And they will try. For generations, for centuries, over and over again. Try and fail to find the unfathomable. Hordes of knights, entire armies, devoted and determined heroes — they will try and they will fail. And how could they find it if they do not know what it is they are looking for?
Eriachal, Verse 7000 (The Book of Prophets)
Ali refreshed her screen and clicked on the picture of the attic window. She couldn’t tell whether the face was of a teen or an adult. Ali studied the figure closely, but all she could see was a white gown and a face that seemed indistinct. She couldn’t stop looking into those vacant eyes, hoping to find something in them she should have seen.
Ali’s left palm began to itch, and she scratched it automatically. She went to bed early because her hand was now hurting full force. Ali knew the pain was coming.
It would always start the same. Her left palm would begin to throb for no apparent reason. There was nothing wrong with her hand, no injury, no sprain. Only a small scar from a childhood stunt Ali had just now been reminded of. But the pain in her hand did not compare to the pain she’d feel inside later on, sometimes days after her hand stopped throbbing. A dull, undulant ache inside her heart and mind that was neither sad nor angry. It was confused; Ali was confused, it was like she didn’t even know who she was from time to time. That uncertainty was what hurt the most. These peculiar incidents only deepened the void she sometimes dwelled in, especially when the ache came and lingered.
Ali was too stubborn and fearless to be afraid to face her own emotions, yet she felt powerless against a feeling she couldn’t even describe. Something that wasn’t there kept reminding her every now and then that it was missing.
Ali picked up her cell phone and called Nick. “I’ve got to talk to you.”
“I already know,” Nick said.
“My mom’s a real estate agent, remember?”
“What did she tell you?” Ali asked.
“Well, not much,” Nick said. “She was right across the street showing a property when a car pulled into the driveway. These people got out of the car and walked in like they lived there and had never left.”
“Yeah, but that’s the way it was,” Nick said. “My mom told me that they all hoped the mansion would be for sale one day, since it is worth almost four million bucks. Every real estate agent wanted to get a shot at the sales commission.”
“Does she know who they are?” Ali asked.
“Nope,” Nick said. “From what she could find out, they’re in their sixties and supposedly related to the people who lived there before. But that’s all.”
“Hmm, I don’t remember the people who lived there before,” Ali said.
“Well, at least that explains what happened this afternoon,” Nick said.
“Like I said,” Nick continued, “stay out of there. Now you know people moved in and that’s why you saw a woman in the window.”
“Hmm. Anyway. See you tomorrow.” Ali hung up. She glanced at the computer screen, but it was in sleep mode.
Ali pulled the comforter all the way up to her chin. She dug her nails into her palms, hoping to distract herself from the burning ache shooting through her arm and into her chest.
When Ali woke up, her head felt like it had sustained a blow from a hammer. She swallowed a painkiller and took a long, hot shower. While waiting for the headache to subside, she tried to think of a way to meet the new owners of the old mansion.
“Looking so lovely today. You must be taking your beauty sleep seriously,” Jack said in Ali’s direction as she was about to descend the stairs.
“Shut up, you moron!” Ali barked back.
“Jack the Moron is an oxymoron since everybody thinks he’s smart and funny,” Jordan mumbled as he began to circle around the kitchen. “And beauty sleep? I have yet to see someone looking beautiful when they get up. Even you, Sis. You’re a mess.”
It was too early in the morning for Ali to react to Jordan’s comments, but she was glad to see her favorite twin brother anyway.
Mom chuckled and looked at Ali. “Are you sure you don’t want to go shopping for new clothes?” she asked.
“Not today,” Ali replied and tore off a thread hanging from the hem of her T-shirt. “Maybe over the weekend.”
“Sure,” Mom said.
“No, really, Mom.”
Mom walked over and handed Ali her lunch. “I would love to see your edgy looks surface rather than fade along with the colors of your clothes.”
Ali rushed out of the house. She did not like it when her mom dropped hints about her appearance, although Ali’s jeans were a bit too worn and her T-shirts had lost their color many wash cycles ago.
Before the science teacher made it to the classroom, Ali grabbed Nick by the elbow. “We’ve got to find out more about the people who moved into the mansion.”
Savannah overheard Ali’s comment. “I know who they are,” Savannah said.
Ali turned to her in disbelief, “What?”
“My mom will be working with that man,” Savannah said.
“What man?” Ali shook her head.
“The husband. It’s an older couple from England that moved into the mansion,” Savannah said.
“Big deal,” Nick interrupted.
“Shut up, Nick, I’m not finished!” Savannah raised her voice, which prompted others around them to turn and listen. “The man is Dr. Nilrem, and he is a DNA expert. Harvard University invited him to come here and work on a very important project. And my mom, who is a doctor, too, you know, will be working with Dr. Nilrem.”
“Do you know what kind of project it is?” Ali asked.
“Not exactly. Something to do with DNA,” Savannah said.
“Like cloning?” Ali asked.
“It can be anything, I guess,” Nick said. “They could be working on some kind of a cure using DNA or something.”
“Why not cloning?” Ali said. “They’re good at that in England. They cloned the first sheep over there.”
“So that must be the whole mystery then!” an amused voice interrupted the chatter. It was Mr. Haggerty, the science teacher. Nobody had seen him enter the classroom. “I suppose you all should let the people settle in first before you start spreading gossip about them. Who knows, perhaps there will be a herd of sheep grazing in their backyard soon. It’s time to do some work. You’ll need to know science if you ever want to understand genetics and cloning.”
On their drive home from school, Ali saw a black Mercedes parked in front of the old mansion with an open trunk full of grocery bags. “Stop!” Ali said to Nick, who always drove her, Jack, and Jordan to and from school. Ali jumped out of the car and slammed the door before Nick could say anything.
“Can I help you with the groceries?” Ali smiled at a pleasant woman. “I’m Ali, and I live down the street.”
“I’m Victoria,” the woman said with a British accent. She smiled back and offered a handshake. “Victoria Nilrem. It’s my pleasure to meet you, Ali. My husband and I just moved in.”
Ali picked up a heavy grocery bag in each hand and followed Mrs. Nilrem inside the house. Ali’s chin fell as she scanned the palatial entrance accentuated by a massive marble staircase leading to the second floor, where it split and continued in both directions all the way to the attic. Ali walked through a long hallway decorated with portraits of people who must have lived hundreds of years ago. As she passed by, she swore their eyes followed her every move.
“You can put the bags on the counter,” Mrs. Nilrem said.
Ali left the bags and ran back outside to pick up what was left in the trunk.
“Would you like to have a cup of tea with me, Ali?” Mrs. Nilrem asked.
“I’d love that,” Ali said. She thought to herself, How original, an Englishwoman offers me a cup of tea. Ali was happy, though, because she couldn’t figure out what lame excuse she would use to invite herself to stay and nose around a little.
Ali never drank her tea with milk; it tasted funny. She gulped the entire cup in a few sips.
“Why did you move to Boston?” Ali asked. As soon as the words flew out of her mouth, she realized that was not the most polite thing to ask.
“My husband is in charge of a project that needs his expertise in both DNA and particle physics,” Mrs. Nilrem said. “He’ll be working at Harvard for at least a couple of years.”
“Do you know what kind of a project it is?”
“Not exactly,” Mrs. Nilrem said. “It has to do with computers and some new ways to process and store data. I’m not sure how my husband’s DNA expertise might help in the project, but he mentioned something about the way DNA stores all information, like a perfect hologram. That’s all I know, I’m afraid.”
Ali nodded and looked around the vast kitchen. “This is a beautiful home, Mrs. Nilrem. It looks pretty old on the outside. I never expected it to be so awesome inside.”
Mrs. Nilrem smiled, got up, and placed her teacup in the sink. “Would you like to see my favorite room?”
Ali stood up in a heartbeat. “Yeah!”
They climbed the marble staircase that led straight to a tall, dark wood door on the second floor. Mrs. Nilrem opened the door, and Ali walked into the most astonishing library she had ever seen.
Carved wooden bookshelves stacked with tens of thousands of books extended from floor to ceiling the entire length of the two-story room. A narrow, ornate, wooden staircase spiraled in one of the corners and led to a gallery encircling the entire upper story of the library, allowing a person to walk and retrieve the books amassed on the top shelves. The high ceiling was decorated with wooden inlays that created a star-shaped hologram pattern. Six tall windows with crimson velvet curtains lined one wall and allowed just enough daylight to illuminate the room.
Ali looked with wide eyes as she walked to the middle of the room toward a solid, round table.
“Why aren’t there any chairs at this table?” Ali asked.
“It’s an antique. There were never any chairs that belonged to it,” Mrs. Nilrem said. “It was always used by knights to gather around it in a circle and discuss their plans. It was not a table where people would sit and relax.”
“Knights?” Ali’s eyes flashed with interest. “You mean this table was actually used by real knights?”
Mrs. Nilrem smiled. “Yes, of course, my dear.”
Ali noticed a sharp antique knife next to a large globe close to the edge of the table. She touched the globe, and it seemed to shift under the pressure of her hand. Startled, Ali quickly pulled back.
She looked up from the table to scan the entire room again when a strange object in the opposite corner from the spiral staircase caught her attention. She’d never seen anything like it. “What is that?”
“An hourglass,” Mrs. Nilrem said.
“An hourglass? But it’s almost two stories high!”
“I know,” Mrs. Nilrem said with a smile, “and don’t ask me how on earth we are going to turn this over when all of the sand runs out.”
“Well, you’ll have to figure it out soon.” Ali let out a quick laugh. “Most of the sand is in the bottom chamber.”
“The neck is extremely narrow. You’d be surprised how long it takes for even the tiniest grain of sand to pass through. My husband told me we still have some time left before he’ll have no choice but to turn it all upside down.”
“Good luck with that!” Ali was already walking away from the enormous hourglass. She thought she heard something and followed the sound. Her entire body iced over when she realized what it was.
The sound of the eerie voice reciting the riddle was creeping from within the intimidating maw of a strange bust on a stone pedestal atop the rim of the fireplace that was as tall as a standing adult. Ali thought she was looking at a grimacing man, but when she looked closer, she saw a face that seemed almost inhuman. The fierce glare of the man’s eyes was intensified by the dominant gnash of his powerful jaws, and his contorted face was hard and enraged.
“My husband sculpted that statue,” Mrs. Nilrem said. “I find it unsettling, to be honest.”
“Why would he make a face like that?” Ali asked.
The doorbell rang. “He calls it Consciousness,” Mrs. Nilrem said before she went downstairs to open the door.
Ali didn’t respond. The voice was now quiet, but something about the fireplace seemed familiar. Ali searched her memory over and over but came up with nothing. She moved closer and traced the rim of the fireplace with the tips of her fingers. She noticed a couple of small stains smeared over some sloppy carving on one of the wooden panels on the side of the fireplace. As she bent to see what it was, her hand slid over the carving.
Ali felt like she was struck by lightning. An intense light blinded her before everything went completely dark. A sharp pain shot from her left palm, which was still in contact with the wood, through her arm, and all the way into her abdomen. Ali recoiled and crossed her arms over her stomach. Her head was spinning. She kept her eyes shut while trying to steady herself. She was still dizzy when a fragment of a memory emerged from deep within her forgotten past.
Little Ali stared at the sculpture for some time before she heard the riddle repeating over and over again. Chills rushed through her small body and her seven-year-old mind wandered off until she felt dizzy. Ali jumped and shrieked when a hand touched her shoulder from behind. It was Kayne who’d come searching for her.
“It’s just me! I didn’t mean to startle you,” Kayne said.
Ali shuddered. “I was…” She slowly inhaled. “I thought I heard a voice.”
“What voice?” Kayne asked.
“There.” Ali nodded at the statue. “That thing was saying something.”
Kayne’s dark-blue eyes gazed at her friend. “Are you sure you heard the statue speak?”
“Not really.” Ali hesitated. “It was just whispering, over and over. It sounded like a riddle.”
“What did the riddle say?” Kayne’s eyes grew wider.
“Something about coming inside,” Ali said. “It’s weird. It talked about blood and some kind of a heart. I’ve never heard that word.”
“Incorrupt?” Kayne raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Ali said as she exhaled, “that one. What is that?”
Kayne did not explain; instead, she took Ali’s hand and led her closer to the fireplace. “You’re not supposed to be able to hear the statue speak. You’re not one of us.”
“One of you?” Ali’s forehead furrowed.
“My grandfather said, ‘Those who can hear its voice will have the power to unlock time.'”
Ali looked back at the statue. “Can you hear the voice?”
“No,” Kayne said. “Not like you did. I can only hear a word every now and then.” Kayne placed her hands on Ali’s shoulders. “We’re best friends, you know. I’ve never had a sister, but if I did, it’d be you.”
“You know, when I first saw you a year ago, I thought we’d met before. I just couldn’t remember when,” Ali said.
“That’s funny,” Kayne said with a smile, “my mom told me that you and I are like two souls that must have met sometime before along the same journey, whatever that means.”
The girls laughed. Their young voices resonated with a newly found bond that was warm and comforting.
“What’s that?” Ali asked when she saw the tiny necklace Kayne wore. It was a small pendant, an eagle with its wings folded, head tilted just slightly, creating the impression that its somber eyes were looking ahead, somewhere very far away.
Kayne took off her necklace and fastened it around Ali’s neck. The cold metal of the eagle pendant chilled the spot on her skin where it touched. It wasn’t unpleasant, just unexpected. Ali felt the cold pendant around her neck and was about to thank her friend for the gift when she saw Kayne pick up the antique knife from the round table.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Kayne’s angelic face lost its childish innocence, “but you must never tell anybody.” Her demeanor was not that of a seven-year-old anymore. She spoke like someone much older. Her wavy blond hair fell over her face, accentuating the seriousness of her words. “I am not like you. I was not born here, the way you were, but my secret is so deep, it will change your life forever. If you still want to know…” Kayne raised her head and parted her long hair, “you must swear to keep it from everyone and seal your promise with your blood.”
Ali thought she was dreaming. She saw the reflection of sunlight on the sharp blade and, without a thought or an emotion, raised her slender arm. She could hardly feel the pain; that’s how sharp the antique knife still was. It cut into her young, soft skin quickly, propelling droplets of blood out of the safety of her flesh.
Kayne quickly slit her own hand and let their bloody palms touch as a seal of secrecy, a lifelong friendship, a bond that would endure well beyond the little time they had left together.
Kayne’s soft whisper tickled Ali’s ear, but all she could hear was her own thumping heart, its frenzied beat muffling Kayne’s every word. Ali was unable to speak. Her world was taking on a life of its own.
Kayne carved a little heart with both their initials into one of the wooden panels that edged the stone fireplace. When she was done, she placed their hands on the engraved heart, leaving two small bloodstains behind.