Past/Present (part two)

“So what is it that you really need to talk to me about?” Jason sat on the couch as he spoke.

The apartment didn’t have as much clutter as when she first saw it, but he had only been here a few months. Sitting with him seemed so normal that Julia had to constantly remind herself that he didn’t know who she was.

“Are you sure you want to talk to me?”

His question shook her out the silence she had been keeping while he waited.

“I’m not sure how to say this, or even how much to say. I’m here to try to keep you from dying.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. Every expression he made drove home how much she missed him. “You can’t really stop me from dying. Everyone does it.”

“I mean, I want to prevent your untimely death.”

“What makes a death untimely?”

“Dammit, Jason! I’m trying to save your life!” She had forgotten how frustrating a conversation with him could be sometimes.

“I recognize that irritation. It suggests you know me, so you have me at a disadvantage. You said your name is Julia? I’m fairly certain I don’t know anyone by that name. So how do you know me?”

She hesitated. What should she tell him? What would he believe?

“I can’t really respond unless you say something.” Jason was sitting forward, studying her.

“I know this might sound crazy, but I know you in the future. We will meet a few years from now when . . .”

He cut her off. “Stop. Right there. Just stop. You’ve travelled back in time?”

“Yes, we wanted . . .”

Once more, he interrupted. “Don’t. Don’t say anything. This is incredibly dangerous. I like mucking about with reality as much as any chaos mage, but the timeline is incredibly fragile.” He sounded as serious as she had ever heard him.

“What do you mean?”

Jason shrugged, all the seriousness gone from his demeanor. “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say.”

“I’m not joking around. I’m trying to save your life.”

“Can you do it without causing something worse? If I live, does something else bad happen? Do you know?”

“How could I know what happens if you don’t die?”

“Exactly. If you really know me, you know that I wouldn’t want to saved at the expense of others.”

What would happen if he lived? How would they stop the mana worm? Would it have gone on to kill even more people after David? No one was even sure exactly what Jason had done. Was there some other way? Could Jason kill it without sacrificing himself?

He smiled as though he were following her train of thought. “I take it that my death did some good then?”

As much as she wanted to argue with him, he was right. “So that’s it? You won’t listen? And coming here hasn’t changed anything?”

“I don’t know if it’s changed something or not, but think about it this way. What if you change the future in some way that keeps us from meeting? If you keep me from dying, do you make the trip back? I doubt the universe tolerates paradoxes, and I am not sure I want to see how it would fix this one.”

It all made sense, but she hadn’t thought about the possible consequences. Her grief and searching for a way to bring him back had blocked out all of these questions. So when Thomas suggested . . . Thomas. He had used her grief, her desperation, to get her to go along with this. Without that, she never would have trusted him at all. He must have thought about all these questions. Maybe he knew that Jason wouldn’t go along. Now that she had stopped to think, she should have known, too. So why did Thomas really want to come back here?

“What’s wrong, Julia?”

“It occurs to me only now that I’ve been manipulated. Jason, I really miss you, and I wish we could spend more time together. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the time we will have. I need to go stop whatever is happening.”

“Go. And Julia, I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

She smiled at him. “Just . . . Research mana worms, okay?” She enlarged the portal she had kept open in Thomas’s lab and stepped through before she could change her mind.

Past/Present (part one)

Standing in the lab from the image, Julia asked, “Where are we?”

“My old lab. From when I was an apprentice,” Thomas answered.

Her face already growing hot, Julia spun to face him. “So we’re what… At least fifteen years in the past?”

“Roughly.”

“Why? We didn’t need to come back this far to find him. He and I haven’t even met yet.” She knew she should have listened to the nagging doubt she had when Thomas presented this plan.

“I can explain, just hold on…”

Julia had to fight back the impulse to drop him into a volcano then and there.

“We needed a place that didn’t exist anymore. Otherwise we might have created a standard portal in our own time. Because this lab doesn’t exist now, when you saw this through the portal, you could be sure it had worked.”

Did that even make sense? Julia wasn’t certain. Her inclination was to ignore his explanation; after all, something definitely felt off about all of this. But maybe it made sense. Still, fifteen years ago? Where was Jason, even? Could she, a stranger to him, convince him to trust her?

Rebecca spoke up. “So Jason’s still alive. We can make this work. Do you know where he is, Thomas?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure. He had been staying here for a while, but he moved out around six months ago.”

This new information didn’t even surprise her. Of course Thomas didn’t know where he was. “You brought us back fifteen years and you don’t know where he is. Do you even want to save him?”

Thomas looked genuinely hurt, but she didn’t believe his act. “Of course. He’s in the city somewhere. It shouldn’t take long to find him.”

“Right. You stay here. That portal is our only way back to the present. Make sure it remains open.” Her voice was ice.

“I should at least escort you out.”

“No need.” Julia opened another portal. “Rebecca, would you stay with Thomas. Keep him from causing any other problems.”

“I don’t need a baby-sitter.”

“Nearly ever decision you’ve made since I first met you suggests otherwise.”

Rebecca, who had been quietly observing, finally interjected. “I’ll stay behind; not to watch you, Thomas, but so that Julia can approach Jason without scaring him. One unknown mage is plenty. Okay?” Both of the other mages nodded. “Do you need help finding him, Julia?”

“No, I already have a guess. If I get stuck, I’ll contact you. And get in touch if any problem comes up.” She gave Thomas a threatening look before stepping through the portal.

She was standing on the sidewalk of a quiet street. She had only been outside of the building across the way a handful of times, but it was enough for her to know it very well. This was the place where Jason had his apartment. If she was remembering correctly, Jason told her he moved here after leaving Thomas’s old house. If Thomas didn’t know where the apartment was, she wanted to keep its location secret. She was grateful that Rebecca volunteered to stay behind.

It took her a few minutes to work up the nerve to cross the street. How did you introduce yourself to an old friend? She knew him as well as she knew anyone, and he hadn’t even met her yet. Knowing Jason, he might just take it in stride, but it was going to be weird for her.

The front door was unlocked, as usual, and opened into an entry way. A set of stairs to her right led up to Jason’s apartment, and a hallway to her left ended at a door. She could have used a portal to get into the apartment, but if he was there, she didn’t want to startle him.

She just started to climb the stairs when she heard a door open.

“Hello?”

Julia looked down the hall to see Esther, the landlady, emerge from her own apartment. She looked exactly the same as she did when Julia would meet her in the future.

Julia came down off the stairs and waved at her. “Hi. I’m just here to visit your tenant on the second floor. Jason.”

“He’s in, but are you sure you want to see him?”

Julia had to hide her relief that her memory was right. “Why wouldn’t I want to see him?”

“Well, Julia, you are a few years early, aren’t you?”

That sent a shiver through her. When she had first met Esther, the landlady didn’t know her name. But now, fifteen years earlier, she did?

“How . . . how do you know my name?”

“You told me. Don’t you remember?”

“I do, but how do you?”

“I could explain it to you over a cup of tea, but then you’d miss your chance to speak with Jason. It’s up to you, dear.”

“I really need to see him, but I do want to hear your explanation some time. Rain check?”

“Of course. Do be careful. This is a perilous journey you’ve undertaken. Good luck.” Esther disappeared back into her apartment. For just a moment, Julia hesitated, tempted to go after the other woman, her vaguely ominous warning playing over and over in Julia’s mind. But Jason was just up the flight of stairs, and she didn’t want to wait any longer.

Almost immediately after she knocked, the door opened. Jason, looking the same as he always did, stood on the other side. “Hello?”

“Jason.” She struggled with flood of emotions upon seeing him. She was not a physically affectionate person typically, but she felt an intense urge to hug him. Standing in front of him, now, she didn’t care about anything except keeping him safe. “My name is Julia, and I really need to talk to you.” The words spilled out of her quickly.

He stepped to one side, inviting her in. “You should come in then. The hallway is no place for important conversations.”

A Glimmer of Hope

Sitting alone in the kitchen, Julia absently stirred the ice cream that was in front of her. It was mostly melted by this point. She hadn’t even realized that she was eating Jason’s usual snack. Her experience on the Solstice had her thinking once more about how Jason might be brought back. They were mages; their entire lives were filled with impossible occurrences. Still, when death did come, it seemed irresistible.

She smiled at Rebecca when the other mage walked in. “Hi, Rebecca. How are you?”

Rebecca returned her smile on the way to the refrigerator. “I’m not used to seeing you here.”

“I thought I’d try to be more social.”

“That’s good.” Rebecca sat down across from her with some yogurt. “It’s nice having you around more.”

“Thanks. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Rebecca sounded surprised.

“If a ghost of someone is still around, is it possible to bring them back?”

Rebecca’s expression turned somber. “Jason?”

Julia nodded.

“Have you seen his ghost?”

Julia was hesitant to answer, but if she wanted help, she had to open up a little. “He appeared on the Solstice. We had a long conversation. Maybe it was just my imagination, but if it really was him, I thought there had to be a way . . .” Her voice faded. She couldn’t bring herself to even whisper the hope aloud.

“For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think it was your imagination. When I was possessed . . .”

A pang of guilt rose in Julia’s chest. In trying to resolve her own trauma, she was making Rebecca revisit her own.

“. . . Jason spoke to me a bit. He even inspired me to come up with a way to free myself. So don’t doubt that he was real.”

“Does that mean there is something we can do?”

“Oh, Julia.”

Julia hadn’t thought she had any hope left to lose, but the tone in Rebecca’s voice drained a reservoir she hadn’t realized was left.

“Maybe someone has developed some method,” Rebecca was trying to give her something to cling to, “but I don’t know of any. I was able to revive David because I had captured his soul. And that’s how Bailey brought me back. But I don’t have any way to capture a soul of someone who is already deceased.”

“I know. You’ve told me before. He just seemed so real the other night. I thought maybe . . .”

“I haven’t forgotten about him, Julia. I want to bring him back, too, if it’s possible. I promise I will keep working on the problem, and I will let you know when I find something.”

“Thank you, Rebecca.” She tried to convince her voice to convey gratitude, but it was hard.

“I might have an idea.”

Both of them jumped at Thomas’s voice. They had been too engrossed in their conversation to notice his arrival.

“What?” Julia felt her cheeks getting hot.

“I said, I might have an idea for bringing Jason back. But I’ll need help from both of you.”

Remembrance

Rituals and celebrations had never been important to Julia, but two years had passed since Jason’s death. From the time they met, they had spent every winter solstice together, and this year, Julia wanted to remember that tradition.

For the first time since that night, she was back in the artificial space where the mana worm had attacked. Nine concentric rings of candles surrounded her as she sat thinking about her friend.

There were no stars above, so she had no real sense of the passage of time. At some point, she noticed a translucent image of Jason sitting on the ground facing her.

“Tonight’s the solstice?”

“Are . . . are you real?”

He gave her one of his mischievous smiles. “Does it matter?”

“Yes. I’d like to know if I’ve started hallucinating.”

“If you think I’m real, then I am. If you don’t, then this is just wishful thinking.”

“Death hasn’t changed you.”

His smile got a little bigger. “No, I don’t suppose it has.”

He sounded like Jason. Spoke like Jason. Yet Julia found it difficult to believe; she didn’t want to open the door to disappointment. Still, maybe he was right; maybe it didn’t matter if he was really Jason. This night was about remembering him, and it didn’t much matter if this was just her mind trying to recreate him.

“So how is it? Being dead, I mean.”

“Boring. But time flows differently, so I don’t think it has been boring for long.”

“No great revelations? No insight into the great mysteries of the universe?”

“Sadly, no. Of course, if I did have any such insight, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to share it. Anyway, enough about all things I can’t talk about. What’s been going on with you?”

“Well, Rebecca was possessed.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Everyone helped to save her. Except Thomas. As soon as she left the house, he gave up on her.”

“But she’s okay now?”

“Yes. It’s quite a story.”

“We have all night.”

For the next several hours, Julia recounted Rebecca’s story as completely as she could. Throughout the telling, Jason listened without interruption. Only when she finished did he speak again.

“It sounds as though you are feeling more a part of the house.”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s good.” Jason looked up, though Julia couldn’t see anything herself. “Night is nearly over. I have to leave now.”

“Jason.”

“Yes?”

“Can I see you again sometime?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I miss you.”

“I know. I miss you, too.” With that Jason faded away.

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.