A Crisis of Leadership (part one)

Even though she’d been expecting it, the knock on the door still startled her. It must be time. The entire clan was depending on her.

The door cracked open. “Rebecca?” Marie stuck her head in the room. “Are you ready?”

Not trusting her voice, Rebecca just nodded.

Marie entered the room fully and closed the door behind her. “Are you okay?” She was only a few months younger than Rebecca, but her smaller frame and carefree disposition always made her seem like a little sister. Marie’s presence usually was a comfort, but today Rebecca’s anxiety was greater than any friendly presence could master.

“Rebecca? You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m sorry, Marie. I’m just feeling a lot of pressure.”

“You’ll do fine. You’re the most talented medium we have.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is so. You work harder than anyone. Besides we’re your family. No one is going to judge you.”

“Phillip and Peter will.”

“Who cares? Those two are the reason you’re in this mess. They have no right to complain about anything.”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m right, and you know it. Now go out there and show those boys who you are.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s go get this over with.”

The two left the room, walked down the stairs, and went out the front door. In the courtyard, the whole clan was gathered around the cairn in the center. Marie left her side to join the audience. Rebecca walked slowly to the center of the group.

She tried to block out all the people standing around and focused her mind on the image of the Elder that she had studied. She spoke the words of the spells out loud and reached out to him. At first, when there was no response, she began to worry that the spell had failed. Eventually, however, another presence approached her.

“Daughter. You have called me?” His image was faint, but he looked like the picture she had. At least she hadn’t failed.

“Yes, Elder. We seek your wisdom, your guidance, one last time.”

“My time has past. Surely I did not leave you all helpless, unable to fend for yourselves.”

“No, Elder, you did not. Yet there is the question of your successor.”

“Oh. Both Phillip and Peter claim leadership. Because they cannot settle the matter themselves, they involved you.”

None of his words sounded like a question, so Rebecca remained silent.

“I suppose we have an audience? The entire clan is watching you?”

“Yes, Elder.”

She never expected to hear a ghost sigh.

“Very well. Permit me to speak through you.”

“Of course, Elder.”

There was always a possibility it would come to this, but it didn’t make it any easier. The spirit entered her body, and it felt as though something was crawling under her skin. Almost instantly, she knew she no longer had control of her own body. The whole experience was nauseating. When her mouth open a voice that wasn’t hers came out.

“My children. I am told uncertainty has gripped you. Phillip. Peter. Come here.”

Rebecca’s vision was hazy; it felt like her eyes were far away. Still, she could make out the two men approach her – or rather their deceased father. Each towered over her, though they seemed cowed by their father’s voice and presence.

“You two cannot decide between you who should lead?”

“No. Father, you . . .” Phillip, the older of the two, spoke until he was cut off.

“So you make this girl bring me here to continue to make up for your failures.”

Every moment the Elder possessed her body increased the terror she felt. She wanted to scream, but even that release was denied her. Without consciously choosing to do so, she was constantly rebelling against the invader. The Elder proceeded as if she didn’t exist.

“The uncertainty was causing . . .” Peter tried, but he, too, was interrupted.

“You have demonstrated your lack of leadership skills, both of you. You have demonstrated to the entire clan that each of you is incompetent. You could not command respect and obedience now, even if I were to declare one of you. Very well. I will return and lead you once more.”

“But, father . . .” Phillip objected.

“Silence! You had your chance, and you squandered it. You asked for my guidance, and now I will give it. Not for your sake, but for our family’s sake. I can see they need better than you. In ten days, the new moon will rise.” Rebecca felt her body turn to face the gathering as a whole. “Make preparations. In ten days, I will return to you. This girl has shown more composure than either of my sons. When I return, I will join her to lead you out of this darkness you have fallen into. Rejoice! And prepare for my return!”

Rebecca wanted to say something, but she was overwhelmed by the physical sense of relief that washed through her body when the Elder left it. The world went black as she sank to the ground.

Moving Forward

Sarah fought to keep herself from screaming in front of Thomas. He had been a friend, which was why she was so angry with him now. He should have confided in her. That he hadn’t, worried her.

“What should we do about Julia?”

At first, his words didn’t make any sense. She blinked a couple of times to bring him back into focus. 

“Julia? I was thinking I should deliver your head to her. Might calm her down.”

“This is no time for jokes. We need . . .” He wasn’t even looking at her.

“Who’s joking?” Through sheer force of will, she kept her voice low and even. “She thinks you betrayed her. And Jason. From where I’m standing, I don’t see how she’s wrong.”

“We can cast blame later. Right now, she has control of our house!” He was unwilling, or unable, to match her calm.

“Do not raise your voice to me.” She drew herself up nearly to his eye level. “You are not my master. We are peers, and you will treat me with respect.” Daring him to contradict her, she glared at him. He met her gaze for a few moments before looking away.

“Fine. But we need to do something about Julia. She’s putting the whole house at risk.”

“Yes. And I will handle it.”

“How?”

“To start with, I won’t treat her like an adversary. She’s upset. With reason.” Thomas started to interject but promptly changed his mind. “She deserves to be heard. And you can’t be involved.”

“But . . .”

The look she gave him was enough to make him stop.

“There is nothing you can do that will help. She blames you. If we’re very lucky, she blames only you.”

“And if she blames everyone?”

“Then we’re in trouble. She’s already let a real demonic bear loose in the house. The hallways are not responding to the sigils. I’m not certain I can even get to her. But I’m going. Alone. It’s the only hope I have of getting through to her.”

“What would you have me . . .”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Stay here, in your rooms. If she sees you leave, she is likely to assume the worst. Just stay put.” Without giving Thomas a chance to argue, Sarah turned and walked out the door.

Once back in the hall, her bravado deflated some. How could she make it to Julia if the house itself wouldn’t let her? Asking Thomas for help was not an option, so she would have to make the attempt.

A possibility occurred to her. If Julia was turning the house against them, she might be using the sigils to track them. Perhaps she had inverted the spells protecting the house. If so, then getting rid of her sigil might give her the freedom to move around.

The chance seemed remote. Julia may simply have removed the exception for the sigils. Sarah didn’t know the details of the spell well enough to know which solution was more likely, or what Julia’s frame of mind would lead her to do. Still it was the only idea she had at the moment.

Sarah opened a small pouch she kept hidden in her clothes and dropped the sigil in it. The pouch was designed to hide its contents from magical detection. In theory, the sigil would no longer function. Then she turned her attention to the wood floor. As she walked down the steps, she tried to focus on the grain in the floorboards to keep herself anchored to this area. If she was careful, and if Julia wasn’t paying attention to her, it might be enough to keep her in the house and out of the long hallway.

Her slow progress was frustrating, but she dared not move any faster. As far as she could tell, it was working. She made it to the second floor and was steadily moving closer to Julia’s room. She rounded the corner and caught sight of Rebecca and the rabbit David possessed. Before she could say anything, the scene shifted, and she was trapped again.

“No!” All of her pent up anger poured out in her scream. “Dammit, Julia! I’m trying to help you!” The only response she got was silence. Unwilling to play along, she sat down right where she was. If she followed the hallway, she would end up with the dire bear again, and she had told Thomas not to leave his rooms. If Julia was keeping tabs on her, she might as well talk to her here.

“Julia, if you can hear me, please listen. Thomas was wrong to keep all his secrets. I can’t bring Jason back, but I still want you to be part of this house. Talk to me so we can find a way forward.”

More silence. Sarah thought about what she had said. Did she mean it? Earlier today, she had been considering leaving the house herself. Why was she now fighting to save it? Why not just wash her hands of this whole mess? 

Maybe she should. Maybe that’s what it would come to. But not yet. Not like this. If she were to leave, it would be by her choice, not because she was driven out.

Another question forced its way into her consciousness. How were Rebecca and David walking around in the house? Why weren’t they trapped in the long hallway with her? Was Julia only targeting her? Or were the sigils working again? She quickly retrieved the sigil from the pouch, and as soon as she had, she was back in the house. Whatever had gone wrong had been corrected. Had Julia even done anything? Was Thomas wrong about her being behind it? She wasn’t going to find any answers just sitting around, so she stood and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Rebecca answered the knock immediately.

“Sarah? What’s going on? We saw you briefly in the hall, but you vanished.”

“Got stuck in the long hallway, but it seems to be sorted out now. Has anything happened?”

“Uh . . . You better come in.”

Rebecca was visibly shaking. Even though Sarah was eager to find Julia, this seemed important as well. “Okay. Talk to me.”

A Place Between Places

He didn’t know where he was. It appeared to be a shop of some sort, its shelves overcrowded with a wide assortment of items. Bottles and boxes, clothing and weapons were all shoved, seemingly at random, wherever they might fit. It reminded him of a used bookstore he used to go to, where there were so many books piled everywhere, each step risked knocking something over. But he didn’t recognize this place.

“Can I help you?”

It took him several moments before he realized there was an elderly man seated behind a desk, itself cluttered with numerous objects.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, can I help you? Find whatever you’re looking for.”

“Where am I?”

The man squinted and stared at him through his wire-rimmed spectacles. “You don’t know? Most people come here on purpose. Looking for something.”

“Honestly, I don’t really know where I am. Or how I got here.”

“Why don’t you look around. Maybe you’ll find something to help.”

He wanted to ask more questions, but the man had returned his focus to his desk. So he began to wander through the shelves, looking for anything that might serve as a clue to why he was here. 

Down one aisle there were all manner of weapons: swords, spears, maces, axes. The next aisle over was a display of armor and shields fit for a museum. He longed to pick up each item and inspect it, but it felt inappropriate to do so. On one shelf, a golden apple sat alone. That itself was an oddity in this place, but it was also the most beautiful piece of fruit he had ever seen. His mouth watered just looking at it. Still, it wasn’t for him.

Amongst a group of clocks sat a silver pocket-watch that mesmerized him. His curiosity finally got the better of him, and he reached out to pick it up. His hand stopped when he heard the old man cleared his throat.

“Please don’t touch any of the time pieces. It can be a pain to get them all synced up again.”

Chastened, he drew his hand back and continued his exploration. Everything seemed heavy with purpose and power. The clothing. The weapons. The miscellaneous items. A crystal bottle caught his eye. It was filled with a red fluid that shone through the individual facets, making it appear to be swirling on its own.

“What’s this?”

“That’s a love potion.” The immediacy of his response suggested he hadn’t even looked up.

“Love potion? Like, you have someone drink it, and they fall in love with you?”

“No. You drink it, and you feel love. Helpful for those who have forgotten how.”

A potion that lets you feel love? Strange.

“Look, what is this place?”

The old man took a moment. “It is a place between places. It is a repository for holy grails and magic swords. It is the end of the quest, and the beginning of the battle. It is the destination of every seeker.”

“What? That makes no sense. Why am I here?”

“You must be seeking something.”

What could he be looking for? He had no memory of being on a quest, of looking for something. Now that he was thinking about it, he realized he had no memories at all. Who we was, what he had been doing before coming here. It was all a blank. His thoughts, however, kept drifting back to the bottle.

“How much for the love potion?”

“That’s not how this works. This is a repository, not a shop. If it’s what you’re looking for, take it. If it’s not what you’re looking for, you won’t leave here with it. Simple as that.”

He carefully lifted the crystal bottle off of the shelf. It was lighter than he expected. Now, however, he was faced with a new problem.

“How do I leave?”

“Same way you got here, just in reverse.”

“Huh?”

“You wake up.”

*     *     *

His eyes fluttered open. He was home, in his own bed. The memory of the dream was fading, yet his hand was wrapped around something. It was a crystal bottle that held a swirling red liquid.

Helpless

David was useless, and it was the most frustrated he had ever felt. Rebecca was slumped on the floor and not responding to any of his pleas. The man who had terrified her into this position was walking over to her. And David was trapped in a stuffed rabbit with no ability to use magic. He could hardly imagine a worse situation.

The man – Peter, she had called him – approached Rebecca looking much like a predator. No magic was necessary to know that he had nothing except malicious intent, but David did not know how to stop him.

“Come now, Rebecca.” Peter said, looking down at her. “There is no need to be afraid. No one is angry with you. Your family just misses you. Don’t disappoint them. Let us return, so that they might be happy again.”

When Rebecca stood up woodenly, David found himself sinking even deeper into despair. She was going to go with him, and he could only watch.

“Good girl. Follow me, and we’ll put this place behind us.” Peter turned around without waiting for her to respond; his confidence that she would obey was absolute. After she followed him into the hallway, he paused and looked back into the room. With a flick of the fingers on his left hand, a spark flew to one of the armchairs, causing it to become engulfed in flames instantly. Rebecca did not react.

As the pair walked down the hall, David snuck out behind them, avoiding the flames. There was little in the hallway before they would reach the stairs. Could he reach Sarah or Thomas before they got out the front door? Even if he could, would he be able to make them understand the situation? He decided the best option was to follow them, to see where they went, so he could help the others find her later. Nothing else seemed to have much chance of success.

A portal opened in the hallway. Was that how Peter was planning on leaving? David got ready to jump into it to follow them when Julia’s voice came from the other side.

“Who the hell are you?”

Peter sneered. “How are you still alive?”

“My house, my question.”

“Not that it’s any of your concern, but I am Rebecca’s father. She’s coming home. Aren’t you, Rebecca?”

“Yes.” Her voice was hollow, nothing more than an echo of herself.

“Nobody leaves here unless I let them.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think you have enough power to stop me. That’s why you aren’t showing yourself.” Peter waved his hand and muttered something; the portal vanished.

As they reached the top of the stairs, David heard another voice. “Now! Run in front of him.” It was Jason, but that was impossible. Once more the voice reverberated though his head. “Now!”

David ran as quickly as he could manage when Peter began to take the first step. Peter’s foot struck David and sent him flying down to the first floor. Turning over and over as he flew through the air, he could tell that a number of stairs were missing. Instead, there was a hole that appeared to open to a cave. The only light inside was from a burning armchair. Peter, having lost his balance, fell forward and through the hole. His scream was abruptly cut off by the portal’s closing.

Rebecca sat down on the floor in the hallway. David clambered up the steps as quickly as his small body would let him.

Are you okay?

Rebecca looked at him with a confused expression on her face. He expected her to ask him who he was, but she didn’t. “I think so. Is he really gone?”

As far as I know. Julia sent him . . . somewhere. I assume he won’t be able to get back right away.

“Good. Julia? Are you still around?” Rebecca looked around the hallway, but there was no response.

Was that really your father?

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Okay. David searched for something else to say. Hey, during all that, just before your fa . . . just before Peter fell, did you hear Jason?

“Jason’s dead.”

I know. But I could have sworn I heard him telling me to trip . . . Peter.

“I think I would know if his spirit were around here. It was probably just Julia.”

Yeah.

Rebecca stood up unsteadily before righting herself against the wall. Together, they walked back to her room.

. . . It Pours

Rebecca felt uneasy. So many things had gone wrong in the last twelve hours, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t over yet. Being stuck in her room only added to her sense of worry.

What is going on? The stuffed rabbit that David’s spirit was inhabiting stood on the floor in front of her.

“I don’t know any more than you. Thomas said the hallways are unstable, and we should stay here.”

This is maddening.

“Complaining about it isn’t helping.”

Fine.

She shouldn’t have snapped at David, but her patience was wearing thin.

Can you really put me back in my body?

Her guilt got the better of her. Being stuck in a stuffed animal had to be frustrating, and while she hadn’t really gotten him into this mess, she did sympathize with him. No reason to take her own concerns out on him.

“Yes. If we can get it. We’re going to need Julia’s help though, if that was one of her spaces.”

So it can be done.

“Yes.”

If the hallways were unstable, did that mean something was wrong with Julia? Would they be able to get David’s body back? She tried to keep her own doubts hidden, but Thomas couldn’t come back soon enough. He would be able to set things right.

She wasn’t sure if she really believed that anymore. This whole situation was the result of his planning. He had been so certain he knew how things would work out. He was wrong. The safety of the house had been shaken, so where did that leave her?

Someone knocked on her door.

Is that Thomas?

“Either him or Sarah.”

She opened the door. On the other side was a large figure wearing a blood-red cloak. The face was in shadow under the hood, but she knew who it was before he spoke.

“Hello, Rebecca.”

Peter. Her mind began to race as panic overwhelmed her. It didn’t matter how, she had to get out of here.

“Aren’t you going to welcome me?” He stepped through the door just enough to block it completely.

“Get out of here!” There were spells she had prepared in case this day ever came. Terror drove them all out of her head.

“That is rather rude. Especially after all the trouble I went through to be able to visit you.” Every syllable that fell from his mouth felt like a drop of acid hitting her spine.

“You can’t be here.” She shifted further away form him, but he didn’t move from the doorway.

“Yes, I can. There seems to be something wrong with your house’s security.”

David’s voice was screaming in her mind, but she couldn’t focus on that. She needed to find a way out of here.

“Come now, Rebecca. You know you belong back with us. With your family. Come along, and no one has to get hurt.”

“Leave me alone!” Why couldn’t she think of any spells?

“I can’t do that. I am taking you home.”

She backed into the wall on the far side of the room. Unable to get any further from him, she sank to the floor and covered her face with her hands.

Grief

“What are you doing?”

Julia looked up at Jason with a mixture of confusion and pain. She was sitting on the floor in his room. “What do you mean?”

“Why are you messing around with the hallways?”

“Thomas needs to be punished.”

“Even if that were true, Sarah and the others don’t.”

“You’re not even here. Did Rebecca send you?”

“No, she didn’t. Now…”

Julia stood quickly, her fists clenched. In a single moment, her sadness was replaced with anger. “Shut up! You’re not real! You died! You died because Thomas was keeping secrets! He deserves to be punished!”

“You mean, you want revenge.” His disappointment was evident.

“So what if I do?” Her voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

“You’re better than that.”

“You always tell me that. But it’s not true. You want me to be better than I am; that’s different. You always see the good in people. Not everyone is good, and now you’re dead because of Thomas’ scheming.”

“You don’t know that. He brought David here to protect you. When David failed, I . . .”

“Stop. Please.” Her voice cracked. Hearing Jason say that he died to save her would be more than she could bear. Besides, she knew it was Thomas’ fault. Thomas, not her. This was just some trick to distract her from that.

When she regained a little control over her emotions, she looked back at him. “And anyway, how do you even know David was here to protect me?”

“Thomas had asked me to give David a crystal. When he found out I hadn’t given it to David yet, Thomas went after you two immediately. I think he believed David could use it to beat that worm.”

“You’re making this up.”

“I’m not.”

Julia broke again, collapsing to the floor. This was too much. Jason was gone, and she was in a house with strangers. Alone once more, she could feel the world collapsing around her.

“Why did you even bring me here?” she managed.

Jason crouched down in front of her to peer directly into her eyes. “We need people. You need people. I wasn’t going to be around forever, so I wanted you to find a place for yourself.”

“I was just fine. We came here, and now you’re gone. Great plan. So now I’ll just make this house mine. I’ll show you I don’t need anyone.”

“Julia…”

“No. Stop. Tell Rebecca her little trick didn’t work. I don’t believe you’re Jason. Tell them to leave. If they go, I’ll let them. But if they don’t…” Her voice caught in her throat. Jason looked profoundly sad, which wrenched a sob from her. “Just go. Just go. Go.” She closed her eyes and continued to chant those two words over and over.

When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. His lifeless body lay on the couch where she had placed it. A sense of urgency, that something needed to be done, gnawed at the back of her mind. Yet the only thing she could think about was that her friend was dead. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked herself as sob after sob rolled over her.

Lost

As soon as Sarah reached the top of the stairs, she could tell something was wrong. The hall to the right was too short. The door to David’s room was across from the stairs, and there was nothing past it. It should have continued to Jason’s room. Why it stopped suddenly, she could only guess. However, speaking with Thomas took priority; this mystery would have to wait. So she turned left to make her way to the third floor.

After a few steps, it became obvious that she was in the long hallway. Checking her pockets, she found the blue infinity symbol. It should be impossible for her to have gotten here. Were Julia’s spells breaking down? If so, that needed immediate attention. Until she got out of the hallway, however, there wasn’t much she could do.

After walking for an interminably long time, she entered the central room, her own image staring back at her. “If you’ve found your way to this room . . .” The message began automatically.

Sarah tuned out her own voice and began looking for the secret exit that had been included in case a member of the house accidentally found their way here. Mostly for Jason. It should be on the wall to the right of the door that had brought her here, but knocking around didn’t reveal it.

Her automated message ended. Even though she knew the sound of a dire bear was coming, it still startled her. The auditory illusion was very convincing and she felt a little surge of pride when she heard it for the first time in awhile. The sound itself was frightening, perhaps even more effective because she hadn’t created an image to go with it. The door shaking, appearing to be under assault from the other side, had been a nice touch, she thought.

Just as she realized she hadn’t included that detail in the illusion, a real dire bear crashed through the door and into the room. Sarah barely had time to register that the creature shouldn’t be here before it lunged at her.

She just managed to avoid the attack. There wasn’t much in the room other than the chair her image projected onto and a small table that held a few candles. If she left the room, she probably wouldn’t be able to find her way back. Moving quickly to put the chair between herself and the bear, she cast an invisibility spell. The creature stopped momentarily and began sniffing the air. It found her almost immediately.

If she could buy a few moments, she could mask her scent, but it wasn’t going to give her that chance. It attacked again and again, missing only because it couldn’t see her. Each swipe of its claw got closer and closer, and Sarah could feel herself growing winded. If she couldn’t get away soon, it would catch her.

The next moment, she was on the floor outside the room. Looking around, she saw Thomas standing next to her. They were back in the house proper, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the third floor.

“Wha…?”

Thomas helped her to her feet. “I came in through the back entrance and stopped time long enough to get you out. How did you get in there?”

“My badge stopped working. I think Julia’s spells may be breaking down.”

“I don’t think so. I think Julia is actually changing the house, trying to get rid of us.”

“Seriously?”

“I think so. The hallways are fighting me. It’s taking some effort to stay out of the long hallway.”

“This is your fault.”

“I know.” He sounded resigned.

“What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s get back to my room and out of the hallways. We can discuss it there.”

“Fine.”

“Stay close to me. I don’t want you to get lost again.”

“What about Rebecca and David?”

“Safe in Rebecca’s room. Now let’s hurry.”