Styx laughed. “Again, babe?”
I nodded and pulled at his dark, messy hair. “Again… and again… and again… and again…”
A finger stroked my arm, waking me and I smiled.
“Mmm… Styx? I dreamt of you again.”
The hand froze on my skin and I frowned. Even in my sleep, I sensed something was wrong. “Styx?”
Still heavy with sleep, my eyes opened slowly and I wrestled with blurry vision. Sitting up, I felt a tidal wave of nausea roll around my stomach and I rubbed at my eyes to wipe away the fog of my deep sleep. “Styx?” I called.
As my sight improved, two figures emerged from the mist; females, one blond, one dark-haired.
“Mae?” a soft voice whispered, gently calling me into the world of reality.
Delilah? Why can I hear Delilah? I quickly scanned my surroundings: gray cement walls, wooden floor, a large wooden cross on the north side of the room. And a large hand-painted picture of someone… Prophet David!
No… no… no… please take me back to my dream. Styx. Styx, Styx…
Shaking, I jumped from the narrow bed, trying to run, walk, crawl—I did not know. My weak legs were unable to support my weight and I fell to the floor. Tears welled up as realization hit.
The commune; I was back in the commune.
Not the compound. No more Styx.
Abducted against my will and returned to Hell.
“Mae?” I lifted my head in response.
Lilah and Maddie stood before me. Their wary eyes watched me closely; each wore the same worried expression. They were clothed in the commune’s standard long gray dress and their hair was held back with white cloth—modest and conservative.
I held out my arms and the two of them launched into my embrace. “My sisters…” I whispered, tears now streaming down my cheeks. “I have missed you so much.” It felt so good to hold them again. The intensity of our bond hitting me as I clutched them in my arms.
They held me close and I could hear their sniffles and soft cries. After long minutes, they pulled back.
Lilah brushed the matted hair from my face. “Are you well, Mae?” she asked softly, then continued. “You have been unconscious for many hours. We have been caring for you.”
Drawing in a deep breath, I tested my muscles and stretched out my aching limbs. I was weak, my arm throbbed but I concluded I was well. When I looked down, I froze. Me, back in the sisters’ traditional gray attire, a large poorly shaped floor- length dress. Rolling up my sleeves, I spotted a red mark and I racked my brain to remember where it had come from.
My mind was still foggy, but as I fought the haze, scattered memories began to surface. Singing to Styx… making love to Styx… then men in balaclavas storming the room… and Rider… NO! I jerked and my eyes snapped open, staring straight at my sisters.
“Rider! Where is Rider? Did he bring me back? Is he here in the commune?”
Maddie and Lilah looked to one another in surprise. Lilah took hold of my hand. “Mae, who is Rider? You are not making sense.”
I gripped her fingers tightly. “Rider… he…” I swallowed back bile as I remembered him embracing Gabriel and the elders. Brother Cain, long time no see!
“Mae,” Maddie whispered. “You are frightening me, sister. Who is Rider? Where have you been all this time?”
I shook my head and blurted, “Brother Cain! Rider is Brother Cain.” I could tell by their sudden stillness that he was here, here right now.
“Mae. Brother Cain brought you here, with the elders, earlier this afternoon. The commune is holding a dinner for him as we speak. Everyone is so joyful. He returned you to Prophet David. Brother Cain is our savior. We were banned from attending. We have been shunned and kept in isolation since you left.”
Maddie took my other hand. The gesture surprised me. Maddie was never affectionate; she was always alone, preferring her own company to that of others. She was never that close to Bella and me.
Obviously something within her had changed.
Her bright-green eyes would not leave mine. As I looked more closely, I noticed she had lost weight since my escape. Her long black hair was limper, her skin paler. As I brought her hand to my lips and pressed a kiss to the back, a single tear rolled slowly down her cheek.
“I have missed you, sister,” I hushed out quietly.
“You left me,” she said almost inaudibly.
My heart plummeted. I had left her alone. She had just lost Bella and then I abandoned her too. She was only twenty-one, the most timid of us all. And I, her only family, had abandoned my Maddie here, in commune, with Brother Moses, the cruelest of all the elders.
“I am so sorry. So sorry…” I pulled Maddie to me. “I will never leave you again. I promise. I was so selfish.”
“Can you promise me that too?” I glanced to the side at Lilah. She was kneeling, watching us with huge blue eyes. With Maddie refusing to untie herself from my neck, I managed to inch closer to Lilah and she embraced the both of us.
I restated my promise to Lilah and Maddie. “I will never leave either of you, ever again. You have my word.”
“Oh, Mae, it was so bad when you left. The people thought God was punishing us. They were frantic. And the elders…” Lilah paused, and I felt Maddie stiffen and whimper into my hair. I stroked her head and rocked her in my arms. Lilah sat back, watching Maddie with sympathetic eyes.
“What about the elders?” I asked through gritted teeth.