Looking for Problems

A knock at the door interrupted Sarah’s rumination. It was Aisha.

“Julia said you wanted to talk to me?”

The other mage was much more outgoing and social than Julia, but Sarah was familiar enough with disguises to know she kept many things to herself.

“Julia gave you a badge?” She must have, or Aisha wouldn’t have made it to Sarah’s door alone.

“She lent me hers. Wouldn’t give me one of my own unless you okayed it. I’m guessing she still hasn’t asked you about it.”

“No. With everything that has happened . . .”

“I understand. I’d have to be playing a very long game, but to you, I’ve only been in your lives for a few months.” Aisha smiled and waited.

“Oh! Forgive me. Please come in and have a seat. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thanks. Some water would be nice.”

“Of course.” Sarah went to the sink in her kitchenette and got two glasses of water. Upon returning to the living room, she set one down in front of Aisha, who was now sitting on the couch. She took the other one with her to an armchair.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

“Matthew.” There was no real point in being circumspect. “You and Julia had a run in with him awhile back?”

“Yeah. At least five or six years ago now. We had been looking for information on temporal magic. Julia was looking for some way to return to her original time. Turns out it was a trap set for someone else.”

“Do you remember where you got the information that led you to that trap?”

Aisha thought for several moments before shaking her head. “One of my informants, I’d guess. But I don’t remember which one. Too long ago, I’m afraid. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. I figured it was a long shot, but I wanted to check.” Even asking these questions felt like she was being disloyal to Matthew. He was one of her oldest friends and had done nothing to earn her distrust. But as guilty as it made her, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“It’s okay. Just letting paranoia get the better of me.”

“One thing I’ve learned – mage or no – never ignore gut feelings. Maybe they aren’t sending a clear message, but they are telling you something. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“You give motivational speeches, too?”

Aisha laughed. “No. I just don’t like seeing incredibly capable women running themselves down.”

Sarah wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Well, thank you for your time. I hope I wasn’t intruding too much.”

“Not at all. This was nothing compared to what Julia usually asks me to do.”

“I hope this isn’t out of line, but I think you’ve been really good for her.”

“Trust me, it goes both ways.” Aisha stood up. “I should probably get going. If you need anything else, or even just want to chat, you know how to get in touch.”

“Thanks again, Aisha.” Sarah stood to walk her to the door when a thought occurred to her. “Hey, did you and Julia ever tell Matthew your names?”

“Nope. We were very careful, especially Julia. She didn’t want to do anything that might put her past in jeopardy.”

“That makes sense. Well, have a good day.”

“You too, Sarah.”

After Aisha had left, Sarah thought about that last bit of information. Maybe Matthew had gotten Julia’s name from somewhere else. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. But maybe it did.

Educated Guess

“You know there’s a color missing from the box you left me.” Julia could feel Jason’s presence across from her, but she didn’t look up from her workbench.

“Of course. I’m the one that left it out.”

“You going to tell me what it is?” Her hands were busy carving a crystal into the proper shape to store mana.

“That depends.”

“On what?” She gritted her teeth as she hit a particularly stubborn spot.

“On whether you think I’m real. If I’m real, then I know the answer. If I’m not, then any answer I give is really just you guessing.”

“Lovely. How should I know if you’re real? You didn’t appear at all while I was trapped in the past. If you’re a figment of my imagination, wouldn’t you still have come around? Or maybe, since my subconscious knew you hadn’t died yet, it kept me from imagining you?”

“Excellent points.”

“So are you real?”

“How should I know?”

Julia slammed the tool in her hand onto the bench. “Jason!”

“What? I feel real, but maybe you just have a vivid imagination.”

“I think you have to be real,” she said while trying to suppress a smile, “I don’t think I hate myself enough to irritate me this much.”

“As far as I know, you don’t hate yourself at all.” Jason returned her smile. “You know, I didn’t give you all of my research so that you would ignore your own work.”

“What can I say? This fascinates me. So are you going to tell me about this missing color or not?”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe you’re not ready.”

“Jason!”

“Fine, fine. If you really want me to tell you instead of discovering it for yourself, I will.”

Loud knocking from the front room interrupted him. She heard Sarah call her name. “Julia!”

Julia glared at Jason. “Don’t go anywhere.”

The knocking finally woke her up, and she lifted her head off the workbench while cursing dreams.

She opened the door. “Is something wrong?”

Sarah shook her head. “I was just hoping to talk to Aisha. Is she here?”

“Oh? What about?”

“I just wanted to ask her about Matthew. Something is bothering me, and I thought she might able to shed some light on it.”

“Now I’m curious. Unfortunately, she’s not here right now. Last I knew, she was tracking down a lead on another temporal mage. I can try to get in touch with her.”

“Thanks, Julia. That would help a lot.” Sarah already seemed to be thinking about something else as she walked away.

Once the door was closed, Julia was tempted to try to find her way back into the dream, but Sarah’s request had piqued her interest. As she was deciding to track down Aisha, another thought occurred to her. Jason had been right: she should have already figured it out. Getting in touch with Aisha might need to wait.

Conversation between Old Friends

Matthew was sitting up in bed when Sarah entered the infirmary. “You look better,” she observed. “How do you feel?”

“Still tired, but definitely on the mend.” He gave her a weak smile.

“That’s good.” She took a deep breath. “So where the hell have you been for the last decade? You just leave without talking to me? You know I’ve been looking for you.” Sarah stopped herself before getting more upset.

“I’m sorry. I thought if I left, you might leave as well. I know I abandoned you, and I’m sorry.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I notice you brought Rebecca into the House.” He seemed eager to change the subject.

“I had to rebuild. A House with only two mages isn’t much of a House.” She was trying to shove her resentment to the side, but she also wasn’t prepared to let it go completely.

“Yeah.” He did sound contrite. “Who else did you bring in?”

“You remember Thomas’s friend Jason? He joined about a year after you left.”

“Oh, right. I’m sorry about Jason.”

That caught her attention, but she continued. “He brought another mage with him, a spatial mage. And Thomas recruited David a few years ago. He’s another elementalist and also the one that found you.”

“The place sounds pretty lively. I’m a little surprised Thomas has included so many mages.”

“It was that or lose the House completely.”

“I suppose. So Thomas is okay?”

“More or less. Who are the people that attacked us? What do they want? You said you were working with them for a time?”

“They kept a lot of things from me, but I think there are two mages behind everything. One of them is a temporal mage who goes by Solomon. The other is an elementalist named Robert. They bring in others when necessary. They told me that they wanted to stop Thomas from messing with the timeline, but eventually I realized they wanted to kill him. I never did find out why.”

“Are they going to come after you?” Her concern was genuine.

Matthew shrugged. “I assume. If they think I’m in their way.”

“Do you know where they are?”

“I knew where they were. I’m guessing they’ve moved by now.”

Sarah thought for awhile, absorbing everything, before asking, “How long ago did you fall in with them?”

“About two years ago. Hey, would you ask Thomas to drop by. He and I should talk.”

“I’ll ask him, though I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“You should get some rest.” Sarah stood to leave.

“I will. Tell Rebecca, David, and Julia thank you. And hey, do you forgive me?” He gave her a look with puppy dog eyes.

“Yes. We’ll talk more later, okay?”

Matthew nodded and laid down.

Sarah wasn’t sure she actually did forgive him. Their conversation had bothered her for some reason, and she needed to work it out. Matthew had been a friend for a very long time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

New Type

Lucas woke up hearing voices but couldn’t see anything.

“This is definitely one of the NEW TYPE. Look at these genetic markers. His resistance to disease is much higher than average.”

He tried to speak but couldn’t manage it. The voices continued.

“Those are quite remarkable. I will fill out the order and send him upstairs.”

“Do not bother. They are uninterested in anyone older than 25 cycles.”

“But those genetic . . .”

“It does not matter. They reject anyone older with no exception.”

“What do we do with him, then? Just dispose of him? Such a waste.”

Dispose? That sounded ominous. Why couldn’t he see?

“No. We will try to breed him. If that does not work, we can extract his genetic material and graft it to a younger candidate. No waste.”

“Okay.”

“Let us look at the next specimen.”

Footsteps receded from him. Soon he was alone with no idea what was happening to him. At least, he had thought he was alone until the surface he was laying on began to move. A table on wheels, perhaps? Being pushed somewhere? He soon lost consciousness.

* * *

When he became aware of his surroundings once more, he found himself lying on a large cushion. He could see again. Other cushions and pillows were scattered around the rather sizable room, but no other furniture was present. The walls were a tan color, and there was light without any identifiable source. After scanning the room, he was surprised to realize he wasn’t alone.

A woman was sitting against the far wall and staring at him. Several pillows were arranged around her, leaving only her face visible. It was then that he realized he himself was naked. He quickly grabbed a couple of nearby pillows to cover himself with. His flabby body had him feeling rather self-conscious. Carefully, he shifted to face her while remaining seated and covered.

“Sorry. I don’t know what happened to my clothes.”

“Just stay over there.” Her voice was firm, but he detected a hint of anxiety.

“I will, I will. How did I get here?”

She glared at him but said nothing.

“Before this I was . . .”

“You can’t remember, can you?” It almost sounded as though she was gloating.

“No. Now that you mention it, I had a weird dream and woke up here. I can’t remember anything else.”

“You probably heard them talking, not a dream.”

“Who are they?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t seen them. Just hear them now and again.”

“What do they want?”

“How should I know? As far as I’m concerned, you could be one of them.”

Her irritation finally cowed him into staying quiet. And she was right. Why should she trust him? He was a stranger.

Time passed in silence. He turned so that he wasn’t directly facing her. With nothing else to do, and the woman uninterested in talking, he laid down and curled up facing away from her.

“Hey!” The woman’s voice woke him.

“What?” He muttered in response.

“You snore.” She hadn’t changed positions.

“Sorry.” He sat back up. “How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to have lost track of time.” She still sounded wary but not as openly hostile.

“Do you know why I’m naked?”

“I think they want us to mate. But before you get any ideas, you’re not my type.”

He considered responding in kind, but even though it was true, it seemed petty. “Understood. My name is Lucas, by the way.” He hoped sharing his name might put her more at ease.

“Don’t care. As long as you stay over there.”

So much for that idea. Noticing that there were no obvious doors, he began to wonder how they got into the room initially. Even where the walls met, the corners were rounded and showed no seam, as if the room had been created as one piece. “Is there any way out of here?”

“One of the wall panels slides open. There doesn’t seem to be any mechanism to activate it from this side. I’ve looked.”

“So we’re trapped.” He wanted to get up and walk around. Even with the padded floor, he was starting to feel stiff from sitting for so long. However, without a better way to cover himself, standing meant subjecting the woman to his body, so he stayed where he was.

“Do we get food?”

“Periodically. It’s edible, at least.”

“And . . . Uh . . .”

“Over there.” She pointed to a third wall. “Just warn me before you use it.”

Out of frustration at the situation, he shouted at the ceiling. “Hey! Hey! Could we at least get some blankets?”

“What are you doing?”

“Well, if they do want us to mate . . .”

“I already told you.”

“No, no. I just mean, if that’s what they want, they’re probably watching us. I figured I’d ask.”

“Oh. Not sure they’re listening, but it can’t hurt, I suppose.”

When some time had passed without any response, he assumed she was right. Either they weren’t listening, or they didn’t care.

“Rachel.”

Her voice surprised him; she hadn’t said much of anything unprompted.

“Huh?”

“My name. Rachel.” She wasn’t looking at him.

“Oh. It’s nice to meet you, Rachel, though I wish our circumstances were different.”

She nodded an acknowledgement but said nothing else.

As silence descended once more, he turned his attention to his memories. It was disturbing that he couldn’t remember anything about his life before waking up here. His name and his age were the only pieces of information connecting him to his past.

Part of wall suddenly vanished, startling him. A person with a shaved head and wearing a white robe entered through the opening. In their outstretched arms was a tray of food on top of two folded blankets.

“Who are you? Why are we being held here?”

The person showed no reactions to Lucas’s questions. They placed the blankets and food on the floor just inside the opening and then stepped back. Instantly, the wall was restored.

Awkwardly, Lucas made his way to the blankets without standing up. Wrapping one around himself, he tossed the other towards Rachel and turned his back to her.

“Thank you,” she said after a few moments. “You can turn around now.”

On the tray, there were several slices of brown bread and a large bowl of something that looked like vanilla pudding or mashed potatoes. None of it looked very appetizing, but his hunger became acute.

“I can’t believe they actually gave us blankets.” Rachel had moved closer. “By the way, that creamy stuff is very bland, but it hasn’t caused me to get sick.”

The sat down on opposite sides of the tray and began eating. It was tasteless, but the texture of the food in the bowl did resemble pudding, so it was inoffensive. They ate in silence. Neither of them wanted to seem too eager, but Lucas guessed she was probably just as hungry as he was.

As they finished, Lucas tried once more to start a conversation. “I think I heard them say something about not wanting anyone older than 25, and I’m in my mid-30s, but you don’t look that old.”

“I’m 26. But I think they’re only interested in women for breeding purposes. That was the impression I got during my exam.”

“You said earlier that I wasn’t your type . . .”

“It’s true, but that was a bit harsh. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you getting any ideas.”

“No, it’s okay. Strange, naked man wakes up in your room. I’d be surprised if you weren’t anxious about it. I just wanted to let you know that sex doesn’t interest me. I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but there it is.”

Rachel considered him for several moments. “Well, I’m not sure I believe you, but thank you, I guess.”

Without warning, glowing red numbers appeared on the wall that had opened earlier: 8:00:00. Immediately, they began counting down. It seemed that had eight hours. A little less now. But what happened after 8 hours? “Any idea what that means?”

Rachel shook her head. “I’ve never seen them before.”

The lights in the room dimmed so that it was difficult to see details. He could still make out Rachel’s face, but only barely. A disembodied voice came from somewhere overhead.

“You clearly understand speech, so we will explain the situation. You have eight hours. If mating does not occur within that time, you will be reassigned.”

“What does that mean?” Rachel asked, but there was no response. “What do think ‘reassignment’ means?” She directed the question to Lucas this time.

“I couldn’t begin to guess. You were here before me, so you know everything I do.”

They sat for awhile, each of them avoiding looking at the other.

“I’m going to lie down and try to sleep,” Lucas said eventually.

“You don’t want to talk about this?”

“What’s there to talk about? Neither of us is interested in having sex with the other. We don’t know what will happen in eight hours, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

“So you’re not going to try to convince me?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No.”

“There you go. Even if we could muster the desire, we can’t let ourselves be threatened into having sex.”

“You’re right,” Rachel agreed. “I guess I expected you to talk me into it.”

“That wouldn’t be fair to you. Let’s just try to rest.” He laid down under his blanket, and she followed suit after moving away.

Her disgust at the idea of having sex with him didn’t upset him. He didn’t assume it was about him, just as his lack of interest had nothing to do with her.

Worrying about what might happen next made for fitful sleep, but he managed to get a few hours. The numbers on the wall indicated there was less than an hour until ‘reassignment.’ Looking around, he saw that Rachel was already awake and sitting against the wall.

“Did you sleep?”

“No,” she replied. “I don’t know how you did. How are you so calm?”

“I’m not. I’m terrified, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

They didn’t say anything for the rest of the countdown. He couldn’t guess what Rachel was thinking, and he was occupied trying to come up with some sort last minute escape plan. Their captors were listening, and probably watching, so coordinating anything with her would just give them warning. The person who had brought them food hadn’t appeared to be armed and didn’t look particularly strong, so maybe if Lucas surprised them when they came, he might be able to overpower them. It wasn’t much of an idea, but he couldn’t think of anything else.

When the timer ran out and the wall opened, he readied himself to jump at whoever walked in, but he hadn’t been prepared for what arrived.

Two figures stepped into the room. They were roughly human shaped, though much taller at over seven feet. Their arms were twice as long as they should be given their height, and their skin was completely smooth shinning with a warm yellow light. They weren’t wearing any clothes, and Lucas couldn’t make out any facial features on what he thought must be their heads.

There was a scream, but it took him several moments to realize he was the one screaming. Both figures walked towards him. They reached out to grab him and stand him up. His fear and confusion prevented him from resisting.

As he was guided to the opening, the screaming in his head died down enough that he could hear Rachel’s voice.

“. . . a little more time. You don’t have to take him. We will mate!”

He managed a weak smile at her and shook his head. “Don’t. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Good luck, Rachel.” Then he was taken away.

New Tradition

The candles were once more arranged in concentric circles within Julia’s pocket space. This time, however, she had arranged four couches within the candles. Rebecca sat on one of them between David and Marie – the latter was resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and seemed to be dozing. Sarah lounged on the couch across from them, her elbow propping up her body. Julia sat on a third, while Aisha rested her head in Julia’s lap. The fourth couch remained empty.

“So you and Jason spent every Winter Solstice like this?” David asked.

Sarah gave him a look of warning, but Julia shrugged it off. “I appreciate the concern, Sarah, but it’s been roughly eighteen years since Jason’s death. I know it’s more recent for all of you, but I have had lots of time to find some measure of peace.

“To answer your question, David, yes. He and I would stay up all night talking. I know a number of magical traditions make use of this night for special rites, but he and I used it as a time to step back from every day life and reconnect as friends.”

“So why did you decide to invite us?” David followed up.

“Jason wanted me to belong somewhere. Maybe that sounds silly, but it was one thing he always was on me about. This night used to be about us, but I figured he would want you all here. And I think over the last several years, I’ve begun to understand the importance each of you has had in my life.” Absently, Julia ran her fingertips up and down Aisha’s arm, and the other woman smiled up at her.

“It’s too bad Thomas can’t be here,” Rebecca said softly so as not to waken Marie.

“Yes, it is. But no business tonight. No worrying about current troubles. Tonight is just about friendship.” Julia was firm but not angry.

“So the fourth couch?” Sarah gestured at it.

“Well, I did want there to be plenty of room to sit and get comfortable, but I have to admit it’s also for Jason. The last time I was here, Jason showed up. I thought there might be a chance . . .”

After a brief lull, David changed the subject. “So you were stuck in the past for fifteen years? What did you do the entire time?”

“Mostly, she got in trouble that I had to bail her out of.” Aisha answered.

“Ignore her.” Julia playfully covered Aisha’s mouth.

“Actually,” she continued after moving Julia’s hand, “she was quite boring. Always inside doing research. I had to find ways to get her to leave the house.”

“Yes, wild goose chases after magical books. Threatening to reveal my existence to my past self. Life with you around was never boring.”

Aisha laughed. “That’s why you kept me around.”

“Hmmm.” Despite her attempt to seem put out, Julia couldn’t keep a smile from her lips.

Sarah looked at Rebecca. “Have you heard from Bailey?”

“No.” Rebecca seemed a bit melancholic at the mention of her friend.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring you down.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t. Not really. I think about them now and again, but they are really good at not being found. I hope they’ll come back eventually, but we can’t control others.”

Marie murmured at shifted a bit without opening her eyes.

“Anyway, even ignoring all the major events of the past year, I’ve been busy helping Marie get set up. So I haven’t had much time to worry about Bailey.”

Another comfortable lull descended.

This time, Julia broke the silence. “How’s business at your store, David?”

“Slow, but I’m starting to develop a few regulars. I’m just happy to be in the community making connections.”

“It’s a good store. I’ve found a few items for my clients there,” Aisha volunteered. “I could probably funnel a few more customers your way.”

“That would be great, but I wouldn’t want to steal any of your business.”

Aisha waved away the concern. “There will always be more esoteric requests to keep me busy.”

Conversation continued to ebb and flow throughout the night. Julia look around at the group and couldn’t help but think that Jason would be pleased.

Desperate for Clues

Jason’s rooms had been a mess, but Julia was familiar with how his mind worked, so she wasn’t overwhelmed by the chaos. Thomas’s rooms, in contrast, were tidy and organized, but her unfamiliarity with how his mind worked prevented her from discerning the order. Instead, she was forced to meticulously go through every book, every drawer, looking for anything that might help.

Several spell beads had been tucked into various nooks throughout the room, probably for emergencies. She could identify the temporal magic within but not the specifics of the spells they contained. She had also found a file containing notes about the past and future; she put it back as soon as she realized what it was. Other notes made little sense to her.

“Not sure Thomas would approve of you going through his things.” Sarah was standing in the doorway.

“Well then he shouldn’t have gotten stuck in time.” Julia didn’t look up from the drawer she was searching. “Every temporal mage we have managed to locate has already died, so this was my last idea for finding… something.”

“And have you? Found anything, I mean.”

Julia slumped back to sit on the floor. “No. I just don’t know enough. There are these spell beads that I don’t dare use without knowing more about them. Some notes that are difficult to interpret. Do you have any insight?”

“Sadly, I doubt I know any more about Thomas’s magic than you do.” Sarah walked over to the two mages standing frozen. “Do these two unnerve you?”

“Not really. They’re just part of the scenery at this point.”

“Are you still keeping tabs on our friend?”

“Yes. So far, he hasn’t stayed in one place long, so I’m still not certain where he’s hiding. On the positive side, he doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s being tracked, so we’ll get him eventually.”

“Good.”

“Do you think Thomas would mind if I took some of these beads and notes back to my room? I want to study them further.”

“I think he would hate the idea.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all. If you can find some way to break the spell on him, it will be worth whatever irritation he expresses.”

“Great. Oh.” Julia pulled a crystal from a pocket. It was blue with green swirls. “This should be able to knock down any barriers.” She handed it to Sarah. “I want to keep refining it, make it stronger.”

“Thank you, Julia.”

“Sure. And I’ll let you know if I make any progress on our temporal magic problem.” Julia gathered up the items she had found and carried them back to her own rooms.

Meeting with the Enemy

“You aren’t seriously considering going?” Rebecca was nearly shouting.

“She’s right, Sarah. It’d be crazy to show up.” Julia was more subdued in her agreement.

The three of them, along with David, were sitting around the table.

“This is a chance to find out more about who attacked us.” Thomas had always kept his own counsel; Sarah was determined to operate more openly, so she told everyone what had happened while she was investigating the house where Matthew had been imprisoned.

“Do you even know where you’re supposed to meet?” David asked.

“I have an idea.” Sarah answered. “No one has been able to locate a temporal mage, so we have no way to break the spell on Thomas. This person can tell us what happened, maybe give us a clue as to how to help Thomas. And as long as he is out there, we’re all still in danger. He’s not going to stop until Thomas is dead, and that means going through us.”

Everyone stayed silent. Maybe they were trying to find fault with her reasoning. Maybe they just didn’t like it. Sarah didn’t like it herself, but she had to do this.

“Okay. So let’s consider how to approach this.”

* * *

“You’re a day early.”

The place where Thomas had apprenticed was now just an empty lot. Thomas had inherited it, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The remains of the house had been removed, but otherwise, it had remained untouched. Several trees were scattered around the edge of the area, and the rest was just grass. The attacker stood on one end of the lot, with Thomas’s image about fifty feet away.

“I thought I should check to be sure there were no surprises,” Sarah said with Thomas’s voice.

“Suspicion isn’t very becoming.”

“Hmmm. Well, I am here now; what did you want to say to me.”

“Where are my associates?”

“You called me here just to ask that?”

“No, of course not. It just seemed a waste not to ask.”

“So why am I here? Have you decided to call a truce?”

“Ha ha!” The man threw his head back in a genuine laugh. As he did so, the ground beneath Thomas’s feet exploded. Rubble flew in every direction, and smoke filled the air.

When it cleared, Thomas was in the same spot he had been.

“You’re not even really here? How disappointing,” the other man said.

“As I told you, I was expecting surprises.”

“I guess it was obvious.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sarah didn’t really expect an answer.

“You know I’m not going to tell you that.” He took a few steps back. “Well, I don’t intend to get into another battle with you right now. And since you aren’t really here, I suppose we’ll have to do this some other time.” After several more steps, he vanished.

“I still think we should have tried to eliminate him while we had the chance,” Julia said to Sarah. They had concealed themselves down the street from the empty lot.

“I know, but without knowing what he is capable of, that could have gone horribly wrong.”

“So did you learn anything?”

“No. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to make the attempt.”

Aisha stepped out from a nearby shadow.

“Were you able to plant it?” Julia asked.

Aisha smiled and nodded.

“Then we got what we came for,” Sarah said. “Now we can try to fill in some of our blind spots and better prepare for our next move.”

“You’re the boss,” Julia said with a smile.

Bait (part two)

Footsteps tracked all over the ground floor for the next several minutes. Finally, the basement door opened, and someone walked down the first two steps.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” It was a man’s voice that Sarah didn’t recognize. “I have a message for you.”

She had no intention of accepting anything at face value. There didn’t seem to be any magic left in the house, but she couldn’t know what surprises this person may have brought with him. Eventually, the man finished descending the stairs.

He didn’t look like the attacker who escaped, and she didn’t recognize him from anywhere else. Did this mean there were even more people involved in coming after Thomas?

“Who are you?” Her voice came from the other side of the basement, a simple illusion spell.

The man spun around looking into the dim corners of the empty area. “Who’s there?” He seemed nervous.

“I asked first.” Thomas’s voice was deep and, she hoped, intimidating.

“I was told to bring a message here. Give it to someone named Thomas. Is that you?”

“What’s the message?”

“Where are you?”

“Do you have a message or not?”

“I was told to only give it to Thomas.”

“You can hear me. Do you need to see me, as well?”

“I need to be certain. See your face.”

“Fine.” Sarah revealed Thomas’s visage. “Now. What is the message?”

“He said you are to meet him at the beginning in one week’s time. If you are still alive.”

A bright orange glow began emanating from the man’s chest. His face was twisted in pain and fear, but he said nothing else. A second later, an explosion ripped through the basement before Sarah could do anything else.

* * *

When the air cleared, Sarah looked around. There was little left of the messenger except for small pieces scattered about. Such callous use of a life shocked her, all the more because the sender even suspected Thomas might survive. It had been easy enough to cast the illusion of Thomas across the room, but she had expected an attack not a living bomb.

Whoever was behind these attacks clearly didn’t care who else was hurt in the process. Maybe this messenger wasn’t innocent, but Sarah suspected he hadn’t agreed to be killed. Now she had a week to figure out what to do next.

Bait

Thomas walked down the street while trying not to draw attention. Sarah knew his mannerisms, his voice, so using his visage to draw out the attackers was easier than trying to copy someone she didn’t know. The problem was that Thomas had essentially been a recluse for the last decade or so, and she wasn’t sure anyone would believe he was willing to leave the house now. Investigating the house where Matthew had been tied up seemed a plausible reason for him to go outside. She hoped anyone watching would see it the same way.

It wasn’t a long walk, but dragging it out would almost certainly be seen as suspicious, so she had to hope whoever might be watching was paying attention. Inside the house, Sarah maintained Thomas’s appearance, just in case they were keeping an eye on the inside of the house. It also meant she had to try to look for clues, even though she didn’t expect to find anything.

After looking in the empty rooms on the ground floor, she headed to the basement. There, she found the chair and rope that had bound Matthew. There was nothing remarkable about any of it. The rope was in two pieces, with an end of each piece being scorched, presumably where David had burned through to free the other mage. The basement was otherwise empty.

The only magical residue she could identify was a small amount of fire magic, probably David’s. Either they hadn’t used magic here, or they had covered it up very well. Though she hadn’t counted on finding any useful information, the complete absence of even the most mundane things surprised her. Someone must have gone to great lengths to remove every trace of the attackers’ presence.

Something began to itch in the back of her mind, but before she could give it her attention, she heard a sound above her. Someone else was walking around upstairs. Had her ruse worked, or was this merely coincidence?

Taking no chances, Sarah quickly cast an invisibility spell, while still maintaining the image of Thomas, on the off chance that they could penetrate the invisibility. Then she waited near the bottom of the stairs for them to come down.

Two Problems

The open box on the desk was taunting her. Six crystals sat inside, each nestled into its own spot. Orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and white. The very first space was empty. Nothing in Jason’s notes indicated what the seventh crystal should be. The spectrum suggested red, but Julia couldn’t guess what effect it should have.

White, providing raw power, was the one universal crystal. Every mage who created mana batteries made them white. But the other colors seemed to be particular to Jason. Green used spatial magic, and blue interfered with magic. Purple was connected with knowledge. She had finally determined that orange was associated with elemental magic. As best as she could tell, yellow had to do with light. Assuming the missing crystal was red, what did Jason associate red with? Did he never discover the missing crystal? Or had he hidden it from her? If so, why?

“Are you still staring at those?” Aisha walked into Julia’s study and placed a cup of coffee down in front of her. “I thought you were working on a barrier for your house?”

Cradling the warm mug in both hands, Julia leaned back in her chair. “I was, but I needed to take a break. No matter how I look at it, a barrier is clunky and a waste of power.”

“So you are distracting yourself with a bigger problem?”

“What can I say? I’m a masochist.”

“Really? That opens up some new possibilities.”

“Don’t go getting any ideas.” Julia knew she was joking. “I just can’t shake the feeling that these crystals might help in some way. For fifteen years, all I could do was work from my memory of Jason’s notes. I thought maybe I had forgotten important details. Now that I have the notes in front of me, I thought I could find . . . something. Turns out, my memory is pretty good.”

“You know, trying to force it to make sense isn’t going to get you anywhere. Take a break. Let your subconscious work on it for awhile.” Aisha took a sip from her own mug.

“Two intractable problems. Taking a break from one to work on the other is getting me nowhere.”

“Well, let’s go back to the barrier. Why do you want to create it?”

“I don’t. But I think Sarah is hoping to avoid a repeat attack.”

“And how does a barrier prevent it from happening again?”

“Well, if we have a barrier set up, then someone else can’t erect one that can be manipulated against us.”

“So the real problem is someone else setting up a barrier?”

“Of course. But you know this already.”

Aisha waved away the objection. “The question is, is a barrier the best solution to this problem?”

“No, but . . .”

“Then why are you trying to make a solution work that isn’t the best?”

“Because . . .” Julia trailed off as a new idea began to take shape.

“I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thanks, Aisha.”

She turned around and gave Julia a little smile as she left the room.