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She was even bigger. Gavin cocked his head and surveyed Madame Braith’s swelling stomach. Could there really be a baby growing in there? What kind of baby got that big that fast? It was more likely some kind of monster. Or maybe it was like that book that Wyn had read last year, with the teenage vampires, and Madame Braith’s spine would break while the thing was clawing its way out of her. After all, fast-growing babies only appeared in bad vampire stories, didn’t they? He’d read this Anne Rice book in middle school once, and there had been these weird witch things that—
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said.
Yeah, he knew that. That was why he’d come to her office in the first place. She’d asked him to stop by after class. He’d half-wanted to bow out of the whole ordeal, but he had to admit he was curious. And even now, with her body mutilated and stretched, he couldn’t help wanting her. “What?” he said.
“I want this to stop,” she said.
“Do you?” he asked.
“It’s my fault,” she said.
Gavin raised his eyebrows. “Really?” He’d thought this whole weird pregnancy had pretty much cleared her of guilt. He was intrigued.
“I knew the exercise was really a ritual,” said Madame Braith. “I wanted to draw the power here. I didn’t think it would work in this… I reread the ritual. It’s old. Very old, from England, years ago. Anyway, I didn’t think the three deaths thing… And then Sophia was gone, and I panicked. I didn’t know…”
Gavin was having a hard time following this. “Wait. You did do the ritual on purpose.”
“Yes. But not to summon these possessing spirits. I just wanted to gather the power of Avalon. Once there were nine, I thought we could focus and pull that power here, and I thought that with power like that, we’d be able to… Well, God knows. So much, we could do. For good. I really meant it to be good. I—”
“Yeah, which is why you told us it was an exercise.”
“Please, Gavin. You have to believe me.” She looked at him with sad eyes, and as he gazed into them, he realized he did believe her. Tears started to squeeze out of her eyes.
Gavin went to her and pulled her into his arms. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to hold her like that. “Don’t cry,” he said softly. “You didn’t mean it.”
“I didn’t,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean for anything like this to happen.”
“It’s not,” she said. “Look at me!”
He didn’t really want to, so he didn’t. He knew pregnant women were supposed to look glowing and beautiful, but Madame Braith’s swollen stomach looked grotesque. It disturbed him. It frightened him.
“I think I can reverse it,” she said.
“What?” said Gavin, releasing her.
“A purging ritual. But we’ll need to be there. All of us who were affected anyway. You, me, Wyn, Reese, and Meaghan. Can you convince the others to come?”
Gavin considered. No one was particularly interested in doing anything with Madame Braith these days, but currently their only option for getting rid of these damned spirits was to watch Lissa and Amanda like hawks, trying to keep anything bad from happening to them. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that their plan was not the greatest ever. “I think I can convince them,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “Good. I want it over. I want this thing out of me.”
Gavin looked at her belly. It was awful, but he somehow felt curiously drawn to it. He put a tentative hand on her. “Does it feel…alive?”
“It moves,” she said.
How horrible. “How do you think this happened?”
“You were there, Gavin.”
“That’s not what I meant. Why are you eight months pregnant in two weeks?”
“I don’t know. Something’s wrong with me. Something’s so very wrong. I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can hardly breathe from the terror of it. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have some strange thing growing in your body?”
Gavin didn’t. He shook his head. He pulled her close again. Even though he knew somehow that he shouldn’t be this close to Madame Braith, he couldn’t help himself. In some ways, holding her felt so perfect, like the world had been set right and everything was going to be okay. “It’s bad at night, is it?” he asked.
“It’s bad all the time,” she said. He noticed that she didn’t try to get out of his embrace. She seemed comforted by him. He was glad. “But it’s very bad at night. I’m alone. And everything seems…”
The words were out of his mouth before he could think. “I could stay with you if you wanted.”
Her eyes met his and they were full of gratitude. “That would be—” She shook her head, pushing at him. “No, Gavin, we can’t.”
He backed away from her. What had he been thinking? It was horrible. Even when they weren’t forcing him to say words that weren’t his, the spirits were controlling him. He couldn’t shake them. He didn’t know what he genuinely even felt anymore.
“Some part of me would…” she said. “Would like that.”
“Some part of me would like it to,” he said. “Which is royally screwed up.”
She laughed shakily. “Tell me about it.”
“When can we do the purging ritual?” he asked.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Sunset.”
The dusk crept into the corners of the den as the five gathered there the next evening. It had taken a little bit of doing, but Gavin had convinced them all to come. Reese seemed to be most concerned that while they were doing the purging ritual, something horrible would happen to either Lissa or Amanda, effectively winding the charm, whatever the heck that meant. Apparently, he’d had a dream about Sophia. He kept insisting it was a vision, though. Still, Reese was willing to try it. They were all sick of being used like puppets by these spirits. If something might help, they were going to try it.
Madame Braith instructed them all to join hands. She stood with them, her red hair falling around her shoulders. Her monstrous stomach protruded into their circle, like a separate person. Gavin couldn’t help but shudder when he looked at it. To think that some part of whatever was in her could be from him. That he could have caused it. He wanted it to go away. He never wanted to think about any of it again.
They put their heads down, and Madame Braith led them into the spirit world, instructing them to picture themselves going up the steps, to feel lighter and lighter.
One second, Gavin was standing between Wyn and Madame Braith, feeling the pressure of their hands against his own. The next, he’d burst through into the spirit realm. The room suddenly seemed bright. Their physical bodies were the shadows. Everything else was light. Everything else was air. Gavin felt free and happy. He loved it here. If Madame Braith did a thousand things wrong, he’d always be grateful to her for introducing him to this place. This place, the spirit realm, was home.
“We ask,” said Madame Braith’s voice, “to be freed from our burdens. Let us go.”
In the center of the circle, they’d gathered various objects. A toy crown. A purple cloak. A toy shield. It was Madame Braith’s hope that these objects would serve as talismans for the spirits, and they would change their incarnations, jumping towards the familiar.
“The form you take,” said Madame Braith, “is limiting. Be luminous. Be free. Release us.”
They repeated Madame Braith’s words. Her voice joined them. Over and over they repeated them, a litany or chant. Together they all focused their spiritual energies on the talismans.
For a long time, nothing happened. Gavin concentrated as hard as he could, but he didn’t feel a thing. He just floated in the spirit realm, intoning the same words over and over. “Release us. Release us.”
Suddenly, the den changed. It turned deep black, like ink or oil. The forms of the furniture began to float like smoke. The air was filled with screams—a woman’s voice, begging for mercy. From within the smoky, inky blackness, red blood began to ooze out, as if the entire den was bleeding. Every nerve in Gavin’s body was suddenly on fire.
He cried out in pain and heard the cry echoed by the others as well.
“Release us,” said Madame Braith’s voice.
They all joined her, yelling the words.
The blood spewed up like a fountain, splattering their bodies and their spirit forms as well. Where it touched, it burned, sizzled into them.
“Don’t!” said the blood. “No!”
“Release us!” they roared in return.
The world went white.
Gavin couldn’t see anything, but he felt things draining from his body, dripping from his fingertips like warm blood. He was bleeding everything away. Everything was going…
It was the spirits! They were leaving their bodies!
Gavin surrendered to the feeling, let himself be emptied. Everything was falling away, whisking off into the wind. He felt even freer, even lighter, even more borne away into the spirit realm.
He would be himself again.
The blinding whiteness began to fade, but the world began to fragment. Pieces were breaking off and falling off into the atmosphere. Gavin was watching them, feeling a deep peace descend over his body.
“Release us,” he intoned with the others one last time.
And then he didn’t speak.
He was buoyed up, flying, soaring. He saw things. So many beautiful things. The world beneath him was lush and green, trees and mountains with rivers winding about. There were castles and walls, stones covered with moss. The sun set over the cold ocean, the sky alight with fiery color. The night was a dark blanket, stars like bright fireflies, dancing in the sky. He reached out as if he could catch them. They were so wonderful. Morning came, the sun stealing back into the sky, purple-blues flitting through the clouds. Battles raged beneath him. Fires from chimneys, from campfires, from smithies on the ground. The smoke mingled with the clouds. Children ran over moors, playing with dogs. Horses clambered across plains, forded streams. And all this—all this—was his kingdom.
When there was nothing left to see, the stillness claimed him. He gloried in it, this nothingness, this emptiness. If you had asked him, he wouldn’t have remembered his name. If you had asked him, he wouldn’t have understood you. There was no language. Not anymore. No names. No relationships. No pain. No fear. He floated. If he’d had eyes, he would have closed them, but he had no body, and what was more, he didn’t remember what a body was—not the name for it, not how it felt to be encased in flesh. He was spirit, formless, weightless. Perfect.
He felt himself hurling back towards something tangible and heavy, but it wasn’t until he opened his eyes and he was looking at the others, that he remembered what it was called. His body.
Gently, Lancelot rapped on the queen’s door. She opened it.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said to him, trying to shut the door. “Not in my chamber. If the king—”
He put his hand on the door, stopping her. “I must see you, my lady. Please let me in.”
She hesitated. He moved his hand from the door. She opened the door a bit wider, and he stepped into the room. They surveyed each other for a few minutes and then, as if they couldn’t help themselves, they were in each other’s arms. Lancelot stroked Guinevere’s forehead, holding his face away from hers, trying to resist. But in this too, they failed, and their lips met.
For several moments, they were consumed with each other, unable to speak.
Finally, with effort, Lancelot ripped himself away from the queen and walked to the other side of the room. “This is why I must do it,” he said, more to himself than to the queen.
“Do what?” asked Guinevere.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
She was stunned. “You can’t leave. I’ll be alone.”
“You’ll have Arthur.”
“Arthur? He’s in love with that witch, that Morgan le Fay. I’ve heard rumors she carries his child.” She stopped speaking and looked away. Neither of them said anything, but they both knew that Guinevere had yet to conceive. That the witch, the sister of Arthur, could be carrying his bastard child, born of an incestuous love, was nearly unbearable for Guinevere.
“She is gone,” Lancelot said. “With me gone, neither of you will have distractions. You can truly be close.”
“No, Lancelot, he has no time for me. With you gone, I won’t know—”
“I have to leave, my darling. You know that. I cannot be here and continue to betray Arthur with you. I cannot.”
Arthur opened his eyes. He’d been sleeping, gently dreaming, and now he was awakened by a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Morgan standing over him. He sat up, rubbing his face, trying to rid the last of the sleep from his eyes. What was she doing here? He was resting from a battle and had been guarded, or so he thought. How had she gained entry?
“My bear,” she whispered, smiling at him.
Dear God, but she was as beautiful as always. And, as he surveyed her, he realized she was heavy with child. His child. “You cannot be here, Morgan,” he said. “How did you get past my guard?”
Her smile deepened. “I have my ways, my lord.”
“No one knows you’re here?” he asked.
“Do not worry, my lord. None will blame you for this meeting.”
What did it matter anyway? He hadn’t seen her in so long. He pulled her down onto his sleeping mat with him. She burrowed under the furs, snuggling against him as best she could with her large belly. He liked the swell of it against him, warm, full of life.
But the child. What would be wrong with the child? Would he be mutilated or simple? He and Morgan were brother and sister. Their child was an abomination, a crime against nature. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to fling her and the growing baby from him. Instead, he held her close, stroking her blonde hair. “You are so beautiful,” he told her. “I miss you.”
“And I you,” she said. “That is why I have come. I have a plan, Arthur.”
“I would rather be with you than anything on earth,” she said, “but we both know that as things stand, that cannot be.”
He did know it. He groaned and nuzzled his face against her soft shoulder. If he could have her close like this always, he thought that he might be in heaven.
“What if there were a way, my dragon?” she asked, her eyes bright.
“There is no way, Morgan. Our desire for each other is evil.”
“It can’t be evil. This feels too right, Arthur. My love for you is pure. And we have been blessed with a child. Your marriage has not. I cannot help but think this is a sign.”
Arthur shook his head.
“Listen to me,” she said. “The kingdom thinks of me as a witch, thanks to the rumors your wife has spread. She has it that I enspelled you, that I forced you to be with me for evil reasons.”
Arthur sighed. “I am sorry, Morgan. I tried to hide it from her. But she heard me say your name in my sleep. I suppose she talked with her women. I do not know. I—”
“No. It’s a good thing. We can use it. I have snuck into your encampments now. You will give me your scabbard, and you will say that I have stolen it. You will blame me for trying to steal your sword—the fabulous sword in the stone.” She grinned.
Arthur didn’t get it. How did that help anything? It gave them an excuse to be together now, but did precious little else.
“In three days time, I shall return the scabbard to you through a messenger. I shall apologize and claim I want to be reconciled to my brother. I will send a gift. A jeweled mantle. Unknown to all but you and me, the mantle will be drenched in a potion that I have prepared. Whoever wears the mantle will immediately fall into a deep, deep sleep that resembles death. You will put it on. The court will mourn you. And I will come in the night, revive you with an antidote, and the two of us will slip away.”
Arthur sat up in bed. “You want me to fake my death?”
“Yes. We’ll go somewhere else, where no one knows us. They’ll have no idea that we share a father. We can raise our child together. We can be together. We can wake up in each other’s arms every day. Tell me you do not want that, my bear.”
He sighed. He did want that. He wanted that more than— “But my kingdom,” he said. “I’ll leave the people ungoverned.”
“Haven’t you named Lancelot your heir in the absence of your wife conceiving a child?”
He nodded. He had done so, even though he felt it was a little soon to worry. He and Guinevere had only been trying for a child for seven months. He thought it was quite likely that she would become pregnant soon. With this latest skirmish with the Saxons, however, his advisors had thought it wise. If Arthur were killed in battle, there should be someone to take his place. Lancelot had seemed the natural choice. “But Lancelot is gone. He left my kingdom a month ago, in search of adventure or service or something ridiculous. The last I heard, he’d been gravely wounded and was resting in Astolat.”
“You know the only reason Lancelot left is because he and your queen are in love.”
“No!” said Arthur. “That’s a rumor. It has no truth.”
Morgan shrugged. “If it were true, it would work for everyone. You and I would be together, and Lancelot could marry your queen. We’d all be happy.”
Arthur lay back down and pulled Morgan close to him again. He put a hand on her stomach. “We would be together,” he said. “You and me and our child.”
“You could be there to see it born,” she said.
“And everyone would think I was dead.”
“And Lance and Guin—” He didn’t finish. He didn’t want to fully think the thought through. He might not care for Guinevere in the same way he loved Morgan, but he did feel close to her. He felt as if she were his. He had to admit he didn’t like the idea of Guinevere and another man. He didn’t like it at all. But if he were gone with Morgan, and she thought he was dead… If he really had died, he’d want her to marry again. He supposed…
He reached beside his bed and unsheathed his sword, handing the scabbard to Morgan. “I will await your apology,” he said, and he kissed her.
He was gone then, was he? He’d run back to his queen.
The Lady Elaine of Astolat walked along the empty beach, weaving her way through the rocks as the surf crashed against them. She had hoped that somehow she could convince Lancelot to stay with her, to be with her. After all, what did he have from the queen except frustration? The queen was married to another man. Why Lancelot would choose to pine over a woman he could never have instead of a woman like Elaine, whom he could hold and marry, she didn’t know. But the fact remained that Lancelot had not chosen her.
Ahead of her, she could see the sea stretching away from her, vanishing into the horizon. The water had carried Lancelot away. Oh, not the sea, no. Venturing onto this sea would mean traveling away from Camelot, and Lancelot had returned there—back to his queen and his misery and his unrequited love. Instead, Lancelot had taken the river, floating down to Camelot. It was a day’s journey by boat. Elaine had never been there, but her father traveled down the river quite often.
She’d hardly been able to bear it when she watched Lancelot’s vessel disappear over the horizon, just like the water of the sea did now, disappearing into nothingness. Elaine didn’t know how she was going to manage anymore.
She was no longer so young. She had waited years and years as the knights came and went, hopeful that one of them would offer to marry her. But none had, and time was running out. Soon, she would be considered too old for marrying. She was pretty, she supposed, but not so beautiful that men would risk everything for her love. Her father was not rich. She had very little to offer. She’d been so sure that Lancelot would be grateful that she had nursed him back to health. She’d been certain he would fall in love with her from sheer gratitude. But that hadn’t been the case.
Elaine thought about it. What choices did she have? She could continue to skulk around her father’s house. Eventually, her brother would take over, and she would be the maiden aunt, the crotchety, never-married spinster lurking in the corners, bitter and wrinkled. She didn’t want that for herself. But her only other option was to take her vows and join the cloister. She thought of the rest of her life in narrow, hard beds, dressed in somber black robes, muttering prayers while kneeling on cold, stone floors. No. She couldn’t.
So what was she to do?
It was nearly dark when she dragged the small boat to the edge of the river. She had lined it with a few blankets, but she knew they wouldn’t be much protection against the cold air. Even now, her fingers were numb from the cold. It had been hard to undo the rope tying the boat to the dock.
She wore her mother’s wedding dress, entrusted to her after her mother’s death. She knew she’d never get another chance to wear it. The dress brushed the ground, pulling up leaves and dirt, but she didn’t care. She felt beautiful.
The skirts of her dress got a little wet when she climbed into the boat and lay down. This didn’t bother her either.
It was quite cold. She shivered.
This would be easy, though, she thought as she shoved off from the dock. She’d get numb, then she’d get sleepy. And then it would simply be over.
Elaine hummed to herself as the boat began to float down the river. Her body would wash up at Camelot in one day’s time.
Meaghan sat up straight in bed. The dream had upset her. She pulled back her covers and swung out of bed. Tears pricked at her eyes. The poor girl. Poor Elaine.
It had been a strange night. After the ritual Madame Braith had made them do, they’d all felt so much lighter and so much more tired. They’d been in bed within the hour. And now this dream…
She looked at the clock by her bed. It was one in the morning, far too early to be awake. She’d have to go back to sleep.
After settling down in bed under the covers for several minutes, it became apparent that she wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep. The dream haunted her. She could still see the ocean and boat and feel how cold the air was. She couldn’t help but feel the sheer sorrow that Elaine did. She knew how she felt. She wanted Lancelot acutely. Reese. She wanted Reese.
Meaghan got up. She ducked into the bathroom and got a bottle of sleeping pills from the top shelf. Madame Braith usually kept some around. She said that sometimes the only recourse a Sensitive had was to drug herself. Meaghan shook a few into her palm and swallowed them.
It would probably take about twenty minutes for the pills to kick in, and Meaghan still felt troubled. She wandered downstairs to the kitchen and stuck her head in the refrigerator. What was there to eat in here, anyway? She got out a few things to make a sandwich and set them on the counter. She began assembling meat and cheese.
If she was still having dreams like that, what did that mean? Did that mean the ritual hadn’t worked? Maybe it was residual, like a goodbye. After all, she was fairly sure that she’d just dreamed Elaine’s last moments.
Horrible that Elaine had killed herself like that. Over a man. But she’d been right. There had been nothing for her in that world without a husband.
The sandwich made, Meaghan sat down at the table and took a bite. She chewed thoughtfully. But even that scene had been a little strange, hadn’t it? She remembered the research she’d done on Elaine of Astolat. There had been conflicting versions. Elaine killing herself by freezing to death in a boat… Hadn’t that been the poem, “The Lady of Shallot?” If so, why hadn’t the rest of the visions she’d had been from the poem? This spirit that had attached itself to her. Where had it come from? It couldn’t be the real Elaine, could it? Had there even been a real Elaine? Meaghan was fairly certain that there hadn’t even been a real King Arthur.
She finished her sandwich and cleaned up after herself. She didn’t really feel tired. She considered. Maybe she should take a few sleeping pills. Madame Braith kept them in the bathroom. She said that sometimes a Sensitive had no other choice except drugging herself. Sleep sounded nice. Meaghan stopped in the bathroom on her way back to bed and shook two sleeping pills into her hand. She swallowed them with a little bit of tap water and went back to bed.
She slid under the covers. The sleeping pills would probably take about twenty minutes to kick in, which meant she’d be awake for a while. She wondered if the ritual had worked or not. If it had, she guessed, she probably wouldn’t still be having feelings for Reese, unless her feelings for him were actually genuine and not a product of Elaine’s love for Lancelot. She didn’t think she really liked Reese that much. She remembered that when he’d arrived, she hadn’t thought much of him. So that meant the purging ritual hadn’t done a bit of good.
Darn it. They’d all really wanted that to work. So much so, in fact, that she was pretty sure that no one was watching either Amanda or Lissa, which meant that some accident could befall one of them, and they might wind up the charm or whatever. She should probably get up and look in on them.
Meaghan shoved aside the covers and left her room. She tiptoed down the hall to Amanda’s room and carefully opened the door. Amanda was inside, fast asleep. Meaghan could hear her snoring lightly. She was relieved. She checked in on Lissa as well. Lissa was sleeping too. She stirred when Meaghan opened her door but didn’t wake up.
Closing Lissa’s door, Meaghan sighed. This was ridiculous. It was the middle of the night. She wanted to go back to sleep, but she couldn’t seem to settle down. Maybe…
She knew that Madame Braith kept some sleeping pills in the bathroom, in case they needed to drug themselves against visions or disturbing spirits. Maybe she’d take a few.
She padded into the bathroom and took the bottle down off the top shelf. She shook a few into her hand. She thought the regular dose was two pills, but she really wanted to go to sleep. She took four, popped them into her mouth and swallowed them with water from the tap.
She put the pills back and looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was a little mussed from sleeping, but otherwise, she looked good. She was a pretty girl. Why didn’t Reese like her? Was there something wrong with her that she couldn’t understand or see? If only he could love her. She was devoted to him.
She headed for the door to the bathroom, but stopped as she approached the hall. Maybe it would be a good idea to take a few sleeping pills, just to help her rest. She took down the bottle. It felt emptier than she thought it would. How many was a normal dose? Four? She’d take six. She really wanted to get some sleep.
If not, wait until next Tuesday or Thursday to find out what happens.
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