To say that he was afraid would be an understatement. Justin was flat out terrified. What interested him most was the fact that life was now imitating his art. How many books had he written where two men battle against an unseen enemy? A spectral force? A terrifying foe? However, now that he found himself right in the middle of one of his novels, he had to admit that he wasn’t having any fun. Not. At. All.
He was scared fucking shitless. When the hallways and stairwells that should have been there were not, and they were instead looking at was a wall of trees, an entrance to a forest, the fear inside of Justin went up a few notches.
He grabbed Shane’s hand and squeezed tight. Shane smiled but he looked almost dead in the half-light from Jo’s hand. “It’s okay, Justin.”
“I know, we all are. But please, you lived with Bitchzilla. This is a cake walk after this. And I’m right beside you. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Okay.” Justin said. He breathed out and took strength from Shane’s hand in his. “You’re not bothered by the fact that I’m afraid?”
“Honey, I’m scared too, we’re all scared. But when we get out of this alive, I’ll give you some loving that you’ll never forget.”
His cheeks flushed and Justin moved in to kiss Shane when Petunia spoke from behind them. “Hey lovebirds.” She motioned to the forest. “Magical forest to get through and a killer on the loose. Ring any bells?”
Justin’s blush deepened. “Sorry.”
“No worries, everyone needs a little sugar, just not here and now okay?”
Justin nodded and turned to look at the forest of trees that was impossibly there in front of them. The trees looked dark and dangerous. “I don’t like this guys, We have no idea what’s in there or what’s on the other side.”
“We have no choice.” Corey said. “If she’s powerful LaWanda may be able to save us. We have to try. And Petunia is right, we can’t let him push us around anymore.”
“The Goddess gives us strength! She’ll protect us!”
“That’s my Tunnie, a warrior till the end.” Jo said.
“Ugh, seriously? Justin and I don’t have time to kiss, but you have time for warrior chants? Are we going or not?”
Justin gave Shane a smile and followed behind Jo as she lit the way. He wondered how they were going to get through the trees, and down to the other floor. He reached out and touched one of the branches.
“Justin, no!” Shane cried.
It was too late, however, Justin had already touched the tree. For a moment, it looked as if one of the branches would grab on to him, but instead it gave a gesture that was very human, as if showing him welcome. Justin and Shane walked forward but when Corey tried to do the same, the tree branches whipped forward, blocking his way.
“Justin! Shane! Can you get out?” His voice was filled with panic.
Taking a deep breath, and an even stronger hold on Shane’s hand, Justin walked towards the tree again and it parted to let them through. When they rejoined the group, Poppy stared at Justin open mouthed. “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“The trees parted for us.” Shane said.
“They are not to be touched.” Jo said softly.
“What?” Petunia looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“Only just that. They are not to be touched. The apartment has orders and Oliver has his reasons. I only know what I’m being shown.”
“Well then it’s simple. Jo, you lead the way with your light. Justin and Shane, join hands with each other and Justin grab Jo’s hand. Petunia can go next and I’ll take the back.” Corey said.
“How will that get us through the forest?” Petunia asked.
Justin saw Corey’s logic right away. “If we’re not to be touched, then you all will be an extension, right?”
Corey nodded and tapped his nose. “Right. Besides, what else can we try? Anyone have any other ideas?”
They all shook their heads. His heart beating even faster, he took Jo’s hand and the five of them were joined in a chain. He expected the trees to block their way but, just like before, they moved aside for them. Justin almost wished they hadn’t.
The trees kept moving away from Justin and Shane the further they moved into the forest. Eventually, they saw a light through the trees and the shadows were chased away. Justin hadn’t like the darkened trees. Things rustled in the shadows and he saw animals scurry by with red jewel like eyes.
The light led them to a clearing. With no trees to block its path, they saw how bright the light really was, more so perhaps because the forest was so dark. It made Jo’s black light look rather feeble and she put her arm down to her side.
Sitting in the middle of the clearing was a beautiful dark haired woman. She was wearing a white gown edged in black stars. Justin saw that the light was coming from her. “Where are we?”
“You’re in the heart of the house. You’re safe here.”
“Who are you?” Justin asked.
“I am Mary Fitzpatrick. I was Oliver’s wife. He took my life. I want to pay him back.”
“How are you even here?”
Everyone else stood quiet around them, a small circle of people in a larger circle of trees. Justin should have been frightened of how she would answer, but he wasn’t.
“How is anything here? By sheer force of will alone. It helps that the one who bares his mark has been in contact with my daughter.” Mary said, pointing at Jo, who looked ashamed. “Don’t fret dear. You can trust Lenore, despite what she became. It is the father you have to worry about. I can grant you safe passage through the forest. You still have to get to the first floor yourselves after that, but I can take you through the trees. You are running out of time.”
“Why are you helping us like this?” Justin’s voice wavered. “What do you have to gain?”
“Only his death should you succeed. Then my daughter and I will finally be free. As long as he lives, we are tied to him.”
“Why are Shane and I spared this, spared everything? The trees, knowing what was going on in the building?”
“Oliver can’t abide love. It’s too powerful and holds a magic all its own. It’s too pure to be sullied. I think it burns Oliver if he comes too close to it.”
“You’re telling me that love is why we were spared? But I just met him, I can’t love him yet.” He turned to Shane. “No offense.”
“No offense taken.” Shane said.
“Still, it is the possibility of love and that it might grow that Oliver can’t abide. You did well with the trees. If you had just fought them, they would have won.” She looked at the small band of travelers and then turned her gaze on Justin.
“Take my hand.” Mary said.
Without hesitating, Justin reached for it.