Cole slept in dreamscape’s twilight where he wandered the orchard of brilliant, white trees.
Streams of golden sunlight warmed his face, and serenity rested in his soul. He relished the sweet scent of apricot blossoms with a deep breath.
His hair fluttered around his shoulders as a soft breeze seemed to whisper, “Follow.” Blooms fell from the branches, whirling along a path through the arbors.
Curiosity guided his steps.
The florets led him between the budded trees, and the further he strode, a sense of unease stole his repose. He emerged from the woodland to a wide clearing of amber sod. In the distance, a woman lay, her hand rested over her dark hair.
A wave of foreboding washed over him.
He launched into a run, but stumbled as if lead weighed at his ankles. The sod morphed to mud, seeping around his boots, yet he clambered to reach her. The mud thickened to mire. Grasping for support, Cole crawled along the mucky surface, intent on keeping the woman in his sight.
She turned her head, and as their gazes met, fear clutched his soul. Flower petals danced past him and then covered her like a thick blanket of feathers. She lifted her hand in his direction.
In a haze of panic, he stretched forth his and fought through the bog to reach her.
Her blue eyes closed. White blossoms cloaked her face. The breeze died.
Finding solid ground, Cole ran full speed. The snow-white blooms lifted, ascending toward the bright sun. In desperation, he lunged to take hold of her body, but the down flurried under his embrace, swirling upward and out from his grasp.
He scrambled to his feet and screamed to the heavens, releasing ages of pain for his lost love.
A deep voice echoed through the torrent of emotion, and Cole turned to his father’s call.
“We must seal the portal.”
In lingering grief, he darted for the forest, urgency driving his stride. With dreamer’s omniscience, he understood the betrayal, the greedy intent, and the consequences the act would have on the spectrum of realms connected by the gateway.
The arbors slowly stretched their stand. Limbs snaked into gray mortar. Leaves palmed into heavy brick. The sulfured odor of the industrial west side thickened the air and then ebbed away as the city center of Shilo came into view.
Amidst the bustle of modern commercialism, horse-drawn carriages rambled and ghosts of Victorian couples strolled. Time warped in his panicked mind. 1207? 1612? 1943? He spun around, trying to make sense of the scene.
Grand Marshals flowed from the capitol’s doors and filled the wide steps to the stately building. Laughter rumbled through the air as they jeer in his direction. He recognized each—from the time of his father’s death in 1647 to the present day.
Lord Dressen stepped to the forefront. Eyes as black as his own peered from the lawmaker’s face. Cole stared back, unable to pull away from the piercing glare. Wafts of licorice filled him, and his nerves froze, shocked by the scented call of his home realm.
Apricot blossoms fluttered past, breaking the hold and calling for his attention. The white downy petals bled to deep crimson and then whirled like fury, darting through the spacious court.
He dismissed the sardonic crowd from his mind, turned for the portal, and ran.
Structure turned abstract. Color hung suspended as if a puppeteer ruled the skies. Time echoed in muffled surges, and as distance closed on the sheer bluff that held the portal, the world condensed into a single moment.
It was over. The door locked.
His sight narrowed to his father’s cape bound within the sealed barrier of rock. The air reeked of decomposition. The intrusive knowledge of complete death seized his mind. With but a few steps to reach the mark, Cole’s knees gave way and hit the ground. His heart stopped. Thick darkness enveloped him. A heavy hum took his mind.
Cole shot out of bed, his heart hammering. Sweat dripped from his hair and stung his eyes as he threw his gaze around the room to gather his senses. Dim sunlight streamed through the crepe sheers of his window. The still atmosphere and steady tick from the old clock on the dresser seemed to mock him.
He dragged his palms down his face. As he lowered his hands, tremors took them. Irritated at his state, he stripped off his shirt and threw it to the floor.
It happened so long ago. He cursed himself for allowing the nightmares to return. He cursed the knowledge of rebirth he’d obtained. And most of all, he cursed the inability to control the helplessness with which it left him.
The final scene hung heavy on his mind. Completely bound. Complete death. The urge to heave gripped him, and he clutched his stomach with a shaky hand.
Once the body passed, could a bound soul move on to new life, or would it be tied to the remains buried in death?
The stench of rotting flesh flooded his memory. Dropping to his knees, he snatched his discarded shirt. He stuffed it in his mouth and released a cry that expelled every take of air in his body.
~ * ~
Cole numbly made his way down the long flight of stairs and turned for the parlor door. The room was bright, despite the dark of cherry-wood and leather furnishings. Large bay windows framed a perfect spring afternoon. One of the large twin apricot trees stood to the left, an incredible likeness to the orchard in his dream. To the right an ornately designed belvedere sat among the pampered topiary laced with blooms.
He tore his gaze from the picturesque setting and settled it on the large portrait above the mantle. His father stared back at him with a baronial gaze and seemed to watch as his son took a seat in the chair facing the hearth.
He traced the strong features with his gaze. Having been the highest renowned cornerstone Sentinel, he knew the hazards of dealing with the polar differences that inhabited these critical positions in the spectrum. They homed the humblest heart as well as the belligerent power-hungry. Greedy, self-seeking, supremacy. It knotted Cole’s senses. Their relentless pursuit of power had led them to the source of worlds beyond their own, and this ancient master had given his life to save the system from those who would devastate the order.
He knew, just as his father had, the only answer was to close the gateway. But, Cole had no idea that it would take his father’s essence to complete the sealing. He bitterly shifted his gaze to the items that shared the depiction. A grimace tugged at his cheek. Gifts from the lords during Sylis Shilo’s travels, all of them; trinkets that had held such meaning to him that he had anointed each with a special purpose.
The Moment Maker stood a proud six inches before his father. The spindle’s polished silver surface gleamed bright in stark contrast to the dark indigo robe he wore, its base a thin coin edged with encrypted symbols.
A scoff crackled in Cole’s throat. Moment Maker. Who would want to stretch time further?
A string of cerulean beads wound loosely from his father’s wrist to shoulder, secured with a bejeweled broach. These, he called Mother Earth, after a previous assignment to Cornerstone Summit.
In his right hand, his father held a small box. It fit easily in his palm, the brushed copper bedding a crystal at the center of the lid. Cole focused on the item as its uses came to mind. The Memory Box held the ability to restore past moments in acute detail.
Restores past experiences. Stepping to the painting, he studied the little container. A sense of hope filled him, and determination swelled in his chest. He tapped his hand on the marble mantle and turned for the study.
A muted glow met him as he entered the hallowed room. James quickly waved his hand over the Utopian and then slid it to the far side of the desk. As Cole bypassed him and headed for the shelves above the hearth, James leaned back in his chair and casually laced his fingers over his waist.
Cole glanced over his shoulder. “Having any luck finding a subject for the stable worker order?”
“I think so.”
He nodded and watched his brother a moment. With no further comment from James, he returned to his plan, scanning the selection of treasures. Picking up the small copper box, he ran his thumb over the crystal imbedded at its center. It glowed at his touch. Clenching it in his fist, he turned for his master’s chair.
“You’re not using the Vignette, are you? I need to consult Father’s chronicles.”
James leaned over the desk and pushed the viewer to him. “Did you get any sleep?”
A scoff rode Cole’s breath. “Yeah. Dreams be damned.”
Cocking his grin, James leaned into a stand and then headed for the door. “Don’t let this eat you up.”
As the latch clicked behind him, Cole reached for the Utopian. His brother’s quick dimming of the imagery and lack of a wordy discourse on his progress were easy signs to read. James was hiding something. Passing his hand over the tool, he called up the last viewing. A woman appeared.
He studied the forlorn face. Sunken pockets shadowed her gray eyes and a loose bun held her thin brown hair. Her pale visage reached through her lips, leaving a sickly appearance, and though creased and weary, he guessed her to be middle-aged.
“And who are you?” A pulse through his mind answered his whisper.
Tiffini Steward. Five-feet-three-inches, age, thirty-eight. Camer Street, North Side, Shilo.
“Okay, Tiffini. You’re not a harvest subject. What’s my brother up to?”
A list of searches filtered through his thoughts.
Essence trace simplex: Sarah Timberlake Shilo. Gaynor Thatcher Camp. Caroline Wordsworth Lanning. Priscilla Steenburgen. May Archer Wilman. Lillian Rustenburg French. Emma Crow Brown. Martha Irvin Smith. Stella Masterson Kern. Geneva Charleston Grabble. Tiffini Tillman Steward.
Ah, Sarah’s essence trace. A smile touched his lips at the memory of his brother’s love for her. The fondness was evident, even if he had married since. “So, he does believe me.”
Cole tapped his thumb on the desktop. Why hadn’t he thought of checking the Utopian? He knew in his heart what he believed was true, but…
He passed his hand over the instrument and raked his fingers over his scalp, as he couldn’t hold back the anticipation. Visions of the past flashed before him, and he flattened his palms on his thighs as if to brace himself.
Mianna Newton Shilo. Airabelle Gifford. Aquilla Newbury. Martha Hollister. Bethany Thatcher. Anna Sinclair.
Weighty realization hit him as he reviewed the information. Anna was indeed Mianna’s reincarnated soul, the soul that had pledged eternity to his. You were waiting for me to find you, to continue our promised future together. Gods, Mianna, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.
“In all that time, you never married.” His hushed voice bit deep into his understanding. Bunching his fingers into fist, Cole closed his eyes and lowered his head. How could I not know?
Lifting his gaze to peer at the angelic face, he voiced his firm vow. “I will get you back.”