Reflections on The Cabal

The Cabal began as a one-off story. The main character of that story – Jason – was based on a character I had played in a tabletop RPG over 25 years ago. That character (whose name has completely escaped me) was inspired very loosely by Peter Falk’s Columbo. The name of the group was a quick momentary decision with little thought behind it. That’s why you’ve never seen “The Cabal” used in the text of any of the stories.

Almost immediately after writing that first story, I realized I had created a set of characters that I wanted to get to know better. It’s been several years since I had a regular gaming group, so I began to think of these characters and their stories as a stand-in for role-playing, where I get to play all of the characters. (I’ve also thought about this as a serialized story like a comic book.)

I’ve now been living with these people for almost two years. Some of them I like better than others. And some of them I feel as though I understand more than others. One of the things I appreciate about being around characters for this long is when they surprise me. Julia has done this more than others, perhaps, but I have also learned a lot about both Rebecca and Bailey. The biggest surprise, by far, was the end of the “Death in the Family” arc. The original plan did not include anyone’s actual death, and certainly not the death that transpired. In fact, I was nearly done writing that story when I realized what the ending was going to be.

That is not uncommon in my longer stories. I might figure out the major beats before I start, but there is a lot of flexibility built in so that the characters have the freedom to do the unexpected. I’ve gotten to know these characters over the last two years, and I still enjoy their company.

So I intend to continue telling their stories for now. I will also still drop in the occasional one-off story now and then. I hope you’ll stick around and see where this goes next.

Three Wishes

Smoke billowed from the lamp and slowly took the form of a large, androgynous person. The whole scene looked like a special effect in a movie. The creature spoke with a booming voice.

“You may have three wishes. And before you ask, you cannot wish for more wishes.” It sounded bored.

“Can I wish for fewer wishes?” Yes, I’m a smart ass, but I was also genuinely curious.

“What? Fewer wishes? Why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t need three.”

“So waste a wish or two. Wish for a penny or something.” Irritation was obvious in its voice, but there was something else, too. Interest.

“Okay. So how much of a stickler are you? Will you twist my words to create unintended outcomes?”

“For someone who has just been granted wishes, you ask a lot of questions.”

“I just know that everything comes with a price. I’m trying to decide if I’m willing to pay what these wishes will cost.”

“Just be clear. You’ll get what you ask for.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. What do you get out of this? I mean, you can’t be doing this just out of the goodness of your heart.”

Exasperation was becoming increasingly evident in its body language. “Why do you care? Are you always this suspicious when people give you gifts?”

“Do you like doing this? Is it fulfilling?”

“Are you going to make a wish or not?”

“What happens if I don’t? Do I lose them?”

The genie sighed. “No. You summoned me. I have to grant you three wishes, and I can’t move on until you do.”

“Really? That sounds kind of awful. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long. Would you like me to make them so you can leave?”

It looked at me carefully. “You do ask a lot of questions, but at least you’re not boring.”

“Do you get lonely?”

“Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I was created to exist in the lamp and to grant wishes. That’s the only existence I’ve known, so I have nothing to compare it to. Hard to feel lonely if this is the only reference point.”

“So you’ve never thought about a different life?”

“This is my purpose. There are no other options.”

“Hmm. I think I’ll take that penny now.”

“What?”

“I wish for a penny.”

“Are you sure? You want one of your wishes to be for a penny?”

“Yep.”

“Very well.”

I didn’t see it wave its hands or even move, yet a penny suddenly appeared before me.

“So did this come from somewhere? Or did you make it?”

“It came from somewhere. You didn’t ask for a counterfeit penny, after all. And no, I didn’t take it from someone; it had been lost. Now it’s yours.”

“Really? So if I asked for a million dollars, where would it come from?”

“Is that your second wish?” I could hear a little disappointment in its voice.

“No. I was just wondering where the money would come from.”

The genie smiled. “Good. I was afraid you had gotten boring.”

“What about getting rid of all weapons?”

“Don’t bother. Others have tried. Sadly it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure. Some things are beyond my power. Until humans want to get rid of them, it seems you’re stuck with them.”

“That sucks.”

“Is there really nothing you want? No one has ever wished for a penny before. In fact, no one has taken so long to use their wishes.”

“Well, I believe you’re not out to trick me, given your reactions so far. But there really isn’t anything I can think of. Your response to the weapons idea suggests you can’t do much about social issues, either. I’m not foolish enough to try to bring back the dead. I can’t really think of anything.”

“I’m stuck here until you do.”

“Can I free you from the lamp?”

The smile on the genie’s face got bigger. “I know you mean well, and it’s a thoughtful idea, but the lamp is my home. Without it, I’m not sure what I’d be.”

“I bet you get a lot of dumb, even mean, requests.”

“Sometimes.”

“Okay, how about this. I wish you could decide whether or not to grant someone’s wish.”

“Seriously?”

“Why not? I mean if you’re stuck with this existence, you should at least have a say in what you do.”

“Are you sure about this wish?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Your wish is granted.”

“Excellent.”

“You are the oddest human being I think I’ve ever met.”

“Really? That’s sweet of you to say.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. And I think I know what my third wish is.”

“Shouldn’t you have made that before you let me decide whether I will grant wishes?”

“Nope. My third wish is that you and I can hang out and be friends. But only if you want to.”

“That’s your third wish?”

“Yes.”

“Definitely the oddest.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Indeed.”

Merely Surviving

He laid on the bed and listened to the downpour hammer on the roof of the small cabin. Days like this were the worst. The heavy rain made going outside impractical, even dangerous, and there was nothing to do inside. The few books he had were falling apart from being read so many times. The only thing left was thinking, and that had led to some dark places recently.

This planet had plenty of resources. Numerous plants were edible, and small game animals added variety. Few large predators lived nearby, and they left him alone. Even the climate in this region was generally mild. Except for the rain. Barring injury or illness, there was no reason he couldn’t live to an old age. That reality had begun to weigh on him.

Surviving was not a difficult prospect, but there was nothing for him to do. It had been at least a couple of years since he had helped his crew mates escape while stranding himself. It may have been a lot longer. He had given up keeping track of the days. After building the cabin, the repetitiveness began to erode his interest in living. The day to day necessities kept him busy, but there was no goal beyond surviving.

Finally the rain began to let up. He took the opportunity to go outside and get away from his thoughts. Several fruits were easier to find after a storm, so he decided to do a little foraging. Before heading out, he strapped his sidearm on to his waist. It was one of the few pieces of his uniform that still existed.

At the foot of a tree just out of sight of the cabin, he tied one end of a rope to a basket and began climbing. Once he was high enough, he tossed the other end of the rope over a branch and pulled the basket up. He secured the rope and began filling the basket with fruit. They looked similar to the bananas from Earth, but their flesh was more like that of an orange or a lemon. They tasted different from all of them. Once the basket was reasonably full, he untied the rope and slowly lowered it to the ground. The fruits became inedible once bruised, which they did easily.

Just before the basket reached the ground, he spotted one of the more dangerous animals he had encountered on this planet. It had a head that resembled a bear’s but a body that was closer to that of a mountain lion. They climbed trees easily, so he tried to remain still and avoid drawing its attention.

The creature sniffed at the basket near the ground, but quickly lost interest. Raising its snout into the air, it began searching for the source of another scent. Within moments it began to focus on the tree he was in.

Slowly, he drew his firearm. He didn’t want to shoot the creature, but he would if necessary. Aiming at it, he waited for it to leap. It sprang up to the lowest branches, and he squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. He tried to remember the last time he had fired the weapon but couldn’t. Its charge was completely depleted. The creature was making its way up, inching closer. Watching it carefully, he decided his best option was to try to hit it mid-jump and try to throw off its balance.

Before he could try, the creature turned as though something had alerted it. It jumped down and disappeared into the woods. He hadn’t heard anything but remained in the tree, scanning his surroundings. After several minutes, and nothing obvious happening, he made his way down the tree.

As he made his way back to the cabin, he tried to stay low to the ground and used various bushes and trees to hide behind. The world had gone silent, which made his every move sound much louder in his ears. Still, outside of the quiet, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, outside the cabin, there was something he couldn’t quite make sense of. There was a tall, thin humanoid figure pacing around the building. It shone with a bright yellow light that made it impossible to determine any details or features. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And the most terrifying. He wanted to escape, but he couldn’t even look away.

Then it spoke. Its voice was music, high and airy. There didn’t seem to be any words, but the meaning was clear.

“Captain? Are you here?”

The voice was that of his first mate, but perfected. Ignoring that part of him that was screaming with terror, he stepped out of the woods. The creature before him filled him with awe even though it was familiar.

“Katherine? Is that you?”

“Captain! There you are. We finally made it back.”

“But how . . . ?”

“We have traveled far to return and rescue you. We will explain it all, as much as we can. For now, will you come with me?”

“How long has it been?”

“Twelve years. I am sorry it took us so long.”

The sadness in that apology brought tears to his eyes. Nothing this beautiful should exist, much less apologize.

“Am I dreaming?”

“No. You were stuck in a nightmare. I am here to wake you up. Will you come?”

“Of course, I’ll go anywhere with you.”

Even though he could not make out a face, the being who had been his first mate still managed to convey a smile. She (if that was the right word anymore) wrapped her arms around him and carried him away.

Running Away

Before Bailey reached the end of the block, a portal opened in front of them. Rebecca stepped through, anger evident in her expression.

“Seriously?”

“I thought I would get further away before you noticed.”

“You are leaving without saying goodbye. Again. What the fuck, Bailey?”

“I don’t belong here. I figured it would be easier to just fade away.”

“Easier for you, maybe.”

“No, easier for you Rebecca!” More anger came through in their voice than Bailey intended. “You have Marie. David. Who knows what else you have to deal with regarding your cult. Family. Whatever. You don’t need me around complicating life even more.”

“Quit it. Quit trying to decide what’s best for me. Especially since you always decide it’s best for you to leave.”

“I saved your life after your dumb plan. You, of all people, know what that cost me. I did it for you. And I’d do it again without hesitation. Now, I need to go. Just accept that.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay?”

Bailey chewed on the inside of their lip. “I can’t be what you need. What you want.”

“What do you think that is?”

“A mage who embraces their gift. A friend who isn’t . . .” Bailey’s voice trailed off.

“You don’t know how to ask for what you want, so you hide behind excuses of what you think I want.”

“I betrayed you! How do you expect me to face you after that! You should hate me! Go back to your friends! To the people who fought for you!”

Overcome by their own emotions, Bailey tried to hurry away, but Rebecca grabbed their shoulders to stop them.

“You were right. I do know what it cost you, so I know you fought for me, too. You were there for me when I needed you most.”

Rivers of tears were streaming down their face as they shook Rebecca off. Half running, Bailey quickly moved away without looking back. Rebecca just stood, helplessly watching them disappear.

Bailey’s Trial

Julia stayed out of sight, and Sarah remained in the living room with Marie, but David insisted on following Bailey back into the lab with Rebecca’s body. Bailey knew they couldn’t refuse; after all, there hadn’t been a chance to independently confirm that the charm had actually been lifted. Of course Rebecca’s housemates would want to keep an eye on them.

The first step was to heal the wound in Rebecca’s chest. In this respect, it was easier with Rebecca dead; there would be no need to fight living tissue and force it to mend. They simply had to restore its integrity so that it could contain life again. A small feeling of panic began to well up in Bailey, but this was one bit of magic that they hadn’t rejected, thus it was easy to push it back down.

David stood around looking nervous and helpless, so Bailey tried to distract him.

“How long have you known her?”

“Well, I came to this house almost a year ago. That’s when I met her. And everyone else.”

“You didn’t know anyone before coming?”

“My guide knew Thomas. The two of them arranged for me to come.”

“Your guide?”

“My master? Sort of. It’s a person seekers study under.”

“Ah. What tradition . . . Crap.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I slipped. Nothing irreversible. Don’t worry; I won’t let anything bad happen to her.”

David nodded, but his concern was still palpable.

“So are you two a couple?” Bailey hadn’t intended to ask the question, but his emotional investment made their curiosity overwhelming.

“What?”

“You seem to care a lot about her. So I thought . . .”

“She saved my life a while back. It was a bottle very similar to this one. That’s how I recognized it.”

“That makes sense.” Bailey wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t more to his concern, but they didn’t want to push it.

“What about you? We’re you and she partners?”

Bailey hadn’t expected the question, but they couldn’t very well object now.

“Once. It feels like a long time ago. Pretty sure those feelings are in the past. Especially after all this.”

They both fell silent. Bailey was relieved as the work was getting trickier and required more focus. They considered telling David how Marie felt about Rebecca, but it wasn’t their place. David would have to navigate that minefield on his own. Bailey wanted nothing to do with it all.

“Okay. The preparations are done. Give me the bottle.”

David handed Bailey the bottle containing Rebecca’s soul. Rebecca had discussed all of this with Bailey once. Even though they hated this realm of magic, Bailey had listened attentively at the time because it was something she was excited about. That was enough to interest Bailey. The soul needed to be coaxed back into the body. Since it was the soul’s original body, it should be relatively easy.

None of that really mattered, though. Nausea and panic hit Bailey with wave after wave. The only thing they could hear was the voice of their former master screaming. Every step of the process was excruciating and threatened to incapacitate Bailey. They repeatedly whispered Rebecca’s name to maintain focus and fight through every step.

After the soul was back in the body, it needed to be secured so that it wouldn’t simply drift away. The sense of terror intensified and each part of the process took five times as long as it should have. Bailey was terrified of manipulating the magical forces, and even more terrified that they would fail. There was no one else who could help Rebecca. Just when Bailey thought they might collapse from stress, it was over. They slumped into a chair next to the body.

“Now we wait for her to wake up.”

“How long?”

“Minutes? Hours? It’s hard to know. Why don’t you tell Sarah and Marie it worked.”

David nodded and left the room.

As soon as he was gone, Rebecca’s eyes fluttered open.

“Bailey?”

“Hey, sleepy head. That was quite a stunt.”

“Where’s Phillip?”

“He refused to intervene, so I saved your ass.”

“Oh, no. Bailey. I’m so sorry to have put you through that.”

Bailey lightly touched Rebecca’s arm. “Don’t apologize. It was the least I could do after putting you into that mess. More importantly, did it work? Are you free?”

“Yes. But you . . .”

The door opened, and David, Sarah, and Marie all came in the room. They crowded around Rebecca, who was struggling to sit up. In the general commotion, Bailey slipped out.

Back in the living room, they used the portal to the kitchen. Once there, they called out to Julia, who appeared soon after.

“It worked. Well done. You didn’t want to stay to celebrate?”

Bailey shook their head. “She and Marie have things to talk about. Figure it’ll be hard enough getting rid of Sarah and David.”

Julia’s look suggested that she thought there was more to it but wasn’t going to ask. “So now what?”

“I was hoping you’d let me leave.”

That seemed to surprise Julia. “You want to leave?”

“I think it’d be for the best.”

“Bailey, if I can ask, why didn’t you tell us you were a mage?”

“The charm prevented me.”

“And after the crystal suppressed it?”

“It . . . It’s complicated.”

“Okay. But there is room for you here. I’m sure Sarah, David, and Rebecca would agree.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Julia was quiet for a moment. “I’ve been alone. And that can be okay. But I’m learning there is something to be said for belonging somewhere.”

Bailey offered a weak smile. “Maybe some day, but not now.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you from leaving. You have to figure out your own path.”

In spite of themself, Bailey threw their arms around Julia in a meaningful hug. The other mage was clearly not used to such displays, but awkwardly returned the embrace.

“Please remember you have friends here if you need us. I mean it.”

“I will. Thank you, Julia. For everything.”

Neither of them said anything else on the way to the front door. Bailey left without looking at Julia so that the other wouldn’t see the tears rolling down their cheeks.

Bailey’s Gift

As soon as David showed them the bottle, Bailey knew what it was. They could even guess why Rebecca had killed herself. David’s distress was palpable, but it was mixed with hope as he, too, seemed to recognize what he had found. Julia’s crystal, however, prevented Bailey from doing anything about it. Phillip’s refusal to help made the situation more dire.

Bailey hated their own talent. Dealing with bodies and with the dead had always been upsetting. They wanted to study the elements and weather, but their master would not hear of it. He had determined Bailey’s aptitude and refused to consider alternatives. That disagreement had ultimately led to Bailey leaving before the end of their apprenticeship. Rebecca had been the one to help them move on from the experience.

Now Rebecca was in need of help. Help Bailey could offer if they could access their magic again. The charm had taken it away, even prevented them from thinking about it. With Julia’s crystal suppressing the charm, they remembered their magic, but it, too, was rendered inert by the crystal. As much as Bailey had tried to distance themself from their own gift, Rebecca’s life now depended upon it.

With the charm suppressed, Bailey knew Marie had been responsible for it, so she ought to be able to undo it. Bailey stared at her and waited for her to admit it.

“I . . . I can’t.” She stammered. “The Elder said you were too dangerous.”

“Right now, I’m Rebecca’s only hope.”

“But . . .”

Having watched silently until now, Sarah finally interjected. “Marie, at the moment, the Elder is gone. We are here. If Bailey can help, you must let them.”

Marie hesitated for another beat before relenting. “Alright. I don’t know how long it will take.”

“Then we should get started,” Bailey replied.

They laid down on the bed, and Marie got to work. Bailey could feel her poking around in their mind. It took a great deal of effort not to resist her every move. The nature of the work exposed them both. While Marie, with the Elder, had already been through Bailey’s mind, Bailey was now able to get glimpses into Marie’s. For the most part, they tried not to pry. However, memories of Rebecca were rather vivid and all around. The two women had been close friends for most of their lives. The Elder’s presence had disrupted all of that.

Bailey redoubled their efforts to shut out the memories; they felt as though they were intruding on something intensely private. Instead, they tried to distract themself by going over the necessary pieces to bring Rebecca back. Going through the rituals was uncomfortable, but they focused on why this had to be done.

It was not immediately clear how long it took to undo the charm. Upon checking the clock on the nightstand, Bailey discovered that two hours had past. Without knowing the specifics of the spell Rebecca had used, there was no way to know how long until she might be lost for good. Time was against them.

“Okay. Let’s take her back to her rooms in your house. I’ll need some of the materials there.” Bailey addressed Sarah.

Sarah nodded, but before they could move the body, Marie interrupted. “You can’t take her!”

Bailey turned on her. “I need her lab to work. I don’t have any tools here. You freed me to save her. You have to let me.”

“Then I’m coming too.”

“Wait . . .” Sarah began to object, but Bailey stopped her.

“Let her come. David, please make sure she keeps this on her at all times.” Bailey held up the blue crystal Julia had given them and thrust it into Marie’s hand. “Okay?”

Both Sarah and Marie nodded. David helped Bailey carry Rebecca’s body through the portal.

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.