The Hallway

The lock had been surprisingly easy to pick. The apparent affluence in the neighborhood had led him to expect much tighter security, yet he had the door opened in less than 30 seconds. Now he found himself in a long hallway with wooden floors and light colored walls. In fact, as he looked at it, it seemed too long for the house. Having taken a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder, but he could no longer see the front door. He hadn’t turned any corners, and yet the way he had come in was simply gone.

He walked back to where he was sure the door had been. Now there was just a blank wall, a dead end. Probing it, he could find no secret panel that might be concealing the entrance. The only option he could see was to continue on, so he turned back around and began walking again.

The hallway continued to present him with oddities that he couldn’t explain. Sudden turns appeared when it first looked as though the hallway continued straight ahead. Doors disappeared when he got closer to them. Several minutes passed without coming upon anything of note, and he knew that something was very wrong in this house.

Any thoughts of robbery had evaporated; now his only concern was escape, but there was no obvious way to accomplish that. There were no remarkable features in the hallway, no decorations or adornments. And no other path to take.

After going around one corner, he saw a man walking toward him. He looked for a place to hide, but there were no such places. It turns out he needn’t have bothered; the man, who was talking to himself, walked right past him without even looking up.

Deciding that getting out was more important than staying hidden, he called out. “Hey! Excuse me?”

The man stopped and turned around. “Oh. Who are you?”

“I. . . I am lost. I was hoping you could tell me how to get out of here.”

The man smiled absently. “Sure. Just keep following this hall. It will lead you to the front door.” Without waiting for a response, the man turned and walked right through the wall.

He knew he’d been walking away from the front door since he arrived, so he couldn’t possibly be heading towards it. More confusing was that a person just walked through a solid wall. He knocked on the wall, and there was nothing hollow sounding about it. He had no other choice, so he continued walking. A few more steps, and he found himself in front of a door, one that didn’t vanish. Grateful to finally have found the way out of this endless hallway, he opened the door and stepped through.

Into a dimly lit room. Just a few candles on tables provided any light. A woman with blue hair sat in an armchair and looked at him, or at least in his direction.

“Hello.” He voice was pleasant enough.

“Hi. I was . . .”

“If you’ve found your way to this room, you are likely very confused.”

“Yes, I . . .”

“If you need to speak with a living person, one will be along . . . sometime. For now, allow me to explain your predicament.

“You do not belong in this house. If you did, you would never find your way here. Unless you are Jason, in which case,” her voice took on a resigned tone, “you already know the way out.

“You should know that there was some discussion about what should be done to the random trespasser. At least one of us, the person who designed the hallway, wanted a rather lengthy and gruesome punishment. She was overruled, however, and a compromise was reached. Unfortunately for you, part of the compromise is that I can’t tell you what the punishment is. What I can tell you is that you must keep moving. There is a way out, but only if you keep moving. Good luck.”

The woman winked out of existence, and he stood there staring at the chair she had recently occupied. All of a sudden, he was blinded by lights, and it took him a minute to realize it was just the overhead lights coming on. Looking around, he saw the man who had passed him earlier in the hall.

“Are . . . are you really here?”

The man chuckled. “Yes. Sorry I followed you. Sarah’s little speech is fun to listen to, especially when she mentions me. I just wanted to hear it again. I realized you were headed here, so I just tagged along.”

“Sarah? The woman I just saw?”

“Yep. She’s really quite good at this stuff.”

“Okay… she said I had to keep moving?”

The man gestured across the room. “That door over there. Normally, I’d tell you to run, but you seem like a nice sort. Truthfully, a brisk walk or light jog is sufficient. It moves kind of slow.”

“What does?”

As if that was a cue, growling and scratching could be heard on the other side of the door by which he had entered the room.

“That. You should really go now.” The man just stood there with his absent smile still on his mouth.

He quickly made it to the far door and opened it, finding himself once more in the hallway. Walking quickly, he could hear snarling behind him. Terror overcoming him, he ran for awhile, but he couldn’t keep it up and had to return to walking.

The only real indication of the passing of time was the ache in his legs. When the pain became nearly unbearable, the growling grew louder and he pushed through the agony. Eventually, his legs became numb, and he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been walking.

He never caught sight of the beast behind him, but the sounds of its pursuit were always there. Just as he was about to collapse, he stumbled into another door. Opening it, he found himself outside in the sunlight. Hours must have passed while he had been inside. The fresh air and sun gave him a new burst of energy, and he broke into a run to get as far away from the house as possible.

The List

The room looked as though no one lived in it. There were no personal items on the shelves or walls, and nothing was out of place. The books could easily have been placed for decoration. The only sign that someone had been there, besides the absence of dust, was a single piece of paper on the desk.

On the paper was a short list of simple statements:

  • Matthew has moved out.
  • David has just moved in.
  • David has only met Sarah.
  • Julia has not died.
  • Bailey has not come to the house.

The handwriting on the note was clean and simple. There were no flourishes, but each letter was written carefully.

A man appeared in the previously empty room. He was tall and gaunt, his eyes sunken and tired. After walking over to the desk, he picked up the note and read through it carefully. Then he sat down in one of the arm chairs and closed his eyes.

Thomas knew now when he was. The list was sufficient, both because of what it did contain and also because of what it did not. This was his present, if any time deserved the name. The list helped him separate what was true from what might be true later. The future that had not yet happened, and the past that was already set.

The list also reminded him of things that were important and needed attention. He could not spend all of his energies in the possible future; action was required in the here and now to bring that future into being. Or avoid it, in some cases.

A dull ache throbbed through his temples. Projecting ahead created more strain than looking back, probably because of the uncertainty inherent in the future. It didn’t stop him from going forward. It was better to get a sense of what might happen than to be caught unawares. It was the only way to have a chance to avoid the worst.

Thomas forced himself to stand. A shower and a shave would help him feel a bit more human and help ground him in the now. He needed to consider his next moves. Talking with Julia again probably wouldn’t help, but he could try. Jason was another option, but he was unlikely to be of any assistance. Thomas finally decided he was too exhausted to make any decisions at the moment. He definitely needed to get cleaned up and get some rest. There was still time to act. He made sure the list was still on the desk in case he came back to this moment while he was in the shower.

An Exorcism

This was a stupid job. Rebecca tried to focus on the money, which she needed, but it was hard not think about how ridiculous it was. This kid’s doll was almost certainly not possessed, yet the parents insisted she exorcise it. They had seen too many horror movies.

Part of her thought she should feel grateful that supernatural horror was popular, but it led to so many bizarre ideas and even paranoia in the public. She knew she didn’t really have to take these jobs, but having some money of her own made her feel a bit more secure. It was something that was hers, that no one could take from her, as well as giving her a sort of independence. She didn’t have to rely on anyone else if it came to that.

However, it sometimes meant searching through a child’s messy room looking for a doll that had moved on its own, or so the family claimed. None of them wanted to be near it, so they had left her to find it. She spent some time digging through piles, looking under the bed and in the closet, and checking other, less obvious, nooks before finally finding it under the dresser.

There was little doubt that this was the doll in question: porcelain, blue dress, and a creepy, realistic face. If you’re going to watch scary movies with possessed dolls, why would you buy something like this? Rebecca had no idea, but she could see why they might believe the doll was possessed. If demonic dolls exist, this what they looked like.

Her intention was to take the doll, tell the owners the spirit possessing it wouldn’t bother them anymore, and go home. Out of curiosity, though, she cast a simple spell to check for spirits or related activity and discovered, to her surprise, that a spirit did indeed inhabit the doll.

The spirit was rather weak and could manage only to animate the doll in minor ways, moving one arm or blinking the eyes. There was no malevolence in it, and no real danger. Of course, seeing a doll move would probably terrify most normal people. Rebecca felt slightly embarrassed, but only in her mind, since she hadn’t confided her skepticism to anyone else. At least she didn’t have to admit her mistake out loud.

Another spell, this one a bit more complicated, allowed the spirit to communicate.

“Can you hear me?” Rebecca asked tentatively.

“Uh.” The response was quiet.

“Do you have to stay in this doll?”

“Nuh.”

“How about this house? Are you tied to it?”

“Nuh.”

“Are you willing to come with me?”

There was a pause before the doll answered, but it did finally reply. “Uh.”

“Alright. Let’s get out of here. Easier than fighting about it.”

She opened the bag she had brought with her. It mostly held props that clients expected someone like her to use. They were all for show. She picked up the doll.

“Is it okay to put you in this bag? Just until i can get you back to my lab?”

“Uh.”

She carefully placed the doll inside and latched the bag closed. Before leaving the room, she checked the house for other spirits. There was nothing else unusual that she could detect.

Downstairs, she reassured the family that she had secured the doll and the spirit would no longer trouble them. They arranged payment, and she told them, as part of her guarantee, to call her again if anything else weird happened.

On the way back to the house, she decided she had to move the spirit out of the doll. There had to be something less creepy she could use. Maybe Sarah had a teddy bear or something. More importantly, Rebecca wanted to figure out how the spirit got into the doll in the first place. That sort of thing was not common. It might be worth keeping it around for awhile. 

Late Night Snacks

Jason was sitting alone in the kitchen, a carton of vanilla ice cream on the island in front of him. He would have gotten a bowl, but then he would have had to wash it, so he decided to just eat right out of the container. No one else was around to object.

A door appeared in the middle of the room. It opened, and Julia walked through. After she closed it behind her, the door vanished. Julia was a head shorter than he was and looked younger, though Jason knew that might be a deception. Her long hair was tied back in the usual ponytail. He couldn’t make out the color of her hair and wished he could remember what it was.

“Jason? Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“Don’t need light to eat.”

Julia sighed and turned a light on.

Black! Her hair was black!

Grabbing a box of crackers from a cupboard, Julia sat down on a stool on the other side of the island. “You didn’t want a bowl?”

He just shook his head.

“So why are you up so late?”

Jason looked at his wrist, but there was no watch there. “Is it late?”

Julia sighed again before changing the subject. “So someone new has moved into the house?”

“Did they?”

“Jason! You’re the one who told me about him.”

“Oh right. An elementalist, I believe. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Why did Thomas bring in someone new? This place is already too crowded.”

“I don’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me why he does things.”

“Yes, he does. You just never remember.”

“That’s probably true,” Jason said with a laugh.

“This place is too crowded.”

“You already said. But how would you know? You almost always stay in your room.”

Julia frowned. “You forget that I helped create all this space. I know when it’s occupied.”

“Yeah. Still, you should get out more.”

“No, thank you.”

Cocking her head a bit as though listening to something Jason couldn’t hear, she hopped down from her stool and summoned a door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jason.”

After the door disappeared, Sarah rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Jason? I thought I heard Julia.”

Jason waved his hand at nothing. “She just left.”

“Dammit. Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Leave. She really doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.”

“She seems to like you just fine.”

“I’m her brother; she has to like me.”

“But you’re not her brother! You two aren’t related.”

“Really?” Jason appeared genuinely puzzled.

“Really. You both say that, but you aren’t.”

“Huh. Well, maybe I remind her of her brother.”

“Honestly, Jason, I don’t know how you make through the day sometimes.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”

“Uh huh.” Sarah slumped down onto the same stool Julia had recently occupied.

Jason looked down at his ice cream, which had become rather soft, and decided he’d had enough. He threw the spoon into the sink and put the carton back in the freezer.

“So have you met David yet?”

“Who’s David?” Jason asked, absently.

“The new kid. He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen him. Is he nice?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Don’t worry about Julia. She’ll come around eventually.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously, how do you get through the day?”

“With a smile.” Jason pulled a pretzel rod from… somewhere and put it in his mouth like a cigar. “Have a good night, Sarah.”

“You too, Jason.”

Welcome to the Cabal

Nearly three feet long, the creatures looked like giant roaches. When they first attacked, David had tried to disappear into the crowds on the street. However, they had ignored everyone else, and no one seemed to see them. On the other hand, people did see David throw a couple of fire spells and started to point and take pictures. So David headed down an alley to give himself more room. The bugs were still following.

At the end of the alley was a woman waving at him. Even if she hadn’t been trying to get his attention, it would have been impossible not to notice her. Her clothing consisted of many different layers of bright color, and in the light, her hair seemed to shift hues.

“David?” she shouted.

Conserving his breath, he just nodded.

“Thomas sent me to collect you.”

David nodded again and stopped. Turning around, he lobbed a large ball of fire back at the bugs that had just rounded the corner.

“What the. . .? Don’t use fire!”

The woman grabbed his wrist and dragged him behind a building.

“Astral beetles,” she said, as though it was an explanation. “They feed on heat. Do you have any ice spells?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Wait until they go past you. Their backs are more vulnerable.”

Before he could ask her any questions, she stepped back into the alley, surrounded herself in flame, and started running away. The beetles followed her with renewed vigor. Horrified by the risk she had taken, it took him a moment to collect himself and begin casting.

Ice spells were not his specialty, but he was competent enough to create several projectiles and send them hurtling towards the creatures. One fell immediately under the barrage, but the other leapt at its prey and avoided most of the attack. It landed on the woman, knocking her to the ground, and began trying to bite her as she attempted to ward it off.

As quickly as he could manage, he summoned another set of ice darts and sent them into the beetle, piercing it numerous times and causing it to stop moving. David rushed over to check on his would-be rescuer, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“Back here.”

He turned around to find her still crouched behind the building. She must have noticed the confusion on his face.

“Illusion. My particular expertise. You did quite well; they didn’t even have a chance to realize they’d been fooled.” She paused long enough to let him process the information. “I’m Sarah, by the way.”

She held out her hand; he took it and gave it a quick shake. “David.”

“Yeah. Got that already.” Her smile was friendly enough.

“Right.” He felt self-conscious. “So what were those things?”

“Astral beetles. You haven’t dealt with them before?”

“No.”

“Huh. Well, they’re not really beetles, and they don’t come from the astral plane. Useless name. But they do like magic. Especially fire magic.”

“Are they common?”

“Not that common, but not unique, either. I’m a little surprised that an elementalist like yourself doesn’t know about them.”

“I suppose my knowledge has some holes in it.”

Sarah gave him a long look. Now that the threat was gone, he realized her hair and clothes really were changing colors. She wore her hair short, and she nearly matched his own six-foot height. Her gaze made him increasingly uncomfortable, and he looked away.

“Well, Thomas invited you,” she said eventually, “so let’s get you back to the house.”

She turned and led him away from the alley. After several minutes they stood in front of a brownstone. It looked pleasant enough, but it was hard to imagine that more than three or four people could live inside comfortably.

“How many members do you have?”

Sarah smiled. “Come on. You’ll see.”

Through the front door was a spacious living room that appeared wider than the whole front of the house.

“Some spatial trickery, thanks to one of our other members, Julia. We don’t have unlimited room, but we have enough. Your room is on the second floor. There is space for a lab, if you require one. I am afraid you’ll be next to Jason.”

“Jason?”

“Yes, one of the oldest members of the house. He’s basically harmless, but he can sometimes . . . roam. Your room is yours. No one but Thomas can enter without your permission. Except for Jason, because no one has determined a way to keep him out. But again, he won’t mess with your things. I’m in the room next to yours on the other side. The rest of the members you’ll meet when they choose. Any questions?”

“This Jason…”

“Jason studies raw power, the patterns under everything. It makes him a bit absent-minded. He does provide energy for the whole house. It’s why he’s here. That and he and Thomas go back… well, further than any of us. Jason’s strange, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. I almost forgot. Here’s your badge.” She handed him a small cloth patch with a blue infinity symbol on it.

“Badge?”

“Marks you as a member of the house. Keep it with you. Only those who have one, or who are with someone else who has one, can enter the brownstone.”

He took it and studied it. There didn’t appear to be anything remarkable about it.

“Where’s Thomas?”

“He’s busy in his room on the fourth floor. He told me he would talk to you later. For now, settle in. You’ve had quite a day.”

Without waiting for a response she showed him upstairs and down a hall, stopping outside a plain wooden door.

“Your room.”

“Thanks.”

Sarah nodded and walked away. David turned the door knob and entered his new home.