Chapter 8.16 – Simplicity

After the Jones clan’s successful bid to ruin the Barimen fortune, Amber took every precaution to safeguard against another attempt at a legal broadsides.
 
Now it seems her diligence was well worth the effort. A summons had been delivered via messenger to the estate. Both Luke and his cousin, Makayla, listen as Amber reads the document:
You have been summoned to appear before the Sunset Valley Town Council at the specified date and time, to provide testimony regarding possible improper business practices perpetrated by Barimen Holdings inc, in violation of proposed legislation § 104-A (e), (g), (j), (k) and (m). Testimony provided during this summons may be used as basis of legal action against Barimen Holdings inc…
 
Luke sits in contemplative silence while Amber and Makayla hash out a legal battle plan. This is exactly what Sandi’s father wants them to do. There is something amiss here, and Luke feels that the worst possible outcome would be to play along with the summons. So while his mother and cousin begin to prepare a defense against the unknown, Luke readies an offensive that should allow them to completely avoid the unknown. Divide et impera.
 
Later, in an effort to break the tension of the situation, Luke shares a few drinks and laughs with his cousin. He’d always liked Makayla best among Aunt Tina’s kids (who, technically, are all distant relations three times removed). She’s a rare brand of genius when it comes to the law books. And she radiates both confidence and beauty. But much like Luke, Makayla keeps her ego in check with gracious humility.
 
Having four siblings of varying ages, plus twins on the way, Makayla’s family is a sharp contrast to Luke’s. There have been many times when she has come to the estate to escape the madness for awhile.
 
Although they’re nearly identical in age, he and Makayla couldn’t have been more different during their childhood. But over the years, her relentless work ethic has emerged, and she has become one of the most promising, young lawyers to hit the bar in many, many years. Luke considers himself fortunate that she’s on their side.
 
 
Late in the day, after Makayla leaves, Luke walks down to the beach with a fishing pole. In generations past, fishing had been a pass-time that the Barimen family would often enjoy together. But somewhere down the line, the gene was lost (or possibly forgotten). He marvels at the simplicity of it. At one time, a sim’s day-to-day survival might have hinged upon the day’s catch.
 
In many ways, it is much the same with reverence. The simplicity of giving thanks for the blessings in a sim’s life seems to have become passe, or to some, unnecessary. But why? Is piety the sacrifice given in exchange for modern conveniences and easy living?
 
 —
 
Luke contemplates these thoughts for some time while reeling in pathetic, little bait fish. A gusting seaward wind blows at Luke’s hair and clothes, masking the tentative footfalls approaching him in the sand. He is somewhat startled, but does well to conceal his reaction, when Anna gently calls out his name from behind.
 
When he turns, she offers a sheepish smile, stating that Amber told her she would find him here. Luke grins with a sideways smile, wincing from his still-sore lip, and asks if she came to clock him in the jaw again.
 
The contrite expression she wears does not resemble the Anna he has come to know over the past few weeks. After a short pause, Luke quietly asks if she is okay. Anna is not the type to cry at the drop of a hat, like Sandi. On the contrary, Anna is as tough as nails and has the emotional fortitude of gunship. So understandably, she seems almost confused by the unusual wetness that has begun to fill her eyes and drip down her cheek.
 
 —
 
As though wanting to get it over as quickly as possible, Anna forces out an apology, but immediately grimaces at the insincerity of her gesture. She collects herself, then apologizes again, taking time to make eye contact and give the effort some credibility.
 
It is probably at this moment that she notices the deep, blue color of Luke’s eyes for the first time. And during this moment, she realizes that while she has had countless liaisons with countless sims, she has always just looked at their eyes. Before today, she had never looked into a sims eyes. Finding herself speechless and letting down her guard, Anna pulls the sweater she’s wearing tighter around her shoulders; pretending that it is the wind causing her to shiver. All those sims… and never once a connection…
 
They begin walking the beach without speaking; Luke waiting for her to let go of whatever she came here to talk about, and Anna trying to figure out why she is still here, walking with Luke. The wind turns cold as dusk approaches. Luke sees that Anna has started to chatter her teeth from the exposure. Like sleep, the elements have never seemed to bother Luke one bit. All the same, he does not want Anna to leave just yet, so they begin the long trek together up the bluff to the estate.
 
 
Luke serves hot coffee in the parlor and sits with Anna. She comments about never having seen the inside of the estate. It looks huge from the outside. But it is even more massive inside. Luke laughs and reminisces about being a child and drawing maps of the entire place. He’d explored every last tiny corner of “his fortress” before he was seven years old. They laugh together for a short while and talk about their friendship as kids. But Luke can sense there is still something she’s holding on to.
 
Bluntness is Luke’s specialty. So he asks pointedly what it is that’s on her mind. Looking again into Luke’s eyes from over the rim of her coffee cup, her expression changes from a faint smile to an uncomfortable frown. She confesses that she felt insulted and angry last night when he refused woo-hoo with her (something no other sim had done before). Afterward, as she lay awake and alone in her bed, she asked herself why she was so angry. Then she started to think about how she and Luke used to play tag together as kids. It was so easy back then. They could just be friends, with no expectations of any kind, and still come back to play again the next day.
 
Somewhere along the way, she has lost the ability to do that.
 
Maybe it was her abusive father, or the first few men she became active with during her teens. They, of course, turned out to be just like him. Anna’s face contorts while she admits that, for some sick and twisted reason, she wanted Luke to be like those other men. So she tried to fit him into that mold.
 
Who knows why? Maybe to prove to herself just how worthless she really is. It took all night laying awake, but she finally realized that she wasn’t angry with Luke at all. She was angry at herself.
 
For a third time today, Anna finds herself staring into Luke’s eyes. And for the first time, ever, she finds herself herself wondering whether he is looking into her eyes, or just looking at them. Has he noticed the difference? Anna breaks the contact and laughs, then takes another drink of coffee. Whoever thought there could be so much power and wisdom behind a word so simple as, “No”?
 
Anna stands for a long time, staring out the large window that offers a spectacular view of Sunset Valley at night. It might be an hour or more that passes while they just reflect; Anna lost in her own thoughts, and Luke waiting for her to release the worries that have kept her here so late.
 
Finally, Luke asks the question that has been fidgeting impatiently on his mind since she showed up on the beach. The question itself is innocent enough. It is nothing more than him asking what else is going on with her, followed by an offer to help. The fear and anxiety that surfaces, provides him with just enough warning to conceal his own alarm upon hearing her very uneasy response.
 
Luke, do you believe in ghosts?

Chapter 8.15 – Resolve

Wendell had already washed out of the military and started working as an independent publisher when he met a sensational, young author whose skill was matched only by her beauty.
 
During those days, his meat-and-potatoes was taking chances on aspiring authors who had been turned down by the big-time print houses. He had really never looked at himself (or his authors) as a farm league team competing with the majors. For Wendell, it was a completely different ball-game altogether. Wendell knew the moment he read Amber’s manuscript, that he had found something special. Only, it would take years for them both to recognise just how special it would become.
 
 —
 
 —
 
Wendell admires the strength, love, and loyalty demonstrated by the woman he married. They have shared many experiences together. Some have been mundane and some have been death defying. It hasn’t always been happy or easy, but he would never trade any of it away. With a tentative smile, Wendell blows out his birthday candle and becomes an elder.
 
Ben and Lisa exchange a few good-natured “old-timer” barbs with Wendell before Amber steps in with a smooch that appears to communicate her belief that there will be no rest for her husband’s old bones any time soon. Luke rolls his eyes and turns away from the embarrassing display.
 
 —
 
Inter-sim communication, and maintaining lasting relationships with sims, has never been one of Luke’s skill areas. This shortcoming becomes very evident during functions like this one, where Luke keeps mostly to himself. Most of the time, sims mistakenly assume he is just being unsociable. But there are a few, such as his cousin (second, once removed) Makayla, who do understand him. She takes the time to chat and socialize with him by herself, away from the larger group.
 
Alex is another sim who somewhat understands Luke. He and his new girlfriend arrive late to the party. After making the rounds among the guests, he wanders over to where Luke is hanging out.
 
Alex has really become an amazing sim. He credits Luke for much of his success, citing having to constantly be on his best game just to keep up. But even if it were true, Luke would never take credit for any such thing. He jokingly ribs Alex for feigning humility to impress the gorgeous sim connected to him at the hip. Luke feels a twinge of emotion seeing them together. It isn’t quite envy. It feels more like a part of him is missing, and it leaves him off-balance and out of sorts.
 
Coincidentally, there is one sim conspicuously absent from the party. Luke had not spoken with Sandi since Ben’s party (he hates being called grandpa). Luke had called and left a message inviting her to his father’s birthday, but she never responded. Luke can live with the fact that she has changed her mind about having romantic feelings for him. That’s just how love and life works. But the comments she’d made have really left him concerned about what machinations her father has been busy dreaming up; and to what degree Sandi has been drawn into them.
 
The news channels have been all covering her rise through the partisan food-chain. Her “giant-slayer” message has become something of a novelty that attracts viewer ratings (and advertising dollars). So the “news” outlets have ramped up the hype. Luke doesn’t really care either way about her political alignment. As far as he’s concerned, politics is the same as a port-a-potty. It’s nasty and unpleasant, and leaves you wanting to take a shower after having to use it. But at the end of the day, things would be a whole lot messier without it.
 
Unfortunately, Luke does realize that there will come a day when she will finally force his hand, and he will have no choice but to retaliate. He thinks back to the few scraps he can still remember about his “Ying” dream. She had said that Sandi loves him more than he can know. This alleged love will be put to the test, if it hasn’t been tested already. Luke prays that it Ying’s words were more than just wishful thinking.
 
After the birthday party, Luke finds himself at the Trainwreck Tavern once again. Anna and her fling had both been given stern reprimands after failing to report to work last week. The guy she spent the night with was given time doing KP, then was reassigned to another base. Luke had received an instant promotion after managing three sims’ jobs that day. He has seen Anna a few times on base since then. She maintained a friendly and professional tone, and even thanked him for taking care of her work that day.
 
She made no mention of their encounter after dancing last week, but did ask if he would be going out again this week. He’s not exactly sure what his expectation is about coming here tonight. He’d quietly hoped they would spend some time dancing and forget about the uncomfortable episode.
 
 —
 —
The dancing part is easy.
 
 —
Minutes melt into hours, and before Luke realizes how much time has past, the lights go out in the tavern. Luke scrutinizes the remaining patrons, including a couple of drunks who seem to be eyeing Anna hungrily. He gets a bad feeling from those two, so he escorts Anna to her car and makes idle conversation until the two deadbeats take off in separate vehicles.
 
After they’re gone, Anna laughs, then barks out a mocking “AT EASE” command. She presses her body up close to Luke, then tells him that the thought of him protecting his territory makes her think that he’s locked, loaded, and ready for action.
 
Luke closes his eyes and breathes out a sigh, as though he were expelling the temptation and breathing in a dose of willpower. He gently moves her to arms length, then quietly but firmly tells her No.
 
Still in a playful mood, she throws her entire body weight into him, leading with her hips, and suggests that woo-hoo in the parking lot might be fun. But Luke has built his resolve, and he repeats his gentle refusal.
 
In an instant, Luke learns a very important lesson. Anna hits really hard for a girl.
 
Little white lights dance and flash before his eyes while he recovers and absorbs the fact that she has just punched him in the mouth. He tastes the blood from where he bit his lip, while instinctively positioning himself to deflect another swing. But it doesn’t come. Instead, Anna has unleashed a profanity-laced tirade punctuated with creative, expletive, and eye-opening metaphors regarding his lack of manhood.
 
She throws herself into the car, slams the door, then speeds off recklessly down the road with tires squealing. Luke winces at the pain in his bulging lip and shakes his head.
 
He just can’t win for losing…

Chapter 8.14 – Giant

The star of fame only burns hot and bright for a short time, then it quietly fades away into obscurity; drowned out by the new and younger stars that proceed it.
 
Ben, Lisa, and their band Grayswinder, had all been household names at one time. But as it is with all things, the experience has finally come to an end. Artheritis has ravaged Ben’s ability to play the guitar. And Lisa’s legendary voice has become weak and tired. They are neither bitter nor resentful – just simply accepting of the fact that they have little else to do now, but retire.
 
Ben’s sister, Sarah, has come back to Sunset Valley as well. Her children are grown, and have moved off to far away places. The Baltic Sea village where she had lived for much of her adult life, became nothing more than a lonely gravestone for her late husband Ricky; and a reminder of the consuming grudge that she has kept against her niece. Sarah has little to show for her aloofness, other than lost time with family and hurt feelings. The rift will take time to repair, and there will likely be some rough patches. But at least the most difficult step has been taken.
 
Ben and Lisa, along with Sarah, now live inside a luxurious beachfront property where they plan to live their remaining years in relaxation; free from the throngs paparazzi that had hounded them relentlessly during their climb to super-stardom. Luke has never spent much time with his grandparents. They would come to visit between tours and recording sessions, but they would never stay long enough to establish any kind of real relationship with their grandson.
 
Luke accepts the invitation to their retirement party at the beach house. But he already feels awkward, even before arriving. If his suspicions are right, there are going to be a ton of sims there, and he’s just not in the right frame of mind for mingling. Anna and one of the recruits who had been out dancing with them last night, both failed to report for duty this morning. Luke picked up their slack. But he is still bothered by the encounter after the bar closed.
 
Even more disturbing than the thought of Anna going home with the next closest warm body after Luke, is the curious observation that their commanding officer seemed genuinely shocked to see him ready to work this morning. It was almost as though the commander had been expecting (if not looking forward to) him being MIA. Luke diplomatically expressed his concern over this observation, stopping short of accusing the commander of setting the scene to get Luke discharged.
 
In the end, after all was said and done, it actually turned out to be a good day. Luke’s ability to perform his own duties, plus those of his missing colleagues, has attracted the attention of brass ranking above his commander. And now that he is on the radar, his future at Fort Gnome just became a lot more promising.
 
When Luke arrives at the party, he notices Sandi immediately. She makes eye contact with him, but quickly looks away and continues her conversation, giving away little or no reaction.
 
Luke spots Alex, who has had a birthday since the last time they saw each other. Luke laughs and greets Alex with a strong hand-shake and a slap on the shoulder. Alex had signed a big contract with the Llamas to fill in a hole at the end of their batting line-up. He is a guaranteed RBI in most cases, and plays a pretty good second base. They talk baseball for awhile before Luke asks what the deal is with Sandi, wondering out-loud why she hasn’t come over to chat.
 
Alex shrugs. She’s not the same Sandi they knew in school. All she talks about now is politics and changing Sunset Valley. She’s not even here for the party, but to drum up support for some new law she wants to pass.
 
Just as Alex begins to tell him some gossip about her showing up everywhere just to push her plan, Luke hears Sandi’s voice grow louder. She is having words with Ben, who appears to be gently asking her to either stay and enjoy the party, or leave. Luke uses the opportunity to greet his grandfather and ask Sandi what the problem is.
 
Sandi speaks while turning away, without looking at Luke. She announces in an aggravated tone that she was just leaving. Luke follows her to the door. Then, addressing her as a council-woman rather than his old friend, he asks if she could spare a moment.
 
She hesitates but does not turn to face him. She cocks her head slightly, revealing the muscles in her neck and shoulders tensing up. He senses immediately that something his not right. This is the work of her father.
 
He ignores the haze of tears threatening to burst from her eyes as he steps in front of her and makes eye contact. She motions him to the foyer where they go, then stand, facing each other. Luke states plainly that she has not returned his calls. Her breathing becomes rapid and her face glows red with frustration. She curls her lip and accuses him of assaulting her father. Luke nods suggesting that it may be possible, depending upon whose account she believes. Luke suspects there is no value in providing his version of events, just now.
 
He invites her to come inside and enjoy some time with old friends; especially friends who miss her and want desperately to work toward patching things up.
 
Sandi had started to search his face and eyes while wearing an absent expression, allowing her tension to relax somewhat. But then, as though she were a marionette whose strings are being being pulled by a hidden manipulator, she jerks backward and sticks her nose up into the air. She points her finger into his chest and unloads.
 
He represents everything she despises about sims; clinging to outdated belief systems that get in the way of society progressing out of the dark ages, and hording wealth that rightfully belongs to Sunset Valley.
 
Before Luke can respond, Sandi growls in a manner that is far too much like her father. She tells him that she plans on bringing down the old way of doing things.
 
And he is going to be the first giant that falls.

Chapter 8.13 – Figment

Stress from recent events has been building inside Luke, and it has finally come to a low boil.
 
He had planned the visit to China as a relaxing escape from his troubles, and he is still bitter about having to cut the visit short after only one night. But Mark’s ghost was right. Wandering so far away from the estate was not only unsafe, it was foolish. It’s sad that the only bright spot in his personal life comes from the memory of a sim he met in during the short holiday. And as it turns out, she was only just a figment of his imagination. Surely, the realistic quality of the fantasy was only a product of his subconscious “feeling its oats” after years of sleeplessness (and dreamlessness).
 
Luke knows better than to dwell on the contents of dreams. Even now, Luke finds his memory of Ying fading as the days progress. If anything, Ying was a representation of Sandi in his mind, and it has made one thing perfectly clear. His love for Sandi is stronger now than it was when she stormed out on his birthday. He just has to find a way of expressing this without driving her further away.
 
Employment at Fort Gnome provides enough distraction over the next week, to keep Luke’s mind from fixating on the problem. As a kid, he would spend his long and sleepless nights pretending that he was wearing a military uniform, doing all the G.I. Joe stuff he imagined them doing inside the secretive walls of the military base.
 
But in real life, it is nothing at all like those childhood fables. Cleaning latrines, peeling potatoes, and washing mountains of dishes was not exactly what he had in mind. These must have been the parts his father left out when he told his stories.
 
Peak physical conditioning and limitless stamina work together to set Luke apart as something special, however. His uncanny preparation, made possible by the long hours he spends studying while his co-workers sleep, has paid off. The promotions have come quickly. But he senses the weary, side-eyed glances he gets from his superiors. At first, Luke imagined this was due to his status as a Barimen.
 
The family is now one of the most wealthy in the world, and some level of notoriety will always accompany any Barimen. Luke is no different, although he hardly commands the level of attention his celebrity grandparents have continued to enjoy. No Landgraab or Alto would ever consider subjecting themselves to the kind of manual labor Luke gladly accepts. But the Barimens are different, and this is the message he communicates to his peers.
 
Luke continues working himself ragged. He’s not sure why he does it, exactly. He certainly does not need the money, and the stress he’s been exerting on himself isn’t worth the pitiful compensation. But the same urgent sense he’d had as a child, still drives him to this day. Something is going to happen here, and he needs to be present when it does. Just recently, it has became evident to Luke that his superiors are not only hiding something, but they also fear giving him too much access to the base.
 
But why? When his promotion to officer was declined by the base commander, Luke was unceremoniously dumped into the motor pool to grease axles, spit-shine fenders, and reticulate splines. The move was unpopular with his co-workers. But this is the military and not a popularity contest. Luke took the rebuke in stride and tripled his efforts, excelling at every task thrown at him.
 
Just as it was in school, Luke finds that he has made more friends than he’s able to keep up with. Not wanting to come across as rude or snobbish, he commonly finds the time to hang out with them at the Train-wreck Tavern. Honestly, the discomfort he feels from being around so many people is a lot better than sitting alone at home thinking about Sandi.
 
He’s had plenty of time to consider the situation, but he remains uncertain of what he should do. The monstrosity that has been posing as her father, still retains his stranglehold. And he is more dangerous now than he was before Luke discovered his true nature.
 
Spinning his cell phone on the tabletop, Luke flirts with the idea of calling her. He had called a number of times right after his birthday, but his calls just went to voice mail. She knew it was him calling, and she knew why he was calling, so Luke never saw the point in leaving any message. Luke sits up straight when he hears a raspy voice from his past, speaking over noise of music and patrons inside the tavern. The voice is slightly deeper now, and colored with an odd mix of sarcasm and sensuality.
 
There is no doubting that it is Anna. She was one of his earliest friends from childhood, but she had moved away when her parents were redepolyed to another city.
 
Still wearing her uniform, Anna boldly takes the seat next to him and announces that she’d always known he’d eventually find his way into Fort Gnome. But with all his money, she didn’t think it would be working as a scrub. Luke smiles, buys her a drink, and they spend the next hour or so catching up with each other. After a short pause in the conversation, Anna asks him what “her” name is. After Luke musters nothing more than a confused, blank stare, Anna cocks her eyebrow and observes how he’s been sitting alone and messing with his phone for more than an hour, now. Luke chuckles, then smirks.
 
Leaving out most of the details, Luke tells her about Sandi, and the fight on his birthday. Anna sits back and nods, then asks if it is the same dopey blonde who always had a major crush on him. Luke complements her memory, but feels somewhat odd about the derogatory slight. He drains the dregs of another draft, then makes an off-hand comment about Sandi’s father being a real monster.
 
Anna perks herself up, exhales loudly, and informs him that she did not come over to listen to him whine about his wrenched love life. In fact, she came to ask him for a dance. If Anna had given him time to answer, he’d have said no. But she grabs his arm, nearly yanking him out of his chair, and onto the dance floor.
 
Oddly enough, he actually has a good time. The night melts away, along with his stress, while he mingles with Anna and his other co-workers. When the lights in the tavern finally cut off, it is very, very late. The small group of enlisted-sims still remaining in the tavern, drag themselves out to the parking lot. Most of them have to work in just a few hours, including Anna. But unlike Luke, they all require sleep.
 
Anna leans heavily on Luke and breathes a tired sigh. She really does not want to report for duty tomorrow. She giggles and gives Luke a hungry, seductive look. She perks up again, then urges him that it would be best to just go ahead and call Sandi. Luke frowns, asking what would cause her to think about something like that.
 
Luke nearly falls over when Anna moves in quickly, then leans aggressively into him; her lips barely an inch away from brushing against his. Her breath, which has suddenly become rapid with excitement, is warm on his face while she suggestively rubs her body against him.
 
She flashes a wicked smile, then backs slowly away after noticing the physical response she had been going for. Spinning on her heal, she struts to her car then tells him that she doesn’t expect to be going home alone after dancing again next week.
 
Besides that, he’s going to have a good bit of steam to blow off after being dumped by Sandi; and seeing how intense he is already, it promises to be a ride worth waiting for.

Chapter 8.12 – Lesson

I apologize ahead of time. This post is significantly longer than my typical offering. The whole thing kind of flows together, and it just didn’t read the same way split up. Sorry!
 —
Shang Simla occupies a special place inside the hearts and minds of the Barimen family.
 
Luke’s trip here was not planned. Well, not entirely planned anyway. The idea had come to him after Desiree McAllister’s ghost suggested he speak with one of his ancestors. It is probably safe to assume that the arrangement did not actually require him travelling to China. The honest truth is that Luke has become very restless since his birthday, and needs time away from Sunset Valley.
 
The supernatural being that has “attached” itself to Luke, also had similar relationships with every Barimen heir and heiress beginning with David. One side-effect of this unusual symbiosis, is that Luke is able to draw upon the life experiences of his ancestors. Mark’s memories of Shang Simla are particularly vivid and moving. Luke finds himself visiting some of the places that were most memorable, even before taking one step into his family vacation home inside the village square.
 
It’s been nearly two weeks since his birthday, and he still has not heard from Sandi. Luke has played the exchange over and over again in his mind, trying to figure out what it was that set her off. Maybe it wasn’t just the words, I love you that spooked her, but the manner in which he said them. He had been thinking about it all night, and for some reason just blurted it out while caught up in the emotion of the moment.
 
Judging by her reaction, you’d think he had slapped her, then insulted her family. He’s tried to get in touch with her numerous times, since then. But his calls always go directly to her voice mail. It just doesn’t make sense. Luke unpacks and tidies up the house. It’s been a long time since anybody has lived here. Luke does some shopping, buys food, then fully relaxes with a book about Shang Simla folklore. Best of all, there are other no sims to bother him.
 
But Luke is not the kind of sim to do nothing for too long, and enjoy it. He decides to acquire the services of a highly recommended tour guide to lead him on a week-long wilderness hike. Honestly, he’d expected a withered, old, bark-skinned mountain-man. But when the guide arrives at his door, he is surprised to see that she is an attractive young woman. Her name is Ying. And she clearly has a passion for adventure and the outdoors.
 
Luke’s unnatural stamina allows him to keep up with Ying easily, as they begin their trek into the wilds. In fact, he can see that she she has probably been pushing herself harder than normal just to prove some unspoken point. Luke laughs when she finally sits to take a breather, after sprinting for nearly an entire mile uphill. Giving Luke a dirty look, she comments on his superior stamina, asking what he does to stay in such peak physical condition. He allows himself some measure of smugness and comments that he goes rock climbing quite often in Sunset Valley.
 
Ying continues at a curiously fast pace; nearly the same pace he would use hiking by himself. They set up camp at dusk and sit together by the fire, going over the plan for tomorrow’s hike. When she digs into her pack and offers Luke some kind of dehydrated jerky as a meal, he smirks and asks if she is serious. The absent look on her face makes him wonder how she survives out here without taking advantage of the resources all around her. But his stomach is growling with pangs of hunger. So he grimaces, takes the rations, and chews through the unpleasant stuff. When finished, he raises an eyebrow and tells her that he’s been camping his entire life, and has never eaten anything so foul. Then he insists on cooking tomorrow’s meal. Ying responds with a sideways laugh, stating that she does not cook, clean, or do windows.
 
As nighttime sets in, Luke can feel the effects of being away from home. Something about the land where the estate was built, allows him to go without sleep. But when he is away, his body’s natural need for rest returns. Today’s physical exertion has probably exasperated this condition. Having already set up their tents, Luke and Ying sit together by the fire and talk about the history of Shang Simla. He studies her youthful face as she dramatically spins tales about the spirits of lost souls who have died, either by trap, curse, or starvation, while seeking adventure in these woods. Ying does an excellent job of portraying an expert woodsman and guide. But in reality, she couldn’t be any older than mid-twenties or possibly thirty years old. She catches him staring at her a number of times before finally smiling and blushing in response.
 
Ying reaches for his hand and asks if there is a woman for him. Luke breathes a sigh, answers yes, immediately changes it to no, then settles for I don’t know. Ying raises her eyebrows and laughs at his unintelligible response. Then she levels her gaze and challenges his answer with a throaty chuckle, asking which one it is. Luke smiles and squeezes her hand, admitting that it was yes just over a week ago. But she ended it on his birthday. Ying lets loose with a few Chinese words he can only assume are uncomplimentary, and he finds that he can’t help but join her contagious laughter.
 
His laughing turns into a yawn as he releases Ying’s hand and sits back, reclining into his chair. The very unfamiliar haze of sleep feels unbelievably welcome. But falling asleep now would be exceedingly rude, so Luke asks Ying about herself. Is there a man? She scoffs sarcastically, then announces that she has not found the man who can keep up with her. Ying holds Luke’s eye contact with her own piercing gaze; which Luke finds to be filled with intent. She stands and moves to Luke’s side, then bends to place a soft and passionate kiss onto his lips. Afterwards, she glides sensually to her tent leaving a trail of clothes behind her.
 
Luke’s mind races. What about Sandi? He still loves her, and wants desperately to find out what happened that night. Would it be so bad just to have a little bit of fun with Ying? Sandi would never even know…
 
This idea remains incomplete, as his conscious thoughts become engulfed by a deep and dreamless sleep, from which he does not awake until morning. He wakes feeling sore, but well rested. Sometime during the night, Ying had covered him with a blanket and propped his head on an a rolled up jacket to spare his neck from the pain of sleeping on a chair all night.
 
Luke stands, stretches, and yawns, then looks for Ying. Even though he has known her only a day, Luke realizes they are more alike than different. She is accustomed to being alone, and probably prefers it most of the time. He searches for the place where he would go in this situation. He spots a challenging rock face and stares up at it’s summit, some thirty feet above. Picturing the hand and toe holds in his mind, he easily scales it to the top.
 
He finds her sitting, looking out over the landscape. Ying turns her head slightly and muses that he sleeps like the dead. He walks next to her and offers his hand. After a moment, she takes it and uses him as leverage to stand. He smiles and observes how she still hasn’t found the man who can keep up with her. Her laugh is natural, almost reflexive, and she smiles to show her appreciation for his humility. They enjoy the view together for a short time before Ying speaks, apologizing for her unprofessional behavior. She has never done anything like this before. Luke smiles and expresses his appreciation for her regret, but insists she has no reason to apologize. He should be the one begging forgiveness for leaving her in such an awkward situation. Ying smiles sweetly and bows her head to show her own appreciation.
 
They spend the next couple days and nights sleeping alone in their prospective tents. Luke prepares the meals using fish caught in the mountain fed streams, and fruits and vegetables found in the wild. He wraps them inside large palm fronds, and cooks them over the fire. Ying eats in an almost trance-like state, seemingly detached and distant. He quietly attempts to start conversation during these times, but she seems completely unaware that he is even present. She returns to her normal, jovial self after the meal is cleaned up, however. And oddly, she never mentions anything about his cooking, the quality of the food, or that hey had even eaten at all. It concerns him, but he says nothing.
 
Knowing that Luke is more capable than most of her clients, she leads the way to remote locations where the wilderness has overtaken ancient ruins, and waterfalls flow into crystalline ponds. The trail is difficult, but well worth the effort.
 
They visit ancient temples (many of which are still used to this day) and mediate with monks for a short time. It leaves them both with a profound sense of reverence. And what else can be said about the Dragon’s Maw or the Terracotta Army, other than they invoke a sense of awe inspiring wonderment and the feeling that they’ve somehow travelled through time.
 
They return back to the village square with the appearance of a pair of grungy adventurers who had attempted to tame the wild, and lost. Ying sees Luke to his door and thanks him for the memorable hike. Ying’s monetary payment had been made in advance, so they stand expectantly on his doorstep for several moments, waiting for the other to speak.
 
Luke has been thinking about a rare artifact he found inside the vacation home before embarking on the hike with Ying. Luke would have completely overlooked it, had it not been for the memories shared through Mark. Luke invites Ying inside, then shows her the unremarkable coin. It is rumored to give adventurers luck and good fortune during their travels. Luke places it in her hand and tells her he wants her to have it.
 
Ying smiles her contagious smile and whispers, seductively telling Luke that she believes it is already working. Being sims of few words and decisive action, Luke and Ying stumble into the bedroom while undressing. They fall together into bed, where they share in each other’s deepest desires until the soft and sensual sounds of their intimate affair are joined by the gentle hum of the evening insects; who have come alive to sing their eerie song bidding the day farewell.
 
Luke wakes before sunrise and smiles when he feels Ying’s warmth beside him. Sensing that he is awake, she stirs and turns to face him. They kiss, woohoo, then share breakfast in the kitchen. When Ying refuses to eat, Luke asks her why she becomes so distant at mealtime.
 
Ying blinks and snaps out of her trance, then smiles at Luke and stands, beckoning him to follow. They stand together in silence, embracing on the patio facing the garden, until Ying speaks again. But it is a far away voice that seems most un-Ying-like.
 
She smiles sadly, calling him qíngrén, then tells him that she must leave now. She wishes desperately that she could stay. But it is the way of things. She touches his cheek and states that he came here searching for answers and found her instead. And for this, she will be eternally thankful. Ying pauses, then relents. Luke’s future is not here with her. She breathes a yielding sigh,  reminding him that he has already found his future. But he needs to understand how to reach her.
 
Ying steps backward and thanks Luke, before telling him that his future has already been forged with a woman who loves him more than he can know. Luke’s mind spins, and his feet become unstable. Or is the floor that has become unstable? Luke tries to reach out for Ying, who is now retreating into some kind of strange vortex. He shouts, asking if it is Sandi; and why Ying thinks she loves him. Ying’s voice echoes in his mind. She can see Sandi’s fate intertwined within his. Then she adds, with a decidedly sad tone, that Sandi’s future has already been forged as well.
 
Now yelling in his loudest, most desperate voice, Luke asks how she knows these things. Her voice is distant but clear. She knows these things because she is not real; and he is dreaming. It was a beautiful dream, and she doesn’t want it to end. But he is presently in grave danger and he must wake up… NOW!!
 
 
Luke wakes abruptly and completely alone. He glances at his watch and frowns. He had fallen asleep while reading. It is still just the first night of his vacation. Beautiful Ying; she was nothing more than a vivid dream. He silently gets out of bed and stands perfectly still in the dark bedroom suite. Something here is not right. He feels his nerves igniting like a network of black powder fuses. Details that would ordinarily seem mundane, unimportant, or nearly imperceptible, stand out abruptly and scream that there is in intruder in the house. He has reason to suspect that this is no ordinary intruder, too. Luke had sensed the tattered remnants of evil radiating from both Corwin and Reid. But whatever has come here, has the full-on stink of corruption and hatred; and it fills the house with its foul presence.
 
Luke’s awareness comes alive in a manner he had never imagined possible. His mother had told him how she possessed an almost supernatural level of focus and perception. But never in his wildest dreams did he believe it would be like this. He moves with the silence of a ghost, and manages to barely disturb the air he travels through. Both his mother and Mark Barimen had been marital artists. Mark had been recognised as the best in the world during his life. Luke draws upon these shared memories and skills to prepare himself. Luke can sense it, just on the other side of the bedroom door. No matter how prepared he is, going through it would be suicide.
 
Luke imposes his will onto the door leading from the bedroom to the patio. It obeys, and remains soundless while he opens it and slips through; then to the open door (used by the intruder) leading into the main living space. He passes through the door without producing as much noise a feather would make striking the floor.
 
He is there, stalking the bedroom door. The blade of a long knife he is carrying shines malevolently in the moonlight, hovering at throat-level. Luke moves swiftly, silently, and decisively into the room; delivering an impossibly destructive strike that breaks or fractures numerous bones in the man’s arm and shoulder. A few centimeters more, and it would have been his spine.
 
The bones yield easily while making loud and distinctive CRACK! sounds. But to Luke’s dismay, the man does not scream. The long knife he was carrying, however, does drop from the hand on his now-useless arm.
 
Recognition is immediate upon looking into the man’s cold eyes. It is Sandi’s father. Or is it? He spits toward Luke, and in a mocking tone, questions his wisdom for leaving the safety of his estate, given the value of his very precious cargo.
 
 Luke eyes Sandi’s father and takes a cautious step backward. He continues in a hissing whisper, asking if Luke really thought he would be permitted to just waltz away from the walls of his fortress without being hunted. Luke fights against the urge to panic. This man… this THING… he has been using Sandi to get at Luke.
 
The awareness he sensed earlier has now kicked into high gear, straining his mind with sensory overload. He staggers back another step and attempts to make sense of the flood of information. How long has it been planning this? Has it been grooming Sandi for Luke since the beginning? Sorrow mixed with outrage surges, and forces Luke’s voice to break with emotion when he considers the possibility that that Sandi’s mother may have been killed just to orchestrate the scenario at church. Did he know Sandi would run to Luke? Did he predict that Luke would take her to the one place his family has always gone for comfort and prayer? But why lead her to Luke only to rip her away? What purpose could that possibly serve? To create doubt? confusion?
 
Subservience! Sandi’s father spits the word out before Luke can finish speaking. Sandi’s father continues in a mocking, hissing voice, telling Luke that he has been sewing seeds in the girl’s mind since childhood.
 
ENOUGH! The booming voice instantly silences the vile hissing from Sandi’s father; or rather, the evil that has consumed him. The powerful and commanding word resonates through Luke’s his mind. Obviously, Sandi’s father heard it as well. Luke does not need to hear any more than one syllable of one word to know who spoke it.
 
Mark Barimen was relentless in his quest for justice. He was dreaded throughout the criminal underworld as a loose cannon with a perfect record for taking down his foes. Mark had never been a rigid authoritarian, but possessed an unmistakable leadership quality that few could ignore. Seeing Mark now invokes equal measures of respect and fear in the young Barimen.
 
 —
 
Mark looks at Luke squarely in the eyes and grumbles that he should not have come here. Nor should he have risked bringing the seed. Sandi’s father squints its eyes and begins speak, but Mark issues a withering reprimand; causing him to wince instinctively and return to nursing his ruined shoulder.
 
Mark continues, asking if he would be allowed to view the seed. Luke hesitates, but only for a moment, then produces the alien-looking artifact. Mark just nods and tells Luke that it is as important as the entity itself, perhaps more so.
 
If it were to fall into the wrong hands, and the algorithm unlocked, it could very well mean the end of everything. Luke’s eyebrows furl to give away his confusion. Mark explains that he had had two sisters. Each was a genius without peer in her own right. Together, they could have changed the world. Deirdre had discovered the algorithm while working at the science lab. She also learned that a military man named Buford had intended to exploit it. Both Deidre and Claire were murdered because of their understanding of the algorithm. More specifically, for refusing to share their unique insights with Buford. Luke shakes his head in frustration and asks what is so important about this algorithm?
 
The algorithm is a mathematical expression that attempts to articulate the relationship between time and space; the two governing forces that keep the universe and everything in it, balanced.
 
Jiang Xi’s calming voice is a sharp contrast to Mark’s commanding tone. For those who are capable of understanding such a thing, and likewise possess the means to act upon it; the algorithm could be used to deal unthinkable harm. Luke asks why it even exists if it is so dangerous. Jiang Xi smiles and tells him that it was the innocent product of a charming but gullible, young woman. Having no intellectual equal with whom to discuss her profound understanding of the universe, she scribed the thing onto paper while writing in her diary. Her intent was harmless, but the consequences of her action are not. Still, it is not too late to correct it.
 
But to do so, Luke must be very careful to stay where he is protected from those who would stop him. Jiang Xi frowns, regarding Sandi’s father. And from men who chose corruption over virtue. Although he was defeated today, he will continue to pose a serious threat. And so will others who still remain hidden.
 
Luke instinctively grabs Sandi’s father by his good arm and expels him from the home, warning him not to return. Mark and Jiang Xi have already departed, but he can hear the elder instructor’s gentle voice in his head.
 
This is your lesson. Consider it carefully.
You sacrifice balance in your life so that others may possess it in theirs.
 
Your actions are noble.  But your efforts to protect may only result in hiding the truth from those who need to hear it most. And more importantly, it may not afford them the opportunity to choose whether they accept it as the truth, or not.
 
Ask yourself this: can you ever achieve real balance in the absence of real truth?

Chapter 8.11 – Progress

When looking out from the top-floor breezeway, the sea stretches all the way out into the horizon.
 
There is nothing but water, as far as the eye can see. As huge as this mansion is, the sea could easy swallow it whole, and it would never be found. And it (the sea) is only just a small spot on the planet when viewed from space. Even the universe is just one paper-thin layer inside an infinitely complex system. And Kacey is out there, somewhere. The entity has reached out to her every night since the visit with Desiree McAllister. It sings to her and soothes her troubled spirit.
 
But it is Luke’s troubled spirit that goes unsoothed. His relationship with Sandi ebbs and flows much like the tide from the sea. Some days the waves crash with excitement and energy, and he thinks she is the one he will spend his life with. Other days, it is motionless and still. On days like these, it would be easier to coax the sea to produce a wave from its glassy surface, than it would to coax a smile from Sandi.
 
Being a year ahead of him, she had graduated school and started working in politics. Even though they are barely a year apart in age, Luke can understand her need to keep a clean image. The last thing a budding politician needs is to be caught smooching some high school kid. Even so, Luke suspects that her father still applies a great deal of leverage onto his daughter. And her early dealings in the town council seem to support his theory.
 
Luckily, there’s been no lack of stuff to do, to keep Luke busy. He has been studying for his final exams and meeting with military recruiters from Fort Gnome. There is also the going-away party for Chase. Chase and Alex have been his friends longer than anybody else, with Sandi being the only exception. Alex’s dad is close to retiring, so he’ll probably finish out his career in Sunset Valley. But Chase is a different story. His parents are still young, and his father has been deployed to another city. The farewell celebration is fun, but ends on a gloomy note. Chase is Alex’s best friend, and the news is not sitting well with him, or with Chase’s girlfriend. Luke is used to these kinds of goodbyes, however. He smiles while shaking Chase’s hand and wishes him luck.
 
Luke wonders if this is how his life will be; traveling from city to city, or out of country dragging his family behind him. Or worse, leaving them behind. But he knows that this is what he was made for. His life experience will round out the skills of the entity before it enters into this world. And Luke may just provide the most important skills it learns. Luke senses that this entity will be extraordinary, even among its kind. It will be a general among generals, and will one day help lead a great army to victory in the final battle against evil. But that day is still a very long time away.
 
 —
 
 —
 
Luke finds himself at another party a few day later, at a gathering inside the estate to celebrate his birthday. Luke had asked his parents permission to refurnish the empty reception hall for the party. After hiring the town’s best interior designer, and giving her a nearly unlimited budget, the results are amazing. Luke normally does not enjoy large crowds. But he wanted to add one fond memory of his own, to the pool of shared memories the entity has of the good times enjoyed in this room.

Luke Barimen (Ambitious, Loner, Lucky, Unflirty, Workaholic)

 —
 
 —
 
Luke knew Sandi wouldn’t miss his birthday for anything. And, indeed, she is there to give him a birthday kiss. He had noticed Sandi trying to quietly leave a couple of times, shortly afterwards, but she stopped after finding Luke’s confused gaze. Each time, all she could offer was a weak smile in response.
 
 —
 
He can sense that she is not in a good place. Nevertheless, he is careful to pay special attention to her while also keeping up with friends and family. If there is one thing he can count on Aunt Tina and his cousins to do flawlessly, it is throwing a party. So while the guests enjoy elegant five-star catering and drinks at the estate (and the antics provided by his cousins), Luke manages to sneak away with Sandi.
 
He silently leads her through the estate and onto the top-floor breezeway overlooking the sea. He holds her, and tells her that he comes up here to think all of the time. The amazing view clears his head and helps him to relax. She stands comfortably nested in front of him, his arms wrapped protectively around her. He can feel her stress melt away. Then he simply asks her to talk to him. Sandi breaths a heavy, shuddering sign and relents.
 
It’s her job. And her father. They’re both making her crazy. He continuously pushes her to peddle his ideas to the town council. She does her best to stand up for herself. But he has a way of getting into her head, and making her feel like a silly little girl. She’s not even good at the job. In fact, she hates it. But her father always reminds her how he has spent half of his life getting her ready for this kind of work. He demands that she stop being selfish, and start thinking about how much progress they can make. But sometimes, she worries that what he’s asking her to do isn’t really progress at all.
 
If it were possible, Luke would hold her even closer. He tries nonetheless, and she smiles in response. Why not do something she wants to do instead? What would it be? Sandi laughs out loud and shakes her head, telling him that it is really stupid. Luke smirks and tells her that he’s already signed up to be in the military and he starts his first deployment at Fort Gnome in a few days. It is something he has always dreamt of doing. And now it’s becoming reality. Dreams are only stupid to those not dreaming them.
 
Sandi turns to face him and kisses him soundly on the lips, then asks him if he knows how long she has wanted to hear those words. Luke smiles and asks her again what it is she would love to do. She blushes and laughs again, then says, half-embarrassed, that she wants to publish her sketches and her poetry. Luke steps back explains that his dad is a publisher, and can probably help her make it happen. Sandi searches his eyes, then after a moment asks if he is serious. But then, Luke can see the excitement disappear. Sandi shrugs her shoulders, then falls into another embrace with Luke. She shakes her head, and reveals that she couldn’t stand living with her father if she were to quit her job.
 
Luke minds works, as he tries to find the words to express his feelings. Sandi has become far closer to him than he has allowed any other sim. In his mind, living together would bring them even closer. And it would remove her from a controlling, conniving father who seems to be using her to forward his own agenda. Luke has often explored his feelings for her, but has never voiced them out loud. The words, I love you, slip out past his lips almost on their own accord.
 
 —
 
Sandi’s curious reaction does not allow the opportunity to for him to finish the thought, which had been asking her to move in with him. She struggles out of their embrace and moves away from him, frantically shaking her head. Half crying, half shouting, Sandi warns him not to use those words ever again. She runs away, before he can speak, disappearing into the estate, and leaving Luke confused, upset, and wondering what he did wrong.
 
He had hoped Sandi would return to the party so they could talk about her outburst. But it didn’t happen. By the end of the night, he is pretty stressed out from being around so many people, and is relieved that they’ve started to go home. Twice now, Sandi has completely flipped out about things that make no sense. The first time was at the church, and she later explained her odd behavior after apologizing. Hopefully, she’ll come around and explain what happened tonight.
 
Luke returns to his spot on the breezeway after the last guests leave. If he had the ability to sleep, he could at least stop thinking about Sandi for a little while. What troubles him more than tonight’s display, is the eerie feeling he gets that her father is somehow at the center of this issue too. Is he still attempting to drive them apart? He contemplates this, praying that he has not damaged their relationship irrevocably. And while he prays, he can hear the deep and masculine voices of the entity, once again reaching out into the cosmos, singing its comforting song for Kacey. Luke presses his lips together and frowns.
 
If he could, he would do the same for Sandi.

Chapter 8.10 – Poetry

Luke stops reading when he hears Sandi’s breathing slow to a soft, whispering snore.
 
Poetry is not his first choice of reading material. But he knows Sandi well enough to understand that reading it to her satisfies the hopeless romantic within. Luke gently picks Sandi up off of the sofa and carries her to the guest suite, then covers her with a silk and down comforter. If you had asked him yesterday about their future together, he would have told you there was no future. But the answer would be quite a bit different at this point in time.
 
Honestly, he’ll very likely marry Sandi some day. But there are still a lot of things to figure out before then. For example, how in the world does he inform her that he does not need to sleep? Or that he never gets fatigued? She barely tolerates his religious beliefs. How does he begin to explain that there is an interdimensional being tagging along with him for the ride? Or that his family is being hunted by demons? Luke scoffs. Good luck with that.
 
 —
 
Luke descends the stairs winding down to the ground floor. The cavernous, empty room at the bottom had been filled many times with people and memorable occasions. Many great times were had in this room, going all the way back to Mark. He stands at the center of the great hall, drawing upon the shared memories made available by the entity residing with him. His mother had decided to keep the estate empty after regaining their wealth, as a reminder of what she had lost. It may be a reminder for her. For everybody else, it is just simply a creepy, empty mansion.
 
This land is alive with the memories and the spirits of those who have lived here before you. It is a very special place. That is the reason why she sits here; very, very close to where we are now. But she is afraid, alone, and troubled. After giving so much of herself, she still pressed relentlessly forward. And even after it was over, she made a painful and selfless decision without hesitation. It was the right decision, mind you. But it was not an easy one. Now I fear for her state of mind. You may not be able to reach her physically, but you can still reach out to her; and comfort her.
 
Luke closes his eyes. He sees the same broken landscape he witnessed in his vision of the massacre when he was a child. He sees her, meditating on a small patch of broken earth. The voices have emerged again, masculine and powerful, singing to her and lifting her up from where she is sitting. Then, for the first time in what might be a hundred years, Kacey smiles.
 
It may have been an hour, maybe more. Luke finally opens his eyes to the soft, warm glow of another spirit. But he does not know who she is. She moves gently toward him and hugs him the way Grandma Faith used to. Luke steps back and asks who she is, and how she knew where to find Kacey.
 
The ghost performs a slight curtsy, then tells Luke that her name was Desiree McAllister. Luke recognises her voice immediately. Hers was the first voice he heard, the one telling him to listen and obey.
 
She was the last in a long line of McAllisters to live on this property. A fire at the cabin claimed her life (see Chapter 1.12 – Memories). Her husband was Corwin, and her son was Julian. She smiles a sad smile and regards Luke for a long time before speaking again. If a ghost could cry, Desiree would do so. Her voice waivers as she speaks in Luke’s mind. The young woman everybody has been calling Kacey; her given name is Eva. Desiree explains how she gave birth to Eva moments after Julian was born. She knew, even before childbirth, that Eva was not going to be a human child.
 
Luke searches his shared memories, but can find nothing that supports this. He stammers and tells her he does not understand. Desiree smiles again. It is a warm smile that Luke likes a lot, as it reminds him of Grandma Faith.
 
Her ancestors, the original McAllisters, had settled this land and somehow discovered how important it was. They agreed to take on the responsibility of guardianship to a very special being. Her entire race had been slain, and she was the last of her kind. But at the same time, she was the first of her kind. Either way, she was the last hope her proud race had of one day returning.
 
Much like Luke, Desiree also discovered that she possessed incredible talents when she was a youth. But those talents vanished at the moment Julian was conceived. Luke detects a hint of bashfulness as she remembers. The act itself had been unforgettable. She had never before experienced such an overwhelming sensation, as the purified love she felt for Corwin.
 
And Corwin, who had long ago given himself to evil, experienced love for the first time in his life. But this was no ordinary expression of love. Something incredible and extraordinary was happening. It was as though they had been transported to a place were the concept of love was real and tangible. When it was finished, Eva had been delivered from the place of her metamorphosis and into this world; alongside Desiree’s newly conceived child, Julian. The event had even touched Corwin’s cold and feeble heart. And it began to change his life.
 
 —
 
But it became clear that there are some things which simply cannot change. When Corwin came to understand what Eva represented, his lust for wealth and power returned. Desiree begged him to remember their special night. But it was no use. She had lost him.
 —
 
She was forced to hide Eva from Corwin inside the family’s luminorious mine. He considered the mine to be beneath his station, and had repeatedly refused to enter it. The decision was the most difficult and heart-breaking she’d ever had to make. But it was necessary to protect Eva from certain death.
 
Corwin was furious. He threatened her and Julian, and used every other method he could imagine to intimidate Desiree into disclosing Eva’s location. Knowing her husband would be watching closely, Desiree could only manage to care for Eva while he was at work. She slipped into the hidden tunnels beneath Sunset Valley to visit the traumatized girl. Deirdre had learned to comfort Eva, and rock her to sleep singing an old, Irish lullaby. She did this so that she could leave without further traumatizing the the child. But to some degree, she did it so she could leave without further traumatizing herself.
 
This continued for a short few weeks until Desiree lost her life in the fire at the cabin. Eva remained, trapped in the cavern, being kept alive by an unearthly artifact the earliest McAllisters had hidden there centuries before.
 
Years later, when Julian was an adult, Corwin discovered where Desiree had hidden Eva. He was going to take her from the mine, and seize the land from Julian (see Chapter 1.18 – Debt). Desiree’s expression falters and she gazes at the floor. She had no choice but to stop him. Sensing Desiree’s difficulty, Luke finishes the story, using information he had learned from Reid.
 
While the questions are still fresh in his mind, Luke fires them off, giving Desiree little chance to answer them. Where is she now? How was I able to see her? Did she see us? Why didn’t she age when Julian aged? Why is she still so young? Desiree laughs when his litany of questions is finished, then comments that there is somebody he should go and see. The visit will do him a world of good. As for Eva/Kacey; age and time are meaningless to her kind. She can appear any age she wishes to appear, and travel to any time and place she so desires. What she lacks is confidence, and the will to continue.
 
Desiree smiles that Grandma Faith smile again, then hugs Luke and wishes him goodbye. But he senses a twinge of sadness in her eyes. He asks if Corwin is going to cause any problems for him. Desiree rolls her eyes and smirks. Corwin forgets that he is dead. Desiree shakes her head and tells Luke that he has nothing to fear from Corwin. But he does need to be wary of the living.
 
Because when evil strikes, it will strike from a place and time he least expects.

Chapter 8.9 – Seed

It is nearly morning before Luke emerges from the fissure, more confused now then ever before.
 
Knowing his parents will be frantic (his over-protective mother particularly so), Luke reaches out to her as soon as his phone shows a signal strong enough to carry the call. She had once told him that he could talk to her about any weird experiences he encounters. He had failed to mention his meeting with Bebe and Julian the night Grandma Faith died. He had also neglected to tell her about the ring, and the confrontation with Corwin’s spirit. In some way, Luke had connected them all with Grandma Faith. And his mother has just now started to return to her old self after the elder Barimen’s death.
 
He does not attempt to interrupt her initial salvo of shouting. But when the other end of the phone finally does go quiet for a moment, Luke calmly tells her that they need to talk about something very unusual that has just occurred; one of those weird things she had told him to share with her. The revelation seems to calm her somewhat, but Luke knows that she will not be in her right mind until Luke is home safely.
 
Having a load of energy to burn off, Luke decides that a good sprint is what he needs more than anything. So he takes off in the direction of home, racing through the woods and hills in the same manner as a jackrabbit. And as he runs, he reflects upon what he has learned over the past couple of hours. He’s had to approach this information with an open mind, because much of it is simply unbelievable.
 
Over the generations, each first born child in his family has become the guardian to a formless, alien life. It has been hibernating in metamorphosis inside its chrysalishidden away safely between worlds. Over the years, it has gained the skills, knowledge, and wisdom from the life experiences of its hosts. And as it matured, some measure of its supernatural nature has been transferred, in kind, to its guardians. Soon, the metamorphosis will be complete, and it will be ready to emerge into the physical world.
 
The problem, is that Luke has absolutely no idea how or when this is going to happen.
 
Amber says nothing to him when Luke jogs into the courtyard at the estate, but hugs him close until he starts to squirm. After escaping from the embrace, Luke explains everything. He begins with meeting Julian and Bebe on the evening Grandma Faith died, and recounts everything through his encounter with Reid last night. Amber listens, stunned but silent, to the dismissive tale. Even knowing what she knows about the entity, Luke’s recounting sounds almost too absurd to be true. But what he shows her next, removes any and all doubt.
 
Reid had lead him to an area of the cave just beyond the place where military personnel have been working inside an underground lab. Once there, he instructed Luke to dig; suggesting that he would know when to stop. Before vanishing deeper into the cave, Reid told Luke that the military would kill to retrieve what he is about to uncover. Because contained within, is the knowledge of creation and destruction, space and time, life and death. It is as old as the universe itself. Reid had thought the artifact to be destroyed or lost until he discovered that this small fragment still remained buried.
 
Luke holds the object in the palm of his hand, feeling an almost electric sensation coursing up and down his arm. Amber remains speechless. Luke tells her that Reid was wrong. It is not a fragment of the original artifact at all. It is a seed. But it is unlike any plant or animal from this world; and could never take root in any soil here. Reid also left him with some kind of warning, but he does not understand what it means. He told Luke to find and destroy any trace of the algorithm. He said that doing so would be the only way Kacey would ever know peace in her lifetime.
 
Luke conceals the seed then scratches his head. What is an algorithm? And how is he supposed to find a woman who has supposedly lived for nearly two-hundred years? Amber finally breaks her silence, but manages only an apology. She thought she would be able to help Luke. There had been a time when no mystery was too challenging for her to solve. But this…
 
Amber and Luke sit together in silent and awe-filled reflection for a short time. When Amber speaks again, she feels somewhat silly bringing up a topic so minuscule in scope compared to the experience Luke has just shared. Sandi came over to the estate last night looking for Luke. She stayed and talked with Amber while they both waited for him to come home. She had a lot to get off of her chest and vented some of it to Amber. But as it became late, and neither one of them could get in touch with Luke, Sandi went home even more distraught than she was when she arrived.
 
Luke frowns and explains his version of yesterday’s events at the church. Amber listens but says nothing about Sandi’s account. She does, however, ask Luke to call her and let her know he is okay.
 
 
Sandi stares at the ground when Luke answers the door, feeling ashamed and embarrassed. But he immediately lifts her chin with his index finger and tells her he’s glad to see her. The gesture elicits a crying fit on his shoulder where she apologizes for the fight.
 
They sit together in the guest suite, watching movies and chatting about school and chores for most of the day. When dinnertime arrives, Sandi finally opens up about their argument. She explains that her father has always taught her to be weary of, if not completely avoid, “those f-ing church types”. As a child, he’d told her that they would brainwash her. Of course she didn’t know what a brainwash was, but it sounded pretty frightening at the time.
 
Sandi’s eyes well up with tears as she recalls how angry and bitter her father has always been about everything; and how he delivers blistering and demoralizing insults toward anybody who does not agree with his way of thinking. As a result, he has never been able to just enjoy what they’d had together as a family. She learned early that he would heap praise upon her for agreeing with him, such as writing a school paper about one of his many hot-button issues. She enjoyed the praise, of course. But more than anything, she would do whatever was necessary to avoid one of his lecturing diatribes that always came after questioning any of his ideals.
 
That is why she is so attracted to Luke. He is strong, silent, and deliberate. And as far as she knows, he has never once complained about anything. Sandi cuddles close and explains that she had gone back home after the fight only to be subjected to another one of his lame lectures. She felt as though validating his ideals was more important to him than mourning death of her mother. She lost her temper and screamed at him; wishing him luck in preventing her from spending time with Luke. That’s when she came here and talked with Amber and managed to calm down somewhat; at least until they couldn’t get in touch with him.
 
Luke grimaces and apologizes, telling her that he wanted to be alone, and went out rock climbing where there was no phone service. He didn’t realize how late it was until it was too dark to safely return home. Sandi kisses him, then asks sheepishly if she can sleep over. Luke stutters uncomfortably, looking away, and searching for a response to her very sudden and direct question. Sandi laughs and gives him a scolding look, telling him she doesn’t want THAT kind of sleepover.
 
After sharing a quiet laugh together, she admits that the idea has been a the very front of her mind for awhile. But something happened yesterday, where she saw Luke from a different perspective then ever before. Maybe it was something as simple as placing him and the church together in her mind, or maybe it was something else. Those thoughts have not disappeared, but she no longer wants to try it as badly as she did before. Sandi raises her eyebrow and smirks, stating that it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
 
Because she trusts Luke; and besides that, she’s pretty sure that her chastity is safer with him than anybody else.

Chapter 8.?? – Garden

She hangs like a delicate and pristine ornament in the alien sky, gracing it with her understated elegance and beauty.
 
She has traveled as far as one can travel in search of answers. Who is she? What is her purpose? What is she supposed to do?
 
But after decades of searching, it has become clear to her that there are no answers to those questions. Now she just feels lost. Perhaps she is intended to stay here, in this desolate void, to grow old as a reclusive hermit. It seems to be what she is best at. Besides, the times she has managed to build some small measure of motivation to search for answers, the trail always leads her back to this place. Then she wonders, is she even able to grow old?
 
Kacey walks the broken earth and feels its power beneath her feet. This place had been a primal garden at one time. There was none other like it in the universe. At its center, there had stood an enormous and magnificent tree. There had been many others like her then, as well. They would come here with their lifelong mates to dwell within the safety of the colossal tree, and to conceive and birth their offspring. Who can say why? It is knowledge that will be forever lost.
 
She thinks of David, Hope, Faith, and the others. She misses them desperately. Kacey wipes tears away from her cheeks. She has no memory of her parents, or of the tree. Just a dark, cold cave and a wickedness that still scares her to this day.
 
The tree had been ripped away from this place and destroyed a long time ago. The roots that once held the land together withered and died, creating this unwelcome wasteland. Her artifact had been all that remained of it. Kacey sits in a comfortable patch of grass and closes her eyes, wondering what kind evil would possibly want to molest something as beautiful as this once majestic garden.
 
Yes, this must be what she is intended to do.
 
Just to sit here and contemplate…
 
and grow old as a lonely, reclusive hermit.

Chapter 8.8 – Entity

Reid Kimura had been a brilliant scientist, mathematician, and engineer.
Under different circumstances, perhaps he could have been regarded as such. But things being as they are, he is remembered by those few who knew him, only for the disturbing evil he had committed. The others who did not know him, are left with the ponderous question asking what had happened to change the course of such a promising, young prodigy.
 
 —
 
As a young boy, Reid had discovered a silvery-haired baby hidden inside Sunset Valley’s abandoned mine. She was alone and scared when he found her crying deep within the malevolently dark tunnels. Her cheeks were streaked where tears had left trails through the dirt and dust crusted onto her pretty face. It was evident, even during those first few moments of uncertainty and confusion, that something was terribly wrong. It was bad enough this poor girl was here in the first place. What made matters worse, is that something impossibly ancient and unthinkably evil had found the baby before he had.
 
The evil presence had coerced Reid into striking a deal with it. Being little more that a terrified child himself, he did not fully understand what consequences his decision might bring about. Reid did what he was instructed to do, and returned home to his mother, along with the child. The silvery haired girl was adopted into the family, and was given the name Kacey. Reid had thought his part of the deal to be complete. But the evil presence remained with Reid, slowly consuming his mind with disturbing visions that would eventually lead to his insanity.
 
Then, as he matured, it began to corrupt his spirit with depraved and obscene desires. Reid eventually became lost to the urges being continually fed into his mind. But some small piece of virtue still remained. Although it was minuscule and pathetic, it proved potent enough to fight against the compulsion to kill Kacey outright. It was not potent enough, however, to resist doing wicked and terrible things to her in retribution for his defiance.
What remains of Reid is fractured and broken; his forlorn remnants barely sustainable against the irresistible tide carrying him into the black abyss which will serve as his eternal afterlife.
 
The raw emotion that accompanies the witness of a doomed spirit, leaves Luke feeling bleak and hopeless, and unable to speak. Reid’s voice has the sound of corroded and rusted metal grinding in Luke’s mind. He speaks as would any sim facing his damnation; devoid of emotion, unsteady, and oddly contrite. He tells Luke that there is little time remaining. But there is still much to accomplish. Luke freezes in place when Reid begins to move toward the fissure and motions him to follow.
 
After a moment, Reid pauses, his ethereal shoulders drooping as he speaks again to Luke. He does not blame Luke for being overly cautious. It is probably a good thing considering what he will soon be squaring off against. But Luke has nothing to fear tonight. The Reid he sees now is just the hollow shell of a man who had been consumed by evil from the inside. The only thing that remains of him is the small cinder of decency that had kept Kacey alive. Besides that, the dead cannot harm the living.
 
Luke sets his jaw and challenges Reid’s last statement, telling him about the encounter with Corwin. Reid shakes his head and admits he does not understand what Corwin had been playing at. Perhaps it was meant as a deception designed to keep him close to home, and away from this place. While taking a few carefully places steps back toward the path he had used to come here, Luke growls impatiently. He reminds Reid that he had lured both David and Kacey into his lair a long time ago. And they barely escaped alive. Luke’s voice trails off in confusion, while he wonders silently to himself how he came to know about the event he just spoke about.
 
Reid nods, and does not deny the act. He also asks Luke to recall the simple fact that while he could have easily killed them both, he did not.
 
Luke staggers, having been suddenly overcome by a disorienting wave of awareness. The sensation is similar to having pushed hard on a barrier for a long time, only to have is suddenly give way under the pressure. He finally steadies himself, only to be dumbstruck again. Through some impossible process, his mind has been set loose upon a vast sea of memories that do not belong to him. He remembers Reid’s attack on David at the mine. He remembers kissing Kacey the night she disappeared out of David’s life. He remembers seeing her again, this time as Hope, who had fallen asleep on a bench after being severely beaten, nearly to death. Kacey saved her life that night. He remembers Grandma Faith as a teenager, pulling Kacey out from beneath countless tons of rock and earth. It was right here, hundreds of feet below this very spot where she lay trapped. Luke’s heart and mind race as he searches for a way to comprehend this. How is it possible to remember events from another sim’s life?
 
After a moment, it slowly comes together and begins to make sense. These are not his memories at all. They are the memories of a very old entity; a formless being that hides in a world between worlds, using Luke as an extensional anchor. David was the first Barimen to act in this capacity. The entity has since moved to the first-born of every generation, hiding safely away from those who would gain unimaginable wealth and power just simply from killing it. The whispering voices Luke heard, the ones that lead him here; it was the voice of the entity. It wanted him to find Reid.
 
All Luke’s abilities, including his tirelessness and near limitless stamina; they are all a side effects of his relationship with the entity. Luke’s first encounter with an “otherworldly” voice occurred at the estate after he saw ghosts for the first time at the mausoleum. The voice told him he had a unique gift. And if he wanted to claim victory, he had to listen and obey. He had always thought it was telling him to listen to his parents. But now he’s sure it meant that he should listen to the entity. It knows better than anyone what must be done for it to emerge from the place between worlds. Luke eyes Reid suspiciously. This goes far outside the bounds of his better judgement.
 
But even so, Luke is comforted by a peculiar sensation; accompanied by the quiet hush of a hundred whispering voices, gently thanking him for giving so freely of his trust.

Chapter 8.7 – Confusion

Much has happened in this simple, little chapel.
 
Generations of Barimens have been married here. And just as many have been put to rest. It has provided comfort, inspiration, joy, and healing to those who have chosen to come and worship every week. What transpired here earlier today, however, leaves an ugly smudge upon Luke’s perception of this place.
 
Months have passed since Grandma Faith’s death and the troubling confrontation with Corwin. During that time, Luke has found himself thinking about his girlfriend, Sandi, more and more. He is not the kind of kid who falls easily to infatuation. In fact, he’s probably slower than most to get the flame started. When it comes to his relationship with Sandi, this is probably a good thing. She’s pretty much his opposite in this regard; a true hopeless romantic, always dreaming up some romantic escape for him to take part in.
 
The past few weeks had been especially good, particularly since he’d built up the nerve to finally kiss her. Luke has never really spent a lot of time with any one sim outside his family. So having Sandi attached at the hip every day of the week (including weekends) did require some getting used to. But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. There have been some sticking points, especially where religion and faith are concerned.
 
Sandi’s family does not attend church. In fact, they pride themselves in the fact that they do not. He discovered this when he brought up the topic for the first time. Sandi immediately became uncomfortable and upset, so he agreed not to bring it up again. There had also been a mild confrontation with Sandi’s father concerning the matter at her house one afternoon. He had made it clear to Luke that he would do whatever was necessary to protect Sandi from foolish, superstitious notions. He chided that no reasonable sim in this day and age still believes in that kind of nonsense, and that Luke should wise-up if he wanted to continue dating his daughter. Luke didn’t really understand what Sandi’s father was so concerned about, so he just dismissed it as a paranoid dad thing.
 
Then came the news that Sandi’s mother had been accidentally electrocuted. Nobody ever practices what to do or say in that kind of situation. Luke had no idea how to help Sandi other than bring her to the place that provides him comfort. He figured it might help her too. Only, it didn’t go quite the way he had pictured it.  She had been clinging to him most of the day. But when they arrived at the church, her mood changed abruptly.
 
She instantly became disgusted and insulted, then demanded to know why he brought her here. Luke attempted to explain that all he wanted to do was help by sharing what makes him fell better when he is distraught. But it was already too late. She lambasted him for believing something so stupid, reminding him that he had agreed not to talk about his childish fairy tales.
 
Luke attempted to apologize, but she was already on the phone with her father, asking him to come pick her up. And that REALLY didn’t go well. When he arrived just a few minutes later, he accused Luke of trying to fill his daughter’s head with lies while she was emotionally vulnerable. Then, after complimenting his daughter for her quick thinking, he shouted various profanities and insults directed toward Luke’s intellectual capacity (or lack thereof). Then he forbid Sandi from spending any more time with Luke.
 
All he wanted to do was help. Luke buries his face in his hands and closes his eyes in confusion and anxiety; wondering how something so harmless could have turned out so badly. He wants believe that it was just the grief and anger over losing her mother that had caused her to snap. But he suspects that her reaction touches on something that is buried much deeper than that. Luke breathes a heavy sigh, and just for a moment, feels badly for his oldest friend. Not only because of her mother’s death, or the falling-out; but because he cannot imagine how empty and alone it must feel to live a faithless existence.
 
There are many paths a sim can travel during their lifetime. And regardless of the path they choose, what matters most is that they possesses the free will to make the choice for themselves. After all, what good can come from the gift of perfect love if a sim does not wish to receive it?
 
The voice in Luke’s mind is gentle and kind, but peppered with an edge of excitability. During his life, David Barimen was known worldwide for his charitable medical work and keen sense of fairness. He was a gentle sim in every manner of the word, having only raised his voice perhaps once or twice over his entire lifetime. But despite his profound kindness, he was oftentimes blinded by a naive innocence. And because of this, his story ended with tragedy and heartbreak.
 
Somehow sensing that Luke is in no mood to talk, David continues. He tells Luke that Sandi reminds him of a sim he used to know. They had shared many conversations like the one Luke had with Sandi today. But his friend had never been quite so obstinate or abrasive. There is a long time where the two sit together in silence, before David continues. Her name was Kacey. She was a unique sim, with beautiful silvery hair and brilliant blue eyes. There had been a time when he was love with her. He had even proposed marriage. But then something terrible happened. And afterwards, Kacy disappeared only to return weeks later just to break off the engagement. It was the last time he saw her.
 
Luke opens his eyes and stares at David. He feels an instant connection, like he has somehow known David his entire life. Luke shifts around his pocket, finds the ring his grandmother had given to him just moments before her death, then holds it out for the spirit to see. David says nothing has he studies the object with a stunned expression on his face, as though he had just seen a ghost. He eventually recovers, and mumbles that seeing the engagement ring he gave to Kacey has brought back some very fond, and long forgotten memories.
 
Luke whispers the question that has been bothering him for weeks. Who is she?
 
David offers a weak smile in response. Even though Luke can only hear David in his mind, his voice is still distant and quiet. He had known Kacy when she was just a small baby. He can even recall the first time he saw her while visiting his best friend Reid’s house one afternoon after school. David chuckles that he had never been terribly observant or curious as a child. His mind was always preoccupied with fishing or playing pirates on the beach with his friends. So it never occurred to him to question why Kacey’s mother had never been pregnant. David pauses and smiles a warm, grandfatherly smile. He understands, now, that Faith has tasked Luke with returning the ring to Kacey.
 
Luke’s face contorts as he verbalizes his confusion. How he is supposed to find some ghost to give her ring back? Wouldn’t it just be easier for David to give it back to her, instead?
 
David floats toward a window and appears to be looking out of it for some time before speaking again. He quietly tells Luke that there is no ghost to find, because Kacey is still very much alive. His words cause Luke to shift suddenly in his seat. Knowing the response made absolutely no sense to the troubled teen, David apologizes. He has created more confusion for Luke, rather than clearing any up. David reassures Luke that he has only to keep the ring safe. And when the time is right, Kacey and the ring will find each other. 
 
David’s spirit turns to leave, but Luke shouts for him to wait. He springs to his feet and asks, with quite a bit more emotion than he had intended, why David and the others have been seeking him out. David’s ghostly eyes sparkle as he smirks and chuckles, admitting they have all been wanting to ask Luke the exact same question.
 
Luke stands motionless and imperceptible while watching from a safe distance, uniformed military personnel working around the old abandoned mine. Alex had hinted to him that something big was happening at the excavation site. And he was right. Having blasted through the landslide that had covered the original entrance, workers have now built a huge structure around the entire area. What’s most intriguing, it that they’ve started moving in some massive equipment carried on semi trailers. Unfortunately, the equipment has been carefully concealed under layers of canvas tarps, so Luke is unable to make out what it is.
 
He is about to leave when he hears a strange sound, barely audible over the noise of heavy machinery and diesel engines. It sounds like many sims, all whispering together in unison. Or maybe it is just one sim; his barely audible voice multiplied hundreds of times.
 
Luke looks around, attempting to locate the source of the noise. He deftly climbs over steep rocks and around ancient trees. Whoever it is, he seems to be moving. But the question is whether he is running away from Luke, or leading him somewhere.
 
He finally finds a densely wooded area where the ground has caved in and exposed a small fissure in the hillside, concealed by large rocks and overgrowth. The voices have disappeared. And, quite honestly, Luke has no idea where he is. As it begins to grow dark outside, Luke can see that there is a faint light emanating from somewhere deep within the fissure. As he moves closer, he can hear what sounds like a hammer chipping away at rocks echoing from the opening. He is nearly at the mouth of the fissure when the sound stops.
 
Luke looks around for somewhere to hide. He should probably just run back the way he came and try to find this place again in the morning. He quietly backs away from the cave-in and walks a few tentative steps backward before turning to run. But before he can take a step, he is startled by a figure standing immediately before him. Just the same as it was with the others, Luke knows immediately who this sim was in life. His name was Reid Kimura. He also knows immediately that this meeting has been carefully arranged.
 
And this is what worries him most.

Chapter 8.6 – Bounty

An endearing role reversal emerges within the Barimen household after Faith’s unexpected death.
 
The extended family sometimes jokes with Amber about her guard-dog mentality, but there is no kidding around now. There are times when even a stoic pillar of strength must grieve. Wendell and Luke shield and comfort Amber while she does so. In many ways, Faith had been more like a mother to Amber than a grandmother. And Ironically, it is the conspicuous absence of both Lisa and Ben that further fuels Amber’s pain. Stating their belief that her memorial service should be kept a reverent affair, the megastar couple (and lifeblood of Grayswandir) opted to send flowers rather than introduce the frenzy of media and paparazzi that would surely accompany their presence.
 
And to make matters worse, an apology sent by Aunt Sara to Tina and Tanya, further widens the family rift that has festered, rather than healed, over time. In her letter, Sarah states that attending one funeral with Amber present was enough to last her a lifetime; and that she would prefer to remember her mother during a private service at her own church overseas. Whether perceived or overt, these slights against his mother has cause Luke to smoulder in anger; an emotion he is not well acclimated to. Still, it seems petty and selfish that the sims closest to his mother would abandon her at such a time of need. What could she have possibly done to deserve such vitriol?
 
Faith is put to rest in the private family cemetery on the beach below the estate. She joins Jimmy and the previous generations who have come to rest here as well. As the service progresses, the wind shifts and delivers an unusually cold gale from the sea. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to bother Luke at all, but he can see how uncomfortable everybody else has become. The sudden change keeps the outdoor ceremony short. Afterwards, everybody meets up again at the house Aunt Tanya has inherited from her parents. Everybody, that is, except Luke.
 
Telling his father that he needs time to reflect, he asks to be excused from the reception. Wendell knows that given the choice, Luke would always prefer to be alone over joining a large group of people. He agrees, but reminds his teen-aged son to be home before dark. And with that, Luke wanders and contemplates alone for quite some time within the cemetery confines, oblivious to the bitter, blowing cold that has swept in from the sea.
 
At a time when his mind should be focused on remembering Grandma Faith, he finds that he has become stuck on the ghostly vision he experienced just before her death. He scolds himself for not sharing the same sadness and grief shown by his family. He sincerely wants to feel it, but he cannot.
 
 —
A light snow begins to fall as Luke searches his mind for meaning behind everything he has been shown. He stops wandering the grounds when he locates the headstones for Julian and Bebe. Her words still echo in his mind as though she had just spoken them. Unfortunately, he still does not understand what she had been trying to tell him. Was it something about alien creatures? Some kind of war? The whole thing sounds too ridiculous to be true.
 
He wanders again to the freshly packed earth where Faith has been buried. Did she know her time had come? Was the eerie sensation he felt throughout that day some kind of premonition? And what about the ring Grandma Faith had given him? Who was this silver-haired Kacey girl? Is he supposed to go find her and propose marriage? That seems kind of crazy.
 
As though it were responding to his silent questions, the freezing wind gusts around him and seems to whisper …the ring is not meant for you. Luke clenches his jaw impatiently when he “hears” a presence invading his thoughts again. He would very much like for them to stop doing that.
 
Luke turns his head slightly to regard the ghostly man standing only a few steps behind him. Luke’s annoyance turns instantly into a flutter of fear. Without understanding where this knowledge comes from, he understands, nonetheless, that he has every right to be afraid. During his lifetime, this man had possessed more money and power than some small countries. He had been equally respected and reviled as a world-class criminal and cutthroat. His name was Corwin Barimen, and even in death (or perhaps because of it) Corwin carries an unmistakable air of arrogance and authority that commands some level of precaution.
 
Luke’s eyes narrow as he sizes up the ghostly figure in front of him. He has no fancy soliloquies or pertinent insights to share; just a threat veiled by a boast. Corwin grumbles that he normally makes a point of avoiding funerals, having caused so many of them to occur over his lifetime. Luke takes this as a warning and swallows his urge to unload after a day full of emotional turmoil. Instead, he simply grumbles in return, asking the ghost what he meant by saying the ring was not meant for him.
 
The vile remnants of a man who was far more vile in life, scoffs, observing that his acute intelligence appears to not have been passed down among his descendants. In a overt display of disrespect, Luke returns the scoff, verbalizing the word “whatever” while waving the ghost off with his hand and turning his back. Luke knows there is a reason for this visit, however. No matter how tempting it might be to just ditch this goon, he senses that doing so would be unwise.
 
Luke clears his throat and suggests that if all he came here to do was chuck insults around, then he might as well just go back to rotting in his cozy, little hole. Whether or not his bravado achieved the desired effect remains unclear. The cold wind blowing from the sea, however, seems to drop another few degrees. It gusts in unison with the seething message thrust into Luke’s mind.
 
There are only a few sims ever to have lived, possessing the necessary intelligence to grasp the cosmic importance of Luke’s ancestral home. Corwin was one of those sims.  But his failure to capitalize on this insight had cost him dearly. Having nothing to do with the better part of a century, other than analyze his own failure, Corwin has identified three critical flaws in his logic. Each of them involves the woman he had wed for the sole purpose of wresting the land from her. His first failure was underestimating her ability to deceive him. The second was the deception itself, and his failure to recognise it. The third was a piece of knowledge she possessed that he did not; an advantage she wielded rather proficiently.
 
There are sims, such as Corwin, who crave the lust of power, wealth, and decadence over all other things. More importantly, they lack the fear of consequences and dismiss any authority that might stand in the way of their own self promotion. Some time during his youth, Corwin came to know an entity whose ideals aligned with his. He also came to know about a lucrative opportunity presented by this entity. There had once been a race of beings despised for their misguided sense of faith and goodness. Eventually, it became necessary to use them as an example to demonstrate that such ideals were no longer tolerated in the universe. With little regard for the wrath it might incur, a bounty was placed upon the heads of these beings. Within short order, there were no heads remaining to be collected. But the offer of reward continues to stand to this day.
 
Corwin refuses to disclose how he discovered that his wife’s family harbored such a being. But he does tell Luke about the piece of knowledge that had been used against him. The Barimen home provides his family with an impregnable security barrier. And as long as Luke stays close to it, he will continue to be protected from those who hunt.
 
Luke shivers, but not as a result of the freezing wind now blasting ice and snow. Suspecting that he already knows the answer, Luke cautiously asks Corwin’s spirit why he is sharing this information. The low chuckle strikes a chord of fear somewhere deep inside the teen, as Corwin maliciously informs him that it is a simple matter of conservation.
 
A century is a long time to analyze something; long enough to find weakness in even the most impenetrable defense. There are those who have recently joined the hunt. Some of them are good enough to get the job done if Luke wanders too far away from home. And that simply cannot be allowed to happen.
 
Because when the time does finally come for him to act, Corwin still intends to be the one who reaps the bounty of the kill.
 

Chapter 8.5 – Promise

Despite the long list of friends who would instantly drop everything to attend his birthday party, Luke’s celebration is a subdued and casual event held at Grandma Faith’s house.
 
Visiting Grandma Faith has always been a special treat. He’s heard the hushed conversation regarding how she’d changed since Grandpa Jimmy passed away. But to Luke, she’s the same, sweet, old grandmother he has always known. Luke was still just a toddler when it happened, so he doesn’t remember much about the man everybody speaks so fondly about. What he does recall, is that the loss affected his mother deeply.
 
 —
 
There has also been a lot of talk about Faith’s health, lately. And Luke cannot help but feel some concern after she kisses him on the forehead, then goes to bed before the party ever really gets started. Luke had seen his mother speaking with Grandma Faith shortly beforehand. The elder Barimen had become very agitated and upset about something during the conversation. Amber apologized for upsetting her, but grandma did what she always does. Patting Amber gently on the shoulder, she assured her granddaughter there was nothing she did wrong. Then she just winked, placing the blame for her sudden mood swing on the fact that she is just a cranky and tired old battle-axe.
 
Aunt Tanya has moved back into the home with her boyfriend, to help take care of Faith. She had been the one to arrange Luke’s party. The funny thing about Aunt Tanya, is that she seems to understand Luke’s introverted tendencies. She did some pretty thorough digging around, to find out exactly which friends he’d want at his party. She was pretty much perfect in that respect, too. There are some kids he’d love to see again. But arranging it would would have been next to impossible, given that their parents are still serving in the military all over the globe.
 
Besides, with Aunt Tina’s brood present, any more than three of his friends would have made large enough crowd, to where both he and Tanya would begin feeling uncomfortable.

Luke Barimen (Ambitious, Loner, Lucky, Unflirty)

After the presents have all been opened, games have been played, and sugar has been consumed in mass quantity, Luke blows out his candles and becomes a teen.
 
He has always possessed an intimidating kind of intensity. It took some time for them to understand him, but Alex and Chase finally learned to relax around Luke. But now that he’s head and shoulders taller than them, the intimidation factor has re-emerged. Unfortunately, they both still have nearly an entire year before their teens, so they congratulate Luke and decide to spend more time with Aunt Tina’s cute twin daughters. Luke laughs, and warns his buddies that they’ll just end up talking about ponies and kittens.
 
 —
 
But Alex and Chase get the last laugh. Luke smells the perfume before he notices Sandi standing behind him. He wonders why he hadn’t noticed it earlier during the party. Luke’s face turns red with blush, which sends Alex and Chase snickering together into the next room, where Tina’s kids are rampaging.
 
There is no denying that Sandi Baker has matured into a beautiful girl. She and Luke have grown into good friends during their years at school. In fact, she’s about the only friend he has whose parents are not in the military. As a result, she’s been in just about every class he’s had from year to year.
 
And though he has pretended not to notice it, she’s never been shy about broadcasting her crush on him. Honestly, Luke really doesn’t mind. It’s always been a kind of morale booster for him. The problem is, that they just don’t have a whole lot in common. But being the humble and gracious kind of sim that he is, Luke does his best to find that conversational middle-ground they seem to always occupy together.
 —
 
As the afternoon turns into evening, a peculiar sensation begins to close in around Luke. He applies considerable willpower toward keeping his focus on Sandi and enjoying the evening. They play video games for awhile then hang out with two of Aunt Tina’s older daughters (where, ironically, the conversation turns to ponies and kittens). Still, it gives him a chance to mentally check-out and search for the thing that has been tugging at his senses. After awhile, Luke decides that the problem is originating from upstairs.
 
Luke almost forgets about the problem while dancing late into the evening with Sandi and his cousins. Then, as the guests leave and the music is turned off, he finds that Sandi has taken him by the hand and led him out, onto the front porch.
 
She complements his dancing and thanks him for inviting her to the party. It is very obvious that she has moved closer and leaned into him, as though she were giving him permission to kiss her. Luke likes Sandi a lot. But that odd feeling tugging at him has become more urgent, and the last thing he is interested in right now is swapping saliva with her. But at the same time, he really does not want this night to end with hurt feelings.
 
Headlights from a car turning into the driveway shine onto the teens, giving Luke a very timely rescue. Sandi’s parents have arrived to take her home. He waves to her parents, then places his hand gently on her cheek. He thanks her for coming to the party, then says goodbye; adding that he cannot wait to see her tomorrow at school.
 
Luke can hear his parents still talking and laughing with Tanya and her boyfriend, so he quietly makes his way up the stairs.
 
 —
 
 —
 
Over the past year, he has seen spirits, witnessed disturbing visions, and heard strange voices. So when he comes face-to-face with two ghostly figures at the top of the stairs, Luke is not startled any more than he would have been, had they been normal sims. What he does find curious is that he somehow knows who they are. Her name is Bebe. And he is Julian.
 
Upon seeing them, something clicks into place inside his head. Since her own childhood, Bebe had known there was something extraordinary about the little cabin where she played. As a young adult, there was a single night where both she and Julian understood, even if only for a fleeting moment, exactly how extraordinary it was. The encounter had changed their lives. But more importantly, something wondrous was set into motion that evening. Bebe’s ghost smiles sweetly and speaks gently. Luke understands, even though there are no words to hear.
 
History has no record of the events Luke had witnessed in that terrible vision on the bluff. Until now, only those who perpetrated the act knew that an entire race of beings was slaughtered during a brutal and horrifying assault. They had been angelic creatures, who possessed the ability to move throughout space and time as freely as a sim walks through the park. It might make sense to believe their special abilities had singled them out as targets. The truth of the matter, is that they were the embodiment of Love, Faith, and Hope in the universe. And they were destroyed simply because they could be destroyed. Those responsible did not understand (and still fail to comprehend), that the ideals they sought to crush are not variables. They are constants, and can never be purged from the universe.
 
The wealth of science about the observable universe simkind has accumulated over time, amounts to one drop inside a vast ocean, compared to what still remains unknown. One of those things which still remains unknown, concerns the place where this family has lived for generations, and the many reflections similar to it throughout spacetime. It is truly unique in all of reality. It is a place where, if given enough time, the ideas of Love, Faith, and Hope will manifest into living, sentient beings. Call it meta-physics, quantum-physics, divine intervention, or  superstition – the label it is given by sims simply does not matter. What does matter, is that only one such being remains in all the universe.
 
Luke stands for a long time in the dark silence that follows. It is not broken until he hears a weak voice, a real one this time, calling his name.
 
Shaken by what has been revealed to him, Luke proceeds tentatively, unsure of what he should do with this knowledge. He enters Grandma Faith’s bedroom to find her standing beside a chest of drawers. Tears in Faith’s eyes glisten from the dim hallway lights. But the room is otherwise dark. She looks more fragile and weak now than he has ever seen her. She motions him forward, holding out something small and metallic. Luke moves quickly forward and accepts the engagement ring into the palm of his hand.
 
She whispers that when the ring came to her, she accepted it with the silent promise that it would be returned to its owner. It had belonged to a woman named Kacey; a sim with locks of silken silver for hair, the face of a child, and radiant, blue eyes the same color as the sky. Faith had made a promise that Kacey would proudly wear the ring again, some day (see Chapter 5.21 – Engagement). Unfortunately, she can no longer keep that promise herself. She kisses Luke again on the forehead, then tells him she is depending upon him to keep the promise for her .
 
Before Luke can speak, he feels overcome by a particular sensation that reminds him, unconsciously, of sunlight and parenthood; while Faith closes her eyes and smiles, then quietly passes away into the mysterious afterlife.

Chapter 8.4 – Supervision

Amber tries her best to comfort Luke while struggling to make sense of his panicked sobs.
 
Whatever frightened him had been so intense, that it sent him running hysterically to his room, where he sat trembling for hours. Luke is not able to verbalize what he had seen. And despite her efforts to downplay its significance, the event has somehow changed him. Thinking back to her own childhood, she remembers the feeling all too well. There was no way for her to “turn off” the flow of stimulus to her heightened senses. It was overwhelming at times. Lacking both direction and wisdom, she found herself wandering into dangerous circumstances.
 
But she had never witnessed any gruesome visions, been haunted by ghosts, or experienced the unnatural stamina her son possesses. He does not seem to ever get tired unless he is far away from home. And it worries Amber. The regular camping trips she plans for the family are probably more for her benefit than Luke’s. But at least he is able to sleep, even if she isn’t.
 
There is no question in Amber’s mind that the elusive explanation lies within the uniquness she has sensed about this place. There is an almost cosmic air of finality that continues to build in and around the estate. The problem, is that she does not know whether it is a good thing, or a bad thing. What she does know, is it has everything to do with Luke’s ability to go without sleep.
 
Right now, guiding and assisting Luke will be the most effective way for her to keep him out of harm’s way. She considers her options for a short time, then decides that the best place to start is right at the beginning. Grandma Faith had given her a box containing more than a hundred years worth of family history. It had once led her to making a startling discovery, which broke the case in her classroom cheating mystery. But it also revealed a much deeper (and more sinister) plot. Unfortunately, Amber had been completely focused, and maybe a little obsessed, on Julian. She had never thought to look through any of the other artifacts.
 
She spends the next few days cleaning out the box, and transferring delicate and aged items into binders and boxes specifically made for collectors. She carefully examines many of the treasures inside. When Amber was a teen, she had read parts of the diary written by Moira McAllister. The scattered musings and mathematical scribbles make about as much sense now as they did back then. The letters from Ciara to David, however, bring tears to her eyes; as do the newspaper clippings detailing her death from a car bomb.
 
As Amber continues looking though her family’s past, it occurs to her that they have been hunted for quite some time. The genius twin sisters, Deirdre and Claire, had both died under suspicious circumstances inside their shared apartment. Amber had never even heard about Mark Barimen’s daring escape from a middle-eastern militant training camp, where he had been held prisoner. Newspaper clippings about his return and subsequent confrontation with a superior officer capture her attention, and lead her to various other articles about curious goings-on inside an abandoned mine not far from Fort Gnome.
 
Both David and Hope had kept articles about seismic activity in Sunset Valley. After a little bit of outside research, Amber learns that the coordinates place the epicenter of both events inside the abandoned mine. One such event, when Mark was a child, coincided with the deaths of many soldiers and scientists. Could Luke’s fascination about the military base be more than just a childhood fixation?
 
None of the heirs (herself included) had ever kept a real diary, so peicing together their stories has been challenging. She types furiously on the computer, recording her findings, scanning photos and articles, and highlighting points she thinks to be important. Most of the information she’s been able to glean, has come from the descriptions and notes written on the backs of photographs. When Amber begins sorting through and arranging them by date, she makes another, very strange discovery.
 
 —
 
Throughout the generations, there has been some photographic or written reference to a young woman named Kacey. She is first pictured with David Barimen, and had evidently been his girlfriend sometime before Ciara. But then she is mentioned again by David when he was much older. He was adamant that he had seen her, and that she had not aged. She is present again when Great Grandma Hope was a teen, and can be seen in a grainy photograph taken by Hope’s sister at the hospital.
 
Kacey had even lived right here at the estate for some time with Grandma Faith, before she was married to Grandpa Jimmy. The last reference is possibly the most curious. It is a song about Kacey, written by her father on notebook paper. The song has never seen the light of day, and Amber is likely the only other sim to have seen it. Probably with good reason, too. It puts to music, some kind of dramatic, otherworldly journey Kacey had embarked upon to save the universe. Not your typical Grayswandir fare.
 
How can one woman, who appears never to have aged past twenty, reach across the generations? Amber kicks herself for not digging deeper into this information while she was a still a child, and while she possessed her borrowed gifts. Grandma Faith is the only sim still alive who has seen this curious woman. But she is very, very old, and just has not been the same woman since Grandpa Jimmy’s passing.
 
Amber breathes a heavy sigh. This is Luke’s mystery to solve. Even now, she gets the sense that her part in this is complete, and she has done exactly what was set out for her to do.  Still, Amber may be able to provide Luke with the guidance and direction she lacked as a teen. Another thing she can provide for him is clear boundaries. She decides that if Luke is to be awake at night, he should not be alone. She vows to be available for him, napping throughout the day if she needs to.
 
He will be a teen very soon, and she can only imagine what trouble he will be able to get himself into, without supervision, during the wee hours of the morning.

Chapter 8.3 – Ambush

Luke crawls out of his tent, and is greeted abruptly by a blast of cold morning air.
 
As usual, his mom already has breakfast prepared. He’s not entirely sure how she can make pancakes taste so good, cooking them on a portable camp stove.
 
A second helping of pancakes later, he finally registers that his mother had asked him how he slept last night. She has that cat who swallowed the canary look on her face again. It takes him a moment to figure out what she is really getting at.
 
And when it finally hits him, it does so rather suddenly; like a soggy, butter and maple-syrup soaked flapjack to the side of the head. For the first time since he can recall, he had actually slept.
 
Now that he thinks about it, he always sleeps when they are out camping. He had just never really stopped to think about it before. But evidently, his mother had noticed it. It’s the stuff like this that drives him crazy. Why does she have to be so dang smart? Before they have a chance to talk about it, two of his friends come barreling into the camp site, ready to have some fun.
 
Chase and Alex are kids from Luke’s Sim Scouts group. They’ve learned the hard way that Luke has some crazy kind of energy to burn off, and that neither one of them can keep up when he goes on his marathon bike rides up the side of a mountain. So rather than try to keep up, they just tell Luke that they’re not interested.
 
After packing up the tents and fishing for awhile, they all head home and make plans to meet up at Luke’s again later, to play in the tree house. Luke’s mom is cool that way. She always has kids over. And best of all, she always feeds them hamburgers and snacks. They arrive later that day to find Luke already outside.
 
As usual, he wants to play “Army”. Who can blame him? Luke’s house has tons of great places to hide and attack from. Alex gets the tree house as his fort first, and Alex picks the weeds over by the fishing hole. Those spots are pretty good, but Luke knows an even better one.
 
There are some rocks over by the bluff that make a perfect hiding spot. There is no way to sneak up on him from behind, and it provides perfect cover for him to set up an ambush. He goes to his spot and readies himself for the attack.
 
But as Luke is crawling into the cracks and crevices of the rocky slope, a weird sensation comes over him. It feels as though the shadows cast by his cover are closing in around him. Chase had been counting down from ten. But his voice fades, and is replaced by the sound of something terrible. It is the sound of killing.
 
This place is special for many different reasons, Luke. All you need to know now, is that an unspeakable terror was committed here. You are standing as close as any sim can stand to that place. Why? Because it was destroyed a long time ago. The land itself was crushed under the same twisted hooves and claws responsible for the atrocity… 
 
How can it be possible? Luke huddles in his hiding spot, listening to the murderous massacre rage on around him. This is not right. Something is happening that shouldn’t be happening. He has never in his life been afraid. But right now he is simply terrified. Unable to listen to the sounds of merciless killing any longer, Luke leaps from his hiding spot and runs toward the estate, his eyes filled with tears. He has only one thought going through his head. He wants his Momma. But he stops in his tracks after having taken only a few strides. His breathing comes in gulps as he stares straight ahead. The estate has been replaced by a tiny log cabin.
 
The estate is still there, but it is faint and transparent; shifting and wavering as though he were looking at it through a pool of water. All he hears now is a strong, gusting wind blowing through pine trees. This sounds to him, like hundreds of women whispering his name. This is another special place; another reflection of the broken world were countless beings had been killed in a merciless, horrifying ambush.
 
Luke screams when Alex grabs him by the arm, declaring proudly that he got Luke with a hand grenade. But Alex immediately senses that play time is over when he sees his friend’s colorless face and terror-stricken eyes. Without saying a word, his friend runs through the back gate and into the estate, leaving Alex at a loss for words. Chase emerges from the tall grass and trots over, asking his buddy what the problem is. All Alex can do is shrug his shoulders and offer up a confused expression.
 
Both boys wait for awhile, but eventually give up and head for home, wondering what in the world just happened to Luke.