~joan~

“Can you see him?” asked Tessa, straining on tiptoe to peer over the shoulders of the crowd at the stage in front of us. It wasn’t a large or elaborate stage, and it had clearly been made from timber gathered from various dismantled materials. The wood didn’t match, but it looked sturdy enough. We’d just arrived, and I’d been so tired, I wanted to collapse on the grass. But being in the presence of Jason had energized me somehow.

“I can see him on the huge screen there.” I pointed. Jason was standing on the stage, but closed circuit television projected his image onto several large screens. His voice was amplified through a sound system, and it boomed out over the rolling hills around the gigantic crowd of people. We were all squished up together under the blazing July sun, jostling together to get closer to him.

Jason.

“That’s like seeing a video,” said Tessa. “We’re close to him for the first time. He’s right there!” She craned her neck to look at the crowd in front of us. “I want to get closer.”

Garth, Tessa’s brother, laughed and shushed her. “I’m trying to listen to what he’s saying.”

I didn’t know if it mattered what he was saying. He always said the same stuff anyway. He talked about peace and togetherness. He talked about freedom. He talked about how the Order of the Fly was a sham government that needed to be destroyed. It wasn’t so much what he said as it was the way he said it. Something about his voice always made me feel weak and shivery. It called to me, awakened some deep part of myself. I adored him.

He did look different. I’d only seen him on videos—various clips of his talking that were passed from person to person, uploaded to cell phones or saved on digital cameras. The power was spotty most of the time, always interrupted by various skirmishes between factions of the OF and their enemies. The internet was slowly coming back, but it wasn’t often anyone could really access it. Since the solar flare of 2012, which had fried transformers all up and down the east coast of the United States, the country had never really bounced back. Not really. Things were better than the first six months, when there was next to no power, but they weren’t perfect. Of course, I didn’t really remember that far back.

On the videos, Jason usually looked young and severe, with his short-cropped dark hair and bottomless dark eyes. He was beautiful in a haunting way, a way that let you know he meant business. Now, his hair was long—past his shoulders. It curled at the ends. He sported a full beard. Its dark shagginess framed his perfectly shaped lips. I couldn’t see him clearly on the stage, but I could see that he wore a white flowing shirt and jeans. He looked like a guru or a yoga instructor. He had an air about him, something peaceful and powerful. Even his voice sounded that way, booming with authority but also soothing. He was still beautiful, I thought. He looked older now than he had in the videos. Wiser.

Jason was the first thing I remembered. Really the only thing. The sound of his voice. The feel of his pull. It was the only familiar thing I knew.

I had some kind of amnesia. I didn’t know why. The first thing I remembered was two weeks ago—waking up in a strange apartment building in Washington, D.C., right in the heart of the Order of the Fly. Around me, there had been nothing but bland walls and closed-in hallways. I’d only been wearing pajamas. I’d torn through the halls, cement block walls streaming by me, until I’d gotten outside onto the street. All the time, I’d been thinking about Jason. I could feel him in my head, beckoning me. Telling me to come to him. I had to go.

It was odd, although I guessed it was pretty normal for amnesia. I could remember all kinds of things. I knew what year it was. I remembered everything that had happened with the solar flare. I even remembered the war which was raging between Jason and the OF Witch. No one said her name out loud. She was too awful. She used her powers to counter Jason, and to stop every move he made. Her attacks had slowed recently, but she was still out there. I remembered her. But I didn’t remember anything about myself. Not my name, not where I was from, not if I had brothers and sisters. Amnesia sucked like that.

Tess and Garth thought that I must have suffered some kind of traumatic experience in D.C., and that was why I’d lost my memory. According to Garth, that was the reason most cases of amnesia happened. Trauma.

I didn’t like to think about something traumatic happening. I wasn’t sure, of course, but I had a sense of myself. I didn’t think I was a particularly tough person. Something inside me felt very fragile, like I’d break into thousands of pieces if one thing went wrong. Of course, maybe that was why I’d gotten amnesia.

I was lucky that I’d run into Garth and Tessa. They were both on their way to see Jason, just like I wanted to do. They called themselves pilgrims. They said that lots of people felt the same call I did, the magnetic pull towards Jason. They were really nice people. They didn’t know me (hell, I didn’t know me), but they let me tag along with them. When I’d first met them, I’d realized that I didn’t even remember my own name. It was a terrifying feeling. Being no one.

But Tessa had told me that I should name myself, and I had. I named myself Joan. I felt like a Joan. The three of us took off together, heading west. And after all our travelling (mostly by foot), we were finally here. Jasontown.

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, this was Jason’s settlement. It was completely off the OF power grid, meaning that it relied on solar power and generators for its scant electrical needs. However, most of the people here lived in close connection with the earth, as Jason encouraged his followers to do. Tessa and Garth had told me all about it. Jason welcomed anyone and everyone who wanted to come here. He’d built a community where people lived together in harmony. They took care of each other, grew food together, built shelters for each other. It was a blissful place, from what they told me. With Jason, everyone was happy. Unfortunately, the OF was trying to stop what Jason was doing and tear down his utopia. Apparently, until recently, it had been difficult to get here, because the OF had blocked most people’s entry. No one knew why, but it wasn’t hard to get in anymore, and people were pouring into Jasontown. The OF was the only reason there was every any conflict. If the OF would go away and stop trying to get in the way of what Jason was doing, the entire country, even the whole world, could hear his message and feel his influence. We could all be at peace.

I sighed just thinking about it. The perfection of the thought was beautiful, and I wanted to be part of making it a reality.

Tessa grabbed my hand. “Let’s get closer.” She tugged at me.

Closer did sound good. I wanted to see Jason better too, not only his image on the screen. I followed her.

Garth touched my shoulder, stopping both of us. “Where are you guys going?”

“Getting closer,” said Tessa.

“We have to stick together,” Garth said.

“Then come with us,” said Tessa.

I reached out my hand to Garth, who looked at it for a second, then grasped my hand with his own. A train of three people, we followed Tessa’s lead as she wound in between people, snaking through the crowd to get closer to the stage. It reminded me of being at a rock concert before the lights went out and everything changed. At least, it would have reminded me of that, if I had any memories. I guess what I meant was that it seemed like the atmosphere of a rock concert—the excitement in the air, the crush of bodies.

Surprisingly, people didn’t jostle us or give us dirty looks as we pushed past them. There really was a lack of animosity here. It was as if Jason’s presence wiped all that away. Instead, they let us by, some of them with amused faces. Maybe they’d already seen Jason a thousand times. We never had.

Tessa was nothing if not determined. I would have been happy to get just a little closer. But Tessa kept pulling Garth and me along until we were right smack dab in front of the stage, and we were mere feet from Jason.

I looked up at him as he spoke into the microphone, his arms wide as he gestured. “Welcome to all the new faces I see here today. It seems like we have more and more people every day, and this is a wonderful thing. We have the answer here,” he said. “The answer is freedom. The answer is peace. The answer is everything the OF is against.”

Yes! He was right. Here, close to him, the call I’d felt before was so strong. I was engulfed in Jason’s essence. It flooded me with tranquility, like a cool spring breeze. I wanted to drink it up. Not even the intense heat or the smell of the sweaty crowd seemed to penetrate my mood. I breathed deeply, closing my eyes and savoring the sensation. I’d never felt anything this good before. I was at peace, and I could sense that everyone around me was too. We were all connected.

“But lately,” said Jason, and his voice changed somehow. It got more menacing. “Lately, I’ve gotten reports from those closest to me that there are spies in our midst. The OF has sent people to infiltrate our happy home.”

A collective gasp rippled over the crowd. I felt it, like a punch in the gut. How could someone betray Jason like that? Could these spies from the OF see what it was like here? I’d only been here for an hour, and I already thought it was the most wonderful place on earth. What was wrong with them?

Jason was nodding on stage, his expression grieved. “You won’t know who they are. They will seem like anyone else. And they may have been here for a very long time, hiding out, gaining our trust.” His voice began to thunder out over the crowd. “Anyone could be one of them. Your wife. Your brother. Your friend. The Witch of the OF is powerful. Her influence can be felt even here. She could have corrupted anyone. No one is above suspicion.”

The crowd began to murmur softly. I looked at Tessa, feeling concerned. Would they suspect us? They’d have to see that we were sincere. Wouldn’t they?

“If you suspect anyone as a spy,” said Jason, “anyone at all, you must turn them in for questioning. If they are innocent, they have nothing to fear. But we must remain safe. Safe from the OF, and safe from its Witch, that hag! She is a traitorous bitch, with the name of a demon. She controls the power of pure destruction. Nothing good comes from her. Beware, my people. Beware the influence of Azazel!”

Jason’s eyes swept the crowd. His eyes smoldered. I felt fear clutch my insides. Dread ripped its way through my guts. He’d said her name. Jason’s gaze started at the back of the crowd and zigzagged forward. It was almost as if he were looking into the eyes of each and every person gathered in front of him. The crowd was completely silent as he looked at us.

He finally worked his way up to the front, where we were standing. I saw him look at Tessa, and then Garth. Then his eyes met mine.

Suddenly, all the fear I’d felt burst. I didn’t feel any fear at all. In fact, the undercurrent of peace and tranquility that I’d felt beneath the fear was gone. I felt…

Normal. Just a girl standing in the blazing sun with a bunch of people.

Jason knocked over the microphone and clambered off the stage, coming straight for me. He didn’t look happy.

I took a step backwards.

He tackled me, his hand at my throat. We toppled to the ground, Jason on top of me. His breath was hot against my skin as he whispered in my ear, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

***

~kieran~

I couldn’t stop staring at the place where Lily’s ring finger used to be. There was nothing there now, only a twisted mass of scar tissue. She was sitting across from me, behind her desk in her office. She absently tapped the eraser of a pencil against a stack of papers. I knew it was rude to stare at her missing finger, but I couldn’t stop.

“You seem to be feeling better,” Lily said. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun at the nape of her neck. She was a middle-aged woman with tanned skin. She’d done her time fighting in the field. When I looked at her finger, I did my best not to let the flood of memories jolt my brain.

“The headaches are better,” I said. The memories were like liquid, sloshing around in my head. I tried to dam them up and keep them out, but I wasn’t very successful. It was disconcerting too, because when I saw Lily’s finger, I got so many images. My own memory of the bloodied bundle in the grass in Columbus Kentucky. And then the other memories, the ones that were foreign to me, but made me feel like I’d lived them. Memories of another bloody bundle, of a wild-eyed woman screaming things like, Which of you must die? And always his face and the jumble of emotions that went with it. Adoration, disgust, fear, devotion. I waited for my head to begin throbbing, but it didn’t. The headaches really were better.

“Good.” Lily toyed with the pencil, but kept her gaze fixed on me. “I suppose having all of that extra information in your brain must be uncomfortable.”

“Are you going to lecture me?” I slumped in my chair. “Because I know what I did was a bad idea. I know that now. I want to fix it.”

She put the pencil down. “No lectures. I only wanted to let you know that I’ve been working on a solution.”

I sat up straight. “Did you find her?”

Lily shook her head. “Nothing like that. I simply meant a solution for you. A way to get all of that jumble and confusion out of your head.”

I furrowed my brow. I didn’t think there was a way if we hadn’t found her. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s simple, really,” said Lily. “I can use the same spell on you. You’ll go back to normal.”

I thought about it. I could surrender all these foreign feelings and thoughts. Feel like I was just one person again. I hadn’t realized, before this happened, how much I cherished my own identity. It did sound nice. But… “The spell wasn’t supposed to strip memories, though,” I said. “I thought you said that I must have made some kind of mistake. How are you going to duplicate that?”

Lily picked up the pencil again. “I’ve looked over the spell numerous times. It’s difficult to translate something that ancient. It’s possible that it is actually a transference spell, not a purging spell. The important thing, Kieran, is that those powers are a burden you don’t have to bear. The President would feel more comfortable with them resting with someone like me.”

I nodded slowly, understanding coming to me. “So you don’t even know if you could take away her memories, do you? You just want her powers.”

“I’m fairly certain that the spell would work to take away both the memories and the powers, Kieran.”

I shook my head. She was lying. I could tell. I didn’t know if it was because I was tapping into her jadedness or if it was because I was pretty jaded myself these days. “You’ll split her up,” I said. “When we find her, how will we make her whole again?”

“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of anyone for Azazel to regain her powers, Kieran. Not even if we did find her. We’d give her back her memories, of course—”

“You don’t even know how to do that,” I said.

“You can’t tell me that you think she should be given back the powers,” said Lily. “After all, you’re the one who stripped her of them. You thought she was dangerous as well.”

Lily was right, and I could feel the shocked betrayal of the strange memories seeping into my mind. “I never meant to steal everything from her. I never meant to hurt her.”

“I know that. And even if there have been unexpected consequences, the OF sees your actions as a positive move. Azazel’s powers have been integral to the OF’s strategies. Without her, we would never have been able to make the strides forward that we’ve made. We’re rebuilding society, and we can’t do it without her powers. But she had become erratic and difficult. Now, her powers are disconnected from her, and the OF can use them. So I’ll take them from you—”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to give them up.” They weren’t going to pull what little was left of Azazel apart. I was going to hold her together, even if it meant my brain exploded.

“Kieran—”

“I’ll do what the OF wants,” I said. “I’ll use her powers. But I don’t want to run the risk of separating her. And if anyone should have her memories, it should be me. I love her.” At least, I thought that was still true.

“The OF would simply be more comfortable with me having the powers,” said Lily.

I shook my head. “I don’t care. I’m not giving them up.”

She sighed, laying the pencil down carefully. “You’ll follow the orders of the OF without question? Use the powers for whatever operation they deem necessary?”

“Of course,” I said.

“And there’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise?”

I shook my head again. “Listen, is this all? Because Chance is probably waking up from his nap, and he’s going to be hungry. I’ve got to go make him a bottle.”

Lily shrugged, standing up. “I’ll talk to my superiors and see if your offer is acceptable.” She held out her hand.

I shook it, but all I could think about was that there was no finger. There were several painful flashes inside my head. “Evil spawn,” said a woman’s voice. And then the sensation of Jason’s lips—

Ugh. Why did she have to have so many memories of him that were like that?

I got to my feet, one hand on my head.

“Are you okay?” Lily was concerned.

“Fine,” I said. The painful sensation was already fading.

***

~kieran~

Chance had woken up alone in his crib and was already yelling. He was getting to a point where he got very upset if he was left alone or left with unfamiliar people. I had thought this was because he missed Azazel, but I did some research, and apparently, it was only a normal baby development thing. He didn’t quiet down for a long time, even though I walked him around the room rocking him and trying to give him a bottle. Instead, he just howled, his tiny mouth wide open.

He wasn’t the least bit interested in his bottle, so eventually I gave up on it and gave him a sippy cup of juice instead. He clutched the handles with his chubby hands and quieted.

Every day, he looked more like his dad, and as much as I hated myself for it, I didn’t like it. I set Chance on the floor of the apartment I’d shared with Azazel until about three weeks ago. We’d been there for about four months or so. Originally, Azazel hadn’t wanted anything to do with the OF. We’d spent our time running from city to city, sleeping where we could. I’d convinced her that it wasn’t good for Chance, and that going to the OF would provide a safer environment for him. So we’d come here. Chance’s baby toys were strewn across the carpet, and he quickly abandoned the sippy cup for a large bright block, which he began to pound against the floor, laughing. The worst thing about losing Azazel was Chance.

We hadn’t exactly been a conventional family, considering we were raising her ex-boyfriend’s kid. But having Chance had been the only thing that had made the last few months of my life bearable. With Chance, Azazel was completely different. She was sweet and motherly. She held him and tickled him and sang to him.

And then, from inside her brain, she controlled the minds of thousands of soldiers and sent them on suicide missions to destroy people. And she liked it.

I couldn’t handle it. It didn’t make any sense for her to be so kind and wonderful in one situation and so ruthless and cruel in another. If it hadn’t been for Chance, we would have ripped apart. And I’d done what I’d done only because I wanted to save her—the part of her that was Chance’s surrogate mother. Not the part of her that was some kind of all-powerful being who didn’t give a rip about human life. It was the magic that did that to her. I know it was.

When I met Azazel, she actively resisted using it, and once she gave into it, she changed. She grew more and more… well, evil. I know it seems weird to think of anyone besides cartoons as evil, but that’s what she was becoming. She loved the power. Even though she was supposed to be working for the OF, she never listened to them. Azazel had to have her own agenda. She had to use the power however she wanted. It was like she was addicted to it. And that was disturbing, because, before, all she’d wanted was to get rid of it. In fact, we’d spent a lot of time searching for a grimoire, a book of spells, which had a purging ritual in it. Azazel wanted to use it to get rid of her powers.

Three weeks ago, I found the grimoire in one of Azazel’s bags. She’d had it all this time. She’d had it for over a year. And she hadn’t used it. She hadn’t purged her powers, because now that she was this cruel all-powerful being, she liked it.

I was sickened. I was betrayed. And if it hadn’t been for Chance, I would have left. I would have taken him with me and hidden. But I couldn’t do that, because Chance loved Azazel, and I didn’t want to take her away from him. I decided instead that I’d do the purging ritual myself. I thought that if I could purge Azazel’s powers, I could bring her back. She’d be like she was, and all of the darkness in her would be gone. I wanted that so badly.

I remember the day I did it. It was late, and we’d put Chance to sleep. She was getting ready for bed, brushing her teeth in the bathroom. I was sitting on our bed, watching her through the crack in the door. I had the grimoire open on the bed in front of me. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything to her. Maybe I should have done it. Maybe that would have made it work the right way. But I had to know why she’d kept this from me for all these months.

So when she came back into the bedroom in her pajamas, I said, “Why did you hide it from me?”

She looked from the grimoire to me and then back again. “You found it.”

I nodded. “Please tell me you have a good explanation for not telling me you had it.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “I was waiting until we could get close to Jason. I can’t purge my powers and leave his. He’ll destroy the world.”

I thought she’d say something like that. “We know where he is now. He’s set up that weird commune type thing in the country. It’s an hour’s drive from D.C. We could go tomorrow. We could purge both of your powers then.”

She didn’t say anything.

I knew she wouldn’t go for it, but I had to try. “You never had any intention of getting rid of your powers. You like them too much.”

“I will get rid of them someday, Kieran,” she said. “I will. Just not yet.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “I don’t know if you’re only lying to me, or if you’re lying to yourself too, but I can’t let you continue this way. You’re destroying yourself. You’re destroying the world. And Chance and I need you.” That was when I started reading the words of the purging spell aloud.

Azazel realized what I was doing immediately. She started forward, trying to snatch the book from me, but the spell caught her. I could see it. It was like shimmering little strands of light, filtering out of my mouth and winding themselves around her body. It trapped her there and held her while I read.

Azazel lashed out with her power. I felt it like a tugging in my brain, a small voice that whispered to me to stop reading the spell. I faltered, struggling against the whispering voice. I knew it wasn’t mine.

Azazel strained against the bonds of the spell, trying to break free.

But she couldn’t, and I kept reading.

The light of the strands surrounding her body grew brighter and they began to make a sizzling sound. Tiny plumes of smoke emanated from them.

Azazel started screaming.

I wanted to stop. But I didn’t know if I wanted to stop because I wanted to stop or because she wanted me to stop. We were connected suddenly, her thoughts were booming inside my head. She was thinking, No, Kieran, don’t. Kieran, you’re hurting me. Kieran, please!

And I kept reading.

Then there was an explosion of light and sound. It knocked both of us onto our backs. I sat up, looking for her. She was dazed, staring around the room as if she’d never seen it before. “Who are you?” she said in a small voice.

And before I could answer, my head began to throb. There was an influx of voices and sounds and pictures. Sensations. Things I didn’t know. Things I couldn’t know. And underneath it all was a scaly whisper, slithering around inside my head, knocking against the inside of my skull. My temple pounded in pain. I clutched my head and screamed and screamed.

I woke up sometime later. Chance was crying. Azazel was gone. My head still hurt.

And I realized that I had purged Azazel’s power. At least, I’d taken it away from her. But I’d transferred it to me, along with all of her memories. She had run away, no idea of who she was. And we still hadn’t found her.

This book is being posted on Mondays and Thursdays between 7/4/2011 and 9/5/2011. To access other chapters, check out the Between Posts Archive, here.

UPDATE: 3/27/14: If you’re having trouble finding Chapters 2 and 3, try these direct links. Two. Three