Ice House: Asetma
Night was the time when Asetma knew the most activity, but I was not there to be bothered by it. My body was numb and my mind was cold. Thoughts passed as dim echoes of long forgotten memories. I had no physical worries for such things felt safely left behind me with the body I had no further use for.
In the other world, I knew that Orsa was soon to join me. Her term in the Asetma torments would be mercifully short. Time has very little meaning once you leave the physical shadow of reality for the greater beyond. You leave the cradle into which mortal man is born and are lifted into the adult world where you are given to learn how to walk for yourself. Foolish thoughts from a foolish time are soon forgotten.
Days are as seconds and seconds can be as years. Waiting for Orsa would be easy in such a place. Another man in another time would have to seek the answers that I had failed to locate. The green eyed girl was no longer my problem.
Then I thought to seek out Tommy in the place beyond time and space. My mind reached out to the last of days without finding him there. His presence could not be felt from the first inch to the last inch of the universe. Tommy was nowhere. I was, however, pleased to know that he was not amongst the dead.
But I found myself in a place that I did not expect to be. It was dark and isolated. There was nothing around me for as far as my mind could reach. I found myself out of God's sight at the gates of cursed eternity. Why, in a life such as I had lived, was I condemned to such a fate?
Deep inside, feelings stirred awake. I felt for the green eyed girl and even for Miriam Asetma. It was not in me to sit by and allow Orsa to pay the price for my failure. The curse was of my own making and its cost was justly deserved.
In the darkness, I felt their fates. My pain was nothing when compared to the least of their suffering. For them, I would have given the last of my blood and the whole of my life. There are no words for sorrow as deep as mine was at that moment.
I knelt in prayer. The judgment upon me was better than I deserved and I did not dispute the least of it. My own fate did not enter my mind. For the others in my keeping, I begged mercy. Should the prayers of sinners carry weight with the great judge of all, then I pled for the salvation of all whom I was given to value.
A light came upon me brighter than any I had ever seen in life. The light was pure and its composition was love. After so long in darkness, you cannot imagine how bright that light was. But the light did not hurt me. It lifted me free.
It was a weird feeling in my cloudless mind. I wanted to fight back the darkness that reached from the real world into the shadowy lands in which mortal life was lived. The greatest of powers that could be given to me was the power to help. No mortal really wants God's job. Doing our parts for brother and kin is all that really matters.
My body was growing warm from the lack of breathing. I gasped out my first breath upon returning to the lesser world. Then I rolled over and returned to sleep where I lay. Morning would mark the first day of my renewed fight.
The morning was clear and bright with a cold breeze gently bending the tops of the oak trees. It was such a beautiful day, though there was a heavy feeling inside of me. Finding Tommy would not be easy with no starting point for the search. My only guidepost was a strange feeling in my weary soul that he was somewhere near to Asetma. Insight had never served me well.
I made breakfast for myself because Oletta wasn't around anymore and I did not know if she ever was to return. Truthfully, I could not be sure if she had really been at Asetma. After eating some cold toast and hot tea with three lumps of sugar, I walked around looking for my blue sweater. A short search, filled with hopes that I would stumble across Tommy, ended when I found my sweater draped over the large grandfather clock in the grand hallway of Asetma. When I removed the sweater I noticed that the clock had stopped keeping time. Mr. McGregor had always set the clock at precisely midnight before blowing out the candles in the main guest room. That was in the past because now the old man was missing. He had been fired by my equally elusive, yet less personable, maid.
There was no cause for Oletta to return, but I missed my old friend and gardener. I would have known no hardship if Oletta never did return. Mr. McGregor, however, was skilled in ways that I was not. He was an employee that I needed.
My mind drifted roughly over what had happened to him; whether or not he was, by then, dead or just decided to move on with what remained of his life. Sometimes I think that there have been things going on, that I was not aware of, involving McGregor and Oletta. She seemed to have so much relentless power over everything in the estate and she wasn't even officially hired or appointed. Why did I then let her stay and work if I did not approve of her being here? Was it the peach scent of her long Glendenning cigarettes that I missed or was it something else; was it something about her presence that now left a void in Asetma?
I should not have been thinking that way because she had done more harm than good. She had locked me outside, in weather so brutal that my life was in jeopardy. Oletta was just another cloud in my mind. Her cloud seemed to choke off the air from my lungs, so I thought it time to head outside and get a breath of that fresh, stale country air before walking to wherever destiny was going to force me. Th'Estate was always interesting.
Walking from the back of the main house to the front doors was uneventful as it should have been. My living quarters, just like those of Mr. McGregor, were in the back where nobody was to go in the house. Nothing that was of interest to the tourists was supposed to have happened in that part of the house. Unofficially, the servant's wing of the house was haunted by worse forces than the public sections.
No spirit presented itself as I walked through the main entryway of the mansion. It seemed almost strange to me that nothing happened when I was alone in that portion of the house. My nerves relaxed as I moved closer to the large wooden fortifications that sealed the mansion off from the outer world. But the stale air remained in my lungs.
Opening the front doors of Asetma allowed a playful burst of cool air to rush in and, when I looked back, a couple of the candles had lost their flame from the force moving the dusty white drapes. I moved outside, closing the heavy doors and stood on the stone patio with my eyes closed. I listened to the wind for a few moments then I heard the faint laughter of children coming from somewhere. Opening my eyes I saw three small children, two girls and a boy standing by one of the trees near Th'Estate's gates.
The girls were wearing short white dresses and shiny black shoes; the boy was clothed in black trousers, a white shirt, and a black tie. He wasn't wearing any shoes and the girls kept looking down at his feet with gentle laughter. They kept pointing at him while the poor boy stood with his head hanging low in embarrassment. The girls were not kind to him. I took small steps forward while the wind moved past me without touching me as though it feared I had some dread disease. There were small branches falling to the ground, each nudged gently asunder by the flowing wind.
All that I could hear was the laughter of the girls, though it wasn't really laughter anymore but rather shrieks. They were taunting him and he was crying. I came closer though no one noticed my presence. Suddenly there was darkness. I could feel the wind and hear the voices but I could neither move nor see anything around me.
It was as though something had struck me on the head. There was no pain or even temperature to the sudden blindness. In one instant, I just stopped seeing the world around me. Even the paving stones beneath my feet lost their hardness to my feet.
For my own protection, I sat down. The wind kept its strength and the voices grew stronger. I remained unable to move except for having sat down. Even the sound of my thoughts grew light beneath the sound of the wind and the shrieks.
I felt helpless, simply wanting to help that injured boy. My vision slowly returned after what seemed like only a few moments, however, when I could see clearly again, it was later in the afternoon and there was a dusting of fresh snow on the ground. The voices had faded away and there were no children to be found, only a pair of black shoes near the oak tree. I stood up and brushed the snow off of my clothes and out of my hair.
The shoes fell from their perch onto the roots of the enchanted Asetma tree. My body was drenched from the melting snow covering me, yet I did not feel either wet or cold. My world was once again a dream leaving only the elements of the endless nightmare to invade my serenity. I was fast drunk from the dreamlike quality distorting my view of the outer world. Nothing was real thus nothing was wrong.
As they were of no value to me, I did not pick up the shoes. The shoes looked new, as though they were from earlier in the day. It looked as though they had been freshly polished and well cared for when they were not hanging from the tree. They left their resting place on the roots of the tree of their own volition and I did not care.
On my right, between two of the cursed oaks, I saw that the gooseberry bush, which had never borne fruit, was colder than I was. At least it was shivering more than I was. To my unaware mind, the sight did not seem at all out of place. Asetma had taught me not to see anything as odd. Or was that something that Elder had told me? At that time, as in the present, I did not recall.
Without Oletta in the mansion, I felt safe venturing out further into the grounds. I left the door slowly, trying not to frighten the bush. My own fear was absent as though the bush was scared enough for both of us. For my own safety, I stopped several yards from the bush.
"Asetma's not kind to you either, I see." I spoke gently to the uncomfortable bush.
The voice, feminine in demeanor, which returned was not like enough to a bush to convince me that it was a bush. I could not find a word in the soft rumble. "You'll have to do better than that." I said.
It did not reply even as much as it had to my earlier statement. Therefore, I crept up to the bush, trying to catch a glimmer of a mystical sprite playing games with my mind. The children I had seen earlier, if it was even the same day, had to be behind it to my rationalizing mind. I did not mind being crazy, but being fooled was another matter. Speaking to a bush was only natural for me, yet I had to know that the bush was actually speaking to me before I did.
"Nothing more to say?" Pausing long enough for the echo of my words to fade, I lunged for the foliage.
I had not taken into account the prickly nature of all plants in Obsille when I had jumped the hedge. But it was the girl hiding behind the bush who was surprised the most. She had nowhere to go. Her freight stole her waking state. Unable to allow her, or anyone else, to suffer exposure to the wild elements rampant on the accursed soil of Asetma, I carried her limp form into the mansion. Then I felt cold.
She was dressed in torn, not dressy, clothes. Her top was an unraveling, blue-white sweater, covering an undershirt which I was too modest to examine. Beneath that, she wore faded denim jeans, ripped up enough to expose her knees. As she lacked socks, it was easy enough for me to see her bruised ankles. I consoled myself to check her over for injuries while she slept. During the end of my exam, she was awake, yet she tried not to show it. She was afraid to resist me. Caution was written in the suppressed quivering of her calloused and scabbed skin.
To see what she would do, I walked out of the room and retrieved my first aid kit. She fled from the antique sofa on which I had placed her, failing only to open the massive wooden doors of Asetma. I knew she could not escape since the doors were locked and Asetma's doors could not be unlocked, from within or from without, while lacking the key.
The first of the Asetmas, Trebor Robert Christopher Asetma, had been a brilliant engineer and formed a unique key for the front and back doors of his fortress. It was historically known that the Asetma family had made its fortune ministering to kings and other men of renown. Asetma had been a good family name before the dark time. That was long before Miriam.
"You should not be up, my lady. Those wounds will take some time to heal completely." I tried to be kind to her, feeling her fear more than my own.
She came to me, kneeling at my feet and rapping her arms around my legs. I knew that she did not want to embrace me. The unsteadiness of her muscles convinced me that she was afraid to displease me. Unfortunately, I could only guess what she could have wanted on the subject of pleasing me. Her behavior spoke loudly of a broken spirit from a pathetic life.
Broken spirits were common in Obsille and everybody knew at least a dozen people like the strange girl in my care. It was rare for a runaway or castaway to seek refuge within the bloody stone walls of Th'Estate. My companion must have been from a neighboring town. Treehaven, 70 miles to the south of Obsille, was the closest town to Asetma outside of Obsille.
"And what would my lady like me to call her?" My voice was unable to hold the calm, harmonious feeling which I had intended to convey. Politeness, if not mechanical protocol, spoke my thoughts for me without help.
"Beth," she said." Bethany Ch..." She did not finish her last name and I knew that she did not want me to identify her and never would finish her name.
"Beth. That's a nice name, my lady. I was about to fix dinner. Would you care to join me, Beth? My maid seems to be missing today."
Words did not come easy to her. When she spoke, which was not often, she turned her face to the left, away from me, as though she was afraid that I would strike her. "If you would like."
Her words were not easy for me to hear, so I rephrased the question. "Is that what you would like, Beth?"
In lieu of a verbal response, she nodded. She went around the room looking for what I assumed to be the kitchen. It was nice that she felt obligated to earn her way, although I felt bad for her. I had no evidence that she had not been just another run away looking for a place to hold up between narcotics binges. But, that was not in my nature to suppose. To me, she was simply a friend I had just met.
"Is there somewhere you have to be tonight, Beth? I have to lock the doors around here--it is a historical landmark, you know? I can walk you home if you have a place to be." I wanted her to say that she had a home, a safe place, to go to.
"No, sir," she responded. "I have nowhere I have to go." She returned to her seat, waiting for me to make the next move. To me, she seemed to be an animal, trapped in a cage. She wanted out, deep down, yet had to stay.
"You can spend the night here, if you like. I have lots of guest rooms and no guests to speak of. By the way, you can call me Mark."
I resigned myself to having an overnight guest, even though I feared what the estate would do to her. Miriam was out of her limbo, thanks to my bungling. It was hard for me to avoid thinking about ways to force Beth to leave although I did not want her to go. Asetma had not robbed me of my deep set Christian charity.
Beth and I consumed what little my underpaid labors enabled me to afford. After we ate, I believe that Beth thought I had been kidding about having a maid, yet I could not speak the words in her mind from my lips. She would have to tell me, provided that she wanted me to know. None of those things were prominent on her lips. Her lips, washed out pink and cracked from prolonged dryness, formed a scoop, pulling in the soup I placed before her in one of my fractured bowls.
She ate more than I did, however she had been in the world where Asetma's curse reigned long enough to build up an appetite. I had been in another place for only a moment while the time in which Beth slipped onto the grounds elapsed. Had I been less afraid of hurting her, I'd have asked her what she had seen of me. After all she had been there when I leapt back into the cursed reality where I spent most of my time. The other reality held a better place for the both of us.
I did not tell Beth about Miriam, fearing that I would frighten her more of me than the ghosts which I knew melted into every slender shadow of the unearthly manner. She would not believe me anyway. The greater truth was that I did not believe me and that frightened me. Beth, the scarred flower drooping at the end of a thorny stem, was kindred to me. Neither of us could leave, although both of us wanted out. Was I wrong to keep her?
After a small desert of dried berries in a mint salad, delicacy of the Holder family for several generations, I showed Beth to the room in which she would bed down. Directly across the hall was the shower that she would use before I did. Yet, I knew that she did not have any clean clothes to change into after washing off the grime ground deeply into her spirit. Even the clothes that she was wearing did not appear to be hers. They fit her so poorly that I knew that they were the clothes of a man more than a foot taller than Beth was.
I went to my hamper and she went into the bath. Asetma was heated, as if enough heat existed to warm the unholy chill of death in the abominable mausoleum of Asetma, by sulfurous springs running through the caverns beneath the estate. After a bath, your skin had a noticeable, although light, stench of sulfur, but you were well rested. Beth returned, wearing one of my towels, before I got back from my hamper.
Rushed, I grabbed one of my largest shirts from the pile. It had not been laundered, yet I had only worn it once and had since given it much time to air out. I figured that Beth would not notice the remaining smell since anything which remained in the house for more than mere minutes developed the same moldy smell. When Beth slipped into my warm shirt for her slumber, I noticed a track of scars running down her inner right thigh--a place I had been too modest to notice earlier. Beth had been an addict, but was clean by the time I met her.
We bedded down for the night after a few minutes of uneasy contact. Beth did not know what it was that I wanted of her and was, for reasons I did not know, instinctively compliant to me. I think she expected me to share my bed with her, though not because I had the better of the two beds. I closed the door upon leaving her room and took my shower before putting myself to bed.
I could hear Beth turning restlessly in her sleep for the ninety minutes it took for me to leave the Asetma reality and enter sleep. Though the sounds were muffled, given the fortress quality of Asetma's mansion, I could hear her calling out in her sleep. It had been a long time since I had heard another human voice in the night. Stan used to talk in his sleep when we were boys.
Beth called out for many people in the night, although I could not make out the names. The one name that she spoke clearly and loudly enough for me to make out in the shifting air currents of Asetma was Milton. She called him father. Her last words, before she passed into sleep, were a whispered apology spoken as if it was everything that she had the strength for. I do not understand how I heard those words, yet I did hear them. Those few words are a private secret known only to the two of us.
Morning came early enough in Th'Estate that I thought it inhospitable to awaken Beth when it arrived. I had not considered what I was going to do with her when the prison bus arrived. Nobody had mentioned to me if I was even allowed to have guests in Th'Estate. Living guests, I should say.
Ghosts were more welcome on the grounds of Asetma than I was. Nobody would have paid to see an enslaved keeper living on the grounds of the vast estate bearing the Asetma name. The idea was not even funny to me that early in the morning. I took a shower to wash it out of my head.
When I finished washing, I went to the staff kitchen where I was permitted to actually eat. Oletta had prepared my breakfast and promptly vanished without making a sound that I heard. I did find the thought that Miriam had taken Oletta kind of humorous. Miriam would have been begging mercy before the morning was out and lunch time arrived.
A second setting, then just dirty dishes, had been set beside mine. It did not seem like Oletta to leave even a small sign that she had actually been in the mansion as though she was hiding from somebody. She could leave behind anything that would seem reasonable for me to be in possession of, yet nothing else. I did not even know which room in the mansion she had taken up residence in.
I washed both sets of dishes without complaining. In years, I had been alone to both make my own meals and clean up after myself. It was almost worth the trouble of having a maid and financial planner just to have somebody else helping me on the little things in life. However, it was not worth the loss of my gardener to gain Oletta.
After breakfast, I walked the living quarters to find Beth. She was nowhere to be seen. The bed was made and the room dusted to hide any evidence that anybody had been there. Even Beth's clothes were gone from the room. My shirt, in which Beth had slept, had been returned to the hamper.
There was not enough time to look for her with the prison bus on its way. Calling for aid in the search was not an option. I could search for Tommy all that I wanted, and would do so in any case. Even Mr. McGregor's absence could be reported to my jailors. Beth's disappearance was my own problem exclusively.
It was a slow tour day and I had three whole hours to myself for searching the grounds for Tommy. I didn't find him, but I looked as hard as I could on my own. There was gossip against me amongst the guards, so I did not speak to them at all. Their slander was too hard for my heart to bear.
I could be sure of only one thing. Beth was not still on the Asetma grounds. All that I could do was wish her well wherever she had gone to. Maybe she had gone with Oletta, which was far from the worst thing that she could do.
My mind wondered over the possibility that Beth had come with Oletta. Oletta's identity came up in relation to my brother's death, yet, she had expressed herself as no threat to anybody except for me. With Oletta, I chose to believe that Beth would be safe. Could Oletta be Beth's mother?
Thinking about it only burned time that I did not have to waste. If you do not get the feeling of it from the tour, Asetma is actually a very big place. Almost half of the Imperial Forest is actually part of the grounds. You could fit the entire town of Obsille on the land that was occupied by the two houses of Asetma. Any search of the house would take longer than a lost child could survive without aid.
That was an uncomfortable thought. Tommy had been gone for days and I still did not want to think that he might have joined the spectral host of the Asetma haunting. Would Tommy have come to me as a ghost? My belief that he would have appeared to me gave me hope that he was still alive even if not amongst the living.
One hiding place that I feared to look into remained to be searched. Asetma had many places where fear itself made a home. All but one of those had been searched. The bookcase over the tunnel was only known to me.
My steps toward the place were slow, as though crippled with advanced age. I worked up my rage, preparing to rip the wooden case away from the wall if I could find no way to open it. It didn't help much, yet it was all that I had. If only I could have had somebody else search the tunnel where I had come so close to meeting with death.
Divine providence intervened to put off my mission. I was then called back into service to lead a small group of tourists through Th'Estate. There was a point at which I came to hope that the green eyed girl was in that group so that I too could follow her to wherever she had Tommy. It was a slow day for phantom tourists as well.
Hope faded as the clock advanced through four groups without the green eyed girl. The sun was setting before I finished my last tour and the day was at its close. I looked closely at each body I led both in and out of the grounds. Everybody who went in also went out. That does not, however, mean that none of them were ghosts.
My blessing was mixed if even a blessing. Since I had been unable to search for Tommy during business hours, I had to search for him in the dark of night. I would be alone and there would not be a single living soul in range to help me. Even Oletta could not be counted on to come to my aid. If Beth was in range, and she would be the only person close enough to me, then I would not wish to endanger her life to save my own.
I ate my evening meal alone. Oletta did not come back to prepare it for me and Beth was nowhere in sight. They had vanished together in the morning and I had assumed that they would return the same way. Even as delay would push my search of the place I dreaded well into the darkness and closer to the witching hour, I held out hope that I would not be alone. It was a long, lonely night.
Alone, I awoke that morning sitting in the chair at the dinner table, just minutes before the prison bus was to arrive. A second set of dishes had been set out beside me. There was no time to do the dishes before the bus arrived, so I put them all in the private sink and shut the door behind me. What went on in my private living space was between me, God and a large host of ghosts.
The green eyes phantom returned to her routine and I led her through the mansion yet again. She left me no approach by joining a larger than average group of tourists that I had been given charge of. Her burning eyes never came to rest on me. It was the first time that she had actually taken an interest in the tour that I was conducting.
She was with the tour almost until the end and I half expected her to walk out with the rest of the group. That would have been a change in more than her routine. The green eyed girl was a specter that real people saw and touched. However, she was still a ghost of Th'Estate and we had never seen her walk out into Obsille.
In the last doorway leading out through the guard posts and ticket takers, the green eyed girl vanished. If she had gone further, then I would have found a way to question her about Tommy's disappearance. I would have made a way and taken the chance to question her. She may have known that.
That evening, I dined alone again. I was not contented to sit in the dining room, sleeping another night through in the hard wooden chair. My legs longed for a walk and I was not going near the bookcase that I knew I would eventually have to probe. The evening air was cool enough to force sleep from even the furthest reaches of my mind. It was a good night for a walk.
I was well on my way down to Obsille before I realized what I was doing. That had not been my destination when I had first set foot out of the old mansion's gates. It was not my destination then either. For a moment, I considered visiting the ancient tree. My mind cursed the sudden departure of my sanity all the way back into the Asetma Manor.
When I returned, there was an additional set of dishes in the sink. The entire time I did the dishes, I thought through what Beth could have been doing that would have resulted in me never seeing her. I went so far as to consider that she had been in Oletta's way and that Oletta had eliminated her from the equation. Beth was not in the house when I locked up, however, she left breakfast dishes for me the next morning.
Could it have been Beth who saw Oletta as the danger and had removed Oletta from the world of the living? It was a thought too amusing to throw away. I was amused by it clear through the arrival of the bus on the next morning. The guards on the bus must have thought that I had gone mad. With Tommy missing, that was not a good thing.
At lunch, I walked half way to Obsille and back again. It was a slow time and nobody seemed to care that I had walked off. I was not even needed to guide tourists around the grounds. There were always slow days at the end of the season. No more than two slow days would come at the end of the season, before the house is closed up for winter.
On my walk, I ran into an older gentlemen in running shoes and dark blue overalls. The darkness of the blue overalls was close to black. If black, then it would have been the same black that was the hair color of the man when I had first met him. Now his hair had grayed to the point of being hard to see when close to his scalp.
"Pleasant day to you, Mark." It was Mr. McGregor.
"How have you been, Mr. McGregor?"
"Could be better, but could be much worse also. How is it going for you, Mark?"
"I've missed you around Th'Estate. Oletta, whoever that is, didn't really have the authority to fire you."
"She's a spry one, Mark. You have got to be on guard with that lady."
"I've tried to fire her and she keeps showing up. Nobody even admits to having hired her."
"No doubt about that, Mark. Death himself couldn't take her off your hands."
We walked together back toward Th'Estate. It had been a long time since I had spoken with my old friend and I wanted to speak to somebody who was not eager to accuse me of Tommy's murder. Finding Mr. McGregor on the road to Asetma had to be a gift from God. I did not want our walk together to end.
"You still have a job at Th'Estate, sir. I'll see to that as long as I am there. You can be sure of that."
"Never worry for me, Mark. I've been the gardener at Th'Estate since it was your brother's charge and in the cleanup before the place was opened. I'm enjoying my retirement."
"Is there anything that I can do to get you back? Just a couple days a month or something?"
"How about a couple walks a week and all my calls on you be social, Mark?"
"It seems that I am in no position to argue with you."
"There you are right, Mark. You are showing the wisdom of age."
"But, you must promise to actually call on me from time to time. Stop by to see the roses in bloom."
"I wouldn't miss the Imperial Forest at this time of year for all this world, Mark. You know that to your soul."
"It's a rare man who goes twice from Obsille to Asetma."
"I would rather be cast into the dungeon of Th'Estate than break my word to you, Mark. You don't have to worry about that."
"I'll be waiting and counting on you."
Unless we had slowed our pace, I would have had to break off our walk and return to Th'Estate before we had finished our conversation. I did not want to go then, but my lunch hour was over. My old friend waved to me as I passed through the strong gates of Asetma, walking into the grounds alone. It almost felt as though I was completely alone in all of creation.
Lunch had been over for nearly half an hour before I returned to the Asetma grounds. People did notice my absence, but nobody made a scene with all the tourists around. We got busy and my misdeed was forgotten before the day ended. Watchful eyes, though not those of the living, were upon me. It seemed as though the curse had been suspended in my absence.
The green eyed girl chose not to make an appearance that day. I was expecting her in the crowd, yet, she still had Tommy to attend to. She must have known, as nobody could have avoided seeing, that I was building up the courage to approach her as Tommy had. It was the only way that I could think of getting to Tommy and I thought that I would soon be ready to try.
Lost in thought, taking a dozen visitors through the cellar beneath the main house, a pair of flaming green eyes grasped me in their gaze and froze my feet to the floor. I had never been as cold as I was for that one instant of time. When I came out of the cloud, the chill of the cellar actually felt hot to me. Ice literally clamped my shoes to the concrete floor.
Careful to avoid offending my captor, I made an off handed remark about the restless spirits playing their games. A younger gentleman in the back of the group heckled my attempts to break my shoes free from their captivity. He should not have done so, but the ancient forces leashed on Asetma did not care much about the fun of one ignorant youth. Unbelief enhances their power. They would not attack the man unless he was reckless enough to venture onto the property alone. Should he have broken from the group, then his life would have been Asetma's.
I stumbled backwards a few steps when the ice vaporized. It astounded the curious onlookers, although it was not impressive with all the other things that I had seen. The dark sprite, Miriam Asetma, could have slaughtered all of us if she had chosen to do so. Nobody who could tell me did tell me why she had left us alone. Her simple tricks puzzled me.
Miriam allowed us to go on, walking through the grounds of her castle for the rest of the day. When she got a chance, she would show me her face in a mirror here and there. Once she was standing around a corner and I walked through her with a most uncomfortable stride. Nothing of the power that I knew Miriam to possess came to pass.
Startled, I bumped a bookcase to my right. It was not a place that I should have been taking the tourists and not a place that I wanted to be. Miriam was taunting me with the very bookcase hiding the tunnel where I had freed her. But it was still only taunting. Her game came as close to telling me that I would find nothing in the tunnel as though she had come out and told me so with her unearthly voice.
If I had not been leading a group through the mansion, I would have had the courage to enter the secret place. I was more mad than afraid. All that Miriam had to do was learn that she held Tommy Queensman and my life would have been over. Orsa would have been Miriam's next victim.
When Miriam next popped up around a corner, I took a swing at her phantom head. Knowing that I could not make contact with a phantom, I held enough back to keep my footing. It had to look strange with the people that I was leading through Th'Estate, however, I didn't really care. I was the first person to hit Miriam Asetma in centuries. One person in Obsille had overcome his fear of Miriam Asetma.
That was the last tour of the day. Miriam had grown tired of the games and left me to eat my evening meal in peace. Peace of any kind was not like Miriam at all. Maybe she had learned a lesson or two in her long sentence in perdition's pit. It was too much to hope for, but I hoped for it just the same.
Courage remained within me to go back to the haunted bookcase after my dinner. Though I searched it from top to bottom, I could not find the mechanism that caused the wooden seal to uncover the doorway. There was not a single loose stone in the wall around the case. It was late, well into the night, before I gave up on my search. My courage outlasted my strength.
My night was restless. There had to be a way to open the tunnel so that I could search its length. Maybe it was opened from the other end. How could I get the secret from the old witch woman who lived at the other end of the tunnel? It would have been easier to tear the bookcase apart. If I had done so, then I might have had a moment's rest in a night's sleep.
What would the condemned spirits of Asetma lineage do to me if I had damaged their house? Could they have done things to me that made taking the blame for Tommy's death seem pleasant? Death would have been a trivial thing compared to the knowledge that fare Orsa would have been condemned by my failure. The evil of Asetma knew power enough to keep me under control.
I did not get out of bed tired. Having been told of the great power within me, I tried to focus it on getting through another mundane day in Th'Estate. It built up faster than I expected. Nothing physically happened in the world around me. My body just got hot with power.
For an instant, I came to think of myself as a little god in my thoughts. I wanted to do something, anything, with the immense force living inside of me. Nothing was too great for me to do. Miriam Asetma felt like an insect in the presence of my power and I wanted to run into her spectral presence just to show her how much stronger I was than she was. Such power has an addictive nature, possessing its possessor.
It drained away swiftly when I could find no use for it. I knew better than to believe the hype in my head. Even if I had every ounce of power that I felt, I could not control it. The warning voice was small, weak in my head, but I thanked God that I still had it.
Even the lesser force of the green eyed girl could have taken me since her vision was unclouded. She knew both her strength and her weaknesses. In my deluded mind, I knew neither. Miriam would have taken me down using no more power than she had on the previous day's parlor tricks. All that she needed to beat me was to know her power.
Young Tommy, in his ignorance, had been taken by the green eyed girl. I had been told that he didn't even know that he was gone. Ignorance had endangered Tommy and I thought it wise to remember that. My ignorance had released Miriam already.
The day was uneventful until I did something that I should not have done. It was not a slow day and I doubted that there would be any more slow days through the rest of the season. Around lunch, I was doubtful that I would be allowed off the Asetma grounds again so I just walked into a part of the house that I considered private to me. Asetma was large enough to house the whole population of Obsille in the places that the tourists were not allowed to see.
I had chosen not to allow myself more than half of my lunch hour in penitence for my absent minded actions on the previous day. Mr. McGregor was unlikely to want to meet with me again on his afternoon walk anyway. Picking up an apple from my private living quarters as my lunch, I walked to the far end of the living quarters past the haunted door that I had permanently locked. Then I went down into the storage cellars attached to the staff housing wing of the house.
An orange glow caught my eye in one of the hallways. I was not carrying even a candle to light my way and that part of the house was not lighted. My steps quieted as much as my skill on my feet would allow. Caution could not drive me away from the light.
Before I saw anything else, I noticed the green eyed girl peeking around a corner. She was as curious as I was and just as unwilling to be seen by the orange apparition. My task was harder because I did not even wish to be seen by the green eyed girl. I stood behind the green eyed girl in hopes that she would not feel my presence.
There was barely enough room for me to move sideways without being seen by either spirit while I looked into the hallway. I had to stay at a distance behind the green eyed girl to keep from being seen. That limited what I could see in the hallway beyond. If I had not been taller than the green eyed girl, then I could have seen nothing past her.
A larger ghost, possessing the same green eyes as the smaller sprite, standing like fire in an ornate purple gown, was searching the far wall in the hallway. She placed her phantom hand on every stone feeling for something. As she got more upset, her hands passed further into the wall. Something within the walls kept her ghostly hands from passing through.
I recognized the spirit in the moments she spent in clear view from my hiding place. It was Miriam Asetma still searching for secrets older and more powerful than she was. There were many legends of the first dark Asetmas. Stories that Miriam had to know drove her to seek what no living soul had seen since well before Miriam's day.
When my eyes moved downward, I realized that the green eyed girl was looking at me. Her eyes were not just green at that time. She had been crying. I could feel sadness in the walls and floor of the old house. There was nothing that I could do as no handkerchief can dry the tears of a ghost.
Blame and inquiry into the disappearance of Tommy held no sway with me. The tears that I saw in those phantom green eyes were real. Such a look given by a child can break the strongest of men. I reached out with my hand in a vain attempt to dry her sad eyes. She almost allowed me to wipe her tears, but we both felt something in that moment.
Then Miriam stopped her frantic search. She felt something behind her and I moved to hide in a doorway. I saw the light dim into a yellow fog as she moved toward the end of the hallway where the green eyed girl and I were hiding. It was the green eyed girl that she wanted.
The green eyed girl obeyed the call of the elder phantom. She was careful not to look at me for my protection. Miriam looked down to the smaller girl, placing her hand on the younger spirit's head. Looking up into Miriam's eyes, the green eyed girl wrapped her arms around Miriam's midsection.
My lunch ran over the half hour that I had given myself, but did not take the whole hour. I stood in the doorway even after the ghosts vanished. Why should such a gentle spirit be drawn to the monster that was Miriam Asetma? That question beat on me for the rest of the day and into bed that night.
I dreamed a lovely dream without love in the dream. It was a cool autumn's day and I was walking on a clear path through the Imperial Forest as I had in better time and younger days. The trees seemed to bow in the wind as I walked by, showing off the decorations which God had lovingly provided them with at that time of the year. None of the trees spoke to me. Speaking to me was not the way of trees.
There was a clearing, on the path, near the banks of a small, cool river. The river provided water for the trees to drink, yet they kept their distance to keep their bark dry. Small stones bound the edges of the river, giving me something to walk on in place of the mud that I would otherwise have had to walk through. Fish teamed all around in the river, safe in its clear waters from the dark curse of Asetma. Such a vision in my eyes was blessed.
Alone in the woodland, I did feel the absence of Orsa. My feelings for her left a hole in the image that I could not fill. It was better for the author of dreams to have left her out, for me, than to have written in a poor substitute with a weak script. Her absence was something that I would have to get used to and writing her into my dreams would have been nothing short of cruel. The pain within me was only a hole in the fabric of the dream.
Sitting on a flat stone at the edge of a river, I heard a song from my youth. It was a rambling song about the passing of youthful days. My mind decided not to hear the words of the song as though the sound track had worn thin over years of play. Instead I took the day slow for I was not sure to see another like it.
"So this is where you come to seek peace, Job."
A wicked wind stripped bare half the trees behind me when I recognized the voice. "Elder?"
He did not walk into a place where my eyes would have seen any part of him. It was his choice to stay behind me, on the path and my choice not to look toward him. "The warrior is not a barbarian or a militant. A warrior must be given a thing of value for which defense is in his nature."
"I had a question to ask you, but I cannot remember the words in this place of rest."
"Then it was not meant to be. Ours is the power to influence what God has made, yet, some things are always beyond our control."
"Those words do not comfort eyes that have not found Tommy."
As my ears told me, Elder sat down behind me. "Comfort is not what we get, Job. Comfort is what we give to others."
"If I had known that, Elder, then I would not have taken this job."
"Those words have come from the lips of each of us in his time. Even Miriam would have spoken them aloud at least once in her life."
"Then I was right to feel sorry for Miriam."
Elder bumped against me as he jumped to his feet. "No, Job. You were deceived. It is, however, an honest deception that you have to see through."
"I'm not sure that I can condemn her, Elder. She is evil, as I know to be true, but my heart tells me that I am not. Where do I get the malice to send her back to the darkness?"
"Justice is not a feeling, Job. It is your task to put right the wrong that you have brought forth. Tommy's is not the only life that you have put at risk."
"How do I put Miriam back?"
"Words, in themselves, have neither power nor meaning. What you seek is a feeling that is the power hidden behind the words."
"Is there an exercise attached to this lesson?"
"Picture in your mind the meaning of the things that you say. When you can feel the meaning of your thoughts in your heart while they are flowing from your mouth, then you will command the power within you."
"And that will be enough to send Miriam away while calling Tommy back?"
"One step at a time, Job. Put Miriam back first."
It felt like I fell into sleep in the dream. My feet became so heavy that I could not move them and I had an energy draining numbness where my legs once had been. Then it spread out into my arms. Things changed faster when the numbness reached my chest. At that point, my eyes fell shut and my mind went empty into a dreamless sleep.
All the spirits in Asetma could not reach me in so deep a slumber. The dream had relaxed me and Elder's chat had drained all my strength away. I should have known better to grant myself rest with Miriam running free in Th'Estate. It was beyond my power to make a choice in the matter.
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