Night fell. Stars dotted the sky as it darkened to a deep, midnight blue. Nonak cast pale light over clouds of silver. Here and there, Cerians turned on their lamps and lanterns, and the valley became a nightscape of twinkling windows and trickling waterfalls.
Tabby gazed at it all from a bench on the terrace of Raed’s cottage. Its perch on the tall rock spire offered a magnificent view of the entire city. The landscape filled her with bittersweet wonder as Philip stood quietly at her side. She didn’t understand how someplace so beautiful could hide so many secrets.
“The geist that Priestess Hiida dragged away,” she said after some time, “Nelsi. What will happen to her?”
“If she really is a Rebel, she’ll most likely break free from prison with the help of her friends,” he answered, unconcerned. “I wouldn’t worry.”
“So things like that… like geists getting ousted and imprisoned, that’s normal on Rema?”
“Yes.” He flashed her a falsely playful smile, adding, “When they can find one, of course. Fortunately most of us are fairly good at hiding.”
“But not all of you,” Tabby noted grimly.
“No, not all…”
Philip glanced at her. Twilight had colored her hair and face lavender. Everything was still new to Tabby. The events of the day had upset her in ways he couldn’t understand. He put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s go inside,” he suggested. “It’s getting cold.”
Tabby nodded, hugging herself, and they spoke no further. They walked into the cottage together. She made her way to Philip’s room, looking forward to the opportunity to lie down. He went into a different room where he’s been storing his clothes for the past few days, giving her a moment to herself.
Tabby threw the sack of Earth clothes on the bed and began to rummage through it. She found her jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, and journal. Once again, all three were damp with saltwater. With a hopeless sigh, she pulled out her clothes and draped them over the bedpost to dry.
She idly flipped through her soggy journal, wishing she used waterproof ink. By now, the drawings were double faded and even more smeared.
“One more dip in the water and you’ll all be gone,” she said quietly. She exhaled a sad, shaky sigh at that thought, and closed the book, setting it aside.
Tabby looked through the bag again to see if she forgot anything. Her hand touched a familiar shape -- the geist mask. She pulled it out, staring at its handsome form with curiosity. What had Philip called it? The mark of a Rebel? It presented a wily, shocked, and fearful image. It was the image Cerians thought of when it came to geists.
What it must’ve been like for Philip, she pondered. Or for the girl who was dragged away by the priestess...
With no one looking, Tabby put the wicked mask over her face. As she peeked through its circular eyes, something unusual happened. An intense daydream popped into her head out of nowhere, and she momentarily forgot herself.
She imagined a little boy running through a magnificent hall of fluted columns, his heart pounding with fright. Her heart swelled with sympathy for the child, a boy of wealth, she could tell that much from his expensive robes and crown of coral. He was in tremendous pain -- not just physical pain but heartache of the worst kind. The world was cruel to him and no one knew. No one knew of his suffering, and he could not speak of it. He was completely, utterly alone.
“Interesting,” said a familiar voice, “but not really your style.”
Tabby jumped in her skin and dropped the mask to her side. The daydream slipped away from her like sand through her fingers and she was once again in the comfort of Philip’s cozy bedroom.
She turned around to see him leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed and his fine hair pinned back with clips. He was wearing loose silken slacks and a shirt, smiling dryly.
Tabby felt her face grow red as she inspected the mask. “I was just—”
“Keeping an eye on it for me?” he finished, stepping into the moonlight casting from the window.
She looked up at him to answer, and froze. The moonlight was hitting the softness of his hair, and he seemed to absolutely glow in it. His eyes swam with multiple shades of blue as he looked down at her, waiting for her to answer, but she couldn’t seem to find her voice. When she gave no reply, he gently took the mask from her hands with a knowing glance.
Philip quietly stepped out of the light and over to a locked chest at the other end of the room. He kneeled with his back to her and carefully stored the mask inside.
Tabby placed a hand over her heart, and grew very quiet.
“You look disturbed,” he said.
She shook her head, her eyes darting to the floor. She self-consciously put her hands on her lap. “No, no. I’m not.”
Philip soundlessly closed the chest. “Hopefully that will be the last time you see a geist mask,” he said. “We’ve exhausted our options with my powers. Today was too dangerous for both of us. I can’t risk using them again. We’ll have to find some other way to sneak you into the portal dome.”
Tabby watched him as he gazed out the opposite window, staring at the stars. His eyes were much better than before, but he was still incredibly drained from their adventure. Despite carrying so much power, she realized he was surprisingly fragile.
“Was that the worst it’s ever been?” she asked timidly. “Back at the portal dome, when you fainted…”
“No.” He looked over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the floor. “But I haven’t used my powers like that in a very long time.”
She couldn’t imagine it being any worse. “What happened the last time you used them?”
He faced the far window again, his voice distant. “Things got… out of hand.”
“What do you mean?” She took a quiet step towards him.
He laughed spitefully. “I don’t think you really want to know.”
“I do,” she insisted. “You shouldn’t let the fact that you’re a geist stop you from opening up to people.” She felt herself blush. “I… I like hearing what you think. You’re fascinating to me.”
He didn’t seem to share her enthusiasm. If anything, her interest made him even more guarded. “You wouldn’t be the first,” he stated with bitterness.
Tabby stopped, surprised by his cold tone. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Did I say something wrong?”
Philip stood up and walked past her towards the door, avoiding her eyes. “We’d better get some rest,” he said flatly, moving on. “The portals will be heavily guarded after today, and we have our work cut out for us if we’re to get you home. I’ll see you in the morning, Tabby.”
As he swept aside the beaded curtain to leave, she reached out and stopped him. “Philip?”
He glanced over his shoulder.
“I know the last few days have been hard,” she said with nervous gratitude, “but I want you to know it’s not gone unnoticed. I am so grateful for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a great friend. If there’s anything I can do to help…”
“There is one thing.” Philip kept his eyes on the dark room on the other side of the doorway. “Continue your life on Earth as if we never met. Forgetting me would be the greatest help.” He turned to her, a shadow cast over half his face making it difficult to read his already indifferent expression. “The delay in your return has blurred the lines of our relationship. Understand, Tabetha Charon, that I’m only performing my duty as a Keeper. I’m bound to you as a servant of Cerey, and not as a friend. Confuse the two, and you’ll only be disappointed.”
Tabby felt her face grow warm. A mysterious emptiness fell in the pit of her stomach at his words. “R-right,” she stammered with a careless shrug. “Of course.”
“Goodnight, Tabetha Charon.” With a slight bow, he turned back to the doorway, and left.
Tabby sat for a long while on the bed, staring at the wall opposite her, feeling rather empty.
Tomorrow Philip would wake up and risk himself for her again, not just himself but his entire career, his reputation, his life, all because he was bound by duty as a Keeper to get rid of his mess, his mistake, to get rid of the Earth girl Tabetha Charon.
Tabby reached into her robes and found the small, square object that has been pressing against her heart the entire time she was talking with Philip. She rubbed it thoughtfully, still tucked in her robes, and moved to gaze out of his window.
A plan began to form in her mind as she watched the city sparkle. A night bird cooed in the woods below, echoing through the starlit valley. Boisterous noise rose from the glowing streets, friendly shouts from markets and pedestrians.
It doesn’t sound so scary out there, she thought. I could do it. I could go for a little walk by myself.
She wasn’t a geist. She wasn’t a Keeper. She was no one of value, so what was there to be afraid of? If there was one thing she was good at, it was blending into the background. People barely noticed her in Northbrooke, why would it be different in Cerey? She was technically an alien, but people seemed easily dissuaded by Philip’s “cousin from Faast” alibi. She could do it. She could go for a walk alone.
If anything, she’s been secretly dying to run off and explore. Cerey was the biggest city she’s ever been to. She didn’t want to upset Philip by disappearing, but he was quick to get rid of her at SecTr when he was talking to his Keeper friends. He obviously wasn’t that worried about her, and now she knew why.
She didn’t want to get in Philip’s way any more than she already was. If getting out of his hair made things easier for him, then she might as well take her future into her own hands and let him get back to his life.
Walking through Cerey can’t be any worse than hiking through a forest full of ghosts, murderers, and mutant rats, she smirked to herself.
With a resolved smile, Tabby reached inside and pulled out the object she’s been fondling, and held it in a moonbeam. It sparkled in the cool light. It was a prism of hope, contained in a little glass rectangle.
It was the Earth Key.