Bah! I'm such a slacker! Though, in my defense, I did have a fair bit o'stress over the weekend and spent the last few days decompressing...ie watching Marvel Comic movies. But here is the next chapter in Becca's story. Enjoy! And as always, you can read this and Cousin of the Crown at scribd.com. Thanks for reading! E.T.
Kevin’s arm went around me, holding me closer. I could tell he wasn’t trying to comfort me, but protect me, guard me against something.
"This was a school." He said softly, his eyes moving over the shadowy walls, the bookcases. I could dimly see rooms through open doorways filled with desks and chairs. It had obviously been a long time since anyone had come here. Neglect hung like a fog on the room. The dust was thick, the air stale and close.
"Where is everyone?" I whispered.
A shiver went through Kevin’s body, a tremor that made my blood go cold. His voice was hoarse. "Don’t touch anything," he warned. "Don’t leave me, no matter what you hear."
"What do you mean?" I asked, my voice a shrill wavering echo of his powerful tenor.
"Don’t eat or drink anything. Do whatever I say without question. And whatever you do, don’t look in any mirrors."
"But, what happened to the students?" I insisted.
I held my breath until he spoke again.
"They’re still here."
"Find what you need." He hissed. "Quick!" His eyes were still blazing. He skin was hot on mine, too hot to be normal. I swallowed down my mounting fear and concentrated.
"Upstairs." I said slowly. I looked up at the high ceiling, lost in the shadows. "Upstairs. A bedroom."
Kevin eased down the entryway, keeping close to a wall. His arm was stiff around me, his fingers biting into my arm. I didn’t want to know what he feared in here; it was more horrible than I could imagine.
The stairs wailed and creaked as we slowly climbed, a low, aching moan, like the building was in pain, disturbed from its restless sleep. Dust lay thick on everything, our steps lifting little clouds that floated and shimmered in the light of Kevin’s magic flame. It cast a pale white light on everything, washing out the color, leaving the world brown and gray.
A narrow hallway split off from the main corridor, angling into the depths of the house. I led him down it, keeping my mind carefully blank, receptive to the Speaking.
I stopped in front of a door.
"Here?" Kevin asked softly, looking up and down the hallway.
He beat my hand to the handle and turned it carefully, giving it a push inward. It swung back slowly, coming to a stop with a hesitating squeak.
Kevin kept his hand out, making a sudden tight fist. I flinched as the crash of breaking glass echoed up and down the hall.
"What was that?" I whispered, my heart racing.
He didn’t answer, just stepped inside. I followed closely, glass crunching under my feet. A tall, narrow frame hung empty on the wall, the glass from the mirror scattered across the floor.
"Don’t look in any mirrors." He repeated. I gulped and shut the door carefully behind us.
"This was Strenton’s room," Kevin said suddenly, turning in place to look over the space. It was bare and drab. A single bed and nightstand. A dresser. The window coverings were drawn back, still showing the beautiful spring day outside that refused to come in.
"How can you tell?"
"What are you looking for?" he said, not answering. I went to the far wall, next to the grimy window. A trunk sat shoved into a corner. I knelt in front of it, wiping away the dust from the wooden top.
"It’s locked," I told Kevin, tugging on the lid. He bent over me and ran his hand over the catch.
"Sealed." He corrected.
"Can you open it?"
He hesitated. "Maybe. I think I know his magic well enough to undo it. But if he didn’t seal it…" I looked up to him as he grimaced. "If he didn’t, then whoever did had a very good reason to."
"We won’t know until we open it," I reasoned.
He laughed shortly, harsh. He knelt next to me, his hands on the clasp. "I’ll try."
"Thank you," I said seriously. I gripped his arm with both my hands. "I mean it, Kevin," I said. He glanced over, frowning. I blushed, glad the flickering light hid it. "Thank you for coming with me."
He didn’t say anything for a moment, his eyes on mine. I thought a person could get lost looking in his eyes, shimmering, sparkling just below the surface. "I…" He hesitated, again, his voice losing some of its power, fading back to how he normally sounded. Or was it the other way around? "I just hope you find what you’re looking for."
I didn’t like his tone, the insinuation behind his words. "I hope so, too."
He grunted. "Give me a moment."
He closed his eyes, going still. He wasn’t even breathing. Did he have to breathe? Could he keep himself alive by magic alone?
I stiffened as light shimmered along the edge of the trunk, the thinnest line of white glow, a minuscule crack between the trunk and the lid. It grew in power, like something vibrant and pulsing was trying to get out, sending beams of light through Kevin’s fingers, lighting his face.
Kevin’s eyes flared open. The light faded back. A soft metallic ‘click’ was the only sound.
He was sweating once more, panting.
"Are you sure you want to open that?" he asked, wiping his face and leaving a brown streak of dust across his forehead.
"Why?" I asked.
"Whoever locked that did not want anyone getting in." He answered grimly.
"But is it unlocked?" I asked.
He nodded. I examined his face. If Jeff had locked this, who Kevin said was the strongest he’d ever known, or a teacher or something from this school, how powerful was Kevin to be able to open it? And quickly?
"What?" Kevin asked me.
"Nothing," I said swiftly, tucking that disturbing thought away to think about later. I grasped the lid with both hands and hefted it up.
Inside was a jumble of things. Books, pictures, a few toys. A baseball.
It was in here, but what? What was I looking for?
I lifted each item carefully, looking over it, flipping through pages. The books were marked up, writing in the margins, strange symbols and letters in unfamiliar patterns.
"What are these?" I asked.
"Lesson books. Primers." Kevin had one open and was reading the front page. "Old primers. They don’t use this system anymore."
He shrugged. "Schools change curriculums all the time. This school must have been traditional, sticking with the Coventry system."
I knew better than get him started on that subject. Next out of the trunk was a stack of photographs. The topmost showed a group of kids sitting at tables, some looking up with smiles, others with frowns. A classroom candid shot, the children busy with their work.
The next was them out on a grassy field. I could see the school building in the distance, older kids mixed in with younger as they played soccer. The ball was a shimmering orb of bright violet. I tucked that one at the bottom in a rush.
The next had the students lined up on the porch with painfully clean faces and clothes, all grinning widely. A school photo.
The next picture was empty.
I stared at it, my heart throbbing. Why did I need to see this?
It was empty, only holding a wooden chair, brown against the lighter brown of the paneled wall behind it.
Why would they take a picture of nothing?
I set it aside, glancing at it as I looked at the next ones. A boy laughing, his arm flung out. An older women standing by a flowering tree. More students sitting on the steps of the school building.
Why was that picture empty?
"What?" I demanded, my heart in my mouth.
He pulled out a long silver chain, wrapping it around his hand. "Where did he get one of these?"
I leaned to peer at the pendant. It was a sphere of what looked like pink quartz, imperfect on one side, set in silver.
"What is it?"
"A Well." He said, his fingers brushing it. "An empty Well, but still. They’re hard to come by, hard to make. Why would he leave it here?"
I looked into the trunk once more. Why was any of this here?
A toy truck, well worn, the paint nearly gone. Yellow envelopes, a thick stack of them: letters. Marbles, some rocks of different colors. Feathers. A baseball, a deflated football.
"Why would leave his toys?" I wondered. I picked up the empty photograph.
I shivered as I flipped through the photos once more, searching.
"Where is he?" I demanded.
Kevin broke his transfixed stare at the stone. "What?"
I scanned each photo, searching for Jeff’s face. "He’s not here." The boy with his arm around nothing. The teacher standing alone on the steps. An empty spot at the long table, the pen and paper there abandoned. My fingers were numb, trembling, as I looked again at the empty chair. Slowly, I turned it over. Scribbled on the back in faded blue ink were two words.
Kevin hissed in a breath. I snatched my fingers back as he slammed the lid down, speaking harshly. The light flared, sealing it once more. He stood and pulled me up with him. Very slowly he turned around, his hand tight around my arm.
I didn’t want to look.
I did anyway.
They stood across the room, the door still shut. Shadowy figures, their form indistinct, bunched together. Watching.
Kevin moved to shield me. "What do you want?" He asked sternly.
They didn’t speak or move. Or breathe. Deathly still.
"What is it you need?"
A hissing sigh swept over them, a shiver. They were closer.
Kevin gestured and a light flared in his hand, shooting up from his fist. I blinked at it, my eyes watering. A sword, the metal glowing from within, white hot.
They snarled and writhed, edging away.
"Stand aside." Kevin ordered, stepping forward. I pressed up behind him, my hands around his arm. They eased back, opening a path to the door.
I stared at Kevin’s back as we slowly moved through them. I could feel them, the cold brushes on my skin. The door opened silently, no squeak at all. I bit my lip.
Crowding the hall were more of them, the narrow space full of people, of things, watching us.
Kevin set his shoulders and pressed forward. I could feel them grasping at me, touching me.
Please, they whispered. Please.
"Kevin?" I asked, my voice shaking.
"Don’t listen," he said, placing his steps with care. "Don’t listen to them."
Please, Rebecca. Please.
"Don’t listen!" he snarled. "Keep your eyes closed."
I did, squeezing them so hard I saw stars.
"What do they want?"
"Don’t listen," was all he said. I could feel them grabbing at my ankles, touching my neck. It was hard to move, the air thick and cold.
"Keep walking," Kevin said, his voice strained. "Don’t listen, keep walking."
I gripped his shirt, letting him lead me.
"Stairs, Becca," he cautioned. I felt him drop below me, feeling for purchase with my foot. We inched down the stairs. I could feel his blade still in his hand, the glare hot on my face, like a fire.
"Bottom," he whispered. He sounded out of breath. What was he doing?
I cracked my eyes. They were all around us, pressing close.
Please. Stay. Help us.
"Can we?" I breathed.
"No." He said just as softly. "No. Nothing can, now."
"No!" he hissed, fierce. "Close your eyes."
I tried. I couldn’t not look. They drew my eyes, horrible, just out of sight of Kevin’s gleaming blade, their faces shadowed. Their arms hung limp at their sides, listless, weary. Tired, so tried.
"Keep moving!" Kevin said.
I couldn’t. I was gasping, crying. I couldn’t walk anymore. I was tired, I just wanted to sleep, only rest, simply rest.
They were before us, blocking the door.
"Stand aside!" Kevin commanded. The air shuddered as he spoke. They were pulling me back from him. I gripped his shirt tighter, my arms leaden, fingers numb.
The air hissed as he slashed the blade, cutting through them.
I cried out, clapping my hands to my ears, trying to stop the wailing, a scream that cut across my eyes.
"Becca!" Kevin’s hand was searing hot on my arm. "Becca, don’t listen!"
I was screaming myself, I could feel it in my throat, trying to stop it, drown out their shrieks. The floor was rough, gritty under my forehead, my cheek.
I cringed, his voice battering me down, towering, powerful.
"Rebecca! Stand up!"
I had to. I couldn’t disobey. My legs trembled as I lurched off the floor.
I could see the blurry rectangle that was the open door. Kevin stood outside, waving me on.
"Becca! Come on! Don’t stop! Don’t listen!"
They were tearing at my clothing, nails scraping my skin, pulling me back. The sun was blinding, just out our reach. Kevin’s hand was out, pleading with me. I reached for him, his strong fingers closing around mine.
I hit the porch hard, stumbling. Kevin threw me past him; I rolled in the dirt, the world tumbling over me. He slammed the door shut and jumped back, falling himself to lay gasping in the coarse grass.
His blade was smoking, the grass around it curling away, singed and brittle.
I curled up and sobbed. Finally I couldn’t cry anymore, too exhausted to do more than shiver. I sat up, looking up at the building towering above us.
The windows were still dark.
"Will they ever get out?" I asked, my voice breaking on every word.
Kevin didn’t answer. He stood heavily, bending to grip his weapon. It was still gleaming, brighter than even the sun. He lifted it and made a motion like he was sheathing it at his side. It flickered and disappeared.
He stood for a long time staring at the stone still clenched in his fist. He tucked it into his pocket. I could see where the design on the silver had pressed into his palm as he turned to me and gave me a hand to my feet.
I grabbed his shoulders to make him look at me.
"What happened to them?" I demanded, tears still leaking from my dry, burning eyes. "Tell me what happened."
Kevin, his own eyes blazing, clenched his teeth. I could see his jaw muscles flex under the strain.
"They were…" He took a slow breath. "They were stopped."
"I don’t understand."
"They stopped. Stopped being. Stopped living."
"They’re dead?" I asked, horrified.
He shook his head. "No. And they never will be."
"Can you…can’t you do something? To help them?"
"No. Not alone." He gently removed my hands from his shirt.
"Don’t you dare think of going in there again!" he snarled, crushing my hands in his. I flushed, wondering how he had guessed.
"But, they begged me-"
"They don’t want help, Becca." He said darkly. "They don’t want freedom. They don’t remember it. All they want is you."
"Who would do such a thing?" I demanded. I had to turn away from the house; I couldn’t look at it anymore.
"Sometimes, accidents happen." Kevin said softly. "Magic is dangerous. Sometimes people die. Or worse. And sometimes…" He crouched, bending to grab something lying in the dirt.
The empty photo.
I took it from him, staring at it.
"Sometimes," Kevin said, so softly I could barely hear it over the wind. "There are men like Strenton."
I whirled on him, slapping him with all my strength. He staggered away, gaping at me.
"Don’t say that!" I choked out. "How could you accuse him - anyone! - of doing that to those people. Children! They were children, Kevin!"
His mouth was hard and furious. "I didn’t say he did that." His finger stabbed at the school "But someone did. Why? Were they hoping to stop Strenton? Threaten him? A man like Strenton, with his power? Real power, the power to destroy cities and move mountains? Who wouldn’t want to control that? No matter what the laws are, no matter the consequences."
He pointed to the picture in my hand. "Someone wanted him forgotten, erased. Someone doesn’t want anyone looking for him. Maybe it’s him. Maybe it’s someone else. Until we know which, I’m not trusting him or anyone connected with him."
"What about me?" I asked.
Kevin checked himself, pausing on the point of speech. His eyes moved over my face. "What about you?" he asked.
"I’m connected with him," I spat. "And so are you."
He didn’t answer for a long time. Finally, he turned away and went to where our packs still lay in the dirt. He picked them up, handing me mine as he passed.
I tried to take it, but he didn’t loosen his grip.
"I guess, Becca," he said slowly. "You have to decide what kind of connection to Strenton you have. And what kind you want."
I flushed, looking down. I clutched at my pack when he released it. Shrugging into it, I hurried after him. He paused once more by the entry stone. I shuddered as I saw the slash across the back, crossed by his sword’s precise cut. What did that do? How did that work?
Kevin turned back to face the building. The entry stone gently lifted from the ground and returned to its spot, a circle of darker earth. The ground rumbled a few feet away and second stone jumped out of the dirt.
Two pillars of light shot up from them at a word from Kevin. I blinked as the building flickered, sliding out of sight.
"Damaged," Kevin growled. I slid over and looked between them. The school stayed steady, only truly visible between the stones and their pillars. Kevin gestured and the stones sank back down, resting gently on the grass. He drew his hands together and the pillars bent, flaring once before winking out. The school vanished.
He spoke evenly, a language I hoped never to understand. A new light traced the air, making a symbol; my eyes watered, so I looked away.
"Best I can do." Kevin said, sighing. He turned away and the symbol too winked out. "Hopefully, they don’t catch anyone else."
"What was that?" I asked, looking over the empty prairie.
"A warning," he said shortly. "Come on. Let’s get back to the car."