Jason Is Dead

Sarah sat alone in the living area. The room seemed smaller each time she entered; she was certain Julia was taking space from it little by little. It was hard to blame her, though; no one ever used it. Sarah still made a point to sit occasionally, in the hopes she might encourage others to socialize. So far, it hadn’t worked.

Now Thomas’ secrets were undermining whatever little cohesiveness the house had. Maybe Madeline was right; maybe she should start her own house. This place was not what she had had in mind when she, Thomas, and Matthew had started the house. Now Matthew was gone, Julia was an anti-social recluse, Jason was . . . strange. Rebecca and David were too new to really have a sense of. A new house might be the answer. Maybe she could even convince Matthew to join her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a stuffed animal running into the room. It was a . . . rabbit? Grey and brown, with long, floppy ears. Instead of hopping around, it was walking upright on its two back legs, though rather unsteadily. It looked up at Sarah with black eyes full of intelligence, and clambered up onto the couch next to her.

If she had lived a normal life, the situation would be terrifying. However, she recognized Rebecca’s handiwork, even if this one was new, and it was hardly threatening. The doll touched her hand, but soon got a frustrated look and stopped.

Rebecca walked in. “Sarah, have you . . .”

Before the other woman could finish, Sarah pointed to the rabbit.

“Oh, good. Thank you.”

“A new project, Rebecca?”

“Yeah…uh…no. Sarah, no. No lies. This is David.” Rebecca slumped into a chair. “I had to stick David’s spirit in the rabbit.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Last night. David followed Julia after she stormed off. Thomas and I followed. David was attacked, but I managed to capture his spirit before it vanished.”

“This all happened last night? How did you even know to follow them?”

Rebecca sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I need to know what’s going on. Tell me everything.”

“I don’t know everything. What I do know is that a couple of months ago, right after David moved in, Thomas came to me and asked me to find a way to safeguard David. He really didn’t tell me much, just that David was likely to be fatally attacked, and that I might know how to save him. So I prepared a vessel, a receptacle for David’s spirit, but left the last step undone. Then it would be a matter of moments to trap him in the container.”

Rebecca stopped talking and stared at the rabbit for a few moments. “Yes. That’s why the bear took some of your hair. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything then. Thomas told me not to.”

She turned back to Sarah. “And I’m sorry to you, too. I really didn’t know what was going on. I trusted Thomas. I should have trusted you, too.”

“So then, David was attacked and you completed the container to stop his spirit from leaving.”

Rebecca looked back at the rabbit. “I’m getting to it.

“David wants me to get to the most important part. After David was attacked, Jason stepped in. I . . . I didn’t have a receptacle made for him.”

Sarah sat quietly, as the implication of that last detail slowly smothered her.

“Jason is . . .”

“. . . Dead. Yes. Whatever the creature was – Thomas called it a mana worm – attached itself to Jason. There was an explosion. When it subsided, the worm was nowhere to be seen. And Jason was dead.”

This couldn’t be happening. David was a stuffed rabbit. Jason was dead. This wasn’t possible.

“What about Julia?”

“She survived. Physically, at least. After yelling at Thomas, she shunted him and me back here. I haven’t seen her since.”

“And Thomas? Where is he?”

“His room, I imagine. I went immediately to my lab to re-embody David. Unfortunately, David’s body is back in whatever space we found Julia. We need to get that back.”

“We will. But I need to talk with Thomas.” Jason was dead. “Thank you for telling me all this, Rebecca. And for saving David. You two should rest. We’ll talk again. After I’ve spoken with Thomas.” Jason was dead. The time for talking had passed. Yelling would be a better approach. How could Thomas have let this happen?

Sacred

Longest night of the year. A sacred time.

You don’t think anything is sacred.

Yes, I do. Humanity. This night, maybe more than any other, reminds us that we need one another. The darkness can only win if we try to face it alone. Humanity is sacred.

Humanity isn’t sacred. It is an insignificant blip in the universe. In the grand scheme of things, we just don’t matter.

I’m not talking about the universe, not saying it thinks us sacred. I’m talking about us. What do we hold dear? For my part, that’s humanity. It’s worthy of honor and respect. That is what we owe each other. And ourselves.

And God?

Who is more important? God? Or people? Listen closely to how someone answers; it will tell you everything you need to know about them. Does God need anything from us? If so, that’s not God. Who needs? Humans. We need others. God doesn’t need anything from us. Other human beings need help. And that’s where our focus should be. Winter reminds us how fragile we are. Look to your neighbor, to the stranger. That is where the sacred is. If we cannot see the sacred in each other, it doesn’t matter what else we call sacred.

Do you have any friends at all?

I have you.

I suppose that’s true. Happy solstice, then.

Happy solstice.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

“So this is where you live?” Julia looked around at the unremarkable, and very cluttered, apartment.

“Yep.” Jason replied absently as he dug through one of the piles of miscellany.

After she had gotten him out of the collapsed building, he had convinced her to come to his apartment to repay her for saving him. Uncharacteristically, she had agreed. That, by itself, bothered her. She should have said no. The fact that she didn’t only intensified her curiosity about him.

Though he looked a few years older than she was, he acted younger. Even taking account of the fact that a building had just collapsed on top of him, he appeared disheveled. If she couldn’t feel the power coming off him, it would be easy to mistake him for a vagrant. She didn’t understand this strange man, and she wanted to.

“So if this is your home, what were you doing at that other place?”

“Research.” He didn’t look up.

“Why there and not here?”

“Because then my apartment would have been destroyed.”

The reasoning was impeccable and completely baffling. “You knew the building was going to fall down?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Just a sense I get. I thought I would have better luck trying my spell there than I would here. Since the building didn’t survive, I’d say it was rather lucky I didn’t do it here.”Jason gave up on the pile he had been digging through and started searching another one.

“Aha! Here it is.” He sat back, a triumphant grin on his face. In his hands was a long, slender crystal that glowed. He held it out towards her. “Here you go.”

“What’s this?”

“A crystal.”

“I know that. I meant, what’s it for?”

“You can use it to power magic. I thought you were a mage?”

“I am. Ugh… Why are you giving it to me?”

“Oh. You saved my life. Least I could do.”

“I can feel the power from here. It must be worth a fortune.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. I make them in my spare time. Useful to have around. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”

Julia took the crystal carefully and turned it over slowly. It was one of the strongest crystals she had ever encountered, and he just had it laying around. It would provide enough power for a normal month’s worth of spells for her.

“Why do you live by yourself, in this apartment? If you can make this, you should have people beating down your door begging you to join their house.”

“Not really interested. I have an old friend who keeps inviting me, but I’m not much for joining.” Jason cleared off a seat on the couch and offered Julia a nearby armchair. “I like the solitude. Easier to focus.” As if to give the lie to his words, a black cat jumped up onto the table in front of the couch and stared at him.

“Uh huh. What’s your cat’s name?”

“I don’t know. And he isn’t mine.”

“Is he a neighbor’s? How did he get in?”

“Oh, he lives here, but he doesn’t belong to me. He’s his own person.”

“He lives here, but you don’t know his name?”

“No. He hasn’t told me yet.”

“He hasn’t told you? His name?” Everything Jason said or did made him seem more strange.

“Right…” Jason’s voice seemed to trail off.

“What?” Julia had been too focused on the cat.

“I asked if you belong to a house?”

“No. I don’t mix well with others.” Why did she say that? It was true, of course, but why tell this mage she had just met?

“Too bad. Your command of spatial dimensions is fascinating. I’d love to learn more about it.”

“You seem to have your own talents.” She indicated the crystal she was holding.

He slapped his hands down on his knees and stood up suddenly. “It’s settled then. You will teach me about your magic, and I’ll teach you mine.”

“What? I didn’t…”

He pulled her to her feet and began walking her to the door. “Tomorrow afternoon. Back here.” The cat, who had been following them, meowed. “Fine,” Jason replied to the animal before turning back to Julia. “Bring some food for the cat. He insists. Thinks you will get better food than I give him.”

With that, Julia found herself in the hallway, the door to the apartment closed behind her. How had he arrived at the conclusion that they would swap magic? This was insane. No, Jason was insane. He had to be. She should just leave and never come back. As she considered the crystal in her hand, she knew she would return.

Maze

David struggled to focus on the maze Samuel had set before him. Moving the snowball with his thoughts as quickly as he dared, he struggled to avoid the flames that constituted the walls. Its size had already been noticeably reduced.

“You are trying to force it.” Samuel’s voice came from behind him. “Magic is not a tool. It is an extension of the self. It is you. You are it.”

David knew this lesson by heart. However, knowing the words and putting them into practice were very different things. Samuel’s presence added a level of pressure that annoyed him. After being a searcher for several years, he thought he should be immune to such anxiety.

“Stop.” Samuel tried to hide his disappointment, but David knew him too well. “You have come very far, but you still have work to do. You cannot let yourself become distracted so easily. And you still need to learn to see the magic as a part of you, rather than a separate thing.” Samuel’s voice softened. “You did make it further than you ever have before. You should be proud of your progress.”

That was typical of Samuel. Chastise and then encourage. Still, David did feel a little better. Samuel had been his guide since the beginning, and there must be some hope if he was still willing to train David.

* * *

Years later, after David had mastered the maze, the two sat down together.

“You are nearly ready.”

David had waited a long time to hear those words, but he kept his excitement in check lest he give Samuel a reason to doubt his own judgment.

After seeing no reaction in his searcher, Samuel continued. “It’s time for you to consider what is next.”

This was not the conversation he had been expecting. “Would I not simply stay here? Help you carry on your work?”

Samuel shook his head. “You have learned much here, yet there is much I cannot teach you. To continue to grow, you must go elsewhere. You must find your own way.”

“I thought you wanted me here. To take over for you eventually.”

The smile on Samuel’s face was big and genuine. “Perhaps someday. You need experience. You need to learn things I do not know. Then, if… when… you do come back, you will bring skills you cannot get here. You will be a better mage.”

David’s mind reeled. “Where will I go?”

“I have a… an old acquaintance. He has a house and has asked after you. He wanted to send you an invitation, but I asked that he let me speak with you. In certain circles, he is well respected. This is a good opportunity for you.”

“So I must leave?”

“Everyone must leave at some time. You have been given a choice, however, and not everyone gets that.”

“But you want me to go.”

“It’s not a question of want. Being around Thomas, the other members of his house, will expose you to other ways of thinking about magic. It will give you experiences that can only deepen your understanding of our art.”

“Very well.”

“Good. Resume your studies. We can talk more about this at dinner.”

* * *

“David? David?”

At first, the voice sounded far away, and then became almost unbearably loud. It took several moments for his vision to clear. When it finally did, he saw Rebecca standing over him. She seemed much larger than he remembered.

“Good. You made it.”

He tried to ask what happened, but his mouth wouldn’t move.

“Don’t try to speak. Just think what you want to say. Clearly. I’ll be able to hear you.”

It took him a minute to figure out how to think the words without saying them aloud. What’s going on?

“You were attacked by a mana worm. Do you remember?”

What’s that?

“Long story. You were attacked. Nearly died.”

You saved me?

“After a fashion. I managed to trap your spirit before the worm completely devoured it. Unfortunately, your body was seriously damaged, so…”

Her voice trailing off sent a chill down his back. He raised his head a bit to look down at himself. Where his body should have been there was only the body of a stuffed animal.

Rote Thankfulness

What are you thankful for?

I hate that question.

Why?

Because the answers always seem so rote. Family. Friends. Home. Health.

You aren’t thankful for those things?

I am, but that’s not the point. We have answers like that memorized. One day of the year, we give the most cursory thought to what we have before moving on to other concerns. We rarely stop to truly reflect on what we have to appreciate. Most of the year, we take things for granted. Then we set aside one day for token thankfulness.

Is that true for everyone? Or is that just your cynicism showing?

So it’s just me, projecting my own failing onto everyone else?

Is it?

I hate you.

Because I’m right?

… Maybe.

Set aside everyone else. What are you thankful for? And don’t give your rote answer. Don’t do the thing you hate. Really reflect. What are you thankful for?

That is a hard question.

Quit deflecting. What are you doing, right now?

Writing.

So?

I am thankful I can write?

Bragging, now?

No. I mean, I am thankful for the ability to hold a pen, the resources to own paper, the luxury of time. I am thankful I can write, whether or not I’m any good at it.

Okay. That’s a start. Anything else?

Ugh. I keep going back to negative things.

Look, it’s not a question of ignoring the bad. But you’ve got all year for that. Just a few moments for balance. You don’t need to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses. Just acknowledge some good.

I am thankful that there are other people who love and care for animals.

Really?

Yeah. It gives me hope. It connects me to other people, even if I don’t know them. I’m glad people feel something I do. And that animals are getting taken care of.

Okay, then.

For that matter, I am thankful for the internet, for showing me that there are others who share my values, my concern about the world. As much crap as there is, it’s good to know I’m not entirely alone.

You think it’s important to remember this more than one day a year?

Yes.

Do you think others might share that value?

… Yes.

Then – and I don’t mean to sound preachy – maybe dial back the cynicism a little?

… Yeah.

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.