Sebastian could not move. He could not speak. He could not breathe. It was not alarming, only discomforting.

A dream. But not the wind, nor the gate.

He had the sensation of being pressed uncomfortably close to some surface radiating coldness, like a pane of glass or a mirror. But though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. Whether it was a vast distance of greyness or simply emptiness itself, he could not tell.

The wound on his shoulder began to burn. There was an itch to it, as if the skin that had begun to tighten and heal were unknitting itself. With it, something began to emerge from the nothingness, just on the other side of that cold, invisible surface, unbearably close.

A haze of a face, followed by a body. Gradually, more distinct features bubbled to the surface. The brow emerged and sprouted eyelashes. A nose rose and sunk and split open to carve out a thin-lipped mouth. The eye sockets sunk deep into its face, leaving behind round bulbous eyes that stared lifelessly outwards.

Though he was only inches away, Sebastian recognized it. The old prophet, who had died with Sebastian at his bedside. Sebastian’s breath fogged on the veil between them and the prophet’s inhale pulled it away. His blood dripped from his shoulder and it seeped into the reflection’s skin, growing ruddy and full. Sebastian tried to recoil, but his body hung perfectly still, as if it were not his at all.

Finally, as the discomfort became too much to bear, Sebastian’s body jerked away. Opposite him, the prophet’s reflection did the same, gasping for breath.

They were no longer in nothingness, but in the room where Sebastian had seen the prophet last. Sebastian’s memory of that night was hazy, dreamlike, and it was the same here: cold, dark, and silent save for the crash of thunder.

“Where am I?” said Sebastian. “Why are you here?”

He and the prophet both straightened, crouched from the suddenness of finding themselves on solid ground.

“I could ask the same question. I had expected something to come to me, but not you.”

The man, when he had died, had been riddled with illness both in body and mind. He had been restored, but the sickness and madness had not. His eyes were focused and his words articulate. If Sebastian were to guess, his body seemed ten or twenty years younger.

“You were dead, weren’t you?” Sebastian said.

“Yes, and I still am. But that matters little in the face of the bond tied between the blood that was given and the blood that I paid. However, it was not to you that I intended to tie myself.”

“To who, then?”

“To what,” corrected the Prophet. “To fate, that which writes the words on your back, not you, the vessel that bears it. The blood must be freely given, after all. But I seem to have fallen short, judging by the caliber of your questions. Unless you are more than you seem.”

The prophet peered carefully at him. Sebastian shrank back, unable to shake his reaction of visceral disgust. Though the man appeared alive to him, Sebastian could not shake the memory of his final moments of life. Instinctively, he gripped at the wound on his shoulder.

“I don’t want to be here either. Or tied to anything. Can’t you go back to wherever you came from?”

“Into death? No, I’d rather not, even if the alternative requires such puerile company. Besides, after death, my capacity to act is limited. A living, breathing human is of considerable use to me. Freeman has appointed you as my successor?”

“I didn’t live up to his expectations.”

“A common theme, it seems. Nonetheless, if you do as I say, you can serve as a reasonable substitute.”

Sebastian recoiled. “I don’t want anything to do with you, or Freeman,” he said. “I’m just going to get out of here as soon as I can.”

The prophet smiled humorlessly. “Well, then, your and my interests align. You’ve been touched by destiny--simply fill it, and you will be free from it. But not a moment sooner. Reflect on that, until I call for you again.”

A wind, sudden and harsh, swept through the room. Sebastian threw up his arms to shield his face, but the prophet didn’t seem to notice it. Rather, the wind seemed to tear through the dream-like quality of the room, dissolving its walls and windows. The prophet disappeared along with them.

And Sebastian, shivering, woke up in his bed.

He’d had a dream. Something different this time. But already, fading, gone from his memory.

Sebastian could remember a time when he had dreamed. Normal dreams, nothing more than quickly forgotten diversions between busy days. He’d remember them well enough to occasionally relate one to a friend or sibling or to laze in bed to try to prolong it. But nothing important, just the nonsense produced by a resting mind as it rehashed the previous day in preparation for the next.

But it had been a long time since he’d dreamt like that. Now sleep found him tormented by a recurring struggle, the nature of which eluded him in the day just as persistently as it haunted him at night. He’d awake exhausted, but from what he could not say. Only that it was the same, every night.

Or almost every night. Sebastian stared up at the dark of his ceiling, trying to force his mind to recall exactly what had been different this time. There was nothing left but the vaguest shape of it--him, someone else. But that was enough to know it had been different. Important.

But there was nothing left of it. Only his frustration at yet again being unable to remember. He was tempted to get up, to pace. But there were still many hours left of darkness, and a chance that this new dream might take him again, and he could sleep with some reprieve.

But the prospect did not reassure him, and he again fell asleep chased by dread.

Seeing the dead prophet in his dreams.

"I guess I should say sorry for shooting you."

Erika set the tray of food down on the small table they had allowed him in his cell. It had become a daily habit to visit him after they finished photographing him. Something to look forward to to help him get through the process.

"Don’t forget stepping on me and rolling me over in the mud. And the 'hold your own tourniquet' business."

Erika winced. "Sorry, about that, too."

Sebastian sighed. "Mostly forgiven now. I've been through worse."

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

“Why? At least that had nothing to do with you.”

“I know, I just--nevermind,” she said.

Sebastian stared at her curiously.

“What’s it like, to be an empath? I’d think you’d be good with people--”

“And I’m clearly not?” Erika cut in, giving him a crooked smile. “Maybe if it were you, not me. Mostly it gets in my way.”

“Mercenary is the last thing on my list of occupations for an empath. Why did you choose to be a prison guard of all things?”

“Told you already,” she said guardedly. “It was either this or stay locked up in a cell like you.”

“Sure, but there must have been other options. You know, that don’t involve killing people.”

“Why do you ask? Interested in working for Haven?”

“Maybe if I knew what Haven actually is. So far it seems like a militant organization to fuel a madman’s collection. I’d rather stay in here, no offense.”

“None taken. You’ve met Freeman, then?”

“And the old prophet, before he died.”

Sebastian saw Erika stiffen.

“Did you know him?” he asked.

“I hadn’t realized he was dead,” she said.

“Oh. I’m sorry, then.”

“No need. I’m glad he’s gone.”

Erika didn’t elaborate.

“If you want to know more about the Haven, there’s a gathering tomorrow--You could probably convince your guards to take you. They have to attend as well.”

“What about you? Will you be there?”

She nodded. “But I won’t be happy about it.”

“What sort of gathering is it?”

Erika looked askance.

“You should probably just go see for yourself. Let me know if the guards give you trouble--I can straighten them out.”

“Will I see you tomorrow then?”

“Maybe,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Erika apologizes for her behavior in the field, talks about the cult

Sebastian’s guards were willing to take him with them to the Haven’s gathering, and didn’t question where he had heard of it.

They escorted him from his cell, joining throngs of others clearly headed for the same destination. They had to stop often for Sebastian to catch his breath or to untangle himself from his crutches. Despite Dr. Linden’s best efforts, he had still not yet recovered enough to walk on his own. By the time they arrived at their destination, the halls had begun to clear. The guards brought Sebastian through the double doors and into the room beyond.

The room was large, lit by tall glass windows that stretched nearly from floor to ceiling, but let in only murky light. Between the windows hung tapestries of an equally impressive height, hand quilted, each embroidered with an image of a stalk of corn, heavy with golden ears.

The room, despite its size, was full. More people than Sebastian could have imagined were packed into the room, chatting in small groups. Occasionally, their gazes would turn to the front of the room before returning to their conversations, clearly waiting for something beyond the crowd. Their clothes were plain, but formal. Many were tanned from work in the sun. Others were more like the mercenaries that had taken him from Dambel House. Farmers from the neighboring areas and paramilitary, intermingling without any difficulty. Already Sebastian was struck by the oddness of this, and the gathering had barely begun.

Sebastian’s guards were gone, disappeared somewhere into the crowd. They’d left him cuffed to the doors, leaning on his crutches, wearing a hospital gown no different than the ones assigned to him at Dambel’s hospital. He caught snippets of nearby conversations: town gossip, the unusually nice weather--work, school. His leg ached terribly--the walk over had been too taxing, now even remaining standing seemed beyond his capabilities.

A wave of murmurs, then another of quiet, fell over the crowd. Whatever they had been waiting for at the front of the room seemed to have at last occurred. One of Sebastian’s guards returned to uncuff him. He indicated that he should sit on the ground as those around him began to do the same. Sebastian obliged with some relief, finding himself falling neatly into rows along the worn grooves in the wood, where many others had done the same before.

The crowd settled remarkably quickly, Over their heads Sebastian could now see what had attracted their attention at the front: growing at the center of the room within the walls of the cathedral-like space was a tree, small and stunted from years of only mottled sunlight. Looking closer, Sebastian thought he could see something white entwined with its roots where the floorboards had been pulled back to allow it to grow from the ground beneath them.

There was a man standing beside it, wearing robes the same deep green of the tapestries beside him--Freeman. Quickly, he brought silence to the room.

A line of similarly robed figures walked into the room and moved to stand by Freeman. As they passed, they stopped to touch something at the base of the tree. From the back of the room, Sebastian was unable to tell exactly what--the tree’s roots, the earth it grew from, or the white substance snaking through the grooves of its bark.

Whichever it was, Freeman watched carefully to ensure each member of the line completed this ritual. When the line was finished, he stepped back, and another robed figure stepped forward.

“Thank you for taking the time to join us. Today we have gathered to discuss tragedy, togetherness, and the bonds that tie us all together.” The woman at the front spoke with a well practiced voice, carrying clearly across the room. A sermon, then.

“I see many unfamiliar faces in the crowd today--something that always warms my heart. Whether you’ve come to stay at Haven or are joining friends or family nearby, welcome. We hope this can become a home to you, in body, mind and spirit.

“For a home can be difficult to find, can it not? The outside world is cruel. Strife finds us in many ways--poor health, faltering finances, misfortune at every turn. Try as we might, these misfortunes will always find us--our only choice is to learn to endure them.

“And it is difficult, more than it needs to be. These darker days of life need not prevent us from enjoying what good fortune does come our way, treasuring what time we have with those dearest to us. It seems that, with their love, misfortune should be surmountable. But despite our best intentions, tragedy isolates. Our very need for comfort and support in difficult times prevents us from accepting it. To be in pain, to struggle, sets one aside from those who haven’t--we become envious of their good fortune. Those who do remember what the struggle was like fear to relive it and to remember their own envy. And against the backdrop of life’s thousand small tragedies, and in the towering shadows of its larger ones, what hope do we have of connecting to one another?”

Sebastian found himself uncomfortably drawn in to the speaker’s words. A brief lull in the sermon allowed Sebastian to look around and see others around him were similarly affected. There were few wandering eyes--though some had them closed or directed out the windows, which looked over the green sea of corn stalks, vibrant under the perfect sky. Sebastian’s heart squeezed painfully in his chest--through the grime of the window, the sunlight seemed both tantalizingly close yet unbearably far away.

“But it was not always this way. The hope that each of us carries, for a simpler time, without greed or jealousy--it was real once, briefly. Selfishness, which sets us against one another, is not inherent to humankind’s nature, and long ago we were free of it. Coexistence was easy then, not just with ourselves, but with all creatures bound together under this tree of life. Once there was a time where every hurt we inflicted upon this earth or any creature on it we felt as though it were our own. But our bliss was short lived, and we were torn away from that Great Tree. We feel the ache of that missing limb to this day. It is the pain of this loss that causes us to lash out and hurt our fellow sufferers.

“But do not let knowledge of this great loss anger or sadden you. While others struggle in vain to fill this absence with drugs, status, entertainment, all of us here today know the truth, and can address the problem directly. This is an opportunity, my friends, to move beyond temporary standbys and distraction, and fix the problem at its root.

“There are two ways for us to accomplish this. The first is the responsibility of you and I. Though we may not remember it, the capacity for togetherness is within all of us. Dedicated meditation and study will help us recall it, and one day the practice will be as it once was, free and easy for all. But until then, even mindfulness of this missing part of us can improve the lives of ourselves and those around us. Be kind, treat strangers as if they were your own. Reach out when you feel the urge to turn away. Recognize that we are all imperfect shadows of something greater--all struggling under the same burden. Forgive those who hurt you, forgive yourselves.”

The room broke out into applause and murmurs of appreciation. Sebastian looked around, uncomfortable with how thoroughly his attention had been engaged. His guards beside him spoke quietly to each other, making no motion to leave.

The speaker lifted her hands, silencing the applause and bringing attention back to the front of the room.

“Thank you for the enthusiasm. Before we break, I’d like to allow Master Freeman an opportunity to speak of this second way that we are working to restore what we have lost. If you will, Master Freeman?”

The speaker stepped back into the line of robed figures. Freeman walked to the center of the stage.

After the speaker’s charisma, Freeman’s voice was cold and quiet, almost sinister. The room hushed immediately.

“Much of what my colleague has said today has been born of years of study, study which continues through to today. Your contributions make such efforts possible. As thanks, we will be reopening initiation into the Haven of One Mind in a few months time. Our initiates will have a chance to experience for themselves the oneness that we speak of, and join us directly in the pursuit of this goal for humanity across the world. Thank you.”

Freeman turned away and left the stage without another word. Hurriedly, the speaker came back to the front to give some proper closing remarks. The crowd dispersed soon after, some to the cafeteria for lunch, others back to their homes. Sebastian’s guards brought him back to his cell.

Introductory sermon

“You could have just told me it was a cult.”

“Don’t let your guards hear you saying that,” Erika said mildly.

“You don’t seem to mind,” Sebastian replied.

“Other people will. No one likes to think of themselves as the kind of person who joins a cult.”

Erika had brought over his lunch again. Sebastian had been waiting for her with some anticipation.

“But there were hundreds of them--more than I expected.”

“Not all of them live here,” she said. “Most of them are from the surrounding area. The Haven is more or less a church to them. Come by on Sunday mornings, catch up on gossip, grab lunch.”

“Pay the tithe?”

Erika grinned. “And that. But also to build up good will towards Haven in general. To make it easier to buy food, sell crops, have shootouts in their fields.”

“So then, how many people do live here? The compound’s too big for it to be just the people in robes and a handful of guards.”

“The people in robes are the Emergent. Haven’s leadership. The eight of them have been with Freeman from the start. As for the rest, maybe two hundred live in the compound itself. The rest are from nearby towns.”

“Two hundred?! What do they all do?”

“Cook, clean. There are teachers, doctors, scientists, farmers. Eventually there are enough people you need even more just to keep things running.” She said this with distaste.

“Still, two hundred people packed their bags and left home to join the cult in the middle of a cornfield.” Sebastian leant back against the wall. “I can’t believe it.”

Erika tilted her head, studying Sebastian carefully.

“Here, eat. Before it gets cold.”

Sebastian dragged the tray over and quickly scarfed down the food, long since having mastered the art of forcing down sustenance without regard for its taste. The Haven’s fare was a little better than Dambel’s but not by much.

“You listened to Madison’s sermon, right? What did you think?”

“It was interesting,” Sebastian said airily. “But very abstract. I was surprised the audience was paying as much attention as it was.”

“Including yourself?”

“She was a very talented speaker,” Sebastian said defensively. “She could have been reading a list of statutes and I’d pay attention.”

“That’s beside the point,” said Erika. “There’s no shame in it--it’s something everyone wants to hear: none of your problems are your fault, and they’re all easily solved. This isn’t what they start them with either. The Tree of Life, being one with others, none of that comes in until they’re already here. Combine that with being down on your luck, feeling alone, not being sure what your purpose is in life, it doesn’t take much at all. A kind word, a helping hand, someone who remembers your name.”

Sebastian looked back down to his food and forced himself to eat another bite. Erika watched him intently for a moment before sitting down on the chair across the room, eyes on the wall in front of her.

“What about you, then? Why did you join Haven?”

“It was just the easiest thing, at the time,” she said.

Sebastian might have asked whether it still was, but Erika stood to gather up his finished tray, and was out of the room before it occurred to him at all.

Discussing cults