Past/Present (part one)

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

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

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

“Roughly.”

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

“I can explain, just hold on…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should at least escort you out.”

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

“I don’t need a baby-sitter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How . . . how do you know my name?”

“You told me. Don’t you remember?”

“I do, but how do you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperation

The plan was insane. Julia couldn’t believe she let Thomas talk her into it. Doing anything with him had been unthinkable just days ago. Now she and Rebecca were weaving spells together with Thomas in order to try to save Jason. Saving Jason was the only reason she had gone along with this idea. However, given the difficulty of making the spells work together, Julia tried to keep her expectations low.

The first spell was Thomas’s, cast to view the target time frame. Images were forming in Julia’s mind, sent from Thomas’s mind to hers through Rebecca’s spell. Slowly, a room came took shape; it was a small lab. Several tables were against a wall. On two of them were potted plants spaced out evenly. Each was at a different stage of growth. A third table held two cages, each occupied by a single mouse. One was grey, while the other, larger, one was all white.

Julia focused her attention on one plant, and it seemed to get closer. She studied it carefully, making note of each leaf in detail. Then she moved on to the next one and repeated the procedure. After she had examined every plant and both mice, Julia turned her attention to the rest of the room.

In the middle of the room was yet another table with a book set on it. Next to the table was metal stool. She was grateful that there was only one book and that it was closed. On the brown leather cover were embossed several symbols in gold. She wasn’t familiar with them but committed them to memory.

One small, empty table in the corner exhausted the furniture present. Two shelves held clean lab equipment, carefully organized. Another two shelves of ingredients were also well ordered.

Once she had made note of every detail, she mentally signaled Rebecca. Soon, a stream of bluish green magic from Thomas began pooling next to her. She focused on the image of the lab while weaving Thomas’s magic into the portal she was forming.

As the portal opened, she saw the ruins of a collapsed building on the other side. The spells weren’t working! Shoving the panic to one side, she poured all the magic pooled beside her into the portal and concentrated on the room she had been shown. Unfortunately, more than merely the force of her will was required for success; finesse was also necessary. Was it possible she had overlooked some detail?

There was no room for doubt, either. She had missed nothing. The problem was that more magic was needed. Following the bluish green magic back to its source, she forcibly drained everything she could to bolster the portal. Finally, the scene began to shift into the room from the image.

She stabilized the portal and connected a white crystal to it. Only when she was certain it wouldn’t collapse did she dare open her eyes. Sitting on her right, Rebecca opened her eyes as well. She had been casting longer than Julia and looked exhausted. Thomas, at the third point of the circle, had collapsed to the floor. The portal was in the middle of the group.

“What happened to Thomas?” Worry was evident in Rebecca’s voice.

“I had to take a lot of his magic to get this to work. He will recover.”

“It did work, though?”

“See for yourself. You should recognize the room.”

“How long will the portal stay open?”

“If it works like my other portals, it will last as long as it has power. Of course, this isn’t like my other portals.”

“So we just need Thomas to recover?”

“Yes,” Julia begrudgingly agreed. She didn’t want to wait, but they needed Thomas, too.

As if on cue, Thomas slowly pushed himself upright. He was pale and appeared weak. “What did you do?”

Julia scoffed. “I just did what was necessary for the spell to work. You did want it to succeed, right?”

“You nearly drained me completely.”

“More temporal magic was needed to focus the portal on the room you were watching.”

Thomas looked like he had more to say but stayed quiet.

“If there’s nothing else, we should go.” Julia stood and took a step toward the portal.

“I’m going to need a bit to recover,” Thomas said.

Julia took out another, smaller, white crystal and tossed it at him. “Use that. We don’t have time to waste.” She stepped through the portal and called back, “Let’s go!”

Thomas, still shaky, got to his feet. Rebecca followed him through the portal and into the past.

A Glimmer of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Rebecca sounded surprised.

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

Rebecca’s expression turned somber. “Jason?”

Julia nodded.

“Have you seen his ghost?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Julia.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I might have an idea.”

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

“What?” Julia felt her cheeks getting hot.

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

Remembrance

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

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

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

“Tonight’s the solstice?”

“Are . . . are you real?”

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

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

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

“Death hasn’t changed you.”

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

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

“So how is it? Being dead, I mean.”

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

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

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

“Well, Rebecca was possessed.”

“Really?”

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

“But she’s okay now?”

“Yes. It’s quite a story.”

“We have all night.”

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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

“Jason.”

“Yes?”

“Can I see you again sometime?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I miss you.”

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

A New Customer (part two)

The basement was little more than a cement floor with cinderblock walls. It was large but mostly occupied by boxes piled seemingly at random. What light there was came from the few lightbulbs suspended here and there from the beams above. The only space that didn’t have boxes strewn about was one corner occupied by a washer and dryer. There weren’t any places to hide that he could see; if there was a monster, it couldn’t be that large.

David slowly made his way through the area. The woman who had come into the shop, Jennifer, said that she had seen it on the side of the basement opposite from the laundry. He was skeptical that there was a monster, but she had been on the verge of tears all the way back to her house. Something had clearly terrified her, so he wanted to be thorough. He moved boxes aside to look behind them and even opened a few to look inside.

He had made it over halfway through the basement when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. As soon as he turned his head, it disappeared. The light in that part of the room wasn’t good, but it looked like a large white mouse or maybe a small rat. Had she mistaken a mouse for a monster? Not wanting to jump to any conclusions, he decided to investigate more closely.

With all the boxes around, even a small flame could quickly turn into an inferno. So he bent down to touch the floor and sent a wave of ice toward the place he had seen the mouse. He hoped it might trap it in the ice, but at least it might make it harder for the thing to run away. A squeal from a box suggested the ice had had the desired effect. He carefully picked his way over the ice and lifted the box. There was nothing there.

Putting the box back down, he began looking around to find where it had run off to. When the box touched the ice again, the squeal came back. Out of the top of the box, between the flaps concealing the contents, the head of a white mouse poked out. David quickly grabbed at it and somehow managed to catch hold of it.

He tried pulling it out, but it resisted him as though something were pulling in back inside the box. Surprised, David let the mouse slip out of his grasp. He hurriedly pulled back the flaps to look in the box. Upon seeing inside, he involuntarily took a step back.

There was a white, amorphous blob, roughly one foot across at the widest point. Several tentacles extended from the mass; each of them ending in the shape of the front two-thirds of a mouse’s body. He had the impression the thing was staring at him with the mouse eyes.

Samuel had told him about horrors, but David never expected to see one. His training protected him from the madness that usually emanated from such beings, and it was small enough that it didn’t pose much of a threat in other ways. Not yet. Had Jennifer gotten a good look at it, she very well might have been driven insane. He covered it in ice, abruptly silencing it. Then he wrapped it in a blanket to keep anyone else from seeing it. The real question was where it had come from.

“Julia?” he called out tentatively.

Her response was nearly immediate. “Did you find your monster?” It sounded like she was chuckling.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Already have it contained. But I need your help.”

“Why?”

“It’s a horror.”

He paused, expecting her to react, but she didn’t say anything.

“I need you to locate the portal it came through and close it.”

“A horror? You’re joking, right?” Any hint of amusement was gone from her voice.

“Unfortunately, no. It’s small, and I froze it. Luckily, it was vulnerable to cold rather than heat. But I don’t think I can find it’s portal on my own.”

“Why do you sound sane? Are you sure it’s a horror?”

“Quite sure. My guide, Samuel, trained me, prepared me to deal with these things. He has had to deal with them before, so he wanted to make sure I was equipped to deal with them, too.”

“That’s good, I guess. I’m going to come through. Please keep the thing out of sight. I don’t think I can deal with it.”

“Don’t worry. I have it wrapped up.”

A portal appeared in front of David. He assumed it had been there all along, allowing Julia to keep tabs on him. Julia stepped through holding a green crystal. It looked like the same crystal she had been holding in the coffee shop when they had been looking for Rebecca.

“Where did you find it?”

“That box over there.” He pointed it out.

Julia took a few steps toward the box and looked at it while holding the crystal up to it. She was being careful not to touch the box. “Yeah. The box itself is a portal. I’m not finding any others.”

“Can you close it?”

“Not here, but I should be able to stop anything else from coming through until I can deal with it properly.”

“Good. Can you open a portal to the shop? I want to secure this thing elsewhere before talking with Jennifer again.”

“Sure. Better your shop than the house. Just be careful.”

“Always.”

A New Customer (part one)

David was sitting behind the counter when the bell over the entrance jingled. Looking up from the book he was reading, he saw Julia enter the little shop.

“Oh. Hi.”

She feigned a hurt expression. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“It’s not that. I was just hoping you were a customer.”

“It does look a little slow in here. Maybe if you put a sign out front . . . ?”

“Sarah warned me against doing that. Thought it might draw too much of the wrong kind of attention.”

“As someone who isn’t known for playing it safe, I hate to admit that she’s probably right.” Julia walked over to one shelf and picked up a bottle filled with a light blue liquid. “What’s this?”

“Rebecca gave me those. They are a very weak healing potions. Good for minor illnesses.”

“And these?” She gestured to a few baskets of colored balls about the size of a jawbreaker.

“I made them. If you bite into one of the blue ones, they slowly release water suitable for drinking. The red ones can be used to start small fires. And throwing the sea-foam green ones into a fire will extinguish it.”

“Handy.”

David wasn’t sure if she was being sincere or sarcastic. “I don’t want to sell anything too powerful. Especially to people who might be unfamiliar with magic.”

“No, no. I wasn’t being critical. These are clever items. Practical. Have you had any customers?”

“A few. I keep hoping that word of mouth will bring in more, but it’s been slow.”

“Don’t get discouraged. This is a good idea.”

It was strange to hear encouragement from Julia. Even though she was taking a more active role in the house of late, she still maintained a distance from everyone. Indeed, David couldn’t remember ever having a casual conversation with her before now.

“So do you sell anything for mages?”

“Well most of the things in here could be useful to anyone. The only mage specific items are the white crystals you gave me.”

“Oh right. I’m sorry I can’t make them quickly. Jason’s notes were useful, but they don’t make up for my lack of a gift in that area.”

“Don’t worry about it. I haven’t had any mages stop by yet, anyway.”

The bell jingled again, and both of them turned as a woman entered the store. She was out of breath and looked panicked.

“Is this the magic shop?”

“It is. What’s wrong?” David asked.

“There is . . . something in my house. Some kind of monster. Do you have anything that can help?” Whatever she had seen clearly had upset her greatly.

“What does this monster look like?”

“I didn’t get a good look at it. I was in my basement when I saw it. I ran up the stairs and came straight here. My friend told me about this shop, so I though you could help.”

David looked to Julia, who still hadn’t said anything. She just shrugged. David turned back to the woman. “I’m not sure I have anything, especially if we don’t know what it is.”

“So there’s nothing you can do?”

“I’m not sure. Not without more . . .”

“You could come over. That way you can figure out what it is.”

David was taken aback by the request. Making house calls or hunting monsters were not what he had in mind when he opened the store. It was just something to do to feel useful. He turned once more to Julia.

“This could help with word of mouth,” she said.

“You’re right.” After all, he thought, he did want to help people. “Okay. Let’s go find this monster.”

“Thank you!” She began leading him outside.

David looked behind him. “Are you coming?”

“This is your thing. I wouldn’t want to steal your thunder. Go ahead and call if you need help.” Before he could reply Julia disappeared into a portal. David then hurried after the woman.

In Absentia

The apartment building looked like it was on the verge of being condemned. Most of the lights in the hallway were out, and the ones that weren’t revealed scuffed floors and the occasional stain of unknown origins. The walls were peeling, and there was several unpleasant odors in the air. Despite the poor lighting, Julia was able to find room 9 and knocked. After waiting a minute or two, she knocked again.

Finally, a voice came from the other side. “Go away.” Rather than angry or belligerent, it sounded resigned.

“Lou? Come on, open up.”

“Who is that?”

“It’s me. Open the door.”

“Me who?”

“Dammit, Lou.”

The door cracked open. A chain hung on the other side, and a single eye peered through the crack. “Julia?”

“Yes. Now let me in before a rat eats me out here.”

The door closed, and she could hear the chain slide back. It reopened wide, and she stepped across the threshold. The room inside was cluttered but otherwise taken care of. It stood in stark contrast to the hallway she had just left. Lou closed the door behind her. He had always been a large man, but he had become gaunt since the last time she had seen him.

“What’s going on? Why haven’t you been at the bar?”

“Nice to see you, too,” he gruffed as he pushed past her. He sat down on a couch facing a television that was on with the sound turned all the way down. He didn’t look at her as he picked up an open bottle of beer.

“Lou . . .”

“I sold the bar, okay? It’s no longer any of my concern.” He put the bottle to his lips and tilted it up.

“You sold the bar? Why?”

“What do you care? I haven’t seen you in years. Business dried up, and I got an offer. I took it.”

“I thought it wasn’t about business. It was about . . .”

“I know what it was about. Like I said, you stopped coming round. Pretty soon, no one would take the big cases. It wasn’t working any more.” Another drink. He still hadn’t made eye contact with her.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

He shrugged. “There’s years of stuff I’m not telling you. I wouldn’t have to tell you if you’d been around. But the place isn’t my problem any more. From what I hear of it, you should probably stay away, too.”

“So that’s it? Just washing your hands of it?”

“I know this is news to you, but for me, it’s in the past. I’d nearly forgotten about it. I assumed you had, too. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t forget to the close the door behind you.” He never looked away from the television.

Something was off about the whole situation, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to tell her anything else. She turned and left without another word. Maybe she was misreading it. Maybe everything was just like he’d said. Still, she couldn’t make herself believe that. The question was, where could she find out more.

The Nameless Bar

The bar was dimly lit and quiet. Places like this usually fill up as the night gets longer, but not here. The only people that frequent this nameless bar were people who needed a particular sort of help and the people who provided such services. Or people who were lost. Julia hadn’t been here in several years.

The illumination behind the bar was from one of the few overhead lamps. A middle-aged, burly man was tending bar. Drinking was not the primary reason people came here, so he had a bored look about him. He barely looked at Julia as she walked over.

“Is Lou here?”

Before the bartender could respond, another patron approached her.

“I haven’t seen you before. Something I can help you with?”

She barely glanced at him. “I don’t think so.”

He clasped her arm to turn her towards him. “Hey, now. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

She widened the portal inside the sleeve of her leather jacket so that a knife could fall into her hand. Raising the blade closer to his neck, she said in a low voice, “No one comes here looking for friends.”

Immediately, he let go of her and raised his open hands as he backed away. “No problem. Sorry to intrude.” Sitting down at a table across the room, he blended back in with the gloom.

“That’s a dangerous person to piss off.” The bartender gestured towards her knife. “And put that away. Weapons aren’t permitted in here.”

The knife slid back up her sleeve. “Fine. Now, Lou?”

“He’s not here.”

“Upstairs?”

“Look, lady, I don’t know you. You’ve already threatened one of my best customers. Lou isn’t here. Hasn’t been for awhile. Now I think it’s time you leave.”

Julia hesitated. He was clearly not going to be helpful, but she hated the idea of just walking away. Still, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she turned around and left the bar.

Halfway down the block, several figures emerged from the shadows of an alley. In front was the man who had approached her at the bar.

“We meet again.”

“Seriously? Are you just a walking cliché?” 

She tried to walk past the group, but the man grabbed her arm and spun her around.

“So rude. And after I offered my help.”

Whatever small bit of patience Julia had was gone. A quick spell opened a portal beneath him. He was halfway down the hole when she shrunk the portal so that he was stuck with only his torso sticking out of the pavement.

“What the hell!”

She bent down closer to his face. “Do I have to hurt you to get through to you? When someone tells you no, you leave them the fuck alone.”

One of the men who had accompanied him took a step towards her. Opening a portal beneath herself, she dropped down behind him and hit him with the hilt of her knife. The man crumpled to the ground. Everyone else took the hint and quickly left.

Julia walked back over to the man who was still trapped. “Now. What should I do with you?”

“What are you?” His terror was obvious.

“Who. Not what. People are not things. Didn’t anyone teach you that?”

“W…who?”

“Someone who doesn’t give third warnings. If I ever even hear about you, I’ll return. And you do not want to see me again.” Julia stood and began to walk away. Without looking back, she said, “Looks like it might rain. Don’t look up. I don’t want you to drown. You should be able to get out in a few hours.” She still needed to find Lou.

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.