A Death in the Family (part 1)

“So do you know what Thomas is up to?” Rebecca watched Sarah closely for any reaction, but the other woman was unfazed by the question.

They were sitting in Rebecca’s room, drinking tea. Rebecca genuinely liked Sarah, but she was still cautious around her, the result of living on her own for too long. In that respect, she knew that she and Julia were alike. But Julia was even more closed off, and the two had rarely spoken to one another.

“Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think he is up to anything?”

“Just some questions he’s asked me.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Before Rebecca could find a noncommittal response, yelling could be heard in the hell outside her door. Both women leapt to their feet and rushed out into the hallway. Julia was standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the floor above.

“. . . should never have come here! I can’t believe I ever considered trusting you!”

“Julia. Please listen to me . . . ” Thomas’s voice came from up the steps though he was still out of sight.

“No! I’m done listening to you!” Julia spun around and walked over to Sarah and Rebecca. “Did you know about this?” She pushed a piece of paper into Sarah’s hands. On it was a short list, and Rebecca could see one item in particular: “Julia has not died.”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

“I found it in Thomas’s room.” Julia’s voice was angry, yet fear permeated it as well. “You don’t know anything about it?”

“I swear, Julia, I don’t.”

Rebecca nodded her agreement with Sarah’s denial.

“Then I recommend you get out of here before you wind up on one of his lists.”

Thomas appeared at the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. As soon as she saw him, Julia stormed away. She crashed into David, who was just coming out of his own room, and knocked him down. Without stopping, she headed down to the main floor. The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.

Sarah held up the piece of paper in front of Thomas, who had joined them outside of Rebecca’s room. “What is this, Thomas?”

“It’s personal. She took it from my room, a violation of the rules.” As always, his voice was subdued and betrayed little emotion.

“Perhaps, but you admit it’s yours, and it does seem troubling. Convince me it’s not.”

“Could we discuss this privately?”

David had gotten up and joined Rebecca in watching the exchange between the two senior mages.

Sarah shook her head. “They will have questions, too. Unless you want to let suspicion fester, best we talk in front of them.”

“Very well,” Thomas sighed. “Looking around the timeline, I find it useful to leave myself notes so I don’t lose track of when I am, of what is future and what is past. No one is supposed to see them.”

“And this is one such list? Julia found it?”

“Yes. I have safeguard in place to keep everyone out, but her talents with space are greater than my own. Obviously.”

“So you know she’s going to die int he future?”

“No. The future isn’t fixed. But it might happen.”

“When?”

“It’s not clear. Soon, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Or at least tell her?”

“I… She… I don’t have any specifics. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And you know she doesn’t like others interfering with her life. I was trying to find a way to help her without upsetting her.”

“Well done, then.” Sarah thought a moment. “If she’s in danger, it might mean we all are. You should have…”

“No. No one else is in danger. I checked.”

“You can’t be sure of that. If you want this house to work, you can’t keep these kinds of secrets.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . .”

“You put me in charge of this house. This is my responsibility.” She paused a beat. “Or are you forcing me out?”

Thomas opened his mouth, then closed it again. He went back upstairs without saying anything else.

Sarah turned to the other two mages. “I’m sorry about all of this. I promise to sort it all out. Let’s all take some time to get a little perspective, then meet again later to discuss everything.”

“What about Julia? Shouldn’t we go after her?” David’s concern was obvious.

Sarah shook her head. “She doesn’t want to be bothered when she isn’t upset. I doubt she wants any of us following her now. Better to let her cool off.”

David nodded and headed back to his room.

“We’ll talk later?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Promise.”

Rebecca accepted that and went back through her own door as Sarah walked away.

Several minutes after the hallway emptied, David’s door opened again. He quietly crossed over to the stairs leading down and followed Julia out of the house.

Julia and Jason

It wasn’t the sound of the explosion that drew Julia to the building as much as the odor. Some people talk about the smell of rain. This was the smell of magic, and it attracted her to the collapsed structure like a lamp attracts a moth.

Police were on the scene trying to keep people away from the rubble. Their presence suggested that the small house was unaffiliated; otherwise mages would have kept away prying eyes. She would need to avoid them if she wanted to get a closer look.

Several minutes were spent probing the rubble from afar. She was looking for any empty spaces large enough for her to shift into. From what she could gather using spells, the house had been only a single story with a basement. The explosion had occurred on the ground floor and caused it to collapse. While some debris had fallen into the basement, it was largely still intact. For now. Eventually, the damage would cause it to cave in. She doubted that the authorities could act quickly enough to prevent that from happening, which gave her an opportunity for some scavenging. Opening a portal next to her, she shifted into the basement.

The place was nearly pitch black, and dust choked the air. From her pocket, Julia produced a small marble, which began to glow after she muttered a few words.Then she began to search for anything that might have some value.

In one pile of rubble, she found a couple of books that were probably useless, since they were written in the personal code of the mage to whom they belonged. Still, she put them in her pouch anyway, just in case something might be gleaned from them. Mostly the place was just littered with useless debris. The scent of magic was still strong, but she couldn’t identify the source.

After moving a broken wooden beam, she found a crystal, one that stored magical energy. The crystal itself was valuable, and even more so with charge left in it. With hopes she had found a small cache of the things, she dug through the area looking for more. Instead, under chunks of the house, she found a person.

At first, Julia thought he might be dead, but the rise and fall of his chest indicated shallow breathing. He was unconscious and covered in soot and dust. The magic radiating off of him signaled that he had been in the center of the explosion. It wasn’t clear how badly he’d been injured, but she knew he needed some medical attention.

Every instinct she had screamed at her to leave, and she very nearly did. Yet there was something about him… He seemed so helpless, like a small animal injured on the side of the road. He needed help, and no one else was around to offer it.

It was a fantasy, she knew. She was no hero for anyone. And there was nothing special about him. Probably, just another mage whose ego had led to his own destruction. Perhaps he had even done horrible things. Who knew how many people his own self-importance had hurt? She needed to leave. Take what she had found, and let the consequences of his own pride finish him off.

Something stopped her, though. A ridiculous hope that not everyone was a lost cause; that she herself wasn’t so heartless. She wasn’t sure she believed either of those things. However, the moment she let herself consider them, she knew she wasn’t going to leave him.

Clearing away as much of the debris as possible, and before she could reconsider her decision, she opened a portal and shifted them both out of the ruined building and into one of the safe rooms she maintained for herself. Once there, she cleaned him off and tended to his injuries, all the while ignoring the voice in her head screaming at her to leave. His obvious helplessness made a demand on her she didn’t understand and couldn’t ignore.

Days later, when he regained consciousness, she still didn’t understand her own behavior.

He smiled weakly at her, his eyes barely open. “Who are you?”

She ignored the question and went about the tasks she had set for herself.

He tried again. “I”m Jason. I assume I have you to thank for being alive, so thank you.”

“Julia,” she replied. “Don’t think it’s going to be a habit.”

His laugh hurt her as much as it seemed to hurt him. “I hope not. I don’t plan on doing that again.”

That last must have sapped what little energy he had recovered as he slipped unconscious again. For a long time, she stared at this odd mage who seemed completely unconcerned that a stranger had complete control over his well-being. The exchange only served to magnify her confusion.

Coffee Break

Sarah sat sipping tea at the coffee shop. The other mages rarely left the house for mundane reasons, but she found it relaxing to escape now and then. Taking care of the house and keeping up with her own research didn’t leave a lot of time for much else. Ever since Thomas had approached her with the idea of setting up a house, and then asking her to run the operations, this had become her life. She didn’t mind too much, but she jealously guarded the times she could get away.

“There is so much magic coming off you, I’m surprised you haven’t attracted every mage within five miles.”

Sarah looked up to see a familiar face standing next to the table. It was a tall woman in a long, grey coat. Her hair was cut short, and she wore dark glasses, but Sarah would have recognized her no matter what. She and Madeline had studied under the same teacher, though Madeline was a bit younger.

“I’m not giving off any aura; the disguise is passive. Even you shouldn’t be able to recognize me.”

Without waiting for an invitation, Madeline sat down across from her. “You know better than that. Finding things is what I do.”

Sarah ignored the smile on Madeline’s face. “So you were looking for me?”

“Oh, no. I just noticed you as I was walking by. There was a large blank space that drew my curiosity. And here you are.”

“So just coincidence.”

“Believe me or not. I just wanted to say hi.” Madeline began to pout.

It was almost certainly a ploy, but Sarah softened in spite of herself. “I’m sorry. Just a bit on guard. Always expecting people to want something.” Maybe Julia was rubbing off on her.

“Is that place running you down so much? You should really come join my house. We hire people to manage things.”

“That’s kind of you to offer, Madeline, but I have no plans to leave. We have magical servants to handle the menial stuff. I just oversee things. Thomas’s offer to you is still open, though.”

Madeline laughed. “Thomas never wanted me in that house. It was really just to humor you.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is. I can tell. I don’t know why you stay. You are respected enough that any house would take you. Or you could even start your own. Why put up with Thomas?”

“I helped establish this house. Doesn’t feel right to leave.”

“Your friend Matthew left.”

“That was a different situation.”

“Have you spoken with the Mistress lately? She’s asked after you.”

“No, I haven’t. I take it you have. How is she?”

“She’s fine. Worried that you haven’t given up on Thomas, yet.”

“No, she isn’t. Besides, I’m not staying because of Thomas. I have my own purposes.”

Madeline studied her for a moment. “You’re still an odd one.”

“No reason to change.”

“I suppose not. Still, if you ever find such a reason, I’m willing to lend a hand.”

“That’s… thoughtful of you.”

“You sure I can’t persuade you to join my house? We really could use your skills.”

“Could I convince you to join mine?”

“Not a chance. I couldn’t stand Thomas.”

“There you go. We’ve each found our place. Still, I appreciate your offer.”

“Alright. I’ll tell the Mistress you are well?”

“Yes, Madeline. Thank you.”

“Sure. Take care of yourself.”

“You, too.”

Winter Thoughts

It’s almost winter again. The stillness. The quiet. The cold. It is a time for introspection, a chance to review the year. Winter is an end, not merely a waypoint on the path to spring.

Some do not like the cold and the dark that dominate the season, yet it is part of the year, just as death is part of life. Winter serves as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the world around us. It is a different kind of wonder that permeates the long night, and it should not be quickly dismissed.

Winter reminds us to turn inward, to pay attention to who and what is with us right now. The rest of the year we can spend outside, engaging the external world. For right now, we have time for ourselves and our ghosts.

Life has death. Day has night. Waking has sleep. And the year has winter. It is a holy time, a sacred time. It is the rest at the end of work. It is necessary for recuperating. We rush through it to our own detriment.

The snow blankets us with warmth. The stars and moon give us light. The wind carries secrets. If only we are willing to feel, to see, to hear. Winter is there, waiting for each of us. We may try to run from it, but we cannot run forever. And when we stop, she will be there, her arms wide, ready to welcome us to the quiet beauty she has prepared.

“for I do not know

if the ending will end,

or even if

I want it to”

Hair Sample

There was a light tapping on the door. It was so quiet, David almost didn’t hear it, and when he opened the door, there was no one there. As soon as he closed the door, the tapping returned. This time, something caught his attention in his peripheral vision, and he looked down.

A light brown teddy bear, not even a foot tall, stood on the floor looking up at him. As soon as it was certain David had seen it, it began running down the hallway.

“What the hell?” He was tempted to follow the stuffed animal but decided it was probably a prank from one of the other house members. He closed the door and headed back to his research. Almost immediately, the tapping was back once more.

Sure enough, the teddy bear stood there. This time, it waited for him to step into the hallway before running. It moved surprisingly fast for its size, and he had to jog to keep up. After rounding a corner, it stopped outside another door and looked at him.

This wasn’t Sarah’s room, and he hadn’t met anyone else yet, so David hesitated. The bear, however, appeared to grow impatient and knocked on the door itself. A moment later, a woman opened the door. She looked at the bear first.

“Is this him?”

The bear nodded before walking into the room and vanishing from sight.

“David. Nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca. Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter.

A little perplexed, David nodded and stepped inside. The room before him was circular. A round table was pushed against the wall, and a couple of couches faced each other in the center of the area. Two doors led elsewhere, though both were closed. This place had an entirely different layout from his rooms, and it looked as though it wasn’t even in the same building.

“Have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”

The question forced his attention back to her. “Uh… I’m sorry. It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t know what this is about.”

She smiled. “Oh. I just wanted to introduce myself and get to know you a little. Thomas suggested everyone do so, and I just hadn’t had a free moment until now. You weren’t busy, were you? I didn’t mean to drag you away from your work, if this is a bad time.”

“No, it’s fine.” He waved away her concern. “I was just taken aback by your… bear.”

“Yeah. It’s my assistant, after a fashion. Not a usual sight, I suppose. I really need to give it a name.”

“Your assistant is a teddy bear?”

“Haha. It’s a spirit. I put it in the bear. Useful, if a little unpredictable. Nothing malicious about it, though. I used the bear thinking it would be less unsettling.”

“Hmmm.” David was unsure it had achieved the desired effect.

“So… how do you know Thomas,” she asked.

“I don’t. Not really. He knew my… instructor. Asked if I would join the house once my training was finished. Seemed like a good opportunity, so here I am. Not really sure what to make of it, or what’s expected of me. But it’s nice having my own lab.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes it is. Honestly, since I’ve been here, no one’s really asked much of anything from me, either. I feel a bit like a freeloader, actually. Jason supplies us all with crystals. Sarah and Julia seem to handle security. And Thomas is rarely around. Every time I ask Sarah if there is something I should be doing, she tells me not to worry about it. That Thomas will let me know if I’m needed for something. Mostly, I just pursue my own investigations.”

“She told me something similar. And I still haven’t even met Jason or Julia.”

“You may not meet Julia for awhile. She keeps to herself. You’ll bump into Jason eventually. My advice? Just relax. This is a rather laid back house.”

“I’m getting that… Ow!!!”

It felt as though he had been poked in the head with something sharp like a needle. He spun around to find the teddy bear on the back of the couch. “What the…?!”

Rebecca jumped to her feet and rushed over to shoo the bear away. “Crap! It’s never done that before. Are you okay?”

Rubbing the back of his head, David tried to downplay it. “Yeah. It just startled me. Are you sure that thing isn’t evil?”

“Yes. Or… at least I was.” She picked up the bear, opened one of the doors, and threw it inside before slamming the door shut again. “I’m really sorry. If I had any inkling it would do that, I never have let it out.”

“It’s okay. Just… Check it, will you? I’m not fond of demonic entities wandering around. Even if they’re only teddy bears.”

Rebecca tried to stifle a chuckle. “It’s not, but I will make sure. I’m sorry we’ve gotten off on a bad foot.”

“We haven’t. But I think I’ll head back now. Maybe you could stop by sometime. Without that thing.”

“Of course. Again, I’m so sorry.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.”

After David had left, Rebecca opened the door to her lab again, and the bear walked out.

“Real subtle,” she said. “Did you get it, at least?”

The bear held out one arm with two strands of hair wrapped around it.

“Good. Perfect.” She unwrapped the strands. “Now, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay inside for awhile.”

The bear seemed to sigh before walking back into the lab.

Mage Devourer

The creature stirred in its cave. It had no idea why it was now awake; indeed, there was no thought at all. It simply found itself raised from slumber. And hungry. The emptiness in its belly was of utmost concern. Not just any food would do; this sort of hunger could only be sated by a very particular prey.

Its long, slender body uncoiled as it began to search for the scent of what it craved. Though it superficially looked like a serpent, small suckers lined its underside. Any remaining resemblance to a snake was shattered as a dozen thin, spindly legs unfolded from its body, lifting it off the ground.

The creature was a mana worm; the mage who named it had not seen its legs. In legends, it was known as a mage devourer, a designation it had earned many times over. They were forces from the realm of magic, nearly mindless, operating on instinct. A single worm could destroy an entire tower of mages by itself. They were entirely unknown by humans who had no connection to magic. These days, most mages did not even know of them.

The worms had been nearly exterminated after countless mages had lost their lives to them. The few that remained had retreated to forgotten depths to sleep undisturbed. Only a handful of written records of the creatures existed, and all of those were forgotten in private collections. A few people had heard legends, but these were little more than fairy tales. Not many people had heard of them, and no one believed that they still existed, if they ever had.

Yet, this one still existed. Someone had known about it, had even known how to wake it. None of this meant anything to the creature. It knew only its hunger and the scent of a mage that had been left behind. It would feed as soon as it could find that mage.

The Hallway

The lock had been surprisingly easy to pick. The apparent affluence in the neighborhood had led him to expect much tighter security, yet he had the door opened in less than 30 seconds. Now he found himself in a long hallway with wooden floors and light colored walls. In fact, as he looked at it, it seemed too long for the house. Having taken a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder, but he could no longer see the front door. He hadn’t turned any corners, and yet the way he had come in was simply gone.

He walked back to where he was sure the door had been. Now there was just a blank wall, a dead end. Probing it, he could find no secret panel that might be concealing the entrance. The only option he could see was to continue on, so he turned back around and began walking again.

The hallway continued to present him with oddities that he couldn’t explain. Sudden turns appeared when it first looked as though the hallway continued straight ahead. Doors disappeared when he got closer to them. Several minutes passed without coming upon anything of note, and he knew that something was very wrong in this house.

Any thoughts of robbery had evaporated; now his only concern was escape, but there was no obvious way to accomplish that. There were no remarkable features in the hallway, no decorations or adornments. And no other path to take.

After going around one corner, he saw a man walking toward him. He looked for a place to hide, but there were no such places. It turns out he needn’t have bothered; the man, who was talking to himself, walked right past him without even looking up.

Deciding that getting out was more important than staying hidden, he called out. “Hey! Excuse me?”

The man stopped and turned around. “Oh. Who are you?”

“I. . . I am lost. I was hoping you could tell me how to get out of here.”

The man smiled absently. “Sure. Just keep following this hall. It will lead you to the front door.” Without waiting for a response, the man turned and walked right through the wall.

He knew he’d been walking away from the front door since he arrived, so he couldn’t possibly be heading towards it. More confusing was that a person just walked through a solid wall. He knocked on the wall, and there was nothing hollow sounding about it. He had no other choice, so he continued walking. A few more steps, and he found himself in front of a door, one that didn’t vanish. Grateful to finally have found the way out of this endless hallway, he opened the door and stepped through.

Into a dimly lit room. Just a few candles on tables provided any light. A woman with blue hair sat in an armchair and looked at him, or at least in his direction.

“Hello.” He voice was pleasant enough.

“Hi. I was . . .”

“If you’ve found your way to this room, you are likely very confused.”

“Yes, I . . .”

“If you need to speak with a living person, one will be along . . . sometime. For now, allow me to explain your predicament.

“You do not belong in this house. If you did, you would never find your way here. Unless you are Jason, in which case,” her voice took on a resigned tone, “you already know the way out.

“You should know that there was some discussion about what should be done to the random trespasser. At least one of us, the person who designed the hallway, wanted a rather lengthy and gruesome punishment. She was overruled, however, and a compromise was reached. Unfortunately for you, part of the compromise is that I can’t tell you what the punishment is. What I can tell you is that you must keep moving. There is a way out, but only if you keep moving. Good luck.”

The woman winked out of existence, and he stood there staring at the chair she had recently occupied. All of a sudden, he was blinded by lights, and it took him a minute to realize it was just the overhead lights coming on. Looking around, he saw the man who had passed him earlier in the hall.

“Are . . . are you really here?”

The man chuckled. “Yes. Sorry I followed you. Sarah’s little speech is fun to listen to, especially when she mentions me. I just wanted to hear it again. I realized you were headed here, so I just tagged along.”

“Sarah? The woman I just saw?”

“Yep. She’s really quite good at this stuff.”

“Okay… she said I had to keep moving?”

The man gestured across the room. “That door over there. Normally, I’d tell you to run, but you seem like a nice sort. Truthfully, a brisk walk or light jog is sufficient. It moves kind of slow.”

“What does?”

As if that was a cue, growling and scratching could be heard on the other side of the door by which he had entered the room.

“That. You should really go now.” The man just stood there with his absent smile still on his mouth.

He quickly made it to the far door and opened it, finding himself once more in the hallway. Walking quickly, he could hear snarling behind him. Terror overcoming him, he ran for awhile, but he couldn’t keep it up and had to return to walking.

The only real indication of the passing of time was the ache in his legs. When the pain became nearly unbearable, the growling grew louder and he pushed through the agony. Eventually, his legs became numb, and he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been walking.

He never caught sight of the beast behind him, but the sounds of its pursuit were always there. Just as he was about to collapse, he stumbled into another door. Opening it, he found himself outside in the sunlight. Hours must have passed while he had been inside. The fresh air and sun gave him a new burst of energy, and he broke into a run to get as far away from the house as possible.