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.
Sarah was sure of several things: she needed a shower; she needed a nap; most of all, she needed ice cream. The rest of the world, she couldn’t speak for, but cookie dough with sprinkles was definitely in her future.
She couldn’t help shaking her head as she pulled past the fountain in her favorite strip mall. Victor knew she was an actress. How else did he expect her to free him? He should have trusted her! He didn’t even say thank you! Instead, he swallowed every word, gullible as those she was deceiving without asking. If anything, it should have taught him not to underestimate her acting skills. But that was little comfort now.
After that? Sarah had no idea. Was she just supposed to go back to pretending she knew nothing? She wished! Because pretending like everything was normal served her so well last week. Jack’s idea of journaling didn’t really make sense – writing stuff down was a task for things she wanted to remember – but she might as well try. She snatched the spiral binder and pen from her back seat after she parked and headed to her favorite ice cream parlor.
Her distance from Victor was already pressing on her. It was a feeling she had sought out an hour ago, but trying to ignore it now did her no favors. Even the sprinkles weren’t helping. She chose a spot outside, despite the late summer heat radiating off the painted concrete. Everyone else had sheltered inside, safe in the air conditioning, but Sarah knew herself well enough to be alone. She didn’t want to start crying in public.
Who did she think she was, anyway? An actress on a small stage in a small town. She wasn’t a hero. Whatever adventure path Victor and Jack were on, let them. She didn’t need them, and they certainly didn’t need her.
A flash of black – so swift she could almost convince herself it was a loud blink – interrupted her thoughts. Victor must have made it underground despite his hurt shoulder. Headed to the library, no doubt.
She couldn’t live with this, not for the rest of her days.
Sarah took her time with the ice cream as she sketched a timeline in her journal’s front cover, naming those she could remember and the historical events Victor had associated with them. She wasn’t much of a writer, so as the images surfaced in her memory, she sketched them instead.
Her wooden necklace dropped onto her third picture.
“This is just a piece of junk, isn’t it?”
That silky voice struck terror straight through Sarah, so much so that she couldn’t even look up. Her pen just hovered in place, though Sarah could see her own knuckles lighten a shade from suddenly tightening her grip. It took all her self-control to simply speak. “Hello again, Tekina.”
The woman slid into full view as she sat across the stone table from Sarah. “You’re a really good liar, you know that? Renaud and I both totally bought your story.”
Lacking the courage to make eye contact, Sarah managed to just continue her sketch. “I’m an actress, not a liar.” It was an important distinction.
“You lied to me.” Tekina’s words were accusatory, but her tone was almost motherly. Impressed.
Sarah started filling in some detail on the face she was focused on, starting with the eyes. Kind eyes. The young man in her memory was far more handsome than her sketch gave him credit for, but Jack was right: pen to paper was helping stifle that rolling in her gut. “A lot of good it did me.” The thought slipped into words before Sarah could stop it.
“Oh, honey.” Tekina moved from mother to bestie. “Did he abandon you too?”
“Sent me away, to be accurate.” Fury welled in Sarah again.
“Victor has a history of doing that.”
“After what I went through to rescue him!”
“He didn’t need rescuing.” Then Sarah should never have gone.
The thought stopped her cold. “Then why’d he come with me?”
Tekina smiled. “Victor’s a child. He wants to stay outside, to keep playing. So when his friends –”
“And you, yes. They sneak him out of the house when he should be doing his homework and chores. With us.” The metaphor made sense, from Tekina’s point of view. She definitely seemed to be the matriarch of those she had met with this absurd power. Sarah wasn’t even sure Tekina was the enemy anymore. Every word the woman spoke seemed sincere.
Still, Sarah didn’t like it. “What chores does he have with the council?”
“To clean up the mess he’s made, for starters. He has a seat on the council. The least he could do is start acting like it.” Tekina’s eyes were on Sarah’s drawing as she leaned back in the metal chair. “But he can’t have it back unless he proves himself loyal again.”
“By telling you his story?” Victor’s precious secrets seemed so petty now.
“And giving us Jack.” To get more stories, as Sarah understood it.
“What are you going to do with him?” Sarah had a good guess where they both were. If it was really in their best interest to go home, as Tekina put it, it would not be difficult to point the woman in the right direction.
Tekina paused a moment, then leaned forward. “One of the perks of having lived for a thousand years is our scientists don’t have to spend their lives relearning everything in the feeble hopes of eventually adding some new theory to the pile. Symon is on the cutting edge of so much technology, I confess I don’t understand most of it.” Tekina interrupted herself then, leaning over to assess Sarah’s drawing. “He’s quite attractive, isn’t he? What’s his name?”
Sarah’s first answer was Victor, but it wasn’t him. Not in this lifetime, at least. A predecessor. “I don’t know.” It didn’t matter, really. “What does this technology do?” Sarah wouldn’t see Jack harmed, not if she could help it. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
Tekina grinned. With teeth like those, she’d be cast as a protagonist, not a villain. Sarah dismissed the thought. “Rewires the brain. When a consciousness starts to settle into a new brain, the transition can be difficult on some. Luanne is dying, and the longer he waits to host her –”
“Jack’s mentor.” Of course. Sarah hadn’t heard the name before, but it made sense. “We’re keeping her alive as long as we can, but.…”
“You need Jack,” Sarah finished. It made sense. She’d known Jack was hiding from them, just not exactly why. Tekina’s accusations felt out of character, but then again, after losing Julia, Sarah couldn’t blame him for wanting to leave this life behind. He was shirking his responsibilities to his mentor, and himself. “So your technology helps the process along.”
“With our tools, Luanne doesn’t even need to be conscious for the transfer to take place.”
“What makes Jack special?” Renaud seemed to be in no shortage of volunteers to host. Why not use them?
“Machine only works once the bond has been forged. The old-fashioned way. Still more to learn, it would seem.”
A sudden realization slammed into Sarah like a tsunami. This was the tech that Victor had spoken of. The thing that could put her back to normal. “It rewires the brain.”
“I already told you that.” Tekina’s annoyed words were verging on snapping.
Sarah didn’t care. Excitement was forging the path for her answers instead. “Can it put a brain back to normal?”
Sarah could tell Tekina understood her even before she spoke. “What do you mean?”
“Can you get Victor out of my head or not?”
The woman smiled. “Easily. How long has it been since you first hosted him?”
“About a week. Why?”
“Why?” Sarah asked again. Mad as she was, she didn’t want this to hurt Victor at all, though she couldn’t imagine how. Memories didn’t flow upstream, as they had already informed her.
“The deeper his claws in you, the harder it’ll be to take them out.”
“By harder you mean…?”
“More painful.” Tekina was back to casual now, as if she witnessed painful every day. “But I wouldn’t worry. You won’t remember it.”
The woman’s careless demeanor hesitated Sarah’s thoughts at the words. “But I won’t lose – you know – me. Right?”
That grin was growing broader. “It used to be that way. We’ve since refined the technology. Now it’s based on topic, not timeline.”
Good. The last thing she wanted was for Victor to rob her of who she was as a person.
“After this, you’d not even recognize Victor if he bowled you over in the parking lot.” It was exactly what Sarah wanted: freedom from this waking nightmare she’d been dragged into.
“How do we start?” Sarah was nearly breathless with anticipation.
“Woah, hold up. What do you plan to do for me?” Tekina asked. At least it wasn’t a no.
“In exchange?” She was back to motherly, treating Sarah like she was a dull child. “Nothing’s free, darling.”
Sarah didn’t have the faintest idea what she could offer someone like Tekina. The earlier bluff had long expired. What did the woman want?
Victor and Jack.
What did it matter? The men would be back to how things once were, before they started fighting, and it’d no longer be Sarah’s responsibility. Not that they wanted her help anyway.
Sarah slid the spiral binder across the table in response. “I can give you Victor.” Let the old man own up to his mistakes for a change. Even Jack would agree with that, especially after what happened to Julia. “Jack’s probably still with him.”
Tekina was back to her easy grin and silky words. “Finish your drawings. I’ll be right back.”
Victor knew he had been too hard on Sarah. She had proven herself helpful in a dozen ways over their time together, the least of which was getting him out from under Renaud’s thumb once again.
He just felt so violated in the process. Used.
“She’s only been this way once,” Jack was saying as they hoisted the shower curtain and rod to the fork in the underground path. The young man had a plan, and Victor’s shoulder was feeling well enough to not only descend, but to help. “So if we play our cards right – smear enough of this clay on here – I think we can make this passage harder to notice.”
“Twice,” Victor corrected without thinking.
“Well, she was unconscious on her way back, if that’s what you’re thinking.” So he had heard him.
Then Jack’s words settled in. “Unconscious?” They stopped at the fork in the path carved into the earthen mountainside. Victor took the rod, starting to adjust it while his companion painted the curtain with clay. “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! She suddenly fell to her knees, then toppled onto her shoulder, completely out. Like a ghost had clocked her. Woke up about ten minutes later.”
Odd. That sounded similar to what Victor had gone through with Renaud above ground around the same time.
No. It was insane. Linking only dumped memories, or shared experiences while he occupied her. Separated, and in his own self, there was no way she could have experienced anything as he did. “Struck her where?” Victor asked out of curiosity as he adjusted the length of the rod to cover the width of the path. Jack’s answer should disprove any wild theories about a waking connection.
Was he kidding? Jack didn’t kid. Had the young man seen Victor’s own bruise starting to form there? In their current underground hideout, lit merely by the young man’s phone, it was unlikely he had seen anything. “You’re sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Can’t explain it. Saw it happen, though. I’m open to suggestions.”
The only scrap of a theory Victor had centered around their connection, unprecedented as that moment had been. True, she had taken to it more swiftly and easily than he had ever seen, but this was another level entirely.
Suddenly his ideas of her having put a tracker on him in order to find him at the furniture store were thrown into question too. Had she found him some other way? Planting a tracker did seem to be quite a bit of planning, especially for her. Then again, if she was really this person she had claimed to Renaud and Tekina, she was capable of planning anything.
Guilt washed over Victor again. He had spurned her, letting down yet another student who depended on him for an explanation and guidance through this insane life.
No. She wasn’t Julia. Sarah had offered to trade him for Jack – unacceptable in every circumstance. When it came right down to it, Victor had known the young man longer, and trusted him far more. Sarah’s opinion was not worth Jack’s life, not by a long shot.
Still, Victor needed a way to test his theory and see if Sarah had really connected to him so deeply. He didn’t have the faintest idea how, but they would need her eventually.
“You almost done there?” Jack asked, interrupting Victor’s thoughts. The rod was halfway in place, ready until the young man’s curtain slid on before it would be tacked down.
“Waiting on you.”
Together they hoisted it in place, Victor in the now-hall, and Jack on the unstained side, closer to the library. Moments later, a hammer could be heard driving iron spikes into the fine clay, securing the rod in covering up their secret passage. Jack had done a good job coating this side, so Victor only had to give a couple spots an extra coat to complete the illusion. Now it was the waviness of the curtain, not the color or texture, that made it stand out from the walls beside.
“Need any rocks to weigh it down?” Victor asked, trying to be diplomatic by offering his solution in a way that didn’t insult the young man’s intelligence on the off chance Jack had come to the same conclusion.
“Gimme a sec.” Though it looked good, the illusory barrier did nothing to stifle Jack’s words.
The curtain flattened with the extra weight less than half a minute later.
“Perfect,” Victor commented.
“It needs to be.” Jack slipped from the far side to next to Victor, eying their handiwork together.
Julia would have been proud. This whole project was right up her alley, using false impressions to avoid conflict and arbitrary tools to make it look like they were never here at all.
“I wonder why she did it.” Jack’s offhanded comment surprised Victor.
“Julia?” Did what?
The young man made no effort to hide the pain at his fiancée’s memory. “Sarah,” he corrected after a moment, visibly hardening as he spoke.
“She’s not going to hurt you,” Victor promised.
“I didn’t think she had it in her to hurt anyone.” Jack shook his head. “Even tried making friends with our visitor.” Prisoner was a more accurate term. “Any idea what to do with him?”
Victor’s methods rarely varied in his time; they had been tested throughout history and proved true. He had only ever failed them, not the other way around. “Find a weakness, exploit it.”
“Shall we ask?” Jack held the side of the curtain back, allowing Victor through to where they had moved Renaud’s man. The library had several smaller rooms attached to it, and with a little handiwork, they managed to lock him in one.
Victor stepped through.
Sarah’s ice cream melted, forgotten sprinkles swirling bright colors in the goo, as she awaited Tekina’s return. Something about aligning with this woman didn’t sit right, but she comforted herself with the idea that she wouldn’t remember soon enough. Sarah was supposed to be involved in the community, not this craziness. They had handled that for a thousand years; they’d be better off without her. Didn’t want her.
This was for the best.
Then why did she feel this way?
Oddly enough, it was Jack’s advice that helped her: journaling. She gave rough descriptions of what she knew about the people she drew, but it was mostly a glimpse of a scene here or perhaps some semblance of a family there. Nothing important or life changing.
She found she liked most of them – better than she did Tekina – but that was probably just a side-effect of being linked to that legacy. Not for much longer. The faces were almost exclusively male, with only one Asian female who dressed like a guy. Mulan, Sarah named her. It was absurd to think, but she liked the idea. She didn’t write the name down next to the face, though. Let Tekina and the council figure out what the faces meant. Providing them didn’t actually harm anything.
She also sketched a map of what she remembered from the tunnels, starting with the statue and ending with the library. Let Tekina and Victor sort it out on their own.
“You ready?” Though Sarah had awaited that voice, it still put a foul flavor in her mouth to hear it.
“Whenever you are.”
To her surprise, Tekina dropped a hat over Sarah’s ponytail before coming into her line of sight. She immediately pulled it off to examine it, though it didn’t really matter. Not like she’d remember. It was a baseball-style cap, with a political slogan stitched across the front. Nothing unique. Inside were several chips, like what Jack had picked at from their attacker’s bracers. Except these weren’t built to connect, but to separate. Finally.
Tekina slid her chair over next to Sarah, phone out and app launched, before forcing the hat back over the ponytail. “It needs to be on,” the woman spat. As if it wasn’t obvious.
Sarah obliged, tugging her hair through the slot in the back to make it seat more comfortably. “Do I need to do anything?”
“Just wait.” Tekina tapped a button on her phone.
Immediately a whirring started in the hat. It grew more insistent, like a ringing in her ears. A sudden zap tore the air from Sarah’s lungs, doubling her over with pain. Every muscle seized as the electricity coursed through her again, so she couldn’t even make a sound. She just sat there, forehead an inch from the table and journal, unable to unclench her jaw. Unable to scream. If this was as mild as Tekina implied, Sarah didn’t want to know what the woman had in store for Jack.
After what seemed a lifetime, it released her. Sarah gasped the hot summer air, letting her forehead land. It was easier than trying to lift it or right herself in her seat again. She simply rolled to one side to face Tekina.
The woman seemed unperturbed by Sarah’s agony.
The technology of the hat crashed into Sarah again, stopping her question before it started. The fresh assault was even fiercer. Unrelenting. Pain drove every concept of a thought in Sarah now. She just wanted it to stop.
It was only a brief moment of comfort before unconsciousness enveloped her from the inside out, like hot cocoa on a cold winter night.