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She felt heavy, her eyes made of lead. Forcing them open, she looked through the slit-like opening. A room. Small. Obscenely bright. Painful. She saw a figure close by, slumped over in a chair. Blonde hair, messy bun. Calm, even breathing, hands clasped proper-like in her lap. Looking past the sleeping woman, she saw another figure standing near the door of the room she found herself in. He was staring off into space, face expressionless. She thought he looked tired.
A small gasp brought her attention back to the woman, only to find herself looking into shocked, open eyes. The woman sat forward, her face suddenly so close, so close. Her mouth moved, tears in her eyes. No words. No sound.
So tired. Heavy.
Braxton gasped, her eyes opening, taking in her surroundings. She saw the dying fire to her right, Asima just beyond, sitting up, her back against the fallen log she’d been using as a backrest. Blue eyes met her gaze.
“You okay?” Asima asked, setting aside the dagger she’d been sharpening. Her look of mild curiosity turned to concern by the startled, almost frightened look on Braxton’s face. “Bad dream?”
Braxton sat up, running a trembling hand through her hair. “I don’t know,” she murmured, staring off into the darkness, trying to bring the images back to mind. Distantly she heard Asima crawling to her side of the fire. The brunette’s presence was comforting. “I was in a room,” she said softly, staring off into her dream. “A woman was there. And a man- standing at the door, I think. She was crying.”
Margot could feel her tears tracing down her cheeks as she searched her daughter’s face desperately. “Braxton?” she said, caressing the soft, pale cheek. “Baby? Come back. Come back to me.”
Jared stood next to Braxton’s mother, his eyes wide and heart still pounding. He’d been lost in his own world when he’d heard Margot’s surprised cry. Hurrying to her side, he’d been shocked to see Braxton looking right at the older woman, her eyes clear, the depths intelligent.
“Mrs. Crowley?” Jared said softly, resting a hand on her arm. “Let her sleep.” Jared was startled when he found himself with an armful of sobbing Braxton’s mother. He held her, his eyes never leaving his best friend, silently pleading for her to open those beautiful green eyes again. “We should probably tell her doctor,” he said softly. He felt the woman in his arms nod and sniffle. “Mrs. Crowley-“
“Oh, Jared,” Margot chuckled, pulling away from the young man. She beamed up at him, a dry hand placed against his cheek. “Call me Margot. You’ve been with me every step of the way for the past six weeks. I think we’re past formalities.”
Jared grinned, nodding. “Agreed. You stay here with her. I’ll go get the doc.”
Margot nodded, turning back to her daughter once she was alone again. She was filled with an acute mixture of relief and grief anew. Thoughts raced through her head: Did she wake just simply to tell me goodbye? Is she beginning to come out of this? Is she still alive? Will she know who I am when she waked up? If she wakes up. She shivered at the last thought, which sounded a great deal like Fletcher’s voice.
“Who were they? Who did you see? What did they say?” Asima asked, her voice gaining a little more excitement with every question.
Braxton shook her head. “I don’t know. But,” she glanced down at herself and over at Asima’s clothing. “They looked different. Dressed different. Not like us.”
Asima’s touch was gentle as she cupped Braxton’s jaw. “Don’t you see?” she asked, eyes bright. “This is good, Braxton. This is very, very good.”
The guide’s enthusiasm was contagious, even if Braxton had no clue what the dream meant. The warm touch felt good in what seemed like such a desolate place. “Okay,” she said softly. “Yay.”
Asima chuckled, her hand dropping. “Go back to sleep now. Tomorrow we’ll go to the House of Shadows. See if we can find some answers.”
The old house was looming and hauntingly beautiful. Braxton mounted the long, narrow stairs that led to the double front doors. She felt Asima close behind her, which helped to keep her heartbeat in check. The skies above the castle-like structure held an eerie, deep blue hue, as though storm clouds were transparent over a blue, June sky. It was somewhat disquieting.
“Go on,” she heard quietly behind her, not even realizing she’d stopped her progress on the stone steps. A quick, reassuring glance behind her, the blonde continued her ascent.
Pushing through the heavy wooden door, warily Braxton stepped inside. The creak of the opening door was the only sound, save for the howling of a wind that seemed to come from within the walls of the house. Braxton shivered. The house was filled with shadows, shapes that seemed to swim along the walls and high ceilings, never settling anywhere long enough for Braxton to get a good look at them, or figure out what they were. She felt the solid warmth of Asima behind her.
“Be careful in here, Braxton,” the guide warned quietly. “Don’t fear what you see, but be mindful of your actions.” She leaned in close, a hand resting lightly on one of the blonde’s shoulders. “Nothing can hurt you in here. Not if you don’t let them.”
Nodding, but not entirely sure how she felt about what she was told, Braxton bravely took a step forward. The room she stepped into was massive, the floor cold stone, which their booted steps thudded dully on. The air was cool, though not cold. Even still, slight chills raced up and down Braxton’s spine. She gasped lightly when she turned to her right, heart stopping when she thought someone stood watching. When she realized that floor to ceiling mirrors ran the length of the room, she laughed a bit nervously.
Continuing on, she took in her surroundings. Giant chandeliers, crystal prisms twinkling in the constant breeze, hung from the ceiling. Braxton watched the beautiful creations, almost holding her breath as she waited for the seemingly unsteady mammoths to fall. A winding staircase twirled up into darkness to the left, the steps stone, though covered in a dark-colored carpeting down the middle of the traffic path. There were no doors off the main room. It was either upstairs or out the front door, which slammed closed, making Braxton jump.
“God, this place is creepy,” she whispered, hand to her heart. Asima grinned, nodding. She turned to her companion. “What am I supposed to do?”
Asima met her gaze, her face expressionless. “Look within yourself,” she said calmly.
Confused, Braxton turned to glance at the mirror that had first grabbed her attention. She was startled to see there was no reflection. Walking toward the glossy surface, she walked toward the woman who looked back at her. The woman from her dream. Older than Braxton, though with similar features, the younger blonde reached a hand toward the glossy surface, the woman on the other side matching her move. Braxton smiled, a feeling of relief washing over her. She knew that woman, though didn’t know why. It didn’t matter- she knew her.
As she continued to stare into the eyes of the woman, the scene changed. The day was blooming, skies blue and clear. Two children ran across green grass, a boy and a girl. They giggled as they chased each other. The blonde-haired boy tripped, falling to his hands and knees, and finally rolling over to his back, rocking as he held his upraised knee. The little girl stopped, hurrying over to him.
“Are you okay, Jared?” she asked.
“Ohhh, it hurts!” he howled, but then suddenly stopped, lunging at the girl with a loud growl. She screamed and was off like a shot, laughter trailing after her.
Braxton smiled, charmed and feeling a sense of excitement fill her at the children’s play. It seemed so familiar to her, yet as alien as the house she stood in. The image slowly shimmered into a scene of the same two children, though now grown to be teenagers. She outright laughed when she saw the girl, whom she realized was herself, helping the young man out of his window. They both fell to the ground as his grip on the tree he’d been climbing down, slipped.
“Damn it, Jared!” Braxton hissed, looking around the night to make sure they hadn’t been spotted. “My father will kill us if he finds out we’ve snuck out.”
“Well, it’s your stupid boyfriend we’re going to meet,” Jared hissed back, brushing off his clothing of any loose grass. Without another word, the two ran off into the darkness.
Braxton’s smile remained as she felt the amusement in the memory of that scene, even if she couldn’t remember specifics. The next scene she saw made her breath catch. She saw herself lying alone, her body broken, in an open field. She stepped closer to the image, watching in horror as her other self tried to get up, but only fell back in agonizing pain, almost like a wounded dog, trying desperately to limp his way back home.
“Tragic, isn’t it?” a soft voice said from behind her. She nodded dumbly, not registering that the man’s voice sounded awful familiar. She started slightly at the feel of gentle hands on her shoulders, unable to take her eyes from the image before her. “Look at that? So much pain. So much loss.”
Slowly the image began to shimmer once more, Braxton watching as a small, sterile hospital room emerged. Her still form was lying in the bed, tubes and machines inserted into far too many places on her body. She was still alone.
“Do you know how much that is costing your poor, financially unstable parents? Look at that,” he said, voice so soothing in her ear, “they couldn’t even afford to come see you.” Braxton felt a soft touch against her cheek, then warm breath against her ear. “It’s expensive to care for an invalid, my dear.”
“I’m not an invalid,” Braxton whispered, though she could hear the uncertainty in her own words.
“No?” he said, gently turning her face toward him with a touch under her chin. She looked into the blue eyes, seeing a friend before her. “Then why are you here?”
Braxton turned back to the image, shaking her head. “I don’t know.” She watched in tortured wonder as the image transformed one last time. A long, polished casket was displayed at the front of a church. The chairs were empty, save for two. She saw the backs of their heads- a blonde man, much like the one standing next to her now, and the older woman she’d seen in an earlier vision. There were no flowers. No crying. No mourners.
“Release them from their sadness. Release yourself from all the pain that awaits you. The pain of being a burden on them forever.” He leaned closer still, his words no more than a breath of warning. “No more school. No more living. No more love. Only pain.”
Braxton felt a fire building inside her, and it was beginning to rage out of control. She pushed herself away from the man who she now realized was Markus. His face had turned from the beauty of Jared to a hardened mask of hatred, the comforting blue eyes bleeding to a lifeless brown. He raised his sword, and before Braxton could think, she met his strike with her own blade, sparks flying from the meeting metal. His look of shock made her feel strong.
“Get out of my nightmare,” she hissed, pushing his blade away from hers, the man taking a step back. He continued to back away from her, the shadows slowly enveloping him.
“This isn’t over, my dear,” he warned, now no more than a voice. “You’ll be watching over your shoulder forever.”
Braxton was shaking as she continued to stare into the shadows, then felt the hard, solidness of something in her hands. She was shocked all over again to see the sword she held, her breath catching. The grip was brown leather, pommel a simple gold knob, which matched the simple straight guard. The blade was polished steel, a fuller running down it’s length.
She felt herself begin to tremble so bad she nearly dropped the blade. Suddenly a warm hand wrapped around her own, gently taking the sword from her hand. Turning, she cried out in relief as Asima looked down at her with concerned eyes. She threw herself at the guide, burying her face in a warm neck. Asima, stunned, stood stiff for a moment, unsure what to do, until finally she wrapped her arms around the trembling body.
“Shh,” she cooed, “I’ve got you.”
Dr. Ron Sheppard turned to the family, stuffing his glasses back into the pocket of his lab coat. “Well, everything looks wonderful. The fractures have healed nicely. The casts will be removed from her legs and arms within the week. Her vitals look good.”
“So, when will she wake up, then?” Jared asked, leaning against the wall to stay out of the way of the examining doctor, and his team of nurses. Margot Crowley stood close, her hand covering her mouth, concern in her eyes, which strayed to her daughter. All bandages had been removed from her head and face, wounds allowed to finish healing and air to get to them. Her limbs still wore heavy casts.
“I’m not real sure,” the doctor said, glancing back at his patient. “We can only be glad that she’s out of immediate danger and hope for the best.” He turned a comforting smile on the family. “If there are no other questions, I need to be going.” Seeing there were none, he squeezed Jared’s shoulder compassionately, then headed out, followed by the crew of medical personnel.
“Want a ride home, Margot?” Jared asked, leaning over and giving the woman, who he’d become very close to over the past two months, a kiss to the cheek and a one-armed hug.
Margot shook her head. “No. Think I’ll hang around here for a little bit.” She smiled at the young man who was like the son she’d never had. “You have plans with Karen tonight?” she asked softly. Her smile spread quick to match Jared’s. He nodded. “Things seem to be getting serious.” Margot grabbed the chair that was against the wall, dragging it closer to the one near the bed- her vigil for eight weeks. She tugged his hand until he sat then patted his knee. “Tell me.”
Jared wasn’t sure what to say, and somehow felt guilty with Braxton lying in the bed not two feet from him, which he knew was ridiculous. He had known in his heart of hearts that nothing would ever happen between him and the beautiful blonde, but it hadn’t stopped him from hoping. And wishing. Now, telling Margot about it, somehow it was like confessing his secrets, a weight taken from his shoulders.
With a heavy sigh, he began to speak. “I think I’m falling in love with her, Margot,” he said softly. “With Karen,” he clarified unnecessarily.
“Given up on my daughter, have you?” Margot asked, a twinkle in her eyes.
Jared froze, eyes growing wide. “Well, uh, no, I mean, yes, I mean,” he buried his head in his hands. “Ah, hell.” Looking up at the older woman again, he gave her a lopsided grin. “She’ll wake up, that much I know. But she’ll never love me, Margot. I’ve stopped kidding myself.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know. Somehow Karen has helped me to see…” his voice trailed off, not sure how much he could tell this dear woman sitting next to him. It amazed and saddened him that he’d known Margot Crowley his entire life, but never realized just how cool she was. But then again, he ‘d never seen her sans Fletcher, who just about controlled her every thought.
“You can tell me, Jared,” Margot said, sensing his discomfort. “I think young love is beautiful.” Her wistful words nearly broke the blonde man’s heart.
“Karen has shown me the passion that I know Brax could never give me. She’s my best friend, and I love her with my soul. Sometimes I think Braxton is my soulmate in a non-romantic way, you know? My other half, to help me and guide me, somehow.” He stared off into space, his words tasting right upon his lips. “Either way, I think I may have something good with Karen. She’s great,” he finished with a wide grin.
“And I think it’s wonderful. You’re a good boy, Jared. You deserve to be happy. I’m just sorry my daughter is too foolish to see it.”
“Nah,” Jared waved the words away. “I’m happy as long as she’s in my life. That’s all I can ask.”
“She will be. I know that.” Margot glanced at her daughter. “She will.” She smiled at the soft kiss left on the top of her head as Jared left the room, her eyes remaining on Braxton. She looked better, a bit more color returning to her face. Now she just looked like she was sleeping, rather had barely survived a prize fight. Most of the tubing and other medical equipment had been removed, except for the catheter and feeding tube.
“My dear, dear Braxton,” she said, taking her daughter’s hand, this one free of any tubing, the bruise long fading. She took a deep breath, glancing out the window on the other side of the narrow bed. “It’s a lovely day outside, honey,” she began conversationally. “The grass is all green, flowers fully in bloom. Lovely. And speaking of lovely, you should see how happy Karen makes Jared. Such a sweet couple.” Margot smiled at the memory. She began to stroke Braxton’s fingers absently as she chatted on, filling Braxton in on all the latest gossip at home, as well as in the college student’s new town.
Asima sat against the cave wall, watching her charge carefully. Braxton had been very quiet since they’d left the House of Shadows. The girl seemed lost within her own head, eyes focused on the flames before her. Even her body was curled up upon itself. Asima hissed softly as the twig she’d been picking apart shoved a small splinter into her hand.
“Damn,” she whispered, turning her palm toward the fire to see if she could find the small wound.
“Let me see,” Braxton said softly, scooting around to Asima’s side of the fire. Any protests quickly fell from Asima’s lips at the look on her companion’s face. Braxton gently took the brunette’s hand in her own, turning the palm to the fire. “Ouch. It’s deep.” She glanced up at Asima. “This is going to hurt.”
Asima nodded, knowing as much. She watched as Braxton crawled over to their saddlebags, digging until she brought out both an arrow and one of their daggers. Turning to make her way back over to her friend, she saw the gleam of her new blade from the corner of her eye. Shivering, she continued her short journey, setting the tips of both weapons into the fire.
Asima bit her lip to stop herself from crying out as Braxton went to work with the newly sterilized knife tip. She watched the look of concentration on the blonde’s face, trying to read what was in Braxton’s mind. She was not privy to what had occurred in the House of Shadows, though knew it had been profound. She also had the feeling that Markus was frightened of Braxton. She decided to voice that thought.
“He came to you, didn’t he?”
Green eyes flickered up to give Asima a brief glance before returning to what she was doing. “Yes.”
“You frighten him, Braxton.”
The blonde stopped her digging, wiping away a slim string of blood with her thumb. “Why do you say that?”
“What did he say to you? Or did he just attack?” she asked in lieu of an answer, nodding toward Braxton’s sword.
“No. He spoke first. He tried to convince me that,” Braxton’s voice broke. She pulled away from Asima for a moment, not wanting to hurt her in her upset. After several deep breaths, she returned to her task, finally digging out the splinter, her fingertips covered in a light covering of blood as she picked it out of the tender skin. “Sorry. I know that hurts,” she said softly. She wet a piece of cloth and wiped down Asima’s palm. “All better.”
“Thank you.” The guide took her hand, impressed with Braxton’s handiwork. She used the cloth to stem the minor bleeding. She glanced at the blonde, unsure if Braxton would continue or not. No, she didn’t have to, as the House of Shadows was a very private journey, meant to show what lie within the soul. Asima had her own vision while she was there. Mainly she needed to know if she was teaching Braxton was she must. Would she be able to get Braxton to a place where she could fight her demons, and reclaim her soul? The answers had proven that they still had work to do.
“I remember what happened to me, Asima,” Braxton said softly, having moved back to her side of the fire. The dagger had been cleaned and stowed, as had the arrow, which she hadn’t needed after all. “I know it was an accident. I know I was badly hurt.” She met Asima’s gaze. “I just don’t know how I got here,” she said, indicating the cave around them. “I don’t think I’m dead, but can’t think of anything else.”
“You’re not dead, Braxton. Far from it. If Markus’ two visits are anything to go by, plus his big welcome to you in the form of that storm, he’s running scared because you’re very strong, and very much alive. I think from here on out Markus is going to throw everything at you that he can. Be prepared for it. The time of reckoning is coming far faster than I thought.”
The room was dark. Beeping. Steady, beep, beep, beep. Alone. Blinking several times, she took in her surroundings. Just as they were before, but no one sitting next to her. No one leaning against the wall by the door. The door is open. Bright light, no color, shining in from hall beyond. A distant voice, echoing into the room. She can’t understand what it’s staying, but somehow the voice is comforting.
She tried to speak, but her lips hurt. They’re dry, cracked. Her tongue doesn’t help, but only makes them burn. Fear begins to grip her heart, sending a shiver down her spine. Where is she? Why does she hurt? Where is everyone? Mom! Jared!
The beeping intensifies, startling her. A silhouette steps inside the door, then hurries over to her. She looks at her, can’t see her face. She tries to cry for help, but nothing comes out.
“Shhh. It’s okay,” the soothing voice said. A gentle, cool hand on her forehead. “Stay calm, Braxton.”
She looks past the shadowy figure, another standing in the doorway. She feels her heart beginning to pound, fear like an icy grip. She struggles against the calming hand on her shoulder, head shaking from side to side. She can’t speak! Can’t breathe! No! Get away! No, no, no!
Braxton gasped, shooting up from her bedroll, lungs burning as she gasped for air. Frantic eyes looked around the campsite, the sky above dark and foreboding. “Asima?” she whispered, still unable to pull in a full breath of air. The bedroll on the other side of the fire empty. “Asima?” She climbs out of her own, getting to shaky legs. There is no sign of her guide anywhere. “Asima?!”
Braxton’s head whipped around to the left, hearing her guide’s voice off in the distance. Asima was crying.
“I’m coming,” Braxton whispered, running off toward the sound of the cries. “Where are you? I’m coming!”
Tree branches smacked against her face as she ran trough the dense, dark woods, desperate to get to Asima. She ignored the sting of the tiny cuts against her cheeks and forehead. She felt a sharp pain against the side of her head, which nearly knocked her to her knees. She cried out as a sharp pain stabbed through her left leg, making her stumble. She grabbed onto the trunk of a tree to steady herself, but her grip was lost. A scream tore from her throat as her arms both sang out in the most intense pain she’d ever felt.
Braxton felt dizzy from the pain. Flopping over to her stomach, she tried to claw her way toward Asima’s cries, which she no longer heard. She stopped, listening, hearing the cries again. This time she realized they were her own.
Braxton screamed, nearly running into the stone wall of the cave as she tried to find freedom. Her eyes were open, but still she saw the dense forest around her. She cried out again, lashing out when a hand rested on her arm.
“No!” she screamed, the sound a solid slap as flesh met flesh. “No! Don’t hurt me! No, Daddy, no!”
“Braxton!” Asima yelled, cupping the blonde’s face in her hands, shaking her. Finally the green eyes blinked once, twice, then focused on Asima’s face.
“Asima?” Braxton whispered, daring to hope. She saw the guide nod, fear in the intense blue eyes. “Oh, god.” She sagged, caught in a strong embrace. She clung to Asima, the tears releasing themselves.
Fletcher Crowley stood in the doorway of his daughter’s hospital room, watching the nurse working. He clutched the thick, heavy book to his chest, the leather smooth against calloused hands. Turning, he decided to head on out and find his wife. It was time she returned to where she belonged.