Letters From Hades

Part 4

By Demeter

"...Did you ever feel like you were helpless, did you ever feel like an open wound?"

Bon Jovi, "Save A Prayer", 1992

25

They are playing us for a fool. The man who pretended to have been mugged so that Connor and Taggart had no chance but to come to his help, then disappeared. The murder took place, and all of it happened within a timeframe of what, minutes?

I finally must begin to admit that the personal connection is part of what is taking us so long. Because as we have to visit a woman called Virginia Franklin, I admit readily that I'd rather go home with Blair, start packing and get the hell out of the city. We both need it, for sure.

I keep checking on him unobtrusively; watching for traces of that latest trauma, physically and otherwise, but other than that he seems tired, I can't detect anything.

It probably hasn't even completely registered with him that the killer had been right there in the apartment, waiting for him - God. To think that I've come that close to losing him again...

Then again, the rational part of my mind thinks that it was no doubt all in the plan, to throw us off balance, like they intended to with the dead cat and the musical clock. And, of course, to leave their message -- we can get as close as we want to. Any time. Make us play by their rules.

It's the first time on a police job that I, for a moment, just want to give up that heavy responsibility. If Drennan said today, it's all over for the Cascade PD, that they want to use ATF personnel only, it would be fine with me.

Because it might be that we never get James, and what's going to happen then? Ocean says it's necessary to have a safe place, both inside and outside to deal with the horrors of the past. Maybe we won't find it in Cascade, Washington.

I just don't know. And I feel tired in the face of this new, brutal murder, but I've still got the job to do. Me, right. I should have never drawn Blair into this in the first place. But I did, selfishly.

And keep doing it.

When the name 'Franklin' was found in Claasen's day planner, it was Blair who told us who she was -- thanks to a tip from Ocean a couple of days before. Coincidence? We have to believe it for now. He's feeling guilty about not having mentioned it earlier. How can I make him see that there's no way he could have anticipated this turn of events?

Then there's this disturbing habit that Blair and Julie shared, what does it mean? Could James have known?

Those scars were old, as Blair said, almost twenty years old, not as recent as Julie's wounds. But there's no mistaking, it's come back to him as well, subtle, insisting, performed as a reminder by another alter.

What can I do to make it stop except for watching him 24/7?

***

We are parked outside Franklin's practice. Blair hesitates for a moment.

"What is it?" I ask gently. He hasn't switched since he came to realize what happened to Julie, not that I know of anyway, and for the first time, I'm unsure whether it's a good thing. Too much sensory information - I know a thing or two about that. Lately, I'm beginning to learn a bit more about what this multiplicity is all about: The same things that make my senses go haywire make him switch. Like sensory overload.

"I didn't know she was that sick." He sighs, and I wait for more to come. Instead, he straightens his shoulders. "I think we should go now, get this over with."

"You're right." I can clearly feel his weariness, because there's the echo of it inside myself.

***

Mrs. Franklin shows honest surprise when I introduce Blair and myself. "Police? What can I do for you?" She's calm on the outside, but her heart starts beating faster. Why do most people react that way when contacted by the police? I often wonder. "It's about a woman who might have been your patient. Her name is Julie Claasen."

"You know I can't tell-- wait a minute." Her eyes widen. "Have been?"

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Franklin. She was murdered. We found your name and number in her day planner."

"Oh my God." She looks around as if searching for something to sit down on, then seems to think twice. Her voice is steady, as she asks, "That's terrible, but how can I help you? You want to know where I was when she died?" Obviously, she's someone trained to deal with sad news. Like the stories her clients tell.

I realize the thoughtful look she's giving Blair, and hurry to answer her. "Many victims know the killer, so I was wondering if you have any suspicions, based on what she told you in therapy. We know that she regularly cut herself. What was her diagnosis?"

"Look, I normally would require a warrant, but I've been worried about Julie myself. Nothing specific; of course I would have contacted the police if I had any justified suspicion, but--" Her voice falters for an instant, but she composes herself. "Julie has - had - Dissociative Identity Disorder. Also known as Multiple Personality Disorder."

I must have stared at her. She misunderstands, beginning to explain, "It's a disorder that people develop when they're subjected to severe physical and sexual abuse as children, before the age three to five, and--"

Stop!

"I know all that," I say harsher than necessary, and just as well, she breaks off the sentence. "what I mean--"

"Julie wasn't sick! Come on, lady, I knew her better than anyone else. You must have been mistaken."

Oh damn. I want this day to end, plain and simple. Claasen was a casual acquaintance to Blair, so we're dealing with someone else here. But who? I can't place the tone of his voice, the way his heart sounds to me. Could it be that the shock has created a new alter? But would he know Julie at all?

She just shrugs at his words. "I've worked with Julie before, when she was a teenager. She was first beginning to have these memories - at that time, it ended with the parents suing me. And today, many people still think those are just stories created by the therapists. As if anyone wants to listen to these things over and over again."

"Wait a minute. Julie was one of some kids who were freed from a cult in the late Seventies. I thought most of the parents were arrested."

"Well, not Julie's, because they denied any knowledge of what was going on. She could only later tell they were part of it, too. Of course, they didn't react kindly to that."

"What happened?"

"She ran away. Went to college. She used another surname, had someone who helped her get the fake papers."

"No," Blair insists. "Julie's my best friend. She wouldn't do that."

I give him a sideways glance, deciding I should continue this interview at another time. "Mrs. Franklin, you have been a great help. I'd like to see you at the station tomorrow, so we can take your official statement. I've got only one more question. You said you were worried about her. Why?"

Franklin casts another curious look at Blair; then she says, "I was worried she could have been in contact with the cult again. There are always scattered groups, but I read in the paper that James is out again. And one of her alters - personalities - had told me that she had once been high up enough to be trusted with executing the call-back program for someone the cult was after. Like sending them things that were used to scare them as children. Lately, she got depressed and--"

"No way! I don't believe that!" Slamming the door behind him, Blair rushes out, leaving both of us in stunned silence.

Franklin speaks up first: "I was wondering when you told me your names. Julie was talking about a friend of hers, Blair, who she'd known from that time."

There's no need to keep anything disclosed from her now. "You think she could have been the one who sent us a musical clock that made him turn into a frightened little child?"

Franklin's eyes are full of regret. "I wish to God I could be sure she didn't, but you've seen for yourself what she did to her body. Those alters created by the cult had a strong hold on her, and I couldn't seem to establish any contract to keep them at bay. I was going to get her committed again - if only I had. Now go see to your friend, Detective."

She waits until I've closed the door behind me, then sinks into a chair and starts to cry.

***

Something Franklin has said to me sticks; 'alters created by the cult'. How can that happen, how do they get control over the splitting? And if they do, and did it to Julie, is it possible that it happened to Blair, too? Nonsense, I tell myself. I can't believe it. No part of him would ever take part in spying on or hurting others. No. Way.

I find him sitting in the truck, cowered against the door, his gaze tired and sad - but not Blair. "Julie is really dead, isn't she?" he asks.

"I'm afraid so. I'm sorry," I add, because this alter probably hasn't heard it from me yet.

"It isn't right what the lady said," he insists. "Julie was my best friend. She didn't have anything to do with criminals."

"You probably knew her best." I decide it's not a good moment to confront him, remembering the day Blair was supposed to do that presentation for DA Winters. I am now talking to the one who kept him from doing that. "How long have you known her?" I'm trying to be careful. There are other things I want to know, but gaining trust is what has to be achieved first.

"I... I know her from school." He looks confused all of a sudden. "Fuck, I've got to write a test tomorrow, don't I?"

"No," I say tiredly. "Don't worry about that."

And who are you anyway?

I ask him, and he tells me his name is Brad. And that Julie was his very best friend.

***

"God, Jim, I feel lousy."

Blair sounds that way, too. The only thing I find rather a relief is that I always instantly know when he's on the front. These senses are actually good for something. "You are entitled. Come on, let's go talk to Simon and then go home."

I haven't yet mentioned that one of the kids now being treated by experienced psychiatrists, could be Julie's. Just when you think this case can't get worse, it actually happens - sure it would have been naive to assume the cultists do the programming just for fun. One of Julie's alters, 'made' by them, had stayed loyal.

And Blair's father, according to Tony, was a good friend of Philip James.

This cutting thing is, as bad as it is, not surprising. One of them is angry. He cannot get to the perpetrators, so he takes his rage out on the body that has already borne so much pain.

"Maybe if I'd gotten there earlier... I could have--"

"No," I say sharply. "There's no way you could have helped her. They set it up that way, don't you see?"

"Yes, I can see it. And I'm tired of waiting for the moment when they think it's my time."

"Let those assholes think whatever they want. They won't get to you."

The semblance of a smile flickers over his face, before Blair goes on, "This thing with Julie, it's -- just so hard. She might have sent me that musical clock, or even..." He swallows hard.

I can sympathize. I have a hard time too, thinking of the slender woman nailing that cat to our front door. "I'm sure that most of her didn't want to do you harm. In the end, she must have objected to them. That's why she got killed."

"There's more," he says, and I'm struck by the despair in his voice. "I'm not sure, but I think I might have met her before."

"When?" Some of Julie's scars were old, just like the ones that Blair has. What about Brad?

"I don't know. And I don't have time to think about it now," he cuts the conversation short. "I'm going to see Ocean in an hour."

***

26

Kevin curls up in the corner, drawing a little comfort from the soft wool blanket, and the plush sheep he's clutching in his arms, rocking gently. These days, a corner in the softly-colored room that inhabits Ocean's practice is the only safe place, even if he cannot find any in his mind.

There's only blood, and screams -- and guilt.

***

"We had a contract," Ocean says, not admonishingly, but it's clear she won't let this go. "What made you break it?"

Ben looks in disgust at the flecks on his sleeves, where the blood has dried. What would she know? Damn all the shrinks. Franklin didn't get it. Ocean doesn't, either. He tries to assume a nonchalant position in the chair, even though he feels like he's going to burst with all the tension inside.

He's been feeling like this, itchy, on alert, ever since whomever James sent had gotten the drop on them in Julie's apartment. And what good was this doing anyway, wasting time on chatting about things he already knows? What will happen once he tells about Halloween, and those other ritual days? No one will believe it anyway, so why bother?

Halfway to Olympia, he'd pulled off the road, parked the car and then picked up the razorblade he keeps in the glove compartment.

As always, the sight of the blood has calmed him, but he's been careless, let Ocean see the traces.

"Ben," she says kindly. "I know you're probably protecting the others from the memories coming through, but that is not the way. "Tony said that your father--"

At that, Ben jumps up, hardly keeping himself from clearing the stuff right off Ocean's desk. He feels like he's trembling with the pent-up rage; how the hell can she suggest such a thing?

"I am not," he grinds out, "and you better remember this, I never was related to that bastard. And Naomi, the bitch, is not my mother." Ocean barely flinches, but Ben knows the effect of his words well, having used them very intentionally.

"Did Naomi know about the abuse?" Ocean asks, and Ben can tell that it's taking her a lot. Because, he knows, that's one thing she doesn't want to believe.

"Do I care?" he returns coldly. "She didn't stop it; that's my point here."

For a moment, the therapist looks like she wants to argue. Ben notices with anger that she is still loyal to Blair's mother, even though Naomi broke that friendship long ago. Ocean has loved Naomi for a long time, despite the fact that Blair's mother hadn't been entirely fair to her.

"Okay, Ben. Help me understand here. How does the cutting make things better?"

Ben considers this. Wondering how she'd deal with children crying inside of her all the time, unable to stop, because the pain doesn't, either. "Have you ever felt as if you were suffocating within your own skin?"

"I think yes," she says, meeting his gaze steadily.

"I can breathe again when I see the blood. Then the crying inside stops."

He sees her look of surprise and curses himself. His voice sounded... almost sad. Revealing way too much to her. "Anyway, Blair will have to deal with that sorry excuse for parents, not me."

"We will find a way for you to deal with everything, too, and without hurting yourself or the others. Ben..." Ocean hesitates for an instant. "You were there already, weren't you, at the beach house?"

"Of course I was." He smiles contemptuously. "You really think Blair would still be alive if I hadn't been? I came after the birth ceremony."

***

"What is the birth ceremony?" Ocean asks, and I just stare at her in confusion.

"What?"

Then I look down at my sleeves. Seeing the flecks on them makes me feel like ripping it off, fuck, when did that happen? Blood. My wrists hurt. Who the hell is doing this and why? What's more, I really want to distract her from this subject.

I know what the birth ceremony means in these circles, after all, I've read tons about those sick rituals. Rounding up the ritual as usual would be the orgy. Ocean knows it, too, but the question was what it was in our case.

"I've read about it, lots of articles and stuff," I say, barely keeping myself from gagging. "One of us might have been lurking in the background when I did the dossier." For sure, they did, alarmed by the subject.

"That's true," Ocean acknowledges.

It might have happened to one of us, though. Meaning, to me. "I'm sorry, I can't deal with this now. They murdered someone I knew. You were right on the money with Franklin, by the way."

"I'm sorry," she says sincerely, with a hint of regret. All of her brilliant methods don't do much at the moment, when the inner safe place isn't enough. And that realization keeps crashing down on me. It's not safe anywhere. They can always find a way to get to me, despite Jim's reassurances.

"There's more, Ocean. She might have been part of it, trying to make me come back." Mortified, I feel my voice breaking on the last words. "But if it really was that way, it means that it's all true. The dreams I have. All this stuff I read, I..."

Being terrified of heights. Seeing Golden Fire People instead of those beautiful childhood visions that users of this drug have described, like the golden castle. The cutting. Freaking out with Halloween just around the corner.

James' cult people sending personal messages to activate a call-back program, and one of us talking about birth ceremonies.

"You already proved them wrong. You survived. And once the real threat is gone, we can start to work on the one that's left by the memories. I can promise you, it is doable. I've seen it before."

Can I tell you that I don't want to do any work here? I want to be somewhere else, someone else. I'm scared to death at the things going to be uncovered, and the truth is, I really am alone. She might be sympathetic, and Jim sure is, too, but they haven't seen those things.

I have.

Some of those inside of me know, and they write about it. Not in detail, but inside, there's a boundless fear. There's lots of red in the pictures drawn in the diary.

***

Going home is a challenge. There are these flickers, of masks, and fire, every time I have to stop at a red light. Children coming to the door for trick or treat, while I was scared to death. For them, for me.

I've got to be careful; for now I rely on Tony who said that no child will be let behind the wheel of a car. Still, I can feel reality slipping away every now and then, giving way to something that is - what? Memory? Ocean is keeping her promise, going slow, not giving me any stress about recovering memories that I feel must be there -- but she can't account for the same sick people having returned and wreaking havoc in my life again. The pace is picking up.

Julie. The ritual.

The more I'm thinking about it - hell, I've read the writings of the skeptics, too, and know their arguments. I've asked Ocean if she believes every single thing her clients tell her. She says that while she can't prove any of it, it's not the color of the robe the perpetrator wore, or if the person was actually a high priest that matters. Drugs, pain and fear alter one's perception. It's the fact that something terrible has happened to a child, and one or more adults were responsible.

Am I a highly suggestible person? Being a shaman, I think ironically, the answer certainly is yes.

What is the conclusion to draw from all this?

But those things are real. Jim is reluctant to tell me about those stunts the other alters have pulled, but he does, and hell, when it comes to this, I trust in him even more than in Ocean. You can't lie to Sentinel senses.

In the midst of these musings, my cell phone rings, making me jump. I pull off the road, answering it. I sense immediately that something has happened. Some psychic, shamanic, multiple ability, I don't fucking care, I just know it.

And then Jim says, "We've got him. Philip James was arrested just a few minutes ago."

I'm dumbfounded. Silenced. How can that be when we've been hunting this monster in vain for all this time? Arrested?

"Chief, you still there?"

"Yes, I - I mean,... how?"

"You wouldn't believe it - in a grocery store. The clerk recognized him. The bastard is that arrogant."

"Oh." I still don't know what to say, or how to feel at the moment. Well, torn would come pretty close. Because I know I'm needed there now. I need to be there, when I'd rather be a planet away from that man. "Okay, I can be at the station in twenty minutes."

Jim sighs. I expect him to argue, but instead, he says, "You can come if you think you can handle it, but I won't be interrogating him. Simon has assigned Drennan and Connor."

"Because of me."

I don't notice until now that I'm shaking. James isn't the phantom any longer; he's real and keeps playing us. Aside from everything else that is at stake here, capturing the orchestrator of a wave of crime in Cascade, certainly can be a career leap. Not for Jim, though, and it's all because of my involvement in this case. "I'm sorry," I say, startled at how hollow it sounds.

"It's not your fault. Simon is probably right about it. Look, you don't have to come. We could get away for--"

"It's okay. No, not okay, but I need to. I want to see him locked up." At least normal life will come back to Cascade, if not to us. "See you later."

After we've hung up, I give in to the emotion that's wanted to break through all day; this is just the last straw, and I don't care if it's not rational, I just can't hold back any longer.

I start to cry. There'll be no further reprieve; the truth will come out, one way or another. Now that James has been arrested, if he doesn't talk, his cronies will. What are they going to tell? Wright, Clayton, Grays. They have nothing to fear anymore -- I have.

No one will believe that shit anyway. Damn liar.

The hateful voice doesn't scare me, really. I'm used to it. And I'm afraid of other things; if they believe, what are they going to think? Jim. Ocean. They have both seen bad things, but this is different. They are going to despise me, for sure.

I clutch the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. Stop that whining! I need to go and get there now. Maybe it isn't as bad as I've feared. Maybe seeing James in a prison cell will actually do something good in my miserable life.

***

Zack remembers confronting Julie, just a few days before her death. "I saw you. You were there, the whole time."

He doesn't elaborate, but part of her knows anyway. She's looking sad, and he wonders if it's about the early past they shared, or the incident that happened, later, at school. Those bullies had been clueless that they had only been a pawn in a game. Clueless as Blair who'd had a crush on the older student he later wouldn't remember, and Brad who thought of Julie as his best friend.

"You must understand," she'd said softly. "They said if I helped them get back at you, I could keep the baby."

"Did they let you?"

Her face darkens, tears welling up in her eyes. "No. I'm sorry this happened. I thought it wasn't too bad, just a bit of a wild party."

"Party?" There's the shadow of Ben behind Zack, and Julie who is not Julie at this moment, but seventeen-year-old Sarah, flinches. Zack remembers very well the night Leila came. Perpetually young and naive, superficial, but in pain lots of time when she's awake - not knowing where it's coming from. A party, it was not.

Sarah cries openly. "You've got to understand. I couldn't tell them no."

"I understand," Kerry says softly, embracing her. "I know."

They don't ask her about the musical clock. Because they know, and one more confession could destroy everything between them.

***

Halloween. Don't think about it; don't look too closely. I've had it with boundaries to the 'other-world' opening. Enough. As I get closer to the Cascade Police department, I realize that I'm driving slower by the minute, and I consider calling Jim and telling him I'll wait at home, but I decide otherwise. I chickened out the day Major Crimes freed those kids. Can't do it now.

Still, I feel like my head is going to explode with all those fragments getting more; the touch of hands, the smell of some oil, and it's driving me crazy because I can't put it together. The only common thread is fear, for the moment when the picture will be complete.

And I'm going to confront the demon any minute now, even if separated by a two-way mirror.

***

Everybody seems kind of subdued; exchanging looks as if there's something they don't know whether to tell me or not.

"Chief, you don't have to do this." Jim gives it one more try, but his words clearly lack conviction. Despite his urge to protect, I think he really understands -- this is one bridge I have to cross.

"I do," I object, my voice sounding a bit rough still, and I can tell he's noticed by the concerned look he gives me.

God, this is really going to happen. As we walk together to the interrogation room, I feel like I'm walking through molasses. What if, by any chance, Ocean has made a mistake, and these alters have really come from my active imagination, from me being a shaman, what the hell?

Then the door opens, and my gaze first falls on Megan and Drennan. They both look frustrated; no wonder, I imagine it's hard dealing with somebody like him, a creature who doesn't see anything wrong in torturing and maiming children.

I force myself to look -- and at the same moment, I know what has got everybody so unnerved. Philip James isn't a big man, and the gray hair and beard add to an air of simplicity rather than the power, or the greed for it, you'd expect someone like him to radiate.

"I admit that, of course," he says, and the sound of his voice is enough to make me shudder, on a deep visceral level. Highly suggestive? I'm about to jump out of my skin.

"I escaped from prison, because I knew this guy who was planning it, and it seemed like my only chance. I would have gone crazy."

"Oh, so you aren't already," Megan says sarcastically. "I agree, Mr. James. With what you did back in the Seventies, and the crimes we can tie you to now, you knew damn well what you were doing."

"No, no, you don't understand!" he protests. "I never... I couldn't have... I didn't hurt those children. I haven't had any contact with Alice in years, so I can't speak for her. Back then... I swear I didn't know what was going on in the house; I was devastated when I found out."

"What the hell is going on in there? Jim, there is evidence that he was involved in the murders, right?"

Jim clenches his jaw in frustration. "As it is, we have evidence that he bought that damn musical clock, but can't even prove yet that he was in the house where the children were held. Forensics are still knee-deep in analyses regarding that hell-house."

"No." That's impossible. Okay, so he's no getting anything conclusive. Right. We talked about this before; usually, a person's heartbeat increases when they lie; they start to sweat, their breathing changes. Only there are people who play by other rules, psychopaths, to whom empathy is something from the movies, a glove they can choose to wear - or not.

The damage is done. If Jim can't prove that James is lying, where do we go from here?

"I let those people live on my grounds, and they did horrible things to their children, and my kid, too, and in the end, they made me responsible. Can you imagine what life in prison was like for me? I won't be going back. I'd rather kill myself."

Suddenly, it's me who's sweating. I know that voice; I know another cadence of it, but even this whining tone can't fool me. The headache is back full force, almost blinding. I know this man, know for sure by not what my mind, but my body tells me. It's like an open wound that has been there all the time, for so long that I didn't question its existence.

He could always do that; make people want to believe him.

"Alice and I took in all those children, because she couldn't have any after Nathan, our son, was born. We wanted to give them a better life."

Don't you like being here, Jacob?

He'd called me that. Like Nathan, his son did. It's my middle name, but Jacob was also the first 'imagined friend', company in misery.

My fingers are starting to prickle, vision turning gray.

***

"Your Mom can't take care of you right now, that's why we're going to live with Mr. James for a while."

The man who said these words was wearing a uniform. He hadn't said anything about where Naomi was, though, and the prospect of going to the big house, scared Blair, for some reason he didn't know.

***

27

James is looking up, and it's an eerie moment; as if he's guessing that we are here behind the mirror. He might be playing the wrongly accused, but this man sets all my instincts on edge, whether his autonomic responses give me a hint or not. It's not rational. It's deep instinct that makes me doubt his words, making the panther bare its teeth.

"Children are precious," he says with a smile that seems inappropriate, considering the charges he's facing. While his heartbeat stays level, Blair's skyrockets the same moment, and I know it's time to end the confrontation.

He's walking backwards, holding up his hands in front of him, his eyes fixed on the man. "No. I didn't tell. I didn't break the promise."

"Come on, Chief," I say. "Let's get out of here." This is all the proof I need. Not that I had any doubts before, even if I'd been wishing hard that anybody could have made a mistake, stupidly. Still.

When he doesn't move, I put my arm around his shoulders, and turn him away from the sight of Philip James. It's Billy I'm leading out of the room, wondering if James has just used these words intentionally. I figure. Nothing he ever does is purposeless. His words were a cue, and Billy sure has understood it.

"Okay now?" I ask as we're outside in the hallway. Of course it's not, but I had thought, too, that seeing James could be helpful in moving on. I don't want to hear what Ocean has to say about it.

This is hazardous; Drennan and Connor could decide to take a break any minute now, and how am I going to explain? Our problems, I'm just beginning to realize, haven't stopped with James being arrested. Some of them have just begun, because this isn't going to go away in a few weeks.

"I want to go home," Billy whispers, his light blue eyes clouded.

"I'm sorry, but we can't for the moment." But we sure as hell can put some more distance between you and that bastard. "Let's go to the break room."

He doesn't object. As we walk away from the interrogation area, I feel tired to the bone, something that seems to have become a habit lately. After the call came in today, the whole thing almost went down too damn easily, which seemed like a good thing. Simon has been worried I'd tear James in two, but the truth is, I've been distracted all day. It was Drennan who put the cuffs on him.

Before all that, when Blair went to see Ocean, I called Naomi. I found out that she was in the area.

***

I watch Billy clutching the paper cup of hot cocoa in his hands. He likes everything sweet. Ever since I know about it, I've been tempted to buy enough sweets to get through a year, but both Blair and Ocean have reminded me that it's not the way. About the cocoa - not even I am sure what they put into this brew from the vending machine, but he seems to enjoy it, the sweet taste calming him a little.

Another alter is coming to the front, Kerry giving the contents of the cup a doubtful look after taking a taste.

I think I know all of them now, the most important ones, in any case -- those who helped to keep up the pretense of a 'normal' life, and the children who bear the burden of a remembered horror that will always be in the present to them.

Hell, it is in the present in too many ways.

"I've always felt nervous around here," Kerry admits now, out of the blue.

"I'm sorry." I know them by their heartbeat, their breathing, their body language. What else is she saying? That they want to quit?

Naomi would like that, I think. She had agreed to see me, but it wasn't like I could get much out of her. I'd been ready to rest her case as long as James was still on the loose, but not any longer. I'd like to say I respect her, but with her being all vague and defensive, all my suspicion I had for her even before, came rushing back.

I had to corner her in the hotel room before she told me about Blair's father who had left her prior to her giving birth, then suddenly appeared again to claim parental rights. They'd only had a short affair, she said, and she always thought he'd turned strange, so she had intended to put some distance between them.

Those were different times. He had some influence, and if she had tried to cross him, she could have lost custody of Blair. That's not enough for me. Not far enough.

Did she know what happened on those weekends?

Not in detail. When she suspected that something was wrong, she and Blair left town and hid from him.

What was so special about him? Why did he have that much influence?

That's when Naomi started yelling at me, and threw me out of the room. We both knew I'd be back.

Right now though, there are other things to consider. "I'd like to talk to Megan and Drennan after they are finished with James. Then, hopefully, we can go home."

Kerry nods at that. She's the quiet, easygoing one. Doesn't start when she finds herself in surroundings when she can't remember how she's gotten there; doesn't draw attention to herself. The one who calmed the child at the hospital. I wonder, how often have I seen Blair calming a victim, not knowing that it was her?

And I realize that part of me still hopes that I could wake up and find our lives untouched of tragedy, us in a time somewhere before Alex came along. Fool.

"I'd like that." Kerry smiles bravely, though it's understood that the arrest of James is causing an inner turmoil.

What do those children she feels responsible for associate with this man? Having studied Blair's dossier for the DA, I know the answer: The Devil. "It'll be all right," I say. There's a lack of confidence behind the words, but it's the attempt that counts, right?

***

James still claims to be innocent. No one around here believes him, but there's got to be results. The press will have a field day with this, at the mere idea that someone had been convicted and sent to prison on false accusations. The thought is making me sick, but I know these things have happened before.

"Just take a look at the literature. False Memory Syndrome, my ass." Drennan grimaces over her coffee.

I agree, even if I don't want to engage in politics right now. I want to find the one thing that'll put James on death row, the one corpus delecti that'll tie him to the murders of the women whose identities we could never uncover. For Jill Clayton. Marsha. For Julie Claasen and her daughter.

For Blair.

We are just about to leave, when something holds me back. It could be a hallucination, but I know it isn't, when I hear the whispered words directed at me. While being on the run, James has had access to news stories, and this is one he'd obviously believed.

"You're still in the building, Detective Ellison, aren't you?"

So he assumes that I can hear him from here. What the hell does he want?

"I know what you're after. And I'm serving it to you on a silver platter, but there's a price. If you come down to my cell, I won't tell you anything."

Shit. I don't want this, but this might be the only chance, and who to work with evidence obtained through the use of my senses, we'll talk later. I make my decision quickly. "Chief, think you could get home and start dinner? I forgot something. Be home soon."

Tony looks at me quizzically - he's the only one who usually doesn't frown at the nickname - but he agrees. "No problem. See you."

"I'm assuming you're going to take my offer. Go to a room where you're alone, and no one will suspect anything."

It's eerie, as if he could somehow hear me as I can hear him. I picture him in his cell, the poor-misjudged-old-man expression replaced by a smug grin. I should have expected something like this. He was out of prison already when the Sentinel news hit the press. And that's why he's taken extra caution not to leave any traces behind, because he knew. Take that, we got you anyway.

I have to remind myself that he can't see me -- but he's arrogant enough to think that I'll do this, listen. Probably he'd been watching us. He knows I'll be doing this even if I can't stand it, and the reason why.

"The women didn't matter," he says. "That was only to get your attention, and it obviously worked. You know, you can't change the pattern. I made sure of that since the first time Jacob's father brought him to us, and part of him will always belong to us."

Fuck you, you bastard.

"Nathan's a goddamn fool, but for the first time in his life, he managed to do what I've told him, nice, for a change. Do you know what fear tastes like, Mr. Sentinel? It's sweet. Jacob's slut of a mother ran away, but I did get another chance. We tried it all, everything you've read and were shocked about, and then some. You don't know anything, Detective. But then again, maybe you do. I've seen Jacob has grown up to become quite a pretty young man, and with his history, he's all too easily handled..."

Forcibly, I crank down the dials to almost zero, my steps getting faster as I head back down to holding. I don't care what happens to him, or to me, for that matter. I just want to make that piece of shit to stop talking, make him shut up for all eternity.

Inside his cell, James is laughing like a madman, the way Nathan did after he'd told me that no one is innocent.

"Jim, come on. Jim!" Drennan's sharp voice stops me for a moment. When she has my attention, she talks on, softer now. "I know. We all know he did it. It's important not to make any mistakes right now, right?"

I'm so mad I can't grasp any clear thought.

"I'd happily shoot him right now," she continues, "but that isn't helping. It would be the easy way out, too good for him. Jim, are you listening to me?"

"Yes," I press out between clenched teeth. Damn it, I know she's right. In the end, sending him back to prison would be even better than the death sentence, because the one believable thing of his laments was that the other inmates were giving him hell. Well-deserved.

"Okay," she says. "Inspector Connor and I will go back in a minute. We will get there. I promise. You go look after your partner. We'll keep you updated."

Again, she's right. I'm just not sure if I can face him right now with the things James just told me. The web of knowledge is growing tighter.

***

He keeps whispering as I'm about to leave the precinct, counting on my inability to block out anything that might have to do with Blair's past.

"And Jacob was perfect for it all, because the bitch was out of the way, and Daddy was eating out of my hands. You think this is about believing in Good or Bad, or that the devil walks the earth? True, there are always enough dumb individuals who you can make believe that using children in rituals has a special magic. To me, Detective, there isn't any more to it than a good fuck, and more money than you'll ever make in your whole miserable life."

The phone on my desk is ringing, saving me at the very last moment. I answer it, barely holding back the anger boiling inside of me. "Cascade Police Department, Detective Ellison."

"Good evening, Detective. It's Virginia Franklin." She sounds as if she has been crying. Can I ever relate to that!

I need a few seconds, and some deep breaths before I can force myself to take on a friendlier tone. "Mrs. Franklin. How can I help you?" Don't listen.

"I found something you might be interested in," she says, sounding sad and dejected. "Julie hid it in my practice, taped it to the bottom of a chair. It's a disc on which she saved something like a diary, and damn it, I should have known. She was meeting these people again - and it seems she has a child I didn't know about. They told her she'd be able to keep it if she sent that clock to your friend."

"Anything else?" I wonder about the dead cat.

On the other side of the line, Franklin swallows hard. "Putting a warning on your door. I'm guessing you know better than me what that means."

"Actually yes, I do. Can I come over and take a look at that disc?"

"Of course. That's why I called you."

Anything to get out of this madhouse. Except what she's going to give me will possibly be nearly as bad. I wasn't happy today when Simon told me he was planning to keep me out of the loop regarding James, but before this day is over, I definitely see the point he has. I almost lost it with Alice James.

With the things that are bound to come up, it's better not to get too close to him either.

***

28

I've stopped on the way to buy some groceries, trying to deceive myself into thinking that tonight could be one of those evenings we used to have a long time ago. Leaving work where it is, at the precinct, have a cooked meal together, watch a little TV. Real life after a case closed, doing our best to move on.

Are you really that stupid?

It is illusion, of course, I can't go back to a life where Philip James wasn't in it, because it's much too late, was too late more than twenty years ago, only I didn't know it. Looking back now, there are more than a few hints, and it seems ironic that somewhere along the line, I chose a road that would inevitably confront me.

The probability for panic attacks had increased with those encounters with Kincaid, Lash, Alex -- decreased again, but once more, I settled for ignoring the signs. And then there's the Golden Fire People, and the startling similarities to those recurring nightmares. Stomach pains that doctors attributed to stress, because they couldn't find any other explanation.

I've been such an idiot.

On the last few miles, it has started raining; not just raining, it's practically pouring down, fitting my mood exactly. The wind is swirling leaves around, and I'm reminded that November will be here soon. Where did the time go? Seems like we've spent forever on this case. How long will it take to sweep up the shards?

Upon exiting the car, I'm almost immediately drenched, inevitably. Cursing, I open the door with my key, wondering just now what held Jim back at the precinct. I wouldn't put it past him to try and interrogate James anyway, but then again, he knows better. Everything outside of protocol could be dangerous, and he knows that.

In the apartment, I make a beeline for the bathroom first to grab a towel, taking a look at my mirror image as well. Boy, you've definitely seen better days. I'm not sure what it is that got Craig Thomas interested in me, and it surely weren't those dark smudges under my eyes. I look like I haven't slept in days, and maybe that's the truth, because one of us was always busy at night, writing down things, drawing, despairing--

The sound of a door being slammed makes me jump. Has Jim already made it home?

Shut up, brat.

Where did that come from?

It's cold in here, and I'm still standing in front of the sink, dripping, shivering, and I think I'm starting to go crazy, for real this time, because I feel hands touching me, pushing at my shoulders. Only that it isn't now.

There's a woman in the room with me, and I can see in the mirror that her face is contorted with anger. The sink is full of water, cold water. I've been crying, telling her that I'm hurt, begging her for help. Every word only enrages her more, and I sense her intent a split-second before she puts it to action; too late as her hands clamp down and she pushes my head under water.

I'm struggling, but she is stronger, and it's starting to hurt even worse, there's this pain in my chest, and I can't breathe -- and maybe I've been kicking her, survival instinct taking over, because she suddenly lets go of me. "Stupid, good-for-nothing brat!" she screeches, slamming my head against the side of the sink.

As I'm tumbling into darkness, I pray I won't have to come back--

When the fog fades, I'm still standing in the same place, the shocked reflection of myself staring back at me.

No wonder the fountain messed me up as it did -- there was another, older memory, and it was Alice James who got all hysterical one morning when I tried to tell her about the things her husband did.

Of course she did. She was part of it all.

And what does this mean anyway? Will there be more, coming through now that the barriers keep tumbling? I try to memorize the exercises Ocean has taught me, emphasizing their importance again and again 'til I almost got annoyed with her -- I'm a shaman, right? Expert with these things. Still, it's like I can feel this tidal wave coming. I can almost touch it.

Start cooking dinner. Eat something. Anything to keep from being swept away...

Remember your safe place.

Ned, yelling at me, when I have no idea what's going on. "Why the hell did you do this to me? I thought I could trust you!"

A violation of friendship and trust.

Julie...

Keep breathing.

More yelling. "Shut up, brat!"

Screams--

Blood--

***

In an atmosphere of constant fear for their life, Ben has sworn never to be afraid of anything. Unlike Tony, he doesn't care much about the rules, whenever he appears, it's their last resort, the last defense left. The Alliance has got to remain intact. That's all he cares about; and he knows that there'll be changes, the more access Blair will have to the others' memories, and it's inevitable now.

This is, in fact, what scares Ben.

As always, looking into the mirror to see an unfamiliar face has set off the rage, and the driving compulsion. He doesn't feel any pain as he's banging his fist against the brick wall again and again. On the contrary, it's some odd comfort to see the skin being broken, red leaking through. Red. Bright red blood. It means that he is very much alive, even if there's somebody else in the mirror. Blair.

He can hear the children cry, feel the adults' fear and anger, but Ben doesn't stop.

Kerry cringes in pain.

Ben can't stop, because it's the only thing that'll halt the flow of images.

Don't they all want that?

***

"God! Would you stop doing that?"

I jerk away from the touch, my heartbeat slamming into overdrive. Jim keeps one hand firmly around my wrist, and one look at my bloody hand tells me why. The smell seems overpowering. I'm going to be sick.

"Please," I stammer. "Let go, I -- I..." This is embarrassing, but I'm beyond caring. I stopped fooling myself a while ago. It's the total disintegration I fear most at the moment. Not so long ago, it was about Simon finding out, not being able to be at Jim's side as his Guide any longer - who am I kidding, I think bitterly. I haven't been a Guide in some time. This is about us falling apart. Jim and me. The alliance of imagined personalities that made life in a reality too overwhelming possible.

There's no stopping it now.

"Come on, let's get up from the floor. We've got to bandage that."

I let myself be pulled up, but my knees are shaking so hard I can hardly stand. I realize that the groceries are still in the same spot next to the front door where I left them, and my clothes have almost dried on me before I ever had the chance to change. Jim makes me sit on the couch and tells me he'll be back in a minute. I hear his words, muted, as if I'm under water. Fuck. Enough of that imagery already.

My hand is throbbing mercilessly. Damn, Ben, why are you doing this?

You know why.

You're not going to tell, Jacob, are you?

Come on, Jim, I silently urge him to come back from the bathroom where he went to get some bandage material. If I'm alone for a minute longer, something's going to break, and I can't, I just can't hold it back any longer.

Philip James was arrested before. He got out again.

You are mine, Jacob. Forever.

The time is now.

I can't stand to see the blood any longer. It reminds me of that day when I had my fingers caught in a slamming lid of some box and... Help me--

"Chief?"

I didn't even realize that I must have spoken it out loud, because Jim is next to me in an instant; and I can tell from the look on his face that it's really bad this time. He's not just worried. He's scared.

I am, too, but I don't want this, to freak because of those vague images starting to gain contours, it's in the past, I'm alive, and I should value that, but still, there's this pressure behind my eyes. No, I won't. But even shame doesn't stop it; and the tears start to fall, again. "I'm sorry. I'm going to--" Get a fucking grip. Do it now.

"What is going to help?" Jim asks gently. "Do you want to talk - or need to be alone a bit?"

If only I knew. The only thing that's for sure is that the downward slope keeps falling, and I'm far from reaching the bottom yet - let alone having an idea of what I'm going to find there.

***

Children would come to the door for trick or treat on Halloween. They went away happily, their bags full of candy, unaware that the children inside this house were breathless with fear.

It was a ritual day.

Jacob held Lily's hand clutched tightly in his, and they both listened to the laughter, the friendly words the adults had for the neighbors and their little ones. They were like visitors from another world, not knowing what it was like on the dark side.

There was an impenetrable wall between them, and Jacob and Lily.

***

I've done my best to keep it away, but it has come back, creeping around me again, this - it isn't like the feeling you have when you're the new one in just another school, where no one knows you, and chances are, once they find out you're a gifted kid, special classes and all, won't like you much either. No, it's not like that. It's more like living in a parallel universe, and Jim might understand that, since before Alex, he didn't know that there would be anybody else with enhanced senses.

Okay, now would be a bad moment to bring up Alex.

Special. Out of place. Teacher's pet. Shaman of the Great City. Your regular multiple.

"Is there anything you are remembering?" Jim is still very patient regarding my antics.

My knuckles still hurt, but at least I don't have to see the blood any longer. We've sat down, not very much inclined to start dinner. Jim has lit a fire in the fireplace, a nice warmth spreading through the room, but still... there is a tension.

"Does the fire bother you?" he asks, almost as an afterthought. Fire people. There is an explanation somewhere.

"No," I lie to both questions, which is more like a plea. It's bad enough as it is; I can't talk these things through with him now.

That episode with Mrs. James -- it had settled it, that no one would believe, and no one would help. No merry times with Naomi's friends. I still can't make sense of how all of this came together, but somehow it happened, and those weren't the six weeks I thought I'd remember. The reason I couldn't remember anything about that one year before -- must have its roots much earlier. You don't get D.I.D. at the age of eight.

"Where was she in all of this?" Whose voice is this? It is small, incredulous. I shiver.

Didn't she want us anymore? Is that why she left us behind?

Jim doesn't ask. He knows who this is about. "I don't know, Chief, but I promise you we're going to find out. Soon."

Everything begins to crumble once more as I'm starting to realize that this might be my greatest fear. Why did Naomi run away after Ocean confronted her?

***

'Your Mom is very sick. She might not be able to take you back.'

I can hear the voice, but I can't put a face to it. I'm being scooped up and held close -- 'but that doesn't matter much, does it?'-- and there's something, I don't know what, that's scaring me. I feel like I can't breathe, trying to pull away. I don't want to be that close.

'Now, be a good boy.'

I'm crying, because I want my Mom. If she doesn't come back, I'm going to die. At the age of eight, I'm utterly convinced of that.

***

Would Naomi have left me with people who were worshipping Satan - or just using it as an excuse, for that matter - for a year? Get freakin' real here. No way. I've got to think about all this, try to piece it together somehow, and maybe I should really call her, but not tonight. I'm absolutely exhausted, shaking with cold and nausea because of vague images I can't connect, don't want to, actually.

The common thread is shame. I know too much already.

That night, he's standing there, in the middle of my room, grinning maliciously, just as I know he's done before. I'm staring at him, frozen in sheer panic. How did he ever get past Jim?

"Little Jacob," he says. "I've got something for you." He's holding up something that's dripping crimson red -- "Can you imagine what power a Sentinel's heart holds?" --blood all over my covers, and I know the thing he's holding is a human heart, he'll force me to eat--

Jim!

I'm screaming, but as usual, no sound will make it past my lips.

***

29

Virginia Franklin is devastated. She had been making good progress with Julie until the malpractice accusation years ago. When she resumed working with her former patient, James' people already had Julie back in their clutches.

Franklin mourns for the time lost, and she's still angry at those who helped make the law suit against her happen. "It's not like anyone would want to deal with this shit all the time. Why the hell should we be making it up? The nightmares wouldn't be worth the extra money from a few more sessions. You keep doing it, because this is real."

I could relate to the things she said. I took Julie's disc with me for evidence, wondering how I'd break the news to Blair that it was probably his friend who nailed a cat to our front door. Of course, he's been suspecting it, too, but from her writings, there's no doubt anymore.

Coming home to find that Ben guy on the outside who kept punching the wall and would have probably kept on with it until he'd see bone, I realize soon there are other things that need to be taken care of. Maybe I have made a bad mistake today, but what was I to do? I think he had the right to see James in an interrogation room, knowing that everyone in Major Crimes and also the Feds will make sure the former cult leader won't be a threat any more.

Tonight's nightmare, dealing with the teacher, or a guy called Sidney Walker who had a brief affair with Naomi thirty years ago - or James himself? - seems to be proving me wrong, and I feel the guilty conscience rise. What is the right thing to do?

I know things are bad right now despite James' arrest, but I'm afraid they will only get worse. Even with the close calls, and God knows there were too many -- Blair has never been like this. Crying all evening, eventually giving up on trying to stop it. Where is this going to lead?

Would it be better if Naomi was here?

***

He's sitting on the edge of his bed, looking worn out, ready to keel over. "I don't know. I-- I feel like something's going to happen, and I can't do anything to stop it. Hell, I sound like a crazy person."

To me, it sounds much like the way I was thinking, those days before he came along, when I didn't know what this enhanced senses shit was all about. I haven't even had the chance to tell him yet that Julie was involved in the stalking incidents, and I decide it can wait a little while longer. "Whatever there is. We'll deal with it. There'll be enough time."

"Time, yeah. I won't be doing this for another ten years, Jim. I just can't."

"You're no Sybil. That was half a century ago, and she was the first multiple her therapist treated. Ocean had access to tons of research in the meantime, and she's got the experience." I've done my homework, too. Nowadays, the way from diagnosis to integration still means a couple of years, average, but not a decade.

"So what is it going to mean? Three years, four years? I want them to be gone now. I don't care that they've helped me survive, because if all that is true, it would have been better not to survive at all!"

"Come on, Chief, don't say that." Can't you see you're scaring the hell out of me?

"Doesn't it all make sense now? Just take a look at my life, big promises, none kept. It's a downright mercy that Edwards didn't ever find out - she would have a field day with this. And the academy --"

"I'm sorry." I don't know what else to say. Maybe this would have never have happened if it wasn't for that fateful encounter we had almost four years ago at Cascade General. Ever since then, and I admit it now, I couldn't let go, was all too ready to create solutions that would make his role in my life permanent. For all I know, Blair could be holding a well-paid job at one of the best universities in the country right now.

"No." Blair is shaking his head. "He could have gone anywhere, but he came back to Cascade, to find Nathan, Marsha, and Julie. And me. He would have done this no matter what. His circle of 'precious children'. God, what an irony. Everyone in town believed him. They sent their children over to play with us; can you imagine that? Don't feel guilty. If it hadn't happened like this, and we'd never met, I'd be all alone right now."

I've been paying attention -- almost indiscernibly, there's been another switch.

"Seeing him again reminds me why I wanted to kill him," Tony says matter-of-factly. "Ben would do it." He's wiping his face in a brief, annoyed gesture, as if to make it clear that the tears are not his.

"Can't say I blame you guys." Strange, how familiar he has become, and I guiltily acknowledge that for the moment, I find it easier to talk to him than to Blair who is just now getting hit with all the horror of his past experiences.

Naomi hasn't offered any explanation as to the timeline, and there's something I keep wondering about. Those parental rights she and Walker kept fighting about, that was obviously the beginning. But who had given them so much power over her? They got away once, but when James was arrested the first time, Blair had to have been about eight to nine years of age. Billy.

What happened in between?

Tony, who told me he didn't want to go there just a while ago, shakes his head sadly. "I don't know what's going on," he says, sounding almost as desperate as Blair did a few minutes ago. "I can't reach the Keeper. I'm afraid that Blair will know."

I only hesitate for a second. "If there's something you need to tell me, maybe just get it out, go ahead. It'll be okay."

He shrugs helplessly. "Most of us have been living with the knowledge... each with some of it, anyway... but Samuel drives me crazy with all this prayin', and those demons. They dressed up as devils and such, but they sure were made of flesh and blood. Invading - right."

There's another switch, and I recognize Kerry. The tears are falling again. "The children are hurt. Please leave them alone." Even the cadence of her voice is higher than Blair's. If I hadn't been kind of used to this phenomenon by now, I would have been staring; but it's a good thing I have in the meantime.

"Kerry, listen to me. The children are all safe."

At least that can be said for those we have freed from the house where Alice James has spent the last few years; and for those of Blair's inner world. In some way, the ones Kerry lived with, are safe too. No one can harm Julie any more. Or Marsha.

"No. No," she cries. "We don't want to hurt Lily."

I can't follow. Hell, I don't want to, but I'm along for the ride now. "Kerry. Come on, you're okay. No one's getting hurt. It's a memory." Simple reassurances are probably not going to work, but what am I to do?

"The girl was never okay to begin with, and you want to know why?" Maybe Ben will be the one to tell me. And he does, finding words for a little boy who hurts all the time.

***

I don't know how much time has passed; it could be minutes, but for me, it seems like an eternity. It's the first time ever that we've been able to piece together a clear picture, an episode of what has been. Sure, I've seen pictures, and then there were kids like Colin, and Jenny... but it makes one hell of a difference when it's someone you know, someone you love.

I've stayed here with Blair until he fell asleep again, but I'm sensing there'll be more. This is going to be a long night, and I only have this time as a reprieve to deal with my own state of mind, which is everything from stunned to mad to desperate.

Where was Naomi? It's a justified question.

However, I'm thinking, where was I? A teenager, feeling sorry for myself, mad at the world because it seemed just so damn unfair, because I was sure Dad always took Steven's side no matter what. Unaware of what some children had to go through, things so much worse than the fact that their parents were going separate ways.

I can't turn back time. I can only try to be there for him now. Ocean certainly has a reason for cautioning him to go slow, but if he needs to say these things out loud, I cannot tell him no. The silence has lasted for much too long already.

***

30

The body was eight years old, but Little Jacob, who had come when Blair was not yet three, had remained at that age. Even though Blair couldn't, for all those years, he clearly remembers the night Mr. James tells them,

"Tonight we're going to do something special, you'll see." A smile accompanies the words; he feels it even though he can't see it behind the ghastly mask. "I know you're looking forward to it, right, little Jacob?"

"Yes," he answers obediently, as is expected of him. He feels like he's encased in a cloud, numbing his senses. The voice, however, still gets through. There is no escape from the voice and the power it holds.

"How do you address me?" the voice booms, and he becomes aware that he is trembling. "Yes... Master," he forces out between chattering teeth.

But the devil with the ghastly face, and Mr. James' voice, has already turned his attention away from him: Lily has been tied to the altar, her eyes wide in absolute terror as the chanting begins again.

"No," he tries. "Please. Please don't hurt Lily." No one listens to him.

Instead, Mr. James steps beside him now, a knife in his hand. He wraps Blair's fingers around it and holds on tight to the point of pain. Blair begins to struggle, knowing what is going to happen. He is dragged closer to the altar, neither his pleas nor Lily's whimpers are answered by any of the adults.

"You must prove your trustworthiness to us." James' voice is calm, friendly, only enhancing the terror. "I just know that you can do it. Lily was bad. You know that. You'll be the punisher."

His arm is forced down with ridiculous ease, no matter how hard he tries to resist, and when the knife's sharp blade opens Lily's veins, her blood being captured in a small bowl, Blair can't distinguish her cries from his own anymore. Her eyes are glassy. The sight and smell of the blood is making him dizzy, the chanting growing louder, as the edges of his vision slowly begin to gray out --

-- he isn't seeing this --

Kevin tries not to look at the unfamiliar girl who lies unmoving on the stone altar. He wonders if she isn't freezing, lying asleep on the cold stone. But for some reason, he can't look.

Mr. James smiles cordially. Mostly, Kevin has heard him yelling, and sometimes he hits the children, but it's the smile that Kevin fears most. Mr. James holds out a small bowl, pressing the rim against Kevin's lips so hard it hurts. "Drink now," he says.

The first sip and the realization of what is in it makes Kevin gag, and there's someone holding him from behind, forcing him to drink, half of the bright red fluid running down his chin.

Tears mingle with the blood on his face, because he just knows he'll have to puke, and that he'll be punished for it. When he dares to look again, the altar is empty, flecks of blood visible on it, and somehow, that scares Kevin even more. He feels like his skin is too tight, a prison he can't escape from, he'll be suffocating in it.

The air is thick and strange-smelling in here. He is close to fainting.

"Look, Jacob," Mr. James tells him, holding up a mirror to him. "You're truly a child of Satan."

Taking a look at his own face, the blood smeared around his mouth as if he's a wild animal that has just fed, Kevin starts to scream, until he collapses, spiraled into darkness--

-- Billy lies there, shaking hard. How has he ended up on the altar, when his last conscious moment is of listening to Mr. James yelling at Lily? There's a strange, disgusting taste in his mouth, and he wants to get up and walk away, because he's scared. Where is Lily?

His gaze falls onto the other occupants of the room. Mr. James is standing at the foot of the altar, shedding his robe --

***

"You're not going to tell, Jacob, are you?"

In a swift motion, Mr. James grabs the little dog and forces its jaws open.

"Then he cut -- he cut the tongue out. Blood -- so much blood--"

Like then, part of me refuses to believe that this is, has been happening, all those years ago, while another is shaking and crying.

"Because if you do, we're going to do this to you, too."

He's fisting his bloody hand in my hair, his face very close to mine. "Do you understand this, Jacob?"

"Now, Philip, that's enough, don't you think?" My father gave me the pup for my third birthday. The next day, he packed up both of us to go on another of those two-hour trips. Staying for two days, which always seem like a bad dream, once I'm home again. I'm asleep most of the time during these long drives.

"Shut up, I know what I'm doing," Mr. James snaps at him.

It's only my mind playing tricks on me, but I can still feel the blood on my hands, sticky bright red. And that finally does it - I'm making it to the bathroom just in time, retching violently as my senses assist my imagination just fine in dredging up not only the pictures, but also the associated sensations. Smell... taste... God, I don't think it will ever stop.

Jim has followed me, keeping one hand lightly on my shoulder, holding my hair back with the other; he's saying something, but I'm half here, and half...

***

"If you don't kill that cat, we'll do it. Very. Slowly."

Kevin stands in front of the altar, the knife clutched tightly in his shaking hand. He is shaking all over. He doesn't want the kitten to suffer, but he doesn't want to kill it either.

"Jacob! Now!"

The man holding down the animal on the altar is wearing a robe, and a mask with horns.

It could be Mr. Caprisi, but Kevin doesn't really know; he's dizzy, and scared, and for all he knows it could be the devil himself. That's what they always tell him, that he is being watched, and the demons remain in his body, and watch him from the inside. There's no running away from them.

The tip of the sharp blade touches the soft fur of the kitten; it is squirming on the stone. Kevin is shaking so hard he almost drops the knife. There's a warm wetness dripping down his thighs, and he cringes in shame. It's hot in the room, the blood rushing to his face.

"Time's up, Jacob," Mr. James whispers behind him. "Your choice..."

"No!" Kevin raises his hand to plunge the knife down. As soon as it penetrates skin and muscle, he's gone---

The Punisher is finishing the job. He doesn't feel anything. His only job is to do everything he's been told. In the end, the others are too stupid to understand that this is the only thing keeping them alive. He's the strongest. That's why he's still here, why they are shaping him up to become a warrior.

But when the ritual is completed, the way it always is, he leaves to make room for Billy.

The dead cat is gone. There's a circle of adults, mostly men, but a few women too, who are in a frenzy, high on bloodlust and power.

Their masks may hide their faces, but not the boundless greed in their eyes.

Billy closes his eyes, wishing he was dead like that kitty the other boy was forced to kill.

***

I wasn't allowed to cry. If I did, it was only worse, so Billy learned not to do it at all. I did cry, though, when I was lying in bed, not knowing where all this pain came from. Every other weekend, when that man came to get me, and why the hell didn't Naomi ever suspect anything? Did I never refuse to go, or got sick just an hour before he dropped by?

Maybe there was a chance, maybe not.

Only years later, something else must have happened. Ocean said Naomi and I were separated for a year, but no one ever told me how come.

My head hurts from all that thinking, and hell, I just can't stop crying, it's like whenever I try, another of those episodes comes up. More vague as they go back farther in time, getting more defined when they concern that one year.

I wish I wouldn't do this to Jim, because I can tell it's tearing him apart to hear this, but I just can't stop it. I'm so cold inside and outside, and if I was alone right now, there's a chance I'd just get it over with and end it all -- stop those images, and the choking fear, because something tells me that I've only just scratched the surface.

One of those children inside just keeps on whimpering.

Jim doesn't say anything, just lays a hand on the center of my back, and I drink in the warmth of the touch that's clean, not demanding like all the others I've known. This connection, it's maybe the only thing that keeps me from crossing that thin boundary to total breakdown -- yet.

***

"Crowley writes: "A male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence is the most satisfactory and suitable victim."** Now, Sid, doesn't that apply to your son?"

The laughter of the two men, Mr. James, and Sidney, the father, makes little Jacob's heart lurch in fear. They are outside the door.

The melody will sound, as always, when they come into the room together.

Little Jacob clutches the plush toy sheep tighter.

***

At the age of eight, Blair had had a natural talent. He'd discovered that he could, with a few lines on a piece of paper, create a little light in a world of darkness, not only for himself, but also for the other children who shared his hell. It was pure instinct that told him to hide the sketches from the adults, and he'd been right about it, because the day Mr. James found out about them, it changed everything.

He tore them to pieces, throwing them into the fireplace, and then he picked up the iron poker.

The next thing Blair knew was absolute darkness, in a prison made of wood, a box in which he had to curl up in an uncomfortable position to fit in at all. His arm and his head hurt, and his face was wet from tears he didn't dare cry. Because crying was for sissies, the voice had said. And drawing stupid pictures, what are you, a boy or a girl?

He drew a few shallow breaths, his heart beating faster when he seemed unable to get any air into his lungs. Cold sweat spread out all over his body -- and then it was Billy who started to cry, knowing that the things that came after the box were even worse. He'd learned this a long time before.

***

"Pissed your-- pants over a --little darkness? You are-- no good!"

The laughter seemed to resound in the child's body, the words distorted like from a defective tape, because due to the rapid switches, there was no clear image or sensation to be established. Zack was outside, watching, but helpless.

After seven hours of darkness, which Little Jacob had counted by the sound of the clock on the wall, they were confused and overwhelmed by the harsh lights. They were taken out of the box, and laid down on some hard surface, the lights still blinding them. They were, however, able to see the glittering eyes in a ghastly face that could be a mask or not.

They didn't feel the touch, only pressure in various places.

Hands moved quickly to hold their head in a vise-like grip, the voice thundering, "You are mine, and you do as I say. I am your God! Your God! Your God!" Each word like a hit.

The expression of terror remained frozen on Kevin's face. It would be with him wherever he went.

Jim has not gotten mad, not at me, at least, and he hasn't run either, which is inexplicable to me. It's been there, all the time, stored away in my body, and there's lots of pain, but also other things that make my face heat with shame. An absolutely inappropriate arousal, then, now, the lesson that everything sexual is dangerous. Dirty. Guilty. They're going to win anyway, aren't they? Because I think I'm losing it, right here and now.

***

All around him is white. It's Dr. Caprisi's infirmary. Little Jacob hears the sound of water in the room next door, and he whimpers, scared of what it means.

Billy lies on the cot, his body so tense it could break at any moment, and wouldn't it be good if it did? Any minute now, Dr. Caprisi will come in, smiling, and he'll give the pain with the cold water. He'll be stroking down Billy's bare thighs and saying things like, "We'll be washing all that you are out of you, and replace it with what we want you to be. Satan's child."

Billy doesn't understand what he's meaning by that, but he's afraid of the pain. He doesn't want to be at all.

***

Mrs. James brought a dress that belonged to one of the girls, and they made Billy wear it. He just played along, while inside, somebody yelled, "We're going to kill them all!" It frightened him more than anything else. The cotton felt soft and clean on his skin, a much needed comfort.

The adults laughed and pointed at him, calling him names. "Good little girl," Mrs. James said mockingly.

The little girl of nine stood in the circle of adults, feeling dizzy, wondering who they were, and how she got here.

The next time Lily asked Blair for a picture, Kerry did it. He never drew anything again.

***

When they weren't at the house any more, Tony had been absent, until after the time Zack and Leila came, and of course Ben. He was back, lurking warily in the background when Blair met Dr. Stoddard, who was so very impressed with his young, gifted student. Even though Tony had never met Ned, he knew what to look for in an offender.

Deciding finally that the mentor was safe to be around, he began to develop a little crush on him, staying present while Blair and Kerry pursued the myth of the Sentinel.

Until they found one.

The association with a cop, of all people, scared most of the children; it enraged Ben, while JustSam was indifferent, and Kerry and Blair remained rather oblivious to the internal struggle. But Tony had pushed it, arguing that this partnership, even with all the dangers it held, could be to their advantage. He'd been right, mostly, until Kerry, fed up with Jim's irritability, ran into Alex.

While Blair tumbled from one relationship into another, it was Tony who'd started harboring ideas of safety and stability, and Jim seemed to fit into them perfectly. This time, it wasn't simply a crush.

***

31

Somebody help me stop this. I have no idea what to do -- I can't just say, don't do this, I don't want to hear it, right?

How can anyone have come out of all this alive? It's not that I doubt, not for a minute. The box, the drinking blood, mutilation of humans and animals, the rapes, it's all there in the literature, and it was there in the old reports that Drennan shared with us.

They need to speak up, to say it out loud. Tony's worries about Stoddard. Kerry who came because those inhuman beasts did not only abuse the children, but mock them mercilessly. And the Lily incident.

I sit next to Blair on the couch where we have retreated again after it became clear that sleep would not be possible. I assure Kerry that in the present, no one can stop her from doing what she wants, and if that's studying art in Seattle, then so be it. I share Tony's helpless rage.

"You have no fucking idea!" Ben accuses, and I can't deny he's right.

Kevin is inconsolable, because he thinks he has killed Lily. I'm trying to tell him that he's not guilty of what the adults have forced him to do, hoping he's going to believe me. If I don't find the right words right now, how much damage will *I* do? They forced one of the children to cut her. If there was more, one of the alters would know, right?

Someday, somebody will listen. Tony says you're not like Dad.

The hell I'm not, and still, what was once so easy between us, comfort, touch, has become an obstacle. One more reason to hate James - it's not over and done with yet. If we ever get through this night, there's got to be something I can do. Anything. A trial is just not enough.

Billy curls up on the sofa beside me, wrapped up in the afghan. I lightly touch his shoulder, flinching when he does. "It's okay," I say. "It was really horrible, but you're safe now. No one can harm you."

And then there's a split-second in which his expression changes again, more adult, less panicked. Calm. For some reason, that's making me even more suspicious. With this hell raised, there's no reason to be calm. Still, he gets up slowly, folding the afghan and laying it back on the couch. Shaking himself as if from a bad dream. "Hell, Jim, I'm sorry you've got to hear all this shit."

His voice sounds like -- Ben? No. With him I can always feel Blair's body vibrating with rage. Have I met this one before?

"Don't worry about it, buddy," I say, feeling a bit foolish, unsure as to where it's coming from. As if I wasn't to call him that. The smile he gives me is almost -- conceited? Maybe I've been starting to see things, too.

"I'm tired. I think I'll go to bed, and that's what you should do, too. Thanks for staying up."

"No problem." I'm baffled. "Will you be okay?" A stupid question, I know. 'Okay' is a small pinpoint of light hopefully to be seen at the end of the very long tunnel we have only just entered.

"Sure. Good night," he says, leaving me behind as he now locks himself in the bathroom. I can hear the faucet running. What has just happened? I can't believe this. Ever since I came home to find him slamming his fist against the brick wall, over and over again, I've been waiting for the breakdown to come.

Not that I'm not glad it doesn't, not entirely, but I still don't understand it.

Maybe I should be more grateful; maybe this is just another alter, giving him a break, and Blair surely needs it. My mind is still reeling from all those nightmare images, and listening to them, it makes perfect sense that a child in an everyday hell like this has to create alternate personalities to survive.

Little Jacob who hears them coming. Billy who had to take all the pain.

One of these days, I know that I'm going have to deal with the effect of hearing these things, too, but not now. I get up, walk into the kitchen to get myself some water. Take a deep breath. The cold glass of the bottle feels good, and I stand there for a moment, not opening it, just lost in the sensation short of a zone. It's all been so vivid. Makes you want to--

"Help me---"

"Oh God, no, stop--"

The screams are making my skin crawl, but I react immediately, am by the bathroom in a heartbeat, trying to establish what's going on while my heart is pounding in my chest. Damn it. I should have trusted my instinct, should have known.

"Blair!"

The voice belongs to one of the children. Kevin. Inside of that room there's a little boy, whimpering, "Help me, please help me!"

And then another, "Traitors will be sacrificed, don't you know that, you dumb brat? You promised not to tell. You promised with your--"

On the word 'blood', I have kicked the door open, freezing at the sight in front of me. It was bad enough to meet Ben with his suicidal tendencies, but it's not him who insists on the punishment of those who have broken the silence. Probably, this one came as a result of the constant threats combined with torture, an alter loyal to the ones who came close to killing the body he lives in, too.

"Go away!" he growls. "You don't understand, so leave me the fuck alone!"

"No way! Forget about it!" I've raised my voice as well, reminding myself at the last minute that this isn't helping. That's the problem, right? They are all Blair, and it's not smart to prefer one or some of them, not any of those cute children, not the talented Kerry, or Tony, who's become a good friend, too.

"Come on, give me that, will you? Stop hurting the children. Can't you hear them crying?" Hell, I can.

He is shaking his head fervently, clutching the razor tighter. Thin rivulets of blood are trailing down his arms and thighs where he has cut himself, oblivious to the pain that the others feel. Not Ben. There is malice in this, not Ben's desperate rage.

"It's not real! You're trying to make me crazy, they are not real, do you hear me?"

Hardly knowing how to answer this question, I rather don't. I take a careful step closer, trying not to be lured into a zone from the sight of bright red blood pooling on the white tiles where he is sitting against the bathtub, wearing only boxers and a T-shirt.

"Come on, Chief. Don't do this. There's been enough of the pain. No more."

"Stay away from me!" He draws another bright red line, deep, and I can't take it any longer, make my move and wrestle the razor out of his hand.

"Sorry, can't do that."

"I knew," he seethes. "I knew you were like all the others. Now, when will you finally come clean and tell me what you really want from me? Huh? We both know, don't we? Why not have the guts and say it out loud?"

"There's nothing to say, Chief." I'm surprised at how calm my voice sounds. I'm scared out of my mind, actually.

All of a sudden, he slumps forward like a puppet with its strings cut, hiding his face in his bloody arms. Smearing the blood all over his face in the process. We're back to square one. I'm aware that I will have to get him up from the floor, bandage some more wounds, and get this mess cleaned up. But before that, I kneel beside him, and very slowly draw him into my arms, uncaring that his blood is staining my clothes. He's clinging to me, the silent tears turning to whimpers, then a lost and desperate wail.

"I won't give up on you, do you hear me?" I whisper, rocking him, and for the moment, it makes no fucking difference to me if there's a child in a man's body, or a man who's seen horrible things as a child. Whatever happens, I won't give up.

But I won't be able to handle this all alone. Only for a moment, I want to stay here, and hold him, listen to the precious heartbeat. Tell myself we're going to be okay.

***

"I'm sorry, I -- it's late, but. Sorry. I don't know what to do, and I don't want to call an ambulance yet."

Ocean listens to my stammering, and then she gently says, "Maybe we won't be able to avoid it, but I agree, it should be a last resort. Do you want me to come over?"

The relief flooding me at this offer is so profound it's making me all weak. "Would you do that?"

I guess she doesn't make house calls for all her clients after midnight, especially when she has a forty-five minute drive to make from her apartment in Olympia, but it's of course what I had hoped when I called her number.

"I heard it on the radio, that James has been caught," she says. "All right. I'll see you in about an hour, okay?"

"Thank you."

***

I've decided that it's safer to do the cleaning once Ocean is here; just in case that evil one comes out again. Blair is not here at the moment, hasn't been for quite a while, and as glad as I'd be to deal with him again, there's probably some sense in it -- the things uncovered so far are more than one human being can stand. And that's exactly why people become multiple.

So far, I've convinced him to go back to bed -- a teenager, I'd guess, who is about to break down with fatigue, but feels like he cannot afford to close his eyes, like it is not safe.

Zack is Brad's brother, and he is the only reason why Brad could keep up the misconception that Julie was nothing but a friend, on their side with all who she was. Zack feels crowded with me in the room, and he snapped at me when I made him promise not to hurt himself. Behind that attitude, there's a profound mistrust in and fear of people in general, and men specifically.

I think of the teacher, Ned. It didn't even stop after James' arrest; how much more?

Ocean arrives, and she assesses the situation quickly. The blood on the bathroom floor, the rapid switches of alters -- a stream of memories rushing back into consciousness, too many of them. She sits down by the bed, talking softly to Billy.

I cringe as I remember the interaction she had witnessed on her first visit, an eternity ago, it seems. Because Blair actually looks the part of a domestic violence victim now.

"I know you're feeling bad, and you're in pain now. I could help make you sleep, without the bad dreams."

"Is Mr. James going to come back?" he asks, and my heart misses a beat.

I suppose only I can hear there's an edge to Ocean's voice when she answers him. "No, he's never going to come back. You don't have to be afraid."

Never again, I add silently.

"Jim?" She turns to me. "It's very early for all those memories to come up. We have a lot more work ahead of us, but for now, Blair really needs to rest. Tony and Kerry have agreed, and I think that has to be enough for now."

Right, I had forgotten she's a medical doctor, too. I wonder if this is the right choice; I can still remember how Billy panicked when the doctor at Cascade General was about to draw blood.

Ocean looks at me for a long moment, sensing my doubts. "Trust me," she says. "We're going to find other ways, but not tonight."

I nod to her, sitting down on the side of the bed. Billy watches her every move, his eyes going wide when he sees what she is getting out of the case, and he starts to tremble. Shit. Tony and Kerry might have given their okay, but they're not here now.

"Everything will be all right," I say, stroking a strand of hair out of his face, hoping it will be a distraction. "You remember Ocean, right? She's one of the good guys."

"No drugs," he whispers, hiding his arm under the cover. "No."

"There's no need to be afraid. Billy, I need to talk to one of the grown-ups." Her voice is gentle, but firm.

"Wake up... it's dark-- I can't breathe--"

Those fucking rituals. They'd drug the kids before every one of them, and whenever they felt like it. While I see the necessity of what Ocean's doing, it's hardly bearable to witness this. "Stay with me here, Chief," I say, uncaring who I am addressing. "There's no danger. You can breathe. And I'll be with you when you wake up, I promise. Nothing bad will happen."

He's still shaking his head.

"Tony, are you there?"

"I don't know any Tony. What is going on here?" he asks, exasperatedly, his voice rising. "Who the hell are you?" That's for me, not Ocean, but I can see the flicker of an exasperated expression on her face, chiding herself for having made a mistake.

In the end, Tony comes out long enough to agree with Ocean's opinion. He's tired, dispirited, at the end of the line. Obviously, he hasn't been able to reach this Keeper guy since we met at the station today. The Keeper, he explained a while ago, is never 'out'. His job is only on the inside, but that doesn't mean it's not important. "Sorry about that, but we often fell asleep to wake up in bad places. I'm sorry. Should have done a better job."

"You're doing your best." Sometimes even that isn't enough, and I know all about it.

He shudders as the cold needle penetrates his skin. Fortunately, Ocean is quick and efficient, not drawing this out any longer than it needs to be. I stay, holding his hand in mine, waiting until his fingers go lax and his eyes close.

Tony has had his doubts, but he's become quite compliant as far as the therapy is concerned -- however, I can still see the hurt and betrayal in Billy's eyes. He was convinced that the terror would begin again.

I had thought I hated the world when this Sentinel thing was forced on me, but I didn't know a thing then. It's very obvious to me now.

***

32

Lily had been punished because she had broken the rule that all children had been indoctrinated with from the very first day -- she had told.

There was an elementary school teacher in town who wasn't impressed with the good reputation Mr. and Mrs. James had, and she started to ask questions about why the kids from their house would miss school so very often.

Little Jacob had heard her at the door, threatening to call the police, Mr. James voice answering, cold, unimpressed. There was an argument, a crash, then--

Silence.

To Jacob, the silence after something bad had happened was always the worst. It had its own weight to it, oppressive, worse than the chanting at the rituals.

Lily was punished the same night. It was the last time they'd seen her or Ms. Camden.

Jacob never asked any questions, but he did wonder what had happened to them.

***

Another night, he is startled awake by a woman's screaming, and he picks up the sheep, holding it close as he slides out of his bed, and almost soundlessly leaves the room. Barefoot, he pads along the hallway, drawn closer to the source of those screams.

There's a small stripe of light coming from under the door. It's been left ajar.

Knowing he shouldn't, Little Jacob walks closer anyway, trying to look inside the room. And all of a sudden, it's yanked open, light blinding his eyes--

***

And then there was something like 'normal life', at least on the outside. Alice and Philip James would be driving to town, taking one of the children with them, going shopping, and out for lunch afterwards.

Kerry remembers walking between them, Alice James holding her hand as she's talking to the owner of the pharmacy. Yes, it's terrible about the missing teacher, Ms. Camden. She didn't seem very stable though, was probably not suited to working with children. Probably she just wanted to leave everything behind. It happens.

Mr. Reilley, who owns the only pharmacy in the small town, leans down to pinch Kerry's cheek. He's grinning, ruffling her hair. "Long hair like a girl," he says affectionately. "Your Mom and Dad don't have enough money to get your hair cut?"

He doesn't notice that she's stiffening at the touch. They're not Mom and Dad, and I *am* a girl, she wants to say. Mr. James is laughing. "Hell, you're right," he says. "What do you think, Jacob, want to get it done while we're in town? An ice-cream afterwards?"

"Yes, please," Kerry says, even though her smile is forced.

***

It wasn't so much the pain as the smells in the room, something burning in a bowl, and then all the other smells, blood and others, that had made the nausea surge. He couldn't help it, couldn't get up in time, to avoid throwing up all over the bed.

Mr. James yelled at him. He wasn't allowed to get up, but was made to stay and endure the smell for what seemed a very long time.

Hot ashes. Burning in that bowl -- human flesh?

Mr. James was holding the tip of the knife in the flame.

***

At another time, on a Sunday afternoon, the children would be playing in a corner in the living room. There is something playing on TV, Mr. and Mrs. James watching.

Lily wasn't with them anymore, and so Jacob kept a distance from the others. Nathan and Julie were older, and he felt like they didn't like him very much, so he kept to himself with the book he was reading.

"Jacob."

The single word was almost a whisper, but he'd heard it over Nathan's and Julie's talk.

Little Jacob gets up slowly, closing the book and leaving it on the blanket. He's moving stiffly, his head bent, so he won't be able to see the expression on Mr. James' face.

"Come here."

He does as he is told, sitting on the man's lap, lets himself be pulled closer. Mr. and Mrs. James share a private smile. Across the room, in the corner, Nathan is not smiling. His face is red with anger, and Jacob quickly turns his face away.

***

Another time, they are put into some kind of rug. It smells bad in there, but the real terror begins when the opening is held and then sewed together. Every time they breathe in, there's less air, replaced by that overpowering smell.

It's really the skin of a dead animal, and they will be buried in it alive.

Already, the boy begins to hyperventilate as the pressure on his lungs increases, stars dancing in front of his eyes. He imagines that he can leave his body, leave all of the pain behind. Almost -- gone...

A voice speaks to him, dark and warm. "It's not yet time to sever the last thread." A cool hand strokes over the boy's feverishly hot skin, but not in the exploiting way he is used to.

"Who are you?" Billy asks in his mind, because he hasn't got enough air left to form the words. It's black all around him, and the sounds outside of his grave are becoming muted.

"I am Wolf," the voice answers. "I guard the core."

For a brief moment, before he falls unconscious, Billy is distracted from the hideous smells and the fact that he's about to suffocate.

***

Billy doesn't remember Wolf later, when the adults tell him that now, he really is one of them, reborn as Satan's child. That he belongs to them, and no one else but them will ever love him.

It isn't true, Tony says. Don't believe them, but make them think you do.

***

The woman is humming as she pours the oil onto her hands, warming it in them. It smells good, much better than those things in the other room. Her hands don't hurt, as she doesn't apply much pressure, and still, something about it is not right.

Jacob, however, is only glad it doesn't hurt. He can hear her breathing, and he wants to tell her to stop, but he can't; his voice doesn't obey him, and he's unable to make intelligible sounds. The sounds he is making sound more like a baby's. Lethargy has been creeping over his body, dulling the pain, but not all feeling.

He doesn't know what's happening, but somehow, it feels good, and it doesn't, and his face grows hot with a shame that is someone else's.

High-pitched laughter sounds.

***

"Don't be afraid. We're going to get you out of here."

What is the man talking about? Blair wonders. He doesn't want to go with him. He doesn't know why he is in this room, in this bed, either, but if he goes with the man, how is Naomi going to find him?

He's shaking his head, starting to tremble, as the man draws back the covers. "Come on," he says gently. "We don't have much time." He has brought a black sweat-shirt with him for Blair to wear. Silly, Blair wants to say. Can't you see it doesn't fit? Still, he lets himself be dressed and scooped up.

The man, who's wearing his hair long, bound in a pony-tail, smiles at him sadly. "They can't hurt you anymore," he says, and Blair wonders who he is talking about. Naomi has never hurt him.

"Wait," he whispers, reaching behind the pillow. The man looks like he wants to cry as Blair picks up the plush toy sheep.

"Of course. Can't leave without the little guy," he says. "Let's go now. We'll see your Mom soon."

***

Billy doesn't understand what's happening, but they are not at Mr. James' house any longer. In the cabin, there's a man with long hair, and a woman wearing colorful clothes. There's also a little girl who's told him that her name is Emily. She's staring at him with open curiosity.

But Blair's Mom is not here -- what is going on?

His heart is starting to pound as he frantically tries to remember if he has done something, anything that would warrant another punishment, and would it possibly be worse than anything before, since they're not at the house any more.

The world is slipping...

***

Tony looks around, taking in his surroundings. He's carefully listening to the things the adults say, and finally, he realizes that for the first time in years, this could be a safe place for the children to be.

Darren and Jane talk about how they're going to get Naomi here soon. And that Mr. James, the man Tony hates so much, is going to be arrested. How did they achieve that, he wonders. In the end, it doesn't matter. It only matters that he'll be gone.

Naomi will be back. They're going to keep Blair asleep until she arrives.

***