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.

Resolution

“I thought you had let this go?” Sarah was practically pleading.

Remaining defiant, Julia shook her head. “For the sake of Rebecca, I had put it to one side. Now that that’s been settled, we need to deal with him.”

“It’s his house, Julia.”

“I don’t care. He put everyone and everything at risk. Not telling me? Trying to set David up? And in the end, Jason paid the price. Jason who was an ‘old friend.’” Sarah could almost see the sarcasm drip from Julia’s mouth. “We should harbor no misconceptions. He would let any of us suffer the same fate, considering we mean even less to him.”

“You can’t believe that. He didn’t want Jason to die. Or even you. Maybe he went about it poorly, but he was trying to keep everyone safe.”

“So? What follows from that? Am I just supposed to forget it all? Pretend he isn’t responsible for Jason’s death? He gets off without any consequences?”

“Julia. What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know. You say we can’t kick him out. But how can you expect me to stay here, in this house, while he remains?”

“Julia is right.”

Both women turned in surprise to see Thomas standing just inside the door of the living room.

“Thomas?” Sarah didn’t want to try to infer the meaning of his statement.

“I said, Julia is right. It is unreasonable to expect her to stay in my house.”

“So you’re kicking me out?”

“You misunderstand. Julia, I have thought about this a lot. Especially since yesterday, but even before our last exchange. I thought I was doing the right thing. As you have repeatedly asserted, I was wrong. I apologize to you, and everyone else in the house. I need to do better.

Julia seemed to deflate a bit. Thomas’s admission had taken some of the edge off of her anger, but she wasn’t going to be pacified so easily. “That’s all well and good, but . . .”

Thomas interrupted her. “There is more. Your hesitation in staying is understandable. So I will relinquish this house and give it over to Sarah. I merely ask that I be allowed to stay, at least on a probationary basis. If I again act so as to violate your trust, or anyone else’s, I will accept Sarah’s judgment. You would be part of Sarah’s house, not mine. Is this satisfactory?”

Julia was taken aback. Before she could recover, Sarah spoke up.

“Do I get a say in this? You’re handing everything over to me?”

“Sarah, we both know you’re more suited to this than I ever was. You take care of nearly everything already. I am merely proposing we make it official. Truly, this is already your house.”

She could think of no objection. Truthfully, she didn’t really want to object.

“Very well. Julia, does this arrangement work for you?”

Julia looked as though she still wanted an argument, but she relented. “Yeah. This will do.” Without waiting for any further discussion, she opened a portal and left the room.

“Are you sure about this, Thomas?”

“The house needs her. This seemed like the best way to keep her. Besides, the paperwork has already been filed. This has been your house since the morning.”

There was nothing she could think of to say, so she just nodded her head. After Thomas left, she sat there for a long time, wondering what this change would lead to.

Confrontation

Julia was reading through some of Jason’s notes when there came a knock at the door. Absorbed in the pages, she absently called out, “Come in.”

After the door opened, it took her a moment to realize who was there. His appearance was completely unexpected, but there was no question it was Thomas.

“Julia, I was . . .”

She jumped up and closed the distance between them in a flash. “What are you doing here? How dare you show your face in these rooms!” The anger welling up was almost impossible for her to control.

Though she stood nearly a head shorter, Thomas visibly flinched. “I just wanted to talk to you about Jason’s crystals.”

“Don’t!” She shoved a finger in his face. “Don’t say his name! Don’t come to his rooms! Don’t even think about him! You betrayed someone who called you a friend. You don’t get to talk about him. Ever. If this wasn’t your house, I would end you myself. Never doubt that.”

“I wouldn’t bother you if this wasn’t important.”

She shook her head in disgust. “You can’t even apologize. What you put me through. How you used David. How your games led to Jason’s death. Hell, you even abandoned Rebecca. And now you want to talk about Jason’s research. You’ve got a lot of gall. Get the hell out of here.”

For a moment, it looked like Thomas was going to argue further. Instead, he merely turned and left the room.

She needed to talk to Sarah. Something had to be done. First, however, she wanted to calm down. Yelling at Sarah wasn’t going to help. Tomorrow, though, she would resolve this situation once and for all.

Bailey’s Trial

Julia stayed out of sight, and Sarah remained in the living room with Marie, but David insisted on following Bailey back into the lab with Rebecca’s body. Bailey knew they couldn’t refuse; after all, there hadn’t been a chance to independently confirm that the charm had actually been lifted. Of course Rebecca’s housemates would want to keep an eye on them.

The first step was to heal the wound in Rebecca’s chest. In this respect, it was easier with Rebecca dead; there would be no need to fight living tissue and force it to mend. They simply had to restore its integrity so that it could contain life again. A small feeling of panic began to well up in Bailey, but this was one bit of magic that they hadn’t rejected, thus it was easy to push it back down.

David stood around looking nervous and helpless, so Bailey tried to distract him.

“How long have you known her?”

“Well, I came to this house almost a year ago. That’s when I met her. And everyone else.”

“You didn’t know anyone before coming?”

“My guide knew Thomas. The two of them arranged for me to come.”

“Your guide?”

“My master? Sort of. It’s a person seekers study under.”

“Ah. What tradition . . . Crap.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I slipped. Nothing irreversible. Don’t worry; I won’t let anything bad happen to her.”

David nodded, but his concern was still palpable.

“So are you two a couple?” Bailey hadn’t intended to ask the question, but his emotional investment made their curiosity overwhelming.

“What?”

“You seem to care a lot about her. So I thought . . .”

“She saved my life a while back. It was a bottle very similar to this one. That’s how I recognized it.”

“That makes sense.” Bailey wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t more to his concern, but they didn’t want to push it.

“What about you? We’re you and she partners?”

Bailey hadn’t expected the question, but they couldn’t very well object now.

“Once. It feels like a long time ago. Pretty sure those feelings are in the past. Especially after all this.”

They both fell silent. Bailey was relieved as the work was getting trickier and required more focus. They considered telling David how Marie felt about Rebecca, but it wasn’t their place. David would have to navigate that minefield on his own. Bailey wanted nothing to do with it all.

“Okay. The preparations are done. Give me the bottle.”

David handed Bailey the bottle containing Rebecca’s soul. Rebecca had discussed all of this with Bailey once. Even though they hated this realm of magic, Bailey had listened attentively at the time because it was something she was excited about. That was enough to interest Bailey. The soul needed to be coaxed back into the body. Since it was the soul’s original body, it should be relatively easy.

None of that really mattered, though. Nausea and panic hit Bailey with wave after wave. The only thing they could hear was the voice of their former master screaming. Every step of the process was excruciating and threatened to incapacitate Bailey. They repeatedly whispered Rebecca’s name to maintain focus and fight through every step.

After the soul was back in the body, it needed to be secured so that it wouldn’t simply drift away. The sense of terror intensified and each part of the process took five times as long as it should have. Bailey was terrified of manipulating the magical forces, and even more terrified that they would fail. There was no one else who could help Rebecca. Just when Bailey thought they might collapse from stress, it was over. They slumped into a chair next to the body.

“Now we wait for her to wake up.”

“How long?”

“Minutes? Hours? It’s hard to know. Why don’t you tell Sarah and Marie it worked.”

David nodded and left the room.

As soon as he was gone, Rebecca’s eyes fluttered open.

“Bailey?”

“Hey, sleepy head. That was quite a stunt.”

“Where’s Phillip?”

“He refused to intervene, so I saved your ass.”

“Oh, no. Bailey. I’m so sorry to have put you through that.”

Bailey lightly touched Rebecca’s arm. “Don’t apologize. It was the least I could do after putting you into that mess. More importantly, did it work? Are you free?”

“Yes. But you . . .”

The door opened, and David, Sarah, and Marie all came in the room. They crowded around Rebecca, who was struggling to sit up. In the general commotion, Bailey slipped out.

Back in the living room, they used the portal to the kitchen. Once there, they called out to Julia, who appeared soon after.

“It worked. Well done. You didn’t want to stay to celebrate?”

Bailey shook their head. “She and Marie have things to talk about. Figure it’ll be hard enough getting rid of Sarah and David.”

Julia’s look suggested that she thought there was more to it but wasn’t going to ask. “So now what?”

“I was hoping you’d let me leave.”

That seemed to surprise Julia. “You want to leave?”

“I think it’d be for the best.”

“Bailey, if I can ask, why didn’t you tell us you were a mage?”

“The charm prevented me.”

“And after the crystal suppressed it?”

“It . . . It’s complicated.”

“Okay. But there is room for you here. I’m sure Sarah, David, and Rebecca would agree.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Julia was quiet for a moment. “I’ve been alone. And that can be okay. But I’m learning there is something to be said for belonging somewhere.”

Bailey offered a weak smile. “Maybe some day, but not now.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you from leaving. You have to figure out your own path.”

In spite of themself, Bailey threw their arms around Julia in a meaningful hug. The other mage was clearly not used to such displays, but awkwardly returned the embrace.

“Please remember you have friends here if you need us. I mean it.”

“I will. Thank you, Julia. For everything.”

Neither of them said anything else on the way to the front door. Bailey left without looking at Julia so that the other wouldn’t see the tears rolling down their cheeks.

Alternative Treatment

“Julia . . .” Sarah didn’t want to point out the obvious. Bailey always became agitated whenever the charm spell was mentioned.

As if she was reading Sarah’s mind, Julia smiled. “Just listen to them. Go ahead, Bailey.”

Bailey hesitated for a few moments before beginning to speak. “I have been under a charm spell for a couple of months. I’m sorry I deceived you . . .”

“We’ve already talked about this. It isn’t your fault,” Julia interrupted.

“Still, I want to apologize. I put you all through so much.”

Julia shrugged and stayed silent.

“I am sorry. Though I didn’t want to, I used you to get to Rebecca. Now she’s in danger.”

“But how . . .?” Sarah’s mind was racing through the implications of this turn of events. “Madeline was unable to break the spell.”

“Yeah, when she failed, I tried a different approach. Unfortunately, the charm is still there. But it’s suppressed for now,” Julia said.

“How did you manage that?” Did Julia have a hidden talent? Nothing about this seemed related to spatial magic.

Flashing another smile, Julia placed a white crystal on the kitchen island.

“One of Jason’s crystals?”

“No. One of mine.”

Sarah picked it up. “You made this?”

“Yes. Jason taught me. He left me some notes.”

“But how is this connected to the charm spell?”

“Some of the principles involved in making these… I was able to depower the charm spell. It’s still there, but it doesn’t have any magical energy to operate. A temporary solution, but effective for now.”

Sarah put down the crystal. Julia could make these? And use them to do other things? What did this mean for the house? For Julia? This felt too big of a development to deal with, and there were other issues more pressing.

“Bailey, what happened to Rebecca?” David’s voice startled Sarah. She had nearly forgotten he was in the room.

“I was forced to give Rebecca a letter. It apparently had some sort of trigger on it. After she read it, she vanished. I don’t really know where. The letter was signed by someone named Marie. Rebecca seemed frightened by it all, before she disappeared. By the time Sarah came back inside, I couldn’t remember what had happened. It’s not that I was unable to tell you; rather, it was hidden from me. Even now, even with the charm suppressed, I cannot remember who put it on me. Or when. Marie is the only name I have because it was on the letter.”

“If someone put that strong of a charm on Bailey,” David said, “they probably put a charm on Rebecca. That’s why she didn’t ask for our help.”

Bailey stared at him. “What do you mean? Have you spoken with her?”

He nodded. “She’s back with the cult she used to be in.”

“She used to be in a cult? She never told me about that.”

“She doesn’t think it’s a cult,” Sarah explained. “And she doesn’t talk about it much. She only told us because someone came looking for her.”

“We need to go get her.” David and Bailey spoke in unison.

“If she is under a charm, it won’t be easy.” Sarah tried to keep everyone from rushing into something.

“Julia?” David turned to her. “Do you think whatever you did for Bailey can help?”

Julia nodded. “If it’s a charm, yes. It will take me at least a couple of days, though.”

“Okay. That will give David and I time to come up with a plan.” Sarah was grateful for the time to approach this situation with some degree of caution.

“What about me?” Bailey asked.

“Let us take care of this. There’s still too much we don’t know about . . . all of this.” Sarah wasn’t sure how far Bailey could be trusted. Until she and Julia could talk privately, involving them was too much of a risk. “It’s safer for you to stay here.”

“I’m the one who got her into this. I’m the one who betrayed her trust, whether I wanted to or not. I need to help get her out.”

“Your feelings are completely understandable, but we’re mages. Let us take care of this. You’ll get your chance to make it up to her.”

Bailey opened her mouth and then closed it again without saying anything. Having them free of the charm was certainly a positive step, but Sarah knew there had to be more to the story.

The Purple Crystal

The desk had been cleared of everything except a black cloth, upon which sat the purple crystal. All of the crystals wore different shapes. The white ones Jason had made, for instance, were slender rods about the length of a hand from palm to the tip of the middle finger. The green one was more akin to an elongated pyramid. The purple crystal was circular, no larger than two inches in diameter. It was also curved slightly, the convex side facing up on the desk.

Having studied the first few pages of notes from the box, Julia had a pretty good idea what the crystal’s purpose was. There was nothing dangerous about it, as far as she could tell. Still, she hesitated to try to use it. It represented a boundary, past which lay other unknowns. That gave her pause.

Finally, she decided she had wasted enough time and picked it up. All she had learned about the nature of this particular crystal suggested she just had to hold it for it to work. But she knew Jason, and had an idea how his mind worked, so she held it to her left eye like a monocle.

The moment she looked through it, the world changed. Some objects glowed while others seemed to lose color. On a page of notes she had nearby for this very test, nonsense markings became easily readable script. This was the primary purpose of the crystal, deciphering text. Yet it also seemed to be revealing hints about the magical nature of everything around her. That suggested there was more to this than Jason’s notes had contained.

Hoping for some insight, she looked at the other crystals from the box. The yellow shone brightly, while the orange dimmed. The blue crystal . . . had vanished. It had resisted her attempts to grasp its function, and now it was gone?

She pulled the lens away from her eye in order to look for the missing crystal. Immediately, she saw it sitting in its proper place, right next to the others. She looked through the lens again, and once more it vanished from her sight.

Putting the purple crystal back in its place, she picked up the blue. It had been the wrong one to start with, but now she had some ideas about how to uncover its secrets. With the purple crystal’s help reading Jason’s notes, she felt confident she would succeed this time.

Catching Up

Sarah was sitting in the living area sipping on a glass of wine when a door appeared in the middle of the room. Julia stepped through, took a glass off the table, and sat down in another chair.

“So where did you go?”

“We found Rebecca.”

“Really? Did you bring her back?”

“No. She says she wants to be there.”

“Are you serious? After all that effort to find her? Are you sure she’s not being held against her will?”

“I’m not. But they did catch David sneaking around and let him go, which suggests they aren’t trying to antagonize us. She also spoke with each of us alone. I suppose someone might have been observing us, but she seemed to be free to do as she pleased.”

“So that’s it?”

“Maybe. For now. What about Bailey?”

“I tracked them down and brought them back. They came willingly, but we’re going to need some help. They are under some sort of charm or compulsion. That’s why I don’t trust the situation with Rebecca.”

“She did say there was some sort of misunderstanding with Bailey. We should get to the bottom of that.”

“You know anyone who can break a charm?”

“I might.”

“I’ll leave that to you, then. Go easy on Bailey, though. Something tells me this has been an ordeal for them.”

“I will, but I’m a little surprised to hear you plead on their behalf.”

Julia shrugged. “I have a compassionate side. Sometimes.”

“Julia . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for your help. I want you to know that this is your home. As long as you want it to be.”

“Thanks, Sarah. Jason wanted me to find a place. I am trying.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Let me know when you’re going to deal with Bailey. I think I should be there.”

“I will.”

Julia finished her glass and left. Sarah continued to nurse hers while she mulled over the events of the last few days.

Looking for Bailey

There was no point in denying it: Julia was angry with herself. Trying to find ways to connect with people, she let herself trust Bailey. Now, it appeared that that trust had been misplaced. Jason would tell her not to give up after one failure, but it wasn’t just one. It was merely the latest. Finding Bailey was all she could think about. It wasn’t so much to help Rebecca as it was to confirm the betrayal. She hadn’t really opened up to them, but even the idea that it had been possible irritated her. Having gone along with Bailey staying at the house, she felt some measure of responsibility for their actions.

Outside the house, she retrieved the green crystal from a pocket. Jason had used them as keys to open portals. While that was their main purpose, Julia discovered, after playing with it for awhile, that she could also use it for detecting the use of spatial magic. Jason’s notes hadn’t mentioned that function, perhaps because he lacked Julia’s affinity for such magic. Unfortunately, the crystal uncovered no recent travel by magical means, so wherever Bailey had gone, it was by mundane means.

If she was right about when Bailey had left, Julia was nearly two hours behind. If they had stayed on foot, they were probably  in an eight mile radius, large but manageable. If they used a vehicle of any sort, things became much harder. Hoping that Bailey might still be relatively close, Julia closed her eyes and began expanding her awareness.

In the house, as large as it was, she had essentially created most of the space. It was thus a simple matter to know where anyone might be. While she still had power outside, it wasn’t her domain. She could search, but it was a much slower, more arduous process. The bigger the area, the more effort it took. Given enough time, she might be able to search the whole world, but the power it would take to do so was prohibitive.

Of course, the search would be much easier if she had something with a strong connection to Bailey. Even if she hadn’t set out before looking, she wasn’t sure if they had left anything at the house. None of these thoughts were getting her anywhere, so she pushed them away.

Every time she found someone, she had to stop for a moment to verify it wasn’t Bailey. Luckily, the house wasn’t located in a densely populated neighborhood. Still, there were enough people to slow her down. Ultimately, Bailey was nowhere to be found. Discouraged, Julia was about to widen the search when a thought occurred to her.

Getting from the dining room to the front door wouldn’t take long, but it still required going through a hallway. Without Sarah’s guidance, Bailey would get lost. It would have been difficult to get out, unless they had a badge. If they had a badge, Julia could use that to track them down instead of sifting through every person in the vicinity.

Filtering out everything except badges, she found one nearly ten miles away, just outside the area she had searched. It was Thomas’s, which meant that he could easily be lost inside the house. The idea gave her a bit of perverse pleasure. Telling herself that finding Bailey was more important, she left Thomas’s fate for another time. Maybe Sarah would find him.

Opening a portal near the location, Julia stepped through to find herself in a park. There was a figure sitting alone on a bench. Trying to seem casual and non-threatening, she approached.

“Bailey?”

A clap of thunder startled her, but she tried not to let it show. The figure on the bench looked up. It was indeed Bailey, with a look of profound sadness on their face.

“I’m sorry,” they mumbled. “I didn’t want to.”

All her feelings of anger and betrayal drained away. Bailey was still an unknown, still someone to be cautious around. Yet Julia was unable to deny the evident pain in front of her.

“What happened? What did you do?”

“Nothing.” Bailey’s voice cracked under its own weight. They didn’t try to hide that it was a lie. Another clap of thunder and the rain began to fall in sheets.

“Can you tell me anything?”

They shook their head without saying anything.

“Come on. Let’s go back to the house and out of this rain. Maybe Sarah can help, now that we know there’s a problem.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

“We need information. Even if you don’t believe we want to help, surely you can believe that.”

“Okay.”

Julia opened a portal and made certain Bailey went through first.

Betrayed?

Sarah was downstairs in the living room when Julia and David returned.

“Where are they?” Julia stormed in. The tone in her voice was unfamiliar.

“Who?”

“Bailey.”

“They should be in their room. What’s going on?”

As Julia fell silent, David entered the room. In response to a look from Sarah, he merely shrugged.

“They’re not in the house,” Julia said after a moment.

“That should be impossible.”

“After David and I left, did you walk them back to their room?”

After thinking for a moment, Sarah realized she hadn’t. “No.”

“That must have been when they left.”

David finally spoke up. “So Bailey is responsible for Rebecca’s disappearance?”

“I’m not sure, but there was a delayed spell that was triggered somehow. Nothing in the cafe showed evidence of enchantment, which suggests something was brought it. I assume it wasn’t Rebecca, so . . .”

“But why?” Sarah asked. “Bailey seemed genuinely concerned. And Rebecca agreed to meet with her. Why would she do that if Bailey was a possible threat?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I had hoped to talk with them. We need to find them.”

“Maybe Thomas can help?” Sarah made the suggestion even though she knew it was likely to upset Julia. Now was not the time to worry about that.

“Thomas . . .” Julia sounded thoughtful rather than angry. “Didn’t he vouch for Bailey when they first arrived?”

Sarah had forgotten that detail. “You’re right. He did.”

“Are you suggesting he had something to do with this?” David sounded genuinely shocked.

“No.” That response from Julia surprised Sarah. “I don’t trust him, but if he really wanted to do something to Rebecca, there were simpler ways of going about it. I’m just wondering how he could have been wrong about Bailey.”

“Hold on. We don’t know that it was Bailey.” Sarah felt compelled to point out that all they had was speculation at this point.

“Fair enough. So what do we do now?”

There were too many unknowns. How could they keep from just chasing shadows? 

“Julia, will you try to find Bailey?”

“You didn’t even need to ask.” Julia turned around and walked out.

“David, would you back me up? I want to check something out. Back up would make me feel a little better.”

“Sure. You want to tell me about where we’re going?”

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get ready.”

Cafe Interlude

Now that he was alone with Julia, David found himself searching for the words he had wanted to say for awhile. They were sitting at a table in the cafe where Rebecca had disappeared. Julia was turning a green crystal over and staring at it intently.

“So what did you want to talk about?” She didn’t look up as she asked the question.

“What do you mean?” It was a reflexive response.

“You volunteered to come with me, even though there wasn’t anything for you to do. I’m assuming it was because you wanted to talk.”

Maybe it was because she always seemed aloof, or maybe it was the anger that was lurking just beneath the surface, but David was still unable to shake the way she intimidated him. Still, there wasn’t likely to be a better chance than this.

“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry.”

“For what?”

“That I was unable to protect you from . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not your job to protect me.”

“But, if I had . . . then Jason . . .” As soon as he said it, he regretted it.

“Stop.” She looked up from the crystal with fire in her eyes. “What happened, happened. Thomas screwed up. Put you in an impossible situation. Put us both in harm’s way. Nothing else needs to be said.”

David looked down at his hands. “Sorry.”

Julia did not respond, instead pouring all of her attention back into the crystal. It was impossible to read her, and, according to Sarah, Jason was the only one who had known her much at all. He wanted to find a way to connect with her, but mentioning Jason seemed to make that even more unlikely now.

Instead, he watched her examine the crystal. Whatever it showed her, he was unable to see it himself. The realm of magic was impossibly large, and he doubted anyone had even the most superficial familiarity with the whole of it. Nonetheless, he wanted to learn all he could. This did not seem like a good time to ask.

Without warning, Julia stood up. “We have to go. We need to get back to the house. Right now.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Not now. I’ll explain when we get there.”