James sat up. He took a moment to let the dizziness and throbbing pain fade away and then slowly stood. With one hand he rubbed his eyes and with the other he felt the large knot that had made its home in the back of his head—hard and round.
“Dinner’s ready,” his mother called from the other room.
A few hours had passed since his parents had had their argument, or ‘serious discussion’ as he liked to call it. He had spent the time watching the ceiling. It had occurred to him that he had no choice but to question them. The fact that he had overheard things he wasn’t even supposed to know might lend him the leverage he needed to get the rest out of them. The Council, whoever they were, wouldn’t allow his parents to leave because of what they knew, and he doubted that he would be given any different treatment. He wondered how many people in the town had seen the inside of the Manor. Either the people who had were keeping silent, perhaps ordered to do so by the Council, or few people really knew what was in there. James had never paid much attention to who came and left Woodton, but now as he thought about it he realized that not many came and not many went.
James stretched his arms delicately. He still felt lightheaded and didn’t wish to strain himself. Then the cloth caught his attention, the same cloth from the Manor. He looked with disbelief. He had forgotten all about it.
Yet, it wasn’t just the sight of the cloth that truly suspended him in disbelief. The cloth was clean. There were no bloodstains or marks. It looked brand new. And his arm felt fine.
He plucked at the knot in an attempt to get it off. When it didn’t work he opened a nearby desk drawer and produced a pocketknife. He flicked the blade out, but the instant the blade touched the cloth it tightened like a snake. The knife fell from his hand and he clasped at the cloth as it began to cut the circulation off. A moment later and the cloth loosened and resumed its original tightness. The design of Saint Brendan’s Cross shimmered.
James swallowed hard. His heart thumped as fast as a mouse in his chest. This is insane, he thought. What is going on? I’m losing my mind. The thought was absurd; he knew that. He was far too logical to succumb to insanity. Regardless, something about the last day and a half made him feel like he really was going crazy. The only bit of sanity he could grab onto sat in whatever it was that his parents knew. Angtholand.
“Oh dear! You didn’t have to get up. Dinner in bed.” James’ mother came into the room carrying a tray. Sitting in it were a glass of water, a bowl of pudding, and some sort of mushy looking soup that resembled rotten fruit.
James nodded softly and sat down. He hated soup, a product of his inability to eat it properly. His mother would say “don’t slurp” or “close your mouth when you swallow” any time so much as a drop of the stuff escaped his lips. If he could help it he avoided the stuff.
“Besides,” she continued, “you should be resting. Understand?” She set the tray down on the bed then pointed. “What is that on your arm?”
“It won’t come off,” he said, trying to sound calm.
“Did you get it from the Manor?”
He looked her in the eye to tell her yes. She understood and took hold of the cloth and tried to untie it.
“I tried that. It just…” As if on queue the cloth squeezed hard on his arm. He groaned and she let go. James looked into her eyes. She didn’t look at all surprised, but he could see through her attempts to look oblivious.
“You can’t take things like that. It’s stealing and I won’t raise a thief. And why did you have to tie the knot so tight!”
“Laura tied it.”
“Yes, well Laura will be getting a talking to by her mother I imagine. Now eat your soup and I’ll get some scissors.” She scurried out of the room.
James sat down and poked at the steaming bowl of goo. He wasn’t sure what to call it. It looked strangely like a yellow clam chowder, but there were chunks of chicken in it. Peas too. He gave up trying to guess and took a bite. It didn’t taste half-bad and he took another before sipping some water.
His mother came in a moment later brandishing a massive pair of scissors that looked more like sheers than conventional scissors. If she had been someone other than his mother James would have been frightened by her stance. She stood like a murderer in a movie, shadow tracing along the ground in a long line as light poured in over her shoulders.
She walked over to his bed and sat down. Taking the scissors she tried to work the pointed edge under the cloth on his arm. The cloth tightened violently, pushing the point of the scissors into the muscle. He yelped in pain as a small trickle of blood escaped from under the blade. She retracted the scissors in a knee-jerk reaction.
“Mom, you can stop hiding whatever it is you’re hiding,” he said.
She looked at him, brow curled confusedly.
“I overheard you and Dad.”
Her face contorted to that of fear.
“I’ve seen an eye,” he emphasized ‘an’ because he couldn’t be sure if it were the same eye he had heard of from his parents.
His mother stood sharply and buried her face in her hands. “Oh god,” she said, her voice wobbling. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for having to raise you here. Your father and I knew you’d get caught up in all this too. Ever since last night when Hansor Manor lit up. The Council knew it was coming.”
“Knew what was coming? A disappearance?”
She nodded. “Every thirty years. It just seems like curiosity catches up with the kids that grow up here and one gets caught by the eye.”
“What is the eye? I’ve seen it but I still don’t understand.” He leaned over.
“The ruler of Angtholand.” She kept her back to him.
“Angtholand is a place?”
“Yes. To see the eye selects you to go there, except there’s never been two that had seen it in one instance.” She fidgeted with her leg for a moment before continuing. “Ancient stories tell of it being a wonderful place, but whomever the eye belongs to has turned it into something else. It’s a far darker place than here. The items in the Manor, some of them, lead to Angtholand through magic portals. I don’t fully understand how it works since magic no longer exists here, but for whatever reason those items directly connect our world to theirs.”
“Another world?” He paused in disbelief. Laura had been taken to another world, which meant she was safe after all, or at least he was correct in believing that the flames from the satin bag hadn’t harmed her.
“Hansor Manor is the only connection left to it. The Council controls it. That’s what they are supposed to do anyway. I think some have hope that it will be like the old stories.”
“What is the Council? Who is in it?”
“It was created when the first settlers moved here and discovered that the Hansor Grounds, or the area where the grounds are now, was connected to Angtholand. They built the Manor and formed a sort of secret society to govern what happened with it. The original owners of the Manor supposedly went to Angtholand and returned with gifts. But that was about the time when the eye took control and dark things began to happen in the house. The owners died and the Council, made up of various members of Woodton, boarded up the place and condemned it.”
James swallowed. “Laura isn’t coming back, is she?”
She turned to him. “No, James, I’m afraid not. Nobody would dare go to Angtholand willingly. The last man who tried never came back. The Council would forbid anyone to go. Laura is lost. I’m sorry.”
He let his head droop.
“And now,” his father said, appearing around the corner, “like us, you can’t leave this town.”
“What if we do?”
“They’ll kill us. This is a secret too great to let the world know.” His mother walked to his father’s side.
“We’ll have to bring you before the Council tomorrow.”
“How do they keep the secret? You could just email the secrets, or call someone. It’d be too easy to let the information out.”
His father laughed softly and shook his head. “Everything is filtered. The Council keeps a large group of people on top of things like that twenty-four seven. Just in case something sneaks through the filters. I helped design the Internet ones. You were lucky to put some of the pieces together.”
“You’re just going to have to learn to live with it now.”
James grumbled and pushed the tray away from him. They’re giving up on Laura so fast. They don’t care. He hated the feeling and didn’t mind showing it by glaring at his parents. They had given up completely on just about every child that had been sucked into Angtholand. Something about that made sense. Angtholand sounded dangerous; magic existed there. It had to be powerful magic too to survive the pressures of a non-magic world. Magic, James surmised, functioned as some sort of temporary force, controlled by something external. On Earth, it had been lost, for reasons he didn’t quite know. On Angtholand it was so strong that magic items left on Earth still functioned simply by the connection they had to their origin.
But they had given up on Laura already. His parents and the Council considered her lost now, and he imagined that Laura’s parents felt the same. He could see them lost in mourning in the back of his mind. Laura could still be alive.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop,” his father said sternly. “Laura is lost. You have to accept that now. Her parents must accept it too.”
“You’re all cowards.” He let the last word slip and then caught his tongue. The words stung, he could see it in their faces for a brief moment before they resumed a calmer demeanor.
His father came close to him, knelt down, put his hands on James’ shoulders, and looked him in the eye. James watched the two sinewy blue embers.
“I know this is a lot to handle. It was when I learned too. You have to understand that this is how it has to be. Laura is lost to us now. No man who has ever gone searching has ever returned. The Council is absolute. What they say goes.”
James pushed his father away.
“Listen to us James!” His mother pleaded with him. James couldn’t stand it. He suddenly hated them and breathed fast, hard breaths to show it. “We don’t even know how to get to Angtholand. Even if we wanted to send someone after her we wouldn’t know what to do.”
“I do!” James lied, speaking sharply and with a snappy tone. “This,” he indicated the cloth around his arm. “It’s connected somehow.”
His father shook his head. “That will come off soon and it will be destroyed.”
The cloth tightened as if it could hear what his father had said. James rubbed it gently like a pet and, like a pet, it loosened and calmed. “You could at least pretend like you care that Laura is gone. You’ve done nothing but give up on her from the start.”
“The most we can do is beg the Council to do something.” His mother shifted uneasily.
“At best, we’ll be able to get the Council to block that place off so no more children can get in there. It should have been blocked off long ago.”
James glared at the two of them.
“I’m sorry son,” his father said, the apology genuine. “But this is the best we can do.”
A short pause left James feeling strung out. His entire world had been flipped upside-down in the matter of twenty-four hours and the two most supportive people in his life were telling him he couldn’t fix it.
“I have to make a phone call. You stay here, eat your dinner, and get some sleep. We’ll finish this in the morning.” His father got up and, followed tentatively by his mother, left the room. The door closed gently behind.
James nearly let his anger and frustration take over. It took much of his willpower to not throw the tray of food across the room in a fit of rage. The cloth seemed to agree with his attitude, gently squeezing and releasing in little ripples along his flesh. It occurred to him that this cloth, whatever magic that possessed it, had grown fond of him, if such a thing were possible. It was an inanimate object, yet it seemed to be connected to his psyche enough where it could react to things around it, especially his emotions.
James had grown somewhat fond of it as well and had no desire to get rid of it. Some voice inside him had grown stronger and now he got the impression that, unlike the satin bag, the cloth meant him no harm.
What am I going to do? They’re all cowards. All of them. James had never been one to be rash, but here he found himself thinking of the most absurd plans to help Laura. One involved forcing the Council to go themselves and rescue her. He acknowledged the absurdity of the ideas, but got a grim satisfaction in the thought of a bunch of old, grumpy men being forced into a completely unfamiliar world.
A series of powerful words caught his attention and he decided to go to the door and try to get a listen. He gently opened the door and stuck his ear out enough to get a good listen.
“Their negligence has gone too far Mary,” he heard his father say. “We have to do something now. Yes, I know the consequences, but do we have much of a choice? Ruth’s daughter is gone and my son nearly fell into the trap too. The Council is old. It has old thinking. They want to preserve, but we have to destroy.”
There was a long pause and James felt the suspense running up him.
“This line is unfiltered locally. Don’t worry, the Council can’t hear us. Look, we can at least attempt to set the insides on fire. The structure itself will be standing but all the artifacts will be lost. That’s the best way. Yes.” Another long pause. “Can you be there in an hour? Good, see you there. Bye.”
James waited for the click of the phone being set down before closing the door as silently as he could. He sunk down into his bed and stared at the ceiling again. The cloth gently nudged his arm; he ignored it, moving to the back of his mind. He saw logic floating there, locked away with reason and rationality.
Hastily, he hopped out of bed, faster than he would have liked as his head protested. He took a minute to let the throbbing wear off and dug out of his closet his backpack. Piling clothes into the bag he contemplated sneaking into the kitchen and taking some of the food there, but he knew that he would be caught in the act and his plan foiled.
James scribbled onto a piece of paper and attached a piece of tape to the top. He reread the note. It was too short for his liking, but he had no time to write a full letter. Besides, he still harbored anger towards them and felt no need to give them a drawn out explanation of why he had to look for Laura.
She’s my best friend and I won’t abandon her. Never. All they need to know is that I’ve gone looking for her.
Quietly again, he opened the door and slipped out into the hallway. Luckily his house had been designed so that his bedroom sat only two doors from the main entrance, leaving him with a short stretch of hall to reach it. His parents were engaged in conversation and this time he paid no attention—he had all the information he needed. He attached the note to the door to his room and crept along the hall until he reached the main entrance. Even more delicately he took hold of the handle and pushed.
The door let out a loud wail from the hinges and James stifled a curse. The conversation in the other room abruptly stopped and he heard a few whispers. He acted swiftly, thrusting the door completely open and bolting through the yard and onto the street. A slam followed by another wail and the loud voices of his parents gave him an additional boost as he poured through bushes and roads to get to Hansor Manor. Dusk had come, drenching the landscape in wide black shadows as the remaining rays of light dwindled beyond the horizon. Soon James realized he had gotten himself lost. He’d taken back roads and shortcuts before, but always in daylight, and with every ounce of energy he had invested in running he had failed to pay more attention to which back roads and shortcuts he had taken.
He stopped and leaned over to catch his breath. His parents’ voices were gone, lost in the distance somewhere, yet he could imagine them calling for him, even looking for him. A moment of hard breaths and he stood upright and looked around.
James turned about trying to get his bearings. He’d stumbled onto
Spooner Street, some distance north of the Hansor Grounds. Luckily he knew that Hansor began at the end of Spooner through a wide expanse of wooded area, which opened up behind the Manor. The bad side was that Spooner Street stretched long and open, and had two wider-than-normal lanes. This made keeping out of sight difficult without running through the thick brush along the side. On top of that, it was a frequented road, especially at night.
It took him only a moment to contemplate whether to cut through the woods and onto
Parrot Road or to chance the straight arrow Spooner. Parrot, while safer, made the trip longer, more confusing, and altogether unpleasant. His parents knew where he was going and adding the additional time made his chances of getting to the Manor without capture near impossible. Shortcuts, generally, were the only quick ways to anywhere in Woodton. All had to be traversed by foot, which meant one could avoid the windy, snake-like maze of streets.
He kept on Spooner and followed it south at a slow jog. The initial bout of running had worn him out; gym was his least favorite class, though he could usually hold his own in a good run.
After a few minutes of jogging, James—tired, puffing, and sweaty—could see where Spooner ended in a t-section on
Main Street and where the woods on the edge of the Grounds began.
From behind him came a set of headlights. He leapt off the road and tumbled into the brush. Sticks and thorns poked him. He bit his tongue and instead complained in his mind. A moment later three cars zipped by. He cautiously dug his way out and peered down the way he had come. Darkness again. Turning back his heart pumped with relief. Only half the length of a football field stood between him and Hansor. He took off running, full speed.
Then he turned around and stopped dead in this tracks as a silver car screeched to a halt in the intersection, leaving behind two thick trails of burnt rubber. Even in the dim light he could see them clearly, and then the scent, putrid, hit his nose. Another car screeched up behind the silver one and made a smoother stop. A man in a long bathrobe climbed out of the silver car. He had frazzled, balding gray hair and a small potbelly. The man hobbled a little before looking back to the second car where James could see his parents getting out. His father looked angry, faced crunched up; his mother gave James a vibe of concern and fear as she came around from the passenger side towards him, leaving the two men behind.
James looked to the woods and then at his parents. He gauged the distance in his mind, trying his best to think of a way to get to the Manor. His mother came within a few feet of him, saw his eyes, and stopped.
“James, please listen!” she said, frantically and out of breath. A stream of tears poured from her face.
James remained silent and clamped his lips shut.
“Please, you can’t go.”
“Your son is beyond reason Allison,” the robed man said. “He must be brought before the Council and dealt with.”
“No! I won’t allow it. I know how you people deal with problems.”
“That’s not going to happen Mr. Aldridge,” James’ father butted into the conversation, speaking short and concise.
“Philip, he’s out of control. What do you suggest? Just let him wander the town? There are people here that don’t know our secret, not to mention that he’s potentially going to open their world to ours by forcing his way into Angtholand. I won’t allow that to happen. I can’t allow that to happen. Imagine what the eye could do here?” Mr. Aldridge breathed heavily and wheezed. His potbelly quivered.
“I don’t know what to do, but if you do what you are suggesting you’ll have far more of a problem on your hands.”
“Are you threatening the Council?”
James’ father shook his head and snickered. “I’m simply telling you the truth.”
Mr. Aldridge grimaced and then scuttled forward. From within his robes he produced a small boxy pistol, raised it, and pointed the barrel directly at James.
James lurched back a foot and looked into the angry eyes of Mr. Aldridge. Mr. Aldridge opened his mouth to speak, but before any words could come out, James’ mother burst forward and grabbed at the gun.
His father started to come forward. Mr. Aldridge threw his mother aside and took two thundering bounds forward and grabbed hold of James, jamming the pistol at his head and clasping onto the cloth covered arm.
Again Mr. Aldridge opened his mouth as if to say something, and again he was interrupted. The cloth erupted in a series of convulsions. Mr. Aldridge’s grip didn’t falter, but he looked down questioningly. Then a surge of something, some energy, some force, crashed against Mr. Aldridge’s hand and he let go. James looked up into the man’s surprised gaze and another burst stronger than before rang out in a deep boom. The energy crashed into Mr. Aldridge and he launched into the air, high through the thick brush of trees. His screams and cries abruptly stopped. The cloth calmed immediately.
James looked down at his arm and then at his parents, bewildered. He didn’t glance back at the woods, just simply looked at them as they eyed him reproachfully. Then he started forward a few steps at a time. His mother reached gently for him, questioned the action, and withdrew her hand. Tears streamed down her face and her knees slightly buckled. James looked at her apologetically.
Nothing happened as he passed his father, the two cars, and reached the edge of the woods. James was at a loss. A terrible feeling of guilt hit the bottom of his stomach. He tried to push the feeling aside, but it remained, aching and pushing at his insides. But he couldn’t stop now, not after all that had happened. He’d forced determination upon himself, completely and fully, and nothing could turn him back.
“James,” his father said, trying to seem soft and unthreatening. “Look what has already happened. Angtholand only brings evil.”
James kept walking, even as his father came close to him. His father took a few more steps but stopped abruptly as if some invisible force prevented him from getting any closer.
“James! Listen to me!”
Something spoke to his mind. He paused, trying to hear it more clearly and heard a whispering voice say ‘go’, deep and airy like some sort of ghostly thing.
Then James scooted into the woods and pushed his way through. Limbs and brush seemed to bend out of his way before he came within a few feet of them. Trees creaked and groaned but remained steady as leaves and branches fell. The noise was frightening, but for some reason James felt only fear for the power he had seen. He trusted the cloth fully now. It had protected him, and still was.
He heard his parents’ voices ring behind him and, though difficult, he could make out their sounds as they pushed through the woods after him. Then he broke the cover of the woods and could see the Manor looming before him like a menacing emblem of his past. Someone had boarded up the window he and Laura had climbed through. He ran up to it and tried to pry through, but the boards were nailed tight to the wall, and thick too. He turned and looked around, finding a pointed stone at the edge of the woods. When he lifted it he let out a grunt. It weighed more than he had expected, but the force of his smashing it into the boards produced a good effect. The wood splintered and bit-by-bit the boards came apart. He kicked the weakened boards one by one, breaking them and opening the way into the Manor.
A moment later his parents came through the woods, just as he had completely gained access. His father set off at a run and tried to grab his arm as he slipped through the window. The force thrust his father back, who lost his balance and tumbled down the snow hill. James had that same gut wrenching feeling of guilt, but now could ignore it.
The satin bag sat right where it had been left, as if beckoning him to come towards it. He did, reaching down and grabbing it softly, lifting it to his face. He looked inside and saw darkness for a moment. Then the bag shuttered and the same inhuman roar ripped through the air. James dropped it as flames erupted from the opening, blocking his vision just as the ice blue, crimson marked eye came into view. Items around the room woke up too, bringing massive amounts of light into the already brightened room. The cloth on his arm lit up and went into vigorous movement, sending out waves of invisible force that pushed against the flames. One giant blast of energy sent things flying into walls and the flames suddenly changed. The red and orange faded to a light blue, and when the blue energy touched James—as the cloth no longer repelled it—warmth encompassed him. He let it engulf him and, closing his eyes, bathed in the feeling.
Then he had the sensation of moving swiftly through air. He opened his eyes and found himself in a great moving tunnel that gleamed bright and amazing. Clouds passed along and rays of light came in from little holes in the sides. His cloth grew brighter and covered him in pale gray matter. He closed his eyes again, but found himself interrupted as thundering booms came into the tunnel. When he opened his eyes he could see great waves of magic rumbling along the walls. The cloth pushed back, blocking the blasts, but it could only manage it for a brief moment when the waves came in greater numbers. They hit him like a one hundred pound weight, knocking the air out of him. The sounds made the insides of his ears ache.
Then a massive wave came through the tunnel. When it hit, the tunnel seemed to collapse around him, or dissolve, he couldn’t tell which as he battled the horrid feeling in his body as he gasped for air. Sunlight came in and he could see something green pushing forward at the end.
James crashed through the tunnel, through open air, and hit flat faced in a green expanse of grass. He sat up as best he could. The gentle silence of nature whisked away all the ringing in his ears.
For miles before him stretched a wide pasture of green and tan grasses, rivers, hills, forests, and mountains. In the distance, buried in the mountains, he could see waterfalls and snow. A lake shimmered to his left and more hills to his right. Behind him stood a long wide forest and nestled against its edge was a city, walled, tall and ancient. Two amazing towers, spired and golden, rose up in the center, connected by a stone bridge.
James stood in awe.
“Angtholand,” he said.