“I knew you were involved in all of this,” I yelled at Grandma. Not because I was angry, but because there was no other way to make her hear what I said. “And could you please turn that horrible noise down?”
We were speeding in her sports car on the motorway, once again weaving our way in and out of the slower traffic. This time she did not stick to the speed limits but drove like someone possessed, despite the speed cameras staring down at us from nearly every bridge. I sat in the middle, and Professor Rowan was on my other side, looking like a big spider with his long legs folded into the small space available. He was holding a small loudspeaker in his hands and from it the brass bowls music was howling at full volume. It really resonated in my whole body in a horrible way and my spine especially, which was something I did not understand. Toothache of the spine I kept telling myself, wincing at the sensation.
“Sorry, no!” Professor Rowan yelled back, “the vibrations keep the shadows at a distance, if they are following us!”
I rolled my eyes. Grandma was going to have some explaining to do once we finally stopped.
The fact that no police car was around was a miracle. Grandma really stepped on the gas and the little red car responded instantly. I tried to see what was written on the road signs flashing by, and it did not take long for me to realise we were not heading homewards.
“Where are we going?” I yelled.
“To a safe place!” Grandma yelled back, and after that said nothing. Probably because saying anything required just that – yelling.
The professor opened the window for a while.
To my surprise, Grandma shouted angrily “Close that, now!”
The professor mumbled something (I did not hear it, but saw his lips move), looked embarrassed, and closed the window.
It took us two hours to reach our destination. Two hours that almost drove me crazy, listening to the singing bronze bowls, their howling sound resonating in my bones. We did not talk during the drive, for obvious reasons. Covering my ears did not help either. The last part of the route headed off into the hills along minor roads. I guessed from the journey time that we were probably somewhere in Yorkshire.
The safe place turned out to be an old manor of some kind – the year on the wrought iron gate announced it was established two hundred years ago, and everything about it and the surroundings spoke of old money. A discreet metal plate announced the place was called the Magellan Spa. Some people were walking around the grounds – most seemed to be middle aged or older. A few who were sitting on elegant wooden loungers outside the building wore very luxurious-looking bathrobes.
“Ahh… safe at last,” Professor Rowan said and the music stopped the second we were inside the gates.
My ears continued to ring and my back ached from the sound.
“What is this place?” I asked. A few curious glances were directed towards us from the passers-by, but nothing more. It seemed we were not that interesting, we were probably seen as just more new guests.
“Officially a high-society spa,” Grandma said, as we got out of the car, “and it looks as though you will be staying here for a while. Follow me!”
She headed for the mellow stone building and we followed, trying to match a pace that was so fast that even the professor with his spider-legs had a hard time keeping up. I had to take a few running steps every now and then.
Grandma sped in through the front doors and we followed. To my surprise we did not enter the big reception hall in front of us behind a glass wall. Grandma turned to the left and we followed her into a corridor that ran along the inside of the front wall of the building. We walked all the way to the furthest wing of the great house before pressing the button of a bell next to a solid, heavy, carved wooden door. A small plaque announced the area was private. I wondered if this was the wing where the owners of the building lived, having turned most of the building into a spa.
A surveillance camera stared down at us from above the door. Whoever was observing us seemed to be happy about what they saw, and there was a soft click from the door in front of us. Grandma pulled the door open.
We entered a hall, the size of which one would expect to see in a two hundred year old massive building. Other than the size, the hall’s appearance did not fit with the interior of an old building at all.
The walls were the only thing that were old about this space. It had modern furniture, a reception desk, computer booths and a big, framed screen on the wall. On the screen was a film of a beautiful mountain landscape.
“Layla!” A woman ran to meet Grandma with outstretched arms.
“Lilith!” Grandma hugged the woman, who then turned to me.
She was the same woman I had seen in my lucid dream. The shirt was different, but the hair was in a similar bundle on her neck, she had a few freckles on her cheeks, and reddish blonde eyebrows.
She stared at me, clearly surprised.
“You brought her here?”
“There was no time to let her go through the test and find her way on her own,” Grandma explained. “The shadows found her.”
The woman, Lilith, looked at me in alarm. Then she collected herself, smiled and extended her hand.
“Well, now that you are here, you are very welcome. Usually anyone who comes through our doors has to find us on their own, following the clues we give to them in their dreams. If they cannot find us, they are not ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“To walk through the gates. And it may be that you are not really ready either, not yet. Nor ever, perhaps. But we shall see. Tell me now the sequence of events that forced you to break the rules.” She had turned her head away from me to talk to Grandma and Professor Rowan.
“She found the book as was arranged,” Grandma said, “but then a shadow appeared, where none should have been. The shadows did not follow me, of that I am certain. They must have been there already for some other reason. But – strictly speaking we are not breaking any rules here anyway. Dana passed the lucid dreaming test, heard your message, and found Professor Rowan as a result – with very little help from me – so the first stages went exactly as they should have done. The problem arose when the shadows followed her when we went to meet our professor here – this made me certain they really were after her. I don’t know how they managed to follow us, because I drove at a speed they usually can’t keep up with, but they did, and they did so in far greater numbers than I had ever seen. Usually they move alone, but this time there was a group of shadows. And at least one of them must have been especially fast.”
“They are after the book?” the professor suggested.
Grandma shook her head.
“No, I don’t think so. There is more to this. I don’t doubt they have managed to get their hands on the book somewhere along the way anyway. Nothing new there. And not really dangerous to us, even if they managed to find the message hidden in the book, as the way to the gates is not in any way revealed in words. They know about us too. Me and the professor, I mean. I am their old acquaintance already, and they have seen the two of us talking in the past. Also if they have read the book since Professor Rowan wrote his name there, they’ve certainly done their research and found him on their own. Maybe they guessed where we were headed from the general direction we took.” Grandma had turned back to explain to Lilith.
“So you mean they were after the girl? How could they have found that she was…”
Lilith shut up mid-sentence. I looked at her curiously. Found about that I was… what?
“Has to be,” Grandma nodded, “that has to be it. But the main thing is we are now safely here, and this time there was no shadow following us.”
I have to admit the whole thing felt unreal. Kitty’s death, the book, the lucid dream, the shadow, the stories of people living unchanged while hundreds of years of physical life passed elsewhere. Not to mention the strange young man, whom I seemed to recognize from somewhere, but couldn’t remember where. And who obviously knew who I was. Not forgetting that the professor seemed to know who the young man was as well.
And this speeding to a “safe place” because shadows wanted to get to me – what was that about? I had not seen any shadows while we drove here. Had I ended up in the middle of a bunch of weirdos? Some cult, perhaps? What they were talking about did not make any sense to me, but seemed to be normal discussion for them, like the weather or something.
Looking around me it was obvious that if they were part of some weird cult, it was a very rich one. Everything was brand new and glistening.
I stole a glance at the nature film playing on a big screen – its upper frame was twice my height, and the lower frame was at floor level. Someone was walking across the meadow, approaching the viewer. He looked familiar… There wasn’t exactly sunshine coming from anywhere, maybe the sun was hidden behind clouds, but still his hair was glistening golden, as if illuminated. He was very tall and well proportioned. Wide shoulders, muscular arms, narrow hips, long legs.
He walked closer, and suddenly I recognized him. My jaw dropped. The blonde young man from the bookstore! It was definitely him. So he was an actor? That didn’t surprise me, not with his looks. And that would explain why he looked so familiar, though it did not explain how he seemed to know me…
While I pondered on this, he walked even closer, until he was facing the camera. I was expecting something to happen that would move the plot forward, waiting for him to start speaking as the camera moved in for a close-up on his face, or that another scene would start.
Instead he stepped through the screen, straight into the hall.
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