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.

Betrayed?

Sarah was downstairs in the living room when Julia and David returned.

“Where are they?” Julia stormed in. The tone in her voice was unfamiliar.

“Who?”

“Bailey.”

“They should be in their room. What’s going on?”

As Julia fell silent, David entered the room. In response to a look from Sarah, he merely shrugged.

“They’re not in the house,” Julia said after a moment.

“That should be impossible.”

“After David and I left, did you walk them back to their room?”

After thinking for a moment, Sarah realized she hadn’t. “No.”

“That must have been when they left.”

David finally spoke up. “So Bailey is responsible for Rebecca’s disappearance?”

“I’m not sure, but there was a delayed spell that was triggered somehow. Nothing in the cafe showed evidence of enchantment, which suggests something was brought it. I assume it wasn’t Rebecca, so . . .”

“But why?” Sarah asked. “Bailey seemed genuinely concerned. And Rebecca agreed to meet with her. Why would she do that if Bailey was a possible threat?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I had hoped to talk with them. We need to find them.”

“Maybe Thomas can help?” Sarah made the suggestion even though she knew it was likely to upset Julia. Now was not the time to worry about that.

“Thomas . . .” Julia sounded thoughtful rather than angry. “Didn’t he vouch for Bailey when they first arrived?”

Sarah had forgotten that detail. “You’re right. He did.”

“Are you suggesting he had something to do with this?” David sounded genuinely shocked.

“No.” That response from Julia surprised Sarah. “I don’t trust him, but if he really wanted to do something to Rebecca, there were simpler ways of going about it. I’m just wondering how he could have been wrong about Bailey.”

“Hold on. We don’t know that it was Bailey.” Sarah felt compelled to point out that all they had was speculation at this point.

“Fair enough. So what do we do now?”

There were too many unknowns. How could they keep from just chasing shadows? 

“Julia, will you try to find Bailey?”

“You didn’t even need to ask.” Julia turned around and walked out.

“David, would you back me up? I want to check something out. Back up would make me feel a little better.”

“Sure. You want to tell me about where we’re going?”

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get ready.”

Cafe Interlude

Now that he was alone with Julia, David found himself searching for the words he had wanted to say for awhile. They were sitting at a table in the cafe where Rebecca had disappeared. Julia was turning a green crystal over and staring at it intently.

“So what did you want to talk about?” She didn’t look up as she asked the question.

“What do you mean?” It was a reflexive response.

“You volunteered to come with me, even though there wasn’t anything for you to do. I’m assuming it was because you wanted to talk.”

Maybe it was because she always seemed aloof, or maybe it was the anger that was lurking just beneath the surface, but David was still unable to shake the way she intimidated him. Still, there wasn’t likely to be a better chance than this.

“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry.”

“For what?”

“That I was unable to protect you from . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not your job to protect me.”

“But, if I had . . . then Jason . . .” As soon as he said it, he regretted it.

“Stop.” She looked up from the crystal with fire in her eyes. “What happened, happened. Thomas screwed up. Put you in an impossible situation. Put us both in harm’s way. Nothing else needs to be said.”

David looked down at his hands. “Sorry.”

Julia did not respond, instead pouring all of her attention back into the crystal. It was impossible to read her, and, according to Sarah, Jason was the only one who had known her much at all. He wanted to find a way to connect with her, but mentioning Jason seemed to make that even more unlikely now.

Instead, he watched her examine the crystal. Whatever it showed her, he was unable to see it himself. The realm of magic was impossibly large, and he doubted anyone had even the most superficial familiarity with the whole of it. Nonetheless, he wanted to learn all he could. This did not seem like a good time to ask.

Without warning, Julia stood up. “We have to go. We need to get back to the house. Right now.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Not now. I’ll explain when we get there.”

Family Meeting

Sitting around the dining room table, everyone looked to Sarah. It may have been Thomas’s house, but all the residents recognized Sarah as the de facto leader. It had been she who called them all together.

“Rebecca is missing,” she began, without preamble.

“I thought she had already left?” David hadn’t been happy upon hearing of her departure.

“She had,” Sarah replied. “But Bailey and I went to meet with her.” She gestured towards Bailey, who ducked their head sheepishly. “During that meeting, she vanished amid a bright flash of light.”

“So you think she was abducted,” Julia said, rather than asked.

“I don’t really think she would have agreed to meet if she was just going to leave in the middle of it.” Sarah tried not to sound defensive.

Julia held up her hand. “I’m not doubting you. I just want to understand what happened. Was there any sign before she disappeared? Any indication of what sort of magic was used?”

“No. I wasn’t actually there. I had gone outside to give Bailey and Rebecca some privacy. I saw a flash, and when I ran back inside, Rebecca was gone.”

“Bailey? What happened? Tell us everything you can remember.”

Clearly nervous and upset, Bailey looked up at Julia. “We were just talking, catching up a little. I think she was scared, but not of me. I was asking her for help with my living situation. Next thing I knew, a bright flash knocked me backwards. When my vision cleared, Sarah was standing over me, and Rebecca was nowhere to be seen.”

Julia sat back in her chair and began chewing the inside of her lip.

“So that’s it?” David asked. “We don’t have any leads?”

“Peter,” Sarah replied. “He has already tried to get her once. Maybe this was him again.”

David looked at Julia. “Could he have escaped wherever you sent him?”

“Yeah. I mean, I just got him out of the house; I didn’t imprison him.”

“Who’s Peter?” Bailey asked.

“Someone from Rebecca’s past, before you. Did she tell you anything about her life back then?” Sarah found herself surprised that Bailey didn’t seem to know.

“No. She never wanted to talk about that.”

“Oh. Well, he had tried to get her to leave with him about a month ago. Are you sure you didn’t see anyone else?”

“It was just me and her.”

“This is a waste of time.” Thomas finally spoke up. “Rebecca left the house. She isn’t our responsibility any longer.”

Before Sarah could respond, Julia leapt to her feet. “Just abandon her to fate? Do you already know? Is that why you are so quick to give up on her?”

Thomas stayed in his seat and kept his voice even. “First, you get mad because I tried to save you. Now, you are mad because I am not trying to save Rebecca. You need to be a bit more consistent.”

“You are avoiding my questions.”

“Alright. I do not know what happens to Rebecca. My point is simply that she left. If she had stayed, we could have helped her. And she knew that. She must have had reasons for leaving, for not relying on our help. I simply believe we should respect her choice.”

“I’m not comfortable with that,” David said. “She is still our friend.”

“Beyond that, I feel responsible for her being there in the first place. I tracked her down and got her to come meet us. I want to make sure she’s safe, even if she doesn’t want our help.”

Thomas stood and shrugged his shoulders. “You do not need my permission. You are each free to pursue whatever you wish, as long as you do not endanger the house. I choose to return to my studies.”

As he left, Julia glared at his back.

“That . . .”

Sarah cut her off. “Let him be. I understand your frustration, but let’s focus on Rebecca.”

Julia slumped back down into her chair. “Fine. But we need to deal with him at some point, and soon. Otherwise, I don’t think I can stay.”

“We will. For now, would you please check the cafe?”

“Sure. What am I looking for?”

“Since you specialize in spatial magic, I was hoping you might be able to figure out what was used, how she was spirited away.”

“I’ll go with her,” David volunteered.

Sarah looked at Julia, who simply nodded.

“Okay, while you two are gone, I’m going to retrace some of the steps I took finding Rebecca in the first place.”

“What can I do?” Bailey looked at each of them in turn.

Sarah thought for a moment. “If you can remember anything, either from the cafe or from your past with her, that might give us something to go on. Anything at all.”

“I’ll try.”

“Okay.” Julia stood up again. “I’ll let you know if I find anything. Let’s go, David.” The two headed towards the front door.

“Be careful,” Sarah called after them before leaving the room herself.

Being Useful

It felt good to walk outside under the open sky. Of course, there was danger as well. Since coming to the house, David had been attacked by astral beetles and a mana worm, neither of which he had even heard of prior to leaving Samuel’s side. Today, though, the risk seemed seemed worth it, just to be outside, to reconnect with the world.

Samuel had sent him away to learn, but so far his magic had proven useless. Everyone else had contributed in some way. Jason had even sacrificed his life. David had failed to protect Julia, the one thing he had been asked to do. Staying inside was not likely to change the feeling that he wasn’t making any progress, so a trip outside felt like a step toward something, at least.

He had set out with no destination in mind, and now found himself wandering through a quiet residential neighborhood. The yards were big and the houses were set back a ways from the street. A couple of children were playing outside near one of the houses, but otherwise there was no one around.

As he reached the end of the block, he heard someone yelling. A woman stood outside a house around the corner. She was looking into the house while crying and screaming. Smoke had begun to drift out of the open front door. David didn’t stop to consider the situation; he simply ran up to the woman. Samuel had taught him that magic was for helping people, and it was a lesson he had learned well.

“Is anyone inside?” He stood right in front of the woman so she would realize he was talking to her.

Between sobs, she managed to say, “ . . . my son . . . upstairs . . .”

David turned to run into the house. Through the doorway, he could see that much of the first floor was already engulfed in flame. Elemental creation was the easiest form of magic for him. Control was trickier, but he had worked hard to master it. Elemental destruction was the hardest. His inclination was toward bringing new things into being, not eliminating what was already there. Putting out the fire would be difficult, and unless he understood it well enough, the unintended consequences could be worse than the fire itself.

A couple of spells created safe passage through the fire and reduced the overall heat as much as he dared. Once those spells had taken hold, he created a swirl of air centered on him, so that he wouldn’t be overcome by the smoke. Then he entered the house.

After several seconds that felt much longer, he found the stairs. Taking two with every stride, he reached the top quickly. The flames still hadn’t made it this far, but smoke obscured everything. Behind the second door he opened was a young boy sprawled unconscious on the floor. David quickly picked up the child and extended the pocket of air to encompass both of them.

With the boy successfully retrieved, he began to retrace his steps. Halfway down the stairs, they collapsed under the weight. The fire must have weakened them. David fell through to the basement and lost consciousness.

When he came to, his spells had collapsed. Luckily, the basement was relatively cooler than upstairs, and only a little smoke had invaded. With the exception of some scratches and bruises, he appeared to have survived the fall unscathed. Even though he was still unconscious, the boy, too, seemed free of serious injury. The real problem now was how to get out of the basement.

Looking around, he noticed a couple of small windows at ground level. Standing on a crate put him close to the ceiling, and he could feel the heat of the fire above. He was able to get the window open, though. Yelling got someone’s attention, probably a neighbor. With the other person’s help, he managed to get the boy outside.

“The window is too small for me. Get the boy to a paramedic!”

“Okay. Stay here. I’ll send someone over to help get you out.”

David nodded. If he only had himself to worry about, he could rely on his magic to keep himself safe.

Just as he began weaving a new spell, a portal opened up in the basement. Julia stood on the other side.

“Quite a predicament you seem to be in.”

“How did you find me?”

“I keep track of everyone in the house. Now come on back. Rebecca is in trouble, and we need you.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up. He had helped someone. His house needed him. Maybe he could learn some things here after all.

Confessor

“How are you doing?”

“You again. Why do you keep coming back?”

“Just to chat.”

“That summoning ritual was the worst mistake of my life.”

“Remember, I’ve seen your entire life. Performing the ritual isn’t even in the top ten.”

“Every time you come by ‘to chat,’ I feel like it moves up a notch.”

“You don’t like our chats?”

“I thought I had made that pretty clear.”

“Well, you’re really the only one I can talk to. Everyone close to me is just looking for an excuse to overthrow me. Bunch of backstabbers.”

“Isn’t that normal for demons?”

“Yeah, that’s why I don’t trust them.”

“Why do you trust me?”

“You can’t hurt me.”

“Ah.”

“You know, I didn’t want this job.”

“Really?”

“Really. Who wants to be in charge of torturing souls for all of eternity?”

“I thought you enjoyed it.”

“I’m not a psychopath.”

“So how did you get the position?”

“It was a misunderstanding. It led to an argument that escalated, and I stormed off.”

“Why not apologize?”

“Don’t you think I tried? I was told this work was necessary, and if I was truly sorry, I would continue. Typical catch-22. If I leave, I’m not sorry and deserve to stay. If I stay, I am sorry but also stuck here.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know! I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

“No. I mean, that story is ridiculous. You expect me to believe all that?”

“It’s true!”

“Aren’t you the Lord of Lies?”

“No. People often confuse the two of us.”

“Still . . .”

“Yeah, yeah . . .”

“Why are you bothering me?”

“I told you. I need someone to talk to, and you’re a good listener.”

“I’m really not.”

“Good enough for me.”

“I’m so lucky.”

“I have to go now. Can I get you anything?”

“The key to get out of here?”

“Haha! That’s one of the reasons I like you. Good sense of humor. You know you belong here. I’ll drop by again soon.”

“Take your time.”

Everything Has a Price

The witch’s cottage was a ten minute walk from the village. I made it in less than five. Madame Wood’s body was gnarled, and her skin had a distinct bark-like quality to it. Whether her name or her appearance came first, no one left alive knew. Yet she had a friendly demeanor and was always willing to help.

Despite my own sense of urgency – even panic – I retained enough of my wits not to barge into a witch’s cottage uninvited. Knocking, I paced anxiously. It took only a moment for the door to open, seemingly on its own, and I heard Madame Wood’s voice from within the gloom inside.

“Come in, Ser Johns.”

“Madame, you know I’m not a knight.”

“You protect the village. You’re a knight in the ways that matter.”

As much as I usually enjoyed our verbal sparring, there wasn’t time for it now.

“That’s what I’ve come to see you about. While I was out this morning, I came across armed men heading straight for us. I rushed back, but the hunting parties had already left. I know this isn’t a usual request, but is there anything you can do to help? I need to hold them off.”

My eyes were beginning to adjust, and I could tell she was looking at me.

“Are you sure they mean the village harm?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Can you evacuate everyone?”

“Even if I could, there is no where for them all to hide.”

“There must be . . .”

“There isn’t.” I was getting more desperate by the minute.

“I do not think . . .”

“Please, Madame.” I refused to let her deny me. “Our need is great.”

She continued to stare at me. “I am sorry . . .”

“Madame, if you really do think of me as a knight, then help me safeguard the people.”

“It is because of your position that I do not want to . . .”

“Please.” I had to leave. They would be at the village soon, and I needed to get back before they arrived.

“Drink this.” She handed me a vial. I could not see what color the liquid inside was, but I didn’t hesitate. It tasted like nothing.

“Now you will not die at the hands of another. You may fight without fear of injury.”

“Thank you, Madame.” It was more help than I had dared hope for.

“Do not thank me. And if at all possible, do not kill anyone.”

“Don’t kill anyone?”

“If you can avoid it.”

“Is there anything else?”

“It can wait until later. For now, you must go.”

I hurried back to the village. There was still time before the attack, and I made sure everyone was inside. Mostly, there were just children and the elderly; everyone else who might have helped was on the hunt.

When they arrived, i fought with abandon. I tried to heed Madame Wood’s caution, but they had spread out. Even I could not be hurt, others could. So I had to dispatch opponents as quickly as possible in order to get to the next. I had worried that killing someone would break the magic, but it continued to work. In the end, I had killed one shy of a dozen, and no villagers were harmed.

The hunting parties did not return until after the sun had set, so I stayed in the village to guard against another attack. None came. When the hunters returned, I informed them about what had happened. Sleep would no longer be ignored, and I headed off to bed. It was the next day before I made my way back to Madame Wood.

The door again opened by itself after I knocked. This time, there was no friendly banter.

“How many?”

The question was abrupt and serious. “What?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Eleven, by my count.”

She nodded, as though that answered a question she hadn’t asked.

“Well, come in. Have a seat.”

“Thank you, again, for the help yesterday. Without you, the village would have been lost.”

She set a cup of something hot in front of me before sitting down herself. Exhaustion appeared to weigh on her.

“I should tell you about the curse you now have.”

“Curse?”

“The potion you drank.”

“It was cursed?”

“That is why I did not want to offer it to you.”

A loud roar filled my ears as I felt the world falling away. All thought was crowded out of my head.

“You can avoid its effects as long as you do not kill anyone.”

The roar lessened just enough for me to hear her. “But I already . . .”

“I know. Each death takes a year off your life. Do not kill any more.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have refused it? Sacrifice the village to save your own life?”

She asked the questions but already knew the answers. I would have accepted the curse. And knowing may have caused me to hesitate, to avoid killing blows. That hesitation might have cost lives. She was right not to tell me.

“How many years do I have left?”

“I do not know. We have know idea how many years anyone has. Taking eleven years from an unknown future still leaves us with an unknown.”

“But the curse must know.”

“After a fashion, but it cannot tell us.”

“Is there a cure?”

“None that I know of. Everything has a price. You cannot be killed by another person, and the village was saved. But every life you take shortens your own.”

And that is the story of how I came to be cursed. The village still needs me. I just do not know how much of myself I have left to give.

The Forest

The night was darker than usual when the two sisters unwittingly stepped through the portal. There were hints indicating the dangers, but they were not looking for them and wouldn’t have known what they meant even if they had found them. No one can say why they were out at night walking in the woods; it may be that even they did not know. Whatever their purpose was, they did not see it through.

The younger girl ran ahead of her older sister and passed through the stone pillars without even noticing them. A brief flash of light marked her passage, and the older sister could no longer see the younger. She began to run to catch up and passed through as well.

Portals such as this were not common, but they do exist. One may appear for just a few hours before vanishing again, so they were difficult to find if you were looking for them. A few lead to fantastic realms. The dimension the sisters stumbled into was not one of those.

They now found themselves in a denser forest that managed to be even darker than the one they had just left. The younger sister, sensing something was wrong, turned to run back the way she had come. Unfortunately, this portal, like so many others, was only one way. Running through the stone pillars had no effect.

While the older sister wanted to stay near the pillars, in case they became active again, the younger wanted to look for another way out. She would take a few steps and then look back to make sure her sister was still in sight. Several times her sister admonished her to return, each time growing more insistent. She did not listen, until finally she turned around and could no longer see her sister.

Overcome with fear, she ran back towards the pillars, but she must have gotten the directions confused because she could not find them. Nothing looked familiar. Calling to her sister produced no response. Off in the distance, she caught a glimpse of a pale light. Hoping it might represent help, she walked towards it.

As she drew nearer, she could see that the light came from a lamp at the top of a tall pole, which stood along side a wide dirt path. Underneath the light, a man was bent over, digging a hole. Hope sprung up and drove her forward. That same hope died just as quickly when she got closer and saw that the man had the head of a bull. She screamed and turned to run away from the monster, only to be picked up by a large, vaguely human looking creature whose face seemed to be melted half off.

Every being in the forest existed for one purpose, to kill anything that made its way inside. I would like to tell you, dear reader, about the uniquely kind creature who helped the girls and guided them back home. I wish I could tell you that story. Sadly that isn’t what happened. There was no such kindly creature.

Her older sister, who had been looking for her, heard the scream before it was abruptly cut off. The terror was unmistakable, and concern for her sister overrode any sense of self-preservation. By the time she made her way to where the scream had originated, it was too late; her sister was quite obviously dead.

Before she could run away, she too was grabbed by the ogre. It was about to snap her neck like it had her sister’s, when the minotaur stopped it. He explained his plan, and the ogre agreed.

The minotaur was not a monster with a good heart. Like every creature in the forest, he hated all living beings and only knew how to kill. But there was one thing that made him different: he hated his own life as much as he hated the lives of others. More than killing, he wanted to die. He had lived longer than he could remember, and he longed for oblivion. Yet the forest let nothing within its boundaries die. This was the curse that every creature in the forest suffered, and the minotaur had had enough.

Alongside the path, nearly hidden by overgrowth, was a motorized metal carriage. There were artifacts like this scattered around the forest. Like the sisters, they arrived in the forest seemingly at random and by accident. Generally, the inhabitants of the forest ignored them. Since these items were from elsewhere, the minotaur believed they might inhibit the rules of the forest.

The minotaur and the ogre climbed into the carriage, dragging the unconscious girl with them. They made sure the doors were locked from the inside so that no one could get in. Once they were secure, the minotaur lit a fire. They didn’t need to burn to death; suffocation would be an easy way to go. And if they died in here, away from the forest, they should stay dead. The girl’s death should seal their own.

The minotaur’s plan had been a good one, but the girl’s death was unnecessary and involving her undermined it all. The minotaur and ogre had stopped breathing when she woke up. She shouldn’t have. There was no oxygen left in the carriage. The pain of being on fire was somehow enough to overcome that obstacle, and she woke screaming in agony.

Truthfully, she was already dead, but her body continued to struggle to escape. Fumbling through the flames, she managed to get a door open and fell out. Her screams persisted until her body finally gave up.

Much later, the forest revived the minotaur. Climbing out of the carriage, he saw the girl’s body on the ground. In his anger at finding himself still alive, he bent down to take out his rage on what remained of her. When he turned her over, he saw that her head had been changed. It looked like the head of an octopus with tentacles where her mouth should be. Her eyes opened suddenly, and she began screaming again. This time, the sound was in human. The forest had made her one of its own.