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.

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.

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.

Helpless

David was useless, and it was the most frustrated he had ever felt. Rebecca was slumped on the floor and not responding to any of his pleas. The man who had terrified her into this position was walking over to her. And David was trapped in a stuffed rabbit with no ability to use magic. He could hardly imagine a worse situation.

The man – Peter, she had called him – approached Rebecca looking much like a predator. No magic was necessary to know that he had nothing except malicious intent, but David did not know how to stop him.

“Come now, Rebecca.” Peter said, looking down at her. “There is no need to be afraid. No one is angry with you. Your family just misses you. Don’t disappoint them. Let us return, so that they might be happy again.”

When Rebecca stood up woodenly, David found himself sinking even deeper into despair. She was going to go with him, and he could only watch.

“Good girl. Follow me, and we’ll put this place behind us.” Peter turned around without waiting for her to respond; his confidence that she would obey was absolute. After she followed him into the hallway, he paused and looked back into the room. With a flick of the fingers on his left hand, a spark flew to one of the armchairs, causing it to become engulfed in flames instantly. Rebecca did not react.

As the pair walked down the hall, David snuck out behind them, avoiding the flames. There was little in the hallway before they would reach the stairs. Could he reach Sarah or Thomas before they got out the front door? Even if he could, would he be able to make them understand the situation? He decided the best option was to follow them, to see where they went, so he could help the others find her later. Nothing else seemed to have much chance of success.

A portal opened in the hallway. Was that how Peter was planning on leaving? David got ready to jump into it to follow them when Julia’s voice came from the other side.

“Who the hell are you?”

Peter sneered. “How are you still alive?”

“My house, my question.”

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

“Yes.” Her voice was hollow, nothing more than an echo of herself.

“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.” Peter waved his hand and muttered something; the portal vanished.

As they reached the top of the stairs, David heard another voice. “Now! Run in front of him.” It was Jason, but that was impossible. Once more the voice reverberated though his head. “Now!”

David ran as quickly as he could manage when Peter began to take the first step. Peter’s foot struck David and sent him flying down to the first floor. Turning over and over as he flew through the air, he could tell that a number of stairs were missing. Instead, there was a hole that appeared to open to a cave. The only light inside was from a burning armchair. Peter, having lost his balance, fell forward and through the hole. His scream was abruptly cut off by the portal’s closing.

Rebecca sat down on the floor in the hallway. David clambered up the steps as quickly as his small body would let him.

Are you okay?

Rebecca looked at him with a confused expression on her face. He expected her to ask him who he was, but she didn’t. “I think so. Is he really gone?”

As far as I know. Julia sent him . . . somewhere. I assume he won’t be able to get back right away.

“Good. Julia? Are you still around?” Rebecca looked around the hallway, but there was no response.

Was that really your father?

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Okay. David searched for something else to say. Hey, during all that, just before your fa . . . just before Peter fell, did you hear Jason?

“Jason’s dead.”

I know. But I could have sworn I heard him telling me to trip . . . Peter.

“I think I would know if his spirit were around here. It was probably just Julia.”

Yeah.

Rebecca stood up unsteadily before righting herself against the wall. Together, they walked back to her room.

. . . It Pours

Rebecca felt uneasy. So many things had gone wrong in the last twelve hours, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t over yet. Being stuck in her room only added to her sense of worry.

What is going on? The stuffed rabbit that David’s spirit was inhabiting stood on the floor in front of her.

“I don’t know any more than you. Thomas said the hallways are unstable, and we should stay here.”

This is maddening.

“Complaining about it isn’t helping.”

Fine.

She shouldn’t have snapped at David, but her patience was wearing thin.

Can you really put me back in my body?

Her guilt got the better of her. Being stuck in a stuffed animal had to be frustrating, and while she hadn’t really gotten him into this mess, she did sympathize with him. No reason to take her own concerns out on him.

“Yes. If we can get it. We’re going to need Julia’s help though, if that was one of her spaces.”

So it can be done.

“Yes.”

If the hallways were unstable, did that mean something was wrong with Julia? Would they be able to get David’s body back? She tried to keep her own doubts hidden, but Thomas couldn’t come back soon enough. He would be able to set things right.

She wasn’t sure if she really believed that anymore. This whole situation was the result of his planning. He had been so certain he knew how things would work out. He was wrong. The safety of the house had been shaken, so where did that leave her?

Someone knocked on her door.

Is that Thomas?

“Either him or Sarah.”

She opened the door. On the other side was a large figure wearing a blood-red cloak. The face was in shadow under the hood, but she knew who it was before he spoke.

“Hello, Rebecca.”

Peter. Her mind began to race as panic overwhelmed her. It didn’t matter how, she had to get out of here.

“Aren’t you going to welcome me?” He stepped through the door just enough to block it completely.

“Get out of here!” There were spells she had prepared in case this day ever came. Terror drove them all out of her head.

“That is rather rude. Especially after all the trouble I went through to be able to visit you.” Every syllable that fell from his mouth felt like a drop of acid hitting her spine.

“You can’t be here.” She shifted further away form him, but he didn’t move from the doorway.

“Yes, I can. There seems to be something wrong with your house’s security.”

David’s voice was screaming in her mind, but she couldn’t focus on that. She needed to find a way out of here.

“Come now, Rebecca. You know you belong back with us. With your family. Come along, and no one has to get hurt.”

“Leave me alone!” Why couldn’t she think of any spells?

“I can’t do that. I am taking you home.”

She backed into the wall on the far side of the room. Unable to get any further from him, she sank to the floor and covered her face with her hands.

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.