“You sure you’re up for this?”
Chelsea scowled at Caleb’s question. “It’s long past time,” she said. “Whether I’m up for it or not… this has waited long enough.”
Caleb gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then looked ahead.
The two of them stood together in front of Greyson Manor.
“How long ago was it that they told you they had something for me?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb hummed in thought. “It was right before we vanished to the Enchanted Dominion, so… a little more than a month?”
Chelsea nodded, mentally bracing herself.
Caleb’s one thing. I’ve spent so much time with him, grown to love him so much.
But his parents… I’ve barely even seen them. And despite all that’s happened and all I’ve learned, it’s only made me more aware of my emotional instability. Can I control myself if this brings up pain?
I have to. It’s the most important step towards…
“Let’s go,” Chelsea said. Caleb led the way, and into Greyson Manor they went.
Callum and Deirdre came rushing to greet them as soon as they stepped inside, but at the sight of Chelsea, they immediately calmed their enthusiasm.
Chelsea knew why. It wasn’t that they were displeased to see her.
Distance. All this distance between us, all the ways I’ve avoided them.
They know more than they say. They know I have negative feelings towards them. And yet…
There was kindness in their eyes. Callum especially, though he was blonde and round-faced and had a more muscular, broader-shouldered build than Caleb, had the same eyes and smile as his son.
There was forgiveness in those eyes, and kindness, and love.
“Hello,” Chelsea said softly, suddenly extremely self-conscious, staring down at her feet. Standing before the Greysons, for so long the objects of her rage, she didn’t feel anger or pain, but instead…
They were so close to mom. We could have been close, too. I could have met Caleb so much sooner.
And even when I did meet Caleb…
Four years. Four years I’ve held onto their son and kept my distance from them, and never once have they complained. Never once have they tried to force anything upon me.
Why? Why was I so cruel, and they so… so…
And all around her was that silence, the same silence of Caleb at Reiner Manor.
What do I even say?
Chelsea took a deep breath, let it out. Then she took a page from Caleb’s book and stepped forward, dropping to one knee. She bowed her head low, finding a spot on the black tiles of the entrance hall’s floor and fixing her eyes on it.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. Cleared her throat, tried again. “I’m sorry. I don’t… really know how to say everything, but I’ve kept you both at such a distance, all this time, and I just wanted to apologize. It was wrong. And I was wrong, caught up in a terrible lie, and I… I just…” She gritted her teeth, fighting against tears. “I just want to change this. I don’t want to stay away anymore. I want things to be right between us. So please –”
“Please don’t ask us to forgive you, Chelsea,” came Deirdre’s voice, warm and gentle. “There is nothing to forgive. Whatever kept you away, if you’re willing to be close to us now, we’ll gladly accept you.”
Chelsea looked up, to see that Deirdre was smiling, and Callum…
Where did he go?
Deirdre pursed her lips, staring at the spot where her husband had just been standing. “He often does this,” she said with a sigh. “I know what he’s thinking and where he went, and he’ll be back soon, but he really should communicate with his words more often. Well, here he comes.”
And Callum was back, this time with a small black box in his hands.
It wasn’t just any black box – it was a magical black-box, designed so that only one who knew the proper “key” could open it. They were only used in the most sensitive of cases, for the most secretive of materials, and Chelsea could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen one.
Callum smiled briefly, but his heart wasn’t in it, and he looked down at the box with sadness in his eyes. “This… was given to us by your mother,” he said softly, “just a week before she died. She told us to give it to you when you turned eighteen. We… we didn’t know…” He shook his head, and was clearly fighting tears. “We didn’t know what was about to happen to her, but somehow she did. She wanted to make sure you had this, no matter what. And she said that you would know the key to opening it.”
“You…” Chelsea stared at him. “You don’t know what’s inside?”
Callum shook his head. “Neither of us know the key, and when we asked her about it, she just said that you would,” he said.
“We were worried when you were young and you stayed far away from us,” Deirdre said. “But when you came home with Caleb, we thought that finally we’d have a chance. But then you continued to keep us at a distance, and your eighteenth birthday came and went, and…”
“Considering how important this clearly is,” Callum said, “we couldn’t just mail it, or leave someone else to give it to you. When you’re entrusted with something like this, from a dear friend… you don’t take any chances.”
Chelsea nodded, struggling through her shock.
Mother… you knew you were going to die? And you couldn’t do anything to stop it?
Slowly, Chelsea rose to her feet, staring at the box. Callum held it out, and for a moment, Chelsea couldn’t bring herself to take it. They’d been holding onto it for so many years… for Chelsea to just take it, all of a sudden like this…
But then she saw the silver pattern on the top, and she understood. Yes, this was meant for her, and no one else. And her heart broke, tears poured down her face, as she stared at an image she thought she’d never see again. Her mind was brought back, more than seventeen years, to months before her mother died, and a strange conversation she’d had with her…
“Chelsea,” Marion had said, shaking Chelsea awake. A glance at the clock told little Chelsea that it was two o’ clock in the morning. And a closer look at her mother’s face told her that she had been crying. Tears had stained her makeup, and her eyes were red and worn.
“Mommy?” Chelsea had asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “What’s the matter?”
Marion smiled, and despite her appearance, the smile was genuine. “Nothing you need concern yourself with,” she said gently. “I’ve just had a rough night, and I needed to talk to my precious little girl. You don’t mind that I woke you up, do you?”
Chelsea shook her head. “No,” she said simply, leaning over and hugging Marion, squeezing her tight with her little arms. “I wish you’d wake me up super early every day and we could have secret little talks all the time!”
Marion laughed, but held a finger to her lips. “It is a secret talk, so we mustn’t be loud.”
Little Chelsea’s eyes grew wide. “Daddy can’t be a part of this?”
Marion shook her head, a little conspiratorial smile playing on her lips. “This is just between you and me.”
And little Chelsea had been so happy, so excited. Every word, every action of her mother, she’d paid the closest attention to, remembering them perfectly no matter how many years passed. Marion had taken Chelsea down to the ground floor, and then through a secret door and down even further, into the Reiner Vault. Nearly every mage family with a Manor, like the Greysons, or the Frosts, or the Reiners, had a Vault in which to store their most valuable and precious belongings.
Or, alternatively, to hold conversations of the utmost secrecy.
That was the first, and last, time Chelsea had ever been in the Reiner Vault. She’d been captivated by the shelves and shelves of books – “secret” books! – and the boxes and chests sealed shut, and the strange, unbelievable objects she’d never seen anywhere else before or since.
But Marion had led her past all of that, through a door at the far end of the Vault, into a small room. It was a far less interesting room after all the excitement of the rest of the Vault. In it was a small table, low to the ground, and instead of chairs there were little cushions on four sides of it. In the center of the table were three objects: a little black notebook, a black pen, and a silver lighter.
Marion knelt on one cushion, while Chelsea pulled a second cushion next to her and plopped down on that. Marion picked up the notebook, opened it, and began to draw on the first page. Chelsea noticed that there was torn paper at the seam, the sign of several pages having been ripped out.
“Now Chelsea, I want you to remember what I draw here,” Marion said. Chelsea watched intently as her mother drew, her pen tracing simple, spiraling lines that formed something like a fireball blooming into a flower, surrounded by four petals.
“It’s a fire blossom,” Chelsea said, making up words in awe of the strange design.
Marion laughed softly. “That’s a good name for it,” she said. “But there’s more to it. This is a secret crest, one that no one else has ever seen. My mother created a special crest for me, and now I create this one for you.”
Chelsea stared at the fire blossom. “This… is my crest?”
Marion nodded, pointing at Chelsea’s heart. “It’s meant to symbolize who you are, and who you will become,” she said. “And it is a special symbol. A Reiner crest is only used for the most secretive, most sensitive of purposes. Because there’s more to it.” Marion capped the pen, and used it to trace the spiraling lines of the crest. She started in the center, tracing outward, but every time, as Chelsea watched, the tracing took a different turn than she expected, again and again. Marion did it again, several more times, then handed the notebook to Chelsea. “Now you try.”
Chelsea did it, tracing exactly as shown, and did it several times, so that it was engraved into her mind. Marion smiled, taking back the notebook. “Good,” she said with a smile. “Don’t ever forget any of this.” She tapped Chelsea’s chest. “My little fire blossom.” Chelsea giggled, but her attention was focused once more as Marion ripped the page with the crest out of the notebook. She smiled at Chelsea’s dismay. “This is my special way of keeping secrets. Remember – as long as it is in your heart, you don’t need this page.” She held up the page in one hand, and picked up the silver lighter with the other. With a click, the page, and the crest, went up in flames, Marion using her Fire Magic to quickly consume it, not leaving a single piece of ash or wisp of smoke behind.
That had been so long ago, and yet Chelsea remembered, even more vividly now as she stared at the black-box.
For on its surface, in silver, spiraling lines, was her crest.
The fire blossom.
“Do you know the key?” Deirdre asked.
Chelsea nodded, and she lifted a finger to trace along it, when Deirdre quickly began to leave, dragging Callum with her. “We should go,” she said. “This was for your eyes only, after all.” Callum seemed quite curious, but he relented, and the Greyson parents were gone. Caleb started to follow after them, but Chelsea grabbed his hand.
“Stay,” she said softly, staring into his eyes. Caleb nodded, and the two walked into the family room, where Caleb drew black curtains over the windows. They were alone, with nary a chance of being spied upon. Slowly, as Caleb looked the other direction, Chelsea traced along the fire blossom, eyes stinging with tears as she did something she’d last done as a child, with her mother beside her.
With the final line traced, a soft click signaled the unlocking of the box. Chelsea tilted back the lid, and looked within, as Caleb sat down beside her.
Inside were two objects atop two envelopes, both of which were sealed with the not-so-secret Reiner crest, a fireball in red and blue and green that rose up from an outstretched hand. Chelsea gasped as she stared at the two objects, both of which she recognized.
The first was a large, ornate key, which she knew was the key, the one she’d thought lost for so long, to Reiner Manor. The key to her old home, to the place she hadn’t set foot in for over a decade.
Next to it was a strange green crystal, about the size of Chelsea’s palm. It was rounded on one side, and spiraled to a dull point on the other end. Chelsea had seen it, briefly, the one time she’d been in the Reiner Vault. It had been sitting atop a silver pedestal, with a glass box surrounding it.
The envelopes also were marked differently. One had the number 1 on it, and the other the number 2. Both had, in the handwriting of her mother, a simple phrase: “To my precious fire blossom.”
Slowly, tenderly, Chelsea lifted the first envelope. She almost couldn’t bear to break the seal, hoping to continue to preserve, exactly as she’d found it, one of the very last remnants of her mother.
But of course she had to, and upon opening the envelope, she found within a surprisingly short letter, taking up a little more than half of the page on a sheet of notebook paper very much the size and texture of the paper from the black notebook in the secret room. In her mother’s elegant, small handwriting, it read:
“Dearest, most precious Chelsea,
I am so sorry. Events unfolded that I could not prevent. You will learn more, and I will explain more in the second letter. But I want you to know this: you are at fault for nothing.
I also want you to know this: Reiner Manor is yours, if you desire it. I am sure it must be full of painful thoughts for you as it now stands, but I hope that you can change that. Make it into a home again. Make it into a place where you can laugh and dance once more.
This key is a special key, different from others that you’ve seen for Reiner Manor. It unlocks every door in the house – including that of the Vault. All that was once mine is now yours, as it should be. And below you will find the instructions on disabling and re-enabling the magical wards and locks on the house itself, secrets I had hoped to teach you in person when you were older.
The crystal is a special item, an invention of a dear friend, and I do believe it is one-of-a-kind. We call it a “Memory Gem.” Do not activate it, except within Reiner Manor, with all of the magical wards activated. You must only view the memories within in utmost secrecy.
For this Gem contains my memories. You can see the frightening truths I discovered, the dangerous webs being spun in my treasured city, and, I’m sure most painful for you, but also most important…
You can see my final moments.
For this Gem is tied to me, until my very last breath. Even after sealing it away, it will still record my last moments.
It will be painful and difficult for you to bear. But you must. For the truth is too important to ignore. And what was my mission is now yours. Finish what I started. Save our city.
After you have seen my memories, then you can read the second letter. I hope you haven’t opened them out of order, but if you have, I won’t mind – I well understand a mischievous heart. But if you can help it, do things in the proper order. I did put quite a lot of forethought into this, after all.
No matter what may come, know that all of my love is yours, forever, my darling fire blossom.
Though Caleb had read the letter beside Chelsea, when she finished it, she handed it to him so he could read it more clearly. She sat back, staring at the ceiling, shedding more and more tears when she thought she’d used them all up earlier today.
What struck her the most, more than anything else in the letter, was one line: “You are at fault for nothing.”
Had her mother known? Had she known what her death would drive her husband to? Had she known how Chelsea would blame herself for it for so many years?
So much of how her mother wrote gave the impression that she could see the future in some capacity, which should be impossible, but…
Well, whatever the cause behind it, Chelsea was grateful. Grateful that her mother had seen things before they happened. Grateful that she had left behind clues and truths about what happened to her.
For Chelsea – though she had cast aside the lies, had let go of her vengeful desires – had not given up on the mission she had held most dear to her heart for so long.
She had not given up on finding out who killed her mother.
And now she was close to the truth. What would she see in the Memory Gem? Would she know, right away, who killed her mother? If so, why hadn’t she shared that memory with the Greysons, with the Council of Mages?
Whatever the truth was, Chelsea would find out very soon.
But she sighed as Caleb handed the letter back to her, because she had to leave. She had hoped to spend time with Caleb’s parents, or at least try to.
But this was too pressing to ignore. She dried her eyes, closed and locked the black-box, apologized once more to the Greyson parents, and then made her way to Reiner Manor with Caleb. Along the way, she texted Lorelei to join her there with Gwen.
Meeting at the graves, and then coming to Greyson Manor, had been something that only involved herself and Caleb. But digging into the past, digging into the truth of her mother’s murder…
These were things she would share, as she always had, with her best friend and sister. And now Gwen was so close, as well, a dear friend who also knew everything about Chelsea’s past so far. These three – Lorelei, Caleb, and Gwen – had become Chelsea’s family in the wake of losing her own. She was the only Reiner left, but she was not alone. And as she and Caleb walked along the path that led up the hill to Reiner Manor, she smiled at the sight of Lorelei and Gwen waiting for them.
“Ready?” Chelsea asked, and her friends nodded. She led the way, boots crunching on an overgrown, gravel-strewn walk to the front door. She brushed away some ivy, then placed her hand against the black wood of the door. It had been so very long. What would she find within? Would it be what she remembered? Or would her home hold only pain for her now?
She felt hands – one on her right shoulder, two on her left. Caleb to her right, Lorelei and Gwen to her left.
Her friends were with her.
Chelsea took out one of her lighters and placed it against the door, using the magic her mother had explained in order to remove magical locks that had been in place, untouched, for seventeen years. Then, that done, she inserted the key into the iron lock and turned.
The door unlocked, and she pushed it open. Inside was Reiner Manor’s entrance hall. While Greyson Manor had a small, simple entrance hall that immediately branched to the left and right to larger sitting rooms, Reiner Manor’s entrance hall was a large hub that the entire house was connected to. Corridors far to the right and left led off to other rooms, and another ahead led farther back into the house. To the left and right were sweeping, arched stairways that led up to the second floor, and from there were arched stairways that rose to the third floor, and then another to the fourth. Halls branched off from each floor, and here in the center, between the first set of stairs, was furniture – couches and plush armchairs and low tables – all draped over with white cloth covered in a layer of dust. To the left and right, set within the stairways, were separate fireplaces, their magic still protecting them, as they were perfectly clean after all these years.
Chelsea had always known this hall as a place of light and energy. Now, coming back home without her parents here to welcome her, to a place that had been disused for so long, it seemed… dark. Silent.
The cloths over the furniture, the dust over everything, the cracks and fading grey of what had once been beautiful green tiles…
Things had changed, as they always did. And for several moments, Chelsea wasn’t sure what to feel.
But something resonated within her.
“Make it into a home again. Make it into a place where you can laugh and dance once more.”
Chelsea smiled. “I’m home,” she said softly.
And in time, I’ll make into a home again. For mom’s sake, and…
For my own.
Chelsea and her friends did a little bit of work – there were many storage closets throughout Reiner Manor, and cleaning supplies were plentiful. They removed the cloths from the entrance hall furniture, swept the floor, lit the fires, dusted the walls and corners and windows, pulled back the curtains. And as they did all that, Chelsea also locked the door, and “locked up” the house with its magical wards and seals.
Light. Light shone into this house once more. The darkness so quickly shrank back from it, so quickly pulled away, and as Chelsea turned around from pulling back the last of the curtains…
She marveled at the sight.
It wasn’t exactly the house she remembered. It was smaller, for one thing, having only been seen through the eyes of a five year-old. And it was dirtier, and emptier, but…
There was light once more. There were hints of what it had once been, and more important to Chelsea, hints of what it would become, how it would change for the better now that she had returned.
They pulled a large couch in front of one of the fireplaces, and Chelsea sat in the middle with Lorelei and Gwen to one side, and Caleb to the other. For a moment, she just smiled, staring into the crackling fire, feeling the warmth of her hearth, and of her friends, her family, all around her.
But there was also work to be done. She opened the black-box, and first shared the first letter from her mother with Gwen and Lorelei. When they were done, she removed the Memory Gem, staring at the spiraling green crystal.
And she realized that her mother hadn’t told her how to activate it. For a moment she stalled, uncertain how to proceed. Then she pulled one of her lighters from her pocket, and pulsed just a little bit with magic.
Suddenly, like being swept away by the waves of the ocean, Chelsea was pulled in, unable to resist the tug of magic from the crystal. Reiner Manor swirled around her, then vanished, and for a moment, all was blackness.
When light returned…
Chelsea was in the past.