Esther

The apartment looked the same as it always had, as though Jason had never moved out. Maybe he hadn’t. The question was why? Julia looked around at all the clutter and tried to guess why he had kept this place. No answer immediately suggested itself.

She sat down and started going through the nearest pile of paper. It consisted mostly of notes in Jason’s indecipherable handwriting. Before she could begin a new stack, there was a knock at the door. She sat very still and waited for whoever it was to go away.

Instead, they began to fiddle with the lock. Her first instinct was to leave and return later, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want anyone tampering with Jason’s things. Standing and preparing to defend herself, she waited for the door to open.

When it did, she was surprised to see an older woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing on the other side. the woman pulled a set of keys away from the lock and stared at Julia over a pair of reading glasses.

“I heard you up here,” the woman said in response to a question Julia hadn’t asked. “Where’s Mr. Wizard?”

The situation had become something unexpected. “Mr. Wizard?”

“Your friend, Jason Wizard. He is your friend, isn’t he? Or should I be calling the cops on you?” The lines on the woman’s face suggested she was in her 80s, but there was nothing frail about her.

Wizard? That was the name Jason had used? As smart as he was, his lack of common sense still amazed her.

“Yes. He and I are friends. But he’s not here right now.”

“I thought so. You used to come around occasionally. Hadn’t seen you in awhile. Thought maybe you’d had a falling out. Anyway, rent’s due. Jason asked me to collect it from whoever was here.” The woman walked into the apartment and headed to the kitchenette area. She put some water into the kettle and set it on the stove. While it heated up, she took out two mugs and a couple of teabags from the cupboards.

Julia watched all of this in stunned silence. This woman, Jason’s landlady, seemed quite at home here. Had she visited often? Julia couldn’t recall meeting her before. The cat appeared from wherever it had gone off to and began rubbing up against the woman’s legs.

The kettle finally whistled, and the woman poured hot water into each of the mugs before dipping the teabags in. “Do you take any milk or sugar in your tea? I know he has sugar, but I can’t be sure there is any milk.”

“No.” Julia was still not sure what to make of all of this.

“I hope you don’t mind if I use some sugar. Helps bring out the taste. Come on, now. Have a seat.” The woman sat down at the small table across from the stove. From a covered bowl, she extracted two sugar cubes and dropped them into the mug in front of her. Julia walked over and sat down in the other chair.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Esther. I own the building.” The woman’s smile was genuine. “And what’s your name? Jason never told me.”

“Julia.”

“Julia. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you know Jason well?”

“He’s been living here for years. You get to know people a little after so much time.”

That didn’t really answer her question, but Julia decided not to push the issue. “Well, I’m afraid Jason isn’t here right now.”

“So you said, but rent is still due. He is a good tenant, but I have bills to pay.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him.”

The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but a tinge of sadness crept into it. “This must be hard on you, no doubt. If you’re here alone, I assume something happened to him. He told me it might, and that I should expect you if it did. I guess I hoped he was just pulling my leg again. I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Julia shook her head. “If I get you the rent, can I keep this place?”

Esther reached out and patted her hand. “Of course.”

The cat jumped onto the table between them and laid down. Esther waved her hand at the animal. “Rook, get down.” In spite of her expression, her voice didn’t convey any real threat.

“Rook?”

“Oh, he never did bother to figure out his name, did he? The cat’s name is ‘Rook.’ Jason would have known if he had ever bothered to ask.”

Julia stared at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I already told you. My name is Esther. I own the building. Rent is due on the first of the month, which was yesterday. I know you’re in mourning, so I can wait a few days. But not too long, okay? And be sure to keep the tea and sugar on hand.”

Julia nodded and took a sip from the mug in front of her. The tea was warm and comforting. She felt more peaceful than she had in a long time.

A Door to the Past

After David left, Julia turned back to talk to Jason’s apparition, but it, too, had gone. She dropped into a chair and stared at nothing in particular. She really had nothing to do, at least nothing she wanted to do.

Surprising her, Jason’s cat jumped into her lap. She hadn’t seen it since Jason’s death; in fact, she hadn’t even been certain that it was still around until just now. As far as she knew, Jason had never given it a name. It jumped back to the floor and crawled under the chair. Julia stood up to go find some food for it.

Before she even took a step, something hit her foot. The cat had knocked a green toy into her. She bent down to pick up, not a toy, but a green crystal. It radiated power, but it didn’t look like the power storage crystals Jason normally created. Indeed, she had never seen him make or use anything like this. Getting down on her hands and knees, she looked under the chair to see if there was anything else under it that might be a clue to what the crystal was for.

The only thing she saw was the cat, who meowed at her and walked away. Julia sat back onto her legs and examined the crystal more closely. There was power, but it was already bound up in some purpose; it wasn’t the freely available power that could be found in Jason’s usual crystals. Without more information, there was no way of knowing what it was for. The cat began meowing repeatedly, so she walked over to where it was sitting, next to a small cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a bag of cat food. She found a bowl and set it down on the floor.

While the cat ate, she continued to turn the crystal over in her hand. It stubbornly refused to give up its secrets. Casting her gaze around the room, she saw nothing remarkable, nothing incomplete or out of place. Her eyes finally settled on the door to Jason’s back rooms. She had avoided going back into the other parts of his personal space. Even though he was gone, it felt wrong, as if she would be prying. The door was now ajar. The cat must have opened it and gotten out. That was a good thing, else it might have starved. 

Now that the door was open, it felt like a sign for her to finally enter. After all, his belongings needed to be dealt with, especially if anything else was alive back there. Clutching the crystal tightly, Julia steeled herself and walked into the next room.

To someone who didn’t know Jason well, the room would have looked cluttered and disorganized, as thought someone had been in the middle of three projects and left suddenly. She knew better. He had probably been in the middle of at least six projects. Chaos was his order, and he understood it better than anyone else she knew. She couldn’t always follow how his mind worked, but there was no denying that he saw patterns no one else could.

Three more doors led away from this room. One would go to his personal chambers. Another went to a more traditional lab space. And the third . . . confused her. She had made these quarters according to his instructions. There should only be two doors besides the one she had come through. Had he added a room without telling her?

Opening this extra door revealed nothing but a blank wall. There was no doubt that Jason was odd, to say the least, but he always had a reason for everything he did. So what was the point of a false door? She closed it and examined the side facing the rest of the room.

It appeared to be just a normal door; there was nothing odd about it at all. The door handle was made of glass and cut to look like a large gem. A little fancy, perhaps, but nothing extraordinary. Otherwise, it was a simple wooden door that led nowhere.

A meow startled her. The cat was standing next to her looking at the door, obviously expecting to be let through. She obliged the cat, but the wall was still there. It sat pawing at the wall, apparently confused. She closed the door again and went over it carefully. This time she noticed a notch in the handle. It looked like it belonged, so she hadn’t noticed it the first time. There was no other indentation or marking anywhere. She pulled out the green crystal and fitted it to the notch. Effortlessly, it snapped into place. This time, when she opened the door, she saw the inside of a familiar apartment. It was where Jason had been living when they had first met.

The cat did not hesitate to enter its old home. Why did Jason have a door to this place? Was there something important here? She couldn’t begin to guess the answers to her questions, but she was determined to find out. Carefully, she followed the cat through the door.

A Bad Feeling

The sidewalk was full of people walking to their afternoon destinations. Some were staring down at their phones; others looked straight ahead while managing to avoid eye contact with anyone. The bustle was typical for the time of day, and even surrounded by so many others, everyone kept to their own private worlds.

A young boy, no more than ten, wove his way through the crowd and tried, with only modest success, to avoid being jostled. As he reached the corner of the block and waited for the light to change, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see a middle-aged man, with a wild look in his eyes, bending down to talk to him.

“Excuse me, young man, can you tell me where Maxwell’s Cafe is? I seem to be turned around.”

The boy knew he wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but the man did not seem dangerous despite his looks. Pointing back the way he had come, he said, “Two blocks . . .” A truck roaring past drowned out his voice for a moment. “Two blocks that way. It’s on your right. There is a big blue neon sign.”

“Thank you.” The man straightened and began walking in the direction the boy had shown him.

Seeing that the light had changed, the boy crossed the street and continued on his way. 

*     *     *

“Why did you do that?” Julia asked Jason. “You know where Maxwell’s is.”

Jason looked back over his shoulder at the boy and smiled. “Did you notice the truck that went by?”

“There are a lot of trucks going by.”

“One went past when the boy was giving me directions.”

“Okay. Maybe I remember that.”

“It ran a red light. If he hadn’t stopped to give me directions, he would have been in the street. That truck would have run him over.”

“You knew about the truck?”

Jason chuckled. “No. I just noticed it go by when he was talking.”

“Then why . . .”

“I knew he was in danger. I just didn’t know the details until I saw the truck.”

“So you stopped him . . .”

“. . . to keep him out of danger. Yes. I just get these flashes, something is good or bad. The boy must have brushed me, and I picked up on his immediate fortune.”

Dumbfounded, Julia just looked at him.

He chuckled again. “Just something I’ve always had. Never details, just a sense of success or failure, good or bad.”

“Seems handy.”

Jason gave her an enigmatic smile.

“Wait a second. Why did that building fall on you back when we first met? Shouldn’t you have been able to sense that whatever you were doing was a bad idea?”

“But it wasn’t.”

“A building. Fell. On. You.”

“And as a result, I met you.”

“That counts as a success?”

Jason shrugged. “Good ideas work in mysterious ways.”

I Begin

All around there is darkness, no light anywhere and nothing beneath me. There is nothing to focus attention and nothing solid on which to find footing. I am falling. What waits at the bottom? Is there a bottom?

How much time has passed? How much time is left? I do not know the answer; we never do. Right now is when I am. The past is gone. The future is blank. What will I do right this moment?

I close my eyes. (Or were they already closed?) I listen to the air move past my ears, feel it touch my skin. I focus on my heartbeat, use it to steady myself. I am still falling, but more peacefully now.

I can’t ignore my situation, but I do not let it rule me. I am not the master, but neither am I the servant. What thoughts might I have, what worlds might I create as I plummet in the dark? I do not know; I will not know. Not until I think, not until I create. And so, in the darkness, I begin.

All of Eternity

It had been over a century since he had last seen another human being. Having been alive for so long, he doubted he even counted as a human being himself anymore. Maybe he never was.

He sat down with a cup of tea. It grew in the backyard of the house. Other people used to live here with him, but humans were now extinct. The last few years had been hard on the dwindling population. Staring the end of your kind in the face was an unenviable position. The only thing worse that he could imagine was staring at eternity alone.

On the table in front of him was an ancient handgun. It had sat in the same position seemingly forever, its layer of dust growing thicker by the year. It was stupid, he knew, but he had left it there to remind himself of the futility it represented. He had used it years ago, after the last person had died. The gun still worked, but the bullet didn’t kill him. It hadn’t even hurt him.

When others were around, he enjoyed his long life. There were always new things to discover, new people to meet. Then infertility became more and more a problem. Disease took its toll. Within just a couple hundred years humans went from the dominant animal on the planet to an endangered species. Now his life was nothing more than a burden.

After the gun failed, he tried other methods to escape his isolation. Knives didn’t cut his skin. Pills passed right through him. Suffocation didn’t even cause him to lose consciousness. The cold of the South Pole and the heat inside a volcano were merely irritating. He simply wouldn’t die.

After traveling everywhere, he finally settled down near the place he had grown up so long ago. Starvation and dehydration were nothing to him, but he managed to care for a small garden that provided food he ate out of habit. Days and years blurred, and he found himself sleeping more and more. At least that relief was not denied him.

He expected to go mad. Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Yet he was impervious even to mental illness. All that was left was to learn everything he could. Collecting books from libraries and anywhere else he could find them, he taught himself everything about science and philosophy. He began conducting his own experiments.

At first, it was merely something to do, but slowly, a purpose began to take shape. He began to study his own physiology as best as he could. Learning about himself grew into discovering the secret to his own death. He used every type of scanner humanity had developed, and even invented new ones. After a century of study, all his research merely confirmed his original observation: he was immune to death.

Once he accepted that, his mind began to change. It had to. If both insanity and death were out of his reach, there was no other choice. His thoughts turned outward, to the rest of the universe. In spite of all of humanity’s achievements, they had never discovered extra-terrestrial life. He realized that if he did nothing, he would be here when the sun destroyed the Earth and would spend the rest of eternity floating in the void. So he turned to rocketry.

Years of learning passed, and even more for building, experimenting, failing, and starting over. It didn’t matter how long it took; it was all he had. After countless crashes, the day came when he managed to launch and escape the atmosphere. He looked at the Earth as it quickly receded from him. There was no way to know where he was headed, but at least it was somewhere.

Getting Through

More than anything, David wanted his body back. Being unable to talk to anyone other than Rebecca was frustrating, but it was nothing compared to being cut off from his magic. For whatever reason, this body left him with none of it. He was grateful not to be dead, but he wasn’t really alive, either. If Julia could fix that, he had to get through to her.

He approached the door to Jason’s quarters with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. Rebecca and Sarah were convinced that Julia was angry at everyone, that she wanted nothing to do with them. How would she react to him? The only thing to do was knock on the door.

“Go away!” Julia’s voice came from the other side. It sounded raw and pained. The strength with which she had spoken to Peter was gone.

He knocked again. This time, the door opened. Julia stood there, eyes red, a wild look on her face. She looked down at him.

“What are you? Another of Rebecca’s minions? How did you even get here? Go back to your mistress and tell her to leave me alone.” She began to shut the door but abruptly stopped. Looking behind her, she seemed to be listening to something or someone he couldn’t hear. After a few moments, she turned back to him. “You’re David?”

He nodded.

“Fine. Come in.”

She stood aside to let him pass. As he entered the room, he looked around but didn’t see anyone else. Walking over to a chair and sitting down, she motioned for him to sit as well.

“Why are you here? For that matter, why are you a stuffed rabbit?”

David began trying to explain, but she didn’t seem to be able to pick up on his thoughts. The hope he had been given when she identified him was quashed just as suddenly by her expectant stare. He had no plan to communicate with her.

“Seriously? That’s messed up.”

Surprised, he looked at her, but she was paying attention to . . . an empty space next to her. Who was she talking to?

Julia turned back to him. “So Rebecca saved you and put you in this stuffed animal? But she didn’t do the same for Jason.”

There it was. He had been saved, and Jason had not. Would the unfairness of it keep her from helping?

“I know! Quit saying it. I still don’t have to be happy about it.” Once more, she wasn’t talking to him. “If he knew so much, why couldn’t he see what would happen to you?”

She listening for another minute before speaking to David again. “You know, if Thomas had Rebecca prepare to rescue you, he must have known you life was in danger, too. I’m guessing, though, that he didn’t say anything about it to you. He treated you the same way he treated me. Treated Jason. He doesn’t deserve your trust.” 

She paused and studied him. David doubted very much that she could read the reactions of stuffed animals. Still, his top concern was recovering his body. Everything else was secondary to that.

Finally, she let out a sigh. “And you don’t deserve to be stuck like that. Though, I have to admit, you are kind of cute.” She let out a small chuckle. “Go back to Rebecca. I’ll drop your body off with her.”

Overcome with excitement, David hopped off the couch and headed for the door. Her voice stopped him.

“But you have to tell her. And Sarah. Leave me alone. At least for now. The hallways are back to normal, but I want to be left alone. They owe me that much.”

David nodded his understanding and waited to see if there was any more.

“Go. Get out of that silly body.”

Dismissed, he hurried to return to Rebecca as fast as tiny legs could move. Something resembling normalcy was within his reach.

To Save Rebecca

“While you’re sulking in here, Rebecca is in trouble.” Julia looked up at the ghostly figure of Jason in front of her.

“I thought you left.”

“I had. I came back. It’s not like I have anything else to do, but you really should help Rebecca.”

Her curiosity getting the better of her, she cast a spell to determine who was in the house. At first, there was no one in the hallways; after a minute, however, Rebecca left her room with another person. They were headed toward the front door.

“Who is that?”

“Not sure, but Rebecca seemed terrified of him.”

“So I was right; she did send you.”

“No. I was just watching.”

“Right.”

“Whatever problem you have with Thomas . . .”

“Problem? You’re dead.”

“Whatever your problem, it isn’t with Rebecca. She needs your help.”

Julia didn’t want to admit that this might be her fault. If she hadn’t flipped the hallway permissions, this man couldn’t have gotten inside. She was angry, but she wasn’t so angry that she was okay with someone else coming into the house and hurting her neighbors. She opened a portal in front of Rebecca and whoever was with her.

“Who the hell are you?” Julia didn’t like the looks of this man; he was older, severe looking. Whatever he intended would not be pleasant. She made sure to keep out of his line of sight.

“How are you still alive?”

She hadn’t expected that. “My house, my question.” Why did he sound so surprised to hear her?

“Not that it’s any of your concern, but I am Rebecca’s father. She’s coming home. Aren’t you, Rebecca?”

“Yes.”

Julia knew that tone of voice. Rebecca was in danger, and she didn’t deserve what he planned to do to her.

“Nobody leaves here unless I let them.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think you have enough power to stop me. That’s why you aren’t showing yourself.” Her portal was forced to close suddenly. Who was he?

One of her alarms started sounding, indicating a fire in Rebecca’s room. Because of the alarm failsafe, Julia was able to open a portal into Rebecca’s private quarters. One of the armchairs was on fire, so she quickly opened a hole underneath it. The chair fell into one of the several secluded caves that Julia kept track of, precisely for these occasions. After that threat was dealt with, she turned back to the intruder.

He was about to head down the stairs, then he and Rebecca would be gone. Clearly a magic user of some sort, she had no idea what protective measures he might have in place. Attacking him directly was a risky proposition. Instead, she opened another portal on the stairs to the same cave. Then she had to hope he fell through.

She watched, expecting him to notice the portal and avoid it. At the last moment, something – she couldn’t tell what – flew in front of him and caused him to fall. She quickly closed the portal after he went through it. Then she reversed the hallways back to normal, to keep anyone else from coming in.

Rebecca was safe for now, so Julia left the rest of the house to its own devices. She had a new puzzle to work on. Why had he been surprised by her presence? For that matter, how did he even know who she was? There was more to this story, and she needed to find out what it was.

Looking for Julia

“I had no idea,” Sarah said after Rebecca had finished her story. “Did Thomas know you had escaped from a cult?”

Rebecca looked surprised. “They aren’t a cult. They’re my family.”

Sarah wasn’t sure if she was just telling herself that or if she really believed it. Whichever it was, Rebecca clearly did not like the word ‘cult.’ There was no reason to push the issue. “I’m sorry. Did Thomas know about your family?”

“No. I hadn’t told anyone. It’s been years since I left, so I thought they had forgotten about me. Until now.”

“And you said Julia got rid of this Peter?”

“She sent him through a portal. I don’t know where.”

Sarah looked over at the rabbit who was David. He was sitting on the couch a bit away from Rebecca and showed no reaction. That Julia had stepped in to protect Rebecca was a promising sign. Unless there was some other reason she had for getting rid of the outsider. For now, though, she would give Julia the benefit of the doubt. It gave her some reason to think Julia hadn’t turned against everyone in the house. She needed to hang on to that hope. Still, this group coming after Rebecca added to the growing list of concerns that needed to be addressed.

“Do you expect Peter to return? Or someone else from your family?”

“If he isn’t dead, he will probably come back.” There was genuine terror in her voice as she spoke. “He may not have told anyone else where I was, though, so if he is dead . . .”

“Okay.” Sarah had made at least one decision. “We need to speak with Julia. She can tell us where she sent Peter. And she can also help us get David’s body back.”

Rebecca nodded quietly. David perked up when she mentioned his body. Reading the body language of a stuffed rabbit was beyond her, but she guessed that he was eager to go.

Back into the hallway, things still appeared to be normal. Julia’s room was only a few yards away, and Sarah reached it without incident. David was close behind while Rebecca slowly followed them both.

Knocking on the door repeatedly elicited no response, however. Before she gave up and left, Sarah tried the door and was surprised to find it unlocked. “Julia?” She called out as she slowly pushed the door inward. It was pitch black beyond the threshold, and the room sounded empty as her voice carried on into nothingness. Caution spoke against entering a mage’s chambers uninvited, and as her eyes adjusted, Sarah was glad she had listened. It wasn’t that the room was dark; rather, the room wasn’t there at all. Beyond the door was simply void.

Sarah slammed the door shut before she or anyone else could fall in. Had Julia moved her room, or had it always been elsewhere? More importantly, where was she now?

“Have either of you seen her since Jason . . .” She stopped herself. Jason. She remembered a wall blocking the hallway to Jason’s room when she had come upstairs earlier. At the time, she had put off worrying about it. Now it made sense that Julia might have put it there to keep people away from her and Jason’s room.

Just past the door to David’s room, the wall still stood as though it had always been there. She needed to get around this obstacle, but how?

“There’s a wall.” Rebecca’s voice from behind startled her a bit.

“I know that. I’m trying to think of a way to get through it.”

“No, Sarah, not you. David asked why we stopped . . . What? What do you mean there’s no wall?” Rebecca stepped up next to her and knocked on the wall. “See? Pretty solid.”

“He doesn’t see the wall?”

Rebecca looked back to Sarah. “Apparently not. He is still adamant that there’s nothing there.”

That didn’t make sense, did it? Unless . . . “Is it possible that Julia set this up against humans, but not against other things? Like animated stuffed animals?”

Rebecca shrugged. “I don’t really know anything Julia’s spatial magic. I suppose it’s possible.”

Sarah turned to the rabbit. “David, would you please go to Jason’s door and try to get Julia to come out? Or at least confirm she’s in there?”

“He said, ‘yes.'” Rebecca answered. “He wants his body back.”

“Okay, then. Good luck.” She watched as the rabbit walked through the wall and disappeared.

Future Unknown

Thomas watched Sarah leave and had to fight the urge to follow her. This was his house. He should be the one to deal with problems like this. However, Sarah had had a point; Julia wasn’t going to listen to him right now.

Julia. Not for the first time, he wondered if it had been a mistake to let her join the house. Now, his apprehension seemed to be justified. Everything he had done to try to save her life, and she mistrusts and blames him for . . .

For Jason. It was because of Jason that she was even here. He’d insisted, refusing to join unless she did as well. So, Thomas had relented. Now, one of his oldest friends was gone, and that friend’s latest project had control of the house. Things were pretty sideways.

Thomas walked over to a table where a chessboard was set up. Jason always won their games. Thomas suspected he played by instinct rather than strategy, and while that sort of chaos seemed to work for his friend, he knew he couldn’t emulate it. Yet, the skills necessary to predict his opponent’s next moves eluded him, and he failed to master the game. The irony of that was not lost on him. Perhaps his own magic was too much of a crutch. Being able to see the actual future, he could never quite get the hang of relying solely on his own wits.

On the board was a puzzle Jason had left for him to work on. When he had finished setting it up, he had chuckled in that otherworldly laugh he sometimes had. Thomas stared at the puzzle; its solution once again escaping him. Now he would probably never know the answer. He almost reset the pieces, but decided to leave them for now.

Why didn’t Jason get the crystal to David earlier? If he had, David would have taken care of the mana worm. Rebecca would have saved him, and everything would have been fine. Jason’s own absent-mindedness did him in.

Even as he had the thought, the idea rang hollow. Maybe Julia was right. Jason’s fate was on his head. He had tried to cheat death, had been overconfident in his own cleverness, and all he had done was trade one death for another. Now he was in a future he had not foreseen, and he had no idea what might happen next.

Until Sarah made her attempt to get through to Julia, there was nothing for him to do, so he decided to explore this new timeline. Jason had sent them all down an unexpected branch. Thomas needed to begin planning now for whatever might be ahead. After one more long look at the chessboard, he turned to begin preparing the spells.

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.