying. But he couldn’t. Or if he could, here in the Other World, then he was able to do something I could not do, nor had anyone else been able to. It was hard to say which was worse, that he could predict the future, or that he could bend the rules of this realm as no one had before.
But then what if I fight? I could lose everything. Maybe not. But Alex Bancroft sat there, telling me I would, and he knows his own resources, and cannot lie here, so far as I know.
Pride told me to fight. But wisdom counseled otherwise. At least if I agreed to Alex’s terms, I stood a chance of getting what I wanted. A certainty, if Alex was telling the truth, though I would not rely on that.
Pride was going to have to take second place to getting what I wanted. “Very well. I will release them.”
I was standing in the pentagram. Alex was standing up and coming toward me. After being defeated by him and having to release Emily, I didn’t want him any closer, so I stepped back. And almost ran into Lavinia. That made no sense. I was . . . no, I was Emily. Wait, who was I?
“Emily Fisher,” Alex said, as he took me in an embrace. “Keep saying it to yourself. It’ll make sense eventually.”
I’m Emily Fisher, Emily Fisher. Well, of course I’m Emily Fisher. And I’ve been standing here on Sacred Mountain in the Other World trying to eliminate any threats to myself . . . no, wait, any threats to Lavinia.
I broke free from Alex’s embrace and turned to Grandmother Lavinia. She met my eyes for a moment, then turned away.
I didn’t understand. She was rejecting me. She had released me from . . . from what? From being obedient to her. She’d made me obedient to her. And then somehow I’d become her.
I’m Emily Fisher. Emily Fisher. And I am confused as all hell.
I spun around. There was Hannah, still unconscious where she had fallen. Stacia was sitting up, looking the peculiar way she does here, because she isn’t what she appears to be in the normal world. And Alex was standing there, telling me again, “You’re Emily Fisher. Got it?”
Emily Fisher. I don’t know who Ebenezer Harrison is, even though I can visualize him. He must have died years after I came here, I mean Lavinia came here. Those are Lavinia’s memories. “I’m Emily Fisher,” I repeated out loud. “Not quite Emily Fisher the Damned.” I laughed at my own joke. “Though I feel like I am.”
Alex smiled. “Give yourself time, Emily. Let’s go see how Hannah is doing.”
He gave me his arm, and I walked, somewhat unsteadily, over to where Hannah lay. I was still trying to figure out in my mind just what had happened, so I scarcely noticed as Alex bent down and checked Hannah’s pulse. Hannah stirred and opened her eyes. Alex looked up at me and started to say something.
Whatever he said was drowned out by the unearthly scream that seized the plaza. The ground quaked, winds started to whip about, and the plaza turned from translucent quartz to black onyx. The lightning, which had quieted down, now struck across the sky almost every second, with loud thunderclaps stirring the air. Yet even above the thunder, that horrible scream pervaded the Other World.
I turned about and saw. It was Stacia, the Stacia who was both Stacia and Emma in appearance. She was standing up, her head tilted back so she was looking up at the sky, and she was screaming. The earth shook more violently, the winds picked up force until I could barely stand, and the lightning now struck the plaza repeatedly, causing it to smoke where it was struck. And yet still Stacia screamed.
I took a step forward, only to find Alex holding me by the arm. I turned to him, to see him shake his head at me. Somehow in that overwhelming noise I could hear him say, “You can’t help.”
I looked back to Stacia, just as she stopped screaming. It was as if the Other World paused for a moment of silence. And then it was as if Stacia had released the energy of her scream into the elements. The ground shook even more violently as the lightning strikes multiplied, and the wind picked up with such a fury that it reached hurricane force, battering Alex and me to our knees. By the time I righted myself, Stacia was now staring at Lavinia’s ghost, and there was murder in her eyes. She advanced on Lavinia. Lavinia tried to back up, but the moment she reached the edge of the pentagram’s center, the lightning struck just beyond. Lavinia turned and tried to leave the pentagram center in other directions, but the lightning followed her, barring her way, crashing into the plaza with such force it knocked Lavinia back. Unable to flee, Lavinia turned to face Stacia, and there was fear on her face.
The ground visibly quaked again and again with each of Stacia’s steps, knocking over both Alex and me, leaving us sprawling on the plaza. Stacia advanced on the pentagram’s center, hatred and fury distorting her composite face into a horrid mask. Lavinia was pressed up against the opposite side of the pentagram, shaking in fear, her face totally drained of color.
As Stacia crossed into the pentagram’s center, it changed to a fiery red. In two steps, she came face to face with Lavinia, who stood as if paralyzed. Stacia reached out with both hands, grabbing Lavinia by the waist. It was as if Stacia’s touch turned Lavinia to some sort of barely substantial plastic. As she picked Lavinia up, Lavinia’s body seemed to shrink, warp, and flatten out. And with one motion, Stacia thrust Lavinia’s ghost into her mouth.
End of chapter thirty-two