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Ice House: Asetma

Brian Mark Weber
Robert 'Admiral' Coeyman

Chapter 12:

The Twin Gates

Young Kathryn Mary Asetma had a familiar name.  It took the whole walk back to Th'Estate to remember where I had heard that name earlier.  The first reference to Kathryn Asetma was in the phantom book.  That was also a memory that I could not step back into.

Elder had not told me that some memories would be blocked.  The greatest force at my command was limited by forces that even the greatest of us could not overcome.  Maybe it was for my betterment as it postponed my meeting with Miriam until I could stand before her and not be crushed under her spiteful feet.  Whatever the cause, there were greater forces in magic than even the generals who fought on its battlefields.  All worlds have their laws.

The conflict between good and evil is an eternal war which wears at the most resistant mortal will.  It is always easier to cede ground to evil.  False peace is a promise that resonates within our hearts while the realities of defeat fall into deep slumber within our heads.  If only we could win by surrender.  Surrender is what each of us is really best at.

I knew that I would talk myself out of the coming battle if I allowed it.  What is it that the wise men say?  "Courage is not the absence of fear but acting in spite of fear?"  Fear would have us each in his own little world, resting comfortably in the embrace of death, if the fighting ends before the war is really over.  This war is never over.

Once I joined the battle, at Elder's call, I had entered into a marathon that had no end in life.  I would have to fight until death and, maybe, even in death.  Miriam would not be my only foe.  She would not even be my greatest opponent.  My greatest opponent would be myself.

My feet clung to the hard pavement of Estate Avenue all the way to Th'Estate.  I was afraid in a part of myself that I could no longer feel.  It was the kind of boundless fear that makes a man believe that his enemy can be talked out of his malice with a few kind words.  Kin to the kind of fear that makes a man march under his opponent's banner for protection from his opponent's notice, this kind of fear was dangerous.  Miriam had used this kind of fear as both a sword and a shield in her conquest of Obsille.

It was a struggle, however, I turned my mind back to the phantom book.  The book was a gift given in love.  Love was not often to be found in the later dynasty of the Asetma family.  Yet the book seemed to come from that later age.  Kathryn Asetma was both the lock and the key to the things that I was facing in Th'Estate.  When the bell called me next to prayer, I would pray to speak with her.

Asetma's gates opened for me of their own volition.  They welcomed me home as the conquering hero returning from the battlefield to the arms of his beloved.  It made me feel more like a fake.  Hours passed in a blur while I shook off the haze of that elusive fear in my heart.  Th'Estate itself, feared by all others in Obsille, called me lord of the manor.  I had found something else in Obsille to fear.  Even Miriam could not have called for the sadness hiding in my heart and used it to back me down with.

Miriam was not the greatest malice in Obsille.  There was another force, older and stronger by far than Miriam Asetma.  Another spirit had cursed the foundation stones of Th'Estate with the impressions of his footprints.  Those wounds still bled the life blood of the world, long after he had passed into the prison of the next world.  His malice was hard to shake.  I was not ready to face him in a time when I could not even take Miriam.

As I could feel the spirit willed to Th'Estate by its benevolent creator, I could also feel the tide of the darker forces in the stones beneath it.  For instants, I could feel the presence of the prize that Miriam had sought in both of her lives.  It was a secret that Th'Estate did not trust me with.  Following its lead, I buried the feeling deep within my heard and mind so that even I could not locate it by will.  Each instant of awareness was stronger than the last.

Time folded over itself with each episode.  Space lost its value as a separator of objects.  All things felt like they overlapped in one place at one time.  The force was growing in strength beneath the foundations of Th'Estate.

It had the feeling of black blood welling up from beneath the foundation stones on which the great mansion had been set.  Had it been real blood, then the basement would have flooded almost to the surface of the first floor.  The force seemed to be taunting Miriam; almost daring her to find what even I dared not possess.  Something new was awake in Th'Estate.

I was simply in the middle of the struggle.  The new force did not even seem to notice me.  It took no pleasure in taunting me, therefore, it paid no attention to me.  Miriam was kindred to the darker force sleeping in the stony bed beneath both mansions of Th'Estate.  Both of them tossed my aside when they were not ignoring me entirely.

Some force was turning over in its sleep with so much power that even I could feel it.  It half wanted the rebirth that possession by Miriam Asetma would bring.  That was a thought too horrid to ponder.  I had to act swiftly to keep the secret from Miriam's grasp even as I willed it far from my own mind.  Miriam had to be returned, as Elder had commanded me to do, before she woke up the older force.

Nobody else on tour duty associated with me that day.  The green eyed girl toured the mansion twice and I was too distracted to approach her.  I could feel those warm green eyes looking into me every time my mind cleared of the forbidden secret.  It was a welcoming warmth like a child's embrace.

Each time she vanished, my mind was shaken by the absence.  I tried to find her within Th'Estate, but the house could hold that secret if nothing else.  She was nowhere that my eyes could see or that my mind was allowed to reach out to feel.  A strong gate, not unlike the entry gate of Th'Estate, had opened to let the caring sprite pass out of the material world.

The green eyed girl was in our world yet she was not of our world.  I know that she had been mortal.  As a ghost, she even had to be dead.  That gate was her way home as the gates of Th'Estate opened to call me back each morning.

My day dragged on for my spirit while it ran rapid as a swollen river to my mind.  Eventually, I passed through the unwilling twin of the gate used by the green eyed girl, to return to Walgo's home.  Th'Estate did not want me to leave and I could feel it.  The main gates seemed to gain weight each time I opened them to go back to Obsille for the night. 

With each step down Estate Avenue, my mind closed to the loneliness of Th'Estate in my absence.  By the time I reached Saint Joel's, I could no longer feel Th'Estate at all.  It is not that I had to feel Th'Estate's thoughts to always know what it was thinking.  I too know what it is to be alone.

Walgo was asleep in a comfortable chair in his living room when I got back to his home.  He looked peaceful sitting there, with a large book open in his lap.  It seemed, to me, that it would have been a sin to wake him.  Many people in my life, each of whom deserved far better, were denied rest.  My old professor, Walgo, would have his peace.

 "God rest you, Walgo."

Not to sound callous, I did check to see that Walgo was alive before I left him.  He was breathing comfortably and better than he often does when he is awake.  I thought about throwing a blanket around him, but I really did not want to wake him.  Instead, I put another log on the fire before leaving the room.

I went to the kitchen for the minimal meal that I could survive on.  My body was weighted down with fatigue so that I could barely move with all my strength.  The storm in my mind did not subside enough for me to sleep even after I had eaten a can's volume of soup and two sandwiches.  Sleep came in its own time.

We are not time's lords.  Each night comes without thought for our needs or our desires.  Morning comes when a greater voice than that of all men combined calls it forth.  Time did not care that I sat restlessly in bed awaiting sleep.

Before I was allowed to take my leave of the material world, I did hear Walgo rise from his reading chair and slip into his own bed.  His steps were stronger than mine had been.  Walgo had an even, paces stride across the sturdy floorboards of his house.  He did not stop to check on me or even the lock on the front door.  My last clear memory before sleep took possession of me that night was the sound of his bedsprings welcoming Walgo back.

Then the color world faded to gray shades.  Warmth flooded into me and rest found my muscles.  I let go of the day's troubles, nestled comfortably into my creator's strong, protective hands.  My mind eventually let go and I was asleep at last.

That night was to see at least one dream that was cut into my memory as few dreams are.  I was forbidden to see her, but I felt the embrace of the green eyed girl.  She pulled up the blankets around me and sat at my bedside as I watched the things that were shown to me.  The enchanted tree seemed to be standing at the head of my bed, just where I could not see it.

Twin gates came together at the foot of my bed.  And, it was not the bed that Walgo had loaned to me as a guest in his house.  It was my real bed back in Th'Estate.  My blankets held me in place like gravity multiplied a hundred times over.  I did not panic because I was amongst friends.

The first gate opened to reveal a road running up a hill.  Then its mirror opened to reveal another road running downward.  Both gates were barred even as they were open.  Something unseen held out all who were unwelcome on the roads beyond the archways.  One gate was the gate of life and the other was the gate of death, but I could only read that when the gates were closed.

Each gate pulled free of its frame and became a girl in a dark dress.  Covered in black from head to toe, both girls had the same flaming green eyes and hidden faces.  I could not tell them apart to look at them.  They would not pull back their cloaks so that I could see their faces.  As the twin girls merged into a single girl, her dress turned to a bright white.

This new girl had long hair that floated backwards from her face on a gentle breeze.  Even as her face was exposed, she did not appear to be anybody.  She could have been anybody or nobody.  Both gates were within her and, as they had left their frames when they formed her, both passages were blocked in another way.  Bricks sealed the archways where the gates no longer stood.

Then beautiful white wings unfolded behind the girl and she took flight.  I was not allowed to raise my eyes to follow her into the cloudless sky.  She had a white shadow and the feeling in that shadow was unearthly peace and rest.  Having the shadow pass over my body, I fell instantly into a deep sleep that lasted clear into the next morning.  Within a dream, I found restful sleep.

Morning broke with the sound of a distant bell.  The bells of Saint Joel's Cathedral called me to honor my oath and pray that I should be allowed to speak to Kathryn Asetma.  I rolled out of bed and onto my knees to honor my vow.  In the back of my mind, I could hear Walgo in his morning prayer as well.  Something tried very hard to distract me, but I overcame it with loving focus.

Walgo and I shared a quiet breakfast before I left to spend another day in Th'Estate.  I never asked where Walgo would be spending his day.  The two of us had been settling into a routine and there was no more need for words.  Even Walgo knew that I was working to get back into life at Th'Estate.

Whatever the fear had been, most of it had subsided.  There was still some grogginess in my head that came into me the moment I walked past the protective shadow of Saint Joel's Cathedral.  However, the deep set fear seemed keyed to a period of time which was then close to passing.  I had another anniversary to learn about when the whole Tommy affair came to a close.

The green eyed girl made a single visit that day.  I was not originally scheduled to take the group that she joined, but the scheduled guide was called back into town on some form of government emergency.  How the green eyed girl knew that it would come out that way is beyond even Th'Estate's ability to tell.  It had to be so it came to pass.

My day was not long as other days had been.  I was even given an opportunity for a walk and time to eat lunch.  The season was in its final days.  Less than a week remained before the grounds would be locked down for the winter and nobody would come to Th'Estate again until the early shades of spring arrived.  It seemed odd to think that I might not be spending the winter locked into Th'Estate.

Tommy had to be found in days and I was not even looking for him anymore.  I just knew that he was both in Th'Estate and where I could not find him if I looked only with my eyes.  The conflict was strange.  Truly, I tried to panic and turn over every pebble on the grounds of Th'Estate.  Deep down, I was certain that Tommy would be found in God's time and the comfort of certainty kept me calm.  It was impossible for me to feel upset. 

At the end of the day, two of us walked through the grounds.  I was allowed to walk the inner patrol and he took the grounds.  It was always my job to walk the inside of the mansion as nobody alive knew the place as well as I did.  When I finished, I would make contact with the outside man and tell him that all is clear.  Aside from Tommy and the green eyed girl, everything was always clear.

Something was wrong in the cellar that day.  It could have been nothing but the feeling that something was right where, in Th'Estate, nothing should ever be right.  All of my fear had left me and I was wide awake when I walked through the welcoming gloom beneath the vast foundations of the great house.  The air had a fresh smell like a noontime breeze from the sea.  Just to smell it, I could almost feel the salty spray of playful water inviting me off on a grand adventure into unknown places.

I was not surprised when the bookcase slid sideways behind me.  Th'Estate spoke to me in a way that I cannot explain to anyone unaccustomed to the way of such things.  It told me when the latch had come open in the presence of a visitor.  Had such things been of value to me, I could have known the number of paces that she had taken while she was in the tunnel.

There was no need for me to turn around.  The Old Witch Woman had come in peace.  I could feel the approval in the stones on which she had so lightly tread.  Silent steps were not beyond the ears of my informant and protector.

"I believe, Master Holder, that you asked me to come to your residence for a spot or more of Tea."

She could not see the smile on my face, yet she knew that it was there. 

"And so I did."

It did not bother me that I should have been leaving Th'Estate in those moments.  Th'Estate did not want me to leave and, had it been given a choice, it would have locked me in.  I forgot the Sheriff's edict and looked over my duties as a proper host.  Let the old tyrant face the wrath of Th'Estate and remove me himself.

"If you'll not be minding, I had Oletta prepare a bit of a meal for us.  This day is marked and special."

"How ever did you bind Oletta to your will?  I've not been able even to find her since her meeting in Obsille."

Although excited by the turn of events, I came to my senses and did not offer to tell Elisabeth that I had been fired.  I could not know if she was aware that I was no longer the Keeper of Th'Estate.  Omission is itself a lie, although I had no authority to invite my only mortal friend into a home that was no longer mine.  Even the greater Asetma mansion called itself my home and who was I to deny it?

"She is a bit or more of a handful.  That is to be sure.  But, as you'll be knowing, there are advantages to being a pariah in these parts."  She must have smiled a bit, for the first time in many years, by the feeling that her words gave me.

"I didn't think that anybody could keep Oletta under control.  Are you a bit of a ghost wrangler?"

Elisabeth walked toward the stair leading up into the keeper's dining room.  When she passed me, I took my place at a respectable distance behind her and followed her.  She did not come close enough to touch me.  I felt her press against the hard, cold stone wall of the hallway to keep from any contact with me as she passed by. 

"Oletta's nothing of a ghost, Master Holder.  No indeed, she is not that.  Who in all of Obsille have you ever met who did not want a better life and more besides?"

"Walgo, I suppose.  He seems to go through every trial with the heart of a knight."

"The Lady Oletta dreams bigger than she has the mind for, yet her will alone carries her close to her goals.  In your time, Master Holder, you will come to see this."

"Is it permitted to ask why this is such a special day?"

"Permitted and more, Master Holder."  It was the first and only time that Elisabeth paused while answering me.  "Today is nothing less than the birthday of one who is dear to both of us."

"Will our friend be joining us for dinner?"

Her eyes moved downward more than necessary to see the treads of the narrow stairwell.  "It is a pity that she might; I'll tell you.  The demon spawn knew rest in the dust while the sainted one has known no peace in all these long years."

Elisabeth cried with her voice, in her words, yet I knew that there were no tears in her eyes.  She was truthful in her sadness.  It was entirely that Elisabeth had known so much sadness in her days that she was numb to its sting.  Having no real friends amongst the living, Elisabeth had come to me in a time when she did not want to be alone.  I was the closest thing to comfort that the Old Witch Woman had come to in the span of her memory.

There was little that I would not have given to comfort her.  I'm always a sucker for the damsel in distress.  Without her, a knight, as my heart wished me to be, was little more than a bully beating up defenseless dragons.  As was her wish, I dared not touch her at all.

"How old is our friend?"

"My Dear Master Holder, you never ask a lady her age.  If candles stood upon her cake by this midnight, then there would be not less than 216, I should think."

"How is it that you know our friend's birthday and not her age?"

"Has the tree not spoken to you on this matter, Master Holder?  His are eyes that have watched over all things Asetma for 400 and more years.  To us, he tells many things."

I had almost forgotten about the tree now that I had lost my primitive fear of magical things.  What I still feared of the things that lived beyond my sight were rational things that other men thought irrational.  The real tree did really speak to all whom had been given the kind of ears that could hear his voice.  It would be irrational to fear reality just because you denied it as a possibility.

What had the tree told me?  I suppose that most people would remember the words of a talking tree for the remainder of their short years.  However, I was no longer one of them.  The tree had shown me the death of the girl at the picnic and the near suicide of her suitor.  Having not since seen that girl, I doubted that she would be the sprite of whom Elisabeth spoke.

"I do not get by the Tree as often as I might like.  It is the ending of the tourist season."

We reached the dining room in my wing of Th'Estate before the echo of my words faded into dark silence.  Oletta had done a fine job setting up the table with ornate dishes and one silver candelabra from the antique collection left in the display cases.  She may not have been much of a financial planner, but Oletta could run a mansion.  As long as I could count on Elisabeth to visit from time to time, I considered it wise to keep Oletta on as a maid.

Elisabeth stopped at the foot of the table.  I pulled out the chair for her, impersonating a gentleman of high breeding.  She refused the chair, pushing it gently aside.  Something in the shadows of Th'Estate told me that Elisabeth did not like having anything touch her back.  In the narrow hallway of the cellar, she had turned against the wall so that her back never came into contact with its damp stones.  Unwilling to let my guest stand for the duration of our meal together, I went into the library and fetched a stool for her.  Even though she was reluctant, she did accept the seat from me.

The old house groaned in the depths of its foundations when, as a servant, I took a shallow bow to Elisabeth before going to my seat at the head of the table.  But, the great old house understood what it means to be alone.  Its foundations were strong and ran deep into the bedrock of the continent of Aluatia, so Th'Estate was cursed above all others to outlive even the memories of the people who cared both for and about it.  Th'Estate would still stand in the days when I too would taste the bitterness of death and pass into the places where Miriam's ilk was unable to go.  I would not have to live on for so many ages past all my friends and into a time when only I remembered them.

I paid more than my share of attention to the fact that Elisabeth paused while I said grace.  It felt odd at the outer edges of my mind that she whom others feared as evil would be truly thankful to the author of all that is good when so many of the same people who thought of her only as a storybook monster were thankful for nothing that they had.  Elisabeth knew what it means to go without.  She was what I hoped that all of Obsille, for which I had sacrificed my own life, could become.

"My hopes were more than just high that our friend could have back her peace when I saw the face of Trebor Asetma returned to Th'Estate.  But, he did not have the eyes of power, as you do Master Holder."

Elisabeth became easy to talk to over the course of the meal.  I found myself thinking before each word so that I did not leak more than I thought it wise to say.  "Trebor Asetma?"

"He is known to you as well, Master Holder.  His portrait hangs where you saw it in the home that, in this age, calls itself mine.  When I saw him on the grounds, I felt the depth of power within him.  For the look of his eyes I know that I was mistaken for no power is within them."

I thought back to the portrait and it was far from easy.  Th'Estate felt indecisive about helping me with the memory for reasons that nobody would tell me.  There was a void next to the memory, like time stopped while I recalled the image captured on the canvas.  It felt strange, as though I had no need to breathe while I walked through my recollection.  Time and space were like the vague edges of faded memories while the picture in my mind was the only reality.

My eyes drifted to Elisabeth's face and I saw tension in her jaw.  She was looking at me, but it was not my reflection that I saw in her eyes.  Anybody else would have fled in fear.  Even the ghost, Beth, had fainted from the sight.  Elisabeth did not trust me, as she trusted nobody, in fact, and that was the full extent of her reaction to me.

Filled with Trebor Asetma's image, I cast his reflection into the world around me.  Aside from the green Asetma eyes, I looked like Sheriff Braggs.  But that fact did not come immediately to my mind.  I understood what it means to be a thief of forms.

"Remember, Master Holder, that our friend deserves our aid and more.  It was for her brother's life that she lost her life.  Saving him put her in her prison, unable to enter the peace of life past the chains of this world."

Relaxing, I let the image fade and became myself again.  Elisabeth deserved the truth that I respected so much in others.  "I will do whatever I can, Elisabeth."

"Do more than that, Master Holder.  Miriam comes close to the boy, Tommy.  For him, our friend Kate will again close the door on her own hope."

Caution faded as I heard the words that were hope to me.  "How do I get Tommy back?"

She looked me in the eyes, seeking to read my motivations.  "When you are there, you will know the secret, Master Holder.  What I ask of you is not easy, Master Holder, yet I know that the power and more will be given to you if you ask our Lord.  Please remember the angelic sprite in your prayers and when you walk amongst them."

"In this, you shall have my word, Elisabeth.  I will do as you ask."

Both the meal and the conversation lasted past the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  Elisabeth and I spoke of many things that were of significance only to the two of us.  It was a good feeling to have somebody to pass the time with.  The great house of the Asetma family had not seen a party, even one so small as the two of us, in centuries.

Our friend did not put in an appearance that night.  Elisabeth seemed comforted in the fact that the ghost did not come out during the whole time that she was within the mansion with me.  None of the ghosts came into our sight that evening.  All of the house knew peace while Elisabeth and I celebrated the birthday of our dear friend.

I found it odd that Oletta did not come into sight that evening.  The food had been set on the main dining table and a long table at one side of the dining room.  There were several trips into the kitchen to get drinks and put away food.  Neither Elisabeth nor I saw Oletta during those trips.

When Elisabeth left, I was a good type of tired.  It was the result of an honest days work and a productive evening with a friend.  I had no regrets when I crawled back into my own bed for a good night's rest.  Walgo, I though, must surely have realized that I would not be returning to his house that night.  I was in my own home instead.

Just before I escaped the day into the regeneration of sleep, I felt a small hand on my shoulder.  The touch was so light that I would have missed it if I had not been paying attention to every sensation.  It was a gentle touch that gave me the feeling of peace where I should have known fear.  A friendly spirit is still a ghost in the places of the human heart where fear draws sustenance.

"Happy birthday," I said.  Then I rolled over and released myself into sleep.

The night agreed with me.  I slept through the movements of the restless spirits of Th'Estate as though I had never been away from it.  My mind reached out to see the things that a more rational mind would have easily dismissed.  More than afraid, as I had once been, I felt that I belonged in the greater Asetma mansion.

Morning came to me with the sunlight through the small window of my room.  I was nudged, softly, from sleep with the warmth of the rising day.  There was time for me to pray, shower and change into my work clothes before the first civil servant arrived for the day's labors.  The house felt happy at my continued presence.

Second to arrive was the man whom had helped me to lock up the day before.  He knew that I had remained on the grounds all night.  How could he not know at least that much?  Of course, he knew nothing of Elisabeth's presence or the ghost's birthday.

I did not care.  Sheriff Braggs could do no more to me than he had already done in my years of imprisonment.  Even the way that he first approached me about the job was an unpleasant memory.  Time had given me new eyes and I had come to enjoy what Sheriff Braggs did to me as torture.

Sheriff Braggs did not wait long past the hour of my brother's funeral before he came to have his talk with me.  I knew that the hour would come but I had hoped long and hard for a day or more after my brother's burial before I had to face the official firing squad.  No such courtesy was paid to me.  The sloppy Sheriff of Obsille came to see me on the same day that I buried my brother.

Stan's body had barely come to rest and had yet to settle when the Sheriff of Obsille came knocking at my door.  Having completed my schooling only a month prior to getting news about Stan's death, I had a full summer planned.  I was going to look into going to college the way I had promised Walgo that I would.  College never impressed me, yet I was trying to grow up as a man of my word.  My last summer vacation was going to be all mine.

Keeper of Th'Estate was not the job that I had in mind for that summer.  There is little enough work in Obsille that I was already looking into neighboring towns.  In all of Obsille, nobody thinks about applying to become the keeper of the bloodthirsty estate on the outskirts of town.  Nobody thinks of future murder victim as a profession.  Except, that is, for my now dead brother.

My last words to Stan were sarcastic thanks for what he had left to me.  He had told me that there was nothing to fear in Th'Estate.  It was all superstitious nonsense to Stan and he thought that he would prove it to me.  Stan's faith fed his conviction enough to overcome a more rational fear in him.  His faith had not, however,  convinced Miriam Asetma.

"Might I come in fer a mom'nt, Mark?"

You don't know how hard I fought my smart mouth to avoid saying no to the Sheriff.  Instead, I held my head down and waved for him to cross the threshold of my mother's door.  He was not welcome and he knew that.  This was not a social call.  Sheriff Braggs came only to make official what we both already knew.

"I s'pose that ya be gittin' ready ta take yer new job?"

It might not be how he actually said it, but I heard no end of spite in those words.  The good old Sheriff of Obsille was skilled at this job.  His big crime cutting move had been to use the prisoners as labor up at Th'Estate.  He was in no fear of losing his job as long as he kept the voters of Obsille safe from conscription.  Nobody would miss me.  My brother's contempt had not been kind to my family name in Obsille.

"This loss came as a shock to me, Sheriff.  I have to see to my mother first."

It was true that I was all that my mother had left.  My father had died when Stan and I were children and my brother's death was fresh on both our minds.  My brother's contempt had been driven by his anger at God for my father's death.  It had been a long time since my mother had anybody but me left to her.

But, my real reason for resisting was more personal.  I did not want to give up my own life.  My life had just begun when the school year had ended.  Plans were still fresh in my mind for what I would do next.  Walgo came as close as he could to commanding me to move on to college.  The whole three months, my last summer vacation, was all mine until Stan's death had taken it from me.

"Th' town need' a keep'r up at Th'Estate, Mahk.  I be tak'n care o' thin's down ‘ere fer ya."

He reached for my shoulder, but pulled back when he saw my eyes.  Stan had taken the job out of spite.  With Stan, there had been something to prove that was worth hurting everybody around him.  I was not Stan.  People really mattered to me.  Sheriff Braggs could never live up to my responsibilities.

"I c'n keep da staff up dare ‘til end of da week, Mahk.  Ya has ta staht be Tuesday."

"I understand."

"If'n I might ask, Mahk, ho' is fare Orsa'r doin dese days?"

My eyes turned to him faster than I would have liked.  He knew that he had hit a nerve.  I could see it by the smile on his bloated face.  The devil himself lived in the Sheriff's bulk.

"She is okay as far as I can tell."

He showed me the kindness of burying the smile.  "I knew ya had plans dis summa', Mahk.  I knows ‘bout Orsa'r and I truly be sorry fer ya, Mahk."

It seemed that all of Obsille, except for Orsa, knew where I was most vulnerable.  My heart melted as I put on the chains of servitude.  The Sheriff had won.  I moved into Th'Estate over the weekend and was ready for work by Monday.  Feigning compassion, the Sheriff did let me live at home for the first three months of my enslavement.  Then I was alone in Th'Estate.

How many years had passed since that day?  The memory was far from fresh in my mind.  Details had already faded into generic concepts.  There was not enough left of the memory for me to step back into and the Sheriff's wording had lost its punch as the content of his warrant for my arrest had faded in the years.  I chose to waste no more time thinking about it.

It was getting hard for me to remember the feeling of being in Orsa's presence.  I had to cut my ties to everybody in Obsille.  Any connection that I left would only make my sentence harder to bear. 

My green eyed friend was right on time for her tour.  She smiled at me as she passed through the toll line.  Her eyes then scanned the man who knew that I had not left Th'Estate on the previous night.  In her gaze, the man became uncomfortable and had to leave the room.  The green eyed girl had never shown even a capacity for malice before then.

She was telling me that I had been betrayed.  That man, hoping for a lighter sentence for his own misdeeds, had reported me to the Sheriff.  Even the Asetma spirits that wanted to remove me from the world of the living did not want to see me removed from Th'Estate.  Th'Estate itself did not want to see what those bright green eyes had seen for me.

     Though friendly, the green eyed girl did not interact with me any more than usual.  She looked me over and held my every word in her ears for several seconds before swallowing it.  Her face remained covered with the dark veil.  The veil was not so thick and dark that her burning green eyes could be hidden from my sight.

     Several other people in the tour group saw her green eyes.  Nobody dared to look directly into her gaze.  Further, she kept her eyes pointed away from people unless she had something to say in her wordless way.  I was pleased that she had decided not to steal any of the other tourists.  Only she was missing from the final headcount of the day.

     At lunch time, I had a typed note in my lunch bag.  It was not an official, signed note like the Sheriff himself would have sent.  Several typos implied that the author could not type.  The note was typed only to hide the identity of the author.  Hiding the author's identity would only have been possible in the absence of the Asetma ghosts.

     Without the typos, the note said, "Sheriff Braggs wants to see you in town at the end of your shift."

     Lunch was less than halfway into my shift.  Had I allowed it, then the thought of meeting with Sheriff Braggs would have tormented me for hours.  There were still things in his power that could be used to hurt me.  Orsa had not yet been placed in the chains that I still wore.  Waiting for a curse, worse itself than death, was worse than the curse.

     Oletta could be forgiven for the trouble that she had caused for me.  At least she had been thinking of my welfare as it concerned her own well being.  She had cost me much and was the cause of most of my troubles at that time.  Orsa's fate had been sealed by Oletta more than by any action of mine.

     This cursed man had only thought of his own greed in his betrayal.  It had not released him from Asetma duty.  He would know the wrath of Th'Estate itself before he got his transfer.  Only evil had come of this man's actions for both our sakes.  More than the two of us would pay if I did not act to divert fate's course.

     But I did not waste the remainder of my last day on Asetma duty thinking about such things.  I spent my day doing my job while it was still mine to do.  Trust in God was the only thing that I had left so that is what I did with the rest of my day.  It was out of my hands.  Having taken the blow so well galled my opponent more than any attack that was within my power at that point.

     I was far from the saint that I could appear to be.  My adversary saw Miriam's form several times that day and it wasn't Miriam playing with him.  When I think of it in retrospect, I wish that Elder had chosen to appear and given me a stern dressing down.  He knew that I would eventually have to learn to control my power on my own and let me have my fun for that moment.  Nothing else made sense.

     As each day does, that day passed into history and the time came to close down Th'Estate for the night.  I did not even think of disobeying the Sheriff that night.  Everything was done by the book.  It took longer doing everything according to the written plans, however, nothing could be held against me for doing so.

     My companion that day took no notice of me.  She left the grounds before I finished my patrol.  Her report to the Sheriff would not reflect poorly on my performance because she would not want to tell the Sheriff that she had abandoned her post.  It did not matter to me what she that she left early.

The whole way down Estate Avenue, I was tempted to stop off in the diner for dinner before going to meet with the Sheriff.  It was a strong temptation.  I recalled that I had made just such a stop, missing my appointment in Obsille, when Oletta had provoked the Old Men in Bad Suits.  For that much, I truly was at fault.  That was something I found so hard to live with that I willed myself not to repeat the mistake.

By my will, every step that I took carried me toward the office of the Sheriff of Obsille.  Nothing distracted me from my purpose.  Everything else had to be driven out of my mind.  I knew what would happen if I even allowed myself to pause a moment to think about it.  That too would be my fault.

I arrived at the Sheriff's office after a walk of nearly an hour.  The walk I took was longer than I would have liked.  Downhill from Th'Estate, I should have been able to cover the distance, with a brisk walk, in no more than half an hour.  But I did not.

When I got to the office, the door was already open.  A deputy in the front room saw me enter and waved me immediately back to the Sheriff's office.  He smiled a cruel smile as he sent me to face Sheriff Braggs.  I recognized him as having made allegations concerning my involvement with Tommy's disappearance.

For effect, most of the lights down the hall to the Sheriff's office were left off.  It was a dark walk, like moving through the lower of the twin gates into the land of the tormented dead.  My eyes remained fixed on the Sheriff's open door in a vain attempt to escape the feeling of dread.  I had to be afraid, yet, I did not have to show it.

Sheriff Braggs did not look at me while he spoke.  He stood quietly in the shadowy corner of his office, speaking so weakly that I had to strain my ears to hear him.  I was not worth his time.  While I stood in the doorway, he did not even offer me a chair.

It was by my choice that I did not take one of the three chairs in front of the Sheriff's desk.  I did consider it.  Rebellion had built up in me over all the time that I had been a prisoner in Th'Estate.  My restraint was for Orsa's benefit.  Other than her, what could Sheriff Braggs do to me?

"Mahk, ya far from a stupid man.  You's professor Blades think the worlds o' you.  Why's donna you's understanding English?"

My first thought was not to defend myself.  With me out of the way, the darkest forces in Th'Estate were going to kill somebody.  When that happened, then the Sheriff of Obsille would have to come and get me to restrain the dark forces in those ancient grounds.  He would have no real choice.  I know that he would try to combat them with his own resources, however, he would eventually have to admit that he needed me in Th'Estate.

The plan rotted in my mind before reaching my mouth.  Somebody else had to die for me to succeed.  It was a sacrifice that would have rendered me unfit for the duty that I had been given.  Nobody was going to die on my watch.  I had outgrown my selfish nature long ago.  Somehow, I was going to get Tommy back.

"I am doing at least what you have asked of me.  In fact, I am doing more than I am required to do."

"What part o' being fired does ya not understanding?  Mahk, ya's out."

All the sheriff would have needed was a pair of flaming green eyes to be an Asetma Ghost.  I could see how, even though I really could not see the Sheriff in the darkness, Elisabeth had seen Trebor Asetma in this man.  He had all the evil that characterized the later days of the Asetma dynasty.  No measure of evil would ever be enough for him.

"How is it that I have wronged you, Sheriff?"

"Jobs be hard ta' git round these parts.  Ya had ya a good un, Mahk."

"Please do not feel ill used, Sheriff Braggs.  Oletta's greed was not of my doing."

"When tour'st seas'n ends, I's replacin' ya.  Ya can jus' get home cuss we's done wit ya."

My heard sank to the floor and bounced back up into my chest for an instant.  "You have asked for my life and I am willing to give it if you ask it of me.  Please, I beg of you, do not take Orsa's life.  She will not last long up there, Sheriff.  Take my life if you must.  Please do not do this."

"Ya needs a rest, Mahk.  Da Ol' mens choose ya ‘placement ‘ready.  We's not needs ya for da last days dis seas'n.  Git goin'."

It hurt so much that I could not keep my words within me.  They built up until they overflowed into my mouth.  Once there, they spilled out into the empty air between the Sheriff and I.  He was throwing me out and I had to have the one thing that I begged of him.  Orsa, my Orsa, must not have her life taken from her.

"I went into this in the knowledge that, if I failed, then Orsa would take my place.  Nothing that you asked of me was ever too much, Sheriff.  Ask anything.  For myself, I ask only Orsa's life to be spared.  You can take my blood and my last breath if you will but spare Orsa."

There was a change in the Sheriff's demeanor.  He stayed in the shadows, where I could not make any of his face out clearly, but his head tilted up a bit.  His eyes came to meet mine where I could almost see them.  I could feel Sheriff Braggs trying to scan my thoughts and I offered the whole of my mind to him.  Sheriff Braggs had to know, as a fact, that I had spoken the truth to him in all things.

"If'n it means so much ta ya, den why ya get greedy, Mahk?  Where ya hid'n Tommy at?"

How could the Sheriff have scanned me so deeply and not know that I did not have the answers that he was after?  It was only then that I questioned the fact that he had scanned my mind at all.  He had asked the only thing that I could not give him and I was beaten again.  I hesitated only a minute longer before withdrawing in defeat.

"I swear to you that I have done all that I know how to do.  Grant me Orsa's life and I will go to any length to find Tommy."

Sheriff Braggs did not hesitate, although he did sip his coffee before speaking his final words to me.  "So be it, Mahk."

He had not commented on what deal we had made and I was in no position to force the issue.  I knew that he could have me taken into custody with a word to any of his deputies.  Charges did not matter as long as Sheriff Braggs had the backing of the Old Men in Bad Suits.  Nobody would officially miss me when I was seen only on search party posters.  Whatever the cost, I had to live up to my end of the deal and hope that Sheriff Braggs would live up to his own side of the bargain.

I withdrew from the room as steadily as I could make my legs move.  Any misstep would give the Sheriff more power over me.  Eyes came from every room and every corner of the building as I walked back to the front door.  My own eyes remained fixed on the door directly in front of me.  Once out of sight, I ran around to the back side of the building to remain out of sight.

Minutes passed while I tried to catch my breath and collect my wits.  It was like trying to hold running water in my hands.  Being impossible did not mean that I stopped trying.  I tried a long time.  My breathing refused to recover until I left Obsille.

The walk was harder than it should have been.  Everything about me wanted to flee from Obsille, although that was not what I did.  I went back to Walgo's house.  It was a place that I could safely hide until I realized that nobody was really out to get me.  Aside from Tommy's disappearance, which was still being investigated, nobody had anything on me.  The worst had already come to pass.

Walgo could see that I was in trouble and almost spoke to me about it on three occasions.  The first of these times was while preparing a simple meal for the two of us.  Next, it almost came up as our conversation over the meal itself.  His final temptation came while I cleaned up after the meal.  Each time, I withdrew from the conversation instead of letting Walgo approach me.

He wanted to help, as he always did, and I knew that.  My problems were not Walgo's problems.  Whatever came of my exile from Th'Estate, Walgo would have his own life.  I had chosen to flee Obsille, if I failed, preferring death to adding one name to the list of my victims.  Telling this truth to Walgo would have caused him pain that my silence could spare him from.

Bedtime came before my excited mind could slow to a resting pace.  Walgo was just as restless as a result of my having shut him out and I questioned my decision every few minutes into the night.  My options were few and my choice was the best that I could come up with.  Silence, sometimes a lie in itself, was the only gift that I had to repay Walgo's kindness.

I knew that I would not be returning to Walgo's home anymore.  Nothing would allow me to have another night's peace under Walgo's roof.  How could I rest easily while Tommy's family waited for news that would never come?  There was no way that I could search Th'Estate from the outside.  Could I ever know peace, even in death, if my one and only Orsa perished for my blunder?

Nothing seemed too dear for me to surrender for Orsa's sake.  I had been in earnest when I pledged my life to the Sheriff in return for Orsa's safety.  Yet, it might also have been cowardice on my part for not wanting to live on in shame for what I had caused to happen.  It could not be what my lord God had in mind for me.

Hours must have passed while I prayed.  I listed off my gifts in hopes that I already had what it would take to free Orsa.  Failing to find hope there, I tried to bargain with God.  Something within my heart kept telling me that I was missing something more important than everything that I had noticed.  My heart was keeping secrets from me.

Why did the green eyed girl need a doorway that the living could pass through?  Mortals, and I knew that the green eyed girl was mortal, did not live long enough for her to still be alive.  What state could she be in that would leave her in need of a gateway between the worlds?  Was she not already dead and buried?  I had to know why she was not at peace.

In life, she could not have been as horrid as Miriam had been.  Death does not modify the nature of the spirit.  An evil life is lived by an evil spirit.  However, the green eyed girl was kind in death.  I'd seen only the equivalent of parlor tricks come from the green eyed girl when it came to malicious intent.  Who could deny that my foe had earned his illness?  She was not like Miriam at all.

Both spirits had green eyes, although that seemed to be an Asetma trait.  Additionally, I knew that Miriam was dead and had no such door.  Nobody had physically vanished in Miriam's presence.  We always found the bodies of Miriam's victims.  Miriam was similar to the green eyed girl by blood alone.

Only one of the spirits in Th'Estate had a door.  Elisabeth had told me that the green eyed girl had not known the peace of death even as she was in death's embrace.  Why would it be that such a good person would be condemned to what an evil woman had been spared?  I could not accept that a just God would condemn the green eyed girl so unjustly.

Something else was holding the green eyed girl to Th'Estate.  What kind of a force could be so strong as to provide living without life?  Magic was involved and that had to be why I had been called forth to face it.  The green eyed girl was more than enchanted.  She was in the iron grip of an enchantment that I had to break for her sake as much as for Orsa.

I passed into sleep asking why the two girls and the two gates had been twins?  Should not the two girls guarding opposing gates have also been opposites?  There was nothing special about either of the gates.  Either gate could have been good and either gate could have been bad.  Both the gates and the girls were twins.

The green eyed girl was the gate, to be sure.  She could open the gate that I needed open.  Why had she been both gates?  Literally, she had been both gates.  Through the green eyed girl I could get to either of two places.

Two demons cannot combine to make an angel of the Lord.  So, why was an angel shown when the twin girls merged?  The fact that both girls were covered, from head to foot, also had to have value.  As they could not have been demons, what were the two girls?  Was the secret in what they were wearing?

It hit me in my sleep and knocked me so far out that I did not get up with the rising of the sun.  Walgo got worried when I was not up by noon and he woke me for lunch.  The secret was still in my groggy head and I ate in total silence trying to remember it in my waking state.  I had to find the Sheriff.

The words came out before I knew that I was thinking aloud.  "I have to find Sheriff Braggs."

"Is there a problem, Mark?  I can call his office if you need something."

"My mind is wandering, Walgo.  I have the strangest feeling that I have to go to the Sheriff."

"You could just call in whatever's so urgent."

Sleep was hard to shake from my eyes, yet my mind was fully awake.  "We have to speak in person.  I promised Elisabeth that I would not forget our friend."

Walgo got up and brought his phone into the kitchen where I was seated.  I did not have to look to know that he was calling the Obsille police.  Had I been thinking, then I would have remained silent.  My reaction had him thinking about calling an ambulance for me.

"He's not there," I said. 

Walgo turned from his dialing to look me in the tired eyes.  "Pardon?"

"He's on the path and will soon find the statue."

His reply used no words.  It was easy for him to see that my eyes were bloodshot and my hands shook enough to make it hard for me to eat.  He was concerned and I could not blame him.  In his place, I would have been just as concerned and I do not have Walgo's heart.

In my own place, I was worried about me.

I walked out the door before saying another word.  Walgo was too sick to stop me, although he did try.  Part of me wanted him to succeed.  Letting him get so close before he failed just seemed cruel to me.  It is just as hard for me to accept that I left Walgo there, lying on the kitchen floor after he failed to tackle me.

Walgo, I knew, would survive.  I was not that inhuman.  The drive that pushed me out could not have made me into that much of a monster.  My loyal friend, Walgo, would be well in my absence.

My way to Estate Avenue was strait and fast.  I paused only in front of Saint Joel's Cathedral.  There I asked for guidance in what I was compelled to do.  I did not wait for a reply before running off.

Once in the Imperial Forest, I was reasonably safe from pursuit.  My pace did not slow, however, because I had to beat the Sheriff to the statue.  I would have liked to stop at the talking tree for a little bit of history, but I did not have time.  Sheriff Braggs did not know where he was going, yet he would not get lost.  When he got there, I had to already be at the site.

There was time enough for me to catch my breath before I saw the Sheriff come down the path.  I had no way of knowing if he had spoken to Walgo.  As it seemed wise, I remained in the shadows while the Sheriff came up the path and stumbled onto the statue in the clearing.  Those were his moments to prepare for our meeting.

Standing in the shadows of the tree line, the Sheriff did not see me.  The ring of forest that surrounded the statue was a gloomy and dark place even without the leaves on the trees.  Only the walking path, worn smooth by the many years that the old witch woman had used it as her life support link to the town, cut through the blackness.  Even the path could not be seen once the sheriff took a few steps toward the statue.

He seemed drawn to the black structure and less repulsed by the fear that I had known when I first saw her standing in the clearing.  Every step that he took toward the monument isolated him yet further from the world around the clearing.  The path had vanished into the trees from where he stood, leaving no way back.  In their winter slumber, the strawberry plants that covered the fertile soil in the clearing left the ground soft and dark as a shadow.

The time felt right for me to step from the cloudy void.  It felt as though I was also being drawn toward the statue.  She had a secret to tell and I was her voice in my age.  "Do you know her, Sheriff Braggs?"

His stopped moving, but did not look back toward me.  "Ya spooked me, Mark."

"To you, she is two people and to me only one who is both of them."

"Ya been out ‘ere too long Mark.  It gettings ta ya head."

"Her eyes were every bit as green as yours were before the surgery."

"I don't know what ya getting at Mark."

"We've been chasing her around Th'Estate for the past several years, Sheriff.  I'd like for you to meet the phantom green eyed girl."

He turned to face me with as my words met his ears.  "I listenin', Mark."

"That's not a statue in front of us, Sheriff.  I have every reason to believe that it is a tomb."

"So ya found ya'r ghost?"

"It is time that she was put to rest, Sheriff.  Let her imprisonment end."

"Ya say she's two people ta me."

"I've been to the old Asetma house and I've seen it.  You're the spitting image of Trebor Asetma."

"Th'Estate's getting' ta ya Mark.  We can ‘elp ya back in town."

"Miriam Asetma gave birth to twins.  This girl died here, much as you see her.  Her brother, Aaron Braggs, started your family line."

"If'n ya are right, then ya should join da force, Mark."

"I cannot leave Th'Estate.  The town can only be safe with me there."

"Didna ‘elp Tommy.  He still es missing."

I could not help but smile.  "He'll be back soon, Sheriff.  He vanished to help me."

"Where did ya put ‘im, Mark?"

"Trebor Asetma had those famous Asetma green eyes, but he also wore glasses.  You lack both and I've never seen you wear contact lenses.  They were implanted, weren't they?"

"We talkin' ‘bout Tommy, Mark."

"You're the last of the Asetma line.  This place brought you back and will do anything that it has to in order to keep you here. It will do anything to keep us both here."

"Okay.  My eyes got fixed ‘hen I ‘as a chil'.  Where ya' hidin' Tommy at?"

"It's not my doing, Sheriff.  I have to go back to Th'Estate in order to get him back."

He took a long, deep breath as though he feared to step on a landmine with his words.  "Why shoul' I believe ya, Mark?"

"I think that you've known the truth longer than I have, Sheriff.  Th'Estate doesn't feel the same for either of us as it does for the rest of Obsille."

It may have been the first time that I dared to see the Sheriff as more than the man who had imprisoned me in the Asetma Estate and away from my beloved Orsa.  I actually respected him as a brother in arms.  We were the two for whom Asetma held many secrets yet few dangers.  There was wisdom in the Sheriff that went beyond the slurred speech and ran beneath his unkempt appearance.

"I make a deal with ya, Mark.  If'n ya brings back Tommy, then I sends ya back ta Th'Estate."

Otherwise, I would be going to jail.  He didn't say as much.  He didn't have to say it.  I understood it.

"If it must be done, then a way will be provided to do it.  I have faith in that.  You can handle this here."

The Sheriff would have to have been the fool that I once took him for to have taken me so easily at my word, although he did let me walk away.  Whatever the way, the spirit of Asetma would have to clear my name when it returned Tommy to the land of the living.  I could not hold the Sheriff's doubts against him.  My doubts were another story entirely.

In promising to return me to Th'Estate, Sheriff Braggs had also promised to free Orsa from the curse.  Th'Estate only has a single keeper.  As long as I am that keeper, Orsa would be free from jeopardy.  All of Obsille would be free from having to take my place, however, it was Orsa that I cared about the most.

I do not know how long I walked around the woods before I found myself back in Obsille.  All I can be sure of is that the Sheriff was not following me.  My real goal had been to stumble onto the enchanted tree for another quick discussion.  The Lord had other plans and I came out of the dream on the sidewalk at the outskirts of Obsille.

Once again I found myself on the sidewalk in front of Saint Joel's.  The Sheriff was only going to give me so long before he came for me.  Most likely, he was busy building a team to drag me in for more than just questioning.  My challenge went well beyond a risky move.  I knew what failure meant and it was more than I could live with, if I was allowed to live at all.

I did not take a direct path back to Th'Estate.  Going through the heart of Obsille would have exposed me to possible capture.  Even Walgo could not be allowed to see me until I found the key to the door that held Tommy back.  If I was spotted in town before Tommy returned, then my life was at an end in every way that counted.

This time, brother Steven was raking up the remaining decorative coloration that had fallen from the trees and was rotting on the ground.  I expected to see him for reasons that I cannot put into words.  It could have been that I was sent to speak with him.  More likely, he was sent to speak with me.

"I've seen little of you in the chapel, my son."

"If you do not want me to call you father, then why do you call me son?"

"Old habit, I suppose.  If it bothers you so, then I can try my best to lull it to sleep."

"Thank you, brother."

"And a better choice of words, I am sure.  What weights your brow down so?"

"To tell the truth, brother, I just issued an unwise challenge.  I think that I know how to get Tommy back, but I put myself into a position where I get only one chance at it."

The elder monk stopped his raking and came to the fence beside me.  "And you fear that the Sheriff is nearing ready to round you up."

"You said it.  I defeat the evil of Asetma's curse or I take the blame for it."

"It is not Asetma's Curse that Obsille is under.  It never was."

"What do you mean, brother?"

"You know that good, evil and harm are entirely religious concepts?  A worldview built on reason alone stands on quicksand, my son."

"You know, brother Steven, I always come to you for advice and I never understand the advice that I get?  It's like we're having two different conversations."

"If that be the case, then let me speak plain.  You are tired of fighting and wish that we could all just stop fighting and have peace."

"Yes, but I do not understand the connection between your answers and my questions."

"You're getting too many answers to the questions that you ask and not enough answers to the things that you need to know."

"Well, now that you're speaking plain, I'm still lost."

"Peace is not the absence of war but the opposite of war."

"But, we would have peace if we all stopped fighting."

"That would require that we all stop fighting, my son.  And it still would not be real peace at that.  We would not be united and without conflict, only without expression of our buried hostilities."

"Okay, father.  If I agree with you, then can we get to what you are trying to tell me?"

"I'm sorry about that, Mark.  You have begun to rationalize the actions of Miriam Adelle Asetma-Braggs.  Deep inside, you find yourself almost kindred to the darkest of the Asetmas."

"You can see that all the way from here, father?"

He turned to face the front of the chapel for a moment.  Another monk was looking through one of the front windows at me talking to brother Steven.  The second monk's eyes fixed on me and he did not move while brother Steven and I spoke on.  It was uncomfortable for me.

"Each of us has stood in that place, Mark.  On our own, we cannot take the devil so we try to make our peace by denying the state of war."

"Which leads back to the curse on Obsille."

"That is does, Mark.  You are catching on."

I turned my eyes from the monk in the window to look at brother Steven as though doing so would reduce the discomfort that I had at being watched.  It was not working.  "But, I do not yet know the point to which you were getting."

"I think that you do, Mark.  Obsille is like you.  What it cannot understand, it denies."

"Obsille knows the curse of Asetma.  We've lived under the curse for better than two centuries, more or less."

"Obsille tries to make a deal with the devil in denial of evil.  Obsille is under the curse of Obsille, my son."

"I liked the curse of Asetma better.  The curse of Obsille is much harder to break."

"Fair Elizabeth remains beyond the curse because she lives in the light of good even in the presence of evil."

"You know a lot.  Did you know Elder as well?"

"I must get back to my chores, Mark.  We can talk again later.  God stands with you and with his help, you will get Tommy back."

Brother Steven walked away from me and returned to his raking.  It then occurred to me that the second monk may have been upset because we were talking when brother Steven should have been doing his job.  Leaving him to his work, I started to walk on.  The face of the second monk then vanished from the window.

My feet carried me back up Estate Avenue as though nobody was looking for me.  I kept walking off into the woods, seeking protection where I could not be seen.  A few minutes later, I would be back walking up Estate Avenue.  Reminding my feet of the danger did not seem to help.  The walk was longer than I could use my new skill to hide behind somebody else's face.

I walked on past the cut-off that led to the wise tree.  My mind wanted to take the path, however, my body had other intentions.  The wind carried no word from the tree.  Maybe it was not the right time for that lesson.

The heavy gates of Th'Estate unlocked themselves at my approach.  They opened without the aid of mortal hands to let me into the grounds.  Then they closed behind me.  When I was allowed to turn back and look, the chains had closed and the gate was locked tight behind me.  I was not getting back out that way.

Nobody was getting in either.  It did not even look as though the gates had been opened since I had sealed them on leaving for my meeting with the Sheriff in Obsille.  Th'Estate was covering for me.  I felt that I was going to be protected more than I considered the possibility that Th'Estate might be protecting itself by hiding my disappearance.

Once inside the mansion, I relaxed.  It was a place that I knew would be searched for me before almost all other places.  There was a limit on how long I could hide or even be hidden.  What I had been given was time to think.  I walked into the safety of the cellar catacombs to think things through and plan my next move.

A voice echoed out of nowhere and barely escaped nothingness.  "Whom does she serve, Job?"

"To know that, I would have to know of whom you speak, Elder."

"There is but one whose aid you need in this hour."

Elder's voice was so low that I felt like I was talking to myself.  He may well have been speaking only within the confines of my head.  For all the ideas that I had, there was plenty of room in the space between my ears.  I was well past my wit's end when Elder put in his appearance.

"It couldn't be Miriam and I doubt that you are speaking of Elisabeth."

"Have I taught you so poorly, Job?  What do you know in your heart that overshadows the emptiness of your head?"

"She whose eyes are green as flaming emeralds stands at the door."

Elder's quiet voice on the breeze through the tunnels beneath Th'Estate sounded like it was hiding.  I would have thought Elder braver than to seek refuge in the shadows.  Nowhere in Th'Estate is dark enough to hide from the eyes of darkness itself.  What I felt in Elder's voice, clinging to the wet stones of the hallway for protection from things that no light had ever seen, was futile.  Even Elder knew that.  There was a lesson in Elder's actions.

"Your feelings are strong, Job.  Can they answer the question that I first posed to you?"

The tunnel was too dark for my eyes so I did not turn to face Elder as we spoke.  "As far as I know, the green eyed girl serves no master."

"Each of us serves a master, Job.  Whom would your dear friend answer to even when her own will refuses?"

It took a moment for the answer to come to me.  Honestly, it took a moment for me to admit to the answer that my mind rejected.  "She answers to the same Miriam whom I released back into these grounds."

Elder, by election, took form; but I do not believe that it was his form.  By the feel of it, Elder had taken the form of the green eyed girl.  Having taken physical form, Elder's voice gained in both strength and courage.  My ears no longer strained to hear him.

"And yours is the power of the black scabbard."

"My power is the thief of forms, Elder.  I have come to understand it."

"Much remains for you to learn still, Job.  Yet, in this moment, you already have what you need to know in order to get Tommy back from the void."

"Usually you tell me to put Miriam back and about Tommy second."

"You have taken responsibility, Job.  It is written in your heart and mind that you are at fault for Miriam's renewed rampage.  I need no longer tell you to return her to the depths of her grave."

"All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God."

Elder stood behind me and I felt his sympathy at my back.  "When you go to get Tommy back, you will have the chance to return Miriam to her fate.  That is when you must act, Job."

"How do I put Miriam back where she belongs, Elder?  Am I ever to have this lesson?"

"Miriam has no rights to the life that you have given her, Job.  When you take back what is yours by right, then she will lose her grip and can be expelled."

"How do I expel Miriam?"

Elder's words were calm and strong.  "First, how do you get to where Tommy is?"

"The green eyed girl knows the way to the door.  Can I get directions from her?"

"You know the one that she serves, Job.  Awaken the power within you.  Even as you lack the key, you can command the door as its master."

"So, I become Miriam."

Elder placed his hands on my shoulders and gave me comfort.  "The thought is unpleasant in every length, but the action is just in times of war, Job.  As Miriam, the green eyed girl would not dare disobey you."

"As a ghost, I command a ghost.  That just might work, Elder."

"I've waited a long time for you to come to your power.  I wish that I had longer to train you, Job.  For Tommy's sake, there is no more time to wait.  Do what is given for you to do."

"Once I am in the spectral world, how do I expel Miriam from this world?"

"Whom does she serve?"

Elder faded from the shadows while I pondered his question.  Whom does Miriam serve?  Is it the nature of evil to serve even itself?  What Elder knew passed out of Th'Estate with him.  He seemed to have overestimated me.

Only one thing remained for me to do.  I had to find the green eyed girl.  Whatever the cost, I had to have her assistance.  She would obey me.  That was the one thing that I could be sure of.


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