One word whispered into the dark. One word that pierced Chelsea’s heart.
There was a reason she tried not to think of Caleb’s last name. There was a reason she didn’t spend time with his family.
There was a reason that one word caused a storm of emotions to flood through her.
“Chelsea?” Gwen asked. “Are you all right?”
Chelsea took a deep breath, let it out.
I saw what this place showed Gwen. What it made her relive.
This place will try to do the same to me. I just have to keep my head and try my best to keep my emotions in check.
With luck, this will all be over soon.
“Let’s keep going,” Chelsea said.
One step forward, and the darkness suddenly swept away, revealing the path Chelsea was to walk. It was immediately familiar to her, a haunting, shadowy recreation of the two neighborhoods she’d grown up in, fused together into a sort of twisted theme park. She recognized the Reiner Manor, a place she hadn’t known for very long. Her grandparents’ house was just beyond that, with the flower garden that Chelsea had so many fond memories of. There was Lorelei’s house, and Grim Bazaar, and Floral Star Park. While her elementary school wasn’t present, its playground was.
It was strange seeing all these familiar sights shrouded by darkness. There weren’t any people anywhere, leaving the place silent and lonely.
You’re better off alone.
“Shut up,” Chelsea muttered under her breath. She walked forward along the path, but stopped after a few steps.
“Gwen?” she asked, turning back. “Aren’t you coming?”
Gwen stood still, surveying the neighborhood fusion. “Are you sure I should?” she asked. “I… I know you saw my path, but… this feels like trespassing.”
Chelsea met Gwen’s eyes. “I don’t want to be alone.”
Gwen nodded, following after Chelsea. They walked along in silence, taking slow and deliberate steps. Something about the space made any sense of haste feel wrong and out of place.
The first stop along the stone path was Reiner Manor. It didn’t look at all like it did today – dusty, vacant, overgrown, weathered – but like it did in Chelsea’s childhood.
It looked like it did when people still lived there.
Standing at the gate, Chelsea peered in through the bars. The front section of the grounds was the most expansive of the outdoor space, and she could picture herself running along, laughing and spinning, as her mother chased after her.
“We loved to run,” Chelsea said softly, smiling.
What she could picture in her mind’s eye slowly turned into an actual image, moving back and forth across the grounds. Chelsea, five years old, black hair long and flying freely around her, ran and ran as fast as she could. Her big green eyes glittered with life and happiness. Behind her, clearly keeping a pace that kept her just out of reach of the girl, was Chelsea’s mother Marion.
Seeing her again, like this, in motion, Chelsea felt her heart well up inside her. Everyone always said how much Chelsea took after her mother, and now that she was older Chelsea could clearly see it for herself. In another ten years, Chelsea and the woman she watched run after her child self could pass for twins.
Suddenly, Marion stopped. Little Chelsea turned back, staring at her mother in confusion, but Marion had shifted her attention elsewhere.
She was looking at the manor’s gate.
She was looking at Chelsea of the present day.
Chelsea sucked in a breath, felt her heart pound as her mother took one step, and then another, towards her. At the gate, she stopped, reaching out her hand. Time seemed to slow for Chelsea. What would happen when that hand touched her own?
Warmth. Wonderful, loving warmth flowed at the contact, as Chelsea felt the touch of her mother for the first time since she was a little girl. With it came tears, and Chelsea let them flow freely, until a hand reached through the bars and brushed the tears off her face with a gentle, motherly touch.
“Mom,” Chelsea said, so softly it was barely a whisper.
Marion smiled, nodding. “It’s me,” she said.
Her voice overwhelmed Chelsea. Photographs could remind her of how her mother looked, and her memories could give her fading sound and video, but this…
This was real.
The one voice Chelsea longed for more than any other, and the one voice she knew she could never hear again.
Yet here it was, clear as day.
“How?” she asked, holding her mother’s hand to her face.
“This… is but a moment,” Marion said sadly. “What you know is true – I can never come back. Not really. But for this moment, in this place… I am as real as I ever was.”
“Can I… can I stay here?”
Silence, a silence that seemed to stretch on for eternity, made the wait for Marion’s reply agonizing. Every heartbeat was a lifetime. Every breath was a generation.
And then, time resumed.
“You can do whatever you like,” Marion said. “Why do you feel otherwise?”
“But, I…” Chelsea wiped at her tears, gathered her thoughts. “I have responsibilities. There’s the Hunters. And there’s Isabelle. And someone has to look out for Delilah, and I can’t just leave Lorelei behind, and…” Chelsea found herself smiling. “Caleb.”
Marion’s smile faded, and she lowered her gaze sadly. “So it’s true,” she said softly. “You have forgotten your purpose.”
“Mom?” Chelsea asked.
Marion shook her head. “Chelsea, dear, why do you go on like this? How can you live every day pretending –”
“I’m not pretending!” Chelsea shouted, stepping away from the gate. For a moment, all she felt was anger and defensiveness, and as it faded, she stared at her mother in shock. “I… I don’t…”
Marion turned away.
“Don’t go!” Chelsea called, slamming against the cage, pushing and pulling in a desperate attempt to open it. But she couldn’t.
“Remember your purpose,” Marion said as she began to fade away. “Be honest, for once. If with no one else… be honest with yourself.”
And then she was gone. The manor changed, its life and color fading, until it was the decrepit and abandoned building it was in the present. Chelsea slumped to her knees, sobbing as she rested her head against the gate.
Gwen knelt next to her. Saying nothing, she wrapped an arm around Chelsea and pulled her close. Chelsea didn’t resist, and gave herself over to Gwen’s warm, kind embrace.
Finally, Chelsea pulled free. “I have to keep going. Until I’ve seen everything.”
Gwen nodded, and together the girls continued along the path.
Their next stop was a small chapel. Despite Marion Reiner’s fame within the magical community of Grimoire, she’d wanted her funeral to be held in the place most meaningful to her growing up. The crowd attending her service overflowed out the doors, but something about the image that Chelsea saw puzzled her. Unlike Reiner Manor, Chelsea could move through the chapel freely, but she couldn’t touch anyone. They were like ghosts or holograms, and she passed right through them.
That wasn’t what puzzled Chelsea. What puzzled her was the content of this scene.
She remembered her mother’s funeral perfectly. And the details here were wrong.
For one, her father was crying. At Marion’s funeral, one image had always stuck out in Chelsea’s memory:
Her father hadn’t cried. Not once. He’d simply stared straight forward, his eyes glassed over, his body so still Chelsea had thought him a statue.
Next to him, the image of Chelsea as a little girl was wrong, too. Where in reality she’d been an emotional, ruined pile of tears and screaming, here… little Chelsea was calm. Her legs, which didn’t reach the floor, kicked back and forth.
Notably unlike the real memory, Lorelei and her family were nowhere to be seen. Despite how close the Frosts and the Reiners were, in this strange retelling of Marion’s funeral, Lorelei was nowhere to be seen.
“What is this?” Chelsea asked, staring at the scene. And then she looked up, and her heart skipped a beat.
In the row behind Chelsea and her family, as in the real version of the funeral, sat Callum and Deirdre Greyson.
Of course they sat so close to the front. They were Marion’s partners as Hunters, and her very best friends in life.
But little Chelsea of the funeral day didn’t see the two Greysons in the same light that Chelsea did now, after over a decade of emotions and mixed messages and important words from her family had shifted her mindset dramatically.
As unsettlingly wrong the memory was, Chelsea left the chapel. She couldn’t bear the place anymore.
No more than four paces down the street, Chelsea suddenly stopped. There, wandering across the road, was her father.
He looked much as he had in the weeks after Marion’s death. His normally clean-shaven face now sported a sloppy, untrimmed beard. His thick curly hair was beginning to hang down into his eyes, eyes that struggled to show any sort of emotion. He wandered the street like a man with no sense of where he was going, no desire to go anywhere at all.
Chelsea started to approach him, but a sudden screech of slamming brakes from a fast-moving vehicle made her instinctively leap away. She watched in horror – and complete confusion – as a car came out of nowhere and slammed into her father. He tumbled through the air, end over end like a rag doll, before landing limp and broken in the street.
While Chelsea’s emotions told her to race to her father’s side, she was too won over by disbelief to do so.
“This…” she said softly, staring as paramedics rushed to her father’s aid, only to realize it was too late to save him. Chelsea shook her head.
“What is it?” Gwen asked.
“This isn’t how it happened,” Chelsea said. “He… there was no car. He wasn’t… he wasn’t killed. I don’t…”
Be honest with yourself.
The words that Chelsea kept hearing in this dark world suddenly rang crystal clear in her heart. She spun around, looking at the chapel as an image of her as a child walked out of the doors without a trace of a tear or emotion on her face. She looked back to her father, broken in the street from a hit-and-run.
“These are…” Chelsea struggled for words.
Yes. You know. You know what this is.
“Lies.” Chelsea hung her head, her hands clenched in fists. “The lies… the same lies…”
Chelsea closed her eyes. “These are the stories I told Caleb.”
Now we’re getting to it.
“But why?” Gwen asked. “Why are these the images you’re seeing if they’re fake?”
“Because this world wants something from me,” Chelsea said. “Because… maybe some part of me… maybe some part of me made these lies real in my heart.”
“Then… what really happened?”
Chelsea kept her eyes fixed on the fake version of her father’s death. And she wept. Not because seeing her father like that, in this scene, stirred emotions within her.
She wept because she remembered how it really happened.
“Show us the truth,” Chelsea said bitterly. “Gwen can see. Our… our fathers’ final moments are nearly the same.”
And so the scene changed. Looking into the master bedroom of Reiner Manor, Chelsea and Gwen watched the real story of how Chelsea’s father died.
When it passed, neither said a word. Gwen took hold of Chelsea’s hand, just for a moment, and squeezed it softly. Words were insufficient in the face of their shared grief. Words were insufficient in the face of how tragically similar their childhoods had been.
Chelsea had barely seen any of what this entire path, this literal stroll down memory lane, had to show her, and already she struggled with whether or not to continue.
Was this what Gwen had gone through? Had facing her own horrific past, and all the pain that came with it, given her such pause long before the end?
But knowing the true story, Chelsea thought that the worst was now behind her. In the silence and darkness, she walked forward. There was one more moment she was sure she’d have to revisit, and she knew it was soon to come. But first, she was able to calm down, able to almost smile, as she stood in front of her grandparents’ house. Little Chelsea knelt in the flower garden, with dirt all over her knees and gloved hands and wrists as she followed her grandmother’s instructions oh so closely.
But beyond this lovely scene was the hospital room where her grandfather had spent the last of his days, and then her grandmother after him. And Chelsea saw the scene she expected to see. Ten years old, Chelsea sat by her grandmother’s bedside, holding her hand. She’d just received the news that the doctors had run out of options, and it was only a matter of time and comfort now.
“Don’t weep for me, my dear,” Chelsea’s grandmother, Moira, said. Her face was serious, her usual serene smile gone. “Listen to me. I have important words for you. I… had hoped to tell you this later. These words are too much of a burden for a child to bear. And yet… it seems I have no choice.”
“No,” little Chelsea said, shaking her head. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. You can tell me when you’re better.”
“Please, just listen.” Moira gripped Chelsea’s hand as tight as her feeble, waning strength allowed. “The Greysons. The Greysons, they…” Her breathing began to come faster, more pained, and little Chelsea told her to stop, but Moira wouldn’t. “My daughter. They took… my daughter. The Greysons…”
Moira’s strength failed as doctors and nurses rushed into the room. Chelsea turned away from the memory.
“Do you remember now?”
Chelsea looked up at the sudden voice, to see her mother standing in the middle of the street. She raced forward excitedly. Finally! No gate or barrier between them!
But she passed straight through her mother, unable to touch her.
“Mom?” Chelsea asked, turning back to Marion.
“Do you remember now?” Marion repeated.
“I…” Chelsea stared at the ground. “You wouldn’t say this. You’re not –”
“Not what?” Marion asked, tilting her head to the side inquisitively. “Not alive? Not able to speak from beyond, not able to ask you to –”
“Please stop,” Chelsea said, turning away. “I have more to see. More to do. And I can’t… I can’t bear to see you like this. To hear you say these things.”
When the silence stretched on too long for Chelsea to bear, she looked back.
Her mother was gone.
Gwen, standing where Marion had been, crossed the distance between them and placed a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder. Their eyes met, and Chelsea found herself encouraged by the golden light.
“I’m sorry I pulled you into this,” Chelsea said.
Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be,” she said. “You saved me. Now let me be here to save you, if you need it.”
They walked on, and the next stop was Lorelei’s home. This was the day that Chelsea had come to live there. From her parents, to her grandparents, and now, with no blood relatives left, the Frosts had taken her in. Chelsea had brought very little luggage – so many of her belongings from Reiner Manor had stayed there even when she went to live with her grandparents, as she felt haunted by the space and the memories all of her things there held with them.
Lorelei was ecstatic. Chelsea remembered that, how the melancholy of losing the last of her family had been countered by the light of her best friend becoming her sister, of the smiles and hope and encouragement this new family had offered her with complete sincerity.
It was a quiet memory, an image frozen in time, and Chelsea took comfort in it before she moved on.
Next were a series of rather inconsequential places and memories – Chelsea and Lorelei playing on the playground; both girls practicing their Elemental Magic, with Chelsea wielding fire while Lorelei wielded ice; the girls’ party at Lorelei’s house to celebrate their eighth grade graduation. And then, Chelsea came to her high school years at Grimoire Academy.
She knew what memories would be highlighted before she ever entered the building. Inside, she watched as ninth-grade Chelsea walked through the gym on her way out of school to go home on her first day. The boys’ volleyball club was practicing, and Chelsea watched as she walked. Suddenly, an errant ball came flying her way. A boy shouted for her to watch out, but there was no need. Chelsea caught it easily, smiling triumphantly as she held it up. One of the boys ran over to her, reaching out for the ball.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling that smile that Chelsea knew oh so well.
Ninth-grade Chelsea was seeing that smile for the first time, and watching herself from the outside, present day Chelsea found herself laughing at just how obviously her younger self was blushing. The even funnier part, one she hadn’t noticed at all back then, was just how much the boy was blushing, too. He shuffled his feet awkwardly, but was clearly trying to look cool the best he could. “Sure,” Chelsea said, handing the ball over to the boy. She turned to leave, but stopped as the boy held out a hand in greeting.
“I’m Caleb,” he said.
Chelsea took his hand, doing her best not to look totally awkward. “Chelsea,” she said.
“Hope I see you again soon,” Caleb blurted out. Then, realizing what he’d just said, he and Chelsea both turned away from each other and went back to their business. Even though she was embarrassed, Chelsea was smiling.
Of course, Chelsea realized, watching the memory again, he didn’t mention his last name. He didn’t mention it for a long time.
Memories of Chelsea and Caleb’s budding high school romance began to play over each other, blurring and blending together as days, then weeks, then months, then years went by. And as Chelsea was being drawn into this fast-forward look at her life, a voice from behind caused her pause.
“Heck of a trip down memory lane, huh?”
Chelsea turned around slowly, heart caught in her throat as she faced the Caleb she knew best, the boy who’d grown into a young man, the young man who occupied so much of her thoughts and emotions every day.
“It’s kind of weird, isn’t it?” he asked, smiling that way he always did oh so easily. “Watching our life flash before our eyes. I thought that was only supposed to happen when you’re dying.”
“How are you…” Chelsea started, mouth agape.
Caleb laughed. “Come on, haven’t you figured it out? Everyone important to you is here. You saw your mom, your dad, your grandma, Lorelei… how could I not be here?”
“So you aren’t real,” Gwen said, stepping between Chelsea and Caleb. “And you want to play on her emotions, try to beat her down just like this place did to me.”
“Oh, take yourself out of it,” Caleb said. Chelsea was startled in the change in her boyfriend. His tone was harsh, and his eyes were suddenly cold, menacing. “This is a private space. Haven’t you noticed? You don’t belong here.”
“Caleb –” Chelsea started.
“What?” Caleb asked, shrugging his shoulders. “Don’t think I didn’t see everything. Don’t think I didn’t see how you lied to me. How you’ve been lying to me all this time.” He scoffed, turning his back to Chelsea. “Why has it taken you so long to kill me?”
“Wha –” Chelsea’s eyes grew wide. “Kill you? I would never – that was never part of my plan.”
“So what was your plan?” Caleb asked, turning on Chelsea. He stalked right through Gwen, like a ghost passing through whatever he wished, until he was inches away from Chelsea. Despite going straight through Gwen, when he jabbed an accusing finger against Chelsea’s chest, she felt it, like a dagger questing for her heart. “Just blind me to what you want? Use me as some tool, a point of access so you could get to my parents? Or did you want to go through my siblings first?”
“Caleb, I –”
“It was just the parents.”
The weary voice came from Chelsea’s doppelganger. She leaned against a row of lockers in the high school hallway, watching the proceedings with a look of boredom. “Come on, Chelsea,” she said. “Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t take so long. You’re supposed to be honest with yourself.”
“This isn’t right,” Chelsea said, looking from Caleb to her doppelganger and back. “Stop this. Stay away from me!”
And then Caleb and the other Chelsea were gone.
“Stop,” Chelsea said, dropping to her knees and holding her head in her hands. “Stop this. Stop toying with me.”
This isn’t a game.
“Stop. Don’t talk to me ever again.”
Why would I do that?
“Because it’s wrong. It’s all wrong. You’re wrong.”
The only things in this entire space that have been wrong are the memories that reflected lies of your own creation. I haven’t said a single falsehood.
“Chelsea, don’t talk to it,” Gwen said, kneeling down next to Chelsea. “I don’t know what it’s saying, but don’t respond. It’s too dangerous, too persuasive. It twists everything in just the right way to make it seem like it’s right, but it’s all wrong. It wants to leave you the way it left me, the way I’d still be if you hadn’t saved me – broken and alone, unable to go anywhere, stuck in this place forever.”
She can’t even hear me, yet she thinks she knows me? Chelsea… you do realize that your path isn’t over, don’t you? You still have more to do.
Chelsea looked up. Beyond the high school, there was still more path to tread. It led to something very much like Gwen’s path – a single window on a single wall, likely showing her a vision into a memory.
There is one last thing for you to see.
Chelsea stood up, walking on. Gwen walked beside her, but before Chelsea reached the window, she suddenly stood in front of her, blocking the way.
“Chelsea,” Gwen said. “Please. Don’t lose yourself like I did.”
“Can I see the last memory?” Chelsea asked, looking beyond Gwen to the window.
“I don’t know what there is. And I’m struggling with what’s real and what isn’t. But… I need to see this through to the end. Please?”
Gwen stepped aside.
At the window, Chelsea peered through, wondering what she’d see. Would it be college? What about her Hunter internship, or when she and Caleb first formed their team?
But what she saw instead was a nightmare.
A bleak landscape stretched before her. Grass struggled for even a hint of green amongst all the brown. Massive rocky ruins strewn across the plains lent a haunting emptiness to the scenery.
And in the midst of that, a lone creature wandered to and fro.
Chelsea stared in disbelief that turned to agony as she came to understand what she was seeing. The glowing white creature wandered on clawed feet, feathers falling from his body with each step. What was once a pure white, dazzling color was now stained with black blight, scarred with bright red of fresh injuries. When the bird-creature turned his head to look at Chelsea, she barely recognized him.
She’d wondered what had happened to her Summon, why she could no longer see him.
How had he become such a nightmarish beast?
The black, wide eyes that once held such intelligence and curiosity now looked hollow and broken. His beak hung slack, and yellow-green ooze drooled from it. Red slashes scarred his face, leaving him lopsided and unsteady.
“What have you done to him?” Chelsea asked, gaping at the horror before her.
Me? Chelsea, don’t you understand?
You did this.
“No!” Chelsea yelled, slamming her hands against the glass of the window. It broke, shattering into dozens of pieces, but the space beyond the window wasn’t where her Summon had gone to. The bleak plains were nowhere to be seen.
“Chelsea,” Gwen said, taking Chelsea by the shoulders. “That wasn’t… I know that place. Your Summon isn’t gone.”
Don’t listen to her. She knows nothing of what she speaks. You saw him clear as day. He’s gone. And it’s your fault.
“He was my last hope,” Chelsea said, picking up one of the shards of glass and peering into it, desperate for a look at what her owl had become. But the glass no longer showed the plains, or the nightmarish monster. It was transparent and empty, and as Chelsea dropped it, it cut her hand, staining the ground red. “I… if only he could be found somewhere in here. He’s my light. I saved him, and then he saved me. I can’t… he counted on me, and I… I didn’t mean to lose him. I didn’t mean…”
“Chelsea,” Gwen said, placing her forehead against Chelsea’s and tilting her chin up so that all Chelsea could see was the golden light of Gwen’s eyes. “Listen to me. Your Summon isn’t gone. Don’t despair. What you saw… it can’t happen this fast. Just like other things you’ve seen here, this place is lying to you. Just like what those false versions of Caleb, and yourself, and your mother said to you, it’s all lies. Don’t listen to this place. Listen to me.”
You’re better off alone. People only want to pull you into their lies. If it isn’t one person, it’s another, trying to control you, to tell you what to do.
“Shut up,” Chelsea said. For a moment, she thought the voice inside her laughed. So she repeated herself, hoping that the look in her eyes made things clear to Gwen.
What are you –
Gwen smiled, and Chelsea knew she understood.
“That’s enough out of you,” Chelsea said. “Leave me alone. Leave Gwen alone. Gwen… what do you know? Is there a way to save my Summon?”
Gwen nodded. “I may not be a Summoner, but I’ve heard from many about what to do when they’re separated. All you have to do is call for him.”
“But I… already tried that.”
Chelsea pulled away from Gwen, looking away. “I… I have to say his name out loud?”
“What did you expect?” Gwen asked.
Chelsea took in a deep breath, then let it out. Softly, hiding her mouth from Gwen, she whispered her owl’s name.
“Chelsea,” Gwen said, staring at her. “You have to be clear. You have to put all of your emotion into it. Otherwise, how can he hear you?”
“Do you really think he can reach me in this place?” Chelsea asked.
“I think it would be terrible not to try. What are you so afraid of?”
Chelsea still wouldn’t look at Gwen. “His name is a secret.”
“I’ll cover my ears,” Gwen said. “Don’t hold back.”
Chelsea watched Gwen. Graciously, the girl even closed her eyes, squeezing them shut as she plugged her ears with her fingers.
Now’s your chance to –
“Enough from you,” Chelsea said. She looked up to the dark, formless sky. Hope and desperation welling within her, she took in a deep breath and then, as loud as she could, called out for her Summon by his name.
Moments of silence passed, until Chelsea thought it was hopeless. Maybe the voice was right?
And then her heart soared as she heard a familiar musical call. Faint at first, the beautiful voice of her precious white owl grew louder and clearer, until his shining form swooped down, piercing the darkness and alighting on Chelsea’s outstretched arm.
Giddy with joy and relief, Chelsea giggled like a little girl as she rubbed her forehead against her owl’s, stroking behind his soft, fluffy head with her free hand.
“Thank you,” she said softly, tears rolling down her cheeks to get caught and borne away in her Summon’s feathers.
A small laugh alerted Chelsea, and she looked up to Gwen.
“What is it?” she asked.
Gwen placed a finger to her lips. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“You heard?” Chelsea asked, staring in disbelief at her friend.
“You were quite loud,” Gwen said. “But honestly, don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
Chelsea sighed, but then her owl nudged against her, and she laughed along with Gwen.
The darkness wasn’t gone, yet. How she and Gwen would escape from this horrible world, she didn’t know.
But some light had returned. And with it, the most precious of resources, something she’d thought she’d lost: