First Meetings

*This story takes place before Thomas established his own house.*

Before there was anything else, there was pain. The air around him was warm and acrid. At first, Thomas was only aware of the pain in his head, but when he tried to move, he discovered that it was everywhere.

“You’re still alive?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. Thomas opened his eyes but blood flowing from his forehead obscured his vision. Wiping it away with his sleeve, he could make out the man standing over him, but he was a stranger. He was in his lab, but it was almost unrecognizable because of the destruction that had taken place. Trying to cast a spell to stop time nearly caused him to pass out.

“Who are you?” he asked, weakly.

“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be alive long enough for it to matter.”

How did anyone get into his master’s house? And this much destruction should have triggered the failsafes. None of this should be possible. Now this intruder was going to kill him? Everything was too chaotic, Thomas couldn’t make any of it make sense.

Six men appeared, all of them facing the intruder and ignoring Thomas. He hadn’t seen them come in, and they weren’t from the house, either. There was something else off about them… They were identical, Thomas realized after a few moments.

“I don’t know who you are.” The first intruder didn’t seem to be talking to anyone Thomas could see. “But if you are going to use an illusion to try to scare me, don’t make it so obviously an illusion. All six of these guys look alike.”

A female voice came from somewhere nearby. “Illusions work best when they let you hide something in plain sight.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“In this case, there are only five illusions.”

“What . . .?”

Electricity arced from the hands of one of the men and struck the intruder. He flew back, hit the wall, and slumped to the floor. The other five men faded from existence.

The remaining man bent down next to Thomas. “Are you okay?”

“I seem to be alive. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

“Can you move?”

“I . . . I think so.” With the other man’s help, Thomas managed to get on his feet.

“Matthew? What are you doing? We shouldn’t be moving him.” The person behind the other voice was now visible. Appearing next to them was a young woman whose hair was constantly shifting colors.

“Sarah, we need to get him out of here. We don’t know what other dangers might be nearby.”

Sarah glanced around the room. “Fine. Help him. I’ll go first in case there is anyone else around.” She vanished as Matthew supported Thomas to help him walk.

Slowly, they made their way out of the lab. The destruction was everywhere; not a single room had been spared. The power required to cause all of this had to have been immense.

“Where is everyone else?”

Matthew ignored his question.

After several long minutes, they stood outside the ruined house, and Sarah reappeared.

“There is no way only one person did this,” she said.

“That sounds like an excellent reason not to be here any longer,” Matthew replied.

“Shouldn’t we figure out what happened?”

“I expect your Mistress would want you to get Thomas to safety and have his injuries looked after.”

“You know, Matthew, you’re a bit of a suck up.”

“And you’re mad that I’m right.”

Sarah looked at Thomas. “Can you hang on? We’ve got a car nearby, and we can get you to some help.”

Thomas managed to nod before slipping back into unconsciousness.

Stealing Too Much

The cloudy evening made it easier for Frank to hide in the shadows. He was growing impatient waiting for his partner. Their window of opportunity was closing, and he had begun considering whether he could do the job on his own. Before he could act, however, he heard a whisper from above.

“Psst! Where you been, Frank? I’ve been waiting for you.” George, his partner, was peeking over the edge of the roof two stories up.

“You’ve been waiting for me?” Frank muttered to himself. “Help me up.”

“Sure.” A rope ladder dropped down the side of the house. Frank climbed up, and George helped him on to the roof at the top.

“Okay, we still have time before they return. You remember the plan?”

“Yes, Frank. You told me a bunch o’ times. I go in, get the book and come back out. No noise. Don’t let anyone see me. You wait here in case they come back early. Easy.”

“Where is the book? What does it look like?”

“If you don’t trust me, you can go in, and I can stay here.”

“No, of course not.” Frank looked at his partner. George wasn’t sharp, but he was good at remembering and executing plans. He was the taller and thinner of the two, and he was quiet as a mouse. “It’s just that this is important, and I’m nervous.”

“It’s okay, Frank. I memorized everything you told me.”

“Okay. Here’s your earpiece.” Frank handed him the small button. After George put it in, Frank tested the transmitter. “Can you hear me?”

George gave a thumbs up.

“Good. I won’t call you unless there’s a problem. Get going.”

There were two attic windows built into the roof. George walked to the far one and began working on it. It didn’t take him long to get it open and disappear through it. Alone, Frank scanned the street in front of the house while trying to listen for sounds below him. Everything was quiet so far.

The book – really a ledger – was important to a lot of people, but Frank only wanted it to get rid of a debt. It should be enough to satisfy Roberts, and he would be able to stop looking over his shoulder. Then he and George would be free to do whatever they wanted.

Just as Frank was starting to worry that George was taking too long, his partner came back through the window. He turned around and pulled something out after him. It took several moments before Frank realized what it was: a wooden rocking horse.

“Uh . . . George? That’s not the book.”

“Don’t worry.” George pulled a ledger from under his shirt. “I got the book.”

“So what’s with the toy?”

“It’s cute. I thought my nephew might like it, so I grabbed it, too.”

“George, you know the rules. We only take what we came for.”

“I know, but . . .” George looked dejected.

“Well, it’s too late now. Come on. We need to get out of here.”

They began making their way back to the rope ladder, but before they got halfway, the other attic window opened. It was between them and escape. Frank tried to scramble up and over the peak to the other side of the roof, but his foot slipped. George grabbed and steadied him before he fell.

“Mister?” A child stuck it’s head out of the window. Both of the thieves pressed themselves against the roof to try to remain unseen. The child probably couldn’t see them unless he or she came out further.

“Mister? Could I have my rocking horse back?”

Frank shot George a disapproving look. The other man just shrugged.

“Please, mister. My mom gave it to me.”

Frank’s look turned to a scowl, and George’s shoulders slumped. He crawled closer to the window and held out the rocking horse.

“Here you go, kid. Sorry about that.”

The child grabbed the horse and pulled it inside.

“Thank you! And don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you were here.”

The window closed, and the two men just stared at each other for a long time.

“Let’s go before anything else happens,” Frank said finally.

George nodded, and they made their way to the ladder.

“Hey, Frank.”

“What?”

“Do you know where I can buy one of those? I really do think my nephew would like it.”

“Shut up, George.”

This week’s story was submitted for the first round of the NYC Midnight 2021 Flash Fiction challenge back in July. I wanted to wait until the judging was finished before posting. This week, I’m working on the second round’s entry. Everyone participates in the first two rounds, so I won’t know if I advance until the judging of the second round concludes.

In Absentia

The apartment building looked like it was on the verge of being condemned. Most of the lights in the hallway were out, and the ones that weren’t revealed scuffed floors and the occasional stain of unknown origins. The walls were peeling, and there was several unpleasant odors in the air. Despite the poor lighting, Julia was able to find room 9 and knocked. After waiting a minute or two, she knocked again.

Finally, a voice came from the other side. “Go away.” Rather than angry or belligerent, it sounded resigned.

“Lou? Come on, open up.”

“Who is that?”

“It’s me. Open the door.”

“Me who?”

“Dammit, Lou.”

The door cracked open. A chain hung on the other side, and a single eye peered through the crack. “Julia?”

“Yes. Now let me in before a rat eats me out here.”

The door closed, and she could hear the chain slide back. It reopened wide, and she stepped across the threshold. The room inside was cluttered but otherwise taken care of. It stood in stark contrast to the hallway she had just left. Lou closed the door behind her. He had always been a large man, but he had become gaunt since the last time she had seen him.

“What’s going on? Why haven’t you been at the bar?”

“Nice to see you, too,” he gruffed as he pushed past her. He sat down on a couch facing a television that was on with the sound turned all the way down. He didn’t look at her as he picked up an open bottle of beer.

“Lou . . .”

“I sold the bar, okay? It’s no longer any of my concern.” He put the bottle to his lips and tilted it up.

“You sold the bar? Why?”

“What do you care? I haven’t seen you in years. Business dried up, and I got an offer. I took it.”

“I thought it wasn’t about business. It was about . . .”

“I know what it was about. Like I said, you stopped coming round. Pretty soon, no one would take the big cases. It wasn’t working any more.” Another drink. He still hadn’t made eye contact with her.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

He shrugged. “There’s years of stuff I’m not telling you. I wouldn’t have to tell you if you’d been around. But the place isn’t my problem any more. From what I hear of it, you should probably stay away, too.”

“So that’s it? Just washing your hands of it?”

“I know this is news to you, but for me, it’s in the past. I’d nearly forgotten about it. I assumed you had, too. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t forget to the close the door behind you.” He never looked away from the television.

Something was off about the whole situation, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to tell her anything else. She turned and left without another word. Maybe she was misreading it. Maybe everything was just like he’d said. Still, she couldn’t make herself believe that. The question was, where could she find out more.

A Decision for Humanity

“Jacob! You are needed.”

Jacob woke up. Still blurry from sleep, he could only tell that a bright figure stood at the foot of his bed.

“Who . . .”

“You are needed.” The figure repeated. The voice was both musical and terrifying. Even after blinking the sleep from them, his eyes wouldn’t focus on the being.

“Needed for what?”

“Come with me.”

A doorway appeared in the middle of the floor, and the creature gestured for Jacob to enter. This had to be a dream, he decided, so he played along. As he stepped through the doorway, he felt the world twist and then right itself.

He found himself in a large room with screens covering all four walls. The door by which he had entered was no longer evident. The only other thing in the room was a four foot high square pillar in the center. On the top was a black button. Before he could ask another question, the figure spoke again.

“From this room, you can end the world. You need to press the button.”

“What?!”

“Press the button, Jacob.”

“No! Why would I want to destroy the world?”

Screens began to flicker on, and scenes of destruction filled the room. Forest fires. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Drought. Famine. War. Hospital wards.

“The world is dying. You can see it on every news broadcast. Instead of making everyone suffer through the slow demise, better to end things quickly.”

Before Jacob could even start thinking about how to respond, another figure, equally bright, appeared in the room. The newcomer spoke with a similar, but deeper, voice.

“This is low, even for you.”

“Exile, this is none of your concern.”

“Of course it is. We have an understanding. Both of us must agree to end the game.”

“Unless a human decides to end it.”

“So you brought him here to cheat.”

“I am simply giving humanity a chance to opt out.”

“You are being used, human.” The second figure addressed Jacob directly.

“I don’t understand what is going on. I was brought here to destroy the world?”

“I would advise against it, but the one who brought you here seeks that outcome, yes.”

“Misery and suffering have reached unacceptable levels,” the first responded. “Why not put an end to it before it becomes even worse.”

“So you would have them give up? Abandon hope? Take away even the possibility that they might overcome these challenges?”

“They have had decades with no appreciable progress.” The first’s voice was even and sounded matter-of-fact.

The second turned again to Jacob. “It is ultimately your choice, human. I oppose this course, but I cannot stop you. Indeed, I would not even if I could.”

Jacob looked from one figure to the other and back again, still unable to focus on either.

“I don’t want any more suffering and the world does seem to be a mess. But I cannot decide this for everyone. How much hubris would it take to think that I could?”

“But the world . . .”

The second cut off the first. “Enough. He has made his choice. You tried to manipulate the situation and failed. No more of this.”

The doorway reappeared. “Thank you for your choice, Jacob,” the second said to him. “Please return to your world.”

As Jacob stepped through, he heard the first call after him. “If you change your mind, you need only call out for me.”

The next morning, Jacob awoke in his bed, unsure of what to make of his rather vivid dream.

The Nameless Bar

The bar was dimly lit and quiet. Places like this usually fill up as the night gets longer, but not here. The only people that frequent this nameless bar were people who needed a particular sort of help and the people who provided such services. Or people who were lost. Julia hadn’t been here in several years.

The illumination behind the bar was from one of the few overhead lamps. A middle-aged, burly man was tending bar. Drinking was not the primary reason people came here, so he had a bored look about him. He barely looked at Julia as she walked over.

“Is Lou here?”

Before the bartender could respond, another patron approached her.

“I haven’t seen you before. Something I can help you with?”

She barely glanced at him. “I don’t think so.”

He clasped her arm to turn her towards him. “Hey, now. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

She widened the portal inside the sleeve of her leather jacket so that a knife could fall into her hand. Raising the blade closer to his neck, she said in a low voice, “No one comes here looking for friends.”

Immediately, he let go of her and raised his open hands as he backed away. “No problem. Sorry to intrude.” Sitting down at a table across the room, he blended back in with the gloom.

“That’s a dangerous person to piss off.” The bartender gestured towards her knife. “And put that away. Weapons aren’t permitted in here.”

The knife slid back up her sleeve. “Fine. Now, Lou?”

“He’s not here.”

“Upstairs?”

“Look, lady, I don’t know you. You’ve already threatened one of my best customers. Lou isn’t here. Hasn’t been for awhile. Now I think it’s time you leave.”

Julia hesitated. He was clearly not going to be helpful, but she hated the idea of just walking away. Still, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she turned around and left the bar.

Halfway down the block, several figures emerged from the shadows of an alley. In front was the man who had approached her at the bar.

“We meet again.”

“Seriously? Are you just a walking cliché?” 

She tried to walk past the group, but the man grabbed her arm and spun her around.

“So rude. And after I offered my help.”

Whatever small bit of patience Julia had was gone. A quick spell opened a portal beneath him. He was halfway down the hole when she shrunk the portal so that he was stuck with only his torso sticking out of the pavement.

“What the hell!”

She bent down closer to his face. “Do I have to hurt you to get through to you? When someone tells you no, you leave them the fuck alone.”

One of the men who had accompanied him took a step towards her. Opening a portal beneath herself, she dropped down behind him and hit him with the hilt of her knife. The man crumpled to the ground. Everyone else took the hint and quickly left.

Julia walked back over to the man who was still trapped. “Now. What should I do with you?”

“What are you?” His terror was obvious.

“Who. Not what. People are not things. Didn’t anyone teach you that?”

“W…who?”

“Someone who doesn’t give third warnings. If I ever even hear about you, I’ll return. And you do not want to see me again.” Julia stood and began to walk away. Without looking back, she said, “Looks like it might rain. Don’t look up. I don’t want you to drown. You should be able to get out in a few hours.” She still needed to find Lou.

A New Shop

The empty storefront was in a small shopping plaza about a mile from the house. Inside, a layer of dust had built up in the small space. David didn’t need much room. The front was roughly twenty square feet, and the back area was half that. He could put small items for sale on one wall and have Julia set up a portal to the house in the back.

At first, Sarah had been opposed to the idea, but he managed to persuade her. Even throughout Rebecca’s rescue, he had felt superfluous. Life at the house had been stagnant; he had even considered leaving. Instead, he reflected on what he was really trying to accomplish.

The point in coming to the house in the first place was to learn more so that he could better help his people in the future. Moving to the house was freeing in a way; he was able to pursue research following his own imagination. But it was also isolating. Opening a shop was a way to connect with people, a way to learn what they really need. He would only sell simple, low power stuff. Things that would be helpful without being disruptive to the mundane world.

Sarah had helped him with the purchase and getting the necessary permits. The point wasn’t to make money, but to provide him with some structure. But first, he needed to clean the place fully. He summoned a small breeze and began gathering up all the dust.

Parting Again

“The Elder is gone?” Marie sounded unconvinced.

“Yes. My death ended him while I escaped. With my body empty of possession, Bailey was able to return my soul.”

Tears began streaming down Marie’s cheeks. “It’s finally over.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes.” As she watched her friendly silently weep in relief, guilt welled up in her chest. “Marie . . . I’m so sorry . . .”

“Ten years,” Marie muttered.

“What?”

Marie tried to wipe her eyes clear. “Ten years under his thumb. Ten years where my life wasn’t my own. Ten years where my body wasn’t my own.”

“I know.” Rebecca couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Do you? Do you know what he did to me?”

“Marie . . . I’m sorry.”

Marie stood and faced away from Rebecca. “I understand why you ran. I didn’t then, but I do now. He was awful.”

“But he’s gone now, and our lives are ours again.”

Marie turned to look at her. “So we can return?”

That took Rebecca by surprise. “You . . . you want to go back?”

“Of course. With the Elder gone . . . Well, it’s our family. Why wouldn’t we go back?”

“With what we’ve been through . . . What you’ve been . . .”

It’s our home, and he’s gone.”

Rebecca looked down. “It hasn’t been my home for ten years.”

Marie stared at her with her mouth open. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t go back. Phillip thinks I died. Maybe that means Peter believes I’m dead, too. As far as they’re concerned, I’m happy to stay dead. This is my home now.”

“What about us? What about me?”

“You don’t have to go back, either.”

“It’s the only home I know.”

Silence feel over them. Marie turned away again, and Rebecca stared at her hands. She knew how hard it was to leave. Had she not been forced to it by Phillip and Peter, she might have found it impossible. But she had been forced, and now Marie found herself facing a similar choice. With the Elder gone, Marie could return safely, but how would she handle the constant reminders of her long trauma?

That wasn’t the only reason she didn’t want Marie to leave. The uncomfortable truth was that, with Bailey leaving, she didn’t want to have to say goodbye to another dear friend so soon. She was afraid of the loneliness that would almost certainly follow.

Marie finally broke the silence. “I don’t think I can leave. Just come back with me.”

“I can’t. I wish I could, but even the short time I spent with the Elder convinced me I did the right thing in leaving. I wish you would stay, but I can’t go with you.”

“So that’s it?”

“It doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to leave. At least you don’t have to leave right away.”

“I don’t think I should stay away too long.”

“Well we can still keep in touch.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

Neither woman could look at the other directly.

Plotting in Secret

“So where are we?”

“Well, the worm failed.”

“How?”

“I’m not certain. It’s gone. And the target is still alive.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Peter confirmed it.”

“Did he get what we wanted?”

“Apparently not.”

“Incompetent . . . I knew it was a mistake to try to use him.”

“. . .”

“And the damn house is still protected?”

“Yes, it seems so.”

“So I’ll ask again. Where are we?”

“In a holding pattern, I suppose. We don’t have another worm available. Even if we did, without knowing what happened to the previous one, we couldn’t be certain the results would be any different. If you have any ideas, please share them.”

“Is there any other way to bypass the security.”

“The spatial mage is too good. Even if we could take it down, she’d know right away and probably restore it before we got very far.”

“Can we distract her?”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I’m just brainstorming.”

“If we came up with a distraction, we would still have to take down the spells. I don’t know how we would manage that, either.”

“What about getting him to come out.”

“Unlikely. As far as I can tell, he’s basically a recluse.”

“Well, we have to come up with something. And soon.”

The Gift of Mana

Using the sigils specified in Jason’s notes, and devoting her complete attention, Julia could make out some of the threads of magic that surrounded her. She worked slowly and carefully to attach one of the threads to the crystal she had prepared in advance. The crystal began to glow with a gradually increasing white light.

Exhaustion had begun to set in by the time she had finished. For Jason, this process had been straightforward, but she did not have the same gift he did. The gift of mana – of raw magic power – was not that uncommon, but without it, creating these crystals was tiring. Mages weren’t limited to their own gifts, but working in specialties other than one’s own never came easily. Few working outside their own specialty would ever be able to match the skill of even a merely average specialist.

Mana specialists were invaluable to other mages, but often lacked a second gift and thus could do little more than provide the power others relied upon. Jason, however, had had two gifts. In addition to mana, he also had the gift of chaos magic. A mage with two gifts was itself uncommon, and that particular pairing was almost unheard of. His absence in the house would impact everyone.

No one had asked her to try to fill in some of the gap opened by his death, but Jason’s notes had given her the idea. Her own contribution to the house was just as irreplaceable, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Jason leaving her the notes meant something. He must have thought she could do something with them. She would need to improve, both her technique and her stamina, but providing a few power crystals to the others was within her power. And she had already created the modified blue crystal that had suppressed the charm spell that had been placed on Bailey. What else she could accomplish, without the gift of mana, remained to be seen.

Resolution

“I thought you had let this go?” Sarah was practically pleading.

Remaining defiant, Julia shook her head. “For the sake of Rebecca, I had put it to one side. Now that that’s been settled, we need to deal with him.”

“It’s his house, Julia.”

“I don’t care. He put everyone and everything at risk. Not telling me? Trying to set David up? And in the end, Jason paid the price. Jason who was an ‘old friend.’” Sarah could almost see the sarcasm drip from Julia’s mouth. “We should harbor no misconceptions. He would let any of us suffer the same fate, considering we mean even less to him.”

“You can’t believe that. He didn’t want Jason to die. Or even you. Maybe he went about it poorly, but he was trying to keep everyone safe.”

“So? What follows from that? Am I just supposed to forget it all? Pretend he isn’t responsible for Jason’s death? He gets off without any consequences?”

“Julia. What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know. You say we can’t kick him out. But how can you expect me to stay here, in this house, while he remains?”

“Julia is right.”

Both women turned in surprise to see Thomas standing just inside the door of the living room.

“Thomas?” Sarah didn’t want to try to infer the meaning of his statement.

“I said, Julia is right. It is unreasonable to expect her to stay in my house.”

“So you’re kicking me out?”

“You misunderstand. Julia, I have thought about this a lot. Especially since yesterday, but even before our last exchange. I thought I was doing the right thing. As you have repeatedly asserted, I was wrong. I apologize to you, and everyone else in the house. I need to do better.

Julia seemed to deflate a bit. Thomas’s admission had taken some of the edge off of her anger, but she wasn’t going to be pacified so easily. “That’s all well and good, but . . .”

Thomas interrupted her. “There is more. Your hesitation in staying is understandable. So I will relinquish this house and give it over to Sarah. I merely ask that I be allowed to stay, at least on a probationary basis. If I again act so as to violate your trust, or anyone else’s, I will accept Sarah’s judgment. You would be part of Sarah’s house, not mine. Is this satisfactory?”

Julia was taken aback. Before she could recover, Sarah spoke up.

“Do I get a say in this? You’re handing everything over to me?”

“Sarah, we both know you’re more suited to this than I ever was. You take care of nearly everything already. I am merely proposing we make it official. Truly, this is already your house.”

She could think of no objection. Truthfully, she didn’t really want to object.

“Very well. Julia, does this arrangement work for you?”

Julia looked as though she still wanted an argument, but she relented. “Yeah. This will do.” Without waiting for any further discussion, she opened a portal and left the room.

“Are you sure about this, Thomas?”

“The house needs her. This seemed like the best way to keep her. Besides, the paperwork has already been filed. This has been your house since the morning.”

There was nothing she could think of to say, so she just nodded her head. After Thomas left, she sat there for a long time, wondering what this change would lead to.