The Final Reckoning
In the parlour of Gabriel's house, Heidi acquainted Lotte and Kathrin, Gabriel's mother, with the facts about the two ghosts. At the part about the demon Kathrin turned pale and murmured, "save us."
"So you see, Kathrin, Anya needs a place to stay as well as all the help and emotional support we can give her," Heidi concluded.
The beautiful Lotte shook Anya by the hand. "Hallo, Anya. Good to finally meet."
"She was there when I came back from the fair last night, but you could not see her then," chimed Gabriel. Anya smiled and nodded.
"Well I'm sorry of course," said Lotte. "But what can have changed?"
Heidi looked grave. "I have a theory. The demon has moved out into the open, ready to attack anyone. Anya has come back to defend us. Now the demon attacks openly, Anya has come back fully as it were."
"You're very welcome, dear," said Kathrin embracing Anya. Kathrin had such a pleasant, soothing voice.
Anya rested her head against her bosom, closing her eyes for a moment. "Thank you so much for accepting me into your home." She glanced around at the well-kept mats and tapestries on the stone walls and floors and smiled. "Well this looks wonderful."
It was suppertime and roast pork was being ready to be served. Anya was on her feet. "What can I do to help, Kathrin? I want to help."
"How nice. You can cut the pork if you so wish."
Anya carved a thick slice and handed it to Gabriel, but Lotte took it from her. "I can serve Gabriel, thank you." Astrid smirked.
"Ah Okay." Anya was a little taken aback.
"Just so long as it gets done," said Gabriel.
"I don't know if I can still eat," said Anya. "Perhaps I've got more solid now everyone can see me."
"Try just a small piece first, dear," said Kathrin.
Anya lifted the pork to her mouth, but it passed right through her. She could taste it, but her teeth made no impression. She shook her head. "Oh well."
Kathrin looked a little put out. "I'm sorry, Anya."
"It's alright, I'm happy to sit with you even if I can't eat," said Anya brightly. She smiled on Gabriel as he devoured the roast pork and vegetables followed by berries and cream. And at least she could help with the washing up even if she could not help with the eating.
"I can take charge of this if you wish to rest, mother," said Lotte. Astrid rolled her eyes behind Lotte's back.
"That's fine, dear," murmured Kathrin. Kathrin washed while Gabriel and the three girls dried. Suddenly Anya felt her fingers phasing through a plate she was holding and she only narrowly caught it again.
"Sorry. Listen, the demon has appeared in this house before, so we should all stay together tonight." Kathrin blanched.
"I did tell you so," said Gabriel nodding.
"Indeed," said Astrid.
"Anya was the one there to comfort me," Gabriel added. Anya could see Lotte frown and fold her arms.
"My dears, we should all stay in my room tonight and the girls and I will take it in turns to keep watch," said Kathrin firmly.
That night they sat wrapped in blankets around Kathrin's bed while Kathrin took her turn sleeping first. Gabriel snuggled up against Anya who put an arm round him. "Wake me up if anything happens," he murmured.
Lotte had applied a thick, green paste to her face. It was surprising how pretty she still was, even though it had hardened and congealed to form a mask. "Shouldn't we barricade the doors and windows?" she said, her teeth clenched as though her face were tight.
"That wouldn't keep her out," said Anya shaking her head.
"Listen to Anya, she's obviously the ghost expert," said Astrid gravely.
"Love Anya," murmured Gabriel in his sleep. Lotte sniffed, the lamplight shining off her green nose and cheeks.
"How about a game of eye-spy to while away the dark hours?" said Astrid. "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with F.P."
Anya glanced around the room. "I could not begin to guess."
"Well a clue then. Lotte's clearly dressing as a frog princess."
"Watch it," growled Lotte.
The night passed by uneventfully. Astrid took her turn at sleeping next and then it was Anya's turn. Heidi had assured her that she would not return to the site of the cottage when she fell asleep this time, but who could really tell? Anya focused on staying where she was, hugging Gabriel to her and drifted off…
She felt herself floating in the semi-darkness of that void between the worlds once more. And to the horror, there was the hideous, decomposing face of the demon looming out of the gloom, the fires of her eye sockets blazing. "Human sacrifice… it made us strong. Spilling all that life blood! That's what Dread Disciples do! Their lives will never be avenged."
Then Anya heard a woman's soft voice calling her back and she floated away from the evil vision who hissed at her in derision. She was floating upwards towards the sound of the voice and the vision of a beautiful woman with long golden hair and a green face swam into focus. She was back in the bedroom, her arms still around Gabriel. Lotte was standing over them, golden hair shining in the lamplight. "If you are rested, Anya, I can sleep."
"And you don't want to see how grumpy Lotte will be after a sleepless night," chirped Astrid.
Lotte folded her arms and glared at her sister. "Astrid!" Then she turned to Anya. Those dark blue eyes, so like Gabriel's, seemed to show something like resentment. Anya really hoped she had not been unintentionally rude. A guest must always be polite.
She smiled up at Lotte. "Of course you must sleep, dear Lotte. Thank you for standing guard all night." Lotte gave a tight lipped smile, nodded and then curled up beside Astrid. The first faint streaks of dawn had appeared on the horizon and soon it was light outside. Anya remained deep in thought.
Lotte awoke and went to wash herself. Gabriel stirred and opened his eyes, smiling up at Anya. "Good morning, beautiful spectre. What fun and terrifying things do we do today?"
Anya beamed. "Good morning, dear. I have thought about it and I must visit my parents' graves. If you want to come with me, I'd be glad."
Kathrin had sat up in bed. "You want to feel close to them again, Anya? I completely understand. We'll go immediately after breakfast."
After breakfast, Lotte left for the dress shop while the rest of them set out for the graveyard. Heidi had given Astrid and Gabriel the day off so as to help Anya prepare. The entrance was flanked by stone likenesses of the goddesses of Justice and Grace. Anya curtseyed before them as the Priestess had instructed her and looked up at the statue of Grace. "Thy servant vows to act graciously."
Anya led the way through the tombs, searching with a sense of rising apprehension. She glided too fast for the others to keep up. Then she saw it. A small stone memorial to her parents. A communal effort roughly carved as most of the stones were. She breathed hard and slowly knelt beside it, feeling the tears rolling down her cheeks, her grief a fresh stab to the heart. Astrid and Gabriel came hurrying over with Kathrin panting behind them.
"It's alright, it's alright," said Gabriel putting his arms around her and stroking her back.
"They – They had a message for me…" said Anya between sobs.
"Take all the time you need, darling," said Kathrin soothingly.
Looking a little pale beneath her freckles, Astrid pointed at a smaller stone nearby and Kathrin hastily stood in front of it, blocking it from view. Mother and daughter looked at each other and nodded.
Anya sobbed on Gabriel's shoulder, feeling glad of his closeness. She looked into his beautiful eyes for reassurance. "They must have another message for me… mum already gave a warning…"
"The hurt never really goes away," he said sadly. She kissed his cheek.
"There's the epitaph," said Astrid.
Anya peered at it and read aloud.
"Those who have gone, so we but cherish their memory, which abides with us, more potent, nay, more present, than the living if we can but call the memories to us. If they remember us, we will remember them."
Anya flicked a strand of her dark hair away from her face, lost in thought. "I've already gone and then come back. Could I call those who remember us?"
Astrid's sky blue eyes widened. "Could you do it Anya? As a ghost, could you possibly call on other ghosts and bring them back to us?" She was speaking quickly, eagerly.
Kathrin put a hand on her arm as if in restraint. "Astrid…"
"Mum, you must need this as much as I do, if I could just speak to him again…"
"We all do, but don't fluster Anya, give her time to think," piped Gabriel. Astrid folded her arms.
"I – I might be able to if I could study more on meditation. Heidi was going to find a rare tome on the subject."
"Where is Heidi?" Astrid's freckled face showed such intensity of emotion. Anya swallowed. She would not want to disappoint her.
She stood up, Gabriel's arm in hers. Astrid insisted on taking her other arm. Astrid smiled at her. "I am glad Gabriel's made a friend like you. Relieved you know."
"Didn't you think I could make any?" said Gabriel sticking out his tongue at her.
"Dears, don't squabble," said Kathrin mildy.
"Well I do worry about my brother sometimes, but anyone who can find a friend like Anya is clearly smart." She was breathing a little hard and fast. "Heidi had better be able to find that book. I hate it when people say they can do things and can't really."
Back at the house, Heidi soon arrived with a leather-bound tome. "I hope this is of use, dears. The scribes of the goddess of Justice penned their collective opinions on meditating and communication with the other side."
Anya nodded. "And as a ghost myself I should be able to communicate more easily." She took the tome and shifted uneasily on her feet. "Tonight is the third night since the demon first appeared. If she strikes at the standing stones tonight, then I have to be ready by sunset."
Heidi pushed her coppery hair away from her face. "Yes, my dear. Do ask if there is any part of the text you do not understand. Gabriel, Astrid, you are to work in a group of three."
They worked through the book together, chapter by chapter. That afternoon, Anya opened the book at the chapter on the multiverse theory.
"This part is particularly relevant: The multiverse has many different worlds, like an apple tree has many fruits. Most are fresh, but a few are blighted. Let these blighted ones be called dystopias."
Astrid groaned. "Oh no! What is a 'dystopia'?"
Anya pushed her dark hair away from the page. "It's from an ancient tongue. It just means 'bad place.' A world where everything is wrong."
"Good, you dears. Try to work things out in your group if you can," said Heidi approvingly.
"I'd just leave all the difficult words to Anya, she'll know them," said Gabriel.
"I wanted to be able to help you more," said Astrid, her voice quivering slightly.
"Well, I like having your pretty faces near," said Anya beaming at them. Gabriel shook with laughter at Astrid's expression.
Anya read on: "Woe betide us should a denizen of a dystopia ever bridge the gap between the worlds… well that's what's happened already."
The chapter went on to relate how it was possible through meditation to gain a wider view of the multiverse, but that this was very difficult, since the living were anchored to this world.
"Perhaps that is where I come in," murmured Anya. She scanned over the instructions on meditation. "My dears… please be ready to call me back, as it says in the instructions."
Gabriel put his arms around her. "Please don't go anywhere."
"I'll be right here, dear Gabriel," she kissed him quickly on the cheek and his blue eyes widened. Then she let her mind go clear and a sense of calm filled her. She felt herself floating upwards and upwards, surrounded by the planets and then the stars… upwards so that it was as though the multiverse surrounded her, every separate reality that could never be reached by travelling through space alone gleamed like a perfect gemstone. Their brilliance surrounded her. But she knew who she was searching for. "Mum… Dad… help me… help me help the villagers and all the living of our old world… please talk to me."
Then with a rush of joy she felt her mother's presence nearby. "Anya mouse, the dread serpent breaks free from her shackles tonight at the standing stones."
"Mother, please tell me how I can defeat her and how I can bring you back!"
"Dear daughter, you read the epitaph. A spirit can concentrate and summon spirits from beyond the veil who remember spirits that still walk the land. A spirit can summon other spirits if there is unfinished business. Dear daughter, beware the dread serpent."
At that moment, Anya heard her friends calling to her from the Earth far below and felt herself floating back. She opened her eyes. The freckled faces of Gabriel and Astrid were peering anxiously into hers.
"You flickered and I couldn't hold you," said Gabriel, looking pale. "I was actually afraid we'd lose you this time. Heidi, does Anya really have to fight the demon? It's too dangerous."
Astrid turned to Heidi, her blue eyes gleaming. "Dear gods, yes! I don't want to lose Anya either."
Anya felt touched by their concern, but had to speak up. "It's my duty. I'm the one who might have the power to save the village, so with the power there comes responsibility."
Heidi beamed. "Spoken like a true follower of Grace. Come, you dears, the sun is sinking. The hour is drawing near."
Heidi arranged for a band of farm workers to surround the standing stones. The sun had set. Anya was prepared to glide between the bare stone arches that stood forming the circle. It felt like there could be no turning back. Astrid hugged Anya and put her face close so that Anya could clearly see all the overlaying constellations of her freckles. "You must win, okay? And come back to us. And I'd do all your chores for a week. How does that sound?"
"I'll try, dear Astrid," said Anya solemnly.
Gabriel pushed her aside and gazed up at Anya, tears in his blue eyes, all trace of flippancy gone. "I've changed my mind, I don't want you to go, I love you."
Anya felt overcome with emotion for a moment and tried to speak, but her throat was tight. "I – I love you too," she said hoarsely.
"Then don't do this," he pleaded.
But suddenly a chill sense of dread descended on the clearing and the workers began to mutter in terror, transfixed by a shadow that formed above the circle marked out by the standing stones.
"She's here!" cried Anya and glided into the circle, suddenly feeling afraid. The shadows deepened to form a space of absolute darkness. There was a scratching and a rending sound and then out of the dark there poured the foulest shadows of all which coalesced to form the hideous shape of the demon, larger and more distinct than ever, her rotting fangs bared, the fire of her eye sockets blazing and her filthy claws raised to strike.
Anya knew her plan, but the presence of the evil one filled her with an overwhelming sense of terror, impairing her concentration. She tried harder, feeling herself slip away, flickering, fading…
"What is this? Peasants with torches? What a welcome! We'll make corpses of you soon enough. Pay the price for your insolence, yokels. Live your worst nightmares."
The fires of her eye sockets flared. There were cries of horror as the people surrounding the circle were afflicted with malign illusions and saw their worst nightmares come to life. One man yelled that everyone had turned to skeletons and that the village was infested.
The demon shrieked with demented laughter. "Now kill each other, you fools. Kill – wait what is this?"
By a supreme effort of will, Anya reached over to the other side, calling forth the spirits of those who had unfinished business with the two ghosts. A mass of shadows poured forth through the rent in the fabric of the world that the demon had made, surrounding her. She hissed in fear and the illusions she had inflicted on the minds of the villagers faded.
Anya raised her arms aloft in triumph. "The ghosts of your sacrificial victims. In this world, justice will be done."
The demon shrieked in rage and disbelief and attempted to claw at the mass of shades who pulled her in all directions, but sheer weight of numbers overwhelmed her. They pulled her to bits as the villagers looked on breathlessly, reduced her to tiny shreds of shadow which they then dragged back into the rent in space which closed with a resounding clap like thunder.
The villagers erupted into cheering.
Anya felt a sense of calm after the storm. A beautiful blue light filled the circle and she could see the outline of her parents as if at a great distance. She could hear her mother's voice. "Good job, mouse. Now it's time to come home. Come back to us." She realised she was glowing, her whole body giving off a shining white light.
Gabriel pushed through the crowd and flung his arms around her. He was crying. "Don't go. If I hold you tight enough, will you stay?"
Anya felt a lump in her throat and tears coming. But she had to be strong and comfort him. "You have to let go, dear Gabriel." She brushed a tear away from his cheek. "You'll be Okay, my love. I'll always be with you in our memories. Remember me." She held him tight, one last time and they kissed, a long loving kiss on the lips.
Then that whole world faded from view and she was rushing upwards through bright lights. Anya was going home.