There was a penetrating chill in the air. A simple spell would have kept it at bay, but David was reluctant to use magic away from the protection of the house. The run in with astral beetles – which felt like years ago but was actually only a month earlier – had taught him a level of caution that years of training had not managed to instill.
Still, despite his newfound appreciation for discretion, here he was chasing after a mage he barely knew and who, he’d been told, did not want to be found. She had a master-level command of spatial magic, and he had no idea where she might be headed. He didn’t even know why he’d followed her, except that his Guide, Samuel, had also ingrained in him a responsibility towards others. And he would want someone to come after him, if the situation were the other way around.
Ever since he had been invited to join the house, he knew he had a role to play in keeping it safe. Going after Julia had felt like his responsibility, but now that he was actually looking for her, he found he had no idea what he was really doing. David wanted to live up to Samuel’s faith in him, but he was no longer sure of himself.
The world abruptly shifted. One moment he’d been walking down a city street, then the next step he took was on a grassy field. The artificial light was gone; only the stars overhead provided any break from the night. He looked around, but there was no indication of civilization in any direction.
“Who are you? Really?” A woman’s voice reached him from somewhere close by. It sounded like Julia.
“What’s going on?” He was trying to stay calm. A spark flicked from his hand, but he shoved the impulse away. He needed to understand what was happening before he reacted.
“Me first. Who are you?”
“Fine. I am Searcher David, led by the Guide Samuel down the path of the elements.”
“Quite a mouthful.” The voice kept shifting directions, like the speaker was running around him. “But not really what I was asking. Why did you come out here?”
“Julia? Look, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“Bullshit. Who sent you? Thomas? He brought you into the house. He must have, otherwise we would have been consulted. Or did someone else send you? To come after me?”
“No one sent me. Thomas brought me into the house, but I haven’t even spoken with him since I got here.”
There was no response. David wasn’t even certain Julia was still there.
“Okay? My turn.” He hoped his voice wasn’t shaking. “What is going on? How did I get here?”
More silence. Was she thinking? Or had she left him in the middle of nowhere?
“I’m going to cast a spell just to give us some light.” After giving his warning, he wrapped his hand in cold flame. Julia stood about twenty feet away, staring at him.
“I don’t believe you.” Her expression was unreadable, especially in the dim light, but her voice carried more distrust than he had ever encountered before.
“Then just send me back. I was trying to help, but I don’t need to be here. I’ll leave you alone, just put me back in the city.”
“Why shouldn’t I just leave you here?”
“I haven’t done anything to you.”
Julia’s demeanor suddenly changed. She seemed to forget about him and was paying attention to… something else.
“Shh!” She interrupted him and pointed off to his right.
The light wasn’t bright enough to reveal anything, so he intensified it. At the very edge of illumination, he could see it. At first, it seemed to be a long snake with far too many eyes that appeared to be hovering in midair. Then he caught a glimpse of long legs holding its body up, three feet off the ground. It looked like nothing he had even heard of, but it terrified him at a fundamental level. After a moment, it skittered back, disappearing once more into the darkness.
“We need to get out here,” David whispered toward Julia. Before he could do anything else, the creature grabbed him from behind, wrapping him like a constrictor, its legs folded back into its body. He could feel his clothes dissolve where the creature touched him. The weak acid deadened his nerves just after he felt suckers latch onto his skin. As a scream filled the air – it could have been from Julia or from him – he felt magic drain from him, followed by his consciousness.