The town was so small, that leaving it took no more than ten minutes by foot. Save for one main dirt road that led to what I assumed was a nearby highway, the town was almost entirely surrounded by forest.
Since we had about an hour or so before sunset, we decided to grab a bite to eat while in town. Well, Liam did. There was too much anticipation in my blood to even think about eating, and every additional moment we spent in town made me more nervous. I wanted to avoid running into the Sisters at all costs; it would only complicate our exit. Being around that many psychics in close proximity just seemed like a recipe for disaster.
I’m sure Liam didn’t appreciate my staring him down as he savored – savored – his double bacon cheeseburger and steak fries. Nor did he appreciate my walking out the door before he had a chance to ask for his check. But I couldn’t help it. I needed to get to Lillian, which was a strange enough feeling on its own. Sure, I was hopeful for what the ritual might mean for me, but for some reason, I had started to notice the inklings of excitement at the edge of my nerves.
Was that my own, or was it Amali’s feelings?
“All right,” I said, leading Liam down the main street until it curved into a less populated cul de sac with only a few buildings in business: A shoe cobbler (it actually had the word “cobbler” on its window), a humidor, and what looked to be a swiss souvenir shop (judging by the assorted Swiss baby clothes and cuckoo clocks in the window).
“According to her instructions, we need to follow a path that begins behind the humidor.”
We walked behind the small brown building, the scent of tobacco easily making its way through the bricks. Sure enough, there was a slightly worn walking trail that entered into the forest. I took a step forward, and Liam grabbed my arm.
“Krys. Are you sure?”
“Come on, dude, the sun is setting,” I said. I pulled away and took another step. He grabbed my shoulder this time, and turned me to face him.
“Krys, just…give me a moment. Give yourself a moment.”
“We have to go, Liam. Lillian is waiting.” My muscles tensed beneath his grip. She was so close, I could feel it.
“Yeah. I know. But what are we walking into?”
“I need to see her, Liam. I need to!” I pushed him back, as a deep sense of longing welled up inside of me. The energy that sat low in my belly had begun stretching upwards. I could feel Amali in my lungs, in my throat, in my fingers. She was forcing me to speak.
Liam bent down to look me in the eye. “Krys, do you hear yourself? What are you saying?” I placed a hand on his cheek.
“This is bigger than you’ve been led to believe,” I said, and stepped past him.
No. I didn’t say that.
She said it. I heard my own voice, but the words and thoughts weren’t mine. And the thoughts were erratic. I had trouble understanding them for longer than a second, but I could understand her feelings. I could feel the urge burning in my chest, the breath catching in my throat, and that made me continue forward. Amali had to do this. Amali had to see Lillian.
I needed to see Lillian.
We continued down the narrow trail, until it broke off into two paths. Without a second guess, I took the right path, Liam close behind and silent. Amali’s thoughts had drifted away, and it seemed like she was allowing me control again.
The sun continued its descent, emitting a beautiful blend of oranges and reds in the distance to my left. And then a bright flash of orange and red appeared in the distance, further up the trail.
“A fire…” Liam whispered.
“That must be her,” I said, walking faster and faster until I had broken into a jog. I parted through the stray branches, tripping over rocks until I came to a small clearing. I stopped. Next to the fire stood a beautiful woman with long wavy black hair and large brown eyes. She wore a pair of brown riding pants and a gray fitted sweater. I had expected her to appear older; she only looked to be in her late thirties. Behind her about 50 feet away was a small cabin with countless herbs hanging from the front porch—her home, I assumed.
“You’re Krystal,” she said, taking a step forward. I nodded. Amali’s energy, which had been so present before, seemed to have gone still as soon as I saw her. Even if I wanted to move, I wasn’t sure I could. Her energy retreated toward my spine; it felt as if she didn’t want to be seen. Lillian closed the distance between us with only a few languid steps. She touched my shoulders and smiled. All of the anticipation melted away, and was replaced with a sense of awe. This woman’s energy was unlike anything I had experienced before. So much raw power was emanating from her, and it was…magnetic. I had a terrible urge to touch her hair, to take her hands in mine, to breathe in her scent, to feel her distinct power running through my own body. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, as if I was afraid to look away. As if I hadn’t seen her in centuries and wanted this moment to last. It was as if I…
As if I loved her.
Lillian’s eyes searched mine, and I knew she was looking for Amali. Before I could say a word, she pulled me close, hugging me tightly, and inhaled deeply. Then she tilted her head down, and her lips grazed my right ear.
“It has been…a long time,” she whispered. Amali’s energy loosened the constriction on my muscles, and I wrapped my arms around Lillian. For a brief moment, I sensed relief, but it was quickly replaced with my own apprehension. Something was off.
“Uh—” Liam’s voice cut into our moment, and I jumped, having completely forgotten that he was with me. He held out a hand to Lillian, who was still embracing me.
“I’m Liam. Krystal’s brother. And you are?” It sounded like he dropped his voice an octave to sound more commanding. Lillian released me and nodded toward Liam.
“My apologies. I’m Lillian. I served your great grandmother when she was the Conduit. It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said.
“We’re here because Krys believes you can help her out of this.”
“And you don’t?”
“Skepticism is healthy.”
Lillian laughed, sending a chill down to my toes. This woman was beautiful. But her energy, her power was beyond my understanding. And I couldn’t wrap my finger around what was so different about her. In a way, she reminded me of Kaleb, but more…vibrant.
“The ritual we are to perform tonight will make it so that the Sisters cannot find Krystal. Chances are, they are already looking for the two of you. I do have my own cloaking magic on this space, but it will only work for a limited period of time. That’s why time is of the essence right now. Did you bring the ritual materials?”
I removed my backpack and pulled out the vial and paper bag with the Bellamer root. Lillian took them, and arranged them on a stump beside the fire. Placing the root in a bowl, she grabbed a rock from the ground and began to crush it, muttering (or was it chanting?) under her breath. Liam walked over to me and pulled me aside.
“What was that all about?” he whispered. I shrugged, still watching Lillian work.
“It’s…hard to explain,” I said.
“Uh, well…I think Amali and Lillian have a…thing.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, in whatever way a deity can have a…thing with…someone else?”
“It’s above your comprehension,” Lillian cut in, continuing to crush the root. “A ‘thing’ may very well be the best way for your kind to explain it.” I looked up at her.
So she wasn’t human either. I knew something was off.
“So who are you really?” I asked. “I assume the name Lillian is just a cover.”
Lillian finished crushing the root, then picked up the vial of blessed water, pouring it over the roots, again chanting under her breath. She slowly stood, and held the bowl over the fire. A breeze rushed by, bringing a chill to the night.
“You assume correctly. Lillian is the name of this physical host,” she said, gesturing toward her body with her free hand. “And I rather like the name, despite it’s…banal meaning.”
“Are you a deity, then? Like Amali?” Liam asked. Lillian pulled the bowl away from the fire, and placed it back on the stone. She grab a short stick from the ground and stirred the contents.
“Now Amali…that is a name. One worthy of a goddess…as if she had been…” She paused and inhaled sharply, ”…chosen by the Universe itself.”
I couldn’t tell if she was talking to us or herself anymore, but there was the tiniest hint of contempt as she spoke. Was she jealous, or was it something more?
“You didn’t answer my—” Liam began.
“—please come here, Krystal,” Lillian said, holding out her hands.
“The window is closing, dear. I’ll tell you everything you want to know after the ritual. But for now, please. I need your hand.” I walked over to the stump, standing across from her and held my right hand out. She leaned in and grabbed my left, gently pushing my right hand by my side. Her curls swung out toward me and back, and I breathed in a glimpse of jasmine. She examined my hand for a moment, running her fingers along my heart and life lines. Amali’s energy, which had once again gone deathly still, stirred in my lower belly. Lillian then lifted my palm to her lips and kissed it. Amali’s energy quickly flowed up, and through my arms again, and before I knew it, my right hand reached up to touch Lillian’s face. My emotions were a mix of so many things as I looked into her eyes: love, sorrow…shame.
“Please don’t do this,” I(Amali) said. I then felt a strong force pulse within my chest, turning hollow. Resignation. I closed my eyes.
“Krys, no!” I heard Liam behind me, and his hand briefly brushed my shoulder. I turned to look, and saw him somersault backwards. At that same moment, I felt a piercing pain in my hand. I looked back and Lillian had a dagger in my palm and blood was pouring out into the bowl. I tried to pull away, but her grip was inhumanly strong.
“Liam!” I yelled, but Lillian yanked me to the ground, placing a knee on my chest, and started speaking in a strange language. I tried to swing at her with my free right hand, but she barely budged, and my limbs were beginning to feel heavy.
“Please understand. You are just a pawn, nothing more. I have to do this. For us. For our kind,” she said beneath my weakening attempts to escape. As I began to lose consciousness, the last image I saw was Lillian drinking the contents of the bowl.