Four men, two from the front and two from the side sliding door, wearing matching denim overalls and leather work boots got out of the van. Two of these men assisted another man, dressed in a stark black suit, out of the van. He wore a black wool overcoat with a white silk scarf draping his broad shoulders and leaned heavily upon his walking cane despite appearing young. Even as he leaned on the cane, he towered over the four men. A pair of wire rimmed glasses with dark lens hid his eyes. His raven black hair was pulled tightly back at the nape of his neck. Discomfort paled his otherwise olive skin.
Thomas opened the door to greet them in silence as they came. Reaching the porch, the man in black stopped merely to pull out an envelope from the pocket of his overcoat to offer. Thomas accepted it and waved them in.
“Please sit down,” Thomas said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Tea if you have it,” the man in black said, sitting down in the chair nearest the door.
His voice carried with a rich rolling baritone. It felt old somehow. Not old as in dying, but timeless. Even after he was done speaking his voice lingered with patient weight. It wasn’t what Thomas expected, but he wasn’t sure what exactly it was he expected as he watched this man fold his long slender fingers together on the table.
None of the men in overalls sat. One of them said, “We’re just here to take inventory and to collect whatever might be of value to auction off for probate.”
The man in black raised two fingers to silence the man. “Read the letter Thomas.”
Thomas sat down at the table with the envelope as Rhae got out the teapot. The envelope was made of true vellum, which was a rare thing here on Earth today. He looked up at the man in mild surprise. The man’s face maintained a similar stillness to Rue’s lack of emotion. Thomas wondered what was with people lately before turning the envelope over to examine its wax seal.
The design was a filigree Oroboros surrounding the Tree of Life with the words secreta custos scripted along the inside curve of the snake’s body. It too felt old and timeless. He gently lifted the seal without breaking it. Something inside him didn’t want to damage the wax design. The letter inside was also made of true vellum. Thomas carefully set the envelope on the table to unfold the letter. He found a plain slip of paper with a list various vases, paintings, and books clipped to the bottom of the letter.
The message was penned in ink with flowing, elegant cursive script. What type of pen was used to write this letter? Thomas imagined a quill dipped in an ink bottle. Who has the time and patience for that anymore? It was probably some old pretentious man with a stick up his butt that had nothing else better to do with his time. He caught the wry twitch of a smile from the man in black from the corner of his eye. Unsettled by this, Thomas tamed his thoughts and focused on reading the letter.
My Dearest Thomas Whitaker,
It is with my deepest regret that I am unable to greet you personally in less formal and tragic of times. As you are aware your mother, Celeste Whitaker, was appointed as the executor of the estate during the probate process. At her request, I am managing the final financial matters that remain upon the estate at the time of Lynnette Whitaker’s passing. However, I have always been tasked with the financial management and book-keeping of this business.
Galen Ordell has disclosed to me your budding interests and desires. I wish for you to consider me an ally and business partner. You do have the financial means to achieve what you are considering. The investments are there in Lynnette’s office sealed away from prying eyes behind runes. Unlock only the mundane items to clear her debt. I have enclosed a list of the appropriate items. Unlock nothing more than what is on this list for the safety of the appraisers. There are many secrets kept in that room not meant for the unawakened eye. This will clear Lynnette’s debt, secure the estate for you, and provide you with a modest nest egg. Nothing too generous mind you for we do not wish to raise suspicion.
Now I have a gift for you, Seeker of Light, since you have grown to be such an honest young man. Look for where the Hall of Sorrows hangs. Behind its wall you will find the answer to a troubling question. It is quite likely you will find many more secrets than you care to find in there, so be careful with how deep you look. Lynnette always hid more than she should. This was her undoing. Your aunt truly was a lovely woman once upon a time. I share this with you in the hopes that you do not end up taking the same dark path. Do not get lost in the rabbit hole she left behind.
Thomas folded the letter back up and slid it into the envelope, but left the list out. He studied the man at the table carefully who hadn’t moved the entire time. Rhae was still busy preparing tea the old-fashioned way. She knew just by looking at him that a tea bag just wasn’t going to cut it with him. Hopefully rolled oolong tea would be good enough. The man nodded slightly as if he read Thomas’ thoughts. Again this unsettled Thomas and it set him to drumming his fingers on the table for a bit.
“Mr. Kai,” Thomas said, as Rhae served the tea, “you waited this long to come because of my mother, didn’t you?”
“Please, call me Daemon,” he said and raised his cup to smell the tea slowly before sipping from it. He set the cup down gently without sound. “To answer your question, yes I did wait this long due to your mother watching you since your aunt’s passing. How do I explain to her that I worked for Lynnette?”
“Because of me?”
“Yes, because of you,” he said. He waved a graceful hand in the air. “A Keeper of Secrets though I may be, it does not give me infinite knowledge of everything.”
“But my mother expects you to,” Thomas said. “You didn’t know I was her son?”
“The older I get, the more I realize I do not know,” he said. Daemon bridged his fingers under his chin. “I certainly do not know all the shadows your aunt lived and died with. Unlike you, I was never brave enough to seek or ask the things I should.”
“So why are you here now?”
“Right now your mother is busy with other matters,” he said. “Take advantage of the distraction and make ourselves acquainted. By the time her attention returns my familiarity will not appear inappropriate, especially considering my gifts.”
“Oh, so you can probe minds then?”
Daemon laughed with a cough behind his kerchief. “No, no, nothing like that dear boy. Your thoughts at times are very loud and bright. Hard to miss,” he said. “I wrote the letter with a fountain pen if you must know. I do have better things to do with my time. A quill would take forever.”
Thomas chuckled. He took a swig of the tea, scrunching up his face. The soapy quality of it always got to him. Why did tea have to be like this? Even black coffee tasted better.
“The first run of the leaves are not as good,” Daemon said. “Tea is always better after the leaves have been steeped at least three times. Save the leaves for another cup. It will be better.”
“Oh, I didn’t know,” Rhae said. “All this time I’ve been throwing out the leaves.”
“Depends on the breed, but if using Chinese breeds like these leaves, it’s best to steep multiple times,” he said. “If you wish to make great tea, take the time to study tea culture from around the world. You will learn many things from types of tea, brewing, to serving.”
Rhae frowned. “I’m guessing then I used the wrong cups.”
Daemon suppressed a smile. “Normally one does not use coffee cups to serve Chinese tea,” he said. “However, we make the best of what we can with what we have. Your hospitality is unparalleled and a welcome change to how business is conducted here.”
“Speaking of business,” Thomas said and pointed at the four men in overalls. “I think these guys are still waiting to do their jobs.”
“Ah yes,” Daemon said. “Shall we get on with that then?”
Thomas led the way to the office door in the kitchen. He paused there for a moment. This door hadn’t been opened since the funeral. The room has been left cold, dark, and undisturbed this entire time. Technically this was his office now, but he felt like an invader.
“Take your time Thomas,” Daemon said. “Lynnette once felt the same many years ago when she inherited the estate from her great-grandfather, Avner.”
He stared at the door. “I don’t feel like this place will ever belong to me.”
“Even as we speak, the Whitaker Estate is shifting to adjust to your will and desire,” Daemon said. “In time this room will speak to you.”
Doubtful, Thomas swung the door open. A hush hung over the room as he clicked on the light. He stepped into the office towards the desk, feeling the weight of its emptiness. Lynnette used to spend all her time in here. What she did with her time in here exactly Thomas didn’t know. He wasn’t allowed in here unless she called for him. When he did come in, she was always at the desk.
Usually she would have a book laid out in front of her and always she would be in a foul mood. The book was absent from the desk today. This meant she had been closing up for the night when she had been attacked. The bookcases to the left of the desk were still standing and neatly lined up in their rows. Each small table with their vases remained in the corners of the room as they’ve always been. Not a single painting was crooked. Even the paisley drapes hanging behind the desk were still pulled tightly shut.
Nothing in the office had been disturbed. This meant Peccant knew that she didn’t have the Spirit Beads when she was killed. Not one unawakened soul would ever suspect murder here, but something troubled him about it. Why go to so much trouble so quickly? If Peccant had been willing to wait, his prized beads would have been brought here.
“What’s wrong?” Rhae said.
“I’m missing something important,” Thomas said, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Whatever that it is that’s avoided here.”
Daemon remained quiet as he leaned on his walking cane. He tried to hide his discomfort as Thomas continued to study the room. Rhae gave Thomas the stink eye as she pulled out and offered the desk chair to Daemon before leaving to the kitchen. Amused, Daemon rested himself in the chair. Using the cane he propped his hands up under his chin as he watched Thomas wander the room.
It didn’t take much for Thomas to break Lynnette’s runic seals with a touch. It saddened him to know it was because of her death. The seals she used in here incorporated the will of the estate and it was he that inherited that will. Each item he unlocked was carried out silently and loaded into the van. None of it had any emotional attachment for him nor did any of it have any potential use to him. Thomas appreciated Daemon’s insight and sensitivity. How many times had Daemon assisted the Whitaker family with this process?
“I have watched your family many lifetimes,” Daemon said. He rubbed his chest with a pained expression. “Some might say I have gotten too involved at times.”
“Do we share blood then?” Thomas said.
Daemon sighed, nodded, and walked over to Thomas. “Perhaps a little,” he said, “but that was lifetimes ago. Long before your family found refuge here on Earth.”
The sound of the drapes being opened behind them causes them to turn. One of the men in overalls was standing there looking at a painting of a stone keep in shock. Daemon dismissed all the men with a wave. They nodded to him walked to the door leading to the kitchen.
“Now why would anyone put drapes over a blank wall?” one of them said, shuffling away. “Drapes are for windows.”
Thomas went over to the painting as the men left the office. This was the first time he had seen it. The drapes have always been pulled tightly shut. In the foreground of the painting was a stone gate leading to a cobblestone path that winded its way through a lush stone garden. The background featured a grand stone keep with vines climbing its walls. Times have changed, but he was there. In his dream, he had been there.
“What is this place?”
“It was the birthplace of your family and mine,” Daemon said, stepping up to join him, “before the great cataclysm that tore the world apart. Almost destroyed the fabric of the cosmos too.”
“Were you there?” Thomas said. “What happened?”
“The Tree of Life birthed a child,” he said. “A sapling which sent ripples through space and time. It altered much of how things operate in the cosmos.”
Daemon leaned himself back against the desk and tapped the cane lightly on the floor.
“That tore this world apart?”
“No,” Daemon said. “As you know the Tree of Life is accompanied by the Cosmic Phoenix.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, “and it’s the task of the Avatar to rebirth the Phoenix.”
“Are you aware of how that is done?”
“No,” said Thomas, shaking his head.
Daemon clasped his hands sadly around the head of his cane. “A Phoenix Avatar collects and houses within them as many souls as they can gather until they reach their pure potential. At that time they make their journey to the Tree of Life to bear witness to the passing and to immolate the ashes with their own life.”
“So they become one? The Avatar dies?”
“Yes and no,” Daemon said. “The Avatar is reborn as the Phoenix and leaves the mortal plane. If the psyche of the Avatar is strong enough, they retain their consciousness otherwise whichever psyche is the strongest becomes the dominate personality.”
“What does this have to do with the cataclysm?”
“In the beginning there was only one Avatar at any one time,” Daemon said. “One family, one bloodline, and one awakened soul but all that changed with the sapling. At first the changes went unnoticed but as the sapling grew the number of awakenings increased.”
“Yes but only one can rebirth the Phoenix. Nature’s balance demands this,” Daemon said, rubbing his knuckles with his thumb. “The weaker ones were consumed by the stronger ones and so it went until only two remained. Neither yielded to the other.”
“So it was a standoff between them?” Thomas said, leaning on the desk next to him.
“Yes.” Daemon stood up and tapped at the garden in the painting. “They say that in the frenzy of their battle, they ensnared and brought down the Phoenix to this garden. They were determined to prove their dominance by claiming the Phoenix as their own.”
“But they both claimed the Phoenix?”
“Indeed,” said Daemon, “and in doing that neither of them could claim dominance and neither of them could break free. It tore the Phoenix apart. It destroyed our world. It gave birth to millions of worlds. Changed the cosmos forever.”
“Ah, no one taught you that?” Daemon said, turning around. “There is a Phoenix of Light and that tends the Tree of Life. That is the one you seem to know. There is also a Phoenix of Dark that swims the Sea of Chaos. Together they hold the balance of the universe.”
“So it just obliterated our families’ home world?” Thomas said.
“It ruptured it,” Daemon said. He tapped the painting. “The heart of the world is lost somewhere between space and time. It is ever changing and shifting now. The rest is fragmented and dying. It is tethered together by a weakening soul that cannot heal.”
“Terran,” Daemon said as he sat back down in the desk chair. “Some day soon that world and its dark sister will pass.”
“And there’s nothing we can do about it?”
“Nothing,” Daemon said. He sighed. “Nothing other than mass exodus. Which has begun. Why else do you think Lynnette returned to Earth?”
Thomas studied the painting. It made sense. Lynnette had no other reason to come back to Earth if she was hiding him from his mother. “But there are so many other worlds to choose from, go to, and hide in. Why choose this one?”
“Out of all the worlds out there to hide in,” Daemon said, “why did she choose the dying one to begin with?”
“There are only so many worlds you can call home?”
Sadness draped over him as he thought about the home he grew up in. How much time did Terran have left? Daemon said Terran had a dark sister world he had never seen. That bothered him somehow. Assuming he survived this mess with Peccant, maybe he could visit before it was too late.
“Earth reminds me in many ways of the old Terran,” Daemon said, standing up. “If you are willing to forgive its restrictions.”
Thomas smiled. “Earth has a lot of those, doesn’t it?”
“That it does,” he said as he headed for the office door.
“Hey Daemon,” Thomas said, still staring at the painting, “did I pass your test?”
“My test?” Daemon said, pausing at the door.
“Yea, I don’t know what you’re testing me for but,” Thomas said, looking over his shoulder, “you did try to just pass yourself off as a letter.”
Daemon suppressed a smile and nodded his head. “You must have made Lynnette very angry much of the time.”
Thomas stared at the floor. “She called me useless every day.”
“Far from it Thomas,” Daemon said. “Quite the opposite actually.”
He looked back at Daemon to find him grinning broadly at him. “Then why did she get so angry at me all the time?”
“Answer me this Thomas,” Daemon said, his face becoming serious, “of all the people you have met in all the worlds you have been to what type of people get angry with questions?”
“People who don’t want you to pay attention to what they are avoiding,” Thomas said. He stood up to examine the painting closer.
“Remember what I said about the rabbit hole,” Daemon said.
Turning around Thomas said, “Did you love her? Lynnette, I mean.”
“I did once,” he said while opening the door, “but she didn’t choose me.”
Thomas watched him leave before turning back to the painting. Who did his aunt choose over Daemon? Considering how cold and bitter she was while he was growing up, he assumed it hadn’t ended well. He combed his fingers through his hair. Sighing, he left the office to get a cup of coffee.
“Did you figure it out?” Rhae said, pouring him a cup of coffee.
“No,” he said and slumped down in a chair. “I haven’t figured out whatever it is Lynnette is hiding from me. I just know it’s tied to this whole mess.”
“That Daemon guy didn’t tell you?” she said, handing him his coffee.
“No but he told me the story of origins of the twin Phoenix which is the birthing of the worlds as we know it,” he said. He tapped his thumb on the table. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with Lynnette, Peccant, the brood, or the beads.”
Rhae sat across from him. “Wait there are twin Phoenix?”
“Yea, one for Order and one for Chaos,” Thomas said. “And apparently on occasion now there can be more than one Avatar awakened.”
“Hold on,” said Rhae, “so each Phoenix has its own Avatar?”
Thomas stared at Rhae. “I don’t know. Daemon didn’t specify but you know,” he said, “no one has ever said how often a Phoenix needs to be reborn either.”
“You’re right, nobody ever talks about that in the teachings.”
“Daemon said nature demands that only one Avatar can rebirth a Phoenix so when there were multiples of them, the stronger ones were consuming the weaker ones.”
“Were they eating each other like the brood eat the souls of people?”
“I don’t know. Kind of makes you think so, doesn’t it?” Thomas said. “Anyway, when only two remained they tried to rebirth the Phoenix at the same and a cataclysm occurred. It ripped the Phoenix apart.”
“So have either of these twins been rebirthed since then?”
“No idea. He just said that they now keep the balance between Order and Chaos,” Thomas said.
“And that’s all he told you?” Rhae said, “He just came to take some stuff to sell and told you a really old bedtime story?”
“That and once upon a time he loved her but she chose someone else apparently.”
“That old hag fell in love?”
Thomas shrugged. “He didn’t say who.”
“And you didn’t ask?”
“It didn’t seem important?”
“What do you mean it didn’t seem important?” Rhae said, poking his arm. “The hag of all hags fell in love. The world needs to know who the hell it was that defrosted that heart.”
“Or who broke it.”
“Daemon said she wasn’t always like that,” Thomas said, “and if you remember even Peccant said she was a lovely woman.”
They sat in silence as they sipped their coffee, thinking about this.
“How weird would it be,” Rhae said, “if it was Peccant that she had fallen in love with and he was the one that broke her heart?”
Thomas set his mug down and stared at her, shocked. “No, what if… what if it’s more tragic than that?”
“What is more tragic than a broken heart?”
“Which would hurt you more?” Thomas said, “Being rejected or… being loved in equal measure but denied a life with that person?”
“You know the answer to that.”
Thomas faced the office door. “What were you willing to do to obtain the life you wanted?”
He took a deep breath, scrubbed his face with his hands, walked to the door, and went down the rabbit hole.