Maze

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“You are nearly ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I must leave?”

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

“But you want me to go.”

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

“Very well.”

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

* * *

“David? David?”

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

“Good. You made it.”

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

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

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

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

What’s that?

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

You saved me?

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

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

A Death in the Family (part 2)

There was a penetrating chill in the air. A simple spell would have kept it at bay, but David was reluctant to use magic away from the protection of the house. The run in with astral beetles – which felt like years ago but was actually only a month earlier – had taught him a level of caution that years of training had not managed to instill. 

Still, despite his newfound appreciation for discretion, here he was chasing after a mage he barely knew and who, he’d been told, did not want to be found. She had a master-level command of spatial magic, and he had no idea where she might be headed. He didn’t even know why he’d followed her, except that his Guide, Samuel, had also ingrained in him a responsibility towards others. And he would want someone to come after him, if the situation were the other way around.

Ever since he had been invited to join the house, he knew he had a role to play in keeping it safe. Going after Julia had felt like his responsibility, but now that he was actually looking for her, he found he had no idea what he was really doing. David wanted to live up to Samuel’s faith in him, but he was no longer sure of himself.

The world abruptly shifted. One moment he’d been walking down a city street, then the next step he took was on a grassy field. The artificial light was gone; only the stars overhead provided any break from the night. He looked around, but there was no indication of civilization in any direction.

“Who are you? Really?” A woman’s voice reached him from somewhere close by. It sounded like Julia.

“What’s going on?” He was trying to stay calm. A spark flicked from his hand, but he shoved the impulse away. He needed to understand what was happening before he reacted.

“Me first. Who are you?”

“Fine. I am Searcher David, led by the Guide Samuel down the path of the elements.”

“Quite a mouthful.” The voice kept shifting directions, like the speaker was running around him. “But not really what I was asking. Why did you come out here?”

“Julia? Look, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Bullshit. Who sent you? Thomas? He brought you into the house. He must have, otherwise we would have been consulted. Or did someone else send you? To come after me?”

“No one sent me. Thomas brought me into the house, but I haven’t even spoken with him since I got here.”

There was no response. David wasn’t even certain Julia was still there.

“Okay? My turn.” He hoped his voice wasn’t shaking. “What is going on? How did I get here?”

More silence. Was she thinking? Or had she left him in the middle of nowhere?

“Julia?”

Still nothing.

“I’m going to cast a spell just to give us some light.” After giving his warning, he wrapped his hand in cold flame. Julia stood about twenty feet away, staring at him.

“I don’t believe you.” Her expression was unreadable, especially in the dim light, but her voice carried more distrust than he had ever encountered before.

“Then just send me back. I was trying to help, but I don’t need to be here. I’ll leave you alone, just put me back in the city.”

“Why shouldn’t I just leave you here?”

“I haven’t done anything to you.”

Julia’s demeanor suddenly changed. She seemed to forget about him and was paying attention to… something else.

“What…?”

“Shh!” She interrupted him and pointed off to his right.

The light wasn’t bright enough to reveal anything, so he intensified it. At the very edge of illumination, he could see it. At first, it seemed to be a long snake with far too many eyes that appeared to be hovering in midair. Then he caught a glimpse of long legs holding its body up, three feet off the ground. It looked like nothing he had even heard of, but it terrified him at a fundamental level. After a moment, it skittered back, disappearing once more into the darkness.

“We need to get out here,” David whispered toward Julia. Before he could do anything else, the creature grabbed him from behind, wrapping him like a constrictor, its legs folded back into its body. He could feel his clothes dissolve where the creature touched him. The weak acid deadened his nerves just after he felt suckers latch onto his skin. As a scream filled the air – it could have been from Julia or from him – he felt magic drain from him, followed by his consciousness.

A Death in the Family (part 1)

“So do you know what Thomas is up to?” Rebecca watched Sarah closely for any reaction, but the other woman was unfazed by the question.

They were sitting in Rebecca’s room, drinking tea. Rebecca genuinely liked Sarah, but she was still cautious around her, the result of living on her own for too long. In that respect, she knew that she and Julia were alike. But Julia was even more closed off, and the two had rarely spoken to one another.

“Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think he is up to anything?”

“Just some questions he’s asked me.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Before Rebecca could find a noncommittal response, yelling could be heard in the hell outside her door. Both women leapt to their feet and rushed out into the hallway. Julia was standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the floor above.

“. . . should never have come here! I can’t believe I ever considered trusting you!”

“Julia. Please listen to me . . . ” Thomas’s voice came from up the steps though he was still out of sight.

“No! I’m done listening to you!” Julia spun around and walked over to Sarah and Rebecca. “Did you know about this?” She pushed a piece of paper into Sarah’s hands. On it was a short list, and Rebecca could see one item in particular: “Julia has not died.”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

“I found it in Thomas’s room.” Julia’s voice was angry, yet fear permeated it as well. “You don’t know anything about it?”

“I swear, Julia, I don’t.”

Rebecca nodded her agreement with Sarah’s denial.

“Then I recommend you get out of here before you wind up on one of his lists.”

Thomas appeared at the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. As soon as she saw him, Julia stormed away. She crashed into David, who was just coming out of his own room, and knocked him down. Without stopping, she headed down to the main floor. The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.

Sarah held up the piece of paper in front of Thomas, who had joined them outside of Rebecca’s room. “What is this, Thomas?”

“It’s personal. She took it from my room, a violation of the rules.” As always, his voice was subdued and betrayed little emotion.

“Perhaps, but you admit it’s yours, and it does seem troubling. Convince me it’s not.”

“Could we discuss this privately?”

David had gotten up and joined Rebecca in watching the exchange between the two senior mages.

Sarah shook her head. “They will have questions, too. Unless you want to let suspicion fester, best we talk in front of them.”

“Very well,” Thomas sighed. “Looking around the timeline, I find it useful to leave myself notes so I don’t lose track of when I am, of what is future and what is past. No one is supposed to see them.”

“And this is one such list? Julia found it?”

“Yes. I have safeguard in place to keep everyone out, but her talents with space are greater than my own. Obviously.”

“So you know she’s going to die int he future?”

“No. The future isn’t fixed. But it might happen.”

“When?”

“It’s not clear. Soon, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Or at least tell her?”

“I… She… I don’t have any specifics. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And you know she doesn’t like others interfering with her life. I was trying to find a way to help her without upsetting her.”

“Well done, then.” Sarah thought a moment. “If she’s in danger, it might mean we all are. You should have…”

“No. No one else is in danger. I checked.”

“You can’t be sure of that. If you want this house to work, you can’t keep these kinds of secrets.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . .”

“You put me in charge of this house. This is my responsibility.” She paused a beat. “Or are you forcing me out?”

Thomas opened his mouth, then closed it again. He went back upstairs without saying anything else.

Sarah turned to the other two mages. “I’m sorry about all of this. I promise to sort it all out. Let’s all take some time to get a little perspective, then meet again later to discuss everything.”

“What about Julia? Shouldn’t we go after her?” David’s concern was obvious.

Sarah shook her head. “She doesn’t want to be bothered when she isn’t upset. I doubt she wants any of us following her now. Better to let her cool off.”

David nodded and headed back to his room.

“We’ll talk later?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Promise.”

Rebecca accepted that and went back through her own door as Sarah walked away.

Several minutes after the hallway emptied, David’s door opened again. He quietly crossed over to the stairs leading down and followed Julia out of the house.

Hair Sample

There was a light tapping on the door. It was so quiet, David almost didn’t hear it, and when he opened the door, there was no one there. As soon as he closed the door, the tapping returned. This time, something caught his attention in his peripheral vision, and he looked down.

A light brown teddy bear, not even a foot tall, stood on the floor looking up at him. As soon as it was certain David had seen it, it began running down the hallway.

“What the hell?” He was tempted to follow the stuffed animal but decided it was probably a prank from one of the other house members. He closed the door and headed back to his research. Almost immediately, the tapping was back once more.

Sure enough, the teddy bear stood there. This time, it waited for him to step into the hallway before running. It moved surprisingly fast for its size, and he had to jog to keep up. After rounding a corner, it stopped outside another door and looked at him.

This wasn’t Sarah’s room, and he hadn’t met anyone else yet, so David hesitated. The bear, however, appeared to grow impatient and knocked on the door itself. A moment later, a woman opened the door. She looked at the bear first.

“Is this him?”

The bear nodded before walking into the room and vanishing from sight.

“David. Nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca. Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter.

A little perplexed, David nodded and stepped inside. The room before him was circular. A round table was pushed against the wall, and a couple of couches faced each other in the center of the area. Two doors led elsewhere, though both were closed. This place had an entirely different layout from his rooms, and it looked as though it wasn’t even in the same building.

“Have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”

The question forced his attention back to her. “Uh… I’m sorry. It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t know what this is about.”

She smiled. “Oh. I just wanted to introduce myself and get to know you a little. Thomas suggested everyone do so, and I just hadn’t had a free moment until now. You weren’t busy, were you? I didn’t mean to drag you away from your work, if this is a bad time.”

“No, it’s fine.” He waved away her concern. “I was just taken aback by your… bear.”

“Yeah. It’s my assistant, after a fashion. Not a usual sight, I suppose. I really need to give it a name.”

“Your assistant is a teddy bear?”

“Haha. It’s a spirit. I put it in the bear. Useful, if a little unpredictable. Nothing malicious about it, though. I used the bear thinking it would be less unsettling.”

“Hmmm.” David was unsure it had achieved the desired effect.

“So… how do you know Thomas,” she asked.

“I don’t. Not really. He knew my… instructor. Asked if I would join the house once my training was finished. Seemed like a good opportunity, so here I am. Not really sure what to make of it, or what’s expected of me. But it’s nice having my own lab.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes it is. Honestly, since I’ve been here, no one’s really asked much of anything from me, either. I feel a bit like a freeloader, actually. Jason supplies us all with crystals. Sarah and Julia seem to handle security. And Thomas is rarely around. Every time I ask Sarah if there is something I should be doing, she tells me not to worry about it. That Thomas will let me know if I’m needed for something. Mostly, I just pursue my own investigations.”

“She told me something similar. And I still haven’t even met Jason or Julia.”

“You may not meet Julia for awhile. She keeps to herself. You’ll bump into Jason eventually. My advice? Just relax. This is a rather laid back house.”

“I’m getting that… Ow!!!”

It felt as though he had been poked in the head with something sharp like a needle. He spun around to find the teddy bear on the back of the couch. “What the…?!”

Rebecca jumped to her feet and rushed over to shoo the bear away. “Crap! It’s never done that before. Are you okay?”

Rubbing the back of his head, David tried to downplay it. “Yeah. It just startled me. Are you sure that thing isn’t evil?”

“Yes. Or… at least I was.” She picked up the bear, opened one of the doors, and threw it inside before slamming the door shut again. “I’m really sorry. If I had any inkling it would do that, I never have let it out.”

“It’s okay. Just… Check it, will you? I’m not fond of demonic entities wandering around. Even if they’re only teddy bears.”

Rebecca tried to stifle a chuckle. “It’s not, but I will make sure. I’m sorry we’ve gotten off on a bad foot.”

“We haven’t. But I think I’ll head back now. Maybe you could stop by sometime. Without that thing.”

“Of course. Again, I’m so sorry.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.”

After David had left, Rebecca opened the door to her lab again, and the bear walked out.

“Real subtle,” she said. “Did you get it, at least?”

The bear held out one arm with two strands of hair wrapped around it.

“Good. Perfect.” She unwrapped the strands. “Now, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay inside for awhile.”

The bear seemed to sigh before walking back into the lab.

Welcome to the Cabal

Nearly three feet long, the creatures looked like giant roaches. When they first attacked, David had tried to disappear into the crowds on the street. However, they had ignored everyone else, and no one seemed to see them. On the other hand, people did see David throw a couple of fire spells and started to point and take pictures. So David headed down an alley to give himself more room. The bugs were still following.

At the end of the alley was a woman waving at him. Even if she hadn’t been trying to get his attention, it would have been impossible not to notice her. Her clothing consisted of many different layers of bright color, and in the light, her hair seemed to shift hues.

“David?” she shouted.

Conserving his breath, he just nodded.

“Thomas sent me to collect you.”

David nodded again and stopped. Turning around, he lobbed a large ball of fire back at the bugs that had just rounded the corner.

“What the. . .? Don’t use fire!”

The woman grabbed his wrist and dragged him behind a building.

“Astral beetles,” she said, as though it was an explanation. “They feed on heat. Do you have any ice spells?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Wait until they go past you. Their backs are more vulnerable.”

Before he could ask her any questions, she stepped back into the alley, surrounded herself in flame, and started running away. The beetles followed her with renewed vigor. Horrified by the risk she had taken, it took him a moment to collect himself and begin casting.

Ice spells were not his specialty, but he was competent enough to create several projectiles and send them hurtling towards the creatures. One fell immediately under the barrage, but the other leapt at its prey and avoided most of the attack. It landed on the woman, knocking her to the ground, and began trying to bite her as she attempted to ward it off.

As quickly as he could manage, he summoned another set of ice darts and sent them into the beetle, piercing it numerous times and causing it to stop moving. David rushed over to check on his would-be rescuer, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“Back here.”

He turned around to find her still crouched behind the building. She must have noticed the confusion on his face.

“Illusion. My particular expertise. You did quite well; they didn’t even have a chance to realize they’d been fooled.” She paused long enough to let him process the information. “I’m Sarah, by the way.”

She held out her hand; he took it and gave it a quick shake. “David.”

“Yeah. Got that already.” Her smile was friendly enough.

“Right.” He felt self-conscious. “So what were those things?”

“Astral beetles. You haven’t dealt with them before?”

“No.”

“Huh. Well, they’re not really beetles, and they don’t come from the astral plane. Useless name. But they do like magic. Especially fire magic.”

“Are they common?”

“Not that common, but not unique, either. I’m a little surprised that an elementalist like yourself doesn’t know about them.”

“I suppose my knowledge has some holes in it.”

Sarah gave him a long look. Now that the threat was gone, he realized her hair and clothes really were changing colors. She wore her hair short, and she nearly matched his own six-foot height. Her gaze made him increasingly uncomfortable, and he looked away.

“Well, Thomas invited you,” she said eventually, “so let’s get you back to the house.”

She turned and led him away from the alley. After several minutes they stood in front of a brownstone. It looked pleasant enough, but it was hard to imagine that more than three or four people could live inside comfortably.

“How many members do you have?”

Sarah smiled. “Come on. You’ll see.”

Through the front door was a spacious living room that appeared wider than the whole front of the house.

“Some spatial trickery, thanks to one of our other members, Julia. We don’t have unlimited room, but we have enough. Your room is on the second floor. There is space for a lab, if you require one. I am afraid you’ll be next to Jason.”

“Jason?”

“Yes, one of the oldest members of the house. He’s basically harmless, but he can sometimes . . . roam. Your room is yours. No one but Thomas can enter without your permission. Except for Jason, because no one has determined a way to keep him out. But again, he won’t mess with your things. I’m in the room next to yours on the other side. The rest of the members you’ll meet when they choose. Any questions?”

“This Jason…”

“Jason studies raw power, the patterns under everything. It makes him a bit absent-minded. He does provide energy for the whole house. It’s why he’s here. That and he and Thomas go back… well, further than any of us. Jason’s strange, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. I almost forgot. Here’s your badge.” She handed him a small cloth patch with a blue infinity symbol on it.

“Badge?”

“Marks you as a member of the house. Keep it with you. Only those who have one, or who are with someone else who has one, can enter the brownstone.”

He took it and studied it. There didn’t appear to be anything remarkable about it.

“Where’s Thomas?”

“He’s busy in his room on the fourth floor. He told me he would talk to you later. For now, settle in. You’ve had quite a day.”

Without waiting for a response she showed him upstairs and down a hall, stopping outside a plain wooden door.

“Your room.”

“Thanks.”

Sarah nodded and walked away. David turned the door knob and entered his new home.