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.
“Kill him.” Sarah hated the taste of the words coming out of her own mouth, but they couldn’t fight their way out of this one, not without leaving Victor’s body behind. Only a bluff – and a good one – came to mind to save them both. Pretending to be more powerful than the people threatening them didn’t seem like a good idea. Sarah decided the best way was to wing it and pretend she was more formidable, but a potential ally. “Look at him,” she taunted, indicating across Renaud to Victor. “His precious Julia is dead. What does he have left to live for anyway?”
She could see his pain was sincere as he turned his head from her. He didn’t even make eye contact, robbing her of the chance to reassure him. It sold Sarah’s lie, at least.
“I can always find another,” Sarah continued boldly. “Jack, perhaps.”
Tekina was looking at her with new eyes. Not exactly like she was buying Sarah’s lies, but perhaps with a little… respect? “Jack isn’t fully himself. We still have his mentor.”
“She has information.” Right. The lineages.
“Library’s a bust,” Sarah lied. “Books are nothing but mulch since they built the dam and flooded the town.” Paper from back then would be fragile at best.
“Then she’s all the more valuable to us.”
“Why not just get the information from her? Since you have her locked up all snug?”
Renaud answered this time. “We need leverage. Or the memories to be transferred to someone more… docile.”
Docile? Jack? This Renaud clearly hadn’t seen her new friend in combat, not the way she had.
“I propose a trade, then,” Sarah offered. “Give me Victor here, and I’ll go get Jack for you.”
She had no intention to giving anyone to them, but it would buy them time to think up a plan. Together. “Deal?”
“Sarah –” Victor started.
Tekina gasped in mock surprise. “He does speak! You’ve proven useful already, miss. Thank you, Sarah.”
“I never said I was on his side.” She couldn’t bluff her way out of this by being Tekina’s enemy. “I want his memories, same as you.” What for, she had no idea. She’d figure that out if they asked.
Renaud shifted in his spot between them on the couch, drawing a large bowie knife from his hip. He twirled it expertly once, landing with the point at the base of Victor’s ribs. “Why don’t I do us all a favor then?”
Panic swept through Sarah. “Don’t!” Before she knew it, she found herself standing.
Renaud merely grinned slyly at her, blade unmoving.
She needed to think, and quickly. “He won’t give himself to me now, not after hearing what I’ve told you. Idiots.” Sarah spat the last word just for emphasis. “Really, I’m amazed you guys made it this long.” Insulting maintained authority, right?
Tekina motioned for Sarah to sit, then Renaud to stay his blade, without standing. “Explain yourself,” she ordered her.
Sarah obeyed, both in finding the couch again and speaking. “You guys are – what – first crusade? Most recent generation, then.” Confidence, she reminded herself. It was the key to any convincing performance.
“Explain,” Tekina ordered again, voice low and dangerous this time.
Sarah didn’t have the faintest part of a plan. But, she figured go big or go home. Right? “I’m from the generation before. Roman times.”
Tekina seemed amused, if not wholly convinced, but Renaud merely scoffed.
So Sarah focused her attention on him. “What? You think that you’re unique? That you’re somehow special?” How far did she take this? As far as she needed to. “Sorry to burst your bubble, dearie.”
A sudden gasp interrupted them from Sarah’s left. When she looked, Mr. Balloon Animal had a quizzical, yet somewhat proud look on his face, like he had just figured something out. “So you’re not a reporter?” he asked.
Remembering a villain she had played once at a dinner theater, Sarah rolled her eyes until they landed on him again. “No, dimwit. Be a good lad and keep your trap shut? The adults are talking.” He was only trying to look smart, to stand out in front of Tekina or Renaud, but she had to maintain character.
Tekina seemed unbothered by Sarah insulting the minion. “You’ve been to the library, so you don’t want the same information we do. You don’t give a bother about our mission. You don’t care about this man’s life. Why are you here?”
Victor’s panicking heart pumped confusion through his veins. What was Sarah saying? Or whoever she actually was. It didn’t make any sense! He had occupied her, and certainly detected nothing ancient about her. He shouldn’t have been able to even jump, if she were telling the truth.
If anything she said was true, then all of it had to be.
The young woman he had grown increasingly fond of stood from the couch, stepped between himself and Tekina, and knelt into his line of sight. As her gaze matched his, everything in her seemed to have shifted from the sweet one who had protected his dignity in the coffee shop to this manipulative woman with her own agenda.
Her eyes flicked between his a moment. “I don’t want his life. I want his memory. Something locked so deeply away, he probably doesn’t even remember it. Couldn’t recall it if I just asked nicely.” She practically snarled the last two words. “I need a good long look for myself.” She stood then, flicking her hand at him before returning to her seat, and Victor realized he could breathe again. “After that, you can do whatever you want to his body.”
“You played me.” Victor could only whisper the words at her back. He had been so stupid! So quick to trust her, assuming she was innocent, when she had been the one to thrust herself right into his path. Before he could continue, emotions choked his next words this time, not simple stubbornness. Anger at her for her easy betrayal. Frustration with himself for not seeing it sooner – for trusting too quickly and putting Jack in danger again. Disappointment that the bright, pure soul he had met was just a façade.
She glanced at him again, shooting him a winning smile before taking her seat once again. “Like a flute.”
“What do you want?” Renaud asked this time.
“A rock. One of your generation knows where it’s hidden.”
“Just that? A rock?”
Sarah laughed coldly. “Don’t be daft. Like the romans of my era, and the Phoenicians before me, and the Egyptians before them, this thing goes off every thousand years or so. I sent one of my men to Africa with it, but it went off before he could get there. Even if dear Victor here wasn’t that emissary, he’d have seen my man. I know what he looked like. I’ll keep working my way through you all until I bring my man back to me. Learn where the rock is.”
Silence gripped the room at Sarah’s story, and for that one, dreadful moment, she feared she had misspoken, and was about to be caught in her own lie. She realized as she spewed the gibberish how painfully little she knew about how it all worked. Confidence, she reminded herself. Approach each question with an increasingly bigger and more elaborate – therefore convincing – lie as they asked.
Her main fear now came from – not Renaud, Tekina, or any of the goons – but from Victor. They were all buying her tale – Renaud slowest of all – but she could see when she searched Victor’s eyes that he believed her too. The more she convinced their captors, the slimmer her chances became of explaining herself to Victor once they slipped away.
Tekina was first to break the silence. “Why exactly did you come here?”
Bargaining. It was do or die now. “Get him, get out.” That was the first honest answer she’d given since they arrived, Sarah was pretty sure.
“In exchange for…?” Renaud asked.
Sarah didn’t have anything. So she laughed instead. “You don’t want me owing you, dearie. Trust me.”
Tekina leaned forward, taking command of the scene as easily as the lead actor in a play. “Once you take him, you give us all you learn. And you bring us Jack.” It was the same as what Sarah had offered when she first got here.
“Done,” she agreed, hoping that would put an end to the negotiating. Nothing from her new friend. They could figure this out later.
“Hold up,” Renaud interrupted. Darn. “I’m going to want some reassurance that you’ll not just take Victor and disappear entirely.” Exactly like she planned.
Think! Sarah could feel all eyes on her as she struggled to come up with a solution. More than that, she was increasingly aware she needed to explain the delay in coming up with one.
A token. Something she’d return for. Not actually, but something they’d think she’d return for. It would excuse her hesitation too, as an unwillingness to give it up. But what?
The amulet. It was a useless necklace – a trinket, really – purchased from a thrift shop as a personal prop she’d add to her character on stage. She did that for every one she played. She could find another.
Sarah unlatched the leather strap, pulling it out from under her shirt and dropping the polished, petrified wood into her palm. It was a root system of some hardwood plant, gnarled and bent to one side, like Gandalf’s staff.
She stared at it a moment longer, displaying it between them as if it were something to behold. “I’ll get it back?” she asked, lending the bauble significance it didn’t actually have.
“Once you bring us Jack.”
Sarah clutched her fist around the object, taking her time dropping it into Renaud’s open hand for no other reason than to add weight to it and sell her story. “Deal.” She watched Renaud’s fingers close around it before pretending to brush it off and face Tekina again. The woman was watching her closely again. Had she slipped up? So Sarah stood again, light-hearted as a businessman closing a deal. “I’ll contact you when I’m ready.”
“You’re not going to ask how to find us?” Renaud eyed her, still skeptical.
She hadn’t thought of that. Stay in character! “I’ve been keeping tabs on y’all for generations. I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
With that, Sarah and Victor walked away, right through the front door in the same steps as when she had come in. It was all she could do not to break down and cry or perform her closing night victory dance right there in the street.
It didn’t take Jack long to come up with a plan. It had started forming even as he had argued with Sarah. But he’d been doing this long enough to know patience was his ally now. As he watched the light disappear, eclipsed by the statue, he could already imagine his path to freedom. He and Sarah had hit a fork in the road, and the right hand path had led them to their destination and the library.
But what of the left path? It had to lead somewhere. Jack had a hard time imagining anyone in his lineage was careless not to have a backup escape route. It was also unlikely all the dirt moved by digging these tunnels was dumped out the two-foot hole they had descended through. Another easier way out only made sense. That path left was the perfect place for Jack to start his search.
His prisoner had collapsed when Sarah had sent the rope down, and Jack had used the loose end to tie the man’s feet also. Just to sit up now would be a struggle.
So Jack waited, silent with his back against the cool clay wall, for at least half an hour. Without the sun or risking light by glancing at his phone, he couldn’t be sure, but time spent down here didn’t really matter. The idea was to make the man tied in front of him think that he had missed Jack’s departure, and that he had nothing better to do than to sleep a while. Without his training, it would have been easy to do in the pitch dark and comfortable temperature. But Jack’s mentor had adopted him, raised him for this purpose. He could outlast any random goon their enemy had plucked from the streets.
It was less than an hour before Jack heard the man’s breathing shift from deep and controlled to shallow and easy. He had gone to sleep. Now it was Jack’s turn to act in the comfort of anonymity. He considered taking his shoes off – his step would be quieter and was less likely to wake the prisoner in this sensitive environment – but the risk of stubbing his toe on some upjutting rock or adventurous root was too high.
Keeping his left hand against the clay wall, Jack stood and started walking as quietly as he could away from the sightless scene.
Down. Level. Slight turn. The split should be any moment, and he was far enough down the path to risk a little light. He found once he did that he hadn’t gone quite as far as he had imagined, but it was easier than before without needing to carry Sarah. A part of him thrilled with adventure at taking the left path instead of the right this time.
This path was far shorter than the one that protected the library. Jack was grateful for the light, else he might have stepped straight into the puddle at the end of the walk. It was almost still, quietly pulsing against the rocks surrounding it. Some clay had eroded from their mortar, but for the most part they were intact. Though it wasn’t likely saltwater this far inland, Jack wasn’t keen on tasting it.
Leaning over the top, he could see a spot of light deep within. Odd. It was a greenish hint, with perhaps a bit of brown, though he couldn’t tell if it was the water filtering the color or the light simply projecting that way. It shimmered slightly as he stared, surprisingly beautiful.
Jack wanted to go in, to explore, but wasn’t sure he should. Being wet would make protecting the library even more difficult once the prisoner awoke. Still, he would need a way out, and should explore this in case of an emergency.
Okay. He pulled his wallet and other things out of his pockets – silently thanking Julia for her foresight to get him the waterproof case for his phone – and carefully set everything else aside in a little cove in the wall where he could return for them later.
Water soaked his socks before reaching through to his shoes. It was cold despite the summer, and if not part of the nearby lake, it was likely attached. Taking a deep, practiced breath, Jack took the plunge.
The world opened up around him not six feet down. He almost dropped his phone at the sight. It was awe-inspiring. Majestic, yet somehow unreal. Ethereal. It wasn’t alien, not exactly. More like prehistoric. Back when life was just beginning to find its way out of the water to the land and sky. Gigantic strands of algae flowed like soft seaweed from the light source, making the light dance in slow motion as it played across the smooth walls.
It was a train tunnel at one point, before being flooded. Wooden rail ties had rotted away, but the two lines of metal meandered across the bottom, reflecting the green sunlight brighter than anything else in Jack’s vision. His predecessor must have dumped the rock and dirt down the hole onto the passing trains, getting it distributed about the land invisibly before the train made its way to its station again. Brilliant. Now it served as a way out, if not an easy way in.
Jack wanted to swim forward, to explore the light and where it connected to the real word again, but his lungs burned in protest. Having been a competitive swimmer for a year in high school, he knew the feeling well enough to know he should head back to shore, gather air again, and start his search anew. He obeyed, eager to hurry back to the beautiful sight.
Swimming closer to the algae this time, he noticed it had strands, like long, mythical hair as it caressed the current. It blocked most of the tunnel, but wouldn’t be hard to swim past. He eyed the spots where light came through and pushed himself toward them, not wanting to disturb the curtain of life hiding his new favorite place.
The surface of the air wasn’t far, so Jack aimed himself the wrinkling light above him, breaching with a happy gasp and treading water while he shook his hair free of the the lakewater.
Sure enough, he was in a nearby arm of the lake, secluded from any late summer visitors, at least for the moment. His path there was obscured by the ever-moving algae, looking now like he had never disturbed it at all.
Everything was finally going right. After so much tearing his heart in every direction, this place seemed to hug him until all the pieces fit back together. He almost didn’t want to leave. He took his time swimming toward shore, enjoying how the cool water mixed with the hot summer air as his arms slapped the border between.
Getting back to the parking lot was far less enjoyable, but apparently just in time. Sarah’s car barely beat him to the pavement.
Victor was the first out of the car, back immediately to Jack and hand outstretched toward the driver. Jack didn’t think her driving had been that scary.
“Stay away from him,” Victor ordered, leaving the passenger door open as he stepped away.
“Victor, if you’ll just listen –” Sarah’s voice was familiar, made all the more obvious by her head popping up from the other side.
“I said stay away. I thank you for your help getting me out of there. You can go home now.”
Sarah’s eyes glanced pleadingly at Jack, but he was even more lost in the argument than she was. What could have riled up Victor so much? He of all people was steady and unmovable as a rock.
“Victor?” Jack tried this time.
“Not now.” He was all authority, making eye contact with Jack before pointing one hand to the trailer, other still warding off Sarah. “Go.” Jack couldn’t tell who the order was directed at.
With a glance at the woman, he turned to obey.
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“Go home. Back to wherever you came from.” Victor’s voice followed Jack toward their own mobile home.
“What about the flashes? They’ll return!”
When the elder didn’t respond, Jack slowed, letting Victor pass before turning back. “Try journaling them. Build a timeline.”
“Will that help?”
“It helped me.”
“Jack.” Just snapping his name was enough encouragement from Victor to complete his path, shoes sloshing and squishing lakewater as he was ushered inside.