Blank

The future was blank. Laying on the couch, Thomas tried work out a solution. As best as he could determine, this was Jason’s fault. When he first began noticing glitches, he realized he could not longer find Julia in the future. Backtracking, he found the moment when Julia discovered Jason’s blue crystal. From that time forward, the future became harder and harder to explore.

With Julia out of the future, and Bailey following a little after that, any of his observations became increasingly unreliable. He had a sense of what the house would look like without them, but unless they actually left, that future would not come to pass. 

Discovering the existence of the crystals had explained some mysteries involving Jason. Thomas had longed believed it was Jason’s chaotic nature that made his presence elusive when scrying. The crystals provided a much more straightforward explanation. Now that they were held by others, though, it upended everything.

For the first time in decades, Thomas didn’t know what was in front of him. He had no inkling about potential threats. No clues as to how to prepare. The very idea was terrifying. The future once more was an unknown, filled with hidden terrors. 

The only solution he came to was removing the blue crystals from circulation, but doing that would not be easy. He couldn’t find them scrying, and he had no idea how to counter their effects. Asking Julia was obviously out of the question. Still, something had to be done, even if it meant that Julia would hate him more.

Alternative Treatment

“Julia . . .” Sarah didn’t want to point out the obvious. Bailey always became agitated whenever the charm spell was mentioned.

As if she was reading Sarah’s mind, Julia smiled. “Just listen to them. Go ahead, Bailey.”

Bailey hesitated for a few moments before beginning to speak. “I have been under a charm spell for a couple of months. I’m sorry I deceived you . . .”

“We’ve already talked about this. It isn’t your fault,” Julia interrupted.

“Still, I want to apologize. I put you all through so much.”

Julia shrugged and stayed silent.

“I am sorry. Though I didn’t want to, I used you to get to Rebecca. Now she’s in danger.”

“But how . . .?” Sarah’s mind was racing through the implications of this turn of events. “Madeline was unable to break the spell.”

“Yeah, when she failed, I tried a different approach. Unfortunately, the charm is still there. But it’s suppressed for now,” Julia said.

“How did you manage that?” Did Julia have a hidden talent? Nothing about this seemed related to spatial magic.

Flashing another smile, Julia placed a white crystal on the kitchen island.

“One of Jason’s crystals?”

“No. One of mine.”

Sarah picked it up. “You made this?”

“Yes. Jason taught me. He left me some notes.”

“But how is this connected to the charm spell?”

“Some of the principles involved in making these… I was able to depower the charm spell. It’s still there, but it doesn’t have any magical energy to operate. A temporary solution, but effective for now.”

Sarah put down the crystal. Julia could make these? And use them to do other things? What did this mean for the house? For Julia? This felt too big of a development to deal with, and there were other issues more pressing.

“Bailey, what happened to Rebecca?” David’s voice startled Sarah. She had nearly forgotten he was in the room.

“I was forced to give Rebecca a letter. It apparently had some sort of trigger on it. After she read it, she vanished. I don’t really know where. The letter was signed by someone named Marie. Rebecca seemed frightened by it all, before she disappeared. By the time Sarah came back inside, I couldn’t remember what had happened. It’s not that I was unable to tell you; rather, it was hidden from me. Even now, even with the charm suppressed, I cannot remember who put it on me. Or when. Marie is the only name I have because it was on the letter.”

“If someone put that strong of a charm on Bailey,” David said, “they probably put a charm on Rebecca. That’s why she didn’t ask for our help.”

Bailey stared at him. “What do you mean? Have you spoken with her?”

He nodded. “She’s back with the cult she used to be in.”

“She used to be in a cult? She never told me about that.”

“She doesn’t think it’s a cult,” Sarah explained. “And she doesn’t talk about it much. She only told us because someone came looking for her.”

“We need to go get her.” David and Bailey spoke in unison.

“If she is under a charm, it won’t be easy.” Sarah tried to keep everyone from rushing into something.

“Julia?” David turned to her. “Do you think whatever you did for Bailey can help?”

Julia nodded. “If it’s a charm, yes. It will take me at least a couple of days, though.”

“Okay. That will give David and I time to come up with a plan.” Sarah was grateful for the time to approach this situation with some degree of caution.

“What about me?” Bailey asked.

“Let us take care of this. There’s still too much we don’t know about . . . all of this.” Sarah wasn’t sure how far Bailey could be trusted. Until she and Julia could talk privately, involving them was too much of a risk. “It’s safer for you to stay here.”

“I’m the one who got her into this. I’m the one who betrayed her trust, whether I wanted to or not. I need to help get her out.”

“Your feelings are completely understandable, but we’re mages. Let us take care of this. You’ll get your chance to make it up to her.”

Bailey opened her mouth and then closed it again without saying anything. Having them free of the charm was certainly a positive step, but Sarah knew there had to be more to the story.

Surprise

“How are you feeling?” Sarah asked David when he entered the kitchen.

“Better. A little stiff.”

“Being buried in rubble will do that.”

“I suppose.” David opened one of the cupboards and pulled out a box of crackers. He sat down at the island across from her and began mindlessly nibbling.

“Is there anything else bothering you?” She could tell he was distracted. Being unable to help Bailey had frustrated her, so she was looking for some other way to be useful.

“Just anxious to go back for Rebecca. I don’t like leaving her there.”

“David. We’ve been over this.”

“She has to be terrified. You remember the story she told us.”

“Yes, but now she’s chosen to be there. It’s not our place to take her from her home.”

“That’s not her home. She can’t really want to be there.”

“I know it’s not easy to accept, but we have to respect her wishes.”

“How do we know that is her wish? You fell under some sort of compulsion the first time you went there. Bailey is still under some sort of spell. Maybe Rebecca is, too?”

“Maybe. But we have no evidence of that. She says she wants to stay. And she let both of us leave. If we try to force her to leave, we risk a fight we could lose. And we might push Rebecca further away. I don’t like the thought of her being there either, but right now, we don’t have a choice.”

David fell silent. It was obvious he wanted to keep arguing but knew he wasn’t going to win. The man’s loyalty was admirable, but he was too eager to rush in blindly. That was an aspect of his youth Sarah hoped he would grow out of.

A door appeared in the kitchen. Sarah was surprised when Bailey followed Julia through it.

“What . . . ?”

“David. Sarah. I’d like you both to meet Bailey. They have an interesting story to tell.”

From Jason’s Notes

The research on color cyrstal crystals has hit a snag. I can identify three colors: purple, yellow, and orange. Those were pretty straightforward, but I know there have to be other colors. One of the problems I’m having is that I am unable to decide if I am inventing these items or discovering them. The fact that every mage that creates mana storage uses white crystals suggests the latter. But if that were the case, I should think it would be easier for me to figure out the other colors. Since I haven’t been able to, I might have to more seriously consider the possibility that these are my own creation. If so, that raises some interesting questions about the nature of the white ones.

I had thought I was getting somewhere with a fourth color. There was mention in one book of something called a mage devourer. (I don’t know why these volumes never have titles. The book was average size, with a brown leather cover. On the inside was written the word “Legends.” They could have just put that on the outside and made it easier to find.)

Anyway, from what I can gather, this creature feeds on magic. Not just any magic, though. It has to be the magic housed inside a living being. I could find no other discussion of the thing in any other books, which itself is surprising. And there seems to be no indication of how it might be destroyed. Still, there must have been some way because it didn’t wipe out all mages.

The idea I had was that maybe there was a cyrstal (why do I keep misspelling that?!) crystal that could absorb magic, sort of the opposite of the white ones. It would, in essence, be an artificial mage devourer. My idea was that you could use it to drain the magic from a mage so that the devourer would lose interest and move on.

I realized pretty quickly, though, that that would kill the mage. You could try to use it on the devourer itself, but I don’t know how you would get it close enough without the devourer recognizing the danger or killing the mage who was trying to get it to the devourer. I think the theory behind it is sound, but I’m not sure even I could make one without killing myself in the process. That’s probably why none have ever been made, at least not that anyone knows about.

Still, there has to be some way. A creature that feeds on magic. Any spell you throw at it will just be absorbed, I imagine. I can’t believe there aren’t more references to it.

It’s a problem that is going to bug me. Luckily there don’t seem to be any left, so it’s really just a theoretical problem. Something to work on when I’m idle. So I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on the crytals (dammit!) crystals.

Diagnosis

It took a couple of minutes for Bailey to answer the door. Sarah had just begun to worry that they had escaped again when the door finally opened.

“Are you finally letting me out?”

Instead of answering the question, Sarah indicated the woman standing next to her. “Bailey, this is Madeline. She’s a friend of mine,” Sarah ignored the chuckle, “And she’s agreed to try to help us.”

“Help us with what?”

Sarah ignored the look Madeline gave her. “Can we come in?”

“It’s not like I have much of a choice.” The door opened, and Bailey stood aside to let in the two visitors.

Once inside, Sarah noticed that the room seemed very well lived in. After tracking Bailey down, Julia had put them in here and limited their movement even more. Without knowing the details of the charm or compulsion they were under, it seemed like the only safe option.

Bailey was clearly unhappy with this arrangement. “So what is this about?”

“Sarah tells me you might be under a spell,” Madeline blurted out before Sarah could stop her.

“Oh not this again. How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not under any spell? I don’t know what happened to Rebecca!”

“What Madeline means is that she’s here to make sure that you are okay.” She glared at the other mage to prevent any contradiction.

“You’re lying. Leave me alone!”

“Good grief.” Madeline shoved Bailey down onto the couch. She so often cultivated a demure image, it was easy for Sarah to forget how imposing Madeline could be. “Now sit quietly for a few minutes.”

Bailey tried to get up. “You can’t do . . .”

“I said stop.”

Sarah could feel the power in Madeline’s voice. “I think they’ve been traumatized enough . . .”

“If you want to know what’s going on, I need to examine them. They clearly are under some sort of compulsion if they are are so insistent on not being analyzed. They probably can’t consent right now. Do you want me to do this or not?”

Sarah looked at Bailey sitting rigidly. “Fine. But . . .”

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt them.”

Madeline focused all her attention on Bailey. Sarah could do little more than watch. She knew much of the basics; charms were her mistress’s specialty after all. Yet she had never had the aptitude for them that Madeline did. Whatever had a hold over Bailey was beyond her abilities.

Madeline continued to concentrate as the minutes dragged on. Over half an hour passed before she finally broke away. Bailey seemed to have relaxed a bit but had slipped into unconsciousness. Madeline stumbled over to a chair and slumped into it, her face falling into her hands.

“Do you have some water?” she finally asked without looking up.

Sarah knew where there were cups and filled one from the sink in the bathroom. She went back to the living room and handed it to Madeline who had by now sat up.

“Thanks.”

Sarah waited until she drained the cup before asking, “So?”

“If you told me the Mistress had done this, I might believe you.”

“What do you . . .”

“It’s that intricate. This thing is so thoroughly wrapped around Bailey, I’m not sure anyone can get it out. Every time I tugged on one part, the rest tightened its grip, threatening to crush them. Maybe the person who did this could undo it. Maybe. But I can’t. No wonder Bailey doesn’t want this messed with. They might not even be aware of it. Actually, I hope they aren’t; it’s terrifying.”

“So there’s nothing we can do?”

“If I had massive amounts of raw power, I could maybe rip it out. However, even if I did, it would leave Bailey an empty husk. There would be nothing of them left.”

“Do you think the Mistress could do it?”

Madeline thought for a moment. “Perhaps. But it would be dangerous. For both. That’s the other thing. Every time I probed it, there was a bit of psychic feedback. I don’t know what it would do if it were seriously threatened.”

Sarah felt despair lapping at her feet.

“There’s another issue.”

“More?”

“Sarah, think about it. Whoever did this is powerful. Maybe more powerful than anyone I’ve known. If this was just about your former housemate, maybe leave it alone. I know we’ve never been the best of friends, but I don’t want to see you hurt. Whoever is behind this is dangerous. I think it would be best if you let it go.”

“Madeline . . .”

“I’m very serious. This scares me.”

“But what about Bailey?”

“Is that really your problem?”

“Yes,” Sarah answered without thinking.

Madeline gave her a long look. “Okay. I’ll try to do some digging; maybe I can find some sort of solution.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t. I think this is a mistake. Just . . . please don’t do anything foolish.”

Sarah gave her a weak smile. “I’ll try.”

The Purple Crystal

The desk had been cleared of everything except a black cloth, upon which sat the purple crystal. All of the crystals wore different shapes. The white ones Jason had made, for instance, were slender rods about the length of a hand from palm to the tip of the middle finger. The green one was more akin to an elongated pyramid. The purple crystal was circular, no larger than two inches in diameter. It was also curved slightly, the convex side facing up on the desk.

Having studied the first few pages of notes from the box, Julia had a pretty good idea what the crystal’s purpose was. There was nothing dangerous about it, as far as she could tell. Still, she hesitated to try to use it. It represented a boundary, past which lay other unknowns. That gave her pause.

Finally, she decided she had wasted enough time and picked it up. All she had learned about the nature of this particular crystal suggested she just had to hold it for it to work. But she knew Jason, and had an idea how his mind worked, so she held it to her left eye like a monocle.

The moment she looked through it, the world changed. Some objects glowed while others seemed to lose color. On a page of notes she had nearby for this very test, nonsense markings became easily readable script. This was the primary purpose of the crystal, deciphering text. Yet it also seemed to be revealing hints about the magical nature of everything around her. That suggested there was more to this than Jason’s notes had contained.

Hoping for some insight, she looked at the other crystals from the box. The yellow shone brightly, while the orange dimmed. The blue crystal . . . had vanished. It had resisted her attempts to grasp its function, and now it was gone?

She pulled the lens away from her eye in order to look for the missing crystal. Immediately, she saw it sitting in its proper place, right next to the others. She looked through the lens again, and once more it vanished from her sight.

Putting the purple crystal back in its place, she picked up the blue. It had been the wrong one to start with, but now she had some ideas about how to uncover its secrets. With the purple crystal’s help reading Jason’s notes, she felt confident she would succeed this time.

Isolated

Rebecca spent much of her energy to keep from screaming. If she gave in, the Elder was certain to find her. In a corner of what used to be her mind, she had hidden away important parts of herself. The Elder had already assimilated the rest. He had nearly complete control over her, and every moment was a new violation.

Throughout the conversation with Sarah, she expected her friend to notice something off. Every time Sarah tried to coax her to say she didn’t want to be here, Rebecca strained to give her some sort of sign, but to no avail. The Elder had no trouble shrugging off her efforts. After he seemed to have convinced Sarah that everything was fine, Sarah left, and she once again retreated from conscious awareness.

If she stayed quiet, the Elder largely left her alone. He had most of her, and she couldn’t hold out forever. At the beginning, she fought all the time. After a week, the futility of it left her with a growing sense of despair, and being aware of her body doing things she hadn’t willed it to was horrifying. Retreat allowed her to conserve some strength and to ignore the loss of control.

Sometime after Sarah left – she didn’t know how long – she felt the Elder looking for her again.

“Rebecca, quit hiding. We have a problem, and I would like your help in solving it.”

It felt like a ruse, so she stayed silent.

“We found someone in the compound. Your memories are still a little spotty for me, but I believe his name is David.”

She almost jumped, but stopped herself. He had access to many of her memories. Mentioning David was an obvious ploy.

“You can see for yourself. He was sneaking around and got caught in that explosion earlier. We need to decide what to do with him.”

Rebecca didn’t know anything about an explosion. It must have happened when she was secluded. However, when she looked through her eyes, she could see David laying on a cot inside one of the cells. What had he been doing?

“Satisfied? Let’s go back to our office.”

He said it as though she had a choice in the matter. Maybe he thought he was being polite, but it felt like he was rubbing her nose in her own helplessness.

“So how should we get rid of him?”

“What?”

“I am sorry, Rebecca, I truly am. But we can’t let people just wander in here without some sort of consequence. We have to dispose of him. He’s your friend, so I wanted to consult you, to determine the most human way.”

He sounded genuine, but what he was saying was so barbaric.

“We can’t!”

“I’m sorry, but we have to. To protect our family.”

“But . . .” Rebecca was becoming frantic. There had to be some way to stop this. “Wait. You let Sarah go.”

“She didn’t break in and start snooping around.”

“You want her to leave us alone, right?”

He was quiet for a few moments. “Yes?”

“Let David go. That will help convince her everything is okay. If she knows he’s here, and he doesn’t come back, she’ll get more suspicious. But if we let him go, she’s more likely to believe that we have nothing to hide, that you’re me.” Rebecca knew she was throwing away another chance, but once more she couldn’t sacrifice a friend just to save herself.

“Will that work?”

“You know what I know.”

“Hmm . . . Fine. I hope you’re right.”

That was a threat; it was vague and formless, but unmistakably a threat. The Elder left her alone again, yet she refused to retreat until David was safely away. Seeing him, hearing him, and not being able to respond nearly caused her to break down. She kept herself in check, however, until she was safely alone again, where the Elder had not yet found her.

Catching Up

Sarah was sitting in the living area sipping on a glass of wine when a door appeared in the middle of the room. Julia stepped through, took a glass off the table, and sat down in another chair.

“So where did you go?”

“We found Rebecca.”

“Really? Did you bring her back?”

“No. She says she wants to be there.”

“Are you serious? After all that effort to find her? Are you sure she’s not being held against her will?”

“I’m not. But they did catch David sneaking around and let him go, which suggests they aren’t trying to antagonize us. She also spoke with each of us alone. I suppose someone might have been observing us, but she seemed to be free to do as she pleased.”

“So that’s it?”

“Maybe. For now. What about Bailey?”

“I tracked them down and brought them back. They came willingly, but we’re going to need some help. They are under some sort of charm or compulsion. That’s why I don’t trust the situation with Rebecca.”

“She did say there was some sort of misunderstanding with Bailey. We should get to the bottom of that.”

“You know anyone who can break a charm?”

“I might.”

“I’ll leave that to you, then. Go easy on Bailey, though. Something tells me this has been an ordeal for them.”

“I will, but I’m a little surprised to hear you plead on their behalf.”

Julia shrugged. “I have a compassionate side. Sometimes.”

“Julia . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for your help. I want you to know that this is your home. As long as you want it to be.”

“Thanks, Sarah. Jason wanted me to find a place. I am trying.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Let me know when you’re going to deal with Bailey. I think I should be there.”

“I will.”

Julia finished her glass and left. Sarah continued to nurse hers while she mulled over the events of the last few days.

Prisoner

The first thing he was aware of was pain, specifically soreness permeating throughout his body.  Eventually opening his eyes, David found himself in a small room; the cot he was laying on was the only item present. He couldn’t tell where he was or how he got here.

A small panel towards the top of the door slid open, and a pair of eyes peered in at him. The opening shut again, and he heard a voice outside. “Get the Mistress. He’s awake.”

“Hello?” David called, but no one responded.

The trauma his body had been through had left him little energy, and he fell unconscious once more.

When he woke next, a familiar face sat beside him.

“Rebecca?”

She smiled. “Yes. Don’t exert yourself too much. You’ve been through quite a bit.”

“Where are we?”

“My family’s compound. You were found half buried in a pile of rubble. I can guess what happened.”

“Are you okay? Are they holding you prisoner?”

She laughed. It was genuine but sounded a bit cold. “No. Nothing like that. I assume you were looking for me thinking that, though. Yes?”

He nodded. Still disoriented from being knocked out, he was finding it difficult to understand what was going on.

“I explained this to Sarah, but this is my home. I am here because I want to be.”

“So . . .” This was a lot to take in.

“So you needn’t have gone to all of this effort.”

“What happens to me now?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m in this cell . . .”

Rebecca chuckled again. “This? Obviously my people wanted to secure an intruder. They didn’t know who you were or why you were here. Since I hope to have cleared up any misunderstanding, you can be on your way. I just ask that the next time you visit, you announce yourself.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. I’m touched you were worried about me so much, but I’m fine. Do you need a ride somewhere? Were you and Sarah supposed to meet up?”

“I . . . uh . . . yeah.”

“Okay. I’ll make sure someone gets you there. I would take you myself, but I have other pressing matters to attend to. Please forgive me.”

David nodded as she stood to leave.

“It was good seeing you, David. Please take care of yourself.” As she finished speaking, she turned and walked out of the room, leaving the door open.

The Right Question

Who am I?

What kind of answer counts? Name? Job? Relationship status?

My name is an identifier, but not an identity. Jobs and relationships change.

Who answers? Me? My family? My friends?

The rune Sowelu represents wholeness. It speaks to becoming who you already are. But who is that? What is the essence of a person?

One way to approach this issue is the debate between essentialism versus existentialism. Is there an essence in place already, or does a person create an essence through their choices? As with so many important questions, this one skips over a preceding one: what is an essence of a person?

What does it matter if the essence is in place already or created after the fact, if we don’t know what it is?

For much of my life, the question of who I am has dominated my thinking. I have pestered others with it, hoping they might know. Hoping that they might have a connection to me that gives them that insight, and thus means that I belong somewhere.

“Is that the question? And if so, who answers? Who answers?” – Pearl Jam, “Alive”

For too long, I have tried to figure out who answers. I am starting to think that it isn’t the question. Who am I? The sum total of all my experiences, desires, beliefs, concerns, and more. And all of those can change. What sort of answer could capture that? What finite set of words could express that?

Who am I? That’s the wrong question, so every answer is also wrong. What’s the right question? Depends on who’s asking and why. 

The question I’ve been asking, for years, should have been: Where do I belong?

I’m still not sure I know the answer, but at least I know what the answer might look like.