Motivations

Bailey could only toss and turn in the bed, not sleep. It was comfortable enough; in fact it was probably more comfort than they had experienced in months. The problem was that this was Rebecca’s room.

Nothing of the missing mage’s possessions remained, yet Bailey could tell. The room smelled like her. She must have lived here for quite some time. If Rebecca’s housemates were allowing someone else to use it, they weren’t expecting her back, at least not soon. Their motive for letting Bailey stay was a mystery, but if Rebecca was gone, there was little point to staying.

Finally giving up on sleep, Bailey threw the blankets off and got out of bed. All of the rooms were mostly empty. A bed and set of drawers in the bedroom. A couch and coffee table in the main room. Nothing that might serve as a distraction. Restlessness growing, Bailey approached the main door.

Sarah had warned against wandering the hallways alone. Opening the door, there was nothing obviously dangerous outside. Bailey stuck their head out and looked both ways. The hallway was empty and appeared just as it had when they had been escorted to the rooms. For an extended moment, Bailey considered taking the risk. It wasn’t fear that stopped them but curiosity. If they left, they would never know why these people had let them stay.

Closing the main door, they turned to the one that led to the kitchen. It opened easily, and the other side was obviously a kitchen. A double-sized refrigerator stood against one wall, and a large island took up the center of the room. Several stools were placed around it. One of them was occupied, and upon hearing the door open, Sarah looked up.

“Hello, Bailey. Come on and have a seat.”

It wasn’t an order. The woman seemed genuinely to want Bailey to sit down with her. That just added to their overall puzzlement. Sarah was a stranger; why would she be so friendly?

They walked in and sat on a stool across from the woman. Something was different about her, but it took Bailey a moment or two to realize that her hair was shorter and perhaps a little darker. There was something else, too, but it was impossible to pin down what else had changed.

“Did you get a haircut?”

Sarah chuckled. “Thanks for noticing, but no. I just changed my appearance a little. My special talent.”

“Ah.” Magic, then. Bailey wasn’t used to mages being so open with their gifts. This was her house, though, so maybe not so open after all. “Rebecca’s not coming back, is she?” They had considered slowly working up to the question but thought it might be better to try to catch Sarah off guard.

Sarah ducked her head a little, perhaps out of embarrassment.  “I don’t know. I hope so. I think she’d be better off here.”

“Why did she leave?”

“I think that’s her story to tell, not mine. I’m sorry.”

Bailey nodded. As much as they wanted to know, Sarah’s deference to Rebecca’s privacy was something they could respect.

“Okay, but then why did you let me . . .”

A door suddenly materialized in the middle of the kitchen, interrupting the conversation. Julia walked through, looking much as she had before, and the door vanished.

“Oh, you’re both here. Good evening.”

Sarah gave a small wave.

“Hello again, Julia,” Bailey said.

“I hope the room is okay. If you need any furnishings for it, let me know.”

Sarah frowned. “Not stolen, I hope.”

Julia rolled her eyes. “No. I remember the rules. I have sources, legitimate ones, so you don’t need to worry.”

Bailey tried to interpret the dynamic between the two women, but couldn’t. They seemed friendly, yet guarded. There was something between them, but it wasn’t clear what it might be.

“I guess a television wouldn’t hurt.”

“No problem.” Julia looked at Sarah like she was daring the other to ask where it would come from. “One thing you should know . . . Sarah probably warned you about the hallway . . . But I wanted to reassure you that I won’t go into your rooms without your permission. Another one of the rules. As long as you’re a guest no one can get into those rooms without your approval. Unless there’s an actual emergency. Just in case you were worried about that.”

“I . . . I wasn’t.” That possibility hadn’t even occurred to Bailey, thought it probably should have. “But thank you for letting me know.”

“No problem. I’ll drop off the TV first thing tomorrow.” Another door appeared behind her.

“Julia. Wait.” Sarah stopped her. “I don’t want to intrude but . . . if you want to talk . . .”

Julia smiled, which seemed to catch Sarah by surprise. “Thanks Sarah. I know you want to help. I just need some time.” Then she stepped through the door and vanished.

There was silence in the kitchen as Sarah was lost in thought. Eventually, Bailey decided to leave her to her reflection. Just as they stood to leave, though, Sarah spoke.

“You want to know why I said you could stay? It’s for her. You seem to coax her out in a way no one else has been able to. I don’t know how or why, but I’ve seen and heard Julia more since you arrived than in the two months prior. It’s completely selfish, but I hope you’ll stay. And to make it worth your time, I am trying very hard to get in touch with Rebecca. Maybe you can even get her to return. Obviously, I’ll understand if you want to leave. But I hope you won’t.”

Sarah didn’t wait for a response. She stood and left the kitchen quickly – by an apparently normal door – as though she was afraid Bailey would reject her.

It was several minutes more before Bailey stood and went back to their room. They didn’t know what to make of Sarah or Julia. Only when they were back in bed did they realize they had forgotten to get something to eat.

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.

Being Social

As they walked back into the living room, Sarah was surprised to see another person in the room talking with Bailey. Even more unexpected, that person was Julia. She looked far more casual than the last time she’d seen her, before Jason had been killed. She had her hair tied back and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her demeanor was friendly. Sarah had no idea what to think.

Julia looked at her as she entered. “Hello, Sarah.” She was obviously ignoring Thomas. “Bailey and I were just having a little chat. Were you planning on inviting her to join the house?”

“What? No. I mean, it was raining outside and Bailey needed help . . .” Why would Julia jump to such a conclusion?

“Ah. Well, Bailey was just about to tell me how they met Rebecca.”

Oblivious to all of the strangeness regarding Julia, Bailey nodded. “My . . . uh . . . my teacher threw me out. It’s not much of a story, really. I was homeless, and Rebecca helped me out. Found me a place to live and gave me some advice. She was nice to me. Told me to come here if I ever needed any help.”

“And you need help now?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I . . . I lost my apartment. Times have been tough, and I . . . didn’t make rent. I really don’t want to be homeless again. I thought Rebecca might have some ideas. If I could just talk with her.”

Sarah sighed. “As I told you, Rebecca is busy with something important right now, and she’s not available.” She ignored the questioning look Julia gave her. Bailey appeared crestfallen. “However, I think we might be able to arrange for you to stay here for a little while. What do you think Julia?”

Julia appeared to consider the idea for a few moments. “I imagine I could find some space somewhere.”

With an outsider present, Sarah had to struggle to conceal her shock at Julia’s willingness to engage with house matters.

“More importantly, however, are we sure this is a good idea?” Julia looked back to Bailey. “I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but we have experienced more than one . . . misfortune recently. I’m not saying you would cause any trouble, but we need to be careful.”

“I can vouch for her.” Sarah had momentarily forgotten Thomas was present. She braced herself for Julia’s outburst, but it never came.

Instead, Julia remained focused on Bailey. “Bailey, do you know this man?”

The question was a trap, of course, but the newcomer had no way of knowing that. The implications for any answer were unpredictable, especially to someone unfamiliar with Julia and Thomas.

“No, I don’t.” Their uncertainty was palpable. “I know he told Sarah that he had seen me somehow.”

“Well, I won’t hold that against you.” Julia directed her attention to Sarah. “I don’t know. If it’s temporary, I’d say it’s your call. You run the house, after all. I can set something up with a few safeguards. It would be good to get Rebecca’s take.”

“Yes. I’m trying to get in touch with her. Can you give Bailey a room and access to the kitchen? I think the room next to David’s is free.”

Julia’s face grew dark, and Sarah quickly worked to tamp down her anger. “Not his. His room is yours. For as long as you want. I meant the room on the other side.”

Confusion abruptly replaced fury. “But that’s . . .”

“Yes. It is currently not being used. I think it would be perfect.” Sarah hoped Julia would pick up on her meaning and not pursue the conversation any more in front of Bailey. She still didn’t want their visitor to know Rebecca was gone.

“Okaayyy. So you want me to make sure the room is clear and put in a door to the kitchen?”

“If you would.”

“Alright. Just give me a few minutes.” Julia stood and gave Bailey a rare smile. “Don’t worry. It’s weird here. Just go with it.”

Sarah stared after her as she left and then turned to Thomas. “What do you make of that?”

Thomas was staring at the doorway through which Julia had recently left. “I don’t know. Maybe she has made peace with everything? She clearly still wants nothing to do with me, but perhaps . . .” He trailed off without finishing his thought.

Bailey took the opportunity to speak up. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that Julia is not usually so sociable,” Sarah answered. “She must like you.”

“How is she going to put in a door in just a few minutes?”

Sarah exchanged glances with Thomas. “If you know Rebecca, I assume you would know . . .”

“Oh. You mean magic? I just didn’t know it could make doors.”

Sarah smiled, a little relieved. “Well, it depends on who is using it. I should tell you, there are a couple of conditions for you to stay here. Except for the kitchen, you won’t really have access to other parts of the house. And you won’t be able to leave your room unless you are with one of us. We’re not trying to keep you prisoner; you’re free to go any time you like, but you must be accompanied by one of us. I hope you understand.”

“That’s fine. I’m just happy to have some place to stay. Do you know when Rebecca might be available?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t. I hope it won’t be too long. If you accept the conditions I’ve laid out, I think I can show you your room now.”

“Thank you.”

Esther

The apartment looked the same as it always had, as though Jason had never moved out. Maybe he hadn’t. The question was why? Julia looked around at all the clutter and tried to guess why he had kept this place. No answer immediately suggested itself.

She sat down and started going through the nearest pile of paper. It consisted mostly of notes in Jason’s indecipherable handwriting. Before she could begin a new stack, there was a knock at the door. She sat very still and waited for whoever it was to go away.

Instead, they began to fiddle with the lock. Her first instinct was to leave and return later, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want anyone tampering with Jason’s things. Standing and preparing to defend herself, she waited for the door to open.

When it did, she was surprised to see an older woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing on the other side. the woman pulled a set of keys away from the lock and stared at Julia over a pair of reading glasses.

“I heard you up here,” the woman said in response to a question Julia hadn’t asked. “Where’s Mr. Wizard?”

The situation had become something unexpected. “Mr. Wizard?”

“Your friend, Jason Wizard. He is your friend, isn’t he? Or should I be calling the cops on you?” The lines on the woman’s face suggested she was in her 80s, but there was nothing frail about her.

Wizard? That was the name Jason had used? As smart as he was, his lack of common sense still amazed her.

“Yes. He and I are friends. But he’s not here right now.”

“I thought so. You used to come around occasionally. Hadn’t seen you in awhile. Thought maybe you’d had a falling out. Anyway, rent’s due. Jason asked me to collect it from whoever was here.” The woman walked into the apartment and headed to the kitchenette area. She put some water into the kettle and set it on the stove. While it heated up, she took out two mugs and a couple of teabags from the cupboards.

Julia watched all of this in stunned silence. This woman, Jason’s landlady, seemed quite at home here. Had she visited often? Julia couldn’t recall meeting her before. The cat appeared from wherever it had gone off to and began rubbing up against the woman’s legs.

The kettle finally whistled, and the woman poured hot water into each of the mugs before dipping the teabags in. “Do you take any milk or sugar in your tea? I know he has sugar, but I can’t be sure there is any milk.”

“No.” Julia was still not sure what to make of all of this.

“I hope you don’t mind if I use some sugar. Helps bring out the taste. Come on, now. Have a seat.” The woman sat down at the small table across from the stove. From a covered bowl, she extracted two sugar cubes and dropped them into the mug in front of her. Julia walked over and sat down in the other chair.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Esther. I own the building.” The woman’s smile was genuine. “And what’s your name? Jason never told me.”

“Julia.”

“Julia. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you know Jason well?”

“He’s been living here for years. You get to know people a little after so much time.”

That didn’t really answer her question, but Julia decided not to push the issue. “Well, I’m afraid Jason isn’t here right now.”

“So you said, but rent is still due. He is a good tenant, but I have bills to pay.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him.”

The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but a tinge of sadness crept into it. “This must be hard on you, no doubt. If you’re here alone, I assume something happened to him. He told me it might, and that I should expect you if it did. I guess I hoped he was just pulling my leg again. I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Julia shook her head. “If I get you the rent, can I keep this place?”

Esther reached out and patted her hand. “Of course.”

The cat jumped onto the table between them and laid down. Esther waved her hand at the animal. “Rook, get down.” In spite of her expression, her voice didn’t convey any real threat.

“Rook?”

“Oh, he never did bother to figure out his name, did he? The cat’s name is ‘Rook.’ Jason would have known if he had ever bothered to ask.”

Julia stared at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I already told you. My name is Esther. I own the building. Rent is due on the first of the month, which was yesterday. I know you’re in mourning, so I can wait a few days. But not too long, okay? And be sure to keep the tea and sugar on hand.”

Julia nodded and took a sip from the mug in front of her. The tea was warm and comforting. She felt more peaceful than she had in a long time.

A Door to the Past

After David left, Julia turned back to talk to Jason’s apparition, but it, too, had gone. She dropped into a chair and stared at nothing in particular. She really had nothing to do, at least nothing she wanted to do.

Surprising her, Jason’s cat jumped into her lap. She hadn’t seen it since Jason’s death; in fact, she hadn’t even been certain that it was still around until just now. As far as she knew, Jason had never given it a name. It jumped back to the floor and crawled under the chair. Julia stood up to go find some food for it.

Before she even took a step, something hit her foot. The cat had knocked a green toy into her. She bent down to pick up, not a toy, but a green crystal. It radiated power, but it didn’t look like the power storage crystals Jason normally created. Indeed, she had never seen him make or use anything like this. Getting down on her hands and knees, she looked under the chair to see if there was anything else under it that might be a clue to what the crystal was for.

The only thing she saw was the cat, who meowed at her and walked away. Julia sat back onto her legs and examined the crystal more closely. There was power, but it was already bound up in some purpose; it wasn’t the freely available power that could be found in Jason’s usual crystals. Without more information, there was no way of knowing what it was for. The cat began meowing repeatedly, so she walked over to where it was sitting, next to a small cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a bag of cat food. She found a bowl and set it down on the floor.

While the cat ate, she continued to turn the crystal over in her hand. It stubbornly refused to give up its secrets. Casting her gaze around the room, she saw nothing remarkable, nothing incomplete or out of place. Her eyes finally settled on the door to Jason’s back rooms. She had avoided going back into the other parts of his personal space. Even though he was gone, it felt wrong, as if she would be prying. The door was now ajar. The cat must have opened it and gotten out. That was a good thing, else it might have starved. 

Now that the door was open, it felt like a sign for her to finally enter. After all, his belongings needed to be dealt with, especially if anything else was alive back there. Clutching the crystal tightly, Julia steeled herself and walked into the next room.

To someone who didn’t know Jason well, the room would have looked cluttered and disorganized, as thought someone had been in the middle of three projects and left suddenly. She knew better. He had probably been in the middle of at least six projects. Chaos was his order, and he understood it better than anyone else she knew. She couldn’t always follow how his mind worked, but there was no denying that he saw patterns no one else could.

Three more doors led away from this room. One would go to his personal chambers. Another went to a more traditional lab space. And the third . . . confused her. She had made these quarters according to his instructions. There should only be two doors besides the one she had come through. Had he added a room without telling her?

Opening this extra door revealed nothing but a blank wall. There was no doubt that Jason was odd, to say the least, but he always had a reason for everything he did. So what was the point of a false door? She closed it and examined the side facing the rest of the room.

It appeared to be just a normal door; there was nothing odd about it at all. The door handle was made of glass and cut to look like a large gem. A little fancy, perhaps, but nothing extraordinary. Otherwise, it was a simple wooden door that led nowhere.

A meow startled her. The cat was standing next to her looking at the door, obviously expecting to be let through. She obliged the cat, but the wall was still there. It sat pawing at the wall, apparently confused. She closed the door again and went over it carefully. This time she noticed a notch in the handle. It looked like it belonged, so she hadn’t noticed it the first time. There was no other indentation or marking anywhere. She pulled out the green crystal and fitted it to the notch. Effortlessly, it snapped into place. This time, when she opened the door, she saw the inside of a familiar apartment. It was where Jason had been living when they had first met.

The cat did not hesitate to enter its old home. Why did Jason have a door to this place? Was there something important here? She couldn’t begin to guess the answers to her questions, but she was determined to find out. Carefully, she followed the cat through the door.

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.”

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.

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.

. . . 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.

Grief

“What are you doing?”

Julia looked up at Jason with a mixture of confusion and pain. She was sitting on the floor in his room. “What do you mean?”

“Why are you messing around with the hallways?”

“Thomas needs to be punished.”

“Even if that were true, Sarah and the others don’t.”

“You’re not even here. Did Rebecca send you?”

“No, she didn’t. Now…”

Julia stood quickly, her fists clenched. In a single moment, her sadness was replaced with anger. “Shut up! You’re not real! You died! You died because Thomas was keeping secrets! He deserves to be punished!”

“You mean, you want revenge.” His disappointment was evident.

“So what if I do?” Her voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

“You’re better than that.”

“You always tell me that. But it’s not true. You want me to be better than I am; that’s different. You always see the good in people. Not everyone is good, and now you’re dead because of Thomas’ scheming.”

“You don’t know that. He brought David here to protect you. When David failed, I . . .”

“Stop. Please.” Her voice cracked. Hearing Jason say that he died to save her would be more than she could bear. Besides, she knew it was Thomas’ fault. Thomas, not her. This was just some trick to distract her from that.

When she regained a little control over her emotions, she looked back at him. “And anyway, how do you even know David was here to protect me?”

“Thomas had asked me to give David a crystal. When he found out I hadn’t given it to David yet, Thomas went after you two immediately. I think he believed David could use it to beat that worm.”

“You’re making this up.”

“I’m not.”

Julia broke again, collapsing to the floor. This was too much. Jason was gone, and she was in a house with strangers. Alone once more, she could feel the world collapsing around her.

“Why did you even bring me here?” she managed.

Jason crouched down in front of her to peer directly into her eyes. “We need people. You need people. I wasn’t going to be around forever, so I wanted you to find a place for yourself.”

“I was just fine. We came here, and now you’re gone. Great plan. So now I’ll just make this house mine. I’ll show you I don’t need anyone.”

“Julia…”

“No. Stop. Tell Rebecca her little trick didn’t work. I don’t believe you’re Jason. Tell them to leave. If they go, I’ll let them. But if they don’t…” Her voice caught in her throat. Jason looked profoundly sad, which wrenched a sob from her. “Just go. Just go. Go.” She closed her eyes and continued to chant those two words over and over.

When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. His lifeless body lay on the couch where she had placed it. A sense of urgency, that something needed to be done, gnawed at the back of her mind. Yet the only thing she could think about was that her friend was dead. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked herself as sob after sob rolled over her.