Siege (part four)

The pounding in her head was the first thing Julia became aware of. Underneath her was the hard ground, bare of any vegetation. The light was that of the late afternoon, but there was no sun overhead. She was in one her own extra spaces. The explosion must have thrown her inside, probably sparing her from the worst of the blast. Behind her, the portal to her room was still open.

On the other side, she saw Rebecca and Sarah just sitting in the middle of the debris. Neither was moving; they just seemed to be staring at nothing.

“Rebecca. Sarah.” She called to them, but they didn’t react.

When she tried to pass through back to her room, Julia discovered another barrier had cut her off. This one had the same resonance as the one around the house. Whoever was responsible must have erected it after she had been tossed through the portal. This barrier extended all around the space, trapping her in an even smaller area, only about five feet in diameter.

Her friends weren’t in any condition to help her. The mage who had erected these barriers – even using them to circumvent the Long Hallway – was impressive. But how impressive? There was little doubt as to their skill, but how much stamina did they have? How much magical resources did they have at their disposal?

While this space was small, Julia had intended to make it larger, so she began adding volume to it now. If nothing else, it would give her more room to think. Someone watching from the other side wouldn’t notice any change because only the portal was in her room. But the barrier would have to grow to cut off the entire area and keep her trapped; otherwise, she could just create another portal somewhere else.

As her pocket dimension grew, she could feel the barrier thinning. Julia had a number of the white crystals with her, so she had plenty of energy. Eventually, the barrier broke apart, popping like a balloon. The other mage must have reached their limit and chose to maintain the barrier around the house instead of fighting her.

Julia quickly stepped through the portal and let it fade behind her. Would the same trick work on the larger barrier around the house? She wasn’t sure. It would probably require a lot of magic to create enough extra space, and she wasn’t sure she had that many crystals available.

Before working through that problem, she needed to wake her friends. Shaking each of them by their shoulders didn’t work. Even yelling in their ears had no effect. It was like they were hypnotized or possessed . . .

Julia jumped up and hurried to her work bench. It had been years – at least from her perspective – since she had seen it, but it was here somewhere. After sifting through the clutter, she found what she was looking for in a drawer: the blue crystal she had made for Bailey. With the crystal, she ran back to the other mages and put it into Sarah’s hands. It took only a few moments for Sarah’s eyes to begin to focus.

“Julia?”

“Yeah. Hold on.” Julia thrust the blue crystal into Rebecca’s hands.

“We were looking for you, but couldn’t find you.” Sarah sounded unsure of her own words.

“I think someone was messing with your heads, though I don’t know for sure. I think you’re okay now. Rebecca? Are you with us?”

Rebecca nodded. “We definitely need someone who specializes in mind magic.”

“Later. Right now, we need to deal with the barrier on the house.”

“I think I have an idea,” Sarah offered.

Siege (part three)

All spatial magic has a signature. Each mage bends space according to a resonance unique to that mage. If one could isolate the resonance, and one knew the mage’s signature, it would be a simple matter to identify who had cast a given spell. However, the differences in resonance also meant that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for one mage to disrupt the spell of another.

Unfortunately, Julia didn’t recognize the resonance of the barrier surrounding the house and had little experience breaking through them. Her own defenses for the house didn’t involve a barrier but, rather, a series of spatial trap doors that one could only avoid with the badges she had created. Now that she was trapped inside someone else’s barrier, she had to figure out how to breach it. There had to be a way through since their assailants would presumably need to enter at some point.

Sitting in her rooms, she continued probing the barrier, looking for a weak point. The door to Esther’s place wasn’t functioning, and she was still unable to open a portal to anywhere else. If she could get in touch with Aisha, or David . . . But she hadn’t even been able to manage that much.

Not knowing when something else might happen made it difficult for her to focus. Absentmindedly, she began creating a small space, separate from her room. She couldn’t get to anywhere outside the house, but this space didn’t technically exist outside the house. As she shaped it and added some of her own design preferences, she became more absorbed by the process.

When she realized what she had been doing, Julia felt a twinge of guilt for wasting magical energy on something frivolous. They might need it to defend themselves against whatever was coming next. However, she quickly realized that this space might be useful. If they needed to escape or hide, this would be perfect.

The sound of her door opening drew her attention. Some sort of object, roughly the size of a shoebox, floated into the room. The object was on the other side of the barrier that wrapped around the house. Whoever had created it, had formed a hollow, tentacle-like impression that acted like a deep indentation in the barrier. As far as the house was concerned, the object was outside, beyond the barrier. It was a clever way to manipulate the barrier to move things around without running afoul of the house’s defenses.

The tendril closed behind the object before releasing it. It fell to the floor without ever allowing an opening Julia might have exploited. Her admiration for the novel use of spatial magic kept her from realizing the danger that this intrusion represented. The explosion knocked her backwards, and the world went black.

Siege (part two)

Minutes went by, but their search turned up nothing. While they continued sifting through the rubble, Sarah asked, “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

“This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

“When I asked her about breaking through the barrier, she said it was probably impossible. But maybe she found a way? And doing so created an explosion? I just don’t know.” Sarah couldn’t help but feel anxious. They were already down a member with David outside of the house. If Julia was also missing, the house’s defenses would be seriously compromised.

“Well, I don’t see any signs of her,” Rebecca said. “I hope your speculation is right, because all the other possibilities I can think of are horrible.”

Sarah nodded in agreement.

A door leading to one of the back rooms opened and Julia walked out. “What’s going on out here?”

“Julia?!” Both women exclaimed in unison.

“What happened to you?” Sarah asked.

“Where did you go?” Rebecca’s question overlapped Sarah’s.

“What are you talking about? I’ve been right here.” Irritation was obvious in her voice and body language. “Why did you two break into my room? And what did you do to create this mess?”

Sarah looked to Rebecca, who briefly closed her eyes. “It’s her.”

Sarah turned back to Julia. “Don’t you remember? The house is under attack. We thought you’d been hurt because Rebecca lost contact with you.”

“You were spying on me?” Julia glared at Rebecca.

Sarah stepped between the two women so that Julia would be forced to look at her. “Julia. What is going on? We were working together. We are all in danger. Why are you acting like we’re the enemy?”

Julia’s anger seemed to subside a little, and confusion replaced it. “That doesn’t make sense. I don’t recall any of that.”

“Is she under the influence of a spell?”

Rebecca shrugged. “I can’t tell. I know it’s her, but I don’t have any good way to determine whether there is a spell on her.”

“You think someone has messed with my head?”

Sarah gestured at the room. “You don’t remember this happening. You didn’t hear it happen, even though you said you were here. Rebecca and I arrived after this. Do you have any explanation?”

Julia thought for a few moments and then lashed out, her anger returning in force. “Just get out of here.”

“Julia, you’re not making sense. We need to work together.”

“I’ve seen how Thomas works, Sarah. I’m not interested.”

Sarah was caught off guard. Hadn’t Julia let go of her animosity toward Thomas? Even if someone had erased her recent memories, they wouldn’t have wiped fifteen years worth, would they? Could they?

To Rebecca, she asked, “Are you certain this is her?”

“Without a doubt.”

“How did . . .”

Sarah was struck by a wave of disorientation. When it passed, she returned to searching through the rubble. “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

Rebecca nodded. “This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

Siege (part one)

Rebecca had no experience with an attack on a House, unless Peter’s attempted abduction counted. According to Sarah, such attacks were not unheard of, but her family had never been subjected to one. An advantage of being isolated from the rest of the world, she assumed.

Nothing had happened yet, but both Julia and Sarah were convinced something was coming. How were they to prepare for such an attack without knowing when it would come or what form it would take? Her expertise seemed particularly ill-suited for dealing with this situation.

Once more, she had been asked to stretch her abilities and connect everyone mentally. If they survived this, she was going to insist on recruiting a mentalist mage. Spirit magic wasn’t really mean for this. The best she could do in this situation was to keep track of emotional states. It lacked the exactness of verbal communication, but it should alert her if someone was attacked. Julia had left a small portal open for her to share information, but because she was also trying to prepare, she had only had the concentration for keeping one open.

Something began tapping her leg. Looking down, she saw the bear trying to get her attention. It had been roaming the halls on the lookout for anything unusual. It was motioning her to follow.

“Julia?”

“Busy.” Julia’s voice sounded strained.

“My bear found something. I’m going to go check it out.”

“Be careful.”

The bear led her through the hallway to the stairs leading down to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs laid a pack of cards. Jason used to play, but she hadn’t seen a deck since his death.

A slight distortion shimmered in the air around the cards. It quickly dissipated, and the cards seemed to settle more naturally on the floor. As she tried to puzzle out what had happened, a wave of surprise washed over her and then vanished. Someone was missing.

She located Sarah’s calm, determined mind immediately. After a few moments, Thomas’s mix of anxiety and irritation came into focus. “Julia?” There was no response. She couldn’t find the spatial mage anywhere.

Taking the steps two at a time, Rebecca hurried to Julia’s door and began knocking loudly. “Julia? Julia!”

Her own fear grew with the silence. No one else was experiencing distress, so she ran to Sarah’s room. The other mage opened the door immediately.

“Something has happened with Julia.”

“Where?” Sarah’s calm demeanor helped ease Rebecca’s own anxiety a little.

“Her room.”

Sarah walked quickly down the hall to Julia’s door and knocked. “Julia?”

“I already tried.”

With a slight hesitation, Sarah grabbed the knob and turned it. Both women were surprised when the door swung wide open.

Instead of the void they had found the last time they had entered Julia’s rooms uninvited, there was a room. However, it looked like the aftermath of explosion. Debris was scattered everywhere, and the ceiling had collapsed. They could see an inky void through the hole. Without waiting another moment, both of them began digging through the rubble, looking for their friend.

A Warning

Branches smacked me in the face and dug into my arms as I ran. Every time my pace slowed, I could feel hot breath on the back of my neck. At least, I thought I could feel it, and it made me run faster.

I don’t know what was chasing me, and I didn’t have a chance to look behind me. The dense woods had robbed me of any sense of direction. I had no destination in mind; I just ran.

Every muscle hurt, my lungs felt like they would burst, but I couldn’t stop. So it was at that moment that my right foot caught on a root and sent me sprawling face down onto the ground. I tensed in anticipation of fangs and claws digging into my back, but no such attack came.

After waiting for several moments, I rolled over to look around. The woods were quiet, unnaturally so. No birds sang, no insects buzzed, and even the sounds of small animals were absent. There was also no sign of whatever had been chasing me.

I didn’t know where I was, how I had gotten here, or why I was being chased. Thin shafts of sunlight cut through the few holes in the canopy overhead; the angle suggested it was late in the day. Every part of my body was screaming, so I decided to rest before moving on. I shifted to lean my back against a tree.

I must have fallen asleep immediately because when I opened my eyes again, the angle of sunlight had changed and a new day had begun. Before I had fully taken stock of where I was, deep growling came from nearby. Something large and heavy was getting closer, snapping branches as it barreled through the trees. Every inch of me complaining, I began to run again.

Part of me wanted to stop, lay down, and let myself be torn to shreds. But I couldn’t; I had to run, to get away. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I ran as fast as I could. Maybe it was hours. Or maybe only minutes.

Without warning, the ground disappeared beneath my feet. I must have stumbled into a pit. The hole seemed endless as I continued to fall. Looking up, I saw something staring at me from the the top of the hole. Before I could make it out, I was sitting, awake in my bed. The sheets were soaked with cold sweat.

My body ached as though I had really been running for a full day. It hadn’t been a dream; it was a warning. Something was coming.

Emissary from K-San

The bedroom door was already ajar when he knocked on it. “Hey, Jake.”

His son was sitting at the small writing desk he had gotten for his birthday. “Hi, dad.” He didn’t look up from his paper. “How do you spell ‘requisite’?”

Out of habit, he replied, “Look it up.”

Jake sighed and picked up a dictionary that was sitting on the corner of the desk. The boy was seven years old but seemed much older. The effect could be disconcerting, but by itself, it didn’t fully explain why it was hard to keep babysitters. After he had copied the word he needed, he continued writing.

“What’re you working on?”

“It’s a letter to K-San asking them to send me some items. I was explaining something to Julie, and I don’t think she believed me, so I . . .”

“Julie quit.” The babysitter had been close to tears when he had come home and left without explaining what had happened.

“Why?”

He sat down on the floor so he would be at eye level with Jake. “She seemed upset. Maybe because of what you were telling her? We’ve talked about this before, Jake.”

“I was just telling her how light could be manipulated in order to achieve . . .”

“Did you mention K-San?”

“Of course. I needed to explain how . . .”

“That’s probably what upset her.”

“I don’t understand.”

Now it was his turn to sigh. Jake had a vivid, wonderful imagination, but he struggled to separate fantasy from reality. His persistent claim that he was from an alien planet, K-San, unnerved his teachers, his classmates, and his babysitters. For two years now, ever since his mother had left, he refused to give up the idea, never admitting it was just a story. Not wanting to stifle his son’s imagination, he struggled with how to deal with the fantasy Jake was mired in.

“Jake, you know I love your stories about K-San. but other people don’t have any experience with aliens. Most people are nervous about things they aren’t familiar with. When you tell them you’re from another planet, it makes them uncomfortable.”

“So I should lie to people?”

“No, Jake. I don’t want you to lie. But you don’t have to talk about it as much. Think of it like a secret. You’re not lying when you don’t tell people a secret. Okay?”

The boy was quiet as he considered his father’s words. At what point should he seek professional help? Jake’s fantasy didn’t interfere in any meaningful way. His grades were good, and when he didn’t talk about K-San, his social interactions seemed to go well. Was this just a phase or something more serious?

“Okay, dad. I won’t talk about it as much.”

Maybe the fantasy would fade if he didn’t bring it up as often.

“Thank you, Jake.” With the serious conversation over, he tried to lighten the mood. “Should we go for pizza?”

Jake smiled. “Yeah!”

“Okay. I’ll get changed and we can go.”

“Sounds good.”

After his dad left the room, Jake took a small device out of his backpack and put it under his bed. He had planned to bring the three dimensional recording device to school, but he would have to come up with something else for show-and-tell.

Not Enough

The floor was hard despite the carpeting, which itself was scratchy. I was only vaguely aware of the discomfort; all my focus was on her.

That year, whenever we were together, we laid on the floor rather than the bed. I couldn’t tell you why. At the time, all I knew was that she was lost. She had curled against my chest, using my right arm as a pillow, and crying quietly. There were no sobs, no whimpering, just tears falling on my arm where the sleeve had been pushed up.

I had stopped asking what was wrong. Maybe she didn’t have the words. Maybe she had learned – as so many of us do – that telling others doesn’t help. No one can take the pain the away; all you can do is find some way to bear it. For her, at that moment, she managed by crying as I held her.

We stayed like that all night. She dozed off at some point, while I stayed awake holding her. When the sun finally invaded, she got up and asked me to leave. I offered to stay, but she insisted. At a loss for how to help, I did as she asked.

It wasn’t the last time we spent a night like that, but eventually there was a last time. Maybe someone wiser than me would have found the right words. Maybe someone less self-absorbed would have cared in the right way. But we don’t get to live in the maybes; things happen in the way they do, and maybe can’t change it. I did what I could do at the time. And it wasn’t enough.

Time-Delay

The door-to-door salesman opened his case and pulled out what looked to be a pair of scissors with a cylinder attached.

“These are perfect for cutting hair. The blades never dull, and the tube vacuums up the hair as you cut.”

“I don’t cut my own hair.” I didn’t remember letting him in. He knocked, and the next thing I knew we were sitting on the couch as he tried to sell me useless gadgets.

“Well, then, how about this . . .”

“What’s that?” I pointed to a small, otherwise plain-looking box that had three buttons on it. It looked like a miniature traffic light as the red button lit up, followed by the green, and then the yellow, before returning to the red.

“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that. This, however . . .”

“But I am interested. What is it?”

The man sighed and pulled out the box. “This is a Time-Delay. Some want us to call it a ‘Start-Clock’, but that’s silly. It really is nothing more than a parlor trick. Someone of your standing . . .”

“What does it do?”

The energetic – and saccharine – charisma had drained from his voice. “It stops time.”

“You’re kidding. How could this stop time?”

“I’m just the salesman, not the inventor. But I assure you, it works.”

“Prove it.”

“Very well.” The man reached out and waited. When the red button lit up, he pressed it.

Nothing had changed, but he sat back as though the demonstration was over.

“When does time stop?”

“It already has. And started again.”

“I didn’t notice anything.” As I had suspected, this was all a joke.

“Of course you didn’t notice anything: time was stopped. Being in time, you were stopped as well.”

“That’s a convenient excuse.”

“Check your back pocket.”

I never put anything in my back pocket, so I was surprised when i discovered a driver’s license. It was the salesman’s.

“How . . . ?”

“While time was stopped, I placed it in your pocket.”

“Why weren’t you stopped?”

“Because I pressed the button.”

“That’s incredible!”

“Not really. It just . . .”

Eager to test it myself, I reached out and pressed the red button. The salesman seemed to freeze in place. Realizing the opportunity before me, I closed the salesman’s case and put both him and it outside. They were both light as a feather, a side effect of the time stopping, I guess. I locked the door and turned back to my prize.

Since I had seen his hand come back from pressing the red button, I reasoned that that was the trick to start time moving again. To test it, I took a pen and held it high. When I let go of it, it stayed where it was, suspended in mid-air. Upon pressing the red button again, the pen fell to the floor.

So if the red button caused time to stop and restart, what did the other two buttons do? The traffic light appearance might mean that the yellow button slowed time down, but that seemed redundant. Why slow time if you could stop it? But I couldn’t even guess what the green button did.

As I considered the possibilities, the salesman (or someone) began banging on the door. If I hadn’t stolen the box, I assume I could have asked what the other buttons did, but it was too late for that.

Instead, I took the risk and pressed the green button. My consciousness seemed to speed forward several days. Several people were in the room with me. They used some sort of device which caused me a great deal of pain before reducing me to ash. I felt every moment of it.

When I recovered enough to realize I was back in my present, I picked up the box, opened the door, and shoved it into the salesman’s hands. Then I started packing. I’m not sure what I saw, but I was going to get as far away from my house as possible.

The Reason Why

“I need you to do something for me.”

The words sent shivers down my spine. The things he needed me to do were always bloody.

“Who?”

He tossed an envelope onto the desk. “Those are the details. No special circumstances, other than making it messy.” The discussion over, he waved me away.

* * *

“So you see, I don’t really want to do this.” The target and I were sitting across from one another at his kitchen table.

“Don’t do it, then.”

My gun was sitting on the table in front of me, and he kept stealing glances at it. He would have to be extremely fast to grab it.

“If I don’t, then he’ll kill me and just send someone else to kill you. We’ll both wind up dead.”

“Maybe the next person he sends will have the same misgivings.”

“I suppose that’s possible.” It wasn’t. I knew a number of the others too well.

“How about, I run away? Never come back. You can just tell him you killed me.”

His desperation was palpable. I wish there really were some way out.

“Won’t work. I need to make sure he reads about it in the paper. That requires a lot of blood.”

He jumped up and began yelling. “If there isn’t an alternative, why are you bothering to talk to me?”

I tapped the gun to get him to sit back down. Once he did, I spoke again. “It’s weird. People usually go through anger and then grief. The order isn’t set in stone, but it’s just odd seeing it backwards like this.”

“Are you just looking for me to absolve you? To forgive you?”

“No.” Now that he brought it up, it suddenly seemed very likely to me. “I just wanted to take a minute to process my feelings.” That was particularly stupid sounding.

“Couldn’t you have done that after I’m dead? Instead of torturing me by prolonging it?”

“It’s good to have someone to talk these sorts of things over with, you know?” I don’t know why I was trying to justify myself to him.

“Do you know why he wants me dead?”

“No.”

“Well, let me tell you, then.”

“I don’t want to hear it. Knowing the reason could make it harder to kill you, if it makes me sympathize with you. It might also make it easier, if you did something terrible. But I don’t want to kill out of anger. You know?”

“You’re going to kill me without even knowing why?”

“Probably.”

“I think that let’s you off too easily.”

I just shrugged. I could see why he thought so, but it didn’t change my mind.

“Here’s what happened. I was . . .”

Before he could say anything more, I picked up the gun and shot him in his face. The impact knocked him backwards on to the floor. I stood up, walked over to his body, and shot him in the chest.

I really don’t like knowing the reason why I have to do what I do.

Respite, Interrupted

Sarah had taken the relative quiet of recent months to return to her research. Unlike the other members of the house, she always wanted to make noteworthy contributions to magical knowledge. It wasn’t about making a name for herself, or at least, it wasn’t about just that. There was a tradition, and she wanted to be part of it in a substantial way.

Most mages with her gift focused exclusively on illusions, and Sarah excelled at them. However, there had to be something more, the opposite effect. If the gift could conceal, could it not also reveal? Dispelling illusions was common enough, but her research focused on finding techniques for sharpening the senses, allowing her to notice things otherwise hidden.

Now that things in the house had settled into a new equilibrium, she had some time to get back to this work. Settling into her new role, she had finally begun to relax a little. When she had run the house under Thomas, she always felt him watching her, judging her decisions. Trying to run his house was very different than running her own. The responsibility felt less oppressive; she could look after the well-being of the members without worrying that someone might overrule her. In gaining more responsibility, it had become less of a burden.

There were changes to get used to besides her own. Since the time-travel incident, Thomas had become even more reclusive, which was the exact opposite of what she wanted. For now, though, he didn’t seem to be causing any new problems. On the other hand, Julia was much more social than she had ever been.

Sarah had to constantly remind herself that Julia had had fifteen years to grow, to change, while the rest of the house didn’t even have time to absorb her absence. In effect, she was now the oldest mage in the house, and it was a bit jarring. As she explained it, she had actually missed everyone, and that’s when she realized she wanted to be a member of the house.

There were other matters to attend to, such as finding a new member to fill the hole Jason’s death had left, but those could wait. For now, she was enjoying her research and could forget the problems of the house.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. “Sarah? It’s Julia. We might have a problem.”

Placing the book she was reading onto the small table next to her armchair, Sarah sighed and rose to open the door.

“Please tell me we’re out of milk or something of that sort.” She knew Julia wouldn’t have bothered her over such a trivial matter, but she clung to hope.

“I’m sorry, no. I had a portal accompanying David on his visit to that other magic shop. It was forcibly closed, and I haven’t been able to reopen it.”

“You think something happened to David?”

“If only that was all it was. I haven’t been able to open any portal outside of the house. To anywhere.”

Sarah quickly understood the implication. “We’ve been surrounded by a barrier?”

“It seems so.”

“Do you know how long?”

“Only the last five minutes at most. My portal was fine until then.”

“Get Rebecca. I’ll retrieve Thomas. Meet in the kitchen as soon as you can.”

Julia nodded and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Was this finally the consequence of Thomas’s time experimentation? Attacks on houses were uncommon, but not unheard of. Thomas’s own experience was just one example. Sarah hoped he had come up with some idea for how to survive this.