Siege (part four)

The pounding in her head was the first thing Julia became aware of. Underneath her was the hard ground, bare of any vegetation. The light was that of the late afternoon, but there was no sun overhead. She was in one her own extra spaces. The explosion must have thrown her inside, probably sparing her from the worst of the blast. Behind her, the portal to her room was still open.

On the other side, she saw Rebecca and Sarah just sitting in the middle of the debris. Neither was moving; they just seemed to be staring at nothing.

“Rebecca. Sarah.” She called to them, but they didn’t react.

When she tried to pass through back to her room, Julia discovered another barrier had cut her off. This one had the same resonance as the one around the house. Whoever was responsible must have erected it after she had been tossed through the portal. This barrier extended all around the space, trapping her in an even smaller area, only about five feet in diameter.

Her friends weren’t in any condition to help her. The mage who had erected these barriers – even using them to circumvent the Long Hallway – was impressive. But how impressive? There was little doubt as to their skill, but how much stamina did they have? How much magical resources did they have at their disposal?

While this space was small, Julia had intended to make it larger, so she began adding volume to it now. If nothing else, it would give her more room to think. Someone watching from the other side wouldn’t notice any change because only the portal was in her room. But the barrier would have to grow to cut off the entire area and keep her trapped; otherwise, she could just create another portal somewhere else.

As her pocket dimension grew, she could feel the barrier thinning. Julia had a number of the white crystals with her, so she had plenty of energy. Eventually, the barrier broke apart, popping like a balloon. The other mage must have reached their limit and chose to maintain the barrier around the house instead of fighting her.

Julia quickly stepped through the portal and let it fade behind her. Would the same trick work on the larger barrier around the house? She wasn’t sure. It would probably require a lot of magic to create enough extra space, and she wasn’t sure she had that many crystals available.

Before working through that problem, she needed to wake her friends. Shaking each of them by their shoulders didn’t work. Even yelling in their ears had no effect. It was like they were hypnotized or possessed . . .

Julia jumped up and hurried to her work bench. It had been years – at least from her perspective – since she had seen it, but it was here somewhere. After sifting through the clutter, she found what she was looking for in a drawer: the blue crystal she had made for Bailey. With the crystal, she ran back to the other mages and put it into Sarah’s hands. It took only a few moments for Sarah’s eyes to begin to focus.

“Julia?”

“Yeah. Hold on.” Julia thrust the blue crystal into Rebecca’s hands.

“We were looking for you, but couldn’t find you.” Sarah sounded unsure of her own words.

“I think someone was messing with your heads, though I don’t know for sure. I think you’re okay now. Rebecca? Are you with us?”

Rebecca nodded. “We definitely need someone who specializes in mind magic.”

“Later. Right now, we need to deal with the barrier on the house.”

“I think I have an idea,” Sarah offered.

Siege (part three)

All spatial magic has a signature. Each mage bends space according to a resonance unique to that mage. If one could isolate the resonance, and one knew the mage’s signature, it would be a simple matter to identify who had cast a given spell. However, the differences in resonance also meant that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for one mage to disrupt the spell of another.

Unfortunately, Julia didn’t recognize the resonance of the barrier surrounding the house and had little experience breaking through them. Her own defenses for the house didn’t involve a barrier but, rather, a series of spatial trap doors that one could only avoid with the badges she had created. Now that she was trapped inside someone else’s barrier, she had to figure out how to breach it. There had to be a way through since their assailants would presumably need to enter at some point.

Sitting in her rooms, she continued probing the barrier, looking for a weak point. The door to Esther’s place wasn’t functioning, and she was still unable to open a portal to anywhere else. If she could get in touch with Aisha, or David . . . But she hadn’t even been able to manage that much.

Not knowing when something else might happen made it difficult for her to focus. Absentmindedly, she began creating a small space, separate from her room. She couldn’t get to anywhere outside the house, but this space didn’t technically exist outside the house. As she shaped it and added some of her own design preferences, she became more absorbed by the process.

When she realized what she had been doing, Julia felt a twinge of guilt for wasting magical energy on something frivolous. They might need it to defend themselves against whatever was coming next. However, she quickly realized that this space might be useful. If they needed to escape or hide, this would be perfect.

The sound of her door opening drew her attention. Some sort of object, roughly the size of a shoebox, floated into the room. The object was on the other side of the barrier that wrapped around the house. Whoever had created it, had formed a hollow, tentacle-like impression that acted like a deep indentation in the barrier. As far as the house was concerned, the object was outside, beyond the barrier. It was a clever way to manipulate the barrier to move things around without running afoul of the house’s defenses.

The tendril closed behind the object before releasing it. It fell to the floor without ever allowing an opening Julia might have exploited. Her admiration for the novel use of spatial magic kept her from realizing the danger that this intrusion represented. The explosion knocked her backwards, and the world went black.

Siege (part two)

Minutes went by, but their search turned up nothing. While they continued sifting through the rubble, Sarah asked, “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

“This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

“When I asked her about breaking through the barrier, she said it was probably impossible. But maybe she found a way? And doing so created an explosion? I just don’t know.” Sarah couldn’t help but feel anxious. They were already down a member with David outside of the house. If Julia was also missing, the house’s defenses would be seriously compromised.

“Well, I don’t see any signs of her,” Rebecca said. “I hope your speculation is right, because all the other possibilities I can think of are horrible.”

Sarah nodded in agreement.

A door leading to one of the back rooms opened and Julia walked out. “What’s going on out here?”

“Julia?!” Both women exclaimed in unison.

“What happened to you?” Sarah asked.

“Where did you go?” Rebecca’s question overlapped Sarah’s.

“What are you talking about? I’ve been right here.” Irritation was obvious in her voice and body language. “Why did you two break into my room? And what did you do to create this mess?”

Sarah looked to Rebecca, who briefly closed her eyes. “It’s her.”

Sarah turned back to Julia. “Don’t you remember? The house is under attack. We thought you’d been hurt because Rebecca lost contact with you.”

“You were spying on me?” Julia glared at Rebecca.

Sarah stepped between the two women so that Julia would be forced to look at her. “Julia. What is going on? We were working together. We are all in danger. Why are you acting like we’re the enemy?”

Julia’s anger seemed to subside a little, and confusion replaced it. “That doesn’t make sense. I don’t recall any of that.”

“Is she under the influence of a spell?”

Rebecca shrugged. “I can’t tell. I know it’s her, but I don’t have any good way to determine whether there is a spell on her.”

“You think someone has messed with my head?”

Sarah gestured at the room. “You don’t remember this happening. You didn’t hear it happen, even though you said you were here. Rebecca and I arrived after this. Do you have any explanation?”

Julia thought for a few moments and then lashed out, her anger returning in force. “Just get out of here.”

“Julia, you’re not making sense. We need to work together.”

“I’ve seen how Thomas works, Sarah. I’m not interested.”

Sarah was caught off guard. Hadn’t Julia let go of her animosity toward Thomas? Even if someone had erased her recent memories, they wouldn’t have wiped fifteen years worth, would they? Could they?

To Rebecca, she asked, “Are you certain this is her?”

“Without a doubt.”

“How did . . .”

Sarah was struck by a wave of disorientation. When it passed, she returned to searching through the rubble. “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

Rebecca nodded. “This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

Siege (part one)

Rebecca had no experience with an attack on a House, unless Peter’s attempted abduction counted. According to Sarah, such attacks were not unheard of, but her family had never been subjected to one. An advantage of being isolated from the rest of the world, she assumed.

Nothing had happened yet, but both Julia and Sarah were convinced something was coming. How were they to prepare for such an attack without knowing when it would come or what form it would take? Her expertise seemed particularly ill-suited for dealing with this situation.

Once more, she had been asked to stretch her abilities and connect everyone mentally. If they survived this, she was going to insist on recruiting a mentalist mage. Spirit magic wasn’t really mean for this. The best she could do in this situation was to keep track of emotional states. It lacked the exactness of verbal communication, but it should alert her if someone was attacked. Julia had left a small portal open for her to share information, but because she was also trying to prepare, she had only had the concentration for keeping one open.

Something began tapping her leg. Looking down, she saw the bear trying to get her attention. It had been roaming the halls on the lookout for anything unusual. It was motioning her to follow.

“Julia?”

“Busy.” Julia’s voice sounded strained.

“My bear found something. I’m going to go check it out.”

“Be careful.”

The bear led her through the hallway to the stairs leading down to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs laid a pack of cards. Jason used to play, but she hadn’t seen a deck since his death.

A slight distortion shimmered in the air around the cards. It quickly dissipated, and the cards seemed to settle more naturally on the floor. As she tried to puzzle out what had happened, a wave of surprise washed over her and then vanished. Someone was missing.

She located Sarah’s calm, determined mind immediately. After a few moments, Thomas’s mix of anxiety and irritation came into focus. “Julia?” There was no response. She couldn’t find the spatial mage anywhere.

Taking the steps two at a time, Rebecca hurried to Julia’s door and began knocking loudly. “Julia? Julia!”

Her own fear grew with the silence. No one else was experiencing distress, so she ran to Sarah’s room. The other mage opened the door immediately.

“Something has happened with Julia.”

“Where?” Sarah’s calm demeanor helped ease Rebecca’s own anxiety a little.

“Her room.”

Sarah walked quickly down the hall to Julia’s door and knocked. “Julia?”

“I already tried.”

With a slight hesitation, Sarah grabbed the knob and turned it. Both women were surprised when the door swung wide open.

Instead of the void they had found the last time they had entered Julia’s rooms uninvited, there was a room. However, it looked like the aftermath of explosion. Debris was scattered everywhere, and the ceiling had collapsed. They could see an inky void through the hole. Without waiting another moment, both of them began digging through the rubble, looking for their friend.

Respite, Interrupted

Sarah had taken the relative quiet of recent months to return to her research. Unlike the other members of the house, she always wanted to make noteworthy contributions to magical knowledge. It wasn’t about making a name for herself, or at least, it wasn’t about just that. There was a tradition, and she wanted to be part of it in a substantial way.

Most mages with her gift focused exclusively on illusions, and Sarah excelled at them. However, there had to be something more, the opposite effect. If the gift could conceal, could it not also reveal? Dispelling illusions was common enough, but her research focused on finding techniques for sharpening the senses, allowing her to notice things otherwise hidden.

Now that things in the house had settled into a new equilibrium, she had some time to get back to this work. Settling into her new role, she had finally begun to relax a little. When she had run the house under Thomas, she always felt him watching her, judging her decisions. Trying to run his house was very different than running her own. The responsibility felt less oppressive; she could look after the well-being of the members without worrying that someone might overrule her. In gaining more responsibility, it had become less of a burden.

There were changes to get used to besides her own. Since the time-travel incident, Thomas had become even more reclusive, which was the exact opposite of what she wanted. For now, though, he didn’t seem to be causing any new problems. On the other hand, Julia was much more social than she had ever been.

Sarah had to constantly remind herself that Julia had had fifteen years to grow, to change, while the rest of the house didn’t even have time to absorb her absence. In effect, she was now the oldest mage in the house, and it was a bit jarring. As she explained it, she had actually missed everyone, and that’s when she realized she wanted to be a member of the house.

There were other matters to attend to, such as finding a new member to fill the hole Jason’s death had left, but those could wait. For now, she was enjoying her research and could forget the problems of the house.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. “Sarah? It’s Julia. We might have a problem.”

Placing the book she was reading onto the small table next to her armchair, Sarah sighed and rose to open the door.

“Please tell me we’re out of milk or something of that sort.” She knew Julia wouldn’t have bothered her over such a trivial matter, but she clung to hope.

“I’m sorry, no. I had a portal accompanying David on his visit to that other magic shop. It was forcibly closed, and I haven’t been able to reopen it.”

“You think something happened to David?”

“If only that was all it was. I haven’t been able to open any portal outside of the house. To anywhere.”

Sarah quickly understood the implication. “We’ve been surrounded by a barrier?”

“It seems so.”

“Do you know how long?”

“Only the last five minutes at most. My portal was fine until then.”

“Get Rebecca. I’ll retrieve Thomas. Meet in the kitchen as soon as you can.”

Julia nodded and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Was this finally the consequence of Thomas’s time experimentation? Attacks on houses were uncommon, but not unheard of. Thomas’s own experience was just one example. Sarah hoped he had come up with some idea for how to survive this.

Recognition

“What did happen with Thomas?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not sure how much Rebecca has told you,” Julia began, “but after we arrived in Thomas’s old lab, I went to talk with Jason. Before I could say much, Jason stopped me. He didn’t want to know anything about the future to avoid changing it. He encouraged me to go back to my own time.”

“That’s why you were so insistent we leave?” Rebecca was listening as attentively as Sarah.

Julia nodded. “I was worried Thomas was going to change something, screw things up. As much as I didn’t want Jason to die, I couldn’t know if Thomas would make things worse. The whole plan had come to seem like a very bad idea. So I shoved Thomas back through the portal, and I had to close it before he could return.”

“You shoved him?” Sarah tried to imagine the two mages coming to blows. “He didn’t use magic to stop you?”

“Casting the spell took all his energy. Well, I suppose I used most of his reserves to power the spell. I needed magic infused with temporal essence to get it to work. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy draining him, but it really was necessary.”

“My guess is that his anger is more about being prevented from finding out more about the attack rather than anything else. I’ll try to smooth things over with him. Maybe stay out of his way for now.”

“Sure.” Julia shifted a little, as though she was uncertain about how to say something. “Maybe now is not the best time to bring it up, but there was someone helping me over the last fifteen years. I think she would be a good addition to the house.”

“I’d like to meet her . . .”

“Me, too,” Rebecca interjected with some enthusiasm.

“. . . but you’re right that we might want to wait for a formal invitation, at least until Thomas has cooled off some.”

“I’ve told her as much. Let me introduce you.” A simple gesture from Julia opened a portal and a woman stepped through. She was the same height as Julia, and her shoulder length black hair was pulled back. She smiled at both Sarah and Rebecca.

“Hi. I’m Aisha. Julia’s told me quite a bit about both of you. You’re Sarah?” She extended a hand to Sarah, who accepted it. “And you’re Rebecca.” She repeated the offer of a handshake. “It’s good to meet you.” Then she turned to Julia. “Well, the house is still standing. I assume the reunion went okay?”

Julia shrugged. “There was a moment when I wasn’t sure. Sarah managed to diffuse things.”

Sarah was beginning to feel overwhelmed, but she made sure it didn’t show. The years had really changed Julia. Technically, she was now the oldest member of the house. And Aisha was personable and disarming, not the sort of person she would expect Julia to befriend. There was a lot to process, and she was doing her best to keep up.

“Aisha, it is a pleasure to meet you. I must thank you for helping Julia. It has been a crazy twenty-four . . .”

Aisha had stopped paying attention and had focused on a framed picture on top of the mantelpiece. She picked it up and walked over to Julia with it.

“What . . .?” Sarah didn’t understand why Aisha would be interested in a photo of the original members of the house.

After exchanging a meaningful glance with Aisha, Julia looked at Sarah. “This is you, Thomas, and . . .”

“Matthew. Yes. It was taken shortly after we started the house. Why?”

“We had a run-in with a mage several years ago. He had been setting a trap for a time mage, someone he said was a friend of his. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. It was Matthew.”

Past/Present (part eight)

The morning after Thomas and Rebecca had returned from the past, Sarah was sitting in the living room lost in thought. Time travel should not be possible; no one had successfully done it before. Not that anyone knew of. If Thomas had really managed it, she couldn’t even fathom the ramifications. Most immediately, could he repeat it to get Julia back? Would he even try, given what had happened between them?

When Rebecca entered the room, she had to put all of those questions on hold.

“How’s Thomas?”

Rebecca nodded back the way she had come. “Still sleeping. Healing the wound is not a problem, but I can’t replace his hand. Especially when we don’t even have it.” She fell into a chair, obviously still tired.

“Can he time travel again?”

“I don’t know. I think Julia did a lot of the work. Without her, I’m not sure he could manage it. But honestly, I just don’t know.”

“Why didn’t any of you talk to me?”

“Julia and Thomas were working together. I know it seems naive in retrospect, but if the two of them both thought it was a good idea, I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I was stupid.”

“No, don’t beat yourself up. I think seeing them cooperate would have thrown me off, too. Still, Thomas’s obsession with that attack has already caused so many problems.”

“It was an attack on his master’s house?”

Sarah nodded. “Fifteen years ago. He was the only survivor. I know it haunted him, but I thought he had finally given up on it.”

“Apparently not.”

They could hear the front door open and close. Sarah was about to ask if David had left when Julia entered.

“Hey you two. Nice to see this place hasn’t really changed while I was gone.”

Both women jumped out of their chairs.

“How did you get back?” Rebecca asked.

“You filled Sarah in?” Julia asked, ignoring Rebecca’s question.

“Yes, she did. I should probably yell at you, but I’m just relieved you managed to return.”

“Wow. Okay, you two both need to take it down a bit. I’m not used to all this energy. Anyway, as far as your concerned, I’ve only been gone for . . . what? A day? This is a little too much excitement for such a short absence.”

“But you were trapped in the past,” Rebecca objected. “We weren’t sure how to get you.”

“Simple. You just wait. Well, I wait. Roughly fifteen years.”

Sarah and Rebecca were both stunned into silence.

“Okay, maybe a bit more excitement than this. We’re not at a funeral.”

“You lived through the last fifteen years? Didn’t that . . . I mean, what did you . . .” Sarah was struggling to even form a coherent question.

“Yes, I just went about life for the last decade and a half. No one came to get me, so I tried to find a way on my own. Didn’t make any progress. At that point, I figured I’d just come back shortly after we left. No awkward moments with myself, and no worries about messing up the past.”

“You didn’t save Jason?” Rebecca asked.

“You both still remember him dying? He’s not around the house? Then it happened. He asked me not to, so I didn’t.”

“That must have been hard,” Sarah said with all the sympathy she had.

“Lots of things were hard. I couldn’t save Jason or Rebecca, or stop any of the other horrible things that happened. But Jason was right. Changing the past could have catastrophic consequences. So I had to work very hard at not affecting anything.”

“So Jason convinced you to attack me?” No one had noticed Thomas’s arrival.

“Oh hi, Thomas.” None of the animosity that usually permeated Julia’s tone with Thomas was evident.

“Thomas! You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Rebecca sounded like a mother scolding her sick child.

Thomas ignored her as he continued glaring at Julia. “Out of respect for Jason, I’ve tolerated your disruptions, but attacking me was too far.” Such an overt display of anger was uncharacteristic for him. “I formally revoke your membership in this house. You need to leave immediately.”

Julia looked surprised but then began to laugh. “I think you’re forgetting something, Thomas. It’s been a long time for me, but not that long for you. Sarah?”

“Thomas, this is no longer your house. You turned it over to me, remember? You have no authority to remove a member unilaterally.”

For a moment, Thomas looked like he was going to say something. Instead, he turned to leave.

“Thomas.” Julia stopped him. “I saved your hand. I don’t know if it can be restored, but I’ve kept it in deep freeze to try to preserve it. For what it’s worth, I am sorry that happened.” Julia produced a small package.

Thomas stared at her for a beat and then turn and strode away.

“Rebecca? Do you think you can do anything with it?” Julia handed the package to her.

“I don’t know. I can try, but no promises.”

Sarah studied Julia. “You’ve changed. I’m not sure exactly how, but you have.”

Julia smiled. “I hope so. I’ve had fifteen years of living since we met last. And, honestly, it’s good to be here.”

“I’m glad you’re back, too.” Sarah returned her smile.

Loose End

Yesterday had been particularly hard for Julia; it was the day Jason died. Not the anniversary, but the actual day itself. If it weren’t for Aisha keeping her company, she probably would have gone to try to prevent it. It couldn’t be stopped, she reminded herself over and over again, but she still had wanted to try. She hated that there was nothing she could do except not get involved.

Today was different. Today she could do something. After years of study, she was convinced that she couldn’t change the past even if she tried. Everything that had happened to her during the last thirteen years had already happened. Jason was interested in mana worms because of her brief visit. Indeed, she was convinced that their entire time together, he knew her from that visit and never said anything. That realization, that the past was set, gave her reason to stay away. Something else she realized gave her reason to act today.

The cave was dark, damp, and cold just as she remembered. She waited while sitting on a rock outcropping against one wall. The long wait – at least it seemed long – made her worry that she had gotten the date wrong. When the chair on fire dropped through a portal, her doubt vanished. Her preparations had been thorough, but she still felt a little anxious. There was always the possibility that he might have some surprises. The one reassurance she had was that, after her one encounter with him, they didn’t hear from him again for the next few years until her trip to the past. If he had disappeared, it might have been because she did something about him.

A few minutes after the chair, a person crashed to the ground. Immediately, Julia threw up a barrier around him. He seemed to be unconscious, probably from the fall. After several minutes, Peter began to stir.

“Where am I?” he yelled into the darkness.

“This is just one my little homes away from home.” Just as she had done with David, she used portals to move around while talking, to keep him disoriented.

“You.” Peter said it like a curse.

“Me. I assume you sent the mana worm?”

“How did you manage to survive it?”

Julia clicked her tongue a couple of times. “That’s the wrong question. You should be asking how important to me was the person it did kill. And the answer is that there is no one in the world that mattered more. And then you should be afraid.”

Peter scoffed. “Even now, you’re still hiding. You don’t scare me. If you were going to kill me, you would have done it already.”

“I don’t want to kill you. I could spend years tormenting you. It’s what you probably deserve. Not just for what you did to me, but what you did to Rebecca.”

“What do you want?” His voice was little more than a growl.

“I want to make sure you can never hurt anyone I care about. Ever again.”

Flames began to surround his hand.

“I should warn you that you have limited oxygen in there. If you burn it all up, you’ll suffocate.”

The flames went out. “So you’re just going wait until I asphyxiate?”

“The thought has occurred to me. But lately, I’ve been working on myself. Trying to grow. So I’ve made a nice little pocket space for you. You can hunt, fish, grow crops . . . Whatever you like. It’s big enough that you can walk for hours. Much nicer than this cave. The only limits is that you’ll be alone, and there is no way out.”

“How long do you intend to keep me there?” Maybe she had imagined it, but Julia thought she heard a touch of nervousness in his question.

“Forever. Like I said, I won’t give you another chance to hurt anyone I care about.”

“You can’t . . .”

“I assure you that I can. No one knows where you are. And no one is looking for you. Even your little cult has banished you. I could do much worse; you’re lucky I’m not feeling more vindictive.”

He began to yell, but Julia ignored him. She opened a portal on the floor of the cave beneath him. He tried to avoid it, but it expanded rapidly and soon covered the whole of the bottom of the barrier. When he finally fell through, Julia closed the portal.

She stayed in the cave for a while. Maybe it would have been kinder just to kill him, but she thought Jason would probably disapprove. She wasn’t sure how long she would really leave him there, but for now, it was one less threat to worry about. She opened another portal and returned to her cabin.

Past/Present (part seven)

The scream brought Sarah running. It sounded like someone was dying very painfully. Before she got to the room, the scream ended, but that just made her more nervous. She burst through the door to find Thomas collapsed on the floor and Rebecca kneeling over him.

“What is going on?”

Rebecca gestured towards Thomas. “There was an accident. Thomas’s hand was severed.”

A sense of horror replaced her concern. “Where is it?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say about fifteen years ago,” Rebecca sighed.

“What?”

“First help me get him to bed. I stopped the bleeding and helped dull the pain, but he needs sleep. Lots of it.”

Rebecca and Sarah propped him up between them and walked him slowly to a room Rebecca had set aside as an infirmary. They laid him onto a bed. After Rebecca assured herself that he would stay asleep, she led Sarah to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine.

“So what’s this about ‘fifteen years ago’?” Sarah didn’t sit down.

“Do you want the long version or the short?”

“Rebecca…”

“Okay, the short version is that we traveled back in time about fifteen years ago. Coming back, the portal closed while Thomas was reaching through it. That’s how he lost his hand.”

“You went back in time? How is that even possible? And why fifteen years?” Sarah’s head was swimming with questions and overwhelmed by the implications.

“I don’t think I can explain how. They combined their gifts to…”

“Wait. They? Who else…” A thought popped into her mind, but it couldn’t be. “Where’s Julia?”

Rebecca sighed again and took another sip of wine. “Again, best guess? Fifteen years ago.”

Finally, she had to sit down. This was too much to take in. “She went too? Why would she do anything with Thomas?”

“He said we could save Jason.”

“That… makes sense. But why fifteen…” At first, she hadn’t realized why the number of years was significant; now it hit her, too. “Oh shit. You went back to his master’s house, didn’t you?”

Rebecca nodded. “Julia was furious. He said something about an attack.”

“Yes. That’s when I met him.”

“Julia decided to keep him from doing whatever he had planned. So she shoved him back through the portal and closed it when he tried to go back again. Thomas lost his hand, and Julia lost her only way back to the present.”

“I thought he had finally let it go,” Sarah said, not to Rebecca but to herself.

“Well, I’m exhausted. I’ll sleep in the infirmary tonight to keep tabs on Thomas.”

“What do we do about Julia?”

“I honestly don’t know. I can’t even keep my eyes open.”

Rebecca left her to her worries. Sarah grabbed a glass and poured some wine for herself. She had no idea Thomas was still obsessing about the attack, but she couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Discovered

A knock at the door meant Aisha had arrived. She was the only visitor Julia had had since getting stuck in the past. No one else knew she was here. So it was more than surprising when she saw someone else on the other side of the door. It was the black-haired man from their attempted robbery the year before.

“You are a hard person to find.”

His demeanor was casual, unthreatening, but Julia saw danger everywhere. She immediately began summoning a portal, but the man held out a hand to try to interrupt her.

“Wait. I just want to talk. Honest. Please, just let me explain.”

He sounded sincere, but people with ill-intent rarely announced it. Still, if he had found her this time, Julia reasoned, he could probably do so again. Maybe it was worth the risk to see what she could learn.

“Fine. Outside.” Indicating the two chairs she kept on the porch, she shut and locked the door. It would do much if he was determined to get inside, but she wanted him to know that she wasn’t going to drop her guard.

He sat in the chair closest to the edge of the porch and waited for her to sit before speaking.

“Thank you for hearing me out.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a choice, showing up at my home like this. Who are you?”

“Oh, are we exchanging names? Are you going to tell me yours?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“Then I hope you won’t be offended if I don’t share mine. I was trying to stop… a friend… from going further down a bad path. I put out rumors there was a book… he would want. I was hoping to lure him out. You and your companion caught me by surprise.” The way he said ‘friend’ suggested that he wasn’t sure he should be using the word.

“So we walked into a trap not meant for us.”

“Essentially. Why were you interested in the book?”

“I wanted it for my research.”

Julia felt like they were circling one another, each giving only enough information to draw the other out.

“Your research? You weren’t there on behalf of someone else?” He seemed surprised by her answer.

“I’m not working for anyone.”

“What about your companion? Is she working for someone else?”

“She’s working for me. Are you going to tell me what this is all about? Why you tracked me down after a year? How you tracked me down? Or are you just trying to get some information for nothing?”

“I wanted to be certain you weren’t there on behalf of… my friend. But I was also curious about you. You seem… out of place.”

“Well, there was no one else behind our attempt on the book. And I’m not about to tell a complete stranger anything about myself. So thank you for stopping by. Don’t come back.” Julia stood, and walked to the door.

He looked as though he would object but seemed to think better of it. “Very well. I appreciate your time.” Before he stepped off the porch, he turned to face her. “A bit of advice from a complete stranger. Your research involving time magic? Give it up. I’ve seen people hurt by it.” With that, he walked away.

It hadn’t sounded like a threat; rather, it seemed to be genuine concern. Julia wasn’t sure what to make of it.

A short time later, Aisha arrived. “How’s it going?”

“I think it’s time for me to move,” Julia said.

Aisha looked sad for just a moment before she reasserted a placid expression. “Does that mean you’ve solved the problem?”

After a moment of confusion, Julia realized there was misunderstanding. “No, no. You’re still stuck with me. I meant literally; I need to move. That mage, the one from our book heist? He showed up here.”

Relief changed to concern in an instant. “Are you okay? What happened? How did you get rid of him?”

“Everything’s fine, but I don’t know for how long.” Julia gave her a quick summary of the visit. “Even though he left, I don’t like the idea of someone else knowing where to find me. I didn’t even want anyone to know about me.”

“So you’re leaving the cabin?” Aisha looked around wistfully.

“No. I’m just going to move the cabin into a pocket space. That way, no one can find it. I should have done it years ago, but it felt like overkill. Not so much now.”

“If no one can find it, then how…”

“I was hoping you’d come with me. I have room. And I can always make more. We can also work out a way for you to come and go for your business in the outside world.”

Aisha was quiet for long enough that Julia started to get nervous. “I’m sorry. That was too much. I can just figure out a way for you to come by when…”

Putting a finger to Julia’s lips, Aisha broke into a smile. “Stop. Of course I’ll go with you. I’m just happy you’re not leaving yet.”