Soul Shard Chronicles: Houses of the Holy; Episode 1, Chapter 2

2.

 

John was paralyzed by the scene playing out in his head. It felt so real that he thought he was literally there! It was so dark! So frightening!

Santa appeared. Not the traditional Santa, though the creature was dressed in the same red, white, and black suit, but a Santa that had fiery red skin and a hideously demonic visage. Instead of a bag, this Santa wielded a sword and a club.

“You will bow to me!” It demanded. “I rule the world! I am your god! You will observe my day! You will speak of no other! You will bow to me!”

“I bow to no one,” he heard himself say.

“Then prepare to die!” the Santa cried.

It seemed to take him forever to come to the realization that he didn’t need to run. After all, the dream had begun the moment he had gone to bed and fell asleep. How long he had been asleep was anyone’s guess. One hour? Two? Three? All night?

Then, he turned and faced the monstrosity. Suddenly, it stopped chasing him and became indecisive.

“You hold no power over me,” he stated, “be away with you.”

And then, it was gone. A wisp of smoke marking its passing. He opened his eyes and looked at the clock. It was 4:30 AM. he had been asleep most of the night.

Again he had been shown something. But what? What had been revealed to him? And why?

As with his vision of the headless bodies, he could tell no one. Not one soul. Otherwise, they would think him crazy. Or merely seeking attention.

He knew he wasn’t crazy. Nor did he really want attention for such things. They frightened him. Confused him.

He didn’t like the idea of having those kinds of dreams. Nightmares. Nightmares that he couldn’t wake from until they were over. Nightmares that held messages.

No, he would rather gain attention from things he did right. Not dreams he had. Or visions. Or anything that could be misused.

He rolled over and went back to sleep. Maybe he would have better dreams from this point on. Darkness consumed him and he drifted back to dreamland. This time, there were no Santas. Only dark worlds filled with war. Destruction. Like an old war movie.

But at least it was less frightening. Less abrasive. He could handle war scenes.

Perhaps it was because home was a warzone. Or because it was a break from the religious crap his parents believed. Whatever it was, he was willing to watch it play out.

Bombs were exploding everywhere. And yet, he was oddly unafraid. It was as if he was in the lead of those around him. They seemed to follow him into the thick of battle without question.

But who were they fighting against? And why? What had happened to the world?

***

He hated dreams. But here he was, in the middle of yet another terrifying dream. Mystery of mysteries. And all mysteries seemed to be shown in dreams. And nightmares.

This time, he was being chased by a giant horned ram’s head. Or was it a goat’s head? Or a mixture of both?

There was no body. Just a head. A living, bodiless ram’s head. Or goat head. First black, then changing color constantly. And that grin!

It was almost human! And extremely evil! As if the head meant him harm.

No words. No warning. It simply appeared and began chasing him in his room. Then up and down the stairs.

Again, it took him seemingly forever to realize that all he had to do was turn and stand his ground. Maybe hours. And even when he did, he hesitated.

When he finally turned to face it, it shrank and disappeared. He was getting tired of the cryptic dreams. The strange, otherworldly visions. He wanted a peaceful night’s sleep.

Something he had not had for a while. When he wasn’t having dreams that scared the shit out of him, he was dreaming of wars in places he had never been. Ruined cities. And yet they all felt so familiar. So normal.

It unnerved him. He was a child. He wasn’t supposed to have these kinds of dreams.

And yet, here he was. Being given clues. But to what? And why?

***

He loved hearing the coyotes howl just outside his window. It was one of the plusses, for him anyway, of living in the country. Another was being around animals. Playing hide and seek with the goats. Having a safe haven from his sister in the old barn near the lower pastures.

For some reason, the spirits there defended him. Hid him. There was no other way to explain it.

The old tack room was a great place to find solitude. And John loved to be alone at times. Especially after being threatened by Leanne.

There, he could ponder the meanings of his dreams and visions. Not that he would have any revelations, but he pondered them anyway. But because they haunted him on a daily basis.

And the coyotes put him to sleep. So soothing. So serene.

Thunder had the same effect. It was soothing, especially when it was distant. Even the sound of rain soothed him.

But there were dangers out here as well. Lightning. Tornadoes. His sister.

But he had friends. Billy Marliss and his sister, Nicki. Their sister Regan was too young to hang out with them on the bus. Nicki, though seemed to have a crush on him. Billy, though, watched his back.

And then, there was Nicole Arlington, who also seemed to have a crush on him. She would sit with him when Billy was not on the bus and want to play house. Not one of John’s favorite games, but it passed the time.

Then there were Craig Wills, Danny Harolds, Wynn Paldry, Jonnie Pensley,  and Stan Johnson. Chuck Fields and Jeff Upheldt didn’t really count. They weren’t as close as ‘the gang’. Penn Dringer had moved in Kindergarten, so he had long since faded from importance.

But even ‘the gang’ was not as close as Billy and Nicki. Or Charles and Nikki. Those were John’s closest friends.

Billy and Nicki lived just up the road. John could go visit them any time. Charles and Nikki were family friends and he could visit them whenever his mother went to visit theirs.

And then, there was Ellie, Donnie, and Daria. The Morrisons. John’s father was a friend of their father, his mother a friend of their mother.

Finally, there were the Walstons and the Maldwells. The Maldwells were also old friends of John’s parents. But the Walstons were ‘church friends’.

The Maldwells had seven children. John had become friends with the two youngest, John and Terri. Leanne was friends with the others as they were too old for John to get close to.

The Walstons were a whole different matter altogether. All of the Walston children were too old for John to be friends with and their parents made him uncomfortable. Robert Walston was a braggart and Mindy was a prude. A snob.

All the boys were too old to be too friendly with. The girls as well. John was too young to enjoy cars or girls. Nor was he interested in racing, football, or wrestling.  

 

The Balladeers of Tullwood Castle (1992/1993)

The Balladeers of Tulwood Castle

The Arrival

Tulwood was grand, and one look would tell anyone that the estate had not been cared for since Sir Henri Tulwood died several years before. Now, somewhere, something heralded the return of a Tulwood to the hill where the castle lay sprawled across the fertile land.

The returning Tulwood was not as finicky as his ancestors and did not care if the legend of his new home was true. No, Thomas Henri Tulwood cared only about remodeling the family birthplace and giving it a better look.

Thomas was taller than most of his family, including his father, who stood six feet, ten inches tall. With a strong will and a powerful build, Thomas had what it took to return to Tulwood Castle to establish his last home.

Tulwood Castle lay in the southern part of Ireland near Cork. The gardens had turned to wildflowers, weeds, and grass, yet Thomas knew he could bring trained life to those unruly patches of rubble. Thomas stood at the top of the minaret-style tower that stood beside the keep overlooking the castle grounds and wondered if he should have brought his family with him to see this grand sight. Beyond, outside the castle walls, he could see the small village that he was to govern.

The sound of shuffling brought Thomas out of his thoughts. As he turned toward the stairwell, he noticed his friend standing before him.

“How do you like my ancestral home, Donegal?”

Donegal gazed out over the land. “Interesting, sir. The view is grand.”

Thomas suddenly realized that his friend was right.

Walking toward the stairwell, he reminded himself to place flowers on Henri’s grave.

The Great Hall

The grandeur of all life

Settled with bright smiles And gay jokes of the summers.

Upon the unsuspecting guests

And the minstrels’ music

Woos the lively young girls into dancing, As a gypsy is made welcome.

—Donegal

Donegal knew that Thomas would go through the main hall on his way to Henri’s grave. Somehow he had to warn Tranny of the possible dangers that existed in that room. Having gotten his friend this far, he could not risk losing this fight.

“Donegal, what d’ye think of that?”

Turning, Donegal saw Tranny looking him squarely in the eyes. Looking up, he saw that the dangers were no longer apparent.

“Fine, Tranny, just fine. Has Thomas passed this way?”

“Yeah.” Tranny looked puzzled. “He seemed in an awful hurry.”

“He was?”

Donegal was worried. Something was wrong. Thomas just was not very attentive. He must have missed something when he last spoke to Thomas. What could he have missed?

As Thomas stood by the grave of Henri, whose ancient castle he had come to call home, he vowed that he would search for the person who caused Sir Henri’s fall into ruin.

When he finally noticed the old oak tree that stood as a sentry and a shade over the grave, he saw a stranger sitting in a niche in the highest point of the tree.

“Dear fellow, come down, I pray thee, an’ tell me thy name. If you know who I be, tell me now what you do here.”

Even as the stranger came down from his high perch, Thomas started toward the large stone bench.

“Sir, turn to me that I may see your face. ’Tis rarely a visitor I get.”

“Dear fellow, if I may remind you, I am not a visitor here. I live here.”

“I do not mean to say that the castle is my home. Nay, but this tree is home for me.”

“And the walls?”

“The walls be but boundaries betwixt me and the village. I go out only for food.”

“So you’re a fugitive?”

“Nay, nay, dear friend. I am a poet of recluse. You see, my life is among those of the past.”

The Legend

Thomas was confronted by two mysteries. One, what had caused Henri’s death—and two, who was the poet? He could not figure out what the link was between the two, even though he knew there was one.

As suddenly as the hunch came, it disappeared as a creature slid down the hall just ahead of him. What could it have been?

Hurrying, Thomas turned down the hall down which the supposed creature had disappeared. He found nothing but a tome, opened to a page that had the name of the castle at the top. “What bedeviled thing is this?”

Suddenly he heard the poet’s voice behind him: “Methinks it is the legend of your home. Read it and beware. Someone wants your life—not I nor the one who opened this dusty tome, but the evil one who resides beyond your gates.”

“Who opened this tome? And what be his purpose? Does he not know who I be? What’s he like?”

“Oh, yes, he knows you. Why else would he steal this tome and bring to you the legend of this forsaken place?”

“Do you know his name?”

“Nay, m’lord. I know him only by sight. A beautiful lad he is.”

Thomas looked at the page before him. Reading it, he soon became engulfed in the story it had to tell. The message was plain:

As the legend said,

Poor old Henri Thomas Tulwood fell to his ruin with hundreds of guests at banquet by the poison from Ptolemy Stacks’ purse, but Henri’s family and servants escaped with nary a scratch, but some say that a poet did stay, when others fled, for

he buried ol’ Henri with his guests— mummers, minstrels, and banquet honorers. There he rests in honored presence and wanders the halls of the castle so grand, only to hear the comforting music of the minstrel’s lute.

Blood be spilt but once. It shall happen again. The plot went ever so good, but it will be changed to be the end of all the Stacks.

For the lust of power did Ptolemy Stack kill, and for his ways shall a bloody feud rise. Alas, alas, for Ptolemy’s crew did fall; Alas, alas, for sly ol’ Stack, his mistake be paid by the descendants. Sly ol’ Stack’s great-great-grandson shall be confronted by Henri’s own great-great-grandson. Be wary, oh, black-leg Stack, for thy great-great-grandson will fall, and thy father’s debt will be paid with the ruin of thy family so noble, and the destruction of thy family so proud.

Be wary, dear Durango, for thy son shall die, and a legacy shall fade to a nonexistent color.

Oh, Telleri, your ancestor’s mistake will be paid when your life is through. Then the governing rod of Tulwood returns to Tellerigan. Be kind to the poet who makes the oak tree his home, for he is the heir of a million treasures. He is the descendant of the man who buried the once-festive leader and guests.

Listen, and be not proud, for the end of the legend is nigh, yet unfinished.

Thomas looked up from the tome into the blue eyes of the poet. “Have you seen these weary phantoms?”

“Aye, many times.”

“Where to they hide?”

“That now I cannot tell—but I can recite a poem that I wrote after I heard them and saw them.”

“Will you, please?” “Certainly. It goes like this:

The music of a lute fills the halls

Of a long abandoned castle

That time has let fall, crumbling into ruin Along the eerie passageways appears a phantom of ages past. Casting shadows of make-believe Upon the walls of reality.

As the phantom floats down the hall,

The music gets louder,

And you’re lured into following,

Yet you know there are none more, but you are the only one.

Something holds you in its power

As the phantom drifts through the door just ahead, And when you open the door,

You find you have been lured into a room so grand,

To witness the strangest concert of ghostly balladeers.”

“Are you telling me that they are in the great hall?”

“Nay, they are anywhere. The great hall is the place where I first saw them. Now I can see them anywhere.”

Thomas returned to his reading. The line he finished held the clue as to where the sword of Tulwood Castle was hidden.

Lennox and Catina

Lady Tulwood stood in the market of Tellerigan, looking at the goods the merchants had to offer. All she had hoped for had come to pass. That included the birth of her twins twenty years ago, and now it included the reestablishment of Tulwood governorship to Tellerigan.

At the same instant in the open countryside near Tulwood Castle, Lennox and Catina, the Tulwood twins, rode their horses and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on the emerald isle they called home.

Lennox was slightly shorter than his father’s seven-feet-one, and of a slighter build. Catina, on the other hand, was more the size of her mother, who stood six feet, one inch. Both of the twins were better-looking than their mother, because they looked like their father and were also most generally in good humor.

Lennox was talkative and always active, but today he was having more fun than he ever had in London or Dublin, where his father had taken refuge for thirteen years.

Catina was quiet and shy when she was around people she did not know. She was as pretty as a day of spring that brought forth the blossoming flowers. She loved poetry and had always had a knack for writing beautiful stories of love, happiness, and honesty even if no one would read them. She also loved art and painted incredible pictures portraying love and harmony.

The twins were excellent riders, and both loved music, but as they rode, they thought nothing of their talents; yet as they rode close to the castle, a young man the same age as they ran toward the castle in fear. Upon entering the gates, the twins were met by Collin, the stable servant.

“Anyone come through the gate, Collin?” Lennox asked. “No, sir, not that I saw.”

“Thanks, Collins,” Catina’s sweet voice said. “Thanks anyway.”

“You’re welcome, m’lady. You too, lad.”

The Room in the Tower

Catina remembered that her grandfather had told a story of a room in the tower where no one went, and she wondered why it had never been opened. As she explored, she found a golden key lying on the last step in front of the door to that ancient chamber. She slipped the key into the lock and opened the door.

Looking inside, Catina saw the boy who had run for the castle crouched in the corner in a frightened posture.

“You have no need to be frightened of me,” she said. “I don’t bite. I just want to know what I may call you. I’m Catina.”

“Tellon.”

She saw that her smooth voice was bringing ease to the boy’s composure.

“Do you live in this room?” she asked.

“Yes. So do Rathe, Jan, and Braun.”

“Who might they be?”

“Orphans. I’m their overlord.”

“Come, I want…”

“I must wait for the others.”

Suddenly a hand appeared on the window ledge. Tellon crossed to the window and pulled each of the boys into the room.

He quickly turned to Catina and said, “This is Jan, Braun, and Rathe.” He turned to the boys. “This fair lass is Catina.”

Ghosts in the Hall

Duncan had been with Thomas ever since they were in Orleans. He could never have believed the stories of Thomas’s grandfather’s escape from Tulwood Castle. For some odd reason he knew that Henri Tulwood II had told the unglorified truth, but the only route of escape would be the castle gate…or would it be?

Duncan was brought out of his thoughts when Lennox put a hand on his shoulder.

“Duncan? You alright?”

“Yes, Lennox. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Nothing much. Just how someone would be able to escape through the gates without being seen.”

“Never mind that. Come. Father is getting impatient. We mustn’t keep him waiting.”

Suddenly the two men stopped to a dead halt as a phantom floated in front of them and went through the door to their right.

The Golden Lute

As the weeks passed, Catina and Tellon became friends, and the orphans had been made part of the Tulwood family. Lennox had made all feel welcome, despite his mother’s objections. Thomas made sure that none had been left out of the summer festivities.

It was mid July when Tellon and Catina met in the meadow alone. Tellon was carrying an awkward-looking package.

Catina looked over at him. “What’s that?”

“This is a present for you. It was left to me by my great-greatgrandfather. He died in this castle the night as Ptolemy Stack poisoned Henri and the banquet guests. That included him.”

“Why give it to me?”

“I like you—and most of all, I want you to have it.”

“What could it be?”

“Open it and find out.”

Catina struggled with the package until the bow at the top came loose. Opening it, she gasped in surprise as she pulled a golden lute from the cloth wrapping.

“It’s beautiful! Thank you!”

“Now you can play music anytime you feel it’s right.”

The Music Starts

Thomas woke up sometime during the night to the eerie sound of bagpipes and lutes. He got up, went into the hall, and started toward Catina’s room. In the hall he met Duncan.

“You heard it too?”

“Yes. I thought I was the only one.”

“No, I heard it too. Where’s the poet?”

“He went to the village.”

“I’ve got to check on Catina. She might have been…”

“I doubt it. I just passed her room, and she was sound asleep.” “Good.”

As they walked down the hall toward the great hall, Tellon stopped in front of them.

“What is it, Tellon?”

“Don’t interfere. It’s the phantoms of this castle.”

“This dreadful music is their doing?”

“Aye, but don’t let them know what you think.”

“I’ll remember that. Thank you, Tellon. I’ll remember that.”

Late Summer, 1659

When Tellon had met Catina in the meadow, it was an exceptionally good day, yet Tellon could tell that a storm would soon come, as would the bloody feud between the Stacks and the Tulwoods.

That feeling came true in the late summer of 1659. It happened while Tellon and Catina were lying among the pimpernel, when he noticed the mounting clouds filling the sky and the closing of the pimpernel blossoms.

“Hurry! We must get back to the castle. It’s about to storm.” “How can you tell?”

“I’ll tell you when we get inside. Now hurry! It’s going to be bad!”

Catina and Tellon glanced back and saw Randlie Stack looking at them.

“Hurry, Catina,” he whispered. “We’re being watched by Randlie Stack.”

“No!”

“Yes, Catina. He’s the one who wants to kill your father.”

“No…!”

The Feud Begins

Randlie had been told to go and see if Thomas had arrived at the castle, but he did not expect to see a girl with Tellon. Who was she?

As Randlie turned to go, he felt a sharp pain and looked down to see what had caused it. Seeing blood, he looked up and saw the merciless face of the man whom he had tried to kill earlier.

“How did you survive the torture I put you through?”

“How do you think?”

“But…”

“That could have been Thomas or Lennox Tulwood’s blade. You ought to be glad it wasn’t.”

Randlie dropped to his knees and started to beg for his life, but when he looked at the stranger’s eyes, he saw no mercy there. Randlie’s dying thoughts were fogged with realization and regret. The stranger had made sure that Randlie would be where Telleri could find him.

Only then did it start to rain.

The Letter

Midnight heralded the coming of the three strangers, one of whom bore the news of the coming feud.

Thomas paced back and forth in the large study that he had chosen as a place to think out his problems. Suddenly a guard walked in.

“What is the problem?”

“Some strangers were caught entering the castle gates.”

“Bring them in.”

“But, sir…”

“No buts! Bring them in. Make it quick!”

“Yes, sir!”

The strangers were brought before Thomas so that he could see their faces. When McOrdany was brought forward, Thomas turned pale.

“What’s the matter wit ye, Tom? Have ye seen a ghost?”

“What the bloody hell are you doing here, McOrdany?”

“Came to help ye fight a battle. Thought you’d need some help. I’ve brought the whole clan.”

The Bloody Execution

Tempriane had been gone when his brother attacked Mcordany. According to a legend he had read, there was to be a split in the family, and he was determined to do just that.

Tempriane was peaceful, kind, and always abided by the law. He was different from the rest. He knew what he must do, and he should do it now.

Kory was stronger and more disciplined than Tempriane, yet they had never known what kind of a friendship would grow from their meeting. Kory was stronger than Randlie and could have killed him if need be, but at this time Tempriane had something to ask him.

“Do you think you could go and ask Sir Tulwood if I could form an alliance with him?”

“Yes, sir. By the way, your brother Sanders is to be hanged by the public today.”

“He deserved it, don’t you think?”

 The Ghost of Ptolemy Stack

A year had passed since Sanders was executed, and nothing had come out of the Stacks. When it all did, it was bloodier than anything ever seen by mankind. The eerie silence between the two warring clans was broken by a strange incident that would eventually destroy all traces of the existence of the Stacks.

This strange event was heralded by the return of the ghost of Ptolemy Stack. It was a bright, warm autumn morn when Thomas had seen the apparition, stooped and apparently writing something on the floor. As sudden as lightning it had moved and seen Thomas.

Then it spoke. “I am what’s left of Ptolemy Stack. I have been told by the nemesis that punishes my spirit, tearing me apart by day and by night, that my descendants will soon perish as I did long ago.”

“Why?”

“Do not disturb my spirit with your questions. Just hearken unto my words. One of my grandson’s illegitimate offspring is in your service. His name is Tempriane. He is shunned by the other Stacks, because he has Tulwood blood flowing in his veins. You’re his uncle. That’s why he sided with you in this. Tonight when they strike, most of their allies shall die first. This will be the only time anyone has seen or heard from me since my death one hundred years ago. Farewell, Thomas, and good luck to you. You have my blessing.”

After the phantom had left, Thomas puzzled over its last words. Why must he have the blessing of a dead man? Why?

The Silver Talisman

The night of the attack, several people including peasants were killed. All deaths totaled one hundred ninety-nine—Stackian mercenaries and only one Tulwood defender.

Duncan had turned in time to see the noble Donegal fall from his perch on the ramparts, screaming in pained anguish. At the time several of the attackers screamed as boiling oil was poured down the portals on top of them.

Donegal was carried from the wall to the great hall by a couple of young boys.

Tatus McOrdany was killed instantly when he was knocked from the wall by a rock, shot by a catapult. At the same time Lou McOrdany killed the operatives of the catapult below.

After the remaining Stackian fighters abandoned the conflict, Lou went below, where he found a body with a silver talisman around its neck. As he took it off the body, he glanced up and saw a felt sack full of golden coins.

Epilogue

In the months following the battle, short skirmishes were taken in stride as they came. Each battle came closer to the home ground of the Stack warriors.

After the battles ended, no Stack stood alive. The phantoms disappeared and were never seen again, because they were laid to rest when Telleri fell.

As the years passed, Catina married Tellon, and Lennox married into the royal family. When Catina played upon the strings of the golden lute, it was always beautiful, and when she played ballads that Tellon had taught her, she remembered her grandfather and smiled.

Thomas governed with an unfaltering hand and handed the governorship to Lennox in the time after an illness took its toll on him. Lennox passed it on to his son, and Tellerigan had the best governorship since Henri Tulwood governed hundreds of years before.

The Price Of Lust: Book One of Faces In The Crowd, Epilogue

EPILOGUE

Maggie got out of bed early the next morning. She carried her frail, pain wracked body out to her favorite spot out on the balcony. As she passed the couch in the living room, she looked down at the sleeping forms there. Sonny and Lena had finally fell to sleep at about midnight, and her other children had gone up to their respective beds. Her beloved Connie had went to the store just minutes before she’d gotten up…she’d made sure he was gone before doing so, and now, she was the only person who was awake left in the apartment.

The walk to the balcony was a painful one. Lord, it took everything out of her. And that damned oxygen tank was too God damned heavy. Seemed to get heavier every day. Still, she made it to the chair where she used to sit every morning before she became too weak to walk…and sat down. She closed her eyes. How long had it been? She couldn’t remember. All she knew was that it seemed to be a lifetime ago.

She sat, with her eyes closed, trying to remember all that had taken place in her life. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember. All she could remember was that she’d finally found redemption. Everything after that had been nothing but happiness. She took the nose piece, leading to her ever vital oxygen tank, from her nose. As darkness surrounded her, she smiled. They’d all come home to be with her. And most of them were now married, two had children of their own. They didn’t need her weighing them down. In this way, she was setting them all free. She breathed her last breath, then went limp. She was no longer in pain…

Conrad arrived home too late to save his beloved Maggs. He knew it immediately when he entered and saw her slumped in her favorite chair. He knew she was gone, but he couldn’t let her go. She had brought him too much happiness. Now it was all over. She’d left him. She’d left them all. He ran to where she sat and buried his head in her lap, sobbing uncontrollably.

Three days alter, Maggie was buried in the vault she’d bought for the whole family. The day was cold and gray. After she was laid to rest, it began to rain. All her friends and family knew that there was now a hole in their lives. They’d lost a friend, a sister, a mentor, a wife, a mother, and a lover. Nothing could ever replace her. A chapter in their lives was now over. Forever.

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 8.1-8.4

CHAPTER EIGHT: THE BEGINNING

OF THE END

I. THE TRIP HOME

Cat had set up the trip back to Oklahoma. The name of their home town was now forgotten, but not it’s location. She’d planned to travel into Oklahoma City, then turn westward to finish the final leg. Somewhere between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, sat the town where their joint journey had begun with a tragic loss for all of them. Maggie had demanded that they lay that part of their past to rest by erecting a monument to those who’d died there.

At their departure, she’d made a promise to Lena and Sonny that she’d make sure that their mother would be alive when the small group returned. Though worried, Maggie had lost quite a bit of weight due to her disease, she was out to keep her promise to Maggie. And Maggie, too, was out to fulfill the promise she’d made to the executor over the Usher estate. The old man had died a year earlier, and Maggie had received the lump sum settlement—the entire estate-soon afterward.

Now it was time to finish the journey. Time to forgive those who’d been used by the Usher brothers in their plot to destroy their brother Calvin. Maggie had come to understand that everyone had been used. They’d let their human laws sway their thinking and had ultimately paid the price for their greed. She felt their penance had been paid. It was time to give them a final peace.

Once in Oklahoma, they set about keeping the promise. Maggie had one last surprise for all of them. She did remember the town’s name. She revealed this when she had the monument made at an Oklahoma City monument shop. The other ladies in the group could only stand and stare at her in awe. Not even they remembered that much! They’d tried to kill the memory after they escaped the horror. But Maggie, as always, had committed the name to her memory.

When the monument was finished, there was over two thousand names listed on it. Some of those listed had not died in the massacre, but had been hunted down like animals by Lucifer and Cain Usher. A few had died in elative safety, but had died indirectly from those events. At the head of the list, though, was Maggie’s parents’ names. The two who’d been the first victims…though her mother had died in Akron of this damned disease that she was now dying from.

Heading west, they went toward where their home town had once been. It had been burned to the ground by the Usher brothers after the massacre, but it had not covered up their crime. Empty, dilapidated buildings—better described as nearly unrecognizable ruins—stood a silent sentry to what had taken pass there. They stood there as if to say, “there was an unsolved mass murder committed here years ago.” many buildings were mere piles of burnt wood, others were actual buildings that were beginning to cave in.

How ironic, Maggie thought, how similar we are. We’re both caving in. Those buildings are caving in to the wiles of time, while I am caving in to this damned disease. Ironic, indeed.

II. MAGGIE’S SIXY-FIFTH BIRTHDAY

The table had been set. How huge it now seemed. Such an effort to make it there, too. Maggie struggled with the thought of trying. She’d become so weak in the weeks since the trip to Oklahoma and life had become too hard, some days, to even bother with. Yet, Maggie felt somewhat more fulfilled. She’d lived ten years more than her own mother. It was somewhat sad, but she had actually lived longer than she once thought she would.

Back when she’d been in her thirties, when she was first diagnosed with the disease, she thought that she was at the end of her life. Yet, twenty years later, she was still alive…barely. She still clung to life. It was the only thing she knew how to do. But her grip was starting to loosen. She was too tired to go on much longer.

Still, she didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to hurt those she held dear. And her death would hurt them all. She knew it would.

One of Cat’s beautiful birthday cakes sat in the center of the table. The decorations, Maggie knew, had been seen to by Macie Loomis. They had always seen to the birthdays. It brought her to tears. How glad she was to have them as friends. They always made these events so special. And Rosa. She always did something to make Maggie laugh. Well, not this year. There wasn’t much to laugh about.

Sonny wheeled her in to her place at the table. Others were already settling into their places, but stood in honor of the last great Usher matriarch. Lena and Sandra picked up their guitars and began to play. The voice that began to sing “Happy Birthday” was the sweetest one she’d ever heard. Then, Rosa appeared and revealed that she had been the one singing. Tears welled in Maggie’s eyes.

III. THINGS WORSEN

Things rapidly got worse in the days following Maggie’s birthday party. She was forced to quit working altogether and became bed-ridden. Her breathing seemed to get shallower with every passing day. Never before had she ever known a day where she could not do anything, and now she couldn’t even get out of bed. There were no more walks. No more eating in the dining room. She was forced to rest.

People came in and checked in on her. She faded in and out of consciousness. She slept more than she ever had in the past. God, she felt old.

“She’s asleep again,” Sonny said to Todd, as he checked in on Maggie from the door to her room, “it’s just not too reassuring, the way things have been going.”

“Then,” Todd replied, “I shall go in and pray for her. Her faith was what strengthened her in the past, you know.”

“That,” Sonny answered, “and her love for all of us. And her friends.”

“I know,” Todd acquiesced.

Sonny admitted Todd into their mother’s room, then went to sit down for a while. Lena entered the apartment and went to where her twin brother was sitting.

“Who’s with Mama?” she asked.

“Todd,” Sonny replied, “He’s praying for her. Said it might do her some good. It couldn’t hurt either.”

“I was just with Sandy,” Lena stated, changing the subject, “she’s asked us both to join her in Nashville when she goes back. I, for one, am going. Are you?”

“Yes,” Sonny replied, “I think it’ll be time for a change after this is all over. Why not start working on music with our dear sister?”

Phillip entered the room. He looked like he was about to bust out in tears. Danelle entered just a few minutes after him. Then, Brenna entered as well.

“What’s up?” Sonny asked, “what’s with all the long faces?”

“I-I don’t know,” came the reply, “I just feel something’s wrong.”

“Hey,” sonny began, “buck up! The day’s not yet lost! She’s still kicking and we’re still here.”

Felicity and Samantha entered the room.

“Charles is coming home!” Samantha exclaimed.

IV. CHARLES COMES HOME

Charles walked into the room and everyone’s mood brightened. He had been gone since the last graduation, but had finally graduated, himself, from college. Now, he came home for good. With him, his fiancée also arrived. She was a beautiful!

When Todd finally came out of their mother’s room, Charles took him aside.

“Could you do me a favor?” he asked in a whisper.

“What is it, Charlie?” Todd inquired.

“We wish to be wed in Mama’s presence,” he replied, “and the only way that’ll happen is if we hold a small private ceremony in her room.”

“Then,” Todd replied, “consider it done.”

The wedding ceremony went without a hitch and Maggie weakly smiled with pleasure. Her children were all finally together. Now, she could see them all.

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 7.9-7.12

IX. PHILLIP COMES HOME

Phillip had been gone for four years. Sure he had kept in touch with his mother through letters home, but he had not taken time off to go back and see how she was really doing. Though she had tried to keep it from him, he knew somehow that her illness had gotten worse. And those letters from Sonny and Lena had clued him in.

He knew that Sandra had returned. He also knew that Danelle and Felicity had given their mother her first grandchildren. He, too, was about to make the announcement that his mother had waited so long to hear. After four years of studying, he had met a beautiful young woman from a wealthy family. She’d been the first that had caught his eye when he first arrived at Harvard.

They’d struck up such a friendship from the very beginning that he found himself thinking more and more about her. At the start of his second year, they began dating. After their first date, they became inseparable. That winter, he went to meet her parents. Her parents were, by the end of the break, enamored with him.

His charm and wit had been his greatest strengths. They had never breached the subject of his breeding. Hell. His last name was all they needed. Grimes. that linked him inexorably to his father, Halford Grimes. And though he had never met his father, he understood well enough that Hal had been a very powerful man…and wealthy.

Now, with his fiancée in tow, Phillip was headed home. He only hoped that his mother would like the new woman in his life. He desperately needed her blessing.

When he arrived, his mother met him at the door. He could see the warm smile upon her face and knew suddenly that all would be fine.

“Welcome home, Phillip,” Maggie stated, “and this must be Honoria. Welcome to my home. Forgive me if I don’t seem overly excited. I haven’t been feeling well.”

“That’s ok, Mama,” he replied, “I just wanted to come home and see you. Also, I wanted you to meet the young lady who stole my heart.”

“If it’s my blessing you want, Phillip,” Maggie stated, “then, you have it. You know very well that I will welcome anyone to this family if they are the beloved of another member. In fact, if you wish, I can contact your brother Todd and set up a date for

your wedding…but that is up to you.”

“I think,” Honoria interjected, “that would be sweet. And I shall contact my parents to invite them here for the wedding. They’ll gladly be willing to foot some of the bill if you wish.”

“My dear child,” Maggie stated, smiling, “money is no object around here. I won’t mind spending lavishly for such an event. Besides. I know a few people who’d pretty much set things up for us for close to nothing. They have been friends of the family for decades. But the dress…and the tuxedo will not be free, so I shall seek the best tailors in the country. Only the best, you know.”

X. THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF BRENNA

Brenna, too, had graduated from college in the days surrounding Phillip’s return. As with Phillip, she had decided to return home. Her correspondence home, and the subsequent answers she’d received, had caused her some concern. Something in the words of Sonny and Lena had set off an alarm in her mind. Her mother had never been in such bad shape. And Conrad was beginning to get a bit frazzled as well.

It was even wearing on the twins. They were beginning to feel frustrated. They knew that there was nothing they could really do to heal their mother, but they felt as if they had to try. Yet, she had lived past the age when her mother had died. Perhaps if Brenna could get home and point that fact out to her, it would boost her a bit and bring her out of the downward spiral that she’d been in since Sammi’s graduation.

Sadly, Charles was still two years away from graduating from college, and Sammi was taking college slow enough to keep involved with helping the twins with their mother. The twins, on the other hand, were just a year away from graduating high school. After that, they’d secretly told Brenna that they were going to hold off with college in order to care for their mother.

So, to help take a bit of weight off the twins-and off of Conrad, her stepfather—Brenna headed home. But, like Phillip, she was not heading home alone. With her, a young gentleman was making the trip. And his name was Tobias Morsbey. He was the heir to the Morsbey fortune, but did not look the part of a trustfund baby. He looked more like a middle class, blue collar office drone. Not saying that he wasn’t handsome, but he just didn’t dress the part of a spoiled rich kid. Hell. He didn’t even drive a sports car! He drove an old, beat-up piece of rust that seemed to move faster than the sportsters he was currently passing on the turnpike. She couldn’t help but laugh.

They reached Chicago at midnight. Lena let them in, their mother already having retired to bed four hours earlier. Sonny showed them to Brenna’s old room and carried up their luggage for them. It no longer mattered if they slept in the same room to him. They had been engaged for some time now, and to him, they were already married.

XI. ANOTHER DOUBLE WEDDING

Todd found himself in another awkward position. The triple wedding that had taken place when his mother had married for the second and final time had been, what he thought to be, a fluke. Now, once more at the front of the church altar, he was now officiating two more weddings. This double wedding, though, was that of his brother to a beautiful woman and his sister to a very unique-but rich-young gentleman.

For some odd reason, all his siblings had found a way to make it home. Even Charles was back. But Charles wasn’t alone. He’d brought a beautiful young lady home with him. Seemed as if everyone had found someone to be with. Even Sonny had a date. And Lena, as well. Everyone but him had a special someone in their lives.

But he wasn’t envious. He’d made his choice when he went into the ministry. He’d taken his vows a long time ago. Not that he had to stick to them, per se, but he chose to. If he ever felt the need to find a mate to share his life with, he’d step down from his post. Until then, he was content with his life. He was truly dedicated to his work as a servant of the Lord.

The wedding went without a hitch. The reception, too, seemed to go on without any problems. The newly weds all went to their respective honeymoon suites for the night at about midnight and were not seen until the next day. It was a fairytale that had played itself out well. It had left a smile upon their mother’s tired face.

Todd only hoped that his mother could hang on just a bit longer. She just had to see Sonny and Lena graduate. It was imperative. They had done so much to ease her to that point of time, and now, she needed to repay their work. It was only right.

XII. THE LAST GRADUATION

Sonny and Lena shared the stage. Both had graduated, as had their brothers and sisters, valedictorian. Now, they both were to take turns as speaker. Their mother had made it thus far and seemed to be hanging on pretty well. Yet, they could tell that she didn’t have much life left in her. The disease that had been eating away at her for so long had finally worn her down to a point where she was tiring quicker and quicker every day.

Even a short walk would take everything out of her. She’d had to endure the indignity of taking a wheelchair ride into the auditorium in order to be present at this ceremonious occasion. Where she’d often take the stairs in the apartment building in years past, she now had to ride the elevator. She was having an even harder time breathing, now, and was restricted to the constant use of an oxygen bottle in order to go outside and get to her appointments.

It saddened them to see her failing so quickly now. When they were mere children, they’d grown used to her being energetic and full of life. Now, it was looking as if the life was leaving her. It was disheartening.

After the ceremony, they took her straight home. In their speeches, they had paid her homage…telling all that they owed everything to her. It had brought her to tears. There was no mention of the past, just that she had taught them the meaning of perseverance. It was a fitting tribute. But now, they took her home. There was to be no celebration of their accomplishments, just a journey home and a quiet evening at home.

But quiet for whom? They fussed over her. They never seemed to rest, possibly thinking that to rest was to allow room for death to take her. And poor Connie. He fussed over her, too.

And for what?

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 7.5-7.8

V. BRENNA LUANN

Brenna Luann had grown to become a very beautiful young lady. Maggie was just realizing that as Brenna stood upon the dais behind the podium, preparing to make her speech. She was the third-no, the fourth-member of the Usher-Seville family to do so. And this fact made Maggie the proudest. Each had proven to be just as smart, if not smarter than, as she was. And just as successful.

It was as if her branch of the Usher family had gotten the brains that the rest of the family had sorely lacked…except Uncle Lazarus and Lucretia, that was. They’d been the only other members of her extended family to escape the depraved decadence that seemed to be the curse of the Usher family. Her father had been another. All had married outside the family and had broken the cycle of evil that exemplified the main body of the Usher family. Even she had maintained the trend by marrying Conrad.

Her grandfather had married his own cousin. His father had married his own sister. And his father’s father had married his niece, first; then, upon her death, his own daughter. Before that, the incest and inbreeding had been even more prevalent. The thought of it all sickened Maggie. She was amazed that the Usher blood wasn’t rife with inherited defects. Perhaps it was, but she couldn’t prove it.

And their love of Devil worship seemed boundless. Even as far back as their founding house here in America, at the time of the Virginia colony-or whenever they first came over-were secretly worshiping the Devil. By the time of the witch hunts, they became targets but escaped to the hills and built their sanctuary there…where they would remain for a decade. When the witch hunts ended, they moved to Boston. There, they built one of two houses of Usher.

In Boston, their manse was known as Darkwald Keep. Made of the finest black marble, it was an impressive structure. Inside, it was a mix of congeniality and demonic templar mystique. Gargoyles, demonically twisted visages, and strange symbols mixed with contemporary to make a sickly-yet-intriguing sight. But, beyond the exterior rooms, there were secret passages leading to the black altar deep beneath the manse…buried beneath even the catacombs.

The second manse, that housed the other branch of the Ushers, was set up somewhere to the north of the first. Though a younger branch of the family, it would be the first to fall…the blood so tainted that their disease ridden house was prone to moments of catatonic spells that would often fool the other members into believing that the one who’d had the spell was actually dead. It was one of these such spells that destroyed the last living members and their manse. A fire destroyed them and again, a fire had brought an end to part of the first house. It was strange, but merciful, how each end mimicked the other. The woman, or women, had brought the houses of Usher down. She couldn’t help but laugh.

But back to the graduation, she had to admonish herself. This had nothing to do with the houses of Ushers. They were only distant relatives and very distant memories now. They were to be committed to memory, then forgotten. The remnant that were present in the auditorium had more than atoned for their ancestors’ sins. They had nothing more to do with those who’d died.

As Brenna started her speech, Maggie sat back and soaked it all in. Four graduations down, only six more to go. If she could make it until all her children graduated, and possibly until at least one of her children gave her grandchildren, she could die happy. Lord, how she wanted to make it that long.

She knew that she could make it to the final graduation, but she couldn’t tell when her first grandchild would be born. Surely Todd wouldn’t have any children. He was bound by an oath of celibacy. He’d chosen God above family.

Phillip was in college, Sandra was in Nashville, and Brenna was headed out to college as well. Phil had said something about having a girlfriend, but had said nothing further. Sandra was too consumed with the desire to follow her music that family was the last thing on her mind. Still, she’d told Maggie that she’d have children someday…just not soon. Brenna was too excited about studying. She wouldn’t have time to pursue any boys once she reached Cambridge. So who would be the first to give her grandchildren?

VI. LAZARUS AND HELLENA’S LITTLE MIRACLE

A short time after Brenna’s graduation, Lazarus and Hellena announced to everyone that Hellena was pregnant. For the longest time, she had been under the assumption-mainly because the Doctors had told her as much-that she would never share the joy of having a child with anyone. Now, here she was…about to do what she’d been told was impossible! It was her little miracle!

Maggie threw them one hell of a baby shower. Lavish, it surpassed even the largest of such events with it beauty and excess. The presents were such as only ever seen in most peoples’ dreams. But, then, Maggie would have nothing less for one of her best friends. And what Maggie desired, others around her seemed to desire. What better way, she’d once said, than to blow wads of cash on one’s friends?

There would be a new Usher to carry on the new Usher legacy. Maybe there would be more to breathe new life into the tired old line, but time would only tell. Right now, there would be a bit of doting to do when the miracle baby arrived. And it was going to be a miracle baby. A miracle they’d all needed.

VII. DANELLE MARRIES

Weeks after her graduation, Danelle made her mother very proud. Though attaining a 4.0 in school, and having graduated a few college courses while still in high school, she had decided not to go on to college for a few years. Instead, having fallen in love with a young man that Maggie very much approved of, she had decided to focus on having a family.

Though only a year after Brenna’s eventful graduation, and journey to college, it was a surprise to Maggie that Danelle had decided not to follow her brothers and sister into college. Still, it was a pleasant one. Maggie wasn’t sure how many more years she had left to enjoy. She’d begun to tire easier in the last few months. It felt as if she had the weight of the world coming down upon her shoulders.

A year later, seeing her mother’s condition worsening, Felicity followed Danelle’s lead and married right after graduation. She knew that it did sadden her mother to see two daughters not going on to college right away, but they had both decided as juniors that they would be the first to give their mother grandchildren. They’d both known that their mother might not have that much time left. They could see her health worsening and knew that time was growing shorter for her.

Charles, on the other hand, did go on to college. He’d gotten a dual football/science scholarship to the University of Illinois. He had worked harder than the rest, but still made a 4.0 grade point average. He’d joined nearly every association in high school and planned to do the same in college. Maggie couldn’t help but be proudest of him…yet, she was proud of all her children. They had all turned out fine despite her shortcomings and mistakes while raising them.

Samantha went on to a two-year community college so as to be able to take her time and be somewhat free in case if her mother was to get worse. Sure, Lena and Sonny were still at home to help take care of her, and their father-Con-was there also, but she wanted to be somewhat free to go and help them if things got too bad. She wanted to be a nurse. How fitting!

Magdalena, or Lena as she was called by all, and Sonny still had a few years to go until they graduated. They had been the last to be born. They would be the ones to see their mother suffer the most. And when their mother suffered, their father suffered even more. When their father suffered, it hurt them.

He was such a kind and gentle man. He’d never laid an unkind hand on them. It was just that he was never able to handle much pain. Hell. His whole life had been nothing but a series of painful incidents. He was not allowed to see his older children, their half brothers and sisters, from his other marriages. They weren’t even allowed to see their brothers and sisters. And they felt that this was wrong. Con had never done anything to warrant that kind of abuse from anyone.

VIII. SANDRA COMES HOME

Sandra stood at the door of her mother’s penthouse apartment. She, the prodigal daughter, had returned. Though, not permanently, she was home. Sonny had contacted her, telling her of their mother’s slowly failing health, and she’d decided to come home. She’d had a lull in her career. Well, not really a lull, but rather, a self-imposed pause. She’d been working on material for her second album, but had come to a major crossroads. Of course, it had taken the form of performer’s block—a type of writer’s block, though also affecting her performance on the current material she’d compiled. Thus, she paused on that unfinished project and come back to Chicago.

Maggie was shocked to see her.

“What brings you home, my dear?” Maggie asked weakly.

“You do, Mama,” Sandra answered, “I wanted to see you. I’ve missed you so much.”

“You know that I’m so proud of you, Sandy,” Maggie stated, “don’t you?”

“Yes, Mama,” she replied, “but I’m not here to hear you say

  1. I just wanted to see you. Besides, I was having some trouble on my project so I came back to rest.”

“We’re glad to have you home,” Maggie replied, smiling, her tiredness seeming to disappear, “Todd has been by a few times in the past week to check in on me…but Lena, Sonny, and Connie take good care of me. It’s so embarrassing. As a parent, I am supposed to take care of you children and of my husband. But seems as if they’re having to take care of me.

“I am not going to beat around the bush. I am not doing well. The illness is starting to take its toll on me. I get weaker every day and it is definitely getting harder to breather. It’s disconcerting. I hate it. But I have had a good life. Perhaps it is my time.”

“Don’t talk like that, Mama,” Sandra begged, “you still have so much life to live…and so much wisdom to give. You have just barely begun to live.”

“You’re right, you know,” Maggie answered, “I guess that I just grow tired of this burden that has been given me. The disease, you know, not you children. You were never a burden. Nor has Connie. It’s just this damned disease. I am running out of will to fight with.”

“I understand, Mama,” Sandra replied, sadly. She hated to see her mother suffer this much. But when would it end?

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 7.1-7.4

CHAPTER SEVEN: GRADUATION DAYS

I. PHILLIP GOES TO COLLEGE

A year after the wedding, Maggie’s son Phillip graduated from high school. In his graduation speech, he paid homage to his beloved mother…sighting her perseverance and will to see him go on to do great things in his life as his main inspiration for remaining in school and graduating. He also praised her uncanny ability to succeed in business as a reason he had done well in school. Not once did he ever speak of her earlier abandonment of him and his siblings. It was as if it had never happened.

His 4.0 grade point average had been hard won, he admitted, but it had never been an impossible dream. Without his mother to encourage him, he demurred, he would’ve surely flunked unceremoniously. He also thanked Conrad for his imbuing him with a desire to write and study. And Lazarus for his great wisdom.

All who had come to witness this, his greatest day, was in his list of those to thank for pushing him ever onward. His brother, the priest. His sisters. His cousin. The ladies from his mother’s company. His teachers. All, he claimed, had contributed to his success.

That May, he went off to college. He’d had his pick of the best-Cambridge, Yale, Harvard—and had settled on the one he felt was right for him. So, off to Harvard it was. He packed up his belongings and hugged his mother.

“I never blamed you for anything,” he whispered in her ear, “I knew that you only did what you thought was best. You would call us back to you when it was time to be together again, mama.”

Maggie buried her face in her son’s shoulder and wept. He had lifted a great weight from her shoulders. He just didn’t realize it.

“Mama,” he continued, sincerely, “none of us ever blamed you. We always loved you. We only wanted what was best. Con always let us know how much you really cared, even when you were too ashamed to show your face to us. We merely waited until you felt it was time. Besides, Todd always let us know how you were doing. We never had need to forgive you. You never did anything to hurt us.”

Maggie could only sob louder and more uncontrollably. He had spoken for the whole group, not just himself. Had they asked him to be their spokesman? Or were they waiting to speak to her on their own later?

II. SANDRA DIVINE FOLLOWS HER HEART

Shortly after Phillip’s graduation, Maggie learned that she was pregnant. She was ecstatic, but Con-though overjoyed-was worried. How would this affect her health? It had been fairly stable for some time, but would this throw it into total chaos? What if this was what would cause her death? How would he be able to cope with her loss? How would he raise their child alone?

She told him not to worry. Yes, that could happen, but the doctor had said that there should be no really dangerous complications. Only time would tell if this was the end. Until nine months was up, she whispered, her dear Connie needn’t worry. Just be happy.

Nine months later, she gave birth to Magdalena Divine Seville…and her twin, Sonny Conrad Seville. The delivery had gone without a hitch and all three recuperated quickly. With the illness in remission, she seemed to be stronger than ever. She only hoped that she could continue to be strong until all her children were grown. She had found a new lease on life and was loving every minute of it.

A few months later, she sat in the school auditorium once more as her eldest daughter-Sandra Divine-took to the podium. She’d given birth, and raised, to some of the smartest children in the school. She couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

Afterward, at her graduation party, Sandra approached her mother and took her to one side.

“Mama,” she began, “remember what Phillip said to you?” “Yes,” Maggie replied.

“We all feel that it is true,” Sandra continued, “I just want you to know that. Even if there had been something to forgive, mama, we have long since forgiven it and forgotten it. Our love for you is greater than you could ever imagine. You guided us through Con. Even when you could not be there, you were still there in him. He has been a father to us even when we had none. We love both of you. You are the only family we have ever known.”

Maggie buried her head into Sandra’s shoulder. “Thank you.” “Mama,” Sandra replied, “you’re welcome.

That summer, Sandra left home and headed for Nashville. Her heart was in music and she had never kept her love a secret. Now, she felt it was time to follow her dreams and Maggie knew that she would succeed. It was in her blood.

III. NEWS OF THE END OF USHER, INC. REACHES MAGGIE

Two months after Sandra left for Nashville, Maggie picked up the newspaper for the first time. She had worried that she would find bad news concerning her little girl, but instead, found the news much more to her liking. At the first sight of it, she began to chortle. At the sound of her, Conrad rushed over to see what was so funny.

There, on the front page was the picture of the raging inferno that had once been called Usher Enterprises, Incorporated. Below were several photos of Cain, Lucifer, and their concubines. The article stated that the corporate head quarters had suddenly went up in flames after calls to 911 had been made about the girls having guns and holding the elderly CEOs hostage. There had been something mentioned about a disagreement about money and the actual hierarchy of leadership. As the police arrived, and before they could get close enough to enter the building, there was an explosion and the place went up in flames like a pile of kindling.

Firefighters were too late to save anyone inside, but they had been able to salvage the remains of the building. And, although they’d been burnt beyond recognition, the bodies found had been identified as the elderly Usher brothers and their daughter…all of the daughters. Their greed had finally brought their destruction. Their evil had finally been repaid upon them.

The attorney over their estate, the article stated, was looking for a woman named Magdalena Usher. She was their last surviving niece and their wills stated that she was, as the last of the Ushers, to receive all of their material wealth and property. That included their manse and all corporate holdings. She was to continue their legacy as she saw fit, he was quoted as saying.

Maggie smiled. It was ironic. They’d spent all that time trying to coerce money out of her that they did not work for…only to end up leaving their entire fortune to her in their deaths. She called the attorney’s number.

“This is Magdalena Usher-Seville,” she stated, matter-offactly as the attorney answered his phone, “when can I inspect the wills of Lucifer and Cain Usher?”

“I can fly to a location that you specify as soon as we get off the phone,” came the reply.

“Good,” she stated, “I cannot leave Chicago due to my own business and family responsibilities, but I would be gracious if you could come to me.”

“Then,” the attorney replied, “consider it done. Where shall I be able to find you?”

The next few minutes were spent giving addresses and directions to the man on the other end. When she hung up, Conrad looked at her. He raised his eyebrows at what he’d heard.

“What are you going to do with all that money?” he asked, somewhat curious.

“I know,” Maggie replied, “I don’t really need it. I have enough of my own. I have an idea, though, what to do with it.” “Well?”

“I am going to take a trip south,” she continued, “with Cat and the girls. We’re going to go to where things went wrong and place a monument where the town once stood. It is only right. Afterward, we will figure out the best way to disburse the rest to any other victim those monsters may have left. If there is

anything left, we will set up a scholarship fund.”

“Sounds like you are going to rid yourself of any and all that was owned by your uncles,” Conrad commented.

“It is only right, Connie,” she replied, “their wealth and all their holdings were gained by murder and mayhem. I don’t need to have anything to do with that. If there are any left of the families whose companies they took over, those companies will go back to those survivors. The money should be disbursed as I have said.”

Conrad smiled. He knew that she was only doing what she knew was right. He loved her for that…and more. She was exactly the opposite of her late uncles. She was all that was good in life, they had been all that was evil.

IV. THE LEGACY

“You look like your mother,” the elderly man at the door started, surprised, “but you’re much…taller.”

“I’m surprised,” Maggie responded, deflecting the old man’s comments, “that my uncles would leave me anything. I mean, they spent an awful lot of time these past years trying to acquire my own wealth, too.”

“Ah, yes, well,” the old man replied, “they weren’t the ones who included the amendment in their initial wills. I snuck it in while finalizing the paperwork. The bastards never really paid much attention to any of the changes. Hell. I never had to show them the finished wills. They merely thought that I would be faithful in my final drafts. It was their oversight and my greatest decision. And it is your boon.

“Now, I know that you don’t really need it but I know that you’ll use it wisely. Oh, yes. I know all about you. I have kept my eyes on you all this time. I know about what my clients have done in their wasted lives and realize that the life they destroyed more than any other was yours. I know that this cannot bring your father back, nor make enough of a restitution for any crime my late clients committed, but it will have to do.”

“Can you do me a favor?” Maggie inquired.

“Sure,” he replied, “anything to help.”

“Seek out the heirs of those whose companies my uncles unlawfully seized control of,” she continued, “and return to them their families’ companies.”

“Of course,” the old man smiled, “I realize that it’s the right thing to do. But whom may I say is to be thanked for this good deed?”

“Just tell them that it is a gift from one survivor to another,” she stated, “and that I understand their pain.”

“Will do,” the old man replied, bowing. He turned and left. Once he had gone, Maggie shut the door. The deed was now done. All she could do now was wait for the money to be deposited to her account. Once that was done, she would set about doing what she had planned…

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 6.8-6.11

VIII. THE SHADOW FALLS

Cain entered the church, followed by Lucifer. Angered at not being invited, they’d decided to crash the ceremony…even though it was in a church, and all Ushers of import shunned these shrines to a god they’d forsaken centuries ago. The event seemed to be one that rivaled any in known Usher history. Never had an Usher, save Calvin and Lazarus, ever married outside their family. They seemed to choose their own sisters, daughters, or nieces. Yet, here was one of their own marrying an outsider.

Worse still, she was holding her nuptials in a church! And Lucretia! Lucertia was dancing and kissing an outsider! This was outlandish! The family’s dishonor was at stake!

“Stop this madness!” Lucifer shrieked, “this is sacrilege to the family’s memory! Desecration! Desecrators! I will not stand for this!”

The crowd went silent and turned to face the intruders. Lazarus, Maggie, Lucretia, and Todd stepped to the forefront of the crowd. Behind them, those who’d escaped the brothers’ massacre in Oklahoma formed a line that ran horizontally behind the four.

“Hail, uncles,” Maggie stated, “welcome to the end of your power. We are no longer afraid of you. United we stand against you, divided you shall fall.”

“Away from us, Oh Satan,” Todd spoke, authoritatively, “be gone and plague us no more. Your power is useless here. Your line has been broken and your curse brought to an end….” the rest was muttered in Latin and Greek. But it reached a crescendo as the crowd, behind those who stood as a united front before the evil twins, joined in. It was so perfectly timed and beautifully orchestrated that it took the two flame-haired murderers by total surprise.

“The evil that has defined the Ushers,” Lucretia began, unafraid, “no longer stands to define us. Our sins have been washed away and a new hope fills our hearts. Your era has been wiped away with the filth that defined it. You no longer hold sway here. The past has died. Go and die with it, you Godless lechers. Go and die so that your shame dies with you.”

“Your end,” Lazarus interjected, with an air of authority, “has already been set into motion. We all have had a hand in seeing to that. May God have more mercy upon you than you have ever shown anyone else. Just remember…you shall be judged according to your deeds. Do you have even one ounce of goodness in you? Have you ever done anything that was not born from a selfish and evil heart? I think not.”

IX. THE SHADOW IS LIFTED

A gunshot interrupted Cain as he began to object to this effrontery forced upon him and his evil twin. Lucifer fell to his knees, his back arched and a grimace of pain upon his face. Two more shots slammed his face into the floor, where he lay writhing in pain…unable to open his vile mouth. All knew that he was not dead, but he soon would be…just not from his current wounds.

Two more shots spun Cain around and knocked him to his knees. The mini “Lucifer”, that evil little midget, could only open his mouth and gasp in shock as he beheld his attacker. All eyes raised from the two wounded men on the steps to who was standing in the door.

“Daddy?” Maggie inquired, still not sure if she could trust her eyes, “is that you? But, how? You’ve been dead all these years!”

“Dead, Indeed,” came the ghostly reply, “but I needed to witness their end. I wanted to come and watch you marry the man who deserves you the most. My dearest Magdalena, you have ever been my greatest joy and greatest sorrow. Now, I come to aid you in your darkest and finest hour. I have repaid my brothers for their treachery, now there remains only one more thing to do.”

Conrad brushed past the specter and grabbed hold onto the two wounded monsters. Without a word, he hauled their bleeding bodies out of the church. When he returned, he looked over at the ghostly presence and smiled. Had he not been a bit late, it would’ve been he who shot the two devils. But he had, in his usual fashion, been a few minutes behind schedule. Thus, Cal had done his own brothers in.

“Aright, People,” he said, nonchalantly, “let’s get this party started.”

Todd smiled and went up the steps to the altar. He stood behind it, right where the priest was supposed to stand. Lazarus and the ghostly image of Maggie’s father took their place at each side of her. Conrad and his best men took their places at the altar, and as the WEDDING MARCH began, Maggie and her two escorts made their way toward the group at the altar. Soon, it

would be over and a new life would begin. Soon…

X. BUT THE DAY IS NOT DONE…

“I need your attention, please,” Todd called over the din, shortly after Maggie and Conrad took their vows, “there are two more couples who wish to make this day an even brighter day. Do they wish to step forward and take their places upon the altar dais with me?”

Lazarus and Hellena stepped forward. So did Lucretia and Cozy.

“Though I believe that neither couple has rings to exchange at this moment,” Todd stated, smiling proudly, “I do believe that I witnessed the beginnings of their betrothals in this very church this day as we awaited for the first marriage to take place. Is this not true?”

Lazarus nodded, as did Hellena. Their affirmation was followed by that of Lucretia and Cozy. Todd grinned with uncontainable excitement. He’d never before had a triple-play. Never had he done three weddings in one day.

“Then,” he continued, “let us seal the last two pacts of marriage. No need to wait any longer.” He placed Lucretia and Cozy to his right, and Lazarus and Hellena to his left. “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife…?” “Yes,” came both men’s answer.

“And do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband…?”

“Yes,” the women answered in unison.

“Then,” Todd concluded, “according to the powers invested in me by the state of Illinois and by God, I now pronounce you husbands and wives. You may kiss the brides.”

XI. A FITTING END TO A BEAUTIFUL DAY

The reception had become a celebration for three couples. Still, it had been the best day of anyone’s life who’d been present. They’d watched as a ghost had wrought vengeance upon those who’d killed him. They’d watched what had truly become the wedding of the century. It had been a triple play! Three couples, not just one, had gotten married.

Maggie even shared the cake that had been meant for her and Conrad! It was a sight to see three couples cutting into the cake at the same time. The video would be fodder for many laughs for years to come, even among those who were in it as the happy couples. It was an affair to remember. All who were present would never forget it.

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 6.1-6.7

CHAPTER SIX: THE WEDDING OF THE CENTURY

I: THE PREPARATIONS ARE MADE

Maggie had written her thoughts out in letters to explain her feelings to each of those in the wedding party. Sealing the envelopes, she sat them down after labeling who they were for. She felt so guilty for all she had done in her life. Selfishly vindictive, she’d tried her best to destroy those she felt had done wrong to her. And afterward, she’d done so much to damage those she cared about simply because she selfishly didn’t want them to see her in the weakened state her illness had left her.

She hoped that each would forgive her for her inconsiderate actions. Most of all, she hoped her children would forgive her. She had hurt them the worst. She had deprived them of their mother—her. Now, she was hoping that they’d want to come back into her life. She needed them now more than ever. She knew that.

It had been Conrad’s idea to include them all in the wedding party, and she’d agreed enthusiastically. She wanted them included. They had every right to be there in important positions.

She wanted them to feel like a part of the family they were born into.

But did they want to be a part of the family they probably felt had abandoned them? She didn’t know. She could only hope that they would. Only time would tell.

All she could think about was the big empty hole that had been in her life ever since she’d sent them away. She’d felt empty and she didn’t like that feeling. Now, she wanted to fill that hole and the only way she could think of filling it was to bring them back into her life…all of them. Her old friends and her family, they were as close as she’d get to having a true extended family. So she invited them all back.

In a way, she felt as if she was paying restitution to them for the years of neglect that she had heaped upon them in her selfishness. She only wanted to make things better. She wanted to pay attention to the again and be involved in their lives again. And this was the only way she knew how. But would they be willing to come back around her after so long? She had no idea.

II. CAT TAKES THE CAKE

Cat Catrelle had always been an excellent cook. After the fiasco in Tulsa, she’d went straight and opened a bakery. People, being more forgiving than she’d expected, had begun to frequent her little shop and had standing orders all year long. Birthdays, holidays, and weddings had been her busiest times of the year. Everyone wanted a cake from her shop during those times. Now, she had become determined to bake the cake for her friend’s wedding.

Though Maggie had objected at first, Cat persisted and finally won the honor. It was going to be the biggest and most beautiful cake that the world had ever seen for this sort of occasion. The frosting, alone, would be a spectacle. White chocolate panache, teal green mint leaves, strawberry roses, and lemon drop ribbons draped over a red silk cake that stood four tiers high and was a good two foot in circumference at the bottom and stood at least three foot tall…after the tiers were all stacked.

Cat had remembered Maggie’s fondness for red silk cakes. She’d also remembered all of Maggie’s other favorite confections. Thus, when combined, that was the perfect cake for her wedding. It was the only choice. Maggs would love it.

It took her all day, the day before the wedding, to make the cake. She knew that it would be a hard secret to keep, so she employed Conrad’s help. But, for backup, she also employed the rest of the wedding party. Each would act as Con’s backup, should Maggie slip away from her betrothed. It was the perfect setup.

They would keep Maggie busy while Cat prepared the cake. Cat would carefully make the cake, frost it, and finish it with the candy bride and groom after setting the tiers. Hell. Even the pillars, made specially for this kind of cake by Cat, was candy. None of the candy pieces were easy to make, either. They took a lot of time and patience to make in such a way that the pillars could withstand the weight of the tiers and still be easy enough to eat without having to suck on them.

When it was finished, it was a work of art. It would be hard to carve it up and feed it to the guests. But, like all cakes, it was meant to be eaten. Cat was proud of her masterpiece. She had saved the best of her work for the friend she’d always been closest to. And now, that friend would share in the best that she had to offer.

After it was done, she took it to the boardroom, where the reception was to be held. There, she set it in the center of the main table. It made such a great centerpiece that the rest of the decorations complimented it. The sight was one of sheer beauty. Cat smiled.

She’d missed Maggie ever since she’d left the cathouse. Life had not been the same. She knew that Maggie had been trying to punish the girls for what their parents had done, but it hadn’t really mattered. They’d been punishing themselves, too. Maggie had been a good person. So had Calvin and Divine, Maggie’s parents. Why had her father gone in with the others and destroyed the Ushers?

That had been a question each of the girls had asked themselves from the very beginning. Calvin had never done anything to any of them. Their jealousy had been unfounded. Then, those evil flame-haired men had come into the picture. From there, everything seemed to head south.

Each girl had watched, in silent terror, from their hiding places as those two vile monsters murdered their families…sparing only those that they couldn’t find. The only member of the group to come away the most scarred was Rosa. Poor little Rosa. She’d watched as her father’s empty, dead stare fell upon her as she watched the massacre from beneath her bed.

But Cat and the others had not known of Rosa’s secret nightmare until Consuela finally broke through the traumainduced muteness. From that point on, they had become determined to pay Maggie back for the wrongs their parents had caused. They sold themselves gladly. They couldn’t, no matter how they tried, get rid of the dirty feeling that came from knowing that their fathers had contributed to the murder of Maggie’s. They could never erase the scenes they’d witnessed as Cain and Lucifer turned on the town and slaughtered every man woman and child they could find.

But, who’d the other red-haired man been? He looked so much like the other two, that they assumed that he was their brother as well. Yet, he had not participated in the slayings. In fact, he’d come to each to warn them. But his warnings had fallen on deaf ears. Only those who survived the slaughter had listened.

He seemed horrified by the slaughter. Shortly before the events that changed so many lives, he vanished…just as he had appeared. Cozy had gone with him. And Cozy always seemed to appear before he did. But Cozy wasn’t the only one to disappear with him. Rosa’s brother had as well. So had Cat’s oldest brother and the oldest brothers of each of the other girls. It seemed that they had been given a chance at safety and freedom.

But at what cost? Where were they now? Only Cozy seemed to be in league with the mysterious third brother of Mr. Usher. The others seemed to merely vanish. But to where?

III. ROSA’S GIFT

Rosa had spent the years after working in the cathouse trying to put her demons to rest. She had only wanted to atone for the wrongs her father had done to Calvin Usher. She had known Mr. Usher and had never seen him do anything unethical. He had always been straight with all who did business with him. His honesty had been his greatest virtue, but the whole town-her father included-had betrayed him and sold him into the murderous clutches of his own brothers. But there had been another brother, Lazarus, who’d tried to persuade the town to refuse the offer of the other two. He had warned them that no good would come of the betrayal.

He’d told them that they were selling their own souls, but they wouldn’t listen. They didn’t listen when he told them that their decision had also signed their own death warrants. They could only think of the money they’d been offered. Money they would never see.

When death finally came knocking, they could only stand and watch in abject terror-unable to move-as their lives were taken in the most horrible bloodbath that the country had ever witnessed outside of the Civil War. The town had made a deal with the Devil, only to find that the Devil never keeps his end of the bargain. In the end, their souls had become his, and the money had never been intended for their hands. Of course, both Calvin and Lazarus had spoken of the fact that the rest of the Ushers never shared their money with any, not even their own.

And the town hadn’t believed them. They could only think of what they’d been offered greedily and to plot the end of Calvin’s existence. Poor Calvin. Poor Divine. Poor Maggie.

Rosa had watched from her hiding place under the bed as Cain Usher became a virtual human blender, slashing her mother and father’s throats. She’d stifled a scream as her father fell on the floor in front of her, his head nearly severed from his neck. The look in his dead eyes told her all she needed to know. Shock. Terror. Disbelief. It was all there.

It was as if God had turned His back upon the whole town. Their freed was repaid with their murders. The town ceased to exist. Even the preachers had been in on the betrayal and had paid with their lives. Not one soul, or so she’d thought, had been left to re-establish the town. It was left to become a ghost town, only fit to be inhabited by the ghosts of those slaughtered there.

Afterward, she spent days trying to wash her father’s blood off her face. She scrubbed so hard that, by the time Cat found her, her face was rubbed raw. The shock had sent her into a state of trauma-induced muteness. No one could get her to talk. Then, in Tulsa, Consuela finally brought her out of it.

Still, no matter what Maggie tried to humiliate her, she still loved the tall black haired woman. Nothing could change that. She owed Maggie so much. And there was still so much that she could never give back. She could never bring back Maggie’s father. She could never make restitution for all the her friend had lost.

The only thing she could give Maggie was her friendship and forgiveness. But could Maggie ever forgive her? Could Maggie ever forgive any of them? She could only hope so.

IV. MACIE LOOMIS

Macie stood out from the others in her ability to decorate for special occasions. After the events in that town they’d once called home, she’d attached herself to Maggie and accepted her as family. Hell. They were all the family they had. They were a sisterhood. They’d survived the destruction of their hometown. Their brothers were missing in action, and so they were the only family they had left. Not that they were related by blood, but they were related by events.

What’s more, they all blamed themselves for the murder of Maggie’s father. Maggie, in turn, blamed them as well. But that was in their past. Macie knew that. Still, there was nothing they could ever do to give Maggie back her father. She knew that, too.

It was a shock when Maggie agreed to allow Macie to decorate for her wedding reception and the nuptials as well. Macie could swear it was as if there was no animosity between Maggie and herself, but there should’ve been. Maggie seemed to have changed. She wasn’t the vindictive Madam she’d been in years past.

Perhaps she’d expected too much to remain the same. Then, again, Maggie wasn’t the same person she had been back then, either. She was suffering from some mysterious illness that threatened to take her from them all. And Sadie didn’t want to lose her sisterly friend. Life wouldn’t be the same.

So, in response, Sadie decorated. And the place was beautiful. Once she saw it, after the cake had been brought in, it all fit together nicely. In fact, it was perfect. She only hoped that Maggie would love it.

V. HELLENA

Hellena remembered the first time she met Maggie. It hadn’t been the best of circumstances, but they’d still become fast friends. They’d both plotted and succeeded in bringing down the man who’d hurt them both. And the man had fallen hard. He lost it all. His business, his money, his honor and his reputation. In the end, his losses led to his death. Their victory had been bittersweet.

They’d taken over the business and made it successful beyond anything its former owner had ever dreamed for it. They were a formidable team in the boardroom. Maggie had inherited her father’s “Midas touch” and their business was all the proof of it any one would ever need. Even after Maggie began her phase of self-seclusion, the business still benefited from her influence.

Now, the team would be back together. The business could only become even more successful. She smiled. She had looked forward to this day.

What was even better, Maggie had made it clear that there was to be more partners to be added to the board. Those of her children who were old enough to, would be given entry-level jobs in the business if they desired. So would the ladies from Tulsa and those who were in from Akron. That was, if they wanted to be a part of the business.

Still, it was an open option for them. There was to be no pressure. It was solely up to them if they did or not. Maggie had made that point clear. She merely wanted them close, she wanted them in her life again. And Hellena couldn’t blame her.

No one could ever have too many friends. You could only have too many enemies. And who better to share a legacy with than your friends? You can only leave a legacy to your children, but you can share it with those you call friend. And Maggs had a lot of friends.

So Hellena had sat down with the lawyers and had the paperwork drawn up. She was all for the idea, herself, so she obeyed her friend’s request. Now, she stood among those Maggie considered her friends and could see why she called them friends. They each brought something beautiful to the presence of the others about them. It was as if she had walked into a dream.

She smiled when she spied Lazarus. He was tall and regal in his royal blue tuxedo, rich vermilion bowtie, and blue and white loafers. His graying red-hair made him look like an aristocrat who’d seen his share of wars. Still, she’d taken a shine to Maggie’s aging uncle and couldn’t help but let it show. He was so gentle! And sweet! He was nothing like his brothers Cain and Lucifer. They were so full of evil and deceit. It was as if they weren’t from the same family.

Lacertian, too drew Hellena’s attention. No longer standing next to Lazarus, she now seemed smitten by the youth named Cozy. And cozy, too, seemed smitten with Lucretia. They were meant to be together. Maggs was right.

She walked over to Lazarus. He turned and smiled at her, a big sweeping grin.

“Hello, Miss Hellena, my sweet,” He stated, seriously, “care to dance?”

“Most definitely!” she found herself exclaiming, unable to contain her joy, “it would be an honor!”

“My dear little Maggie seems to be able to bring the honor out in all who comes into contact with her,” he replied, still smiling, “for that, she is most blessed. And she is right, you know. It is time I turned and faced my brothers. It is time for all of us to put

an end to this damned old war they started.”

“Yes,” she responded, “it is time to put the past behind us. Care to work on a new future with me?”

“Sure,” he stated, sincerely, “I have always held a deep love for you, you know. At least from the first time I met you…when you told me how to contact Maggie.”

“I know,” she found herself saying, “and I fell for you too, you know.” She smiled up at him. He kissed her on the lips, drinking in their sweetness.

VI. CAROLINE BORDEN

Carrie had placed her daughters in the position of keepers of the guest book. She felt as if it had been an eternity since she’d been in the awe-inspiring presence of Maggie Usher and, so, went in search of her old friend. She was honored to have been asked to this wondrous occasion and wanted her hostess to know as much. They had so much to catch up on, and so little time. But they would catch up. She was determined to do so.

Along the way, she bumped into the rest of the guests from Akron. They had all kept in touch with each other, and had followed Maggie’s rise from obscurity to the heights of her success. And they had all rooted her on every step of the way from a distance. The scandals had always been her trademark. They’d come to expect that from her. Hell. That was what they loved about her. She made scandal fashionable and a thing of prestige.

All had brought lavish wedding gifts to shower upon the lucky bride and groom. Their gifts, though, were not nearly lavish enough to tell anyone how much they truly loved Maggie. To all of them, she was a part of their family, a sister who was always there and always loved. Their presence, though, comforted her. That, alone, was enough proof to her that they loved her. And Carrie knew this.

She also knew that Maggie could not figure out why so many people loved her. She felt that they should hate her, but they didn’t. And Carrie felt her confusion. She struggled to think of a way to tell Maggie why so many loved her, and so few hated her. No matter how neglected Maggie thought she had left their friendships, they thought otherwise. Her silence was only a sign that she was fighting to succeed. They had all been guilty of that same silence toward the others, but they had come around and begun to reunite with their old friends. Very little had changed in them. They were still that same class of visionaries and friends. They had only grown and begun to make their visions into reality.

VII. LUCRETIA

Lucretia stood before Cozy, smiling. For the first time, someone had made her see where her heart should lay. Cozy had always been around her for the longest time…ever since she could remember. He was a fellow traveler on this strange flight she’d come to know as life. But the flight was almost over and she knew that life would go on, she just didn’t know how they would deal with life after it all. They’d spent so much of it on the lam. Now, they were stopping in their tracks and doing an about face.

She’d spent so many years of her life being afraid. Afraid of Lucifer. Afraid of Cain. Afraid of her own cousins. And for good reasons. For the most part, they were evil incarnate. More evil than the other house of Usher that had fallen over a century ago…their distant relatives who’d been so inbred that they were only one step away from being imbeciles. Their own branch of the family weren’t much better.

Twisted. They were all twisted. Products of their greed, hatred, lustful incest, and their deviance into the occult. And the occult had twisted them the most. It had been the dark legacy of the whole Usher family. Worship of their dead. Worship of the Devil and his demons. The unholy pursuit of magicks that were not for men to know. They conjured up all sorts of horrors. Hell. They had become the worst horror of all, spreading terror and death wherever they went.

Maggie was right. It was time to end the evil. It was time to face what she had, with Cozy and Lazarus, ran from for years innumerable. It was time to take the fight to those who pursued them. And Maggie was going to lead them. Together, they could claim victory. Apart, they would fall to defeat. So together, they would conquer the evil of the twins. This would be a day to remember.

She came out of her thoughts and turned her attention to her new beau.

“Can I have this dance?” She asked, smiling.

“Ain’t I the one who’s supposed to ask you that?” he replied, questioningly.

“Yes,” she replied, blushing, “and would you’ve done so?”

“I would’ve,” he replied, smiling, “eventually. But my, you are such a beautiful young woman. I see now what Maggie was doing.”

“And what would that be?” she inquired, knowingly.

“She’s giving us both what we have always been searching for,” he answered, “soul-mates to spend our lives with. And we will have a brighter future once we have dealt with Cain and Lucifer.”

She looked into his eyes, awestruck. She had finally found herself a knight in shining armor, a Prince Charming. As she moved into his embrace, her lips sought his. Love had finally found her. It had found them both.

The Price Of Lust: Book One Of Faces In The Crowd, Chapters 5.4-5.7

IV. TODD

You are the eldest of my children, and the only one I have allowed to visit me in the past. You are, and always be, my favorite son. You grew to be such a handsome and understanding man that I was often reminded of your grandfather in the sage wisdom you always shared with me. You have already forgave me of all the wrongs I did to you, and for that I shall love you the most. You did your best to help the younger children understand, being a father figure to them as they grew. Did you succeed in helping them understand finally?

Perhaps, but only time will tell. You stand to gain the most when I finally pass on. Eventually, if you so desire, you will inherit the company. If not, then you will have the larger of the monetary inheritances to do with as you see fit. But that is not what life is about.

I was born to money, but it never saved me from myself. Of course, you are wiser than I ever was, so you refrain from the things I did. Instead, you have chosen to do what I never did, go on to college. Of course, this is the year you graduate and I hope to be there to cheer you on as you accept your diploma. You are the first Usher to graduate from college. But you aren’t just an Usher. You are a Grimes. Grimes always succeed.

But you are also an Usher. You will always be an Usher. You children are the last of the house of Usher even though you do not bear the name. Through you, the bloodline will continue. But not the evil. You are far too good for that. Far too wise. Far too smart. My part in it all is about to end. I have only a short time left. We all know that. You, most of all. You will have to carry on without me soon. Please take care of Connie and treat him as humanely as you always have. Make sure that he remains a part of your lives always. He will always be the closest thing you have to a father.

Always remember that I have always believed in you. All of you. I have always loved all of you. Some, maybe more than others, but I still loved you all. And I have always tried to do right by all of you. I have always provided all I could for you as well.

I am not bragging, merely telling. My dear son, after all this time, I did learn something from you…how to be humble. I realize that we come into this world with nothing and leave it with nothing. In our place, we leave our memories and our legacies so that others can benefit from them. I humbly accept this as the ultimate truth: in the end, we are not remembered as for who we are, but rather for what we do. Those who do good without desire for self, are remembered while those who do evil are forgotten for all eternity.

V. BRENNA

My first-born daughter. Connie chose you to be ring-bearer. What an honor! I know you have felt left out in the past, but those days are gone. After tomorrow, you will be back with your mommy. You, your brothers, and your sisters. I admit that I was wrong to send you away. I want you to know that I will never do it again.

This does not mean that I will not leave you again, it just means that I will not send you away. You know that I am ill, and that I will never get any better. But do yo9u understand, yet, that I am dying? I don’t know.

But enough of all that. This is supposed to be a time of joy. We are all supposed to be happy, are we not? And so I guess that happiness is this: to do the best you can for as long as you can; hoping to have changed at least one life by having lived your own. It is also having changed the world by merely existing. Amazing, isn’t it?

I sure hope that I have changed the world by merely existing, myself. But have I succeeded? I don’t know. Only time will tell. I do know that I have touched quite a few lives, changing them as I did so. Some I have changed for the better, some for the worse. I hope that I have touched your life in a positive way, for if I have done so in a negative way I would not be able to bear the thought.

VI. DANNELLE

Dannelle. How do I tell you I’m sorry? I turned my back on you before you ever got to know me. Now, your a young lady and probably not willing to see me as your mother. And I deserve that from you…and much more. I wouldn’t blame you if you never want to see me after today.

But I hope, for all our sakes, that you can put the past behind us. I have. Please forgive me for my faults. I never claimed to be perfect. I spent a lot of my life being selfish and have come to realize it much too late in my life. When you needed me the most, I sent you away to spare you from seeing me die. But, you will see that anyway.

I finally realize what is most important in life. Family. All you have in this life is your family. Nothing can take that away from you. Money is so temporary. So is fame and success. None of it stays for long. Even life its self is fleeting. All you have, for sure, is this very moment. Don’t waste it.

So now, all we have is right now. Let us make the best of it. We must be a family. It is important to us. Connie, you, your brothers and sisters, and me. It is what we all want the most. It is what I need the most.

So, my little girl, my little lady, you are to be the ring bearer. Are you excited? I hope so. I am. Tomorrow is the start of a new life. For you, for me, and for all who are to be there. It will be the beginning of a new chapter in all our lives. Let us write it in such a way that we will all be happy ever after.

VII. FELICITY

Felicity, my baby. Youngest of all my children. You do not fully know me, but I hope to correct that oversight. How selfish I have been! I did not want to share my life, or at least the painful portion of it, with you or your brothers and sisters. Now, I regret it. I regret not sharing the past few years with you.

I was blind to what was truly important. I thought I was doing the best thing for you all. But there is no justification for any of my actions. Can you ever accept my apology? I hope so. I need to have you near me. Even more so now, that there is to be a father figure present for you all.

No words can express my sorrow at how I treated you in the past. No words can express how I wish I could take back all that I did. I wronged you. All of you. For that, I am deeply sorry.

My dear, now is a time of renewal. We renew our family bonds. We renew our relationship. We become a family again, complete with a father. That is something you have never had before. Your father never wanted you. But I did. And I still do.

Tomorrow, you will be our little flower girl. Joy will abound as you walk down the aisle before me, sprinkling the flower petals over my path. Are you excited? I am.

I can’t wait to see you all again. We’ll finally be together again. This is the best day of my life! My family will be back together once more. This time, I promise, it will be for the rest of the time I have on this earth. We will have a while to spend together before I leave this life. I hope that I get to see you grow into a woman. But only time will tell if I will.

But, enough of the future and the past. Let us focus on the here and now. We are family once more! Welcome home, my little princess.