Ethan spent most of his meals away from his family and cooking in the personal kitchen upstairs and dining at the small lonely table in the loft’s adjacent room. There were only a few occasions where he actually ate with the family.
“I want you to start eating your meals with the family,” said Margaret one morning.
Ethan paused his game of Fallout: New Vegas on his Xbox 360 and looked over at her from his dark blue sofa chair. “Whyyyyy?” he asked.
“Because you’re family,” she said simply, her face like stone.
“Oh am I,” Ethan replied. He saved and turned off his game, stood up and walked up to her. “Since when exactly?”
Margaret’s personality had slowly started to seem less confident following since the night she had fired him. Ethan didn’t know why and since he made it his business to avoid her at all costs, he doubted he would learn the reason any time soon.
“I think it’s time we started acting like a family,” she told him with that cold look oddly tinged with worry.
Ethan laughed for a moment before stopping abruptly. “Oh you’re serious.” Margaret frowned at him and that made him laugh again even harder.
“Is this is a joke to you, Ethan?”
“I’m a joke according to you,” he replied. “I’ve seen how you treat your children and your grandchildren and, shockingly, it’s just a little nicer than how you treat me. Even if that wasn’t the case, it still seems a bit ludicrous to pretend we’re ‘family’ after you had me fired for no reason without pay and then halted my ability to get another job.” Her mask slipped just enough to let him know he was right. “I knew it!”
“It’s for your own good, Ethan,” she told him. “We don’t need the last male Bartlett embarrassing us with a job at Taco Bell.”
“So it’s somehow better to be an unemployed loser?” Margaret took a deep breath and reached over as if to comfort him but he stepped away. “Don’t touch me, Margaret.”
“We need to start being a family,” she told him with a tight, controlled expression. “Perhaps we can even expect you back at the office soon.”
“Sure!” he replied in a mockingly cheerful voice. “I’ll just tell everyone I was taking a nice, long vacation. When I think about it, Margaret, Taco Bell was embarrassing but luckily, I’ve got the alternative and respectable reputation of being your tool. After all, everyone knows Peter Bartlett did whatever his mommy told him and I’m certain that never embarrassed him.”
One day at Bartlett and Bartlett was enough to show Ethan nobody told Peter what to do: nobody. The man lived like a king in that place and so did Ethan for the two whole weeks it lasted.
Margaret’s eyes were almost amused but then they never quite were. Ethan had not once seen her smile or really anything emotional beyond being cold with worry. “Do you really believe they ever thought you were there because of your ‘qualifications?’” She sighed and looked extremely tired. “You are a Bartlett and everyone knows a Bartlett will eventually run Bartlett and Bartlett long before you ever arrived, even before you were born, and all of them had already decided their opinion of you.”
“Kind of like you,” he replied.
“Ethan,” said Margaret softly, “You will learn to accept us as we are. You cannot change us.”
“That’s more your problem than mine,” he replied.
She suddenly looked bored with the entire conversation. “Just come downstairs,” she told him and left without another word. Since Ethan knew if he didn’t they would end up bothering him all day long, he sighed and followed after.
Margaret had asked him to dine with the family a few times before and each time it was clear nobody wanted him there and thought his inclusion was offensive in some way. Even Margaret didn’t seem to enjoy his presence which had her putting there seem rather foolish.
That particular occasion was no exception. The breakfast meal was French toast, bacon, cooked sliced ham and fried eggs with various fruits spread out on bowls. All the females around him except Agnes and Margaret looked over their plates and gave him dark looks.
“So,” said Ethan cheerfully, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“It’s raining, you moron,” said Anne who then took a heavy drink of her red wine.
“Is it really?” Ethan looked out of the large window at the shower-like downpour coming down. “Well,” he said. “I’ll take your word for it, Anne. After all, you know best on how to stay dry.”
Jane started laughing and Anne gave Ethan a look filled with true and deep loathing.
“And it wasn’t even a good joke,” he said with a smile.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” asked Anne with a sneer.
“No, I don’t,” he said with a sigh. Margaret wasn’t the only person causing him trouble in the job market. His best opportunity after Bartlett and Bartlett was a job at the Bay City Bank where the pay was better than anything he ever had in California. His resume was good, his interview near perfection and he and the manager were getting along beautifully when Robert Le Sueur suddenly swaggered into the interview as if he owned the place. Maybe he did. It sure seemed like it.
He simply pulled the manager into a corner of the room where Ethan could not hear and the two of them had a quick, private conversation. The manager’s lips tightened uncomfortably and he nodded a few times before Le Sueur left giving Ethan a dark look that barely held back his smug smile.
The manager came back looking unhappy and told Ethan he would “let him know” and Ethan never heard from him again. A fifteen dollar an hour job complete with benefits, weekends off and vacation pay gone in a single instant.
It seemed Le Sueur and Margaret must have spread the word because any interview Ethan had after felt automatically unnecessary, the ending already pre-determined against him so that three months later, he still didn’t have a job.
“You’re a loser,” said Anne.
“Do you even know what day it is?”
“Just go!” she hissed. “Nobody wants you here, not now and not ever, so why don’t you just fuck off back to California and never return!”
“Anne—” her eyes jerked coldly toward her mother “—we’re family now. Treat him with respect.”
“Oh, like you do?” Ethan replied and Margaret looked over at him as if he had just said the most offensive thing in the world. “Oh, why the hell do I even bother?” He sighed and stood up. “I appreciate your honesty, Anne and I shall now promptly leave your presence lest I the slow the act of getting hammered before noon.” He left without another word.
He found himself once again overwhelmed with the feeling that it was all just an incredible waste of time. He was certain he would just end up back in California exactly where he started and the others clearly thought so as well. Margaret had some plan for him but either she didn’t share it with the others or they just simply didn’t care.
Ethan locked his bedroom door behind him but it was a useless gesture since every single member of the family had a skeleton key and the willingness to use it without so much as a courteous knock. They would even mess with his computer and sometimes delete things leaving him no choice to password lock the thing.”
That was all that was happening in his life as everything had become quite boring since he rescued Jessica Downs. He had scanned newspaper articles printed in the Bay City Gazette about him into his computer as souvenirs of his adventure. One was a picture of him with Tori Randal smiling brightly with her family and the other was of Jane and Jessica who looked in agony because her mother had put her in an adorable little pink girl’s dress for the photo.
He spent many of his days exploring the city, on foot or by car, or attempted to do enchantments but those turned out to be a waste of time since someone in the house always messed with them and any tampering before the many days’ worth of work was finished made it too unstable for him to dare continue.
Lately, he had taken to exploring the closed-off wings of the house hoping to find some interesting secret or something but in the end, all he found of interest was some old furniture covered in white sheets and the family portrait of Thomas Bartlett stuffed into a back room.
It was rather creepy though. The entire place had not been opened in something like half a century or more and everything inside was like a time capsule from that other period. It was creepier still because electricity was cut off to both wings and it was so dark Ethan was required to use his Torch spell in order to see and its lantern-like bauble of light gave everything a kind of horror house at night vibe.
Once he had distinctively heard a woman weeping somewhere out in the west wing. He thought it might be a ghost at first but he never saw anything and the weeping ceased the instant he called out. After thinking about it, he decided it was too real sounding to be a ghost and suspected one of the aunts must have broken down and fled into the wing to cry in private. All of them seemed very unhappy especially Anne who lashed out at everyone aggressively for every little thing.
A few shades appeared here and there, glimpses of random people from different eras bouncing about, but never for longer than a quick flash. No murders or deep emotional moments there.
Despite his lackluster findings, he still felt certain there had to be something out there in the forgotten wings of Bartlett House. He had asked Margaret for the keys prior and her eyes went wide with terror with the only emotion he had ever seen in her so far. She grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him close, and demanded that he promise never to go in there: especially the east wing.
He solemnly promised and then the very next day she wasn’t around, he picked the lock and went on into the east wing.
There was a BOOM of thunder in the distance as Ethan lied down on his bed and his thoughts returned to the present. He took a deep breath, shut his eyes and suddenly a weird feeling came over him. A vision just like when he saw Claire Winters at the country club filled his mind like a warm and pleasant cloud.
* * *
A very old woman named Muire Lindsay stood before him. He had never seen anyone as close to as old as she was but then he was only five.
She was a kind, if ugly, spinster who enjoyed cooking, plays and children and lived on her deceased sisters’ family’s property in an old house. The story was that even though she seemed just like any normal old woman at the present, she once upon a time dressed as a man and served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Some even say she was at the Declaration of Independence.
One day he had simply asked her. He truly wanted to know everything there was about her but he had to move fast because if she died, which would no doubt be soon because of her advanced age, she would take all of her secrets with her.
She smiled and sat down in front of him. “I was never at the Declaration of Independence,” she told him in that Scottish accent that had never died. “I was never one for politics beyond the need to escape the English and their machinations. I came with my parents, sisters and brothers to create a new life for ourselves in a manner of which my great-granduncles almost had succeeded with Stuart Town. We had a beautiful farm in Virginia and we had hired some free Negroes to work for us and we flourished quite well at first.”
“How did you become a soldier?” he asked her eagerly.
“Well, my family did not believe in slavery, were patriots and Scottish and these qualities made our neighbors rather dislike us. They were slave-owning loyalists who felt that as proper English gentlemen, they had more rights than my father and brothers who, unwilling to back down, soon found themselves beat to death one day by a drunken mob of loyalists.”
She still looked very sad and bitter even after something seventy or more years.
“So then I did what I felt I must. I cut my hair, said I was a male cousin, challenged the men who murdered my family to duels one by one and killed them all. Then I worked as a man because the money was better, became a soldier when the war had started because I was very good at fighting, and later I managed to salvage a life for my sisters and my mother.”
The boy knew that part. One of them had married a Hamilton, one of Bartlett Bay’s most prestigious and wealthiest families, which was the precise reason why Muire was able to sit around all day telling stories.
“I never married but all my sisters did and with good wealthy patriot families and with that my mother was afforded the retirement she had long earned. Though I do not know motherhood or feminine beauty, I have had the glory of having fought under George Washington and Friedrich Wilhelm, which few if any woman could ever claim, and I’ve held my own against trained mercenaries and soldiers. It was a long, long time ago but I remember every moment of it Thomas—”
* * *
The name “Thomas” and a voice pulled him out of his vision.
He opened his eyes to see the family servant Wendy looking down at him. He wasn’t sure what her actual title was but she seemed to serve primarily as a head maid and cook, though on occasion she did sew, knit and other random things of that nature for the girls.
She was an unpleasant looking fifty-year-old woman with bad makeup covering up her many wrinkles, dull brown eyes and graying hair pulled back in a conservative servant’s bun. She was a bit overweight wearing ugly white wing-style glasses that looked trendy for the 1960s and an old, unattractive black and white maid’s uniform.
She always looked blank with just a touch of bitterness at everyone and everything always just as she did at that very moment and, like the family, she had no problem walking into his rooms uninvited. “Phone, sir,” she told him blandly.
“Thank you, Baby Jane,” Ethan said as he took the phone from her. “Hello?”
“Head to Spinster’s Peak,” said a hurried woman’s voice. It sounded like someone he knew but something was off and he couldn’t place it. “There is a cave underneath. You must go there.”
“Who is this?”
“I know I have no right to ask you for help but I—I need you to come to Spinster’s Peak and come armed. Something very bad is happening down in the Cave of Blue Light.”
Ethan knew that name from somewhere but he could not place that as well. “Where do I know that name from?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she replied. “You’ve been there before.” She then hung up without another word.
Ethan stood up and looked at Wendy. “She didn’t happen to give a name, did she?”
Wendy looked at him indifferently, shrugged, and then simply said, “No,” before she turned around and left.
Ethan smiled and quickly put his things together. It was the same gear as before. His vest, his gloves, his sword, his dagger and his knapsack with all his potions but, because it was raining, he added the long black duster with the high collar and split at the sides so that his sword, or two if he had them, could remain outside if he chose to button it up.
A sense of uneasiness was soon coming over him and he felt certain it was somehow related to the strange feelings that came with those odd visions he was having every now and again. He felt it was strongly justified but he honestly had no idea why just as he had no idea why he felt such strong feelings for Claire Winters.
Ethan stepped out of a side door into the pouring rain, held out his arms and felt it come sliding down all over him. That old woman popped back into his mind in something less than a vision but somehow equally substantial. She came with a voice creeping out from an old door in the back of his mind that had been not locked but sealed.
You’ll have your own taste of war soon enough, Thomas, she told him. The winds are blowing north and south and in the passing of time, twenty days or twenty years, some whining old men are going to do something stupid enough to get a score of young men like you all killed.
“War…” he said softly and he could suddenly see it in his mind’s eye in the form of bizarre, flashing glimpses.
He saw battlefield after battlefield complete with endless cannon and rifle fire and blood with blood most of all. The men around him were screaming crazily, the blues howling their roar and the grays screeching their disturbing banshee cry and yet, for it all, they were all still in such neat little lines as if waiting in turn for death.
“Goddamn!” Ethan snarled as he grabbed his head and forced the vision away.
It went away as quickly as it came and he walked through the raining woods of the morning westward toward Spinster’s Peak. He opened a gate at the end of the property line and continued into a series of public trails known as the Edmonton Park Trails.
The Edmonton Park Trails were just south of the park which was southeast of Nathaniel Bridge. It was such a boring park that he had not given it a second glance even the first time he crossed by it.
Spinster’s Peak was a place off the trails to the southwest of the trails. It stretched out from the cliff face like a diving board and dropped down at least a hundred feet to the rocks sticking up out of the Long Island Sound. It got its name because many sad women, widows sometimes but usually lonely spinsters, who felt too unattractive, used or old to be of value, flung themselves from its edge to the rocks below each hoping for a better lot in the next life.
There was no actual path to it. It was just one of those places locals knew about.
Ethan simply emerged from the trees through the rain and tall grass toward it without thinking. Someone had mentioned it sometime back and he had wandered by to look at it a week or two ago.
As he neared his destination, he saw a slender woman wearing a white rain jacket wrapped around her midsection with her hood up was standing looking over the cliff’s edge. She was standing a hundred feet away and had a straight-bladed eighteenth-century officer’s infantry blade at her side.
For an instant, he was convinced it was Muire. The elderly woman, hunched over, looking over the cliff, but then he blinked and saw that she wasn’t old at all. Somehow, he could tell by the way she waved him over without looking.
As he approached her, he noticed she was not looking over the cliff but a small path leading down. It was so well hidden amid the rocks and cliff that he would have passed it by completely unaware if the girl had not been there to show him.
Or would he? He suddenly felt certain he knew that path.
The girl turned her head toward his revealing a young and beautiful face. The instant she looked at him a flash of the old woman smiling crossed Ethan’s mind. “You,” he said softly.
The rain all around them suddenly seemed very quiet. She stared at him quietly and calmly, a girl with beautiful, almost angelic model-features, a slender athletic form with soft, deep brown hair who could not possibly have been older than nineteen. Her eyes were filled with the same recognition he was having. “Ethan Bartlett,” she said softly.
“Oh that’s a relief,” he said earnestly. “I thought you were going to call me by a different name.”
“Yeeeeah.” He nodded slowly, his eyes wide for several moments. Then he shrugged, walked up to her and held out his hand. “Ethan Bartlett.”
The girl smiled radiantly and took his hand. There was something about those intelligent, amber eyes that made Ethan think that she was more than just a beautiful body. “Darcy Hamilton,” she told him. “I don’t know if anyone told you about me but I’m Agnes’s first cousin. We don’t speak to the Bartletts which is why we haven’t met—” Ethan and Darcy both looked at each other with mirrored half-worried, half-curious looks “—yet.”
“It must be because you know them,” he replied and they smiled at each other.
“It’s actually because Julian Bartlett I decided he had plans for my uncle John, Jane’s husband, and when he didn’t follow those plans like a slave, Julian tried to destroy our family’s wealth and prestige. He cost us over ten million dollars before he finally died.” She shrugged. “Personally, I count myself lucky he didn’t get his hands on me when I was eight.”
Ethan laughed. “He really was a serious fucking asshole,” he told her and he ran his hands through his wet hair to pull it straight back. “So what brings you out here on such a lovely October morning, Darcy?”
“Phone call,” she replied. “A woman calls and suddenly I’m having visions like I used to when I was a child only this time it’s while I’m awake.”
“Me too,” he told her.
“Yeah?” Darcy replied a little louder as the rain began to increase all around them. “Did you have one about the Salem Witch Trial survivor?”
“No. I was just sitting in a room somewhere with—” he almost said “you” “—with an old woman.” He shrugged. “It’s crazy.”
“It is,” she replied and then she looked up at him from a few inches shorter, which seemed odd because Muire had been so tall to the five-year-old Thomas. “Have you ever heard of the White Witch of Salem?”
“Every magician in America knows who Mary White was,” he replied. She was a child born in Salem, Massachusetts around the same age as Abigail Williams and Betty Parish who were the first accusers in the Same Witch Trials. Among the many accused were her parents who, after denying the chargers and proclaiming innocence, were executed by hanging which left the girl an orphan.
Her life between that moment and the moment she was the famous elderly magician was a mystery but somewhere in that all time, she had taught herself magic and become the world’s greatest magician healer since the Roman Empire or so it was said. The books of her magic that she had written went for hundreds of thousands of dollars minimum at auctions.
“I think it was her. I think she summoned us here.”
“A deceased eighteenth-century female contacted us by telephone? Seems a bit unlikely, Darcy.”
“Maybe she’s been reincarnated and has come back to finish something. Did you know she lived and died in this very city?”
“I did not,” Ethan replied. He knew she died in Connecticut but he had never heard it was in Bartlett Bay, Connecticut. It changed depending on who told the story and was usually Stratford. “She was murdered right here?”
“The end of her life was just like the beginning,” Darcy told him. “A series and murders and mystery had plagued the city and someone decided ‘witchcraft’ was to blame. They hung her just like those judges had her parents down at the crossroads of Edmonton and Worthington right around where Mandy’s Diner is now back in the year 1787.”
“My math’s not great Darcy but that would make her over a hundred years old.”
“She was one hundred four years old. Another reason people didn’t trust the already mysterious woman with a mysterious witch-related past with mysterious powers with mysterious things happening all around her. It was odd because up until that moment, she was so beloved that people had come from all around the colonies to be healed by her.”
“Are you okay?”
“Uh—” she felt her face and was surprised to find tears there “—I’m fine. Did the speaker say something about the Cave of Blue Light?”
“What’s down there, I’m assuming,” Ethan said with a casual point toward the path down. “She mentioned it, yes, but what she didn’t mention was what it was.”
“I don’t know what it is. I just know things with funny names like that are best avoided.”
“Smart girl,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be back.” He started down the path very carefully, bending over to slip down under the rocky overhang that hid it from casual sight. The beginning of it was only a few feet wide making it very dangerous but once under the overhang, and partly into the hillside, the path grew far wider. It was impossible to tell from above.
“You’re actually heading down that tiny path in the middle of a rainstorm?”
“I am,” he said as he stood up. Darcy followed him seemingly without fear and they moved under the cliff face and wandered along the path in a winding, almost manmade path. It was dry down there, the rain creating almost a wall of water on their left sides.
“I heard you’ve been wandering the city,” Darcy said. “Ever visit Beechwood?” Her voice took a strange, almost hesitant, tone.
“I saw it but I have no ability to enter without breaking in. I like it.” There was something about that nineteenth-century manor house that enchanted him.
“That house is seriously haunted,” Darcy told him. The path seemed to level out and they were almost walking casually. “Also, we’re not going to find anything down here. This has got to be a prank.”
“Then why’d you come?” he asked with a smile as he scooted down farther. When she didn’t answer he looked back to see her staring down at him from above with hesitation. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Darcy?”
She gave him a sexy half-smile. “Oh it’s around,” she told him.
“Well, when it gets here, I’ll be waiting at the bottom.” He slipped around a corner, through a slash in the cliff face, and was then able to walk casually or would if it wasn’t raining. The path was wider, level and still under the overhang but more rain got in and poured down. “Well shit,” he said when he saw what was waiting for him.
The path created a kind of semi-circle back around the rock face but at the end, there was a gap. It was abrupt and unnatural and whatever destroyed it had also taken out the overhang and much of the ground above.
A break in the clouds above him filled the world with the sun and transformed the pouring water into liquid gold.
Looking closer, Justin saw the right had a metal bar with a kind of dull hook at the end sticking out of the rock. He walked up to it, tugged on it a bit, and found it was pressed tightly into the rock. He could see clearly enough that despite the danger, it wasn’t that big a gap and there was a solid area easily big enough for him to land in.
“What is it?” asked Darcy as she emerged behind him. “Oh,” when she added saw it.
Ethan turned back to her, smiled widely, and then stepped back. He then rushed forward, leaped through the air through the waterfall and was, for a moment, covered in a sunlit raining world of golden yellow.
It seemed for a moment he was frozen in the air, filled with a feeling similar to the one a person would get on a rollercoaster when it hit its highest point before going down. Then he flew through the other waterfall, hit the path, and then fell flat on his back as his feet slipped out from under him.
“Ate shit,” he said with something caught between a groan and a laugh.
He didn’t slide because of water, some part of the ground seemed to have slid away on impact, and he was thrown straight backward luckily onto the path. He sat up as he rubbed his head and saw that what he slipped on was a coil of rope and what it was connected to was an identical metal bar on that side of the waterfall.
He understood it easily enough. One rope went from one hook to the other and an individual used it like handlebars to cross. Those metal bars must have been there since the 1800s or so and they probably weren’t put there by expert climbers. Ethan was reasonably sure there must have been an easier method than that.
Both sides were unhooked and the rope was so covered in mud from the rain that he had not noticed it.
Ethan stood up, moved to the corner, and Darcy jumped over in an elegant, graceful way that would befit a ballet dancer. “Catwoman,” he said.
“You’re not the first to tell me that.” They looked down at the rope he held, shrugged, and then he tossed it down and continued back around the cliff face. Somehow had cut the rope but it could be for any number of unrelated reasons.
Ethan and Darcy proceeded slowly down to the bottom at the base of what was called the Finger, which was the end of the cliff face above that overlooked Lower Bartlett Bay and the Long Island from a long ledge in the shape of its namesake.
The bottom at the path was a platform of stone and dirt below a series of gaps that looked like some kind of stone cage leading into some inner chamber. Below them, directly to his right and into the cliff face, was a cave.
Ahead of him, docked along the rocks, was a small motorboat, and standing before her were two young women. One of them was only fourteen or so, stunningly beautiful with almost jet-black hair cut short and combed forward with dark blue eyes. She wore a black leather jacket buttoned up to the front, jeans and boots and was equipped with a modern hunting bow which was thrown over her back.
He recognized her face: Julia’s face. The girl from that nightmare by the tower in the Engelstad who had tried to kill him with only the slight differences that came from being a biological sister.
The other girl was Natalie who looked different from before in some critical way he couldn’t describe. She wore a dark gray rain jacket with its hood up, jeans and heavy boots and gray gloves. She reminded him of a little girl somehow and the look of terror in her pretty round eyes with the way her hands rubbed together increased that feeling immensely.
“Just what the fuck are you doing here?” asked the younger girl.
Ethan sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Oh this shit again,” he said.
“You stole my sister’s youth and gave it to some worthless backwoods Connecticut cunt all because she wouldn’t spread her legs and offer you her vagina just because you asked,” said the girl bitterly.
“Well, she wasn’t really using it.” The girl’s eyes went wide with offended shock. “Oh, you’re still talking about the youth thing. Yeah, I can see how that would bother you.”
“I thought that youth stealing thing was bullshit,” said Darcy uncomfortably.
“I seriously wish it was.”
“You unbelievable bastard,” she said with a sneer. “I’m going to enjoy murdering you.” She reached for something and Ethan shot her in the chest with his Lightning Bolt spell. She stumbled backward, hit a part of the wall that had rock, and slipped down to her knees. “You son of a—” He stepped forward and kicked her in the stomach reasonably hard and she immediately curled up into a ball and began to cry.
“Unexpected,” he said.
Darcy rested her left hand on her sword, walked up beside Ethan, and looked down at Michelle utterly without sympathy.
“Michelle I—Ethan—” He turned and saw Natalie was looking at him with tears of fear running down her face, her hair’s thick heavy locks stuck to her cheeks and chin, and her hands were shaking badly. “I’m scared, Ethan! I can’t—my sister Michelle is—I—I’m missing something—”
Ethan walked over to her and put his hands gently on her shoulders. “You called me, Natalie,” he said and she nodded, her lips quivering, and he lifted her chin. Her body was a near-perfect female specimen at eighteen, sculpted like a statue, but inside she really was a frightened child in every single possible way. “Natalie,” he said and her dark blue eyes focused intensely onto his, “Why did you call me here?”
Her eyes suddenly rolled up into the back of her head and wavy lines of light slipped out from her body. For a moment, they were around her and then they slipped past Ethan and connected to another set of lights.
Ethan tilted his head over his shoulder, followed the lines of light with his eyes, and saw a figure standing at the edge of the entrance.
It was a real ghost. Not a shade, illusion, projection or anything he could shrug off easily. The ghost a young girl looked at each of them with the full understanding and awareness of any human being.
She was dressed as a little pilgrim girl in the late seventeenth century and he knew he was not mistaken. He had seen pictures of them all his life at holidays like Thanksgiving, countless documentaries, school reenactments and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible film version which had starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder and had been one of his favorite movies as a child.
She was average looking, maybe eight or nine when alive, and her light brown hair was tied back in a white coif which he recalled from somewhere and a dull brown dress. Like a shade, she was partially transparent but her connection to Natalie was more than extremely powerful. Ethan’s instinctive thought was that it was a diabolically unholy one but after a moment, he sensed it was nothing close to the sort.
“You’re the same fucking person,” he said softly. How the revelation came to him, he could not say but there it was. They were like two batteries who shared the same energy source, a human soul, but that source shared between two people never filled either completely. The ghost wasn’t a real battery though, her half trying to desperately reach and complete Natalie but was unable to.
The reason why became clear as the ghost girl moved up to the edge of the cave and pressed up against an invisible wall. He saw it flicker as she touched it, giving Ethan the same terrified look Natalie just had, and when she leaned up against it, she looked like a child pressed up against a car window stuck inside while watching other children entering an amusement park. Her eyes locked on Ethan miserably and as she began to fade, he sensed more saw something moving through the connection into Natalie.
“Oh God, it’s you!” whimpered Darcy. The sound seemed odd coming out of her mouth. “It’s really you!”
Natalie suddenly shoulders and when he turned to look at her, she did not look like a child anymore. “There is something going on in that cave!” she told him in the hard voice she had on the phone. It was a voice filled with confidence and force. “I need you to go in there and I need you to stop it! I don’t know if they know what that place is capable of but they can never learn what secrets lie below! No one can! I was wrong to try!”
“The Cave of Blue Light.” He looked back and at the cave and looked at the pale light blue light appearing somewhere within. Natalie’s hand took his chin and turned it back to him.
“It’s a doorway to Hell, Ethan!” she cried with wide, frightened eyes. “You don’t play with this place! You don’t dare! It will drag you down and turn your soul black!”
“Doorway?” Ethan’s eyes widened and a feeling of horror crept into him. A new vision came to him, one different from the others, and it came bubbling up from much farther down like a corpse rising back to life from an old horror comic.
* * *
“Where is God’s name is the king?” Walter Kent asked aloud as he dismounted his horse.
He was a scrawny, tall man with a short mess of dark brown hair and near-black eyes and was considered by many, including his wife, to be unattractive which he sometimes felt was his large pointed nose sometimes deemed the source.
He was dressed casually for the hunting expedition; hose, doublet, boots and sleeves all the color of black with orange under the puffy sections below the doublet at the top of the arms and at the thighs. Black was the only color he was certain looked good on him and orange the only one he liked, so he tended to wear those colors most and somehow it gave him the moniker Black Fool, which many people, including his father, called him straight to his face.
He walked down the woodland path to his friend Sir Henry Norris who was on the ground clutching a wound pouring blood out of his forehead with a thick cloth he carried with him. Walter gave him his hand and pulled him up to his feet.
The hit seemed rather brutal to Walter for just a tree branch. Any worse a hit would have cracked his skull wide open but to Walter, it seemed rather severe considering the speed they were riding at. He himself had hit a branch going just as fast or faster and with nowhere near that kind of brutality.
“Did you see that, Walter?” asked Norris as he put pressure onto his wound. He was older than the king was by nine years and Walter by twelve, an average looking man already mostly bald at twenty-nine with a short dark beard that looked distinguished and respectable. He looked at the blood on his other hand and then at Walter. “That branch moved of its own accord!” he told him.
“That’s ridic—” there was a loud crack and they looked back at the tree in startled unison. It was an ugly, gnarled bluish-gray thing and even had a kind of face. The eyes and mouths were only knotholes but they somehow seemed placed in such a manner that it made it look like it was screaming in abject terror. “Where are the servants? The guards?” He looked around through the tall, unnatural trees around them. “Where is anyone?”
They had just lost an entire hunting party of over fifty not including servants and guards.
The Darkwood had somehow swallowed them all. One moment they were in an ordinary English greenwood and then the next, what? Something happened and it was as if they were suddenly somewhere else. It was impossible but out in those woods, nothing seemed impossible. The trees loomed high above them, some of them hundreds of feet high, and the mountains in the distance were on no map Walter had ever seen. There were odd and creepy sounds unnatural to any English forest and suddenly what had before sounded so preposterous suddenly seemed not only plausible but also very real.
He found his hand resting on his sword as he looked around. Everyone was armed. Nobody from peasant to king would ever dare walk into the Darkwood without something. “Norris, do you get the sudden feeling we’re being watched.”
Norris looked slowly up at the tree that hit him worriedly as if he thought that was what was watching him. His eyes focused on the blood spread across the single outstretched branch that he had hit and then he turned and looked around. “I do actually,” he said. “Have you heard the stories they say about these woods? I’ve truly never much liked them.”
“They were a whole lot more fun when we weren’t actually in here,” Walter replied.
Everyone in England had heard those stories. There were witches, fairies, trolls, goblins, giants, dragons and so forth but it was a specific story of a jet-black unicorn that had drawn them there. Their king had lost his son and heir that very year after just two months of life and he was in a despondent and temperamental mood. He had commissioned a ship called the Mary Rose, which promised some cheer, but since it had yet to be completed, it did nothing to relieve his mood. In June, his birthday month, someone had come up with the idea of an adventure.
The black unicorn had been spotted from time to time in a small forest northeast of Oxford called the Darkwood. Unicorns were universally known as the finest of all horses, not just in England but the world and the black unicorn stallion was the finest among them: the King of Horses they called him. The man who had such a steed would easily be the envy of all the kings of Europe: the first unicorn rider since the days of the Roman Empire
They had spotted their unicorn almost instantly, Walter one of the first to do so, and they gave chase through the woods with the king at the head looking absolutely ecstatic. There was nowhere that it could go where they could not follow. It was a horse and they were on horseback after all but the instant they were upon it, the woods seemed to grow around them. In an instance, like a flash of lightning, the entourage vanished all around them along with the unicorn.
Walter knew not where the others were. He only knew that wherever he vanished to Norris had somehow come with him. There was something else as well. Something disturbing.
“Did you get the impression the unicorn was laughing at us?” asked Walter. Norris lowered his blood-soaked cloth from his forehead and looked at him as if he was an idiot. “I swear to God I did.”
“Walter,” said Norris, “I heard laughter but it obviously did not come from a horse.”
Walter was just in front of Norris as they made chase. He wondered if he should say something about the look the unicorn gave. It had tilted its head back, looked at all of them with a clear look of amusement, and then gave a big, wide toothy grin. It was so quick it could have been imagined, anyone focused on its rump would have missed it so it probably was only Walter who supposedly saw it, and the high-pitched laughter that followed could have come from any one of them.
Except that it didn’t sound human.
Walter found himself not believing in Norris’s line of logic. He wasn’t prone to having wildly imaginative visions but his instincts told him that there must have been a greater reason other than speed or rarity no one had ever caught a unicorn in over two thousand years.
“Gentlemen, why are you off your horses?” Walter looked over to see Charles Brandon appearing on his own horse out of the trees alongside them opposite the face tree wearing a dark brown leather doublet with yellow under the arms and thighs and heavy black boots.
He was a dashingly handsome man with light brown hair and a full beard with dark eyes who as a former playmate of the king’s elder brother and whose father was killed in person by Richard III on the battlefield, was well respected and loved by the king and thus considered well above Walter in the king’s eyes.
Like the king, he was a man of athletics and action, mastering many of the sports that gave him a muscular build that women loved and men envied which Walter was perceived to have lacked. Most people considered the two of them as different as night and day.
“I hit that tree, Charles,” said Norris with a gesture back.
“That ugly tree—” there was a loud crack and they all looked over at the face tree for a surprised second. Brandon shrugged it off, not caring. “We need to find the king immediately. Do either of you have any understanding of where is he?”
“None,” said Norris as he remounted his horse.
“He was ahead of me,” said Walter as he went back to his own horse. “I blinked once and the woods had suddenly swallowed him, the hounds, and everyone else.”
“Delightful,” said Brandon sarcastically. He was unhappy but Walter was more so.
If the king was never found, who knew what Queen Katherine would do to them. She was a good queen and Walter trusted her without question but she also loved the king in earnest and love could make people crazy. Brandon would be just fine, no one would doubt the good friend of the king, but Walter was hardly as confident for himself.
He was considered a bungler and a fool and was not nearly as popular in the court. How hard would it be for the court to roll over on him and somehow make everything all his fault? The king’s almoner Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was rising high in the court through his connection to the king and Walter honestly feared that man was capable of anything especially if he grew to believe Walter had just threatened that rising power with his idiocy.
Walter reached up to his horse’s saddle when he heard near hysterical laughter not far from them. “What was that?” asked Brandon.
“Laughter, Charles,” Walter replied and Brandon gave him an unimpressed, displeased look. “Well, it is.” The laughter came again briefly and Walter stepped away from his horse and walked toward it.
“Where are you going, Kent?”
“I’m just going to take a look,” Walter told them as he turned around a giant tree.
“I would not go over there, Walter,” said Norris just as he disappeared from their sight.
Walter stepped into a grove and the very first thing he saw was a doorframe dropped in the very center. It was carved from stone as if by some ancient people and was connected to a stone wall old enough to be from the roman empire but the door that was within the stone frame was a big red door exactly like the one leading to his family’s home. It couldn’t have been more out of place there than a fool in motley was in a church choir.
A servant, dressed in the red uniform with the Tudor rose on his shoulder, was reaching into the doorway and laughing. Walter recognized him as a young, slender and quiet man with short mousy brown hair named Thomas Samuels.
Another burst of laughter hit Samuels and he bumped the door and spread it wide open before Walter. Even though it could have only possibly lead to the other side of the grove, it did not.
Walter faced infinity and stars! A sky was lit up through the frame amidst daylight and was as an eternity before. Endless, unfathomable, and ungraspable, the distances stretched off beyond his mind’s control and understanding, everything unexplainable and yet, somehow, fully understood in the manner of which dreams could be.
He saw a black sun rising into the sky, horses riding men, the moon growing a face and bleeding from the eyes while laughing in that high-pitched unicorn’s voice! The world was spinning all around him, the winds of madness blowing wild and strong in every direction, and he wanted to shriek but he couldn’t remember how.
A powerful vision killed the others: a great queen of shadow and darkness stood out upon a mountainside with her arms outstretched and lines of shadow reached out from her hands to the valley below into soldiers that were part of some great and violent battle beneath her. Their battle shifted, changed by the queen, and they were suddenly her puppets dancing on her shadowy strings.
And then the visions cleared because he suddenly realized there were things out there beyond the door. How long they had been watching him, he could not say. He might have been staring into that doorway for twenty seconds or twenty years for all he knew, time seeming to have slowed down beyond his comprehension.
He didn’t know what they were or where they came from but he understood their voices quite clearly and they slowly started to rise in volume and potency. He couldn’t pinpoint any individual voice but he could they promised him things, wondrous things, all of which he had always dreamed of but forgotten as the years took him from boy to man.
The wonders of wonders could all be is if he but reached through the doorway.
Walter slammed the door as hard as he could before he was tempted, having no idea how he got so close, and the voices shut off out of his head as abruptly a limb being chopped off his body in one swipe.
“Good God in Heaven!” he cried as he shook his head, tears pouring out of his wide, horrified eyes.
Everything instantly began fading like a dream and for that, he was eternally grateful. He had already forgotten exactly what they had offered him beyond the vagueness of the notion of he was being offered something and he desperately wanted to forget that as well. He suspected the full truth of it would come back to haunt him in his dreams.
He turned to the servant and said, “Samuels, did you see that?”
Samuels turned his head and the pupils of his green eyes had changed to become diamond-shaped in a manner almost but not quite like a cat’s. “Oh I saw,” he told him with a wide wicked smile. “I saw very clearly Lord Walter Kent of Dartmouth.” He reached for him and Walter jumped back and pulled out his sword.
“What is the meaning of—” Brandon saw Samuels’s face “—my God.” He didn’t see his eyes’ abnormality, he was too far away for that, but he did not miss the clear look of sheer madness on Samuels’s face.
Samuels’s smile widened in such a manner that appeared unnaturally large making almost all of his teeth fully visible. “So it’s your God now, Lord Brandon?”
There was something in his look, something almost out-worldly evil, but Walter didn’t believe it was that exactly. He didn’t really believe in evil as a separate entity from man at all, despite what the priests say, though he did believe in evil intentions and evil men. “Samuels—” he said and the servant’s head jerked toward his with a dark, hate-filled expression“—you need to reflect on how you speak to your masters.”
“Oh how the Black Fool stands for the honor of the great Charles Brandon,” he said in a disgusted voice and his eyes narrowed. “They laugh at you, all of them and even the servants, and you will never be one of them. You’re the king’s fool away from court and nothing but a laughing failure they all can humor themselves with, and they will never come to respect you.”
“I know,” Walter replied and then Samuels’s right hand jerked out and caught him by the neck. It was like a lightning bolt across the sky, it was that fast, and his face filled with more unbridled loathing than Walter had ever seen combined in his seventeen years of his life. “A problem, Mr. Samuels?” he hacked out.
Brandon was finding Samuels less and less pleasant to look at. “Let go of him, Samuels—”
Samuels silenced him with a look, shook his head, and then turned back toward Walter. Then he blinked a couple of times, looked calmly down, and saw Walter’s sword sticking into his gut. He looked back up at Walter and then, almost casually, lifted him off the ground with one arm.
“My God,” said Brandon again and he and Norris could only stare. Samuels was far too slender and frail to lift a grown man in such a manner yet somehow he did.
Walter twisted the blade with his right hand while holding onto Samuels’s wrist with his left. The wound did nothing, his feet staying elevated, so he kicked at Samuels violently with them hoping he would lose his grip. He did not and in fact did not even seem remotely affected by any of it.
Brandon pulled out his sword and at the sound of a blade leaving its sheath Norris snapped out of his daze and followed suit.
Samuels tossed Walter to the ground like a doll and did it with such force that Walter rolled for several feet after impact. “Come gentlemen,” he told the others. “Let us dance together.”
There was the sudden deafening sound of a gunshot in the air and Walter saw it had hit Samuels in the right shoulder. It seemed to have done nothing and Samuels slowly and casually turned his head to the right. “And the king,” he said mockingly. “King Henry VIII. How well does your hunt fare today, Mr. Tudor?”
Henry Tudor was dressed casually in a gray doublet and hose with heavy boots with his rifle aimed. He was a large, powerful man, his hair and beard fire red, and he was as athletic and handsome as he was royal, seated fearlessly on a grand dark stallion at the edge of the woods. He was admired by many, men and women alike, and not just as a king and a man but also as a scholar, the notable mentorship of the humanists Desiderius Erasmus among his many other teachers, which made his intellect as admirable as his physique.
Walter wasn’t sure he was all that exactly even though that was exactly what everyone had been telling Walter all his life. There was always something about him that struck Walter as weak or controllable down in his core but he doubted it would ever become a problem against his better qualities, one of which was that he was not a coward.
“Why aren’t you dead?” Henry asked in an unimpressed voice as he placed his rifle away and took out his bow.
“Oh I am dead,” said Samuels and he started walking forward. “I’m the ghost of a dead Yorkist rebel your father murdered.” Henry fired an arrow into his chest but even as a direct hit it didn’t stop or even slow him. The others followed their king and fired their bows but it did just as little with each successful shot. “Or maybe I am an assassin. Maybe I was sent by Edward Plantagenet straight from Hell to do to the Tudors what they have done to the Plantagenets.”
Brandon and Norris quickly dismounted and pulled out their swords again. Samuels was getting dangerously close to the king but Henry did not back away and instead dismounted and pulled out his own sword.
“No!” cried Walter, his voice coming out in gasps instead of sound, and he scrambled to his feet. “Don’t let him get close!”
The king swung and Samuels ducked the swing, jerked forward and caught his arm like a snake biting. Brandon stabbed him in the side and Norris went straight toward his back.
“Wait!” cried Walter, his voice actually coming out, but Norris didn’t hear and the blade went right through Samuels’s back. Luckily, the king saw it in time and jerked aside quick enough to avoid being stabbed.
“Oh dear God!” cried Norris.
“In the back, Lord Norris?” said Samuels with a laugh. “You so bereft of gentlemanly behavior has left me ever so sad.” His smile faded and he fell to his knees. Norris pulled the blade out and Samuels dropped face forward onto the grass like a rock.
Norris knelt instantly. “Forgive me, Your Highness!”
Henry gestured for him to rise solemnly. “I forgive you, Lord Norris, but—” his face turned very dark “—if you had so much as scratched me I would have had your head cut right off.”
There was an awkward pause.
The three of them suddenly burst out laughing and Walter himself smiled when he thought about it. The king was probably the kindest and most generous man Walter had ever heard of, even to the point where his advisers had battled routinely to halt his generosity. He found he couldn’t believe such a man would ever kill a good friend over an honest mistake.
Their joy stopped when Walter moved up to them and the king and Brandon both gave him a look as if he had just invaded their privacy. “Your Highness,” he bowed weakly, every part of him in pain, and he looked around. “Has anyone seen my sword?” King Henry and Charles frowned at him and then looked away while Norris was just uncomfortable.
Walter felt a deep unhappiness sink into him. Why did the king keep him around if he wasn’t exactly what they and Samuels said he was? He felt his throat, which was in great pain and covered in bruises, and he looked at the king. He realized then that he truly did not like the king even though he was told he had no choice but to love him. Was what Henry had just done brave or was it just stupid overconfidence? He wondered if one day Henry would get himself hurt, killed or even worse.
The others mounted their horses. “Find your sword already, Fool,” said the king. “We have others to find.”
“Your Highness,” said Brandon, “Forgive me but do we not need to remove you from these woods immediately. They are clearly more dangerous than we previously anticipated.”
Walter picked up his sword and looked over at the door only to find it was suddenly just an empty door-less stone frame. “It’s gone… Where has it gone too…” It couldn’t have vanished but it did. The proof was right in front of him.
“Should we, Charles? Are there no other gentlemen, servants or my dogs needing to be found and is there not, of course, Kent—” Walter jumped, startled by the king’s sudden crying out of his name. “Did I not say to get back on your fucking horse?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Walter sheathed his blade after quickly wiping it off on the grass, rushed up to his horse and climbed on.
The king looked him over, fully and completely disgusted with him, and then rode on ahead. The others rode after but then as he was about to follow, he suddenly heard something behind him and looked back.
Samuels had stood up and was casually walking off into the woods covered head to toe in his own blood. “I’ll see you again someday, Walter Kent!” he snarled as he pulled out an arrow. “On my honor.”
“Well, I’ll make sure to kill you when you do!” Walter replied and he rode up to the others.
They looked around until sunset and found many but not all of who was missing. Other than Samuels, at least seven servants, a dozen guards along with their horses and two of the king’s prized greyhounds vanished without a trace. Once sunset came, the king accepted his loss and was forced to abandon them although he did not want to.
No one, not even the king of England, dared stayed a night in the Darkwood.
On the way out Walter looked back up at the sky and saw a castle in the hills in a pass: a frightening black silhouette against the darkening orange sky.
* * *
Ethan threw up his arm instinctively and the throwing knife went right into his left forearm. Another one followed instantly, hitting him in the shoulder, and a third hit him in the thigh. The vision had felt real but not anymore. Not compared to actual pain.
Michelle screamed once she ran out of knives and threw herself into her sister, almost knocking her over, her hands grabbing at her waist. “Give me the gun, you bitch!”
The ghost became more opaque and Natalie turned back to herself. “What’s happening to me?” she whimpered as she scrambled away from her sister.
Ethan ripped out the blade from his shoulder and thigh at the same time, two simultaneous strings of blood flying out with them. He screamed in rage, the eyes of Thomas Samuels from five centuries past shooting across his mind like an explosion, and then he pulled out the one from his right forearm.
It was in England! his mind shrieked through his pain. How can the same fucking castle be in England and Connecticut! The way everyone had been speaking was not quite right. It seemed to have translated into his modern mind through Walter’s own understanding and that somehow confirmed it wasn’t just a dream because in a dream they would just talk the only way he understood or their own way but would somehow still be magically understood. It was real and the castle was there in England thousands of miles away all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Michelle punched her sister in the stomach as hard as she could, causing Natalie to bend over and vomit; the hit was that hard. Then she grabbed the gun with one hand, shoved her sister into the ground with the other and spun around.
Ethan jerked forward into the cave, the first shot missing him completely, and then rushed around the corner into the blue light just as the second shot went off. It scraped the side of his neck but did nothing more, a barely noticeable sting drowned under the suffering he was already feeling.
“Get back here you fucking pig!” she cried after him, her voice echoing down into the cave.
“What the hell?” Darcy cried. She was in the cave already, hidden behind the wall, eyes wide with shock.
Ethan pulled out a Heal potion and drank it quickly as he stumbled down the tunnel past her. The magic he had felt outside permeated the air of the inner cave and as he proceeded deeper, he recognized it but it was from no vision where that recognition came from.
It was the very same magic that had come from the orb he had found in the tower.
Darcy went back toward the entrance while he went deeper.
The tunnel was short and as he stepped out into the dim blue light, he found himself inside a grotto where he could see the source of light in the form of huge, blue runes on every ceiling and walls all around him.
His path led out from the tunnel across a wall of carved stone from the ground with a single set of stairs leading to a second level above to his left and a pool of ocean water to his right that actually, due to rain, had risen up over the ground ahead. Straight ahead, built into the wall, was another tower.
“Oh fuck me,” he whispered.
The design must have been from a race of people commonly believed to have been an unnamed tribe of Native Americans who had the nickname “Morlocks” after the H.G. Wells story The Time Machine because they were known to have lived underground and were blind. A separate line of thinking suggested they were descended from Vikings, their stone structures too European to be anything remotely like the Native Americans from that area, and when Ethan looked at it he could see easily enough its resemblance to Europe.
The tower was an almost perfect cylinder, stone, with a winding external staircase wrapping up and around all fifty feet of its height, where he saw at the top a glowing blue woman floating above in the air, her arms outstretched with faded lines of bright magic stretching from her body to each rune.
That was as far as he got before he felt at least a half dozen people suddenly start casting attack magic.
He cast Magic Armor with one hand and with no chance to parry so many spells all at once, he cast his Magic Shield spell with the other. An orange-tinted transparent tower shield formed over his left arm and he ducked behind it.
A green lightning bolt, a yellow fireball, a purple ice shard and two acid balls, one red, one blue, hit hard. The very last was the maximum damage his spell could take and it shattered his shield and sending him stumbling backward.
Ethan was amazed at how well his spell worked.
He had no other magicians but never had any that he could practice within his entire life and he had never been able to test his spell properly. According to the spell description, had the average magician would only absorb two to five spells directly without a chance for it to recover or be recast and that was exactly what promised. If there had been a sixth spell, his chest would have been melted, burned or possibly exploded.
Ethan leaped behind the nearest object he could find, a giant statue that looked vaguely troll-like, but before he could do anything about the magicians Michelle appeared at the edge of the tunnel. She raised her gun and Ethan immediately fired a lightning bolt from his right hand into her gun arm.
She stumbled backward, the gun falling to the ground, and shrieked, “You son of a bitch!”
Ethan cast another shield over his left arm and was about to rush back when Darcy beat him to it. She went for the gun but Michelle grabbed it first and slammed it across her face. She barely seemed to blink from the impact. The two sprawled to Ethan’s left, right out in the open and past the statue.
Ethan felt it coming, cast another shield spell over his right hand, and moved in front of them. A half dozen spells fired through the air, hitting either shield, making it glow orange. One acid ball missed, hit the ground near his feet, and sprayed a little acid onto his left leg side and leg with something burning, magical napalm.
Darcy forced the gun upward where it fired into the ceiling, the sound echoing in a deafening manner all around them, and then Darcy punched her in the stomach. She stumbled backward and Darcy caught the gun from her hands as it fell.
“Enough!” cried a woman’s voice that boomed and shot through every inch of the cavern. A blue burst of magical energy shot from the glowing blue woman and hit the statue of a troll.
Michelle kicked him in the back hard enough to hurt even through his magical armor. He stumbled forward, looked back, and saw her fighting with martial arts against Darcy. As young as she was, Michelle was a very competent fighter.
She caught the gun and when Darcy turned, she punched her in the back as hard as she could steadily and competently. Darcy threw himself back hard and slammed her into the stone wall in perfect view of all those casters.
Ethan recast his shield spells and quickly jumped in front of them.
Michelle cried out, wrapped her arm around Darcy and bit her in the neck at the vertex of the neck and collar as hard as she could. It was surprisingly vicious for such a skinny, young opponent. She took an iron grip on Darcy with her free hand and dug all five of her sharp rat-like nails onto the other side of her neck above her bite.
Ethan turned back and blocked the spells as they flew into his shields, blocking one after the other.
A lightning bolt went through, hit Darcy in the leg, and she cried out.
Michelle pulled the gun free, slammed it across her head, and pointed the gun at Ethan’s back. Ethan jerked aside, the gun firing off, and then he dropped his shield, fired a lightning bolt off toward one of the ledges, and a man screamed and stumbled away.
At the same instant, he turned and saw Michelle had her gun aimed at his heart. “I got you, Bartlett! I got you!”
“Will someone just shoot him?” cried a man.
“Who has the gun?” cried another man.
“Whoever has the gun, just shoot him!” a third man added.
“Turn around!” cried Ethan, his right hand losing the shield and sparkling with orange electricity as he held a readied Lightning Bolt spell. She ignored him, raising her directly toward his head, her eyes focusing carefully. “I am not fucking joking, kid! ‘They have a cave troll!’”
She sneered and would have pulled the trigger and ended his life but then she felt the ground shake behind her and then did look back.
The statue had begun moving and seemed to have come alive to become a huge mound of flesh in the form of a ten-foot-tall black-furred troll with long stringy hair reaching down past its chest with longer arms than legs reaching nearly down to its ankles ending with oversized hands. It’s oddly little head had tiny beady black eyes on a small face with a giant round nose and it was stout and round at the same time. Every troll alive was seemingly both extremely muscular and obese at the same time, but it was not a real troll despite its realistic appearance.
It had no mind. Ethan could see the blank indifference in its face and the casual way it walked revealed the simple fact it was nothing more than a magician’s version of a robot known universally as a golem.
Michelle panicked and immediately fired into the troll’s chest as it reached for her. It was the wrong move and it still would have been even if the troll wasn’t a golem because bullets do almost nothing against them. Their body was like extremely good armor and only armor-piercing rifle rounds could do anything other than irritate them and those barely anything more.
It grabbed her gun, along with her hand, and squeezed. Michelle shrieked at the top of her lungs, her voice ear piercing and miserable and reaching out to every inch of the cave.
Darcy threw herself into Ethan and threw him behind another statue, that one of some kind of half-snake, half-woman known as a naga. Several spells landed where he had been an instant afterward.
“Not her, you idiot golem!” boomed the blue woman’s amplified voice. “The man! Kill the man!” She groaned. “Fucking white magic!”
Ethan suddenly knew exactly who she was even though her voice sounded very different.
The troll-golem let go of Michelle’s hand, which looked mashed into an indefinable lump with the gun, and Michelle fell to her knees. She let out another loud, long scream and then bent over defeated.
Ethan looked at her for a moment then up at the ledges above to see a man in black robes standing above the grotto’s tunnel entrance illuminated by those cage-like holes. He stepped forward carrying a rifle in both hands, his expression a scowl of loathing and rage. His hood was back and his face was seen as crimson and covered in boils from Ethan’s lightning spell.
The man sneered and raised his rifle.
There was a gunshot and Ethan jumped instinctively but then realized the robed man had not fired.
A hole appeared in the man’s forehead and he stood motionless for a second, dead on his feet before he fell backward like a pushed over cardboard cutout. The gun fell from his hands, hit the edge, and fell to the ground before the tunnel entrance.
Darcy lowered the revolver in her hand. “I got you covered, Bartlett,” she told him. “Go in there and do whatever it is you do.”
“Okay,” Ethan said and then he ducked under the incredibly slow golem’s grasp, rushed to the rifle, and picked it up with his right hand and made a shield with his left. All five spells hit him directly onto his shield as he braced for impact. It held all five that time.
“Unbelievable!” cried the blue woman. She remained elevated in the air unmoving but lines from her shot out from her body to the other statues all over the room.
Statues came alive all around them just as the troll had. The naga above Darcy slipped off its pedestal, its body as thick as a man’s and emerald green while its upper body was a gorgeous middle-eastern woman. There was a giant spider in the corner, several human-sized goblins known as goblins and two more trolls around the base of the tower.
All of them moved incredibly slow. A rather typical problem of base-level golems.
“Damn it, damn it, DAMN IT!” cried the blue woman.
Ethan held the rifle in both hands and moved semi-sideways to keep the magical shield in front of him. The casters hid instead of casting as he stepped into the floor with ankle deeper that the rain overflowed.
Down, he saw there were runes under the water and it made the water illuminate like a pool.
“Olly olly oxen free,” said Ethan as he walked across the water toward the tower.
Someone slipped out of their hiding place but a gunshot behind Ethan made the woman scream and jump back. “Bitch!” screamed a woman. “You fucking bitch!”
“You’re not getting out of here alive!” said a man at the top of the stairs. Ethan couldn’t see him but he had a good idea where he was.
Ethan pressed his rifle butt casually against the hobgoblin golem that had come too close and then pushed it over casually and continued forward. When he reached the bottom of the tower’s stairs, he raised the rifle upward before proceeding.
The man’s voice said, “Now you’re no killer, son—”
“Yes, he is!” said the blue woman. “That’s Ethan Bartlett! He’s the one who killed your fucking magician, fools!”
The speaker had stopped in the middle of the stairs between the wall and tower and had just then become visible to Ethan who casually glanced at him. He was a man in black hoods with his hood down to reveal an average-looking man aged thirty to forty years with sunken, dark eyes and dark hair combed straight backward.
Ethan did not recognize him but it would probably have made very little difference if he had.
“No wait—” Ethan fired into his chest and he grunted, stumbled forward down the stairs and fell past Ethan over the side where he landed face-first onto the flooded stone floor below and ceased moving.
Ethan held up his shield and blocked the incoming spells as three people rushed down the stairs and lobbed their spells at him. The spells were blocked perfectly, only two of them able to cast around the corner directly at him anyway and they were not in a quick enough succession or powerful enough to cause his shield to break or even waver. By the time they could cast again, his shield had repaired itself.
After a few moments, they were tired enough to stop for an instant.
Ethan raised his rifle, fired into the man on the left, and he fell forward down the stairs. The woman behind him shrieked, scrambled away backward, but accidentally fell over the edge above and fell over. She screamed all fifteen feet down to the ground where she hit hard and became silent.
The third attempted to flee upward but ended up in Darcy’s sight sightline and she fired twice into his chest. He cried out and dropped to the pool below.
“Well this is turning out to be a fun afternoon,” said Ethan. He went higher up the stairs and saw Darcy in the pool raising her gun. “Don’t do—” she fired twice at the blue woman and huge explosions of powerful magic filled the air causing a burst of magic-induced pain in his head “—that.” Unsurprisingly, it did nothing to the blue woman. The bullets bounced off, were absorbed, or something. There was a lot of magic in the room and no doubt, some of it went to protection.
“You never know until you try,” said Darcy as she rushed up to the tower. She put one hand on the backside of the spider, pushed it off the stairs, and then rushed up to him. The two of them shared a quick smile, feeling something like a spark suddenly seeming to connect them, and they started moving up the stairs together.
None of the other golems had reached the stairs except two of the trolls and they were far too big to climb so they just waited below. The others were slowly making their way over steadily. Many golems were slow but it seemed then that those were just incredibly slow and Ethan suddenly felt certain that the glowing woman was not fully in control of them.
“I am going to kill you, you little bitch,” said the blue woman calmly.
“Yeah, you and everyone else,” said Darcy as she moved up behind Ethan.
“I swear to God you will come to regret this moment,” said the blue woman and suddenly Ethan and Darcy’s gun turned bright blue.
“Don’t fire!” Ethan told her and he tossed his gun away and pulled out his sword. “They enchanted our—”
A man jumped down from above with a machete and Ethan jerked back down the stairs. Darcy instinctively moved back easily giving him space and the man missed Ethan just barely. The blade slammed into the tower with a clang.
Ethan whipped out his dagger with his left hand, jerked forward and stabbed him in the chest. The man cried out, lost his footing, and fell off the stairs. Ethan pulled the dagger free of him as he fell.
“He just killed Rudy!” a woman shrieked. Ethan sheathed his dagger, pulled out his sword, and rushed up. He swung at a woman who had half come down. She jumped back, tried to climb back up, but tripped on the stairs, fell against the edge and went rolling off the side of the tower. Ethan saw her fall to the water-flooded walkway below but landed wrong and died on impact.
“I knew we couldn’t trust you!” cried a man from the top.
“You’re blaming me for Bartlett?” said the blue woman angrily. “Did you blame Agatha and Sheldon for him as well?”
“You said we’d be safe, nigger!” cried the man.
“No,” said the blue woman simply. “Your masters told us both this would be safe and so sure they were of this fact that they refused me all the assistance I had asked of them!”
“The fucking witch doctor!” snarled Ethan. It was the woman from Marty’s treehouse and he knew this fight was going to be ugly. He continued up the stairs uninterrupted and at its top, he saw as strange a sight to behold as any he could imagine.
The tower’s top was flat with runes connected to knee-high rock-like pillars set in a circular shrine formation around the center that glowed so bright it was almost painful to look at. There were five taller pillars, human-sized and seemingly important but the focal point in the direct center was where all the magic came from in the room. It was a singular, egg-shaped rock with the pointed end upward and glowing like a small sun.
The blue woman was elevated directly above it while two figures in black robes were on each side of the main rock, arms stretched, and holding up the great spell. Ethan could not say what that spell was but it was clearly too powerful for them to dare let go of. He was about to take a step forward when he saw the ghost of the pilgrim girl below the blue woman and above the egg.
All the power was going from the runes, into the shrine, into the main rock in the center, through the pilgrim girl and up into the blue woman who was, at that moment, so bright that he could discern her features. She looked as if she was simply made of blue light so bright it was even more difficult to look at than the shrine.
She was holding something in her hand but he could not see what it was.
“You evil nigger cunt!” cried one of the men looking worriedly over at Ethan. “He’s here! He’s fucking here! He killed Agatha and Marty and we can’t even break our spell to flee!”
“Lovely,” said the witch doctor sarcastically as she looked down at the two of them. “Is there anything more you would care to explain to our killer—”
“Naomi!” shrieked the man. “He’s going to kill us!”
“Wow, Naomi,” said Ethan cheerfully, “Is this why you needed the Tall Man?” He sheathed his sword and pushed Darcy down the stairs gently, her sword ready in her right hand. He had an idea and he wanted to be under the floor of the tower top when it came to fruition.
“You know it is,” she replied simply. “Had I a proper arsenal of men and monsters of my own choosing you would not be alive to gloat.”
“Fair enough,” he replied earnestly. If the Tall Man had been there in combination with those magicians, he would have certainly been killed or forced into retreat and then only if he was very lucky. The golems weren’t that impressive, they tended to be better in small areas where one couldn’t easily dodge them, and something gave him the sense that ghost seemed to be distracting or even fighting her.
“Why won’t you just die?” asked one of the people in robes, a woman.
“The question women ask me all the time.” Ethan pulled out his dagger.
“Oh God no!” a man shrieked and looked at the glowing rock behind them and then at him. “You can’t be serious! Oh God tell me you are not serious!”’
Ethan took several steps back.
“You can’t!” cried the man. “You have no idea what power you are throwing away!”
“I also don’t care,” Ethan replied and he threw his enchanted dagger and dove under the tower’s lip. What he was doing was crazy but it was less dangerous than killing someone in mid-spell or giving that witch doctor enough time to come up with something he couldn’t handle. In the end, it seemed the best way to deal with her quickly was to end her source of power by breaking the Morlock device.
It was almost suicidal doing what he did but he had hardly a choice. He strongly, but not completely, believed only part of the system would break as it was a composite system of runes designed to work as a single, larger spell only and not as multiple, different spells. That wouldn’t be so bad, but then again, all of them could still break at once, and that would create a magical nuke that would make the crystal in Sheldon Martin’s house a firecracker by comparison.
His blade hit the main stone, hard enough to chip the rune on it, and it was as he had hoped, leaving all of its major sources of power untouched as it broke as a single piece to that spell.
All the same, the explosion above him was of such an insane level of power that both casters were shot through the air. One hit the cavern wall above him like a bug hitting a windshield while the other shot across the grotto and landed somewhere in the distance presumably every bone in her body. The burst was over before even the first body hit the wall.
Ethan stood up straight, blood leaking out of his nose and ears like red waterfalls with a headache that made him think of being hit in the head with a baseball bat. “That hurt a little,” he said.
“Oh my God,” said Darcy after seeing him who, without magic, was relatively unharmed. “Are you okay?”
“‘Tis but a scratch,’” he said jokingly and he walked up the stairs to the tower top to survey the damage. At the top, he saw that his dagger lying on the ground and the other rocks slowly decreasing in power. “Good God, what power in this place?” He had never seen anything remotely like it except at that tower.
He felt nothing but relief that this power was no longer accessible. No one could be trusted with it.
The pilgrim faded quickly, her magical cage broken, but before she was gone, she turned to Ethan, smiled in a way that was overflowing with gratitude, and whispered, Thank you… into his mind before she was gone.
The witch doctor Naomi lowered down before them, the skinny, elderly black woman wearing a simple thin white dress, covered in sweat, and glowing with dark purple energy through her hands and filling her veins.
A burst of power sent Ethan and Darcy back a few steps.
The woman let out an agonized scream of rage more than pain and all the fading power was suddenly being sucked into her. The roomed was getting dimmer, the purple light getting stronger, and was suddenly covered in purple electricity.
“Why is she not dead like the others?” asked Darcy as Ethan pulled out his dagger from the dull gray rock and sheathed it.
“Not even fazed a little, are we,” said Ethan as he pulled out his sword. “She’s protected by her magic some—” he poked the sword into the electricity and screamed as it went flying down his sword onto his hand “—son of a bitch!”
“What is happening to her?” asked Darcy.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I can’t see through her magic as well as—” Ethan heard a sound that made him think of meat being squeezed and looked at the purple electricity. It seemed like it was slowly being absorbed into Naomi’s body and as it began to clear he noticed the thing in her right hand was something sharp and pointy but he still could not tell what it was. “—weird.”
Ethan cast his Ice Shard spell at her but the magic didn’t form and was absorbed from his hand out into the electricity like orange wind being sucked into a vortex.
The electricity began to fade as Naomi drained the power into herself and then he could see the sound was in fact coming from her body. It was the sound of her body shifting and moving unnaturally.
He saw her arms, legs, and torso growing and he heard loud and distinct crack sounds from the bones themselves as they grew under her flesh. Her eyes hardened as her body took a younger, stronger shape and her skin became very smooth. Her face seemed to darken, her eyes filled with intense rage and hate as she continued to squeeze magic into herself.
She was willing herself younger just like Tori Randal and Jessica Downs had become only it was brutal, forced, and very painful looking. Her quickly growing muscularity and younger breasts stretched the small old woman’s dress to its limits. It ripped over the arms, at the back and the bottom. She seemed to feel every second of it, like someone slowly ripping her apart, but it did not stop her.
Yet during all that time, she never cried out again and her eyes never left his.
It ended very suddenly, a small burst of magic filling the air, and Naomi dropping to her feet with the body of a teenage girl with a physique like that of an Olympic athlete. She immediately screamed in pained rage, stood up, ripped off her dress with her left hand and tossed it down.
“You want something done right, you do it your fucking self!” she hissed in a young woman’s voice. She looked him over, half-smiled with a full set of teeth, and said, “You are a dangerous, irritating man, Ethan Bartlett.” For some reason, her hair had grown longer and was hanging around down to her shoulders in large black curls. She was gorgeous as a young woman, perfectly proportioned and utterly unafraid of him or anyone else. Ethan could see it in her eyes.
In her right hand, she held the instrument she had used, a glass-like section of the orb from the tower by the woods. She held it up to let him see that it was paper-thin, covered in runes on the inside, which he thought would be impossible to make if he had not seen with his own his eyes. She watched his expression carefully, looking for whatever she could find there, and then tossed it down to the ground where drained of its final use, it shattered to a thousand pieces.
“That worked out pretty well for you, Naomi,” said Ethan. Darcy said nothing, flanking Naomi instinctively on one side as Ethan moved around to the other. Naomi sensed what they were doing and kept her back to the edge and the two of them at her sides where she could watch them both.
Ethan felt a magical void all around him after her spell. The spell she had used had sucked all magic temporarily out of the air and neither could cast anything, which was good could considering what she was.
She sensed he knew that because she said simply, “If you think I’m going to die easily just because I don’t have access to magic you are mistaken.”
Naomi looked ready to spring at either of them should they try something but she was unarmed, naked, outnumbered and had only been young for less than a minute after she had been through a self-induced ordeal closely equivalent to that of torture. How dangerous could she possibly be?
“Who are you?” asked Darcy softly, watching her cautiously.
“I’m the Queen of Death,” Naomi told her. “I know who you are, Darcy Hamilton and I really know you, Ethan Bartlett.” Darcy looked at her for a moment holding the blue-colored gun in her hand but then put it away into her jacket after a moment. “Smart girl.”
Ethan took one step forward.
Naomi’s left hand caught his sword arm like a snake biting prey and she rapidly punched him across the face like three lightning bolts extended from her right arm. Blood burst out across his nose, his lips, his teeth but he did not stumble back because she did not let go and would have continued to pound into him into the ground before he had a chance to do anything but Darcy moved.
Naomi kicked her in the stomach, sending her back across the tower top and then brought down her fist on Ethan’s arm almost hard enough to break it. He dropped his sword, startled at the efficiency of her hit, and then she slammed her forehead square in the face and let go of his arm to allow him to stumble away from his weapon.
She spun from Ethan and Darcy went through her defenses and sent one of her fists across Naomi’s face and a second into her stomach. Naomi took the pain in such a way that amplified her rage but she had such iron-control it only strengthened her attacks. She punched Darcy in the stomach hard and shoved her down onto the tower top onto her back.
“You are a bitch!” cried Naomi and then she smiled, blood covering her straight white teeth. “Not bad for a rich, pampered white girl, though. Usually, you just end up crying about the time I break your manicure.” Ethan moved for the sword and she kicked him in the stomach and then uppercut him across the face hard enough to knock him down. “Did you think we’d all be ladies in towers?” asked Naomi with a smile.
“I had certainly hoped not,” he replied with a bloody smile as he clambered back to his feet. “You are much more fun—”
Naomi threw herself forward faster than anyone he had ever seen and hit him three times in the ribs with each fist. Had she been a powerful man she would have shattered them, and though she didn’t, what she lacked in strength she made up in speed. He failed to block every one of them.
She suddenly grabbed his shoulders, kneed him in the groin and then shoved him backward into one of the shrine pillars so hard his head flew back and nearly knocked him into unconsciousness.
She spun, kicked Darcy in the chest, send her stumbling back, and then kick her in the wrist. Darcy’s sword flew from her hand, over her shoulder, and down to the floor below. It splashed and clanged at the same time.
“I like the way you hit!” Ethan groaned with an incredibly pained laugh. “I feel like Pam Grier is kicking my ass!”
“How is it you’re still talking?” Naomi asked as she turned to him.
“It’s because you hit like a pussy.”
Naomi laughed genuinely for a second then jerked around and threw herself back at Darcy who was just a foot away from Ethan’s sword. The two grappled violently, equal in speed and close to each other in skill.
Ethan pushed away from his rock painfully, in more pain than he knew he was capable of feeling and still be conscious, and started toward Naomi awkwardly.
Naomi sensed him, snarled, and tried to rip herself free from Darcy by punching her as hard as she could. Darcy blocked her fist just as Ethan got close and, when Naomi tried to break loose and couldn’t, Darcy saw an opening and threw her over the side.
She screamed, hit the spiraling stairs below, bounced off and then landed in the grotto pool with a splash. After that, silence.
Ethan and Darcy looked over to see her lying back first in the water below.
Darcy turned to him. “Didn’t anyone tell you that women who ten to fight using speed,” she said. “You have to be fast to hit that kind of woman.”
“Well, sorry I wasn’t trained by Ike Turner,” he replied and they both laughed. He took out a Heal potion, drank it, and then tossed her one. She watched him heal, awestruck, and then quickly drank the one he gave her. “So that was fun, wasn’t it?”
“The fuck it was!” she replied as she felt her smooth, healed face with both hands and smiled. “That psycho bitch nearly killed us!” She tossed him the empty vial.
Ethan caught it and shrugged. “Feels like home with Mother,” hereplied and he grabbed his sword and sheathed it. “Kind of nostalgic, really.” He was surprised to find his dagger was there, below the focal stone. Nothing below the top of that stone had been affected by the explosion.
“A bad childhood had we?” she asked as he sheathed his dagger.
“You would first have to have a childhood for it to be bad,” he replied simply and he started walking down the stairs. “Well, I had fun. Let’s go get some junk food. Hi the mall, Perhaps. Have Duchess or maybe Kentucky Fried Chicken or even just Mandy’s Diner?”
“Outback Steakhouse,” she told him. “I feel like I’ve earned a stake.”
“Good choice,” he replied. “I’ve been eating at Duchess lately because I grew up in California and there are none of them out there.”
“You seem pretty damn calm,” she told him. “I’ve never seen a man shrug off getting his ass kicked by a woman before.”
“You can’t win every fight.” Ethan jumped off the last few stairs into the water and looked around. He had found where Naomi hit the stairs on the way down, she left some blood there, and both of them had seen where she landed in the water.
Ethan found he was not the least bit surprised she was gone.
“Shit,” said Darcy and she quickly walked across the floor of the flooded floor and looked down. There was still some dim vestige of magic in the rooms and she could see a hole in the floor that lead deeper into the cave system. There was another that led out into the ocean as well. “The bitch swam out or swam in.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Not surprised?” She laughed, picked up her sword, and sheathed it. “She fell off a fucking fifty-foot tower!”
“And she quite probably broke a few things,” said Ethan as he looked down at the hole in the water where he could see some daylight way down at its bottom. “If there is one thing I’m sure of is that this one will not die easily.” He looked around at all the statues which had returned to their normal places and positions. “At least this place won’t ever be used again.”
“What do you think we should do about her?”
“What can we do?” he replied. “She’s gone now and who knows when she’ll reappear. If she does, I’ll kill her if I can, she knows that, just as she knows that we’ll never talk to the police about this because there are too many damn questions and they can’t do anything anyway. Then again, maybe she has what she wanted all along and doesn’t care about us or this town. Maybe she’ll disappear and relive her life somewhere far away from here and we’ll never see her again.”
Darcy scoffed. “Do you really believe that?”
“Hell no,” he replied and started up the small slope out of the flooded floor toward the tunnel out. “She’ll pop up again and it will probably be very soon and very, very ugly.”
They walked out the tunnel side by side and Darcy looked up at him. “Do you think she became prettier than me?”
Ethan smiled but then suddenly he thought about Claire Winters. His smile turned sad, still not comfortable with that feeling she gave him, and looked back to the grotto for one last look as the blue light faded, probably forever.
He saw something that made cold sweat break out all over him.
Two gigantic violet-colored eyes stared at him from an opening into a tunnel high above the ground twenty feet right of the tower. They were there only for an instance, narrow cat-like and each the size of manhole covers, but when he blinked, they were gone.
“You didn’t see that up there, did you?” asked Ethan. He had a very unpleasant feeling gnawing up at him from his core and spreading out to every inch of his body. They seemed somewhat similar to Samuels’s eyes only more extreme and, like too many things in Bartlett Bay, there was something painfully familiar about them that he could not place.
“See what?” Darcy looked up at the tunnel where he was looking, saw nothing, and looked at him. “What did you see?”
“It was—” He laughed, shook his head, and wondered for a moment if he just imagined them. “I don’t know. Something.”
It could have been the result of magic from the destruction of that Morlock device. Sure, illusions from overuse or sudden bursts of magic were said to be common. Maybe.
So he put his arm around Darcy’s neck, she did the same around his side and the two walked back down to the tunnel together. “It was just a pair of evil-looking eyes, Darcy,” he told her and they smiled at each other, like two very old friends having suddenly met again after separated for a long time. “Let’s just get some food and relax.”
* * *
“Give me your other gun!” hissed Michelle as she held her mangled hand against herself. It was healed by one of Audrey’s Heal potions but it clearly still hurt very badly and had not turned back into anything close to a hand.
Natalie pretended to look at the semi-automatic pistol she was holding but was in fact looking at her right hand. It was as if she had never in all her life, truly examined herself. She had been trapped in a pit of fear and felt inexplicably incomplete until that moment. She felt an odd fascination for her own body at an age most girls were well and done with that.
“Natalie!” hissed Michelle. “Gun! Now!”
Natalie looked at her for a moment and then took her other hand and reached into her jacket and put her hand over her heart against her skin on top of her breasts. It beat so strongly in her chest but had it not always done that?
She had certain for a moment that she was very old but only for a moment since she was clearly not. Her skin was smooth, her body was young, but it was shaped very differently from what she had expected. What had she expected? She had always been this way, hadn’t she? Everything felt wrong and right at the same time.
Trapped… Trapped in the dark…
Tears started running down her face as she suddenly thought about her sisters, mother, and the commune for the first time. How many years did they all spend out there being pushed or prodded in whatever direction Mother wanted? Ethan had not done anything to Sally, it was extremely clear he was not to blame for any of that, even if he was an asshole, and yet Mother would have had them slowly torturing him as if it would alter history itself.
The others believed men were no different from any monster out of the woods at night just as they believed whatever Mother told them was God’s written law and there were never any men around to dispute what she told them.
“I want my daddy,” whispered Natalie.
“What did you just say?” asked her sister.
“No, you can’t have my gun, Michelle.”
Michelle held up the ruin of her hand. It was clear that even with magic, it would never work as it did before and she was the archer and musician of the family. It was also her primary hand. “He took my hand, Natalie! Now give me the gun or at least shoot him for him!”
“Ethan Bartlett did not to this to you. Mother did.”
“What did you say about Mother?” Her eyes went wide with shock. “What was that?”
“You heard me.”
A voice in the distance could be heard clearly. “Let’s just get some food and relax,” it said.
“It’s him! The fucker lived! Give me the gun! Give it to me NOW!”
Natalie stepped away from her and looked over at the cave entrance. The thought of Ethan Bartlett suddenly filled her heart with such unfathomable gratitude that she would give him any part of herself, her body or soul, if he were to simply ask for it. She did not question her feelings because she knew the singular only reason that could possibly make her feel that way.
“I am whole because of you,” she whispered.
* * *
“If you think you’re going to end up with Claire Winters, you’re wrong,” said Darcy suddenly. “I’m friends with her cousin and she’s already screwing Bryce Cunningham.”
“Seriously, is that name made up?”
“No and I’m not joking,” Darcy replied bitterly. “She’s a spoiled southern belle who thinks she can do whatever she wants whenever she wants and everyone will always forgive her because she’s so pretty and cute.”
Ethan did not like hearing that from Darcy because from her it was far harder to deny. “Aren’t you also extremely pretty and cute too?” he asked her.
“I still don’t mistreat my friends or boys that I like. I heard about you two, the way you were looking at each other, practically in love at first sight. You know how rare that is?”
“Pretty fucking rare,” he replied.
“Yeah, well, she doesn’t know that,” Darcy replied. “She’ll go off and fuck Bryce Cunningham or anyone else for that matter despite the fact you two have something wonderful and unique. She’ll come back, tell you all about it, and rip out your heart and then when you get mad, she’ll expect you to forgive her because that’s what everyone does for her.” Darcy laughed in a cynical way and stopped him with her hand. “But you’re not going to once you experience it. You’re not the forgiving type.”
“She and I felt something crazy wonderful, Darcy,” Ethan told her. “We’re connected and she wouldn’t cheat on me and I won’t cheat on her. I can’t explain it but you have no idea how powerful this feeling is and I know she felt it too. For me, it’s like I’ve been looking for this woman my entire life.”
“I feel sorry for you,” she replied and started walking.
“I feel sorry for me too,” he told her as they stepped around the turn of the tunnel into daylight. “You know it’s not really my style to play this kind of slow thing with women but—” Natalie suddenly threw her arms around him and kissed him deeply.
“Yeah, I can see that,” replied Darcy cynically.
Natalie was filled with incredible passion and he wanted her of course because she was incredibly beautiful. She wrapped her arms around him, pressing her body against his, and his eyes grew wide. He held up his hands behind her back like he wanted to strangle something and truly could not believe he was actually about to turn her down.
Darcy saw that in his face and found it incredibly amusing. “I think I’m starting to really love you, Ethan Bartlett,” she told him.
“You’d be the only one,” he replied as Natalie pulled away.
“You’ve given me back my soul,” said Natalie into his ear. “I’m alive and whole all because of you. You can have me any way you want.”
“Fuck you, fate,” he said miserably and Darcy laughed.
“You don’t want me?” asked Natalie sadly.
Ethan pushed her aside. “Natalie—” he saw Michelle leaning against the stone wall beside the cave entrance holding a knife in her good off-hand “—I do want you but I have someone I’m seeing and I’m not a liar or a cheater.” He looked over at Michelle. “You’re not going to let this go, are you, Michelle?”
“Why are you still alive, Bartlett?”
“I don’t know. Cause I’m cute?” She raised the knife and he lightning bolted her arm. She dropped the knife to the ground with a gasp of agony.
She then let out a loud, long shriek of rage and pain that didn’t end for several minutes. “Look what you DID!” She showed him her mangled hand. “LOOK WHAT YOU DID TO ME?”
“Mother did this to you and she did it to Sally too!” hissed Natalie. “She turned us into tools to be used and then tossed away at her leisure! She doesn’t love any of us!”
“How can you say that?” cried Michelle. “He is a pig! They’re all pigs!”
“Of course she says that,” replied Natalie. “She wants us angry and distrusting of men and other women so we only listen to her but especially men. Men can seduce us, control our passions, and more easily change our minds. She doesn’t believe in a damn thing she says. It’s just a method to control us!”
“What has he done to you?”
Natalie sighed. “Michelle—”
“You fucking traitor!” hissed Michelle.
“Traitor to what?” asked Ethan.
“Shut up, pig!”
“You’re wasting your time,” said Darcy.
“She’s right,” said Natalie. “She’s been trained to believe blame and responsibility can be passed on in a literal fashion. Our mother used to pass it onto me for their confidence but now that I’m leaving, another sister will have to take my place. It’ll be your turn now, Michelle, now that you’re handicapped.”
“You run away and Mother will never forgive you.”
“I’ll never forgive her,” said Natalie and tears filled her eyes. “She’s wasting our lives, Michelle! How many years have we spent hearing her rhetoric of hate instead of living? Have you ever gone shopping with friends, been to a dance, acted in a school play or even gone out to a movie with even one of the sisters? There’s a whole world out there, Michelle, and a whole lifetime of experience and happiness that you and all our sisters will miss just because ‘Mother says so.’” She said the last in a bitter mocking voice.
Ethan saw it did not connect with Michelle in the slightest. She was too far gone into whatever world the Bellator women had created for themselves. Sally was in there as well.
“Who do you think you are?” Michelle asked Natalie.
“I’m Natalie but once I was a girl who lived in Salem Massachusetts when—” her eyes darkened “—when other stupid, manipulative females had stolen eight months of my life and killed both of my parents.” Tears ran down her face and she was seeing something that Ethan suspected was a vision like his of King Henry VIII’s hunting party.
Darcy’s eyes were distant as if she was seeing something as well but Ethan felt nothing.
“This is so—“
Walter… a voice whispered from somewhere and he looked around as if expecting to find the speaker standing right beside him.
“—weird.” He put his hand on Natalie’s shoulder and she looked up at him. “What is this Cave of the Blue Light exactly?”
“I don’t remember,” she said sadly. “I think I will soon enough, though.” Her expression hardened. “I think you will too.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter anymore because I broke it and I broke it good. I don’t think anyone can alive can repair that stone.” The two smiled at each other and in Natalie’s face, Ethan saw incalculable relief.
“You’ve lost your mind!” cried Michelle. “You help me kill this pig and come home with me and maybe, just maybe, Mother will find it in her heart to forgive you!”
“The only forgiveness she has is for herself and her own errors,” she replied and she reached for Michelle. “Let me help—”
“Don’t you touch me, traitor! If you want to leave, leave! I don’t need you!”
“Are you sure?” Natalie sounded amused.
“I said get the fuck away from me!” Natalie grinned, grabbed her, and picked her up. She shrieked, pounding her with her good hand as she went over to the boat. She slipped it, dumped the girl, and gestured for Ethan to follow.
“You—” Michelle’s eyes were wide and hateful “—you bitch!” She glared at all of them, rain pouring down over her face and body. “You PIGS!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs. “YOU ARE ALL PIGS!”
Natalie seemed amused and she took the motorboat out through the waving ocean to the west beyond the Finger and to the nearest track of land where they could park the boat and get off in Lower Bartlett Bay.
Ethan and Darcy stepped out first. Ethan turned back as Natalie helped Michelle and asked, “Are you going to be alright?”
“I’ll be fine,” Natalie told her. “For the first time ever, I really will be.”
“How about you?” Ethan asked Michelle.
“Fuck you, pig!” she replied with a sneer.
He laughed and said, “See you around, Lefty.” She then called him a “cocksucker” as he turned and walked off with Darcy beside him. “Well, that sure was fun,” he told her. “Now if only I was single.”
Darcy gave him a sly kind of smile as they walked toward Fisher St. She moved up beside him quietly, arm wrapped through his as if they had known each other all their lives.
Natalie walked up beside them.
“You leaving here there alone?” he asked.
“She’s got a phone and I don’t think I want to be there when my family finds her.” She breathed easily, rain pouring over her and seemingly relaxing her.
“Are you her?” asked Darcy softly.
“Yes and no,” she asked. “Are you the Scottish girl?”
“Yes and no,” Darcy replied. “I—they didn’t kill her in the town square, did they?”
“Not completely,” Natalie replied and shuddered. “They did something to me in the cave but I can’t remember what.”
“They locked your soul with that shrine down there,” Ethan replied and then he looked her over, saw she was deeply uncomfortable and decided it was best to drop the subject.
“What are you going to do now?” asked Darcy.
“I’d like to go find my father,” she told him. “I want to have at least one real parent and a family.” Her eyes became distant. “After that, I’ll come back and stick around here for a while and see where all these strange visions take me.”
Ethan nodded. “I’ll think I’ll stick around too. Hey, according to Darcy, I may be single soon.” Darcy smiled at that but it was a cynical joyless smile.
“If you do will you come and find me?” asked Natalie.
“Yes,” he replied earnestly. “Yes, I will.”
Darcy’s cynical smile turned to a sour expression. “You’ll be single sooner than you think,” she said as they stepped out onto the asphalt of the tail end of Fisher St and turned left. “Bryce Cunningham is real and Claire Winters is stupid enough to believe you’ll forgive her anything.”
Ethan sighed. “I really hope that’s not true,” he said even though some large part of him did. He still could not understand why but he almost desperately wanted to be free of whatever it was that he was feeling.
“You’ll come to regret putting your faith in her,” Darcy told him. “There is a reason only men call us the fairer sex.”