Aftermath

“Is David with you?” Sarah asked Julia through the portal.

“Did Rebecca just . . .”

“Yes. Is David there?”

“No, but . . .”

“Get him and send him here. I don’t know what sort of hell is about to break loose, but I want some firepower nearby just in case.”

“Why don’t you just get out of there?”

“I doubt Bailey would leave. And I want to figure out what just happened.”

“I’ll get him. Just . . . be careful.”

Julia’s tone of voice drove home how precarious everything was. She had been so standoffish as recently as a few months ago. Now she sounded genuinely worried about others.

Both Bailey and Marie were kneeling on the floor on either side of Rebecca’s body. The knife was still in her chest, and the two of them were trying to stop the bleeding. Sarah could tell that it was pointless: the bleeding had already slowed to a trickle. Rebecca’s heart was no longer beating. Leaving Bailey and Marie to their grief, Sarah’s mind turned to the question of why Rebecca killed herself.

David stepped through the portal and took in the scene. “What the . . .”

“David, I need you to be ready to defend us.” Sarah spoke calmly in the hope of keeping him calm.

He nodded while continuing to stare at Rebecca’s body. As he knelt down near Bailey, Sarah at first thought he was sharing in the grief, but then she noticed him picking up something off the floor. Before she could ask him about it, the door opened, and a man she didn’t recognize walked in.

“Mistress? What is going on?”

Marie turned around. “Phillip! We need your help. You have to heal her.”

“The Elder is dead?”

“No! You can save her! Please!” Marie’s voice cracked repeatedly with desperation.

“The Elder is dead. Finally.”

“Phillip!”

“I’m sorry, Marie. I have lived under his boot for too long.”

“Her! This is Rebecca!”

Phillip grabbed Marie’s shoulders. “Marie, listen. It hasn’t been Rebecca for months. The Elder took her over. You know this. She’s free, and he’s gone. I’m not going to lift a finger to bring him back. I am sorry about Rebecca, but this is better for everyone.”

Despite Marie’s pleading, Phillip turned and left. When she looked back, Bailey was right there.

“Is that it? Do you have anyone else who can help?”

Marie shook her head. “Phillip is our only healer.”

“Then you have to release me.”

Marie’s confusion was obvious. “What do you mean?”

“Release me!” Bailey was getting angrier.

“But it was the Elder. I can’t do anything.”

“Bullshit. It was your magic the Elder used. You can release me.”

“I don’t know how.”

Sarah watched the two going back and forth. The source of the charm Bailey was under had become clear.

“You have to do it. If you want to save Rebecca, you need to free me. If you can’t, Rebecca is gone for good.” Bailey glared at Marie, who averted her eyes and shifted nervously.

The Way Out

It had required a great deal of patience to put things together. Rebecca spent weeks studying the Elder’s habits, making sure to identify places he ignored. It took even more time to gather the materials she needed. Never knowing when her chance might come added to her anxiety. What if it came and she wasn’t ready? Still, however much she wanted to rush, that could lead to disaster. Every day brought new opportunities for her to be found out. She had to trust that there would be more than one chance to carry out her plan.

When things were finally ready, a new set of worries arose. How long would she have to wait? Would the Elder – or even Marie – discover her preparations?

Marie. Rebecca tried not to think about her oldest friend. They had shared so much together. Since her return, she and Marie never got even a moment alone; the Elder was always present. Did Marie still care about her? Or did the other woman hate her for leaving? Was she loyal to the Elder because she still believed in him? Or was it fear that kept her by his side? Rebecca could think of no way to get honest answers to those questions, so she tried to put them out of her mind.

After almost a week of waiting, Rebecca decided to take a chance while the Elder was sleeping. Once she was certain he was asleep, she carefully got out of bed and made her way to the desk. The drawer in which she had hidden the necessary items was cluttered with papers and other miscellaneous objects the Elder almost never used. Before she could open it, there was a knock at the door. She froze, unable to decide whether to rush back under the covers or not. The sudden movement might wake the Elder, so she stayed where she was.

Rather than another knock, the door creaked open, revealing Marie in the light of the hallway. The two locked eyes for a moment. Rebecca wanted to believe she saw recognition in Marie’s stare, but she wasn’t certain. Marie looked down and closed the door quietly.

Shaken by the brief encounter, Rebecca lost her resolve and crawled back into bed. Did Marie know? Would she say anything? Why had she come in the first place?

The next day, Marie told the Elder about some issue that had arisen. Rather than disturb him, she took care of it herself. The Elder was displeased and demanded to be informed next time. For whatever reason, Marie said nothing else.

Days went by, each one leaving Rebecca uncertain when, or even if, she should try again. She stayed hidden as much as possible during this time. It made it harder to learn what was happening around her, but it also kept her secrets safer.

Concern emanating from the Elder brought her out of hiding. He was using anger to mask nervousness. First was a message that Sarah was back, and he told the guard to turn her away. Then word came word that fires had started in several buildings. At that, the Elder decided to retreat to his room, leaving Marie to prevent anyone from coming into the house. Whatever Sarah might have had planned, with the Elder distracted, this might be an ideal opportunity.

When she heard Sarah calling for her, she gave the Elder a nudge, planting the idea that he could end the threat by confronting the intruding mage. The Elder took the bait and stepped into the hall. Sarah slapped a blue crystal into his hand, and Rebecca felt . . . something. Had the Elder’s control eased a bit or was that just more wishful thinking on her part?

She managed to keep him absent-mindedly playing with the crystal, hoping that it would have an effect, but there was no noticeable change. The Elder seemed more suggestible, but he was still in charge of her body. Rebecca heard him speculate that the crystal was an attempt to break various forms of mind control, but if so, she already knew it would fail. She was possessed, not charmed.

Eventually, she gave up and dropped the crystal. Turning her attention back to the interaction with Sarah, Rebecca could tell the conversation was nearing its end. Sarah sounded as though she had been defeated, so it was no surprise when one of Julia’s portals opened.

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the Elder to take even one step toward the portal. When Bailey came through it, however, he seemed to panic. He clearly thought it was impossible for them to come to the compound with the charm they were under.

The Elder’s shock gave Rebecca the opportunity she needed. She asserted control, walked to the desk, and pulled out the knife and the bottle she had prepared. Acting quickly so as to keep the Elder off-balance, she drove the knife into her chest and opened the bottle.

Screams were the last thing she heard as she slipped away.

To End A War

Sarah studied Rebecca, looking for some indication that her friend was free of whatever influence had had a hold of her. However, there was no change in her demeanor. She was turning the crystal over in her hand and examining it with mild interest.

“What is this supposed to do?”

Sarah wanted to ask Julia if it might still work, but that would give away her escape route.

“I am sorry, Elder,” Marie said from behind her. “She got past me.”

With a wave, Rebecca dismissed the apology. “Is this crystal is supposed to ‘free’ me from whatever control you think I’m under? I assume that’s why you’re here; you believe I’m not really me.”

“I . . .”

“And you, or someone with you, started the fires?”

Deciding that anything she might say could worsen the situation, Sarah remained silent.

“Let’s talk, just you and I. Marie, wait outside my door in case I need you.”

Rebecca turned and led Sarah into the room from which she had recently come. Once inside, she closed the door. Nothing about the room suggested it belonged to Rebecca. It was sparsely furnished, and there were no personal belongings.

“You know, I think I was rather forgiving after the last time, when David destroyed one of our buildings. Now you return, bringing even more destruction. What was your intention? Kidnap me? Take me away from my family? Don’t you have better things to do?”

“Rebecca, you have not been acting like yourself. And whatever was done to Bailey – by Marie or someone else here – has not worn off. I can’t believe you would just abandon a friend.”

“No. I would never abandon my family. That’s why I am here. And why I will stay here. Bailey – and you for that matter – are not my family and thus not my concern.”

This was definitely not the Rebecca Sarah knew. Rebecca’s words confirmed that. She still had the blue crystal, which had worked on Bailey, so why did it seem to have no effect now?

“Now what can I do to keep you from ever returning? Perhaps it was a mistake to let David go last time. Maybe I should take a hostage to keep you out? Would that work, Sarah?”

“You want a prisoner?”

“Do you expect to walk out of here without paying a price?”

Staring into Rebecca’s eyes, Sarah looked for some sign that her friend was still in there. How long should she wait before giving up? This verbal sparring match could only delay things for so long. Julia could pull her and David out, but at what cost? Was starting a war the only thing she had accomplished?

“Is there anything of Rebecca left?”

The slight smile that twisted Rebecca’s lips crushed the last shred of hope Sarah still harbored. “I don’t know what you mean. It’s me, Sarah. I just can’t have you continue to break in here and disrupt my family.”

Sarah ignored her. “It’s over.”

At that signal, Julia expanded the portal at Sarah’s side so that Sarah could step through. Before Julia could close it, however, Bailey, who had been observing alongside Julia, rushed through the still open portal.

“Rebecca!”

“Bailey?” There was genuine surprise in Rebecca’s voice. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Sarah thought she heard a hint of her friend. At the very least, Bailey needed some protection, so she stepped back through the portal. Grabbing Bailey’s arm to keep them from rushing forward, Sarah watched Rebecca walk over to the desk and open a drawer, from which she retrieved a knife. Before anyone could react, she plunged it into her own chest.

“No!” Bailey and Marie – who had opened the door – screamed in unison. As Rebecca fell to the floor, both of them rushed to her side.

One Chance

Pulling up to the gate of the compound involved a heavy dose of both anxiety and deja vu. Sarah had decided trying a straight-forward approach was most likely to succeed. However, walking into this place once more was not without risk. Rebecca needed help, though, and she wasn’t going to abandon her.

The guard approached her window.

“I’m here to see Rebecca.”

“The Elder is not receiving visitors.” His voice was wooden and his face was expressionless. Sarah wondered if everyone here was under a charm.

“It’s important that I speak with her.”

“Important to you, perhaps. Not to the Elder.”

The guard turned around and walked back to his post.

“Plan B?” Julia’s voice came from a small portal next to her.

“I really don’t like that idea.”

“Do you have another one?”

“You can’t open a portal inside the area?”

“I have tried, but I don’t know the area well enough. I can only open this one because of your badge.”

“Okay, fine. You’re right; I don’t have any other ideas. Is David ready?”

“Yes. Get ready to move.”

Sarah turned the car around and drove away, stopping down the road and out of sight. It was only a few minutes – but it seemed like hours – before Julia signaled her.

“It’s lit. You should be clear.”

The problem with this plan, Sarah knew, was that it was a must succeed situation. After this, she would not be able to come back. If they didn’t get Rebecca now, she might be lost forever.

She drove back to the gate. The guard was indeed gone, but the gate was still closed and locked. Sarah left the car and began jogging up to the compound. As she got closer, she could hear the chaos of many people trying to put out several fires. She spent a moment hoping that no one was trapped.

Inside the main house was very quiet. Sarah began to worry that Rebecca might have left to help with the fires.

“How did you get inside?”

Sarah turned around to find Marie glaring at her from the bottom of a stairwell.

“I came to see Rebecca.”

“You aren’t supposed to be here.”

“I’m not going to argue with you, Marie. I will see my friend.” Perhaps Marie had orchestrated this situation, but she wasn’t the reason Sarah was here.

“You’re behind the fires, aren’t you?”

“Where is Rebecca?”

“You need to leave.”

Sarah pushed past the shorter woman and climbed the stairs.

“Rebecca? Where are you?”

Having followed her up, Marie grabbed her left wrist. “Leave.” The strength in her grip surprised Sarah.

“Rebecca!”

Marie began to drag her back to the stairs when a door opened. Rebecca appeared.

“Sarah? What is going on?”

Immediately, Marie let go of her, and Sarah quickly closed the distance to Rebecca. “I wanted to give you this.” Pulling out the blue crystal Julia had given her, she pressed it into Rebecca’s hand.

“What is this?”

“Rebecca? Do you feel any different?” Julia had said the effect should be almost immediate.

“Why? What is this? Marie, why is she here?”

Nothing. There was no change in Rebecca’s demeanor.

Discovery

Curled up in the only private corner of her own mind, Rebecca could not stop thinking about Jason’s visit. She knew he meant well, but death had not improved his grasp on reality. Maybe that was unfair; how could anyone truly understand what was happening to her? Nonetheless, his failure to appreciate her circumstances still upset her.

Each day brought new violations. All she could do is watch as her body obeyed the commands of another. Her only option was to escape, to retreat further into herself. Yet every time she did so, it felt as though she might never come back.

Maybe that would be for the best. If she was gone, she could no longer be violated. After all, there was nothing left for her here. Her sense of responsibility – to Marie and others – stopped her from disappearing for good. But for how much longer? It was not as though she could do anyone any good in this condition.

They were laying in bed, the Elder having fallen asleep. A draft kept brushing up against her neck, so she shifted so that the covers would block it. It took a moment before she realized what had just happened. Without someone to fight her, she had control over her body.

Slowly, she sat up. The Elder remained unconscious. How had she not known about this earlier? Too much time spent withdrawing, perhaps. She began to test how much freedom she had. Every move she made, she checked to make sure her possessor remained unaware. She got out of bed and walked around the room. Every motion cause her excitement to grow, along with the worry that she would be discovered. She returned to the sheets and waited for the Elder to wake back up.

As soon as he did, he reasserted control without even noticing her. Another day of violation began. Still, she had discovered a small measure of freedom, the tiniest of openings. Now she needed to decide what to do with this opportunity. For now, though, she retreated once more.

Social Call

“How are you doing?”

Since there was no one else in the room, the voice startled Rebecca. The Elder was sitting at a desk, studying some papers. He didn’t react at all, which suggested he hadn’t heard anything. She was certain she hadn’t imagined it, though.

“Don’t worry. I don’t think he can hear me.”

Hearing the voice again, Rebecca realized she recognized it.

“Jason?!”

“Indeed.”

“Are you alive? Or . . .”

“Or. Definitely or. I’ve been trying to stay out of everyone’s affairs, but . . . Well, I just wanted to check on you.”

Speaking with a friend, getting a chance to share her predicament with someone else, it was all so much. Emotion began welling up, and she worried the Elder would notice. So she made a concerted effort to stuff it all back down.

“I’m possessed by someone I used to worship, and as a result, my life is no longer my own. So I’m not doing very well.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. It was a dumb question.”

“Is this just a social call? Or can you help me get out of this situation?”

“I’m dead, so I’m afraid there’s not much I can do. It’s taking a lot of effort just to communicate with you.”

“Oh.”

“I do want to remind you, though, that spirits are your specialty. That’s why you can hear me and your captor cannot. He’s just another spirit. You’ve been running too long.”

“You don’t know what it feels like.”

“You’re right; I don’t know. You are being violated in a way I can’t even imagine. You shouldn’t have to fight this battle. Still, I know you’re strong. Don’t let him win. If you decide to fight, call out for me. If I can do anything to help, I will. I can also tell you that your friends haven’t forgotten you.”

“Thanks, Jason. Right now, it’s all I can do to keep this small piece of me from him. Everything is so overwhelming.”

Jason must have already left because there was no response. Once more, Rebecca was all alone. At least the Elder was still focused on his papers. Having Jason to talk with was a welcome relief, but now that he was gone, the loneliness and horror came flooding back in stronger than before. To avoid the despair, Rebecca shut herself off from everything and wrapped herself in unconsciousness.

Lesson Learned

“What is this?”

Thomas looked up from the notes he had been studying. Though he had learning from his mentor for six years – since he turned nine – the man still intimidated him. He was fair and treated Thomas well, but he was also reserved and demanded discipline. Upsetting him always caused Thomas a little anxiety. The paper he was holding was one Thomas had left on his desk.

“It is a summary of my progress yesterday, sir.”

“There is a prediction here. A visitor is coming.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thomas, I have told you once already. I do not like having to repeat myself.”

“Sir?”

A scowl flashed across his mentor’s face. It vanished quickly as the man refused to let any negative emotions show. Instead, he calmly asked, “What have I told you about scrying?”

“But I was only looking at the front door,” Thomas protested. “I wasn’t exploring any person’s future.”

“What have I told you?” His mentor asked again; that was never a good sign.

His defiance melted away, and he averted his gaze downwards. “Scrying is forbidden.”

“Good. Why?”

“Knowing the future can change it. The more that know, the higher the chance of deviation.”

“Good.”

Thomas continued to look down until his mentor took his chin and drew Thomas’s gaze towards his own.

“Dreams are inevitable, especially a gift such as yours. But we ought not go looking for such knowledge. And when we do have it, we must keep it to ourselves. Tell me you understand.”

“I understand, sir. I am sorry.”

“Do not apologize. Just learn from your errors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are right, though. We are expecting visitors today. I am surprised you saw only one. An old friend of mine is bringing his student to meet us. It will be a good chance for you to interact with one of your peers.”

Thomas had met few other people since his training had begun. “Are they time mages as well?”

“No. My friend works primarily in mana. His student also studies chaos magic, I am told. It will be good for you to learn a little something about other domains. However, that is later. For now, I want to see how your experiments with slowing and accelerating plant growth are proceeding.”

“Yes, sir.” Thomas led him over to a table with three different planters.

Careful What You Wish For

“I’m bored,” Jason said aloud to no one in particular.

Thomas, who was also in the common room, replied without looking up from his book. “Don’t you have research to work on?”

“Don’t feel like it right now.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Honestly, I have no idea how you even became a mage.”

The house belonged to Thomas’s mentor. Jason’s teacher had sent him here to further his education. Since his arrival, however, Thomas hadn’t seen him study even once. In fact, Thomas wasn’t certain he had ever seen the other mage use magic.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Jason said with a shrug.

“Luck has nothing to do with magic.”

“Maybe not with yours. Chaos magic is intimately entwined with luck. Fascinating realm. Not much to study, really.”

“Don’t you also work in mana?”

“I guess. Not my focus though. My teacher insisted on it, and it is useful for powering other spells. But chaos is where the real fun is.”

“Show me.”

“What?”

Thomas put his book down on the small table next to his chair. “Show me. I want see some of your chaos magic.”

Jason began to look a little apprehensive. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You must know a little something about it.”

“I do, but I’d like to experience your fun first hand.”

“Well . . .”

Convinced that Jason was mostly talk, Thomas picked his book back up. “Maybe you should go study so you can show me later.”

“Is that book one of a kind?”

“No. Now please let me read in peace.” As he finished speaking, the pages yellowed in front of his eyes. They became brittle before crumbling under his touch.

“What . . .?!”

“Chaos magic. It can rapidly age items. It can also preserve them, but that’s harder.”

“I was reading that!”

“You said it wasn’t one of a kind. Get another copy.”

“It’s still rare and not easy to get a hold of.”

“Oh. Then I’m sorry. But you did ask for a demonstration.”

Looking down at the bits of paper on his lap, Thomas said, “Put it back together. Right now.”

“I told you, that’s harder. I’m not sure I could manage it, especially without being familiar with its contents.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I told you it was fascinating.”

“Don’t talk to me.”

Jason opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it and said nothing.

A Friendly Game of Cards

*This story take place prior to Thomas forming his house.*

The room was dimly lit, with most of the light coming from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it was a table with four people sitting around it, cards and poker chips strewn about.

One man flipped over the cards in front of him.

“Four Jacks.”

As he spoke, he began to reach for the pile of chips in the center of the table. Before he could sweep them towards himself, he was interrupted.

“Four Kings.”

Jason flipped over his cards and revealed the kings. He reached for the pot, but the other man grabbed his hand.

“You’re cheatin’.”

Jason pulled himself free.

“No, I’m not.”

“You are. I know you are because I’ve been cheatin’, and you’re still winnin’.”

The other players appeared unfazed by the man’s admission and continued to focus their scowls at Jason.

“You know what happens to cheaters?” He pulled a gun from under the table.

“Are you going to shoot yourself?”

“No.” He took aim at Jason, but seemed to freeze in place.

“There you are.”

Jason turned around to see Thomas standing in the doorway. Sounds from the gaming room could be heard behind him.

“You froze just them?”

“No need to get the whole building, if the threat is only in this room. Why are you here?”

“Look at all the money I’ve won.”

Excitedly, Jason pointed to the large pile of chips in front him. It was much larger than anyone else’s on the table.

“Why?” If Thomas was trying to keep exasperation from his voice, he failed.

“It’s fun.”

“But you don’t need the money.”

“Doesn’t make it any less fun. Why are you here?”

“To save your ass. Again.”

“I don’t need saving.”

“He was about to shoot you.”

Jason waved away Thomas’s concern. “The gun would have jammed or something. It always does.”

“One day, your luck is going to run out.”

“Probably not.”

“Hmph. Let’s go. He wants to see you.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? Your teacher. He’s the one who sent me after you.”

“I have to cash out first.”

“Leave it. If you’re lucky, it will be enough to keep them from coming after you.”

“I’m always lucky.”

“Yeah, yeah.” 

The Suits Come to Take Me Away

Even though he knew it was coming, the knock on the door startled James. Through the peephole, he saw two men wearing dark suits. Without taking the chain off the door, he cracked it open.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Steinbeck?”

“Who are you?”

“Are you Mr. Steinbeck?”

“Again, who are you?”

“We want to talk to you about your lottery wins.”

“Why?”

“Can we come in?”

“I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“No one said you did. We just want to talk to you.”

“No.” James slammed the door shut and turned the deadbolt.

They shouldn’t know about the winnings. He had worked very hard to keep the money low enough so that he wouldn’t draw attention. It seemed he had still been too greedy. And the men . . . They had been in his dreams. That was all, he decided; they were only dreams. Of course, the lottery numbers had been dreams, too. That meant the men were here to take him away. If only he hadn’t answered the door, they wouldn’t know he was home.

He wondered if he could go back to sleep and change things. Would they leave him alone long enough to do that?

Another knock at the door ended that hope.

“Mr. Steinbeck. Please open the door.”

There was no back way out of the apartment, but he could try to climb down the fire escape. When he pulled back the curtains, however, another dark suit was waiting for him.

Defeated, he walked back to the door, took off the chain, and opened it wide.

“Mr. Steinbeck, thank you for seeing us.”

“I didn’t have much choice, did I?”

“Perhaps not.” Only one of the men had spoken. The other was wandering around the apartment and looking for something. “But we really do just want to talk.”

“Okay, go ahead.”

“We were curious about your luck with the lottery. How did you pick your numbers?”

James shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

“Mr. Steinbeck… Any relation, by the way?”

“None that I know of. Everyone asks, but no one in my family could write worth a damn.”

“Mr. Steinbeck, you cannot really expect to believe it was all just luck.”

“It’s the truth. Believe it or not, that’s up to you.”

“Your wins are too consistent, and you never win more than a couple thousand dollars, as if you are intentionally trying to stay unnoticed. We simply want to know how.”

If they found out about his dreams, James knew that they would never let him go. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You must have some way of predicting the results. This could be a very useful talent for our organization. We need you to tell us.”

“What is your organization?”

“Maybe later. For now, answer my question.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

A nod from the man who had been speaking caused the other suit to grab James from behind.

“If you won’t talk to us here, you will have to come with us. We need to know what you can do and how.”

“I can’t do anything!”

The suit ignored him as he was dragged from his apartment and disappeared into a unmarked black van.