Meanwhile, twin sister Alice continues to hone her spellcasting abilities, completely ignoring the rules that govern the Otherworlds. Alice will stop at nothing to reclaim Lia's role of Gate, and that's not the only thing she wants. There's also Lia's true love, James.
The outcome of this battle between sisters will have consequences of Biblical proportion. In the end, only one sister will be left standing.
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Guardian of the Gate (Prophecy of the Sisters, Book 2)
By Zink, Michelle
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Zink, Michelle
All right reserved.
Sitting at the desk in my chamber, I do not need to read the words of the prophecy to recall them. They are embedded in my mind as clearly as the mark that brands my wrist.
Even still, there is something solid and reassuring about holding the cracked binding of the book my father hid in the library before his death. I open the aged cover, my eyes coming to rest on the slip of paper inserted at the front.
In the eight months since Sonia and I have been in London, reading the words of the prophecy has become my bedtime ritual. It is in those quiet hours that Milthorpe Manor is at its most peaceful, the house and servants silent and Sonia fast asleep in her chamber down the hall. It is then that I continue my attempt to decipher the words of the prophecy translated by James’s careful hand—to find any new clue that might lead me to their missing pages. And the path to my freedom.
On this summer eve, the fire hisses softly from the firebox as I bend my head to the page, reading, once again, the words that bind me irrevocably to my sister, my twin—and to the prophecy that divides us.
Through fire and harmony mankind endured
Until the sending of the Guards
Who took as wives and lovers the woman of man,
Engendering His wrath.
Two sisters, formed in the same swaying ocean,
One the Guardian, One the Gate.
One keeper of peace,
The other bartering sorcery for devotion.
Cast from the heavens, the Souls were Lost
As the Sisters continue the battle
Until the Gates summon forth their return,
Or the Angel brings the Keys to the Abyss.
The Army, marching forth through the Gates.
Samael, the Beast, through the Angel.
The Angel, guarded only by the gossamer veil of protection.
Four marks, Four keys, Circle of fire
Birthed in the first breath of Samhain
In the shadow of the Mystic Stone Serpent of Aubur.
Let the Angel’s Gate swing without the Keys
Followed by the Seven Plagues and No Return.
Open your arms, Mistress of Chaos, that the havoc of the Beast will flow
like a river
For all is lost when the Seven Plagues begin.
There was a time when the words meant very little to me. When they were nothing more than a legend found in a dusty volume hidden in Father’s library before his death. But that was before I discovered the serpent blossoming on my wrist. Before I met Sonia and Luisa, two of the four keys, also marked, though not exactly like me.
Only I have the “C” at the center of my mark. Only I am the Angel of Chaos, the unwilling Gate to my sister’s Guardian, a consequence I blame not on nature, but on the confused nature of our birth. Nevertheless, only I can choose to banish Samael forever.
Or summon him forth and bring about the end of the world as we know it.
I close the book, forcing its words from my mind. It is too late an hour to think of the end of the world. Too late an hour to think of my part in stopping it. The sheer burden of it has made me desire the singular peace of sleep, and I rise from the desk and slip beneath the coverlet of the massive four-poster bed that is mine at Milthorpe Manor.
I turn out the lamp on my bedside table. The room is lit only by the glow of the fire, but the simple darkness of a firelit room does not frighten me as it once did. Now it is the evil hidden in places beautiful and familiar that brings terror to my heart.
It has been a long while since I have confused my travels on the Plane with a simple dream, but this time, I cannot say for certain which one has claimed me in sleep.
I am in a forest that I know instinctively to be the one surrounding Birchwood Manor, the only home I had ever known before coming to London eight months ago. There are those who might say all trees look alike, that it is impossible to tell one wood from another, but this is the landscape of my childhood and I know it for what it is.
The sun filters through the leaves that rise on branches far above my head. It creates a vague sense of daylight so that it might be morning or evening or anytime in between. I am beginning to wonder why I am here, for even my dreams seem to have purpose now, when I hear my name called from somewhere behind me.
“Li-a… Come, Lia…”
Turning, it takes a moment to place the figure standing just beyond me in the trees. The girl is small and still as a statue. Her golden ringlets glimmer even in the dappled light of the forest. Though it has been nearly a year since I saw her in New York, I would know her anywhere.
“I have something to show you, Lia. Come quickly.” The girl’s voice is the same youthful singsong that it was when she first handed me the medallion that bears the same mark as my wrist and is with me wherever I go.
I wait a moment, and she holds out a hand, waving me toward her with a smile too knowing to be pleasant.
“Hurry, Lia. You don’t want to miss her.” The little girl turns and runs ahead, curls bouncing as she disappears amid the trees.
I follow, stepping around the trees and mossy stones. My feet are bare, yet I feel no pain as I make my way deeper into the forest. The little girl is as graceful and quick as a butterfly. She flits in and out of the trees, her white pinafore drifting behind her like a ghost. Hurrying to keep up, my nightdress catches on twigs and branches. I swat at them as I go, trying not to lose the girl in the forest. But it is too late. Moments later, she is gone.
I stand in place, turning in a circle to scan the woods. It is disorienting, dizzying, and I fight a surge of panic as I realize I am utterly lost among the sameness of tree trunks and foliage. Even the sun is obscured from view.
A moment later, the girl’s voice returns, and I stand perfectly still, listening. It is unmistakable as the tune she once hummed as she skipped away from me in New York.
I follow the humming, goose bumps rising on the skin of my arms even under the sleeves of my nightdress. The fine hairs lift at the nape of my neck, but I am unable to turn away. Winding around tree trunks large and small, I follow the voice until I hear the river.
That is where the girl is. I am certain of it, and when I step through the last cluster of trees, the water stretches before me, and the little girl comes into view once more. She is bent over the other side of the river, though I cannot imagine how she crossed such a current. Her humming is melodic but with an eerie undertone that makes my skin crawl, and I continue toward the bank on my side of the river.
She does not seem to see me. She simply continues with her strange song as she runs her palms over the water. I do not know what she sees in its pristine surface, but she stares with singular concentration. Then she looks up and her eyes meet mine as if she is not at all surprised to see me standing before her, across the river.
I know her smile will haunt me even while she offers it. “Oh, good. I’m glad you’ve come.”
I shake my head. “Why have you come to me again?” My voice echoes through the quiet in the forest. “What more could you possibly have for me?”
She looks down, running her palms over the water as if she didn’t hear me.
“Pardon me.” I try to sound more forceful. “I would like to know why you called me into the forest.”
“It won’t be long now.” Her voice is flat. “You’ll see.”
She looks up, her blue eyes meeting mine. Her face wavers as she begins speaking again.
“Do you think that you are safe within the confines of your slumber, Lia?” The skin stretching over the small bones of her face shimmers, the pitch of her voice dropping a notch. “Do you think yourself so powerful now that you cannot be touched?”
Her voice is all wrong, and when her face wavers yet again, I understand. She smiles, but this time, not as the girl from the woods. Not anymore. Now she is my sister, Alice. I cannot help but be afraid. I know well what that smile hides.
“Why do you look so surprised, Lia? You know that I will always find you.”
I take a moment to calm my voice, not wanting her to see my fear. “What do you want, Alice? Have we not said everything there is to say?”
She tips her head, and as always, I believe she can see my soul laid bare. “I keep thinking you are going to become wiser, Lia. That you will realize the danger to which you subject not only yourself but your friends. And what remains of your family.”
I want to be furious at the mention of my family, our family, for wasn’t it Alice who pushed Henry into the river? Wasn’t it she who consigned him to death at the bottom of it? Yet her voice seems to soften, and I wonder if even she mourns our brother.
When I answer her, there is steel in my voice. “The danger we face now is the price we pay for the freedom we will have later.”
“Later?” she asks. “When will that be, Lia? You haven’t even found the remaining two keys, and with that aged investigator of Father’s, you may never find them.”
Her criticism of Philip makes me flush with anger. Father trusted him to find the keys, and even now, he works tirelessly on my behalf. Of course, the other two keys will do me little good without the missing pages of the Book of Chaos, but I learned long ago that it does no good to think too far into the future. There is only here. Only now.
She speaks again as if hearing my thoughts. “And what of the pages? We both know you have yet to locate them.” She looks calmly down into the water, running a hand over it much like the little girl. “Given where you stand in the whole situation, I should think it would be wiser to place your faith in Samael. At least he can guarantee your safety and the safety of those you love.
“More than safety, he can guarantee your place in a new world order. One run by Him and the Souls. One that will happen eventually, whether you aid us willingly or not.”
I did not think it possible for my heart to harden further against my sister, but it does. “More likely he will guarantee your place in that new world order, Alice. That is what this is really about, is it not? Why you worked in concert with the Souls even while we were children?”
She shrugs, meeting my eyes. “I’ve never pretended to be altruistic, Lia. I want simply to honor the role that should have been mine, rather than the one foisted upon me by the misguided workings of the prophecy.”
“If that is still your desire, then we have nothing more to discuss.”
She looks back into the water. “Perhaps I am not the best person to convince you, then.”
I think I am finished being shocked. Finished being frightened, at least for now. But then Alice looks up, her face wavering yet again. For a moment I see the shadow of the little girl before the vision settles back into Alice. It does not last. Her face ripples, settling on an oddly shaped head and a face that seems to change by the second. I am rooted to my spot on the river, unable to move even as terror overtakes me.
“You still deny me, Mistress?” The voice, once channeled through Sonia as she attempted to contact my dead father, is unmistakable. Terrifying. Unnatural. It does not belong in any world. “There is no place to hide. No shelter. No peace,” Samael says.
He rises from his sitting position by the river, unfolding himself to a height two times the size of any mortal man. His bulk is massive. I have the very real sense that if he wished it, he could leap across the river and be at my throat in seconds. Movement behind him demands my attention, and I catch a glimpse of the lush ebony wings folded against his back.
And now with my terror there is an unmistakable desire. A pull that makes me want to cross the river and wrap myself in those soft, feathery wings. The heartbeat starts softly and builds. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. I remember it from the last time I met Samael on the Plane and am horrified once again to hear my own heart amplified and beating in time with his.
I take a step back. Everything in my being tells me to flee, but I don’t dare turn away. Instead, I walk backward a few steps, keeping my eye on the ever-changing mask that is his face. At times, he is as beautiful as the most handsome mortal man. And then he changes again and becomes what I know he is.
Samael. The Beast.
“Open the Gate, Mistress, as is your duty and your cause. Only suffering follows your refusal.” The guttural voice sounds not just from across the river but inside my mind as if his words are my very own.
I shake my head. It takes every ounce of strength I have to turn away. I do it, though. I turn and run, breaking through the tree line on the riverbank even as I have no idea where to go. His roar crashes through the trees as if alive. As if giving chase.
I try to block it out, smacking at the tree branches that scrape my face as I run, willing myself to wake from this dream, to escape from this travel. But I do not have time to develop a plan, for my foot hits a tree root and I fall, hitting the ground so hard and so fast that blackness clouds my vision. Pushing away from the ground with my hands, I try to get back on my feet. I think I will get away. That I will get up and keep running. But that is before I feel the hand grab at my shoulder.
Before I hear the voice that hisses, “Open the Gate.”
I sit up in bed, sweat dampening the hair at the back of my neck as I stifle a scream.
My breath comes in quick gasps, my heart thudding against my chest as if still in tandem with his. Even the light streaming in through a gap in the curtains cannot ease the terror left in the wake of my dream, and I wait for a few minutes, telling myself that it was only a dream. I tell myself this over and over until I believe it.
Until I see the blood on my pillow.
Raising my hand to my face, I touch my fingers to my cheek. When I pull them back, I know, of course, what it means. The red stain tells every truth.
I cross the room to the vanity that holds the many pots of cream, perfume, and face powder. I hardly recognize the girl in the looking glass. Her hair is wild, and her eyes speak of something dark and frightful.
The scratch across my cheek is not large, but it is unmistakable. As I stare at the blood staining my cheek, I remember the branches and twigs scraping my face as I ran from Samael.
I want to deny that I have traveled unwillingly and alone, for Sonia and I have agreed it would not be wise to do so, despite the increasing strength of my powers on the Plane. It does not matter that those powers now surpass Sonia’s own, because one thing is certain: my burgeoning ability is nothing compared to the will and might of the Souls—or of my sister.
Pulling back the string of my bow, I hold it for a moment before letting the arrow fly. It sails through the air, landing with a thwack at the center of the target a hundred feet away.
“You landed it right in the middle!” Sonia exclaims. “And from this distance!”
I look over at her and grin, remembering when I could not hit the target from twenty-five feet, even with the assistance of Mr. Flannigan, the Irishman we hired to teach us the basics of archery. Now, standing in men’s breeches and shooting as easily as if I have been doing it forever, adrenaline and confidence surge through my body in equal measure.
Yet I cannot truly relish my skill. It is, after all, my sister I seek to defeat, and it may well be her at the other end of my arrows when it comes time to launch them. I suppose after everything that has happened I should be happy to see her fall, but I cannot manage so simple an emotion when it comes to Alice. Instead, my heart is tainted with a convoluted mixture of anger and sadness, bitterness and regret.
“You try.” I smile and try to make my voice cheerful as I encourage Sonia to take her turn at the well-used target. This, even though we both know it is unlikely that she will actually hit it. Sonia’s gifts for communicating with the dead and traveling the Plane do not, as it turns out, translate to a talent for archery.
She rolls her eyes, raising the bow to her slender shoulder. Even this small gesture causes me to smile, for not so long ago Sonia would have been too serious for such lighthearted humor.
Threading the arrow, she pulls back on the string, her arms shaking with the effort of holding it taut. When launched, her arrow wobbles through the air, landing silently in the grass a few feet from the target.
“Ugh! I think that’s enough humiliation for one day, don’t you?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Shall we take the horses to the pond before supper?”
“Yes, let’s,” I answer without bothering to ponder the question. I am not eager to relinquish the freedom of Whitney Grove in favor of the tightly bound corset and formal dinner that await me later this evening.
I sling the bow across my back, packing the arrows within my knapsack, and we cross the archery range to our horses. Mounting up, we start across the field to a glimmering streak of blue in the distance. I have spent so many hours astride my horse, Sargent, that riding him is second nature. As I ride, I survey the lush openness spread out in every direction. There isn’t another soul in sight, and the utter isolation of the landscape makes me grateful all over again for the quiet haven of Whitney Grove.
The fields here stretch in every direction. They give Sonia and me the privacy required for riding in men’s breeches and practicing with the bow, both pastimes that would hardly be considered appropriate for young women within the confines of London. And while Whitney Grove’s accompanying cottage is quaint, we have thus far used it for nothing more than changing into our breeches and the occasional cup of post-exertion tea.
“I’ll race you!” Sonia calls over her shoulder. She is already pulling away from me, but I don’t mind. Giving Sonia an edge on horseback makes me feel that we are still on equal footing, even if it is with something as simple as a friendly horse race.
I spur Sargent forward, leaning over his neck as his muscled legs break into a run. His mane licks like ebony fire toward my face and I cannot help but admire his glistening coat and superior speed. I catch up to Sonia rather quickly but pull back on the reins a little, maintaining my position just behind her gray horse.
She holds her lead as we cross the invisible point that has been our finish line through many races. As the horses slow, she looks back over her shoulder.
“Finally! I win!”
I smile, trotting my horse up to her as she comes to a stop at the bank of the pond. “Yes, well, it was only a matter of time. You’ve become an excellent rider.”
She beams with pleasure as we dismount and lead the horses to the water. Standing in silence as they drink, I marvel that Sonia is not out of breath. It is hard to imagine a time when she was afraid to sit astride a horse, let alone gallop over the hills as we do now at least three times a week.
Once the horses have slaked their thirst, we walk them over to the great chestnut tree that grows near the water. Tying them to the trunk, we sit on the wild grass, leaning back on our elbows. The wool breeches we wear while riding pull at my thighs, but I do not complain. Wearing them is a luxury. In a few hours, I will be laced tightly into a silk dress for dinner with the Society.
“Lia?” Sonia’s voice drifts on the breeze.
“When will we go to Altus?”
I turn to look at her. “I don’t know. When Aunt Abigail believes I’m ready to make the journey and sends for me, I suppose. Why?”
For a moment, her usually serene face seems to darken with turmoil, and I know she is thinking about the danger we face in seeking the missing pages.
“I suppose I’d simply like to have it done with, that’s all. Sometimes…” She turns away, surveying Whitney Grove’s grounds. “Well, sometimes all our preparation seems pointless. We are no closer to the pages now than we were when we first arrived in London.”
There is an uncommon edge to her voice, and I feel suddenly sorry that I have been so wrapped up in my own difficulty, my own loss, that I have not thought to ask about the burden that is hers.
I drop my gaze to the sliver of black velvet around Sonia’s wrist. The medallion. Mine. Even on her wrist as it is for my protection, I cannot help wanting to feel the soft dry velvet of the ribbon, the coolness of the gold disc against my skin. My strange affinity with it is both my millstone and my cause. It has been so since the moment it found me.
Reaching out to take her hand, I smile, feeling the sadness of it on my face. “I’m sorry if I don’t thank you enough for sharing my burden. I don’t know what I would do without your friendship. Truly.”
She smiles shyly and pulls her hand away, waving it at me dismissively. “Don’t be ridiculous, Lia! You know I would do anything for you. Anything at all.”
Her words soothe the worry at the back of my mind. With all the things to fear, all the people to distrust, there is a significant measure of peace in the friendship that I know will always be ours, whatever else may come.
The dinner crowd at the Society is as civilized as any other. The differences lie under the surface and are visible only to those of us in attendance.
As we move through the crowd, my earlier distress slips from my shoulders. Though the prophecy itself is still our secret, mine and Sonia’s, it is here that I come closest to being myself. Aside from Sonia, the Society has been my sole source of companionship, and I am forever grateful for Aunt Virginia’s letter of introduction.
Spotting a well-coiffed silver head in the crowd, I touch Sonia’s arm. “Come. There’s Elspeth.”
Catching sight of us, the older woman winds her way gracefully through the throng until she is standing before us with a smile. “Lia! Darling! So glad you could come! And you as well, dear Sonia!” Elspeth Shelton leans in, kissing the air near our cheeks.
“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world!” Sonia’s cheeks flush pale pink over the deep rose of her gown. After years spent in confinement at Mrs. Millburn’s in New York, Sonia has blossomed under the warm attention of others who share her gifts and have many of their own.
“I should hope not!” Elspeth says. “I can hardly believe it was only eight months ago that you two appeared on our door with Virginia’s letter in hand. Now, our gatherings would not be the same without your presence, though I daresay your aunt expected a good deal more oversight from me.” She winks wickedly, and Sonia and I laugh aloud. Elspeth may have found her calling in organizing the Society’s events and social gatherings, but she leaves Sonia and me ample room to be independent. “I must say hello to the others, but I shall see you both for dinner.”
She makes her way toward a gentleman I recognize as old Arthur Frobisher, though he is currently attempting to demonstrate his prowess with invisibility. It is said in the halls of the Society that Arthur descends from a long line of Druid high priests. Even so, his age makes his spells weak, and the faint outline of his graying beard and rumpled waistcoat can be seen through a haze, even as he speaks quite clearly to a younger member.
“You do realize Virginia would have a conniption if she knew how little chaperoning Elspeth has given us?” Sonia’s voice is playful at my side.
“Of course. But it is 1891, after all. And besides, how would Aunt Virginia ever find out?” I grin at Sonia.
“I won’t tell if you won’t!” She laughs aloud, nodding to the others milling about the room. “Let’s say hello to everyone, shall we?”
I scan the room, looking for someone we know. My eyes light on a young gentleman near the elaborately carved staircase. “Come, there’s Byron.”
We make our way across the room, snippets of conversation drifting to me on the pipe smoke and incense, thick in the air. When we finally reach Byron, five apples spin through the air before him in perfect time as he stands with his eyes closed, arms at his sides.
“Good evening, Lia and Sonia.” Byron does not open his eyes as he greets us, the apples continuing their circular dance. I have long since stopped wondering how he knows we stand before him though his eyes are often tightly closed while he performs some parlor trick or another.
“Good evening, Byron. Getting quite good, I see.” I nod toward the apples, though surely he cannot see the gesture.
“Yes, well, it amuses children and, of course, the ladies.” He opens his eyes, looking right at Sonia as the fruits drop one by one into his hands. He presents one of the crimson apples to her with a flourish.
I turn to Sonia. “Why don’t you stay and ask Byron to divulge the secrets of his… talent while I fetch us some punch?” It is clear from the gleam in Sonia’s eye that she enjoys Byron’s company—and clear from the look in his that the feeling is mutual.
Sonia smiles shyly. “Are you certain you don’t want me to accompany you?”
“Quite. I’ll be right back.” I am already making my way to the crystal punch bowl shimmering at the other end of the room.
I pass the piano, a tune tinkling with no one at its keys, and try to gauge the player from among those milling about the room. An iridescent wave of energy connects a young woman sitting on the sofa to the ivory keys across the room, marking her as the gifted pianist. I smile to no one in particular, pleased with my observation. The Society offers me endless opportunities to refine my gifts.
When I reach the punch bowl, I turn back to look at Sonia and Byron. Just as I expected, they are deep in conversation. Returning too quickly with the punch would make me no friend at all.
Leaving the parlor, I follow the sound of voices coming from a darkened room down the hall. The door is only half closed, and when I peer through its opening, I see a group congregated around a circular table. Jennie Munn is preparing to lead the attendees through a sitting. I cannot help but be pleased, for Jennie has been schooled by Sonia in the strengthening of the powers with which she was born.
Jennie instructs those seated at the table to close their eyes, and I pull the door farther shut as I pass down the hall, heading for the small courtyard at the rear of the building. I reach for the door, wondering if I will need my cloak, when I notice my reflection in the glass on the wall. I am not one given to vanity. That was always Alice’s place. Indeed, I always thought her more beautiful than I, despite the fact that we are identical twins. But now, seeing my face reflected in the glass, I almost do not recognize myself.
The face I once bemoaned as too round, too soft, has sprouted elegant cheekbones. My green eyes, inherited from my mother and always my best feature, have developed a force and intensity not present before, as if all the suffering and triumph and confidence gained in these past months has been cast, shimmering like a jewel, into their depths. Even my hair, before only brown, gleams with health and radiance. My pleasure is a secret rush as I step into the chill night behind the Society’s brownstone.
The courtyard is empty, as I knew it would be. It is my favorite escape when we come here to dine. I am still unused to the heavy incense preferred by the more ardent sorceresses and spiritualists, and I breathe deeply of the cold night air. My head clears as the oxygen cuts a path through my body. I make my way along the stone walkway that winds around a garden tended by Elspeth herself. I have never been very good with planting and gardening, but I recognize some of the herbs and shrubs about which Elspeth has tried so mightily to educate me.
“Are you not afraid, out here in the dark?” The deep voice comes to me from the shadows.
I straighten, unable to make out the face or form of the man to whom the voice belongs. “No. Are you?”
He chuckles, and it is like warm wine spreading its fingers through my body. “Not at all. In fact, sometimes I think I should be more afraid of the light.”
I pull myself back to the present, opening my palms to the darkness around us. “If that is true, then why don’t you show yourself? There is no light here.”
“So there isn’t.” He steps into the dim glow of the half moon, his dark hair gleaming even with so little illumination. “Why do you come into the chill, empty garden when you might be inside, laughing in the company of friends?”
It is odd to come across someone unfamiliar at a Society gathering, and I narrow my eyes in suspicion. “Why should you care? And what brings you to the Society?”
All members of the Society zealously guard its secrets. To those outside our walls we are nothing more than a private club, but the witch hunts of old would be nothing compared to the outcry that would arise were our existence to become widely known. For though there are those in “enlightened” society who seek the counsel of simple spiritualists, the power that truly exists among our ranks would frighten even the most open-minded individual.
The man steps closer. I cannot discern the color of his eyes, but the intensity with which they survey me is unmistakable. They travel over my face, down the length of my neck, and rest lightly on the pale rise of my breasts above the moss-green bodice of my gown. His eyes skip quickly away, and in the moment before he takes a step back, I feel the heat emanating between our bodies and hear the quick breath in the air around us. I cannot be sure whether it is his or mine.
“It is Arthur who extended the invitation.” The warmth is gone from his voice, and he suddenly sounds very much the proper gentleman. “Arthur Frobisher. Our families have known one another for a number of years.”
“Oh, I see.” My sigh is audible in the night. I don’t know what I expected, why I held my breath in fear. I suppose it is difficult to trust anyone when I know the Soul’s ability to change shape into virtually anything—most easily a human body.
“Lia?” Sonia’s voice calls to me from the terrace.
I have to pull my eyes from the gaze of the man. “In the garden.”
Her shoes click on the terrace, growing louder as they approach us on the stone walkway. “What are you doing out here? I thought you were going for punch!”
I wave my hand vaguely toward the house. “It’s hot and smoky inside. I needed some air.”
“Elspeth has asked that dinner be served.” Her gaze drifts to my companion.
I look at him, wondering if he thinks me rude. “This is my friend, Sonia Sorrensen. Sonia, this is… I’m sorry. I don’t even know your name.”
He hesitates before making a small, formal bow before us. “Dimitri. Dimitri Markov. It’s a pleasure.”
Even in the dim light of the garden, Sonia cannot hide her curiosity. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Markov, but we must make our way to the dining table before Elspeth sends out a search party!” It’s obvious she would much prefer to stay here and determine what I am doing in the garden with a dark and handsome stranger than go inside for dinner.
I hear the smile in Dimitri’s reply. “Well, we cannot have that, now, can we?” He tips his head toward the house. “Ladies, after you.”
I follow Sonia toward the house, and Dimitri falls in step behind me. Aware of his eyes on me, I feel a thrill even as I try to banish the whisper of disloyalty to James and, if I am honest, more than a hint of suspicion.
Later that night, I sit at the desk in my chambers, fingering the envelope of another letter from James.
It is useless to delay reading it. I already know that it will not get easier. There will be no sudden strength to brace me against the pain I know will come, as it always does, when I read his letters. And allowing it to remain unopened is not an option. James deserves to be heard. I owe him that much.
Reaching for the sterling letter opener, I slide it under the flap of the envelope in one motion, pulling the paper from it before I have time to change my mind.
June 3, 1891
Today I walked by the river, our river, and thought of you. I remembered your hair shimmering in the light and the soft curve of your cheek as you bowed your head, your smile teasing me. It is nothing new that I remember these things. I think of you every day. When you first left, I tried to imagine a secret grave enough to cause you to leave me. I could not, because there is no secret, no fear, no task that could ever willingly keep me from you. I suppose I always believed that you felt the same.
I think I have finally come to accept that you are gone. No, not only gone, but gone in such silence that even my repeated letters bring no word, no hope.
I would like to say that I still believe in you and in our future together. And perhaps I do. But now I am left to do the only thing I can—to take back my life and the loss felt without you in it. So let us just say, then, that we will both go on as we must.
Should our paths cross again, should you desire to come back to me, perhaps I will still be waiting on our rock by the river. Perhaps one day I will look up and see you standing in the shade of the great oak that sheltered us through so many stolen hours.
Whatever happens, you will always have my heart, Lia.
I hope you remember me well.
I am not surprised. Not really. I left James. My one and only letter, written to him the night before Sonia and I departed for London, gave no answers. No explanation. It offered only a declaration of love and a vaguely worded promise to return. Those things must seem very empty to James in the absence of a response to his letters. I cannot blame him for feeling the way that he does.
My thoughts travel down a familiar and beloved path. One in which I tell James everything and confide in him as I was unable to do before leaving New York. One in which he stands by my side as I work to bring the prophecy to a conclusion that might allow us, finally, to share a future.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that my imaginings are futile. The prophecy has already taken the lives of people I love, and, in many ways, even my own. I could not live with myself if it should take another, least of all James’s. It has been unfair to hope that he would wait for me when I cannot even share the reason that I left.
The unwelcome truth is that James is being wise while I have been only naive. My heart twists with the knowledge I have hidden from even myself, stepping around it in the moments when I came too close.
But it has been there just the same.
Standing, I carry the letter to the dying firebox. I think I will throw it in without hesitation. That I will not ponder a future I may not see until the prophecy is laid to rest.
But it is not so simple. My hand stops moving of its own accord, hovering before the firebox and growing warm from its heat. I tell myself that the letter is only paper and ink. That James may very well be waiting when all is said and done. But the letter is an albatross of memory that I cannot afford. I will only read and reread it should it remain intact. It will only distract me from the matter at hand.
It is this thought that relinquishes my hold, and I cast it into the flame as if it is already on fire. As if it is burning my hand through its very existence. I watch as the edges of the paper curl under the heat. In moments, it is as if I never read the words printed by James’s careful hand. As if it was never there at all.
The destruction of the letter lets loose a shaking in my body, and I cross my arms over my chest, trying to force myself still. I tell myself that I am free of the past whether I wish it or not. Henry is dead. James is no longer mine. Alice and I are destined to meet as enemies.
Now it is just the keys, the prophecy, and me.
I do not know how long I have been asleep, but the fire has burned low in the grate. As I scan the darkened room for the source of the sound that awoke me, I see a figure, as ethereal as a ghost, disappear around the corner of my door in a wisp of white fabric.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed. My feet do not reach the ground, but I scoot to the edge and drop to the floor. The lush carpets are soft but cool underfoot as I make my way across the room and out the door.
The hall is deserted and silent, the doors to the other chambers closed. I allow my eyes a moment to become used to the dim light from the wall sconces. When I am able to make out the shapes and shadows of the furniture lining the long hallway, I continue toward the staircase.
The figure, clad in a white nightdress, is descending the stairs. It can only be one of the housemaids who would be up this time of night, and I call out softly, trying not to wake anyone.
“Excuse me, is everything all right?”
Stopping near the bottom of the stairs, the figure turns slowly to meet my voice. It is only then that I gasp aloud into the silent house. Only when I see the face of my sister.
As in my travel, a small smile touches the corners of her mouth. It is a smile both soft and sly. A smile only Alice can manage.
“Alice?” Her name is both familiar and frightening on my tongue. Familiar, because she is my sister. My twin. Frightening, because I know that it cannot really be her, not in the flesh. Her figure is dimly lit, and I see now that her physical body is not here at all.
It cannot be, I think. It cannot be. No mortal traveling the Plane can cross the barrier of the physical world. Not visibly. It is one of the oldest edicts of the ancient order of the Grigori, who still set and enforce the rules of the prophecy, of the Plane, of the Otherworlds.
I am still puzzling over Alice’s forbidden appearance when she begins to fade, her figure growing more and more transparent. In the moment before she disappears, her eyes turn steely. And then she is gone.
I grab hold of the banister for support, the room below wavering as the gravity of the sighting hits me. True, Alice is a formidable Spellcaster, dreadfully competent even before my escape to London. But her presence across the miles can only mean that she has grown stronger still in my absence.
Of course, I should never have deluded myself that it would be otherwise. Though I am still discovering the gifts that are mine, I have grown stronger with each passing day. It would only stand to reason that Alice has done the same.
Yet her breaking of the barrier set by the Grigori can only mean one thing: the Souls may have been quiet all these months, but only because they still have my sister working on their behalf.
Only because whatever they have planned, whatever is coming, will more than make up for their long silence.
“Lia. Good morning.”
Philip strides into the room, exuding confidence and authority. The fine lines about his eyes are more noticeable than before, and I wonder if it is because he is tired from his travels or simply because he is nearly old enough to be my father.
“Good morning. Please, sit.” I settle myself on the sofa as Philip sits on the chair near the firebox. “How was your trip?”
We avoid by tacit understanding certain words, certain phrases, that would make it easy for someone to understand our conversation.
He shakes his head. “It wasn’t her. I had high hopes this time, but…” He shakes his head in frustration, leaning back against the chair, exhaustion settling more resolutely over his features. “I sometimes despair that we will ever find the girl, to say nothing of the last, unnamed party.”
I suppress my disappointment. Philip Randall has worked ceaselessly to find the two remaining keys. That we have not yet done so is no fault of his. We have only one name—Helene Castilla—from the list Henry so zealously guarded, and we have been unable to locate someone with that name who also bears the mark. The prophecy dictates only that the remaining keys, like Sonia and Luisa, be marked with the Jorgumand and be born near Avebury at midnight on November 1, 1874. Nearly seventeen years have passed since the birth of the keys, and the spotty nature of birth records in the villages of England has done nothing to help our cause.
Helene could reside anywhere in the world by now. She might even be dead.
I try to ease Philip’s frustration. “Perhaps we should be grateful. If it were simple, someone else might find them before us.” He smiles with something like gratitude as I continue. “I’ve no doubt we will be back on track in short order.”
He sighs, nodding. “There is never a shortage of leads, though once found, they are often endowed with nothing more than a birthmark or scar from a long-forgotten injury or burn. I suppose I’ll take a few days to review the newest reports and prioritize them before planning my next trip.” His eyes drift to the door of the library before returning to mine. “And you? Have you heard anything new?”
My mood darkens with the question. It is impossible to believe that Aunt Abigail and the Grigori are unaware of Alice’s movements on the Plane and the forbidden use of her power. It is only a matter of time before I am summoned to Altus to retrieve the pages before Alice grows even stronger.
I shake my head in answer. “But I may soon be departing on a journey of my own.”
He sits up straighter. “A journey? Surely you don’t mean to travel alone?”
“I’m afraid so. Well, Sonia will likely accompany me, and I imagine we will need a guide, but other than that, I suppose I will be quite alone.”
“But… where will you go? How long will you be gone?”
It is not often that I must keep something of importance from Philip. Hired by my father before his death, Philip knows more about the prophecy than any other person outside of it save our old coachman Edmund. But even still, I have guarded closely many details in the interest of Philip’s safety and mine. The Souls are forbidding, their power immeasurable. It is not impossible to believe they could find a way to use Philip for their own gain.
I smile. “Let us simply say that it is a journey necessary to the prophecy and that I shall return as quickly as possible.”
He stands suddenly, raking his fingers through his hair in a gesture of boyish frustration. It makes him look young, and I realize with a start that he may not be as old as I believed, despite the quiet confidence and wisdom that so reminds me of Father.
“It is dangerous enough for you here in London; you cannot possibly consider such a journey.” All at once he straightens. “I will escort you myself.”
I cross the room, taking his hands in mine. It does not feel at all improper, though I have not touched another man since leaving James behind in New York.
“Dear Philip. That is impossible. I don’t know how long I will be gone, and it makes far more sense for you to continue searching for the keys while I see to this other bit of business. Besides, this part of the prophecy must be shouldered only by me, though I heartily wish it were not so.” I lean in and brush his cool cheek with the back of my hand. It is an unexpected impulse, though when his eyes darken I see that my surprise is no match for his. “It is kind of you to offer your company. I know well that you would join me if I would allow it.”
He lifts his hand to his cheek, and I have the strangest feeling that everything said after my brief touch is forgotten. He does not mention my journey again.
That night I travel to Birchwood. I no longer will myself into the Otherworlds, but I do not wish myself back from them either. I know Sonia would be worried to find me traveling without escort, but I am too curious about my sister to relinquish a possible glimpse into her life.
And perhaps a glimpse of James. It is a whisper in my heart.
The sky is inky and endless, with only a sliver of moon to light the tall, swaying grass in the fields. The wind rushes through the leaves in the trees, and I recognize the vacuous calm before a storm, the almost visible crackle of impending lightning and thunder. But for now, at least, it is eerily quiet.
Birchwood Manor is dark and imposing, the steep stone walls rising into the night sky like a fortress. It feels deserted, even from a distance. The lanterns that were once lit near the front door are extinguished, the leaded windows in the library black, though it has long been a habit to keep the lamp on Father’s desk aglow through the night.
And then I am in the entry, the marble icy under my bare feet. Though I feel the cold seep into my skin, I am removed from it in a way that I have come to expect while traveling the Plane. The grandfather clock in the foyer ticks quietly as I make my way up the stairs. Even in my travel, I instinctively avoid the fourth creaky step.
Like so many things in my life, the house has become strange. I recognize its outward appearance—the worn, antique carpets, the carved mahogany banister—but something about its chemistry has changed, as if it is no longer made up of the familiar stone and wood and mortar that housed me since birth.
The Dark Room, of course, is still at the end of the hall. It does not surprise me to see the door open, light seeping from its interior.
I make my way toward it. I am not afraid, only curious, for I rarely find myself on the Plane without purpose. The door to my chambers, my old childhood room, is closed, as are Henry’s and Father’s. I suppose it is only Alice now who matters to Alice. I suppose it is easier for her to forget that we were once a family if all the doors remain tightly shut.
And it is just as well, for I carry reminders of my past, my family, not in the darkest rooms of my heart as one might imagine, but in its brightly lit corners where I can see them for all they were.
I do not hesitate to step through the door to the Dark Room. The laws of the Grigori prevent me from being seen, even if I did wish it to be different. Even if I did wish to gain control over the forbidden powers Alice seems to have harnessed.
And I do not.
The first thing I see when I enter the room is my sister. She sits on the floor in the center of her circle, the same circle in which I found her all those months before, the one carved into the wooden floor and once hidden under the old carpet. Though my experience as a Spellcaster does not come close to matching that of my sister’s, I know enough to recognize the circle as one that strengthens the spell and protects the Caster within it. The site of it causes me to shiver, even in my traveling form.
Alice wears one of her white nightdresses. Trimmed in matching lavender ribbon and once made by the armful, I remember them well. I no longer wear mine, for they are part of another life. But Alice wears hers now, looking strangely innocent and lovely as she rests on her heels, eyes closed and lips moving in an almost-silent whisper.
I remain in place for some time, watching the fine planes of her face fade in and out with the flicker of the candles lighting her circle. Her soft, unnamable words lull me into a strange state of apathy. I find myself almost drowsy, though I am already physically asleep back in London. It is only when Alice opens her eyes that I am forced to alertness.
At first, I think she will gaze into the empty room, but her eyes find mine calmly across the shadows as if she knew I was there all along. She doesn’t need to speak the words for me to know they are true, but she speaks anyway, looking right into my soul as only she has ever been able to do.
“I see you,” she says. “I see you, Lia. And I know you’re there.”
I take my time dressing as I ponder my strange trip to Birchwood. Daylight has done nothing to clarify the experience. Reason tells me that I must not have been traveling at all, that it must have been a simple dream, for between the two dimensions of the astral Plane and the physical world is a veil that cannot be lifted. One can only see what is happening on the Plane by occupying it, and clearly Alice was in the physical world while I was on the Plane.
Yet I am certain that I was traveling. That Alice did know I was there. She said so herself. I am wondering what to do with this newfound knowledge when a knock sounds from the door.
I am not surprised, even in my state of half-undress, when Sonia steps into the room without waiting for me to answer. We stopped standing on ceremony long ago.
“Good morning,” she says. “Did you sleep well?”
I reach past the elaborate velvet gowns hanging in my wardrobe, opting instead for something simple in apricot silk. “Not exactly.”
Her brow furrows. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”
Sighing, I clutch the gown to my bosom and drop onto the bed next to Sonia. I feel unexpectedly guilty. I have not been honest with Sonia lately. I did not tell her of my terrifying travel to the river the night I saw Samael and awoke with a cut on my cheek. I did not tell her of my vision of Alice the night I saw her on the stairs here at Milthorpe Manor.
And ours is not an alliance that will tolerate secrets.
“I traveled to Birchwood last night.” I say it quickly before I can change my mind.
I do not expect the anger that flushes her cheeks. “You are not supposed to travel the Plane without me, Lia. You know this! It’s dangerous.” Her words are a hiss.
She is right, of course. It has been our habit to travel the Plane together and only when necessary for Sonia to teach me how to use the gifts that are mine. It is for my own protection, for there is always the danger that the Souls might detain me long enough to sever the astral cord that binds my soul to my body. Should that happen, my greatest fear would be realized and I would be stranded in the icy Void for all eternity. Still, Sonia’s agitation surprises me, and I feel renewed affection for her in the face of her concern.
I place a hand on her arm. “I didn’t go intentionally. I felt… summoned.”
She raises her eyebrows, worry creasing her forehead. “By Alice?”
“Yes… Maybe… I don’t know! But I saw her at Birchwood, and I think she saw me.”
There is no mistaking the shock on Sonia’s face. “What do you mean she saw you? She cannot see you when she is in this world and you are on the Plane! She would be in violation!” She hesitates, looking at me with an expression I cannot fathom. “Unless you were the one using forbidden power.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I wasn’t. I may be a Spellcaster, but I don’t have any idea how to conjure such power, nor do I want to know.” I stand, pulling the gown over my head and feeling it fall over my petticoat and slide over my stockings. When I emerge from the yards of pale silk, I meet Sonia’s eyes. “And I don’t think Alice is very concerned about the Grigori right now, though I suppose I should have expected as much.”
“What do you mean?”
I sigh. “I believe I saw her. Here, at Milthorpe Manor. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw someone on the stairs. I thought it was Ruth or one of the other maids, but when I called out, the figure turned and it… it looked like Alice.”
“What do you mean ‘it looked like Alice’?”
“The figure was faint. That’s how I knew it wasn’t a physical being. But it was her.” I nod, surer by the moment. “I’m certain of it.”
Sonia stands, walking to the window overlooking the streets below. She is quiet for a long time. When she finally speaks, the mixture of awe and fear are unmistakable in her voice.
“So she can see us, then. And possibly hear us, too.”
I nod, though Sonia’s back remains turned. “I think so.”
She turns to face me. “What does it mean for us? For the missing pages?”
“No Sister of the prophecy would willingly hand over the location of the missing pages to Alice. But if she has been able to observe our progress, she may try and beat us to them, either to use them to her own gain or to keep us from reaching them.”
“But she can’t cross into this world, not physically. Not for the time it would take to pursue us all that way. She would have to take a ship to London and follow us in person, and that would take time.”
“Unless she has someone do it for her.”
Sonia meets my eyes.
“But what can we do, Lia? How will we stop her from reaching the pages if she can trace our movements from afar?”
I shrug. The answer is simple and not difficult to find.
“We will have to get there first.”
I hope Sonia cannot tell that my words are stronger than my conviction, for the knowledge that I might soon face my sister causes me deep disquiet.
That Alice is ready to meet me, that she seeks to put the gears of the prophecy in motion once again, leaves me only with a sense of foreboding. In the face of my sister’s power, my preparations seem meager indeed.
But they are all I have.
Excerpted from Guardian of the Gate (Prophecy of the Sisters, Book 2) by Zink, Michelle Copyright © 2011 by Zink, Michelle. Excerpted by permission.
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