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Ice House: Asetma

Brian Mark Weber
Robert 'Admiral' Coeyman

Chapter 9:

What the Old Tree Saw


Both old and a friend, thought not precisely an old friend to me, I still took comfort in the clearing around the talking tree.  He could neither walk nor fight, yet I felt safe in his presence.  Maybe the mystical force that gave speech to the wooden sentinel also gave an unearthly peace to the ground beneath his branches.  Even if it was only an illusion, I felt that something protected me as I stood before the tree.

There was comfort enough in the clearing to make me feel like sitting down for a long rest.  I chose to remain standing for my own reasons, not the least of which was the feeling that standing would keep me awake.  My eyes turned to look over my ally.  As he had no eyes of his own, at least eyes that I could see, I did not fear looking directly at him.

"Are you ready to come clean with me?"

His strong, deep voice was more than carried on the wind.  I would say that his voice was the wind itself.  Vocal tones came from the deepest reaches of the Imperial Forest, swirling lazily around the clearing to greet me from all sides at once. Each word brushed against the whole surface of my body as it resonated in my ears.

"A silent sentinel outlives the songbird, Mark."

I stood firm, trying to match the impressive, majestic stance taken by my companion.  "Surely, old friend, you have not called me here just to send me away again."

There was a chance that the old tree would rebuke me.  He had not called me and was free to state as much.  His choice was his own.  It had been my choice to go with the animal that led me to the talking tree.  Each of us was at the mercy only of forces greater than the two of us combined.

"Should I speak to you in this place and time, then what hope will I have of waking once more when spring brings back the warmth of the sun?"

"What mortal has such promise of tomorrow, my friend?"

 It is hard to tell when a tree is thinking.  His branches do not quake as a man might scratch the top of his head, nor does he change the expression on his face.  No man is so gifted that he might read the expressionless bark of an ancient tree in the forest.  God alone can know the mind of such creations.

What I do know is that minutes passed in silence while I stood firm in my place.  The wind that was the voice of the tree was calm.  All things that scamper and scurry about in the deep places of the forest held calm and quiet as those seconds of time ticked by.  It was as though my patience was on trial.

"I've many old wounds as the one you have seen, Mark."

"This is the one that I know better than all others.  A young man gave it to you in choosing another target for his wrath."

"What have you seen, Mark?  What secrets have they chosen to reveal to your mortal eyes?"

The image was half faded in my mind.  "It was a snowy day on which the girl met her fate in this place."

"Fair Elisabeth fed her life's blood to these cursed grounds long before your heart came to beat, Mark.  Who tells you the tale of Kevin Asetma?"

"You do, my old friend."

A stench of musty dampness took up residence in the air as the tree spoke on.  "Each stone in Asetma has a tale to tell and it is not a common man who listens to hear such chattering, Mark."

It was hard not to smile at the tree.  In truth, I did not know if he was insulting me or complimenting my perceptiveness.  The kind of irony was not lost on me that would have a talking tree speaking as though listening to the tales of stones was a form of madness.  I did not want the tree to know the substance of my thoughts in that instant.

"What happened to Elisabeth?"

For a few moments, the wind did not hold the essence of a voice as it ran through the underbrush of the forest.  It looked over each leaf and under each stone for a watching eye and a listening ear.  Only when the tree was sure that we were alone did he go on with his story.  My part was to not be spooked by the caution of the tree.

"More dark arts were known to Adrian Asetma than to any other Asetma in all of time.  His power was as vast as it was empty.  Malice was his way because bloodlust has a flavor when all other senses are dulled."

"The man called out a curse on Adrian's head.  I heard it."

As though to keep the sound from getting as far into the Imperial Forest, the tree spoke with a deeper voice.  "More than a curse did Kevin give to Adrian.  Each paid with the last drop of his own blood."

If there was power enough to stop Adrian, who was mightier than Miriam, then I trusted that the tree knew how to stop her.  My problem was getting the information from the tree.  I had no desire to pay with my life for putting Miriam back, although I would have done so if I was called to have no other choice.  It was worth my life to free Tommy.

My words had to sound like I was speaking no more than an observation.  "If Adrian could be stopped, then there is hope of returning Miriam to her cell."

"Adrian, in his way, was a thief of forms.  Elisabeth was only one of the toys that he had chosen."

"Elder tells me that the thief of forms is my power, old friend.  What do you know of it?"

"These are things of which we shall not speak, Mark."

There were many questions that I could have asked and I could not come up with a single line of thought to pursue.  I chose to settle for whatever the tree was willing to share with me in the darkness of that night.  There were sure to be other nights and other times to come when I should be given to speak with the aged guardian.  He was sure to speak freely once Miriam was back in the place where she belonged.

"I take it that Kevin did not take Elisabeth's change well?"

A deep groan came from the largest branches of the tree as though the tree thought my statement silly and worthy only of a giggle.  "The father was slain by the son.  Kevin, a man with a good heart, could not live well with his sin and by his sins was he also slain."

"By what justice could Kevin be condemned for acting to spare so many lives?"

"A good man takes no comfort in a dark deed, Mark.  You are indeed but a child if you do not know this thing already."

My first instinct was to apologize to the tree, but I could not bring myself to give a voice to those words.  Maybe I should have spoken my sorrow to the tree.  I owed his an apology at some level of my being.  Even if I never know why, I felt that I had wronged my friend in my silence.

"But what does any of this have to do with Miriam and the girl with the green eyes?"

"On the winds which travel far and wide, I have heard stories.  They tell me that a secret lies buried deep in the secret places beneath Asetma.  Adrian's power did not come out of the darkness of a starless night."

"There are no limits to the number of secrets buried under the Asetma mansion, old friend."

"Only one secret binds she who walks as though living to the dark spirit haunting your nightmares, Mark.  Miriam seeks in this day the same power that she has always sought."

Something began to stir deep in the decaying brush that littered the floor of the Imperial Forest.  I knew that the tree had felt it even before I did.  The force had a reason and a purpose to its movements.  It had such a dense will that its mind was shielded from me.

Reaching out with my own thoughts, I tried to hide in the noise of the other living things that lived in the forest.  Life was in every part of the Imperial Forest and within it I tried to hide myself.  Joining with the forest, I became a part of it and my opponent was, for a time, confused.  What power I had been granted had its limits.

"Tell me quickly what power I must keep from Miriam."

"Have you not listened as I said more than I should?  Miriam seeks that which once was Adrian's.  Now, part quickly from me, Mark."

Thought I do not doubt my actions stupid, I paused for a moment.  I felt something odd in the winds around the tree.  It was as though even the tree could not sense me in the last minutes before he sent me away.  My shield failed before I was more than a few meters from the clearing around the tree.

The dark hunter in the woodland seemed to chase me back to the road.  It did not allow me to turn from my path.  There was a reason why it did not pounce on me from the shadows, although it is not a reason that was given for me to know.  My pace was only quickened and my steps forced onto the path back to Estate Avenue.

I could feel the burning eyes watching my every step as I walked deliberately toward Obsille.  It seemed to watch me from each side of the road as my movements progressed, yet it never dared to set foot on the road itself.  Even as I knew that I was tempting my own fate, I slowed my steps toward Obsille.  My pursuer did not try to overtake me.

All the way back into town, I thought about why the strange beast did not come after me when it had me defenseless.  It followed me almost all the way into Obsille.  I could feel it watching me right up to Walgo's front door.  An unseen ally held all but its eyes at a distance from me.

Along my gentle stroll, I came across a scent carried gently upon the restless breeze.  It was, in truth, perhaps the varnish used to protect a wooden fence from the hostile elements drawing their life from Asetma's curse.  However, to me, it smelled remarkably like the fresh ink on a newly printed page.  I was reminded of schoolbooks on the first day by the scent of preserved thoughts crystallized on a page.

It had a timbre, on the slight wind, like cleaning fluid wiping clear the memories of a dirty life.  The scent entered me and felt like it was wiping free the walls of gentle Beth's imprisonment.  In this much, we were kindred.  Neither of us had a reality in which to escape the torments of Asetma any more than Asetma was a reality in time or space.  We, and it, were beyond setting.

Beth lived in the worlds of jubilant balls with exuberant, puffed, lacy gowns bustling in the halls.  All the kind and reserved ladies in their lacy pastel gowns, almost colorless in the dim candlelight, trading meaningless chatter beneath the clatter of glass and silver.  They were soft and warm even in a blustery cold mansion, bereft of other life.  Each of them was a colorful light adding flavor to a drab world.

There they danced with the gentlemen in their stiff suits that, although cloth, bore the rigidity of armor.  Beneath it all, they were cutthroats in fancy linen and immaculate dress.  They were wolves beneath the discipline of the day, to whom the powdered and perfumed ladies were drawn like moths to an open torch.  It was a life without consequence squeezed into the thin leaves of a fictional work.

That was the life, and lives, that Beth lived when responsibility, the piper who bids be paid, should come only when fair Beth need nay be there to ante even on the bet.  It was a world where every day was the same, but every action was a chance which, once initiated, could come to life or death for all involved.  The Asetma manor had few volumes in which said chance would turn to favor the hero.  It was the hero alone that Asetma feared.

Beth and I were protected from the curse by our ability to straddle the realities.  We drew upon the power of the dreamlike force to make it as suited us.  Though the power was evil, and may always remain so, our dominion over it was just as real and assured.  Alas was the harder road mine alone to journey down.  I was the knight to Beth's princess.  Fate commanded me to vanquish the dragon.

I knew that, to vanquish that dragon, I would have to return to its lair.  Only in the darkest recesses of Th'Estate, could the beast be found.  It was in the accursed places that I would have to fight the same abomination that had taken my brother's life.  Success would mean freedom for more than Beth.  Failure would mean more even than my own death.

Neither choice spoke well of my own welfare.  Should all the people whom I was given to love profit from my blood, then I was compelled to shed even the last drop of it.  It was a hard choice that I made so easily in the dream-state birthed by the scent of printed pages on the wind.  Time alone would make real my resolve to keep the promise that I made.

The last of the scent cleared from my airways only moments before I entered the walkway to Walgo's stately home.  Walgo was not one of the outsiders who lived in the shadowy world of hopes, dreams and phantom reality.  While I was under his newly patched roof, it was almost as though I had regained the ignorance of my former life.  It was a place where I thought that I could find long overdue rest.

Walgo opened the door for me before I saw his form in the darkness.  He stood in his doorway, with a strong light behind him.  All that I could make out in the brightness was his upright shadow.  His ghostly appearance had me questioning whether I had left the world of phantoms or returned to it.

My pause did not last long.  In the light, I could no longer feel the hungry eyes watching me from the Imperial Forest.  I was drawn to the doorway by its illusion of safety.  The decision to enter Walgo's home came from my feet.

Walgo's door closed lightly behind me.  If I had not been listening to it as intently, then I would not have noticed its movement at all.  It was a big change from my life in Th'Estate.  Bigger than most homes in Obsille, everything in Walgo's house was light and its presence was hard to feel.

I had lived so long in Th'Estate that I had grown used to the spiritual weight of the curse on every particle of dust on the grounds of Th'Estate.  Nothing in Th'Estate, no matter its mass, was ever light.  Such was the weight of the curse that it seemed to bend reality around everything that it touched.  Everything in Asetma's grasp had a feeling that left an imprint in the mind.

This was not true of anything in the brighter parts of Obsille.  The shadow of Asetma spread itself thin to cover all of the surrounding lands, deep into Obsille.  Whatever the force that protected Walgo's abode, it was unique almost to that single home.  There was such innocence to Walgo's domain that beat back the curse as a child transcends the visible world with the might of his imagination.  I had not known that feeling in a very long time.

Morning came early at Walgo's place, reaching into me long before I had finished dreaming.  I had plenty of time to get ready and be to Th'Estate before the day's labors came due.  There is a reason why I did not go to Th'Estate that day, yet I do not know what it was.  What did I have left to lose?

I knew that I would soon have to seek out one of the scarce jobs in Obsille.  Walgo could not be required to see to my needs even if he was willing to do so.  Should Elder prove right, I would not be able to leave Obsille for one of the towns outside of the curse.  Miriam would keep me from Th'Estate as long as she could and that would mean my making alternate plans to survive until her power failed.  But, those were worries for another day.

After breakfast, I took a walk around Obsille.  It was the first vacation that I ever remember having and it may be the only one that I ever get.  For one day, I elected not to go to work.  Having already done so, my jailors could not fire me.  I took the day to contemplate the things that the old tree had seen.

We did not have much of a library in Obsille.  The things that I was interested in, having come to pass on the grounds of Th'Estate, were in the private collections of the old men in bad suits if they had been written down at all.  There had to be things that even the old men in bad suits were not allowed to know.  Most of Kevin Asetma's story would only be written in the hidden journals locked away in the Asetma house itself.

Miriam's fame had overshadowed Adrian's memory in Obsille.  From the talk and the legends, you would have assumed that Miriam was the most powerful of the dark Asetmas.  Adrian Asetma was actually the most powerful dark practitioner that ever bore the Asetma surname.  If he had been unleashed by my lapse of judgment, then even Elder would not have been able to restore hope to Obsille.  He could have taken me at my best when he was at his worst.

There was more to the story.  If Adrian had the power I now carried inside of me, and Miriam sought those secrets in the smallest recesses of Th'Estate, then she would seek me out as well.  Something had protected my power from her discovery.  It was yet possible that, in my conversation with the tree, Miriam had been let in on the secret that I bore but did not know.

Well into the afternoon, I wandered aimlessly through the streets that I had known in my youth.  I was more walking in thought than in Obsille.  Emptiness told me that time for lunch had come.  More than likely lunch time had passed by then.  Another thing came into my mind and I soon forgot all about eating.

The Old Witch Woman strolled into town in the light of day.  It was not the kind of an environment that I would have pictured her in, from the Obsille gossip; however, I had also heard the stories about myself.  Within the small town, we were kindred pariahs.  Our town seemed to lack for all but tall and torrid tales told behind real people's backs.

It would have been dishonest for me to say that I happened to be on the main street as the old witch woman came strolling down it from her woodland home.  I'd heard that she was coming to town from the growing chatter amongst the town's children.  She was first spotted by several small boys who had been trying to construct a log cabin in the land just outside town.  Since then, a crowd of small eyes had grown to watch her every step from the shadows.  In that respect, I was as guilty as the children.

She wore a long, flowing white gown.  A pink belt had been loosely tied around her waist, yet the gown was not tight enough to reveal any of her shape beneath it.  It looked almost as though she was wearing the sheet from an old ghost movie.  Her shoes, if she was wearing any, were hidden beneath the skirt of her dress.  I had never seen such perfect, graceful posture in a real human being.

Sunlight agreed with her.  Even though it was uncombed, her brown hair seemed to echo the warmth of the evening sun.  It ran gently down her back to where her long hair had been tucked into her gown at the neckline.  Her eyes were fixed forward as though she didn't want to see the pack of wild children stalking her from the alleyways.  The redness of her eyes muted to a warming hazel with highlights of green tinting.  She was no older than I was.

Her bright presence floating down the center of Main Street threatened to exercise the shadows where the children hid in waiting.  Watching from a bench in front of the general store, I thought back to my own childhood and could not believe that I had once been as young and ignorant as the children of Obsille were on that day.  Maybe each generation believes itself superior to the next in seeing its own reflection through convenient memories.  Seen as she was, in daylight, the Old Witch Woman was not the monster that even I had taken her to be.

The old witch woman never turned her eyes from her task.  Eyes peered at her from every seen and unseen corner of the town.  It was a feeling that I, as the keeper of Th'Estate, knew all too well.  There was no young Tommy that she could hire to buy her groceries as I had done.  She had to come into town and endure the stinging shadowy lashes of gossip therein.

I did not go into the store with her.  Many people within the store moved out of sight as she walked down the uncomfortable aisles to pick up her supplies.  They watched her from around the small displays to stay where her eyes would never fall upon them.  In doing so, my town shamed me as much as it shamed itself.

Even the clerk behind the counter never looked the old witch woman in the eyes.  He simply added up the total for the canned food and candles that she placed on the counter and showed her the total.  Through the open door of the store, I could see across the store to where the old witch woman counted her coins to pay for the things that she needed enough to endure the trip into Obsille.  I did not stare at her as I once would have.  Instead, I stood a silent vigil in hopes that the Lord would provide me with a way to make up for my past misdeeds.

At the door of the shop, my prayer was answered.  One of the small children darted out of the shop, across her path and several items fell from the bag that the old witch woman was carrying.  I was on my knees before her almost in the same instant as the red candle bounced from the surface of the pavement.  She did not bend down to retrieve her fallen items from my hands.

"May I be of service?"

She stood as a statue, not even moving to breathe.  "Thank you, very much kindly."

I stood up before her, looking no closer into her eyes than she seemed comfortable permitting.  Then I waited for her to tilt the bag toward me before replacing her things within it.  "It is always a pleasure to be of service, madam."

Her eyes darted to look in my direction several times, but she always turned them to look away from me.  For a short time, we stood there as though there was more to be said.  She turned the bag back toward herself and proceeded to walk around me several moments later.  Neither of us found the few lost words of that fleeting moment.

As she moved past, I turned to walk on her right side.  "Mind if I walk along with you?"

"Please your kindly self, Mr. Holder."

"I did not mean to frighten you off from Th'Estate.  Please accept my apology if I have caused you any harm."

"Be pleased, Mr. Holder, that I have taken no offense with thee."

"You can call me Mark."

"As it suits you, sir."

She was used to being watched and took every step as though she was crossing a stage.  It could not have been comfortable for her to hold such a stiff pose.  Her eyes remained fixed, always facing directly ahead and never moving to either side.  Every step that she took was exactly the same length as the one before it.  From the precision I read in her stride, the old witch woman could have been a dancer.

Her path was familiar to her feet.  I do not believe that she had to see where she was at in order to walk home.  With each step forward, her feet found their place on the firm pavement.  She never stepped in a rut or hit a loose stone in her path.  At no point did her posture slump.

We left the road not far outside of town.  She did pause, although only for a moment, when she realized that I did not leave her side where her path home and the path to Th'Estate parted.  I was unsure about her allowing me to walk her home.  No living soul, aside from the old witch woman herself, even knew where it was that she lived.  The Imperial Forest was a big place.

The old tree to which I had spoken was along the path, however, we did not go that way.  She turned from the path into the darker woodland about halfway to the tree.  It was a familiar walk for the old witch woman, but I knew that I would be lost for a long time if I was to lose sight of her.  I do not know if she understood why I closed in on her at that point, yet, she expressed no discomfort.  It was almost as though I was not there to her.

At about the distance into the Imperial Forest that I had walked to reach the tree, the two of us entered a clearing that I felt uneasy with.  I knew the place, though not well.  Even that was better than I wanted to know the place and I would have left the old witch woman at that point if doing so would not have meant being hopelessly lost in the Imperial Forest.  The place was a fonder memory for the old witch woman, who paused at the base of the statue which I feared.

My companion knelt barely a pace or two from the base of the statue, laying a single flower just short of the metallic pedestal.  It was hard to get my eyes to turn toward either the old witch woman or the statue of the green eyed girl.  They went to the old witch woman with great coaxing, yet I could not look directly at the green eyed girl's statue.  I felt like a coward then as I do now that I have admitted to my cowardice on this page.

"I walked with her once, Master Holder."

Words would not come easily to me.  I had little energy left after holding my eyes fast on the kneeling form of the old witch woman.  In the presence of one whom others feared, I was led to the place of one whom I feared.  "I see."

"She whose green eyes shine with the brightness of unholy flame, mocking the color of life, walks yet when she should know the rest of sleep."

"I've seen her too."

"You always think your own suffering the greatest until you walk through the torment of another and share her pain.  Master Holder, you should not fear this little sprite."

The old witch woman did not look back to see me.  She knew my fear without having to see it then and saved me the dishonor of exposure by not looking back to see me.  I was sorry for thinking of her as less than human in earlier times.  In Christian charity, she had not held my unkind words against me.

"Feelings are hard to master, miss."

"If it pleases you, I am called Elizabeth if I am called at all."

"I can make no promises, Elizabeth.  All that I can do is try."

"And try you shall, Master Holder.  This one here, she needs from you what I cannot give to her and would."

"Do you know about Tommy?"

She rose to her feet and dusted the soil from the knees in her clothes.  Then she turned to re-enter the woods for another trek to where she called home.  Her pace slowed a bit so that I could keep up.  We didn't have to stand still to talk.

"The child Tommy is with her then?"

"The two of them vanished at the same time."

"But, Master Holder, how do you know that he went with her?  You know young boys and their games, having been one yourself."

"Young Tommy Queensman is nowhere in Asetma nor is he back in Obsille.  It has been days and nobody has seen the slightest hint of him."

"Are you sure, then, that he walks with her?"

"We hope the best for him.  He hasn't been haunting the place as far as anybody knows."

"Mark my words, Master Holder.  You all will have to walk with her once.  If the children are together still, then the boy has chosen to stay on that darker path."

"Then how can I help him?"

"You know that already, Master Holder.  It is only the doing that you have left to you."

"If Tommy is dead, then all hope is lost."

"Hope is lost when we throw it away, Master Holder.  These two young ones will show you what your eyes refuse to tell you that they see."

"I hope so, Elizabeth."

"Do not leave to hope what you are called to be doing, Master Holder."

Silence came over me as I was then lost in thought.  I felt something at the back of my mind and listened to it intently out of a belief that it was the answer I was supposed to have.  Nothing made the hearing easier.  There was only doubt and fear within the feeling.

The ground became uneven in the lands where nobody but the old witch woman went.  Nobody cleared up the deadwood or cut through the brush.  Some of the wood had to go for the old witch woman's needs as Elizabeth had to need heat and had none in her grocery bags.  What remained on the ground cluttered the path beneath our feet.

With what little Elizabeth got from Obsille, she had to have some kind of stock in the Imperial Forest.  I almost envied her resourcefulness to live alone beyond the bounds of civilization.  She had what I might have wanted of another life.  Elizabeth could live comfortably off the cursed land.

Although I do not doubt that it often appears otherwise, I do not mean to imply that the Asetma family was always all evil.  At one time, the Asetma family had been wise and built its fortune ministering to kings of many nations.  The Asetma fortune was well and honestly earned when the Asetma family was a benefit to more than Obsille.  Ego had taken root in the Asetma soul and had eroded the Asetma wisdom as it would consume each of us if given the chance.  Rising higher than most, the Asetma family had fallen further and harder.

All that we chatter about in the ghost stories of Obsille is the age in which Asetma had risen past its peak and Th'Estate was well on its way down.  Miriam was the last heir of the Asetma line known to have lived near to Obsille.  The rumor and whispers that we use to amuse ourselves with do not recall the early days of the Asetma family.  There are no tourist dollars in the Asetma royalty now that royalty is an unpopular concept.

The Old Witch Woman lived in the old Asetma manor.  It was the castle of the most royal members of the Asetma line when Asetma was a celebrated name on all the seven continents.  Trebor Asetma had built the Asetma fortune so vast that he built a new house to match it.  Asetma's royal abode is now run down as a ghost house that even the ghosts will not inhabit.

Our footsteps on the boards of the porch did not disturb their slumber.  They were as sound and firm as they had been in the great days of Asetma.  Seven pillars, big around as oaks and carved as though they were the ornate monuments of a temple, held the roof high above the sturdy porch.  The white paint had peeled from the wooden planks that were the siding of the great mansion, but there was not a hole in sight.  It must have been the only structure in the whole of Obsille that the curse would not touch.

  Elizabeth, a worth name for a woman who lived in such a place, had a steady stride over the woodwork.  She seemed to float up the stairs onto the porch as though lifted by the wind that danced through the Imperial Forest beyond the sight of man.  Her movement through the pillars was a kind of dance.  The great house suited her as the new house fit me.

I opened the heavy doors to let Elizabeth pass into the main lobby of the old house of Asetma.  Even in the presence of another servant of Asetma, the old witch woman, I was a servant and worthy of being no more.  Seen as she was in the place that called her by name, I could make out that the Old Witch woman was neither old nor a witch.  She was unmistakably a woman.  At that she was a lady.

Behind me, the wooden doors came firmly shut almost of their own volition.  Their firm seal into the aging frame was as a loving embrace of the Old Witch Woman, Elizabeth, who had returned to her home.  The house did not seem to notice me and I was far from sure that I wanted it to.  Elizabeth led me to where she wanted me to be.

Our target was not within the venerable house but beneath it.  Elizabeth lit a candle to light our way through the dispossessed furniture on the main floor of the dwelling.  She could have lived on any floor of the house with safety as nobody would go near the great house.  Most of Obsille did not even know that there had been an old Asetma mansion.  Additionally, the mansion itself was protective of its charge.

Nearing the doorway that led down to where Elizabeth called home, I saw a portrait under the rail between the stairs to the second floor.  It struck me as odd how much the image looked like the sheriff of Obsille.  Yet, the image was not the Sheriff.  Sheriff Braggs did not have green eyes, nor had he dressed so elegantly at any point in my knowledge.  Even the thin framed glasses on his face, enhancing the green of his eyes for all to see, had a dignity that had never touched the Sheriff of Obsille.  My passing thought was that I could not get away from that guy.  Then I thought no more of it.

Beneath the house was a cellar not unlike that in the new house.  The walls had been cut into the bedrock that supported the rest of the house.  They were smooth as though plaster.  Great care had gone into making the natural stone seem to be part of the house itself.  Whole rooms had been cut into the caverns.

It was in this place that the Old Witch Woman made her home.  Maybe she was most comfortable in a place so far from the prying eyes of men.  The wooden structure of the house did not seem decayed as it should have been, although Elizabeth may just not have trusted it enough to live up there.  Maybe it was the naturally controlled climate of the subterranean rooms that drew her in.

A table had been carved in one of the back rooms and it was here that we put down the groceries that we carried in from town.  Benches had been cut around the table.  I was offered a seat on the hard surface even though Elizabeth did not sit down.  It was tempting for me to remain standing also, but I chose not to risk offense to my host.  She had known enough offense on my account.

"I don't suppose that you all scare easily, sir."

"No ma'am.  And you do not seem to frighten easily either."

She kept her eyes down, counting the candles in her bag as she moved them to the table top.  "I suppose that we get used to it all, living as we do and all."

"That's true.  We live in the world of the things that other people fear."

"Ain't much that I can offer you, but I got glasses and some good spring water in the room over yonder."

"I'll get it if you would like.  I do not feel right about just sitting here like this."

"Don't do much entertaining, you know.  But, you are my guest just the same."

"A lady of your stature is worthy of a little service from her callers."

"Now you're teasing," she said.  "I know what you all say about me in Obsille.  I'm far from deaf, you understand, sir."

My mind was quicker than I was prepared for.  "Then you would also know what they say about me."

"To be sure, I would, sir.  Sharp ears are a good gift when you live in the shadows of life."

I tried not to react to Elisabeth's presence.  For such a long time I had reacted badly to even the alias that she had been saddled with that I wanted to show compassion to Elisabeth.  If only once, I wanted to be civil with Elisabeth.  There was enough darkness in the shadow of Asetma without my adding further to it.

It was hard for me not to be comfortable around the humanized old witch woman.  Should it only be granted that I see her as she truly was, then she would be the only other mortal with which I could share fellowship in the world I could discuss nowhere else.  Those things that we shared were unknown to the people who lived in the light of days, beyond the massive walls and gates bearing the Asetma name.  We whom others feared had no other company in all the created world.

But that was soon to come to an end.  Elisabeth, the infamous old witch woman of Obsille, would be left behind in the cursed shadows when I was thrown out into the light of day.  She would have no comfort and was unlikely to find such kinship with the new keeper.  Orsa was sure to bear the condemnation that I was shedding, however, she was never to be an outcast in her heart.  Death was sure to claim her before she was made like the old witch woman with whom I was sharing a calm, autumn chat.

"Most of the news that comes to Th'Estate is the gossip of the late season labor.  My ears cannot hear so deep into Obsille that I know much of the world at large."

Elisabeth allowed herself to take a seat at long last.  She sat on the bench directly across from me, with manners that I did not expect from an outcast such as we both were.  Her movement was fluid as any of the wraiths that chased tourists through the long hallways of the new Asetma mansion.  There could be no denying that the old witch woman was bred for the aristocracy that no longer held sway in Obsille.

"Sure enough, sir, you hear all that is worthy of your ears.  What more is known to me is not worth your straining to hear."

I smiled in spite of myself and Elisabeth turned her eyes slightly aside from me.  "But I would come and chat with you just to hear it."

"Now, sir, you are making fun of me, to be sure.  What news could I bear that would be worthy of such a fine gentleman as you yourself are?"

Her reference came as a surprise to me and I did not know how to take it.  Was she serious that I was a somebody to her?  Did she know that my captivity was at an end?  "I really should invite you up to Th'Estate.  I've got some fine teas in the pantry that would be a good comfort on a cool autumn's night."

"I do not see why you should, sir.  This place is my home and it is here that I take comfort beyond all other places."

There might have been a hint of offense in her voice, but I only read fear.  "You would be welcome in my home as well, if you chose to come.  It is not often that I have guests."

"I don't go through the tunnel into the new house, much as I used to.  Not with the dark sprite running loose on the grounds."

I could not say how much Elisabeth knew, however, she knew more than I did on a great many matters.  She was a good host and I did not want to wear out my welcome.  Elisabeth was also every bit as lonely as the Green Eyed girl had to be in her phantom state.  It would be Elisabeth's decision on when I would be made to leave the home that she had made for herself in the caverns beneath the old Asetma mansion.

"I'm told that Miriam's rampage is my fault."

She turned to me, but would look only to the side of my face.  "Now don't be so hard on yourself.  Your heart is good and the little girl knows it.  She told me so much not more than a month ago."

"You have spoken to the green eyed girl?"

"Every bit as much as you have and more even than that.  There was a time that I walked in her footsteps, Mark."

The look in my eye had to give away my hunger to know more.  It was my turn to keep my eyes from meeting Elisabeth's face directly.  I was surprised in how she turned away from me, more embarrassed than I was.  There were no words known to me that would give her back the cloak of comfort that she had earlier been wrapped with.  But I had to do something if only to keep my place in Elisabeth's domain.

"I mistook her for Miriam Asetma and that's what started this whole mess."

"Tell me that you didn't do such a thing!  The small spirit is no more the dark specter of Asetma than I am, Mr. Holder."

My eyes drifted down in shame.  I turned to face Elisabeth again, keeping my eyes turned downward into my own lap.  "Can I ever say that I am sorry enough for my crimes?"

"It was the black void in the Asetma soul that caused all this to be.  A mother's love turned at once to greed and lust denied the little one even the peaceful rest of death in her hallowed grave.  You did not do that, Mr. Holder."

I'm not sure if I couldn't look at Elisabeth or if my manners thought it imprudent.  "I did not mean to do what I have done.  If she would speak to me, then I would beg a pardon directly from her."

Elisabeth lifted her right hand, gently stroking my hair.  When she realized what she was doing, she was quick to recoil from any contact with me.  If Elisabeth could give such favors, then I had been forgiven for my sins.  Fair as she was, Elisabeth was not Christ.

"There was a time, in the big house, when I ran into her back.  She didn't see me because I was behind her."

"She is the most physical of all the ghosts in Asetma.  Even I have had contact with her."

"More than that, she is in reality not a ghost as we know use of the term.  When I startled her, she returned to the place where she spends her unseen time."

"How do you know that she's not a really a ghost?  What is the green eyed girl?"

"All I know, Mr. Holder, is that she carried me into her world when I surprised her."

My mind was clearing and I began to consider the possibility that the old witch woman, Elisabeth, might just have been telling me stories as the stories told about her in Obsille.  As an enigma, Elisabeth was somebody in Obsille.  I understood that since I too was somebody of value only because I was the keeper of Th'Estate.  Would I fabricate tales of my hollow life to keep the illusion that I was not just another grain of sand on the floor of the Earth's ocean of people?  Even if it was only a lie, I could not deny Elisabeth the time to tell her story.

"You have been to where young Tommy now is?"

"Tommy is not a youthful spirit that I know well, Mr. Holder.  The green eyed lass took me into her world by mistake."

"What was her world like, if I may ask?"

"I'd be insulted, Mr. Holder, if you did anything less than ask me about it.  It was a strange place if you can be sure of nothing else.  That little spirit walks between the small world where we are given to spend our mortal lives and the greater reality to which she must some day be granted entry."

When I lifted my eyes to see in her direction, I found Elisabeth looking directly into my face.  She did not turn away from me.  There was an angelic glow to her face, well out of her identity as the old witch woman.  Her eyes were wide and bright as though she could see into all of eternity without bothering to make an attempt.  I could swear to it, if I was given to such things, that there was a floral scent to the air around Elisabeth.  It would not have been as strong an incident if I had then assumed that it was only her perfume.

"Go on, Elisabeth, please."

"It is a world where you don't need eyes to see or ears to hear, Mark.  Your heart moves you about instead of your feet.  Everything is the most vibrant and clean shade of color that you have ever seen.  Nothing is more or less solid than you make it in your mind."

Elisabeth spoke to me as though she had been to the world where I was given to meet with Elder.  She had stepped into the world where I often dreamed.  We shared the memories that each of us had of the place beyond all other places without words limiting the depth of our perceptions.  My guide did not have to speak to me further and she knew at least that much.  Only one secret remained that was held by Elisabeth alone.

"How did you get back from that place?"

She was almost puzzled with my question.  It took her time that I would not have needed to determine that it was a worthy question.  "Well, sir, getting back is no harder than getting in, I would suppose."

"As you alone have gone over and returned, it is a key that no other amongst us would have."

"You must not forget the youthful sprite herself, sir.  She also has been to both places and moves between them with ease that I could not muster with a century's experience."

"Please understand, dear Elisabeth, that I must get Tommy back and I do not know how.  Everybody tells me that I am the key and I do not have the answer that you found.  Please help me."

She looked so deep into my eyes that I felt naked before her.  Unlike Elder, I did not feel that she was stealing from me in examining my mind.  I welcomed her to go as deeply as she dared.  There could be no secrets between us if I was to ask truth from her in return.  If she had not been to the other side, where Tommy was held beyond life, yet not in death, then I needed her to be open enough to tell me so.  My life was in her hands as Tommy's life was in mine.

"Mind you, sir, that I did not open that door.  It is not given for me to know if any of us can open it, sir.  Can you say for sure that your source speaks the truth when he tells you that you have such power within you?"

"My life, such that it is, is wagered on his being right and I cannot change that.  Question dwells within me, but I bury it deep for the sake of my sanity."

"I did what would come to you if you were to pass over with the playful sprite, sir.  When she returned to this lower place amongst worlds, I followed her through that door as well."

Her faith in my mental faculties was greater than the trust that I put in myself.  She had passed into the realm beyond the shadows of flesh and matter without losing her head.  My own mental state under such pressure could not be predicted with all the wisdom of Elder.  Elisabeth was more worthy of my gifts than I was.  Given just moments more to think about it then I would have told her that much.

"How did you know when she was about to return?"

She looked at me with her eyes relaxed out of focus as though she didn't believe that I was serious.  I read her response as though she thought that I was playing with her.  The Old Witch Woman was used to being toyed with and I could not blame her.  Her doubts were as just as mine were.

"You don't take the little girl for evil, sir.  She has a kind heart.  Speak to her from your heart and she will respond in kind.  I asked her to take me home, Mr. Holder.  This girl is worthy of the love that she was to know little of in life and even less beyond it."

"Can I be forgiven for my poor view of her?"

"Ask her that as well, sir."

My cup grew empty from the encounter and I thought my welcome wearing thin as well.  I elected to depart before Elisabeth became uncomfortable with me.  The welcome that I had extended her to visit the new house was valid and I did wish for her to take me up on it.  Taking my leave of her, faking manners well beyond my station in life, I walked with Elisabeth to the front door of her home.

Leaving alone was not exactly a good idea.  I was instantly lost in the Imperial Forest.  It took me the rest of the daylight and part of the evening of that day to find my way back to Estate Avenue.  The walk was good for me.  When I reached the edge of Obsille, my mind was clear as it had been before my time in Th'Estate had begun.

I opened Walgo's door to see a deputy sheriff in full and well kept uniform.  He was not like Sheriff Braggs in any significant way.  His stance was almost military in its precision.  There was not a single mark on his dark uniform.  In his eyes I saw a passionate fire that would have scorched Sheriff Braggs clear to ash.

"I don't know what you are pulling, Mark, but this is far from funny."

It was hard to stand erect in the deputy's presence.  He had the full force that I had only felt in Oletta's shadow.  When my words came to voice, I do not doubt that I squeaked them out like a guilty child.  "I am not sure what you mean, Deputy."

He would not take his eyes off of me and they burned into my defenseless flesh.  "We know full well that you got into Th'Estate last night."

"There were a few things that I needed from my room.  That's all that I did while I was in there."

"Tell that to Deputy Saunders.  Your little stunt put him in the hospital."

If he would have taken those cursed eyes off of me then I would have known my own mind.  His gaze was maddening and I was trapped both by and inside of it.  "I do not know what you are talking about, Deputy."

"You can pull that on Sheriff Braggs but it doesn't impress me.  I know that you are behind Tommy Queensman's disappearance and that you did something to that door.  It's only a matter of time before I catch you."

"Can you go a bit slower, Deputy?  I do not know what you are talking about."

Placing his hand under my chin, the deputy lifted my head until I was looking into his white hot eyes.  "Deputy Saunders fell into that little trap you left on the door to your room.  You don't know how close you came to making his wife a widow with that prank, do you?"

It was hard to speak in the heat of his eyes.  "I did not plant anything in Th'Estate, Deputy.  I swear that I had nothing to do with this."

"This isn't over, Mark.  There's a cell at the station waiting for you.  I swear to you that you are going down."

My mind hurt so badly that I could not speak.  It was as though I had been standing face to face with Miriam when she was at the height of her ungodly power.  Obsille's avenging angels would not come to my aid as they had in centuries past.  That deputy could only have been the last of the Asetmas.

He was long gone before I recovered.  Time itself lost meaning in the torments of my own mind.  My whole body was hot from the encounter.  I could almost smell the sickening odor of burning flesh all around me.  Walgo's shower only took most of the stench off of me.

I was early for work at Th'Estate on the next morning.  If I was again to face the blame for Asetma's curse, then I wanted to know what I was being blamed for.  Maybe the curse would be calmer while I was on the grounds and there would be no further blame for me to endure.  Miriam wanted me.

Before the work began, I went to my room within Th'Estate.  Police caution tape had been placed across the doorway, however, I did not let it stop me.  I went right into my old room.  There was a small patch of burned flesh still stuck to the doorknob.

My room had an unfamiliar smell to it.  It was something beyond musty.  The scent was sweeter than floral, hiding a rotting undertone in the mix.  I would almost say that my room had the aroma of good, fertile earth.  Obsille only knew such vital soil in the consecrated grounds where we buried our dead.

Closing the door behind me, I startled myself with a mirror on the wall.  It was not my mirror.  My reflection came as a surprise to me only because I didn't expect to see a mirror behind the door.  I shook it off in an instant with a small laugh under my breath.  Asetma was getting to me as it had when I was new to Th'Estate.

Something in the mirror was not quite right, yet I did not see it quickly.  My reflection was unfamiliar to me.  Mirrors and I had never been close friends and that is how I took the strange feeling.  The feeling did not pass.  Looking deeper into the reflection, I came to see my own eyes.  They were not my eyes.

In point of fact, the parts of my face that should have been eyes were not eyes at all.  They were black spheres like balls of opaque glass set into my skull.  Fear turned my warm blood to ice and I froze from the inside out.  Just looking into the reflective surface on the wall of my former home turned me into a statue.  I was alive within the frozen form of my body, however, I could no more move than if I had been cast of bronze.

Life returned to me in a flash.  I was in the main foyer, standing with the rest of the tour guides for the morning briefing.  How I had been taken to that point and how long it had taken were secrets that I had no privilege to know.  Turning to see the face of the person who had placed her hand on my left shoulder, I came face to face with the green eyed girl.  Withdrawing her hand, she walked a few steps into the group behind me and vanished.

Fear was an inappropriate response to the presence that Elisabeth had spoken so highly of, yet I was no more than human.  Elder's words did not give me strength beyond the mortal flesh that bound me to the physical world for the full measure of my living days.  I was still ashamed to admit that I was afraid of the little girl who was not exactly a ghost.  Dishonesty in failing to speak the truth would have shamed me greater.

In her time, the green eyed girl entered with a group of tourists.  The crowds had thinned and I was the only working guide for the early morning hours.  Even the tourists did not hurry their stroll over the grounds into the main house for the tour.  I may as well have been alone in Th'Estate.

My youthful companion did not elicit much of a response from me.  She took pride in the compliments that the younger lady in my group paid to the architecture of the mansion.  The green eyed girl must have known such stories of the mansion that I would have liked for her to lead me on a tour.  I had not seen the green eyed girl interact with any of the tourists in the past and the thought passed through my mind that there could have been another disappearance.

If getting back was a matter of asking, then there was little danger in getting taken.  However, if I could not be sure of holding my cool through such an event, then how could I expect as much from the tourists who knew so much less about our visitor?  My only hope would be to be taken with the tourist so that I could get to Tommy as well as use the key that Elisabeth had given to me on the previous day.  The tour did not end before I was looking forward to following the green eyed girl into the shadows of Asetma.  There would be much for the tourists to tell if I got my wish.

The Green Eyed Girl was gone before the tourists returned to the main foyer to depart.  She held her mystery for another day.  We did not return to searching for her throughout the mansion even though two of the public servants working at my side did notice the green eyed girl's absence.  My green eyed companion was just another story added on top of the gossip about what I had done to Tommy.

Morning hours passed slowly as though time feared to come into Asetma's grounds.  Crowds began to gather at the gate for a little while, two hours near to ten in the morning, and there were three tour groups walking the grounds at once.  When those hours ended we had seen the end of the action for the day.  With the exception of me, everybody else could have gone directly home and nobody would have noticed anything. 

Time kept passing.  Closing in on lunch time, though more than an hour short of it, I had a break between two groups.  I cannot even say why somebody else had taken the tour group in my place.  It was not a high profile job and there were few tourists of interest when the green eyed girl was not in the group.  Since I had the time, I stepped into a dark doorway and pretended not to be in Th'Estate at all.

When reality faded into a chaotic parody of itself, Elder chose to put in an appearance.  Maybe I had vanished from sight in a shadow between two doors.  It is just as possible that I was left in the material world, straddling the realities only with my mind, and that I therefore seemed to be talking to myself.  Whatever the reality seem by others in Th'Estate at that time, I was standing in a garden when Elder approached me.

The land was hilly, growing thick with fragrant flowering plants to the edges of a rambling and peaceful brook.  It was nowhere that I had physically been, yet that is not to say that it was nowhere that I had ever been.  I had really been to that garden spot a number of times.  Orsa and I had our picnics there in my fantasies.  Elder knew me better than I was comfortable letting anybody know me.

Elder came up behind my right shoulder and, for those few moments, I could swear that he felt like Orsa.  All the stress melted out of my back when he brushed against my shoulder.  My whole life melted away as I would have given all of it to Orsa.  I was warm and relaxed in the image to which I had been taken.

With the return of my mental faculties, I felt ill used by Elder.  He had taken something so deep from me that I was scarred for him to even know about it.  There was a rage buried within me and I felt contempt toward Elder.  Elder held his place at my side, letting the first move be mine.

Before I turned to face him, I tried to hold down the expression of my feelings.  I did not know what Elder could or would do to me if I let him see the reality of who I was at that point.  Reason had abandoned me.  We were in a garden to which I often took my mind when reason deserved to be abandoned.  These were also things that Elder had to know if he could reach so deep into me that he could steal that one dream from my memories.

"This is not a place where I would expect to see you, Elder."

My words gave him permission to materialize into my vision.  Maybe, if I had known as much for sure, then I would have held my peace to keep him out of my dream.  For everything, there is a reason.  No universe that has rules, and all universes must have rules, can share their souls with chaos.

"You were not here yesterday, Job."

The lack of expression on my face must have said more than all the words that I swallowed to keep a civil tongue.  "I am aware of that, Elder.  This is a place to which I come only on special occasions."

He smiled at me and I willed half of his teeth black.  "If you choose not to fight evil, Job, evil will not return the favor."

"Even the mightiest of us must have a moment's rest or his strength will be fast to fade."

Elder either pretended not to notice how I had distorted his face or he honestly could not sense what I was doing to him.  He just stood still, speaking to me without expression other than the smile on his face.  However he would have taken it, it was becoming funny to me and I could hardly suppress the desire to laugh aloud.  Even if it was not his intent, he had broken down the rage that I had unleashed against him.

"Do not underestimate Miriam, Job.  Though not as good of a student, and maybe with lesser gifts than yours, she still has studied longer than you have."

"I've heard what she did to the deputy yesterday."

"Also do not forget that it was you who set her free on Obsille.  Humility will serve the best of us more than the least of us."

"Does it help if I admit to being sorry?"

"You cannot be a man of words when deeds are called for, Job.  I know, in your heart, that you are sorry.  However, it will not save the next deputy or poor Tommy."

"Elder, can you answer a direct question?"

He stopped smiling and looked deep into me with his faded green eyes.  His eyes passed no deeper into my mind than I allowed and I allowed only what I was comfortable with him knowing.  Elder was no longer beyond my awareness.  Maybe Miriam's presence was wearing on my teacher's power.

"You want to know how to put Miriam back where she came from."

"Is that not what you have commanded me to do, Elder?"

With a deep, illusionary breath, he phrased his words before speaking.  "Miriam is still dead, Job.  She is already most of the way through the door where you must send her.  You just have to learn how to use the gifts that you have been given, Job."

"I was actually going to ask how to get Tommy back before putting Miriam away."

"Where Tommy is will be safe.  Put Miriam back where she belongs before she kills someone else."

I'm not sure if Elder understood the gravity of the situation that I had been put in.  I knew that Miriam would have to be put away, however, Tommy's absence was the greater threat to my being able to do anything further.  It seemed that I had to actually be present within Th'Estate to have any effect on the curse.  Not returning Tommy would keep me in prison for the remaining days of my given life.  Another keeper, maybe many keepers without the gift that Elder had declared to be mine, would be assigned to Th'Estate by then.  Tommy was my hope.

Elder elected not to hear me.  He was not listening in on my thoughts while he returned me to the lesser world under the Asetma curse.  In an instant, I was back in an Asetma hallway and he was gone.  His lessons seemed to hinge upon my obedience.

My lunch break was a long time in coming with the dwindling crowds late in the season.  If it had not been for the light tourist traffic that day, then there is a very good chance that I would not have been afforded a lunch break at all.  My fellow public servants would have used up every open moment and left me with no time for eating.  I had grown used to the pattern in the years of my servitude.  It was an odd feeling to realize that my sentence was soon to end.

I chose to eat a few pieces of the fruit that I had bought from the local stands in preparation for my long winter alone in Th'Estate.  The end of the tourist season is also harvest season for what little produce the cursed soil of Obsille can still support.  In the waning of tourist season, I pick up a bushel of apples to stock my pantry while I go on one of my lunchtime jogs.  Peaches and pears are often available for a few days if I can get the free time to pick any up.

It had been Mr. McGregor's duty to pick up the last of the fruit that I would have for my winter rations.  Mr. McGregor was also the reason that I had chosen to have only three pieces of fruit on that day.  I knew that I could eat fruit and have enough time left of my lunch period for the weekly walks that I was able to share with my former gardener.  Our walks would be dying off as the tourist season came to a close and we entered the time when I would otherwise have been locked away to serve out my winter alone.

Oletta had cursed me more in less than three months than Miriam had been able to do in more than three years.  She was the reason that, if Elder was right and I was returned to my solitary post, I would have been completely alone for the end of that year. What friends remained to me had been removed from my presence by her actions.  Tommy's disappearance may well have been my fault; however, she was completely responsible for the loss of Mr. McGregor.  I would not even doubt that she had driven the old witch woman from the grounds.

Meeting up with Mr. McGregor not far past the gates of Th'Estate, my mind was at ease.  I stopped thinking about the curse that I was under, and the wrong that I had further done to the whole of Obsille as though a great switch had been flipped off.  For a man near to twice my age, Mr. McGregor could keep up a pace that felt good to my cramped muscles.  It was almost like running with the wind through the forest surrounding Obsille.  The activity burned through the darkness in the pit of my stomach.  Inside, I was no longer empty.

We did not speak on our walk.  There was no need for words.  Our fellowship was the missing part of each of our lives.  Maybe Mr. McGregor had been right to accept his retirement.  Unless Oletta's crimes came back to again enslave my old friend, he had the kind of freedom that I was never to know.  Even if I too was removed from Th'Estate, I knew that the cost of my freedom would be the interment of somebody else.  Yet, words had no meaning while Mr. McGregor and I walked through the Imperial Forest, down Estate Avenue.

Before we turned back, the white spire at the top of Saint Joel's cathedral came into view above the treetops.  When the forest is thick with leaves through the growing season, you cannot see the bell tower of the church.  It is never visible from Th'Estate.  St. Joel's would not dirty itself with the association between Asetma's mansion and itself.  Both of the estates, Asetma and St. Joel's, had known the same better days.

Both structures came from the same era.  The brightest angels amongst the Asetma bloodline had donated most of the cost for the building of the cathedral.  St. Joel's had grown from a humble church to a massive cathedral as the Asetma family grew to build its new castle.  When the time came, it was from St. Joel's that the avenging angels marched to rip the dark sore from the name of Asetma.  Even the old men in bad suits had once sworn fealty to Christ beneath the same spire that my eyes had been drawn upward to see.

Mr. McGregor was not looking upward to the top of the monument that had stolen my attention.  His eyes were cast downward to the plain watch on his wrist.  Even retired, Mr. McGregor had more use for time than I did in my working life.  He was on a schedule that left him just enough time to walk back to the gates of Th'Estate with me.  Whatever task needed the rest of his day was not my concern.

Not more than three yards from the massive iron gates that defended Asetma from the cursed reality beyond its borders, Mr. McGregor waved goodbye to me.  If I had not turned quickly, then I would not even have seen him take his leave of me.  Even as I marched slowly, going figuratively to my execution, Mr. McGregor was moving like lightning through a cloudy sky.  He was barely close enough to be seen before I passed through the Asetma gates.

He left me alone to face my fate.  It felt, upon entering the foreboding atmosphere of the mansion through the heavy wooden doors, that I had been utterly abandoned.  Nobody was left on my side.  Whether Miriam or Oletta had brought me to that fate, the weight of the isolation nearly brought me to my knees in the main foyer.

Even slow days do have an end to them.  It may not feel like they will come to a close while you are living through them, yet the time comes when you can lock up and go home.  Part of me was drawn to the idea that I was already home, although I knew better than even let that idea slip through my parched lips.  I locked up the main gates and left with the rest of the public slaves assigned to Asetma duty.

Walgo's home would only be a way-station to me and never my home.  Walgo tried to make me comfortable and may even have been honest in wanting me to stay with him in Obsille.  At first, the living beyond the heavy atmosphere of the Asetma curse had actually been fun.  Truth would have me growing restless in Obsille.  I did want to go home deep down.  Home was a place that I had not yet found in Obsille.

Sleep was easy in Walgo's abode.  I could not even recall searching for rest in the soft, warm bed.  My head touched the pillow and the rest of me fell into the embrace of formless sleep.  Whatever sleep I knew was always vulnerable to intrusion by the corrupting influence of Miriam Asetma.

I found it hard to breathe.  The whole of my body lusted after the comfort of the spiritual warmth flowing up from my feet.  Everything in the room with me had a beautiful white glow to it.  Fear lost meaning to me in the volume of the light.  That calming light and I were one.  It was everything that I had ever wanted.

Then I was thrown into the air above my deathbed.  My body had no will left to fight on.  All that I wanted was to glide gently back into eternal slumber and be free from the darker world of flesh and blood.  Comfort was denied to me.  Suspended in the air, a black crust formed around me.

It started at my feet and covered me by growing upward from there.  Miriam's gaze froze me into the hard shell.  The shell was harder than steel, holding me suspended above the living world and forever below the world beyond life.  I was bound to this place by the filaments of a web extended from Miriam's heart.  My cage was made of Miriam's lust as a substitute for love.

Miriam was afraid to be left alone.  There were tears in my eyes, but they were not my eyes.  I could feel how Miriam could not accept defeat.  Her curse upon my flesh was the best that she had in the way of a mother's love.  My tears were her desperation and her loneliness.  Combined, they were more than I could endure.

Outside of time, I faded into the fabric of all things in the universe.  My dream stretched to the edges of all creation in a vain attempt to reach any part of the place beyond creation.  Desperation flooded me.  Swept on its currents, I floated as far as the dream would take me.  Delivering the message, my host let go of me to suffer on alone while I lay sleeping in Walgo's comfortable guest bed.


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