Chapter 40: Things are not what I expected
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
So I got out my umbrella, because a storm was coming, and headed down the railroad and Icy Glen Road to my parents’ house. I spent the next half hour trying to get Elsie to talk, and then regretted it immediately. Alex had broken up with her. She’d gone out to a dawn rendezvous with him, only for him to unceremoniously dump her. Alex told Elsie that their relationship was over and that he wouldn’t be seeing her anymore. He offered no reasons why. He just dropped my sister like a piece of rubbish, something he no longer needed.
I was tempted to go over to Lakeview and rip out Alex’s guts (not that I’d succeed), but the storm and my sister’s need for a shoulder to cry on kept me at home for the afternoon. It didn’t help that even after this, Elsie was still in love with Alex and got offended at almost every criticism I made of him. So I stopped trying to put the blame where it belonged, and just did what a sister ought, comfort Elsie. I managed to coax her down to dinner, another tense, awkward affair, and left her afterwards with a promise I’d come back tomorrow afternoon and we’d go for a walk together.
The storm had passed by, and I didn’t particularly feel like going back onto the Children’s lands just yet, so I went over to Burnt Mill Pond, spread out my waterproof jacket, and sat on the bluff, looking out over the pond. The sun was setting, and depending on my mood I found that either nice or dreary. At least, I thought to myself, it’s me sitting here, not Elsie, and neither one of us is contemplating suicide. Elsie had even laughed at the thought when I brought it up that afternoon. So there was hope.
It was with surprise and extreme displeasure that I heard a noise and found Alex Bancroft sitting down on the bluff beside me. He didn’t look at me or speak to me, but I knew I was the reason he was here. I was tempted to wait him out, but I got so angry thinking about Elsie that I finally turned and said to him, “I thought you’d sunk about as low in my opinion as you could, but what you’ve done to my sister takes the cake.” Alex didn’t say anything, so I goaded him further. “Or am I supposed to believe that this is something you’re doing for better future results, thanks to your wonderful gift? Maybe now you can bed some more teenage groupies among the Children. They’re probably more respectable mates for the Prophesied One than a daughter of the Fallen.”
He finally turned to face me, a serious look on his face. “I doubt I’ll be bedding any more groupies, as you put it,” he said. “I’m leaving Quasopon tonight, and I don’t expect to return, ever.”
My gift of empathy didn’t work on Alex, but I could tell he was serious, which left me completely baffled. He was leaving? Why? Just when he’d eliminated the people opposing him? It made no sense, and I said so. “I don’t understand.”
“My work here is finished, Emily. Selena thought Susan Knowles was an unhealthy influence on the Children. Once I saw the way she manipulated people, I thought so, too. That’s the only reason I agreed to play the role of the Prophesied One as much as I did. With Susan’s influence eliminated, the Children’s conflicts should stop boiling over. And when your sister Sonia bucks the High Council and gets herself elected to it, as she will, she and Hannah will set affairs among the Children on a better course. So it’s time for me to go.”
Oh. Still, he left out one thing. “And Elsie?” I didn’t disguise my bitterness.
Alex actually looked sad. “Not just Elsie. Regina, too. I can’t have either of them come with me. Which is why I’m here to ask a favor of you.”
I raised one eyebrow in incredulity, but said nothing.
Alex went on. “You’re going back to D.C. once you’re finished here?”
I barely nodded.
“Good. I want you to take Elsie and Jezebel with you. They need to get away from here if they’re ever going to grow into the women they could be. And the two of them like each other and will support each other emotionally. Financially, you’ll not be the loser for it. I’ll arrange for you to receive funds to cover the added expenses.”
I gave Alex a sour eye. “Why should I do you any favors, Alex?”
Alex gave me his amused look and shrugged. “Don’t, then. Do it for your sister and for Jezebel. I can’t imagine you not wanting to help your sister. And while Jezebel will be a handful, especially since she’s still in love with you, you know you and Elsie can do better by her than anyone here.” He saw I still looked dubious, and went on. “Look, what do I have to do to convince you? Beg? Prostrate myself on this wet grass, press my head into the ground, and tell you how unworthy I am?”
I thought about it. “You have to wash my feet, too.”
Alex started to move, but I forestalled him. “OK, enough already. I’ll do it. Provided they agree to come of their own free will.”
Instead of prostrating himself, Alex turned to face me and then leaned forward until his head touched the ground directly beside me. “Thank you, O merciful one!” He sat up and added, “As opposed to Jezebel, who is living up to her title of Merciless One.”
“What do you mean? I know she’s up at Hannah’s but what else?” Tanya’s account of Jezebel was bad enough. What else was wrong with her?
Alex grimaced. “For all she has suffered, she’s still the same bright girl. She can’t understand why she’s so childish and fearful all of a sudden. Nor does she remember clearly what happened in the deserted village, but she knows something’s wrong and that she played a role in it. And her love for you isn’t helping either, as she thinks you’re staying away because you despise her now.” Alex thought a moment and then laughed. “Who’d have thought Penelope being crazy would be an advantage? She puts up with everything Jezebel does when Jezebel’s being difficult. And when Jezebel is near normal, it’s Jezebel that gets to worrying about Penelope and forgets her own problems for a while.”
Oh, another complication. I didn’t need that. But even so, I felt sorry for Jezebel. Alex didn’t know it, or maybe he did, but that’s the moment I moved from agreeing with him to actively wanting to get Elsie and Jezebel away from here.
Since I had Alex here, whether I liked it or not, I figured he could at least answer a question or two I still had, in particular one big question. “Why did Susan do it all?”
Alex looked up at the sky while answering. “I don’t really know, Emily. My gift has its limitations when dealing with other gifted people. I think she got used to having her way with people. When I showed up and tried to stop her, she created the True Believers to run me out. But I fought back, and Susan couldn’t leave well enough alone. She started to overreach. I think what finally got her started on the road to killing people was turning Hannah into an Instrument.”
“Wha-what?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Alex turned to me and smiled at having surprised me. “Oh, Hannah had not the slightest interest in being an Instrument when I arrived. But she was a Priest, and the Priests, as you know, have a troublesome reputation as Instruments, so Susan encouraged Hannah to think of herself as an Instrument. I think she expected to manipulate Hannah as a weapon against me. To her horror, Hannah began to develop into a true Instrument with a mind of her own, and she was even positioned in Susan’s own village. Susan had to exert a lot of her influence this last year trying to prevent Hannah from being recognized as an Instrument. She could see her power was endangered. And then when her plot with Jim Abbott went sour, she decided to resort to desperate measures. You can fill in the details yourself.”
It explained a lot, though not everything. Probably I’d never learn everything. But the murder of Stephen Nash had been avenged, and with Susan and Alex out of the picture, the troubles among the Children might quiet down. Alex had said something about Sonia reaching the High Council. I’d almost pay to see that happen, improbable though it was.
Thinking of Sonia reminded me of one other question connected to Susan. “You told me Jezebel was safe from her abuser when Sonia was her guardian. And I know Sonia loathed Susan. Why didn’t Susan ever use her influence on Sonia?”
Alex couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether to laugh or frown at that. “She did. It didn’t work.” He could see I was still puzzled, so he explained, “Susan was an amateur at using her ability to influence people. She never tried to systematically explore its use. Some people were just beyond her. She couldn’t usually affect people with spiritual gifts, which is why she had few followers among the Instruments. And Sonia . . . well, Sonia was just too sure of herself, just too strong for Susan to take on.” Alex shrugged. “Though from what I know now, it might have been better if Susan had succeeded. Your sister Stacia would have found out in short order, and anyone who could take down the ghost of Lavinia Priest would not have found Susan Knowles much of a challenge.”
With that speech concluded, Alex stood up. “I have to go. But there is one last thing you should know, Emily. I passed along Lavinia’s prophecy to Hannah, along with the notes on it that Stacia and Jezebel prepared. It’s only fair it go to some Instrument among the Children, and I hope you agree that Hannah is the best choice. By now, she knows you’re the real Prophesied One who was destined to save the Children.”
The way Alex put it, I couldn’t help but look up at him and snort in derision. “Yeah, I saved the Children, all right. Did it while I was tied up, even. Had to get kidnapped and rescued by Hannah, but, oh, I did it. Huh.” And then I added as an afterthought, “But who cares? It’s over.”
Alex shook his head. “Not really. The Prophesied One is supposed to guide the Children into their future after the crisis has passed.”
Well, gee, thanks a lot for telling me this at the last moment, Alex. I let my exasperation show. “You really are a right royal bastard, aren’t you? You get me to agree to take Elsie and Jezebel back to D.C., and then you tell me I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life here. Well,” I paused, mentally pulling out my hair, “to hell with you and the Children. I am not staying here to guide the Children. Let Hannah and Sonia do that, if they want.”
“They’ll do it better with you by their side, Emily, though I know you don’t believe that. If I were you, I’d cut a deal with the High Council, maybe to make it a part-time job. It’s not a bad thing, being the Prophesied One. Take it from me. But it’s your choice. Just so long as you get Elsie and Jezebel out of here first.”
Which brought up a possible problem. “What will I have to do to get the Children to agree to let me take Jezebel?”
Alex gave me a knowing smile. “The paperwork’s already been done. Just pick it up from Elizabeth Miller when you get the chance.”
So you already counted on me agreeing, didn’t you, Alex? “You really are a bastard, you know.”
He didn’t answer, except to shake his head. Then he turned and walked away. I wasn’t inclined to follow after him. And that was the last I ever saw of Alex Bancroft.
My day had been one problem after another, one more thing pushing me to getting more involved with the Children. I didn’t want that. But I had to go talk to Hannah, as soon as possible, before she did something else for my benefit as the Prophesied One that I didn’t want. And maybe I could talk to Jezebel as well, though that promised to be a wearying job.
One of the surprising things I’d found out from Elsie while talking to her earlier was that there was a node in the network of secret paths right beside where the railroad entered the Sacred Lands, just like there was one at the parking lot at the end of Over Mountain Road. That was how Elsie had been able to sneak onto the Children’s lands so easily. So I headed over to the railroad, walked to where it crossed into the Sacred Lands, and looked for the secret path that would take me to North Village and Hannah.
I’d thought the secret paths were acting odd when I took Bonnie, but it was nothing compared to what happened this time. First of all, I had trouble visualizing them. They seemed to flicker in and out of existence. And when I entered, it got worse. The path I took seemed to stretch on forever and ever, and seemed to be getting smaller and narrower as I went along, even though it still looked as if I were in the woods. I began to feel squeezed, to find it hard to move, even hard to breathe.
Of a sudden, a hand seemed to reach out from an enormous distance in front of me. It was as if it were attached to an arm that was miles long. An unfamiliar female voice commanded, “Take my hand before you get trapped.”
I reached out and grabbed the hand. Almost instantly, I was yanked, and yanked hard at that. Thrown off balance, I stumbled forward and fell to my knees.
At least I was out of the secret path. That was good. I took a moment to recover, and then looked up. At first I couldn’t make any sense out of what I was seeing. And then I gasped in shock.
End of chapter forty