From the moment Luke introduced me to Castellum and the amazing ministry of Niteo, my mind had nothing short of skeptical. Trust issues had followed me from childhood and they reared their ugly head as soon as anything new popped into my life. And Niteo was no exception.
It had taken me the better part of the four weeks I was given to come around to a decision and even in the moments following my announcement of that decision, there was a sliver of doubt waiting to question my psyche about its choice.
I told Luke first. After a fitful night of lost sleep and a lot of thinking and writing about so many things, it started to become clear to me what I had to do. And things started to quickly fall into place after that.
John and his wife, Clara, were beyond ecstatic at my decision to accept my fate, as was my mother. Despite the differences, we’d had in the past year and the various strains on our relationship, I’d managed to forgive her and let her back in to my life. And it had more than paid off. Finding out that she was involved with the society from the beginning and had been using her gift to help me through the trial went a long way in helping me to see that she had pure motives in seeking my forgiveness and acceptance. I would never deny how difficult it had been, but I would also never deny how rewarding the whole process had turned out to be.
Apart from Luke, I would venture to say that the person who was most excited about my final decision was his sister, Emily. I’d always admired her from afar and desired a closer relationship with her as my time with Luke continued. But she was older even than him and had a strong desire to travel and see the world. I’d gotten to know her mostly through pictures in Luke’s house and stories from her family. But in the time since I’d been here I’d finally started to get the chance to get to know her in person and I was so happy for that. It felt as though I’d found a replacement for the two friends I’d had that left me behind.
I knew that I would never be able to count on Grace to stay in one place for long once she was out of school. She made her desire to do overseas mission work clear from the first time we met. But Angela was a different story. She’d loved me in a way no other friend had. She was in my corner even when I was doing stupid things and making the worst of choices. Things changed a little after I let slip everything that was going on at home—mostly because, she, like Luke, practically begged me on a daily basis to turn in my stepfather. It wasn’t so much that she pulled away from me when I continued to refuse to turn him in, but it was more so that she just didn’t seem to understand me anymore. We’d always had a close relationship and in the time since I’d told her everything, we’d just grown apart. I never saw it coming and losing her felt almost as bad as I imagined losing Luke would feel. She took a part of my heart with her when she told me she was moving across the country for her husband. She’d never mentioned anything about him before and hearing that was almost too much to take.
All sadness and rough roads aside, I’d made my choice and I still stood by it. Even as I stood before the rest of the group living at Castellum and proudly announced my choice to stay and join the society, I had this gut feeling that this was the right choice and I wouldn’t regret it.
And even now as I was standing in the initiation room with John, Clara, Luke and Emily and my mother waiting to begin the ceremony, I had a kind of confidence that was rare to find in my life.
The initiation room had the same layout as the cozy room in which we held Bible study. There was a similar fireplace across the room from the entrance, the walls were colored with the same pale bricks and the floor was covered by the same dark red carpet that I had come to know. The only difference between the two rooms was that this room lacked furniture. The only decoration in this room, aside from the candles that provided its light was a single wooden stand next to the fireplace. It reminded me of the podium I remembered many of my high school professors giving their lectures from, but this one looked much nicer than anything they ever used.
John had led us into the room and directed me to the far side. I’d walked up to the center of the podium and began reading over the contract that every member of Niteo in our chapter had signed. It appeared to be a simple agreement, unlike the complex contract I was expecting.
At the top of the page were the four Bible references that John had gone through with me the day before. Each passage was written out in the most pristine and elegant script I had ever seen before. Below the four passages was the entry from the journal of John’s grandfather, followed by a simple question: Are you ready to accept the rest of your life?
I read over everything and looked up at John with seriousness.
“Cassie, have you read over the contract?”
“Do you agree with the statements?”
“Are you prepared to pledge your allegiance to the ministry of Niteo?”
“I am ready,” I said without wavering on the words.
“Cassie, please raise your right hand and repeat after me: I, Cassidy Jane Flynn, do solemnly swear,”
“To remain faithful to my foundation of faith,”
“And use my gift only to serve the furtherance of this society,”
“Lest I relinquish the use of my gift for the rest of my days,”
“I vow to seek God’s will in all I do,”
“And to always put others before me.”
“I recognize the power that comes with my position,”
“And I vow to use that power for its intended purpose and no other.”
“I vow to give my all to the position I am stepping into today. Cassie, please sign the bottom of the contract to solidify the vows you have made today.”
I picked up the slender black pen and signed my full name as neatly as possible. As I set the pen down, I felt such an intense joy overcome me. I knew I had made the right decision and it felt so good to have this step behind me. I knew that I still had a long way to go on this new journey, but the difference was that now I didn’t think about that future in terms of despair and fear; I thought about in terms of excitement and potential for change. My past had defined so much of my life and I was ready to put that behind me and step into a new chapter that included defining myself the way God saw me.
John approached me at the podium with a grin that covered his entire face. He wrapped his arms around me and formally welcomed me into the society.
“I cannot express how much joy your membership brings to my heart, Cassie. You are going to do some amazing things here; I cannot wait to see what happens.
I smiled back at John and nodded in agreement. Before I could respond, Luke had me in his arms again. He was nearly as joyful as I was with everything that had happened this evening and it brought me more joy to know that my family was so happy with my decisions.
Within a few moments, John announced that my baptism would take place early the following morning, just as the sun rose over the horizon.
“I am very much looking forward to tomorrow morning, Cassie. I wish you a pleasant night of sleep. I have a few things I must attend to tonight before the morning.”
“Okay, thank you, John,” I said as he and Clara left.
“And, Cassie, we have a surprise for you in the main guest room,” Emily announced.
“You know I don’t like surprises, Em.”
“I think you’ll like this one,” Luke whispered.
“You’re in on this too!” I exclaimed as Luke led me out of the initiation room behind Emily and my mother.
Emily took us to the doors of the guest room at the front of Castellum. She stopped outside the doors and turned to face me with a huge smile on her face.
“What’s in there?”
“It’s not so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’,” she said motioning for me to open the doors.
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Why don’t you find out for yourself?”
I looked back to Luke for reassurance that this wasn’t some prank from Emily. He made a similar motion as Emily and I stepped forward and slowly opened the doors to the guest room.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw who was standing in the center of the room.
“Grace! Is that you? And Angela? What are you guys doing here? How are you here?” I nearly screamed as I ran to hug my best friends.
I didn’t give either of them a chance to answer before I bombarded them. We all held each other tight. I couldn’t understand how or why they were here, I was just happy to see more familiar faces after today. It wasn’t until we broke from our embrace that I wondered how Grace and Angela could possibly be here – Castellum was a secret location that only members knew about. John had purposely chosen a location deep in the woods, so we would have the privacy we needed to develop the ministry.
“What are you guys doing here? How did you find this place?”
“Actually, Emily found us and brought us here,” Angela said giving a glance to Emily who had joined us with Luke and my mother following behind.
“You know Emily?”
“Yes, I do. We both do actually. We met a long time ago when she was traveling and developing her gift.”
“What do you mean? We went to high school together, Ang. And Grace, you’re only a few years older than me.”
“Actually, Cassie, I am a member. I’m older than you think,” Grace announced.
I looked at her with shock and then turned to my other best friend for an explanation.
“Guilty,” Angela said as she answered my unspoken question.
My head was officially spinning now. I thought that announcing my decision of membership would be the craziest part of my day but now I was being told that my best friends from high school knew about my choice all along.
“How is that possible? How old are you both?”
“Well, you know that the aging of members is drastically slowed down. I’ve only been a member since 1987 but I was born in 1966. I traveled a lot before Clara saw the prophecy and after that, I came home and went to the same school as you. John thought it might be a good idea for you to have a female friend to confide in if you and Luke never hit it off. We had to make sure the society helped you find justice,” Angela explained.
“And I have been in the society since you were born. I came to Castellum shortly after the prophecy had been developed and actually helped care for you when you were young,” Grace added.
“But I was born in North Dakota,” I said as I turned to my mother for clarification. “And then we moved to Ohio with my mother’s family, so she could get help with Josh and me.
“Not exactly,” she admitted. “Cassie, you were born in North Dakota, yes. But I left shortly after you were born to come back here for help until I could figure something out.”
“So, I’ve been here before? Does he know about this place? Is Dad a member too?”
She shook her head. “No, he has never sought justice for the trauma in his life and he lacks the faith required to seal membership.”
“So, does Joshua know anything about this place? Niteo? Does he remember living here?”
My mother dropped her head.
“I didn’t think so. Have you heard anything from him since that day?”
She shook her head. “No, I haven’t. I’m sure he’ll come around. Just give him time.”
Thinking of spending my life here, separate from my brother and father brought more of that sliver of doubt to the surface. I loved both of them dearly and hiding such a huge piece of myself from them wouldn’t be easy. But I also knew that I had a responsibility here and that I could find ways to stay in their lives.
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said and smiled at my mother. “Wow. I never realized I had so many people looking out for me,” I said as that realization started to sink in.
“I wanted to tell you so much, but you had to come to Niteo and make your decisions on your own. I am so excited that you chose to join us,” Emily said.
“I am too, especially now. I’ve missed you, Grace. And Angela, I’ve felt so lost since you left. Where have you two been since high school?”
“Mostly in the area, just behind the scenes. I wanted to make sure he didn’t come back once trial proceedings began. Jim is persistent,” Angela explained.
“Well, I traveled the world like I said I wanted to,” Grace announced. “But I was on official Niteo business too,” she insisted.
“Oh, yeah. Because backpacking across Europe is a mission sent straight down from John,” Emily joked.
“Well, either way, I’m happy you’re both here now. I feel like my life can begin now.” I didn’t realize it, but I smiled as I said that.
“It definitely can. I think you are going to like training here. Do you know what your gift is yet?” Angela asked with eagerness.
“No, John thinks he will know more after my baptism tomorrow. He knows my seal is a tree silhouette, but he can’t figure out what it means yet. So, are you two staying here now?”
“I suppose that could be arranged,” they said with a laugh. “Of course, we are. Emily called me as soon as she knew about your decision. She’s almost as excited to have you here as we are.”
I had so many questions for Grace and Angela about their time in the society. I wanted to ask them every question that came to mind but before I could open my mouth to ask one, Emily suggested that we all head outside to the South courtyard to continue the conversation. It was a beautiful night and that courtyard had a gorgeous tree right in the middle of it that looked so lovely in the moonlight.
It wasn’t until a few minutes into our conversation that I realized Luke had gotten up and left the group.
“Where did Luke go?” I asked upon my realization.
Emily, Grace, and Angela all looked up from our group with confusion on their faces.
“I don’t know,” Emily said with concern.
“Did anyone even see him leave?” Grace asked.
We all shook our heads.
“I’m going to look for him,” I said as I grabbed my jacket and made my way to the side of the courtyard. I could never have guessed what I would find beyond the entrance to the courtyard.
Luke had always been a romantic. It was one of the first things I fell in love with as we got to know each other. Every time we passed a significant anniversary or another occasion to celebrate, he managed to surprise me in a unique way. I could recall that six weeks before my sixteenth birthday he’d given me a box of unopened letters, each with a specific occasion to open them. The last one gave me a time and place to meet him—a secret spot in the woods near his house that we frequented. He had a small picnic laid out for us and a playlist of my favorite songs.
Given some of his other romantic gestures over the last four years, I thought I’d seen some of his best work. But as I rounded that corner and saw what was before me, I knew instantly that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was a dirt path that led from the entrance of the courtyard to a small, secluded area with a small pond in the center. Either side of the dirt path had been decorated with candlelit torches, each bearing a single white rose wrapped around them.
At the end of the path stood Luke, with a small bouquet of flowers in his hand and the world’s biggest smile on his face.
I rushed toward him, relieved to see that he hadn’t run away or something.
“There you are,” I said with suspicion in my voice.
“Here I am,” he said and kissed me. “These are for you.” He handed me the bouquet—a mixture of more white roses and specially created blue daisies, my favorite.
“Thank you,” I said as I accepted the bouquet and smelled the flowers.
“Would you like to follow me? There’s something I’d like to show you,” Luke said trading his joy for seriousness.
I looked at him with concern and accepted.
He led me into the secluded area with the pond which was now outlined in the brightest green lily pads. Each lily pad had a small white candle in its center. The glow of the flames against the water, paired with the light of an almost full moon and the clear sky was simply breathtaking.
It was the end of May and even though I was far from home, I was still in the Midwest; land of the never-ending winters. As much as I’d hated seeing a fresh coat of snow falling on the ground earlier in the day, especially so late in the year, the white dusting over everything in this area was gorgeous. It was a sight I wanted to capture for the rest of time, so I could look back on it when I was having a bad day.
The surface of the pond carried a thin layer of ice everywhere except where the lilies sat. The center of the pond had a small fountain that began to spout water as we approached.
Luke walked up to the edge of the pond, leaving me to gaze at the beautiful scenery. Over our heads, I noticed the tree branches had all intertwined and formed a canopy over the pond and end of the trail. There were a few Chinese lanterns mixed in to the tree branches giving off just enough light to create a specific mood. Luke had clearly wanted to make a statement with whatever he wanted to talk about here. Whatever it was, I knew I wouldn’t soon forget it.
“Gosh, this is all so amazing and beautiful. You did all this?” I asked in shock.
“I wanted this to be a special evening. And I had a little help,” he admitted as he walked closer to me.
As my focus turned from the distractions of the scenery back to Luke I heard the string music playing quietly somewhere in the background. It didn’t sound like it was coming from a device—it sounded as though the musicians were right beside us. I looked around for any sign of someone playing the violin but couldn’t see anyone except Luke.
He bent down and picked something up from the lily pad directly in front of him and turned back to me. I hadn’t seen anything sitting there until I watched him pick up a small, black velvet box.
“Cassie, I know you probably have more questions than I could provide answers for in one night, but I was wondering if you could answer one for me?”
I was speechless. I started a couple of sentences, but they ended in incomplete thoughts. I had just endured nearly a month of learning about things that I was certain did not exist beyond the covers of books and made a life-altering decision that part of me still questioned. Not to mention the fact that I’d just been reunited with my two supposedly long-lost best friends and wanted to quiz them on every possible part of their lives since we’d parted ways.
He could bet his life that I had countless questions to ask him and everyone else at Castellum. And now he wanted me to decide something else after all that? What else could he possibly have wanted to know? How much more could I handle?
“Y-you want me to answer a question of yours?” I stammered.
“A couple actually.”
“What are you talking about Luke?”
He approached me again and took my hands in his.
“Do you remember that night at your house when I told you that I couldn’t explain things but that they would all make sense soon?”
“Yes,” I said thinking back to our conversations in the past few months, “but what does that have to do with all of this?”
“Cassie, I couldn’t tell you about Niteo before because you needed to hear about it after the trial was over, so you could make your decision on your own. Now that you know everything about me and you’ve made your own decision to join us here and become a part of our little family I feel like I can finally ask you this.”
“Ask me what?”
Luke bent down on one knee and reached for the small black velvet box that had been on the lily pad. He popped open the top and inside was a stunning ring. There was a large, square, blue topaz stone surrounded by a ring of diamonds on a thin silver band which had three smaller diamonds on either side of the centerpiece. The way the stones glistened against the moonlight absolutely captured my love instantly. It didn’t hit me for a few seconds what was actually about to happen.
As I put the pieces together, I couldn’t help but cry. I had been waiting for this moment for five years, and Luke had managed to make it perfect. I suddenly felt weak at the knees.
“Cassidy Jane Flynn, I love you more than I could ever express in words. I want nothing more than to share the rest of my life with you and for us to share this extraordinary life together. Will you marry me?”
“Y-yes. Of course, I will,” I continued sobbing as I spoke.
Luke placed the brilliant ring on my left finger. It should have come as no surprise that it fit perfectly. I held out my hand and just as fast, I was in love with the idea of wearing it for the rest of my life. I loved Luke and just the thought of sharing his last name and being tied to him in one of the most permanent of ways humanly possible overwhelmed my heart with the kind of joy I never imagined I would get to feel.
I reached out and pulled Luke close to me and kissed him intensely. He picked me up and swung me around. Being in his arms was my favorite place to be and I knew that would never change. He knew how to love me, something few people understood. And he did it with such precision. Luke was always careful to learn what I needed and provide for those needs in the best way he knew how. I loved how patient he was with me and that he was willing to work with me on so many issues from my past.
Our quiet, private moment was short-lived once the ring was on my finger. Soon, Angela, Grace, and Emily came out of their respective hiding spots with so much joy on their faces.
“You said yes!” Angela squealed and hugged me tightly.
I shared a hug with the other two and allowed each to inspect my new jewelry closely.
“Did you all know about this?” I asked as I started putting more of the pieces together.
“Well, someone had to help him put this together. I know you think Luke is the mastermind behind his romantics, but he’d be nowhere if it weren’t for his big sister helping him,” Emily said and hugged her brother.
“And you two?” I asked, looking at Angela and Grace.
“I wanted to tell you as soon as I found out this was his plan,” Angela blurted.
“Why else do you think we showed up today of all days?” Grace asked.
I turned back to Luke. “So, you’ve had this planned for a while, huh?”
“Perfection takes practice and planning,” he said as he wrapped his arm around me.
“This was absolutely perfect,” I said and sighed with joy.
We all made our way back inside Castellum where I was greeted by another party of excited people—Luke’s parents and my mother were anxiously waiting to greet the newly engaged couple.
“Let me see the ring!” my mother exclaimed.
I happily held out my hand for her to inspect.
“This is beautiful. Where did you find something like this? It’s such a classic,” my mother said still enamored by my new accessory.
“It has actually been in my family for three generations,” Luke announced.
I turned around and looked at him with shock. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” he said with a laugh. “It originally belonged to my great-grandmother. She, like you, was born in December and told my great-grandfather that she didn’t care about anything else but wanted a ring with her birthstone in it. So, he had a ring specially crafted for her.”
I looked at my ring again with a newfound appreciation for its beauty and history.
“Clara, why aren’t you the one wearing it then? I can’t take this from you,” I said with sudden regret.
Clara approached me and put her hands on my arms. “Cassie, I wouldn’t have this any other way. John had a ring specially made for me when Luke met you because we both desired for Luke to pass down the heirloom to his future bride. It suits you just as you suit him. You’ve made him a better man.”
I couldn’t stop the tears as I hugged my future mother-in-law. “Thank you,” I whispered in her ear.
My life had changed drastically within the past month; particularly in the last three days. Choosing to stay at Castellum and commit to Niteo was one of the biggest decisions of my life—and I’d been happy to finally have that choice behind me and feel as though it was the right one to make.
But marrying Luke was an entirely different playing field. Of all the uncertainties my life had held over the years, he was never one of them. From essentially our first actual date, I was set on him being a permanent part of my life. And I’d never been given any reason to doubt his mutual commitment—apart from my uncertainty regarding Niteo. That was the one thing that could have stood in the way of us being together. My mother learned the hard way that members and non-members didn’t belong together.
Seeing the thought he put into his proposal and the history enveloped in my ring proved to me that marrying Luke was the best choice for my future outside of joining Niteo.
Now, I was only left with the work before me. Whatever threat John’s grandfather perceived all those years ago could arrive at any moment—and I needed to be prepared.