Thomas stood in the center of the office and scanned the room. Daemon’s letter said to look for where the Hall of Sorrows hangs. His heart grew heavy as he noted how empty the room felt with the loss of the vases and paintings. Well, save the one painting. The appraisers didn’t see the painting behind the drapes and Daemon didn’t instruct him to remove the concealing runes from it. They didn’t see the painting at all. They only saw a blank wall. Thomas walked over to the painting and carefully lifted it from its mountings.
Behind the painting was just a metal plate with a complex fading rune. It had no handles or dials. Thomas gently placed the painting on the desk so he could touch the rune. Flickering to his touch, it faded completely away. He pressed the metal plate in and it slid downward to reveal a small cubby hole filled with leather-bound tomes, stacks of letters, thick books, scrolls, and a thimble sized vial of crimson liquid.
Absently, Thomas pocketed the vial as he sat down with the stack of letters first. All of them had been penned on vellum, none of them addressed or signed, apparently read multiple times, and were very old. Some had to be handled with great care for Thomas feared they would crumble in his hands. In the beginning the letters were very passionate, declaring undying devotion and eternal loyalty. There were even long letters describing acts that made Thomas blush.
He thought sexting was a new thing of the times, but it would seem technology has only made it faster and with photos. Who would have thought his aunt had at one time been so wild and risqué? The thought made him chuckle. She would have killed him in a heart beat to find him here reading all this. The letters however started shifting in tone. Her suitor, whomever he was, demanded proof of her devotion. In the last letter, he rebukes her for failing to properly dispatch the Whitaker family. She couldn’t possibly love him enough if she wasn’t able to reap all their souls. The Avatar and one other survived so therefore she would be punished.
Inside with this letter were newspaper clippings reporting a tragic Christmas fire at the home of Applegate Orchards that claimed the lives of the entire family. Avner Whitaker, his son, Ethan, and wife, Blair, their three-year-old daughter, Celeste, his daughter, Mina, and her twin five-year-old sons, Xavier and Weiss, were all killed in that fire. Lynnette Whitaker inherited the Whitaker Estate while a friend of the family, Quassia Newton, inherited what was left of the orchard. His mother lived at the orchard now, presumably with this Quassia. Thomas set the stack of letters down next to the painting. He could wonder all day who this other survivor was, but he sensed that wasn’t the heart of this matter.
Thomas pulled out the scrolls next. Each scroll was crafted in a different material and penned in a some other language he had never seen. He did recognize his aunt’s scrawling notes all over them. Based on her notes, she was researching Ruta Cremesin for her own purposes. Used in its raw form the plant was a powerful stimulant with incredible healing properties. However the sap was addictive and if care wasn’t taken in its use, it became toxic to the blood.
All over the scrolls she had calculations for distillation and titration of this sap. She was in the process of figuring out how to remove the toxin from the sap, but from what Thomas could tell it required a ridiculous amount of the plant just to obtain one ounce of liquid. She had a bigger goal in mind, but the notes didn’t say what. At least it explains why Rue smelled the way she did when they first met. Was Lynnette healing her or has Rue been doing that herself? Where did the plant even come from?
He set the scrolls down neatly next to the letters and studied the vines growing on the keep in the painting. Wouldn’t it make sense for a plant this odd and rare to grow in a place lost between space and time? Thomas scrubbed his face with his hands and ruffled his hair to clear his head. He couldn’t get lost in the rabbit hole, asking the wrong questions. He sensed that all this with the Ruta Cremesin wasn’t the heart of the matter either.
Turning back to the cubby hole, he examined what was left. Two leather-bound tomes and three thick books waited for him. The first thick book was a book of poetry written by an author not from this world. There was a loving note scripted inside the cover by Daemon wishing her the best in life and a happy birthday. So Daemon had loved her like he said. Clearly a part of her did too, but she aged and he hadn’t. Surely she felt some regret in the choices she made. Thomas pressed his lips together and placed the book down next to the scrolls. Lynnette’s entire life appeared to be one of reaching and regret.
Thomas reached for a thick leather-bound tome. He had no idea what the pages were made of, but they had an icky oily sensation to them on his fingers. Page after page contained one dark spell after the next. Bindings, summoning, pacts, rituals, sacrifices, and creations of doppelgängers diagramed in intricate detail. The blocky utilitarian designs lacked finesse and in some rare cases Thomas could see they were chaotic and broken. If Lynnette tried to use those, disaster could occur. Where the hell did she get this book?
Two pages in this book were ear marked, well-worn, and heavily annotated. The first page was the one on doppelgängers. He didn’t understand the language the notes were written in, but comparing with the penmanship of the last letter written he could see it was the same hand.
The other ear marked page was on creating fate chains between two people. Lynnette’s handwriting was all over this page, but he thought of the shared vision he had with Rue and the chains he saw. This bond created a psychic link between the pair depending on the type of bond. There were two types. One was the mutual bond created between a pair in agreement and could be broken at any time at will by either of the pair. The other type was created between a master and the bonded. It was best done upon those with weak souls or the very young because those with strong wills could break the bond. Otherwise the only way to break the master’s bond was by the will of the master or by the death.
Thomas noticed that there were angry notes of irritation from his aunt on the page about the spell being wrong somehow. She kept referring to the useless boy being empty of power and how he continued to defy her commands. He slumped into the desk chair as he read this. This was why she got angry when he asked questions or when she sent him out on those stupid jobs. He technically did serve her the way she needed and always got the job done, but it was never exactly the way she wanted. Based on these notes, the reason for that was because of his will pulling at the chains. She was afraid he would break them.
Setting the leather-bound book down on the other side of the painting he thought about the implications. Why did she need to bind him? Why did Peccant bind Rue for that matter? Maybe they needed the psychic link, but for what? Lynnette complained about his lack of power in her notes. She repeatedly called him useless his entire life. She wasn’t talking about his skills or his mind, was she? She wanted his power and that’s why she needed the link. Whatever it was she needed it for, apparently he didn’t have enough.
He took out another of the thick books. This one also had a note inside the cover penned by Daemon. Once again the book wasn’t authored by anyone from Earth but flipping through it Thomas found that it chronicled the great cataclysm Daemon had already told him about. He was going to put it down until a page opened up with a picture of a sacrificial scene. It seemed that some individuals were either able to awaken their Avatar blood or strengthen it by sacrificing those who were gifted with the bloodline as well. A chill ran through him as he picked up the news clippings again. Was his aunt trying to awaken her Avatar blood by sacrificing her family? He set the news clippings back down and placed the book on top of the other.
Sliding his hands in his pockets, he stared at the desk. Did she truly love this man that much? Had she become that blind to the path she had chosen? He looked up at the door leading to the kitchen and thought of Rhae. How far would he be willing to go for her? Would he be like Lynnette and be willing to throw away the world, his soul, and everything because of his love for this one person? Was that really what happened here? Why was being the Avatar so important? Why was this man goading her into it?
There were easier, safer, and quicker ways for her to obtain power so there’s something else missing in this. Thomas stared at the ceiling. Besides, what would this man possibly gain from her obtaining power? He chided himself for asking the wrong question. She needed the power for the end game. It was also no secret between them it was needed that power to prove herself worthy of him. Two things were never discussed. Why she needed to prove it and why she kept failing.
Thomas grabbed the second leather-bound tome. The pages were made of true vellum and penned in ink. All of it was written in a language he didn’t understand but the pages were written with the same handwriting as the letters. There were hand drawn images of twisted barren landscapes, foreboding forests, dank swamps, and deep caverns. Thomas lingered at an image of an inky underground lake with brood swimming in it. Was this a place that the artist had been to or had envisioned? Another page depicted twisted people appearing to have been crossed with the brood. The last page displayed an image of the Tree of Life with the Phoenix of Life nesting in the branches but tangled in the roots, like a prison, was the Phoenix of Dark. Why would the caretaker of Chaos be imprisoned? Thomas sighed as he closed the book. This book was given to Lynnette to tell her the truth. Her suitor wanted her to know what really happened after the cataclysm. Could it be possible he was trying to tell her who he really was and what his fate would someday be?
Everything pointed to Peccant now and there was only one thick book left. Placing the leather-bound book on top of the other one, Thomas scratched his head. Did he really want to look at the final book? Shoving his hands in his pockets he walked back to the cubby hole and stared at the lonely book. It seemed like a modern blank journal from Earth with those faux leather covers. Compared to everything else found in here, it was pretty new. Apprehensively, Thomas took the book out but didn’t open it yet. He sat back down in the desk chair. A quick flip through the book showed him that most of the pages were blank. Those that were written in had his aunt’s handwriting on them. Nothing was dated so Thomas just started from the beginning.
The plan was perfect and he promised that with his help I would have both twins. He lied to me. Those beasts of his only brought me Thomas. I know I did everything right this time. It was perfect. Now I can’t find her. I can’t find Niobe Kaye. Not a trace or inkling anywhere. It’s not even like the time when Celeste and Xavier survived and went missing. I could sense them but not find them. I can’t even sense her. And judging by the depths of Celeste’s despair it can only mean his beasts killed her. How could he do this to me after all I have done for him? I have worked so hard for him. He’ll blame me for this, you watch. I’ll be the one punished. Damn him. He knows I needed the blood of both twins for the final stage of awakening. How else does he expect me to join him for all time and eternity? The blood of one alone is not enough. At least not this powerless, useless child as he is right now. Now I’m stuck with fate bonding with the child and hoping I can absorb his awakening when and if the time comes.
Useless, useless, useless. The boy is useless. Mostly. Takes him forever to cast a spell. Asks too many damn questions. The questions are endless. Can’t survive a day without a damn question. Can’t work an herb to save his life. There isn’t a single green thumb on the boy anywhere. And I’ll be damned if that boy doesn’t twist my directions somehow. Yet, he is the first person I trust with the most important jobs. I know beyond doubt if I give him medicine and tell him it must be delivered, or someone must get somewhere safely, or something must be brought to me, come hell or high water that boy makes sure that somehow that it gets done. He’s smart. He figures it out. He makes a way. Doesn’t matter to him if it means breaking my rules or not following my directions. All that matters to him is getting the job done. He is both completely useless and indispensable to me all at once. Should have killed him before I cared. Now I can’t.
I’m old, ugly, and weak now. He doesn’t even come for me now. Not a word or gesture of kindness. This is what I deserve. I don’t have the strength in me anymore to keep reaching and he has abandoned me. I suppose at this point the only thing keeping me alive is the boy. I could just break the chain, die where I sit, and free him but I have other plans. I’m stealing Peccant’s power. Those beads of his will be mine and he will come for me one last time. Either I take him, or he takes me. Doesn’t matter, I don’t care. In the end we’re together forever. For all time and eternity.
Tears dripped onto the last page he read as he closed the book. Thomas wiped his face with his sleeve. Collecting himself with a deep breath, he started picking up the books and returning them to the cubby hole. Lynnette murdered her family for the sole purpose of gaining power to become an Avatar so she could be with Peccant for all time and eternity. She also kidnapped him with the intent of sacrificing him for that same purpose. When she couldn’t, she fate bonded him instead to leech his power from him. In the end, Peccant rejected her and probably because he fate bonded Rue. So this entire mess he was dealing with right now was because his aunt had gone on a suicide mission that went all wrong. Thomas hung the painting back in its place and shoved his hands back in his pockets.
Thomas thought about the beads, the vision of Peccant’s awakening, and wondered how long would it be until another catastrophe like that one occurred again. He assumed it couldn’t be much longer. If Peccant really was the Dark Phoenix Avatar then killing him wasn’t a good option either. Killing him, if he succeeded, meant that someone else somewhere out there anywhere in the cosmos potentially would awaken. In the moment of that awakening, a catastrophe would occur. There’s no guarantee that person would have someone like Amunetta to help them. What then? From what he saw Peccant became the spiritual equivalent of a black hole. Do they just keep sucking in spiritual matter until reaching full potential and then seek out the Dark Phoenix for rebirth only to start the cycle over? This Avatar business really didn’t sound like much of a party and maybe the beads gave Peccant the only chance he had at any kind of life at all.
The problem was, Peccant still had Rue. Would this man be willing to break her fate bonds in exchange for the Spirit Beads? Judging on how much agony he saw Peccant suffer in the vision, Thomas was willing to make a gamble.
“I’m back,” Galen said, “with the weapons.”
“That was fast,” Thomas said and pulled the drapes tightly closed.
He walked to the door leading the kitchen and paused. Looking over the room, it no longer felt heavy to him. Somehow it was brighter and welcomed him. A peaceful feeling settled upon him. He wondered if the estate really did have a soul of its own as he shut off the office light and shut the door behind him. All he had left to do was make amends with Peccant by fixing the mess Lynnette made. Hopefully he could bring Rue home in the process.
Galen met him at the table and handed him the pouch that contained the trans-dimensional crystal pieces. “My jeweler friend says a little goes a long way. So he keep one shard for himself and used the other for your weapons,” Galen said. “He looks forward to doing business with you again.”
Thomas unpacked the weapons and examined each one. None of the gems had been powdered the way Thomas had been thinking. They all had been cut, polished, and set with finite care. Some were so tiny a high-powered microscope had to have been used to perform the work.
“There are still more gems in supply available so if this isn’t up to your liking my friend said he will rework it until it is.”
He rubbed a hand over the inlaid magnum. Runes orbited the gun smoothly with bluish light. “This will do,” Thomas said and waved the runes away. “Your friend is a true artist.”
“Okay,” Galen said and beamed. “Now for the trans-dimensional crystal. He said you have been very lucky to have had the few mishaps you’ve had so far.”
“Yes, seems it can be a lot worse than what we’ve seen,” Galen said. “Anyhow, each world has its own resonance, flux, or something you have to compensate for. He designed a dial for that here and it links up with the return on the other side here.”
He watched Galen point to each side of his magnum. “It locks in place after you set it too,” Thomas said. “Very nice. I see he did the same for the shotgun and combat knife as well.”
“He said if you ever decide that you want the same for your sword he would be happy to see what he could do.”
“Not right now,” Thomas said as he strapped the holster on. It felt good to have it back. “We have bigger fish to fry at the moment.”
“So you figured it out?” Rhae said. “The thing you were missing?”
“Yea, long story short,” Thomas said, holstering the gun, “Lynnette stole the Spirit Beads to spend all time and eternity with Peccant.”
“This whole mess is because she wanted to commit suicide?” Rhae said.
“I told you it’s a long story,” Thomas said, scratching his head.
“Love makes you do some crazy things,” Galen said.
“The problem is he got to her before she got the beads. So now her soul is exactly where she wants it, but he doesn’t have the beads,” said Thomas. “Without them he’s a walking time bomb. At any moment he could start sucking in all life around him.”
“The beads seal that away?” Rhae said.
“Yes that’s all they were ever meant to do,” Thomas said. “They are the will of Amunetta, his sister. She wants to protect him and those they loved.”
“That must be why she helps you,” Galen said. “You both want the same things. Don’t lose sight of that.”
“Do you even know where to find Peccant?” Rhae said, strapping her combat knife to her thigh.
“The dream I had last night remember?” Thomas said, “They were in the church on Prasiyawa.”
“That awful place again?”
Thomas shrugged. “I didn’t pick it.”
“Well they had better be there,” Rhae said, pointing her finger at him sharply. “I don’t want to be on some wild goose chase in that gods forsaken hell hole for nothing.”
“What’s so bad about Prasiyawa?” Galen said.
Thomas rolled his eyes and just pulled on his trench coat.
“Dirt and bugs and more dirt,” said Rhae, “and they don’t have running water. And it’s really, really hot. Did I mention they have a lot of dirt?”
“I believe you did,” Galen said, raising his eyebrows.
“And bugs,” she said. “The little tiny creepy kind you can’t see that bite you in the worst places.”
“It’s not that bad,” Thomas said, slipping his shades on.
“It is too,” she said and strapped on the holster for the shotgun to her back. “It’s not my fault I just taste better than you.”
Thomas pressed his lips together, shoved his hands in his pockets, and ducked his head down. Silence ought to keep him alive in this moment. She caught his movement. Galen palmed his face. He was dead.
“What?” she said.
He might as well bury himself at this point. Still staring at the ground he said, “I can’t blame the bugs for having good taste.”
“I hate you.”
“I love you too.”
Rhae came around the table in a few strides and gave him a tight hug. He hugged her back and lingered for a moment. Her summer scent was comforting after being in the musty office all day.
“We need to make sure we have enough bullets and whatever else we need before we go,” she said and messed up his hair with both her hands.
Thomas nodded and they all headed for the basement. With their preparations complete they turned to say goodbye to Galen. He gave them each a mini first-aid kit for their belts.
“It’s not much but it will do in a pinch,” he said, “and better than nothing. Better to have and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
“Always,” Galen said. “Now don’t die on me.”
“Don’t worry,” Rhae said. “He’s got me with him.”
“We port to the old shop and then to Prasiyawa,” said Thomas. “We’ll come back the same way.”
“I’ll be watching,” Galen said. “Now remember getting Rue home for Celeste is great and all but it should not come at the cost of your lives. You hear me?”
Thomas nodded and opened a portal leading to Galen’s old shop. Rhae and Thomas stepped through. As the portal closed behind them, they found themselves staring down the barrel of Ryker’s gun. Both Thomas and Rhae raised their hands cautiously and stepped back from him slowly. Ryker’s skin had taken a sick, waxy pale sheen in the moonlight. His wild wide eyes darted from shadow to shadow. Shallow hard breaths puffed small clouds from his mouth. Blood stained the collar of his shirt while it crusted around the two tiny wounds on his neck.
“I thought I’d find you two here eventually if I waited here long enough,” he said.