Alternative Treatment

“Julia . . .” Sarah didn’t want to point out the obvious. Bailey always became agitated whenever the charm spell was mentioned.

As if she was reading Sarah’s mind, Julia smiled. “Just listen to them. Go ahead, Bailey.”

Bailey hesitated for a few moments before beginning to speak. “I have been under a charm spell for a couple of months. I’m sorry I deceived you . . .”

“We’ve already talked about this. It isn’t your fault,” Julia interrupted.

“Still, I want to apologize. I put you all through so much.”

Julia shrugged and stayed silent.

“I am sorry. Though I didn’t want to, I used you to get to Rebecca. Now she’s in danger.”

“But how . . .?” Sarah’s mind was racing through the implications of this turn of events. “Madeline was unable to break the spell.”

“Yeah, when she failed, I tried a different approach. Unfortunately, the charm is still there. But it’s suppressed for now,” Julia said.

“How did you manage that?” Did Julia have a hidden talent? Nothing about this seemed related to spatial magic.

Flashing another smile, Julia placed a white crystal on the kitchen island.

“One of Jason’s crystals?”

“No. One of mine.”

Sarah picked it up. “You made this?”

“Yes. Jason taught me. He left me some notes.”

“But how is this connected to the charm spell?”

“Some of the principles involved in making these… I was able to depower the charm spell. It’s still there, but it doesn’t have any magical energy to operate. A temporary solution, but effective for now.”

Sarah put down the crystal. Julia could make these? And use them to do other things? What did this mean for the house? For Julia? This felt too big of a development to deal with, and there were other issues more pressing.

“Bailey, what happened to Rebecca?” David’s voice startled Sarah. She had nearly forgotten he was in the room.

“I was forced to give Rebecca a letter. It apparently had some sort of trigger on it. After she read it, she vanished. I don’t really know where. The letter was signed by someone named Marie. Rebecca seemed frightened by it all, before she disappeared. By the time Sarah came back inside, I couldn’t remember what had happened. It’s not that I was unable to tell you; rather, it was hidden from me. Even now, even with the charm suppressed, I cannot remember who put it on me. Or when. Marie is the only name I have because it was on the letter.”

“If someone put that strong of a charm on Bailey,” David said, “they probably put a charm on Rebecca. That’s why she didn’t ask for our help.”

Bailey stared at him. “What do you mean? Have you spoken with her?”

He nodded. “She’s back with the cult she used to be in.”

“She used to be in a cult? She never told me about that.”

“She doesn’t think it’s a cult,” Sarah explained. “And she doesn’t talk about it much. She only told us because someone came looking for her.”

“We need to go get her.” David and Bailey spoke in unison.

“If she is under a charm, it won’t be easy.” Sarah tried to keep everyone from rushing into something.

“Julia?” David turned to her. “Do you think whatever you did for Bailey can help?”

Julia nodded. “If it’s a charm, yes. It will take me at least a couple of days, though.”

“Okay. That will give David and I time to come up with a plan.” Sarah was grateful for the time to approach this situation with some degree of caution.

“What about me?” Bailey asked.

“Let us take care of this. There’s still too much we don’t know about . . . all of this.” Sarah wasn’t sure how far Bailey could be trusted. Until she and Julia could talk privately, involving them was too much of a risk. “It’s safer for you to stay here.”

“I’m the one who got her into this. I’m the one who betrayed her trust, whether I wanted to or not. I need to help get her out.”

“Your feelings are completely understandable, but we’re mages. Let us take care of this. You’ll get your chance to make it up to her.”

Bailey opened her mouth and then closed it again without saying anything. Having them free of the charm was certainly a positive step, but Sarah knew there had to be more to the story.

Surprise

“How are you feeling?” Sarah asked David when he entered the kitchen.

“Better. A little stiff.”

“Being buried in rubble will do that.”

“I suppose.” David opened one of the cupboards and pulled out a box of crackers. He sat down at the island across from her and began mindlessly nibbling.

“Is there anything else bothering you?” She could tell he was distracted. Being unable to help Bailey had frustrated her, so she was looking for some other way to be useful.

“Just anxious to go back for Rebecca. I don’t like leaving her there.”

“David. We’ve been over this.”

“She has to be terrified. You remember the story she told us.”

“Yes, but now she’s chosen to be there. It’s not our place to take her from her home.”

“That’s not her home. She can’t really want to be there.”

“I know it’s not easy to accept, but we have to respect her wishes.”

“How do we know that is her wish? You fell under some sort of compulsion the first time you went there. Bailey is still under some sort of spell. Maybe Rebecca is, too?”

“Maybe. But we have no evidence of that. She says she wants to stay. And she let both of us leave. If we try to force her to leave, we risk a fight we could lose. And we might push Rebecca further away. I don’t like the thought of her being there either, but right now, we don’t have a choice.”

David fell silent. It was obvious he wanted to keep arguing but knew he wasn’t going to win. The man’s loyalty was admirable, but he was too eager to rush in blindly. That was an aspect of his youth Sarah hoped he would grow out of.

A door appeared in the kitchen. Sarah was surprised when Bailey followed Julia through it.

“What . . . ?”

“David. Sarah. I’d like you both to meet Bailey. They have an interesting story to tell.”

Prisoner

The first thing he was aware of was pain, specifically soreness permeating throughout his body.  Eventually opening his eyes, David found himself in a small room; the cot he was laying on was the only item present. He couldn’t tell where he was or how he got here.

A small panel towards the top of the door slid open, and a pair of eyes peered in at him. The opening shut again, and he heard a voice outside. “Get the Mistress. He’s awake.”

“Hello?” David called, but no one responded.

The trauma his body had been through had left him little energy, and he fell unconscious once more.

When he woke next, a familiar face sat beside him.

“Rebecca?”

She smiled. “Yes. Don’t exert yourself too much. You’ve been through quite a bit.”

“Where are we?”

“My family’s compound. You were found half buried in a pile of rubble. I can guess what happened.”

“Are you okay? Are they holding you prisoner?”

She laughed. It was genuine but sounded a bit cold. “No. Nothing like that. I assume you were looking for me thinking that, though. Yes?”

He nodded. Still disoriented from being knocked out, he was finding it difficult to understand what was going on.

“I explained this to Sarah, but this is my home. I am here because I want to be.”

“So . . .” This was a lot to take in.

“So you needn’t have gone to all of this effort.”

“What happens to me now?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m in this cell . . .”

Rebecca chuckled again. “This? Obviously my people wanted to secure an intruder. They didn’t know who you were or why you were here. Since I hope to have cleared up any misunderstanding, you can be on your way. I just ask that the next time you visit, you announce yourself.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. I’m touched you were worried about me so much, but I’m fine. Do you need a ride somewhere? Were you and Sarah supposed to meet up?”

“I . . . uh . . . yeah.”

“Okay. I’ll make sure someone gets you there. I would take you myself, but I have other pressing matters to attend to. Please forgive me.”

David nodded as she stood to leave.

“It was good seeing you, David. Please take care of yourself.” As she finished speaking, she turned and walked out of the room, leaving the door open.

Infiltration

The ring Sarah had given him made him invisible, but wandering through the compound was still a little nerve-wracking. With every step, David expected someone to raise the alarm. It wasn’t that he doubted Sarah’s skill; he just had no experience with this magic, so it was difficult to relax.

In theory, the plan was simple. Sarah would distract Marie by inquiring about Rebecca. That provided her an excuse to enter the compound and allow David to sneak in with her and look around. There was no concrete reason to think this group had abducted Rebecca, but Sarah had a hunch. 

The problem with the plan was that neither of them had any knowledge of the layout of the place. Sarah had only been here once, and only in the first house. David, who had never been here, had no real idea where to even begin. His own village had a communal organization, but this place had an air of hierarchy that he was unfamiliar with. Every building seemed like it held secrets, but their nature was indeterminate. None stood out.

David entered the first house he came to after the one in front, as much to get out of the open as to start looking. Would things be hidden? Or did the group feel safe enough from the outside world to not bother with concealing anything? Because he couldn’t be sure, he looked through every room.

The floor above ground was normal looking, if sparsely furnished. There were single beds in three of the rooms, and a front room with a couch and several chairs. It took him a bit to realize that what seemed off was the lack of a kitchen. There was no one obviously being held captive, however. That just left the basement to investigate.

The basement was dark and unfinished. After fumbling around for a few moments, David found a light and turned it on. Against one wall were shelves piled high with food. Considering the lack of a kitchen in the house, the supply seemed especially out of place.

Other buildings he checked followed the same basic pattern, simple furnishings and a stocked basement. Water, gasoline, freezers stocked with meat, tools, and so on. This group had enough supplies to be self-sufficient for some time. And yet, there was no sign that Rebecca, or anyone else, was being held against their will.

A somewhat larger building towards the middle of the compound held a sizable kitchen and dining hall. Unlike the others he had been in, this building was occupied. Several people were busy preparing a meal. David headed to the basement expecting to find yet more food.

To his surprise, there was a small room at the bottom of the stairs, with a locked door on the far wall. He knew nothing about picking locks, and there was no obvious place for someone to have hidden a key nearby. Using magic to get through the door would be destructive, but the only other option he could think of was leaving. While he was trying to determine the least noticeable method of getting rid of the door, footsteps on the stairs interrupted his train of thought.

The invisibility was still intact, but he wasn’t intangible, so he tried to get as flat against the wall as he could. A man in a simple white shirt and jeans appeared after a moment.

“Is there someone down here?”

When no response came, he finished descending the stairs and walked over to the door. After checking that the door was still locked, he produced a key and unlocked it. Once through the door, he turned on a light. David carefully followed him inside. Several work benches were stationed around the room, and there was a gun rack on one wall. While the scene was disturbing, it still wasn’t what David was looking for, so he turned to leave. In doing so, he accidentally kicked the table nearest him.

“Whoever you are, don’t move.”

Looking behind him, David saw the man holding a rifle aimed at the door. At first, he worried that the invisibility had finally failed, but he could tell the man was still scanning the room. Slowly, David took a step towards the door. The man aimed and squeezed the trigger. The bullet just missed David’s head.

“I said, don’t move.”

David wasn’t sure how he knew where to shoot. Rather than risking another attempt, he decided to cause a distraction. There was a table right behind the man, and it was a simple enough matter to start a fire on it. Unfortunately, something on the table exploded when the fire touched it. David’s world went black.

Betrayed?

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

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

“Who?”

“Bailey.”

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

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

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

“That should be impossible.”

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

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

“That must have been when they left.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough. So what do we do now?”

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

“Julia, will you try to find Bailey?”

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

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

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

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get ready.”

Cafe Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

David looked down at his hands. “Sorry.”

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

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

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

“Why? What happened?”

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

Family Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Peter?” Bailey asked.

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

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

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

“It was just me and her.”

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

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

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

“You are avoiding my questions.”

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

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

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

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

As he left, Julia glared at his back.

“That . . .”

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

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

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

“Sure. What am I looking for?”

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

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

Sarah looked at Julia, who simply nodded.

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

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

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

“I’ll try.”

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

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

Being Useful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite a predicament you seem to be in.”

“How did you find me?”

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

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

Practice

David stood in the middle of a field that was open as far as his eyes could see. This wasn’t where he had been attacked, but he struggled to feel reassured by that fact. When he had first moved in to the house, he had requested a large open space where he could cast spells without worrying something might get destroyed. Julia, presumably, had provided this place. It was his first time here since the encounter with the mana worm, and he was more on edge than he had expected to be. 

Still, it was bright out, and no one – or nothing – else was here. Too much time had passed since he had been able to practice, so he did his best to set his unease aside.

Starting off slowly, he closed his eyes and tried to feel the magic around him. Most of the others could take their time with spells. While he was able to use rituals, the circumstances that called for elemental magic often required a certain amount of urgency. Casting quickly was thus the norm. Speed was something to be practiced, but this was also one of the rare chances to savor the magic.

The energies all around seemed particularly suited to air magics. That fit well with David’s mood at the moment. Fire and water were flashy, and he wanted something more relaxing. Tweaking a small bit of energy slightly, he felt a breeze spring up. He fed it power until it was a strong gust pushing on him. Only then did he pull out a small sphere from his pocket. Without opening his eyes, he tossed the sphere into the air and moved the gust around to catch it.

If he focused, keeping the sphere aloft would be easy. The challenge was to keep it up while doing other things as well. Once he was convinced the sphere was secure, he split the gust into two. One he used to keep the object off the ground; the other he guided into a swirl before shaping it into a proper – albeit small – tornado. Finally, he directed the gust to deposit the sphere into the center of the tornado where it was spun around.

Satisfied with his command of the air, he stopped everything and let the sphere fall. Once he wasn’t focusing on his spells, he felt as though someone or something was watching him. There still wasn’t anything nearby, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. Telling himself he had done enough for today – and not believing himself – David decided to return inside. There would be time for more practice later, after some rest.

It was much later when he realized that he had lost the sphere.

Talking to Oneself

Even just a few days in a stuffed animal left David feeling a little awkward to be back in his own body. His limbs felt too long, and it was odd not seeing the world from only a foot off of the floor. Still, he welcomed the strangeness of it as he walked back into his own rooms for the first time in days.

He set the stuffed rabbit down on a small table just inside the door from the hallway. Rebecca had told him to keep it, but it was unsettling, like smelling food that had made you sick to your stomach the last time you ate it. He considered throwing it away, or even burning it; for now, however, he just put it down and tried to ignore it.

The only other instruction Rebecca had given him was to rest. The whole process of being restored to his body had left him feeling exhausted, yet there were too many thoughts racing around in his head. With all that had happened, plus what Julia had said to him, he didn’t think sleep would come that easily.

Instead, he entered the small room he had set aside for his spiritual practice. It was little more than a walk-in closet, but it helped him to focus. He sat facing a single candle, a mere thought sufficient to ignite the wick. That simple spell left him feel ecstatic. As much as he had missed eating and even talking, magic had been the hardest loss to deal with. He wanted to just start casting every spell he could think of, but now wasn’t the time to indulge in excess. He needed to center himself and reflect on all that had happened. So he sat, staring at the flame, until that was all he could see.

After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, the light shrank once more to a candle flame. Now the candle sat on a desk in a small study. An older man sat, writing. He noticed David’s gaze and turned to face him. The man wore the face of Samuel, David’s old guide, but he knew it wasn’t really him.

“Well, come here, then. You must have some questions if you’ve decided to call upon me. No sense staying over there.” The old man waved him over.

David obeyed and drew closer. He knew this spirit personified some aspect of himself, yet that it appeared in the guise of his old teacher gave it an aura of expertise he had to stay wary of. Consulting oneself always carried the risk of conveying a sort of divine authority to one’s own ideas. When those ideas were echoed back by a respected figure, they could take on an air of infallibility, even if the seeker knew it was coming from an aspect of himself. 

Once David was closer, the man spoke again. “So ask. I’m not going to read your mind.”

“Do I belong here?”

The old man’s expression didn’t change. “What an odd question. Why are you always convinced that you belong some places and not others. Belonging is something that comes from you, not a function of location.”

“That’s not really helpful.”

“Isn’t it? It seems like something you need to learn.”

“I want to know if I should stay in this house. I almost died. And . . .” He could still hear Julia’s warning about Thomas.

“And you aren’t sure you can trust Thomas.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to read my mind.”

“You were taking too long. What does trusting Thomas have to do with you staying?”

“Samuel sent me here to learn. But if I can’t trust Thomas . . .”

“Do you really think you have to trust someone in order to learn from them? Don’t answer. I already know you don’t think that. And now you know you don’t, as well. You can learn from anyone, if you are willing to hear what they are teaching.”

“But should I stay?”

“You know, I could tell you what you want to hear. I know what you want to hear, even if you aren’t willing to admit it to yourself. But I’m feeling a little cranky, and you’re being incredibly dense, so I’m not going to answer you. Stay. Leave. What does it matter? That’s the real question. Why would you stay? Why would you leave? Maybe the real question is whether this is all about Thomas. You have to learn to trust yourself. Don’t look to me for the answers, not when I’m just a stand-in for your mentor. What do you want? Answer that question, and own that answer.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Hey, you want a better answer, next time look to a more helpful aspect of yourself.”

David opened his eyes, and he was back in the small room. Snuffing out the candle as easily as he lit it, he stood and walked back to the living room. Falling into a chair, he kept mulling over the conversation he’d just had with himself. 

What answer did he want to hear? Was it significant that he said “want” and not “need”? What answer did he need to hear? Was it the same? David needed to come up with those answers himself, and he knew that. It didn’t make it any easier.

He noticed the stuffed rabbit had fallen off the table, but he was too tired to get up and replace it, too tired even to go to bed. Instead, he closed his eyes to sleep in the chair. Everything else could wait until after he had gotten some rest.