After the Siege

“Matthew?! What happened?” Sarah’s surprise threatened to overwhelm her.

“If I could sit . . .” His voice was strained, and every movement caused his face to contort with pain.

“Of course.”

Sarah and David slowly led Matthew to one of the big armchairs where he collapsed into the soft cushions. While Matthew tried to find a comfortable position, David spoke.

“I found him tied up in a basement down the street. The men who entered the house earlier came from there. I think they were holding him.”

“Good guess, kid. They thought I could help them, give them information on the house. In the end, though, they just left me there. Did they get Thomas?”

Sarah wasn’t sure how much to tell him. Trust wasn’t an issue between them, but she wasn’t sure he was strong enough at the moment to deal with the whole situation. “He’s still upstairs. Not dead. My current priority, however, is your well-being. How badly are you hurt?”

“I’ve felt better, but I’m going to live.” He forced a smile.

The light-heartedness he was trying to project actually caused her to worry more. “Do you think they’ll come back?”

“Hard to say. If they didn’t get him, they’ll be back. I don’t know how soon.” The pain showing on his face had become constant.

“Rebecca? Can you help?”

“Of course.” Rebecca closed her eyes and stretched out her hand towards Mathew. After only a few seconds, his head dropped towards his chest, and his breathing steadied. “Julia, I need some help getting him to the infirmary.”

Julia opened a portal and helped Rebecca carry him through.

“So what happened in the house?”

Sarah was thinking about Matthew and didn’t hear David’s question.

“Sarah?”

“Sorry.” She shook her head a bit to try to bring her focus back to the moment. “What did you say?”

“I asked what happened.”

“As Matthew said, they were after Thomas.”

“But they failed?”

A wave of exhaustion swept over her once more, so she slumped into a chair. “Sort of. Thomas is in his room, frozen in time. Two of the attackers are up there, too. They didn’t kill or capture him, but he is currently incapacitated.”

“How do we save him?”

“That’s what we were discussing when you came in. We aren’t sure yet.”

“Why didn’t you tell Matthew.”

“He needs rest. Needs to recover. There’s nothing he can do right now in his condition. Was there anything else in the house where you found him? Any clue?”

“No. The place was empty. I doubt they had been there long.”

“Okay. You should get some rest, too. Oh, and would you mind not leaving the house for the next few days. If they do come back, I’d rather have you in here with us.”

“Sure. Whatever I can do.”

“And David? Thank you for finding Matthew.”

“Purely accidental. But you’re welcome.”

David left Sarah alone with her thoughts. Matthew being back in the house, even wounded, managed to give her a little comfort, but there were still a lot of unknowns to deal with. Her first task was studying the features of the men in Thomas’s room. She wanted to be able to reproduce them as exactly as possible.

Siege (part eight)

“So there are three people frozen in time in Thomas’s room, and we have no idea how to release them?” Rebecca’s voice betrayed the toll that stress had taken on her.

“Yes. That is the current situation.” Sarah felt exhausted.

“On a positive note, the barrier seems to be gone.” Julia tried to sound upbeat but failed.

The three women were sitting downstairs. They had tried to move the men without success. For now, at least, they were stuck in their current positions.

“Can you use your blue crystal?” Rebecca asked Julia.

“No. I haven’t figured out how to extend its use. I was lucky that it worked on Bailey. But mind control is a different sort of magic than temporal stasis.”

Rebecca slumped further into her chair, the hope she had harbored briefly fully extinguished.

“We need another temporal mage.” Julia said. “Do you know anyone, Sarah?”

“No. Thomas was . . .” She caught herself. “ . . . is the only one I’ve met. It’s clear they were after him, but we still don’t know why.”

Silence fell over them as each reflected on the matter. For her part, Sarah was not certain how to feel. She knew she couldn’t leave Thomas as he was, but it might mean the house was safe, at least for now. On the other hand, he might also have an idea as to who their attackers were, or even why they had attacked.

“We should restore our own defenses. Whoever it was that got away, he could come back. Can you put up a barrier of our own, Julia?” Sarah refused to sit still and wait for the next thing to happen.

“I can, but there is a reason I didn’t put one up before. With preparation, they can be taken down. It worked in this case because we didn’t have the time to break it. If I set one up, they could figure out how to deal with it before we notice. At best, it would slow them down.”

“That’s better than nothing.”

“Okay. I just wanted you to know the limits of it. I’ll put one up and reactivate the long hallway. Leaving one up for too long might also attract unwanted attention. Once I can figure out a way to remove barriers quickly, I think we should consider taking it down.”

“What about the men upstairs?” Rebecca asked.

“There’s nothing we can do about them, remember?” Sarah answered.

“No. I meant, what if the stasis is temporary. What if they can start moving. They’re still a threat.”

“That’s a good point. I’ll put up a barrier around them. Even if they manage to break out, at least we’ll know.”

“I’m sorry to put so much on you, Julia.” Sarah said.

Julia shrugged. “Defending the house is my job. It’s why you all let me stick around in spite of my anti-social attitude.”

“That’s not true,” Sarah protested.

“Relax. I’m joking. Mostly. Anyway, it’ll give me something to do.”

“Rebecca. Do you think you could contact Thomas’s soul? See if it’s frozen too? Maybe we can contact him through the spirit world?”

Rebecca appeared to think about the idea for a few moments. “I can try. I don’t know if it will work, but I will try.”

“That’s all I ask. I will see if I can track down the identities of our uninvited guests. Maybe that will provide us with some answers.”

They heard the front door open and then David’s voice.

“Barrier’s down. Is anybody here?”

“In here,” Sarah replied.

David came around the corner, but he wasn’t alone. He was supporting another person who seemed to be unconscious.

“David! Who . . .?” Sarah had rushed over to help.

At the sound of her voice, the figure raised its head and gave her a weak smile. “Sarah. It’s good to see you.”

Her surprise caused her to take a step back. “Matthew?!”

Siege (part five)

Turning several street corners to throw off anyone who might be following him, David put a fair bit of distance between himself and the magic shop. No one seemed to be following him. Maybe it was just an unlucky coincidence that he lost contact with Julia when he did, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

Ducking into a narrow alley, he looked around to make sure no one else was nearby. Once he was satisfied, he slipped on Sarah’s invisibility ring. He hadn’t seen any need for it, but Sarah insisted he keep it. Now he was grateful she had. Safe from prying eyes – he hoped – David made his way back to the house.

As soon as it came into view, he knew something was off. The building always had an air of magic about it, if you knew how to look. But this was different, unfamiliar. This magic, whatever it was, might be responsible for severing the connection with Julia. Leaving the ring on, David approached the house carefully.

He went to open the door, but something stopped him from touching the doorknob. A barrier was wrapped around the house, though he had no idea who created it or why. Had Julia set it up to keep someone out? Or had someone else set it up to trap everyone inside?

He considered trying to use brute force to break through, but that had too many downsides. For one thing, it might not work, and all he would have accomplished is announcing his presence. On the other hand, using elemental magic might even damage the house. Without knowing more, he decided to wait and see what would happen next.

Over an hour passed uneventfully. Tired of waiting, David decided to try to get through the barrier. As he approached the house once more, he noticed three people leave a house down the block and walk in his direction. The ring’s magic appeared to still be working, so he hoped they weren’t coming for him. Indeed, they walked right past him and up to the front door. All of them appeared middle-aged and male; none of them looked familiar to him.

Effortlessly, they opened the door and entered the house. David tried to follow them inside, but the barrier remained intact. If they could pass through, they were probably responsible for setting it up in the first place. But knowing that didn’t help him.

Instead, he went to the house where the men had come from. There was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, and the place seemed unoccupied. The front door was unlocked, so he went in as quietly as he could.

There wasn’t any furniture in the living room. In fact, every room was empty, and there was no indication of who the men were. Had they even really been here? To be thorough, he decided to check the basement, too.

As with the rest of the house, there was nothing in it. It was hard to imagine that anyone had ever lived here. He noticed a door at the far end of the large space. Opening it, he found himself in front of a person blindfolded and tied to a chair.

Following a Lead

The shop was small and dark, with only a few lights at the edges of the room. A short, middle-aged man greeted David from behind a counter.

“Hello, sir. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Just browsing.”

“Okay. Let me know if have any questions.” The man sounded friendly, but David didn’t trust him. Evil didn’t announce itself.

“Are you seeing all this?” David whispered towards the small portal on his shoulder.

“Shh,” was the only response.

The store was full of trinkets that one would expect to find in a place like this: charms, crystals, and potions were the most common bits. It all appeared to be harmless, though David couldn’t tell for certain what, if anything, was real. On a shelf, one peculiar statue caught his eye. Only six inches high, it depicted some sort of sea creature he didn’t recognize.

“What’s this?”

The man looked up. “That? It’s supposed to be some sort of deity. Ancient. From somewhere in the Pacific, I think.”

“You don’t know?”

“I get a lot of stuff. It’s hard to keep track of all of it. I figure someone will recognize it and buy it. If not, it’s still an interesting piece.”

“I suppose.” David was confused. Wasn’t he a mage? How could he not know what he was selling. Had Mark lied to him about getting the box here in spite of his terror? He decided to be more direct and walked up to the counter.

“Actually, I am looking for something, I suppose. Something that will scare someone. Not hurt them, just scare them. Do you have anything like that?”

The man stared at him, weighing some sort of judgment.

“Who are you?” He eventually asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you a cop? Trying to get me to admit to selling dangerous stuff?”

“No, I . . .”

“This is all just for fun. People come in here looking for baubles, something to believe in, to give them a sense of security or to play at being wizards. Whatever. If you’re a cop, either charge me with something or get out. And if you’re not a cop, just get out.”

His anger took David by surprise. He turned and left in stunned silence.

“That was quite a performance.” Having forgotten about her portal, Julia’s voice started David.

“You think he was lying?”

“That’s one possibility. Another is that he’s selling things without knowing what they are. Or your client’s ex lied to you. Which do you think is more likely?”

“I’m not sure. Mark seemed truly scared, so I have trouble believing he would lie. But this guy seemed genuine as well.”

“Do you want me to . . .” Julia’s voice abruptly cut off.

“Julia?” There was no indication that her portal was still open.

David looked around but saw nothing that would explain the portal’s closing. He had already walked about a block from the magic store. Could the owner have done something? But why? That would only have raised David’s suspicions even higher.

Fearing something had gone wrong, David began to hurry back to the house.

Punishment

David knocked on the front door of the house. After a few seconds, a man who looked to be in his 30s answered.

“Hello. Are you Mark?”

“Who are you?”

At that moment, the man’s eyes widened as he noticed the box David was holding, and he tried to close the door. Before it fully shut, David stuck his foot across the threshold to keep it open.

“So you recognize the box. Do you know what happened to your ex-wife?”

“I didn’t do anything!”

The force resisting David’s foot eased, and he shoved it wide open. The man had backed away several feet from the door.

“So you didn’t put this box in Jennifer’s basement?”

“Get out of my house!”

David took a step towards him. “Do you know what happened to her?”

“Leave me alone.” His voice had become almost a whimper.

“You know what’s inside the box? Should I show you?”

Shaking uncontrollably, the man crumpled to the floor.

David crouched down near him. “Where did you get it?”

His sobbing suggested he hadn’t summoned the horror himself. But he must have some idea of what had been in it. David needed to find out who gave it to him.

“Your ex-wife killed herself. Because of this box. Because of you.”

“No, no, no . . .”

“Yes. Where did you get it?”

“I just wanted to scare her . . .”

His terror was making it difficult to get anywhere, so David stood up and walked back to the door. After he put the box out of sight behind an end table, he crouched down next to Mark once more. He opened his hands to show that they were empty.

“The box is gone, for now. Take a moment to compose yourself.”

After taking a few deep breaths, Mark seemed to calm down a little.

“You can’t prove I did anything.”

“I suppose not. But I can leave the box here for you. Or you can tell me where you got it.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Why not? Is there something bad about the box?”

“It’s . . . Well . . . No, I mean . . .”

“Just tell me, and I’ll leave you alone with whatever guilt you feel.”

“There’s a place. Downtown. It sells . . . things.”

David held out a notebook and a pen. “Address.”

Mark quickly wrote down an address.

“If this isn’t right, I will come back.”

“It’s right. I swear.”

“Good.” David walked over and picked up the box. “Here.” He tossed the box to Mark who scrambled backwards away from it. The box hit the floor and opened. Mark screamed and covered his eyes.

“It’s empty. I wouldn’t subject anyone to a horror. Even you. Sadly for Jennifer, she married someone who doesn’t have the same respect for others. I have recorded all of this, however, and I’m sure the police will have questions.”

Unsure of how much longer he could keep his anger in check, David left without waiting for a response. Since Mark didn’t seem to be a mage, he would let others handle him. It was better than he deserved.

The Cure (part two)

“You want me to do what?”

David couldn’t tell if Rebecca was confused or irritated. “I need you to connect me to someone else’s mind, so I can try to undo the damage caused by a horror.”

Clearly skeptical, Rebecca just stared at him.

“I figure, if I can get into her mind, I can use my own training to strengthen her against the madness.”

“Are sure the horror hasn’t driven you mad?”

“Rebecca, please . . .”

“First Thomas, and now you. If everyone is in such need of a mental specialist, we should recruit one. I am a spirit mage. There is some overlap, but this isn’t really my forte.” She didn’t sound upset so much as helpless.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I have no one else I can ask. I just need you to get me in. I can take it from there.”

“You know I’m not prepared for this, and I’m not just talking about specialties. I have no training in dealing with horrors. What if the madness spreads to me?”

“That won’t happen.”

“Are you certain? You’ve done this before?”

“Well . . . no, I haven’t. But horrors can’t infect others through an intermediary.”

“David.” She sounded a bit like Samuel. “Even if it’s not dangerous for me, what about you? I’m not comfortable with the idea of helping you do something so risky.”

“I know this seems foolish, but this woman came to me for help. She doesn’t deserve this. I have to at least try.”

Rebecca was silent for a minute, perhaps considering his plea. “You know, I may not be able to do it. This really isn’t my area.”

“I know, but we can try. Thank you.”

She sighed and followed him. As they turned the corner onto the block with Jennifer’s house, they saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. David ran to the house just as the ambulance doors slammed shut. Jennifer’s sister, Sue, was standing in front, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What happened?”

Gesturing at the ambulance as it drove away, Sue replied, “I left her alone for just a minute. She seemed better . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she began sobbing. David tried to console her, but she shoved him away violently.

“You said you would help her! Where were you?!” Sobs again wracked her body.

David started to explain but stopped himself. The last thing she needed was to hear him make excuses. Rebecca arrived and gently pulled him away from the inconsolable woman.

There was still a police officer on the scene taking notes. David walked over to him.

“Can I ask what happened?”

The officer looked up. “Who are you?”

“A friend of Jennifer’s.”

“Her sister seemed pretty angry at you.”

“I had promised to help, but I took to long to get here.”

“How were you going to help a suicidal woman? You a therapist?”

“Something like that.”

“What did you say your name was?”

Before David could respond, the radio on the officer’s shoulder began making an inhuman shrieking sound. The officer covered his ears involuntarily, then ran to his car, which was making the same noise.

With the officer distracted, Rebecca again came up to David and led him away.

“Did you do that?” He asked.

Rebecca smiled. “Spirits love messing with electronics. It doesn’t take much encouragement.”

The rest of the walk back to the house was quiet. David was lost in his own thoughts, and Rebecca seemed unwilling to interrupt him. Just before they went inside, though, she stopped him.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Why does it feel like it is?”

“Because you care. But you can’t save everyone.”

“You sound like my guide, Samuel.”

“He must be a very wise person.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle, but he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet.

The Cure? (part one)

“Hello, David. It is good to hear from you. How are you doing?”

David had contacted his old guide using the mental discipline Samuel had taught him years ago. Given Samuel’s knowledge of horrors, he seemed the most likely to be able to help David with this current problem.

“Greetings, sir. I am well. And yourself?”

“We’ve talked about this. You have come into your own, and we are equals. No more ‘sir.’”

“Yes, sir. . . . Sorry.”

Samuel gave the impression of a chuckle. “Keep working at it. Now I doubt this is merely a courtesy conversation. What is troubling you?”

“I have encountered a horror.”

HIs guide’s presence lost all sense of light-heartedness. “Your mind is still intact?”

“Yes, s. . .” David caught himself. “I remember my training. The horror is rather small and weak; it is secure and poses no threat. However, the owner of the house where I found it was exposed. Her mind is deteriorating.”

“That is unfortunate. Was she a friend of yours?”

“No. Just someone I was trying to help.”

“Still, I am sorry about her fate.”

“I am hoping you would know how to reverse it.”

“Reverse it? There is no way to reverse the kind of mental damage done by a horror. Even a small one. I’m afraid she is beyond help.”

“That can’t be right. There must be something to be done.”

“If it were you, or someone who had your mental training . . . Maybe. But a lay person with no experience? She is lost.”

“I can’t accept that.”

“David,” Samuel had switched into his “teacher” voice. “I know I taught you that we don’t always win. That sometimes things happen which are beyond our control. If she has fallen victim to the madness, we are helpless. As difficult as it is, we need to acknowledge our own limitations.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are your own person now. I cannot tell you what to do; that is your decision. But if you still value my experience, you will take my advice, my advice as a peer, and let this go.”

“Thank you, s. . . Samuel. I do appreciate your advice.”

The connection between them ended, and David was left with his disappointment. One thing kept nagging at him, though. If there truly was nothing to be done, why bother warning him to let it go? If nothing would help, what was the harm in the attempt? Perhaps there was something that might work, something dangerous. But what?

Horror Madness

It was staring at him. Even frozen and inert, David could feel the horror staring at him. Was that even possible, or was he starting to go mad? He sat down to meditate, reinforce his mental defenses, but it was difficult to focus with it staring at him.

After studying it for weeks, there was little David had learned about the horror. It wasn’t very powerful, so it couldn’t have created a portal on its own. Someone had brought it over, but who and why? The creature itself provided no clues; he needed to go back to where he had found it.

The woman who answered the door was not the same one who had come to his shop that day.

“Hello. Is Jennifer here?”

The woman studied him carefully. “She’s resting. Not feeling well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Who are you?”

David began to feel a little exposed under her probing gaze. “I’m from the magic shop nearby. I helped her a few weeks ago, and I had some follow-up questions for her. But if she’s not feeling well . . . Just tell her David stopped by, and I’ll come back another time.” He turned to leave, but she stopped him.

“Come in. She’s back in the bedroom. Maybe you can help.”

“Help?”

“You should see for yourself.”

David followed the woman down a short hallway and through a doorway. Inside, lying on a bed, was Jennifer. Bandages were wrapped around her arms and her fingers, but she was smiling.

“You came back! Did you find the monster?”

The question puzzled him. They had talked weeks ago after he had captured the horror. “Yes, I did. Don’t you remember?”

“It’s fine. He’s a nice man.” Jennifer clearly wasn’t talking to him. Instead, she seemed to be looking at an empty corner of the room. Abruptly her attention focused back on him. “What did you do? Did you hurt him?” David had no idea what she was talking about.

She began scratching her left forearm, but the bandages rendered her attempts ineffective. After several seconds of trying, she managed to push the bandage on her arm down a little, revealing a jagged, ugly wound.

The other woman ran to the side of the bed and slapped Jennifer’s hand away from her arm. “If you keep this up, I’ll have to bind your wrists again.”

“But Sue, it itches!”

“I don’t care. I’ll put some more ointment on it in a bit.”

“You can’t. She’s my sister.” Jennifer was again addressing the empty corner.

Sue gave David a look of helpless desperation.

“How long has she been like this?”

“It started a few weeks ago, and she keeps getting worse. Talking to people who aren’t there. Saying disturbing things. Even trying to scratch her arms off.”

A few weeks ago would have been around the time he caught the horror. She must have seen more of it than he had realized.

“Jennifer, is there anyone who would want to hurt you?”

Sue appeared shocked. “You think someone did this to her?”

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to understand what happened.”

Jennifer was again smiling at him. “Why would anyone want to hurt me?”

Sue frowned. “What about Mark?”

“He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s always been so kind.”

“Who’s Mark?”

“He’s her ex. A real jerk. That’s even how she used to describe him. Before . . . But I can’t see him going so far as to hurt her like this.”

“Does he have access to the house?”

“I don’t think so. Jennifer moved here after their divorce, so he shouldn’t have a key. Do you think you can help her? Do you know what’s wrong with her?”

“I . . . I’m not sure. I am going to try, but I need to do a little research. Do you know where my shop is located? In case you need to get in touch with me?”

“Yes. She told me about it, about you, before . . .” Her voice trailed off, as though talking about her sister’s condition would make it even more real.

“I’ll be in touch. Soon. I will do whatever I can to help your sister.”

Sue nodded, but kept looking at Jennifer with concern. David left the house on his own. Was there anything he could do? He wasn’t sure, but he had to try.

A New Customer (part two)

The basement was little more than a cement floor with cinderblock walls. It was large but mostly occupied by boxes piled seemingly at random. What light there was came from the few lightbulbs suspended here and there from the beams above. The only space that didn’t have boxes strewn about was one corner occupied by a washer and dryer. There weren’t any places to hide that he could see; if there was a monster, it couldn’t be that large.

David slowly made his way through the area. The woman who had come into the shop, Jennifer, said that she had seen it on the side of the basement opposite from the laundry. He was skeptical that there was a monster, but she had been on the verge of tears all the way back to her house. Something had clearly terrified her, so he wanted to be thorough. He moved boxes aside to look behind them and even opened a few to look inside.

He had made it over halfway through the basement when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. As soon as he turned his head, it disappeared. The light in that part of the room wasn’t good, but it looked like a large white mouse or maybe a small rat. Had she mistaken a mouse for a monster? Not wanting to jump to any conclusions, he decided to investigate more closely.

With all the boxes around, even a small flame could quickly turn into an inferno. So he bent down to touch the floor and sent a wave of ice toward the place he had seen the mouse. He hoped it might trap it in the ice, but at least it might make it harder for the thing to run away. A squeal from a box suggested the ice had had the desired effect. He carefully picked his way over the ice and lifted the box. There was nothing there.

Putting the box back down, he began looking around to find where it had run off to. When the box touched the ice again, the squeal came back. Out of the top of the box, between the flaps concealing the contents, the head of a white mouse poked out. David quickly grabbed at it and somehow managed to catch hold of it.

He tried pulling it out, but it resisted him as though something were pulling in back inside the box. Surprised, David let the mouse slip out of his grasp. He hurriedly pulled back the flaps to look in the box. Upon seeing inside, he involuntarily took a step back.

There was a white, amorphous blob, roughly one foot across at the widest point. Several tentacles extended from the mass; each of them ending in the shape of the front two-thirds of a mouse’s body. He had the impression the thing was staring at him with the mouse eyes.

Samuel had told him about horrors, but David never expected to see one. His training protected him from the madness that usually emanated from such beings, and it was small enough that it didn’t pose much of a threat in other ways. Not yet. Had Jennifer gotten a good look at it, she very well might have been driven insane. He covered it in ice, abruptly silencing it. Then he wrapped it in a blanket to keep anyone else from seeing it. The real question was where it had come from.

“Julia?” he called out tentatively.

Her response was nearly immediate. “Did you find your monster?” It sounded like she was chuckling.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Already have it contained. But I need your help.”

“Why?”

“It’s a horror.”

He paused, expecting her to react, but she didn’t say anything.

“I need you to locate the portal it came through and close it.”

“A horror? You’re joking, right?” Any hint of amusement was gone from her voice.

“Unfortunately, no. It’s small, and I froze it. Luckily, it was vulnerable to cold rather than heat. But I don’t think I can find it’s portal on my own.”

“Why do you sound sane? Are you sure it’s a horror?”

“Quite sure. My guide, Samuel, trained me, prepared me to deal with these things. He has had to deal with them before, so he wanted to make sure I was equipped to deal with them, too.”

“That’s good, I guess. I’m going to come through. Please keep the thing out of sight. I don’t think I can deal with it.”

“Don’t worry. I have it wrapped up.”

A portal appeared in front of David. He assumed it had been there all along, allowing Julia to keep tabs on him. Julia stepped through holding a green crystal. It looked like the same crystal she had been holding in the coffee shop when they had been looking for Rebecca.

“Where did you find it?”

“That box over there.” He pointed it out.

Julia took a few steps toward the box and looked at it while holding the crystal up to it. She was being careful not to touch the box. “Yeah. The box itself is a portal. I’m not finding any others.”

“Can you close it?”

“Not here, but I should be able to stop anything else from coming through until I can deal with it properly.”

“Good. Can you open a portal to the shop? I want to secure this thing elsewhere before talking with Jennifer again.”

“Sure. Better your shop than the house. Just be careful.”

“Always.”

A New Customer (part one)

David was sitting behind the counter when the bell over the entrance jingled. Looking up from the book he was reading, he saw Julia enter the little shop.

“Oh. Hi.”

She feigned a hurt expression. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“It’s not that. I was just hoping you were a customer.”

“It does look a little slow in here. Maybe if you put a sign out front . . . ?”

“Sarah warned me against doing that. Thought it might draw too much of the wrong kind of attention.”

“As someone who isn’t known for playing it safe, I hate to admit that she’s probably right.” Julia walked over to one shelf and picked up a bottle filled with a light blue liquid. “What’s this?”

“Rebecca gave me those. They are a very weak healing potions. Good for minor illnesses.”

“And these?” She gestured to a few baskets of colored balls about the size of a jawbreaker.

“I made them. If you bite into one of the blue ones, they slowly release water suitable for drinking. The red ones can be used to start small fires. And throwing the sea-foam green ones into a fire will extinguish it.”

“Handy.”

David wasn’t sure if she was being sincere or sarcastic. “I don’t want to sell anything too powerful. Especially to people who might be unfamiliar with magic.”

“No, no. I wasn’t being critical. These are clever items. Practical. Have you had any customers?”

“A few. I keep hoping that word of mouth will bring in more, but it’s been slow.”

“Don’t get discouraged. This is a good idea.”

It was strange to hear encouragement from Julia. Even though she was taking a more active role in the house of late, she still maintained a distance from everyone. Indeed, David couldn’t remember ever having a casual conversation with her before now.

“So do you sell anything for mages?”

“Well most of the things in here could be useful to anyone. The only mage specific items are the white crystals you gave me.”

“Oh right. I’m sorry I can’t make them quickly. Jason’s notes were useful, but they don’t make up for my lack of a gift in that area.”

“Don’t worry about it. I haven’t had any mages stop by yet, anyway.”

The bell jingled again, and both of them turned as a woman entered the store. She was out of breath and looked panicked.

“Is this the magic shop?”

“It is. What’s wrong?” David asked.

“There is . . . something in my house. Some kind of monster. Do you have anything that can help?” Whatever she had seen clearly had upset her greatly.

“What does this monster look like?”

“I didn’t get a good look at it. I was in my basement when I saw it. I ran up the stairs and came straight here. My friend told me about this shop, so I though you could help.”

David looked to Julia, who still hadn’t said anything. She just shrugged. David turned back to the woman. “I’m not sure I have anything, especially if we don’t know what it is.”

“So there’s nothing you can do?”

“I’m not sure. Not without more . . .”

“You could come over. That way you can figure out what it is.”

David was taken aback by the request. Making house calls or hunting monsters were not what he had in mind when he opened the store. It was just something to do to feel useful. He turned once more to Julia.

“This could help with word of mouth,” she said.

“You’re right.” After all, he thought, he did want to help people. “Okay. Let’s go find this monster.”

“Thank you!” She began leading him outside.

David looked behind him. “Are you coming?”

“This is your thing. I wouldn’t want to steal your thunder. Go ahead and call if you need help.” Before he could reply Julia disappeared into a portal. David then hurried after the woman.