Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Ally rose slowly from a deep and completely dreamless sleep, revelling in the warmth of the sheets and the soft, almost inaudible breathing of someone else beside her in the bed. For the first time in months she felt safe and right and warm, and she spent a moment simply lying still and being before opening her eyes. She blinked as her eyes protested the bright light shining through the window, but the sight of Evelynne's face inches away from her, facing her on the bed and close enough for her near-sighted gaze to make out, more than made up for that mild discomfort. In fact, the brightness itself was a blessing, the discomfort along the lines of a stiff muscle testing itself after long disuse, and Ally wondered just how long she had been living in the dark.
Satisfied, she settled down and simply watched the face so close to hers, completely unmotivated to do anything that might mar the peaceful moment. She didn't know how long she watched her lover's face before the other woman finally stirred. Evelynne's eyes scrunched up tight and her nose wrinkled, and she made an odd noise somewhere between a grunt and a kitten's meow as her whole body stretched and relaxed again. Ally just barely suppressed a giggle at the sight, and the giddiness and joy she felt was decidedly strange after so long with little to laugh about. Her lips were still curved in a hint of a smile when Evelynne opened her eyes.
There was no surprise in Evelynne's eyes, as though she had known all along that Ally was watching her, and she smiled in lazy greeting. Then her gaze went slightly more serious and her eyes sharpened as she looked past Ally's face and into her soul. Ally felt the feather-light touch of Evelynne's mind on hers and welcomed it, reaching out in return to brush her lover's thoughts in a communication without words. Somewhere in between their souls merged gently, like two clouds mingling idly with each other at the edges, and the indefinable rapport between them, as loving mental fingers tested for pain and soothed it away, brought tears to Ally's eyes.
And there was still pain there, she knew, still scars that might never heal. But they could be lived with, salved with love, and no longer be soul-consuming in their scope. Ally's eyes cleared and she saw the acknowledgement of that in Evelynne's face and the lingering sadness there, and reached out to banish that sorrow by bridging the few inches between them and bringing their lips together.
It wasn't an urgent kiss, but only a rejoining, a reaffirmation of their bond. It lasted for a long time, tasting and exploring, reminding Ally of the shy, uncertain kisses they had exchanged when their relationship was still very new.
They were very close together in the bed, and Ally's hand was resting on Evelynne's side, on top of the light t-shirt she was wearing, and she hesitated, pulling back slightly as sudden irrational doubt assailed her. She looked into her lover's eyes, her own asking a question and seeking reassurance at the same time. Evelynne understood perfectly, and carefully grasped Ally's hand, bringing it to her lips for a kiss before drawing it back down and slipping it under her shirt, closing her eyes and sighing softly at the sensation of skin on skin. Bringing her lips back to her lover's, Evelynne kissed her ardently, encouraging the contact as Ally's hand began to trace over Evelynne's side and back.
Pulling back a little, Evelynne began kissing down Ally's neck, paying particular attention to the special spot behind her ear that had Ally's breath hitching. Continuing downward, she paused at the hollow to Ally's throat while her fingers began to make short work of the topmost button of her bedmate's shirt. Ally tensed, this time in such a way that Evelynne looked up to see the uncertainty, bordering on fear, on her lover's face. The underlying confusion and near panic was easy to read, and, without quite knowing how she was doing it, Evelynne sent a pulse of thought and emotion into Ally's mind. The wordless signal acknowledged Ally's fear, let her know it was all right, and let her know simultaneously that the desire she was feeling was both legitimate—not the product of any artificial inducement—and reciprocated. It would take a while, Evelynne realised, before Ally truly trusted her own reactions where sexuality was concerned, but this kind of reassurance was easy to give.
It worked, as the impulse of love and desire merged into Ally's thoughts, and she relaxed, only to tense again as Evelynne's explorations resumed in more sensitive areas of her anatomy. She continued her own tactile mapping of her lover's flesh, her hand tracing up Evelynne's side, then slipping down again, over the brief panties that her lover was wearing and drawing a thigh over her own pyjama-clad leg and then almost hesitantly slipping under the thin cloth. Evelynne had conquered the last button of Ally's shirt, spreading it wide to allow her full access, and she gasped as Ally touched her. Coming back up Ally's body, she kissed her lover urgently as her free hand went in the other direction, penetrating beneath Ally's pants, and they surged together as they joined in mind and body once more.
Claire scowled at Mekohah as she walked through the door and the older woman looked up from her place in front of the fire and cackled wickedly. The laugh confirmed that Mekohah knew, or at least guessed, exactly why Claire had just spent the last quarter of an hour outside in the snow, and that just made her glare harder—although it bounced right off—even as her skin reddened once more. It wasn't fair, she complained, but there was no way this would ever become normal.
It wasn't the first time it had happened, of course. Claire's evil, cursed, treacherous, and wholly unwelcome vision—not wholly unwelcome, a cheeky part of her teased—had dropped her into the middle of Ally and Evelynne's lovemaking once before, although at the time she had believed it to be merely a kind of uncontrolled hallucination. That had been embarrassing enough, thinking that her own mind was capable of placing her friends in such a vulnerable and intimate position, but now that she knew what she was watching and hearing was real, it was a hundred times worse. She was intruding on an incredibly private and intimate moment like an unwilling voyeur, and she couldn't even close her mind to block it out. This time there weren't even the two or three other unrelated images cluttering her vision to distract her, leaving her with full three-dimensional sight and sound.
When it had first happened this morning, Claire's first thought was relief that Ally and Evy had finally reconnected after so much pain, but that thankfulness had quickly dissipated when she realised that none of the exercises she had been practicing to control her vision were working in the slightest. Instead, she had focussed furiously on the book in her lap through images that were both transparent and fully solid, squirming with increasing discomfort, until finally she had attempted to casually stand and walk outside with a muttered excuse to Mekohah.
An interminable time in the cold had seen the climax, so to speak, of her private X-rated movie, and a few more minutes had let her cool down to the point that she could return to the house. Unfortunately, it appeared that her faux-casual exit had not fooled the canny old woman in the slightest, if the leer she was receiving was anything to go by.
"Oh, shut up," Claire muttered, dropping back into her armchair and hiding behind the double shield of her hair and her book.
Mekohah just laughed again, saying something that sounded half-tease and half-promise.
Claire scowled at her again. "I really don't want to know what you just said."
The old woman giggled again with a final short, knowing phrase. She kept on laughing as the sound of the shower starting upstairs penetrated the room and Claire tensed, looking upward fearfully. Fortunately, no new vision was forthcoming. The last thing she wanted now was to see Ally or Evelynne—or both—in the shower. Well, not the last thing, that same cheeky part of her contradicted. Claire ignored both her inner letch and the other woman in the room as she hunched down behind her book and sulked, staring sightlessly at the pages.
Finally, the sound of feet on the stairs pulled her from her reverie and she looked up to see Ally's legs, thankfully now denim-clad, and then the rest of her as the other woman descended from the second storey, followed closely by her fiancée. Ally looked around for a moment, blinking in the sunlight pouring through the main floor's wraparound windows, before her gaze came to rest on Claire. She grinned, and Claire almost melted in relief at the sight. Ally's smile had been one of the things Claire had first found so attractive, and had remained a guilty pleasure even after learning that she was otherwise involved, and its loss had been an almost physical blow. Now it was back, and Claire found herself grinning in reply, finding herself standing, as Ally bore down upon her.
Even with the smile, it was a little disconcerting to feel the enthusiasm with which Ally wrapped her in a hug. She was held that way for long moments, feeling the joyful energy that flowed off Ally, long beyond what she would have thought was proper. A helpless glance over Ally's shoulder showed Evelynne standing on the bottom stair, looking at them both with an indulgent air. Claire tried to convey with her eyes that this embrace wasn't her doing, and Evelynne just smiled back, shrugging.
Then Ally's voice distracted her, as the taller woman murmured in her ear. "Thank you," she whispered, low enough that only they could hear, "for—for just being there. I… Thank you."
Claire pulled back a little, looking up into Ally's face and squeezing her shoulder encouragingly. "I'll always be there," she said in a matching tone. "Whenever you need me. For anything." The almost painful longing in her words was frighteningly apparent to her own ears, but Ally appeared to accept them at face value, to Claire's mingled relief and sorrow. Ally just smiled again, and then, to Claire's total shock, dipped her head and kissed her briefly but fully on the lips. It was more than a friendly kiss, less than a romantic one, a physical expression of the bond that now existed between them. Still, Claire's legs almost folded, and her eyes whipped to Evelynne, in instant panic that this gesture would be interpreted as something else. Her heart almost stopped when she saw Evelynne standing not three feet away. The fear must have shown in her face as she pulled back guiltily, and then was stopped by Evelynne's hand on her arm. The touch was calming, soothing, and her heart slowed somewhat.
"Ally's right," Evelynne said briefly, then stopped Claire's heart again by leaning in to bestow a kiss of her own. "Thank you."
"Um… uh… sure," Claire stammered, completely flustered. She was shivering faintly, and felt both chilled and boiling hot at the same time, and she didn't even want to guess what colourful hues her face was turning. Stepping back and attempting to gain some composure, she caught sight of Mekohah's delighted face just before the old woman burst into laughter, doubling over from the force of her guffaws.
"And what are you laughing at?" Ally demanded, thankfully diverting attention as she stalked towards the cackling woman, a mock-severe expression on her face.
Mekohah said something Claire couldn't understand, still grinning, that caused Ally to bark a laugh of her own. "You wish," the younger woman stated dismissively before bending down to hug Mekohah. She murmured something into the old woman's ear, and Mekohah replied with something equally low. Whatever she said, it made Ally look back to where Claire and Evelynne were watching bemusedly. "I know she is," Ally said, this time loud enough for them to hear. She smiled at the two women. "They both are."
"Where's Black Crow?" Evelynne asked softly as Ally spoke to Mekohah.
"He said he was going to arrange for a celebration of some kind this evening," Claire replied, grateful for the opportunity to restore a little emotional control.
"What kind of celebration? Like a party?"
Claire shrugged uncertainly. "He said it was traditional or something. Sort of a restoration of community spirit, I think he said."
"Oh." Evelynne frowned. "I don't know if Ally will want to—"
"If Ally will want to what?" Claire and Evelynne started at Ally's sudden appearance.
"Oh, there's going to be a celebration of some kind this evening, and I didn't know if you wanted—"
"A party?" Ally interrupted. "This evening?" Claire nodded. "Cool. Count me in." Claire and Evelynne looked at each other, startled. The Ally they knew was usually extremely reluctant about attending any sort of social gathering, especially among people she didn't know well. "First, though," Ally continued, "I want to go outside for a while." She looked between her two companions. "Wanna come?"
"Uh… okay," Claire agreed, still desperately trying to regain some semblance of equilibrium that had been shattered by the morning's events. Evelynne was already gathering their coats as Ally looked out the window.
"Hey, it looks like someone's already been making snow angels," Ally said brightly, causing Claire's face to instantly flame again as she hurried to put on her jacket.
Outside, the air was startlingly brisk, but the brilliant sunshine made the snow-covered clearing and surrounding forests and mountains into a majestic scene. The sunshine made Claire grope for her sunglasses, the light searing her colourless eye painfully. Having them on made the surroundings much clearer, and she also hesitated for a moment before reaching for the tube of sunscreen in her pocket. While the cold made the sun's rays seem weaker, she knew from painful experience just how quickly her pale skin would burn, especially with the double exposure from the light reflected off the snow. Fortunately, neither Ally or Evelynne seemed in a rush, the taller woman standing with her eyes closed, breathing deeply, as Evelynne held her arm and took in the scenery.
Ally opened her eyes just as Claire was finishing her task. "Shall we go?" she asked simply.
"Sure," Claire replied, and Evelynne nodded. "Where are we going?"
"There's a place I've been to a few times in the last few days," Ally suggested as they made their way down the porch stairs. "It's a bit of a hike, but it has an absolutely awesome view. You can see all the way to—" She broke off suddenly as their path around the house brought them into view of the ceremonial lodge where the previous night's activities had taken place.
It was much more desolate now without the people who had gathered earlier, the tent surprisingly small in the daylight. The remains of the surrounding fires littered the ground, still smoking slightly, and the contrast between this abandoned, silent scene and the previous evening's chanting and drumming was jarring.
Evelynne and Claire halted when Ally did, and Evelynne hugged her partner's arm more tightly. "Are you all right, love?" she asked softly. "We can go another way if you want."
Ally appeared to shake herself out the reverie she was in. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I'm okay. Come on." Her eyes never left the lodge, although they seemed more speculative and inquisitive than troubled. She led the way closer to the tent, stopping in front of the remains of the effigy that had stood there the night before.
"Remains" was an apt term, for what had been a crude mock-up of a woman was now little more than a few rags, straw, and string, appearing for all the world as though it had exploded—which it had.
Claire shivered in the cold as she huddled with Mekohah near one of the fires, trying not to worry too much about what might be happening in the tent nearby. Ally and Evelynne had disappeared inside nearly six hours previously, and since then there had been no change inside as far as Claire could tell, and very little change outside. The drummers had kept up their chant unceasingly, rotating through replacements every half hour or so, allowing everyone to have a rest and a drink near the fires.
A presence made Claire look up, and she saw Black Crow standing over her, the flickering light making his face seem deep and mysterious. "How long will this take?" she asked quietly, already half-knowing the answer.
"As long as it takes," Black Crow replied, confirming her guess. He looked at her kindly. "Try to sleep a little," he suggested. "They'll need you when they come out."
Claire nodded and he walked away, but inside she knew that she wouldn't sleep until her friends emerged. Instead, she took a mug of warm cider from a passing woman, smiling her thanks, and settled down more snugly under her coat.
The change was subtle at first, a barely sensed yet almost painful itch in the back of her mind, an echo of rage and pain that seemed to be gathering itself. Claire squirmed uncomfortably, looking around to see if anyone else felt it. Most of the assembled people appeared oblivious, but Mekohah was sitting upright, almost quivering with tension, and several meters away Black Crow was standing motionless, his gaze turned inward. Then, with shocking suddenness, he spun and shouted a short phrase. Without hesitation, the drummers who had been resting lunged for their instruments, and those still chanting picked up both the tempo and volume of their own singing. Still distracted by the phantom presence in her mind, Claire could almost see the wall of psychic energy they were erecting around the lodge. Time seemed to stretch for a moment, a long pause, before…
The lodge exploded.
Not physically, but with her own nascent psychic talents fully engaged, there was little difference from Claire's point of view. A tsunami of destructive emotion boiled out from the lodge, or more specifically its inhabitants, and slammed into the protective wall. The shield held, but enough leaked through to hit Claire's mind with stunning force. Even as she reeled, falling to her hands and knees, she noticed that not everyone around appeared affected—most of the bystanders didn't seem to feel anything out of the ordinary—but a number shook themselves with varying degrees of disorientation. The more psychically aware, Claire supposed.
The storm of energy lulled slightly, a second drawing of breath, before it struck out once again. This time the shockwave was marginally less chaotic, more focussed, and as Claire watched, it gathered around the dark-haired effigy in front of the lodge… then proceeded to rip it apart, quite literally from the inside, and in that moment Claire instinctively understood.
The woman who had drugged Ally months before had had black hair.
That was all she had time to realise, because then, without additional warning, the sensations she was experiencing spiked once more, whipping her mind into a whirlwind of confused impressions.
"Almost there," Ally said. "Just through those trees."
Claire just nodded, saving all her energy for wading through the knee-deep snow. She had thought that she was in decent, if unspectacular, shape, but compared to Ally's seemingly limitless energy she was definitely lagging. On the up side, Evelynne appeared to be about on par, so she didn't feel so bad. It wasn't that they were maintaining a particularly strenuous pace, but the combination of snow, cold, and the gentle but constant uphill path were definitely slowing them down.
Except for Ally. Their guide and leader seemed to have reverted to some childlike mental state. Her curiosity was endless, as she poked her head into every nook and cranny along the trail, and her mischievous streak was equally boundless, as a string of unfortunate squirrels, who had suddenly found themselves in the middle of a storm of psychokinetically-thrown snowballs, could attest. After the first such incident, Ally had turned to her companions with a wicked twinkle in her eye, but a quick-thinking Evelynne had immediately said, "Don't even think about it," in a tone that boded ill for her lover's chances at a body-warmed bed that night. Ally had pouted, even as Claire breathed a sigh of relief, before taking out her sulking frustration on a defenceless rabbit that had the misfortune of being within range.
Fortunately, Ally had calmed somewhat after that, to her companions' relief, even though the playfulness she was displaying was a welcome sign after being absent for so long. The walk had turned more peaceful when Evelynne had slipped her hand into her lover's, then looped her free arm through Claire's.
Now they finally broke through the last of the trees and Claire stared in awe at the vista before them. The trees stopped a stone's throw from a cliff that dropped off towards the bottom of the mountain at least three hundred metres below. The cliff looked out westward over the valley, granting a breathtaking view of the Selkirk Mountains, on the other side of which the coast lay some unseen distance away. It was just past noon, so the sun was almost directly south, glinting off the snow and turning the scene into a glistening cloth of ice and crystal. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the combined brilliance of sun and snow made Claire's pale eye ache, even through the shield of her sunglasses, but she didn't care.
"Wow," she breathed as Ally led them carefully closer to the edge of the cliff, cautiously picking their way over the snow-covered ground, and immediately winced as her voice broke the pristine stillness.
"It's gorgeous," Evelynne murmured, and suddenly the sound wasn't quite so out of place, filling the emptiness instead with joy and friendship.
"I know," Ally said, as they stopped a couple of metres from the cliff edge. Closing her eyes, she lifted her arms out to her sides, stretching and breathing deeply. "You feel free up here." Dropping her arms, she turned to her companions with a now-familiar twinkle in her eye. "Completely free." With that, she turned swiftly and, in a single bound, leapt forward and hurled herself over the edge.
Claire shrieked and would have followed, instinctively if irrationally prepared to jump over and drag Ally back bodily, but Evelynne grabbed her arm just in time. Claire whirled on Ally's lover, completely unprepared for the lack of concern on her face. "Wha—bu—sh—d—" she stuttered, unable to string together anything like a coherent sentence.
"It's all right," Evelynne soothed, squeezing her hand reassuringly. "Ally's fine. In fact…" She nodded towards the cliff, and Claire looked just in time to see Ally rocket upwards through the space she had just dropped.
The sight was so startling that Claire jerked backwards, dropping to the ground as she gaped open-mouthed at the figure swooping through the sky above them. "It—I—She can fly?!" she half-yelled hysterically.
She sensed more than saw Evelynne's nod. "She can fly," Evelynne confirmed unnecessarily. "I thought you knew." She looked back concernedly as Claire whirled to glare at her.
"Knew? How would I know?"
"I thought Ally had told you. Or Mrs. Chen."
"No! For some reason nobody bothered to mention to me the minor fact that my best friend can—" She broke off suddenly, her gaze going skyward once again, and she frowned in confusion. "Is she singing?"
Evelynne cocked her head, listening, and then sighed resignedly. "I'm afraid so," she replied, as the off-key strains of I'm Walking On Sunshine drifted down, and her lips quirked. The burgeoning smile faded, however, as she saw her friend's glare and the alarmingly pale hues of her face. "I'm so sorry. I really thought you knew."
"Knew what?" Ally's voice reached Claire's ears, and her head whipped back to see Ally touch down a few feet away with a crunch of snow. "Knew what?" Ally repeated.
"Claire didn't know you could… you know… fly," Evelynne replied, looking at her partner with faint accusation.
"Didn't know that—Oh damn, Claire. And you thought that I had…" Ally waved towards the cliff. "Damn, I am so sorry. I thought that Evy had told you."
"And I thought you had told her," Evelynne said wryly, but with sympathy.
"Still, I am so very sorry, Claire," Ally said again, crouching down to wrap her arms around her friend. Claire hugged back with almost painful strength and buried her face in Ally's shoulder, incredibly grateful to have this tangible proof that Ally was not, in fact, splattered all over the rocks three hundred metres below. "Are you okay?" Ally asked after several minutes, and Claire pulled back, nodding.
"I think so," Claire replied in a much steadier voice. "You know, by this time I should be expecting impossible things to happen whenever I'm around you two."
"Us three, Miss I-Can-See-What's-Happening-On-The-Other-Side-Of-Town," Ally corrected as Evelynne squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, and Claire's mind flashed back to what she had inadvertently "seen" that morning.
"Uh, yeah," she said, clearing her throat. "So you can fly?" she asked in an overly-casual tone, and her companions chuckled.
"Yeah," Ally replied. "Do you want to…?" She nodded skyward.
Claire's eyes widened again. "You mean you can take other people? And I can…?" Ally nodded. "Yeah." She remembered Evelynne and looked at her. "That is, unless you want to…"
"Go," Evelynne said firmly, helping her to her feet. "It's incredible."
"O-okay. But can we not just, like, jump over…" She gestured towards the cliff.
"Don't worry," Ally said. "We'll go straight up. Just hold on."
A moment later they were airborne, and after a few minutes Evelynne laughed out loud as an off-key duet of Somewhere Over the Rainbow drifted down out of the sky.
Continued in Chapter 26 - Conclusion
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