Diagnosis

It took a couple of minutes for Bailey to answer the door. Sarah had just begun to worry that they had escaped again when the door finally opened.

“Are you finally letting me out?”

Instead of answering the question, Sarah indicated the woman standing next to her. “Bailey, this is Madeline. She’s a friend of mine,” Sarah ignored the chuckle, “And she’s agreed to try to help us.”

“Help us with what?”

Sarah ignored the look Madeline gave her. “Can we come in?”

“It’s not like I have much of a choice.” The door opened, and Bailey stood aside to let in the two visitors.

Once inside, Sarah noticed that the room seemed very well lived in. After tracking Bailey down, Julia had put them in here and limited their movement even more. Without knowing the details of the charm or compulsion they were under, it seemed like the only safe option.

Bailey was clearly unhappy with this arrangement. “So what is this about?”

“Sarah tells me you might be under a spell,” Madeline blurted out before Sarah could stop her.

“Oh not this again. How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not under any spell? I don’t know what happened to Rebecca!”

“What Madeline means is that she’s here to make sure that you are okay.” She glared at the other mage to prevent any contradiction.

“You’re lying. Leave me alone!”

“Good grief.” Madeline shoved Bailey down onto the couch. She so often cultivated a demure image, it was easy for Sarah to forget how imposing Madeline could be. “Now sit quietly for a few minutes.”

Bailey tried to get up. “You can’t do . . .”

“I said stop.”

Sarah could feel the power in Madeline’s voice. “I think they’ve been traumatized enough . . .”

“If you want to know what’s going on, I need to examine them. They clearly are under some sort of compulsion if they are are so insistent on not being analyzed. They probably can’t consent right now. Do you want me to do this or not?”

Sarah looked at Bailey sitting rigidly. “Fine. But . . .”

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt them.”

Madeline focused all her attention on Bailey. Sarah could do little more than watch. She knew much of the basics; charms were her mistress’s specialty after all. Yet she had never had the aptitude for them that Madeline did. Whatever had a hold over Bailey was beyond her abilities.

Madeline continued to concentrate as the minutes dragged on. Over half an hour passed before she finally broke away. Bailey seemed to have relaxed a bit but had slipped into unconsciousness. Madeline stumbled over to a chair and slumped into it, her face falling into her hands.

“Do you have some water?” she finally asked without looking up.

Sarah knew where there were cups and filled one from the sink in the bathroom. She went back to the living room and handed it to Madeline who had by now sat up.

“Thanks.”

Sarah waited until she drained the cup before asking, “So?”

“If you told me the Mistress had done this, I might believe you.”

“What do you . . .”

“It’s that intricate. This thing is so thoroughly wrapped around Bailey, I’m not sure anyone can get it out. Every time I tugged on one part, the rest tightened its grip, threatening to crush them. Maybe the person who did this could undo it. Maybe. But I can’t. No wonder Bailey doesn’t want this messed with. They might not even be aware of it. Actually, I hope they aren’t; it’s terrifying.”

“So there’s nothing we can do?”

“If I had massive amounts of raw power, I could maybe rip it out. However, even if I did, it would leave Bailey an empty husk. There would be nothing of them left.”

“Do you think the Mistress could do it?”

Madeline thought for a moment. “Perhaps. But it would be dangerous. For both. That’s the other thing. Every time I probed it, there was a bit of psychic feedback. I don’t know what it would do if it were seriously threatened.”

Sarah felt despair lapping at her feet.

“There’s another issue.”

“More?”

“Sarah, think about it. Whoever did this is powerful. Maybe more powerful than anyone I’ve known. If this was just about your former housemate, maybe leave it alone. I know we’ve never been the best of friends, but I don’t want to see you hurt. Whoever is behind this is dangerous. I think it would be best if you let it go.”

“Madeline . . .”

“I’m very serious. This scares me.”

“But what about Bailey?”

“Is that really your problem?”

“Yes,” Sarah answered without thinking.

Madeline gave her a long look. “Okay. I’ll try to do some digging; maybe I can find some sort of solution.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t. I think this is a mistake. Just . . . please don’t do anything foolish.”

Sarah gave her a weak smile. “I’ll try.”

The Purple Crystal

The desk had been cleared of everything except a black cloth, upon which sat the purple crystal. All of the crystals wore different shapes. The white ones Jason had made, for instance, were slender rods about the length of a hand from palm to the tip of the middle finger. The green one was more akin to an elongated pyramid. The purple crystal was circular, no larger than two inches in diameter. It was also curved slightly, the convex side facing up on the desk.

Having studied the first few pages of notes from the box, Julia had a pretty good idea what the crystal’s purpose was. There was nothing dangerous about it, as far as she could tell. Still, she hesitated to try to use it. It represented a boundary, past which lay other unknowns. That gave her pause.

Finally, she decided she had wasted enough time and picked it up. All she had learned about the nature of this particular crystal suggested she just had to hold it for it to work. But she knew Jason, and had an idea how his mind worked, so she held it to her left eye like a monocle.

The moment she looked through it, the world changed. Some objects glowed while others seemed to lose color. On a page of notes she had nearby for this very test, nonsense markings became easily readable script. This was the primary purpose of the crystal, deciphering text. Yet it also seemed to be revealing hints about the magical nature of everything around her. That suggested there was more to this than Jason’s notes had contained.

Hoping for some insight, she looked at the other crystals from the box. The yellow shone brightly, while the orange dimmed. The blue crystal . . . had vanished. It had resisted her attempts to grasp its function, and now it was gone?

She pulled the lens away from her eye in order to look for the missing crystal. Immediately, she saw it sitting in its proper place, right next to the others. She looked through the lens again, and once more it vanished from her sight.

Putting the purple crystal back in its place, she picked up the blue. It had been the wrong one to start with, but now she had some ideas about how to uncover its secrets. With the purple crystal’s help reading Jason’s notes, she felt confident she would succeed this time.

Isolated

Rebecca spent much of her energy to keep from screaming. If she gave in, the Elder was certain to find her. In a corner of what used to be her mind, she had hidden away important parts of herself. The Elder had already assimilated the rest. He had nearly complete control over her, and every moment was a new violation.

Throughout the conversation with Sarah, she expected her friend to notice something off. Every time Sarah tried to coax her to say she didn’t want to be here, Rebecca strained to give her some sort of sign, but to no avail. The Elder had no trouble shrugging off her efforts. After he seemed to have convinced Sarah that everything was fine, Sarah left, and she once again retreated from conscious awareness.

If she stayed quiet, the Elder largely left her alone. He had most of her, and she couldn’t hold out forever. At the beginning, she fought all the time. After a week, the futility of it left her with a growing sense of despair, and being aware of her body doing things she hadn’t willed it to was horrifying. Retreat allowed her to conserve some strength and to ignore the loss of control.

Sometime after Sarah left – she didn’t know how long – she felt the Elder looking for her again.

“Rebecca, quit hiding. We have a problem, and I would like your help in solving it.”

It felt like a ruse, so she stayed silent.

“We found someone in the compound. Your memories are still a little spotty for me, but I believe his name is David.”

She almost jumped, but stopped herself. He had access to many of her memories. Mentioning David was an obvious ploy.

“You can see for yourself. He was sneaking around and got caught in that explosion earlier. We need to decide what to do with him.”

Rebecca didn’t know anything about an explosion. It must have happened when she was secluded. However, when she looked through her eyes, she could see David laying on a cot inside one of the cells. What had he been doing?

“Satisfied? Let’s go back to our office.”

He said it as though she had a choice in the matter. Maybe he thought he was being polite, but it felt like he was rubbing her nose in her own helplessness.

“So how should we get rid of him?”

“What?”

“I am sorry, Rebecca, I truly am. But we can’t let people just wander in here without some sort of consequence. We have to dispose of him. He’s your friend, so I wanted to consult you, to determine the most human way.”

He sounded genuine, but what he was saying was so barbaric.

“We can’t!”

“I’m sorry, but we have to. To protect our family.”

“But . . .” Rebecca was becoming frantic. There had to be some way to stop this. “Wait. You let Sarah go.”

“She didn’t break in and start snooping around.”

“You want her to leave us alone, right?”

He was quiet for a few moments. “Yes?”

“Let David go. That will help convince her everything is okay. If she knows he’s here, and he doesn’t come back, she’ll get more suspicious. But if we let him go, she’s more likely to believe that we have nothing to hide, that you’re me.” Rebecca knew she was throwing away another chance, but once more she couldn’t sacrifice a friend just to save herself.

“Will that work?”

“You know what I know.”

“Hmm . . . Fine. I hope you’re right.”

That was a threat; it was vague and formless, but unmistakably a threat. The Elder left her alone again, yet she refused to retreat until David was safely away. Seeing him, hearing him, and not being able to respond nearly caused her to break down. She kept herself in check, however, until she was safely alone again, where the Elder had not yet found her.

Catching Up

Sarah was sitting in the living area sipping on a glass of wine when a door appeared in the middle of the room. Julia stepped through, took a glass off the table, and sat down in another chair.

“So where did you go?”

“We found Rebecca.”

“Really? Did you bring her back?”

“No. She says she wants to be there.”

“Are you serious? After all that effort to find her? Are you sure she’s not being held against her will?”

“I’m not. But they did catch David sneaking around and let him go, which suggests they aren’t trying to antagonize us. She also spoke with each of us alone. I suppose someone might have been observing us, but she seemed to be free to do as she pleased.”

“So that’s it?”

“Maybe. For now. What about Bailey?”

“I tracked them down and brought them back. They came willingly, but we’re going to need some help. They are under some sort of charm or compulsion. That’s why I don’t trust the situation with Rebecca.”

“She did say there was some sort of misunderstanding with Bailey. We should get to the bottom of that.”

“You know anyone who can break a charm?”

“I might.”

“I’ll leave that to you, then. Go easy on Bailey, though. Something tells me this has been an ordeal for them.”

“I will, but I’m a little surprised to hear you plead on their behalf.”

Julia shrugged. “I have a compassionate side. Sometimes.”

“Julia . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for your help. I want you to know that this is your home. As long as you want it to be.”

“Thanks, Sarah. Jason wanted me to find a place. I am trying.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Let me know when you’re going to deal with Bailey. I think I should be there.”

“I will.”

Julia finished her glass and left. Sarah continued to nurse hers while she mulled over the events of the last few days.

Prisoner

The first thing he was aware of was pain, specifically soreness permeating throughout his body.  Eventually opening his eyes, David found himself in a small room; the cot he was laying on was the only item present. He couldn’t tell where he was or how he got here.

A small panel towards the top of the door slid open, and a pair of eyes peered in at him. The opening shut again, and he heard a voice outside. “Get the Mistress. He’s awake.”

“Hello?” David called, but no one responded.

The trauma his body had been through had left him little energy, and he fell unconscious once more.

When he woke next, a familiar face sat beside him.

“Rebecca?”

She smiled. “Yes. Don’t exert yourself too much. You’ve been through quite a bit.”

“Where are we?”

“My family’s compound. You were found half buried in a pile of rubble. I can guess what happened.”

“Are you okay? Are they holding you prisoner?”

She laughed. It was genuine but sounded a bit cold. “No. Nothing like that. I assume you were looking for me thinking that, though. Yes?”

He nodded. Still disoriented from being knocked out, he was finding it difficult to understand what was going on.

“I explained this to Sarah, but this is my home. I am here because I want to be.”

“So . . .” This was a lot to take in.

“So you needn’t have gone to all of this effort.”

“What happens to me now?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m in this cell . . .”

Rebecca chuckled again. “This? Obviously my people wanted to secure an intruder. They didn’t know who you were or why you were here. Since I hope to have cleared up any misunderstanding, you can be on your way. I just ask that the next time you visit, you announce yourself.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. I’m touched you were worried about me so much, but I’m fine. Do you need a ride somewhere? Were you and Sarah supposed to meet up?”

“I . . . uh . . . yeah.”

“Okay. I’ll make sure someone gets you there. I would take you myself, but I have other pressing matters to attend to. Please forgive me.”

David nodded as she stood to leave.

“It was good seeing you, David. Please take care of yourself.” As she finished speaking, she turned and walked out of the room, leaving the door open.

The Right Question

Who am I?

What kind of answer counts? Name? Job? Relationship status?

My name is an identifier, but not an identity. Jobs and relationships change.

Who answers? Me? My family? My friends?

The rune Sowelu represents wholeness. It speaks to becoming who you already are. But who is that? What is the essence of a person?

One way to approach this issue is the debate between essentialism versus existentialism. Is there an essence in place already, or does a person create an essence through their choices? As with so many important questions, this one skips over a preceding one: what is an essence of a person?

What does it matter if the essence is in place already or created after the fact, if we don’t know what it is?

For much of my life, the question of who I am has dominated my thinking. I have pestered others with it, hoping they might know. Hoping that they might have a connection to me that gives them that insight, and thus means that I belong somewhere.

“Is that the question? And if so, who answers? Who answers?” – Pearl Jam, “Alive”

For too long, I have tried to figure out who answers. I am starting to think that it isn’t the question. Who am I? The sum total of all my experiences, desires, beliefs, concerns, and more. And all of those can change. What sort of answer could capture that? What finite set of words could express that?

Who am I? That’s the wrong question, so every answer is also wrong. What’s the right question? Depends on who’s asking and why. 

The question I’ve been asking, for years, should have been: Where do I belong?

I’m still not sure I know the answer, but at least I know what the answer might look like.

The Longest Night

“Gran’pa, it’s cold out here.”

“That’s why we have a thermos of hot chocolate.”

“We have two thermoses.” 

“Yes. And yours has hot chocolate.”

My grandfather sat back in his rocking chair and stared up at the night sky. When he pulled the chairs out onto the front porch, I had expected my grandmother to yell at him, but she didn’t. This woman, who never allowed shoes to be worn inside her house, was letting her husband take indoor furniture outside. Instead of objecting, she smiled a sad, wistful smile and said nothing.

Almost as big a surprise to me was when he announced that he and I would be sitting up night together. My grandfather was a kind man, but he was also a stickler about bed times. My mom once told me that she had to be in bed by ten until she moved away to college. Suddenly, just a few days before Christmas, he expected me to have an all-nighter with him.

“So why are we staying up?”

He didn’t answer right away. Just continued staring. I looked to the sky myself to see what had his attention. My grandparents lived out in the country, so there wasn’t any light from a city or even other houses to dim the stars. You could see a lot of them on a cloudless night. I always loved looking at them, but I couldn’t see anything special that night.

“It’s tradition.” His voice startled me a little, as I had been entranced by the night sky. “This is the longest night of the year. We keep watch to make sure it ends, to keep the sun from getting lost.”

I was young and unsure whether he was trying to pull my leg. “The sun can get lost?”

He smiled just a little. “Probably not.”

“But you said . . .”

“I said it was tradition. When my grandfather passed it on to me, I asked him if he believed it. He never said, but I think maybe he did. And there’s no reason to take a chance.”

“So you stay up to make sure the sun comes back?”

“Tonight, we stay up.” With that pronouncement, he fell silent once more.

I went back to staring up. Because I often spent time at their house in the winter, I already could recognize a few constellations easily. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia were the first. While looking at them that night, I saw a shooting star.

“Gran’pa! Look!”

“Good eye. That’s from the Ursid meteor shower. My grandfather used to say they were guides helping that sun find its way. I think that part he made up. Still, it never hurts to make a wish when you see one.”

I kept watch for awhile and spotted two more shooting stars. Eventually, the cold and the lateness began to have an effect on me, and I started to nod off. My grandfather caught me. He shook me awake and poured me more hot chocolate.

With his occasional help, I stayed up all night with him. Sure enough, the sun rose late the next morning. I had seen it come up before, but that was the first time I remember being anxious about it, the first time it seemed like a miracle.

After it was safely above the horizon, my grandfather took me to bed, and I slept until early afternoon. I don’t think he slept at all. Several months later, he passed away, and ever since, I stay up on the longest night of the year to make sure the sun comes back.

I’m not telling you this story because I’m going to die in the coming year. You don’t need to worry about that. I just want you to understand why you are staying up all night with me. Would you like some more hot chocolate?

Infiltration

The ring Sarah had given him made him invisible, but wandering through the compound was still a little nerve-wracking. With every step, David expected someone to raise the alarm. It wasn’t that he doubted Sarah’s skill; he just had no experience with this magic, so it was difficult to relax.

In theory, the plan was simple. Sarah would distract Marie by inquiring about Rebecca. That provided her an excuse to enter the compound and allow David to sneak in with her and look around. There was no concrete reason to think this group had abducted Rebecca, but Sarah had a hunch. 

The problem with the plan was that neither of them had any knowledge of the layout of the place. Sarah had only been here once, and only in the first house. David, who had never been here, had no real idea where to even begin. His own village had a communal organization, but this place had an air of hierarchy that he was unfamiliar with. Every building seemed like it held secrets, but their nature was indeterminate. None stood out.

David entered the first house he came to after the one in front, as much to get out of the open as to start looking. Would things be hidden? Or did the group feel safe enough from the outside world to not bother with concealing anything? Because he couldn’t be sure, he looked through every room.

The floor above ground was normal looking, if sparsely furnished. There were single beds in three of the rooms, and a front room with a couch and several chairs. It took him a bit to realize that what seemed off was the lack of a kitchen. There was no one obviously being held captive, however. That just left the basement to investigate.

The basement was dark and unfinished. After fumbling around for a few moments, David found a light and turned it on. Against one wall were shelves piled high with food. Considering the lack of a kitchen in the house, the supply seemed especially out of place.

Other buildings he checked followed the same basic pattern, simple furnishings and a stocked basement. Water, gasoline, freezers stocked with meat, tools, and so on. This group had enough supplies to be self-sufficient for some time. And yet, there was no sign that Rebecca, or anyone else, was being held against their will.

A somewhat larger building towards the middle of the compound held a sizable kitchen and dining hall. Unlike the others he had been in, this building was occupied. Several people were busy preparing a meal. David headed to the basement expecting to find yet more food.

To his surprise, there was a small room at the bottom of the stairs, with a locked door on the far wall. He knew nothing about picking locks, and there was no obvious place for someone to have hidden a key nearby. Using magic to get through the door would be destructive, but the only other option he could think of was leaving. While he was trying to determine the least noticeable method of getting rid of the door, footsteps on the stairs interrupted his train of thought.

The invisibility was still intact, but he wasn’t intangible, so he tried to get as flat against the wall as he could. A man in a simple white shirt and jeans appeared after a moment.

“Is there someone down here?”

When no response came, he finished descending the stairs and walked over to the door. After checking that the door was still locked, he produced a key and unlocked it. Once through the door, he turned on a light. David carefully followed him inside. Several work benches were stationed around the room, and there was a gun rack on one wall. While the scene was disturbing, it still wasn’t what David was looking for, so he turned to leave. In doing so, he accidentally kicked the table nearest him.

“Whoever you are, don’t move.”

Looking behind him, David saw the man holding a rifle aimed at the door. At first, he worried that the invisibility had finally failed, but he could tell the man was still scanning the room. Slowly, David took a step towards the door. The man aimed and squeezed the trigger. The bullet just missed David’s head.

“I said, don’t move.”

David wasn’t sure how he knew where to shoot. Rather than risking another attempt, he decided to cause a distraction. There was a table right behind the man, and it was a simple enough matter to start a fire on it. Unfortunately, something on the table exploded when the fire touched it. David’s world went black.

An Unexpected Meeting

Waiting for Marie was unnerving. Getting into the compound had been relatively easy for Sarah, but confronting the leader of this group again was unpredictable, especially after her previous visit. However, she wasn’t sure how much choice she had. Julia would almost certainly find Bailey, but they might not talk or even not know the answers Sarah needed. As risky as this visit seemed, waiting felt riskier.

When Marie entered the room, Sarah studied her closely from where she sat. The woman looked the same, but something was different about her demeanor; she was less confident, carried less authority.

“Hello, again. I’m sorry for coming . . .” Sarah stopped talking when she realized Marie wasn’t looking at her, hadn’t even acknowledged her. This woman, who had exuded power at their last encounter, simply stood inside the door, her whole body turned toward the entrance. She almost certainly could see Sarah in her peripheral vision, but she merely stared straight ahead.

Her confusion grew and mixed with shock when Rebecca walked into the room. Marie nodded in deference to her, but Rebecca ignored the gesture, instead rushing over to Sarah and embracing her.

“Rebecca! Are you okay?”

Rebecca released her and took a step back. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

That was not the response Sarah expected. “Well . . . you . . . you just disappeared so suddenly. We had no idea where you went. Or even how.”

“Oh. I would have thought Bailey would have told you.”

“No. She said she had no idea.”

“Hmm…” Rebecca looked over her shoulder at Marie, who gave a quick nod. “Perhaps she didn’t understand that I wanted all of this explained.”

“Wanted what explained?” All of Sarah’s assumption were melting beneath her. “What is going on, Rebecca?”

“I’ll tell you what I can. Some of it is private. Family matters. I’m sure you understand.”

Sarah was not at all sure she understood, but she nodded anyway.

“You already know that Marie had been left to take over when I ran away. When you described things to me, I didn’t realize how overwhelmed she really was. Bailey brought me a letter that made things clearer. With Peter gone, I came to realize how much I was needed. So I returned to help.”

Marie still wasn’t looking at them, but Sarah couldn’t ignore her presence. “Could we talk alone?”

Without turning around, Rebecca said, “Marie? Would you give us some privacy, please?”

Marie said nothing as she left. After the door closed again, Rebecca’s expression broke into a big grin.

“It’s so great being back!”

“Rebecca. It’s just us now. Tell me what’s really going on.”

“I already did. I just didn’t want to act too happy in front of Marie. My return has displaced her some, and I think she resents it. I don’t want to rub it in her face.”

“So you really do want to be here?”

“Of course. I told you before, this is my family. It’s good to be back home.”

“Why did you disappear from the cafe?”

“The letter contained a transport spell. Bailey should have explained all of this to you.”

“They didn’t.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“You’re not being held against your will? You’re not afraid of Peter?”

“Peter was exiled shortly after I ran away. He wouldn’t dare show up here now. This is probably the safest place for me.”

Sarah studied her, trying to read her body language. It seemed as though she was telling the truth, but nothing about this felt right. Still, Rebecca insisted she was here because she wanted to be. Sarah had no reason – other than an uneasy feeling – to contradict her.

“So you’re going to stay here?”

“This is my home.”

“Will you visit us?”

Rebecca smiled. “I don’t know if that will be possible any time soon. I’m very busy here.”

“Well, then, can I come visit you?”

“Of course! You are welcome here whenever you like.”

Sarah tried to think of something else to say, some way to draw Rebecca out, but nothing came to mind. She hadn’t expected to see Rebecca here, and hadn’t properly prepared. The best she could do was leave without arousing suspicion so that she might return later.

“I’m glad to have found you safe and happy.”

“Again, I’m sorry I worried you.”

“I suppose I’ve taken up enough of your time. Please reach out if you need anything.”

“I will. Thank you, Sarah.”

The entire way back to the car, Sarah braced herself for something to happen, but she was allowed to leave without incident. It was only after she passed through the gate when she heard an explosion back in the compound.

Looking for Bailey

There was no point in denying it: Julia was angry with herself. Trying to find ways to connect with people, she let herself trust Bailey. Now, it appeared that that trust had been misplaced. Jason would tell her not to give up after one failure, but it wasn’t just one. It was merely the latest. Finding Bailey was all she could think about. It wasn’t so much to help Rebecca as it was to confirm the betrayal. She hadn’t really opened up to them, but even the idea that it had been possible irritated her. Having gone along with Bailey staying at the house, she felt some measure of responsibility for their actions.

Outside the house, she retrieved the green crystal from a pocket. Jason had used them as keys to open portals. While that was their main purpose, Julia discovered, after playing with it for awhile, that she could also use it for detecting the use of spatial magic. Jason’s notes hadn’t mentioned that function, perhaps because he lacked Julia’s affinity for such magic. Unfortunately, the crystal uncovered no recent travel by magical means, so wherever Bailey had gone, it was by mundane means.

If she was right about when Bailey had left, Julia was nearly two hours behind. If they had stayed on foot, they were probably  in an eight mile radius, large but manageable. If they used a vehicle of any sort, things became much harder. Hoping that Bailey might still be relatively close, Julia closed her eyes and began expanding her awareness.

In the house, as large as it was, she had essentially created most of the space. It was thus a simple matter to know where anyone might be. While she still had power outside, it wasn’t her domain. She could search, but it was a much slower, more arduous process. The bigger the area, the more effort it took. Given enough time, she might be able to search the whole world, but the power it would take to do so was prohibitive.

Of course, the search would be much easier if she had something with a strong connection to Bailey. Even if she hadn’t set out before looking, she wasn’t sure if they had left anything at the house. None of these thoughts were getting her anywhere, so she pushed them away.

Every time she found someone, she had to stop for a moment to verify it wasn’t Bailey. Luckily, the house wasn’t located in a densely populated neighborhood. Still, there were enough people to slow her down. Ultimately, Bailey was nowhere to be found. Discouraged, Julia was about to widen the search when a thought occurred to her.

Getting from the dining room to the front door wouldn’t take long, but it still required going through a hallway. Without Sarah’s guidance, Bailey would get lost. It would have been difficult to get out, unless they had a badge. If they had a badge, Julia could use that to track them down instead of sifting through every person in the vicinity.

Filtering out everything except badges, she found one nearly ten miles away, just outside the area she had searched. It was Thomas’s, which meant that he could easily be lost inside the house. The idea gave her a bit of perverse pleasure. Telling herself that finding Bailey was more important, she left Thomas’s fate for another time. Maybe Sarah would find him.

Opening a portal near the location, Julia stepped through to find herself in a park. There was a figure sitting alone on a bench. Trying to seem casual and non-threatening, she approached.

“Bailey?”

A clap of thunder startled her, but she tried not to let it show. The figure on the bench looked up. It was indeed Bailey, with a look of profound sadness on their face.

“I’m sorry,” they mumbled. “I didn’t want to.”

All her feelings of anger and betrayal drained away. Bailey was still an unknown, still someone to be cautious around. Yet Julia was unable to deny the evident pain in front of her.

“What happened? What did you do?”

“Nothing.” Bailey’s voice cracked under its own weight. They didn’t try to hide that it was a lie. Another clap of thunder and the rain began to fall in sheets.

“Can you tell me anything?”

They shook their head without saying anything.

“Come on. Let’s go back to the house and out of this rain. Maybe Sarah can help, now that we know there’s a problem.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

“We need information. Even if you don’t believe we want to help, surely you can believe that.”

“Okay.”

Julia opened a portal and made certain Bailey went through first.