Plotting in Secret

“So where are we?”

“Well, the worm failed.”

“How?”

“I’m not certain. It’s gone. And the target is still alive.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Peter confirmed it.”

“Did he get what we wanted?”

“Apparently not.”

“Incompetent . . . I knew it was a mistake to try to use him.”

“. . .”

“And the damn house is still protected?”

“Yes, it seems so.”

“So I’ll ask again. Where are we?”

“In a holding pattern, I suppose. We don’t have another worm available. Even if we did, without knowing what happened to the previous one, we couldn’t be certain the results would be any different. If you have any ideas, please share them.”

“Is there any other way to bypass the security.”

“The spatial mage is too good. Even if we could take it down, she’d know right away and probably restore it before we got very far.”

“Can we distract her?”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I’m just brainstorming.”

“If we came up with a distraction, we would still have to take down the spells. I don’t know how we would manage that, either.”

“What about getting him to come out.”

“Unlikely. As far as I can tell, he’s basically a recluse.”

“Well, we have to come up with something. And soon.”

The Gift of Mana

Using the sigils specified in Jason’s notes, and devoting her complete attention, Julia could make out some of the threads of magic that surrounded her. She worked slowly and carefully to attach one of the threads to the crystal she had prepared in advance. The crystal began to glow with a gradually increasing white light.

Exhaustion had begun to set in by the time she had finished. For Jason, this process had been straightforward, but she did not have the same gift he did. The gift of mana – of raw magic power – was not that uncommon, but without it, creating these crystals was tiring. Mages weren’t limited to their own gifts, but working in specialties other than one’s own never came easily. Few working outside their own specialty would ever be able to match the skill of even a merely average specialist.

Mana specialists were invaluable to other mages, but often lacked a second gift and thus could do little more than provide the power others relied upon. Jason, however, had had two gifts. In addition to mana, he also had the gift of chaos magic. A mage with two gifts was itself uncommon, and that particular pairing was almost unheard of. His absence in the house would impact everyone.

No one had asked her to try to fill in some of the gap opened by his death, but Jason’s notes had given her the idea. Her own contribution to the house was just as irreplaceable, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Jason leaving her the notes meant something. He must have thought she could do something with them. She would need to improve, both her technique and her stamina, but providing a few power crystals to the others was within her power. And she had already created the modified blue crystal that had suppressed the charm spell that had been placed on Bailey. What else she could accomplish, without the gift of mana, remained to be seen.

Resolution

“I thought you had let this go?” Sarah was practically pleading.

Remaining defiant, Julia shook her head. “For the sake of Rebecca, I had put it to one side. Now that that’s been settled, we need to deal with him.”

“It’s his house, Julia.”

“I don’t care. He put everyone and everything at risk. Not telling me? Trying to set David up? And in the end, Jason paid the price. Jason who was an ‘old friend.’” Sarah could almost see the sarcasm drip from Julia’s mouth. “We should harbor no misconceptions. He would let any of us suffer the same fate, considering we mean even less to him.”

“You can’t believe that. He didn’t want Jason to die. Or even you. Maybe he went about it poorly, but he was trying to keep everyone safe.”

“So? What follows from that? Am I just supposed to forget it all? Pretend he isn’t responsible for Jason’s death? He gets off without any consequences?”

“Julia. What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know. You say we can’t kick him out. But how can you expect me to stay here, in this house, while he remains?”

“Julia is right.”

Both women turned in surprise to see Thomas standing just inside the door of the living room.

“Thomas?” Sarah didn’t want to try to infer the meaning of his statement.

“I said, Julia is right. It is unreasonable to expect her to stay in my house.”

“So you’re kicking me out?”

“You misunderstand. Julia, I have thought about this a lot. Especially since yesterday, but even before our last exchange. I thought I was doing the right thing. As you have repeatedly asserted, I was wrong. I apologize to you, and everyone else in the house. I need to do better.

Julia seemed to deflate a bit. Thomas’s admission had taken some of the edge off of her anger, but she wasn’t going to be pacified so easily. “That’s all well and good, but . . .”

Thomas interrupted her. “There is more. Your hesitation in staying is understandable. So I will relinquish this house and give it over to Sarah. I merely ask that I be allowed to stay, at least on a probationary basis. If I again act so as to violate your trust, or anyone else’s, I will accept Sarah’s judgment. You would be part of Sarah’s house, not mine. Is this satisfactory?”

Julia was taken aback. Before she could recover, Sarah spoke up.

“Do I get a say in this? You’re handing everything over to me?”

“Sarah, we both know you’re more suited to this than I ever was. You take care of nearly everything already. I am merely proposing we make it official. Truly, this is already your house.”

She could think of no objection. Truthfully, she didn’t really want to object.

“Very well. Julia, does this arrangement work for you?”

Julia looked as though she still wanted an argument, but she relented. “Yeah. This will do.” Without waiting for any further discussion, she opened a portal and left the room.

“Are you sure about this, Thomas?”

“The house needs her. This seemed like the best way to keep her. Besides, the paperwork has already been filed. This has been your house since the morning.”

There was nothing she could think of to say, so she just nodded her head. After Thomas left, she sat there for a long time, wondering what this change would lead to.

Confrontation

Julia was reading through some of Jason’s notes when there came a knock at the door. Absorbed in the pages, she absently called out, “Come in.”

After the door opened, it took her a moment to realize who was there. His appearance was completely unexpected, but there was no question it was Thomas.

“Julia, I was . . .”

She jumped up and closed the distance between them in a flash. “What are you doing here? How dare you show your face in these rooms!” The anger welling up was almost impossible for her to control.

Though she stood nearly a head shorter, Thomas visibly flinched. “I just wanted to talk to you about Jason’s crystals.”

“Don’t!” She shoved a finger in his face. “Don’t say his name! Don’t come to his rooms! Don’t even think about him! You betrayed someone who called you a friend. You don’t get to talk about him. Ever. If this wasn’t your house, I would end you myself. Never doubt that.”

“I wouldn’t bother you if this wasn’t important.”

She shook her head in disgust. “You can’t even apologize. What you put me through. How you used David. How your games led to Jason’s death. Hell, you even abandoned Rebecca. And now you want to talk about Jason’s research. You’ve got a lot of gall. Get the hell out of here.”

For a moment, it looked like Thomas was going to argue further. Instead, he merely turned and left the room.

She needed to talk to Sarah. Something had to be done. First, however, she wanted to calm down. Yelling at Sarah wasn’t going to help. Tomorrow, though, she would resolve this situation once and for all.

Morning Ritual

Every line on her face meant something, represented some experience. Sarah wouldn’t trade any of them for anything. In the mirror, she studied them all, committing every detail to memory. This was her ritual nearly every morning. As much as she loved changing her looks, playing with form, it was important to her that she never forget what she looked like without magic. Some illusionists couldn’t pick the face they were born with out of a line-up. Looks were flood, even with magic, but she never wanted to lose the connection with her unmodified self.

Once she was certain she could remember herself, she began to play. First, the right eye changed from green to blue. Her shoulder-length brown hair grew halfway down her back and lightened to silver. Checking her profile, she decided to lengthen her nose just a bit and then added a few freckles to either cheek.

She stood and walked over to the full-length mirror. After trying several outfits, she settled on a simple green dress. She finalized the look by taking a couple of inches off of her height. Studying herself in the mirror, she silently approved of the final result. This was as representative of her as her appearance without magic was.

This morning ritual was about her practicing her craft as well as creative expression. It was for her, and her alone. The rest of the day might bring headaches and work, but for a few minutes each morning, she could enjoy her gift and use it to create herself anew. Magic could be used for many things; Sarah wanted to use hers to bring more beauty into the world.

Shadow Stuff

When the front door opened suddenly, he was sitting in his living room. Without any noise, a figure made entirely of shadow stuff walked in and sat down in the other arm chair. It had done nothing threatening, yet he was terrified.

“Who are you?” He tried to keep his voice steady, with only partial success.

The figure did not respond.

“What are you doing here?”

Still the figure said nothing.

“If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to call the police.” The threat was empty. The police would do nothing. They might even ridicule him.

The figure had still not reacted, so he tried to ignore it. If it wouldn’t leave, he resolved not give it any attention. Perhaps it would go away on its own.

For days, he acted as though it wasn’t there. It followed him everywhere, always sitting in the room where he was. It accompanied him when he left the house and returned when he did. At night, it slept in his bed next to him. Though it never tried to communicate, it was always present.

When he thought he could no longer take it, he began screaming at it. Once, he thrust a sharp knife into it. It changed nothing, except the figure seemed to get a little bigger. Every time he got angry at it, the figure grew just a little more.

Whenever he went out of the house, no one said anything about the figure. Perhaps they were politely ignoring it, pretending as if it weren’t there. Even so, he became more and more self-conscious of it, and eventually stopped going out at all. Life itself had lost all joy, and still the figure said nothing.

Feeling as though he had nothing left to lose, he finally sat down facing the figure.

“I have tried ignoring you. I have tried threatening you. I have tried screaming at you. I am out of ideas. So now I will listen to you. Just tell me, what is it you want?”

The shadowy figure that had come to look just like him said but one word. “Acceptance.”

Reflections on The Cabal

The Cabal began as a one-off story. The main character of that story – Jason – was based on a character I had played in a tabletop RPG over 25 years ago. That character (whose name has completely escaped me) was inspired very loosely by Peter Falk’s Columbo. The name of the group was a quick momentary decision with little thought behind it. That’s why you’ve never seen “The Cabal” used in the text of any of the stories.

Almost immediately after writing that first story, I realized I had created a set of characters that I wanted to get to know better. It’s been several years since I had a regular gaming group, so I began to think of these characters and their stories as a stand-in for role-playing, where I get to play all of the characters. (I’ve also thought about this as a serialized story like a comic book.)

I’ve now been living with these people for almost two years. Some of them I like better than others. And some of them I feel as though I understand more than others. One of the things I appreciate about being around characters for this long is when they surprise me. Julia has done this more than others, perhaps, but I have also learned a lot about both Rebecca and Bailey. The biggest surprise, by far, was the end of the “Death in the Family” arc. The original plan did not include anyone’s actual death, and certainly not the death that transpired. In fact, I was nearly done writing that story when I realized what the ending was going to be.

That is not uncommon in my longer stories. I might figure out the major beats before I start, but there is a lot of flexibility built in so that the characters have the freedom to do the unexpected. I’ve gotten to know these characters over the last two years, and I still enjoy their company.

So I intend to continue telling their stories for now. I will also still drop in the occasional one-off story now and then. I hope you’ll stick around and see where this goes next.

Three Wishes

Smoke billowed from the lamp and slowly took the form of a large, androgynous person. The whole scene looked like a special effect in a movie. The creature spoke with a booming voice.

“You may have three wishes. And before you ask, you cannot wish for more wishes.” It sounded bored.

“Can I wish for fewer wishes?” Yes, I’m a smart ass, but I was also genuinely curious.

“What? Fewer wishes? Why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t need three.”

“So waste a wish or two. Wish for a penny or something.” Irritation was obvious in its voice, but there was something else, too. Interest.

“Okay. So how much of a stickler are you? Will you twist my words to create unintended outcomes?”

“For someone who has just been granted wishes, you ask a lot of questions.”

“I just know that everything comes with a price. I’m trying to decide if I’m willing to pay what these wishes will cost.”

“Just be clear. You’ll get what you ask for.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. What do you get out of this? I mean, you can’t be doing this just out of the goodness of your heart.”

Exasperation was becoming increasingly evident in its body language. “Why do you care? Are you always this suspicious when people give you gifts?”

“Do you like doing this? Is it fulfilling?”

“Are you going to make a wish or not?”

“What happens if I don’t? Do I lose them?”

The genie sighed. “No. You summoned me. I have to grant you three wishes, and I can’t move on until you do.”

“Really? That sounds kind of awful. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long. Would you like me to make them so you can leave?”

It looked at me carefully. “You do ask a lot of questions, but at least you’re not boring.”

“Do you get lonely?”

“Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I was created to exist in the lamp and to grant wishes. That’s the only existence I’ve known, so I have nothing to compare it to. Hard to feel lonely if this is the only reference point.”

“So you’ve never thought about a different life?”

“This is my purpose. There are no other options.”

“Hmm. I think I’ll take that penny now.”

“What?”

“I wish for a penny.”

“Are you sure? You want one of your wishes to be for a penny?”

“Yep.”

“Very well.”

I didn’t see it wave its hands or even move, yet a penny suddenly appeared before me.

“So did this come from somewhere? Or did you make it?”

“It came from somewhere. You didn’t ask for a counterfeit penny, after all. And no, I didn’t take it from someone; it had been lost. Now it’s yours.”

“Really? So if I asked for a million dollars, where would it come from?”

“Is that your second wish?” I could hear a little disappointment in its voice.

“No. I was just wondering where the money would come from.”

The genie smiled. “Good. I was afraid you had gotten boring.”

“What about getting rid of all weapons?”

“Don’t bother. Others have tried. Sadly it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure. Some things are beyond my power. Until humans want to get rid of them, it seems you’re stuck with them.”

“That sucks.”

“Is there really nothing you want? No one has ever wished for a penny before. In fact, no one has taken so long to use their wishes.”

“Well, I believe you’re not out to trick me, given your reactions so far. But there really isn’t anything I can think of. Your response to the weapons idea suggests you can’t do much about social issues, either. I’m not foolish enough to try to bring back the dead. I can’t really think of anything.”

“I’m stuck here until you do.”

“Can I free you from the lamp?”

The smile on the genie’s face got bigger. “I know you mean well, and it’s a thoughtful idea, but the lamp is my home. Without it, I’m not sure what I’d be.”

“I bet you get a lot of dumb, even mean, requests.”

“Sometimes.”

“Okay, how about this. I wish you could decide whether or not to grant someone’s wish.”

“Seriously?”

“Why not? I mean if you’re stuck with this existence, you should at least have a say in what you do.”

“Are you sure about this wish?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Your wish is granted.”

“Excellent.”

“You are the oddest human being I think I’ve ever met.”

“Really? That’s sweet of you to say.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. And I think I know what my third wish is.”

“Shouldn’t you have made that before you let me decide whether I will grant wishes?”

“Nope. My third wish is that you and I can hang out and be friends. But only if you want to.”

“That’s your third wish?”

“Yes.”

“Definitely the oddest.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Indeed.”

Merely Surviving

He laid on the bed and listened to the downpour hammer on the roof of the small cabin. Days like this were the worst. The heavy rain made going outside impractical, even dangerous, and there was nothing to do inside. The few books he had were falling apart from being read so many times. The only thing left was thinking, and that had led to some dark places recently.

This planet had plenty of resources. Numerous plants were edible, and small game animals added variety. Few large predators lived nearby, and they left him alone. Even the climate in this region was generally mild. Except for the rain. Barring injury or illness, there was no reason he couldn’t live to an old age. That reality had begun to weigh on him.

Surviving was not a difficult prospect, but there was nothing for him to do. It had been at least a couple of years since he had helped his crew mates escape while stranding himself. It may have been a lot longer. He had given up keeping track of the days. After building the cabin, the repetitiveness began to erode his interest in living. The day to day necessities kept him busy, but there was no goal beyond surviving.

Finally the rain began to let up. He took the opportunity to go outside and get away from his thoughts. Several fruits were easier to find after a storm, so he decided to do a little foraging. Before heading out, he strapped his sidearm on to his waist. It was one of the few pieces of his uniform that still existed.

At the foot of a tree just out of sight of the cabin, he tied one end of a rope to a basket and began climbing. Once he was high enough, he tossed the other end of the rope over a branch and pulled the basket up. He secured the rope and began filling the basket with fruit. They looked similar to the bananas from Earth, but their flesh was more like that of an orange or a lemon. They tasted different from all of them. Once the basket was reasonably full, he untied the rope and slowly lowered it to the ground. The fruits became inedible once bruised, which they did easily.

Just before the basket reached the ground, he spotted one of the more dangerous animals he had encountered on this planet. It had a head that resembled a bear’s but a body that was closer to that of a mountain lion. They climbed trees easily, so he tried to remain still and avoid drawing its attention.

The creature sniffed at the basket near the ground, but quickly lost interest. Raising its snout into the air, it began searching for the source of another scent. Within moments it began to focus on the tree he was in.

Slowly, he drew his firearm. He didn’t want to shoot the creature, but he would if necessary. Aiming at it, he waited for it to leap. It sprang up to the lowest branches, and he squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. He tried to remember the last time he had fired the weapon but couldn’t. Its charge was completely depleted. The creature was making its way up, inching closer. Watching it carefully, he decided his best option was to try to hit it mid-jump and try to throw off its balance.

Before he could try, the creature turned as though something had alerted it. It jumped down and disappeared into the woods. He hadn’t heard anything but remained in the tree, scanning his surroundings. After several minutes, and nothing obvious happening, he made his way down the tree.

As he made his way back to the cabin, he tried to stay low to the ground and used various bushes and trees to hide behind. The world had gone silent, which made his every move sound much louder in his ears. Still, outside of the quiet, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, outside the cabin, there was something he couldn’t quite make sense of. There was a tall, thin humanoid figure pacing around the building. It shone with a bright yellow light that made it impossible to determine any details or features. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And the most terrifying. He wanted to escape, but he couldn’t even look away.

Then it spoke. Its voice was music, high and airy. There didn’t seem to be any words, but the meaning was clear.

“Captain? Are you here?”

The voice was that of his first mate, but perfected. Ignoring that part of him that was screaming with terror, he stepped out of the woods. The creature before him filled him with awe even though it was familiar.

“Katherine? Is that you?”

“Captain! There you are. We finally made it back.”

“But how . . . ?”

“We have traveled far to return and rescue you. We will explain it all, as much as we can. For now, will you come with me?”

“How long has it been?”

“Twelve years. I am sorry it took us so long.”

The sadness in that apology brought tears to his eyes. Nothing this beautiful should exist, much less apologize.

“Am I dreaming?”

“No. You were stuck in a nightmare. I am here to wake you up. Will you come?”

“Of course, I’ll go anywhere with you.”

Even though he could not make out a face, the being who had been his first mate still managed to convey a smile. She (if that was the right word anymore) wrapped her arms around him and carried him away.

Running Away

Before Bailey reached the end of the block, a portal opened in front of them. Rebecca stepped through, anger evident in her expression.

“Seriously?”

“I thought I would get further away before you noticed.”

“You are leaving without saying goodbye. Again. What the fuck, Bailey?”

“I don’t belong here. I figured it would be easier to just fade away.”

“Easier for you, maybe.”

“No, easier for you Rebecca!” More anger came through in their voice than Bailey intended. “You have Marie. David. Who knows what else you have to deal with regarding your cult. Family. Whatever. You don’t need me around complicating life even more.”

“Quit it. Quit trying to decide what’s best for me. Especially since you always decide it’s best for you to leave.”

“I saved your life after your dumb plan. You, of all people, know what that cost me. I did it for you. And I’d do it again without hesitation. Now, I need to go. Just accept that.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay?”

Bailey chewed on the inside of their lip. “I can’t be what you need. What you want.”

“What do you think that is?”

“A mage who embraces their gift. A friend who isn’t . . .” Bailey’s voice trailed off.

“You don’t know how to ask for what you want, so you hide behind excuses of what you think I want.”

“I betrayed you! How do you expect me to face you after that! You should hate me! Go back to your friends! To the people who fought for you!”

Overcome by their own emotions, Bailey tried to hurry away, but Rebecca grabbed their shoulders to stop them.

“You were right. I do know what it cost you, so I know you fought for me, too. You were there for me when I needed you most.”

Rivers of tears were streaming down their face as they shook Rebecca off. Half running, Bailey quickly moved away without looking back. Rebecca just stood, helplessly watching them disappear.