I’m excited to be sharing this chapter! I’ve been saying that a lot lately and I have to say it is a great feeling. The first draft had a lot of good stuff in it and I just needed to polish it a bit to get it ready to share. I hope you’ll like this week’s chapter as much as I do.
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“I want you to bring him to Thanksgiving.”
“Mom, I don’t think that is really necessary.” Willow paced up and down the hallway while she desperately tried to survive this conversation with her mother.
“Is he going to have Thanksgiving dinner with his own family?”
“Then you need to bring him with you.”
She wished it was hard for her to believe that her mother had just learned of the existence of Yuri less than twenty-four hours ago and she was already inviting him to family holidays. Willow knew just how badly this could go now that she had the pleasure of seeing Yuri interact with Aspen. The last thing she wanted in her life was the good-natured attempt to help improve her life from her parents mixing with the incessant teasing of Yuri.
The phone call was wrapped up as neatly and quickly as possible so she could turn her attention to the other task she had to endure before she went to work. As much as she had tried to avoid it, she had been badgered into participating in Yuri’s little experiment. She supposed if it did work she would at least be spared the chaos of taking Yuri to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
When she got off the phone she had an impatient Yuri waiting for her. She really wanted to avoid broaching the topic of Thanksgiving with him but dreaded what he was about to ask her even more. She decided the only way she could handle this situation was to deal with one problem at a time. Yuri’s nagging request would have to be tackled first. If it worked, which still seemed entirely unlikely to her, at least she would not have to worry about taking him to meet her family for Thanksgiving and if it did not work then he might not be willing or able to go with her. She hated to think of it in such harsh terms, but either way, it seemed like a potential win for her.
She waited for it and soon enough Yuri was asking her for help.
“Willow, we’ve gotta at least try sending me back. You have the power to send beings back to where they belong. You are a great sorceress.”
“Exorcist,” she corrected him bluntly. She felt this conversation falling into the same pattern as all the others, but this time she knew she would give in.
He gave her a look that reminded him that he still did not have a clear understanding of what that word meant. Her correction did not deter him for long. “Just try,” he pleaded.
She shook her head. “It’s not going to work.”
“You don’t know that.”
“What if I kill you?”
“How do you know that?”
“You’re careful and kind. You would never kill me.”
His trust was almost too much for her to bear. She did not know if what he said was true. She also did not know if what she said was true. She wanted him to go back to where he belonged. It sounded selfish, but she wanted it for him as much as for herself. He deserved to be back in the place where he belonged. She could not imagine being in a strange world without any friends. It had to be difficult and if she could help him then she should do it.
Finally, she sighed. She knew she was going to have to try. It was the only way they could both walk away from this with some peace of mind.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Let’s give this a try. If it starts to hurt you at all you need to tell me so I can stop. I’m pretty sure if it hurts it isn’t going to work the way you want it to.”
He nodded in agreement.
She cleared her throat and tried to gather her thoughts. She had never attempted this on anything she could even see properly, let alone an actual person. Everything that needed to be exorcised, or sent back to its own world or however she wanted to think about it, had been at most faint shimmers only seen out of the corner of her eye. None of those creatures had flesh and bone bodies just like hers and as far as she had ever heard it was not possible for a human to do this to another human being. Even if Yuri was not human, he seemed similar enough to cause her serious doubts. She did not know if anyone had ever tried, and if they had attempted it with another human it should not have worked according to her understanding of the process. She just wished she could make Yuri understand this in a way that did not
She started giving out orders. Since she was going to do the heavy lifting in terms of so-called magic in this feat, she was going to put him to work rearranging her living room so she could perform the ritual. If it did work then she would be stuck putting things back into place so the least he could do was move it for her now. If it did not work then depending on his physical integrity he might be putting it back too or she might have to postpone it until later and perform some form of first aid.
Yuri followed her every request happily. His spirits lifted as soon as she agreed to assist him and it did not take him long to get everything cleared out. At the very least he was impressively strong in Willow’s opinion. If he could not be sent back he would be pretty handy to have around for further heavy lifting around the place. She wanted to smack herself for having that thought. She was not going to allow herself to get domestic with him. She was not going to get domestic with anyone. This apartment was hers and hers alone. She did not need to have roommates or a man around the house or anything like that. She was an independent, twenty-first century woman and if she needed something done that she could not do herself she worked hard and paid someone to do it for her.
With the furniture cleared out and all of her supplies ready, Willow just needed to get into the proper state of mind for this sort of task. It was strange to do this in her own home. She never did this without a car ride between what she considered to be her normal life and her life as an exorcist. She did not have a car ride to prepare her to think in a different way this time. All she had was herself, her equipment and someone who believed she could do the impossible.
She made him stand in the middle of the floor. She closed her eyes and cleared her mind to the best of her ability. A few stray thoughts tried to distract her but she swatted them away. Then she got to work. She felt the odd tingly sensation under her skin that she got when she did this sort of work. Through this feeling under her skin, she sensed something strange happening and glanced at Yuri. She spotted some sort of white sparks heading from her general area toward Yuri.
Her breath caught in her throat and she instantly knew this was not going well. She froze. Her heart raced. She knew she needed to do something to stop this, but she had no idea what could be done. She felt some of the energy extending from her snap back toward her, but it was not enough to stop those sparks. She could do nothing other than watch as Yuri dropped to his knees in pain.
The shocked gasp that escaped from Yuri jolted her into action she rushed forward, knelt down in front of him and held him up by his shoulders.
“Yuri?” she asked. “Are you okay, Yuri?”
“Damn,” he managed to cough out.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Damn, that hurt.”
“I told you that was going to happen.”
He smirked. “You didn’t kill me.”
“But I could have killed you!”
“That’s not the point.”
“You didn’t kill me. I’m going to survive. We just won’t try that again, okay?”
“Deal. Oh, and you’re coming to Thanksgiving at my parents’ house.”
“A big meal. People traditionally gather with their families to eat and give thanks. Aspen has the rest of my family convinced that you’re my boyfriend or something so I guess you have to come. Just don’t embarrass me.”
Yuri blinked. He seemed to need a moment to process it all. “I thought you didn’t want to pretend we’re in a relationship.”
“But you’re family thinks we’re a couple and you want to go along with it?”
“I just don’t want to argue with them so we might as well go along with it.”
He smirked and leaned forward cheekily. “Don’t pretend you don’t like the idea.”
She scoffed. “I have better things to do with my time than to play a game with you.”
“We could have a lot of fun playing this game, you know,” he teased. “In fact, I think the more seriously we play the parts the more fun we’ll have.”
She blushed. “I don’t think we need to be discussing this.”
“Oh, I think it is pretty fun, and I got to get you blushing. That’s worth it to me. You’re a pretty blusher.”
She could not help but blush more at that. She hated that he was making her feel like a middle-schooler again. She had boyfriends before. She heard all sorts of pretty words meant to flatter her in the past and she thought that she had thick enough armor to endure just about anything. She did not think that she had ever withstood such remarks from someone quite as pretty as Yuri. It seemed that made all the difference in the world. She never got attention from someone she considered to be so far out of her league.
“Well,” she drawled. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to play the part.”
He nodded sagely. “We should practice too.”
She leaned back, feeling slightly offended. “Practice?”
“We need to make sure that we are convincing as a couple.”
“And how can we be any more convincing than we already are. You’re living with me. I honestly don’t know if we have that much more we could learn about each other in a week and a few days.”
“I meant physically,” Yuri explained with a provocative eyebrow waggle.
Willow knew now that he was trying to get a rise out of her and she knew it was working. She decided to play along in her own way. She leaned in and whispered into his slightly pointed ear. “I’m not going to sleep with you, Yuri.”
She might not be able to see him smirk from her current position, but she swore that she was able to feel it. It was an odd sensation.
He shifted his position so he could whisper in her ear as well. “How odd that your mind went there,” he whispered. “I was thinking about a couple kisses, nothing more.”
She pushed his shoulder playfully. “I’m not kissing you either.”
“Why not?” he asked with a pout.
“Because you’re not really my boyfriend.”
“Haven’t you ever kissed someone who wasn’t your boyfriend?”
“That’s hardly the point.”
“Try it. You might like it.”
“Why are you so obsessed with this?”
“I think you’re gorgeous and I want nothing more than the chance to kiss and hold you.” He looked her in the eye and she found it hard not to believe what he said.
That was what made it so hard not to be flattered into submission. She rallied her willpower and continued to rebuff him. She did not know how long she would be able to resist, but after she had just electrocuted him or something along those lines she felt as though she probably should not be giving in to his advances. She would always wonder if she did it because she wanted to or if she did it because she felt bad about hurting him and failing to send him home.
With more than a week until Thanksgiving, Willow suspected she would have her work cut out for her if Yuri kept playing this game.
Asa’s search finally picked up momentum with Nyura putting her clout behind his investigation. He was still hesitant. Her mood changed rapidly, but so far she remained constant in her desire for him to find Yuri as quickly as possible. He wanted the same, possibly even for similar if not identical reasons so he saw no reason not to work with her and use her influence and resources to his advantage. He just hoped that he could find Yuri and get something resembling stability in place once again for himself and the people in this city.
Even with her unstable mood, she had a network of connections of a completely different class than his. A word from her opened doors he never even considered as they were normally hidden behind two other doors as far as he was concerned.
He was not entirely sure he was comfortable with this class of people. He was used to the Duke, felt nothing but love and acceptance from Yuri and understood that he was a tolerated presence for the majority of the courtiers, but these people were different. The priests did not exist within what he considered to be his jurisdiction in the palace, and they never set foot in the palace as far as he knew.
He knew how to deal with rulers, with administrators, and with soldiers, but people of a spiritual and priestly persuasion were harder for him to read. He never knew what to believe or what to trust when it came to priests. Their beliefs were holy, their interpretations were divine. He always felt as though he would be messing with the precarious balance that ordered the entire city if he held the spiritual leaders to the same standards he held everyone else. At the same time, he felt as though he was being tricked into revering people that were nothing more than ordinary men in a particular vocation. Every time he had any dealing with a priest he felt torn between belief and skepticism. If it was up to him alone, he would live a completely secular life and avoid these uncomfortable issues whenever possible.
This temple hardly looked like a temple. Nestled away in the crowded residential district, this building was little more than one room stacked on top of another. The narrow building from the street appeared to be an unplanned addition jammed between two larger, sprawling buildings. Asa doubted his directions for a moment. Surely Duchess Nyura would not have any way of knowing so-called priests that lived in such conditions. The priests that served the nobility lived in well-kept temples with beautiful architecture and enough land to actually have something in the way of landscaping. This place appeared to be begging to be overlooked for fear of being torn down.
He knocked on the door, half expecting no one to answer. When the door opened, the scent of burning incense hit him like a wave. Whatever doubts he had about this being the home of priests disappeared.
Once he was inside and the door was closed behind him, his eyes had to strain slightly to see his surroundings. The darkness was not the pitch black of a room completely cut off from light, although he saw no windows letting any amount of light in, but the dim light that was present had no obvious source. Asa had neither time nor the know how to investigate the cause of this lighting effect. He just did his best to safely navigate the room but avoided straining his eyes trying to see unnecessary detail.
He held back a sneeze as the silent priest that opened the door led him up several flights of creaking stairs that seemed to continue the theme of being barely lit enough to prevent accidents if one paid attention with no visible source of the faint light. Asa wanted to complain about the inhospitable conditions but everything about this place made him feel completely cowed into obedience and submission. He was not sure if this was an intentional feature of this place, or if he was just particularly susceptible to feeling the need to obey authority.
He lost count of the number of flights he climbed by the time he stopped and was led into another dim, incense-filled room. The building itself had not appeared all that tall from the outside, its narrowness had struck him more than its height, but he supposed it was entirely possible that it was quite tall as there was nowhere for the rooms to be placed laterally.
Once he entered the room, Asa’s escort left without making a sound. He strained his eyes to look around the room for someone else or at least a reason why he would be led to this room and left here. He stepped further into the room, moving carefully to avoid bumping into any of the various decorative pieces or tables covered in ornately decorated books as he progressed further into the room.
As far as he could tell this room seemed more like an overrun library than a place for worship. He tried to remain as quiet as possible as these places marked as spiritual havens. He did not know why he did this specifically. He just could not remember a time when he did not do this. The people in tune with the spiritual world and the cosmic powers that governed them all from a place beyond his comprehension always caused him to feel something between awe and confusion.
This time he tried to pull himself together. He was here on business and visiting this place in his official capacity. He might feel as though the people from this temple deserved his respect, and he did not deny that was the case, but he was an authority in his own right and deserved courtesy and respect himself. Surely since he was sent here by Duchess Nyura and he had been led all the way up here, they were aware of who he was and his purpose in this place. Since they knew and had been expecting him, he should not be left alone and waiting like this.
He tried not to allow himself to touch anything. The task proved to be easier said than done in this room. He did not have much space to work with and the dim lighting did nothing to help matters. With the utmost care, he was able to find his way further into the room.
From here, as close to the center of the room as he thought he could effectively get, he could hear the faint whisper of someone breathing. It was the first indication he noticed of this room being occupied by someone other than himself. He assumed whoever was here was the person he had been delivered to.
He wanted to call out, to ask the person who they were and if they knew why he was here, but his voice caught in his throat. Whether this was caused by the heavily perfumed air or his own thoughts tying his tongue he could not say. Either was he remained silent and waiting. His eyes darted around the room, trying to see if he could spot the other person from this vantage point.
No matter how hard he looked, he could not spot the other person. The room was so quiet that he immediately perked up at the sound of paper rustling. He turned more quickly than he should have to try to catch a glimpse of the source of the movement and bumped a tall stack of ancient texts with his elbow. The books toppled over onto the floor with a deafening thud.
Asa knelt down to correct his mistake and unintentionally put his face directly in a cloud of dust disturbed by the books’ first movement in quite possibly decades. His eyes watered and he only just managed to hold back a sneeze which he dared not allow to escape.
When his vision cleared an old man, nearly as covered in dust as his books, stood before him. The man had the diminutive, stooped stature of someone who spent the majority of his life cooped up indoors in intense study.
Asa tried not to be started by the elderly man’s sudden appearance. By all rights, he did not think someone of such an advanced age or poor physical condition could move so quickly and silently in such a cluttered, cramped space, but he had little practice with such things and believed that this man could have easily been in this room for longer than Asa had been alive.
He struggled to speak without taking a deep breath, knowing that doing so would not clear his airways but rather fill it with more dust and incense. “I believe I was sent to you by the Duchess.”
The old man blinked slowly, as though his eyes were only just adjusting to focusing on something other than the aged, yellow pages of his books. His voice was dry and brittle with disuse. “I know nothing about the Duchess, but if you were delivered to me, there must be a reason.”
Asa swallowed hard. He assumed he had been expected, but he realized now his mistake had been assuming anything would work in a logical fashion with Nyura involved. Nonetheless, it appeared this man accepted his presence and possibly had even intended to help him. Although he did not know for sure how much he believed, he now felt as though he was in the presence of someone with a greater connection to the unseen parts of the world than him. He accepted it quietly, filing away his doubts as something to be dealt with by someone with greater authority than him as he did so many times before.
The old man watched him in a disinterested sort of way while Asa worked through this all in his mind. Finally, the old man spoke again. “I’m rather old, you know. It might be for the best if you told me what you need soon, just in case.”
“The Duchess sent me here to learn about portals to other worlds.” He explained plainly because he saw no other way to broach the topic.
The elderly priest did not want to waste time and that was a quality Asa could appreciate. He felt as though he had lost enough time in his search already. He needed to find Yuri and every day seemed to make the task that much more difficult.
The priest stared at him for a moment. His eyes narrowed as he studied Asa’s face. For his part, Asa tried to stay still, afraid that any movement on his part might cause him to be found wanting.
After a long moment passed, the old priest smiled, causing all the wrinkles on his face to rearrange from their default position in his studious frown. “You’ve come to the right place,” he said, seeming to grow a few inches as he straightened up with pride.
Asa thought he understood now. He was in the abode of priestly scholars. This did not look like a traditional temple because it was not a temple so much as a library.
“Do you know if it is possible to determine if any of these portals have appeared in a certain location in the last few weeks?” Asa asked quickly. He was not going to allow this opportunity to pass him by and he was not going to risk this elderly priest changing his mind before he had a chance to ask.
The old priest considered the question for a moment before answering. “In theory it is possible, but it hasn’t been the focus of study at this institution.”
He stopped talking and doddered down one of the narrow aisles of books. Asa did not know if that was the end of the discussion or if the priest would return. With a glimmer of hope dangled before him, he could not bear to stand by and wait for the final verdict. He carefully picked his way down the aisle after the priest with an embarrassing lack of grace in comparison to the frail old man.
He found the priest absorbed in another dusty tome. Asa was not sure he even knew he was still in the room, let alone looking over his shoulder.
From his current vantage point, Asa tried to read the text, but he could not read any of the words and only recognized about half the letters on the page. He assumed the book was old, but now he felt a need to redefine his concept of old.
After carefully studying the page, the old man acknowledged Asa was still present. He cleared his throat but did not bother to turn and look at Asa. “I’m not going to unravel this question in a few minutes. Come back in two days. I’ll give you an answer then.”
Asa did not want to leave. He felt as though he would lose the little spark of hope he just found if he walked out the door with anything less than a full explanation of where Yuri had gone and how he could get him back. Two days felt like an eternity, but it was an answer of a sort, even if it was not what he had hoped for.
He nodded and turned to leave. No escort waited to guide him back out of this strange building, but he found his own way easily enough. He took the stairs back to the ground floor where he nearly bumped into a woman wrapped in silk scarves. Only her eyes were visible above the scarves, but she looked as bewildered by this place as Asa still felt.