Rejection

“Jason. Thank you for coming.” Thomas sat in the parlor. It was his favorite room in the Mistress’s house. Bright and peaceful, he had spent many hours reading there.

Jason stood in the doorway. “I couldn’t say no to you.”

“But you also couldn’t be on time.” Over the years they had known each other, Thomas had learned to expect Jason’s lack of responsibility, but he still pointed it out.

“There’s a reason this time. I knew we would need to have a private chat.” Jason finally entered the room and sat in a chair.

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I just knew it would be better to be late.”

Thomas knew from experience that he wouldn’t get any clarity from Jason, so he dropped the subject.

“I asked you here because I have a proposition for you. I inherited some money, and I plan to use it to start my own house. At the meeting I asked you to attend, I invited Sarah and Matthew to be founding members. They both accepted, and I’m hoping you will join us.”

“No.”

The speed of Jason’s response surprised Thomas. “At least take a moment to consider it.”

Jason smiled in that mysterious way that always vexed Thomas. “See? I was right. We do need to talk. Good thing I was late.”

Exasperated, Thomas asked, “What do you mean?”

“I think Sarah and Matthew will be great choices, but I can’t accept your invitation.”

“Why not?”

“I have things I need to do, and belonging to a house will get in the way.”

“What do you have to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? The house wouldn’t stop you from carrying out your research or whatever else you need to do. You know this.”

“It can’t be helped. I can’t be part of a house right now.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“I’ve tried to explain this to you before. I just know when something is a bad idea.”

“So you are saying my house is a bad idea?”

“No. I’m saying it’s a bad idea for me. I need to be free from such associations right now.”

“You are actually turning me down?” Thomas was not certain which surprised him more: Jason turning him down or the disappointment he felt.

“It’s not you. I would have turned down any offers. Just not my path right now.”

“Well, I must say this is unexpected. And unfortunate. I suppose we will have to move forward without you.”

“You’ll be fine.” Jason continued to smile, much to Thomas’s annoyance.

The Gift of Mana

Using the sigils specified in Jason’s notes, and devoting her complete attention, Julia could make out some of the threads of magic that surrounded her. She worked slowly and carefully to attach one of the threads to the crystal she had prepared in advance. The crystal began to glow with a gradually increasing white light.

Exhaustion had begun to set in by the time she had finished. For Jason, this process had been straightforward, but she did not have the same gift he did. The gift of mana – of raw magic power – was not that uncommon, but without it, creating these crystals was tiring. Mages weren’t limited to their own gifts, but working in specialties other than one’s own never came easily. Few working outside their own specialty would ever be able to match the skill of even a merely average specialist.

Mana specialists were invaluable to other mages, but often lacked a second gift and thus could do little more than provide the power others relied upon. Jason, however, had had two gifts. In addition to mana, he also had the gift of chaos magic. A mage with two gifts was itself uncommon, and that particular pairing was almost unheard of. His absence in the house would impact everyone.

No one had asked her to try to fill in some of the gap opened by his death, but Jason’s notes had given her the idea. Her own contribution to the house was just as irreplaceable, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Jason leaving her the notes meant something. He must have thought she could do something with them. She would need to improve, both her technique and her stamina, but providing a few power crystals to the others was within her power. And she had already created the modified blue crystal that had suppressed the charm spell that had been placed on Bailey. What else she could accomplish, without the gift of mana, remained to be seen.

Social Call

“How are you doing?”

Since there was no one else in the room, the voice startled Rebecca. The Elder was sitting at a desk, studying some papers. He didn’t react at all, which suggested he hadn’t heard anything. She was certain she hadn’t imagined it, though.

“Don’t worry. I don’t think he can hear me.”

Hearing the voice again, Rebecca realized she recognized it.

“Jason?!”

“Indeed.”

“Are you alive? Or . . .”

“Or. Definitely or. I’ve been trying to stay out of everyone’s affairs, but . . . Well, I just wanted to check on you.”

Speaking with a friend, getting a chance to share her predicament with someone else, it was all so much. Emotion began welling up, and she worried the Elder would notice. So she made a concerted effort to stuff it all back down.

“I’m possessed by someone I used to worship, and as a result, my life is no longer my own. So I’m not doing very well.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. It was a dumb question.”

“Is this just a social call? Or can you help me get out of this situation?”

“I’m dead, so I’m afraid there’s not much I can do. It’s taking a lot of effort just to communicate with you.”

“Oh.”

“I do want to remind you, though, that spirits are your specialty. That’s why you can hear me and your captor cannot. He’s just another spirit. You’ve been running too long.”

“You don’t know what it feels like.”

“You’re right; I don’t know. You are being violated in a way I can’t even imagine. You shouldn’t have to fight this battle. Still, I know you’re strong. Don’t let him win. If you decide to fight, call out for me. If I can do anything to help, I will. I can also tell you that your friends haven’t forgotten you.”

“Thanks, Jason. Right now, it’s all I can do to keep this small piece of me from him. Everything is so overwhelming.”

Jason must have already left because there was no response. Once more, Rebecca was all alone. At least the Elder was still focused on his papers. Having Jason to talk with was a welcome relief, but now that he was gone, the loneliness and horror came flooding back in stronger than before. To avoid the despair, Rebecca shut herself off from everything and wrapped herself in unconsciousness.

Careful What You Wish For

“I’m bored,” Jason said aloud to no one in particular.

Thomas, who was also in the common room, replied without looking up from his book. “Don’t you have research to work on?”

“Don’t feel like it right now.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Honestly, I have no idea how you even became a mage.”

The house belonged to Thomas’s mentor. Jason’s teacher had sent him here to further his education. Since his arrival, however, Thomas hadn’t seen him study even once. In fact, Thomas wasn’t certain he had ever seen the other mage use magic.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Jason said with a shrug.

“Luck has nothing to do with magic.”

“Maybe not with yours. Chaos magic is intimately entwined with luck. Fascinating realm. Not much to study, really.”

“Don’t you also work in mana?”

“I guess. Not my focus though. My teacher insisted on it, and it is useful for powering other spells. But chaos is where the real fun is.”

“Show me.”

“What?”

Thomas put his book down on the small table next to his chair. “Show me. I want see some of your chaos magic.”

Jason began to look a little apprehensive. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You must know a little something about it.”

“I do, but I’d like to experience your fun first hand.”

“Well . . .”

Convinced that Jason was mostly talk, Thomas picked his book back up. “Maybe you should go study so you can show me later.”

“Is that book one of a kind?”

“No. Now please let me read in peace.” As he finished speaking, the pages yellowed in front of his eyes. They became brittle before crumbling under his touch.

“What . . .?!”

“Chaos magic. It can rapidly age items. It can also preserve them, but that’s harder.”

“I was reading that!”

“You said it wasn’t one of a kind. Get another copy.”

“It’s still rare and not easy to get a hold of.”

“Oh. Then I’m sorry. But you did ask for a demonstration.”

Looking down at the bits of paper on his lap, Thomas said, “Put it back together. Right now.”

“I told you, that’s harder. I’m not sure I could manage it, especially without being familiar with its contents.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I told you it was fascinating.”

“Don’t talk to me.”

Jason opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it and said nothing.

A Friendly Game of Cards

*This story take place prior to Thomas forming his house.*

The room was dimly lit, with most of the light coming from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it was a table with four people sitting around it, cards and poker chips strewn about.

One man flipped over the cards in front of him.

“Four Jacks.”

As he spoke, he began to reach for the pile of chips in the center of the table. Before he could sweep them towards himself, he was interrupted.

“Four Kings.”

Jason flipped over his cards and revealed the kings. He reached for the pot, but the other man grabbed his hand.

“You’re cheatin’.”

Jason pulled himself free.

“No, I’m not.”

“You are. I know you are because I’ve been cheatin’, and you’re still winnin’.”

The other players appeared unfazed by the man’s admission and continued to focus their scowls at Jason.

“You know what happens to cheaters?” He pulled a gun from under the table.

“Are you going to shoot yourself?”

“No.” He took aim at Jason, but seemed to freeze in place.

“There you are.”

Jason turned around to see Thomas standing in the doorway. Sounds from the gaming room could be heard behind him.

“You froze just them?”

“No need to get the whole building, if the threat is only in this room. Why are you here?”

“Look at all the money I’ve won.”

Excitedly, Jason pointed to the large pile of chips in front him. It was much larger than anyone else’s on the table.

“Why?” If Thomas was trying to keep exasperation from his voice, he failed.

“It’s fun.”

“But you don’t need the money.”

“Doesn’t make it any less fun. Why are you here?”

“To save your ass. Again.”

“I don’t need saving.”

“He was about to shoot you.”

Jason waved away Thomas’s concern. “The gun would have jammed or something. It always does.”

“One day, your luck is going to run out.”

“Probably not.”

“Hmph. Let’s go. He wants to see you.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? Your teacher. He’s the one who sent me after you.”

“I have to cash out first.”

“Leave it. If you’re lucky, it will be enough to keep them from coming after you.”

“I’m always lucky.”

“Yeah, yeah.” 

From Jason’s Notes

The research on color cyrstal crystals has hit a snag. I can identify three colors: purple, yellow, and orange. Those were pretty straightforward, but I know there have to be other colors. One of the problems I’m having is that I am unable to decide if I am inventing these items or discovering them. The fact that every mage that creates mana storage uses white crystals suggests the latter. But if that were the case, I should think it would be easier for me to figure out the other colors. Since I haven’t been able to, I might have to more seriously consider the possibility that these are my own creation. If so, that raises some interesting questions about the nature of the white ones.

I had thought I was getting somewhere with a fourth color. There was mention in one book of something called a mage devourer. (I don’t know why these volumes never have titles. The book was average size, with a brown leather cover. On the inside was written the word “Legends.” They could have just put that on the outside and made it easier to find.)

Anyway, from what I can gather, this creature feeds on magic. Not just any magic, though. It has to be the magic housed inside a living being. I could find no other discussion of the thing in any other books, which itself is surprising. And there seems to be no indication of how it might be destroyed. Still, there must have been some way because it didn’t wipe out all mages.

The idea I had was that maybe there was a cyrstal (why do I keep misspelling that?!) crystal that could absorb magic, sort of the opposite of the white ones. It would, in essence, be an artificial mage devourer. My idea was that you could use it to drain the magic from a mage so that the devourer would lose interest and move on.

I realized pretty quickly, though, that that would kill the mage. You could try to use it on the devourer itself, but I don’t know how you would get it close enough without the devourer recognizing the danger or killing the mage who was trying to get it to the devourer. I think the theory behind it is sound, but I’m not sure even I could make one without killing myself in the process. That’s probably why none have ever been made, at least not that anyone knows about.

Still, there has to be some way. A creature that feeds on magic. Any spell you throw at it will just be absorbed, I imagine. I can’t believe there aren’t more references to it.

It’s a problem that is going to bug me. Luckily there don’t seem to be any left, so it’s really just a theoretical problem. Something to work on when I’m idle. So I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on the crytals (dammit!) crystals.

Bequest

Trying to understand what she was reading, Julia shuffled through a stack of papers. It wasn’t that Jason’s handwriting was atrocious, though it was; instead it was the words themselves that didn’t make sense. She could read each one, but they wouldn’t go together properly. The only thing she could be confident of was that these represented Jason’s research in magical energy. Few mages specialized in raw magical power – Jason was the only one she knew personally – and her own training covered very little of the theory. Most mages, herself included, only learned enough about it to provide energy for their own spells.

Periodically, she would stop and try to read through a page. Jason had said he would teach her about this aspect of magic. Along with so many other things, his death had put an end to that plan. Comprehension of his notes danced just out of reach. So many times she thought she was beginning to grasp some of the ideas, only to have them slip past her once more.

She let the papers she was holding fall to the desk and rubbed her eyes with her hands. A headache had formed from all of her concentrating. She needed a break. Rook, Jason’s cat, jumped onto the desk and rubbed up against her arm. When she looked up, he was staring expectantly at her with his deep green eyes. Scritching behind his ears almost always made him happy. This time, though, the cat didn’t close his eyes and lean into the affection. He just stared at her.

“Are you hungry?”

She really didn’t expect him to answer, but she couldn’t think of what else he might want. As expected, he didn’t react.

A thought occurred to her. “Do you want to show me something?”

At that, Rook jumped down and walked to the main room of the apartment. Once he knew she had followed, he jumped on top of a chest of drawers and began pawing at the top drawer.

Ever since Esther had told her the cat’s name, Julia wondered if the animal actually spoke to the landlady. Sometimes, he seemed to behave as if he knew what she had said, but he never talked to her.

Inside the drawer was a simple wooden box and more papers. Julia had spent most of the last few weeks at the apartment, but there was so much to go through, she suspected she hadn’t found even a quarter of the things Jason had hidden all over. The box was secured with a trick latch, but by now, she had worked through enough of them that it didn’t take her long to get it open.

Upon opening the box, she found four different color crystals: blue, purple, yellow, and orange. They looked very much like the green crystal she had used to open the door that led her back to this very apartment. Six small mounts were spaced evenly in the box, and two were empty. Perhaps the green was one of the missing crystals. That left one unaccounted for.

She closed the box and turned her attention to the small stack of papers. There was the same, nearly illegible, handwriting she had been staring at for the last few days. This time, however, the words didn’t slip through her mind.

Julia,

I intend to give you this box in person, but I also know that events don’t always go as planned. If you’re reading this note, either I’m dead, or you’re snooping. If it’s the latter, knock it off. You’ll get this when I give it to you. If it’s the former, well, I guess you should keep reading.

Julia looked up at Rook. The cat was licking his paw and ignoring her.

“You couldn’t have shown me this earlier?”

Rook simply jumped down and walked into the kitchen. After taking a moment to blink her eyes clear, Julia began to read again.

Inside the box are several crystals. You are already familiar with the white ones I use to store energy, so I didn’t bother putting one in. And since you’ve found your way back here, you must have also discovered what the green can be use for. Admittedly, the green are likely to be the least useful to you. But it was your magic that helped me create them. The rest of the crystals you will need to figure out on your own. Carefully. Remember how we met, and don’t repeat my mistakes.

The pages with this should help you get started. Nothing else will make sense until you master these. I said I would teach you about my own magic. This is me making good on that promise. Study the crystals; I think you will figure it out.

Yours,

Jason

P.S. I think the cat is conspiring with the landlady. Probably harmless, but I thought you should know.

Julia wiped away a couple more tears and chuckled a bit. Jason’s version of paranoia always made her laugh. The box sat in front of her on the chest. It almost felt as though the crystals inside were calling to her. Some sleep was probably in order, but she didn’t think she could wait any longer. She opened the box and pulled out the blue crystal.

Looking Back

Time is one of the most dangerous schools of magic to study. It requires discipline and self-control. One wrong move could lead to erasing yourself from existence or some other disaster. For that reason, among others, those who practice time magic are very careful in selecting their apprentices. Aptitude was not sufficient. A student must be able to resist temptation and be judicious in the application of power. Few have the requisite temperament. 

All of this precaution was to prevent the very thing Thomas was about to try. Viewing the past wasn’t dangerous in itself, but it raised the possibility of changing the past. The potential problems that could arise were innumerable, so even looking into the past was generally discouraged. However, his questions remained unanswered and demanded investigation. He could think of no other alternative. He prepared the incantations and sent his consciousness back.

Almost immediately, Thomas knew something was amiss. Despite the numerous items connected to Jason that he had gathered, the timeline was black. There appeared to be no moments where he could locate his friend. Jason had warned him once against trying to view him from other times, and Thomas had respected his wishes until now. With Jason’s death, the promise no longer held, or so he told himself. After searching for longer than should have been necessary, he finally found Jason in his lab a couple of days before his demise. Thomas drew closer to the time to see what he could learn.

As soon as he entered the lab, Jason turned toward his approximate location. “Thomas. I assume it’s you, otherwise this is embarrassing. I thought I asked you not to look in on me.”

Thomas was taken aback. Jason should not be aware of him.

“The nice thing is, whenever I talk to you, if you aren’t here, most people will think it’s just me being my usual nutty self. Maybe I am. But I like to turn off my crystal now and then and pretend you’ve come to visit. If you never see these moments, then there really isn’t any harm.”

So he was talking just in case Thomas were to look in on him? Maybe Jason was crazier than he realized. On the other hand, this time at least, he happened to be right.

“If you are here right now, I’m assuming I died. That feels like the only reason you would do this. If I’m not dead, then you’re an idiot for going to the past for no good reason.”

Jason bent down over the table he was standing next to and picked up a blue crystal that was giving off a dim light. “Now for my normal introductory lecture. This crystal is why you can’t usually find me. I know I explain this every time, but I never know which time you might visit, so I feel I have to do it. Anyway, this crystal prevents me from being observed by any magical means, even yours. I periodically turn it off and talk to you, in case you want to check in. I think the faint light means you’re watching. That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ve never been able to check it.”

Putting down that crystal, he picked up another. This one shown with an intense white light. “If you ever do see one of these moments, could you please tell me so that I can’t quit explaining all of that?” Jason turned this new crystal over in hand a few times. “As I said, if you are here, I expect that I’m dead. And if you’ve come to this particular moment, it’s probably because of this.”

Thomas looked more closely at this crystal and recognized it.

“This is the crystal you asked me to make and give to David. I’m not going to. Just one of my feelings, but if I give it to him, I’m pretty sure something very bad will happen. I’d rather it didn’t. Maybe I die, but the alternative would be worse. Trust me on that.”

An urge to shake Jason rose up in him. The man could be so stubborn and foolish. He had intentionally kept the crystal? If he had just listened to Thomas, things would have worked out. In that moment, Thomas considered trying to change Jason’s mind.

“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but since you’re still here, you must be thinking about it. Do not try to change the past. I’ve already made up my mind, so you’ll just make things worse. You know this better than anyone, so leave it alone.”

Jason put his hand on the blue crystal once more. “One last thing. Please don’t tell Julia you did this. And do not teach her how to do it. She’ll torture herself with it. Okay? Please. Anyway, go live your life. Quit looking back.”

The blue glow from the crystal intensified briefly before the timeline went black again. Thomas reviewed everything Jason had told him. He had no idea what would have happened if his friend had given the crystal to David like he was supposed to. And he never would; not unless he risked even greater danger.

Unsatisfied, but out of ideas, Thomas returned to his present. Jason had made his decision. The only thing he could do now was respect it. If going to the past wasn’t going to resolve his doubts, he would have to look to the future.

A Bad Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

“There are a lot of trucks going by.”

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

“Okay. Maybe I remember that.”

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

“You knew about the truck?”

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

“Then why . . .”

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

“So you stopped him . . .”

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

Dumbfounded, Julia just looked at him.

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

“Seems handy.”

Jason gave her an enigmatic smile.

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

“But it wasn’t.”

“A building. Fell. On. You.”

“And as a result, I met you.”

“That counts as a success?”

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

To Save Rebecca

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

“I thought you left.”

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

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

“Who is that?”

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

“So I was right; she did send you.”

“No. I was just watching.”

“Right.”

“Whatever problem you have with Thomas . . .”

“Problem? You’re dead.”

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

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

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

“How are you still alive?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Nobody leaves here unless I let them.”

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

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

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

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

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