Reunions (part four)

Rebecca opened her eyes to find herself in a familiar room. At first, she was convinced it had to be a nightmare. This scene had invaded her dreams more than a few times over the last decade. However, the memory of meeting Bailey and the note they had given her attested to the fact that this was all too real.

She wanted to sink into the bed and jump out of it all at once. The room looked very much like it had when she had last been here, when she was preparing to become the Elder’s vessel. It was quiet and clean, as though the place had been kept ready for her return. There were no restraints, so she was able to sit up. That’s when she discovered her clothes were gone, replaced with a simple white shift. Her first and only goal was to get out before anyone could arrive. Halfway to the door, however, the sound of the handle turning sent her diving back under the sheets. The person who came through shut the door immediately and walked over the bed before sitting at the foot.

“Rebecca?”

She knew the voice better than her own. Peeking out from the covers, she saw Marie staring at her.

“Rebecca? Are you okay?”

“Marie? What is going on?”

“You’re home. Finally. I’m so relieved to see you again.”

“How?”

“Don’t worry about that right now. I’m just glad you’re back. I don’t know why you left.”

“Peter . . . He . . .”

“Peter is gone. As soon as we found out that he had threatened you, he was expelled from the community. If only we could have found you sooner and cleared all of this up. You didn’t need to be alone for so long.”

Rebecca looked at Marie with uncertainty. Had it all been a mistake? “So when Peter came to take me . . .”

“We didn’t send him. We didn’t know where you were. Or where he was. Now that you’re back with us, we can protect you from him.”

“And Phillip?”

Marie sighed. “Phillip’s betrayal couldn’t be ignored. We don’t know why he frightened you into leaving. He remains, unspeaking and disgraced. Rest assured, he also poses no threat to you.”

“But . . .”

“I know you have many questions. A lot of time has passed. Still, you are back and safe. I thought this room might make you feel a little more comfortable.” Marie stood and walked closer to her before bending down to embrace her tightly. Rebecca froze at her touch, but the other seemed not to notice. “I have missed you. Get some rest. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Before she could respond, Marie turned and walked out of the room. Except it wasn’t Marie. No matter how much time had passed, Rebecca didn’t think she could ever forget the Elder’s touch.

*     *     *

When Rebecca became conscious again, she kept her eyes closed for a little while. The thought that she might really be back in her old room frightened her, though refusing to look wasn’t accomplishing anything. Eventually, opening her eyes confirmed that it hadn’t been just a horrible nightmare. The Elder now inhabited the body of her oldest friend and had gotten Rebecca back.

Thoughts of escape flitted through her mind, but she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to leave again. The only thing she could do was to find out what the Elder wanted from her. Whatever it was, she expected to hate it.

Quietly getting out of the bed, she made certain that her shift was on straight and walked over to the door. To her surprise, the handle moved easily under her touch, and the door opened without a sound. Any glimmer of hope that the unlocked door might have given her evaporated as soon as a figure stepped in front of her from the side.

“Mistress. The Matron is otherwise occupied at present and will visit you later. She asked me to look after you in the meantime and provide anything you might need.”

The man’s face and voice seemed familiar, and after a few moments, a name rose to the surface.

“Marcus, right?”

“The Mistress honors me.” He bowed his head slightly.

“Marcus, knock it off. We used to play together as children. There is no reason to be so formal.”

His look gave the impression that he was trying to decide if she was serious. After coming to some sort of conclusion, he replied.

“Mistress, you’ve been gone a long time. Perhaps you have forgotten your importance, but we have not. You will have to forgive us if we treat you with the deference you deserve.”

Less formal, but clearly uncomfortable, he stood quietly. She didn’t have the energy for this fight on top of all her other worries.

“Fine. But when it’s just the two of us, keep it to a minimum. Please?”

“I will try.” He smiled, but it felt uneasy.

“So did Marie tell you to keep me here? Or can I go for a walk?” Before she could do anything else, she needed to figure out how short her leash was.

“The Matron thought it might be best if you rested, but she did not order it.”

“Why do you call her ‘Matron’? Why not ‘Elder’?”

That question took him by surprise.

“Mistress . . . Rebecca, you are to be the Elder. For now, she is merely filling in until you can take your position.”

“Oh.” That was unsettling. Was this really the plan? Or did Marcus just assume she would join with the Elder now that she had come back? Panic began to well up, but she forced it back down. “Well, some fresh air would be nice, so I think I will go for a walk.”

The shift was a little less clothing than she was accustomed to wearing, but she thought it might help her fit in with the rest of the community. As she headed downstairs, Marcus fell in step behind her. She was free, as long as she had a chaperone.

Outside, a few people were standing and chatting with one another while others walked with purpose on some errand or other. The faces may be different, but the village seemed largely unchanged. Any time they walked near any of the groups socializing, the talking stopped as the people stared at her. She smiled and nodded, but the feelings of awe – maybe even adoration – that emanated from them made her want to flee. That was impossible as long as Marcus was hovering over her. So she began trying to ignore the others as much as possible. Any feelings of belonging that she once had were gone; she had been away too long.

The walk was making her feel worse, so she decided to go back to her room. As she was turning around, a figure that she recognized disappeared around a corner. Without thinking, she ran after it. Marcus gave a surprised shout, and she could hear him chasing her. Upon turning the corner, she collided with Phillip. His head was shaved, and he wore a plain brown robe, but there was no mistaking him.

It must have been the years, but he no longer seemed as large and imposing as he once had. His face couldn’t hide his shock, and he seemed to be looking for some place to run. She grabbed ahold of his arms.

“Phillip! It’s me. Rebecca. I need your help.”

Still looking like he desperately wanted to be anywhere else, Phillip shook his head. Marcus caught up to them, and Rebecca turned toward him. Phillip took the opportunity to begin running away. She tried to chase him again, but Marcus prevented her.

“Stop. Let him go. If anyone catches him with you, he is likely to be punished again.”

“Why?”

“Because he made you leave and kept you hidden. I’m actually surprised they didn’t drive him away like his brother. Don’t make it worse for him.” Marcus sounded like he felt sorry for the older man.

Phillip was already out of sight. “Okay. Let’s go back.”

“Good idea. I wouldn’t want the Matron to think I had run off with you.” It sounded like it should have been a joke, but there was real terror in his voice. Rebecca began to wonder just how much had changed during her absence.

A Crisis of Leadership (part three)

The rest of the day passed very slowly. When Marie came by, Rebecca told her that she still felt worn out. That allowed her to stay alone in her room. Yet she had nothing to do to occupy her time. For awhile, she tried to sleep, but sleeping for nearly two days left her with too much energy to be able to keep her eyes closed. Instead, she spent hours practicing her simpler spells.

Finally, after night had fallen, there was a soft tapping at her door. When she opened it, she saw Phillip looking around nervously. He quickly entered the room and closed the door behind him.

“Okay, I have everything arranged. There will be a car outside waiting to take you to the airport. Here’s your ticket. Also, I was able to get you a debit card with a couple hundred dollars on it. It’s not much, but it’s all I could manage in such a short time. I will try to send you more when I get a chance.”

Her head was spinning. It felt almost like talking to Marie when she got on a roll.

“Car? Airport? I don’t want to leave. I just don’t want to be the Elder’s vessel.”

“This is the only way. If you stay, you’ll have no choice but to go along with the Elder’s wishes. Your only escape is by leaving.”

“But this is my family. You are the only people I have in the whole world.”

“If you stay here, you won’t have anything. I saw how you fought against my father’s possession. Remember that feeling? That will be the rest of your life.”

“I don’t want that. But can’t I just refuse to join with the Elder?”

Phillip’s look told her how naive she was being. “The Elder’s wishes are known to the whole clan. They won’t let you disobey.”

He was right. Marie’s reaction when she expressed reluctance was proof that he was right. It was foolish to think she could stay. But to leave . . .

“You don’t have time to think about what to do. If you don’t go now, you may not get another chance. You’ll have to live with my father crawling around inside your body.

A wave of nausea went through her. “Fine. Let’s go.”

Moving cautiously, he led her downstairs and out the front door. Once outside, they walked towards the gate at the edge of the compound. Just past the last building, he turned to her.

“I’m going to go ahead and make sure the car has arrived. Wait here until I return. And stay hidden.”

She nodded. Once she was alone, doubts began to creep back in. She had grown up here, the outside world always at arm’s length. What would life outside be like? How would she manage? The more she considered it, the more certain she became that it was a mistake. Seeing Marie wandering around outside seemed like a sign.

“Marie? What are you doing out here?”

The other girl jumped a bit when Rebecca first spoke, but calmed down as soon as she spotted her friend. “I could ask you the same thing. Why are you not in bed?”

“I . . .” Should she tell Marie? Maybe she should stay. But if she was going to leave, shouldn’t she at least say goodbye?

Before she could answer, another voice came out of the night. “And where might you two be going?” Peter. Malice was evident in his voice.

“Nowhere. Just out for a walk.” Lying to him was so much easier than lying to Marie.

“Is that so?” He looked at Marie.

“Oh, yes. Of course. I thought Rebecca could use some fresh air.” Marie might not know what was happening, but she had never liked Peter. If Rebecca wanted to lie to him, her friend was happy to play along.

Even in the dimness of the evening, Rebecca could see Peter’s snarl. “I don’t believe you.”

He didn’t use any obvious spells, yet Marie crumpled to the ground. In spite of herself, Rebecca cried out and began to rush to her friend’s side.

“Stop. You will tell me what you were doing out here.”

“I . . . I don’t have to tell you anything.”

Peter’s snarl grew. “Yes, you do. And if you don’t, I will force you to do so. Truthfully, I’m hoping you’ll make me force you.”

A cold terror took hold of her. Once again, she felt helpless before this man. The threat he posed was greater than she could comprehend, and she had no defense.

Something struck Peter in the back of the head, causing him to pitch forward and fall face first onto the ground. From behind him, Phillip emerged holding a rather solid looking tree branch.

“You have to go.”

“But Marie . . .”

“Now. I will take care of the girl. Go. Hide. Don’t come back. Ever. You must avoid discovery. Get on the plane and never look behind you.”

“But I . . .”

“NOW!”

The force of Phillip’s voice propelled her to the gate of the compound. She could see a car’s headlights and approached it.

“You my fare?” It was a woman, probably in her 40s.

“Yes,” Rebecca mumbled.

“Airport, right?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have any luggage?”

“No.”

“What is this place? Do you live here?”

“Not anymore. Let’s just go.” Tears ran down Rebecca’s cheeks as she climbed into the back seat.

A Crisis of Leadership (part two)

When Rebecca opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Marie’s face. The girl was hovering over her as she lay in her bed. At first, Rebecca could not remember why she was so tired.

“You’re awake!” Marie exclaimed. “You slept forever. How do you feel?”

“Tired. What happened?”

“Don’t you remember? You channeled the Elder. I told you you could do it. It must have worn you out, though.”

The Elder? Her memory was slowly coming back. Marie kept talking.

“Now that the Elder is going to return, and you’re going to be his vessel, you’re the most important person in the clan. Lots of people want to talk to you. But I can tell them you’re not ready for that yet. Still, we’ve only got nine days to prepare, and there’s lots to do, so you won’t be able to put them off forever.”

The words were coming faster than Rebecca could follow them.

“Marie. Marie!”

Her friend finally stopped and took a breath.

“What do you mean, I’m going to be the Elder’s vessel?”

“Isn’t it exciting? The Elder agreed to come back and lead through you. You’ll basically be the leader of the clan.”

“I don’t want it.” The words slipped out before she realized what she was saying.

Marie frowned. “Of course you do. Everyone already loves you. And now you’ll get to be even more important to the clan. I’m actually a bit jealous.”

Because Marie was looking at her so intently, Rebecca forced a smile. “You’re right. I’m just tired, I guess.”

Marie returned her smile. “Of course. You get some sleep. I’ll make sure everyone leaves you alone today. Rest up.”

“I will. Thanks, Marie.”

The other girl nodded as she slipped out the door, leaving Rebecca alone with her thoughts.

What would it mean to be the Elder’s vessel? Would he just talk to her? Or would he possess her again? She couldn’t go through that experience – that violation – another time. It was for her clan, her family, but it was too much. Surely they would understand.

That thought consoled her as she drifted off to sleep.

When she woke again, light was streaming through the window, indicating mid-morning. The last time she had been awake in the early afternoon, so nearly an entire day had passed. She felt better, rested and alert. One of the perks of serving as a medium for the clan was her own room, instead of sleeping in the communal room for single women, which meant fewer interruptions in her sleep.

She rose from the bed and walked over to the closet. She selected a simple dress and took off her night shirt in order to put it on. As she was changing, the door opened and closed behind her.

“I’m up, Marie. No need to check on me. Still, thank you for letting me . . .” After the dress was on, she turned around to see Peter standing in front of the door, smiling in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. Shock and embarrassment caused her face to flush. “Oh! Peter . . . I . . . Sorry, I thought Marie had come in.”

“No need for that. I just wanted to come by to congratulate you on your new position. And to offer what assistance I may.”

Shock gave way to apprehension. “Thank you. I’m just getting used to the idea myself.”

Peter took a couple of steps towards her. “I am curious, if you don’t mind me asking, how you managed to arrange this? Assuming that was really my father, I wonder what you said to him to go along with this power grab of yours?”

Rebecca backed away from Peter and bumped into the bed, involuntarily sitting down. “I didn’t . . .”

Approaching even closer, Peter’s smile grew even more unsettling. “It’s okay, Rebecca. It is a brilliant plan. I applaud you. You are a much more impressive and resourceful woman than we gave you credit for. You have my full support.” Standing over her, he reached down and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. She didn’t think anything could feel worse than being possessed by the Elder, but this did. It felt like her soul was being crushed. Her flinch was instinctual, but Peter seemed not to notice it.

“I should warn you, however. My brother is angry. Say the word, and I will stay by your side to protect you.”

“I . . .” Rebecca faltered. She wanted him to leave, but couldn’t find words to make that happen. “I . . .”

A knock at the door saved her from more stammering. “Rebecca? It’s Phillip. I was hoping we might talk.”

“Send him away,” Peter whispered.

Rebecca grabbed the reprieve she’d been offered. “No. I should speak with him.”

Peter stared at her for several moments, and she had the impression he was weighing the pros and cons of striking her, but he eventually relented. “Of course,” he tipped his head towards her. “But I do hope you’ll consider my offer.”

“I will. Thank you.”

The knock came again. “Rebecca?”

“Come in!”

Peter turned to the door and greeted Phillip with a laugh. “Good morning, brother. Rebecca, if you will excuse me. Perhaps we might continue this conversation a little later.” Without waiting for a response, he swept out of the room while Peter stared after him.

After the door closed, Phillip turned back to Rebecca. “I hope he didn’t bother you.”

Relief had flooded through her the moment Peter had left, but she tried to keep it from showing. “No. He was imply offering his help.”

“I can imagine.”

Peter had told her that Phillip had been angry about the situation, but she saw no evidence of that now. He had always been kinder than his younger brother, but she didn’t know what he was thinking. Did he think she had planned all of this as well?

“Anyway, I came to see how you were doing. Marie said you seemed rather worn out from the other day. Have you managed to recover any?”

She nodded. “None of this was my idea. You know that, don’t you?”

“Is that what you’re worried about?” He chuckled softly. “No. I don’t think this is your doing. This is exactly the sort of thing my father would do. In fact, I didn’t want you in the middle of all of this. Peter demanded we use you to consult the Elder. If anyone is responsible for this situation, it is him.”

“I . . . I don’t want to do this.”

“I know. I just said I didn’t think it was your idea.”

“No. I mean, I don’t want to do this. I can’t. I don’t want to be the Elder’s vessel.”

“Oh.” Phillip fell silent for awhile.

Rebecca stayed on the bed and was grateful that Phillip had remained by the door. The room wasn’t large, but it was enough to allow for some distance between them.

“Are you certain?” The suddenness of his question startled her.

“What?”

“Are you certain? About not joining with my father?”

“Oh. Yes. I . . . I just can’t.” A wave of nausea hit as she thought about the Elder possessing her.

“What are you willing to do to avoid it?”

“Anything.” She said the word without thinking about it. Then she remembered the feeling of Peter touching her cheek and regretted it. What might Phillip ask of her?

“Very well. I need to arrange a few things. I will return after dark. Say nothing of this to anyone. I will find a way for you to escape this fate.”

Before she could ask a question, he was gone. She wanted to trust Phillip; he had never treated her badly. Peter’s touch, however, had taught her a new kind of fear, and now she didn’t know what to think.

A Death in the Family (part 3)

Thomas knocked on the door. Urgency made him want to rush, but he forced himself to stay calm. There was still time.

The door opened revealing Rebecca behind it. “He followed Julia, just as you said.”

“Good.” Thomas nodded. “Are you ready?”

The glare Rebecca gave him was pure ice. “You have been asking that question far too often lately. Considering how little you’ve told me about what is going on, I think I’ve been very accommodating. The least you could do is stop questioning my competence.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Thomas turned to walk toward the stairs and nearly crashed into Jason.

“Where are you rushing off to?”

Jason was his equal in many ways, but too carefree for his own good. Thomas envied him, but resented him, too. He never took anything seriously.

“We are trying to prevent something bad from happening.”

“Such as?”

“No time to explain right now. Maybe later.” Over his shoulder, Thomas called back to Rebecca. “You know where David is?”

“Yes.”

“Good, then…”

“David?” Jason interrupted. “If you’re going to see him, could you give him this?” Jason held out a white crystal that was a little longer than his hand. It glowed brightly.

A feeling of dread spread throughout Thomas. “What is that?”

“It’s the special power crystal you asked me to make for him.”

“Why doesn’t he have it already?”

“Took longer to make than I expected, but it’s done now. Why do you look so upset?”

“Rebecca! Show me where David is. Right now!”

For a moment, Rebecca said nothing. Maybe she was taken by surprise. Maybe she was getting ready to chastise him again. His urgency, however, had boiled over, and there was no time for niceties. David needed that crystal. Now.

“It’s one of Julia’s pocket spaces. An outdoors one. Hard to pinpoint, but use this. It should help.” She handed him a glass vial with a strand of hair in it. “I need it back.”

Thomas nodded and began to focus on the hair. Julia was better at this than he was, but a piece of his target helped make up some of the difference. After a couple of minutes, he had a link to David. Another minute, and a portal opened. He grabbed the crystal from Jason. “Let’s go,” he commanded, and stepped through. Rebecca followed and immediately held out her hand for him to return the vial.

They found themselves in a grassy clearing at night. About fifty feet away, a figure was holding up a hand that was wrapped in flame. It took a moment before Thomas recognized David, but before he could say anything, a creature leapt from the night, wrapped itself around the younger mage, and dragged him to the ground.

A sense of terror knocked Thomas to his knees. He hadn’t been able to find the source of the danger no matter where he looked, and now he knew why. Mage devourers were impossible to detect with magic. Now that it had David, Thomas knew of no way to get it off him. What was worse, he didn’t know how to stop the creature after it was done with his first victim. David was supposed to stop it somehow, but Thomas didn’t know how that might be accomplished. It had something to do with the crystal Jason had made. That he hadn’t given to David.

“Cool.” Jason walked up next to Thomas. He must have come through the portal as well, though Thomas hadn’t seen him arrive. Before Thomas could reply, Jason had snatched the crystal and began walking toward David and the devourer.

“Jason! What are you doing?” Thomas tried to follow him, but couldn’t manage to get back on his feet.

“Probably what you should have asked me to do in the first place.” Jason’s voice was matter-of-fact with no hint of accusation. He kept walking. As he neared the downed mage, the devourer let go of David and immediately sprang at Jason, who didn’t even try to avoid it. The crystal in Jason’s hand began to glow brighter and brighter. The explosion knocked everyone back.

Thomas must have lost consciousness. When he came to, he heard crying from a little ways off. Looking around, he saw Rebecca stirring a few feet away. In his terror and confusion, he had forgotten about her part in this.

“Rebecca. Did you …?”

“Yes. Now quit yelling. My head is killing me.”

Another survey discovered the source of crying. Julia was holding a body in her arms, rocking back and forth. It had to be Jason. He stood and walked over to her. The body had indeed been Jason. There was no sign of the devourer anywhere.

Julia looked up at him, her eyes red from grief. “You did this. You killed him.” He knew that, if she had more control over her emotions, she would have destroyed him then and there. Instead, she turned back to the burnt out husk of the only person she seemed to care about.

A Death in the Family (part 2)

There was a penetrating chill in the air. A simple spell would have kept it at bay, but David was reluctant to use magic away from the protection of the house. The run in with astral beetles – which felt like years ago but was actually only a month earlier – had taught him a level of caution that years of training had not managed to instill. 

Still, despite his newfound appreciation for discretion, here he was chasing after a mage he barely knew and who, he’d been told, did not want to be found. She had a master-level command of spatial magic, and he had no idea where she might be headed. He didn’t even know why he’d followed her, except that his Guide, Samuel, had also ingrained in him a responsibility towards others. And he would want someone to come after him, if the situation were the other way around.

Ever since he had been invited to join the house, he knew he had a role to play in keeping it safe. Going after Julia had felt like his responsibility, but now that he was actually looking for her, he found he had no idea what he was really doing. David wanted to live up to Samuel’s faith in him, but he was no longer sure of himself.

The world abruptly shifted. One moment he’d been walking down a city street, then the next step he took was on a grassy field. The artificial light was gone; only the stars overhead provided any break from the night. He looked around, but there was no indication of civilization in any direction.

“Who are you? Really?” A woman’s voice reached him from somewhere close by. It sounded like Julia.

“What’s going on?” He was trying to stay calm. A spark flicked from his hand, but he shoved the impulse away. He needed to understand what was happening before he reacted.

“Me first. Who are you?”

“Fine. I am Searcher David, led by the Guide Samuel down the path of the elements.”

“Quite a mouthful.” The voice kept shifting directions, like the speaker was running around him. “But not really what I was asking. Why did you come out here?”

“Julia? Look, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Bullshit. Who sent you? Thomas? He brought you into the house. He must have, otherwise we would have been consulted. Or did someone else send you? To come after me?”

“No one sent me. Thomas brought me into the house, but I haven’t even spoken with him since I got here.”

There was no response. David wasn’t even certain Julia was still there.

“Okay? My turn.” He hoped his voice wasn’t shaking. “What is going on? How did I get here?”

More silence. Was she thinking? Or had she left him in the middle of nowhere?

“Julia?”

Still nothing.

“I’m going to cast a spell just to give us some light.” After giving his warning, he wrapped his hand in cold flame. Julia stood about twenty feet away, staring at him.

“I don’t believe you.” Her expression was unreadable, especially in the dim light, but her voice carried more distrust than he had ever encountered before.

“Then just send me back. I was trying to help, but I don’t need to be here. I’ll leave you alone, just put me back in the city.”

“Why shouldn’t I just leave you here?”

“I haven’t done anything to you.”

Julia’s demeanor suddenly changed. She seemed to forget about him and was paying attention to… something else.

“What…?”

“Shh!” She interrupted him and pointed off to his right.

The light wasn’t bright enough to reveal anything, so he intensified it. At the very edge of illumination, he could see it. At first, it seemed to be a long snake with far too many eyes that appeared to be hovering in midair. Then he caught a glimpse of long legs holding its body up, three feet off the ground. It looked like nothing he had even heard of, but it terrified him at a fundamental level. After a moment, it skittered back, disappearing once more into the darkness.

“We need to get out here,” David whispered toward Julia. Before he could do anything else, the creature grabbed him from behind, wrapping him like a constrictor, its legs folded back into its body. He could feel his clothes dissolve where the creature touched him. The weak acid deadened his nerves just after he felt suckers latch onto his skin. As a scream filled the air – it could have been from Julia or from him – he felt magic drain from him, followed by his consciousness.

A Death in the Family (part 1)

“So do you know what Thomas is up to?” Rebecca watched Sarah closely for any reaction, but the other woman was unfazed by the question.

They were sitting in Rebecca’s room, drinking tea. Rebecca genuinely liked Sarah, but she was still cautious around her, the result of living on her own for too long. In that respect, she knew that she and Julia were alike. But Julia was even more closed off, and the two had rarely spoken to one another.

“Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think he is up to anything?”

“Just some questions he’s asked me.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Before Rebecca could find a noncommittal response, yelling could be heard in the hell outside her door. Both women leapt to their feet and rushed out into the hallway. Julia was standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the floor above.

“. . . should never have come here! I can’t believe I ever considered trusting you!”

“Julia. Please listen to me . . . ” Thomas’s voice came from up the steps though he was still out of sight.

“No! I’m done listening to you!” Julia spun around and walked over to Sarah and Rebecca. “Did you know about this?” She pushed a piece of paper into Sarah’s hands. On it was a short list, and Rebecca could see one item in particular: “Julia has not died.”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

“I found it in Thomas’s room.” Julia’s voice was angry, yet fear permeated it as well. “You don’t know anything about it?”

“I swear, Julia, I don’t.”

Rebecca nodded her agreement with Sarah’s denial.

“Then I recommend you get out of here before you wind up on one of his lists.”

Thomas appeared at the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. As soon as she saw him, Julia stormed away. She crashed into David, who was just coming out of his own room, and knocked him down. Without stopping, she headed down to the main floor. The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.

Sarah held up the piece of paper in front of Thomas, who had joined them outside of Rebecca’s room. “What is this, Thomas?”

“It’s personal. She took it from my room, a violation of the rules.” As always, his voice was subdued and betrayed little emotion.

“Perhaps, but you admit it’s yours, and it does seem troubling. Convince me it’s not.”

“Could we discuss this privately?”

David had gotten up and joined Rebecca in watching the exchange between the two senior mages.

Sarah shook her head. “They will have questions, too. Unless you want to let suspicion fester, best we talk in front of them.”

“Very well,” Thomas sighed. “Looking around the timeline, I find it useful to leave myself notes so I don’t lose track of when I am, of what is future and what is past. No one is supposed to see them.”

“And this is one such list? Julia found it?”

“Yes. I have safeguard in place to keep everyone out, but her talents with space are greater than my own. Obviously.”

“So you know she’s going to die int he future?”

“No. The future isn’t fixed. But it might happen.”

“When?”

“It’s not clear. Soon, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Or at least tell her?”

“I… She… I don’t have any specifics. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And you know she doesn’t like others interfering with her life. I was trying to find a way to help her without upsetting her.”

“Well done, then.” Sarah thought a moment. “If she’s in danger, it might mean we all are. You should have…”

“No. No one else is in danger. I checked.”

“You can’t be sure of that. If you want this house to work, you can’t keep these kinds of secrets.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . .”

“You put me in charge of this house. This is my responsibility.” She paused a beat. “Or are you forcing me out?”

Thomas opened his mouth, then closed it again. He went back upstairs without saying anything else.

Sarah turned to the other two mages. “I’m sorry about all of this. I promise to sort it all out. Let’s all take some time to get a little perspective, then meet again later to discuss everything.”

“What about Julia? Shouldn’t we go after her?” David’s concern was obvious.

Sarah shook her head. “She doesn’t want to be bothered when she isn’t upset. I doubt she wants any of us following her now. Better to let her cool off.”

David nodded and headed back to his room.

“We’ll talk later?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Promise.”

Rebecca accepted that and went back through her own door as Sarah walked away.

Several minutes after the hallway emptied, David’s door opened again. He quietly crossed over to the stairs leading down and followed Julia out of the house.

The Hallway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.” He voice was pleasant enough.

“Hi. I was . . .”

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

“Yes, I . . .”

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

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

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

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

“Are . . . are you really here?”

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

“Sarah? The woman I just saw?”

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

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

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

“What does?”

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Cabal

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

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

“David?” she shouted.

Conserving his breath, he just nodded.

“Thomas sent me to collect you.”

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

“What the. . .? Don’t use fire!”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Back here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“Are they common?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How many members do you have?”

Sarah smiled. “Come on. You’ll see.”

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

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

“Jason?”

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

“This Jason…”

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

“Okay.”

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

“Badge?”

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

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

“Where’s Thomas?”

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

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

“Your room.”

“Thanks.”

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

Second Home

Casey Ruiz opened the door to the crew barracks to find Captain Michaela Johns sitting in the common room.

“Michaela, get your people together. Now.”

She looked at him with some anxiety. “Seriously?”

Casey nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got VIPs inbound. You need to get going.”

“Okay, but . . .”

“No. Later. I’ve got to get ready.” Casey left to head back to the command center.

T-minus two hours.

As soon as he entered the center, his assistant, Kendra Samara, found him. “Senator Ellis is waiting for you.”

“Is everything as it should be?”

Only the tiniest flicker in Kendra’s eyes betrayed anything. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Have the senator wait for me in meeting room A. We’ve got to get this show on the road.”

“And what show would that be, Mr. Ruiz?” Senator Ellis’s voice boomed off the walls.

Casey kept his reaction hidden behind a polite smile. “Ah, Senator. Nice of you to visit.”

“This isn’t a social call, Ruiz. I have some news.”

“Can it wait? We were going to run a few tests before tomorrow’s launch.”

The Senator shook his head. “This is about tomorrow’s launch. We need to talk. Privately.”

Casey sighed. The Senator always assumed his interests were of the utmost importance, no matter what else might be going on. But he also couldn’t say no. To Kendra, he said, “Call Captain Johns. Tell her to delay the tests but continue prep.”

After Kendra nodded acknowledgement, he turned back to Ellis. “This way, Senator.” He led the man to the meeting room down the hallway.

Once the door had shut behind them, the Senator began without preamble. “I have a crew change for this mission.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have five people that need to be on this flight.”

“Impossible. The team was set over a year ago. There is training to consider, expertise . . .”

Ellis held up his hand. “Stop. This isn’t a request. These people will be on this flight.”

“Who are they?”

“Adrian Fenney and his family.”

“The tech billionaire?”

“That’s him.”

“Why does he get a spot?”

“Because he paid for it.”

“This jeopardizes Second Home. It’s insane.”

“The mission will be fine. You have . . . what? . . . 30 people on this flight? Add 5 more.”

“Fuel. Resources. It can’t be done.”

“So replace 5 of the current crew.”

“We need everyone. I can’t just replace experts with civilians.”

The senator sighed. “Casey, this comes from the President. It has to be done.”

“Do you understand what we are trying to do? We are establishing a colony on Mars. Before climate disasters make it impossible. We need everyone we can send to make this a success. I won’t destroy that.”

“This is all a fantasy. The climate is not going to go haywire. You can send more people next year.”

“If the climate isn’t a real issue, why does Fenney want on this mission so badly?”

The Senator glared at him. “Are you refusing?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are off this project.”

T-minus an hour and 30 minutes.

Senator Ellis stormed out of the room and back to the command center, with Casey right behind him. Half a dozen soldiers were hovering just outside the door and followed the two into the room.

“Ms. Samara. Mr. Ruiz has been removed from this project. Will you follow orders from your President? Or do I need to have these soldiers take over operations?”

Kendra gave Casey a questioning look, but Ellis intervened.

“Don’t look at Mr. Ruiz. Give me your answer.”

“Very well. What are the President’s orders?”

Just before the Senator was about to respond, something caught his eye. “What is that?”

Kendra looked around. “Senator?”

“Those numbers!”

“It’s a countdown.”

“Sergeant! Stop the countdown. Now!”

One of the soldiers walked over to a panel and confidently threw a switch. The countdown stopped at an hour and twenty minutes.

“What was the plan, Ruiz? Delay me long enough to proceed with the launch a day early?”

Casey wore defeat on his face but said nothing.

Senator Ellis turned to Kendra once more. “You will determine the five least critical members of this crew and replace them with the five VIPs that arrived with me. Prep them and get them on board.”

“That will take at least two hours.”

“How long is your window open?”

She checked the clock. “We have roughly five and a half hours left today.”

“Good. Get it done.”

Chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment, she turned to another member of the team. “Go prep the Senator’s people. As quickly as you can.” The man nodded and left. Kendra sat down at a terminal and began reviewing the roster.

Casey tried to appeal to Senator Ellis once more. “Please don’t do this. This is humanity’s best chance at survival. We aren’t going to get another shot.”

Ellis ignored him and spoke to the soldiers. “Take Mr. Ruiz back to the meeting room. Keep him there until I arrive.”

T-minus one hour.

Out of the control center and away from even the possibility of affecting events, Casey paced the room. He needed to get back, to ensure Michaela’s, and her crew’s, safety. To help Kendra navigate this crisis. But he was helpless; he had to rely on the abilities of others. The launch would have begun in just under an hour if everything had worked out. He had rushed things, but there was no help for it. Even before Senator Ellis’s arrival, they had the forecast to worry about. A massive hurricane – Nelson, they had called it – would be coming ashore in the next 24 to 36 hours. Despite his talk of launching tomorrow, if they didn’t get off the pad today, they would have to pull the ship off and protect it from the storm. Then it would be anyone’s guess when, or even if, they would ever get to try again.

Did the President even know what the Senator was doing here? He couldn’t be sure the President would be above this stunt. On the other hand, keeping him under guard may have been Ellis’s way of making sure Casey couldn’t investigate his story. Neither politician had much use for Second Home. They, with too many others, didn’t think the predicted crisis would be so severe. Why not profit from a billionaire’s overblown worries?

T-minus 45 minutes.

Who would Kendra come up with to be taken off the mission? Casey couldn’t even imagine. With the careful planning, the genetic selections, the different expertises, built-in overlaps . . . No one person was so essential that they couldn’t be replaced. But five from this one group? There probably wasn’t enough redundancy to make the choices without serious consequence. He tried to go through the list from memory, but it seemed an impossible task.

T-minus 20 minutes.

Every minute seemed to creep by more slowly than the last. Ellis had obviously brought at least one person with some knowledge of the center’s instruments. He knew immediately which switch stopped the launch countdown. Could he manage things even without Kendra? There was too much he didn’t know, that he couldn’t find out sitting in this room. His guards did not seem ready to relax, and he was unlikely to be able to overpower them even if they did. He had no choice but to wait. And worry.

T-minus 5 minutes.

The human race may not have much longer on this planet. The climate was growing more and more unstable. So he had put all of his efforts into establishing an outpost off-world. When he joined Second Home in 2030, the task of setting up a self-sustaining colony on Mars seemed insurmountable. Now, nearly 15 years later, they were on the verge of making it real. Five ships had already been sent. This mission would have provided the final necessities. More could follow if there was time, but that seemed increasingly unlikely. Now it had all been threatened by Senator Ellis and his well-connected friend.

T-minus 1 minute.

The rumbling began. After exchanging questioning looks, the soldiers guarding him left the room. Casey made his way back to the control center where chaos was in full bloom. Two soldiers were frantically working boards while team members who had been pushed aside watched.

“Stop it! Shut it down!” The Senator was screaming.

The monitors showed smoke, billowing up around the launchpad, and the ship began to rise.

Ellis caught sight of Casey. “What did you do? Bring it back.”

“Sorry, Senator. She’s gone.”

“How?”

“I disconnected the control room before you got here. Captain Johns has been in charge of this from the beginning. This whole room is a useless show piece.”

“I’m going to make sure you rot in jail for this.”

“Fine. At least the human race has a chance.”

The Sacrifice

The sun shone mercilessly overhead as they walked. Their sandals protected their feet from the rocky ground, but only just. Ahead loomed the mountain that served as their destination. The boy looked at his father, walking without any visible signs of discomfort and considered asking him again, but then thought better of it.

They had been traveling since yesterday, and wouldn’t reach the mountain until tomorrow. In addition to the heat and the uneven ground, his father’s silence contributed to the trials of their journey. The older man was often quiet, but more so since they left the boy’s mother behind when they set out on the journey. He was distant and not his usual friendly – if a bit withdrawn – self. The boy did not know what might be wrong.

Finally the sun slipped below the horizon, and the air began to cool. The two servants began unpacking supplies from the donkey and set up the tent. His father prepared a modest meal for him and his son, leaving the servants to their own food.

As they ate, the boy spoke. “Why are we going to the mountain, father?”

The father made sure that the servants were a ways off before answering. Then he sighed. “I have already explained this to you.”

“You said that God required a sacrifice.”

“Correct.”

“But we have no suitable sacrifice with us.”

“God will provide. You must trust God.”

The boy nodded and said nothing more, returning his attention to the food. However, his mind summoned the image of his mother’s face when his father had told them about their journey. She had said nothing, but a sadness fell over her. He had not understand why, and he still did not, but the image of her face made him uneasy.

“And why must we go to the mountain? Can we not make a sacrifice at home?”

“The mountain is a sacred place; it places us closer to God. Now, please be quiet. I need to listen for God’s voice tonight.”

The boy obediently said nothing more. While had never heard God speak, he knew better than to continue to question his father. His father spoke with God often. It was another thing he did not understand, but he knew God’s instructions were to be followed.

The next morning, they continued in silence. The boy still wondered where the sacrifice would come from. No wild animals were evident, and there were no towns from which to buy one. What would happen if they did not find one. And why would God give them an animal only so they could give it back immediately? No answers presented themselves, and the questions made him more uneasy. Once more his mother’s face appeared before him.

Just before midday, they reached the base of the mountain. A path winding up toward the peak could be seen, but they did not climb immediately. Instead, his father instructed the servants to set up the tent here. He and his son would eat and then head up to worship alone. 

After a small meal, they set out. The mountain was dotted with rough, hardy bushes, but little else by way of vegetation. The path itself was steep and rocky. Still no animals appeared near them.

The boy dared to speak once more. “We are nearly there. Where will we find a suitable sacrifice?”

A darkness had settled over his father since they had started out that morning. The boy’s words seemed to deepen it, but he said nothing. They finished the climb in silence.

After a couple of hours, they reached the top. There, they found a clearing, in the middle of which sat a low stone table, clearly created as an altar. His apprehension became something akin to fear when the boy still did not see any animals nearby.

His father began taking out a length of rope and appeared to be struggling with it. “Come over here, and help me with this.

With all of his instincts now screaming at him in his head, the boy ran into the brush as quickly as he could. He changed directions several times before slowing down. Moving as quietly as he could, he found a dense bush to conceal himself in and listened for pursuit.

There was no sound in the brush itself, but he could hear his father yelling for him.

“Come back here! Why do you run from your father? God requires a sacrifice, and I need your assistance.”

His father paused. When he began to speak again, he was no longer calling for his son but was talking to someone else.

“I will not fail you. He is my son. I will find him. Please give me a chance.”

Another pause.

“No. You do not need to look elsewhere. You must know my only desire is to serve you.”

More silence.

“What? Oh, I see. Are you certain? I know I can bring him back.”

And once more.

“Very well. If that is your instruction.”

Then came the sound a bleating sheep. The boy began moving quietly back towards the clearing. He caught a glimpse of the animal bound upon the table just as his father brought down a knife upon it. The sheep went limp as blood pooled beneath it. Chanting the prayer asking God to accept the sacrifice, he lit the wood he had piled up around the animal. Soon the sacrifice was engulfed in flames.

When the flames began to die down, without turning around, his father said, “It is done. You may come out now.”

Whatever it had been in his father that had frightened him before was now gone. He left the brush and reentered the clearing. His own gaze was fixed downwards even as he knew his father was not looking at him.

Whether it was anger or shame, something held his father’s tongue all throughout their descent. His mother never would forgive her husband if she knew what had transpired this day. He knew he would not break her heart with the story, just as surely as he knew he could never see his father the same way again.