The night was cold and the small wooden house shivered as the wind whistled its way through the crack in the door, making it even colder within than without. Izette stooped over the dying embers, coaxing them to breathe a little fire onto her candle. It had been five days since her husband left to go with their daughters to Mount Alba. She should have heard something from them by now, but not a word had come.
Izette placed the lighted candle by the window and peeped through the darkened pane. With no electricity or gas available in this part of the town, the street outside looked bleak. The only light that she could see was the flickering light of the candles coming through some of the small narrow windows of the surrounding little houses. Such misery! Such poverty!
She listened for the sounds that came through those same small narrow windows: crying babies, whimpering children, men and women arguing, shouting, cursing – each sound a perfect echo of misery.
Izette never knew that such abject poverty could ever exist, particularly in a wealthy country like theirs. Perhaps the sudden poverty visited on them was some kind of divine judgement for their sins of ignorance of not knowing that there were people in the world who went without light, while they were laughing beneath the dancing lights of their chandeliers.
She drew a mournful sigh and wrapped the ragged blanket tighter around herself for warmth. If they should ever regain their former wealth and prestige, she would make sure that she would work hard towards easing the plight of the poor. She drew another sigh and was about to move away from the window, when she noticed a figure fast approaching the house.
‘Ludvig!’ she cried as she ran to the door.
Haust halted his steps when he saw Izette running towards him in the cold.
‘Ludvig, where have you been?’ Izette threw herself into his arms. ‘I have been so worried about you and the children…’ her voice faded away when she saw that Ludvig was alone. ‘Where are the children, Ludvig?’ she asked anxiously.
‘Not out here, let’s go inside,’ Haust said hoarsely, grabbing Izette by the elbow.
‘Ludvig, where are our children?’ Izette asked again, once they were inside. ‘I told you to bring them here…’
Taken aback by the sudden harsh tone of his voice, Izette removed the candle from the window and placed it on a rickety old small table before seating herself on a rickety old chair. ‘Tell me where they are!’
Haust sat across from her. ‘Izette, what would you say if I told you that I have fixed our situation, that we are no longer poor.’
‘I would say where are our children, Ludvig?’ Izette said with a puzzled look.
‘Our children are fine, Izette. Don’t worry so much about them. Just answer the question!’
Izette wrapped her hands around his. ‘I would say that it is a wonderful news.’
‘Wonderful news!’ Haust withdrew his hands from hers sharply and twisted his face into an angry scowl. ‘We have become utter paupers; all our friends have deserted us as if we were a contagion; and now that I am telling you our situation has been fixed, all you have to say is wonderful news.
Izette blanched at the way her husband spoke to her and at the way he looked at her. Something was altered in this man whom she had regarded as her husband for twenty-two long years. ‘I am sorry, but I can’t get excited about anything until I know where my daughters are,’ Izette said in a fearful tone.
‘Your daughters?’ Haust snarled. ‘They are my daughters too.’
Izette’s eyes went wild with terror. Who was this stranger?
Haust winced, seeing his wife’s confusion and fear. ‘I am sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I guess I lost my temper because it seems that you are not interested in what I have to say about changing our fortune back to the way it was before.’
‘Ludvig,’ Izette began in a calm measured tone, ‘I am as much interested as you are in turning our life back to the way it was before. But first things first. I need to know where our children are.’
‘Our children are in good care. They have a good place to stay.’
‘Where? At lady Verren’s?’ But I told you that I didn’t want us—’
‘They are not with lady Verren,’ Haust interrupted. ‘They are staying at Mount Ater.
Izette frowned. ‘At Mount Ater? What are they doing there? I thought you were going to Mount Alba!’
‘No, you,’ Haust bellowed, ‘you told me to go to Mount Alba. I never said that I would. At any rate,’ he continued more calmly, ‘we went to Mount Ater, and … and I met a friend there.’
‘You don’t know him. He lives in Mount Ater. He has been living there for a while now. And … and he can help us, so I want you to meet him.’
Izette lowered her eyes and looked at the candle. It was nearly spent, in the same way that her trust in her husband was spent. She did not believe a word that was coming out of his mouth, but she also knew that it wouldn’t do her any good if she accused him of lying, for such an accusation was likely to provoke him to violence, given the sudden change in his character.
‘So, what do you say?’ Haust said, breaking into her thoughts.
She lifted her eyes to him. ‘All right, when am I going to meet him?’
‘Soon, very soon, but first I must prepare you for this encounter.’
‘What do you mean?’ Izette asked, careful not to show any sign of anxiety.
‘I need to prepare you to accept him,’ Haust said.
‘Ludvig, I’ll accept anyone who is willing to help you … to help us.’
‘Of course. Well, maybe not murderers,’ she said calmly. ‘He is not a murderer, is he?’
‘What if he were?’
‘I see!’ Izette pursed her lips. ‘Well, surely, we can’t make a deal with a criminal.’
‘I’ll make a deal with a demon if it could get us out of this poverty,’ Haust growled.
Izette lifted her brow. ‘No good will ever come from making a deal with a demon. Demons don’t keep their end of the bargain.’
‘This one will,’ Haust hissed angrily.
Izette shook her head. She now knew that her husband was in deep trouble, but in order to find the truth and rescue him and possibly their daughters she had to play along and come across as agreeable.
‘So, will you come with me to Mount Ater?’
‘Of course,’ she said readily. ‘When?’
‘All right, let’s go,’ Izette said, rising to her feet.
‘Outside is very cold and very windy. Here, take my coat,’ Haust said, as he removed his heavy coat to give it to Izette.
‘What about you?’ Izette asked.
‘I’ll be all right,’ he said. Of course, he was going to be all right. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore than he could feel its opposite.
Izette stood, looking dazedly at the crystals on the cave walls. ‘So where is this friend of yours?’ Izette asked as composedly as she could. She did not want to sound alarmed.
‘He’ll be here soon. Tell me, how do you feel?’ he asked, nodding at her stomach.
Izette held her hands protectively over her stomach. She was in her first trimester. ‘Fine. I feel fine. Tell me, who is this friend of yours? And why are we meeting him in a cave? Why not in his house where we can see our daughters? That’s where they are, aren’t they?’
Haust looked down at the toe of his boots, wondering how to answer her question.
Haust breathed a sigh of relief. His double was here. Let him deal with Izette.
Izette looked towards the direction of the voice. A dark figure was emerging from the shadows. Izette nearly lost her balance when she saw the resemblance.
‘This is the friend I told you about,’ Haust said.
‘Friend?! He looks more like your twin brother.’
‘I am not his twin. I am his master.’
The menacing voice of her husband’s double made her break out in cold sweat. ‘What did you make my husband do?’ Izette asked in a tight voice.
‘I didn’t make him do anything he wasn’t prepared to do.’
‘Where are my daughters?’ Izette demanded, fixing the double with an angry stare.
‘Asleep … for now. But they will wake up soon.’
‘I want to see them. Take me to them,’ Izette said.
‘You can see them only if you agree to join them.’
‘What does that mean exactly?’ Izette asked, eyeing the double suspiciously.
‘If you agree to serve me?’
‘To serve you?’ Play along, Izette; play along, until you get to the truth. ‘How? In what way?’ she asked.
‘By promising your unborn child to me.’
‘What?’ Izette was flabbergasted. ‘Are you mad? Return my daughters to me at once. Ludvig, go get our daughters. We are leaving.’
‘I can’t. Our daughters have gone. They are in his service now,’ Haust said tonelessly.
‘His service! What service? Get our daughters back! Now,’ she shouted. ‘We are leaving. We—’
Izette lost her breath when the double grabbed her by the throat. ‘You either submit yourself to me or I will kill you and your unborn daughter.’
Tears flooded Izette’s eyes. She was carrying a girl. With strength that she didn’t know from where she got, Izette freed herself from the grip of the double. ‘I will not … do you hear me? I will not submit myself to you. Ludvig!’
Haust spread his arms out in a helpless manner and said, ‘Do as he wishes or you will be killed.’
Izette thought quickly. This man was not her husband. Ludvig, that she knew, would never say such a thing to her. Ludvig would lay down his life for his wife and children. However, just standing there and defying these two men would not accomplish anything. She had to learn the truth about her daughters.
‘Tell me what you have done with my daughters and I’ll consider joining you.’
‘If you want to see them, go and stand before one of these rock crystals and gaze into it.’
Izette did as she was told. After a few minutes of gazing into one of the rock crystals and seeing nothing, she told the double that she couldn’t see anything.
‘Look into it properly,’ the double growled, as he made a sudden rush at her to clutch her head between his hands. Izette winced in pain at the pressure of his hands around her head. She was about to bring her hands up in an attempt to free herself, when the crystal changed color and she saw seven sleeping creatures that even her worst nightmares couldn’t conjure up. ‘What is this?’ she cried in horror. ‘What are you showing to me? I said I wanted to see my daughters.’
‘These are your daughters,’ the double said, releasing her.
‘No, no, they are not my daughters.’
‘Izette, they are,’ Haust interposed.
‘You’ —Izette pointed a finger at him— ‘you are not my husband. You stay away from me!’
‘I am your husband,’ Haust shouted, ‘and you will listen to me.’
‘No, get away from me,’ Izette shouted and ran outside. She had to escape, to seek help, and to rescue her daughters and her husband, wherever he was. But where should she go? To whom should she turn? She had seen the outline of a village on their way to the crystal cave, so maybe she should go there and ask someone to help her. She glanced up. It was near dawn.
With her heart hammering in her chest, Izette ran for the village, all the while looking over her shoulder to see if Ludvig was following her. A few times, she spotted him and each time she managed to find a hiding place. The sun was up when she finally lost sight of him.
It was almost noon when the village came into view. Izette was exhausted, thirsty and hungry after traversing such a long tortuous distance from the crystal cave to the village. She saw a tree log on the ground and was about to sit on it to catch her breath, when she saw an old woman coming towards her.
‘Lovey, are you alright?’ asked the old woman.
‘I need help,’ Izette said, breathing heavily.
‘Course you do, lovey. Oh! Look how many cuts and bruises you have on your face and hands! Come with me, lovey. I’ll take you to my place. It ain’t much. Just a simple hut, but you can rest there and have something to eat. So, what are you doing out here all alone?’
‘Long story,’ Izette said, fighting hard to swallow the rising lump in her throat.
‘Here we are,’ the old woman said, after a short walk. ‘Lucky for you that my hut is just round the corner. If I lived in the village proper, you still had a fair distance to walk.’
Inside the small hut it was quite warm. In a small iron grate fire was burning and over it, hung on a metal bar, a pot of boiling water was bubbling away. Izette could smell tea and the aroma of freshly baked bread.
‘I was brewing some tea. I’ll pour you a cup and I’ll give you some bread-and-butter,’ she said as she went about slicing a loaf of bread and smearing it with butter. ‘I make mi own bread and mi own butter. Everybody round here does. Quite self-sufficient lot we are. Go sit by the fire and warm yourself a bit, lovey.’
There was a worn-out old rug by the fireplace and Izette went and sat down on it. It was then that exhaustion truly hit her. There was not a muscle or a bone in her body that didn’t ache.
‘Now, we gonna get some food into you,’ the old woman said as she handed her a wooden plate filled with several slices of bread-and-butter. Izette took a bite of the bread-and-butter. ‘This is good.’ It had been well over twenty days since she had had anything decent to eat and she had not eaten anything for the past two days. ‘I thank you for your hospitality.’
‘That’s all right,’ she said as she came and sat beside Izette and handed her a cup of tea. ‘What’s your name, lovey?’
‘Izette. What’s yours?’
‘Meyan. You’re a city lady, ain’t you?’
Izette nodded while chewing.
‘So what are you doing all the way out here by yourself, lovey?’
Izette slowed down her chewing as the lump made its appearance again in her throat. She didn’t want to cry, but tears had made up their own mind. They wanted to pour out and they did.
‘Oh, no, lovey, what’s the matter?’
‘If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,’ she said, sobbing.
‘Oh, you’d be surprised what I believe.’
‘Do you believe in evil?’
‘Do I believe in evil?’ Meyan chuckled. ‘Not far from here there is a cave—’
‘Cave? You know of the cave?’
‘Course! Everyone in the village knows of the cave and they are all afraid of it. Village folks call it Demon’s Lair.’
‘Demon’s Lair? What’s in it?’
Meyan shrugged. ‘No one knows. Because whenever someone went inside that cave they never came out of it. So now no one goes near it, let alone entering it. Why do you ask?’
‘I can’t be sure, but I think someone has imprisoned my daughters in that cave.’
‘Well, you can’t get ‘em back by yourself.’
‘I know. I need help, but who will be able to help me?’
‘Well, no one in this village, because they’re all scared, but if you could get yourself to Mount Alba and get in touch with the priests there—’
‘I imagine you sophisticated city people don’t believe in priests.’
‘I believe in anyone who can help me get my daughters back.’
‘Well, in Mount Alba there is a temple. Now if you contact the priests there, I’m sure they’d be able to help you.’
Izette dug her hand into the side pocket of her husband’s coat to touch her return ticket. She could exchange the ticket with one that would take her to Mount Alba.
‘But the problem is,’ the old woman resumed, after taking a few sips from her tea, ‘how will you get there? Because there ain’t no public transport in this village.’
‘Yes, I know, but there is a train station in a town about a day’s walk from here,’ Izette said, thinking how would she make it there when all her energy was spent.
‘It’s a long walk then. Why don’t you rest in my place for a day or two to get some strength back and then make the journey.’
‘I will. Thank you.’
‘It’d be nice to have a bit of company for a change,’ Meyan said.
‘Do you live alone?’
‘Mi husband died years ago,’ Meyan said, sipping her tea.
‘I gave birth to a few, but they all died in infancy.’
‘I am sorry,’ Izette said.’
‘Eh, that’s life. What can you do? So, do you have a husband, lovey?’
Izette’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I am not sure. I hope I do.’
‘Oh, don’t cry, Izette,’ Meyan said, patting Izette on the back. ‘I’m sure everything will work out fine. Just go and see those priests. They’ll be able to help you, I’m sure of it. They’ll know what to do.’
‘I hope so,’ Izette said, wiping her tears with her hands.
Four days later, Izette arrived at the temple in Mount Alba. The temple resembled like no other building she had ever seen. The two-storied circular white structure, with a bell on its cone shaped roof and yawning with many high arched windows, appeared ancient. But Izette had no time to admire the architecture for too long, as she hurried towards the temple’s courtyard where she saw a couple of young priests in long white tunics tending to the gardens.
‘Excuse me, I need help. I was told that you could help me.’
‘What kind of help?’ asked one of the young priests.
Izette hesitated for a moment, not knowing exactly how to describe the kind of the help she needed, then said that it was of a spiritual nature.
‘The best person to speak to is Father Khorsa. He is our high-priest. If you wait here, I will go and fetch him for you.’
Izette thanked him and nervously waited in the courtyard. Within a few short minutes, the young priest returned with a middle-aged man who was dressed slightly different. Over his white tunic, he wore a pale blue robe.
‘I am Father Khorsa,’ the high-priest said, ‘I was told that you need my help.’
‘Thank you for seeing me, Father Khorsa. My name is Izette. May I speak to you privately about a matter… that … that frankly I can’t get my head around...’
‘My door is always open to all those who come to seek help. Let us go inside and talk.
Soon Izette was seated in a room where it was poor of material wealth, but rich in plant life. The room was like an indoor garden. They sat on a simple wooden bench.
‘How may I be of help to you, my daughter?’
Once again, Izette had to fight the rising lump in her throat. After a few minutes of silent struggle to fight the lump and the tears, Izette began to speak of the horrors that she had witnessed in the crystal cave. ‘Father Khorsa, please help me to get my daughters and my husband back.’
‘I would like nothing better than to help you get your daughters and your husband back, but I am sorry to say that this is not possible. The crystal cave of which you spoke has been known to us for thousands of years…’
‘Thousands of years?’ Izette sounded shocked.
‘Oh yes. All our ancient writings speak of this cave, for it is a gateway to Infernus, a place where a powerful demon by the name of Chaos resides.’
‘Father Khorsa, I have to get my daughters back, and I have to rescue my husband too, if I can.’
The high-priest looked pained. ‘I don’t believe that you can. But your life and the life of your unborn child are in grave danger. It seems to me that your husband has made a pact with Chaos, so now he has become his slave, and somehow he has made your children his slaves too. Once you become the slave of Chaos, there is no freeing yourself from him.’
‘What do you suggest I do then? I can’t give up on my children,’ Izette said despairingly.
‘I am going to take you to Sister Pia, the priestess of Pax.’
‘I am sorry’ —Izette blinked— ‘who?’
‘The priestess of Pax.’
‘Who is Pax?’
‘Pax is the god of peace. If anyone can help you would be him and his priestess. In fact, the priestess has certain knowledge that we priests do not possess.’ The high-priest rose to his feet and extended a hand to Izette to help her up. ‘Sister Pia would be by the sacred spring, so we go there.’
‘Sacred spring? What is that?’
The walk from the temple to the sacred spring was somewhat steep, though not far. As they came near the cave, the high-priest took his shoes off and told Izette to do the same, for the ground was considered holy. Bowing before the entrance, the high-priest was the first to enter and then motioned for Izette to follow him. Izette gasped at the sight. The cave was the most beautiful place she had ever seen in all her life. The entire cavern shimmered in a pool of white light, and yet it did not hurt the eyes. The yellow crystal cave, she remembered, felt oppressive and ominous, while this place felt so airy, so peaceful and so cheerful. She wondered why people didn’t know of this place.
As if reading her mind, the high-priest told her that the place had always been kept a secret from general public, for it was holy and not a place for people to come and gawk at to satisfy their own curiosity.
‘Good afternoon, Father Khorsa,’ came a female voice.
It was the priestess; a tall attractive woman wearing a pale blue dress reaching to her ankles and a loose head covering of the same color.
‘Good afternoon, Sister Pia. This is Izette. She needs your help.’
‘If you personally brought her here to me, then indeed she needs my help.’
‘You are in good hands, Izette,’ the high-priest said.
Once the high-priest was gone, the priestess approached Izette and took her hand. ‘Tell me how I can help you.’
Suddenly overwhelmed by everything that she had been through, Izette burst into tears. The priestess released her hand and wrapped her arms around her. ‘You are here with me and you are safe. No one can reach you here and no one can hurt you here. Come, let us be seated and then you can tell me your story.’
The priestess guided Izette to sit on a soft white mat by the spring.
Wiping her tears with her hands, Izette told the priestess everything: from the moment they lost all their wealth to the moment she escaped the crystal cave. ‘Please, help me get my family back.’
‘Child’ —the priestess patted Izette’s hands— ‘no one can rescue them. Your husband has made a pact with an agent of Chaos, who always appears as a doppelganger; hence, the resemblance you witnessed.’
‘The high-priest mentioned Chaos to me,’ Izette said.
‘Unfortunately, it seems that your husband has made your daughters make a pact with him too. How? I don’t know, for they are but children. Unless…’ the priestess’s voice drifted away.
‘Well, to make them susceptible to evil, he must have tricked them to reveal something dark about themselves.’
‘Like what? They are children!’
‘I can’t answer that for you, my child. The only thing I know for certain is that your children are now slaves to Chaos and there is no way of freeing them.’
‘But the high-priest said that you are in possession of certain knowledge that might be of help in freeing them.’
‘It is true that I am in possession of certain knowledge only known to the priestess of Pax, but that knowledge can’t save your husband or your daughters. However, that knowledge can save you and your unborn child. You must understand that your husband will come after you to either kill you and your unborn child or force you both to join them.’
‘I will never do that,’ Izette said emphatically.
‘Then you need my protection.’
‘What sort of protection?’
‘I can carry a baptism ritual in the holy waters of this spring that would protect you and your unborn daughter against demonic corruption, but that is not enough to guarantee your safety. You need to stay under my protection.’
‘No, not here. I have a small cottage nearby; you will be staying there.’
‘When will you baptise me?’
First thing tomorrow morning. But for now you need rest and something to eat. You have been through an unimaginable ordeal, and given your condition this is neither good for you or your baby. So, we’ll go to my cottage and I stay with you and tomorrow I’ll bring you back here to baptise you.’
It was early in the morning when the bell in the temple began its chime and woke Izette up.
‘You slept well last night,’ the priestess said with a warm smile, as she went about preparing breakfast.
‘Despite all the horrors that I have been through, last night I had the most peaceful sleep in my life,’ Izette said, surprised.
‘That is the effect of Mount Alba. In fact, this whole area is under the protection of Pax, so everything is peaceful, even the air that you breathe has a peaceful quality to it. Now, wear this when we arrive at the spring’ —the priestess handed Izette a simple white tunic— ‘this is a baptism garment. It has been cleansed and purified in the sacred spring.’
After a light breakfast, consisting of tea and wafer bread smeared with a little honey, Izette went with the priestess to the spring.
‘How could this water emanate so much light?’ Izette asked, while taking her heavy coat off and changing into her baptism garment.
The priestess smiled. ‘It is the light of Pax. This is his spring, after all.’
‘It is very hard for me to comprehend all of this,’ Izette said, glancing around. ‘This is all so … so foreign to me.’
The priestess laughed softly. ‘It is all right. Pax does not hold that against you. Lift up your tunic so I can paint the holy symbols on your stomach.’
Izette widened her eyes. ‘The holy what?’
‘The holy symbols! You want your child to be immune to evil, don’t you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Usually the symbols are painted on the face, but in your case I must paint them on your stomach so your child can be protected too’.
Izette complied, though not fully understanding all these weird rituals.
As the priestess drew different symbols on her stomach, Izette could hear her murmuring something in a language she had never heard before.
‘What are you saying and in what language are you saying it?’
‘I am saying a prayer in a language, the origin of which dates back to thousands of years ago when the first priestess, so the story goes, learnt it from Pax himself. Since then each priestess has been teaching it to her successor.’
‘So only your order knows of this language?’
‘Yes,’ the priestess confirmed, finishing the drawing of the symbols.
‘What do these symbols mean?’ Izette asked.
‘The star is the mark of Pax who will protect you from any and all evil. Usually it is drawn on the forehead, but in your case I have drawn it above your navel. The bird being released from the two hands signifies freedom from the demon known as Chaos. This is painted on the right cheek, but in your case it is to the right of your stomach. The egg within the circle is the representation of protection from evil. Come.’ The priestess guided Izette into the spring.
As Izette stood, shoulder-deep in the middle of the spring, the priestess began her prayers in the strange tongue. After she finished her prayers, the priestess helped her out of the water. ‘You and your child are now fully immune to any influence from evil,’ the priestess said, handing her a towel.
‘Thank you,’ Izette said.
‘No need for thanks, my daughter. We now have a task to do and that is to protect you from your husband, for he will come after you.’
It was at the end of spring when Izette went into labor. After giving birth to seven children, this one was the easiest.
‘I didn’t feel any pain at all,’ Izette said in a tone of joyful surprise.
‘It is the peace of Pax that gave you a pain-free delivery.’
‘I pray that Pax will take care of her,’ Izette said, smiling at the tiny face looking up at her.
‘She is beautiful,’ the priestess said, ‘what name have you chosen for her?’
‘Odell … after my mother.’ Izette shut her eyes tight as a lump rose in her throat, threatening her with tears.
‘What is it?’
‘I wish,’ Izette began in a broken voice, ‘I wish her father was here to see her. I wish her sisters were here to see her…’
‘Oh, my dear, dear Izette, maybe one day Pax will be able to save them. Miracles can happen…’
‘You don’t believe that, though, do you?’
‘I believe that nothing is impossible for Pax. And I believe that we must have faith.’
In the weeks and months that followed the birth of Odell, not a sound was heard, not a shadow was seen, that could even remotely be conceived as a threat.
‘I don’t think he will come after us. It’s been too long now.’
‘Perhaps, but you can’t let your guard down. If he ever comes here, don’t let him in.’
‘What if he forces his way in?’
‘He can’t. My place is protected. No evil can ever enter my place. The wood that went into building this cottage was sprinkled with the holy water of the spring. But he will be able to enter it if you let him in – he must be invited in. Evil never enters your life without permission. Always remember that, my dear. So please promise me that you won’t invite him in.’
‘You have my word, Pia. I have no intention of letting him inside. I don’t trust him.’
‘Good. Good. I wish I could stay here around the clock to protect you, but I can’t. I have a duty to Pax to guard his spring.’
‘Even at night?’
‘Yes, even at night. Not to mention that nighttime is when I can best commune with Pax.’
‘Yes. Gods are not visible to mortal eyes. That is why they communicate with us mortals through dreams.’
‘Have you spoken to him about me?’
‘And what answers has he given you?’
‘It is not for me to ask for answers. If Pax wants to honor me with his answers, he will do so.’
‘You have great faith in him, don’t you?’
Pia smiled. ‘Well, I am his priestess, after all. So, yes, I do have faith in him. It is not logical otherwise.’
‘I hope Pax can save my children and my husband from the darkness that they are in.’
‘That is my hope too, my dear Izette. And that is why I haven’t stopped praying for them.’
It was one late afternoon when Pia hurried home to tell Izette that Father Khorsa had informed her that the world was at war.
‘At war!’ Izette exclaimed, shocked.
‘Yes,’ Pia said. ‘A dreadful war has broken out and it is on a large scale. Over two million soldiers have been mobilized.’
‘But a year ago, the world was at peace, so what changed?’
‘I don’t know,’ Pia said, looking troubled. ‘The last war was over forty years ago. Since then we haven’t had any war on a global scale, which they say this one is.’
‘How many nations are involved in this war?’
‘I don’t know, but this isn’t even the worst of it. Father Khorsa said that there is a global famine on a scale never seen before.’ Pia sighed mournfully. ‘Revolutions are raging everywhere and then there is this mysterious illness that is killing people in their thousands. One would think that Chaos has unleashed all his—’ Pia stopped and glanced away.
‘No, tell me, what were you going to say?’
The priestess lowered her gaze. ‘His demons.’
‘Are you referring to my daughters?’ Izette said in a broken whisper.
‘I don’t know,’ Pia said, not wanting to sadden Izette.
‘Yes, you do. You think that my daughters have something to do with all of this?’
‘My dear Izette, this is not the time to formulate theories about things of which we can’t be possibly certain.’
Izette cast a tearful glance at Odell sleeping in her cot. ‘How can I ever tell this child about any of this, but I guess I have to. She needs to know.’
‘Izette, my dear, don’t distress yourself unnecessarily. Odell is only a year old, so you don’t have to worry about telling her anything. It is not as if she can understand. Look, let us take life moment by moment for now, until we know something more.’
Izette blinked her tears away and nodded.
‘Now, my dear, will you be all right by yourself here?’
‘I’ll be alright, Pia. Though I can’t say that I will be able to sleep.’
‘My dear, you must keep up your strength and you must remain positive. It is not just for your sake, but for the sake of little Odell too.’
‘It is difficult, but I will try. Pia, will you pray for me tonight?’
‘Oh, my darling Izette, I pray for you every night. I pray for your children and I pray for your husband. Always remember that.’
‘Darling, don’t be stressed over this. As I said we can’t be certain of anything. Just remain positive and have faith in Pax to rescue your family from evil. Remember miracles can happen. Now I must go. Keep yourself and little Odell safe. I’ll see you tomorrow morning,’ Pia said, then kissed Izette on the cheeks before leaving her.
Izette could not sleep. Two years ago, she would have laughed at such notions as gods and demons. And now, not only she believed in them, but she also knew that her husband and her seven daughters had become demons themselves, and quite possibly were unleashing evil onto the world.
Izette blinked in the dark. Someone was calling her name.
Softly and without making any noise for fear of waking Odell, Izette got up and went to the window. It was dark outside. She couldn’t see anything. Then she heard a soft knock at the door. Izette, filled with terror, stood in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do.
She moved to the window again, but couldn’t see anything. Quietly, she went to the fireplace, lighted a candle and went to the door.
‘Who is it?’
‘Izette, let me in, please.’
‘Is that you Ludvig?’
‘Darling, it is me. I just want to talk to you.’
Though panic-stricken, Izette was of two minds. What if by some miracle her husband had managed to free himself from the influence of evil! But then what if he was here to kill her and little Odell! After all, a great upheaval was taking place in the world, and her husband and daughters could very well be responsible for that.
‘Izette, my love, can I please talk to you? It is important,’ cried the plaintive voice of her husband.
Do not let your guard down, Izette! Do not let your guard down!
‘Honey, I just want to have a word with you, that’s all,’ cried the voice of her husband in despair.
Izette opened the door a crack but did not walk outside. So long as she stayed within the walls of the cottage she was protected from harm. ‘How did you find me?’
‘I have known it for a long time now that you lived here. Izette, let me in. I just want to talk.’
Izette thought for a moment. If only she could test him. The best test, of course, would have been to see if he could set foot inside, but it didn’t seem that her husband was pursuing a forced entry into the cottage. ‘Talk, but I can’t let you in,’ she said finally.
‘Izette, I am free.’
‘Yes, my love.’
‘I struggled with evil and the struggle was immense.’
Izette frowned, not believing. ‘What brought the change in you?’
‘Mount Alba … this place. When I first came here, I came with ill intentions, but then the peace, the tranquility and the light of this place changed everything. It gave me the strength I needed to combat evil and rescue our children.’
‘You rescued our children?’ Izette gasped, her heart drumming, wanting to believe, but fearing to believe. ‘So, you and the children had nothing to do with this war?’
‘War? There is a war?!’
‘And a global famine and pestilence!’
‘My darling, I know nothing of these things. I have been so involved in my own misery that I haven’t had the time to check what has been going on in the world. All my thoughts have been about you and our children, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am about everything.’ Haust wept. ‘Oh, Izette, my darling Izette, you have no idea how I have been suffering, watching you always from a distance and not daring to come near you for fear of repulsing you.’
‘Ludvig, what happened? You were a good man. Why would you bring evil into our lives?’
‘I was deceived.’ Haust heaved a deep sigh. ‘One day I will tell you everything, my love.’
‘Tell me now.’
‘I can’t. It is too painful.’
‘Ludvig, I need to know the truth; otherwise, this conversation is meaningless.’
‘I am so ashamed of myself.’
‘When and where did you meet that evil being?’ Izette asked.
‘When we went camping,’ Haust answered quietly.
‘And you didn’t tell me?’ Izette reproached.
‘There was nothing to tell. I thought it was just a dream.’
‘And then what happened?’
‘When we lost our wealth, I wanted to find out if I dreamt the thing or if it really happened. So I went back to Mount Ater—’
‘That is when you disappeared for a few days and never said a word about where you have been?’
‘You never asked, my love.’
‘Would it have made any difference?’
‘I don’t know. Probably not. He promised to restore our wealth if we entered into his service.’
‘To do what in his service? To become his demons and create misery in the world?’
Haust wept. ‘Izette, I do not expect you to ever forgive me and I did not come here to ask for forgiveness. I came here to bring you our children.’
‘What did he do to our children? Did he turn them into those horrific creatures?’
‘Oh, no my darling. That was a trick. He was trying to deceive you. Our beautiful children were just locked up. But I rescued them and brought them to you.’
Izette drew a sobbing breath and opened the door a little wider. ‘Where are they? Show them to me. I want to see them.’
‘They are a bit frightened, a bit shy…’
‘There is no need for that. Where are they?’ Izette asked, craning her neck to glance around to see if she could catch a glimpse of them. Then she saw movement in the shadows behind the garden shrubbery.
‘Oda,’ Haust called out.
Izette’s whole body began to convulse from the force of her uncontrollable tears. Her children were here. Don’t, Izette! Don’t believe him. He is here to kill you. Izette felt conflicted, uncertain of what to do. But what if he is telling the truth. After all, miracles can happen.
Oda’s voice pulled at her heart. ‘Where are you my sweetheart?’ First one foot, then the other, Izette walked over the threshold to see Oda.
‘Maybe you should show Oda her little sister,’ Haust suggested. ‘It could coax her to come forward. Oda suffered the most from her experience with that evil being. She was severely traumatized. And now she is afraid of every little thing.’
‘Oh, my poor baby. But her little sister is asleep, Ludvig. I don’t want to wake her.’
Haust came close and stretched a hand, beckoning for Izette to reach for his. Izette wanted to reach for his hand, but she could not yet fully trust him. And to ensure that he knew she could not be corrupted by evil, she told him that she was baptised in the sacred spring of Pax.
‘So, you see, Ludvig, if you came here to trick me to follow you into that dark place where you took me, I can assure you that it won’t work on me.’
Haust dropped his gaze by way of shame. ‘You did that out of fear of me?’
‘Well, of course, I did. You left me no choice, Ludvig.’
‘And our daughter?’
‘She too is blessed by Pax. She can’t be corrupted by evil either.’
‘You are a brave woman, Izette. Our daughter is very lucky to have you as a mother. You protected her when I couldn’t.’ Haust heaved a deep mournful sigh. ‘I don’t deserve you, Izette. I’ll go. I’ll go, but I’ll leave our children here, because they need you. I failed to protect them when they needed protection; instead, I exposed them to evil. You’ll be able to heal the wounds they suffered at my hands.’
Izette looked at the man before her. His voice, his words, and his demeanor belonged to a man who had fathered her children. And yet every instinct inside her screamed that none of this was real, that the man she was looking at was not her husband, that Oda was not here, that none of their children were here. Run! Run, Run Izette. Run inside.
‘I am not worthy of you, Izette. I’ll go,’ Haust said in a subdued tone, ‘but I’ll leave the children here. They need you; they don’t need me. They are better off without me in their life. You are better off without me…’
At that plaintive tone, at that voice of self-sacrifice reaching into her soul, Izette put her doubts away as she put her fears away. Miracles can happen. ‘Oh, Ludvig,’ Izette cried, ‘is that really you? Are our children really here?’
Haust broke into tears again. ‘They are here, my love. Oh, Izette, my beautiful Izette, I love you so much. I want so much to hold you in my arms and tell you how much I love you, even though I know that I am not worthy of your love.’
Tears flooded Izette’s eyes and she slipped into her husband’s arms. Her Ludvig was back. Oh, how she longed for him! ‘You know, I never gave up hope on you, on our children, on us. I never stopped praying for you to come back to me.’
‘Well, I am here now. It seems that your prayers were answered,’ Haust said.
‘Yes, you are here now,’ Izette returned, smiling, holding tight to her husband. ‘You never asked our daughter’s name.’
‘I forgot, lost in my misery. What is her name?’
‘Odell,’ Haust echoed dully.
Izette frowned. ‘You know whom she is named after, don’t you?’
He didn’t know. Fear ripped at Izette’s heart and she lifted her face to look at her husband, only to see a stranger with a cruel smile on his face. She opened her mouth to scream, but it was too late. The dagger that plunged into her neck severed her vocal cords. Only the dull gurgle of blood emerged from her mouth.
Haust regarded Izette’s lifeless body at his feet dispassionately. Who was this woman? He had no idea. Had called her Izette, but didn’t know who Izette was. Had told her that he loved her, but didn’t know what love was. Had spoken softly and lovingly to her, but was alien to both. Every word that he had uttered, every gesture that he had made, every tear that he had shed was done in accordance with his master’s dictates. His mission was to kill the mother of an infant he didn’t know, and bring the infant to his master. Presumably, the infant was the sister of the demons. He didn’t understand how it all worked, but it was not his place to question his master.
Haust glanced at the open doorway. With Izette dead, no permission was needed to get inside the cottage. All he had to do was just walk right in and remove the child. Haust was about to step over the threshold when a powerful force threw him to the ground. With a savage roar he rose to his feet and made another attempt at entering the cottage. After several futile attempts at entry he gave up. He would have to consult his master about this.
Haust stood before his master, bowing low and explaining apologetically why he failed in his mission. As his master tore into him viciously for his failure, a vague memory stirred within him. He once knew a man, a noble man, who wanted to change something. What was it that he wanted to change? He couldn’t remember. What was his name? And who was he? He couldn’t remember the name or the man behind the name. But then what did it matter, for both were now lost to oblivion...