Chapter 41: Lavinia’s heirs
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
As I say, I was shocked by what I saw. I wasn’t in North Village, no, not at all. I was on top of Sacred Mountain, and in the Other World at that. Talk about being surprised. But that was nothing compared to the changes that had come to the plaza. It had been shattered, cracks major and minor running all through it, some fragments thrust up or sunk down so that the surface was uneven. The quartz no longer glowed. It was dull and smoky, with occasional lights flickering through it, and sometimes a spark jumping the cracks. Even the pentagram had become unstable, its red glow flickering while plumes of scarlet energy rose and fell, sometimes spilling onto the rest of the plaza before being absorbed in the smoky quartz.
What had happened here? All I could think of was that this was some last-minute thing Alex must have done before he left. But why?
From behind me came the same voice I’d heard before being pulled out of the secret path. “No, not Alex. This is not his fault, Emily Fisher, though he had a role in this.”
I spun around to see the source of the voice. It was a short, middle-aged woman, whose brown-and-gray hair, wire-rimmed spectacles, and brown eyes gave her a quiet, mousy look. In the moonlight, her clothes appeared black, so that all I could see of her was her head, hands, and feet(!). There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I was certain this was not one of the Children, whatever she was.
“Everyone seems to know my name, but I never know theirs,” I complained. “Have we met?”
She considered. “In a manner of speaking. You recall the first morning you were here in Quasopon, staying with Ethan and Bonnie Knowles? You woke up thinking there were three people in the room with you? Well, there were, sort of, not the people themselves but projections of them. One of them was Alex Bancroft and the other was Susan Knowles. They were checking you out by trying to get into your mind. I was the third. I didn’t like it that they were trying to invade your privacy that way, so I woke you up and helped you scare them off. As for my name, I am Sarah Dana Priest.”
The Priests seemed to be everywhere, even though there hadn’t been anyone of that name in Quasopon for decades. But this particular name was vaguely familiar, and then I had it. “You’re the magician Alex threatened would destroy Lavinia Priest and the plaza if he were harmed?”
Unlike Alex, whose emotions had always been opaque to me, I could read Sarah Priest’s emotions quite clearly. She seemed both amused and disturbed by my question. She replied, “Not quite the way I would have put it, but then Alex has been playing this one very close to his chest. Had I realized he was so intent on getting all the guilty parties to kill themselves off, I would have stuck around and interfered back when you arrived, instead of going off thinking he had things well in hand.”
“So what are you doing here now? I asked.
“Tidying up after Alex, I suppose. It is not a role I wanted, but I suppose with my interest in the family’s history it was inevitable. One has to do what one has to do.” She sighed. “With that ability of his to discern what will probably happen, it’s hard for Alex not to treat people like pieces on a chessboard, as if they were just things he can manipulate to an elegant conclusion, instead of other human beings. He tries to stay grounded by surrounding himself with people he cares about, but it doesn’t always work.”
I was reminded of something similar he had said about Hannah. I hadn’t realized he was speaking from experience.
And then Sarah Priest took me by surprise. “You were one of them. Alex enjoyed your company very much.”
I didn’t bother to restrain my sarcasm. “Right. Maybe he should have slept with me instead of my sister.”
Sarah surprised me again. “You should blame me for your sister’s heartbreak, not Alex. I’m the one who ordered him out of here.”
My jaw dropped open. This mousy creature could order Alex around? And why?
Sarah answered one of my unspoken questions. “Despite people like you and your sister, and the girl Jezebel, Alex was . . . well, becoming too much the chess player, the manipulator. And he is very, very good at that when he tries. He,” she groped for the words, “he manipulates events in odd ways. Coincidences multiply in his wake. They often force certain resolutions. And while he means well, Alex often manipulates people into choices they would not have made otherwise. I had to intervene and kick him out of Quasopon before he forced you into a choice you would not have made of your own free will.”
That made me laugh. “You’re too late. He’s already succeeded in that. I’m to take my sister Elsie and Jezebel Johnson and give them a proper education in D.C. It’s all settled.”
Sarah’s cheerfulness had been gradually evaporating. Now she was just sad. “You don’t know all of it, I’m afraid. That’s not all Alex has arranged for you.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”
She gestured toward the plaza. “This is what I mean, this place. As I said, Alex didn’t cause this. I suppose if anyone is to blame, your half-sister Stacia Fletcher deserves the credit. Lavinia Priest kept the plaza and paths together, even after her death. But now that she has been destroyed, the plaza is dying and the secret paths are failing. And they will not simply revert back to their natural forms, no. Lavinia harnessed the energies here more efficiently, and so greater energies will rage out of control as the plaza disintegrates. They will course down the remnants of the secret paths, posing lethal dangers in every village.”
“Isn’t there anything that could be done to stop that?” I asked.
“Of course. I could destroy this place completely, and eradicate these ‘spiritual energies’ from the mountain for good.”
I could not agree, for I remembered what Stacia had told me, and what I knew of my own. “But this is the spiritual heart of the Children. Destroy this, and their Instruments will fall silent and their faith will fail. There must be another way.”
Sarah offered me the ghost of a smile. “I see Alex has done his work too well. Yes, Emily, there is another way. Someone with spiritual gifts, as they are called here, could take upon herself the role of guardian of this place, bind herself to it, impose control upon it.”
It didn’t take a math whiz to add two and two. “You want me to be it.”
Sarah looked away, across the plaza, before turning to answer me. “No, I don’t want you to be it. But, whether due to happenstance or Alex’s manipulations, as if there is much difference when Alex is involved, I see no other reasonable candidate available. It has to be someone of Lavinia’s bloodline that steps into her role. Lavinia had great faith in her bloodline and spelled this place such that only she and her descendants could fully control it.”
“How about you?” I asked. “Aren’t you a Priest, too? Aren’t we some sort of remote cousins?”
Sarah nodded. “Indeed we are, but not through Lavinia. Our common ancestor was her father. So I don’t qualify, even if I didn’t have other things I must do.”
“What about Hannah Priest Wyatt?” I offered. “She’s another of my half-sisters and so a descendent of Lavinia.”
Sarah looked at me in astonishment. “What? You would have me shorten her life even more?” And then she saw the puzzlement on my face. “Alex didn’t tell you? Damn him.” It was almost funny how she said it, softly, as if she meant to curse him, but didn’t actually have her heart in it. She threw her hands up in the air. “How do I explain this? She is what your Children of the New Revelation call an Instrument of the Divine. That has become her purpose. She will let the Divine take her over, more and more. Eventually the Hannah you know will be gone, and there will only be the Hannah who thinks of herself as the Divine. But your Divine shuns the body, does not eat or drink. And neither will Hannah as she becomes the Divine. Once the transition is finished, she will die in a few days.”
No, Alex hadn’t told me this. Figures. Nor had he told Hannah, for all I knew. “How long does this take?”
Sarah thought a moment. “It depends on the individual. According to Alex’s research, definitely no more than five years. And if I were to make her the guardian of this place, it would speed up the transformation and she would die in perhaps half the time she would otherwise.”
I was hardly listening at the end. Hannah would not live to see twenty! And all because of a process that Susan Knowles has started to try to drive out Alex Bancroft. Here’s another death at your door, Susan. I really did not want to see Hannah die so young, so I asked, “Is there any way the process can be stopped so Hannah can live a normal life?”
Sarah shook her head. “I know of none. Even warning such people has no effect. They see the process as glorious. So you understand why I will not make Hannah Priest Wyatt the custodian of this place. She should be allowed such little time as she has left.”
Only one other name came to mind, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer it. “Well, there’s Stacia. She destroyed Lavinia, she should be able to control the plaza.” I didn’t add that she might actually harbor elements of Lavinia Priest’s soul. I wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing.
Sarah already knew. “And is currently . . . incapacitated, not to mention that she may have taken on some of Lavinia’s character. I have read too much of Lavinia’s history to want to see a living Lavinia ruling this place again.”
I had to wonder just what Lavinia had done before she came here to make Sarah Priest distrust her so much. Then I remembered how Lavinia had controlled me and the hatred that had been coming off Stacia the other day. That was enough. I would not contest the point with Sarah.
Her face had taken on a frustrated look. “No, Alex did his job too well. You have the bloodline, the ‘spiritual gifts,’ and are their Prophesied One, ridiculous notion though that is. And, strange though this will sound to you, you have the right character for the job, Emily.”
I thought about that. “You’re right, it does sound strange, as in I don’t believe it.”
Sarah gave a good-hearted chuckle to that. “That’s one of the reasons you’d be the right person. You’re not so self-assured you’d abuse your power. You’ll not be another Lavinia, or a Susan Knowles for that matter. And you’re enough of an outsider here that you could stay above the petty disputes. If Alex’s prediction is correct, you could rely on your half-sister Sonia Hoopes to take care of those when she wins election to the High Council.” And then she gave me a wicked look with a glint in her eye. “And from what I hear, Sonia could use someone to advise her whom she respects, someone she could not ignore.”
I had to laugh at that, the thought of me advising Sonia. But Sarah Priest did not laugh with me. No, she was unhappy. She concluded by saying, “Alex has set matters up so that you are perfectly positioned for this job. If you do not take it, I will have to destroy this place. And yet, and yet, I would be sorry to see you agree to it. This is not something you would want of your own choosing, I believe.”
I thought about it. Reason told me to reject the idea out of hand. My life was back in D.C. with the agency. Moreover, I had no desire to be Alex’s tool, especially not after what he’d done to Elsie.
And yet, and yet . . . for all I was not one of the Children, I was no longer my teenaged self either, the one who resented her status as one of the Fallen and who hated the Children. If I was not their friend, I was no longer their enemy, either. And the two weeks I’d been here had tangled me in their affairs, if only because my extended family of half-siblings was here. For all I disliked her severity, I liked Sonia, and Stacia and Hannah and Jezebel as well, and while I was taking Jezebel away, I had to admit I’d miss the others. There weren’t any such people waiting for me back in D.C.
And speaking of going back, there was this gift of empathy Stacia had somehow given me. I didn’t know how that would work once I returned to D.C. Might make me a great detective. Might drive me crazy. But no one there would understand or be able to help me. At least here, I could count on Hanna and Stacia to understand, that is, if Stacia ever recovered.
I had to face it that I really didn’t know enough to make a decision, one way or the other. And when one doesn’t know enough, it’s time to ask questions. So I asked Sarah, “What exactly would be involved in my becoming the custodian of this place?”
Sarah looked at me appraisingly. “You would have to be magically bound to it. That’s something I could do for you. Once that was done, you’d have the ability to control how the energies here are used, though you’d need time to learn how to do it well. And because you’d be magically bound to this place, you’d have to live nearby. You could go away at times, but you’d always feel this place tugging at you. The more the plaza or the paths are used, the more you’d feel pulled to return. And you’d feel better and healthier living near here. Indeed, you’d probably live a very long time, drawing on the energies of the plaza and the mountain.” She paused, and then added, “Though it is not a life I would choose for you.”
“But I might choose it for myself,” I replied. “Still, I promised to take my sister Elsie and Jezebel away from here, and they are young enough that even if I agreed to become the guardian of this place, I’d have to live elsewhere for a few years.”
Sarah seemed disturbed by my words, but not for the reason I first thought. “It could be done. Mind you, you’d probably have to come back here every so many months. I doubt you could live with staying away for as much as a full year. But are you seriously considering this?”
“I don’t know.” More honest words were never spoken. “I really don’t, Sarah. Too much has happened, and I haven’t quite managed to wrap my head around it all.” That brought a small smile to Sarah’s face. I was encouraged and asked, “How soon must I decide?”
Sarah pondered for a bit, and then said, “Wait here. I need to go out onto the plaza, and it isn’t safe for you in its current state.”
With all the things I’d experienced in the previous weeks, I was still amazed watching Sarah cross the plaza. Her presence seemed to summon the plaza’s energies. The quartz glowed again and sparkled under her bare feet. The red energy plumes shot out from the center and struck all around her, but never hit her. The plaza seemed to be repairing itself, and I could see cracks disappear. Once she crossed into the center of the pentagram, the plumes ceased, and the pentagram took on its normal appearance. She stood at the very center, and then slowly spun around. Once that was done, she returned. As she walked back, the plumes emerged again, and the cracks reappeared, but not so much as they had been before.
Sarah was a bit more cheerful when she came back. She gave me a grin and said, “I’ve bought some time by manipulating the plaza’s magical equivalent of entropy. It’s a bit of a cheat, but it’ll do for our purposes. The plaza can probably last in this state for a few months, yet.” She thought a moment and, with that glint in her eye, said, “Let’s say you have to decide by, oh, Halloween.”
Trick or treat! But it would do. I said, “Agreed.” And that was that.
“Then I will await your decision. Until that time, I should be going,” Sarah said, and she turned to go.
What? I reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder. “Wait!” I cried.
Sarah stopped and turned around. “What else is the matter, Emily Fisher?”
I’d reacted instinctively, and now I struggled to put words to what I was feeling. “Well, um, ah, I guess . . . well, you are, Sarah Priest.” That caused her to raise her eyebrows, though she didn’t seem annoyed. Curious, actually, she wanted to hear what I had to say. Encouraged, I plowed on. “Alex told us you were this so-great and powerful magician. But all you can do is tell me I must become the guardian of this place or you will destroy it? Is that really all you can do?”
Sarah furrowed her brows. “There are always an infinite number of things I could do, if I had the time and did not have other pressing engagements. Still, what else would you have me do?”
“I don’t know.” I mentally yanked at my hair. “The Children have just been through an upheaval. Some of them have been killed, more have been injured. They don’t understand what’s happening, and it worries them. Isn’t there something you can do to make things better here?”
Her brows still furrowed, Sarah replied, “I think they look to you as their Prophesied One for that.”
I groaned. “That’s not being helpful.”
A rueful look flitted across her face. “No, I suppose not. Though it is something you will have to deal with, whether you stay here or not.” She stood there, not really looking at anything, thinking. I started to speak, but she held up a finger to bid me keep my silence. So I waited. And then she had an idea, and I could feel her cheerfulness return. “Oh, I think there is something important I might be able to do to help.” And then she looked me in the eye. “But I have a problem, a moral issue. Wouldn’t you feel obliged to pay me back? If I did something significant to help, wouldn’t you feel that you have to become the guardian of this place as a quid pro quo?”
I hadn’t considered matters in that light. And Sarah was probably right in her supposition about how I would feel. But, hey, wasn’t that the whole problem here, that Alex had manipulated things so that I would have to do this? Yet he couldn’t make me become the guardian of the plaza, I still had a free choice. What I would do, I would do because I chose to do it, and that wasn’t Alex’s responsibility. Nor was it Sarah’s. And I told her so. “Maybe I will. But that’s my choice, Sarah Priest. You have to do what’s right for you, and I have to do what’s right for me. Got it?”
Sarah smiled again at that. “Got it. I will do what I can. Good luck on your decision, Emily Fisher.”
End of chapter forty-one