Thomas didn’t know where he was, other than he floated in a world of dreams. The only thing of him that existed here was his mind. He just drifted in the obscure miasma of colored darkness. A moment of panic swelled as he wondered if he was dead. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
The miasma thinned graciously, spilling into the tall grassy edge of an abandoned garden. Statues of various materials, shapes, sizes and poses populated the wild overgrown flora. Neither stars nor moon shone overhead but everything glistened with surreal light. Motes drifted in the air, spinning forgotten dreams and enchanted memories. Halting at the fallen stone gate, Thomas discovered a broken cobblestone path.
Following the path, he wove his way around and through the statues. It led to a crumbling stone keep. The wooden doors had long since rotted free. Clinging to every crack, vines grew across the surface. The stone seemed to shimmer with life as he entered. Lit by only the phosphorescence of the stone, the once grand foyer greeted him in silence. Vines crept along every surface as motes clung to the still air. A great balcony with a sweeping staircase took the center stage of the room. He drifted behind the staircase.
The granite relief loomed before Thomas from behind the balcony’s stairway. Vines didn’t grow on this, but grew around it along the wall. The broken wings spanned the wall as its blindfolded neutral face drooped down. Many thick chains wrapped this angelic woman. Flowing hair swirled and swooped down around her long billowing gown. One hand pulled at the chain across its chest as the other swung wide at her side, wielding a slender sword. Blood beaded and dripped from the chains but never struck the marble floor.
Thomas didn’t understand what he was seeing or why he felt drawn to the exquisite craftsmanship of the granite relief. Who or what was showing this to him and why? The blindfold began to crumble into dust before him. Each grain of dust flittered away and dissolved as dread slithered in his chest. It left behind a pair of perfectly closed eyes. The head lifted up slightly towards him and the eyes opened. She stared right at him with eyes that matched his. He gasped and pulled away back into the colored darkness of miasma.
Oscillating, the miasma funneled him swiftly through shifting lights. It vaporized with a jolt a familiar hard packed dirt road. Zooming down the deserted main street, Thomas flew into the white washed church. Inside Thomas found Rue, stripped of her yukata and draped over the altar, with her back exposed and bleeding. Relentlessly Peccant cracked down the barbed cat o’ nine tails on her torn flesh. Each strike sprayed blood onto the walls, floor, and Peccant’s bare chest. Not once did she cry out, but her face betrayed her exhaustion. Finally spent, he tossed the whip to the floor.
“You belong to me and you will do as I command,” Peccant said. His voice reverberated through the church. “Amunetta would never have chosen anyone other than me.”
He grabbed her by the hair and forced her to look at him. Thomas saw the thin, delicate gold chain around her neck. It matched the chain around Peccant’s wrist.
“But she did,” Rue said. Her eyes didn’t focus on Peccant, they focused on Thomas. “She did choose Thomas.”
He kicked Rue off the altar. She tumbled to the floor like a limp, wet doll. Peccant followed Rue’s gaze. He stared for a few panicked moments for Thomas. Then he turned to pick up his robes and put them on.
“Then he will have to give the Spirit Beads back to me,” he said, looking back up at Thomas, “or I will have to kill him.”
Thomas woke up with a gasp. The gentle hands of his mother eased him back down on his pillow. She smoothed his hair with a kind smile.
“Slow down,” she said. “You’re safe. Rhae’s safe. Process what you saw.”
“How?” Thomas studied her face.
“Our family has gifts,” she said. “This one isn’t one that you can control.”
He sighed, sinking into the pillow deeper. “He beats her.”
Thomas raised his wrist to examine the beads, closing his hand into a fist. “He’s the master and like the brood she’s loyal to him,” he said, “but he’s just breaking her.”
“Because of the beads?”
He looks at Celeste, dropping his fist to the sheets. How could he tell her this? Tears welled up in his eyes. He stared at his hand. Thomas decided he wouldn’t tell her yet he knew for sure that Rue was her daughter.
“No Mom. I saw the scars on her back,” he said. “Peccant has been whipping her for a long time.”
“Whipping?” Celeste said, “You have to save her.”
“I don’t think she can leave him.”
“Sure she can. You just take her and go.”
“I saw chains on them both. I saw him make them,” Thomas said, directing his gaze back up at her. “I don’t know what they are but I think it makes her stay.”
“So if you take her, she would just go back?”
“I think so,” Thomas said. “Unless those chains are broken.”
Celeste sat quietly on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall across from them. He waited for her to collect her thoughts on this. She took a deep breath before turning back to him.
“You know before Aunt Lynnie died,” she said, “I looked for you and your sister. I did. I used everything I had to try to find you both and your aunt. Nothing. Not a whisper. Not until that night. Then this house lit up like a beacon for me.”
Thomas pressed his lips together and picked at the sheets, avoiding her gaze.
“Which means someone else out there is hiding my baby girl from me,” she said, tears running down her face. “But they can’t hide her from you, can they?”
“Mom,” Thomas said, taking her hand. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“I know. It’s fine,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can save her, Mom.” Thomas said, “I don’t know how.”
Celeste hugged him tightly. “I don’t know either.”
They sat there together and cried, mourning the loss of family they never got to cherish. When the tears were spent, Celeste kissed his forehead gently before leaving the room. He felt a little guilty to have this small comfort. What about Rue? Did anyone tend to her wounds? Who comforted her, if at all? Given how Peccant just walked away like he had after tearing her flesh open, Thomas doubted it. Cringing inside, he sighed. Compared to her, he lived in the lap of luxury and a sea of emotion. The tears threatened to flow again when Rhae snuggled up against him.
“Hey,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
Thomas wrapped his arms around her, welcoming her summer scent. His hands wandered as he tasted the skin of her neck.
“Whoa, you just return from the dead and this is all you can think about?”
He squeezed her as he tamed himself. “No,” he said, “my mind is too full of other things.”
“Then tell me,” she said. “Tell me all of it.”
Holding her close, he told her of the garden with the statues. How he came to the ruined keep. The chained granite relief that bled and opened its eyes. Finally he told her how he witnessed Rue’s flogging by Peccant’s hand. He even told her about the chains he saw around her neck and his wrist. His tears flowed freely again, but he kept silent. He didn’t want her to think he was weak.
“Thomas,” Rhae said, brushing his cheeks dry with her thumb, “I’ve known you forever. You’ve always had the softest heart. Cry about this now. It’s fine because later I’m killing that bastard.”
He didn’t argue but he didn’t think it was possible. Instead, he allowed himself to be comforted by her while he fell into a disquieted sleep.