There were hushed voices coming from somewhere close when I came around, feeling the heat of the sun on my face. I was lying on my side with the rear van’s doors flung open to welcome in the daylight. Slowly I moved into an upright position and palmed the side of my head with clumsy awareness, the flashes of memory coming back.
Very carefully I tiptoed towards the edge and searched the insides of the vehicle. It was surprising how much space there was, though I couldn’t say the same about the hard ground that left the lumbar of my back inflamed with acute soreness. Without making a sound I climbed out of the van and took a few steps forward to see the large field of rural wilderness stretching out into the vast unknown. Within that panoramic sight I spotted the outline of mountains in the distance, beckoning me to scale their great heights.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” a familiar voice said from behind. I turned around reflexively and stared him down with suspicion. A sigh escaped from Liwanu’s mouth while he lowered his voice gently. “Sorry, Jack. Scorpio hit you over the head a little too hard, and I gave him a bollocking for it. We had to bring you with us, no matter what, and he lost his patience.”
“Molly…” I said, remembering. “I need to see her!”
“It won’t do any good. She’s passed on. You can’t help her now, not here, but you can make sure her death wasn’t in vain. Let’s talk by the campsite. We’re cooking right now, so you’ve come around at the right time.”
I remained fixed to the ground and eyed him with distrust. Despite my stubbornness, though, the emptiness I felt from the hunger was unmistakable. I simply didn’t have the strength to resist or to try and find another means of escape. Reluctantly I moved forward and followed Liwanu past the van and downwards along the verge before smelling the fumes coming from the fire. Two figures were hunched around the smoky haze, a larger shape and a thin, effeminate shadow. After walking a few more paces I recognised both of them – the red-faced man, Scorpio, and the woman whose life I’d helped ruin years ago – Antoine’s daughter, Isabelle.
Her hair was much shorter than before and was styled into a boyish, spiky-haired look. She lacked the strength of her past appearance; her cheeks now hollow and thin. Our eyes met for a brief second as I saw her resentments and fears bubbling brightly within, the flames reflecting and flickering from them with intensity. Wordlessly she tucked back into her food, her mouth hanging open as the sauces splattered around her lips in an unladylike manner. Liwanu seemed to sense the underlying tension as he motioned for me to take a seat and handed over a tin of baked beans and sausages.
“Took you long enough to wake up.” Scorpio said, grunting with disapproval. I turned to my right and studied him with calm restraint. Sitting close to the fire exposed the darker grey within his silvery beard and the bloodshot colour of his face which lighted up like a lamp. His frame was larger than some, though he wasn’t overweight, and the leathery burgundy jacket he wore looked tired and worn. As I looked into his opaque, turquoise eyes I felt instantly drawn to them while they seemed to shimmer mysteriously with the flames that crackled noisily.
“I wasn’t expecting to be knocked out cold.” I said evenly.
“Jack, meet Scorpio’s descendant, Harrison. He’s an old friend of Antoine’s,” Liwanu said, taking on the role of mediator to try and keep the peace. “They were both soldiers from the old-school. Though they never actually fought together, Antoine saved his life when he was attacked by a group of thugs late at night. Isabelle, you know already, I guess.”
“What brings us all out here?” I asked, feeling the warmth of the food reviving back the energy in my body.
“Ah, yes. Good question. I forgot you liked to ask questions,” Liwanu said, winking mischievously. “I owe you answers, Jack, I know that. I’m sorry we’ve led you out here, but it’s the only way to keep you safe. I alluded to this before but when I helped you to talk with Molly you shared a psychic link that Mercury was able to steal. Now he can sense and find you, in most places. There are exceptions. By moving you to a remote place, he won’t be able to track you down.”
“I can’t just stay out here and hide away,” I said between mouthfuls. “I have to face up to this Mercury eventually.”
“I admire your courage,” Liwanu said, his almond-shaped eyes studying me closely. He seemed to look younger next to the fire, the lines and creases on his face looking alive and vigorous, while his long black hair travelled down to his shoulders gracefully. “Your time is coming. Your memories are coming back, but you need some time to understand them. Here, you are the Hermit, and must battle with your inner-demons before you can face the real ones.”
“He has more faith in you than I do,” Harrison said, looking humourless and almost vexed. He had the uncanny ability to get under my skin, in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, but I could sense that he’d been dealt many blows by the world. Despite his harsh criticisms, though, I felt a certain kinship with him that I couldn’t understand. Somehow, I was keen to give him my trust. “Liwanu’s an eternal optimist, for his sins, but I’m not as easily swayed. You look a bit scrawny and wet behind the ears.”
“I have even less than Scorpio,” Isabelle said, scowling at me with clear dislike. I felt blessed that I was surrounded by such supportive, loving companions. “I’ve told Liwanu what you did to my life, but he seemed to find all of that amusing.”
“Well, you deserved it,” Liwanu said. She reeled back and looked hurt, but the American Indian took little notice. “Ignore these two cynics. You have a heavy itinerary mapped out for you, Jack, and I for one am excited.”
“Well, I keep being told this, but no one will tell me what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place!” Liwanu said with a hearty laugh. I couldn’t help but find his enthusiasm infectious, even after I’d been dragged here against my will. “Once your memories come back, you’ll have all of the knowledge that you’ve collected across all of those many lives you’ve had, and will succeed in bringing harmony back to both realms.”
A wry smile escaped from my lips as I nodded with obvious confusion still written across my face.
“There’s something else, though,” Liwanu said with sudden seriousness. “Mercury is using Gemini’s descendant as host, which makes life more difficult for us. I understand you know the boy Adam? You need to know that your friend is not himself, and can’t be trusted.”
“Adam?” I said, remembering the night when I’d almost been killed by him. He had looked possessed then, and as much as I felt worried for his well-being, there was no getting away from the relief that it hadn’t been him in control. “I didn’t even know he was a descendant. Won’t we need him too?”
“I’m afraid so,” Liwanu said, nodding gravely. “Somehow you will need to talk with the real Adam and hold off Mercury at the same time. It’s no easy task, Jack, and I think you might want to use this time to rest up. In the meantime, the three of us will do what we can.”
“Thanks.” I said, scanning them all with lively eyes. The other two were still stony-faced, though I noticed Harrison spoke to me with less hostility after that. We didn’t speak much in the next hour that followed and I grew more restless about the future. It turned out that I’d been out cold for nearly twenty hours, and that we’d travelled far out into the Yorkshire Dales. By isolating ourselves from civilisation, Liwanu said that we couldn’t be picked up by Mercury’s senses or the by the Dark Ones.
Eventually we split up and disappeared into our own affairs for a time. I was advised not to travel too far but made my way towards a grassy slope that was a short distance away from the campsite. For hours I sat and reflected over Molly’s passing. I knew it was foolish to blame myself for what had happened, especially as I had never suspected that she was in any real danger, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I should have been by her side. Without her and Moon, the Magician would surely have gotten his way, and I would have been right back at the beginning of the cycle.
Losing someone close to you hurts no matter how old you get, and although I didn’t know Molly like I had Aiden, I didn’t fight back the tears that flowed freely while I sat alone. We had only been together for a short time, in that mysterious state of sleep and consciousness, but I had felt closer to her than most of the people I’d met in my daily life. Quickly I realised that Mercury had gotten to her before I’d sensed it at Tai Chi, but that was when my awareness had kicked in for me to know that something was wrong.
During my introspective state I remembered what the Magician had said about the fixed signs. Until this time I hadn’t considered the consequences of his predictions, but at that moment it suddenly hit me with titanic force. Molly wasn’t the only one that carried his evil curse. There were the other three signs – including Anna, who were tainted with the certainty of death. All of my thoughts had been centred on losing Molly but the thought of Anna passing on as well was too painful to imagine. She was my grounding influence, my anchor to the normal world, and I hadn’t realised until then just how much I needed her. More than anyone else, I needed Anna.
For some time I was drawn into my dark thoughts until Harrison appeared at my side, clearing his throat noisily to get my attention. Dusk was starting to settle and the cold wind brushed against my body relentlessly.
“Thought you might need this,” Harrison said, holding a rolled up black coat against his elbow. I stood up and thanked him for his kindness, feeling the warmth instantly as I wrapped it around my shoulders. He stood awkwardly for a moment and watched me with eagle-eyed attention before moving to leave.
“I don’t suppose you mind me joining, do you?” I asked hopefully.
“Your choice.” he said gruffly. We walked into the vast open land that led away from the campsite. After a few minutes of silence I coughed loudly and tried to make conversation.
“You’re friends with Antoine, then?”
“I don’t hate his guts, which is more than I can say for most people,” Harrison said, letting out a long, hoarse laugh. I noticed his eyes brightened and the lines around his forehead softened as he smiled, and realised that underneath the rough surface there was a more sensitive man with his own story to tell. “He’s one of the few men I’ve met who can be trusted. I call him a hundred percenter. He’d be prepared to jump off Niagara Falls for the right cause.”
“You know him well, then. He’s been a rock for all of us. We couldn’t do it without him.”
“Cross him and you’ll regret it, that’s for sure. You can tell how far a man is willing to go by the look in his eyes. When he saved my life that night, I knew he was prepared to kill, if that’s what it took. They were lucky to get away with a few broken arms and ribs.”
“He’s a passionate man.” I said, reflecting over how little I knew about the enigmatic Antoine. It was hard to imagine that he was willing to go to such lengths, and I wondered why he was so passionate about the Zodiac. There were some men who simply weren’t built for peace.
“You know what I see in yours?” he said suddenly, his turquoise eyes boring into mine. Inescapably I felt drawn to them, as if I couldn’t look away. Some might’ve called it hypnosis, but there was something else as well – for a fleeting moment I thought he was seizing up my very existence and measuring the strength of my own soul. “You’re afraid much of the time. You feel trapped.”
“Yes,” I said, feeling exposed and nervous. Finally I peeled my eyes away from him and bowed my head slightly. “How can you tell?”
“Liwanu would say it’s one of my gifts as Scorpio’s descendant,” he said with a sad laugh. “Call it what you want. I think it comes from experience, and I have plenty of that. Still, that’s not all I’ve seen in you. I can see you’re a man worthy of trust. You listen to others and let them confide in you, and you haven’t let them down yet. For all your fears, you have an easy conscience. I’m not a man who likes to follow anyone, but if it comes down to it, I will help you along the path.”
“So you don’t think I’m just scrawny and wet behind the ears, then?” I said mischievously.
“You’re still a kid,” Harrison said with the slightest flicker of a smile tugging at his lips. “Yet if the acorn is pure, then it will eventually grow into a powerful tree. What matters in a person is their essence.”
I nodded and turned silent for a few minutes, taking in the sacred night that was so still and tranquil. My head had been such a swirl for so long that I hadn’t realised the inner-struggle raging within. My connection with Scorpio was uncanny and through our oceanic consciousness we had found a single thread that I couldn’t have shared with anyone else. For the first time I felt like someone finally understood my enigmatic and complex nature. We were both different expressions of the same coin, flowing down a universal river that split into two directions, without ever losing the commonality that always pulled and drew us back together.
Onwards we walked into the cloudless night that sheltered us with a throng of brightly-lit stars. There was no getting away from its vast enveloping presence that pitched around us with shining, all-encompassing intensity. Finally, after years of self-doubt and unrelenting confusion, the comforting feeling of peace wrapped around me like a blanket. The openness that I’d shared with Scorpio – a man who I couldn’t help but refer to by his essence, and not his first name – had at last paved the way for a transformation to take place.
“You sense a change, don’t you?” he said, coming to a sudden stop. We had been walking for some time but our surroundings hadn’t changed, with the grasslands still stretching far off into the unseen. “Are you beginning to remember?”
“No, not yet,” I said, reflecting. “Just...something, a sudden feeling of knowing. It’s hard to explain what I feel.”
“Good. That’s what you need. Not everything can be explained with the human mind, with language, or with the intellect.”
“Scorpio, tell me about Virgo. I didn’t want to say anything before, but why is she with you and Libra? Can you trust her?”
“You’re beginning to call us by our signs, I see,” he said, forming his usual wry smile. “It looks like you’re finally beginning to accept the roles we have to play. I sought her out, Pisces, because I owed Antoine a debt. I didn’t do it because of any obligation to the Zodiac. I resolved to find her because of personal reasons.”
“You don’t trust her, though?” I insisted.
“Trust is something I’ve learned to ignore in my dealings with others. Still, she is the daughter of Antoine. There must be strength in her, somewhere.”
“Thank you, Harrison,” I said, clapping him on the back. His eyebrows knitted together in puzzlement as an enquiring frown lined his face, but he didn’t pull back. “I was holding a grudge against her for the past, and I couldn’t see that I was judging her.”
“Don’t judge, Pisces. You are not meant for that.”
I was analysing the hidden meaning in that phrase when suddenly he turned back and said: “I think I need a drink, now.”
“I didn’t know you were a drinker?” I said, letting out a loud, raucous laugh. In spite of himself Harrison howled out a barrage of laughter that was somehow even more authentic in its croakiness. “No wonder you and Antoine are such good friends!”
“It’s my dummy,” he said, smiling still. “And I make no apology for it.”
We laughed some more and headed back the way we’d came, making the odd exchange but for the most part living in our own thoughts. Throughout the last few months I’d gotten to know the different personalities of the descendants, and almost all of them were thinkers. Some were better at small talk than others, I found, but Harrison was definitely camped in the other group. He talked when he had something to say, otherwise he seemed to lapse into silence.
Upon reaching the campsite I thanked him again for the coat and moved towards the van. For simplicity I’d opted to sleep in the back for the time being instead of pitching up a tent. In truth, though, I needed some time alone. At the back of my mind I was still thinking about Molly, and although I had enjoyed Harrison’s company, I knew I was seeking my own space.
I climbed into the van and wrapped the coat around me like a quilt. Hours passed until tiredness finally overcame me and brought with it the welcoming embrace of a light sleep.
Only I wished I hadn’t fallen into the unnerving world of the subconscious, with its cryptic messages and subliminal nightmares. There was no getting away from the tall shadow perched above Molly as she rested unawares. And no matter how much I wrestled with the dream, I was always too late to stop the murderous hand that sliced downwards with the knife and blew out the last flickering lights of her life.