If you haven’t started this story from the beginning, this one won’t make too much sense. I suggest you start here before continuing.
Victor stared across the trailer, swallowing his hundredth shuddering sigh. She even looked like Julia, though admittedly without her sweet-yet-helpful outlook on life. But it was the closest Victor had to an excuse for what he did to her. Watching Jack argue with Sarah, though, things felt wrong. Well, not exactly arguing, more like explaining vehemently. But Sarah wasn’t listening.
“So you’re saying he’s in my head?” the young woman asked, pointing to where Victor sat.
“Not right now.” Jack pressed his palms together, fingertips under his nose before bouncing forward in a forcibly patient explanation. “His memories are. That’s what you’ve been seeing. Everything actually happened, just not to you. ”
“Can he read my thoughts?”
“No.” Jack looked to Victor, eyes practically begging for assistance. “Well, not at the moment.”
Victor wanted to help, but didn’t honestly know how. He knew Jack had explained all this to her in the only way that made sense. There was something different – something special – about this Sarah. She had been remarkably easy to bond with, yet shown extraordinary resilience to its side-effects, most obviously evidenced by the fact that she was angrily pointing at the ground, and not staring, hugging herself from that very place. She needed to understand, and Victor didn’t blame her.
He had to say something. “Sarah.” A plan was still forming in Victor’s mind as he stood. “Who are you?”
She looked at him, clearly confused. “My name is Sarah McCullugh, and I work at –”
“I don’t need you to recite your Facebook profile,” Victor interrupted. “I want to know who you are. Past all that. Inside.”
The trailer fell into a brief silence as Victor waited for the young woman to comprehend his question. “I – I’m an actress. I’ve played the ugly old woman and the ingenue. I’m the storyteller by the campfire and the wide-eyed child who listens. I’m a daughter and a warrior princess. I’m everyone.”
Silence bookended her little speech, but Victor couldn’t help but smile. That was exactly the kind of information he was seeking from her. It also explained part of why her brain could handle the calamity of personalities when he had imposed his mind on hers: she already had several people hanging out inside her imagination.
“You’ve had dreams, haven’t you? Not just memories of things you never experienced?” Victor asked.
Sarah only nodded.
“They all actually happened.” He was repeating information Jack had offered her, but she seemed to at least comprehend it this time.
The young woman glared at Jack, but when he didn’t argue, she locked eyes with Victor again. He was okay with her audacity – she could take all the time she needed to understand. “To me?” Skepticism raised her eyebrows.
“And his predecessors,” Jack pitched in. Accurate enough, but they were all Victor now.
An actress. “Pretend you’re in a show where you’re the only actress, but you’re playing the whole cast of characters.” Victor hoped that made sense.
Instead of confusion, the young woman’s face lit up. “Like The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead?”
Now it was Victor’s turn to be confused.
“It’s a play.”
“Sure,” Victor agreed. His immediate predecessor had experience in acting, but that was for Hollywood in an era of musicals on screen. He hadn’t kept up with recent shows, especially theatrical. “Now imagine you’ve been handed the script, but none of the characters are named, and each line is on its own slip of paper.”
“Unless you had someone who’s performed that play help you sort it out.”
“Victor….” Jack’s word of caution was appreciated, but as much as the young man wanted to protect Sarah, he’d eventually have to admit to himself that it was too late. She was neck deep, whether she wanted to be or not, and the only way Victor knew how to help was to teach her to swim.
“How many characters are we talking about?”
It was a personal question, but he at least owed her every honest answer he could give. “Around twenty-six.”
Sarah gave a low whistle, shaking her head. Then, without any external catalyst, her eyes narrowed and snapped his direction. “Around? Don’t you know exactly?”
Victor shrugged. It wasn’t really that important. They were all him now. “The farther back we try to recall, the more they blend together.”
“How far back are we talking?”
“The first crusade,” Jack supplied. He may not have access to his mentor at that moment, but he still had his own memory to rely on. “They’ve registered about a hundred-twenty of us so far. The council is searching for more, though. Many have been lost in time, so it’s hard to know exactly.”
“So you’re not immortal.”
“Not exactly.” Victor let Jack do the talking, as she seemed to trust him more. “The consciousness must be handed from mentor to student before the elder dies. If that doesn’t happen, or the mentor’s mind is in the student when the student dies, that consciousness dies with it.” Victor could hear emotion creeping into Jack’s voice, and he could hardly blame him. Victor had been occupying Julia’s mind last month during a failed quest to get Jack’s mentor back when the unthinkable happened. She recognized the apartment structure was a trap before Victor had, and shoved him out, forcing him back into his own body. As best he and Jack had been able to figure out, they had killed her within minutes. In the weeks since, Victor had gone over what he knew again and again, but all he could figure out for certain was that she had intentionally saved him when he should have saved her.
Sarah’s gaze turned back to Jack, interrupting Victor’s thoughts. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you a mentor or a student?”
“Student.” Orphan soon, Victor knew, if they couldn’t figure out how to rescue his mentor.
“Is he your mentor?”
“No.” Jack’s response was hurried. Victor understood the young man’s reluctance – it would have been like being engaged to himself while he was with Julia, and all of it with Victor at the center. Plus, only one of them would have been able to host him after Victor’s body died, putting the couple in competition. To accuse Victor of mentoring Jack and Julia at the same time would put them in the same category as the very forces they were fighting.
“What happened to yours?”
Jack swallowed. In a way, Victor knew it had also happened to the young man. “They have her in an induced coma. I can’t reach her.”
“Sorry.” A pause, then, “How come you’re okay? Like, not seeing things?”
“I trained for this. I worked with her to understand the memories before I ever experienced them. I’ve been doing this for years.”
“But you’re not free of them.”
“I’m –” Jack visibly struggled to explain, “freer with them.”
“So I’m trapped like this.”
Victor wanted to apologize, but he knew it would do no good, not really. She could choose to work with instead of against herself, though. “You don’t have to be.”
“What choice do I have?” Sarah asked, looking up at the ceiling.
Victor didn’t want to force his mind on the woman, not again. “You can walk out that door again and do whatever you can on your own. We won’t stop you.” He understood Sarah’s scoff to apply to the first second, not the second. “Or you can stay with us, and I can guide you through this verbally.” Victor stepped closer to her then, eye to eye as he lifted his hand by her head. He only needed skin contact now, but to touch the face was considered polite. “Or I can show you.” The offer felt like a betrayal to Julia, but there was no helping his former student anymore. Sarah needed him now.
The young woman before him swatted his hand away, visibly disgusted. “An explanation is fine, thank you very much.”
He let his hand fall away again. “Okay.” He couldn’t blame her. “Describe to me a memory you can’t explain. I’ll give you a name to associate with it. Fair enough?”
Sarah nodded. Good.
Victor could see Jack start to move past him, toward the door in an effort to respect their privacy, but he decided the young man should stay. He put his hand on Jacks shoulder, stalling him as he passed. Without a word, he watched Jack understand: leaving Sarah with the stranger she obviously trusted less would only make things worse for them all. What Julia hadn’t told him, Victor decided Jack was allowed to know. He owed him that much, at least.
“There’s this woman – my wife? She’s getting shot. Something’s on fire?”
Victor knew the memory well, and recalled it often to remind himself of the dangers of falling in love. “That’s Algernon. Late eighteen-hundreds.” Having fought for the south, it was an understatement to say he had lost in that war. Even a hundred-fifty years later, his heart still ached at every recollection.
Sarah nodded again, appearing as if Victor’s explanation made sense. “A little boy in front of me, flicking a loose tooth with his tongue? He seems proud.”
“Serrano. Went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War.”
“Another where I’m riding a horse?”
Most of his predecessors had never ridden in a car. She would have to be more specific. “How many fingers do you have?” That would narrow it down.
Sarah’s eyes searched a moment, looking at her own palms as she tried to recall. “Eight.”
Ah. “Wilhelm. He was a Hessian.” Looking back, Victor was struck with the number of times he had been involved in war. Longevity paired with a talent for survival, he supposed.
“Like the headless horseman?”
Jack laughed, facing Sarah again. “More like Han Solo, but for hire.”
Victor smiled. Not the words he would have used, but definitely something Julia would say. She must have mentioned him. “The Hessians were a whole mercenary army. Eighteenth century,” Victor explained.
Sudden alarm filled Sarah’s face. “Wait – can you see my memories too?”
“No.” Victor hoped that was a comfort. “Memory doesn’t flow upstream.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Jack smiled at her. “Does any of it?”
Victor was glad to see the young woman laugh. “It’s starting to. Barely.”
A small pop outside interrupted the cheery mood. Immediately alert, Victor stepped to where he had heard the sound – from the broken skylight. Hissing preceded the can that cascaded down, almost landing on his forehead as it passed into the cabin.
Some sort of noxious gas immediately started contaminating the air. Holding his breath, Victor scooped the canister and, in one smooth motion, lobbed it up and out the same way it had come.
“Out!” came Jack’s voice through his shirt. Victor couldn’t help but think as he watched the young pair rush past him that this was likely to be their attacker’s exact plan. Still, being disconnected, they were fish in a barrel in here.
Victor was the last into the fresh air, eyes scanning past Jack for the perpetrator. Sarah was coughing, but Jack had glanced the other way.
“Victor.” Jack had found their attacker first.
What? How had he found them? Victor spun in the direction of the student’s gaze, almost running into the barrel of a gun.
The sneering lips on the other side parted. “Really Victor? Going to fight your own battle this time?”
In this aging body, he knew it would be useless to try. “Better than hiding behind your army of victims,” he couldn’t help but respond. Sarah’s coughing had quieted, at least.
“How’d you find us?” Jack asked. He had a point. This was the third intruder that night, if he included the young woman now behind him. They’d wasted too much time explaining to her when they should have been moving.
Their attacker didn’t respond. Who was it behind that young man? Victor didn’t recognize the student.
“What do you want?” Sarah asked bravely.
The newcomer laughed. “Oh, is – is she yours, Victor?” They knew him, at least. “All your talk of abstinence, and you’ve already got another one? Looks like you have a type, at least. Good thing I killed Julia when I did, or this would be really awkward.”
Rage built in Victor at the man’s words, so strong he almost missed the information of who was really behind the gun. Renaud. The head of the council, and the one leading the charge hunting them. Or, more accurately, hunting Jack.
Spit flew over Victor’s shoulder in the direction of the newcomer, promptly followed by an onslaught of swearwords and accusations from Jack.
“Are we really going to do this?” The man whose body Renaud was occupying sighed, turning the revolver from Victor to Sarah, pulling the hammer as he went. “Jack or the new Julia, Victor.” His trade offer was bored.
“Neither.” Victor followed the gun, stepping between it and its new target.
The revolver pointed up slightly as Renaud shrugged. “Noble, but not really an option. I could kill you both, I suppose.” He didn’t seem to care.
Suddenly Victor felt Sarah move close behind him, putting her hand in his. “Go ahead.” Was she saying what he thought she was? The courageous words could be pointed at their assailant, but they could also be interpreted as directed at Victor. Was she giving him permission? All he needed was physical contact now, and Sarah’s mind to be willing for him to jump to since the connection had been established. If he was wrong, even a momentary departure would collapse his body past exhaustion for minutes. Too long to help.
He felt her fingertips brush his, confirming, at least to him, that they shared a plan.
Trusting he wasn’t wrong about her, Victor jumped.
Sarah was easy to navigate in. Watching his own body collapse in a heap had taken some getting used to, but this time Victor was ready with a plan.
The gun followed him down momentarily, so it was easy for Victor to reach across, grabbing the barrel of the revolver with his left and torquing it uncomfortably. Without stopping the spin, he lifted Sarah’s right leg up and around, slamming it into their target’s lowered head before following through and landing with her back to Renaud. He switched her feet, ready to follow up with a spinning right kick, but Victor’s first strike had landed true, sending her foot sailing over their opponent. After finding the young man collapsed not far from his own body, Victor finished the spin with an open fist across the unconscious assailant’s neck.
Jack moved nearby, finding and picking up the gun.
This was Victor’s chance. There, in her hand, he held the fragile life of the one who had torn Julia from him. Her thumb graced over the Adam’s apple, delicate and unmoving.
“Victor.” Jack had knelt by their attacker. Victor looked up, making eye contact with the man. Jack should want this as much as him. “Give her back.” Julia?
Sarah. Jack was right.
Sarah gasped as she regained herself. That was not normal.
Surprised at her own actions, she released the neck of the unconscious man beneath her. She had been angry. Ready to kill this stranger?
Jack had looked away again, now searching the forearms of their attacker. Seeming to find what he was looking for, he leaned in and, with a click, a bracer fell free of its owner.
“Is this it?” Sarah asked, trying to understand as she picked up the technology. Would this free her?
Jack watched her a moment before responding. “No. That connects them to their mentors. To Renaud, in this poor guy’s case.”
Confusion washed over her. “Why do they need that and I don’t?”
“Two reasons,” he responded, now unloading the gun with surprising expertise. “It’s a booster to the bond, so it helps strengthen the link over long distances. Also, when one mentor maintains links with several students, it dilutes anyone’s ability to connect.” He tucked the now-empty gun behind himself in his belt. “Thank you.”
Sarah looked at him, confused. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You let him use you. That saved us.”
“He saved us.”
“You did. Together.”
Sarah looked down at the other unconscious man between them. “Where is he?”
Jack seemed less than bothered by the fact Victor hadn’t returned yet. “Resting,” he responded with a shrug. “He’ll be back in a bit.” The man across from her stretched his legs to a standing position and held a hand out toward her. Was he offering to help her up? “The bracer?” he asked after a moment.
Right. She stood also, handing it to him obediently.
He pushed it as open as it would go, turning in place to let light fall on it. As she watched, Jack gently tugged at a pair of the wires within, traded them, and placed them back in the opposite slots. Then, without another word, he tossed the technology into the bushes.
“What was that for?” she asked. It seemed like a lot of extra effort just to toss it away.
A mischievous grin overtook the man. “He’ll wake up, find it eventually, and try to connect again, but it won’t work. He’ll find his own way back, but it’ll distract him for a while first.”
Sarah liked the plan.
“So, Sarah, would you like to go home? Or stay with us until we can work this out?”
As fascinating as this whole experience was, she had a job, and a show to prepare for.
Just when she was about to decline, memories of the terrors that had plagued her throughout the past week flooded back. No, even she couldn’t pretend like everything was normal, not if it’s even half as strong as it was before. She needed to be free of this, and to be herself again. She wasn’t exactly sure who that was anymore, but it wasn’t the woman weeping, wet and naked, leaning against her apartment’s front door.
Sarah took a steadying breath before nodding. “Where do we begin?”