The orphan by the oak was set,
Her arms, her feet, were bare,
The hail-drops had not melted yet,
Amid her raven hair.
—Sir Walter Scott,
“The Orphan Maid”
Katherine and Madison trudged through the amorphous realm of Mara's conscious thoughts, a blurry mass of ever-changing shapes and colors, trying to look for the silver thread leading to Nico's location, but neither could find it for the umpteenth time. All the while, Madison was still feeling tipsy over entering the Phantom Realms in her waking state, while Katherine felt no such aftereffects.
As such, Madison sat down, trying to regain her stomach. "Ugh!"
"You’re feeling it, aren't you?" Katherine said, still looking for the slightest trace of a thread somewhere below her feet. "Just hang in there; I'll find it eventually."
"Hope you find it before I throw up," and she laid herself flat on the ground, raising her knees with her feet flat on the ground, closing her eyes and covering them with her forearm. She stayed in that position, while her sister kept looking for the thread, and for a while Madison let her mind drift from one stray thought to another—
(breathing in fresh air, petting that dog in the park, folding origami cranes, looking out across the knoll at other couples, staring at her watch, eating powdered green tea kimchi, thinking of her date that she had stood up, roasting Celia's ass, getting a phone call from Katherine, taking a ride to the police station, roasting Celia's ass, going to Dad's bookstore, falling for Celia's antics, roasting Celia's ass, feeling a rush of horrible emotions, hitching a ride with Katherine to the house, getting to Celia's door, reading Celia's notes, roasting Celia's ass . . .)
—till something at the back of her mind surfaced in her thoughts, at first as incomprehensible as any conundrum Katherine threw her in Celia's room, but now a new set links to an invisible chain of logic filtered past the static, focusing on the emotions she had felt and adding to them the human element of touch and even taste.
An impression of a kiss lingering on her lips, like the kiss of first love or even the kiss of death. And with it came fleeting images and sounds of guns pointed at heads, of applause and cheers and screams, of shedding tears and fraying nerves, of one last desperate struggle before the pull of two triggers, and of two percussive blasts and searing pain and static. And in that static came Mara's voice screaming out Nico's name, and a spreading pool of blood on the stage, and amid the cheers, the voice of a man riling up the crowd to a riotous applause . . .
When Madison jolted up from her nap screaming, her heart racing and her breathing short and frantic, catching her sister's attention.
Katherine came up to her and shook her back to her senses, saying, "Maddy, wake up, wake up," till Madison finally shook off the remaining residue of panic from her mind. "Are you okay?"
Madison sat up, wiping away the tears in her eyes, keeping her gaze to the ground as she collected herself and said, "There's someone else we weren't expecting."
"I don't know, but he's one twisted fuck," she said, getting to her feet with Katherine's help. "He made the twins play Russian Roulette in front of their parents, and one of them died. I don't know what happened to the other one."
"You mean Nico and Mara?"
"Yeah," she said, looking at her sister with a grim face. "I don't like this at all. If Celia ran into someone like him . . . If that man did anything to Celia, that fucker's going down!"
"Maddy, we have to be thorough," Katherine said. "I don't wanna miss any clues, if there—"
"Don't give me your detective crap! We've been loitering around here for half an hour trying to find clues, but there aren't any. So can we just go there, please?"
Katherine pouted and sighed, saying, "Fine, but if we miss something, it's gonna be your fault," and she summoned a mirror showing the Chinese pavilion overlooking the sea, their last known location, in the reflection. "They're not there."
"Fuck!" she said. "See what I mean?"
"Okay, okay, geez! Follow me," and Katherine stepped through the surface of the mirror, with Madison following in tow—
Into the pavilion, where they spotted a pool of blood in the center of the floor.
"Shit!" Madison cried.
Both sisters sprinted towards the stain in a panic, Katherine squatting down and placing two fingers on the bloody surface, and breathing in relief.
"It's not Celia's blood," she said, "but there's no Life left in it. I think it might be Nico's, the girl who died."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." Katherine wrinkled her brows in thought, looking at her sister's incredulous expression, and said, "I know it's really hard to understand. I'm still trying to figure it out myself."
"Let's change tactics, then," Madison said. "First, get to Celia and get her to safety. Then we'll ask her about it. Sounds good?"
"Just wait for a little bit longer, okay?” Katherine said. “If I run out of options, then we'll do it your way."
Madison sighed. "Fine."
So Katherine pressed her hand on the blood-stained ground and closed her eyes, focusing on the vision she had of Celia and Nico and Mara and wheedling through the chaos of Celia's emotions in that erratic moment of insanity, pinpointing one dominant emotion to the exclusion of all else. And through the long black tunnel of eternity, she opened her inner sight and saw Celia kissing Nico and suffering a paroxysm of grief so great that it brought tears to her eyes. But through it all, she persevered and saw the scene unfolding from Nico comforting Celia to the introduction of that man that Madison mentioned, the man in the white suit and black gloves, now taunting Nico, and now mentioning something to Celia before she had teleported away, something that nearly made Katherine's heart stop—
"And as for you, darling," he said, looking at Celia with a slasher's smile stretching across his face, "I can smell the blood of Amelia Hearn in your veins."
And all at once, the stab of horror that had pulsed through Celia's heart at the mention of her grandmother's name now pulsed through Katherine's heart.
In her mind’s eye, Katherine saw Celia placing her hand on the floor, as a darkness more than night flooded into the seams of Nico's barrier, filling Katherine’s mind with Nico screaming at unspeakable images flooding her head. She saw Celia's seal of pink roses glowing through the darkness, before blinking all three girls out of sight, but not before Katherine (like Celia) heard the man's last words:
"Your mother killed her."
Katherine jerked her hand away, shaken and horrified, her pupils shrunken to bullet points of fright, saying under her breath, "Oh my God," and placing a hand to her mouth.
"Kathy, what is it?" Madison said, grabbing her sister and shaking her by the shoulders. "What happened? Is Celia hurt? Is she hurt? Tell me, God damn it!"
"Celia's not hurt, okay? Calm down!" she said, shutting her inner eye from the damning revelation about her own mother and willing her mind to forget about the man's accusation, yet it was just as her mother said. “It can’t be true. It’s just not true.”
"What's not true?"
"That man's a liar," Katherine said, getting up to her feet. "It wasn’t her fault.”
"Kathy, what are you talking about?"
But Katherine stayed silent, wondering if she should let Madison know about it, but before she was about to let her sister into her thoughts—
"Oh, but it is, darling," the man said behind them.
Instantly, both girls jumped and turned and saw the man himself, the suit and gloves and all of his vile presence standing on the edge of the pavilion.
"Who are you?" Katherine yelled.
"No need to shout," he said, raising his hands to placate her, then bowing to them. "I am Lord Aaron Rancaster, 6th Baronet Rancaster, the last of the Rancaster Baronetcy."
For a moment, neither sister spoke. His candidness as well as his name had dispelled their thoughts, but only for a moment.
"What did you do to Celia?" Madison said.
The mention of Celia's name put a smile on his face, saying, "Are you two relations of hers? Sisters, perhaps?"
"Listen buddy," Katherine said, "we're not your friends. We know what you did, so don't be coy with us!"
"I stand accused of a crime I know nothing about," he said. "Ex post facto, is it not? Is it not? Is it fucking not?"
And all at once, a darkness more than night washed out the surrounding scenery, surrounding the pavilion with his illusion. So both girls stood on their guard, alert for anything he might throw at him, but he just stood there with his hands raised like a complete imbecile.
Which wasn't lost on Katherine, now keeping her eyes on his hands, while something nagged her at the back of her mind. He was too confident for someone in such a position of weakness. His pose was just a ruse, but of what kind she hadn't yet figured it out.
He said, "You two are just like your younger sister. Too obvious. The real master of the field doesn't reveal his hand, until it's time to lay the cards on the table. So before I lay my cards down, can you guess the cards in my hands? What say you, redhead? Care to guess?"
"Fuck this dude," Madison said, and her hair began to float in anger and fear. "I'm roasting him."
"Don't!" Katherine said.
"I said, don't!" And to make sure she didn't do anything rash, Katherine grabbed onto Madison's hand in a tight grip, feeling waves of anxiety surging through her, then said to the man, "Whatever you're planning, it's not gonna work."
"Ah, I can see that you're the brains of this outfit. Good, more fun for me!" he said, still standing there with his hands raised. "What say you, braid girl?"
Instead of speaking, Katherine summoned a mirror below her feet, taking Madison with her into the mirror just before two man-sized hands snatched them from behind—
And dropping into Katherine's dream realm of hallways and mirrors. And on landing, both girls split up just as the reflection above their heads changed to a deep black hue, preventing Katherine from dispersing it. The mirror surface began bulging outwards and cracking the reflection into a spider web of cracks, as the man from the other side tried to get in.
So Madison threw her seal on the mirror, exploding it into a shower of glass shards and a light spray of blood over their heads, and rocking her sister's domain with a percussive shock.
A moment passed, with both girls breathing hard after a close escape with death.
Katherine dispersed the broken mirror, leaving the upper part of the walls and mirrors below coated in a spray of blood, the man's blood. But no sooner had she done so when a vision entered her mind, and she sucked in breath.
"Celia's here," she said, then summoned another mirror against the wall and entered it, with Madison following in tow—
And stepping through the one-way mirror in Katherine's boudoir and finding Mara on the bed, Nico clinging to Celia, and Celia forming her seal underneath their feet, and both sisters saying, "Celia, wait!"
On spotting her sisters, Celia canceled her spell and collapsed onto the bed next to Mara, relieved that it was her sisters and not that crazy man in the white suit. "Geez, you two could've used a better entrance than an explosion!"
Both sisters sprang up to Celia and dog-piled her over the bed, squishing her into the padding and against the springs, making it hard for Celia to breathe under their combined weight.
All the while, Madison said, wrapping her arm around Celia's head and giving her a vigorous noogie, "We had a damn good reason, brat-face!"
"And you scared us half to death," Katherine added, digging her hands into Celia's sides, pinching her there and jabbing her thumbs into her waist. "Now feel my wrath, you little troublemaker!"
Celia was now kicking her legs against the bedside and flailing her arms over the bedsheets and wrinkling them, struggling to breathe under Madison's headlock, feeling her scalp burning and her sides aching and every muscle in her body straining under the combined assault.
Looking on with widening eyes, Nico got on top of the bed by Mara's side, touched both sisters on their heads, and said, "Um . . . Do you two always do that to her?"
At this, both sisters looked up at Nico and stopped their assault on Celia, getting off of her and letting her breathe.
Celia took massive gulps of air, her chest heaving on the bed, before sliding off of it and collapsing down to her knees on the floor, leaning against the bedside in exhaustion.
Katherine and Madison traded glances, and Katherine said, "I think we overdid it a little."
When Celia finally regained her breath and got to her feet, steadying herself on the bed, she said, "You two nearly killed me! What the hell?"
"You're lucky I didn't just roast you on sight for what you did," Madison said, arms akimbo with her glaring eyes boring through her youngest sister. "You nearly gave us a heart attack! We honestly thought that guy did something to you!"
"And now we find you in my dream realm inside my private bedroom with two other girls without getting my permission," Katherine said, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring sunspots through her soul. "On top of that, you broke into my room and used one of my mirrors, and you endangered not only your own life but our lives just to get here! Do you have any idea how much trouble you're in right now?"
"I'm sorry, okay? I really am," Celia said, "but I didn't have a choice. It was an emergency!"
"Was it an emergency when you stole Dad's keys?" Madison yelled. "It's bad enough that we had to pick you up from the police station, and it's gonna get worse when dad and Mr. Faraone come back and find their bookstore trashed!"
"And was it really an emergency when you broke into my room and used my mirror?" Katherine yelled. "Because it became an emergency when we thought something happened to you! Does that even mean anything to you?"
Celia remained silent, blinking back tears that now welled in her eyes, because her sisters' words had hurt her. Of course, she knew she wasn't under any time pressure when she did those things, and of course, she felt bad about messing up the bookstore, and of course, she felt bad about making her sisters worry, and of course, her sisters' feelings meant something to her. She just didn't want to inconvenience her sisters more than she already had when they picked her up from the police station, but of course, they wouldn't understand that.
So she glared hellfire at her sisters and said, first to Katherine, "Kathy, I know I stole your mirror, and I'm sorry, but you always have your door closed, and you never ever give me permission, anyway! And I didn't 'break' anything while I was in there. I just took what I needed, and that's all." Then to Madison: "And, Maddy, I did you a favor when I took those keys, because with you handling them, you probably would've lost them like you did last time you were at Dad's bookstore, and it took me and Kathy hours to find where you last put them—it was aggravating!" Then she addressed both sisters, saying, "And if you think, just because you're older, and just because I'm still a minor, that you two can boss me around like I'm still a little kid, then you don't fucking know me!"
Katherine and Madison and Nico looked at her in shock.
And with tears now trailing down her cheeks, Celia released a seal below her feet and was about to teleport from the room, when Nico wrapped her arms around her. "Don't go! It's not like that—they're really not like that!"
And all at once, Mara's own accusation that Celia had forgotten her promise to Nico fluttered up in Celia's mind, and something inside her cried out for mercy.
She said, "I'm sorry, Nico."
And she fell to her knees and cried in front of her sisters.
Then the world around Katherine and Madison grew smaller inside the room. Everything else that had dogged them up to this moment fell away from their minds, and their former glares and expressions of shock softened into sisterly concern.
So they reached out with hands of mercy and touched her shoulders, and Madison said, "We didn't mean to make you cry."
"You had us scared that time," Katherine added. "It hurts me to think that you'd do something so dangerous and not let us know." She then sighed, and said, "Don't you trust us? We'll have your back no matter what happens."
Celia stayed silent, still crying, so Nico had the final say, still clinging around her waist: "They're your sisters, Celia. They love you more than you know."
After reconciling, the three Hearn sisters and Nico left Mara sleeping in Katherine's private bedroom and went to Katherine's library, where the three Hearn sisters sat on the salon sofa, while Nico sat by the cafe table. Celia sat between her elder sisters with Katherine on her right and Madison on her left, holding their hands as she told them what happened to her. She told them everything, from last night's dream when Celia and her friends encountered Mara and Nico to Mara stabbing Colbie, from the promise they made to Nico to find Mara to everything Celia and her friends did in the old Rancaster district to find Nico and Mara, from their encounter with the wolves and escape from the old district to their subsequent questioning and detainment at the police station, from her own attempt at finding Mara alone to her initial meeting with Nico and Mara in the Phantom Realms, and from her first encounter with Aaron Rancaster to his damning words about her grandmother's death at the hands of Celia's mother.
When Celia finished, her sisters just sat there on the salon sofa, looking in amazement at her and Nico sitting at the cafe table before them. Still, Madison was skeptical of Celia's last point about Rancaster's accusation of their own mother killing their grandmother, but Katherine shook her head.
“Maddy, listen to me,” Katherine said. “We both had that vision, but did you hear him, too?“
“No,” she said. “Why?”
“Because I also heard him saying it," Katherine said, “word for word, just as Celia said.”
"You can't be serious," Madison said, looking at Katherine and Celia in horror. "Please don't tell me you two actually believe what he said.”
“It’s complicated,” Katherine said.
“What’s so complicated about it?” Madison said. “He could’ve been lying just to screw with us, but you two seem to think—”
"Look, I'm not saying what he said was true," Katherine said.
“Then what are you saying?” Madison said.
Katherine scooted herself towards the edge of the sofa and faced her skeptical sister, saying, “It wasn’t Mom’s fault, okay? I know that for a fact, but . . .“
Katherine averted her gaze.
“But what?” Madison said, looking at her eldest sister.
Yet Katherine stayed silent for a spell, keeping her gaze to the floor, seeming to roll things through her head as though wrestling with a hidden weight chained around her heart.
Which Madison picked up on and said, “What are you hiding?”
Without looking up from the floor, Katherine sighed and said, “Let’s just drop it for now.”
“Kathy, look at me,” Madison said.
But Katherine was obstinate.
“Looking at me, damn you!” Madison yelled.
This time, Katherine looked at her and said, “I said, drop it.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” Madison said.
Katherine said nothing but never averted her eyes.
“Celia and I deserve to know,” Madison said, “so spill it!”
“Maddy, please,” Celia said, caught in the middle of a skirmish that threatened to blow up into a rare fight between her older siblings. “Just calm down, both of you.”
“I won’t,” Madison said, “until I get an answer.”
“Jesus, Maddy,” Katherine said. “Can’t you just drop it?”
“Fine,” Madison said and got up from the sofa with clenched fists and glared at Katherine. “Have it your way, but I'm not gonna sit around and wait on your sorry ass! I’ll ask Mom right after I wake up from this dump!” She then headed out of the library, saying to herself, "Fucking can't believe . . .”
"Maddy, come back," Celia said.
Celia got up, but Katherine grabbed her hand and pulled her down and said, "It's no use, Celia."
"You don't know her like I do," Katherine said, leaning back against the backrest of the salon sofa. "Maddy's just pissed, okay? Let her deal with it on her own. She'll come back."
"Are you sure?" Celia said.
"I'm sure," Katherine said. "Don't worry. I've got mirrors all over this place, so I know where she is." Then she noticed Celia's hand trembling beneath her grasp, and when she looked at her face and saw her eyes glistening with tears, she added, “It’s okay. Maddy and I have our differences, but nothing’s gonna come of them. I promise.”
“I hope so,” Celia said, then pulled her hand from Katherine’s grasp and wiped her eyes. “I’ve never seen you two fight like that. Like, ever.”
That’s when Katherine looked at Nico for the first time, sitting stiffly with her hands on her thighs, squeezing them together as though she were suppressing the urge to pee. She said, "I'm sorry you had to see that. Maddy gets that way a lot of the time, but it's normal."
Only then did Nico relax a bit on her chair, who had been sitting like that the whole time she had been watching. She said, “Was it that bad?”
“What is?” Katherine said.
“Whatever you’re not telling,” Nico said. “Was it that bad?”
"I see," Nico said, then slumped in her chair and relaxed her hands over her thighs.
"What is it, Nico?” Celia said.
“Do you have something on your mind?” Katherine added.
Nico nodded her head, stiffening in her chair again, and said, “It’s the way you two fought. It sort of reminds me of my parents' fights, but theirs were more frequent . . . and scary.”
“I’m sorry,” Katherine said.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Celia said.
“Sure,” Nico said.
So Nico told them about her parents’ deteriorating marriage and the increasing frequency of their bickering, which later turned into heated arguments, which later turned into full-blown skirmishes replete with yells and curses echoing up the stairs into Nico and Mara’s bedroom like the screams of hell on the nights when sleep was impossible. As such, Nico also told them about the nighttime games she and Mara played, consisting of tickling and pinching each other and having fun, which later turned into touching and fondling and being naughty, which later turned into hugging and kissing and making love. Nico then told them about her parents finding out their secret, first her mother and then her father, both of whom said what they needed to say to their daughters before their subsequent abduction by Rancaster.
Both Hearn sisters looked at Nico’s shame-faced self, both sisters glued to their places on the sofa, their eyes wide and their hearts filled to bursting.
After a pregnant pause, Katherine said, "Maddy and I saw some of what happened to you and your sister when we had our vision, and Celia filled in a lot of the details about it, but we still don't have the whole picture. We still don't know how you and Mara ended up in Celia’s dream dive with her friends last night, and we still don't know how the wolves fit into all this.”
“Those wolves were his wolves,” Nico said.
“His wolves?” Celia said. “They were Rancaster’s?”
Nico nodded, but stayed silent.
After another pregnant pause, Katherine said, “Nico, I know this is gonna be difficult for you, and if you're not comfortable telling us what happened next, then you don't have to answer. Nobody's forcing you to tell us. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” Katherine said, crossing one of her ankles and sitting forward on the sofa. “Do you know what happened after you died?”
At her question, Nico squeezed her hands over her thighs and said, "Yes."
"Then do you remember what happened to Mara after that?"
"Yes," she said under her breath.
"Do you remember how the wolves were involved?"
"Yes," she said in a whisper as tears began trailing her cheeks.
At this, Celia got up from the sofa and sat by Nico’s side, pulling her chair closer to her and placing her hand on top of hers and giving it a squeeze. She said, "Nico, I'm here for you. If it gets too difficult, you can stop, okay?"
Nico said nothing, but she nodded her head.
With that, Celia turned to her sister on the sofa and nodded, saying, “Go on.”
So Katherine said, "Nico, we need to know why you and Mara landed in Celia’s dream dive last night, because everything that’s happened today stems from that. Can you tell us about it?”
For a moment, Nico paused and took a deep breath to steady her nerves, even as she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, and looked at Celia and Katherine in turn. She looked to their expressions of compassion and knew that she wasn't alone anymore.
She said . . .
All was silent for a moment.
In that hideous span of time, the residual echoes of two gunshots and the thud of Nico's corpse hitting the floor of the stage mingled with Mara screaming Nico's name in the silent theater, and now her parents overcame the man's psychic hold over their mouths and filled that empty void with the brutal chorus of screams and sobs over Nico's death. Her body lay on its side, her legs and arms splayed in awkward directions on the floor, and her head lying at an awkward angle against her arm, her eyes staring lifelessly into the audience and gleaming under the stage lights, while a spreading pool of blood kept pouring from the hole on the side of her head, forming a bloody halo around her.
Then came a massive applause from the crowd of spectators, standing up from their seats and giving Lord Aaron Rancaster's show a standing ovation. They cheered for the show, and they whistled at Mara, and they jeered at her parents, who were still moaning and sobbing in agony on their chairs under their invisible restraints.
And above the horror of the stage floated Nico's spirit, just beginning to manifest her astral form into a wispy outline of her former body, watching the blood on the stage lose its vitality with exposure to the air. She had a bird's-eye-view of the scene below her, witnessing her parents and her sister in the grip of insanity, thinking thoughts that terrified her to see and feeling emotions that horrified her to feel. Even in astral form, the dead still knew how it feels to grieve.
Nico wanted to speak, but she had no voice. Only her consciousness manifested in the earliest stage of being a ghost. She could only witness with lidless eyes her sister getting up from the chair and dropping to her knees beside her lifeless body, thudding the stage and crying over her, as the crowd catcalled and whistled at Mara.
And in the middle of it all was the source of their plight, walking into the stage to another round of applause from the crowd and standing just a foot away from the pool of blood. All the while, several members of the sick crowd kept crying out, "Encore!" over and over again.
Aaron Rancaster raised his hands and quieted the crowd, then said to Mara, "Get up, darling. Get up, darling—you're free to go! Or do you want to say goodbye to your parents, first?"
Mara slowly raised herself to her feet and stared vacantly at the man who had proclaimed her freedom to the crowd, then looked to her parents still trapped on their chairs, still sobbing over the loss of one of their children, muttering to God to help them in their plight.
By this time, Mara had lost almost all sense of who she was, only retaining the infantile ability to recognize her parents, and walking towards them on tenuous steps. She wanted to kiss her father and her mother, to wrap her arms around them and commiserate with them in what would be their last moment together as a real family.
And in a shaky voice, she said, "Mom . . . Dad . . . I'm sorry, I'm so sorry . . ."
She wanted to hug her father first, for being that rock of strength and understanding for her and Nico after her mother left. She wanted to hug her mother second, for telling her that she and Nico were sisters, not lovers. And she would have done so, when Aaron Rancaster took one of the guns on the table and aimed it at Mara's father and fired.
Another deafening report resounded through the theater, and a part of her father's skull got blasted into pieces of bone and brain matter amid a spray of blood, leaving his corpse limp and leaning sideways on the chair beside his screaming wife.
And along with her mother, Mara screamed, too, screaming in horror at witnessing another headshot claim the life of another loved one. If Nico's death had gutted her of all her emotions in one long scream, her father's death now cracked her mind, letting out psychic waves of energy gushing into the theater and through the crowd.
The audience gasped in shock and awe, as a new spectacle was born before their wonder-filled eyes, their hearts fluttering in anticipation.
"Ah, we have a live one here, folks," Lord Rancaster said, cocking the hammer back and chambering another round in the barrel. "Gaze upon this beautiful goddess and tremble!"
Then the floorboards of the stage rumbled and cracked, as the whole theater itself shook under Mara's psychic waves. The very power that had kept Mara alive now consumed her, digging at her sanity, loosening her control over her emotions and letting her rage spill out into the crowd.
All of this in front of her mother.
With her surviving daughter turning into a monstrous shell of herself, Mrs. Cairns screamed through the waves and screamed through her tears, saying, "Mara! Mara, please, listen to me! I want you to live, I want you to LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE! Just get away from here, just run! Just ruuuuuun! RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!"
And against all odds, somewhere deep in the torrential storm of Mara's insanity, her mother's words filtered through her mind, and instinct took over. Mara turned on her foot, forming a crater on the floor, and ran from the stage.
And Lord Rancaster, standing like a rock in the middle of the psychic tempest, aimed his gun at her mother and fired.
Yet another report resounded through the theater, but Mara kept on running, squinting her eyes as she sprinted through the backstage area like a tsunami, sweeping unfortunate passers-by off their feet and slamming them against walls and windows and doors and pillars. And when she reached the exit, she blasted through the door and cracked part of the masonry, and ended up inside the spectral maze that was the abandoned Rancaster district at night, collapsing to the ground and bawling into fits and mewling sniffles.
Under Rancaster’s psychic restraint keeping her stock-still like a statue on the backstage, the ‘bambina’ had witnessed Mr. and Mrs. Cairns screaming their lungs out and crying over the death of their daughter Nico, while their other daughter Mara had screamed like a tsunami. At that moment, the ‘bambina’ had shivered at the amount of psychokinesis surging through her like a blizzard, but what had shaken her the most was the twisted agony of Mara’s face. At that moment, Mara’s face had taken on a hideous aspect as if a demon had awakened inside of her, which reminded the ‘bambina’ of her own face whenever she looked in the mirror at herself. And at that moment, the ‘bambina’ felt a connection to that girl, for something precious had been taken away from both of them, although the ‘bambina’ knew nothing of Mara Cairns beyond what Rancaster had told the audience on the stage. Now she knew what the man had meant when he said, ‘Misery loves company.’
At this, tears trailed her cheeks as Rancaster waved at the cheering audience before approaching her backstage, at which she squinted her eyes shut. Yet in the darkness of closed eyes, the ‘bambina’ saw her father’s face and cried.
So Rancaster released his psychic restraint on her and hugged her close like a surrogate father, telling her that he was sorry she had to see all that, promising her that it would all be worth it in the end, saying that it’s going to be okay. It was always okay, even when it wasn’t, because that’s what fathers said to soothe their children after they had been hurt.
He said all of this, while the ‘bambina’ cried into the collar of his while jacket, because she needed him at that moment like a marionette needs a puppet master—
Because the ‘bambina’ was his at that moment.
For a time, Mara stayed there in the middle of the street, breathing harder than she ever had during P.E., breathing out foggy plumes in the chilly night air. When she finally regained herself, regaining her sanity in the process, she picked herself up and proceeded down the street.
Old neon signs glowed and flickered along the decrepit streets and squares ahead of her, and the sky above her head seemed to leer at her through the pinpricks of myriad stars. She walked closer to the square before her, till a set of lamp lights turned on overhead and lighted the space, and on the ground beneath her feet lay a folded letter sealed in wax that she had inadvertently stepped on.
She bent down and picked it up, breaking the seal and reading the contents. It read:
When I said, 'You're free to go,' I merely meant that you are free to choose your fate. Your fate is in your hands, and in the Labyrinth before you, your fate lies somewhere in those twists and turns.
Through the Labyrinth, there are places you can go, and there are places you can't. I've made it easy for you, if you follow this one clue leading to the exit route out.
This is the Clue: (blank)
But be careful where you step, for trap doors are hidden in plain sight. And the more doors you open leading closer to freedom, the more doors you open and free monsters that lurk in the night.
Good luck, darling! You're going to need it.
Lord Aaron Rancaster,
6th Baronet Rancaster
Immediately, Mara turned around, intending to go back, but she bumped into an invisible barrier. She placed her hand on it, feeling the surface of it like the surface of glass, like the glass that she and Nico ran into on the stage when they ran towards their parents on the chairs.
Mara yelled, "Who are you? What do you want with me?"
And on cue, speakers turned on in a hiss of static, and Lord Rancaster said, "Ladies and gentlemen, here is your encore for tonight, a tramp through the Labyrinth that is our humble corner of the world."
And the cheers of the crowd came on through the speakers.
"Why are you doing this?" Mara yelled.
"Because it's entertaining, darling," Lord Rancaster said. "And don't forget to read the post script. It just might become your lifeline in the next moments of your life!"
At first, she wanted nothing more than to tear the damn letter into shreds, but her mother's last words (to keep on living) restrained her. So she read:
P.S. Answer is Clue! Try not to die too soon, darling.
P.P.S. In 'Clue,' there is one noun (plural), one verb, one preposition, and one noun (singular). There! Give us a good show, darling.
Mara fumed and crumpled the letter in her hand, but thought better than to tear it into pieces. She needed to know what this 'Clue' pertained to in this sick game. So she stuffed it in the pants pocket of her sleeping clothes and proceeded on her way.
And all the while, Nico's spirit followed Mara through the Labyrinth as an unseen sentinel watching over her.
While Nico told her bird's-eye-view account of Mara's ordeal to Celia and Katherine, Madison had ascended the grand staircase and stalked into the inclined hall leading up to the endless rows of hallways and mirrors one floor above. She was still fuming over Katherine’s refusal to tell her what she knew, especially when it concerned their mother and grandmother. It wasn’t like Katherine to keep her younger sisters out of the loop, nor was it like her to start fights with Katherine in front of Celia like that. And when she thought about all the tricks Celia played on her over the years, harried as she was at her sister’s antics, Madison couldn’t help but wonder what Celia was thinking when she saw her two older sisters fighting. Madison hadn’t been that angry in a while, so for Celia’s sake, she promised herself that she would make amends with Celia, even if she couldn’t make amends with Katherine just yet.
When the incline leveled off near the end of the hallway, ending at a two-way corridor, she turned from those thoughts and took the left way and headed towards the room where Katherine kept her dirty magazines and DVDs. She knew she was old enough to indulge herself, and what Katherine didn't know wouldn't end up in Madison's face, either. And even if it did end up blowing up in her face, she was old enough to face Katherine's hell, even when Celia’s version of it was more persistent.
But it wasn't very long when Madison got lost after crossing the third or fourth hallway to Katherine's room. Going back and forth between hallways, she just couldn't remember the exact number of hallways (third or fourth) that she needed to count before turning right into another hallway that led to (get this) another hallway where Katherine's naughty room was supposed to be. And the endless rows of mirrors and doors made things worse for her.
So she then stopped at the third intersecting hallway, looking to her right, then walked up to the fourth hallway, again looking right. She turned around, but repressed the urge to backtrack, this time committing to one route.
She said under her breath, "Damn it, Kathy, why do you have to make your dream so damn complicated? It's hard enough trying to navigate the first floor, let alone this one!"
But then again, Madison noted, Katherine did not create this dream realm with her in mind; she created it to thwart the ever-bratty and ever-curious Celia from finding Katherine's more private things. Yes. The troll-whore, the brat-face, the one that Madison's parents spoiled to no end, had warped this dream, too.
Passing yet another set of doors and mirrors, she turned right into yet another corridor and just about gave up. Like it or not, she needed Celia's help, mentally preparing herself to bribe her miscreant little sister if she had to.
Then she stopped, realizing something, and back tracked to the other end of the hallway where she thought she and Katherine had dropped in through the mirror from Mara's dream. She followed her train of her emotions as she walked, focusing on that split-second moment before both sisters dropped, that moment when Madison felt her hair floating in anxiety. And as she mulled over those thoughts, the same feeling came back to her, and her hair began to float under another current of anxiety.
When she rounded the next turn into another hallway of mirrors and doors, she saw it ahead of her.
The light spray of blood stains still gleamed on the upper portion of the walls, where Madison had exploded the mirror. And right below those stains, on the carpet was a pool of blood that had since seeped into the fibers.
Walking up to it and crouching down, Madison placed two fingers on the surface and felt the living traces of that man in the white suit reverberating through her head.
"Oh my God," she said under her breath. "He's here!"
So she got up and ran the other way to warn her sisters.
Moments after getting shot, Mrs. Cairns found herself falling for a time down through the rabbit hole of endless sleep, down through the slow-wave madness of bearing witness to the deaths of her husband Paul and her daughter Nico dying before her, their blood pooling from bullet wounds in their heads into spreading halos on Rancaster’s stage. And with the reports of gunshots echoing around her, she kept screaming words she couldn’t hear, calling out the names of her husband and two daughters and screaming for Mara to run away. She couldn’t hear any of her words as if her voice had been stolen, as if the very spirit in her voice had flown from the madness and condemned her astral self into a dark abyss of repeating memories.
And with those memories came a flood of regrets over her failings as a mother, of which there were many: failing to see how Mara and Nico were affected by all the fighting between husband and wife, failing to notice how her daughters were coping with it, and failing to speak up before it was too late to do anything but just leave the house and let the closing of the door close the final chapter of her life before the epilogue of gunshots and screams shattered her family to pieces. Thus, she wondered if she deserved all of this for failing to act sooner, for failing to see a truth that her husband had picked up on while she was blind to it, and for failing to see eye to eye with her husband.
So she surrendered to the darkness, letting it swallow her up in a flood of tears pooling below her like an underground pond, letting the silence remain for a time. So here she stayed for the next few moments, till a voice called out to her in the darkness, calling out her name.
At first, Mrs. Cairns thought it was her daughters.
Mara? Nico? Mrs. Cairns said in her mind. Is that you?
She heard the voice again, a little stronger this time, yet it was a different voice belonging to a different woman.
What is it? she said. What are you saying?
And the voice said, “Can you . . .”
And it cut out again.
I can’t hear you, she said.
And out of the silent void of her thoughts came another voice in her head as if it was the voice of God, saying, “I’ve been trying to reach you, Lucy Cairns.”
Who are you? Lucy Cairns said. How do you know my name?
“I’m Amelia Hearn,” the voice said, “and I’m here to help you.”
And all at once, Lucy Cairns felt herself getting enfolded into the arms of another woman, feeling the warmth of her presence before her and hearing her words warm against her ear.
“Open your eyes,” Amelia Hearn said.
And when Lucy did, she saw another woman around her age, perhaps another woman who knew the travails of being a mother. This woman held her hand out to her and said, “Don’t fret, dear. I’m here to help,” and coaxed Lucy to open herself up to her and trust in her kindness. So Lucy reached out her hand to this woman, yet her hand passed through the woman’s grasp like the grasp of a hologram.
W-why can’t I touch you? Lucy said.
“It looks like you’re still in Limbo,” Amelia said, “and it seems you’re holding onto deep regrets. I’ll have to try again later, but whatever you do, don’t . . .”
Yet her words faded when Lucy’s vision clouded over in darkness once again, obscuring the woman named Amelia Hearn from view, as she fell back into the fold of limbo and slept with visions of going into an underground cavern, where all the tears she’d shed over the last few months of her rocky marriage to her husband had collected into her own Pool of Tears shimmering in the darkness. And there Lucy stayed for the next 24 hours with visions of her daughters’ disappointed faces haunting her.
- Las Vegas
- Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber!
From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!
Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.
Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!