Eye of the Storm

She sits, curled up by the window, her eyes looking out through the rain at the streetlights reflecting in the puddles on the road. The warm cup of tea keeps her hands warm while the blanket on her lap protects her from the chill in the air. The rain becomes heavier as it passes over the house. Pounding sounds of fists smack against the roof.

The lights flicker and soon go out. Inside and out go dark. She sets her tea down and fumbles around trying to find a lighter and candle. Finally, she lights the candle. The wick crackles against the silence inside, while the storm outside continues to rage.

Suddenly, a sound from the roof echoes down the hall. The cats hiss and run through the room, their tails puffed out more than she had ever seen. She tries to soothe her furry friends, but the banging moves across the roof, closer and closer. Then, it stops.

Suddenly, the rain stops as does the wind. Complete silence surrounds the home. As quickly as it stopped, it starts again. Lightning bolts fly across the sky and the windows become saturated in light, more than the brightest sun at midday. The glass panes shudder from the force and the doors push against the locks which strain to keep them closed.

She steps away to the center of the living room, fearing what may come. Never had a storm frightened her this way. She huddles up in the corner, away from potential flying glass, as the winds begin to pick up again and downed branches are thrown against her home. The cats curl up against her feet.

Suddenly, a pounding comes from the front door. A steady methodical fist beating against it. She steps away from the protection of her corner. When the lightning flashes again, she sees the outline of a person. Who would be out in this weather, this late at night? Should she answer it or stay away? More objects hit the side of the house and she hears a cry of pain. Then, she hears her name being called out and decides to open the door to let whoever it is in to get away from the storm outside.

As she opens it, he stumbles across the threshold, holding his head, blood trickling between his fingers. It takes both to push the door back closed, and she bolts the lock to reinforce whatever strength remains to keep it shut. As she starts to look at her visitor to figure out who it is, he slumps to the floor and the candle blows out.

The storm continued to rage. Mikaela stared at this man lying in her foyer. She saw the blood dripping down his forehead. She ran to the bathroom and grabbed a couple towels and the first aid kit. As she returned, she rolled up the towel and rolled the man on his back, resting his head atop the towel.

She kneeled beside him, trying to see through the dark. The ambient flashes of light from the storm let her find where to blot up the blood and help him as much as she could in the dark. She could not move him on her own, but she tried to comfort him.

In the distance, the storm began to roll away. Slowly the hum of electricity returned, and the lights came back on. She looked over the man. He was still out from being knocked on the head. She did not know him, at least she had no memory of him. It was not a neighbor, a friend, or anyone she could recall.

He was a tall man, lanky in form, and he had a kind face. His hair was a pale wheat, but it appeared to be dyed that color from something much darker. He was much younger, probably in his mid-twenties if Mikaela were to guess. He was dressed in hiking clothes and boots. He started to regain consciousness, and his eyelids began to flutter. Slowly, he opened his eyes, revealing the most amazing violet and blue streaked eyes.

Mikaela’s jaw dropped. She knew those eyes, but not this man. She slowly stood up and stepped away from him, unsure of what she should do. His eyes opened finally, and he raised his head slightly looking about. When he spotted Mikaela, his eyes locked with hers.

“Mike, is that you?”

Only one person ever called her Mike. Miki, maybe, but not Mike. Just him. Her face turned to stone. “Who sent you? Why are you calling me Mike?”

Slowly the man sat up on the floor, turning toward her. “I mean you no harm. I am only a bearer of a message. I was told to come here and ask for Mike. I thought I was looking for a man.”

She took in a breath and composed herself. “Why are you here?” She needed an explanation from the man with the violet eyes. Her mind was disturbed. Was she being called back, after all this time? Had something happened? Was something wrong?

The man started to get up from the floor. “May I take a seat? I’m Frank by the way.”

Mikaela motioned to a chair and took a seat on the opposite side of the room, keeping her distance. “Frank, I don’t understand. How do you know the name Mike? Please, state your business.”

Frank began to dig in his pockets and pulled out a small box. “I am to deliver this. The storm caught me unaware; it has been a long journey.” Frank looked toward the floor, then looked up with sad eyes. “I’m sorry by the way.”

Mikaela’s heart sank. Nothing good comes from sorry. She trembled and walked over to her visitor, then took the box from his hand. His free hand briefly lifted and brushed her other hand. When he touched her, a shock went through her system, throwing her backward. She fell onto the couch behind her, knocked unconscious.

Frank stood up and looked over her. “I’m really sorry.” A tear fell from his eye and landed on her cheek. He walked out to the kitchen, then topped off the cats’ bowls, making sure they had food and water for a few days, then he returned to the living room. He pulled the box from Mikaela’s hand which was still grasping it, took out the emerald and gold ring, then placed it on her right pinky, covering the invisible tattoo encircling her finger. The tattoo began to glow as the ring slid on her finger.

Frank walked through Mikaela’s home, observing her photos and memorabilia of her life. He gathered a few items and packed them away into a bag. He knew how it felt to be called back; he hoped he would make Mikaela’s transition smoother.

Mikaela’s cats came out of hiding and quickly warmed up to Frank. He kneeled down and pet them on their heads, then whispered, “Don’t worry little ones. This won’t take long. I will send someone for you in a few days. You’ll be back with Mike before you know it.”

With that, Frank stood up, turned, and placed his pack on his back. He scooped up Mikaela into his arms, and walked out the door, then secured it behind him. The storm began to rage once more as he took her into the night.

Mikaela woke up. She knew she was not at home anymore. She sat up on the twin bed, curled up with the comforter thrown over her. She looked about the room. It was sterile, except for a few of her own pictures sitting on the desk. She recognized them and sighed. She remembered the blue cabinets on the walls, the countertops. How was she back here after all these years? And when did they put in rooms with beds?

A gentle knock came from the door. She pulled her comforter up, although she was fully clothed. She still did not know why she was here. “Come in?”

A short blonde woman entered the room. She looked familiar. “Sin, is that you?”

Sin stepped into the room. “Yes, it’s me. It’s been years. How are you?”

What a strange way to greet your old nemesis. Well, Mikaela never understood why she was Sin’s nemesis, but there was always tension between them. “I’m okay, but why am I here?”

Sin looked at the floor and back up at Mikaela. “We tried; we really did. Moe said not to involve you, it would be too difficult, but, well, I’ll let Lord James explain. We have breakfast ready in the mess and afterward, I’ll take you to see him. There are some clothes in the dresser for you and a shower through that door. I’ll be outside to take you there.”

Sin looked down as she walked out the room. Life had changed her, softened her it seemed. Mikaela put her feet down on the cold floor, still clothed in her outfit from the night before. The emerald ring on her pinky felt strange. The invisible tattoo was still glowing underneath, rejoined with its physical presence. She spun it around, hiding the gem inside her fist, and ran her finger over the scrollwork in the gold. Sadness filled her face as she switched her attention to her left hand and the diamond brilliantly shining as if it were competing for attention.

She stood up and walked over to the dresser, pulling out a simple black tunic and jeans, then headed into the shower to freshen up. As the water hit her back, tears fell from her dark brown eyes. Violet streaks came back in her irises after being hidden for years. It was not time, her heart and mind knew this, but here she was.

She stepped out of the shower, dried her short dark hair quickly, and dressed. She gave her eyes a final check, making sure the redness had subsided. She was startled a little by the violet mixed in with the brown flecks, it had been years since she allowed the violet to show, but now would be the time. However, she could not show Lord James any emotions or concerns, for it would not end well. He was all about peace and balance.

She walked out of her room and met Sin in the hall.

“Oh good. Let’s head over to the mess,” Sin said too exuberantly. “We have basics, eggs, toast, bacon, tomatoes, oatmeal, you know the drill.” Sin walked briskly down the hall to the cafeteria.

Mikaela was amused. Sin had a cadence like being in the military, both in her speech, calling the cafeteria the mess, along with the rhythm of her walk. She decided to make some small talk as they made their way down the long corridor. “Sin, do you know who picked out my things in my room?”

“Oh, that’s Frank. He’s really good at feeling people out. You’ll see him again, probably tonight or tomorrow. ” Sin smiled, paused and then walked through the door and waved off to the corner. “Moe is over at the far table. He’ll catch you up on what you need to know before you meet with Lord James. I can’t provide you much more information, but he can.” Sin’s face turned back to looking resigned and tired. “It was good to see you.” With that, she softly patted Mikaela on the arm, turned and walked away.

Mikaela waved at Moe, then walked over to the buffet to prepare a plate. She spooned a little scrambled egg, a roasted tomato, and grabbed a vanilla yogurt from the line. She spied some strawberries and pineapple chunks and spooned those onto her plate, then added ketchup to the eggs. Finally, she made her way to the beverages, pouring some hot water into a cup, two sweet-n-low packs, and two sachets of tea. It was not her normal London Fog or Chai Latte, but it would have to do for now.

She headed over to Moe. “Hey, it’s been years!” she exclaimed as she walked up. Moe stood up and gave Mikaela one of his famous bear hugs. She hugged him back. He had experienced her as she worked through the worst times of her life, and she was grateful he let it stay there. “How’s the family?”

Moe and Mikaela took their seats and he regaled her with his travels and new life. They caught up on so many things in those brief moments. Then Moe turned serious.

“Mikaela, we would never ask you to come back, except, we’ve tried everything we know. We can’t make it through the wall though. You’ve made it through before, and we need you to do it again.” Moe looked shaken. “We’ve never seen it like this, and we need to get the path opened.”

Mikaela was confused as she looked at Moe. “Surely you’ve got more strength and pull. I don’t have that kind of….”

Moe held up his hand. “We don’t think it has anything to do with brute strength. We called on the strongest we knew, and that is no longer me.” Moe smiled, happy to pass that mantle on to others. “Others have tried, science, physics, explosives, water, fire…. nothing broke through.” Moe paused, and looked at Mikaela’s hands. “By the way, I’m glad to see you wearing both sets of rings. It’s as it should be, for now. Should we go see Lord James?” Moe made air quotes when he said Lord.

She giggled at Moe’s air quotes. It was extremely odd calling James Lord. “Sure. We can.” Mikaela fiddled with the emerald ring, still uncertain about being back.

They stood up and dropped off their dishes as they left the cafeteria. When they stepped outside, the sun was high above and the clouds floated by. There was a slight chill in the air, which hit her bare arms, causing some goose bumps. She rubbed her arms to warm them up. Still, it was a beautiful day as they walked to the garden in the distance.

Sin bounded out of the cafeteria, catching up with Moe and Mikaela. “I’ll show you to Lord James.”

While Moe knew the way, he smiled knowingly at Mikaela. She nodded in understanding; Sin needed to be needed. “Thanks Sin! Please, lead the way.”

Lord James held Warrior I in the middle of the garden. He steadied his breath, found his center, and moved into Warrior II. Holding his pose, he was not distracted as Moe, Mikaela, and Sin walked up. Lord James moved into Reverse Warrior, then on to Warrior III.

The trio stopped talking and observed Lord James as he finished his sequence. Lord James returned to Mountain pose and broke from his concentration, greeting his guests. “Good morning, Moe and Sin.” Lord James stepped forward toward Mikaela, and leaned toward her, pecking her on the cheek. “Mikaela, it has been years. Nice for you to join us.”

Mikaela thought to herself…. she really did not have much of a choice. They essentially kidnapped her from home. They always did things oddly here. “Lord James, it is nice to see you.”

As Lord James stepped back, he found her hands and looked at both sets of rings adorning her fingers. “One day, you will choose. Now is not the time however, I know. I hope you choose well.” He released her hands from his grasp and stepped back.

Chills went down Mikaela’s back. Lord James’s words struck her harder than she expected. The tattoo on her pinky began to pulse, glowing through the lacework engraved through the ring. She calmed her heart, breathing, centering herself quietly, and the pulsing subsided.

“Sin, thank you for your help this morning. Can you check with Frank on if he has made any advancements with his research? We’ll need everything he can gather.” Lord James dismissed Sin with a swift nod.

When Sin was out of earshot, Lord James relaxed and let out a sigh. Then he looked over at Moe and Mikaela. A smile crept across his face, followed by a cheery laugh. “Guys, it’s great to see both of you!” Lord James went in for a group hug with Mikaela and Moe.

Mikaela looked at Moe as Lord James hugged them both in. Moe smirked…. there was the James he knew.

Lord James released his grasp. “I have to keep up the formal appearance in front of the others, but, damn, you two. You know me. We can relax when we’re in private.”

Moe and Mikaela chuckled. The work/friend dynamics exist, even here.

“So, let me fill you both in.” James led them back to the building to a small office. The office was sparsely decorated, a chair, a desk, a sofa, and a small bookcase. His Kindle sat atop the bookcase. “Isn’t it great — all my books are on here now or my phone!” James was not one to go without his books, it was nice to see he kept up with technology. “I fall asleep here most nights with my kindle or my phone falling on my chest.” He looked over at Mikaela, then turned around to look outside.

James continued, “Anyway, Mikaela, we need your help. The portal through the wall closed on us a few weeks ago. With it closed, everyone on this side is not getting the necessary relief from their thoughts, dreams and desires.” James looked up; his eyes suddenly appeared weary. “Have you felt it?”

Mikaela looked down and thought for a few moments. It would explain why she had felt trapped recently, and the nights of interrupted sleep. She blamed other factors from working too hard to being stuck in a rut. She had even suffered seeing other people’s dreams and nightmares in her own, but being unable to recall them when she woke, except for that one about him. She looked back up at James.

His eyes blazed as he locked in on her gaze. He knew she felt it. But with Moe there, she would not reveal details. All she could give was a slight shrug, but her downcast eyes revealed her answer was yes. James continued to speak of the situation at hand, catching Mikaela up on a variety of details and the previous attempts to reopen the wall. “We don’t want the wall gone, that would create chaos and disrupt all of human nature, but we need the portal open to release the stress building up in everyone before destruction ensues.”

Mikaela looked at Lord James with a confused expression. “Destruction vs. Chaos? I don’t understand.”

“It’s about balance Mikaela, you know this. I know you do.” James paused in a moment of self-reflection, then continued. “Alright then, you may as well see the results. People cannot find any peace.” Lord James triggered a display on the opposite wall. Images of fighting and discontent flashed across the screen. “Creativity and innovation are suffering. We’ve seen a marked decrease in the arts, and de-evolution of knowledge as well.”

Mikaela became overwhelmed by everything he displayed and began to shake. “I can’t do anything to help this. I’m just one person, struggling through it myself.” She took a big breath.

James looked at her. Mikaela always underestimated her abilities and hated being put on the spot for ailments and decisions she deemed beyond her control. He knew where she stood, how she could become frozen, but he needed her to get through this. “You won’t be doing this alone, Mikaela. You see the cost, and I know you want to help fix it. It starts with one step.”

Mikaela turned and walked out of the room, needing to catch her breath. She found her way outside, back to the garden, and sat down, overwhelmed by her responsibilities. The images from James’s screen continued to flash through her head, along with the images from her nightmare of him. Was he just looking for the distorted, the bad; surely it was not affecting everyone?

She rested her head in her hands as tears flowed down through her fingers and splashed against her tunic. She would do almost anything she could to bring peace and balance, but she was nervous as to the cost. She looked at both rings on her fingers, hoping for some sort of sign, but there was none at the moment.

Moe stepped up behind her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be with you, as will others. But we need you to guide the way and push through.”

She looked at Moe as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders and wiped away her tears. Her mouth quivered as she spoke, “I know. I understand. But my heart can’t handle it, I fear.”

Moe reached for her hand to help her up. He knew far more than he let on, and decided it was time to show her more. “You need to see what you are fighting for, who you are fighting for.” He guided her to a large field tent in the distant field. “Come with me; this way.”

Moe and Mikaela walked into the field tent. To the right, they spotted Sin and Frank, intently reviewing data on a screen. The room was filled with piles of books and papers. Canvases, hundreds deep, leaned against the walls. Moe guided Mikaela through the maze of stacks to the desk. Frank looked up over his readers and sighed as they approached.

“You’re going to show her? I thought we weren’t going to do that,” Frank inquired as he looked at Moe.

“She’s here, she needs to know.”

Mikaela looked between Frank and Moe, perplexed by the exchange. Frank reached below the desk and pushed a button. The door behind him unlatched and he allowed them to pass.

The room was dimly lit and lined with beds with people who appeared to be sleeping. Mikaela looked at Moe. “What is this?”

Moe hemmed a bit, then, as they continued to walk by the beds, he started to speak. “Everyone here has already tried to reopen the portal. Most of them tried to go it alone and all of them underestimated its power.”

Mikaela realized no one was stirring. “Are they…they…”

“Dead?” Moe answered sarcastically. “No!” His tone turned somber, “But a fate much worse if we can’t fix it. They are lost in their own minds. Reality has left them, and they are stuck in their own dreamland or nightmare. There is no room for reality anymore…well, at least for now.” He looked down and his steps slowed.

Mikaela picked up on his stride changing and began to look around at the sad and empty faces around her. Then she saw him lying there. She drew in a deep breath, and her eyes began to turn red. “He didn’t.”

Moe looked down then back at her, “He did. He pushed everyone else away insisting he could handle it alone. It was weeks before the portal fully closed. He was the first to fall.”

She stepped away from Moe and floated her right hand over his left hand. The invisible tattoos on their fingers glowed in unison. Tears rolled down her face and splashed on the back of her hand, then rolled onto his. She looked up at Moe, “Why? Why didn’t you go with him? Why didn’t someone tell me?”

Moe hesitated. “He didn’t want anyone there. Especially you.”

Mikaela paused. There was history between them, but she thought all those things were behind them and their lives had moved forward, separately. She did not understand.

Moe continued, “It isn’t you; it was something within him. He’ll have to share it with you if he wants one day. But you see, no one will ever be able to work through their own thoughts or have a stable life if we don’t fix this. Including him. You may not realize, but you were headed in this direction fast when Frank pulled you back. You, however, were resilient when you recovered, and it is why we decided to bring you in.”

“Pulled me back?” she quizzically asked. “What do you mean?”

Moe exhaled, then continued. “Everyone associated with us here is being monitored. The night he went in, you were impacted. You were spiraling down quickly, seeing his nightmare. Luckily, Frank has a way to wake us up if he catches it, and he did just that with you that night. You might remember waking up at, what did he say, 2 AM, startled and upset. No one is still sure why Frank was monitoring you at the time, but thankfully, he was.”

Mikaela drew in another breath then sighed. She remembered that night better than she would ever share with Moe. It was the night of the one nightmare she could remember. She still recalled the look on his face, the anger, the anguish, and the pain. She woke up mad at someone she did not even know who caused him to go through it all. And she could not get back to sleep the rest of that night; she just tossed and turned.

She realized she had started holding his hand while Moe was talking. Moe slid a chair behind her so she could sit down. “I don’t understand…if Frank woke me up back then, why didn’t someone tell me earlier?”

Moe looked at her with a scornful look. “Do you know how hard it was? I’d seen you go through enough already outside of this place, outside of him. I was afraid you’d spiral out of control. James insisted on bringing you in though. I just hope this makes you stronger for the journey.”

Lord James would always throw Mikaela in the deep end after protecting her for far too long. It started when she was nine, literally. He had never let her sink, but he felt when he finally threw her in, she would find a way through.

Mikaela squeezed his hand again, wiped her face clear of the tears, and straightened herself up. “When do we head out?”

Moe replied, “At first light.” He stepped away from the bed and turned to leave. “I’ll let you have some time. We’ll have dinner around 6 in the cafeteria.” With that he walked off and let Mikaela have some privacy with him.

Moe, Frank, and Sin sat at a round table in the cafeteria. Over pizza, they talked about the day’s events. Frank spoke up, sheepishly, “I called her Mike.”

Moe and Sin stared at him incredulously. Moe set down his soda sharply, the can almost crunching from the impact, and exclaimed, “You did what? That is his name for her, he is the only one allowed to use it.”

Frank’s lip quivered slightly as Moe’s immenseness began to shadow him. “I think I covered it up well. I wasn’t thinking. I told her I thought I was looking for a man.”

Sin shook her head. “She’s smarter than that. Now she knows there’s a connection with you and him. She is like you in that respect, Frank. Her mind draws conclusions and links from seemingly unlinked items together. Most of the time, she’s right too, just like you.” Sin huffed and looked at Moe. “What should we do?”

“Nothing at the moment. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.” They continued talking over their day and waved at Mikaela when she walked in. She waved back and made her way over to the buffet. She smiled when she saw the pizza laid out. With a slice of what looked like Acapulco Gold, and some iced tea on her tray, she headed over to their table.

Sin quickly changed the topic of conversation when she saw Mikaela walk up. “Hey Mikaela. How are you doing?”

Mikaela slid into a chair and force a smile. “Okay. I wish I had known he was here up front, but what can I do.”

Frank looked up, “What would you have done differently?”

Mikaela gave him a knowing look, “Um, I really didn’t have a choice on coming here, now, did I Frank?”

Frank grimaced. He was the one who gathered her and her things to bring her here.

“Frank, no hard feelings. But you could have just asked.” Mikaela shrugged. “Thank you by the way for bringing my pack as well as some of my things from home. I miss home, hopefully Rich is taking care of the cats while I’m away and not worried.”

Frank piped up, “Rich won’t even realize it, he isn’t due back until Saturday. The cats are both okay — I made sure to leave them food and water before….” his voice trailed off.

Mikaela stared at him a moment. How did he know Rich’s schedule? Instead of getting upset however, she smiled at him, as if all were forgiven. “Thanks, Frank.” She turned to Moe and, nodding her head to the mountains visible through the windows, “Is that where we’re headed tomorrow?”

Moe looked at her and the rest of the table. “Kind of. First, all four of us are going, together. No more lone wolf who has the world by the tail stunts. Agreed, Mikaela.”

She paused a moment, then replied, “Of course. It’s been too long anyway; I wouldn’t know the way.”

Moe began to fill her in on the plan for tomorrow as the team continued to finish their evening meal. It was a complex weave of hiking, warnings of encountering wild things, and caving. After an hour, he finished going through the plan.

“Whew, I can’t believe how crazy this plan is. But why am I here? I don’t see anything special I can help with.”

Sin, Moe, and Frank looked at each other, then back at her. Sin piped up, “You’re the one with the tattoo and ring. You tell us.”

Mikaela looked at her hand and held it up. “This? What does this have to do with any of this.”

Frank spoke up this time, “We don’t know. We just know the symbols on your tattoo line up with the last part and, only you have that.”

She looked at the tattoo and then back up. “I’m not the only one with this tattoo. Moe, tell them, if his didn’t stop it from collapsing, why would mine open it back up?”

Moe looked around. “We don’t understand either, but we tried everything else. One of the volunteers even got the same tattoo as you, but it didn’t work. We think there was something embedded when you got it.”

Mikaela exhaled, her chest heaved, and her shoulders lowered in disbelief. She almost rolled her eyes, but realized her tattoo was pulsing again under the ring. “Well, I think we should go get some rest if we’re heading out at first light. Moe, can I talk with you privately a moment.”

Mikaela and Moe stood up, dropped off their trays, and headed back out to their sleeping quarters. Sin and Frank hung back to give them space.

Mikaela turned her head towards Moe as they walked. “When this is over, I need you to not tell him I was here, or that I was any part of this. Can you promise me that? I plan on leaving as soon as this is done. I don’t want to cause any problems for him, and well, it just will be better.” Her voice quivered.

“You made up your mind, then?” Moe asked, looking at her hands. “You don’t have to yet, you know that.”

“I never want to have to make that choice. I never have carried through with making that choice…you know this. I can’t break….” she stopped herself mid-sentence. A tear ran down her cheek.

Moe lifted her chin. “That’s why we need you to do this. That, right there.”

She found herself standing in front of her room facing Moe. She forced a smile. “Thanks.” She quickly hugged Moe, then turned, entered her room, and closed the door behind herself.

Moe looked down, tsked at himself, then looked up at the closed door and raised his hand to the door. He almost knocked, but he lowered his hand, turned, and walked away.

The team met just before sunup in the cafeteria and fueled up for the day’s journey. Sin wore her squeaky clean and new trail runners, while the rest of the group had on worn and dusty hiking shoes or boots. Sin was always spunky like that.

Mikaela set down her pack and checked her gear. Frank walked up beside her and handed her a sheathed knife to add to her equipment. “I have a pocketknife, Frank. What’s this for?”

He smiled, “Take it, look it over. I think you’ll appreciate it.”

She pulled the knife from its hand-crafted leather sheath. The sheath has similar scroll work as her ring. The handle was formed with similar open scrollwork, and had a beautiful color shifting stone in the pommel. She smiled, and appreciatively said, “Thank you.” Her voice was quiet and soft. “It’s beautiful.” She never looked at knives as anything other than tools, to cut away at wood, vines, vegetables or even box tape. Others might see something more destructive, but she just saw them as a thing of beauty.

She sheathed the knife and hooked it to her belt. Satisfied with her pack, she looked at the threesome in front of her. “Ready to go?”

They all nodded in agreement, donned their packs, and headed out into the pre-dawn light.

The first part of their journey was almost pleasant. The air, still cool from the night, set a brisk tone, waking up their senses. The trek along the lake and next to the meadow was almost joyful. The team chatted, shared stories of their lives since three of the four had last seen each other. Mikaela also was delighted to find out more about Frank; he seemed to be a good soul and a kindred spirit. He loved solving puzzles and hated when he figured out the whodunit in mystery movies too quickly while anyone, he was watching it with still were putting the pieces together.

Mid-morning, they reached the base of the mountain. Moe reminded them the plan. “We’ll have a short climb up this slope. There is one tricky part where we need to pass over a creek. Be careful there. Then we’ll find our way to the entrance of the mine which will take us to the caverns.”

Mikaela was worried about Sin’s trail runners, but with the four of them as a team, if they stick together, they should be able to make it through. A big-horned sheep wandered out in front of them on the trail. He looked their way, then trotted off in the opposite direction.

The slope was deceiving, and the trail became hard to follow. The trees offered some shade from the sun, which had risen during the morning walk and now hung directly overhead. Each of them took turns leading, finding and pointing out tripping hazards and loose rocks as they climbed up the slope.

As they continued to climb, they heard running water off in the distance. The creek Moe mentioned sounds more like a flowing river as they neared. They crested the slope and saw the swiftly moving water. “It must be snow melt. I didn’t expect it to be like this yet.” Moe scratched his head.

The team walked along the banks looking for a shallow point to cross. Mud oozed around Sin’s pretty new trail runners. She pouted a few moments, then caught up with the rest of the group. Mikaela was grateful her boots were waterproof, but they would not protect her if the water were more than ankle deep.

Moe found a set of rocks where they could cross over to the other side and continue their trek. They would have to cross carefully, however. Two of the rocks were slightly under water, which could cause them to easily slip. Moe started across first, carefully pointing out which rocks were not stable and plotting the path. Next, Sin passed behind. Her shoes were slippery on the rocks, so Moe reached out to her as needed to help her stabilize.

As they approached the halfway mark, Mikaela started stepping across, and Frank pulled up behind. As they proceeded across, Sin gained confidence and relied less on Moe’s assistance. Then, she slipped. Falling into the water. Moe turned back and Mikaela caught up to pull her out. Finally, the got her to a safe spot where she could recover and step out of the water. She giggles. “At least my shoes are clean now!”

The whole team paused, precariously perched on their own rocks and the far shore almost in reach. Suddenly, Mikaela’s rock shifted out of its position, and threw her into a swiftly moving area of the river. The team tried to get to her, but the water quickly carried her downstream. She was positioned on her back and keeping her feet up, hoping to find a way back to the shore while the team finished crossing and attempted to keep up with her. However, the water was moving too swiftly.

The underground river rushed by with her body in tow. Mikaela hit her head on a rock and was knocked unconscious as the water swept her further downstream. At least she was face up, unconscious but not dead. The current from the flow forced her onto a gravelly shore.

A small creature approached and smelled her. He licked her arm. The river water left a sour taste in the creature’s mouth. He spit it out, scraping his tongue with his front bucked teeth.

Her face is bloody, her brown hair matted to it, sprinkled with dust and pebbles. Her clothing is torn, her tank top also bloodied, soaked khaki shorts rolled up, and hiking boots still attached to her feet.

She moaned in pain, raising her right hand over her eyes to shield them from the light streaming into the cavern. The one trickle from the outside world, and it landed in her eyes. The small creature scurried away, frightened by her movement.

As she sat up slowly, the dank odor of the cavern greeted her nose. With limited sight, she pat her own body looking for her light which had been hanging from her belt loop. She located it and started to shine it around. Slowly, her eyes began to adjust to the dark.

Mikaela bent her knees and attempted to stand. Pain streaked up her left leg from her ankle. A familiar pain her mind determines, likely a sprain. She will need to find a way to bandage it if she is going to make it out of here.

She moved her light about the cavern over the riverbed. On the other side, gratefully, she spied her pack trapped by a boulder jutting into the river.

She limped across the shallow riverbed here, picked up her pack, and took a seat on a boulder nearby. She pulled out her first aid kit and a wrap then taped up her ankle to stabilize it. She swallows some medicine to dull the pain.

Mikaela called out for the rest of team, but nothing responded in return except for the rush of water and drips within the cavern. She hoped her team is okay and that she can find her way back to them.

In the distance of the cavern, she spies a blue green glow. She remembers how the wall used to glow this way. She looks at her hands. They are trembling, and the tattoo is again glowing, even stronger than before. Perhaps her detour down the creek turned river shortened the complex journey. She thinks to herself, This isn’t lone wolf — I’ve been separated from them. I have to find a way to get back and up and out will not be an option. She decided to follow the glow to try to link back up with her team.

Mikaela hoisted her pack and limped toward the glowing light deep inside the cavern. The light began to illuminate the cavern. She found a small path which wound its way around stalactites and stalagmites which formed throughout the cave system. The riverbed continued to flow alongside her, but the rush from outside had slowed to a small trickle.

Mikaela felt as if she were in another world. Cool drafts of air floated by as she moved deeper into the openings. She called out again for the team, with no response. She continued forward and saw a man-made structure. It appeared to be supports from an old mine system. She paused a moment and looked around. The mine shaft continued forward for at least a hundred yards to her left and then off to the right. If her instincts were correct, the team should be finding their way to this location. She paused a moment and found a small rock to sit on to rest and drink some water.

In the distance down shaft, she believed she heard voices. She called out again, “Frank? Sin? Moe? Anyone down there?”

A faint echo seemed to repeat her voice, then she heard a response, a faint call of her name. “Mike? Come here Mike.”

Mikaela paused. The voice was not Frank’s or anyone else from the team. It was his. But that was not possible. Was it?

Mikaela stood back up and headed towards the voice. As she walked through the mine shaft, the glow of blue green grew until she came to a solid wall along the side of the shaft. She reached her hand out and rested it gently on the wall. The wall pulsed and she heard it again.

“Mike. Come here, Mike. Find me.”

The glowing tattoo on her pinky became hot as it continued to glow and the only relief, she found was placing her hand on the wall. It cooled her hand. She became entranced and her mind drifted. Visions of him appeared in front of her. Memories and dreams and wishes became jumbled in her mind. Flashes of reality were mixed with desire. The rest of the world disappeared away. Her mission to open a portal no longer meant anything to her.

“Mikaela!” A voice from behind her called out. An arm wrapped around her, pulling her backward. She fought it, wanting to stay in the moment. “Mikaela, wake up!” Frank’s voice commanded while Moe pulled her back.

Moe fell backward, dropping Mikaela as the wall released her. They both were splayed out on the ground. Slowly, Mikaela regarding awareness and sat up. “It is so beautiful. I need to go back.” She reached back towards the wall.

Sin stood in front of her. “Stop Mikaela. This isn’t real.” Sin’s stern voice snapped her out of it. She never fit into the story, and always would break it apart…. back then and even now.

Mikaela became angered, wanting to fight them all. “Leave me be.” The wall’s magic pulled on her even harder. Tears streamed down her face.

Moe moved in front of her. “No. This isn’t you. Mikaela, focus.”

The hurt and the confusion showed in Mikaela’s face. This is what Moe was worried about when James decided to bring her in. Her desire would override her reality.

Mikaela, it isn’t time. A voice echoed in her head. She slumped, overwhelmed.

Slowly, Mikaela came back to reality. “We need to finish this, Moe. What do we need to do?”

Frank piped up. “We need to find the spot where the portal closed. It should be nearby. The power of the wall grows closer to the portal, and based on what we just saw, we are close.”

The team picked up their things and began to follow the mineshaft deeper into the earth. Frank, Moe, and Sin formed themselves alongside Mikaela, keeping her away from the side of the mine lined by the wall. Ahead, an archway formed out of rock with carvings could be seen. Scrollwork much like on her ring and the knife Frank gave her glowed in vibrant colors.

When the wall closed, it broke off parts of the arch. Each of them stepped up to one of the 4 stone pieces laying on the ground.

Frank hoisted the first one up and looked at the pattern. “I think we need to replace these back into place, so the portal is whole. Then we need to figure out how to open it.” Three of the stones were able to be quickly placed back into the arch. They each were small enough that Mikaela, Frank, and Sin could easily restore them.

Moe looked at the fourth stone. “I’m a strong guy, but there’s no way I can lift this one alone.”

Mikaela snickered a little bit. It was odd for Moe to admit defeat, especially in the realm of his own strength. “What do you mean, Moe? We all handled ours.” She chuckled as she wiped the dust off her hands.

The stone was considerably large, no doubt. And it needed to go into an opening well above Sin and Mikaela’s reach. “We might be able to help get you boys started, but there is no way for us to reach that spot,” Sin spoke up, then looked at the gap.

The four of them positioned themselves around the stone and began to lift. Mikaela’s rings contacted the stone, and it began to glow. With the stone alit, it quickly became weightless and almost floated up. Mikaela’s reach however was exceeded as the team lifted the stone and the light disappeared and the stone returned to its heavier weight. Frank and Moe struggled under the weight and started to lower it back to the ground.

Mikaela looked more closely at the rock. She took off all her rings. She first set the emerald ring down. A small glimmer came from the stone. It would not be enough. She picked up the ring and then placed her wedding ring set down. Again, a small glimmer, but still not enough. She added the emerald ring atop the others and the stone began to pull on the rings and glow intently. However, they would not stay in place atop the stone. If the cost to her were her rings, she would part with them willingly if it resolved the problem. Rings could be replaced.

Frank watched Mikaela as she worked on this puzzle. He laid on the ground and cried out, “Roll it over!” As the team took his direction, they discovered a small thin slit. “Mikaela, the knife.” He pointed at her hip. She pulled it out. “Will the rings fit somewhere at the hilt?”

Mikaela fiddled with the pommel stone and removed it. Inside, there were three slots, perfectly sized to hold the emerald band and her wedding ring set. “Frank, did you make this?” Frank looked at her and quickly shook his head indicating no. “It’s his. I don’t know why, but I somehow suspected it needed to be here. He had it with him when he tried to stop all of this from happening.”

Mikaela slipped her rings into the hilt and replaced the pommel stone to hold them in place. She walked over to the side of the stone where the opening was and slid in the knife. The stone began to glow again. This time Frank and Moe easily lifted the stone back into place, the knife still sticking out from the stone.

As the stone slid into place in the arch, the knife began to vibrate and the openings in the hilt glowed white and green from the stones in Mikaela’s rings. Mikaela reached for the knife, but it was too far away from her. The team all stepped back from the archway as more light poured out filling the mineshaft with blinding effect. The team shielded their eyes from the brilliance.

The mineshaft began to shake and wind from outside was pulled in as the wall area flashed. Sin and Frank held on to each other behind an outcropping while Moe grabbed Mikaela’s hand as he held on to a nearby rock formation. The winds picked up, pulling everything in its path towards the wall. The wall began to give way under the archway. Rocks, old mine tools, even their packs which laid on the ground were sucked in.

Moe hollered, “It’s working, the portal is opening!” While it was a relief, the team worked to not be pulled through. They did not know what lay on the other side of the portal but knew having it opened would bring relief to their world.

Moe’s grip on Mikaela tightened as she kept being pulled towards the opening. Her body floated up from the force of the wind. In that moment, she understood what needed to be done. She loosened her grip. “It’s okay. Just make the promise, nothing said to him.”

A tear came from Moe’s eye. He never allowed his emotions to show, but he understood. He shook his head, “I promise.” With that he let her go. The portal swallowed her up. As she passed through, her hand found the knife and pulled it through with her.

The winds through the mineshaft settled. Sin, Frank, and Moe walked toward the portal and looked through it, hoping to see Mikaela on the other side. But it appeared to just be another branch of the mine. Frank turned to Moe and started to fight with him. “Why did you let her go? We all needed to go back together.” He pushed Moe to the ground and started to hit him repeatedly.

Sin just stood there, tears rolling down her face. “He’ll never know. I promise, Mikaela.” She turned and pulled Frank off Moe. “Frank, it’s for the best. For both of them. It isn’t time.”

Moe slid out from Frank’s grasp, stood up and dusted off his pants. “Let’s head home.”

The trek back was sad and slow. The mission was accomplished, but at what cost? As they neared campus, they saw more people milling about, all of those who had tried before. They made their way to the field tent and walked into the room where everyone had been placed when they fell. One bed remained filled. He laid there, looking to the ceiling.

She was here, wasn’t she?”

None of them would reply.

After a long pause, “Is it fixed?” Moe shook his head yes, turned and walked away with Sin.

Frank pulled up a chair. “Pop, she’s …”

He responded, “Yes, she is.”

A booming voice came from the garage door. “Honey, I’m home!” The sound of the garage door closing behind him echoed through the house. “Hey, you up yet?”

He fiddled in the kitchen and made a cup of coffee and a cup of tea. He heard her groan from the sofa.

He chuckled, “Cats wouldn’t let you sleep in the bed, huh?” and set her tea on a small table beside her. She sat up, covered by her furry grey throw. “I also grabbed some breakfast.” He placed some egg bites on a plate for her as she rubbed her eyes.

“I had the strangest dream just now. It was crazy, Rich. Crazy.” She sipped her tea.

Rich reached to the table. “Hey, you found that emerald piece you were looking for! When did it come in?”

Mikaela’s eyes opened widely as he handed her a jewelry box covered in scrollwork. Nested inside were her wedding rings and an emerald ring. Her heart skipped several beats. She smiled to herself then at him. “It just arrived.”